by Cynthia Finnegan
The Marvel Family was in a very serious situation, and they could think of no way out. As Freddy Freeman contemplated the idea that he and his best friends might die this day, he began thinking about the last time he had seen his own kid brother just a couple of days ago.
Freddy Freeman had gone postal.
“Christopher Daniel Freeman, I’m gonna kill you!” he shouted into thin air.
Normally, Freddy was a very calm, cool young man. Today, however, he was fuming at some dumb practical joke he thought his younger brother Christopher, or Kit, had played on him. It wasn’t the prank itself that had the young man up in arms, it was the fact that the still-fourteen-year-old Kit Freeman was invisible, so he wouldn’t have to face his older brother’s wrath.
Kit has really done it this time, Freddy thought angrily. He had stored an assignment for his journalism class on a computer disk, and now it was gone. It wasn’t gone as in disappeared, but gone as in deleted. In fact, the whole disk had been formatted, so all of his schoolwork had been irretrievably wiped out. And that writing assignment was due the next day. It was difficult enough to adjust to the demands and rigors of college life as it was, without something like this happening.
“You can’t kill me, you dope! I’m already dead!” yelled back Kit Freeman, AKA Kid Eternity. “And besides, I didn’t do it!” Of course, Freddy couldn’t hear his kid brother, either.
“Freddy, cool it,” said his best friend, Billy Batson, trying to keep his own voice below a shout. “I seriously doubt that Kit had intended to erase your journalism assignment.”
The last time Billy had seen his best friend anywhere near this angry was a couple of years ago, after informing Freddy that Captain Nazi was alive and holding the city of Chicago hostage. But Freddy had literally snapped then, nearly drowning the villain in a fountain as Captain Marvel Junior until Billy had talked some sense into him.
Who, or rather what, had actually formatted the floppy disk was a being called an imp of the perverse. A creature of chaos not unlike mischievous fairies, these imps committed mischief invisibly, letting some dumb human or another take the rap for their misdeeds — or, in this case, the immortal, teenaged agent of eternity.
“Billy, you don’t know Kit like I do,” Freddy shot back. “He always pulled some boneheaded stunt when we were kids.”
“Speaking of boneheaded stunts, what about some of the ones you pulled?” Kid Eternity retorted with his arms crossed, still invisible and inaudible. “Keep? There has to be an imp of the perverse around here somewhere, but who could’ve summoned one up?”
“Kid, I’ve looked everywhere in the house, but I can’t find it,” said the Kid’s guardian, a genial, bald-pated angel called Mr. Keeper. “As for who could’ve called it forth, you and Freddy both have a few enemies with that kind of power, so your guess would be as good as mine.”
“It’s OK, Keep. I think I already know who it was. It’s the one guy who has the shortcut.”
“You mean Master Man?”
“‘Fraid so, Keep.” After a brief pause, the Kid shouted, “There it is, and it’s uglier than I thought!”
Indeed, there in the corner stood the ugliest little critter the young spirit had ever seen. Less than eighteen inches tall, wart-covered, and foul-smelling, the nasty thing cocked a snook at the ethereal duo and laughed, taunting the Kid into trying to catch it.
“Just be careful, Kid,” the guardian angel said. “Those things are slippery customers.”
“Careful’s my middle name, Keep.”
“Funny, I thought your middle name was Daniel.”
Kid Eternity chuckled humorlessly as he leaped at the nasty little chaotic spirit, but the thing sidestepped at the last moment and knocked the hatstand over. The heavy wooden rack simply passed through the Kid, clattering to the floor with a dull thud.
“Ha! Gotcha!” the Kid yelled as he lunged at it again, this time grabbing the creature by its foot. It screamed, but it couldn’t get free of the teen spirit’s grip. As the Kid held the imp and said his magic word, a foul odor filled the room, causing both Billy and Freddy to pinch their noses closed in utter disgust.
“Holy moley!” Billy exclaimed, his eyes starting to water from the stink. “What’s that smell?!”
“Ugh! That’s what I’d like to know!” Freddy retorted, then heard the thwam that heralded his little brother’s comings and goings.
“This,” the Kid said calmly, holding the ugly, foul-smelling imp up in front of him.
“What is it?” Billy asked, getting as good a look as the malodorous stench would allow.
“It’s an imp of the perverse, Billy. This is what deleted Freddy’s writing assignment, not me. Oh, it’s not necessary to apologize, Freddy. I know you’re sorry,” the young agent of eternity finished with a grin.
But Freddy hadn’t apologized that morning and instead decided to ignore his brother and sulk as he retyped his writing assignment from memory. In the present, he winced as he remembered how he had felt later on, when his temper had finally cooled off. That was one good reason that gave him hope he would escape; he needed to make things right with Kit. Another reason was that their foe Master Man might very well be targeting him, and they needed to take him down.
Well, first things first, he thought.
Outside a Bronx storefront, an almost plain brunette girl was chasing the man who left her little fortune-telling parlor without paying. Athena looked like a gypsy, from her long, jet-black hair right down to the “bad eyes” (as one of her customers called them), but she was actually of Egyptian descent, and about as psychic as a brick wall. She had set up the parlor as a scam to con honest folks out of their hard-earned cash.
Although she was only sixteen, she was mature-looking for her age, and had already garnered a lengthy record for assault and as an unrepentant con-artist. This time, however, she was the one who had just been fleeced.
“Hey! Come back here, you cheap chiseler!” she screamed after the fleeing customer. “That’s my money!”
The cheat just laughed at her and kept on running. He had the advantage of being taller and having longer legs. Athena stopped for a moment, just long enough to whip off one of her sandals and throw it at the guy’s head, but it missed its target. She was beginning to think she’d never catch up to the guy, when she suddenly found herself blurting out one magic word. “Shazam!”
A blinding flash of lightning split the skies and struck Athena full on. When the glare cleared, she was dressed in a black jumpsuit with a low, scooped neckline and gold sleeve trim, sash, and lightning bolt emblazoned on it. She felt herself running faster, catching up to the man who stole her ill-gotten gains in literally the blink of an eye. She held him up by his collar, about ready to punch his lights out, when a voice in her head instructed her to go to Chinatown and find a young woman named Caitlin O’Malley. When she found her, she was to bind, gag, and blindfold her, then bring her to him.
Billy Batson had been kidnapped by Black Adam just a few minutes ago, and Uncle Dudley had been trying to call for help ever since that awful moment. As the plump, balding man ran back to the elevator, frustrated from his attempts to contact the Lieutenant Marvels, he remembered the one other person who could help Billy, Mary, and Freddy out of their plight. All he needed to do was to get to her before Black Adam or any of his family did.
Unfortunately, Caitlin O’Malley didn’t have a phone number yet, but her address was right there in Billy’s rolodex. And her cousin Robyn was a friend of Fat Billy’s as well. OK, she’s his girlfriend, Dudley reminded himself. So if anyone knew where he was, she would. When Dudley got back outside, he hailed another cab.
“Driver,” he said, almost frantically, “take me to Jet Li’s Martial Arts Supply, 413 Mays Street, Chinatown! And step on it!”
Meanwhile, in the apartment on the second floor of 413 Mays Street, Caitlin O’Malley practiced her katas with her landlord, Mr. Li, looking on with a hint of pride. She had come a long way in the past couple of months, both in the martial arts and in controlling her chi, or spirit energy, and it showed. Her kicks and punches flowed with almost impossible grace. How had Billy managed to find this place on such short notice?
When she finished, she’d planned to shoo the handsome Mr. Li out, then take a hot shower, fix herself a quick meal of salad, bread, and cheese, and watch a videotape Mary had sent her from Los Angeles, a public-access show called Adventures with the Poorman.
Mary couldn’t see Caitlin’s attraction to the show, but chalked it up to her weird sense of humor. She found the strangest things funny, and if anyone mentioned her first case as a Marvel, the one of a crook called George the Wipe, she could not stop laughing about it, even if it wasn’t that funny.
Just as she finished her exercise, there was a frantic pounding on the loft’s door. She ran to answer it, opened it, and saw Dudley on the other side.
“Uncle Dudley?” she asked, seeing the panicked man’s face. “What are you doing here?”
“Thank goodness I got here first. It’s Billy!” Dudley panted in reply.
Cait led him inside, sat him down, and poured him a cup of tea. “Now, what’s happened? Where is Billy?”
“It’s Black Adam, lass. He’s somehow come into a family of his own, and he’s kidnapped Mary, Freddy, and Billy! I fear they may have found out about you and will come for you next!”
“Knock, knock!” Suddenly, the door exploded in a shower of splinters, and a young, black-haired woman in a black and gold costume stepped into Cait’s apartment. “You forgot to say ‘who’s there?’ I would’ve said Black Athena!”
“Oh, no, not another one!” Dudley cried. “Black… Athena, eh? Sounds more like Black Adam in drag!”
A knife-shaped burst of light sprung from Caitlin’s fingertips and flew straight into Athena, but it had no effect on her.
“What was that supposed to do — tickle?”
Cait ducked behind a chair and continued to move, trying to remain hidden. She needed time to think.
From what Billy had told her of Black Adam, Cait knew that without her Marvel powers, anything physical she tried would wind up getting her a lovely set of broken bones. Magic or spirit weapons might slow down Black Athena, but she was nowhere near as powerful as old Shazam in the magic department, and her spirit knife hadn’t worked. Unless she could conjure up some kind of magic lightning, she was screwed. And if this Black Athena was every bit as powerful as Billy told her Black Adam was, well, Caitlin knew she wouldn’t just be screwed, she’d be in deep, deep, deep trouble.
“Look, girlie,” Black Athena quipped as she looked for her prey, casually tossing a sofa aside, “I don’t wanna pummel you, just kill you. Kinda have to so I can keep these powers. I can’t say I won’t enjoy it, too, but the old man says I have to bring you to him, first.”
“Well, ducks,” Cait replied, standing up, “you know the old Rolling Stones tune. If ‘you can’t always get what you want, you get what you need,’ and what I need right now is away from you!”
Suddenly, a blindingly bright light flashed, starting from heart level on Cait’s body and flaring outward, turning everything white, and Athena shrieked as the light burned through her eyelids. The star-child flare had done its work, but it had done it too well; she had accidentally knocked out Dudley and Mr. Li with it. Since Caitlin was the only one who could still see, she made a break for the open window in the hopes of calling out the old wizard’s name before her attacker could recover her sight.
“Shaz — ohhhh!” Athena’s fist lashed out blindly, clipping the young witch on the back of her head. Cait was knocked unconscious before she could finish saying the magic word. When the young villain’s eyes cleared, she ripped free the cord of a nearby lamp and bound Cait’s wrists together.
“You have her,” came the evil wizard’s voice in her mind. “Good. Now make sure her blindfold is tight. As you have seen, most of her other powers are limited by her line of sight.”
“What about the old man?” Athena asked.
“Bring him with you, child. Your sire may not see him as a credible threat, but he is, and we cannot afford any mistakes.”
A few moments later, Black Athena took to the sky with both of her unconscious captives in her arms.
Back at Columbia University, an attractive, dark-haired woman looked to the skies above her. For the second time today, she heard distant rumbles of thunder. As she adjusted her glasses, Professor Andrea Thomas wondered what in the world was going on. And why had Freddy Freeman, a journalism major, snuck out of a music theory lecture? And later, why had she seen him being abducted by some teenage greaser in a Black Adam costume?
Just when I thought I was getting my life back together, she thought.
And on the Rock of Eternity, the old wizard Shazam received some unexpected and unwelcome visitors.
“Hello, old friend,” the malefic voice said. Shazam recognized that voice and turned his head toward the one who had spoken.
“By the gods! You!”