Masks 5: Vengeance at (Las!) Vegas

Masks V

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Masks V: Vengeance at (Las!) Vegas

by

Rodford Edmiston

        Warning! Strong sexual innuendo and adult situations in this section!

Part One

        "My goodness," I cooed, as the client roused and began playing with
my breasts. "Again? Already?!"

        "Well, I am a super," he said, with a smirk. "And I did pay for
the whole night."

        His stamina was impressive. So was his skill. He also had a sense of
honor, and made sure I had as good a time as he did, something made
easier by my empathy. Of course, that empathy was part of the reason
he was having such a good time. Still, even with the bonus for the special treatment, I
was glad my shift was over. I saw him off at six with a smile
and a blown kiss, then staggered upstairs to my room. I passed Carol
on the way, her usually well-groomed tail and mane both a mess. We
shared commiserating glances and passed without saying a word. Once
in my room I tossed my soiled clothing into the proper hamper, then
paused for a moment to examine my reflection.

        As usual, a client asking for me presented a written description
beforehand of what was desired. I haven't turned down many, but
sometimes I wonder just how mature some of my customers are. This
guy, at least, had picked something reasonable. I was Asian, with
long, straight, shiny-black hair and dark skin. No tan lines, of
course. Breasts and hips bigger than average but not extreme.
Overall, not bad. Still, I was tired, both physically and
emotionally, and had definitely had enough of alien forms for one
day. I shifted back to my default, male body and took a quick shower.

        As I dried off I briefly considered removing the nail polish, but decided
to wait. I was worn out. Besides shapeshifting and empathy, I have a
low level of regeneration to heal my hurts and keep me young, but
that didn't help with being plain tired. Only rest could fix that.
The towel went in a different hamper, and I headed - stark naked but
in my own room and not caring - for bed.

        As I pulled back the covers, however, I found a very large and grossly
obscene vibrator lying on the sheet. I stared for a moment in
confusion. Then something clicked. I put my hands on my hips and
glared.

        "Out,
Hiram."

        The sex toy hesitated for a moment, then began growing larger, changing
color and shape as it became a naked man.

        "Oh, well," he said, grinning. "You can't blame a guy for
trying."

        "Yes, I can! Now, out!"

        "This would've been more fun if you'd stayed a girl," he muttered,
giving me a distasteful look as he exited. There was no sign of his
clothes, but he had repeatedly demonstrated a near complete lack of
modesty so leaving naked was not a surprise.

        I locked the door and dropped into bed.

        * * *

        I was not only one of the main draws at Fantasy Works, but co-founder and
part owner. Which means I had responsibilities beyond those of most
of the employees. After too little sleep, I rose in the early
afternoon and had a quick but nutritious meal (my shapeshifting isn't
mass conservative, but I do like to keep my base form healthy) then
settled down at the kitchen table to do some paperwork. One of the
perks of being a partner in the business is that I have not just a
room to myself, but also more than just a bedroom. The other
half-dozen full-time gals and guys are two to an apartment, and they
all share one large bathroom. I have my own, big, comfortable bed, my
own bathroom and a kitchenette. Of course, no-one who stays at
Fantasy Works complains much about lack of privacy. This place was a
shelter for them. Even I admitted we're some of the weirder supers in
this world, and many of us had experienced harassment of various
types and degrees. That was one of the reasons Sid and I started this
place. Of course, the main one is that despite anti-discrimination
laws, there aren't many places which will hire, for example, an
inanimate shapeshifter.

        Of course, Hiram brings a lot of his troubles on himself. I've made
clear, over and over, that while I'll fuck guys for money, for fun I
want female partner. I wouldn't even be doing this job if - while still
exploring the options with the people I intended to hire - I was told
that I would be expected to work as well as manage.

        Speaking of money, Sid had left a note that some had come in after his visit
to the night deposit, and I needed to make another bank trip.

        I sighed, finished the books and got dressed. As usual, I was going out
as my base form self. When I first got my powers I sometimes went out
as a woman just for the thrill of it, but that had long ago lost its
novelty value. Though I did sometimes still treat myself to the
occasional romp as a dog or cat, or even a bird. Today, though, the
trip was all business.

        * * *

        As I exited the bank day I was startled to see several cops approaching me. At
least one - a gorgeous, buff gal over a head taller than any of the
others and looking real fine in her uniform - was probably a super.
That, and the way several of them immediately focused on me, told me
I was their target. I sighed and waited patiently for them.

        "Lawrence Hawthorne?" said the head Detective of the bunch, flashing his
badge barely long enough for my experienced eye to note that it
seemed legit.

        "That's me," I admitted.

        "I'm Detective Barry Munroe. We'd like you to come with us for
questioning."

        "In regard to what?"

        "That's something we'll talk about at the station."

        "Am I under arrest?"

        I knew I wasn't, or he'd have said so first thing, but I long ago learned to
follow the formalities.

        "No. We just need you to come in for questioning."

        All right. First, though, I need to call my attorney to let her know
where I'm going."

        "He
didn't like that, but couldn't reasonably prohibit me from doing so.

        I pulled out my cell and hit the appropriate speed dial. The call was
brief; I apprised Martha of the situation, including which police
station, and assured her I'd call if things turned out more
complicated than I could handle. I put the cell away and nodded to
the Detective.

        * * *

        They seemed to have a very high opinion of my potential for physical
mayhem. We all rode in the same van, everyone but the driver and
Munroe in back. I was up against a wall of the van, with the giantess
to my immediate right. She made a point of not touching me. The ride,
fortunately, was a short one, though I had time to reflect on some
interesting facets of modern super life.

        The general rule is, people who want to help and have powers put on a
costume, while people who want to help and don't have powers put on a
uniform. Of course, most people don't want to help. I've certainly
never felt the urge, beyond the occasional bit of sympathy for a
friend having some bad luck. However, there were many reasons beyond
wanting to help for someone to become a cop. This gal was obviously
one of those with a different motivation. Which may be part of the
reason she was so silently hostile towards me: I made her realize
that neither of us was particularly noble.

        We made a strange entourage, trooping in through the business entrance
of the cop shop. The Detective led the way, directly to a small
meeting room obviously reserved for this purpose. He gestured me
vaguely into a seat, which I took, then sat himself across the table
from me. The escort stood around the room, making it obvious they
would brook no bad behavior on my part.

        "Do you deny that you had a client last night who goes by the Mask name
Major Front?"

        Oh, great; start off the questioning with an accusation, why don't you?

        "I had a client last night who could have been that person," I
said, carefully, "but he wasn't in costume and didn't give that name."

        "What name did he give?"

        "Joe Anderson."

        "Do you have any knowledge of his death, or who would have wanted to kill
him?"

        I froze, mouth partly open, staring at him. I shook my head, not to
answer, but to try and gather my thoughts.

        "I didn't know he was dead. I... guess there are a lot of people who
would want to ice Major Front, but I don't know any of them, and
don't know of any plans any of them might have had to kill him."

        I can't really turn my empathy off, and in these circumstances wouldn't
have, anyway. That bit of insight into their mental processes was one
of my few advantages in this situation. No-one in that room was happy
about being there, and only partly because we were all involved in
the investigation of the death of a popular hero. I was feeling
pressured and intimidated, as well as shocked at the news of my
previous customer's death. They also just plain didn't like me, what
I was or what I did. I was getting the whole range from mild dislike
to outright hatred. I was also definitely picking up a great deal of
discomfort. Prostitution might have been legal here but that didn't
mean the cops had to like it. Also, the whole idea of a shapeshifting, high-class hooker was making them uncomfortable. The
fact that said hooker was normally a guy was positively freaking them out.

        I played on this, subtly altering body and mannerisms to be more
feminine. I delicately crossed my ankles and batted my now-long
eyelashes at the Detective. Nothing overt; I have learned to be good
at subtle. He managed to cover it well, but I knew he was becoming
ever more flustered, and didn't understand why. It's amazing how many
straight guys couldn't cope with men who were anything but overtly
masculine, and weren't even aware the problem was with them.

        As a reward for my efforts, the questioning was definitely cut shorter
than it otherwise would have been. Oh, they got all the information I
had - I wanted them to have it; I had liked "Joe" and wanted them to catch whoever
had killed him - but they skipped over the vague threats and borderline harassment I would have received otherwise. Maybe that was
partly because I was obviously co-operating to the best of my
ability, but previous experience told me that wasn't likely.

        There was one bad moment. After having me pick my client out of a batch of
photos, Detective Munroe asked (told, really) me to duplicate his appearance, so they could check finger prints and such to confirm he
actually was Major Front, rather than someone who just resembled him.

        "You'll need a court order for that."

        "So you're refusing to co-operate."

        "I am co-operating,"
I said, exasperated. "It's just that outside parody use and historical recreations I must have either the person's permission,
the permission of next of kin, or a court order to duplicate the appearance of a real person. That's the law!"

        I wouldn't have put it past them to try and trap me, but in this case I
think that - while they probably knew the law - they just hadn't considered that I'd be
insistent on obeying it. Of course, a surprising number of cops don't
know some of the laws, rules and regulations they are sworn to uphold.

        He muttered something about getting back to me and went on to his next
question.

        Once I was back out on the street I immediately "straightened" up.
I was sad and irritated and angry and a bit afraid. Had this killing
been personal, some bad guy getting even? Or was someone targeting
prostitutes and their customers? We were the only facility I knew of
with an all-super working staff, something which had caused us
problems in the past. As co-owner, naturally I was worried. As one of
those supers, I was more than worried.

        I'd had threats before, of course. Been attacked verbally - and a few
times physically - by self-righteous bigots who felt their personal
beliefs should be the law, no matter how vaguely justified, with no
room for tolerance and no exceptions for any reason. To actually have
a customer killed, not long after leaving me... I made a firm
decision to get back into that self-defense class I had drifted away
from, earlier in the year.

        I got Sid and Martha on a conference call and explained what had happened.
They agreed that we should beef up security for a couple of weeks,
and screen our customers extra-carefully. Maybe other stuff, as well,
to be decided later. I sighed, put the phone away, and hailed a taxi.

Masks V, Part Two

        Tyler grabbed quickly for the old landline phone on the nightstand beside
the bed, so it wouldn't wake Marge. Then froze with a pang of grief
as reality set back in with growing wakefulness: Marge had died
nearly a year and a half ago. With a sigh he lifted the receiver to
his ear.

        "Hello?"

        "Tyler?! This is Sarah Bertollini! I think Angelo is dead!"

        Tyler shook his head, vainly trying to wake faster.

        "What... What happened?"

        "I don't know! He went to bed early, and I stayed up a while to watch TV
and when I got upstairs..."

        "Have you called nine-one-one?"

        He shouldn't have needed to ask. Unfortunately, Sarah - while by no means stupid -
didn't handle the unexpected well, and when confronted by it often did things which made no sense later, even to her.

        "No! Please, you have to come over, I don't know what to do!"

        "Sarah... all right. I'll call from here, then come over. I'll probably beat
the paramedics. Just... go downstairs and wait for me. I'll come in the back. Oh, and turn all the outside lights on."

        * * *

        Tyler was fully awake by the time he had called, dressed and walked the
short distance between the two Benedict Canyon homes. Sarah was actually waiting for him, opening the door as he stepped onto the
patio and hurrying out to grab him in a desperate hug. Tyler gave the
elderly woman a brief hug back, then held her at arms length, forcing
her to look him in the eye.

        "Go wait by the front door for the paramedics. I'll check on Angelo."

        She nodded mutely and they went inside, she to the front of the house and
he up the stairs. He half expected to find Angelo alive, perhaps
having had a stroke. Alas, Sarah's panicked evaluation was for once
correct.

        His childhood hero and best buddy was lying face-down on the carpet
between the bed and the bathroom, in his pajamas. A quick check found
no pulse, at either wrist or neck. Indeed, the older man was already
cooled a bit, leaving him to wonder how long Sarah had
dithered before calling him. Tyler sighed, briefly closed his eyes in
grief, then stood.

        Angelo Bertollini didn't look almost eighty. Even in death, he could have
passed for a vigorous mid-forties. Younger than Tyler himself was,
now.

        Of course, Tyler himself looked younger than his half century of true
age. As someone expected to sell pools he kept fit and tan, partly
from simply working on his company's projects.

        Tyler sighed again, and turned to leave the room. He reflexively reached
out and turned off the light. He felt a stab of guilt at that; Angelo
had always hated someone turning out the light of a room he was in,
as if they were dismissing him. Tyler looked back over his
shoulder... and froze.

        The still form on the floor was glowing. The glow was dim, but slowly
strengthening, moving. Tyler went quickly back to the body, squatting
to stare.

        As far as Tyler knew, nobody understood how Angelo's powers worked. He'd
never admitted to having any of the genetic tests, apparently had
never even been formally evaluated. They just seemed to do whatever
he wanted to use them for. He was such a nice guy, so good-hearted,
and so casual about his powers that even Tyler had rarely thought
about them. But now, something powers-related which was definitely
strange - even a little frightening - was happening. Tyler thought
about leaving. Just as the glow suddenly gathered itself into a large
area on Angelo's back... and jumped at him.

        Tyler came to as he heard voices below. He was sitting awkwardly on the
floor, slumped against the bedroom wall, next to Angelo's body. The
glow was gone. Not sure what had just happened, he stood - a bit
shakily - and went to the door, turning the light back on as he
stepped onto the landing.

        "Up here," he called down to the paramedics, who were receiving some
interminable and completely uninformative ramble from Sarah.

        The two men climbed the stairs, entered the bedroom and began checking
Angelo. They quickly confirmed what Tyler already knew.

        "I'll break it to her," he said, quietly.

        * * *

        "One of the school's backers just died," said the voice in the phone.

        Randy glanced over at the clock. The Academy didn't start the next semester
for nearly two weeks and he'd expected to have the whole afternoon to
himself. Only now, just after lunch, his time, the leader of the Bay
Area Guardians was calling with bad - and school-related - news.

        "Who? Anybody I know?"

        "I don't think you ever met him," said Steel Lace. "He was a
celebrity super. Angelo Bertollini was an actor who played - among
other things - the character of The Caped Angel, back in the
Sixties."

        "I remember that show," said Randy, with a strange, sinking
feeling. How could an angel die? "Though only from reruns. Wow.
What happened? He wasn't all that old."

        "He was older than he looked; almost eighty. Still, he was in good
health. This is a shock to all of us."

        "Thanks for the news," said Randy, in a tone tinged with sadness. "Guess
I should send condolences. I mean, have the school officially send
them."

        He called several people connected with the Academy, including Eve. Who
had a concern beyond what Randy had thought of.

        "Will his estate or his heirs continue with his donations? If not, the
amount he had promised would be a significant loss."

        "Well, that's something we can wait a few days to inquire about," said
Randy. "Not only would I feel ghoulish trying to find out this
soon, it would definitely make a bad impression."

        "Of course. Do you want to check or should I?"

        "Uhm, you're better at this sort of thing than I am. You contact whoever is
appropriate after a reasonable waiting period. If someone from the
school needs to make an appearance I'm available. Or would Template
be a better choice?"

        "Template, I believe."

        * * *

        Eve called back late that afternoon. Template was definitely invited to
the visitation and funeral. Apparently, Mr. Bertollini had placed a
high value on what the Academy did. She gave Randy two numbers to
call. Or, rather, Template, since hers was the more public name and
face. One number didn't answer. The other call was picked up after
three rings. Tyler Harrison agreed to meet with Template the next
day.

        Randy decided to cram before flying out to the West Coast. He fired up his
computer and searched for information on Angelo Bertollini. There was
a lot of it. After two hours of study he felt he had the gist of the
situation.

        Angelo had tried to be a real Mask, a true super hero, early on, in the late
Forties when he first exhibited powers. He just didn't have the
temperament for it. Too easy going and enthusiastic about life to
relentlessly pursue evildoers, as it might have been put back then.
There had been several incidents where he scolded someone he caught
after a non-violent crime - a purse snatching, say - and then simply
let them go. That had actually caused him some troubles with the law,
which was a large part of what led him to retiring his nascent
crime-fighting career and take up acting. Angel could act
tough, because he knew it wasn't real. He'd had a modestly successful
acting career before the TV show which made him famous came along.

        "Angels in Capes - the title decided on well before
the show's star was picked - had started out as serious television.
Yes, there was humor, but the program was intended as a slice-of-life
show about a typical lone Mask. For three years it earned very good
ratings.

        Tyler Harrison had started out playing a minor character at just seven
years old, the fictional son of a fictional neighbor, but had proven
so popular that early in the second season he had learned the Masked
Angel's secret and become his confidant. In those days it was all
innocent, nothing odd seen in a single man in his twenties (that was
the character; Angelo was in his late thirties by this time) being
friends with the pre-teen son of the couple next door. Despite the
expected lewd jokes there was no indication from real life that
either of the actors had ever been anything but heterosexual, or more
than friends.

        The show had settled into a comfortable niche, earning steady good
ratings and looking to continue with little change for the
foreseeable future.

        Then that show had started.
The one about a fictional hero, serious in the original material but
played for camp on TV. And it had been a smash success.

        The producers of Angels in Capes
had panicked. Scripts were hastily re-written, to add slapstick humor
and simplify plots. They also put Tyler in costume as the Masked
Angel's sidekick, Acolyte. Even though the Masked Angel character had
repeatedly refused to allow that before, saying he wouldn't put a
child in danger. The first few episodes of the fourth season had held
steady in ratings at a good, even quite respectable level. After the
change the ratings had fluctuated wildly for weeks, before finally
settling at a level significantly lower than before.

        The show was still profitable, though less so with the changes. It was
also still fun to do, if not as rewarding for those involved. It even
managed - just barely - to survive past the end of Batman,
then stagger on for a couple more years. The last season attempted to
return to the series' roots, presenting more serious and
straightforward hero adventures. The now-teenage Tyler was even
acceptable as a serious sidekick by this time. The ratings slowly
began to pick back up.

        What finally killed it was the changing mood in the country. The war in
Vietnam, the refusal of most supers to participate (many of them
simply following US law, and the treaty - to which the United States
was a signatory - banning the participation of supers in military
actions) had soured the public, the press and the government on
Masks. After seven years the network pulled the plug. By that time
most of those working on the program - along with most of its fans -
were ready.

        Tyler had - after a period of adjustment - reentered the mortal world and
completed high school and college. He'd joined his father's pool
construction company, and been responsible for its successful
expansion into a general landscaping and groundskeeping service.
Tyler knew and was known fondly by many influential and wealthy
people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills in those days, thanks to
Angels. Something
which still occasionally helped him.

        Angelo had it a bit rougher finding work, at least for a while, but being a
prudent man had enough saved and invested to keep him going. As the
hero downturn reversed and Masks became popular again he was in
demand as a celebrity, guest-staring on a number of TV shows and
having - usually minor - roles in several movies, often portraying a
veteran or retired super. Even the hero community welcomed him, many
of the next generation of Masks saying his fictional example had
inspired them to take up the cape for real.

        Both stars had married successfully - a rarity in Hollywood. While Tyler
had three children, Angelo had none. Randy was sad to see that the
former child star had lost his wife, Beverly, early the previous
year. With their three children all out on their own, they had bought
a house near that of Angelo and his wife. Then, less than a year
later, Beverly had died of a freak medical complication, leaving
Tyler alone in that house. Apparently, he and Angelo and Sarah had
grown very close since then.

        Both of the men were currently worth several million dollars. Both gave
generously to charity, though there Angelo far outshone the younger
man. For example, he'd provided a hundred thousand dollars per
semester to the Academy. The elderly super gave away everything he
made from his investments, occasional acting jobs and guest
appearances, except for enough to maintain himself and his wife in
comfort. He had been doing this for decades, with no sign of
stopping. Until now.

        Randy wondered what had killed him. The early news reports on his death
didn't mention a cause. Neither had Steel Lace. He'd simply been
found dead in his Los Angeles home.

        Well, maybe Randy would find out when Template paid her visit the next day.

        * * *

        Template hadn't been to this part of the world in several months. She left
home early to do a little sightseeing, and in case she had trouble
finding her destination.

        She diverted a bit off the most direct path to fly over Black Canyon Dam
and the huge lake behind it. Some people still insisted on naming it
after the nearby community of Boulder, even though the site had been
moved before construction. Some even insisted on naming it after
President Hoover. The huge concrete arch was incredibly impressive,
especially when one realized it had all been built by normal humans.
Though it was a super who had convinced the geologists the second
site was better.

        Getting back to business, Template checked her GPS unit and changed direction
slightly. In minutes she was flying over the outskirts of Los
Angeles. A bit of circling and checking her mapping utility, and she
had found the neighborhood, then the street and finally the house.
Template landed on the sidewalk in front of the building, checked
herself over to make sure she was presentable, and headed up the
sidewalk to the door. She was wearing her fancy, formal costume and
figured she made an impressive sight.

        She rang the doorbell. After a short wait, it was opened by a fit-looking
man who would have been identifiable as the child star grown up even
if she hadn't seen recent images of him the day before.

        "Mr. Harrison? I'm Template. My friend Randy spoke to you earlier..."

        "Yes," said the man, pulling the door wider and stepping back. "Come in."

        "I wanted to meet with Mrs. Bertollini and offer my condolences,"
said Template, as she entered, "but she's not answering her phone."

        "Yeah, Sarah's not at home. She decided to stay with her sister for a few
days. Would you like something to drink?"

        "A soda, please," said Template, a bit apologetically. "Flying
does tend to dry a person out."

        "I know," said Tyler, with a slight, sad smile. "Not only from
flying with Angelo as a kid, but from some of the sixteen other supers who have already stopped by."

        He returned in a few moments with a diet lemon-lime soda for each of
them. They sat across from each other on separate couches, a coffee
table between them.

        "I wish I could have met him," said Template, sadly. "I try to
meet all the school's benefactors, but some I just haven't gotten to,
yet. Running an institution of learning is definitely a full-time
job."

        "He was a wonderful man," said Tyler, fondly. "A real gentleman
of the old school, born and raised in San Francisco. He always
treated women with respect, even if he thought there were some things
which were not proper for a woman to do."

        "The show was off the air long before I was born, but I'm pretty sure I've
caught every episode in re-runs."

        "Well, probably not two of them," said Tyler, with a laugh. "There
are two which are real stinkers, and should never have been produced.
For some reason, both involved Angelo and me being in drag for most
of the show. I suspect the writer had some sort of kink he needed to
work out."

        Template laughed politely with him at this, hiding her discomfort over
something which hit a bit close to home.

        "Do you know when the services will be?"

        "Yeah. I'm executor of Angelo's estate. Visitation is Friday, from ten in
the morning until two in the afternoon, with the funeral immediately
afterwards."

        "I hate to sound ghoulish, but since you're his executor..."

        She hesitated, obviously uncomfortable.

        "You want to know if you can still expect Angelo's donation," said
Tyler, nodding. "Don't worry. That's one of the causes he has his trust fund donating to. It's automatic."

        "I have to admit, that's a relief," said Template, with a tired
smile.

        "Well, he thought your school was a wonderful idea - so do I, for that
matter - and wanted to make sure it was well supported."

        With that out of the way they talked for a while. About who had already
visited - half of them masks, many of those people Template knew -
and who had called or written. This gradually transitioned into Tyler
reminiscing about his friend and their shared experiences, on the
show and off. He seemed to need to talk about this, and Template was
definitely interested.

        "It's no secret that many of the most influential people in Hollywood had
ties to old-time organized crime," said Tyler. "Hell, some of the people behind Angels
had been mobsters! I met several of them. Some were even supers,
themselves. 'Long retired,' of course."

        He laughed.

        "One reason Angels had such
great special effects is that we had real mad scientists creating
them! I met Mechmaster, Hunch, The Grim Smile, and several less
famous. All old men by that time, but still capable of building a
death ray at the drop of a hat. Some of the inventions used on the
show were the real thing, made from scratch or pulled out from where
they had been hidden years earlier! They knew Angelo was tough enough
to take what they could dish out. Though sometimes they came a little
closer to his limits than any of us would admit at the time. However,
they were all on their best behavior working for the show. I think by
that time they had mellowed a bit, and perhaps were also looking for
some recognition. It's not easy to get into respectable histories of
technology when your best work has been deathtraps and killer
robots."

        "I've seen the show in reruns, as I mentioned earlier," said Template.
"I recognized some of the guest stars as old-time villains and
heroes."

        "They loved being on the show! It was a fun romp for them, reliving old
glories in a safe, controlled fashion. They got to ham it up, chew
the scenery, and show off."

        The long-retired child star laughed again.

        "I guess there's more than a little actor in everyone who puts on the
Mask, hero or villain. And there's nothing wrong with that. Half of
what gets done in this world is by people wanting attention."

        The phone rang, and Tyler excused himself to answer it. Template quickly
realized from his radical change in demeanor that this was no casual
call. She glanced towards the front door, wondering if she should
just leave. She looked over at Tyler again, and saw he was white and
shaking as he spoke. No, definitely stay and see what was wrong.
Finally, he hung up.

        He stared at Template for several seconds before speaking. His quiet
words were clear and distinct in the silence surrounding them.

        "Angelo's body was stolen from the funeral home last night."

Masks V, Part Three

        "His is the fourth mysterious death of an established super in the past
eight days," said NightMist.

        Great-granddaughter of the original Mist - who was the younger sister of the original Night Master - she had
inherited most of her Great-Grandmother's physical abilities and
showed much the same intellectual faculties as the Night Master,
himself. She was currently one of the Bay Area Guardians' two member
detectives. Despite being just nineteen she was very good at crime
fighting.

        "Mr. Bertollini's autopsy showed little which appeared suspicious, though
the Medical Examiner commented on some signs of hemorrhaging. Cause
of death in his case was a cerebral hemorrhage. Unexpected in someone
that healthy, but not too surprising considering his age. Many
elderly people take aspirin or something else which can cause such
symptoms in large doses, the ME simply didn't think there was need to
check any further. Since the other three victims were all associated
with the Thunder Family and Mr. Bertollini wasn't, his death wasn't
connected with those. However, given this obvious crime the coroner's
office ran some additional tests on the blood and tissue samples they
had taken. He was loaded with a prescription blood thinner."

        "Murder?" said Template, shocked.

        "Neither Mr. Bertollini nor his wife had prescriptions for it. None was found
in his home. They went out for dinner that night. The police are
checking the restaurant."

        "How were the Thunder Family members killed?"

        "The methods varied, though at least two were poisoned in different and
creative ways. Both through a purchased, prepared meal."

        "Hmmmm," said Template, thinking hard. "As far as the official histories
go, there's no connection between Angelo and the Thunders. However,
the official history doesn't really say where his powers come from.
He began exhibiting them when he as seventeen, and was assumed to
have them genetically, like most supers."

        "Which begs the question of whether that assumption is accurate," said
NightMist.

        "I know a good person to ask," said Template.

        "His executor, Mr. Harrison."

        "Yes. Do you folks want to handle this, or maybe the Planetary
Guardians..."

        "I'll ask, but since you've already made friendly contact and he's an
information source just now rather than a suspect I believe the
consensus will be that you are the best person to question him in
regard to this matter."

        * * *

        As soon as he opened the door Template knew there was something wrong.

        "What is it?"

        "Sarah Bertollini is missing," said Tyler, gaze, voice, even posture
haunted.

        "He shook his head, and gave Template a puzzled look.

        "I... thought that was why you are here..."

        "No, I had some questions about Angelo's powers," said Template. She
put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't even know
anything had happened to her."

        "I think you better come in," said Tyler, sighing.

        "I am really sorry about this," said Template, entering his home
for the second time in as many days. "We uncovered evidence that
Angelo may have been poisoned, and I wanted to ask you some questions
about matters which might pertain to that."

        "One more shock," said Tyler, with a tired sigh. "I suppose, in
this crazy world, that I shouldn't be surprised that someone would
want to kill a man as easy-going and good hearted as Angelo."

        "There have been several supers killed in the past week," said
Template, as the two of them walked slowly into the same den where
they had spoken on her last visit. "Angel isn't known to have
any connection with them, but if he did..."

        "I... Think I need to show you something."

        He stopped for a moment, then frowned in concentration. Then lifted off
the floor, to hover unstably for a few seconds before dropping back
with a light thump.

        "I didn't know you're a super," said Template, warily.

        "I wasn't... until the night of Angelo's death."

        He related the odd events with the old man's glowing form.

        "Angelo told me, more than once, that he'd made sure he would leave me
something special when he died," said Tyler. "I didn't
think anything of it. For all I knew he'd outlast me by a good
margin, as vigorous and healthy as he was. I wonder if this is what
he meant."

        "So his powers weren't genetic. Could they be from the same source as the
Thunder Family's?"

        "I have no idea. He just never talked about where his powers came from,
would skillfully change the subject or make a joke if someone asked.
Wait... Those supers you mentioned. They were all...?

        "Yeah. The most recent was Major Front, just three days ago."

        * * *

        "That's the sixth time the
cops have come by here!" said Holly Terror, barely not shouting.
"This is getting ridiculous!"

        Holly had the ability to manipulate the neurotransmitter balance in
animals. Unfortunately, that included her own brain juices. She occasionally got
into a positive feedback loop and needed an intervention. Right then
I was trying to calm her down, using my empathy to guide me in
choosing form and manner. Which was why I looked like a middle-aged
father figure for the moment.

        "I know, I know," I said, rolling my eyes. "Martha has already
filed a formal complaint. That should stop the visits. If it doesn't,
we'll sue 'em for harassment."

        "Fortunately, that calmed her.

        "So, have they heard how the guy died, yet?"

        "Poisoned, from what I heard," said Sid. "Cops tore the fancy
restaurant where he had his last meal apart. Aren't saying if they
found anything."

        "Must have been something potent to kill Major Front," I said,
impressed.

        "He was in his civilian ID. Why that would make him more susceptible to
poison I don't know."

        "There's stories that the whole Thunder Family only have their powers part of
the time," said Holly. "They charge up or something."

        "Honey, he was certainly charged when he was with me!" I said, shifting
to the form I'd worn for him. I knew it was in questionable taste,
but I was hoping a little black humor might further distract Holly.
"Wow. He lasted all night."

        "Well, whatever happened, it didn't have anything to do with us," said
Sid, firmly. "Let's hope the cops realize that soon!"

        * * *

        Template had talked Tyler into going with her to the Planetary Guardians' base
for testing. She wouldn't let him fly, since he wasn't very good at
it, yet, and he wouldn't let her carry him. So he drove the two of
them, in his Corvette. A few drivers had odd reactions to seeing
Template in the passenger seat, in costume.

        "I think, instead of putting him through the regular tests to see what
he can do, we need to let Aura have a look at him to see how he does
it," said the Guardsman, after Template explained the situation.

        "Probably a good idea," said Template, nodding. "Transferring power
like this implies something mystical or metaphysical."

        "I agree," said Aura, the team's chief magical type.

        "I don't suppose I have a say in this," said Tyler, glumly.

        "You agreed to be tested," said Template, reasonably. "Unless
you have some objection to the particular method..."

        "No, no, I'm just feeling a bit weird at actually having to go through
this," said Tyler. "I've known some of you folks for years
- Guardsman, I met your predecessor several times - but always as a
civilian, an actor. A pretender."

        Template half expected the examination to be private, between Aura and Tyler,
and conducted in some mystical spot. Instead, she just closed the
door and conducted right there it in the meeting room. The procedure
also took far less time than Template was expecting.

        "He possesses what we call an integrated energy matrix," said Aura,
after just a few minutes of silent work. "While the matrix
itself is not magical, I suspect the method of implantation is."

        "I don't think Angelo ever said anything about getting his powers
through magic," said Tyler. He shrugged. "Of course, he
never said much about how he got his powers, period."

        "There's something familiar about the structure of this particular matrix,"
said Aura, frowning.

        "Well, several members of the Thunder Family have also been murdered
recently," said Template.

        "No, that's not it. There are similarities, yes, but this has a particular
form... Ah. I remember. Dr. Gaunt."

        "Wait," said Guardsman, holding up a hand. "The old man who has been the
Thunder Family's nemesis for all these decades?"

        "Yes," said Aura, nodding. "Several of his henchman have had an energy
matrix very similar to this one."

        "You mean folks like Lightning Lady, Fulgerite, and such?" said
Template.

        "The power strengthens the recipient. Improves them, increases what they
can do. With discipline, the energies produced can also be willfully
directed towards specific tasks."

        "Huh. Wonder what the connection with Angel is," said Tyler, frowning.
"Come to think of it, he first showed his powers not long after
the last of those folks appeared."

        "That does sound like the way you described Angelo's powers working,"
said Template, frowning thoughtfully. "That he could use them to
do whatever he wanted."

        "It does," he said, nodding in agreement. "I just don't see how
there could be a connection. Angelo was a West Coaster all his life.
The Thunderers are based in the Rockies."

        "Yes, but Dr. Gaunt is from San Francisco!" said the Guardsman,
suddenly. "Rumor has it that after missing the California Gold
Rush he spent several years in the Rockies prospecting, after gold
was reported there."

        "He's that old?" said Template, surprised.

        "Oh, yes," said Aura. "He looked almost exactly like he did in
his most recent public appearance, just a couple of years ago, as
when he first gained notoriety in the late Thirties after an attack
on Captain Thunder."

        "If he is behind these murders," said the Guardsman, carefully, "we
could have a major event on our hands. That man is insane, and
insanely brilliant, and has access to both mystical and scientific
resources."

        "I remember the last time he hatched one of his schemes," said
Template, seriously. "It was nearly a decade before I took up
the Mask, when I was still just a kid. Thousands died."

        "Much of Denver was badly damaged," said the Guardsman.
"Including the mint. They caught him, but millions in gold and
silver are still missing. He said the precious metals were his by
right of lawful claim, and that those who mined them had stolen them
from him."

Masks V, Part Four

        Warning! Strong sexual innuendo and adult situations in this section!

        "'ey, come look!" London Broil called out to me as I headed for my
room after a fairly routine client.

        She beckoned to me from the door to her and Steam Heat's shared room. One
which had been modified to resist high temperatures. When I stepped
inside their (fortunately) merely quite warm room, I saw a
man-shaped, life-sized, life-like solid rubber doll on the bed. I
stared for a moment; then something clicked.

        "That's Hiram, isn't it?"

        "Yep," said London Broil. "'e's learned another one! 'e's now made of
high-temperature silicone!"

        "How many forms does that make, now? Six?"

        "Seven, if you count the inflatable sex doll," said Steam Heat, in her
soft, hissing voice. She laughed, sounding a bit like an
old-fashioned radiator gone spastic. "Of course, he'll never
willingly take that
form again."

        "I moved closer and examined him. Then I gently took hold of his
generous silicone erection and tugged, and wiggled it a bit. Given
that I was still in the form the client had requested the action
didn't seem inappropriate.

        "The real ones have detachable cocks," I said, releasing his
artificial manhood. "So you can try different sizes and shapes."

        They both burst out laughing.

        "You mean the real fake men 'ave detachable dicks?!" said London
Broil.

        "But because he's a fake fake man..."

        "Yeah," I said, leaning over to examine his face, with it's unblinking eyes
and fixed smile. I deliberately let my gown gape open to reveal my
currently bounteous bosom. He couldn't move his eyes - they were part
of his body, which was one solid piece at the moment - but I knew
he was staring at me. "Of course, he's probably glad it doesn't
come off, right now. Just like he's glad you can't remove his
batteries when he's a vibrator."

        I leaned in as if to kiss him, but instead slowly ran the tip of my
tongue across his tinted silicone right eye. I straightened, smiling,
and tugged my gown closed.

        "Okay, now that I've warmed him up for you, have fun."

        "Want to join us?" said Steam Heat, with a sultry look.

        I was tempted. Not because of Hiram, but because of the girls. I had the
time; the police visits had cut into our business. Still, I wasn't
really in the mood just them.

        "Have fun," I repeated, waving as I walked out, closing the door
behind me.

        I was almost to the door of my own room when the whole building shook. My
first thought was Earthquake!
but even then I knew it wasn't. I ran towards the stairs.

        Down at ground level there was a large hole in the front of the building.
Storm Crow - a troublesome member of the Thunder Family - was
standing in the lobby, amid the dust and debris, looking enraged.
Bizarrely, the large front window was intact. One of those little
details you sometimes notice in the middle of an emergency.

        "Where's the whore who set my cousin up?!"

        Every single person in the room turned and fled. Every single person
sticking their head out a door to see what was going on immediately
yanked it back in. The sole exception was me; I began edging
backwards, slowly. Storm Crow promptly zeroed in on me. He leapt
across the distance, slamming into me, then slamming me into the
wall, knocking the wind out of me.

        His arm went across my throat, not crushing but choking enough to tell me
he meant business.

        "Why?! Why did you help kill him?!"

        I could smell alcohol on his breath. As well as feel - besides anger -
loss, sorrow and remorse. I came up with a desperate plan.

        I shifted, into a mousey twenty-something with big, brown eyes. He
looked startled, and I felt his mood shift a bit.

        "Please don't hurt me," I whimpered, hoping I wasn't overdoing it. "I
didn't do anything except give him sex. I didn't even know who he
was, or that he was killed after he left here, until the cops told me
the next day. I didn't have anything to do with him being killed,
nobody here did. This is just a place he stopped!"

        He released me and stepped back. I gathered my gown together, pulling it
tight around me, shrinking into it.

        "You don't know anything about who killed him or why?"

        I shook my head, looking down, afraid to meet his gaze.

        "I can tell you're telling the truth," he said, sourly. "Damn
whore. Get out of my sight!"

        I turned and fled back to the stairs. He walked out the hole he'd made
in our front wall and flew away.

        * * *

        The police arrived quickly, for once. I guess all their recent practice
helped them find us. I barely had time to shift back to my base form
and change into some appropriate clothing. The responding officers
made sure no-one was hurt, then made sure we all waited for an
investigator to arrive. That turned out to be my old friend Detective
Munroe. That large female uniform was with him, still looking very
attractive, still playing the strong, silent type and still acting as
if I - and all the other sex workers - carried the Plague.

        Munroe and his assistants questioned us for hours. Naturally, business was
over for the day... and probably longer. Oddly, the cops found no-one
but employees in our establishment. Seems the few customers who had
been there had fled very promptly when the attack started. I had to
think this couldn't be good for business...

        The Detective tried to somehow make it sound like was all our fault, that
we'd somehow provoked Storm Crow. Fortunately, by that time Martha
was there. She pointed out that the super in question had a history
of going off entirely without being provoked.

        Martha had come to our rescue again. I had a great deal of admiration for
that woman. She'd worked her way through law school as an exotic
dancer, and turned more than a few tricks, herself. She knew the
score.

        One of the more bizarre aspects of Munroe's questioning of me was that he
insisted I take the two forms I'd worn when confronting Storm Crow. I
think he was getting off on that, though my empathy couldn't tell for
sure. Too much noise from the other cops. Given that most of the
girls were still in their working clothes the cops were getting
aroused. Worse, their getting turned on turned me on. A distraction I
definitely didn't need just then.

        Finally we got rid of the cops, thanks largely to Martha's baleful glare.
Even as they walked out they gave us "warnings" which were
just barely not overt threats. As soon as they were gone Sid called
around and got hold of a contractor who could send someone out that
afternoon. No, we didn't offer any special inducements to get a price
break. We wanted the work done quick and right, not cheaply and
eagerly. I wondered if our insurance would cover the damage.

        * * *

        With the repairs under way, Sid and I sat down and held a council of war.
We confirmed something the cops had let slip; that someone was
killing members of the Thunder Family. So far the press hadn't really
twigged to the story, mentioning each death as a separate event.
However, one local newspaper had an editorial which did connect them,
and even the death of actor Angelo Bertollini. Frankly, I thought
that was reaching. To me his poisoning and the theft of his body
seemed more likely the work of some demented fan. God knows I'd had
more than enough of those myself.

        "I hope this isn't some plot against supers in general," said Sid.
"Hell, I hope it's not even a plot against the whole Thunder
Family. Not only do I like most of those folks, the last thing we
need is some sort of super war in our neighborhood."

        "So far, it's the loners among them who have been targeted," I
pointed out. "Could be whittling down their allies before the
main assault."

        "I can ask around some places to see if anyone is hiring for something
like that," said Sid, frowning in thought. "I still have
some connections with the mob."

        "I'll check with some folks I know who may have inside information."

        "Going to go undercover?" said Sid, smirking.

        "God, no! I got enough of that in the Fifties, when I worked with that
private-eye. Though I'm not going out as Larry. Think I'll pick
somebody I haven't used in a while, but who would still be recognized
by the people I want to talk to."

        "Just for the record," said Sid, firmly, "Mack Risk was not 'that
private-eye.' He was the private-eye."

        "On that I will agree with you."

        * * *

        My preparation took over an hour. Ironically, getting ready to go out in
public as a woman takes me longer than getting ready to give sex as a
woman. I sat at my dresser, evaluating my makeup, in the form I had
chosen and with my clothes already laid out on the bed.

        The main advantage of this form was that it happened to have valid - and
legal - ID, as Loraine Hawthorne. A holdover from the days when I was
trying to keep my professional and private lives as separate as
possible. Come to think of it, I guess I did have a secret identity,
of a sort. I had an uneasy moment when I realized my driver's license
might have expired, but a quick check showed it to still be valid.

        I was using a form I had long ago titled "Variation #5" - a buxom
blond with a head of gorgeous, long hair and legs up to here.
Once satisfied my makeup was fine, I dressed appropriately. Blue
leggings, powder blue silk blouse - no bra - modest heels - #5 is a
tall gal - and a red scarf, topped off by a sexy pair of shades. I
checked myself in the mirror and noticed my nipples showing. I hadn't
worn this form in a while and was actually turning myself on. Well,
I'm long past being embarrassed by looking sexy in public, as a man
or a woman, and for this task having those on display might actually
be an asset. I added a modest amount of jewelry and set off.

        All anybody in town had was rumors. Though they were quite willing to
give those. I'm still amazed at how many men will answer almost any
question asked by an attractive woman they even think
might be coming on to them. Bragging, showing off what they know to
impress a potential mate, is instinctual. Women, on the other hand,
can be guided to see another woman as a potential confidant, though
that can be difficult if they first see her as a rival. Approach with
a sympathetic ear and they'll be eager to get things off their
chests, especially with mine turned down a couple of notches before
meeting a woman. I didn't prostitute myself to gain information; I
get enough of that at work, thank you. My empathy, acting experience
and decades of practice were all I needed to go with that pretty body
to gain full co-operation.

        Still, no matter how eager they were to respond to my questions they didn't
really have significant answers. So, I topped off the tank in my
Corvette and headed out into the desert. The sun was less than an
hour from setting and I had a long way to go. Fortunately, I knew a
route with little police presence.

        James "Lethal Shock" Cutler was last on my list, partly because I
really didn't want to see him, and partly because he was the furthest
from my usual haunts. I barely knew the man; Sid had suggested him
and arranged the meeting. Cutler was a retired villain who had worked
for Dr. Gaunt in the late Sixties and early Seventies, before
deciding there were safer - and saner - ways to earn a buck. He'd
been a bouncer at a porn studio where I worked for a few months, and
we'd run into each other occasionally after that, before he moved to
a mining town not far from Las Vegas. As far as I knew he had never
met Lawrence, but would definitely recognize Loraine. She - I - was
one of his failed conquests; I don't think he ever admitted to
himself I wasn't interested in guys outside of work. He was
semi-retired, these days, but might still have his ear to the ground.

        I almost backed down when I saw two other vehicles in his driveway. One
was probably his, but the huge van with deeply tinted windows looked
out of place. I hesitated, then shut the engine off and got out. I
was sensing a strange tension in the air, and thought I might be able
to play off that to learn something. Few people take bimbos
seriously, and I could be disturbingly convincing in that role.

        I rang the doorbell. Then gasped at a sudden flood of emotions, immediately
followed by sounds of violence. Super violence. Realizing my interruption had triggered something, I turned
and ran to my Corvette as an energy blast blew through the roof in
back.

        I started the engine, ground the manual transmission into reverse, and
backed out onto the road. I shifted into first, then hesitated.
Holding the clutch in, I grabbed my cell phone out of my purse and
dialed 911. I gave the address, and shouted that there was a super
fight underway.

        I still didn't see anyone, but whoever had attacked Jimmy wasn't having
an easy time of it. The fight was still going on and getting more
vigorous. I shifted into reverse again and backed slowly down the
road. By the time I stopped, everything had gone quiet. There was a
long pause. Then several people I didn't know hurried out to the van
and got in. They were all definitely the worse for wear, and Jimmy
wasn't with them. I gave the operator make and model and a partial
license plate number, glimpsed as they backed out on the highway
going by Jimmy's house. I sagged in relief when they drove off in the
other direction.

        I waited until the maroon vehicle was out of sight, then pulled back
into the driveway. Still talking to the 911 operator, I told her I
was going to see if Jimmy was hurt. She didn't like the idea, but
admitted the ambulance was at least twenty minutes away. Entering the
house was easy; I just walked around back and stepped over the bottom
edge of a hole punched in the rear wall when someone threw a home
entertainment system through it.

        Inside I saw Jimmy laying in the stereotypical pool of blood. His neck was
obviously broken, and he had other injuries. I reported all of this
to the operator, then staggered outside before vomiting.

Masks V, Part Five

        Template was still in the area, still investigating both the death of Angelo
and the theft of his body, and the murders of several members of the
Thunder Family. Just now she was waiting for Steel Lace to finish
dealing with a courtesy visit by a Japanese government-sanctioned
hero group, four men and two women, most of them in their teens or
early twenties. They had just told Steel Lace the Anglicized version
of the name they planned to use during their tour of the US, and she
was trying to phrase her reaction diplomatically.

        "If I may make a suggestion," said Steel Lace, to the visiting
supers. "Big Brother Six has some... unpleasant connotations in
England and the US. A few other nations, as well."

        "What could possibly be bad about our team name?" asked the leader of
the Japanese group, a father figure approximately forty years of age.

        "Well, in a famous dystopian novel, Big Brother was someone who projected
his presence into the private lives of everyone."

        "Exactly! We want people to know we are looking after them!"

        "Well, there's a big difference between looking after people and invading
their privacy."

        "Oh, we'd never do that," said the second-in-command, a maternal
woman who seemed to be in her mid-thirties, smiling eagerly and
nodding her head.

        "Yes, but that name could give the impression, here, that you keep an eye
on the average citizen."

        "That's what heroes do," said the youngest, looking puzzled. "Help
the government keep people out of trouble."

        Steel Lace sighed, and let the matter drop. She motioned for another member
of the Bay Area Guardians to come over.

        "This is Lungfish. He'll show you around and introduce you to the rest of
the team. I have another visitor I need to speak with, on super
business."

        "Thank you!" the team members happily chorused.

        "Different culture," said Template, watching as they left.

        "I'll say," said Steel Lace, sighing again.

        Neither had much in the way of news. They reviewed what each - using various
resources, including those of other super groups - had discovered,
and tried to brainstorm a bit. They didn't have much luck. Neither
had the police, but in a situation like this few were being
territorial, and all were desperate to solve the problem.

        "We just don't have enough information," said Steel Lace, waving her
hands in exasperation. "There's no leads! That fact, alone,
strongly suggests that Dr. Gaunt is involved. He is very good at
covering his tracks, even from mystics and mentalists."

        They sat in sour silence for a moment. Then both jumped when an alarm
sounded.

        "Super fight called in," said Brobdignagian, who was on monitor duty.

        He gave the location. Steel Lace punched it up on the interactive map.

        "Too far away for any of our team to reach quickly," she said. "Out
of our usual jurisdiction, anyway."

        "I think I'll go take a look," said Template. "I'm as
frustrated as you are. Maybe a good fight will help my blood
pressure."

        "Just don't be the one to start it," said Steel Lace.

        "I promise," said Template, with a slight smile. "Mainly, I
just want to go out and fly. Maybe clear my head with some fresh air."

        * * *

        I thought they'd probably send supers, and if so that they'd arrive
before the regular police. So, I scanned the sky as well as the road.
Sure enough, about fifteen minutes after the attack I saw someone
flying towards the house.

        I noticed as she landed beside my car that she looked familiar.
Familiar enough for me to know she wasn't a local. I couldn't place
her, though.

        "I'm Template," she said, not ringing any bells, as I climbed out to
meet her. "Are you the one who called in the assault?"

        "I'm Lorraine Hawthorne," I said. I gestured towards the hole.
"He's... in there. Just inside the hole in the back wall."

        She nodded and lifted off, flying gracefully around the corner of the
house.

        "That's handy, I thought. She
just floats around, not touching the floor, doesn't even mess up the evidence.

        I wondered, though, and not for the first time, if such impressive
powers distanced the people who had them from everyone else. If you
can fly like that, would you even care if the price of gas went up?

        I glanced back out at the road, looking towards town, still expecting
the paramedics and police. I missed her return until she spoke,
standing almost within arm's reach, making me jump a bit. The
manipulative bitch.

        "What was your business out here?"

        "Uh, I used to know him, and thought he might be able to give me some
information about a problem I'm having."

        "A problem with super connections?"

        Ow! She had hit right on it.

        "Well, yeah," I admitted. "He used to work for a villain, and...
well, it's complicated and personal and I'd rather not go into it."

        I realized she couldn't press the matter. She wasn't a cop, wasn't even
local. I remembered, now, that she was from back east, formerly part
of a team and now involved with some sort of school for supers. Yet
another way the masks isolate themselves from those who don't wear
costumes, even other supers. I noticed she was staring at me.

        "Is something wrong?" I asked, icily.

        "You could have worn a more practical outfit for the desert."

        I was getting some interesting vibes from this gal. Aside from a mild
distaste, I was sensing flashes of arousal, quickly subdued. I also
noticed she kept sneaking peeks at my chest. I subtly pulled my
shoulders back and willed my nipples larger. Bingo! She was attracted
to me. Lesbian or bi? Well, it didn't matter. Either way I now knew I
had an advantage.

        "For the desert, yes," I said, smirking, and deliberately posing in a
sexy manner; as if to illustrate how I had planned to interact with
Jimmy, but actually to fluster her. "Not for asking for a favor
from a man. Besides, I'm not the one wearing a skin-tight spandex
body suit and high-heeled boots."

        "It's not spandex, it's not skin tight, and appearing taller gives an
important psychological advantage," said Template, stiffly.

        Bingo! If she'd been equipped for it, more than her posture would have been
stiff. In fact, the way she positioned her body reminded me of how a
man would stand to try and conceal an erection. Odd, that... I could
sense she had other reasons for the heels besides that one, though it
was certainly valid, but didn't press the issue. I'd made my point.
I'd also made her uncomfortable. (Yes, I'm also a manipulative bitch
as a woman. Live with it. I'm trying to survive in a rough and often
hostile world, not make friends with everyone I meet.)

        The wind shifted and I heard sirens. Looking down the road I could see
three police cars and an ambulance.

        "And here comes the cavalry..." I muttered.

        * * *

        Template hung around, and the cops let her listen as I made my statement. As
the detective who arrived to oversee the investigation was organizing
his notes Template moved over to him and they had some quiet words.
He then came back to me and asked some pointed questions. About my
connection to Dr. Gaunt.

        "I don't have one," I told him. "Except that I've had contact
with two members of the Thunder Family in the past few days and I
know he's their mortal enemy."

        They didn't think I was being completely honest with them, but since I
wasn't a suspect the only thing they could do about it was get my
contact information and promise (read: threaten) to get back to me.

        As I walked to my car, though, Template intercepted me.

        "Listen, I'm trying to find Dr. Gaunt. It sounds to me like you are, too, or
at least determine if he's after you for some reason. I think we can
help each other."

        I didn't fucking believe it! The bitch was trying to be friendly! And
not just because she wanted in my currently female pants! The worst
part was, she honestly believed this was a reasonable course of
action. She had the nerve to be surprised when I told her to get the
fuck away from me and stay there.

        I cooled off some on the way home. Enough to start worrying about the
consequences of my actions. I kept checking my mirror and looking up,
trying to see if she was following me. I didn't think so, but how
could someone like me be sure about someone like her?

        I made it back to the Fantasy Works garage okay. I parked, and sat in my car
for a bit, just gathering myself as the overhead door closed. Then I
got out and started walking towards the inside door.

        I gasped and froze as a man stepped out of the shadows, pointing a
strange-looking gun at me.

        "You will be silent," he said, quietly. "You will answer my
questions. Do not make a row or you will be harmed."

        "Dr. Gaunt," I whispered, shocked, not believing I was alone with and
being held at gunpoint by one of the most evil men on the planet.

        "I see my fame has preceded me," he said, that odd, wheezing laugh
of his making me shiver.

        He was a shrunken, wizened, gnome of a creature, with thick glasses and a
full head of stringy white hair. There was something... inhuman about
him. In photos and on TV he looked like a bent old man, but up close
like this... and what my empathy was telling me was things I
definitely didn't want to hear.

        "Why were you at the home of James Cutler?"

        "Trying to find out if it's just the Thunder Family members being targeted,
or us, here, too," I babbled, unable not to talk.

        Again, that wheezing laugh, this time punctuated with an odd honking.

        "Oh, the fascinating irony. Had you not meddled in my business you would
have remained outside my perception. Now, though, you will pay the
price for your curiosity."

        "Please!" I whimpered, frozen in place. "I didn't do anything! I don't
want anything to do with you or your plans! I just want to..."

        There was no warning, no indication. The muzzle of the device glowed a
hellish red, and I couldn't move. With a surprising show of strength,
given his size and apparent physical condition, he put me over his
shoulder and carried me out of the garage. The worst part of it was,
any "bad touch" contact was strictly incidental. He had no
sexual interest in me whatsoever.

        I expected to be placed in the trunk of the limo he carried me to.
However, at his indication the chauffeur nodded and opened the right
rear door. Dr. Gaunt propped me up in the seat, complete with
fastened seat belt and shoulder harness. He then got in the other
side, while the chauffeur held the door open.

        I was terrified. Even without the effects of that ray gun I'd have been
paralyzed. The chauffeur closed the left rear door and that hideous
old man sidled across the leather to sit beside me, smiling and
taking my hand.

        "Don't worry, my dear," he cackled, obviously playing the part of rich
old fart with a pretty young thing he'd paid for the company of.
"We'll be home soon."

        Before the driver could get in, however, I saw something. Someone. Template.
Landing just in front of the car.

        That bitch followed me! Thank God!!

        The chauffeur straightened, removed his coat and hat, tossed them onto
the driver's seat, and raised his fists like a gentleman boxer.
Template, face without expression, started walking towards him.

        "Miss Hawthorne, are you with this man willingly?"

        I couldn't answer, but realized that the way she had phrased the
question meant I didn't have to. At least she had enough experience
with the super business to realize I might not be able to.

        "You may have this one, Bruno," said Dr. Gaunt, with a magnanimous
wave of his hand.

        I couldn't see his face, but I just knew the chauffeur smiled. He
advanced on Template and threw a quick jab at her head. She dodged
and punched back, not hard. I realized she was being careful, since
she didn't know, yet, how strong the man was.

        Idiot! Never assume anything to do with Dr. Gaunt is normal!

        She learned that the hard way, when Bruno rang her chimes good with his
next punch. Template staggered back, and Bruno closed. Fortunately,
she was pretty tough, and smart enough to learn quickly. Her second
punch slammed Bruno into the side of the garage hard enough to damage
the brick. He slumped to the ground and didn't move.

        "She

is almost as annoying as those damnable Thunderers," muttered
Dr. Gaunt.

        He opened his belt buckle and pushed a button. And disappeared.

Masks V, Part Six

        As the Thunder Family is my version of the Marvel Family, Dr. Gaunt is my
version of Dr. Sivanah. While Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana was usually
played for laughs, in many of the old stories he was quite sinister,
and in all of them he was quite mad. He would casually kill or
endanger thousands to billions of lives to further his own ends.

        Template scowled at this vanishing act, sighed, and came over to the limo. She
opened my door and looked at me.

        "Are you hurt?"

        "Ng..." and some twitching was all I could manage.

        "I better get you out of this thing before it turns into a giant robot
or something," Template muttered, reaching into the car.

        "In... side," I said, voice a bare husk of sound, rolling my eyes
toward the door. "Hall. Kitchen."

        She didn't bother with the buckle but simply uprooted the end nearest
her, slipped the belt off me, then lifted me in her arms as if I were
a child. No surprise, there. She could probably juggle safes. She was
careful how she held me. No surprise, there, either. Supers had had
their careers ruined by being sued for sexual assault in such
situations.

        Sunset Sam was in the kitchen, making a huge sandwich. He gaped at us for a
moment, then hurried out. Template lay me on the lounge. She pulled
what looked like an ordinary cell phone out of a belt pouch and
dialed 911. She was just starting her report when Sam returned, with
Sid and Carol in tow.

        Carol may look like she's part horse, but before her powers manifested she
was a medical intern. She checked me over and, once she could get
Template's attention, asked what had happened to me.

        "I don't know the specifics. Dr. Gaunt did something to her. Paramedics
are already on the way."

        I was feeling incredibly frustrated. I could barely move, and while I could
whisper, a little, the closest I could come to talking at anything
like full volume was inarticulate grunts. I couldn't even change my
form. Still, that was an improvement over five minutes earlier. I
fumed, and waited. Like I had a choice...

        "What happened to your nose?" said Carol, looking at Template.

        Template gingerly rubbed her proboscis and scowled at the blood on her hand.

        "It's nothing. Not even broken."

        Carol sighed, pulled a paper towel off the roll, moistened it in the sink,
and used that to wipe Template's face clean.

        "Already stopped bleeding, looks like," she said, handing the towel to
Template.

        "Told you it was nothing," Template said, using the towel to clean her
hand.

        The police and paramedics arrived about then, guided in by Sid. The
uniforms told Template that Bruno was still outside, being worked on
by another team of paramedics and watched by other police. By the
time the EMTs finished checking me I was able to sit up and talk; I
later figured out that my regeneration, low level that it is, allowed
me to recover more quickly than most people. The paramedics then
checked Template, declared us fine, and left. A detective arrived as
they were heading out and took our statements - mostly mine - and
left, the other cops following.

        I looked up at Sid, well past shock setting in.

        "I can't believe this happened in our own garage," he said, shaking
his head.

        "I repeat my offer," said Template, flatly, leaning back against
the counter by the sink, shapely ass tucked under the rim, arms
folded under her perky breasts. Of course, any or all of that could
have been clever padding, as she herself had hinted. "Tell me
what you know and help me and my allies find Dr. Gaunt."

        Well, that wasn't quite the offer she'd made at Jimmy's place. She was also
still stealing glances at my chest. Not to mention sneaking looks at
the other women. Not to say they weren't look-worthy, especially
since some of them were currently in their working clothes. I
smirked, as I thought of something.

        "Let me change into something more comfortable first."

        I leaned back, arms over my head, stretching, and felt a surge in
sexual attention towards me, most of it from Template. I held that
pose, my generous breasts threatening the buttons of my silk blouse.
Then, still leaned back, I shifted to my base - and quite male -
form. I could feel her libido do a figurative backflip. Definitely a lesbian.

        "Ooh, that was wicked," said Carol, snickering.

        "Is pulling stupid little pranks on someone trying to help you more
important that being helped?" Template snapped. "Because
I've seen shapeshifters before. I teach some, and work with others."

        Okay, that fell flat.

        "Just pointing out that you shouldn't make assumptions about people,"
I muttered, in a lame recovery attempt.

        "I don't know why you're so hostile towards me. I don't really care. I
just think that if we pool our information we might be able to help
people."

        "Why are you mixed up in this?"

        "Among his other crimes, Dr. Gaunt is suspected in the murder of Angelo
Bertollini and the kidnaping of his wife."

        "Oh..." I said, deflating some. I sighed and scratched my head. Definitely
too much hair spray for this form. "I don't really know much.
That's why I was at Jimmy's. I thought he might know something, since
he used to work for Dr. Gaunt. Evidently, he did. Probably too much."

        Template sighed, then started looking around the room. She targeted the
notepad and pen by the phone, and spent a few seconds scribbling.

        "There. That's the numbers for the Planetary Guardians, the Bay Area
Guardians and the Intrepids. Any of those places can forwards a message to me. If there's another attack, either of the Guardians
teams can have someone here in under half an hour. Or even notify
supers they know in this area."

        "Hold it!" I said, as she turned to leave. "What happened to
sharing information?!"

        "You just admitted you didn't have any," said Template, looking
puzzled.

        "But... I came clean! You owe me!"

        "What I owe you," said Template, slowly and carefully, obviously
furious and trying hard to keep herself under control, "is
protection from people like Dr. Gaunt. If you want more than that
you'll have to earn it."

        She stomped out of the room.

        "Wow," said Sid, staring at me. "You sure know how to be diplomatic
around someone who can punch out a tank."

        "Oh, stuff it, Sid."

        * * *

        "Mmmmm, you have such warm hands," I purred, as Steam Heat gave me a
back rub more erotic than most lap dances.

        Unfortunately, her idea of a clever rejoinder was a girlish giggle. Yvonne was one
of my favorite people in all the world, but she's not the brightest
bulb in the box. Also, while the fireproof covers used on the beds in
the "hot room" were supposed to feel like satin, they
always made me itch. Still, that was a minor detraction from the
massage.

        I smiled and lifted my head to say something to her. The world tilted,
and she giggled again, just before rolling up her eyes and collapsing
sideways onto the bed. I thought this was odd, but felt too sleepy to
pursue the matter. So I lay my head back down and passed out.

        * * *

        I came to surrounded by strangers. Paramedics were working on me, police
searching through the blackened rubble which surrounded us. I hurt.

        "Where..." I managed.

        "He's awake," one of the paramedics called out.

        I was hooked up to IV bags. A lot of them. I was already worried, and
starting to feel scared.

        "Detective Munroe came over. He was keeping a carefully straight face.

        "Can you tell me what happened, here?"

        "Don't... Where am I?"

        "Your brothel," said Munroe, with a brief twinge of expression which
might have been nausea.

        I fought to sit up, to look around. My own weakness and the paramedics
forced me back down. I did see that I was on a stretcher, and what
little of my body was visible was burned, some of it badly. Munroe
crouched down beside the stretcher and stared at me.

        "What happened?"

        "I... remember feeling dizzy... seeing one of the girls pass out... then
nothing." I looked around as best I could, frightened, and not
for myself. If this burned out wreckage was the Fantasy Works...
"Where are the others?"

        "We only found four of you alive," said Munroe, looking genuinely
sad. "Two of those have already died. We haven't identified the
other survivor, yet. They aren't sure she'll make it."

        This couldn't happen! We were all supers, even Sid! How...

        "Gaunt," I whispered.

        "Looks that way, but there's no witnesses. All anyone saw was the place go
up like a paper napkin under a blowtorch. All of you folks, plus
about six clients."

        I began sobbing.

        * * *

        As it turned out, London Broil and Steam Heat had both survived the fire.
In fact, they had apparently been revived from whatever had knocked
us out, brought 'round by the (for them) restorative heat. Only, when
they tried to escape they had their heads blown off by some sort of
energy ray. A different one for each.

        The other survivor was Carol. She'd been downstairs in the kitchen, one
of the least hot rooms, and all that horse hair had carbonized and
helped insulate her. Her lungs were in bad shape from inhaling hot
gasses, but her long muzzle had reduced that to something she could
survive. Also, like me, she's a low-level regenerator. It's a mercy
that we were both unconscious during the fire and for a while
afterwards.

        What actually saved us both was that the fire had been so intense, it
hadn't lasted long. Indeed, parts of the walls, roof and internal
floors collapsed in only a few minutes, bringing in fresh air which
reduced the air temperature to something breathable, and allowed the
firefighters to get in and put the flames out.

        I survived because I was covered in water-based massage gel, lying on a
fireproof bed in a heat-resistant room. My regeneration was healing
me, now. In a few days I'd be good as new. Carol would need longer,
but should also make a full recovery.

        Once in the hospital they stuck even more needles into me. Turns out this
is standard practice for regenerators these days. A healing body
needs a lot of fluids and nutrients, and regenerators heal faster so
they need these delivered faster. Unfortunately, most regenerators
also need a lot more painkillers, since we tend to metabolize drugs
more quickly. I was in a lot of pain, in spite of a self-regulated
morphine pump. I wanted to keep my head as clear as possible. There
were things to do.

        My first visitor was Martha, who was as devastated as I was. She didn't
want to go over any of the legal stuff just then, but I insisted. She
was surprised at some of the things I wanted done, but agreed they
were a good idea. She left to take care of them.

        My second visitor was Template, who looked sick with grief.

        "I'm sorry," she said, voice barely above a whisper. "We thought
Dr. Gaunt might try again, so we had surveillance on the building,
but... none of the devices showed anything wrong - still don't - and
both of the live people were killed."

        She collapsed into the chair by my bed, sobbing.

        "W... we failed you. I'm so sorry..."

        I didn't have the strength to be angry. Neither did I feel like trying
to comfort her. Fortunately, she soon got control, wiped her face,
and left without another word.

        * * *

        "Why?"

        I stared at Detective Munroe, silently demanding an answer to my
question. He shifted uncomfortably, then sighed.

        "Word on the street is that he's looking for you. Or, rather, your female
alter-ego."

        "Oh, God..."

        "Yeah. He didn't know that's a disguise. When he didn't find 'her' in your
business he apparently had his people burn the building in a fit of
pique."

        Even as a woman, I'm not usually a crier. But this was the fifth or sixth
time in less than two days I'd broken down in tears, all of them
while male.

        "Yeah. I didn't want to tell you, but I didn't want you to think I was
stonewalling you, either."

        "Why would he do that? What is wrong with that man?"

        "He's crazy," said Munroe, with a shrug. "Anyone who frustrates
his least whim becomes a fanatically hated enemy. You've frustrated
him three times."

        "Three?"

        "First at that house, when his henchmen didn't kill you, too," said
Munroe. "He punished them but needs them alive, so he saved most
of his wrath for you. He also wanted to know if you knew anything
important to him. The second time was when Template rescued you.
That's also your fault, in his eyes. The third time was when he
couldn't find you in the b... building."

        "I hate to say this," I told him, slowly and deliberately, "but
I think this is one time the Masks are right. After I get out of here
I'm going to meet with them and see what I can do to help them bring
this guy down."

        "If you can, more power to you," said Munroe, seriously. "That
guy's killed more people than anybody short of Hitler. Whom he claims
was one of his henchmen."

        "My God," I said, slowly shaking my head. "What sort of world
do we live in, to have such evil in it?"

        "Officially there were no survivors," said Munroe. "You and the horse
gal are here under fictitious names, and only the people actually
treating you know what your injuries are. Hopefully, Gaunt will still
be busy looking for Lorraine Hawthorne. We may leak word 'she' is
somewhere we can set up a trap."

        "Take my advice and leave that to the supers," I told him, sincerely.
"Or at least work with them. This guy is dangerous even for them
to handle."

        "You've got a point," said Munroe. "I just hope my superiors see
it."

Masks V, Part Seven

        So, here I was, in downtown Los Angeles, standing outside the gate of a
super hero headquarters. I sighed and pushed the buzzer.

        "Yes?"

        "I'm Lawrence Hawthorne. I'd like to speak to Template, please."

        I half expected some confusion or dithering. Apparently, though, the fact
that I knew to ask for her meant I was allowed to speak with her. The
gate opened, and a pretty young thing in a private security guard
uniform escorted me inside.

        I was welcomed by several members of the Guardians, including the Guardsman
himself. Template wasn't there - she was in San Francisco, it turned
out - but would arrive shortly. Another benefit of being able to fly
under your own power.

        We moved as a group to a meeting room, where the Guardsman and a couple
of the others made small talk until Template arrived. Then I got
immediately down to business.

        "I want to help catch Gaunt," I said. "That son of a bitch has
killed people I love, for no reason except childish expression of
frustration. I just... don't know what I can do."

        "What you can do is draw him out," said Template. "Be a decoy.
Bait."

        I glanced uneasily around the room. They all seemed in agreement. I
didn't know if they'd talked this over in anticipation of me deciding
to help, or they just thought like this all the time. I didn't find
either prospect reassuring.

        "You attend the funeral of your business partner as your female
alter-ego," said the Guardsman. "Dr. Gaunt will know it's a
set-up, of course. We'll have people there and you will be bugged and
watched, and he'll counter all of it and kidnap you. Then it'll be up
to you. You'll have to escape and contact us, somehow."

        "I nodded, feeling a bit light-headed.

        "All this depends on him not knowing I'm a shapeshifter," I pointed
out.

        "Mad geniuses - all super intellects, for that matter - have some peculiar
blind spots," said Template, as if speaking from personal
experience. "This guy especially. He never questions his
assumptions, and if anyone else does he reacts... emphatically. Given
how easily he captured you before, he'll probably be overconfident."

        I nodded again. I knew from my own personal experience just how hard it
was to hold a shapeshifter. That is, if it wasn't know the prisoner
was a shapeshifter. Special precautions would work, but only if they
were made. If they thought I was just an ordinary human, escaping
would be almost trivial.

        "Your mission has three objectives," said the Guardsman, as if giving
orders to some sort of special operative. "Learn and relay to us
the location of the base. Learn what Dr. Gaunt's immediate goals are.
Secure the safety of any other prisoners long enough for us to get
there and rescue you. In that order of priority."

        They gave me the equipment and showed me how to use it. We then went over
the details for more than an hour before they relented. They appeared
satisfied we were taking all reasonable precautions. I wasn't, but I
was too depressed and angry to care. I left, knowing what I needed to
do.

        * * *

        "Excuse me, Guardsman," said the chief of security at the Planetary
Guardians headquarters, shortly after Hawthorne had left. "There's
are some men here - one a representative of the state court and
another from the governor's office - who wish to see you."

        The two men were, on the surface, quite similar. However, closer
examination showed that one wore a suit several times as expensive as
that worn by the other. As well, his smug grin seemed vaguely
familiar. They introduced themselves. The slightly shorter man was an
agent of a state court. The one with the expensive suit was an aide
to the governor. They didn't offer to shake hands.

        "Are you the individual currently holding the position of America's
Guardsman?" said the man in the more modest suit, formally.

        "Yes," said the Guardsman, noncommittally.

        The man handed him a folded document.

        "What's this?" said the Guardsman.

        "Read it," said the man in the more expensive suit, his smirk growing
more self-satisfied.

        "It's... an injunction against our acting - as a team or individually -
against Dr. Gaunt."

        "Similar injunctions are being delivered to every other team in the area, as
well as every independent we could locate," the man declared.
"There will be no
super battles in this state as long as our administration is in power."

        "Did you deliver one of these to Dr. Gaunt?" said the Guardsman,
folding the document and staring the man in the eye.

        "Don't be facetious. We don't even know where he is!"

        "Then how will you stop him and his cronies from running rampant?"

        The Guardsman raised an eyebrow, stared at the man for a moment, then
turned and walked away.

        "Wh-what's that supposed to mean?!" the man shouted at the Guardsman's
colorful back. "You think just because he's a criminal we're
going to excuse his crimes?! We're cracking down on all you freaks!"

        He spun around and stormed out, the other man hurrying to catch up.

        * * *

        "So, how does this affect our plan with Hawthorne?" said Template.

        "Only in the details," said Mesa. "Instead of members of the two
Guardians teams standing watch we ask for volunteers from elsewhere.
We should be able to get most of the Thunder Family to participate,
no problem. In fact, him expecting us and getting someone else could
help. Dr. Gaunt has used telepaths in the past."

        "Not only did they go to all the trouble of getting these injunctions out
to the regional teams," muttered Tiger, changing subject
slightly, "the idiots bragged about it at a press conference.
Now, when the press screams 'Where were the supers when we were
dying?!' we can say 'Don't you watch the news?'"

        "You'll never convince me that most of the masks who got those won't go into
action anyway," said Template. "They may wait a while, but
they will go into action."

        "The Bay Area Guardians were still letting her stay in one of their guest
rooms. Classes began at the school in less than two days; she was
giving herself that long to help with the mess involving Dr. Gaunt.

        "I imagine most of them will hold out until the administration caves,"
said Mesa. "Seriously; we're all pretty fed up with them. The registration, the harassment, the refusal to accept court decisions
in our favor..."

        "It's that bad?" said Template, startled.

        "Yeah. Even though the current state administration is the other party from
the President's, and frequently lambasts him and his staff about
their attitude towards supers, theirs is pretty similar."

        "They sure made my life miserable, for several weeks after the registration
passed," said Tiger. The super martial artist and technical
expert sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. "They
arrested me - outside my home, as I was getting ready to leave for
work, in front of my wife and child and sundry neighbors - for not
revealing my legal name when I filled out the form. I tried
explaining that I legally changed my name to Tiger twenty years ago,
but they wouldn't listen. I asked them, if they didn't have my legal
name, how they found me; they said they looked in the phone book.
Idiots. TAL finally had to get a federal court to file a cease and
desist order."

        "Which only made the politicians madder," Mesa added.

        "This is coming from the other party," said Template, astounded. "The
one condemning President Thurlin for his actions against supers."

        "Politicians tend to be elitists, no matter what their stripe," said Tiger.
He gave a tired grin. "Trust me, I know stripes. Elitists truly,
madly, deeply hate anyone who is demonstrably better than them.
Because they have based their world view - their entire psyche - on
being better than others."

        "Ah, you're just an anarchist at heart," said Mesa, laughing. "All
cats are."

        Tiger was about to say something when the come screen on the wall lit,
showing NightMist.

        "We have a situation."

        "What's going on?" said Template.

        "Dr. Gaunt's struck again. You remember that Nevada politician who
sarcastically praised him for removing a 'den of sin' from the state?
His office - that whole part of the state legislators' office
building - is gone."

        "Gone?" said Template, shocked.

        "Disintegrated, most likely. Witnesses say a beam came out of the sky, straight down,
and a big section of the structure just... vanished. In a huge puff
of smoke. Or, more likely, dust. There's a big gap in the building,
going down well into the bedrock. Dozens of people missing."

        "You don't suppose he... teleported them?" said Template, looking
ill. "Or maybe dimensionally displaced them?"

        "That's possible," said Tiger. "Knowing Dr. Gaunt it's unlikely."

        "Hold on," said NightMist, raising her hand. "Got something
coming in."

        An image of Dr. Gaunt appeared on the main screen.

        "He's overriding all local TV broadcasts. Cable included."

        "As if I would ever do
anything to benefit this benighted state, which has aided and abetted
the theft of what is rightfully mine!"

        He glared at the camera for a moment, gave a curt nod, and the regular
programming came back on.

        * * *

        I don't like funerals, and not just because I've seen so many of them.
I've never liked them. I also hate wearing black. Yet, here I was, at
a funeral for my friend Sid, wearing formal black, including a veil.
I felt deeply gratified at the turnout. Even though I knew many of
those attending the services were supers in disguise.

        When the minister finished I turned and walked towards my car. I didn't
want to stay and socialize, which also fit the ploy the supers had
devised. I was almost back to the Corvette when I felt a slight sting
on the back of my neck. I rubbed the spot, noticed a small bump,
figured it was a bug bite and dismissed it. Until I walked past my
car instead of stopping and pulling my keys out.

        I was soon flanked by two tough-looking men in mourning clothes, who helped
me into a nondescript SUV with deeply tinted windows. They sat me
beside Dr. Gaunt, who began chuckling in his weird way as soon as the
door was closed.

        "So, we meet again," he said, smirking at me. "You should know
that I always defend what is mine. The more people like you try to
deny it to me, the more determined I become."

        The driver began turning the large vehicle around. As the front of the
vehicle swung past the slowly-dispersing crowd my frozen gaze swept
over many faces, me silently crying out for help but unable even to
move my eyes. However, something must have tipped off my watchers.
There was a cry, and several flashes of light accompanied by muffled
thunder as person after person shifted from a mundane appearance to
something more than human.

        I was astonished. I had expected supers, but not what appeared to be the
entire Thunder Family!

        "Ah," chortled Dr. Gaunt, rubbing his hands together with a dry, raspy
sound. "Excellent. And just as anticipated. Oliver! The Absorbascon!"

        An oversized sunroof opened, letting light and air in. Behind me I heard
a hydraulic whine, and sensed something moving. The Thunderers were just taking to the air when what looked like green lightning bolts
shot from them and to the van. Or rather, to whatever had lifted above its roof. The noise
was literally deafening, leaving me dazed and in pain, but still
sitting motionless. The Thunderers fell.

        I heard Dr. Gaunt shouting triumphantly, but it was muffled,
indistinct, as if from a great distance through cotton. I felt
something warm and wet running down the left side of my face and
realized my eardrum had broken. Both of them, in fact. Gaunt
scrambled excitedly over the back of his seat in a manner most
inappropriate to his apparent age and began fiddling with something.
I saw the driver and the other man in the front seat remove ear
plugs.

        After a few moments, Dr. Gaunt leaned back over the seat, shouting and
making emphatic gestures. He appeared ecstatically happy, from what I
could see out of the corner of my eye.

        Speaking of eyes, I now had tears running down my face from both of mine, due
to the pain and despair.

        The SUV Drove off, leaving at least half a dozen bodies smoking gently in
the morning sun.

Masks V, Part Eight

        The drive took hours. During this time they thoroughly - and
enthusiastically, taking advantage of the situation - patted me down
and scanned me with various gadgets and removed all the tracking
devices. Each was placed in a different flying drone which was sent
in a unique direction. Oh, well; those were effectively Plan Zero.

        Eventually the SUV turned onto a state route through the desert and towards the
mountains. The pain in my ears slowly subsided, thanks to my
regeneration, but now the back of my neck was itching like some mad
thing. As well, my bladder was overfull. Sitting there, motionless,
with all that plus the knowledge I was worse than helpless before
these men was the worst torture I've ever endured.

        We finally drove down what appeared to be an abandoned road to the
entrance of what appeared to be an abandoned mine. The decrepit old
boards blocking off the opening rose deftly out of the way on their
own and we drove into the tunnel and through a massive, armored door.
The van entered a large, dimly-lit cavern, full of vehicles. The
overhead lights came on, casting a garish, steely blue glow over
everything within.

        I began moving without volition. Once everyone was out of the SUV Dr.
Gaunt went around to the rear of the van and supervised the removal
of something he referred to as "the storage unit." I couldn't see what they did, but heard noises implying something heavy
being moved. Moments later three of the henchmen - whom Dr. Gaunt
watched like a cross between a mother hen and a concentration camp
guard - slowly maneuvered a low cart holding a large, metal box with
heavy electrical connections past me. He spared me a moment, lifting
my veil with one hand, taking my chin with the other and turning my
head left and right to peer at my ears. I couldn't resist; couldn't
even move my eyes to keep his face centered.

        "It seems we will have to wait to question her. No matter. She'll keep.
Put her in a holding cell. And make certain that's all you do."

        That last was said in the same mild tone as the rest, but it gave the
other men in the chamber a strong, negative emotional jolt. Recalling
how Gaunt had acted towards me and some of the things I had heard
about him, I realized there was now no way these men would take
further advantage of my helplessness. I actually felt a brief
gratitude towards the bad Doctor. Of course, that faded as I
remembered I wouldn't be helpless if not for him.

        I walked into a modern freight elevator, with what looked like stairs
going up and down the wall behind it. I stopped at the back and
turned to face front, allowing me to watch the others getting on. I
had by now spotted which of them was holding the device which
controlled me. He stood beside me as Dr. Gaunt guided his men in
wheeling the cart onto the elevator. He was fussing with it almost
obsessively. The gates closed and we began to descend.

        The next level down the elevator stopped, and all exited but two of the
men - one of whom, of course, had the controller - and me. The gates
closed again and we resumed the descent. Several more levels later
the gates opened and I walked out, into a hallway lined on both sides
with sturdy cell doors. I walked down the hall as one of the men
moved ahead to open a door. Then I walked into the cell and lay down
on the bed. The door closed and the men walked away, talking quietly
between themselves, speculating on what Dr. Gaunt was going to do
with "all those matrices."

        My ears had completely stopped hurting by now, but my bladder was
insisting on attention and the itch at the back of my neck was about
to drive me mad. Finally, I couldn't take it any longer and clawed at
the offending spot with my right... hand?

        I felt something under my fingers even as the realization that I could again
move on my own dawned. I sat up and brought the object around, the
itch now fading rapidly. It was a small, metal needle, glinting
silver in the dim light of the cell. My regeneration had healed it
out. Now, if only they didn't have cameras watching me...

        I stood and performed a quick exploration of the cell. It was a simple
cube a bit more than two meters on a side and with a bunk mounted
solidly to two walls and the floor. In one corner was a rectangular
depression in the floor with a drain. I wouldn't have recognized it
as a toilet except for some time spent in Japan. I gratefully
relieved myself then completed the examination of my prison. The door
was solid, except for a barred opening about the size of a hardback
book. Peering between the bars as best I could, I decided that the
hall was empty.

        I stripped, shoved my clothing out through the bars - omitting the veil
and hat, stockings and heels - then shifted into a pigeon, the
smallest form I could manage. I flapped clumsily up to the opening,
squeezed through, and dropped to the floor of the hall. I shifted
back to Lorraine and dressed, then began looking through the doors of
the other cells.

        Three had inhabitants. One was long dead. One was completely unresponsive.
One was Sarah Bertollini.

        "Mrs. Bertollini!" I hissed through the bars.

        She sat up and looked around, appearing confused.

        "I'm working with the Guardians. I'm here to get you out."

        "Oh, thank God!" she said, much too loudly for my comfort.

        "Please be quiet," I said, as I examined the lock in the door. "We
need to sneak out while Dr. Gaunt is busy with some big project of
his."

        "But aren't the Guardians here?" she said, still too loudly.

        "No, Ma'am. We have to get to someplace where we can call them and let
them know where we are."

        "That doesn't make any sense! How could they send you here if the don't
know where 'here' is?"

        "Ma'am, please be quiet,"
I said, desperately.

        The lock had what appeared to be a fingerprint reader. I closed my eyes
and focused on the guard who had opened my cell. I needed a moment to
get a fix on him, but to my great relief I felt myself shifting. I
tried my thumb, and when that didn't work my index finger. Bingo! I
shifted back to Lorraine as the door opened. She was still sitting on
the bunk, looking puzzled. She was in a plain jumpsuit of some sort,
probably provided for her by Gaunt's men.

        "How much do you know about this base? I didn't get to see much."

        "I still don't understand what is going on," she said, rising and
walking towards the door. "Aren't the Guardians here?!"

        "No, Ma'am," I said, firmly. "It's all up to us to let them know
where we are."

        Her expression at that news echoed my own feelings on the matter.

        "I'm sorry, but I expect better of the Guardians than this sort of
haphazard plan."

        "You and me both," I muttered. Then inspiration hit. "But! So
does Dr. Gaunt."

        "Oh!" said Mrs. Bertollini. "Oooh, that's brilliant."

        I didn't think so, but had to admit it had worked so far.

        Another thumbprint lock controlled the elevator. By now I had the guard's
pattern down well enough I was able to just shift the one finger.
There was a beep and the light over the sensor turned green. I half
expected the older woman I was rescuing to question how this was
possible, but she just blandly accepted that putting my finger on the
sensor would unlock the control pad. I pushed the lone control button
and it lit.

        The elevator arrived after far too many seconds. Once inside I scanned
the control panel. None of the buttons were labeled, or even
numbered. I sighed and pushed the uppermost one.

        "That will take us to the observation deck," said Mrs. Bertollini.

        "Where do these others go?"

        "I'm not sure. I just noticed that the highest button went all the way up
to the top of the mountain, where there's a lounge with windows all
around."

        If Gaunt was busy with some sort of experiment there likely wouldn't be
anyone there. The doors closed, and I held my breath.

        Beep after beep and lamp after lamp, we rose through Dr. Gaunt's base. I
tensed when the doors opened, but saw no-one. I stepped out and took
a quick look around. We were, indeed, alone. I summoned Mrs.
Bertollini from the elevator.

        We were in a large, circular room, with the elevator part of a thick
column in the middle. There were chairs, lounges, couches and low
tables scattered all around. A quick search found no phones or
radios, but did uncover an intercom.

        "We don't fool with that," I murmured. I frowned and looked around
again. "I don't see a door to the outside."

        "I don't, either."

        I opened my mouth to ask her something, but was interrupted by a
flicker of the lights, and immediately after a heavy jolt. Had
something exploded inside the base?

        I could hear alarms from below, loudest at the elevator. I moved over
to push the button - there was no fingerprint scanner - when another
jolt almost knocked me off my feet. Then came another, even heavier,
though further away. Then another, and another. These all sounded
different from the first; less like an explosion than impacts.
Finally came a truly huge jolt, which not only knocked the two of us
off our feet, but toppled some of the furniture. The lights went out.

        "Great," I said, with a sigh, pushing my hair back out of my eyes as I sat up.
Fortunately the plush carpet had kept either of us from getting
injured. "No power and no way out except the elevator."

        I tried the button just to be sure. No response.

        I helped Mrs. Bertollini to her feet and we searched the room again,
more thoroughly. Nothing. In desperation I even tried the intercom,
but it was dead. I stopped and thought for a moment. We weren't in
any immediate danger; the alarms were silent, there was no smoke, and
without power I didn't see how anyone could even find us here, much
less reach us. Those explosions or whatever they were would
definitely attract attention from outside. Still, I didn't like the
idea of settling in for a long wait.

        On a hunch I began walking around the circular column the elevator was in.
That was rectangular, and the column round and much wider. There
might be room for stairs in the shaft, assuming those I had seen in
the motorpool cavern extended this high. If I could only find the
access.

        There it was! A latch, folded against the curved wall, it's dark, mirror
finish barely visible against the dark, polished faux
- or perhaps genuine, given the quality of the furnishings in this
room - granite of the column. I pulled the latch out and a door
opened.

        "Oh, that's just brilliant!" said Mrs. Bertollini. "Where did
you learn to do that?"

        "Years of experience," I said, modestly.

        There were stairs inside and emergency lights on. The stairs were a simple
metal gridwork with a handrail, zig-zagging back and forth at the
rear of the elevator shaft. I noticed that the elevator car was still
on this level. Once assured we could reopen the door from the inside
I closed it, then had Mrs. Bertollini hold still and quiet while I
did the same and listened. There were some faint, distant sounds
which might have been the aftermath of some disaster, but nothing I
could positively assign to human agency. We started down, slowly.

        At the next door I made her wait partway up the steps while I carefully
opened it and peeked out. The dim and spotty emergency lights made it
hard to tell what was what, but it was apparently some sort of living
quarters, complete with a modern home entertainment system. No sign
or sound of anyone. I briefly thought of hunting for weapons, but
decided instead to keep descending.

        At the door after that we followed the same procedure. However, when I pushed
something resisted. By dint of heaving repeatedly, I managed to force
it open enough to tell that the "something" was a body. One
of Dr. Gaunt's henchmen. Peering through the crack as best I could I
saw more still forms. There were no sounds here, either.

        We descended a long distance over the next stretch. Even before reaching
the next door I realized it would probably open into the motorpool.
Only, this door was also blocked, and by more than I could move.
During a couple of my hardest shoves I though I heard small rocks
rattling. Had the roof of the cavern collapsed?

        Down again. This time the door opened onto a hallway which was nearly
completely dark. I could also smell smoke again.

        "This must be where it happened," I whispered.

        We stepped cautiously into the hall. As eyes adjusted, we could see
light ahead and to the left. This turned out to be coming from around
the edges of a sprung door. With some help from Mrs. Bertollini, I
forced it open. Inside was the ruin of a large room. When I say
"ruin" I mean just that. There were more bodies in here,
all showing signs of violent death. All the equipment was ruined,
including what had obviously been a large chamber with a window of
heavy steel frames and thick glass - or perhaps something stronger.

        The frame was bent outward, and nearly all the glass shards had fallen to
the floor outside the chamber. There was a hole in the wall directly
across from the chamber, also showing signs of having been forced in
the same direction. The light was coming through there.

        I picked my barefoot way carefully across the floor, wincing repeatedly
as I stepped on some small, sharp thing I hadn't spotted, Mrs.
Bertollini following closely behind me.

        Through the hole we could see another wall with another, larger hole. Beyond
that was the bottom of another hole, forced up and out. Then, beyond
that, a glimpse of daylight shining in from somewhere.

        * * *

        We needed half an hour to make our careful way out and up into the
cavern where the vehicles were parked. There I saw that a hole larger
yet had been knocked through the side of the mountain. Outside were
what appeared to be footprints, left by shoes each the size of a dump
truck.

        The two of us stared for a while. Then I shook my head and began
searching through the vehicles for some means of calling for help. I
had success in the first one, finding a cell phone in the driver's
door pocket. Surprisingly, the signal was strong. I dialed the number
the Guardsman had insisted I memorize. The call was picked up on the
first ring.

        * * *

        "We have them," said the Guardsman. "Our bait just called in.
H... She has Mrs. Bertollini, safe and sound, and is in the base.
Which is wrecked. There appears to be only one other survivor. She
doesn't know for certain who that is, but has a strong hunch it's Dr.
Gaunt, grown to gigantic size."

        "Put it on the map," said Tiger, who, with most of the Bay Area
Guardians and a rapidly growing assembly of other supers was waiting
in the Planetary Guardians' headquarters for news.

        "Yeah, that's where those weird tremors were coming from," said Lucky
Buck. "Who did we send to check that out?"

        "Template, Winter Rose and Atalanta, in one of the Ravens," said the
Guardsman. "I'm calling them now."

        * * *

        Template had met the other two women before but didn't really know them.
Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but Atalanta flew the Raven as
if she were invulnerable and thought everyone else was, too. Template
was definitely feeling queasy, watching the mountain peaks wheel,
rise and fall outside the panoramic cockpit window. Being a guest she
was seated in back. She wondered if taking the copilot's seat would
have helped. Winter Rose certainly didn't seem bothered by the
aerobatics.

        Weird, how I never get motion sickness flying under my own power.

        A call came in over the radio. Winter Rose took it, then patched in both the
Guardsman and Lorraine over their headsets.

        "...and that's all we know," said the shapeshifter.

        "We'll be there in just a few minutes," said Winter Rose. "Between
the seismograph readings and figuring out which cell towers are
taking your call we have a pretty good general location. From what
you say the opening should be obvious."

        Indeed, less than ten minutes after the call the Raven suddenly swooped,
until the ground and lower part of the mountain filled the window.
Then the nose abruptly pitched up for several seconds, the window
showing only sky, before Atalanta greased the plane onto the ground
with less than a meter of rollout.

        Oh, I'm definitely flying back under my own power.

        They exited the plane, hurried down the stairs and met the two other women
halfway.

        * * *

        I never thought I'd be so glad to see supers. Even that annoying
Template. Mrs. Bertollini and I pointed out the various clues we'd
spotted, including the gigantic footprints, leading out into the
desert.

        "That's just about straight towards Vegas," said Winter Rose, drooping a bit in the
heat.

        "Las Vegas," I corrected, absently.

        "I'm definitely getting a Godzilla feeling, here," said Template,
sounding uneasy.

        "Not Godzilla," said Atalanta. "The
Amazing Colossal Man
."

Masks V, Part Nine

        "Mrs. Bertollini, why don't you go first," said Winter Rose, gently.
"Tell us what happened to you. It could be very important."

        "Oh, please call me Sarah," said the older woman.

        "All right, Sarah. Go ahead."

        She had to be guided, since she kept wandering off course, but eventually
we got the story of her kidnaping and imprisonment. It wasn't pretty,
but Gaunt and his men hadn't abused her any more than necessary for
their goals. The important part was why they had kidnaped her. After immobilizing her at the hotel room where
she was staying ("Oh, I just couldn't stay in that house,
knowing Angelo had died there, and I couldn't impose on my sister any
longer.") Gaunt, smiling, had run a hand-held scanner over her.
He looked startled at the results and tried again. Several times. He
fiddled with the scanner, tried again, and finally screamed in rage
and smashed it on the floor. He had then placed something on her
forehead, with a line reaching to a headband he donned. He had asked
her a question, and not liked the answer he received through his
device.

        "He kept badgering me about what I'd done with Angelo's matrix,"
said Sarah, with a sniff. "I don't think he ever even saw
any of those movies."

        "Aura said that Tyler has his matrix," said Template. "Tyler told
me that your husband had told him he was going to leave him something
special."

        "Isn't that just like Angelo?" said Sarah, smiling. "He was such a
generous man."

        I wondered, briefly, who this Tyler was - and what a matrix was in this
connotation - but decided that could wait for later. Meanwhile, Sarah
was continuing her tale.

        She didn't know why they had decided to take her to the base; but then,
she wasn't sure why they had forced their way into her room. Even
after we explained that Gaunt wanted Angelo's power. ("But I
don't know anything about that!") We figured he was going to use
her as bait for whoever did have the power matrix. Only he didn't
know who that was, and this Tyler person Template mentioned didn't
know where Sarah was, so aside from an occasional interrogation,
Sarah had simply been left in her cell.

        I suddenly had this mental image of Gaunt and Sarah babbling away, both
oblivious to what the other was saying and missing the import of the
situation because it simply didn't fit their world view. For all his
genius, Dr. Gaunt had a knack for going out of his way to do things
which only caused him trouble later, usually because he ignored
anyone he felt was less intelligent than him (i. e. everyone) and any
facts which contradicted his already-arrived at conclusions.

        My turn was next, and I succinctly related what had happened from the
time I was leaving the funeral to the point where the heroes had
arrived. All this was heard not only by Sarah and the three masks
here, but relayed by radio to the two Guardians teams.

        "We need to find Gaunt," said the Guardsman, after he had digested
all this, "and we need to find out what he's planning to do and
how. That means a two-pronged effort. Oh, and we better do whatever
it takes to keep anyone from the Thunder Family from engaging Gaunt.
At least until we know he won't absorb their power, too."

        "We could launch a drone to follow those giant tracks," said Winter
Rose. "That would leave us free to explore the base. Aside from
that, Template is the only one of us likely to be effective against
Gaunt who isn't covered under the injunction."

        "There's more on the way," said Green Lace. "There are calls out
from both our teams and the governments of Nevada and Las Vegas
asking for help. This looks like it's going to be a major battle, and
we especially need extra help since neither Guardians team can
actively participate."

        "No way to get that overturned or whatever?" said Atalanta.

        "Our lawyers are meeting with California's lawyers. Everyone wants Gaunt
stopped, and even those who approved the injunction are willing to
let us fight him out in the Nevada desert. Even though that is still
against the letter of the injunction."

        She laughed.

        "I suspect some high-placed people in Nevada have been heating the ears
of certain California politicians."

        "Here come the Thunderers," said Atalanta, looking out the window and
rising quickly. "We better tell them what the Guardsman said."

        I moved aside to let her pass, then bent and twisted to look upwards
through the cockpit window. This maneuver suddenly and
disconcertingly reminded me I was still female; and not just any
female but the generously endowed Lorraine. I'd been so caught up in
events I wasn't just masquerading as Lorraine, I was
Lorraine. I'd spent more time in her form recently than any not my
base for several years. I sighed, pulled my bra strap back into
place, and craned my neck to look for the Thunder Family.

        Sure enough, down they came. Super after super, all wearing a variation on
the same theme of the original Captain Thunder's colorful costume.
The old man himself was in the lead. In spite of my feelings about
supers in general, I felt awed. These folks were the real deal, and
had been for decades. I started to feel a little better about the
situation. Then remembered that if they got near Gaunt, he might
absorb their powers. As well as that they had just lost a significant
portion of their number.

        Template was third out the door but the first to meet them, flying upwards.
However, she was tackle-hugged by a teenage boy who seemed very glad
to see her. The rest of the Thunder Family landed facing us as we
stood by the plane.

        "I have an urgent request from the Guardsman," said Atalanta,
quickly. "Dr. Gaunt has a way of draining powers from members of
the Thunder Family. We don't know if he can do it without specialized
equipment, but would rather not take the chance. He asks that you
remain here."

        "At least he had the decency not to say we shouldn't be involved because
we had a reason for vengeance," said Captain Thunder, a trace of
bitterness in his voice. He sighed. "Ah, well... He's right. As
well, we're better qualified than anyone else to examine his base and
determine what he did, anyway. Maybe even how to reverse it."

        He didn't sound too certain. In fact, he sounded tired, defeated. Which
was the scariest thing I'd encountered in this whole mess. If Captain
Thunder was giving up...

        "You mean that because you've been fighting him for so long that you're
familiar with his methods," said Template, a bit too eagerly,
perhaps sensing the same thing I had.

        She had her arm around the boy's shoulders. He looked haunted. They all
did. Small wonder; if what I'd seen at the cemetery had been as bad
as it looked they'd lost over a third of their extended family from
Gaunt's attack there.

        Captain Thunder gazed sadly at her for a long moment, then sighed again.

        "In nineteen thirty-eight I came into some money and bought a house in
the Rockies," said Captain Thunder. "It had been seized for
delinquent taxes. It appeared that the previous owner had just walked
out one day, several years earlier, and never come back. The house
had a huge library full of weird books and scrolls. There was also a
laboratory in the basement full of wild scientific gadgets and arcane
artifacts. I already had an interest in such things - they were the
reason I wanted the house, actually - yet still needed most of a year
just to figure out what the guy who had set all that up had been
doing. Then I needed another six months to figure out how to try it
on myself. Which is how I became Captain Thunder."

        "Wait," I said, holding up a hand. "Was the previous owner..."

        "Dr. Gaunt," said Captain Thunder, nodding. "Turned out he'd
gone to California to try and take back by force something the
government there had confiscated after one of his earlier schemes. He
worked for five years setting things up, only to be stopped and
caught by the Shepherds in early 1938 and put in prison. Ever since
then he's accused me of stealing his house, land and knowledge."

        "We're getting ready to launch a drone to follow Gaunt," said Winter
Rose.

        "Let us know what you find," said Captain Thunder. "We'll be
exploring the base."

        "I guess I better guide you," I said, sighing. "But I'm going
to need something to put on my feet."

        No-one even made a joke about women and shoes.

        * * *

        "The footprints were still getting bigger as he walked away from the
base," said Atalanta, astounded, as she stared into the display.
She gave a nervous laugh and shook her head. "Don't these guys
ever learn? It's right there in the villain's handbook, page
sixty-three: Don't turn yourself into a giant creature.'"

        "Gaunt wrote that book,"
growled Winter Rose. "Or at least was a significant contributor.
He knows all the loopholes. If he's doing this, he has a good reason
to believe it's to his advantage."

        The gigantic footprints reached a railroad, a single set of twin rails
running ruler-straight through the desert, and turned left to
parallel them. Towards Las Vegas.

        "The drone's found him!" said Atalanta. "Wow..."

        Dr. Gaunt walked calmly through the desert, thirty meters tall, following
the train tracks. Though he did not step on them, the earth displaced
by his steps pushed the tracks up and to the side when his right foot
came too close.

        Las Vegas knew he was coming, of course. Between the seismographs, 911
calls and super warnings, they had to. The governor was mobilizing
the National Guard, but Gaunt would be well inside the city before
they could act. Fortunately, both Nevada and Las Vegas itself had
supers, who were not affected by the California injunction.

        First up were the Sure Thing. This was a casino-sponsored team, commercial
but with a good reputation and including a pair of real heavyweights
among the half-dozen members.

        They lasted under a minute.

        "My God..." said Template, voice a bare whisper, as she watched the
slaughter in the monitor.

        At least some of them were dead. Very thoroughly dead. The rest were at
least badly injured, and definitely out of the fight.

        "Guys," said Atalanta, over the coms, "I hate to rush you but Gaunt just
wiped out the Sure Thing with barely a break in stride. Looks like
he's less than an hour away from Vegas."

        "I'm going out," said Template, determined. "I'm faster than any
of them were. I should be able to stay out of his way, and maybe come
up with something. Even if it's just harassing attacks."

        "I'm coming with you," said a female voice, over the com. "My
powers are different from those of the rest of the Thunderers. Gaunt
shouldn't be able to absorb mine."

        * * *

        We had just entered the room with the destroyed, windowed chamber when the
call came in. I wasn't sure why they had given me one of their spare
coms along with the shoes Winter Rose found for me but was glad I
could at least keep up on what was happening.

        When that one gal in her late twenties volunteered to help I noticed that
the others exchanging glances. My empathy was definitely picking up
mixed emotions, including anger and resentment.

        "Elizabeth, you don't have to do this," said Captain Thunder, moving to her.
"You don't have anything to prove..."

        "I'm Thunderstroke right now. This isn't about proving anything. That
maniac killed my father!"

        "Who was also my son," said the Captain. He sighed, and put a hand on
her shoulder. "All right. But please be careful."

        She nodded, quietly, then flew off.

        * * *

        Template and Thunderstroke flew along the tracks at better than Mach 1. They
began slowing when they saw Gaunt's head rising above the horizon. He
was even larger, now, perhaps topping 35 meters.

        "Okay," said Thunderstroke, when they could talk over the wind noise. "I
have a special attack which takes a few seconds to prepare. Something
I can do from a safe distance. I'm gonna need someone to catch me
afterwards."

        "Catch you?"

        "Yeah. I'll be tapped out. Just hold back a few klicks and watch. You'll
know when to act."

        Template didn't like the idea, but the other woman presumably knew her own
powers and she had been at this a bit longer than Template. She
slowed and watched as Thunderstroke continued on, rising to stop high
above Dr. Gaunt. He didn't seem to notice.

        For a moment, nothing happened. Then Template felt a strange prickling,
tickling sensation. The hairs on her head began to stand out. Gaunt
noticed this; he
looked up, apparently saw Thunderstroke, and crouched down, as if to
spring. Only the lightning struck first.

        Template had been impressed with some of the electrical displays her niece,
Energia had put on. This dwarfed those. It was a full-sized lightning
bolt, only it came from a clear sky and it lasted for at least five
seconds. Template shied back, shielding her eyes.

        Then it ended. She saw that Gaunt was down; not fallen, but on elbows and
knees, obviously stunned, smoke rising from his colossal form. She
looked up and saw a small figure, falling, and raced in to catch
Thunderstroke. Template was surprised to find in place of the
costumed hero a woman of similar appearance in civilian clothes. She
was extra-careful catching her.

        "Are you hurt?" said Template.

        "I - I'm all right," the woman gasped. "Just... takes a lot
out of me. I'll need a few hours before I can change back."

        Already, she was recovering. Thunderstroke twisted around in Template's arms
and looked back at the fallen giant as they flew away. She shook her
fist defiantly at him.

        "You've been thunderstruck, bastard!"

        Unfortunately, that did not defeat Gaunt, though it bought some time. Within seconds
he was stirring, and soon stood. He shook himself, looked around to
try and spot the source of the lightning, and when he couldn't,
shrugged and, with an expression of determination on his face,
resumed his march towards Las Vegas. He appeared to be muttering
under his breath.

        Template could see supers arriving in air and ground vehicles and under their
own power, placing themselves in a line between Dr. Gaunt and the
city. She hoped they would last long enough for her to deliver
Thunderstroke to safety and return. She glanced up at the drone -
circling Gaunt at a presumably safe distance, off to the north - and
started for the base.

        Template landed beside the Raven and carefully let Thunderstroke try her feet.
She was wobbly but could already stand on her own. Satisfied her ally
wouldn't keel over, she lifted into the air again to return and
engage Gaunt herself. She pulled back when she saw Winter Rose waving
to her from the cockpit window.

        "We just heard from the Guardsman. Both Guardians teams are on their way,
plus a bunch of others. They want to assemble here to plot our
strategy. We're even calling in some of those already engaging Gaunt
to brainstorm in person."

        Template nodded, and landed again beside Thunderstroke. Who, after taking a
moment to gather a bit more of her strength, said goodbye and went
into the base to join her family.

        Only minutes later Template could see several flying craft approaching.
Shortly after that she could see some people flying with them. The
vehicles and free-flyers landed, just as some representatives of the
Thunder Family exited the base to meet the newcomers.

        "How did you manage to get permission from California to participate?"
said Captain Thunder, shaking hands with the Guardsman. "Or did
you just give up and come anyway?"

        "Our lawyers went over the injunction with representatives of the
California Department of Justice. The consensus is we can advise and
coordinate, but not take direct action."

        "Okay!" said the Black Mask. "We need an update, please!"

        Template had known that the Guardians were calling in the Intrepids, but not
that they were already in the area. She was very glad to see the
Black Mask, Rapscallion, Jet Jaguar and - especially - Colossa. She
managed to hug the last of these, but only for a moment. She was
called on to relate what had happened with Thunderstroke's attack to
the newcomers.

        "Her effort did hurt Gaunt," said Template, finishing. "Just not
enough."

        "Well, at least he's not truly invulnerable," said Mesa. "That
means we have a chance."

Masks V, Part Ten

        "This guy is dealing out major damage," said the Guardsman, to all the
heroes assembled there in the desert. "Don't engage him unless
you're at least class eighty in resilience. You can still help, but
not by getting yourself killed."

        Template was impressed. This group wasn't as big as the one which had
assembled to help the school months earlier, but they'd had a lot
less time to put this together. There was no central organization
gathering them; the word had gone out and those who could make it had
showed. More were arriving, but with Gaunt making steady progress
towards Las Vegas they needed to field some heavy firepower now.

        "Who's that in the black outfit, who came in you folks?" said Template,
quietly, to Steel Lace.

        "That's Tiger," said the armored woman.

        "Since when does Tiger wear a costume?"

        "It's a battlesuit, designed just for him by Ike Kenniman," said Mesa,
smiling and nodding.

        "Oh..." said Template, a bit boggled at the idea of what Tiger in a
battlesuit might be capable of.

        Template made a point of going over to the black-clad figure and walking
around him, smiling.

        "So that's what you look like in costume."

        "Very funny," muttered Tiger. "If this thing didn't have built-in
environmental control, I'd be roasting in this desert sun."

        "Does it have anything which can help us against Gaunt?"

        "Probably not. Which is why I'm staying here and helping the Thunder Family try
and rebuild his machine. Maybe we can figure out a way to depower
him."

        "Good luck," said Template, meaning it. Because they would all be
lucky if that trick was managed before any more of them were hurt.

        "You, too," said Tiger, seriously. "Right now, Gaunt makes
Energex look about as dangerous as an angry puppy."

        * * *

        The assembled supers quickly developed three basic plans, to be tried in
succession. Template was partnered with two other super strong
flyers, Falcon Eddie and Bombardier. They were to support an effort
by Magni. Template dropped the Asgardian off ahead of Gaunt to get in
position, then flew back to join with the others.

        "Gaunt's muttering something, but I can't make it out," said Template, as
they waited for Magni to make his move.

        "Falcon Eddie, you've got super hearing; what's he saying?" said
Bombardier, puzzled.

        "...lamentations, and rivers run red with blood. I shall blot out the sun..."

        "You don't want to know," said Falcon Eddie, meaning it.

        "Hey ugly!" Magni yelled from where he stood on top of a low knoll.

        Gaunt looked around, outraged. He spotted Magni and - grinning like a kid
about to kick over an anthill - drew back a semi-sized shoe, knee
bent, preparing to launch the godling into the stratosphere.

        Template, Bombardier and Falcon Eddie flew in and up, hitting Gaunt's shoe and
lifting. Gaunt squawked like the base pipes of an outraged church organ as he
toppled forward... right into Magni's fist. The punch to his nose
actually sent Gaunt past upright and beyond, to crash into the ground
on his back. Magni waded out from the cloud of dust created when the
recoil from his blow drove him into and below the knoll, destroying
it. The heroes cheered as he clasped his hands triumphantly over his
head.

        Their jubilation was short lived. Gaunt struggled back to his feet.

        "Ants," he rumbled. "Mayflies. Gnats. I'll crush you all."

        Several heroes initiated an impromptu dogpile of the bad doctor, trying to
take advantage of his momentary disorientation, but he merely brushed
them off. Seeing them regrouping he began stomping. Once the attack
was abandoned he turned and resumed his walk. His nose looked a bit
red but otherwise he appeared unharmed.

        "Oh, God," panted Template, flying down to the scene of the mayhem.
"Oh, God..."

        Fortunately, these were all very tough supers. Being driven into the ground had
caused some injuries, but only one of them was actually out of the
fight. With immediate first aid handled and proper medical help on
the way, Template flew back up to join the other two flyers, to watch
the next attack.

        Next up were a group of long-range attackers, mixed projectile and energy,
in two sub-groups on either side of the bad doctor's line of advance
to catch him in a crossfire. Dr. Gaunt, unfortunately, spotted one of
the groups as they readied themselves. He paused, turning a bit to
his right. They fired, then the other group joined in. For several
seconds he was showered with everything they could put out. When the
smoke cleared he was crouched down, huddled on the ground, clothing
and skin smoking but not appearing damaged beyond a bit of scorching.
No-one cheered; they knew better by now.

        Sure enough, Gaunt was soon stirring. He stood, gazed back and forth
between the two groups disdainfully for a long moment. Then raised
his arms and smote both teams with lighting.

        "That's Thunderstroke's attack!" said Template, yelling to be heard
above the ringing in her ears.

        Unlike the physical attackers, only five of these eleven survived this
assault, and only three of those were not seriously hurt.

        "How the fuck did he get that?!"
said Force Master, one of those less hurt, actually screaming over
the coms. "I'm out of the fight; most of my systems are down and
my power cells are drained. How do we stop this guy?"

        The third team - a group with powers or devices which could be used to
trap him, shook off their shock and began preparing. They surrounded
Gaunt and began hitting him with ice, webbing, makeshift giant bolas
and several other entanglements. Gaunt simply stood there until they
were finished. Then he effortlessly raised his arms, ripping them
free, and spread his hands. Multiple energy beams of different types
lanced out for the members.

        "Guardsman, are you getting this?" said Template, high and well behind the
scene of the chaos. "He's using attacks which were just used
against him! He's copying what we do to him!"

        Fortunately, the heroes had learned caution by now; those who could not leave
quickly under their own power or be evacuated by speedsters or flyers
were behind barricades. All survived, though some were hurt.

        "Half the stuff we hit him with just makes him stronger!" said the
Guardsman, watching by video from the Raven he had arrived in. This
one was specialized, equipped as a field command post. It was from
here he ran the effort to stop Gaunt. So far, they weren't doing so
well.

        "Magical energy matrices," said Aura, scowling in intense thought. "Among
other things, that must grant him the ability to copy the pattern of
any energy attack used against him!"

        "Great," said Tiger, groaning over his com, from inside the base. "I bet
that includes spells as well as magical abilities. I'm not using my
claws on this guy."

        "So we just keep pounding him," said Mesa, smacking fist into palm
like a blasting cap going off.

        "Yeah, like that's worked real good so far!" said Polymer Pam.

        "We need to switch tactics," said the Guardsman. "Not just the
type of attacks, but their purpose. Don't try to stop him, but delay
or divert him until more Masks arrive."

        "Hit and run," said Template, quickly. "Every flyer with a
physical attack take turns zooming by."

        "Exactly!" said the Guardsman, nodding. "Wear him down. Delay him, if not
defeat him. Give the city and us more time."

        "I bet we can do more than that," said Falcon Eddie. "There
has to be a limit, if not to his power then to how much pain he can
take."

        "Don't commit yourselves," said the Guardsman, warningly. "Just
swoop past; don't stop. Keep out of his reach and keep on him. Pace
yourselves. There's not likely to be a quick solution to this."

        Eight flyers huddled in mid-air and quickly plotted. Then they broke,
shooting out in different directions.

        Seconds later Template flashed past Dr. Gaunt at just above Mach 1, slamming
her fists into the side of his nose as she flew by.

        He didn't have time to react. Immediately, Falcon Eddie flew by the left
side of his head front to back, raking his claws along Gaunt's ear.
Then Bombardier shot by straight overhead, shooting an energy blast
down at his right ear.

        Next came the giant's left kneecap, then his nose again. The flyers just
kept circling, coming in from different directions at different
altitudes, hitting a different part each time. Gaunt roared with
anger and frustration, and stopped his walk to swat at the insects
stinging him.

        "Watch it!" yelled Falcon Eddie, after his third pass. "He's
getting faster and more accurate with his swipes."

        "Keep it up!" the Guardsman yelled enthusiastically over their coms.
"This actually has him stopped cold! Just don't get cocky!"

        * * *

        Back in the command center jet the boss supers were interrogating Mrs.
Bertollini and me while the troops delayed Gaunt. From what I could
see on the monitors that's about all they were doing. I didn't need
my empathy to know things weren't going well. At least I'd finally
found out who this Tyler person was. At Sarah's request he'd been
brought to join us outside the base. In person I recognized him, of
course. I'd actually liked that show, at least the first few seasons.
We'd introduced ourselves while the heroes prepared to attack Dr.
Gaunt. Now they were trying to squeeze any information we had out of
us to help with the battle. Of course, with Sarah that tended to take
more effort than with me.

        "Can you tell us anything more?" said the Guardsman, looking
desperate. "Anything which might give a clue as to how to defeat
him, or at least what he wants?"

        I shook my head. Sarah, as usual, had more to say. I doubted it would
be any more important than what she usually said.

        "He kept complaining about how he'd been denied justice, and that he
wanted to get what was rightfully his."

        "Yes, we know that, Mrs. Bertollini," said the Guardsman, tiredly.

        "Well, why don't you give it to him?"

        "Eh?"

        I got it, and winced over not thinking of it myself!

        "Look, this guy honestly believes he's been cheated out of things," I
said. I frowned, as an old memory came back. "Don't the Planetary Guardians have the Scales of Justice?"

        "How the Hell do you know about that?!" said the Guardsman, the only time I ever heard him swear.

        "I used to work for Mack Risk," I said, with a slight smirk. "I
remember when he found the Balancer's killer, back in Fifty-Eight. He
also found the scales, given to him by the Spirit of Justice herself.
Since he - Mack - didn't know how to contact her or the Balancer's
next of kin, he turned the scales over to the Planetary Guardians."

        "That might just work," said the Guardsman, with an expression which
made his face look the way mine had felt just a few seconds before.

        He called Spriggan over, told him what to do. The speedster nodded and
vanished.

        "Thank you, Mrs. Bertollini; Ms. Hawthorn," said the Guardsman. "You
may just have saved thousands of lives. Mrs. Bertollini, that was
brilliant."

        "Sarah doesn't deal well with the unexpected," said Tyler, reaching
over to pat the older woman's hand, "but give her a chance to
think things through and she can be Hell on wheels."

        * * *

        They had Gaunt stopped, but for how long was unknown. Some of the
speedsters had gotten into the act, harassing him from the ankles
down. Unfortunately, that's all they could do to him.

        Neither was Dr. Gaunt helpless. They'd already lost two flyers and a
speedster. He was incredibly fast for something his size, and those
big hands and feet counted as area weapons.

        More and more masks were arriving, but except for a handful of
super-strong flyers and a couple more speedsters they were hanging
back. There appeared to be something big brewing.

        Sure enough, the Guardsman recalled Falcon Eddie. Moments later, the flyer
returned carrying the Guardsman, whom he placed on the ground in
front of Gaunt. The flyers and speedsters were called off. The
Guardsman held up what appeared to be an set of antique scales.

        "Dr. Gaunt! Do you want justice?!"

        The Guardsman's bold voice was clearly heard in the silence following the
cessation of the attack.

        "Of course I do, moron! I have sought justice against those who have
wronged me for well over a century!"

        "Do you agree to abide by the verdict of the Scales of Justice?"

        "Eh?" said the giant, leaning forward, peering down and squinting. "By
God; I thought those were lost... Yes! Yes, of course!"

        Guardsman held the scales high. For a moment nothing happened. Template
wondered if the Guardsman even knew how to work the thing; maybe
there was a command phrase, or something.

        Suddenly, Gaunt made a sharp inhale of breath. There were loud, pervasive
crackling sounds, and his skin - even his clothes - turned grey-brown. He wasn't moving.

        The heroes shifted uncertainly. Then Humboldt walked up and
experimentally rapped on the side of Gaunt's shoe. He looked
startled, then grinned.

        "Poor quality sandstone."

        Further investigation - by several means - revealed that Gaunt had, indeed,
turned to stone. A cheer began, quietly at first, but then sweeping
through the assembly.

        * * *

        "We still don't know how Angel and Gaunt were connected," said
Tyler. He sighed and shrugged. "Probably never know."

        "It's not important, I guess," said Template.

        They were taking advantage of the Planetary Guardians' hospitality,
following the debriefing and celebration. Template needed to leave
soon; school started tomorrow and she wanted a good night's sleep.
Tyler was slowly learning how to use the powers Angelo had bequeathed
him.

        "I've already started the registration process," said Tyler, sadly.
"Doesn't matter that I don't ever plan to wear a costume or act
the hero. If you have powers in California, you have to register."

        "How is Sarah doing?"

        "Pretty well, actually," said Tyler. "She's back at her sister's."

        Template had congratulated Sarah on her idea. She'd tried to do the same for
"Lorraine" but the shapeshifter had vanished. Template
heard later that Hawthorne was retiring from prostitution. As the
sole beneficiary of several insurance policies his/her future was
pretty much secured. Template hadn't liked him or
her, but grudgingly noted that the shapeshifter had been a big help,
and shown a lot of courage and determination in a difficult
situation.

        "Ah, well," said Template, stretching and sighing.

        "What?" said Tyler.

        "Oh, just wrapping up in my mind." She stood. "Anyway, I need to
leave, soon. I don't know if I'll ever see you again, but we'd love
to have you as a guest speaker at the school. You can contact us
through the Guardians - either group."

        "That actually sounds interesting," said Tyler, smiling. "Thank
you."

        Template bent over to give him an affectionate kiss on the cheek, then flew
off.

      This document is Copyright 2016 by Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reprint this or post it on a Web page must get permission from the author, who can be reached at: [email protected] This specific page may be linked to without permission.



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