by Joe Kinski, Libbylawrence and Doc Quantum
Le Chat Noir nightclub, Paris, France, 4:30 A.M.:
The mysterious Mr. King had managed to crawl into the shower, wash his dirty blond hair, and shave before coming to the nightclub. He placed his cowl and domino mask in his jacket pocket just in case. He could feel the tips of his fingers tingling, and he knew he was feeling jumpy. What new play did Lowell Cade have in mind?
He knew he had been lax with the mask over the last few weeks, quietly establishing a shadowy reputation here and there around Europe. But not in Tunisia. There he was a tourist, having nothing to do but sip margaritas and watch the girls on the beach like all the other spoiled young aristocrats his age. His masked self did all the grunt work in utter secrecy. No, he knew there had to be something else entirely going on. He hoped this would just be a nice friendly drink with an old friend.
A high-spirited burst from a saxophone blared out of the nightclub entrance. Horns deliriously outdid each other. He ducked down the stairs into the pit. Inside, the crowd was grooving low and slow, the antic bray of a moment ago forgotten on the reverie of the next jumping note. The sextet on stage started blowing cool on an old Miles Davis standard. It was nice and smooth, and he could feel his hands relaxing. And he could feel the cowl and mask peeking out of his pocket, checking out the crowd.
Smoke filled the air, a thousand and one cigarettes aflame. It was refreshingly strange to step back into a world with people smoking on the inside looking out, not the outside looking in. Windows into windows into windows. The tinkle of glasses mixed in with the whish of lungs exhaling, the muted trumpet, the fine tickling ivories.
King nodded at the bartender, who slid a beer across to him. In Paris at night there wasn’t a dry joint in the town, just drinking after hours. The bartender caught his eye again and nodded toward the back corner, where there was a booth just out of the blue and green lights of the main lighting, just in the dark. He knew what he would find.
Lowell Cade looked the same as always. To the untrained eye, he was an unexceptional middle-aged man with a receding hairline and dulled, baggy eyes that made him look like he’d been drinking and fighting at the same time. Anyone who didn’t know better would think there wasn’t a hint of intelligence behind them. But King knew better, much better. Experience had taught him not to underestimate the intelligence of Lowell Cade, to not underestimate Cade in the slightest.
“Mr. King.” Cade nodded, and King slid into the booth opposite him. The CIA agent was smoking a fine, thin Cuban cigar, as per usual. King took a sip from his beer and waited, but he didn’t have to wait long. Cade’s hooded eyes flickered like some bloated serpent focusing suddenly on its prey, staring out at the young man. “Mr. King, you’re in a bit of trouble.”
He raised his hand before King could say something, before his masked self could say anything. “Wait,” said Cade. “Hear me out. You owe me that much. And I may be your only friend right now. I have a feeling the world would really like to know more about the elusive Mr. King’s nocturnal activities, huh?” Lowell Cade paused, his dulled eyes masking the many secrets he kept.
“So,” said Cade after a few moments of silence. “You don’t want to tell me about Tunisia.” He shrugged. “I can live with that… for now. Instead, I’ll tell you about Interpol. What they think of the mysterious Mr. King. What they believe about the secretive Mr. King. What they can perhaps prove about the evasive Mr. King.”
The CIA man arched an eyebrow. King supposed Cade thought it made him mysterious, but he just found it irritating. Lowell Cade was trying to goad him on, and King vowed not to bite. He told himself to relax and listen to the man.
“They think he’s running stolen electronic components into ol’ Tunisia. Nice, neat, fancy microchips. FPGAs — field-programmable gate arrays. Know how they work? They’re chips you can program to do whatever you want, right there at your desk. With a few taps of the keyboard, you could change the chip from the heating system for a new Cadillac to the heating system for a skyscraper, to running an automated car manufacturing plant, to controlling a guided missile. Neat. Clean. Maybe one-inch square. Can put them in your pocket. And they have been pocketed. Lots of them. Hundreds. Each programmed to control ICBMs.
“We trailed one of their couriers into Tunisia. Into its capital, Tunis. Been there, Mr. King?” The other man fidgeted while Lowell Cade relit the end of his cigar. “Sure. You were there two weeks ago. So was their courier, Saeed Ahmed. You know him?”
King shrugged. “I don’t know, Cade. Maybe. There are a lot of people in Tunis.”
The CIA agent tossed him a picture of a slim man with a neatly trimmed mustache and a wave in his hair that was almost a pompadour, with an overall appearance of a pretty boy with dead eyes. If King didn’t recognize him, his masked self sure did. Ahmed had been at the compound that last time; he and the French politician had both been there. They were waiting for a couple of twelve-year-old girls. Remember him? Of course King remembered him. He wished he could forget him and all the others. He felt his knuckles tightening, and he told himself once more to keep it cool and not let Lowell Cade get the advantage.
King shrugged again. “I don’t know. Maybe. He doesn’t ring a bell. Was he staying at the Carthage?”
“No, he wasn’t.” Lowell Cade stared into King’s eyes, and the younger man gave him the blandest face he could in return. “He was killed, though. In Tunis. And all those chips he was carrying disappeared. Not a trace of them. Which leads to you, Mr. King.”
“Why me?” said King, spreading his arms out wide.
“Because those chips originated right here in Paris. Stolen from the local Wunderkind International branch. And I’m looking at the only known link between those two places. So you tell me, Mr. King. What does it all mean?”
In the Bavarian ranch house, Jack Bicci sat across the table from Wesley Ajax. A map was spread over the table, with several locations marked in red.
“My efforts have met with little success,” said Jack. “Over the last few days of my investigation, I’ve only been able to determine that there have been at least a dozen manifestations of super-powered beings throughout Europe modeled in one manner or another after figures from mythology.”
“Don’t be so tough on that inventive mind of yours,” said Wesley. “After all, none of the guys who fought these creeps could explain their origin or motives.”
Jack smiled at his old mentor. “Wes, as ever you flatter me. Still, while several heroes — including Redstar, the Peacemaker, the Dart, Jock o’ Kent, the Black Lion, and agents of Checkmate — all battled such transformed beings as we did, none of them possessed my so-called inventive mind. I have managed to spot one small glimmer of a pattern, though. Each manifestation accomplished little beyond attracting the attention of super-powered beings. In some cases, an established hero such as the Peacemaker encountered one of these false gods. In other cases, the hero was as new as the pseudo-god he battled. This new super-powered figure in Barcelona, for example, intrigues me. He clearly manifests powers that would easily make him one of the world’s more powerful action-heroes, but I haven’t figured out any clues that point to the source of those powers.”
Wesley shrugged. “Maybe it’s just that a new generation of heroes is forming here in Europe, and probably also around the world. These new action-heroes from Britain, Italy, and Spain may be the first of many, or they may be lone newcomers. Who knows what effects the Crisis may have left behind? Perhaps it’s finally Europe’s time for an age of action-heroes.”
“I wonder if that’s all it is, Wes,” said Jack. “Sure, we’ve seen waves of new action-heroes appear from time to time, mostly in the States. And our world could certainly use more superhuman heroes. But can’t you see what I’m getting at? I think all these mythical beings were designed to draw out such heroes, be they new or old. After all, nobody could say that they were seeking to escape their notice, as any common crook would. It’s obvious they wanted to attract the attention of action-heroes all over Europe. But why?”
Dona Ajax entered and listened. She glanced down at the map the two men had put between them and smiled slightly as she detected something that neither of them seemed to notice. The majority of the mythical beings had been sighted in what apparently formed a five-pointed star. She noticed that, to complete the star, one would merely need to touch a spot located in the Baltic Sea. She was about to point this out to her father and his friend, but then a better idea occurred to the teenage girl. Jack Bicci was a genius, she reasoned. If he couldn’t see that pattern, it could be because some outside force was blinding him to it.
She thought she could see why. Just as something was creating all these strange mythical beings in order to catch the attention of Europe’s heroes, something else seemed to be trying to keep them from discovering the meaning behind it all. She wagered that the answer could be found somewhere along the incomplete points of the star, probably on a small island in the Baltic Sea, which was where the star would be completed. But, she reasoned, if she were to tell Jack about it, then perhaps this unknown mastermind would also be tipped off that she was somehow immune to his power.
The teenage girl went upstairs and entered the attic. Her father had placed most of the mementos of his heroic career in this private place. She saw his massive trunk in its normal spot in the middle of the room. She opened his trunk and pulled out a blue and red costume with a yellow star symbol on the chest. Neither the colors nor the very fabric itself had faded or been damaged over the last thirty years since her dad had called himself Wonder Boy. The uniform was made well, she thought as she recalled her father’s stories about how he first came to Earth. The alien suit was created on the planet Viro for the purpose of space travel, and it was made to be resistant to heat, cold, and electricity, as well as providing its user protection against most types of injury. It had not been enough to protect her father’s legs from being crushed in 1957, but it had protected him from every other force until then.
Dona Ajax slipped on the costume, resolving to take action herself despite the fact that she had not inherited her father’s great strength. She was a smart girl, and she was usually practical, no matter what her father thought. But something now seemed to drive her to act impulsively. Something beyond her own awareness whispered to her and told her that it was not sheer madness to think that a teenaged girl could make a difference in the world. It was not crazy to think that she could accomplish something as seemingly impossible as locating a remote island in the Baltic Sea.
Later, she would realize that the same force that had waged a war against the unseen enemy also pushed her and others into doing what was needed.
Observing Dona Ajax from his private star in outer space, the Super-Wizard was pleased to see that the daughter of Wonder Boy had found and donned the uniform from the doomed planet Viro. Unbeknownst to either herself or her father, it was the alien uniform that would soon activate her latent alien strength and speed, and she would have to quickly adjust to the change.
All the initial players were now in place, the interstellar crime-fighter realized. The only thing that was left to do was to gather them together. And he already had a plan in place to accomplish just that. His special guest would be arriving very shortly.
The cold rain came down hard. It figured. The days you needed to be outside were the days the weather played foolish games with you — wicked games. King could feel the gray leather cowl and domino mask sticking to his face, sinking into his face. It reminded him of Tunisia. He told himself to keep going, keep moving. He needed to forget about all those creature comforts for just one minute more.
The rain had perfect timing. It was his understanding that Paris was a rainy city in the winter. But it was his first visit, and he thought it might very well be his last. He knew that if he didn’t square things with Lowell Cade, it might be his last trip anywhere.
The Grey Ghost glanced up at Wunderkind International’s Paris headquarters from his vantage point on a nearby pier on the Seine River. It sparkled out and around him. It was strange to have such a vital staple of the technology industry in a gloomy warehouse district. It was so old-fashioned, like something out of Doc Savage. What was that called? The Hidalgo Trading Company? Only, maybe this wasn’t the good guys’ hangout. Who knew what brand of creature hung around on these piers?
He shook his head and got his mind back in focus. The easiest work was for one inside. Maybe, he figured, the name on the tip of his tongue was that answer: Jacopo Sinistro Bicci. With a multi-million-dollar industrial complex right here in the warehouse district, it would be so easy to transport all manner of things in and out. Of course, it was all legitimate cargo, wasn’t that right, Mr. Bicci? All those little computer chips. All those little monster robots. All those fancy machines. He read the news. After a rebellious youth in the United States, Jack Bicci had left for his ancestral Italy to build a small high-tech computer company into a huge European corporation that rivaled Kord Industries of America. King hadn’t thought to ask Lowell Cade if Wunderkind International had an office in Tunisia, but he wouldn’t be surprised, not one bit.
As he watched, cargo went out. The Grey Ghost had seen a boat pull away from the docking on the Seine about fifteen minutes earlier, disappearing into the rain. He wondered what kind of cargo it was. Pieces of machinery? Human cargo? Drugs? Were the computer chips only reported as stolen? The Grey Ghost couldn’t find himself trusting someone like Jack Bicci. Things had been too easy for him. He had received little more than a slap on the wrist for his youthful indiscretions. He had too easy a life and too easy of a turn in the corporate world. But his colorful past was an indication that he was the kind of man that needed excitement in his life.
It was three o’clock P.M. The rain would do the Grey Ghost a good turn, he realized. Even this early, the sky had turned almost completely black. Thunder shook the docks at the river periodically, but there was no lightning so far. His infrared goggles were working perfectly. Security at Wunderkind International was tight, but not unmanageable. He spotted armed security guards with dogs and what appeared to be electrified fences, with barbed wire across the top. He dialed the knob on the side of the goggles, but he couldn’t make out any laser trip-wire sensors.
Things looked good, he thought. It wasn’t much tighter than that compound in Tunisia he had tumbled not that long ago. And that had also been during the day. All he needed to do was just roll on over and go in.
The Grey Ghost drew himself up the ladder onto the pier itself, rain slicking over his dark gray leather uniform, and scurried down to the base of the fence surrounding the Wunderkind International building. This corner fell out of eyesight, for the most part, of the patrolling guards. But he wasn’t taking any chances.
He hooked the multifaceted clips in a circle about four feet in diameter at the base of the fence. Perfect. He hit the button and the control unit to make sure. Circuit circumvented. He pulled the wire snips out of his belt pocket and quickly snipped around the circle he had made. The green light still held fast on the unit. Perfect.
The Grey Ghost slid through the gap into the main Wunderkind International complex.