by Dan Swanson
Bonnie Marlowe Drake awoke in her own bed, and, boy, did she feel awful. She was a mass of bruises that hurt like fire whenever she sat up, and incongruously, she was also starving. There was a buzz of activity in the next room; she heard her husband Todd Drake speaking with Tomas Thomas, perhaps about politics, and her nine-year-old son, Jack Drake, was yelling as he chased the puppy who was barking in excitement. She realized that, once again, she’d lived through a dangerous case.
“Hey, you two mad geniuses!” she tried to yell, but it was more like a squeak. They heard, though, for their conversation stopped, and they came into the room. Todd, bless his heart, was carrying a tray with coffee, soup, and sandwiches. She ate while they talked.
“You don’t think one of you might be able to put some shock absorbers into my costume, do you?” she asked. “It seems sort of, well, dumb to have an invulnerable costume, and then get shaken to death inside it! It was like being the olive in a martini shaker. Probably worse, in fact — no gin!”
Todd moaned; he hated gin. But at least, the hero known as Red Rocket mused, his wife was well enough to wisecrack.
“We ought to be able to adapt the gravity regulator in some way,” said Tomas, better known as Tom Atomic. He had perfect recall, and could read at superhuman speed. He subscribed to seemingly every academic publication there was, and read everything. He tried now to remember offbeat theories. “Hmm… What about that paper E.E. Smith wrote on the relationship between gravity and inertia?”
Then he remembered that Smith had been universally ridiculed, so much so that he had retired from theoretical physics and had started writing science fiction. Still, combined with the work of the famous physicist Paul Dirac, maybe there was something there.
“Table it for later, Tomas!” She knew he wouldn’t forget it. “What did I miss?” It turned out that she had missed a lot.
“We drained the pit — and found the remains of over a dozen human skeletons, jumbled together. That beast started off as human!” began Todd. “We did a sweep of the entire facility, and found that it was home to at least two hundred people. Most of them didn’t have anywhere to go home to, though some were just in hiding. Some of them lived in the old buildings, while others had built makeshift shelters in partially protected areas. The city is trying to figure out what to do with them right now. They are spread throughout homeless shelters and other facilities throughout the city, and some are receiving medical attention. City attorneys are trying to figure out who to sue to recover expenses.”
Tomas joined in with a somewhat malicious smirk. “What makes it more complicated is that the city actually bought the property from DuPaul about six years ago — so DuPaul claims that absolves them of any responsibility. Then the Mitch Wackney Company bought it from the city about six months ago as the site of the next Wackney World. But their attorneys claim they wouldn’t have purchased it if they’d know about all the squatters, so it’s not their problem. Typical political mess!” Tomas hated politics. To him, it was easy to tell right from wrong, and politics was no more than the art of shifting blame.
Todd continued the story. “Anyway, do you remember that really big lightning storm a few weeks ago?” Of course she did — it had lasted for hours, and there had been hundreds of lightning strikes throughout the city. “At least one of the big abandoned chemical tanks seems to have been split open by lightning that night, and dumped a flood of who-knows-what electrified chemicals into one of those camps — with horrible results for the people caught in the flood.” He shuddered. “At least, that’s our best guess. There isn’t much left of the skeletons, though, after sitting in that pit for a few hours. But the small animal disappearances started shortly after the storm.”
“Is that what was in the tank I fell into?” Bonnie asked.
Tomas actually shuddered. “No, that stuff was much worse. That was a drainage tank, and all of the storm drains throughout the facility had funneled in there. So, every time it rained, anything that got washed into the storm drains ended up in that tank. There was probably forty years of toxic sludge in there, plus the more recent stuff. Luckily it didn’t catch fire or explode spontaneously.” He brightened a little. “We took care of it, though. Drained it into a big stainless steel tank, and Master Man threw it into the sun. Who knows what might have happened if that stuff had leaked into the water supply?”
“What will it do to the sun?”
Even the second most powerful man on Earth knew better than to laugh at Lady Victory. “No problem — it will actually vaporize long before it reaches the sun. Probably break down into component atoms and get blown away into interstellar space by the solar wind.”
A bunch of facts and observations clicked together in Bonnie’s head. She was, after all, an important part of DMT, the best detective agency in Chicago. And her realizations devastated her.
“You know, that poor monster was sick and starving!” Both her partners were startled by the pain in her voice. From their faces, she could see that they didn’t believe her.
“Those people had some way to feed themselves before the storm, right? Maybe they stood on corners and begged, or did odd jobs, or stole, or just dug through trash bins. But once they got melted together like that, whatever they used to do for food, they couldn’t do it anymore. Would you give a quarter to a twelve-headed monster on a street corner? Or let it wash your dishes in return for a meal? Anyone that saw it was more likely to try to kill it than help it!”
She was right, of course. They were used to that — she almost always saw things from an unusual perspective, and they were usually astonished when she filled in the details for them.
“And, even though they were joined together into a monster, they were still human, and still had a human respect for life. So they caught and ate small animals and stayed hidden. When the wild animals ran out, they started eating pets. But they never harmed a single person!”
“It fought you!”
“I was hunting it,” she pointed out calmly. “They–” she said, emphasizing the word in case her partners still didn’t get it, “–didn’t hurt me. In fact, they ran away when they had a chance to hurt me. And then they ran into the other squatters, who joined into a lynch mob, and killed them.” She wasn’t angry, only very sad. She knew scientists, including her partners and some of their Super Squad teammates, who could probably have helped these poor people.
“It was incredibly irresponsible of DuPaul to just abandon that facility without making sure it was safe!” She felt a surge of anger as she spoke. “Regardless of what their lawyers say, they are the ones responsible for this tragedy!”
“Well, the city owned the property for years, and never even bothered to see if it was dangerous,” Todd pointed out. “The city has some responsibility as well!”
“Not to change the subject or anything,” Tomas interjected, bored with politics, “but we fixed your shield.”
Bonnie hadn’t noticed it, but her shield was laying on the big easy chair in the corner. Tomas handed it to her, and she examined it.
“Looks the same…” She flipped it over. “New straps — nice!” She grabbed it by the edge and tried to raise her arm, simulating a throwing motion. “Yee-ouch!” she cried, lowering her arm. “Guess I won’t try that again for a while. But the balance feels the same, and the weight, too. Thanks, guys!” The two stood there smiling, and didn’t say anything. Suddenly, she got it. “OK, I’ll bite — what is it I’m supposed to notice?”
“The straps are now made out of the same material as our costumes, and they’re attached with titanium rivets, so they won’t be melting again.” Tomas was proud of his work.
“And, embedded in one of the balance weights are a miniature radio transceiver and a locator beacon. So, if your helmet radio ever conks out, you have backup — and if the shield ever gets lost, we can use a radio tracking device to find it.” It seemed unlikely that the shield could get lost, but one of Bonnie’s enemies had once stolen it, and it had required some first-class detective work to track it down.
“And that’s it, right? No other ‘improvements’?” she asked suspiciously. Todd was always fiddling with everything.
“That’s it!” he responded virtuously.
“I guess that pretty much wraps up the case of the missing pets, then. Funny how something small like that can uncover such a mess!” Tomas shrugged. It happened to super-heroes all the time. “Good job, Bonnie!”
In her mental filing cabinet, Bonnie filed this one under pending. Twelve people, at least, had died. And, even if the legal situation was ambiguous, somebody was responsible.