by Dan Swanson
Todd Drake greeted his friends with hugs and warm handshakes. He looked awful. He told his story again for probably the fifteenth time that day, he reflected ruefully, but hopefully also the last. But he now had more information than during his earlier recitations. He had been able to pick out the pictures of two of the gunmen from the police mugshot albums. He knew their names (or at least the names they had given to the police at the time of the photos) but not much more. Each man had been busted once, a few years ago, for some minor crime, and neither had come to the attention of the police since. So they had no way of knowing how to find them.
Todd pulled the business card out of his wallet. “I think we ought to start by calling this guy. He’s apparently a bookie, and the cop who gave me this implied that he might be able to help us find those thugs.”
Jim Barr shook his head. “We should definitely contact this guy, but not on the phone. He won’t tell us anything over the phone, and if we try to find him after the call, he’ll be gone. We need to learn his real name and where we can find him. Sue and I met one of the guys who works in the evidence room downtown at the conference, and he told us to look him up the next time we were in town. Probably didn’t mean this late, though!”
Susan Barr gave Todd the new gravity helmet and the spare Bulletman costume. Todd went behind a bush and discreetly changed into the costume and helmet. He had thought that getting back into super-heroic action would be a great feeling, but it almost seemed to him as if he were going back to a childish pastime that he had long outgrown. Well, he might feel differently if the circumstances were different, and anyway, this was the best way to accomplish his current goals.
When he returned to the Bullets, Sue looked him over. He cut a very handsome figure in the revealing costume that Jim favored. “Todd, we sure can’t call you Bulletboy any longer! And we can’t call you Todd all night, either! Any ideas for a new code-name?”
Todd thought about it, and realized he didn’t care. He doubted he would ever need a super-hero code-name again after tonight. If he ever changed his mind, he could worry about a code-name then. But Sue was right — they needed something to call him, just for tonight. “I don’t know. How about Red Rocket?”
The Bullets exchanged amused glances. They had often been referred to as the Human Rockets in news stories, so this seemed as good a code-name as any. “Red Rocket it is, then!” Jim answered heartily. “Well, let’s get going. Todd, can you stash most of the stuff from Sue’s backpack in your dorm room?”
The three flew toward Todd’s dorm. It had been about nine years since Todd had flown on his own as Bulletboy, and he realized that this was what he missed the most about being a super-hero. He was pretty rusty, but he was so exhilarated he forgot his fatigue, and by the time they reached the dorm, he was doing rolls and loops just as if he’d been flying all along. He still didn’t have much interest in being a super-hero, but he knew he could never again give up flying like this.
The three landed discreetly behind a high hedge. Jim pulled his civilian clothes from the pack, while Todd put on his own clothes over his costume. He stashed his helmet in the pack, then went into the dorm and up to his room. He emptied the pack into a drawer in his dresser, took off his street clothes, put on his gravity helmet, and jammed the window open with a yardstick to be sure he could go in and out freely. He flew out and rejoined the Bullets, and Jim led them across town to a small residential suburb. They landed near a large house with a nicely maintained yard.
“This is the place. Hope he’s not too upset about us waking him up this late!” Jim said, handing his helmet to Sue and putting on his clothes. Jim Barr then walked up to the door and rang the doorbell. Sue and Todd lifted from the ground and landed on the roof of the two-car garage. It was in deep shadow, and no one should be able to spot them up there. There was a single light on the ground floor in a window at the rear of the house. Someone must have been awake in that room, because lights started coming on in other rooms, and within a couple of minutes, the front door opened slightly.
“Mister, you better have a damn good reason for ringing that bell this late…” Suddenly, the person in the house recognized him. “Jim Barr?! What are you doing out this late at night? You’re not in any trouble, are you?” This man didn’t know Jim all that well, and he obviously wasn’t happy to see him.
“Well, Marty, it depends on how you look at it! I’m trying to track down a couple of bad guys before they die of radiation sickness, and I don’t quite know where to start. I have one lead.” He pulled out the card. “If I can ask this guy some questions, I think I’ll be able to track them down. But I don’t want to call him, and I don’t know where to find him. Can you help?”
Marty took the card, looked at it, and then gestured Jim to come inside. After fifteen minutes, Todd and Sue got tired of sitting on the roof, so they flew up in the air and started playing tag. Todd needed the practice. Sue wasn’t any faster than he was, but she flew almost instinctively, whereas he still had to think about his maneuvers. He could feel his old skills coming back, though.
Finally, they saw the front door open again, and they swooped back down to just above the level of the house. Jim walked around the corner and then ducked behind a fence, and they joined him. He took his helmet back and took off his outer civilian clothing.
“Got an address and directions. Sorry it took so long; Marty had to call in a few favors, and I had trouble convincing him to stay out of this. He promised he would leave it to us until he reports to work tomorrow. If we haven’t turned in prisoners by then, he’s going to follow up with the bookie himself. So we better get cracking!” Once again they took to the air, and followed Jim as he slowly traced out the directions he was given. A couple of times, they had to descend to look at street signs, but they finally reached the place Marty had described.
Chicago had a bustling port. It was a transshipment point for cargo being shipped throughout the Midwest. Virtually everything that could go by water came into Chicago on trucks and trains and was loaded onto ships that plied the Great Lakes and even carried cargo across the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence Seaway, or to New York City via the Erie Canal and the Hudson River. Marty had sent them to a seedy bar down in the warehouse section of the port. The three weren’t surprised to see that the bar was filled with patrons, even this late at night; it was the kind of place where you could get a drink round-the-clock. The patrons appeared to be a mix of longshoremen, merchant sailors, and denizens of Chicago’s underworld — definitely not a place any of them would enter on their own.
The bookie they were looking for reputedly owned this bar and had his office on the second floor. The bar was a good way for him to launder the profits he made; much of that money showed up in the till every morning and was recorded in the bar ledger as legitimate profits from the night before. He also paid the cops on the local beat to leave him alone, and as long as nobody got killed in his bar, they mostly did leave him alone. There were always a half-dozen or so well-armed patrons in the bar, and all the regulars knew that they were actually paid security.
That made it a relatively safe place to drink — all the regulars had seen what happened to troublemakers in the bar. Not that an occasional drunk didn’t make trouble and get thrown out after a minor beating, but nobody was ever killed or badly hurt while actually in the bar itself. Of course, none of the regulars had ever seen three super-heroes walk through the door, either.
Suddenly, the crowded room was dead silent. The three red-clad heroes walked slowly toward the bar. They heard whispers start up behind them, although the folks still in front of them remained quiet.
“–shouldn’t be here!”
“–will ya look at the–”
“–didn’t know there were three of ’em!”
“–on that broad!”
“–throw them outta here!”
“–damn do-gooders! I say we–”
“–wonder if she wants to have some fun?”
Bulletgirl turned when she heard that last one. Looking right at the man who had said it, she replied, “You know, I wouldn’t mind some fun tonight! I always love sending jerks like you to the hospital!”
That started some more muttering. “Uh-oh,” Red Rocket whispered. “I don’t think you should have done that!”
Bulletman answered for her. “It doesn’t matter. Whether she said something or not, sooner or later, trouble is coming our way. Her warning might keep a couple of these guys out of the fight, and out of the hospital, so we always do it that way. Never seems to work, though — I’ll bet the one she talked to is the one who starts it.”
The trio walked up to the bar, and Bulletgirl talked to the bartender, while Bulletman and Red Rocket watched the crowd. Bulletgirl often got answers from men who would never tell Bulletman anything, even when he was clearly listening to their conversation. “We’d like to talk to Lenny.” That was the name on the business card.
The bartender was nervous, but he knew his lines. “Lenny who? Ain’t no Lenny works here. Might be a Lenny in here.” He swept his arm, indicating the bar. “But I don’t know most’a dere names. Want I should ask?”
Meanwhile, Bulletman was using the radio in his helmet to whisper to Red Rocket. “Pick out the ones who work for the bar; they’re the ones who are going to start it. And they are probably the toughest. Most of these guys are here to drink, but the security is here to fight.”
Red Rocket scanned the room and picked out several men who were watching them more closely than the others. Bulletman watched where his eyes rested. He was impressed. “Four of them?” Rocket whispered back.
“I think there’s actually six. I thought there were only four as well, but you picked up on two I missed. And I think you missed those guys at the last booth.” Rocket had discounted them, because they had seemed to be pretty intimately involved with a couple of women who were sharing the booth.
Bulletgirl leaned closer to the bartender and motioned for him with a finger to come closer as well. His view was spectacular, and under other conditions he would have been thrilled, but now it was all he could do to keep from shaking. He glanced around once, wildly, for help, but so far, the crowd had not yet worked itself up enough to take action.
Bulletman turned to Red Rocket and commented, “Another minute or so. It’s usually a thrown beer mug, so be ready to move fast. Bulletgirl and I will handle the ones with knives — you take care of the unarmed idiots. But watch out for broken bottles!”
The bartender heard that, and quickly responded, “Hey, we don’t want no trouble here. If you let me, I kin git most’a da troublemakers outta here. Da boss’ll fire me if da place gits busted up. I really need dis job, see?”
Bulletgirl smiled — one of the sweetest and most welcome smiles the bartender had ever seen. “Y’all know, honey,” she drawled slowly “Ah really luuuv smart may-en.” Red Rocket was surprised — he had never heard her do that Southern accent before, but, boy, she did it well. “If y’all kin do thay-at, why, this eve-nin’ will be evah so much more pleasant.”
The bartender almost changed his mind. But the boss would be even more upset if he didn’t get rid of these guys than he would if the bar got busted up a little. He was more scared of the boss than the super-heroes. Piss off a hero, and you ended up in jail; piss of the boss, and you ended up on the bottom of the lake, wearing cement boots — after a little friendly torture, naturally.
“OK, babe!” At the look on Bulletgirl’s face, he hurried on. “I’m gonna move real slow, like, and signal my boys to clear out da place. Dat OK wit you?”
“No suh-prizes, hun? Go ahay-ed.”
The Bullets weren’t fooled, and Bulletman nodded his head toward the closest bouncer. “He’s yours,” he whispered to Red Rocket. This gave Rocket a split-second advantage on the bouncer.
The bartender turned toward the crowd, and as he did, he “accidentally” knocked over a glass. This was the signal to the security, and they attacked. Bulletman was right; the first attack was a flying beer mug, and it came from the man that Bulletgirl had talked to. Red Rocket dodged easily.
Bulletgirl grabbed the bartender by his collar. “Naughty boy! Momma’s a-gonna spank you latah.” She slammed his head into the bar and knocked him unconscious. “Boy, I’ll bet that’s going to hurt later!” she said, losing the Southern drawl. She turned to the brawl, which was already in full swing.
The thug nearest the bar had kicked his table at the heroes, hoping to trip them. He surged out of his chair and leaped at Red Rocket. He assumed he had the advantage of surprise, and he intended to knock Rocket to the ground. However, he was wide open, and Rocket’s short right to the jaw, backed up by the speed of the man’s leap, knocked him out, and he collapsed to the floor.
When he turned his attention back to the fight, it was no longer possible to separate the security from the other patrons. At least half the patrons had headed for the door, but there were still a lot of people in the room, all trying to reach the three heroes.