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We took no tearful leaving,
We bade no long good-byes.
Men talked of crime and thieving,
Men wrote of fraud and lies.
-- Rudyard Kipling
I saw a cross-reference labeled "Mantra" and couldn't resist clicking it. As it happened, something new had been added to the stale file since my last visit.
"Recent analysis of the ultra Mantra's body-language derives a 70% chance of lesbian orientation. Investigations should concentrate on never-married women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five and also on relative newcomers to the north Los Angeles suburbs. In her civilian identity, Mantra probably shows strong traits for independence and assertiveness. We may also assume that she is affluent, in so far as her powers facilitate wealth-acquisition. The subject's interest in witchcraft will probably be manifested by active participation in some aspect of the occult subculture."
Lesbian? Well, I never! Just because I've always liked girls, it doesn't make me a lesbian. Some people are just too quick with their labels.
Thankfully, Aladdin had almost everything wrong. Though they were correctly targeting the northern suburbs, the aggressive-lesbian theory was a red herring that would only serve to keep the bloodhounds off the right track. Eden Blake was in fact a respectable formerly-married mother of two and a long-term Canoga Park resident. Rather than being wealthy and involved in the occult, she was a cash-strapped data analyst hiding under their very nose, and one more likely to be caught reading Working Mother than The Key of Solomon. I smiled at the screen ironically; their in-depth analysis sounded suspiciously like the comic character Madame Minerva.
After hitting the "back" button and returning to Warstrike's file, my glance fell on the line, "Whether the subject's increasingly erratic behavior is somehow linked to the ultra Mantra has yet to be determined -- otherwise the cause is unknown."
So, I'm supposed to be responsible for Tark's nuttiness? The way I see it, it's Warstrike who drives me crazy, not the other way around.
I read on. "As the likelihood of this trend persists, subject must be assumed hostile. To avoid any potential further conflict, his eradication should be a definite avenue of consideration . . . . "
That's Aladdin for you. If it's green, spend it; if talks, spy on it; if it breathes, liquidate it.
The file noted the abrupt termination of all Warstrike-sightings following an incident in St. Joseph's Church, just before last Christmas. I remembered Warstrike describing that ghastly incident. It involved the bizarre creature called "Lord Pumpkin" and the death of a teenaged boy.
I continued reading. "We recognize a high probability that Warstrike was killed in one of his reckless exploits in some unknown place and under unknown circumstances. Alternately, he may have acquired a long-term disability in the course of his activities and has gone to ground. There also remains the possibility that he continues operation with a new codename and costume, though no new ultra described to date approximates Warstrike in either observed abilities or modus operandi."
So far, reviewing this dated material had been a waste of time, but then I came to a paragraph interpolated just that morning:
"Warstrike has been identified as the chief suspect for the criminal assault upon radio talk show host Russell Lingaard at his "Quality in Broadcasting" studio at 12:00 p.m., June 11. Several witnesses ID'ed the suspect by his build and costume, which have been made familiar through the popular media. The attack appeared to be an effort to terrorize and intimidate, but not to kill; though the assailant had both time and opportunity to inflict fatal injury, he failed to do so. A positive ID in the near future seems likely and the incident strongly suggests that the ultra is still alive, active, and increasingly dangerous. Whether the subject acted in the behalf of an employer or out of personal motives is yet to be determined. Capture recommended."
Capture? What the hey? When Warstrike was only having a little good clean fun wrecking cars and knocking down brick walls, Aladdin was all gung-ho to assassinate him. Now suddenly, when he actually starts shooting innocent civilians, they get reasonable. I'm most worried about what Aladdin's up to when it pretends to be reasonable.
I sat back in my swivel chair, wondering why the earlier paragraph speculating on Warstrike's death had not deleted in the light of late-breaking events. Was it just bureaucratic sloppiness, or did Aladdin actually harbor some doubts that Warstrike was the real culprit? Why claim otherwise if that were the case?
I needed to dig deeper, but probing the organization's confidential files in broad daylight would be too dangerous. Aladdin's computer security was awesome, and Genie represents Artificial Intelligence to the nth degree. If I tried any of my old, outdated tricks, the system could trigger a very embarrassing alarm and get Eden Blake into the worst kind of trouble. I decided that a hacking attempt in the still of the night might be more in order.
Just then, I noticed a new link labeled A Report On The Increasing Trend of Ultra-Instigated Terrorism. With a title that inflammatory, I figured I could risk extending my extracurricular reading a few more minutes.
The file made interesting reading, though it struck me as funny that the writer ignored the usual suspects, the whole rogues' gallery of bad ultras, and concentrated its venom on supposedly upstanding superheroes. The Wisconsin hero Hodag was cited as chief suspect in the beating death of federal prosecutor Harold Spencer. Then there was the burning of a Black church in Alabama, which the report laid at the feet of the Gray Ghost, a Dixieland ultra who had lent his endorsement to the President's opponent in the last election.
The file alleged similar charges against other ultras, but little of it was news to me; such speculation routinely crosses my desk as soon as it's concocted. But in hindsight, I thought it strange that such sensational stories had not been played up in the press. The media had gone into overdrive with the Omaha Federal Building bombing. At that time, the administration had tried to make political points by blaming the ultra Haymaker, denouncing him as a right-wing fanatic. The hysteria only quelled when ex-weatherman Timothy Greenstone was nailed dead to rights.
Something smelled very bad, considering that the present administration was the most anti-ultra that the country had ever known. A couple Presidents back, crime-fighting ultras were routinely treated as American heroes. Sometimes they were even invited to the White House for medal presentations and picture ops, just like movie stars and big contributors are these days. The current First Lady, in particular, has been rabid on the subject of ultras, weaving them into elaborate fantasies involving a vast conspiracy of ideological enemies out to get her and her husband. So why had these more recent accusations against ultras been so underplayed thus far?
A little way down the page, the report seemed to answer my question:
"We recommend that instances of ultra terrorism be investigated quietly and pressure placed upon journalists not to issue sensationalized reports. News stories deleterious to the respective ultras' reputations should be collected and released all at one time in a crisis tone and endorsed by reliable celebrity spokesmen, especially popular actors, to the end of achieving the maximum public-opinion reaction."
So, Aladdin wanted to orchestrate an anti-ultra frenzy, but only when the politics were just right. What would this lead to? Summary arrests? Draconian laws restricting the citizen-arrest powers that ultras need to apprehend criminals? Outlawing the exercise of ultra abilities? This sure sounded like another of Aladdin's dirty tricks. My instincts were telling me that Warstrike was being framed as part of a larger plot. The one thing I still couldn't understand was why the feds were so anxious to trash good ultras when there were so many super-beings out there who were indisputably bad.
Governments, of course, never like vigilantism, but ultras were popular in the U.S. I supposed, therefore, that the administration didn't want to offend the public by beating up on its heroes. Prior to moving against the ultras, the feds would first want to spread disinformation, fear, and distrust. Maybe they thought that ultras in prison could more easily be recruited as Aladdin agents.
Or was there something even more sinister to it than that?
I clenched my teeth. What they did to Hodag, Gray Ghost, Warstrike, and several others, they could do to Mantra. What would my fans, most of them impressionable young girls, think if Mantra were suddenly framed for murder, robbery, or a gory act of terrorism? And that was nothing compared to the danger to Gus and Evie should a SWAT team show up at my little house in suburbia determined to take me out.
More than ever, I needed to find out what was going on with Warstrike.
I had Brandon's unlisted number and I called it on my lunch break, taking care to use a public phone at the Green Parakeet Café. A young-sounding woman with a strong, steady voice answered: "This is the Tark residence."
"Hello," I said. "My name is Jennifer Pearson. I'm in town and I'd very much like to get together with Brandon over the next couple days." Tark would certainly recognize the alias I used; he was the one who'd saddled me with it back when were posing as a married couple to help out the ultra called Wrath.
"I'll check on Mr. Tark's availability. Where can you be reached, Ms Pearson?"
"He knows where I stay when I'm in town," I replied coyly. "It's best to call after 6 p.m." I expected get a little grief for my coyness, but didn't. Maybe the aide on the other end was used to getting mysterious calls involving her wacky employer -- especially from strange women, if his behavior towards me was any indication of how he treated others.
At home that night I fixed a quick supper for Gus and Evie, somewhat distractedly because I was waiting for the phone to ring. I overheard the kids talking while off in the pantry:
"Evie, " said Gus, "didn't Mom used to cook a lot better?"
Evie's answer came slowly and deliberately. "Uh, no, I don't think so. She was always pretty bad."
Bad? Did Gus think I was a bad cook? Even though Evie was covering for me like a good little trooper, I realized that she must have agreed.
"Why do her scrambled eggs always smell so awful? They didn't used to," the boy went on.
"Maybe the eggs went rotten."
"Nah. They're stinky whenever she makes them."
Up to now, I'd thought that Gus and Evie just didn't care for scrambled eggs. If I couldn't scramble eggs right, what else was I doing wrong?
Pretending not to have heard, I came back to the table. When no one was looking, I took a whiff of the main course and had to admit that Gus was right. The kids soon finished picking through their plates and Gus rushed off to tune in the Sci-Fi Channel, while Evie went to the couch to color a picture.
I watched them from the dinner table for a moment, noticing that Evie seemed nonchalant and composed, after being downcast for so long. Was she forgetting her mother's tragic death, or was her grief simply healing? If so, did it mean that she was she accepting me as an adequate substitute for Eden?
I put the dishes into the sink, dumped the offending eggs into the garbage disposal, and went to sit down next to the little girl whom I'd come to think of as my own daughter. She glanced up with twinkling blue eyes. "What a nice job you're doing," I complimented. "You hardly go outside of the lines at all."
"Did you like my Draco Malfoy?" she asked proudly.
"Which one is he?"
She displayed a blond boy with an unpleasant expression. "That's him. I thought everybody knew who Draco was. Didn't they have Harry Potter when you were a little gir--"
Evie had broken off in mid-word. I knew she knew that there was a man somehow mixed up in Mantra's mystery, and I'd been dreading the day that she'd ask me about it. How could I tell her the whole truth? If Evie knew how strange a being Mantra was, wouldn't she reject me? I'd actually begun to hope that she had forgotten all the things she had heard me say the day her mother died, but now it was clear that Evie had understood just enough to be left wondering whether I had ever actually been a "little girl."
"I was...young...a long time before Harry Potter came along, Evie," I explained.
"Yeah, I guess back in the old days they only had Donald and Mickey."
I laughed and replied, "Donald and Mickey were lots of fun, that's for sure."
Let her think me a 'Seventies kid; in fact, I predate Punch and Judy.
"Man--" Evie began, and then glanced at the back of Gus's head in front of the TV. "I mean, Mommy, do you think that Mantra learned to do magic at a place like Hogwarts?"
I shook my head. "I doubt it. I bet Mantra learned to do magic on her own."
"That's too bad, because I'd like to go to Hogwarts and become a witch just like Mantra!"
"Who knows? Maybe you'll get your chance," I replied, giving her a squeeze. Then, standing up, I said, "Don't let me disturb you. I just enjoy watching my little girl have a good time."
She grinned and went back to her coloring.
Returning to the kitchen, I realized that keeping the huge secret of my identity must have been hard on the tike. All the others who knew it were super-beings, and I could have counted them on one hand -- a couple of hopefully dead villains and my comrades Pinnacle and Warstrike. Prime only knew half the truth -- that Eden Blake was Mantra, not that Eden wasn't actually Eden.
All at once, I understood why I'd been so much wanting to get together with Warstrike lately. He was on the short list of friends who knew I was Lukasz!
I had been impersonating Eden Blake non-stop since New Year's and the strain of it had been eating on me. I needed some Lukasz time; going without it had me climbing the wall.
Then the phone rang.
Crossing swiftly into my bedroom, I closed the door and picked up the receiver. "Hello."
"I've been told that L wants to see me," said Brandon's voice.
L? Why was he talking like a British spymaster? I decided to play along. "Yes, 'L' wants to see you very much."
If I was going to get away from the house while the kids were at home, I'd have to arrange for a sitter. "No. Better tomorrow."
He sounded stressed -- like a man wanted by the law. "Eight should be all right. At your home?"
"Yeah, that's fine. I'll be waiting. Just one more thing."
"Tell L not to believe everything he hears."
The line clicked off and I couldn't help but think that it had been an odd conversation. Was Brandon worried that his conversations were being monitored for some reason? Or had he simply gone funny?
If the latter were the case, he had a lot of artillery to get funny with. That wasn't good, considering that he might consider me a danger to be eliminated, in as much as I knew his secret identity. No matter what our past relationship had been -- and it was hard to define what exactly it had been -- I didn't dare let him get the drop on me, not until I knew what was what.
Brandon Tark lived on in the hills beyond the worst of L.A.'s urban sprawl. I envied his money, but didn't resent it since I could easily have been rolling in bucks, too. The difference between us was that Tark had used his precognitive powers to get rich, while I'd avoided using my own command of natural energies to do the same. Maybe my reluctance to cash in is foolish, but like I said before, it's too late to keep Eden Blake from becoming a killer, but I'll be damned if I'll make her a thief.
My family had been told I was going on a date. This rather surprised "Mother," i.e., Mrs. Barbara Freeman, in so far as I'd been living like a nun for more than a year. It was not that she disapproved of me having a social life; in fact, she'd been encouraging me to go out and meet new people -- and by that she meant men, naturally. Barbara must have had a damned good marriage herself if she wanted her daughter to try again, despite the earlier bad experience. Or maybe she was just interested in seeing that he grandkids had a "normal" two-parent home. Too bad; any hope of "normal" went out the window the day I showed up.
I wanted to approach the Tark mansion unseen by phasing and flying in underground, worried that Brandon might be under Aladdin's surveillance; it's not that he's ever worn much of a disguise. But flying blind isn't easy. Just before I went phantasmal and dove beneath the turf, I tried to attuned myself to an energy signature emanating from the mansion. Wow! I had been expecting some commonplace electro-magnetic field, such as a refrigerator motor, but instead had zoomed in on a power dam -- or its equivalent! Whenever Tark had hidden under that house of his, I couldn't get off course if I tried.
Plunging into darkness, I propelled myself along with magic, which I usually avoid doing, since riding the air currents is much less straining. Eden, though, when she had these powers on the Godwheel, had flown very far and very fast into outer space. I didn't know how she'd done it and it made me wonder how many other powers this body possessed that I still hadn't discovered how to use efficiently. Even as an amateur, I'd been a match for Boneyard himself. How formidable could I become if I ever mastered my potential? It's no wonder that Archimage wanted to steal this body and send me to my heavenly reward.
Of course, after the life I've lived, I can't be too sure how heavenly my award would be. I truly hope that longevity is part of the magic I now possess, as Archimage had once intimated.
Suddenly I was no longer immersed in an inky-black underground, but was flying free in a great vaulting chamber. Pausing in mid-flight, I drew up short and looked around.
I'd blundered into a cavern. Apparently, it was a natural one that had been artificially widened and stocked with tons of sophisticated equipment. I had known that Brandon Tark liked gadgets, but this was like the Night Cave that the comic books credited Night Man with. It seemed wrong somehow, since Warstrike had always struck me as uninvolved in technology, outside of those sophisticated small arms he always sported. Though the man was fairly smart, he generally came off as not much more than a cunning, muscle-bound lug who liked to play with high-caliber weapons and rocket-launchers.
The place was impressive. How had it been constructed in secret? Then I recalled Brandon telling me that a bootleg kingpin had built the mansion in the 1920's. Whatever organized crime had used the cave for back then, these days it made a good box for holding Warstrike's toys.
The discovery increased my respect for the super-mercenary, if not my trust. If I could be so wrong about Warstrike in one way, I could be dead wrong about him in other ways, too -- and that worried me.
Be on guard, Lukasz.
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