by Philip-Todd Franklin
The next morning Hiroshi Tain awoke early and was just finished dressing himself when a knock came at his door. Opening it, he said, “Yes?”
On the other side of the door was a young woman dressed in the same combat fatigues as most of the others here. “Sir,” she said, “your presence is wanted in the exercise training room. I’m supposed to see that you find your way there.”
“Then please lead the way, if you will,” replied Tain.
Within moments, she’d led him through the corridors of the base and opened a door onto his left as they turned to the right. “Here, sir,” she said with a wry smile.
Before Tain could reply, a small man with white hair wearing a long white coat came through the open door and said, “Come with us, Mr. Tain.” Taking hold of Tain’s arm, he gently tugged him through the door before closing it behind him. “You are late, so very late. Should have been here over an hour ago,” the old man muttered.
Tain looked around in surprise. Instead of the weight room as he was expecting, the room contained a large wooden table surrounded by many chairs, and on the forward wall was a large monitor screen. There were many other people there, either looking over smaller monitors or other electronic sensors.
The old man slowly brought Tain through the door on the far wall and into yet another, smaller room. “In here, sir. The others will be arriving in moments.” At that, the old man left the room as quickly as he was able.
Hiroshi Tain slowly began to examine the small room in which he’d been placed. On what he took to be the north wall was a large monitor screen, which was presently dark. Next to it was a short strip of colors with English words on them, some of them green and some red. The one word that really caught Tain’s eyes was the one at top that read conditions, and the green light at the bottom was the only one lit up.
In the center of the room was a small table with twelve chairs around it. On the east wall were flags from the many nations that had been conquered by the Germans, so many that Tain was at a loss to name all of them.
On the south wall was the emblem of a red circle with a black hawk’s head, which looked strangely familiar to Tain, despite being unable to recognize it. Just next to the west wall was another doorway. The west wall itself was bare, except for twelve nails that were set in the wall from top to bottom at an equal distance apart from each other. Where in God’s name am I? Tain thought to himself as a gruff voice spoke up behind him.
“Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in my secret base?” the voice said without any warmth.
Tain quickly turned around to find a white-haired man dressed in black combat fatigues and what looked like a gray navy jacket. Covering his left eye was a dark eye patch, and on his head was an old World War II pilot’s cap. Still, it was the old military handgun that really stood out, since it was aimed right at Tain.
Very slowly Tain raised his hands, never taking his eyes off the armed man before him. How did he get in here? I never even heard him enter! Tain thought before he could reply.
Just as he opened his mouth to speak, the gun went off, and Tain felt a bullet graze across his right temple just before the floor seemed to rush up to meet him.
The strange man, stoically taking in all that he saw, made a mental note as Tain’s eyes had brightly flashed at the moment the bullet made contact. He just might work, he thought, if he can fight half as good as she seems to think he can.
Well, at least I now know who my quick rescuer is, Jack Wellington thought to himself as he walked with his sister and the female archer toward the house, now that the police had left. Without missing a beat, Jack looked over at the archer and said, “So tell me, Deb — how long’ve you been playing Robin Hood to the Sheriff of Nottingham?”
“You know me, Sheriff — I’m always out to equalize the playing field,” Debra said as she slipped the mask from her face, placing it into a pocket on the quiver strapped to her back.
Jack nodded in response as he stole glances at Debra and tried to gauge the response from Macy from the play of words so far. “Still, that doesn’t tell me why you’re dressed up like an old Robin Hood extra.”
“You should go ahead and tell him, Debra. You do remember how twisted up Jack can get,” Macy Johnson said with a grin.
As they reached the manor, Jack led the way into the kitchen and toward a small round table, upon which were three plates and glasses, along with a banquet of breakfast foods. Standing to one side of it was Victor Jenkins, who stood with his hands behind his back. “I do hope this is enough, sir,” he said.
“Yes, it is more than enough, Jenkins,” Jack said before turning to look at Debra and Macy. “Make yourself at home, Deb. Jenkins, here, makes some wicked French toast.”
Debra nodded, looking over the food and smiling. “Actually, if you can hold off on my story, what I could really use is a nice hot shower,” she said, reaching out and picking up a slice of apple, which she popped into her mouth.
Before Jack could reply, Jenkins said, “Don’t worry, sir. I’ll see that Ms. Queen finds her way.”
“Don’t worry about it, Jenkins,” Macy said. “I’ll give her a hand. Plus, she’ll need something to wear besides that costume, anyways.” Turning to Debra, she said, “Just follow me, and we’ll help you get relaxed.”
“Thanks. You have no idea how long it’s been since I’ve had a good, long, hot shower,” Debra said as she slowly removed the quiver of arrows and placed them down beside the bar, along with her bow, then left the kitchen with Macy.
“So, Jenkins, what do you think of that girl?” Jack asked as he slowly sat down and began to dig into the food on the table.
Taking the stool chair across from him, Jenkins sat down. “From what I was able to see, I highly doubt that she is the mysterious person who’s been trying to do both you and Mrs. Johnson in.”
With a nod, Jack said, “I know, Jenkins, and I’m glad it’s not her, but that still doesn’t make me feel any easier, nor does it answer the mystery of Amos Fortune.”
As Hiroshi Tain awoke, he began to feel a sharp pain at the side of his head just below his left temple. Cautiously, he brushed his hand across the side of his face, moaning softly. “Oh, what happened? Did I just get shot?” Slowly opening his eyes, Tain noticed a figure standing over him dressed in a white flowing gown with a many-pointed tiara on her forehead. In her left hand was a silver flaming torch.
“Sorry about that. I really am. But I see that you have finally met the team’s leader,” said USA the Spirit of Old Glory, her eyes never leaving Tain as a small, serene smile formed on her face.
“Who…? Why did he…?” Tain began, before he was interrupted.
“I see that he’s not injured too much,” a gruff, angry voice said. The same white-haired, one-eyed man dressed in black combat fatigues had reentered the room.
Tain stared at the old man and calmly asked the question that was quickly forming in his mind. “Who the hell are you, and why did you have to go and shoot me?”
“To tell the truth, my name isn’t important,” the old man replied. “What is important is that I refuse to lead anyone who can’t be relied upon to help either themselves or any of their teammates.”
USA the Spirit of Old Glory calmly listened to the exchange of words for a moment, and before things could become heated, she said, “This gentleman before you, Hiroshi Tain, is the team leader — a great man by the name of Rick Flagg.” With those words, the old man huffed and quickly stormed out of the room.
Old Glory just looked wistfully at the door the old man had gone through for a moment, then offered her right hand to Tain. “Let me help you up from there,” she said in a dulcet tone.
Taking her hand, Tain slowly got up from the floor and said, “What’s his problem, great lady?”
Sighing deeply, Old Glory replied, “Flagg was the leader of another team long ago, when World War II first started. He and his team would take on suicide missions, accomplishing tasks that others wouldn’t have believed possible. Over the course of the war, members of his Suicide Squad came and went, and several were killed in the course of the missions. Still, a core group always made it out alive. One of those was a young woman by the name of Dr. Miranda Chase. He had fallen head over heels for her in their first mission together, and just before their last mission he asked her to marry him. She was to give him an answer after the mission, only… they failed…”
Suddenly, the Spirit of Old Glory began struggling to speak another word, gasping as if she couldn’t breathe, and her skin began to turn pale.
“Great lady, are you OK?” asked Tain.
After a few seconds, an alarm could be heard screaming through the great hidden complex, and a voice came over a speaker hidden in the walls. “All personnel to your stations, and team members to briefing. I repeat: all personnel to your stations, and team members to briefing.”
Old Glory continued to gasp in a desperate attempt to breathe, and then her eyes slowly rolled up in their sockets as she passed out. Tain quickly reached out and caught her before she could fall to the ground, then quickly ran out the door with her in his arms and kept running down the hall, calling out for someone to help.
In the briefing room, two other great spirits were experiencing the same problem as Old Glory. John Bull and the Vagabond had both passed out, and their skin was slowly fading. The eyes of two other individuals in the room slowly began to glow and pulse, one a bright brown, the other a bright blue.
After a few moments, both Rick Flagg and Hiroshi Tain came running to that room, the latter’s eyes by now glowing an unearthly white.
“What’s happened here?” cried Flagg, staring at the unconscious elderly Old Glory.
A tech in white combat fatigues looked up and replied, “I don’t know, sir. It doesn’t make any sense.” The tech had been monitoring both the Vagabond and John Bull.
The serious-looking soldier with the small mustache, and wearing a nondescript brown military uniform, was the legendary Vagabond, who had dedicated his immortal life for freedom in Europe. And the rotund, English country squire with muttonchops, wearing a top hat and an eighteenth-century suit emblazoned with a Union Jack, was none other than John Bull himself. These were the so-called spirits of Free Europe and England, respectively, much like Uncle Sam was the spirit of America.
Rushing over to the tech, Tain gently laid the old woman down and pleaded with him, “You’ve got to help her! Someone, anyone — please!”
Several moments of unfocused panic passed before, as if in answer to his plea, a swirl of light began to form across the room, looking for all the world like reality folding upon itself. After a moment, the form could be seen of a young woman with dark black hair and hazel eyes, wearing close-fitting clothing of alternating black and red. “I need your help, and it would seem that you can use mine,” she said.
“Who are you, lady?” demanded Rick Flagg.
A gentle grin crossed her face as she replied, “Merlin. Mary Merlin, magician-at-large.”
To Be Continued