Capin leaned his back against the cool cement of the Sandland Steel shipping warehouse. He winced as the weight of his body settled against at least one cracked rib, and he slipped his hand inside his coat. Not so far off the bedlam of sirens and news helicopters echoed an odd syncopation with his throbbing skull. It hurt to sigh, but he did it anyway.
“Are you alright?” As a medical doctor, Corin was rather versed in looking past a tough exterior that pretended it didn’t hurt. “I can take a look if-”
The Dapper Detective felt Enry tense up, tightening his support on Capin’s wounds. As the endorphins kicked in the adrenaline started pumping a little more. Enry was ready to hit somebody.”You have got to be joking.”
“What?” he replied, a bit taken aback. Mid-Night couldn’t tell that the man was looking right past him. “I’m a medical doctor. I can help.”
Bluewolf turned and stared into the empty darkness behind them. “He’s not talking to you.”
“I think I’m impressed.” The darkness proved to be less than empty. “I’ve been trailing you since just after you left the pier.” A figure stepped out into the ocher light. “After tying up the loose ends you left in the water… Hell of a fireworks display they set off.” The stranger was practically clad in black from neck to toe. If it weren’t for the grey pads and pouches he might have faded into the shadows even in the humming light of the lamps overhead. There was a compound bow slung over one of his shoulders.
“Who are you?” Bluewolf had little use for pleasantries this evening.
“Never heard of you.”
Although he appeared to keep his demeanor and tone flat, there was the faintest trace of a smirk there. “Good. I try to keep out of the public eye.”
Bluewolf stood his ground. “I’m still waiting for a reason why I shouldn’t put you down.”
“You think you could?”
With all eyes between the two men staring each other down, Corin slipped back into the shadows. He was still a little weak from earlier, but he was willing to risk a short hop. Not even seconds later he was standing in the same darkness that had hidden Grey Ronin. “I think he could, but the bottom line is you’re outnumbered.”
“And what do numbers mean, Dr. Midnight?” The stranger didn’t budge. “Do you think I would’ve stepped into the open if I thought I was putting myself in danger? I’ve been watching you. You know nothing about me.” Corin held his pistol close to the man’s back. “Relax. I come in peace. I’m with you guys.”
“With us? I don’t know you, remember?” Bluewolf said.
“I told you we should unionize.” Capin quipped.
“I’m on your side. Look, you guys are hurt and tired. I’ve got a van waiting nearby we can-”
“Right. Ok…” Capin was now off the wall and standing shoulder to shoulder with the stoic Bluewolf.”I just had a guy try and wrap a freighter around my head. When that failed they tried blowing it up.”Stretching his back a sliver of his tattered and bloody white shirt peaked out from behind his cape. “If you think I’m going to climb into your windowless kidnappers van, then you’ve got another thing coming, buddy.”
A few moments of silence passed between them. “Fair enough. Maybe next time.” And with that the stranger slid back into the night. They watched him go.
“Think he was on the up and up?” Mid-Night asked.
“Tough to say. Good poker face.” Bluewolf turned to his partner. “What do you think?”
“Kinda smug. E wanted me to punch him.”
“Doesn’t mean he was lying.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“How do we know he won’t continue following us?”
“He’s been made. He’s not going to chance it twice in a row.”
“Where are we going, anyway?”
Bluewolf looked at Capin. “Good question.”
There were few ‘green’ areas in Garrison City. Lexington Park, a small parcel of land enclosed by the Lexington Wells area and jutting ever so slightly into the Lourds, features a weather-worn statue of the city founder Leland Lexington, and was one of the few places the children of the low-rent area could actually see a tree. The Bayside Center, managed to keep the industrial feeling of the surrounding commercial dock areas at bay with sweeping lawns that rolled right down to the harbor where the gleaming white of the city’s boating community – those not privileged enough to own a slip in the Hiland Yacht Club – stood in stark contrast to the rest of Midland Bay. Tennison Park served as the demarcation line between the city, and the ‘burbs, but was the prime spot for the majority of the city school’s sports championships. Garrison Court was the place where soccer moms and business suits melded, surrounded on all sides by the towers of glass and steel of the central business district and the low clusters of shopping centers that peppered the city’s commercial district.
Lastly, Freedom Eagle Park, a homage to Garrison City’s most celebrated icon. The nearly two-hundred foot tall of the city’s very first costumed adventurer, Freedom Eagle, serves as the focal point. The base of the statue houses the Freedom Eagle Museum and Gift Shop, where visitors can browse artifacts and articles from World War II, the Korean Conflict and many post-war era adventures, as well as purchase knick-knacks and tchotchkes of various degrees of tastelessness. Unknown to most people, however, a secret sub-basement complex under the memorial also houses the operations of a secret Government agency called Strategoi.
It was in one of the deeper levels that Jenna Fairchild sat, staring in mute frustration at the latest directive she’d received. It centered on the group of costumed vigilantes she’d been assigned to observe when she took the posting in Garrison City; three of them in particular. She didn’t like it. She was absolutely positive the three ‘subjects’ would resist to the very letter of the order. She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts of this particular matter for the time being. She knew she could stall any follow up for a few weeks and there were more important tasks to be managed. Jenna locked her computer, then pushed away from her desk and headed to the elevators.
“Please don’t tell me you travel like this all the time?” Corin’s voice was low, but loud enough to be heard over the characteristic clack of the L car. He had secured his fedora, along with Aaron’s visor in the ‘shadow place.’
“Normally, I’m on the outside.” Ryu and Aaron sat across from him. Enry was inconspicuous for the moment, leaving the purple swelling over Ryu’s left eye to stand in stark contrast to his otherwise exquisite attire – exquisite as long as one didn’t examine him closely.
Aaron sat, his hands deep in the pockets of an overcoat they’d talked Corin into ‘acquiring’ for him, and only after Aaron had pressed a c-note into Corin’s palm to be left on the counter. “And I usually run. Across the rooftops if I can manage it,” he smirked, “You’d be surprised how many people simply don’t look up.”
“Indeed.” Ryu spoke half to himself as he looked down the train car. It was mostly empty, save a homeless man and a group of boys on their way home from patronizing several of the city’s late night bars. “Could be worse though. I lived in Ford for a while… that city has zero PT and not exactly any rooftops you’d want to jump between.”
“Ahh,” Corin replied, his head cocking back some bearing an expression that implied he should’ve known that.
The train’s PA system popped on with that synthesized bell and the automated voice told them that their next stop would be the Brownstone Garrison Bridge, the end of the line, and that the doors would open on the right. The three men got to their feet and crowded at the door beside the homeless man, still asleep. As the train informed them that they had arrived, the doors slid open and they filed, Aaron slipping a few folded bills into the coat of the sleeping man as he followed the others.
The Brownstone Garrison Bridge was nearly as old as the city itself. It was the main access from the mainland to the small island that was the home of the Brownstone Garrison – the original fort from which the city was named – and, as luck would have it, currently under renovations that limited the quarter-mile span to a single lane. Not that traffic was a concern for the trio at this time of night, but the area was still well lit, and the chance of a tip to the local precinct or the park police of three oddly dressed men crossing the span in the wee hours was too great to risk.
A series of catwalks and scaffolding had been attached to the outer edges of the bridge during the restoration process, and being well in the shadows served as the main conduit for the group’s clandestine meetings at the old fort. A small device from Bluewolf’s array of gadgets handled the padlock of the temporary security gate and the three were on their way. Half way across, Bluewolf’s visor chirped as Kardiac’s message came through. Their exchange was brief, as they always tended to be these days. As they approached the fort a lone figure crossed the park to meet them.
“Capin, thank god you’re alright.”
“I think technically we should stick with ‘alive’, but thanks.”
Silhouette smiled weakly, nodding. They followed her through one of the maintenance entrances to the old fort. In a small utility room, they were met by Sleepwalker. Capin, in usual fashion made with the introductions while they waited for Kardiac to arrive. There was no time for small-talk, as their wait was brief.
“He’s here.” Capin said. Enry in that soft static buzz had warned him of another presence.
“I know.” Wolf countered, the corner of his mouth shooting up at the look Capin gave him.
“Show off.” Capin inhaled rather overdramatically through his blood crusted nostril. “Should remind him to shower a little more often.”
Kardiac stepped out to the edge of the shadows and paused there, as if he were afraid to step out into the light and join his friends. Bluewolf’s night-vision was the keenest of those assembled, and as such was most likely the only one to catch the tightening around Eddy’s eyes as they passed over each of them – especially Andy. Perhaps Eddy had realized his loss of ‘control,’ as his eyes shot to the ground and he finally stepped from the shadows, his jaw set.
“So tell me again why we’re all here, and not,” He thumbed over his shoulder, “Out there?”
Silhouette coughed. “There’s,” her hand reached into her coat removing a folded piece of paper, “there’s something you boys need to see.” She held it a moment, unfolding it with two fingers and glancing over it once more before passing it over to Bluewolf without looking at him.
“What’s the deal?” It hadn’t taken long for Wolf’s expression to sour, but he continued reading.
“The short of it?” Jenna drew a deep breath. “Higher ups in Strategoi want you to come in to the organization. Officially join.”
Bluewolf looked up as Kardiac stepped fully into the room, crossed it and snatched the memo from his hand. “You’re joking.”
“Not joking,” he replied.
“No. Not joking.”
“Does somebody else remember unofficially joining? Was I out sick that day?” Capin shook his head.
The white memo crumpled as his fist closed around the side of it. “Bullshit,” he said through a clenched jaw. He dropped the sheet. “This is bullshit.” It was unsure if this was directed at anyone, but he appeared to be looking at Bluewolf.
Sleepwalker picked it up. “Let’s not fly off the handle quite yet. We’ll have plenty of time to do that.” The two old friends had still been at odds since Wolf, Capin and Jenna had strong-armed Andy into their ‘circle.’
“Would somebody mind telling me what the hell is going on? Who is Strategoi, and why do they want us?” Mid-Night appealed to the other three since the staring contest between Wolf and Kardiac was still going on.
“Strategoi is,” Capin began, “the Man in the shadow of the Man.” He gave Jenna a wink. “Isn’t that about right?”
Her eyes cut to the floor. She was having problems looking any of them in the eye at the moment.”It’s a little more involved than that, but that’s as much as you need to know for now.”
“For now? Wait, if I’m going to be working for-”
“We are not working for Strategoi.” Kardiac and Bluewolf said in unison.
“Now that we have that settled,” Sleepwalker said, “Can we get the Mickey Mouse Club meeting going? Some of us have day jobs.”
Bluewolf turned away from Kardiac, “You’re right. We do need to pool our information, however, and now is as good a time as any.” He started ticking items off on his fingers, “We know TAROT is involved at some level, and more specifically aiming at us. Advanced weapons and body armor have been arriving in the city by the freighter-load. Ak-Fet Sur cultists have cropped up to add to the mix of organized crime, though I’ve a hunch that they have their own agenda.” His eyes fell on Mid-Night for a moment before he continued, “What else?”
“We’re not making any ground at all?”
“Glad I’m not the only one who’s thought that.” Capin remarked. There was no trace of the usual smile, however. “Jotaro’s on to Kaye’s surveillance. We have another ‘wild-card,’ Grey Ronin. And I have a pounding headache.” He paused for a moment as a thought occurred to him, “It would seem to me that the other side is using agents that have a tie to each of us, personally. The Sharp Dressed Man made a few remarks to that end.”
“Who else knew about the intel that sent Capin to the freighter?” Sleepwalker asked.
“Just me, Capin, and the analysts who brought the information to my attention,” Jenna frowned,”Why?”
Andy shrugged, “Nothing concrete, just my detective’s instinct.”
“Are you thinking a mole?”
“Did your search turn up anything useful?” Sleepwalker asked Capin.
“A whole lot of nothing for the most part…” Then he remembered something and pulled the folded sheet of paper out of his jacket pocket, “There was this, but I didn’t get a chance to look it over well before things went south.”
The sheet made its rounds between the six of them. In essence it was a schedule of four simultaneous deliveries to take place the following night in four different parts of town. Coincidentally, two of those deliveries took place in the usual stomping grounds of two of the city’s costumed heroes, the Docks and the Lourds. Kardiac was the last to look at the paper, and he thrust it back towards Bluewolf with a look of disgust.
“Trap?” Bluewolf asked, looking at Kardiac, though both of them knew the answer before the question was asked.
“Trap.” Capin and Mid-Night both nodded in agreement.
Sleepwalker shrugged, not seeming too concerned. “It would appear so, but there are six of us, which is two more than they seem to be expecting.”
“Five,” Jenna replied. “My days in the field are over. I only keep this thing around for these meetings,” she added, tugging on the black leather that passed as her “costume.”
“Which leaves us unfortunately low on backup.”
Capin looked at Bluewolf. “What about the kid? Major Free–”
“No way in Hell,” Kardiac interrupted. “He’d only get dead, and then I’d lose the assistance of a very, very good mechanic.”
Bluewolf couldn’t help but smirk a little at that. “While I can’t necessarily echo Kard’s reasoning, I can echo his sentiment. If they’re setting these traps for us, you can bet the opposition will be professional, as in ‘worth the money’ professional.”
“What about this Grey Ronin guy?”
“You mean Captain Smarmy?”
Bluewolf stifled a laugh. “He was a little on the cocky side, which means he’s very good… or very green. We don’t know enough about him at this point to make the call.”
“Shame that Fff…,” Sleepwalker began, catching himself, “ffour locations had to be targeted… we could probably cover three, even if it meant bringing in both Rookies.”
Kardiac glared at Sleepwalker, knowing full well the word that had almost crossed his lips. Still glowering, he looked at Bluewolf, then to Capin. “What about the ladies?”
“The museum stunt hit Mel pretty hard.”
“We might have to consider it, though,” Bluewolf answered, frowning. “But even if we do bring them into it, and Sleepy supports Mid-Night, as I assume you’re going to suggest, that would still leave you without backup.”
Kardiac huffed to himself. “I got it covered.”
Sleepwalker rounded on him, “Enough of the ‘My City’ bravado, Eddy,” he said, roughly. “I understand it, I do, probably better than anyone here, but the lone wolf routine isn’t going to help us, and it sure as Hell isn’t going to help you with Lexa in town!”
“I can handle my wife!” Kardiac retorted forcefully, not realizing what he was saying until it was said. Capin, Mid-Night, and Silhouette were all staring at him now. It was obvious that at least the two he’d known for the better part of the last year were making the connection. “Shit.”
“Wait a minute… you…”
“…and Alexandra Vega…?”
“Were married,” Bluewolf said, cutting in. “Ancient history that isn’t really relevant–.”
“Not relevant?” Capin asked. He looked upset, maybe even angry. This was the first time that most of those assembled had seen such an expression on the dapper detective. “You knew about this?”
Bluewolf shook his head, “I just found out recently. What’s important, though, is that it’s in the past. It’s part of the ‘history’ that the Sharp Dressed Man was referring to.” He paused for a moment, his glance shooting over to Kardiac. Their eyes met, and Eddy immediately knew that Aaron had heard something in his heartbeat, maybe smelled something, but he knew Eddy didn’t want this conversation to continue… he was hiding something else, something new.
“What’s important now is dealing with the situation at hand, not secrets we’ve preferred to keep to ourselves.”
Capin regained his composure. The weight of the last several weeks was beginning to get the best of him as well. “Sorry,” he said, his demeanor changing almost instantly. “It was just a bit unexpected.”
Kardiac’s eyes went to Silhouette, however. She hadn’t stopped staring at him since he let his secret out. She looked more than confused. It wasn’t like her to be missing that kind of information, and she wasn’t happy about it. As the hub of the group, having the intel and using it to keep them alive was her bread and butter.
Bluewolf saw the two of them exchanging their looks, but decided it was better to just move on. “So assuming Capin and I can bring backup, we’re still one gun short in a target-rich environment.”
“It’s clear where they expect Me and Kard to be,” Capin said. “So I say we don’t be there.”
Kardiac’s eyes broke away from Jenna and he looked at Capin. “You and I switch dance partners?” he asked, rhetorically. “Solid. But what about Blue and Middy?”
“I’m sure if we look closer at the locations, we can work out who is expected at each site,” Mid-Night offered. “It’s not like I have long list of rogues.”
Bluewolf nodded to Mid-Night. It was clear he agreed with the other’s assessment. “Then it’s just a matter of making sure we all have backup,” he said, deliberately overemphasizing the word “all”.
“No,” Silhouette said in answer. “We won’t have to worry about it. I’ll cover Eddy,” she said with a frown.
“I’m telling you, I got it cov–”
“Are you sure?” Bluewolf asked, his senses turned on Silhouette.
She took a deep breath before continuing. “Affirmative,” she said, fully composed. “But just this once.”
Kardiac sighed, shaking his head. It was clear to him that he wasn’t getting out of this. He was going to have Lexa pull the right strings, maybe even ride along to keep him covered. Given their new “agreement,” it shouldn’t have been that tough. This was just going to complicate things.
“Just stay where I can keep an eye on your out-of-practice butt,” he said, forcing the joke to try to cover up the signals that he knew Bluewolf would be getting if he listened closely enough.
“My job will be keeping an eye on yours,” she replied, sharply. She had never really liked the ‘superhero’ gig, and she knew that Kardiac would do everything in his power to ensure she was never inspired to do it again.
“Now that we know who will be watching whose butt,” Capin interjected, deliberately inserting all of the innuendo that the comment would allow, “Maybe we should try something new.”
“And that would be?” Sleepwalker replied.
“I believe,” Capin continued, “There is this thing some groups use to ensure success in operations such as this.” He leaned in with a conspiratorial look on his face. “They call it… a plan.”
Bluewolf looked at the schedule carefully, checking his mental map of the city. “Okay, how about this: Kard and Sil take the Lourds. There’s a good chance that Sharp Dressed Man will be on the scene somewhere. Given his abilities, Kardiac will have a slight upper hand.” He looked square at his green-clad friend, still trying to catch a hint of what was really going on with him. “Be careful, though. He’s nearly as good as Capin in the hand-to-hand department.”
Kardiac smirked. “I can handle myself.” Bluewolf gave a knowing look to Silhouette; she simply sighed and nodded, realizing that she’d probably have her hands full.
“Kaye and I can cover the docs, since, next to Kard, I’m probably most familiar with the area. Mid-Night and Sleepwalker should probably cover the Little Tokyo drop, leaving the area near the old theater for Capin and Mel.” He looked around, “Anyone have anything else to offer?” They all shook their heads.
“It’s settled then. I think we all need to get some rest. The next few weeks are going to be… exciting at best.” The others nodded in agreement and began to file out. Bluewolf grabbed Sleepwalker’s arm as he passed by. “We never had the chance to explore your mole theory.”
Andy looked at the others as they left, then back at Aaron. “Like I said, just a detective’s hunch, but it seems like an awful lot of protection for a little scrap of paper that’s probably sitting in the inboxes of every major player’s e-mail.” He pulled off his mask and passed a weary hand over his eyes. “How secure are our coms?”
“They don’t get any more secure.”
“If we can rule out external intercept or tap of any sort, then the only other option is –” Andy began.
“Misinformation from within.” Aaron finished. “I need to make another call…”