by Dan Swanson
Just about the time Wayland Steele hit the hay after his second patrol, Zing the Queen of Quick was making a foray of her own through Benington, Colorado. The convention tables were all set up, and she was counting on finding some inspiration among the inventions. She carefully vibrated through the school wall into the gym and used a hooded flashlight to check out all the exhibits. Some of the inventions were interesting, some seemed ridiculous, and she was simply bewildered by a few of them. She found two that were perfect for her needs. Another stop at the Turquoise Needle (which offered notions, dry goods, and sundries), and a final stop at Woolworths Five and Dime, and then she headed back to her room. She’d make some private preparations during the day tomorrow, and that night, she’d go out in disguise and pad her bankroll.
First thing after breakfast, she dropped in on Wayland at the repair shop. His contact in Denver, ol’ Roge, had the parts he needed, and he’d send them out today. The Commander might be done tomorrow, or more likely the next day. Wayland had to attend the opening ceremonies at his conference in just a little while, so she let him talk her into meeting him for lunch. She was glad he’d be busy this morning; she wanted to use his machine shop privately. He gave her a ride back to Mrs. Marmion’s in his Willys pickup, then headed off to the conference. She picked up some of the stuff she’d acquired last night, and at invisible super-speed she was back in his shop in an instant.
One of the inventions she’d appropriated was a small, high-pressure pesticide sprayer. It had a built-in high-pressure battery-powered compressor and a thin, flat tank that strapped on like a backpack, with the short wand connected to the tank by a highly flexible hose. She slipped into the smithy and picked up some scrap leather, then used some tools in the shop to modify the tank’s harness so she could strap it to her stomach instead of her back. She had picked up a pair of toy cast iron Tom Corbett Ray Guns from the Five and Dime, and she took one of them apart, inserted the sprayer wand into the barrel, and modified the trigger mechanism so that it activated the sprayer. She took the other one apart and modified it so that she could unleash a blast of lightning from her finger, and it would appear to come out the barrel of the gun. Finally, she made use of the other invention she’d liberated, a flammable chemical that the inventor expected to be a replacement for napalm, to charge the sprayer. Finished with the machine shop, she hoped, she ran out of town into the mountains and tested her new power guns.
She pulled the trigger on the gun in her left hand, which fired a thin stream of highly pressurized flammable gel, and she released a spark at the same time. A stream of flame whooshed from the gun and splashed against the rocky cliff she’d selected as a target. Her speed powers gave her immunity to the hot backwash. She pointed the gun in her right hand and released a lightning bolt. It was perfect; she had a new set of powers seemingly provided by her power pistols. Now for her disguise.
In a flash she was back in her room. She’d swiped sewing equipment and some clothes for a boy her size, including a pair of brown sweatshirts, some brown pants, a dark brown leather bomber jacket, brown leather gloves, and sneakers. She hated sewing, but with her speed, it wouldn’t take very long. She sewed some padding into the pants and a sweatshirt, leaving room for the sprayer tank. From the other sweatshirt, she made a mask — sort of a brown bag with holes for her eyes that covered her entire head and face. She put on the whole outfit and checked herself in the full-length mirror. Instead of a short, slender, graceful girl with a great figure, she looked like a short, stocky, slightly clumsy guy with a potbelly.
She was so pleased with her results, she just had to crow. “Look out, Benington! Here comes Heat Lightning!”
At lunch Wayland Steele told the woman he knew only as Lee Han about a big brouhaha at the inventors’ conference. “Two of the inventors had their inventions stolen! Boy, were they mad. They both figured they had a chance at the top prize, and one of the other exhibitors had stolen their inventions to thin out the competition.”
“Wow, that’s terrible,” she said, having to struggle to keep from laughing. “What’s going to happen now?”
“May Jamison invented a replacement for napalm which is very easy to make, so she’s already replaced her supply, but Stan Hale only had a single prototype for his bug sprayer. We refunded his entry fee, and I collected donations to buy him a bus ticket home. I collected a lot more than the ticket will cost, so he actually made a little on the deal. He stormed out, mad as hell. I don’t think he’ll be back next year.”
They went to the conference that afternoon, and Wayland worked up the nerve to ask her out that evening. “Can I take you out for dinner and a movie, Lee? They’re showing Blue Hawaii at the Midway Theater, and Dr. No and The Music Man at the Holiday Twin Drive-In,” he told her nervously. “Any interest in seeing any of those?”
“I’d love to see Dr. No,” she said, smiling mischievously. “But you’ll have to drive — my car’s in the shop!” she teased.
He breathed a silent sigh of relief. “I thought you’d pick Blue Hawaii,” he said. “The drive-in always starts out with a bunch of Road Runner and Speedy Gonzales cartoons. Hope that’s OK with you.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” she chuckled. It’s ironic that the cartoons are about a couple of super-fast runners! she thought. I’ll have to see if they have any tricks I can use!
That night Wayland dropped her off at the rooming house at 11:55, just before Mrs. Marmion’s curfew. After a good night kiss, she hurried to her room. Aleny was excited and happy and felt almost as if she were floating; she’d never felt like this about any guy before in her life. And he seemed to feel the same way about her. She wished she had a phone so she could call him and say goodnight, but Mrs. Marmion limited phone use to between nine A.M. and nine P.M.
A few minutes later, costumed as Heat Lightning, she ran around town until she saw a motorcycle parked on the street. She slowed down to visibility a block away and walked casually up to the bike. When she reached it, she sped up her perception of time, which allowed her to hot-wire the bike in an instant. Anyone watching her would have been amazed at how smoothly she stole the bike, as if she’d done it hundreds of times before and had it down to a science. She roared away, then pulled down an alley and throttled way down so the bike was practically silent, and continued to ride through town. She parked the bike a block from the Smokey River National Bank of Benington and approached the bank, sneaking from shadow to shadow. She realized that she was probably overacting, but she was having fun, pretending to be a different kind of super-villain.
She examined a rear window; she could see a strip of tape that ran around the edge of the window. She fired a stream of flame at it, and the center of the window melted without setting off an alarm. She stepped up to the window and moving at invisible speed, used friction heat to enlarge the hole, then climbed in. A watcher would have seen her melting the window with a stream of flame from the pistol in her hand. She searched through the bank until she found the alarm mechanism, which she blasted with a lightning bolt. Wrong move — the alarm went off.
There was no use being subtle any longer. She blasted the front door with another lightning bolt, pushed through, and sprinted to her bike. A police siren alerted her that a prowl car was responding to the alarm already. She waited until it came in sight, then sprayed it with fire from one pistol and lightning from the other, before she stepped up her speed perception and roared away. She sped through the streets at an insane pace for a motorcycle rider after dark — at least for any rider but her. She headed out of town following the road that led into the mountains near where she’d tested her new power guns. She looked back and saw nobody was chasing her; it looked like she’d gotten away scot free, though she hadn’t managed to sweeten her purse. She didn’t mind; she just hoped that somebody had got a clear look at Heat Lightning. She’d be more careful tomorrow night and make sure she picked up some loot.
Without warning, the bike jerked violently, throwing Zing tumbling over the handlebars. It then fell sideways and rolled and bounced violently up the road until it smashed against a tree. Even with her reflexes enhanced, Zing couldn’t avoid being thrown, but she was able to bring her body almost instantly under control, straightening out her tumble and landing on her feet, running. There was something entangled in the rear wheel of the bike, which had caused the problem. As she looked back toward town, she saw a flying man, gliding to a landing.
“Man, you just wrecked a sweet bike!” she yelled at him. For a second she thought one of the heroes had followed her from all the way from Chicago, but then she realized this was someone she’d never seen before. “Some citizen is gonna be awfully mad at you!”
“The good citizens’ll thank me after I put you away!” he replied. “Benington don’t need any outta-town villains.”
He was poised to say more, but Heat Lightning wasn’t interested in exchanging quips with a super-hero — she’d done that before. Her left hand rose, and a stream of fire blasted from the pistol. Night Sentry instantly touched the control at his belt, and the electrium springs in his boots released powerfully, throwing him back into the air. He spread his arms, extending his glider wings, and began a swooping dive at the villain. The flame passed beneath him, igniting the brush on the side of the road. Heat Lighting raised her right pistol, and a bolt of electricity leaped skyward, blasting the hero in the chest. Lucky for him he wasn’t grounded, but even so he was stunned, and tumbled to the ground rather than landing gracefully, barely managing to extend his arms to somewhat cushion his fall.
“Better luck next time, hero!” Heat Lightning jeered at him as she faded into the dark. Night Sentry struggled painfully to his feet and was alarmed at the growing fire. Fortunately, he was prepared for just this sort of situation. When he’d decided to become a costumed vigilante, he had realized that he wasn’t going to encounter many super-villains in Benington, so he’d also prepared for some of the less-strenuous duties other costumed heroes regularly performed, such as rescuing cats from trees and fighting fires and other disasters. One of the cylinders on his back was a fire-extinguisher, and he quickly put out the fire before it could spread any further. Then he went villain-hunting. His infrared goggles enabled him to follow the tracks left by the villain into the woods near the road, but then the glowing footprints mysteriously vanished, as if she’d somehow disappeared.
He pulled a high-intensity electric torch from his utility belt, but even that bright light didn’t help him find any further clues. It looked as if the bad guy was going to get away, at least tonight. At least he’d heard on his built-in police radio that the bank vault hadn’t been breached. He picked up the bike and was able to get it started, then rode back to town and dropped it at the police station. They’d probably bring it to Wayland’s shop for repairs tomorrow before they returned it to the owner.
Wayland Steele himself was unhappy with tonight’s results. He’d had nothing to do with stopping the robbery, and he’d let the villain get away. In his first real action against a super-villain, he’d been taken out of the fight way too easily. He had some ideas about augmenting his capabilities; he hadn’t put all his gadgets and inventions into his costume and utility belt by a long shot. He’d spend some time in the shop tomorrow, and if this villain stuck around, he might get a surprise during their next confrontation. Wayland would have to spend some time working on Lee Han’s car, too. Though he wasn’t in a rush to finish those repairs; he didn’t want to do anything to hurry that young lady out of town.
And then Wayland realized that what he really wanted to do tomorrow was to spend more time with Lee — the heck with Night Sentry and the Commander. He hoped it wouldn’t scare her away if he asked her to consider extending her stay here in Benington.
Aleny Huong wasn’t unhappy with her results this night. True, she hadn’t fattened her purse, but she had made her first public appearance as Heat Lightning. Hopefully this would help hide the fact that Zing had left Chicago and was heading toward Denver. And now that she had learned a little bit more about bank alarms, she expected she’d have better luck tomorrow night.
She was starting to feel conflicted about her future, though. She was developing a strong attraction to Wayland, and she thought that maybe she wanted to spend more time with him as Lee Han and see what might develop, even if he didn’t know her real name. But was she ready to give up her fledgling career as Zing? There weren’t a lot of high-payoff targets in Benington, and if she settled in Benington and Zing made the city her new home base at the same time, someone would surely draw the connection between them. And then there was this new hero to think about. She had bested him easily tonight, but if he was anything like the heroes she already knew, he wouldn’t just give up, and he’d be more difficult to defeat next time, and stronger still the time after that. Just two days ago her life had been so simple; her only goals had been to reach Las Vegas and spend her cash on the luxurious lifestyle to which she expected to quickly become accustomed.
She headed home. She was supposed to join Wayland for breakfast, and she wanted a few hours sleep so she would be fresh and perky.