A blond, athletic young man named Jack Wheeler parked his truck in an alley down the street from the place where he wanted to be and intended to go in a few minutes. He frowned at the number of vehicles in front of the place as he checked his weapons one last time. He pulled on the hockey mask he wore as a disguise. His own grin beneath it mirrored the grinning red dog insignia on his blue jersey as he vanished into the night’s shadows in his makeshift costume pulled together from old sports clothes. He was now no longer auto mechanic Jack Wheeler. He was Wild Dog.
He had heard about this meeting from Andy Travis, a longtime friend on the police force. Supposedly, a lot of East Coast wise guys who were tired of action-heroes like the Sentinels of Justice giving them problems were meeting at this house in Moline, Illinois. Plans were to be discussed on how to handle the growing vigilante/action-hero situation.
Wild Dog wanted to show them it was better to do that kind of thing back on their own turf than in the Quad Cities, especially since he would himself be one of the topics under discussion. He had made himself a nuisance to the mob after first becoming a masked vigilante a few weeks ago. Hopefully the assembled outsiders would get the message after tonight.
The vigilante ran up to the rented house in the dark. An application of the stun glove he wore silently put the guards to sleep. He entered the house through the back door, his Jatimatic ready to go. Voices came from overhead. He pulled the crossbow he wore as he searched for the stairs.
Something nagged at him as he walked up a staircase in the front of the building. He didn’t know what it was until he burst into the room where the voices had come from and found it empty.
“Hello and good-bye, Wild Dog,” said a taped voice as an automated machine gun opened up on the vigilante.
The masked man leaped to one side as the machine gun swiveled to track him, spraying bullets into the walls and furniture with the roar of a dragon. Wild Dog rolled twice before he brought the crossbow up and shot a bolt into the base of the automated weapon. The machine gun, locked in place, suddenly stopped firing for lack of a moving target. He kicked the machine gun over. A simple punt shut the sensory devices off, which shut the gun down instantly.
A fog began pouring into the room from vents in the ceiling. The vigilante ran for the door. A shutter slid down to cut him off. The fog began to fill the room with a hiss.
Wild Dog held one hand up to the hockey mask as he looked around for another exit. Metal shutters had covered the windows also. He appeared to be trapped. He had no doubt the gas was lethal and didn’t need any telltale odor to tell him that. He had five minutes of breathable air. Maybe.
The vigilante took the ripped-up stuffing from the destroyed furniture and jammed them into the vents to buy him time. He examined the walls where the machine gun bullets had struck. Some type of armor plate had been inserted in the walls. The machine gun wouldn’t chop through that in time to save the day. He needed another solution to his dilemma and wondered if the gas was flammable.
He had to admit he wasn’t on par with most action-heroes when it came to escapes, but he was determined to get out of the trap he had stepped into. He piled the furniture in a barricade across from the farthest vent he could see. He had secured a pair of flash grenades that used a fast-burning flare to blind the enemy. He ducked behind his barricade and pulled the grenade from his belt. He pulled the ring and tossed it over at the vent when he felt the time was right.
The grenade went off. The vent ignited, blowing a hole in the wall. Pieces of steel flew away from the concussion, but the vigilante was unscathed behind his barricade.
Wild Dog picked up the machine gun and dived through the hole in the wall. His ears rang from the explosion, but he was ready for any more surprises. He kicked the door to the corridor open and looked out. No one was in the hall. He ran down the long corridor to the staircase. He had the feeling that he needed to get out of that place as fast as he could.
The vigilante ran down the hall, machine gun at the ready. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to sucker him in. He’d only ever tangled with one guy who had gone to half this trouble, but the Catcher didn’t kill people — he just caught them and handed them over to the people who hired him. That was a question he would have to answer after he escaped.
Hearing a muffled whump behind him, Wild Dog ran down the stairs heading for the front door and found that a plate had slid over it to keep him inside the self-destructing house. He ran to the back and found it locked down in the same way.
The vigilante tried the faucets on the sink, and water cascaded down. He ripped the cabinet doors open and swept cleaning supplies out of his way. He pressed the machine gun barrel against the wood and opened up for a short burst. He had cut a circle out of the wall. It was a tight squeeze, but he slid out on the ground as the bottom floor went up.
Wild Dog jumped to his feet, listening as the house burned. Something whirred to his left. Another whirred to his right. There were more as he headed to the wall. A spotlight shone on the red dog on his jersey. He threw himself to the side as a stream of bullets tried to cut through him. He rolled, firing the machine gun at his automated attacker. A shower of sparks erupted as Jack got to his feet and ran.
Suddenly, three or four lights caught Jack as he was running. He fell forward as the automated machine guns dug into the ground around him. He knew his body armor wouldn’t protect him if he were to take a slug.
The masked vigilante rolled, swinging the machine gun on target and pulling the trigger as he moved. The bullets spun one of the auto guns around in a blaze to allow a hole for him to roll through for a second. A quick flip, and Wild Dog silenced his other two mechanical foes.
He tossed the empty weapon aside and pulled out his Jatimatic. He climbed the wall and got out of there as fast as he could. He paused when he reached his truck. Something seemed wrong with it, and after the firestorm he had stepped into, he wasn’t in the mood to doubt himself.
Wild Dog holstered the weapon and methodically searched his truck. He found a bomb in the engine after a few minutes. He disconnected it and drove away from the burning pile of bricks.
The next day, Jack Wheeler wiped the grease from his hands after having spent half the morning tuning and aligning a Pontiac.
His old friend Andy Travis pulled up in a police issue car. “I didn’t expect you to burn the place down,” he said as Jack handed him a soda.
“It was a huge booby trap,” said Jack. “Whoever set it up was gunning for me. Watched me go in and go out. I’ve never seen anything like it. Way too fancy for the Mob.”
“Are you serious?” Andy asked.
“Yeah, I was almost Hot Dog instead of Wild Dog.”
“How do you know someone was watching?”
“When the main trap failed, the back-up systems kicked in, trying to keep me in the house and on the grounds. I found this in my truck on the way out,” said Jack. He handed the defused bomb to his friend. “So I know someone was there on the scene.”
Andy looked at the bomb for a minute. “You’re right about a professional,” he finally agreed. “Why the big set-up?”
“Don’t know,” said Jack. “Maybe he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”
“That’s a lot of money for a near miss,” said Andy, thinking about the valued estimation for the burned house he had seen earlier.
“Especially with the remodeling that must have went on. Armor plate was sandwiched in some of the walls as well as used for door and window covers.”
“Something that elaborate has to have been used somewhere else,” said Andy. “An M.O. that contrived doesn’t blossom overnight.”
“You think Lou would have seen something like this?” asked Jack.
“Or Graham,” said Andy. “Hell, Graham probably knows the guy personally.”
Graham Gault worked for the NSA. The main reason he was stationed in the Quad Cities was because of the Rock Island Armory, where new weapons were tested for the U.S. Army. He stood on the police shooting range with a frown replacing his usual bemused expression.
“I’ve heard of something similar,” said Graham. “A house was rigged up like that?”
“Yeah,” said Andy. “Do you remember where you heard about it?”
“New York City, I think,” said Gault. “Yes, it was New York. A guy got caught specializing in elaborate traps to extort information from his victims. I don’t remember what his name was offhand, but I think some guy called the Green Mask had a hand in his capture.”
“Thanks, Graham,” said Andy.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” Graham asked.
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Andy said with a grin as he walked to where his car waited.
“Right — a killer house,” said Andy into a phone later that day. “Look, Doyal, I just need a moment of your time to check this stuff out for me. Then you will never hear from me again. Yes, we got a masked guy running around. He just shoots them. It does save us a small amount of paperwork. Wormwood? Spell it. Still in? OK. Did he have any visitors? A few, huh? Can you fax me a list? Thanks. I appreciate that.” He read the station’s fax number over the phone. “The next time you’re in the Quad Cities, look me up. Sure, Bill. We’ll do the town.”
Travis hung up the phone quietly. He wondered who was on the list. Detective Bill Doyal of the New York City Police Department had told him Wormwood had precious few visitors in prison as he waited for the appeals process to grind away.
Jack Wheeler and Andy Travis got together at the bowling alley that night. They were waiting on Graham and Lou to roll a few frames and get some pizza and beer.
“Wormwood had about ten people visiting. Four of them were wise guys connected to the Scalias,” said Andy.
“The Chicago Scalias?” said Jack, frowning. “I thought I killed all of them before I went public.”
“Apparently you missed one,” said Andy. “I called Chicago, and those guys had moved here to Iowa, according to the department. Except the addresses were fake.”
“Let me see if I got this straight,” said Jack, sipping at his beer. “The Scalias hire Wormwood to design a death trap and lure me in to kill me, but instead they missed, and we’re back to square one with no clues as to who or where they are.”
“That’s about the size of it,” agreed Andy.