Later, aboard Project X — the orbiting satellite headquarters of the Sentinels of Justice — an anxious Liberty Belle looked over a printout and said, “Fascinating. The tests seem to indicate that you’ve gained the agility, strength, and sensory attributes of a feline, and I don’t mean any ordinary house kitty, either. You could bench-press a car!”
Maddy Lopez nodded her fur-covered catlike face and said, “I’d figured that much out back at the show when you… you know…”
“I calmed you down and offered to help you by bringing you aboard the Sentinels’ satellite for proper tests,” said Belle. “Maddy, we’ll figure this out together.”
Maddy smiled ruefully. “I guess I’d better just say it. You coaxed me down from the rafters with a bowl of milk! After seeing my reflection, I literally curled up in a ball on a ceiling beam.”
“At least I didn’t go, ‘here, kitty, kitty, kitty.'”
Maddy laughed and said, “I can’t believe we’re joking like this, but I have to laugh, or I’ll cry.”
Liberty Belle hugged her friend and said, “I can give you a rough explanation. An outside energy source altered your whole genetic structure to the point where you’ve become more feline than human.”
“I was your alternate Belle for a while, y’know,” said Maddy, referring to the time she took turns with two other women to play the role of Liberty Belle. “I ran into super-crooks and petty thieves, but I never faced anything like this. Is this a plot by someone who knew I had been Liberty Belle for a time?”
Liberty Belle shook her head. “That would be the most logical answer, but the cause of your transformation wasn’t any kind of conventional scientific energy. When I used the term ‘energy,’ I wasn’t being very precise. Maddy, I actually think you may have been turned into a cat-woman by magical energy.”
Maddy scrambled up on a table and perched there as she listened.
“I’ve never run afoul of a magic-user before,” continued Belle, “and neither did Leeza, our other former Belle, although my sister may have years ago. I’m a trained scientist, yet I think I termed it correctly. As far as I can tell, it can only have been magical energy that turned you from a supermodel into a feline.”
Maddy blanched as she realized she had assumed a typically feline position and said, “I’m not literally trying to be a cat. I just seem to be reacting in a feline manner. It’s almost an instinct. Belle, I may end up chasing mice before I’m cured!”
Liberty Belle admired the other woman’s spirit. Beneath the humor, there was understandable fear, but Maddy wasn’t about to give in to her condition. She still showed the same indomitable spirit that had made her an effective alternate Liberty Belle in the past. Although she wouldn’t verbalize it, Belle wondered if perhaps the model’s strong craving for attention actually made her relish her new look and its accompanying abilities on some level.
At that moment, the laboratory doors burst open, and the transformed Monica Lake — still in the form of the Countess Von Bludd — hurried inside with Booster Gold and the Blue Beetle on her trail.
“Mon, magic is outside Beetle’s line of study, but we know people,” said Booster. “Trust us. We’ll un-zap you in no time. Uh, say, does anyone know the number of that Montgomery babe from the sitcom?”
“Ms. Lake, you stormed out before I could conclude my findings,” said the Beetle, who was the scientist Ted Kord. “You aren’t dead or undead. You are still very vital and alive, but you have the appearance and powers of the supernatural being we call a vampire. You can be thankful, at least, that you don’t have the thirst for blood normally attributed to them.”
Monica Lake tossed back her head, sending her long red locks of hair flying off her pale white face. “So I’m a living vampire?” she cried. “That’s supposed to be comforting to me? What kind of a nutcase are you? Any man who dresses like a common bug has to be crazy!”
“Well, I wouldn’t say common,” Blue Beetle remarked. “Beetles are actually part of the order Coleoptera.”
“Don’t go all PBS on us, pal,” whispered Booster. “She’s freaking out.”
“I’ll show you freaking out!” Monica shrieked, baring her pointed teeth aggressively.
Liberty Belle calmly stepped forward and slapped the actress across the face, but she gasped in pain, saying, “I almost broke my hand! She’s practically invulnerable!”
Monica shook her head sadly and collapsed to her knees. “I’m sorry — I just think I’m going crazy,” she said, sobbing.
Booster lifted her to her feet and hugged her. “Easy, kid. We’ll fix you. Magic made you a real-life Countess Von Bludd, so magic can also change you back. Our buddies Yarko the Great and Phantom Lady know how to spell-cast with the best of them.”
Monica Lake, who for all intents and purposes was now Countess Von Bludd, said, “But why me?”
“I really don’t know,” said Liberty Belle, “but from what I’ve learned from my own tests on Maddy, here, it was probably a burst of magical energy that turned her into her present state. Why she and Monica were targeted when no one else around them were is a mystery. It may simply come down to pure chance.”
“I’d wager other people have been hit, too,” added Blue Beetle. “I just don’t have the means to detect magical energy.”
“Could this have anything to do with what happened in Britain last month?” asked Booster Gold. “You know, when Morgana le Fay shrouded the country in darkness and slaughtered the Royal Family and most of the British Parliament?” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Union: Camelot: In Search of the Truth.]
“It might,” agreed Liberty Belle. “But as far as Captain Atom can tell, that particular threat is over. As some of you know, he’s decided to stay there for a while to offer the Union any assistance they need. Adam Thompson, the Champion, is with him. One of Sarge Steel’s L.A.W. teams is out there as well, along with the Paragons, since a couple of that European team’s members are from the British Isles.”
“I think this is probably a new thing entirely,” said Blue Beetle. “But as I pointed out, with anything supposedly magical, I’ll leave it entirely up to the experts to determine.”
“I’ve already tried to reach our resident experts on magic and myth, and I’ve received no reply,” said Belle. “Even Son of Vulcan’s been ignoring the last few alerts lately.”
Maddy jumped down from the table and said, “You guys never met me, but I was an action-heroine in my time, too. I guess you learned that when Leeza Gibson died. Well, I’d like to be in on this. After all, this is very personal for me.”
“I agree, said Liberty Belle. “With her enhanced abilities, she could be a real asset. She may be the strongest one here, although I still don’t know how powerful Ms. Lake is.”
“Sure, I can understand that,” said the Beetle. “And what shall we call you ladies while in your current forms?”
“I will not be called Countess Von Bludd!” Monica said imperiously. “Do you understand?”
“OK, honey, OK,” said Booster, trying to calm her down. “What if we just call you the Countess? Has a nice royal ring to it.” Monica pouted silently for a moment and then gave her assent with a nod.
“I think maybe I should call myself Felina,” said Maddy. “Fifi for short,” she added with a playful grin. Blue Beetle smiled in approval; he liked this high-spirited woman. With her new coat of fur and a one-piece pink swimsuit, she already looked like an action heroine.
Moments later, two other members of the Sentinels of Justice entered the room and faced the others. The woman was tall with short platinum blonde hair and a regal manner. She wore a yellow leotard that crackled with a fiery energy nimbus from time to time. The tall, firmly built man was clad in brown and white and wore a heavily armored helmet on his head.
“Peacemaker, Lady Quark, our guests are called the Countess and Felina,” said Blue Beetle. “We’ve summoned you to help us find out how they were magically transformed.”
Lady Quark nodded confidently. “Of course. I will assist them. It is pleasant to meet another personage of royal status.”
The Countess smiled suddenly. “Charmed. But I’m actually only Hollywood royalty, not truly a titled girl.”
“Tashana, I know we’ve told you before, but Nightshade is a true princess,” said the Beetle. “Her mother ruled the Land of the Nightshades.”
Lady Quark sniffed disdainfully. She had sustained a dislike of Eve Eden that perhaps originated in the fact that Eve had once been romantically involved with Captain Atom, and now that hero was clearly admired by the regal beauty herself.
“As for me,” said the Peacemaker, who was the diplomat Christopher Smith, “I’ve always fought to bring peace to others. That may be a paradox, but it’s why I call myself Peacemaker. I may be semi-retired now, but controlled violence still seems to be my greatest talent. Perhaps I rationalize its use by hoping that, in fighting my war on crime, I bring peace to the lives of those who might otherwise end up as victims.”
Liberty Belle frowned as she looked at him and took a step closer, peering at the lower half of his face, the only part not hidden by his mask. “Peacemaker, you look as if you’ve been in a real fight. What happened?”
He nodded in affirmation. “You may not believe this, but I was almost killed while trying to stop a jewel robbery.”
Booster Gold shrugged. “We all have our off days. Still, I can’t imagine any jewel thief who could stand up to you.”
“You’ll understand when you hear my story,” continued the Peacemaker. “My foe was no ordinary, petty crook. She was one of the most dangerous people I’ve ever met. In fact, she was Nightshade herself.”
The Peacemaker held their attention as the other Sentinels listened to his story. “I occasionally get tips about notable crimes or threats to world peace from an ally in the Foreign Service. This woman sent me a curious message about several jewel robberies across Europe that happened within the same rough period. The common denominator that linked the crimes was that, in each case, only one specific gem was taken from each location. An item that was priceless was often left untouched, while another, less-valuable jewel was removed from the same safe. As well, the locations alone made it almost impossible for the thefts to have been pulled by the same person. I figured a large gang with global connections must have been involved. Frankly, that challenge appealed to me, since I thought it could have something to do with the Mars Council, that international cartel of weapons dealers the Sentinels dismantled a year ago. (*) I decided to take a break from training my team to look into the matter personally. The path of thefts crisscrossed both Europe and Asia and eventually showed up in New York.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: Watching the World.]
“Nightshade is no criminal,” said Liberty Belle, “but even if she were stealing these jewels for some reason, she just can’t move that fast.”
“Right,” agreed Blue Beetle. “Shady can’t fly.”
Lady Quark raised one eyebrow and said, “‘Shady’? Must we use such crass diminutives?”
“Beats calling her Nightie,” quipped Booster, “although I like the visual.”
The Peacemaker continued, “The gems stolen include an emerald, a sapphire, a turquoise, a topaz, a garnet–”
Felina interrupted him, saying, “I hate to cut in as the new girl — or kitty — on the block, but isn’t that monitor going wild?” She pointed to a screen that was indeed flashing an alert.
“Police news alerts,” explained Belle. “I see the House of Jewels has been robbed. That’s pretty impressive when you consider the level of security that fortress has. I mean, even the clients only gain access after a complete screening.”
“It’s her,” said the Peacemaker. “All the thefts involved jewels. As I said, I finally reached a likely target based on the pattern. What jewel thief could resist hitting the Hollywood home of the White Diamond of Nujar?”
Booster grinned. “Yeah, that’s owned by the often-married and equally often-divorced actress Amelia Davenport. I caught one of her flicks a while back. I thought about redoing it with some boffo special effects, replacing the horse with a robotic eagle.”
“OK, you’re kidding — you have to be,” said the Blue Beetle. He turned back to the Peacemaker and said, “So you say Nightshade took the bait?”
“I hovered on autopilot in my plane, and my special goggles enabled me to pick up a change in the atmosphere around the jewels,” the Peacemaker explained. “It was one of Nightshade’s ebony bombs.”
Beetle shrugged. “Those could be duplicated by any number of criminal scientists.”
“I know,” said Peacemaker. “I expected nothing more than to find some new crook who had copied Nightshade’s style. But I was wrong. I dropped down and entered the house with all sensors on alert. I couldn’t see through her inky cloud, but I could hear her heartbeat. It was irregular, to say the least. She spotted me as well, and before I could react, she was on me like a wildcat. She moved with her customary grace and was able to land two kicks before I could fight back. I blocked a punch and admittedly hesitated when she drew closer, because I could make out that she was, in fact, our Nightshade, and not an impostor.”
“Wait a minute,” said Booster Gold. “You remember that British chick, Duplicity? She could make herself look like anyone. She even posed as Shady once.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Sentinels of Justice: Duplicity.]
The Peacemaker shook his head. “You fellows are making me feel a bit defensive, here. I told you that it was Nightshade, and it shocked me as much as it does you. I held back just enough to try to talk to her and get her story, but she fought like a fury out of myth.”
“Did she make any effort to explain herself?” asked Lady Quark. “Did she speak? Perhaps she was under some type of mental domination.”
The Peacemaker nodded. “Astute questions, Lady Tashana, but she was relentlessly silent. I’m not vain enough to admit that she clocked me. She had an icy touch, though. It was as if all human warmth had left her body. I tried to take her down, but she blended into that semi-solid shadow state of hers and sidestepped. Before I could counter her next move, I found myself falling in midair.”
“She must have warped space and teleported, or maybe shifted you through her Land of the Nightshades and back, but to a new location entirely,” said Liberty Belle. “That could actually explain how she robbed all those diverse places in such a short time. It would be a new use of her powers, one I’d guess she might never have made made use of before.”
“That’s not exactly true,” said Blue Beetle. “Nightshade has used those powers to teleport herself and the team on very rare occasions, but she told us that she really doesn’t want to do so unless it’s absolutely necessary. She wouldn’t elaborate except to make us promise not to ask her to use her power for transportation. So she’s definitely used her powers in this way before.”
The Peacemaker nodded. “One minute I was her human target in the mansion, and the next moment I was dropping like a rock from high above the city. I managed to activate my jetpack in time to stop the plunge, but one of her kicks had rattled it enough that it only slowed my fall. I landed intact, but I hit hard enough to knock myself out. By the time I recovered, she was long gone with the diamond.”
“Let’s be honest, here,” said Blue Beetle. “None of us really believe Nightshade has gone bad. She must have some reason for her wild behavior. Since she comes from a magical dimension, perhaps the same bursts of magic that transformed the girls, here, also drove her mad.”
“This is all very interesting, but what about me?” said the Countess. “We need to find a way to cure me. I can’t go through life like this!”
Felina smiled and whispered to Liberty Belle, “She is one self-centered witch. I mean, I’ve become a walking fur-ball, but I’m not that torn up about it.”
“Let’s just say you wear it well,” whispered Belle. “You started out with far more self-confidence than she did. Her ego probably covers up some real insecurity.”
“Well, if Shady is stealing gems, then we could determine her next target by pulling up data on these thefts and try to establish a pattern,” suggested the Blue Beetle. “These unique jewels must have some significance.”
Booster Gold shrugged and said, “Or we could just go to her place and wait for her to show up.”
“I agree,” the Peacemaker said. “We might find something in her apartment that could help us. Remember, when I started tracking the thief, I had no idea she was our friend.”
The Countess stomped both of her feet and shrieked, “What about me?”
Liberty Belle smiled playfully and said, “I could slap her again. Really, I don’t mind.”