by Brian K. Asbury
Horst von Thaler listened to Ted Grant’s story in silence, then sat back in thought. “I am, of course, familiar with the account of this tragedy, mein freund — as is all of the Tyrol. And you now seek news of the fate of your friend’s son?”
“And of my friend, Horst,” Ted replied. “This is Johnny.” He produced a photo that Martha had lent him.
“‘Red Hot’ Coles,” said von Thaler, smiling. “I remember him, of course, though I never met him in the ring. He was here only a few days ago.”
“Oh, ja. I did not speak to him, as I did not realize who he was until you just told me. But he was here, asking questions after his son.” He shrugged. “A number of other Amerikaners have also been here, asking the same questions, I believe. All of them went away without finding the answers they sought. It is only to be expected, of course. The missing students were never in Auffingbach.”
“No,” agreed Ted. “They just passed through.”
Von Thaler stared at him. “Is that what they told you?”
“Yeah — it’s right, ain’t it?”
The former Austrian heavyweight champ was thoughtful for a moment. “Mein Gott — perhaps I should have come forward. But there were others, and I have, I must confess, never had an easy relationship with the police. I had a wild youth, mein freund, before I took up boxing and found fame and fortune, and old habits do die hard.”
“Yeah… yeah, I understand. But what d’you mean, you should’ve come forward? You know somethin’, Horst?”
“Perhaps.” He shook his head. “Perhaps it is nothing. I don’t know…”
“Whatever you’ve got, old pal, ‘fess up, ’cause I’m running outta road here.”
Horst scratched his stubbly chin. “Firstly, old friend, what have you been told? About the sighting of the students’ bus here in Auffingbach, I mean?”
“Only that this was the last place it was seen. A couple o’ people in this village saw the bus passin’ through. But they didn’t see anything outta the ordinary.”
“No. I saw the bus, too, and it looked quite normal. But you said of the students, ‘they passed through’?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that what you just said, too?”
“No, mein freund. I said I saw the bus. But I saw no students.”
“What?” Ted was on his feet again.
Von Thaler stared up at him. “There were no students on the bus, Ted. It was empty save for the driver. If witnesses say they saw the students on board, they are lying. Whatever fate befell its passengers, it happened before it reached this village!”
Jay Garrick sat back in his chair and spoke into his JSA communicator. “You’ll be glad to know I’ve got some news for you, Ted. I asked John to do some digging around into what you were asking about. He jumped at the chance. His old dad might be too long in the tooth to get into the latest computer technology, but this Internet is meat and drink to these kids nowadays.”
Half a world away, Ted Grant, sitting in his hotel room with Martha Coles, chuckled. “Know what ya mean, Jay. I can’t get my head ’round that stuff, either. So what’d John-boy come up with?”
“John-boy?” said Jay. “I wouldn’t call him that to his face if I were you, Ted. OK, here it is. First off, that guy Grunewald was telling you the truth about him owning a company in Bad Waldstein. It’s called Grunewald Technik, and it’s one of the biggest employers in the area. They’re into all kinds of high-tech stuff — not just computers but quantum cybernetics and other exotic fields. They’ve got a big research facility there, too.”
“Yeah. I don’t know squat about quantum cyber-doohickeys, though, Jay. There anything less than kosher about the guy? Any reason he’d lie to me about Johnny Coles?”
“I don’t know about that,” Jay said. “But wait till you hear what John has unearthed from the other data you sent.”
“You know the two witnesses that reported seeing the bus go through that other village — Auffingbach, was it — with the students on board?”
“Yeah. They lied, so my old buddy Horst says.”
“Guess who they work for, Ted?”
“Ya kiddin’ me! Grunewald?”
“Grunewald. And that isn’t the only connection between this affair and Grunewald Technik.”
Ted whistled. “What else?”
“The driver of the bus, Ted. Up until a month ago, he used to work for Grunewald, too. In fact, he was Martin Grunewald’s chauffeur!”
“Jeee-eeez! How come the cops missed all this?”
“Probably because nobody made any connection between the missing students and Grunewald until now. You’ve done a good job there, Ted. Well, I hope this helps you. I have to go now, but keep in touch.”
“Yeah. Thanks a million, buddy. An’ good luck with the campaign.”
“Thanks Ted. Only too glad to help. ‘Bye.”
As the communicator went silent, Ted turned to Martha. “Well, that’s it, babe. I’ll bet Johnny discovered the connection with Grunewald, too.”
“And so they silenced him?” Martha said slowly. “My Johnny?”
Ted’s face was grim. “No sense in assumin’ the worst, though, Martha. We don’t know they’ve harmed him — or your boy.”
“But why would they have taken Gar and his friends in the first place? What’s going on, Ted?”
“I dunno,” said Ted. “But one thing’s for sure — Ted Grant has done all he can in this case. I’m goin’ back to Bad Waldstein in the morning, babe — but I’m going as Wildcat!”
There are times when having a dark costume is a distinct advantage, thought Wildcat, but there are others when it definitely ain’t!
This was one of those times. While the tree he was perched in provided some degree of cover, on the ground he stood out like a sore thumb against the blanket of Alpine snow that painted everything around a uniform white. And if anyone chanced to look up here, they could not avoid seeing him. He made a mental note to look into the possibility of creating a winter uniform for himself for occasions like these.
Meanwhile, the Grunewald Technik plant sprawled before him, out of reach beyond a chain-link fence topped with wicked-looking razor wire — and probably electrified, too. It seemed to be a lot of security to guard a few microchips. Of course, computers were becoming big business, and there was this quantum cyber-whoozis stuff that Jay had mentioned, too, but the Tyrol wasn’t exactly New York or Chicago. The population was low, and consequently the crime rate was also relatively low. Grunewald must have something mighty valuable in there to justify all these precautions.
But of course, it wasn’t that easy to keep out the truly determined, and Ted was definitely that. He suddenly leaped from his tree as a soft-topped truck rumbled past, slowing down as it approached the factory gates. He landed expertly on the canvas and hunched down, making sure the guards would not be able to see him even if they looked up. Security cameras were another matter, of course, but he had scanned the gate area through powerful binoculars, and he was sure they were too low down to pick up a body on the roof of a high-sided truck like this.
Sure enough, the truck was waved through after the driver’s papers were checked, and Wildcat was able to jump off his perch, once safely around a corner, and onto the roof of a storage shed. He waited for the truck to trundle off toward another part of the sprawling plant, then vaulted down to the ground and tried the shed door. Surprisingly, it opened. Security was obviously much more relaxed within the compound itself; they weren’t expecting anybody to get in in the first place.
All right, so he now had two options — he could find a way to disguise himself as a worker and wander around looking for anything suspicious in the daylight, or he could wait until nightfall, only a few hours away, when his dark Wildcat outfit would actually give him an advantage.
Naturally, the shed did not turn out to conveniently house a selection of lab coats, overalls, and other work clothing he could use; it was full of empty cardboard boxes and rolls of plastic bubble-wrapping. Shrugging, he resigned himself to the fact that it was going to be option number two or nothing. He found himself a nice warm corner to snuggle up into and settled down to wait for the darkness, thankful that he’d had the foresight to bring a thermos and some sandwiches with him.
Several hours later, a dark shadow emerged from the shed. He could still be silhouetted against the white of the snow, of course, but so long as he hugged the walls of the various buildings, Wildcat was confident he could remain unseen. He’d had a lot of practice in doing stuff like this.
Where to begin, though? The compound was vast, and whoever had designed this plant had not conveniently done so with the intention of making things easy for would-be intruders. There were no flat roofs with handy skylights, for example; as was customary in this Alpine region with its high annual snowfall, all the roofs were pitched and well-insulated. It was possible to climb up to the windows and peer in, but what he saw through them was nothing he would not have expected to see in a complex of factory buildings and laboratories.
He paused for a minute to think how he should proceed. Where, in a plant this size, would be a suitable place to house prisoners? Not to mention a bus, of course, which had not turned up anywhere else and so could well be somewhere in these grounds. There was a large holding area for trucks and other company vehicles, with a garage and workshop nearby, but the doors were open, and a quick glance inside assured him that there was no bus there.
OK, then, Ted, he thought. What have you found out? Lots o’ buildings, most of which are workshops, assembly buildings, storerooms or labs. It’s fairly easy to get into any of ’em, so that means they won’t be keeping those kids there.
That left one large building at the far end of the compound. He made his way toward it, keeping to the shadows. As he got closer, he began to believe his instincts had been right. There were security patrols all over the plant, but they were light — just a single watchman with a flashlight for the most part. Here, though, he could see several guards, one of them even leading a dog. Very good, guys, he thought. You couldn’t make it more obvious that there’s something you don’t want people to see in there if ya hung up a big sign saying, “here’s the secret stuff.”
Still sneaking about like the cat his costume resembled, he circumnavigated the building, observing that there were windows only at ground level — and they were barred at that — and that while there were two entrances, both were guarded.
OK, ‘Cat, he thought. Problem. No way in through the roof, no upper windows, guards on the doors. That means either you’re gonna have to fight your way in, or go back to Plan A and find a disguise.
Even as he thought this, he realized that even a disguise wouldn’t be enough, as a white-coated man stepped up to one of the entrances and presented a pass of some sort to the guards. Even with the pass, the guards still lightly frisked him before letting him through, and one of them even spoke into a walkie-talkie, evidently verifying their actions.
He continued around the building, close now to the perimeter fence. He suddenly stopped. He had been walking on flat, almost virgin snow, but the snow between him and the building looked as if it had been disturbed recently. In fact, there were uneven mounds, almost as if something had been buried here. His heart skipped a beat. I wonder… he thought, and made to move toward the nearest mound.
And then suddenly, a ghostly white apparition rose up out of the darkness and lunged toward him.
Momentarily startled, Wildcat dived to one side but failed to avoid being clipped by his attacker and knocked off-balance. However, he quickly regained his feet and whirled to face his opponent, adopting a fighting stance and ready for action.
To his surprise, the newcomer stepped back and straightened up, studying him from under a voluminous white hood.
“Good reflexes, mon ami,” a feminine voice said. “Most men would have been left sprawling in a ‘eap by an attack like zat. I congratulate you.” She raised one hand in mock salute.
“Yeah, whatever,” Wildcat growled. “I dunno who you are, lady, but–”
“But I ‘ave just forestalled an early end to your investigations, M’sieu Justice Society man,” the costumed woman said. “You were just about to trip a photoelectric beam and tell ze security men zat you were ‘ere.”
A wry smile made itself visible under the hood. “Mais oui. Ze people ‘ere, zey would not want you to know what is buried in zis patch of ground, mon ami.”
“Oh, yeah? And what might that be?” said Wildcat, relaxing his stance just a little.
The woman gave a Gallic shrug. “I do not know. I did not think to bring a shovel wiz me. Did you?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ve got one miniaturized in a bottle in my pocket.”
“You ‘ave no pockets, m’sieu,” she said with a hint of a laugh. “Oh, but zis is ze American sarcasm, n’est-ce pas?”
“Yeah, somethin’ like that. OK, lady, enough chit-chat. If you ain’t here to fight, who are you, and what’re you doin’ here?”
“Let us move to somewhere less open, first,” the woman said, turning and moving in an effortless sprint toward the nearest building. With a grunt of frustration, Wildcat followed until she halted in the shadow of a darkened doorway.
“Ah, men,” she said. “You always so ‘ate it when a woman ‘as ze advantage of you.”
“Whatever, sweetheart. You gonna answer my question or just make ‘amused leetle Franch-girlie’ noises all night?”
The woman laughed. “As to why I am ‘ere, Monsieur le Chat, it is probably the same reason you are ‘ere. You seek a busload of missing students, non?”
“Oui. I mean yeah. What are they to you, though?”
“Not all of the young people on zat bus were Americans, mon ami. Zere were several of European origin, too, including a teenage girl named Janine Fauchard, who just ‘appens to be ze daughter of a friend of mine. I am anxious to know what ‘appened to ‘er and to find ‘er and bring ‘er ‘ome.”
Wildcat nodded. So he and this white-clad stranger had a common purpose in this. But who was she? He voiced the question aloud.
She held out a clawed gloved hand. “In my own language, La Renarde Blanche,” she said. “But I prefer ze shorter, snappier English translation — and in ze masculine at zat. You can call me Whitefox.”
“How come I never heard of you?” Wildcat said, accepting the handshake.
“I prefer to keep ze low profile,” she replied. “Ze police in my country, zey do not look upon ze costumed vigilantes wiz ze same tolerance as zey do in yours. And I ‘ave ‘ad one or two… ah… misunderstandings wiz ze authorities.”
“I see,” said Wildcat, making a mental note to check with the JSA’s Interpol contacts later. “So… Whitefox… what were you plannin’ to do before ya tried to knock me down?”
“Why, Monsieur Chat, I do believe I ‘ave ‘urt your pride,” she said, grinning. “But it is a good question. I was trying to think of a way I could get in zat big, ‘eavily guarded building. Per’aps we could pool our resources and find a way between us?”