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The Shield

1940-

10

Flanagan tied up Courtland with his own belt and ties raided from the closet. He  dropped the man on the bed as he looked the place over. He found a set of papers with spaces for signing over his company. He frowned beneath his welder’s mask.

 

Apparently the meeting being called after he was dead involved a deal for his business. He noted that the buying business had Rydell as the chairman of the new board and majority stock holder.

 

He didn’t see any of the names of the other stock holders on the paperwork. How did Rydell plan to sell them on the idea? He thought that if they thought he was dead, then that would be enough to sway everyone but Miss Rich. He hoped she
would have said no to such a deal when her controlling interest kicked in.

 

How did he turn this around? He wanted to get Miss Rich back. Was she dead?

 

If she was, Courtland would be taking a swan dive out the window.

 

He needed to give Rydell a reason to hold on to her if he had her. He looked at the paperwork. That might be enough to buy him some time. He smiled under the mask. He hoped he could pull this off.

 

He picked up the phone and called Westwood’s office first. He needed to make sure Rydell hadn’t moved. If the detectives still had an eye on him, that would be okay.

 

“Westwood,” said the detective. It was a good thing he hadn’t gone home. That would have meant doing things the hard way.

 

“Do you still have an eye on Rydell?,” asked Flanagan.

 

“He hasn’t moved according to my guys,” said Westwood. “I outfitted the tail cars with radios so they could call in without having to look for pay phones.”

 

“Call them and tell them to be on alert to follow him if he leaves,” said Flanagan. “I want to know what he does.”

 

“Got it,” said Westwood.

 

“I’ll call back in a bit,” said Flanagan. He hung up. Then he dialed Rydell’s private number to his house on the Island. He needed to give his suspected attempted murderer some bait.

 

“Hello?,” said Rydell’s growl. “Who’s this?”

 

“I know you have Josephine Rich,” said Flanagan. “I have Arnold Courtland and your precious paperwork. I’m willing to trade if Miss Rich is alive. If she isn’t, your agreement is going into my fireplace.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Rydell.

 

“I suppose that’s okay,” said Flanagan. “Courtland gets to take a swan dive out the window, and all this comes out in the press. I’ll see you on the front page tomorrow.”

 

“You’re going to throw Arnie Courtland out the window?,” asked Rydell. “Don’t you think there’s better ways to do things.”

 

“I traced Courtland from his attacks on Flanagan and Miss Rich,” said Flanagan. “I have your paperwork in my hands. I know people who would love to see this. You could lose it all. At least your wife will be able to administer your part of your wealth while you’re away. It wouldn’t be a great solution, but you have the next move. Give me back Miss Rich, and I give you the paperwork and Courtland to deal with as you please.”

 

“How do I know this is on the up and up?,” asked Rydell.

 

Flanagan read the top of the front page of the deal over the line.

 

“How do you want to do this?,” asked Rydell. Flanagan imagined him sitting in his easy chair, thinking of ways to set up an ambush.

 

“I’m going to call back in an hour,” said Flanagan. “I’ll tell you where the meet is going to be. You bring Miss Rich. I bring Courtland and the deal. We trade. We walk away. You don’t try anything, and you get to keep everything a secret.”

 

“No one knows?,” said Rydell.

 

“Not yet,” said Flanagan. “And they won’t as long as you don’t try to doublecross me. If I don’t see Miss Rich, you won’t see the papers. That’s all I am ready to give you.”

 

“All right,” said Rydell. “I have to make some phone calls and get her. I’ll be waiting on your call.”

 

Flanagan hung up. He called Westwood back.

 

“Westwood,” said the detective.

 

“Keep an eye on the Rydell house,” said Flanagan. “I need to know if he leaves, or if someone drives up.”

 

“I’ll let my guys know,” said Westwood. “Are we raiding the house?”

 

“I don’t know yet,” said Flanagan. “I proposed a trade. I am going to call him back in an hour to set up a meet. I need your guys ready to follow him and get Miss Rich out of danger.”

 

“I’ll let them know,” said Westwood. “Is there anything else I can do?”

 

“I might need your help later,” said Flanagan. “Right now, I just need you to watch until I can call you back to tell you where we’re going to meet. Be ready.”

 

Flanagan hung up the phone. He had things to do. Part of that was getting Courtland out of the Aviary without causing a fuss. He planned to call Westwood before he went into action, but he needed to move to the staging area first.

 

He made sure that Courtland was gagged before he slung the man over his shoulder.


He took the paperwork and tucked it in his belt. He walked to the door. He cracked it open to peer out in the hall without attracting attention. When he was sure the coast was clear, he carried his burden to the stairs. He worked his way down to
the second floor and out the window he had used to get in the building.

 

He put Courtland in the trunk and shut the lid on him. Now he had to drive out to the Island before Rydell expected him to call. Then he could think of something to get Miss Rich back. He put the deal in the glove box before starting the car and
setting out.

 

If anyone searched the car, they would find Courtland. They might not find the paperwork, and it wouldn’t matter if they did. Either he came through and got Miss Rich back, or he went to the meeting and shut Rydell down there.

 

Either way, he wasn’t giving up his friend, or his company, without a fight.

 

Flanagan drove across town, using the Brooklyn Bridge to get to Long Island. He aimed for Rydell’s mansion on the Gold Coast. He needed to call Westwood to make sure his quarry hadn’t moved.

 

He doubted the man would come along quietly. He had already committed to violence when he had the dynamite thrown to the factory floor. It had been blind luck that no one had been seriously hurt in the explosion. The two personal attacks showed that Rydell wanted him dead so he could get his way.

 

Flanagan stopped at a payphone a few miles from Rydell’s house. It was almost
time to call him for the meet. First, he had to call Westwood.

 

He put the change in and dialed the detective’s office.

 

“Westwood,” said the private investigator.

 

“Has Rydell moved?,” asked Flanagan.

 

“No,” said Westwood. “A car pulled up and a gang piled out. My guys couldn’t tell if Miss Rich was there.”

 

“All right,” said Flanagan. “I have fifteen minutes to get there. Call your guys and tell them to keep an eye out in case they get a chance to rescue her.”

 

“I’ll let them know,” said Westwood. “Are you sure about this? We could call the cops and let them handle things.”

 

“Maybe,” said Flanagan. “I would rather make sure Miss Rich is okay with my own two eyes. I got her into this mess. I have to get her out.”

 

“Right,” said Westwood. “Good luck.”

 

Flanagan hung up the public phone. He got back into the idling car and sped down the road.

 

He knew where Rydell’s estate sat because he had visited there for a party and backroom meeting. He imagined the low block wall around the grounds, and the steel gate barring people from driving to the house unless someone triggered the hydraulics holding the gate closed. He would wreck his car trying to drive through that.

 

He needed to get in without anyone knowing he was there, then he needed to take Miss Rich and leave. He couldn’t afford to let his car be wrecked while he was trying to make a getaway.

 

He pulled into bushes concealing the wall around the estate. He winced at the sound of branches scratching the car up, but then reminded himself that the car was stolen. He grabbed his shield and got out.

 

He pulled the shield onto his arm as he climbed on top of the car. He used the roof to jump over the spikes on top of the wall. He landed lightly on the other side and started toward the house.

 

He didn’t see any guards wandering the grounds. Maybe they were all waiting for the call he wasn’t going to make.

 

He skulked to the front window overlooking the lawn. He peered inside. A group of men stood in Rydell’s private office.  Miss Rich sat in a chair in front of Rydell’s desk. Rydell sat behind the desk. He stared at the phone as if willing it to ring.

 

He needed to attract their attention from using Miss Rich as a bargaining chip and get her out of the way.

 

He backed up to get himself some room. He ran at the window and threw himself at it. He wasn’t really that light, but he still might have bounced off if he hadn’t been wearing the chainmail covered in his mixture. He crashed through the glass and fell on the nearest men with that extra mass working in his favor. It was enough to knock them into the men behind them, staggering them out of the way.

 

Flanagan swung his shield around him with all of his strength. He saw the angles of attack in his head and followed them. The triangle caught bodies edge on as he threw himself into the fight.

 

“Run!,” shouted Flanagan. He threw himself into a diving kick to carry his body over Rydell’s desk and send the fatter man in his wheeled chair rolling away from the desk.

 

Miss Rich stood up. Her hands had been tied behind her with rope. Her legs had been left unbound since they had thought they would be moving her again. She ran for the door.

 

Flanagan threw himself back over the desk and ran after her. He turned and held his shield up. He didn’t want a stray shot hitting her if he could block it. The only piece he was not sure wouldn’t stop a bullet was his headgear.

 

He followed Miss Rich to the front door. He pulled it open and looked outside.

 

No one had jumped through the window to cut them off.

 

That wouldn’t last long if they got their wits about them and started shooting from the cover of the mansion. He had to get Miss Rich to cover so she could get away while he drew the gunmen’s attention.

 

He had been lucky so far but he couldn’t expect that luck to last.

 

“Run down to the gate,” said Flanagan. “I have a car waiting on the road.”

 

He pulled the knot holding her hands behind her away. He kept an eye on the window and the office beyond. His armor would blend into the night, but Miss Rich still wore the tan dress she had picked out for the party at his townhouse.

 

She was a moving target across the dark lawn. He had to buy time for her to get down to the wall.

 

He pulled the stolen pistol from his belt. He calculated angles as he moved across the lawn. He wanted them to shoot at him and not Miss Rich. He waited until he saw a part of a gunman taking aim. He fired his automatic.

 

He held up his shield as a fusillade dumped lead on him. He barely felt any impact. He fired back to keep their attention. A glance told him that Miss Rich was at the gate, looking for a way over the wall.

 

He jogged down to stand with her. This was the most dangerous part of everything. He needed help now.

 

He handed her the shield for protection. He grabbed her in a hug around her thighs. He hefted her to the top of the wall. She dropped down on the other side.

 

“Here,” she said. She handed back his shield through the bars of the gate.

 

He took it and strapped it on his arm.

 

“Get in the car,” said Flanagan. “I’m coming over the wall.”

 

He ignored the sounds of bullets cutting the air to look at the wall next to the gate. He saw that it had an electronic pad to let cars out. He used that as a stepping stone and pulled himself over the wall and dropped down to the other side.

 

Miss Rich pulled the getaway car up so he could get inside the passenger side. She waited for him to do that before driving away from the chaos behind them.

 

“Are you all right?,” asked Flanagan.

 

“I’m really mad right now,” said Miss Rich.

 

“What do we do about this mess?,” said Flanagan. “I didn’t think about calling the cops in on this, and Courtland is in the trunk.”

 

“Courtland is in the trunk?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Yes, so watch your driving,” said Flanagan. “We can’t afford to be stopped. We’ll be the ones on charges.”

 

“All right,” she said. “We need to find a place where we can talk without worry.”

 

“Both of our homes have been invaded,” said Flanagan. “Someone might be at the factory, or the office. Let’s see if we can find a hotel that will accept your appearance.  We’ll leave Courtland waiting for the cops.”

 

“I’m for that,” said Miss Rich. “Thanks for saving my life.”

 

“It was the least I could do,” said Flanagan.

 

//222735

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The Shield

1940-

11

Flanagan had called Dern. He asked the detective to keep his survival a secret. He
didn’t have an idea of what to do next, but he told the detective everything except the
fact that he had accidentally created a masked identity and that masked identity had
helped out when he needed it.

 

He also told the detective that he had left Courtland in the trunk of the stolen car in
a public lot. He didn’t know if the front man would give up Rydell, but maybe they
could question him before cutting him loose.

 

He needed to do something about clothes and money. He couldn’t expect Miss Rich
to cover their hotel rooms until this mess was over. And his armor was something he
couldn’t parade around the city in.

 

It had done the job. He had been hit during the escape from Rydell’s mansion. None
of the slugs had punched through his shield, or tunic. He couldn’t see a crack in the
fabric.

 

“I called Mr. Westwood like you asked,” said Miss Rich. She wore a new dress from
room service. “He is going to cover the rooms for us. He wants to know what our next
move is.”

 

“I have no idea,” said Flanagan. He had changed his armor for a suit. Room service
had brought him a duffel to store his protective gear while he was in hiding. He
couldn’t wear it all the time.

 

“So Rydell wins,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Only if he can get the rest of the board to sale their stock,” said Flanagan. “There is
a meeting called for the day after tomorrow. He probably told everyone I was dead.”

 

“If you aren’t dead, there’s nothing anyone can do,” said Miss Rich. “You hold the
controlling interest.”

 

“If I died, you’d be in charge,” said Flanagan.

 

“That just means he would try to kill me too,” said Miss Rich. She sat down in one
of the padded chairs that came with the room.

 

“I think we should be at that meeting,” said Flanagan. “We should invite Dern along
to see what he thinks of everything.”

 

“He can’t do anything since we can’t prove anything,” said Miss Rich.

 

“We can prove that Courtland works for him and he plans to take over the company
and force everyone else out,” said Flanagan. “That might be enough to put him off the
board for a new member.”

 

“I want him to go to jail,” said Miss Rich.

 

“So do I,” said Flanagan. “The problem is I broke in and saved you. There’s no
evidence that you were at his place that couldn’t be refuted in some way. We could
call Westwood back and ask if any of his people saw you being moved to the big
house before I broke in. Maybe that would be enough for a kidnaping charge to be
leveled.”

 

“Is that possible?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“If someone saw you getting out of that car, that’s something that would have to be
fought,” said Flanagan.

 

“I liked it better when people weren’t trying to kill me for control of a business,” said
Miss Rich.

 

“So did I,” said Flanagan. “I think we can get Coutri to figure out where and when
this meeting will take place. Then I think we should be there to refute whatever is
said.”

 

“Will Dern go along with that?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“I don’t see why not,” said Flanagan. “He wants someone to go down for the factory
bombing. Adding on charges just makes his job easier.”

 

“Attempted murder would be good if we could prove Rydell had ordered it,” said
Miss Rich.

 

“That won’t happen unless some of his people break under Dern’s questioning,” said
Flanagan. “I don’t see that happening.”

 

“So the meeting is the only chance we have to prove anything,” said Miss Rich. “I
don’t like it.”

 

“Neither do I,” said Flanagan. “Call Coutri and see if he can find out when this
meeting is going to happen. We can expect that Rydell had more than one copy of the
paperwork he was going to present for the board.”

 

“That thing you were wearing took Rydell by surprise,” said Miss Rich. “He probably
thinks that masked man is someone just meddling.”

 

“No,” said Flanagan. “He’s smarter than that. A masked man shows up to stop the hit
on his rival, and then the same masked man shows up to save you. He won’t know if
it’s me for sure, but he’s probably guessed that I’m behind both events.”

 

“So as soon as he’s knows you’re alive, he will try to kill you again,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Possibly,” said Flanagan. He went to the window and looked out from behind the
curtains. “This meeting might be our only chance to break him.”

 

“I’ll call Mr. Coutri,” said Miss Rich. “If he can find out the things we need, it’ll put
us ahead for once.”

 

“Don’t let him know I’m alive,” said Flanagan. “The fewer who know, the better in
my opinion.”

 

Miss Rich used the phone to call Mr. Coutri’s office. The lawyer wasn’t in. She gave
his secretary the message and hung up. She sat back down and closed her eyes.

 

“All we can do is wait,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Maybe Westwood or Dern will turn something up,” said Flanagan. “There’s not a
lot of evidence floating about, but maybe they can put some of it together without any
more interference from me.”

 

“I’d feel better if we weren’t waiting for someone to try to kill us while we’re waiting
for something to happen,” said Miss Rich.

 

“It’s not like we can harass the thugs sent to do me in, or any of Rydell’s personal
guard,” said Flanagan.

 

“Why not?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Because Westwood is following them around to see where they lead him,” said
Flanagan.

 

“So what do we do then?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“Do you know how to play Rummy?,” asked Flanagan. “That’s about all we can do
until something pops.”

 

“I don’t like it,” said Miss Rich. “I might be in trouble with my landlord. And Mr.

Westwood’s man got shot trying to protect me. I don’t want to give the next move to
Rydell.”

 

“There’s not much we can do,” said Flanagan. “And we can’t expect to fool him
about me being dead if I burst into his office and give him a punch to the face.”

 

“I know,” said Miss Rich. “It would feel so much better if we could do that.”

 

“If we can show Rydell the door, that would be good enough for me,” said Flanagan.
“We don’t need a traitor working to undermine us.”

 

“I would like to see him in jail,” said Miss Rich.

 

“It depends on if we can get him to confess to something,” said Flanagan. “We can’t
count on Westwood’s men to testify, and I can’t because of what I did to Courtland
to find out where you were. The best we can hope for is that we force him out of
the company and wreck his reputation enough no one will deal with him from now
on.”

 

“I’d like that,” said Miss Rich.

 

“It’s the best we can do at the moment,” said Flanagan. “Somewhere down the line
we might be able to prove Rydell broke the law somewhere. That might be enough
to put him away. Until then, we have to act like we don’t know who the purple man
is, and how he got mixed up in this.”

 

“I don’t know how that will work,” said Miss Rich. “Anyone watching this from the
outside will be able to connect that armor to the company.”

 

“I want to prevent them from connecting the armor to me,” said Flanagan. “I’m proud
that it took some heavy blows without cracking. It might be something we can use
for our troops. I just don’t know what the upper limit is. I haven’t been able to test
it so far.”

 

“Let’s get through this,” said Miss Rich. “You might have to use that armor if we
can’t get Rydell to back off legally.”

 

“I know,” said Flanagan. “I’m hoping we can keep everything under a shroud. All
we need is one reporter getting a picture. The next thing you know we’ll have a flock
of them following us around.”

 

“You won’t be able to do any more acts of daring do if that happens,” said Miss Rich.
She smiled.

 

“I can do without being a vigilante,” said Flanagan. “It cuts into my work time.”

 

“I bet,” said Miss Rich. “So all we can do is wait?”

 

“For the moment,” said Flanagan. “The problem is I am bored and want something
to do, and we can’t show our faces until we’re ready to go.”

 

“I know what you mean,” said Miss Rich. “I should be at the office, or taking care
of errands. At least Rydell thinks you’re dead. As soon as he sees me, I’m back in
the soup.”

 

“We can go out if we disguise ourselves somehow,” said Flanagan. “Do you think
that’s too dangerous?”

 

“It’s a little risky,” said Miss Rich. “Rydell has those thugs looking for us.”

 

“We can still take in a movie as long as we don’t go anywhere we would usually go,”
said Flanagan.

 

“I suppose that would be okay,” said Miss Rich. “Dinner?”

 

“I don’t see why not,” said Flanagan. “I’ll have to get some money from the
townhouse.”

 

“I don’t think that’s wise,” said Miss Rich. “They might be looking for you to come
back if they aren’t fooled by the police report.”

 

“I might have some money in my duffel bag,” said Flanagan. “We can use that for
a night on the town.”

 

“We don’t want any place expensive,” said Miss Rich.

 

“It’ll be the cheapest dive I know,” said Flanagan. “Call Coutri, and I’ll call
Westwood. That way they’ll know we’re going to be out and about until we call them
back.”

 

“Mr. Westwood won’t like it,” said Miss Rich.

 

“He’s keeping an eye on Rydell’s people for us,” said Flanagan. “We have to know
if there is some kind of movement on that front. If they are just waiting for the
meeting, no one will be worried if you are still alive, or not. You’re a lowly
secretary.”

 

“Then why kidnap me in the first place?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“The first obvious thing is because if they missed me, you’re my right hand and could
be used as insurance,” said Flanagan. He searched in his bag until he found a
wallet. He put that in his pocket. “The second thing is Rydell might know what my
will says.”

 

“And what does your will say?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“You get my stock in the company if I die,” said Flanagan. “Everything I own
becomes yours.”

 

“Why would you do that?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“You’re the only one I trust, and if I die without a will, the controlling interest goes
to the state, or becomes nonexistent,” said Flanagan. “I couldn’t let that happen. Too
many people are counting on me.”

 

“What do you want me to do if you do die?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“I want you to keep the company running and protect it against people like Rydell,”
said Flanagan. “I’m sure this move is because of the government contracts we
landed. They’re potential long term money makers.”

 

“That’s enough to sabotage the factory, and try to have you killed, and kidnap me and
shoot my bodyguard?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“We’re talking about a ton of money with more on the way if we go to war like
everyone thinks we will,” said Flanagan. “Roosevelt is helping the Brits as much
as he can. Eventually someone is going to try and stop him. When that happens,
we’ll be in the thick of it.”

 

“And whomever owns the company will be able to rake in money off the top without
worry,” said Miss Rich. “We’ll never be able to prove any of this.”

 

“The best we can do is make sure Rydell doesn’t see a dime of that proposed money,”
said Flanagan. “Go ahead and make your call. I’ll call Westwood and we’ll see a
show and have dinner like we talked about.”

 

“All right,” said Miss Rich. “I don’t think I can carry the company if you aren’t
around.”

 

“You’ll run it better than I am,” said Flanagan. He waved a hand to shoo her out of
the room.

 

He picked up the earpiece for the room’s phone and dialed Westwood’s number. He
waited for someone to pick up and talk to him.

 

He left a message to say they were going out for a bit and would call back when
they were back at the hotel.

 

He hung up the phone before Westwood could protest and try to convince him to stay
in.

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The Shield

1940-

12

Flanagan checked his tie one last time in his office bathroom. It looked as straight as
it ever was going to be. He wished he didn’t have to make this play in front of his 
peers. Most of them would not be happy he was not dead.

 

He stepped out into his office. Miss Rich, Westwood, Coutri, and Detective Dern
were waiting on him.

 

“The meeting is getting ready to start in the boardroom,” said Miss Rich. “Rydell and
Courtland just arrived according to Larry.”

 

Flanagan nodded. Larry was the front desk man. He knew most of the employees on
sight, if not by name. If he had seen Rydell coming into the lobby, then Rydell was
coming to the meeting.

 

That meant everything was on. This might be their last chance to get him out of the
company and strip his shares from him.

 

“So he’ll be whipping them into a froth to sell in ten minutes,” said Flanagan.

“Everybody thinks I’m dead, right?”

 

“Yes,” said Dern. “No one knows about the attack on your townhouse except for the
wise guys involved. We locked the papers out of it for the moment. All we have to
do is get him to admit that he thought you were dead for whatever reason.”

 

“All right,” said Flanagan. “I doubt that will happen. Let’s see what we can do when
he calls the meeting to order.”

 

They waited in Flanagan’s office until the temporary secretary from the pool came in
and said Mr. Rydell had gone by. Flanagan nodded, picked up the paperwork he had
stolen from Courtland and stepped out into the hall. He led his entourage down to the
board room and waited at the door to listen.

 

Rydell was in the middle of his spiel for selling the company now that Flanagan was
dead. Courtland stood by his side. Bruises decorated the proxy agent’s face from the
punches he had been given. Some of that might have been from the car ride in the
trunk.

 

Flanagan smiled.

 

“He just admitted knowing I was dead,” said Flanagan.

 

“I heard,” said Dern. “Let’s go in and see what else he can tell us before I arrest him.”

 

Flanagan pushed the door open and stepped inside the room. Dern and Westwood
remained by the door, while Coutri followed Flanagan to the table. Miss Rich took
her spot by the door to record the meeting for later. A small writing desk had been set
up for that for her.

 

“How’s it going, fellas,” said Flanagan. “Looks like I didn’t get an invite.”

 

“You’re supposed to be dead,” said Rydell.

 

“Really,” said Flanagan. “What do you mean?”

 

“I heard there was a gun battle at your townhouse,” said Rydell.

 

“From who?,” asked Flanagan. “I did have some problems, but I don’t remember a
gun battle. Are you sure I was home?”

 

Rydell froze. He looked around the room. All eyes were on him.

 

“Let’s talk about this paperwork my associate took from Mr. Courtland last night,”
said Flanagan. There was no point in telling the board about his armor. He wanted to
keep it secret, and he doubted he would be able to do that if he told everyone present
about it. Hopefully using it to rescue Miss Rich would keep her quiet about it. “It
looks like you want us to sell our stakes in the company and make you the sole owner
under a new company name. No one here would be at the helm of the new company,
but it would have all of our assets. How was that supposed to work?”

 

“What are you saying, Frank?,” asked one of the board members, T.S. Wannamacher.

He owned a small stake in the company, but he owned small stakes in a lot of
companies. That made him the wealthiest man on the board as far as Flanagan could
figure.

 

“Once you signed over your stakes, you’re out,” said Flanagan. “The company has
some government contracts coming in, and is about to double our profitability, maybe
triple it. Once Rydell controlled it all, he would rake in the dough, and the rest of you
would be out on the street with less than five percent of what we’re looking at making
in the next few years.”

 

“Let me see this paperwork,” said Wannamacher. He held out his hand. Flanagan
walked around the table and handed the contract over. The elderly financier flipped
through the pages, going over the boilerplate with a finger. “It looks like Frank is
right. There’s no option for us in the new company.”

 

“Rydell promised a stake in the new company,” said one of the other board members.

 

“It’s not here,” said Wannamacher. “If we had gone ahead with this, we would have
lost everything we had invested in the company, and got nothing to replace it. I think
we should consider removing Rydell from the board.”

 

“You can’t remove me,” said Rydell. “I own more of this company than anyone here.”

 

“We can vote to remove you from the board, and take back your stock so you own
nothing,” said Wannamacher. “As it is, it looks like you committed some crimes that
the government might need to talk to you about with this deal.”

 

“We’re going to want to talk to him before that,” said Dern. “I’m really interested in
why you thought Mr. Flanagan would be dead and unable to attend this meeting.”

 

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” said Rydell. He glared at Dern.

 

“I think that you do,” said Dern. He moved his lapel on his coat to show his badge.
“The city of New York is going to want to know why you tried to blow up someone
in New Jersey, and then tried to have them killed in their own home. And then the
New Jersey State Police are going to want to know what you know about such
bombing and a shooting in their territory. And then the FBI is going to want to know
why you are crossing state lines. So you’re going to have to come downtown so we
can talk about all of this.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Rydell. He reached under his jacket. He had forgotten that
Flanagan was on the other side of him. A grab to keep him from pulling a weapon
turned into a struggle that pushed against the table the board used.

 

Dern and Westwood stepped in. They grappled with Rydell, disarming him with a
little effort. The detective pulled out cuffs and secured them around the wrists of the
attempted murderer.

 

“You still haven’t won,” said Rydell. “I’ll have the last laugh and ruin all of you at
the same time.”

 

“Do you have anything to say, Mr. Courtland?,” said Dern. He pushed his captive in
a chair.

 

“Not really,” said the agent. He looked at his feet.

 

“Sit down, Mr. Courtland,” said Dern. “I’ll see if the District Attorney will cut a deal
with you over this.”

 

Flanagan rubbed the back of his neck. He hadn’t thought Rydell would try to pull a
gun and shoot at them.

 

He should have.

 

The man had fallen silent. He kept looking at the clock. Why? What was he waiting
on?

 

“Can you take care of him?,” Flanagan asked. “I have to go somewhere for a little bit.

I’ll come down and press charges on him when I get done with this other job.”

 

“No problem,” said Dern. “As soon as some uniforms get here, I’ll take my catch
down to the 27th Precinct for booking.”

 

“I’ll meet you there to swear out a statement,” said Flanagan. “Could you drive me,
Miss Rich?”

 

“Yes,” said the secretary. She handed her notebook to Westwood to keep as she stood
up.

 

“I have to go somewhere,” said Flanagan. “Thanks for listening to things. I’ll call
another meeting when we’ve settled with the government. I’ll have accounting
estimate earnings on those contracts then.”

 

He fled from the conference room and headed for his office. His armor was in his
closet. He felt that he might need it before too much longer. He grabbed the bag, as
Miss Rich paused in the door.

 

“We have to head out to the factory,” said Flanagan. He threw the bag on his
shoulder. “I’m going to have to change on the way. You drive.”

 

“Does this have something to do with what Rydell said?,” asked Miss Rich. She
headed for the elevator. She held it open for him to board.

 

“I don’t want to take any chances now that we have him in the bag for knowing about
my attempted murder, and thinking I was gone,” said Flanagan. “I think he had
something else in mind if he didn’t get the sell signatures.”

 

“I understand,” said Miss Rich. She pushed the button to go down to the basement so
they could grab his car and drive out to Jersey.

 

Flanagan handed her the keys as they went to his car. He climbed into the backseat
with his bag as she got behind the wheel. She drove out of the parking garage as he
started changing into his armor.

 

Miss Rich got on the highway and headed south as fast as she could while trying to
avoid the attention of any patrolman on the road. The last thing she wanted was to
explain why her boss had dressed in a purple suit of armor.

 

“Why purple?,” she asked.

 

“What?,” said Flanagan. He pulled on his gloves after getting his visor and hood right
on his head.

 

“Why did you paint it purple?,” asked Miss Rich. She gestured with a hand at the
ensemble.

 

“I didn’t paint it at all,” said Flanagan. “It came out this way because of the chemicals
in the compound. I don’t care what it looks like as long as it works.”

 

“Are you going to wear it around after this?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“I doubt it,” said Flanagan. “I plan to sell everything to the Army if I can work out a
way to mass produce everything.”

 

“I think you should keep it,” said Miss Rich. “You can help people with it.”

 

“We’re going to war,” said Flanagan. “It’s only a matter of time. If I can build a way
to create these faster than what I can now, we can protect our soldiers while they are
in the field. The problem is I don’t really know how tough the stuff is, or if there is
some kind of hidden weakness in the compound. I don’t want to send someone else
out in it if I don’t know how it will take heavy duty fighting. The stuff might stop
three bullets and then let the fourth one go through because the material broke.”

 

“Then why are you wearing it?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“I haven’t been shot three times,” said Flanagan. “Pull up to the gate and have Pop
call the manager on duty. Tell him to send people out of the building. I’ll go in and
look around. Hopefully, we won’t have anything to worry about when I get done.”

 

“What if there’s trouble?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“I’m wearing bulletproof armor and carrying a bulletproof shield,” said Flanagan. “I
should be able to handle things as long as there isn’t anything heavy duty involved
like a tank.”

 

“Pop might connect you to the armor,” said Miss Rich.

 

“That’ll be okay as long as he keeps quiet,” said Flanagan. “As soon as he opens his
mouth, he’s canned.”

 

“That’s not what I want to hear,” said Miss Rich.

 

“That’s all I can promise right now,” said Flanagan.

 

Miss Rich pulled up to the box and parked out of the way of the entrance lane. She
got out and went to talk to the guard. Flanagan pulled himself out of the backseat and
headed for the factory. He didn’t want a panic, but he couldn’t let anyone get hurt in
case he missed whatever was supposed to happen.

 

Westwood’s people never found Ian Shanks. He could be inside getting ready to do
whatever Rydell wanted to shut down the factory.

 

Using explosives would make sure some of the crew would get killed, and blacken
things for the rest. His company couldn’t run without its people. He wasn’t going to
let Rydell win. He wasn’t going to let his people get killed if he could help it.

 

It would be a pleasure to deal with Shanks for good.

 

Then he could worry about what the future looked like.
//226968

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The Shield

1940-

13

Flanagan waved his crew out of the door so he could get inside. The order to leave
their posts had produced an orderly abandonment. He waited until an opening showed
itself so he could slip inside and start into the main floor while everyone was leaving.

Where would he go to sabotage the factory? Would Rydell know that? Where would
Rydell go to sabotage the factory?

 

He waved stragglers out of his way as he walked the aisles. More than one stick of
dynamite would be involved in this. Rydell wouldn’t have set things up to let the
building go about its business if he wasn’t in charge.

 

Flanagan paused when he reached the far end of the open space. He didn’t see anyone
moving around on the floor. Someone smart could hide behind the machines. Should
he check the offices, or the hall leading to his lab downstairs?

 

He decided to take one more walk around the floor. Any bomb would have to be on
the floor if it was supposed to wreck the machinery enough to cause a shutdown.
Shanks might have already planted it and left.

 

If he was waiting on the explosion outside, what would he think with all the
employees leaving? Would he guess someone was looking for his bomb? Would he
come back and try to prevent his bomb from being found? Would he stay out and
hope the thing exploded and took the meddler with it?

 

Flanagan put that aside. He couldn’t stop Shanks from coming back inside the
building. His armor should protect him from gunfire. He had to worry about the
bomb. He didn’t know how big it was, or if his suit would protect him from that.

None of his employees had a suit, and didn’t stand a chance if the thing went off
while they helped look for it.

 

He found a box under a press during his second inspection. It was the only thing that
looked out of place. He would feel guilty if he was dealing with someone’s lunch. He
gently pulled the box from under the press so he could take a closer look at it.

 

Flanagan used the edge of his shield to gently pry apart the tape holding the flaps of
the box down. He didn’t want to make a wrong move if it was a bomb. He pulled the
flaps apart while holding it in place on the concrete floor with his knee. He shook his
head at the mass of wiring and what looked like dynamite in the container.

 

So he had been right about Shanks leaving a bomb. He didn’t worry about how
Shanks had got into the place to plant the bomb. He felt that Rydell had called to give
Shanks a cover story to get him inside the factory.

 

Then he just needed to leave the box accidentally on purpose next to a machine they
used to flatten metal into sheets to be shipped out for use in construction jobs.

If the press was blown up, it might survive the blast. Its operator would lose legs.

He considered the angles and felt shrapnel from the blast would reach four other
machines, and three of them were set up so that some other operator would get nailed
by the blast.

 

He didn’t have to worry about that now that he had it in front of him. All he had to
do was take it apart so it didn’t explode in his face.

 

Flanagan started by checking the wiring. He knew a little about electricity and how
clocks worked. He didn’t see any switches to stop tampering. He noted the thing sat
on a plate of some kind. It took up the bottom of the box. Maybe that was the backup
system if the clock didn’t work.

 

He didn’t like that. That plate might be some kind of explosive itself to trigger the
bigger bomb if it was moved.

 

Could his suit take two blasts if he messed up?

 

He didn’t want to find out. Testing is where they used dummies instead of the
inventor of the process.

 

Too bad the mixture in his lab was solid by now. He could dip the bomb in that if he
could scoot it along the ground without blowing himself up. What was his next best
option?

 

He could push it outside so only the outside of the building would be hurt. He would
have to ask his employees to move out of the parking lot and find some place to use
for cover so he could blow the thing up in an empty lot.

 

The other consideration was somewhere walled in like the restrooms. If the bomb
went off in there, he could repair the bathrooms faster than he could repair the
machinery for his contracts. The plumbing would be a fixable disaster.

 

The bathroom seemed the best for defusing everything. Then letting the bomber know
that Rydell wasn’t going to pay him might get him to stop attacking.

 

Or he might decide he didn’t have anything to lose and try to wreck the factory out
of spite.

 

Flanagan picked up the box. He scanned the walls until he saw the sign for the the
bathrooms. He started over slowly.

 

Once he had things defused, he could retreat and let the Jersey State Police handle the
rest. If the blame could be dumped on Rydell, that would be more charges of
attempted murder on the docket.

 

He reached the bathroom and was surprised by the sweat on his face. He paused
before he took another step. He blinked at a drop almost touching his eye. Once he
was done with this, he would be glad to hang up the armor for good.

 

He pushed open the men’s room door. Once he got the bomb over to the sink, he
could use that to soak the dynamite down to leech the nitro out of it. That could still
cause problems but dumping the nitro should dilute it enough so it wasn’t dangerous.

If he was wrong, he was blowing up the pipes underneath the factory. That would cost
more than replacing one of the machines to fix.

 

The main problem with this solution was the plate in the bottom of the box. What
would happen if he added weight to it under the water.

 

He started running the sink full of water. The worse he predicted happening was the
bomb going off in the restroom and killing him despite his armor. At least Rydell
wouldn’t get the company where he was going.

 

Miss Rich would keep things straight. He had faith in her.

 

He put the box on the edge of the sink. He worked the tape off the bottom as he
watched the water fill the bowl. He turned the water off when it was to the brim.

Did it have room for the bomb? He couldn’t tell. The plate was an additional worry.
How much explosive was in that?

 

He peeled the tape away from the bottom of the box while holding the flaps closed.
He positioned it over the sink of water and moved his hand. The plate tilted in the
sink. The dynamite went into the water. He stepped back behind his shield.

 

He breathed a sigh of relief that nothing happened. He checked the plate and saw that
it was tied to the bundle of dynamite. If he had tried to pull the sticks out, that would
have set everything off.

 

Now all he had to do was pull the clock off the bundle, and separate the wires. He
needed a tool for that. He had a wire cutter and some other things in his lab. He could
get them and get back in a couple minutes.

 

Once he was done, he could hand the whole thing over to the state police and let them
do what they could to find the bomber.

 

He stepped out of the restroom. He spotted men standing around the staff door. He
didn’t recognize them from the shift. He spotted the Tommy guns as they spotted him.

Flanagan raised his shield as he backed up into the restroom. He couldn’t let them
have the bomb. It could still be used if they pulled it out of the water before the nitro
was pulled out.

 

Bullets dug into the walls as the machine guns rattled. Flanagan didn’t feel any
impact, so they had missed him, or the armor was doing its job. He had to hold the
restroom until the police arrived.

 

He slammed the door closed with his foot. He could hold the door closed until help
arrived. Should he? His armor should allow him to fight back without worrying about
getting hurt.

 

He was trapped in a room with a bomb that could still go off. A small army of
thugs could do anything to his factory while he waited for help. He had to decide.
Was he going to do something about this mess, or let someone else handle it?

He had the equipment, he had the ability, he had the determination. He couldn’t
let someone else save the factory when he was right there. He might as well let
them burn the place down if he wanted to stay in the bathroom.

 

He flexed his hands as he stared at the door. He needed to attack and keep them from
wrecking the factory. He couldn’t let Rydell win.

 

He stepped back as he heard steps coming to the door. He raised his shield to protect
his head. The glass shield on the welder’s visor wouldn’t stop a bullet as well as the
rest of the suit. The door swung open. He charged behind the shield.

 

He heard the roaring of the Tommy as he ran right at the door. He didn’t feel
anything. He didn’t know if that was because the shield and armor was working better
than he thought, or he was riddled with holes and couldn’t feel anything. He let the
shield push the machine gun out of the way as he kept going with his shoulder. His
enemy crashed into the opposite door to the ladies’ restroom.

 

Another man appeared as Flanagan straightened. He started to raise his chopper to
take care of the purple menace in front of him. A fist to the face sent him sprawling.
A foot applied with more force took him out of the fight.

 

Flanagan turned to the first man and made sure to kick him hard in the face. He
didn’t need that guy getting up while he was dealing with the gunner’s friends.

 

Flanagan took a look at the factory floor. He knew there should be three more men.
His brief glimpse before he had ducked into the bathroom had told him that. He
spotted them moving among the machinery. One was close to where the bomb had
been hidden.

 

He knelt and searched the man he had taken outside the bathroom. He found a pistol
to add to his collection. He dragged the man into the ladies’ and tied him to his friend
after making sure to take their wallets and drop their Thompsons and other pistol in
the men’s.

 

Now he had to deal with the other three before they caused too much trouble.

Flanagan crept into the maze of machinery and beltways. He looked around as he
went from one piece of equipment to the next. He caught sight of one of the three
men looking around for him and ducked down.

 

He knelt and looked under the beltways between him and the third man. He took aim
and fired once. The man went down with an outraged cry.

 

Apparently he had never been shot.

 

Flanagan looked around for his two friends. He saw number four on the steps heading
to the offices above the factory floor. He took aim and fired. The bullet hit the railing
and bounced away. That was enough to send the gunman scrambling into the offices.

 

Flanagan shook his head. He would have to go up there and flush the trouble maker
out now.

 

He scanned the factory floor. Where was the last man? If he could deal with him, then
he could go up and deal with the one in the offices.

 

Gentle taps struck him in the arm and chest. He went down. Now he knew where
number five was.

 

He saw feet coming toward him. He aimed the pistol and fired. One shoe blew up and
he heard a scream. He jumped up and ran over. He kicked the man in the face to shut
him up.

 

He went to the stairs. He climbed up to the offices’ door. He ducked behind his shield
as bullets blasted through the glass. He checked the scene when the bullets stopped
flying. He pushed through shattered door and went over a desk as the last man tried
to put another drum in the Tommy gun. A gloved fist sent the man against a desk.

 

The gunman went for his pistol. Flanagan already had his in hand. He fired once in
the man’s hand. The gun fell to the floor.

 

“Hello, Shanks,” said Flanagan. “I’ve been looking for you.”

 

One punch sent Ian Shanks down for the count.

//229185

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The Shield

1940-

14

Frank Flanagan eased back from his desk. The last couple of weeks had retaught him
why he hated paperwork. He closed the last file and put it in his out basket. Miss Rich
could file it in the morning. He stood and stretched. Cracking in his back answered
him. He shook his head slowly, listening to the bones in his necks snapping.

 

It would be a month before Rydell got his first real court appearance. He had paid his
bail and was free. He called Flanagan to let him know the bad news.

 

Flanagan had informed him that if anything happened while Rydell was waiting for
his trial, he would put a bullet in the man himself.

 

And he wouldn’t go to jail over an obvious case of self-defense.

 

The call had sparked another call to Westwood to hire security to keep an eye on
things until the court case was settled.

 

Blowing up the factory might be the next move to get even. That would hurt the
company now that they were putting things together for the government. Production
couldn’t be halted if they wanted to make their deadline.

 

He made sure that Miss Rich had a bodyguard. He couldn’t keep anything organized
without her. And she knew about the armor, and hadn’t said anything. That was worth
its weight in gold.

 

Flanagan decided he would eat at a diner on the way to the factory. He didn’t want
to go home, and he had some notes he had to go over for another concoction that
wasn’t quite coming together. He felt he was three, or four, arrangements from a
solution to the problem.

 

He would probably get some sleep in the lab when he finished.

 

“Are you done for the night, Mr. Flanagan?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“I think so,” said Flanagan. He paused and squinted at his secretary. She had changed
clothes. He wondered why.

 

“Good,” said Miss Rich. “Come along. Norbert is driving us to dinner and a movie.”

 

“Norbert?,” said Flanagan. He searched his brain, but he didn’t know any Norbert.

“Norbert who?”

 

“Norbert who is stuck taking me back and forth to my apartment,” said Miss Rich.
“The gossips think he’s my boyfriend.”

 

“Oh, Westwood’s guy,” said Flanagan. “His name is Norbert?”

 

“Yes,” said Miss Rich. “Get your jacket. He’s driving us on our date.”

 

“Date?,” said Flanagan. “I’m lost.”

 

“You promised a dinner and a movie,” said Miss Rich. “I’m collecting. Come on.
Norbert is downstairs waiting on us.”

 

“I don’t remember that,” said Flanagan. “And anyway I have to do some work at my
lab.”

 

“Not tonight,” said Miss Rich. She waved her hand. “It’s on me.”

 

“You’re paying?,” said Flanagan. “You’re taking me out on a date? Can you afford
that?”

 

“I have money put aside,” said Miss Rich. “Chop, chop, mister. I don’t have all
night.”

 

“Are you sure?,” said Flanagan. He plucked his suit jacket from the hook on the wall.
“I’m not really a dating kind of guy.”

 

“I know,” said Miss Rich. “One date won’t kill you. Live a little.”

 

“I have done that already,” said Flanagan. “It didn’t strike me as better than working
in my lab where people weren’t trying to kill me.”

 

“It wasn’t a lot of fun for me either,” said Miss Rich. “Busting into Rydell’s house
like you did saved me from being hurt more than what had already happened. If you
hadn’t called, the majority of the company would have been seized by the state.”

 

“That was a pleasure,” said Flanagan. “I would do it all over again if I had to.”

 

“How many bosses would do that?,” said Miss Rich. “You can always get a new
secretary from the pool downstairs.”

 

“Don’t believe that,” said Flanagan. “Before I hired you, I went through dozens of
secretaries.”

 

“Dozens?,” said Miss Rich. She picked up her bag as they walked to the office door.

 

“At least,” said Flanagan. “They came in, worked a month, then went somewhere
else. I just signed the transfer requests when they came across my desk.”

 

“And you had no idea why they left?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“No,” said Flanagan. He cut off the lights after opening the hall door so they could
step outside. He locked the door behind him.

 

The cleaning staff could only enter his sanctum when one of them was in residence.
Otherwise, he didn’t want anyone poking around.

 

“Being the secretary of the boss is prestigious, but none of them stayed,” said Miss
Rich. She shook her head. “You worked them too hard.”

 

“I did not,” said Flanagan. “They didn’t have to work unless I was working.”

 

“And when was the last time you took time off to go golfing, or sailing, or whatever
rich people do?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Never,” said Flanagan. “That’s for people who don’t have to work.”

 

“It’s no wonder you couldn’t keep a secretary with that attitude,” said Miss Rich. “Let
me guess, you were here on the weekends and they had to come in too.”

 

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” said Flanagan. He scratched an
eyebrow before pushing the call button on the elevator.

 

“Some people like to have time off to do personal things,” said Miss Rich. “You
worked your secretaries too hard and they quit on you.”

 

“That can’t be true,” said Flanagan. “You haven’t quit, and you have been here longer
than anyone else.”

 

“I don’t have a life outside my job either,” said Miss Rich. “I just go home, read
some, listen to the radio, and go to bed.”

 

“No boyfriends?,” asked Flanagan.

 

“How would I meet a boyfriend when I am almost never at home,” said Miss Rich.

“If a thief were to break into my place right now, all I have is my radio.”

 

“Sounds lonely,” said Flanagan.

 

“Maybe,” said Miss Rich. “What about you? You just go to your lab and work on
things until you hit a wall. Then you come to work in the office with smoke rolling
off your hair half the time.”

 

“Sometimes there are small problems to deal with while trying to figure things out,”
said Flanagan.

 

“Really?,” said Miss Rich. “Is that what happened with the purple clothes?”

 

“I was looking for a formula to build bulletproof cloth and it works,” said Flanagan.
“The jacket I was wearing stopped a bullet without any additional protection. The
armor did better than that. Now if I could figure out how to strap rockets to it so the
wearer could fly, that would be worth some money.”

 

“Are you going to keep wearing it?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

The elevator doors opened and they stepped inside. Flanagan pushed the button to
take them to the lobby.

 

“Why would I do that?,” said Flanagan. “Being a hero is dangerous work, and I’m not
a hero.”

 

“So you wouldn’t wear it again?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Maybe if there was something I could do to help out and the suit was needed,” said
Flanagan. “But there are already so many masked men out there doing things. They
can do that sort of work better than I can.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Miss Rich. “I think the world could always use one more
protector.”

 

“You’re giving me way too much credit,” said Flanagan. “I am a yellow belly all the
way through.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Miss Rich. “I think you put it down to saving the company,
but you really acted like a hero, and you really did some good.”

 

“We’ll see how much good I did if Rydell beats his charges,” said Flanagan. “Then
we’ll be dealing with him again, and he won’t be so friendly.”

 

“We can take him,” said Miss Rich. “We’ve already beaten him once.”

 

“That sounds okay,” said Flanagan. “Since you’re buying, where are we eating?”

 

“I think Joe’s,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Joe’s?,” said Flanagan. “Why Joe’s?”

 

“Because I can afford it,” said Miss Rich.

 

“We can do better than Joe’s,” said Flanagan.

 

“Where would you like to eat?,” asked Miss Rich. She crossed her arms as she waited
for his suggestion.

 

“There’s Marge’s on the way to the factory,” said Flanagan. “I eat there all the time.”

 

“Really?,” said Miss Rich.

 

“And it’s cheap,” said Flanagan. “That’s why I eat there.”

 

“All right,” said Miss Rich. “That sounds like the main criteria is satisfied. We’ll go
to the show afterwards if we can get back to the city early enough.”

 

“That’s fine,” said Flanagan. “What show would you like to see?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Miss Rich. “I haven’t been to a play in a long time.”

 

“We’ll think of something,” said Flanagan. He nodded when the elevator door
opened. “I admit I haven’t been on a date in ever. This is a totally new side of you.
When did this come up as an idea? There are so many other men who are better
qualified for something like this.”

 

“I don’t know any of those men,” said Miss Rich. “There’s Norbert.”

 

A man the size of a redwood stood at the door of the lobby. His suit must have
been sewed from sailcloth and tents to fit him. He nodded a solemn face at the
pronunciation of his name.

 

"This is Mr. Flanagan, Norbert,” said Miss Rich. “We’re going to have dinner and
a show. Would you be so kind as to drive us?”

 

“It would be a pleasure, ma’am,” said Norbert. His voice rumbled like a grizzly
looking for dinner. “The car is outside. I’ll go first, and then you two.”

 

He stepped outside, looked both ways, then went to the car. He opened the back door.
He waved for his passengers to come down. He made sure Miss Rich got in first.

 

“Treat her right, buddy, or I’ll rip your arms off,” Norbert whispered in Flanagan’s
ear as he helped him in the car. He closed the back door before Flanagan could
protest.

 

The bodyguard climbed in the front seat and drove away from the curb.

 

“Mr. Flanagan would like to eat at a place called Marge’s,” said Miss Rich. “Would
you mind taking us there, Norbert?”

 

“It will be my pleasure,” said Norbert. He drove cautiously south. He seemed to check
for problems as they cleared the city and reached the state line.

 

Marge’s neon sign glowed red against a clean window with a curtain to block out the
sun. There were three cars in the parking lot. Norbert pulled into a space where he
could watch all three while he waited for the couple to eat.

 

He got out and looked around before opening the door for Miss Rich. He helped
her out of the car. He escorted her to the door of the diner. He checked the
inside through the window in the door before opening the door for her. He walked
in and watched the room while Miss Rich talked to the lady running the register.

 

Flanagan followed, keeping an eye on things as he stepped inside. He nodded at some
of the wait staff he knew as Miss Rich took his arm and led him to an empty booth
in a corner of the room.

 

“Norbert doesn’t want me to sit by windows until things are settled down,” said Miss
Rich. “He’s like a giant mother hen.”

 

“That’s why I hired him,” said Flanagan. He smiled. He noted that he could watch
the room with a mirror set up on the back wall and relaxed. If anything happened,
he would have some warning to move.

 

“Hello, hon,” said a waitress in a pink dress. She put down two menus and two
glasses of water with practiced ease. “What can I do for you folks?”

 

“My wife would like one of your famous steaks and a baked potato,” said Flanagan.
“I would like the grilled turkey slices and the mac and cheese.”

 

“What would you like to drink?,” said the waitress. This was the first she had heard
of a wife and it showed on her thin face.

 

“I would like coffee,” said Flanagan.

 

“I would like tea if you have it,” said Miss Rich.

 

“Sure do, hon,” said the waitress. She wrote their order down on a pad as she walked
away.

 

“So I’m your wife now?,” said Miss Rich. She smiled.

 

“I accept your proposal,” said Flanagan. He drew out a little box from his suit pocket.
He handed it to her. “I had to guess at the size.”

 

She opened the lid of the box. A diamond glowed up at her. She closed the lid with
wide eyes.

 

“Are you serious?,” asked Miss Rich.

 

“I am,” said Flanagan. “I won’t be a perfect husband, but I will do the best that I can.”

 

“All right,” said Miss Rich. She took the ring out of the box and put it on her hand.
“Let’s have dinner and a movie and see where this goes because I know I’m not wife
material either.”

 

Flanagan looked at the mirror and saw Norbert nodding his head by the front door.

 

the end

//231361

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The Last Spot

2015-

Ken Aioki looked at the place where he was going for his job interview. It didn’t look
like much to him. He looked around before crossing the street and opening the
personnel door to step inside. He looked around inside the door, getting his bearings.

 

A giant stood at the desk. He held two parts in his hands. He looked up at Ken and
put the parts down.

 

“Can I help you?,” said the giant.

 

“I’m here about the job,” said Ken. “I talked to a Mrs. Hillsmierer.”

 

“Really?,” said the giant. “Are you sure you want to work here? This is a dangerous
job you’re trying out for, bud.”

 

“The advertisement didn’t say anything about danger,” said Ken.

 

“Why would it?,” said the giant. He leaned a hip on the desk. “You don’t just tell
people they might have their faces fried off on the first day. Then no one would
apply.”

 

“Do people have their faces fried off on the first day?,” asked Ken.

 

“You’d be surprised,” said the giant. His bald head reflected a blue light from his dark
skin. Ken couldn’t figure out where the source could be. “Why don’t you sit down?
We can have a chat while you’re waiting for Janie and Mark to get back.”

 

“Okay,” said Ken. He sat down in the visitor’s chair indicated by the other man.
“What would you like to talk about?”

 

“Let’s talk about your criminal record,” said the giant.

 

“That was a long time ago,” said Ken.

 

“Most of our systems are computerized,” said the Lamplighter. “Are you even able
to use them without getting into trouble?”

 

“Yes,” said Ken. “My probation ran out two weeks ago. I already filed my
paperwork.”

 

“So you want to talk about why a computer thief like yourself wants a job like this?,”
said the giant.

 

“I wasn’t a thief,” said Ken. “I just put some stuff online. Unfortunately, the
government doesn’t like it when you expose one of their secrets.”

 

“How many secrets did you expose for the betterment of mankind?,” the giant asked.

 

“Just the one,” said Ken. “It was a doozy.”

 

“It also got one hundred innocent people killed, did a million dollars in damage
before the Mark could intervene, and unleashed a plague that might kill everyone on
the planet given enough time,” said the giant. “If we can make it into space without
becoming extinct, that last might work out all right.”

 

“I didn’t mean for any of that to happen,” said Ken.

 

“What did you think was going to happen?,” asked the giant.

 

“I thought that exposing the government’s super weapon would help the world,” said
Ken. “I mean they were building a biological weapon.”

 

“Exposing it is what caused the break-in that unleashed it,” said the giant. “If you
hadn’t done that, very few people would have known about the weapon. Fewer still
would have known where it was.”

 

“What would you have done?,” asked Ken.

 

“I wouldn’t have dumped everything on the Internet for anyone to read for one thing,”
the giant said. “I might have called DARPA from a payphone, or a one use cell, and
told them how loose their computer security was. I might have kept things to myself

and watched what was going on from a distance.”

 

“But they were going to use it,” said Ken.

 

“How?,” said the giant.

 

“I saw an order for it to be deployed,” said Ken.

 

“It was a standby order in case something bad threatened to happen without
interference,” said the giant.

 

“I didn’t know,” said Ken. “I was thirteen.”

 

“Thirteen and unable to do the thing you love,” said the giant. He sat behind the desk.
“Why should we take you in and let you loose in our systems so you can dump our
files out on the Internet for everyone to read.”

 

“I learned my lesson,” said Ken. “I made a bad decision. I understand why you
wouldn’t want to give me a chance, but I need the job, and I want to do something
good.”

 

“Go ahead and look at these boards,” said the giant. He pushed a picture down on the
desk with a big hand. “They’re not sending the correct signals to each other.”

 

“Is this some kind of test?,” asked Ken.

 

“I’m not the one hiring you,” said the giant. “If you can prove you still have your
touch, Mark might hire you despite your record. If you can’t, he might just send you
packing. He’s lost a lot of empathy for others when he lost his eye.”

 

“How did that happen?,” asked Ken. He picked up the two boards and examined them
as he thought about their shape, and the way things were laid on them.

 

“He zigged when he should have zagged,” said the other man.

 

Ken paused to consider those words. He thought about what it meant to lose an eye
because you made the wrong move. The other man nodded at the hesitation.

 

“Lamplighting is a business that deals with problems that no one else can deal with
and it is dangerous,” said the giant. “I understand if you want to walk away and get
another job. If I were in your shoes, I would.”

 

“Have you been hurt on the job?,” asked Ken. He placed the pieces back on the desk
and pulled out his Swiss Army knife. He extended a blade he could use to work on
the electronics.

 

“Yes,” said the other man. “I got hit hard a couple of times. I didn’t even get a chance
to zig, much less zag.”

 

“Sorry to hear that,” said Ken.

 

“It happens,” said the giant.

 

“If you say so,” said Ken. He poked at each of the boards. He realized he didn’t know
what they were supposed to do. “Where did these come from?”

 

“From this baby,” said the giant. He picked up a giant lantern off the floor by its
handle. It had been concealed by the desk. He placed it on top of the desk.

 

Ken frowned at the lantern. He didn’t see a flame inside of it. Why did it need
electronics? Maybe he could do better with a reader, but he didn’t have one, and he
wasn’t supposed to touch one until he paid his fines.

 

Ken inspected the gap where the pieces went in the lamp. He frowned at the dust, and
something else in the lamp.

 

“Do you have any duster?,” Ken asked.

 

“Right here,” said the other man. He grabbed a can of spray off a filing cabinet and
handed it over.

 

Ken sprayed the slot with the duster. Then he looked around and lucked into some
cotton swabs. He used those to clean out the slots. Then he slid both pieces back into
where they were supposed to go.

 

He pressed the button on the side of the lamp. Blue flame exploded to life inside the
chamber. He sat back. The giant nodded.

 

“It looks like you still have your touch,” said the other man. He smiled.

 

Ken put his knife away as he looked at the blue flame. Fixing it had seemed
ridiculously easy.

 

“What does this do?,” he asked.

 

“It gives off light,” said the other man.

 

Ken frowned at him. Of course a lamp gave off light. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a
lamp.

 

“I think Janie and Mark are back,” said the giant. “If you still want the job, just act
like you don’t know anything, and don’t give off the vibe that you’re here to plunder
the computer files.”

 

“I just want a job,” said Ken.

 

“Be humble and kind, and you’ll get it,” said the giant. He picked up the lamp. “I
have to put this back where it belongs. Good luck, kid.”

 

He turned and walked out of the office area. Ken thought he went upstairs, but
realized that he wasn’t exactly sure how the giant was getting around. That bothered
him for some reason.

 

Ken stood at the sound of a small rumble. He looked around. A vehicle bay door
rolled up to let a van roll into the building. Yellow lights flashed on the top of the
van.

 

People in jumpsuits piled out of the van. They chattered about whatever they had run
into on their job. Ken didn’t understand the references.

 

“How did you get in here?,” asked one of the men. He only had one eye, and didn’t
bother covering his empty socket.

 

“The door was open,” said Ken. “I’m Ken Aioki. I’m here about the job.”

 

“The hacker,” said the one-eyed man. “I’m Hadron. Have you talked to Janie yet?”

 

“No,” said Ken. “I think I was the only one here.”

 

“Ever been in a fight?,” asked Hadron. He walked around to the other side of the desk
and sat down. He frowned at it for a second. He righted the picture the giant had
knocked over.

 

A large hole was visible in his hand.

 

“Not since the sixth grade,” said Ken.

 

“As you are aware from the ad, this is dangerous work,” said Hadron. “Are you sure
you want to take this on? You’ll be running most of the time, and trying not to get
beaten like a rug the rest.”

 

“I think I can handle that,” said Ken. 

 

“All right,” said Hadron. “Hey, Marcel! Take the new guy down to get him tested.”

 

“I’m hired just like that?,” said Ken.

 

“We always need someone we can consider expendable,” said Hadron. “When you
get back, we’ll run the retina test and give you the package to fill out. After that, we’ll
get you some target practice.”

 

“How expendable am I?,” asked Ken.

 

“If you have to ask, you don’t need to know,” said Marcel.

 

“That doesn’t sound good,” said Ken. “How many of us are there?”

 

“If you pass the retina scan, you’re number four,” said Marcel. “Don’t worry. If
you’re getting a drug test, Hadron must think you’ll pass the eye test with no
problems.”

 

“What about the big guy?,” asked Ken.

 

“Isn’t one,” said Marcel.

 

“What do you mean?,” said Ken. “I just spent a few minutes talking to a big guy
while I waited for you guys to come back.”

 

“There’s no big guy,” said Marcel. “That’s probably why Hadron is going to hire
you.”

 

“No big guy?,” said Ken.

 

“No,” said Marcel. “There’s me, the white guy, and the latina woman. Hadron is the
boss, and Janie is his admin. There’s nobody else.”

 

“Then who was I talking to?,” asked Ken.

 

“Probably one of the dead Lamplighters,” said Marcel. He waited until Ken had
buckled in before starting the engine.

 

“What do you mean dead Lamplighters?,” said Ken.

 

“The place is haunted,” said Marcel. “You’re not really sharp, are you?”

 

“You’re joking,” said Ken.

 

Marcel pulled out his phone as he drove through the city streets. He hooked it up to
the van’s wifi and voice commanded it to search for the Lamplighters.

 

He pulled to a stop at a red light. He took the chance to scroll up until he had a group
picture from the Times.

 

“Which one was yours?,” Marcel asked.

 

“The big guy, Dyson Baker,” said Ken.

 

“Makes sense,” said Marcel. “He made the original lamps.”

 

“So the ghostbusting place is haunted,” said Ken. “Why?”

 

“Maybe because they died on the job, and the lamps are holding on to them,” said
Marcel. “The question is do you still want the job?”

 

“I don’t really have anything to lose,” said Ken.

 

“Keep telling yourself that,” said Marcel. “It’ll help you sleep at night.”

 

“What helps you sleep at night?,” asked Ken.

 

“I don’t,” said Marcel.

 

He pulled to the curb in front of a small general medical services office. He looked
at the traffic going by.

 

“How expendable am I?,” Ken asked before he got out of the van.

 

“You’re just as expendable as Hadron’s eye,” said Marcel. He turned to glance at his
new co-worker. “Go do your thing. I’ll be waiting for you to take you back to the
station.”

 

“Why are you working for the company?,” Ken asked. He stood outside the van,
looking in through the opened window.

 

“Because my ghost said I couldn’t,” said Marcel. “And I’m proving him wrong
every minute I am on the clock.”

 

“That doesn’t seem like a good reason,” said Ken.

 

“It’s all that I need,” said Marcel. “Go. I can’t sit out here all day.”

 

“All right,” said Ken. He looked at the small office. Did he really want to die over a
job? 

 

He walked in and set up to take his test.

//233456

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The Scouts Hold the Line

2017-


Marty Morgan rubbed his bald pate with a gloved hand. Age had taken his hair and
carved lines in his face, but he was still fighting trim thanks to his gift. It burned
calories like no one’s business.

 

Finch, his wife, stood at his side. Gray strands of hair was the only difference he
could see from when they had first met in ‘79. Who would have thought they would
be together so long doing what they did.

 

He looked to his right. Blue flame marked where the Lamplighters were doing what
they were doing blocks away. He hoped they knew what they were doing. His kids
were out there, and he wanted them to have a chance.

 

“I, the Queen of Genn, the Sister of the Destroyer, the Mother of the Myriad, the Sun
of a Million Lands, pronounce sentence on this miserable place for the crime of
accepting my rebellious daughter as one of your own.” The image of a burning tree
held up its prize in its grasp. The image covered the world so everyone could see what
was going to happen. “You will all be exterminated just like this hero who tried to
stop me.”

 

The net around the Mark caught fire as magic poured down on him. He felt the green
spark in his body being ripped out. Then he blew apart in a cloud of ash and smoke.

 

Marty’s radio exploded in his ear. He gritted his teeth. Now was not the time to start
losing it.

 

“Everybody, pay attention,” he said. “We have to hold this line. Fliers, knock
anything in the air that’s not one of ours down. Ground troops, keep their armies back
as much as possible. We need to give the Lamplighters a chance to do their thing.
Rangers, keep moving people out of the way. We don’t want to kill somebody by
accident.”

 

“I have to go,” said Finch.

 

“Be careful,” said Marty. “I’m going to try to distract that thing until the Lamplighters
can do what they can.”

 

Finch moved to the edge of the roof. She vanished over the side.

 

A streak of light appeared over the city. Marty frowned as he watched it head right
at the center of the chaos. Then the giant hero known as M-37 punched the Queen of
the Genn in the face with a metallic fist.

 

That was a big distraction in Marty’s book. He needed to add to that.

 

Purple pulses lit the night along the line. Air ships came apart as he watched the night
sky. What was causing that?

 

“I have some help over here, Marty,” said Scarrow on the radio. “We’re covering our
point.”

 

Another giant blasted through the air. Marty didn’t recognize him, but he was
throwing blasts of energy into the Queen as he flew across the city.

 

“He’s with us, Marty,” said the Scarrow. “Don’t shoot him.”

 

Marty frowned. New players on the board were changing the positions. It looked like
their mad scheme might work after all. All he had to do was keep his children safe,
and the city by extension.

 

“Mr. Multiverse is here on the ground,” said Plus. “He’s everywhere.”

 

Marty expected that. Mr. Multiverse often showed up at events where there was a rip
in the air. He only stayed around long enough to help out, and then he was gone.

 

The Mark’s kids flew through the air. If the Mark couldn’t make a dent in Big Ugly,
they couldn’t either.

 

Other fliers joined them. Marty hoped none of them were his kids. He had to hold the
line, and keep the air clear. If the Lamplighters were right, they would become targets
soon enough. The Queen wasn’t going to let them pose a threat for long.

 

“How’s it going?,” said a voice on his right. He looked down. A teenaged girl with
dark hair and eyes smiled at him. “Name’s Sara. This is my brother, Moshe.”

 

Moshe stood behind her. He scanned the air for danger as he tried to keep an eye on
everything at once.

 

“Our parents wanted us out of the way until they got done helping the Americans
build their lamps,” said Sara. “Al-a-Din is down on the street with his butler and felt
we should help you instead of getting in his way.”

 

“That’s kind of him,” said Marty. “I’m trying to concentrate here. The goal is to
protect the Lamplighters and keep the enemy confined close to the door. Can you do
either of those things while I do what I have to do?”

 

“I think so,” said Sara. She smiled. “What do you think, Moshe?”

 

“I think we’re too close to the front line,” said Moshe. “I don’t think this is what Al-a-
Din wanted.”

 

“Concentrate on what’s going on,” said Marty. “We have to hold this line one way,
or the other. If things get ugly, get clear.”

 

“Don’t worry about us, old man,” said the girl. “We can handle walking trees.”

 

“I don’t think that’s right,” said the boy. He flung blue balls of light across the roof.
“Sorry, something moved over there.”

 

“Need some light,” said Marty.

 

Sara said a word. A column of light sprang into existence across the street. Trees with
jack o’lantern faces looked around at the revealing fire. A rain of blue bolts fell on
them before they could snuff the light out.

 

“Keep doing that until the coast is clear,” said Marty. He sat down on the gravel of
his base roof and concentrated.

 

Marty started out his career as Animal Boy of the Hazard Scouts. His gift was the
ability to summon animals to help him out. His foster family had brought him along
on adventures until they were ambushed and for the most part wiped out.

 

Barry Nicklaus, Mister Robot, spent ten years as a brain in a jar while Marty was
figuring out how to survive without resources. As soon as Marty and his new friends
had rescued him, he went back to solving problems with a new body. When the call
went out, he had been the first to fly into New York to set up to repel the invasion.

 

He had shifted to help the Lamplighters with his expertise while the rest of the newer
generations of Scouts went about their business.

 

Marty had originally only been able to summon animals. Then he had been able to
summon mixes of two different animals. Then he had been able to move into
imaginary animals after that.

 

He crafted his summoning to keep the Queen busy. The Scouts had to hold the line
while he worked. If the plan worked, he would be able to gather his extended family
and take them home after a job well done. If it didn’t, he would go down fighting.

 

Either way, he wasn’t giving up.

 

“Are you okay?,” asked Sara.

 

“Yes,” said Marty. He didn’t open his eyes. “Just keep the roofs clear while I cook up
this surprise. It’ll take me a couple of minutes. It’s the biggest crafting I have ever
done.”

 

“Don’t worry,” said Sara. “We’re handling things.”

 

Marty didn’t open his eyes to check the veracity of that statement. He needed to
concentrate on what he was doing.

 

He had been younger when he had started out. He hoped they knew better than he
had.

 

A roar answered his summons. He smiled. He opened his eyes as a wave of heated air
washed over him.

 

“What is that?,” asked Moshe.

 

“The biggest distraction I could come up with,” said Marty. “Scouts, Behemoth is
walking. Let him go by.”

 

The summoned monster stomped forward, casually knocking aside any building in
its way. The fins running down its back glowed in anger as it closed on the fight
ahead. It roared its challenge at the Queen.

 

“That is a big distraction,” said Moshe. “I don’t think I have seen anything bigger.”

 

“Hopefully she hasn’t either,” said Marty. Weariness settled into his bones. He closed
his eyes again. Maybe he had created too big a distraction. Maybe he should have
tried for something a little smaller on scale.

 

The roar of the big lizard was followed by the sound of burning air as it breathed on
the Queen while still blocks away.

 

“Are you all right?,” asked Sara. She said something else. Marty felt a tingling, but
it wasn’t enough to get him back on his feet.

 

“I just need a moment to rest,” said Marty. He knew that no matter what happened
next, he was out of the fight. Calling on his monster had broken something inside. He
could feel it.

 

No one would be able to fix what he had done to himself. He was too old, and at the
end of his life. He should have stayed home with his feet up and sipping Pepsi.

Saving the world was a young man’s, person’s, game.

 

“I can’t fix this,” said Sara. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Everybody has problems,” said Marty. “Are we holding the line?”

 

“I think so,” said Sara. “Your monster is forcing the tree people to defend their queen.
They aren’t doing a good job of it from what I can see.”

 

“The Mark’s girls are probably wrecking a lot of the mooks,” said Marty. “That’s
what I expected.”

 

“The Mark is dead,” said Moshe.

 

“I didn’t expect that,” said Marty. “Doesn’t matter if we lose the fight.”

 

If they lost, who was going to care how hard they fought, or who fell in battle. The
human species would be forced to live under a yoke and possibly put on the path to
extinction.

 

He hadn’t joined the Scouts to let that happen.

 

“It looks like we’re pushing them back, Marty,” said Corona in his earpiece. “That
was some stunt you just pulled.”

 

Corona and Ren had come out of retirement to help with this. Their son, Bond, was
out there fighting with the other Scouts. She still looked like the blond girl from the
poor side of town he had asked to move from Detroit to help him restart the Scouts
after they had saved Barry.

 

Ren had aged better than Marty. The former Animal Boy put it down to the magic he
used to solve mysteries. Forty years had only given him some streaks of grey in his
dark hair and a few wrinkles to go with the scars he had picked up in the battles they
had waged.

 

“The lines on the street have stabilized, Dad,” said his son, Mark. “We’ll need some
more people on the street if we want to start pushing them back for real.”

 

Marty tried to talk into his radio. There had to be something he could say to change
things. His mouth was so dry.

 

“I have a wedge of clear sky,” said Harmon, the Scarrow. “Darla says she can knock
down anything flying too close to us.”

 

Marty wondered who Darla was. He thought she had something to do with the second giant helping M-37. That made her the source of the purple lightning he had seen
earlier.

 

“Finch,” said Marty. He didn’t know if the radio would activate. He didn’t know how
loud he was talking. “Can you hear me? I love you.”

 

It would be beyond expectation to think she had heard him. He couldn’t do anything
about it now. He had to hold on to give his monster time to do its work.

 

If he died, his animal would expire too. He had to hold on to buy it time to do its job.

 

“We’re ready to fire,” said Mark Hadron over the radio net. “Magicians, get ready to
push.”

 

Marty smiled. He only had to hold on until the Lamplighters did their job. He could
do it for another ten seconds.

 

“Counting down,” said Hadron. “Three...Two...One...Fire in the hole.”

 

Blue flame pressed against Marty’s eyelids. He tried to turn his head, but he couldn’t.
He grimaced as the light seemed to go on forever. Then it shut off and the night sky
was back.

 

“Mister Morgan?,” said Sara. “Can you hold on? It looks like we’re winning.”

 

“Finch,” said Marty. “Can you find her?”

 

“I’ll call,” said Sara. “We’ll get her for you.”

 

Marty held his breath as he waited. He couldn’t open his eyes. He felt a hand touch
his face. He smiled at the familiar calluses.

 

“Here,” said Finch.

 

“I love you,” said Marty. “Thank you for the time you’ve given me.”

 

“Hospital,” said Finch.

 

“I’m broken on the inside,” said Marty. “It’s my time, and no one can change that. I
just wanted to say goodbye before I go.”

 

“Love you,” said Finch.

 

The city of New York lit up in a display of blue flames at Martin Morgan’s passing.
His gargantuan creation went with him as it became thunderous clouds casting
random lightning that broke apart over the ocean. His unknowing enemy, the Queen
of Genn, looked down at the hole in her body in shock. A giant fist punched her back
into her cloud door. Chanting closed the door as the various magicians summoned
into action cast their spells to fill the hole in the boundary between worlds.

 

The fighting continued for a bit, but the children of the Genn were beaten with their
queen sent home, and no way to distract the Mark’s daughters. They were rounded
up and sent home to get rid of them.

 

The Scouts gathered where Finch had covered Marty with his jacket. Others like
the Robot Rangers arrived to report in after the action was done. The city’s
emergency services were taking over, surveying the damage.

 

Tanner Lerner and his cousin, Darla, stood at the back of the crowd. A blond man in
a dun coat stood with them. He puffed on his cigar as he watched things with his
squinty eyes.

 

“So we didn’t save everybody,” said Tanner.

 

“Couldn’t be expected to,” said the man in the dun coat. “You two still did okay
considering.”

 

“If you can call running across the country and nearly getting killed fighting someone
that killed the Mark okay,” said Darla. “What the frack was that?”

 

“It needed doing,” said Tanner.

 

“Exactly,” said the man in the dun coat. “Some things need doing. Have a safe trip
back home. I doubt things will be this bad for a while. This Earth has beaten two
menaces from beyond. The others might decide to leave us alone for a bit.”

 

“What if they don’t, Mister Mysterious Mister Who Likes Crappy Smelling
Smokes?,” asked Darla.

 

“You’re the heroes who have to fight for the world,” said the man in the dun coat.

“I’m just a nobody comedy relief.”

 

He raised his cigar in a goodbye gesture and walked away.

//235931

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Push All the Buttons

2017-

Tanner Lerner paused in front of the television screen in the Fro Yo dining room. He
put his tray down on a nearby table, and started rolling up his sleeve. He started
toward the door.

 

“Where are you going, squirt?,” asked Darla Huitt. She wore a sweatshirt with their
school name on it, and shorts. A headband covered the tattoo over her eyes, and her
temples.

 

“There’s an emergency in New York,” said Tanner. “I have to get out there and lend
a hand.”

 

Darla looked at the screen. She looked at her cousin.

 

“What do you think you’re going to do that the Mark can’t?,” she asked.

 

“I don’t know,” said Tanner. “Maybe they’ll need someone who can do rescues really
good. See you.”

 

“What do I tell your folks?,” asked Darla.

 

“Tell them I had some volunteer work to do,” said Tanner. “I’ll be home as soon as
I am done.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Darla.

 

She followed him out into the parking lot. He ran his finger over his forearm as he
walked away. He didn’t turn around as she grabbed his sleeve. He would have
shrugged her off except he had stepped to somewhere in Missouri, and dragged her
along with him.

 

“What are you doing, Darla?,” asked Tanner.

 

“What are you doing?,” asked Darla. She looked around. “Where are we?”

 

“I’m headed for New York,” said Tanner.

 

“Not without me,” said Darla. “You can’t leave me in the middle of nowhere.”

 

“Take a bus back home,” said Tanner. “I’ve got things to do and not enough time.”

 

“No,” said Darla. “Either we both go home, or neither of us do.”

 

“I’m good with that,” said Tanner. He started walking again.

 

Darla grabbed his arm as he crossed a variety of landscapes and they wound up on a
building in the middle of New York. She looked around. A guy in a mask pointed a
bow and arrow at her face.

 

“Keep pointing that at me, and I’ll shove it so far up inside you, a proctologist
couldn’t find it, buddy,” said Darla.

 

“Don’t mind her,” said Tanner. He glanced at his forearm. “She’s moody.”

 

“I’m not,” said Darla.

 

“I can’t have you civilians up here,” said the bowman. “There’s an invasion going
on.”

 

“I know,” said Tanner. “I’m here to lend a hand as soon as my timer runs out.”

 

“I, the Queen of Genn, the Sister of the Destroyer, the Mother of the Myriad, the Sun
of a Million Lands, pronounce sentence on this miserable place for the crime of
accepting my rebellious daughter as one of your own.” The image of a burning tree
held up its prize in its grasp. The image covered the world so everyone could see what
was going to happen. “You will all be exterminated just like this hero who tried to
stop me.”

 

The net around the Mark caught fire as magic poured down on him. He felt the green
spark in his body being ripped out. Then he blew apart in a cloud of ash and smoke.

 

“And you want to take that on?,” asked Darla.

 

“Nobody else can,” said Tanner.

 

“The Lamplighters have a plan,” said the bowman. “I don’t know what the two of you
think you can do, but the Scouts and everyone else we can round up are trying to keep
the enemy forces from overrunning the city while they do what they do.”

 

“Timer is almost done,” said Tanner. “Give the Scout a hand, Darla, until I get back.
If I don’t make it back, tell the folks what happened.”

 

“Don’t be crazy,” Darla said. “You don’t have a chance against that thing.”

 

“Sure I do,” said Tanner. He looked up at a streak of light descending from the sky.
“It looks like I’m not the only one joining this party. Try not to get hurt. Your mom
will have kittens.”

 

Tanner counted down the last of his circular clock on his forearm. He knew what he
had to do, but didn’t know what would happen. His body might explode from the
power he was going to summon up.

 

He hoped the Scouts gave Darla a ride home after this was over. He doubted she
wanted to explain how she got to New York if he didn’t make it.

 

“What are you going to do?,” asked the bowman.

 

“I’m going to push all the buttons,” said Tanner.

 

He ran his finger on all the buttons on the keyboard tattooed to his forearm. Each one
lit up at his touch. He had kept his power output to three keys because that was all
that was usually needed in the situations he faced back home.

 

Now as the giant tree and the giant hero in a space suit swung at each other. He
needed more than the usual amount of power.

 

He paused before he pushed the activate key. His cousin looked furious, but she
almost always did. The bowman looked confused, but that might have been because
he wore what looked like a scarecrow outfit with the bag over his head under a jacket
with the Hazard Scout hourglass on it. He smiled. Then he pushed the button.

 

Tanner exploded upward, becoming metallic and huge in flight. He slammed into the
Queen of the Genn as she knocked the other hero away. He punched her in the face
as energy blew against her body.

 

He didn’t have long. The Scout said they had a plan in operation. All they had to do
was hold the Queen in position. His timer said he only had three minutes at best. He
hoped he lived long enough to see what the side effects were.

 

A hundred wooden hands smashed into his metallic face. That sent him stumbling
back. He grimaced as energy struck at him. He raised a shield and let the beam wrap
around it without touching him.

 

He noted that Darla had started using her eyebeam. It was perfect for knocking down
the mooks while he went toe to toe with the big cheese. Purple splashes of color sent
flying machines to the ground with a couple of hits.

 

Tanner retaliated with explosive splinters. He didn’t get to use that power too often.
It felt good to give the Queen a face full of spikes. And then the spikes blew up.

He would have laughed, but something caught him in the chest and he started
worrying where he was going to land.

 

Tanner brought himself up from crashing into a few skyscrapers. He winced at the
cracking of some of the windows. He couldn’t help that.

 

Thunder shook the air. A giant bipedal lizard stalked the streets. Fins on its back
glowed with fury. It roared, then emitted a beam of fire from its mouth. Then it
charged right at the Queen.

 

“What the heck is that?,” Tanner asked himself as the giant lizard and giant burning
tree met. The biting and roaring that followed was enough to deafen people.

 

Tanner and the other giant added to the havoc by blazing away at the Queen as the
reptile bit and tore. The burning tree blasted them away with a wave of her arms. Her
bark regrew as they watched.

 

They didn’t have anything to shut her down, even with the giant lizard helping out.
How could they win this?

 

A mental beeping went off in Tanner’s head. He looked down at his arm. His power
was about to shut off. He looked around for a building he could land on before his
combined abilities went away altogether.

 

He grabbed a roof with one hand. Once his power went away, he would have to wait
before he could use it again. He had never used all of the buttons at one time. He
didn’t know how long it would take to power up again. He could be dead by the time
he could use the keyboard again.

 

The other giant slammed into the Queen, combining his attack with the lizard. He
covered his face as the counter attack ripped at his metallic skin. He burned the air
as he stood there.

 

The lizard exhaled at point blank range. The dragon fire burned against a hastily
erected shield, blowing it apart. It followed that with a headbutt.

 

Someone had taught the monster some wrestling moves before it came out to save the
world, thought Tanner. His power burned up. He shrank as his body returned to
normal. He pulled himself on his target roof and rolled away from the edge as he
looked up at the sky and wondered what else he could do.

 

A jet of blue flame hit the Queen. Tanner looked back at the source of it. He saw
something like a cannon in the distance. Blue lights flicked on in a spider’s web as
the jet burned through the wooden body and the green energy roiling within. The
animated tree stumbled from the almost lethal attack.

 

The remaining giant slammed a fist into the tree, pushing her back into the clouds that
formed the door between their realms.

 

Tanner had been too busy to notice, but other flying heroes were on the scene. Had
they been there the whole time. He realized that he had been caught up in the struggle
and had not noticed other displays of power while trying to hold the Queen back.

 

Light from the street extended into the air in letters, combining into a symbol of light.
It capped the cloud cover. Then it shrank, taking the door with it.

 

Tanner sat on the roof for a second. He looked at his arm. The keys were cold. He
couldn’t get home until the keyboard became warm again. He shook his head. How
was he going to get down?

 

He could already hear Darla complaining now. He wished the best of luck to the
bowman Scout. That and some earplugs might be enough to salvage the rest of his
night.

 

“It’s transformer boy,” said a familiar voice. He turned as a costume in red and silver
dropped out of the sky.

 

“It’s Scarab Girl,” said Tanner. He smiled. “How’s your dad?”

 

“Grounding me when this is all over,” said Scarab Girl. She looked out over the city.
The lizard had turned into a thunderstorm heading out over the ocean. She pointed at
the lightning arcing to the water.

 

“I have to pick up my cousin,” said Tanner. “And then I have to wait for the keyboard
to activate again. I used up a lot of juice doing what I did.”

 

“The Scouts are regrouping on their command point,” said Scarab Girl. “They live out
your way. Maybe you can hitch a ride.”

 

“I doubt they want tagalongs like me and Darla,” said Tanner. “Especially since I left
Darla with one of their guys, and she is not the friendliest person ever.”

 

“You can see if their guy took her to their command post,” said Scarab Girl. “I’ll give
you a lift over there myself.”

 

“Thanks, Scarab Girl,” said Tanner. He looked at his forearm. “That’ll be a great
help.”

 

“Does your parents know you’re out saving the world?,” asked Scarab Girl. She fired
a line to the next building over.

 

“No,” said Tanner. “Just Darla, and I wouldn’t have told her except she got something
too.”

 

“Mutual blackmail of silence?,” said Scarab Girl.

 

“Exactly,” said Tanner.

 

Scarab Girl grabbed Tanner under one arm and swung out from the roof. She
descended to the street and dropped him on the sidewalk.

 

“It’s this way,” she said. She pointed at the glow in the air. “Better hurry if you don’t
want your cousin messing things up for you.”

 

“As long as she doesn’t splatter anybody, it should be good,” said Tanner.

 

He walked down the street. Others joined him. He looked at the masks and costumes.
They were as cut up and torn as his own clothes. He nodded at a man in a suit and hat
with a clay mask over his face. The other nodded back.

 

“Do you want to have something to eat after we check in?,” Scarab Girl asked.

 

“I don’t think your dad likes me,” said Tanner. He thought the expression under the
full mask could be a smile, but he couldn’t tell for sure.

 

“Hey, kid,” said a man in a dun coat. He puffed on a cigar as he came out of a side
street. “I didn’t expect to see you here. Scarab Girl. How’s it going?”

 

“It’s going fine, Mr. Nobody,” said Scarab Girl. “How are things with you?”

 

“No mister,” said the smoker. He smiled, eyebrows in a quizzical lift over his eyes.
“I think things will settle down for a while.”

 

“Seen Darla?,” asked Tanner.

 

“She flew over with the Scarrow and Emerald,” said Nobody. “I expect she’s waiting
for you to show up.”

 

“I can’t take her home yet,” said Tanner.

 

“I’m sure she’ll understand,” said Nobody. He opened the door for them to head up
to the roof.

 

“Have you met my cousin?,” Tanner said. He walked across the lobby, checking the
keyboard as he went. “I don’t think understanding is what she does best.”

 

“It’ll be fine,” said the man in the coat. He smiled around his cigar.

 

Tanner and Scarab Girl exchanged a look. They both knew empty assurances when
they heard them.

 

The three of them made their way to the roof. The man in the coat opened any doors
that stood in their way. Scarab Girl saw her father talking to the Mark’s daughters.
He looked up when she arrived. She could tell he wasn’t happy that she was still in
working clothes.

 

And then he saw Tanner and the man in the coat. He definitely didn’t look happy
despite the mask.

 

“I think your dad is mad,” said Tanner in a low voice.

 

“Really?,” said Scarab Girl. “What was your first clue, Sherlock?”

 

“You,” said Darla. “Where have you been? How could you leave me with someone
stupid enough to call themselves Scarrow? What is your problem? Is this your
girlfriend? Can we go home?”

 

“Not yet,” said Tanner. “This is my cousin, Darla. Darla, this is the Scarlet Scarab,
and Scarab Girl. Scarab Girl was asking if we would like to eat with them, and
anybody else who wanted to go now that the emergency is over.”

 

“Are you crazy?,” asked Darla. “No, I don’t want to eat with bug people. I have to get
home before my curfew, dipstick.”

 

“That’s not going to happen anytime soon,” said Tanner. “I busted the keyboard.”

 

“What did you say?,” said Darla. Her hands reached for the headband concealing her
third eye.

 

“Who did we lose?,” asked Tanner.

 

“Marty Morgan, the Animal, and the Mark,” said the Scarlet Scarab. “We lost a
couple of others fighting in the street. We’re hoping they’ll show up some time and
let us know they’re still out there.”

 

“So we didn’t save everybody,” said Tanner.

 

“Couldn’t be expected to,” said the man in the dun coat. “You two still did okay
considering.”

 

“If you can call running across the country and nearly getting killed fighting someone
that killed the Mark okay,” said Darla. “What the frack was that?”

 

“It needed doing,” said Tanner.

 

“Exactly,” said the man in the dun coat. “Some things need doing. Have a safe trip
back home. I doubt things will be this bad for a while. This Earth has beaten two
menaces from beyond. The others might decide to leave us alone for a bit.”

 

“What if they don’t, Mister Mysterious Mister Who Likes Crappy Smelling
Smokes?,” asked Darla.

 

“You’re the heroes who have to fight for the world,” said the man in the dun coat.
“I’m just a nobody comedy relief.”

 

He raised his cigar in a goodbye gesture and walked away.

 

“That guy gets up my nose,” said Darla. “Especially those cigars and the mysterious
mystery act. What’s next? He’s pulls a rabbit out of his coat and says presto.”

 

“The city is going to be cleaning up for a while,” said the Scarlet Scarab. “None of
us seem to have the ability to help with that. And the Scouts are going to want to bury
their dead. We can get a meal while we wait on your power to come back.”

 

“If it ever does,” said Tanner. “We may be stuck here for a while.”

 

“What did you say?,” said Darla.

 

“I said let’s grab something to eat while we can,” said Tanner. “Then we can talk
about getting home, and covering for leaving like we did.”

 

“This is all your fault,” said Darla.

 

“No one asked you to come along,” said Tanner. “Act like a decent person and let’s
have a dinner with two of the best heroes in the city without embarrassing ourselves.”

 

“This isn’t over,” said Darla. She glared at the three of them. “Let’s go.”

 

The four of them walked down the stairs in silence.

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Scouting in the woods 1

1992 


Stella Marston crossed the concourse of the airport. Everywhere she looked, people
told her about themselves. Some of the things weren’t what she considered nice.

 

She spotted her babysitters. Uncle Marty stood in his beat up old tan jacket with an
hourglass on the sleeve and waved at her. She could see the holes in it from where she
walked.

 

His wife, Finch, stood at his side. She wore a green and gold shirt-dress over green
pants. Her face and mind were empty.

 

Stella paused. She had never met someone who kept their thoughts that much in
check.

 

The three children with them had flightier minds, scattered thoughts flying around as
they focused on one thing, or the other.

 

“Hey, Stella,” said Uncle Marty. He waved at her. “Have you got your bag?”

 

“Yes, sir,” said Stella. Her dad had told her to pack light, so she had packed two
changes of clothing in an overnight bag.

 

“All right,” said Marty. “Let’s head to the van and start our trip.”

 

Stella fell in with the kids, carrying her backpack in her hand. Mark and Melinda
practiced mock punches behind her. She could read the vectors even if she couldn’t
hope to match their speed. Bond followed at a distance. He had a book in hand,
scanning it as he walked. She got the impression of him reading it as an echo in her
mind.

 

“What are you reading?,” asked Stella. She walked beside Bond, keeping her distance
from the siblings.

 

“The Adventure of Three Coffins,” said Bond. He looked up. “My dad wants me to
solve the mystery before I reach the end of the book.”

 

“Why?,” asked Stella.

 

“Because he’s a detective and he wants me to follow in his footsteps,” said Bond.
“I’m not sure if I am cut out to be a detective.”

 

“My dad is a detective too,” said Stella. “He doesn’t solve crimes anymore. Mostly
he makes sure that one person isn’t doing anything wrong.”

 

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Bond. “My dad just wants to solve mysteries
and catch villains because that was what he was trained to do. My mom likes
helping.”

 

Stella thought about it. Bond’s parents weren’t there. She knew them as Ren and
Corona Tamagochi. Ren’s mind was full of formulae and explanations for things that
she didn’t understand. Corona looked like a star.

 

“I don’t see your parents,” Stella said. She knew that was the wrong thing to say a
moment later.

 

“Dad had a case he had to work on at the last minute,” said Bond. “He doesn’t like
the outdoors that much anyway.”

 

“Do you want to go?,” asked Stella.

 

“Not really, but Dad doesn’t want me to stay at home while he’s working on this,”
said Bond.

 

“He didn’t want you to get hurt, dipstick,” said Mark.

 

“Yeah, dipstick,” said Melinda.

 

“That gets old,” said Bond.

 

Stella looked at the Morgan siblings. They looked more like their mother than dad
with straight hair, and oriental features. They already had calluses on their hands from
practicing to follow in their mom’s footsteps.

 

Bond was taller than the three of them, blond hair burning the light, dark eyes
squinting at everything. He wore a suit jacket and slacks for their camping trip.

 

“There’s the van,” said Uncle Marty. “Let’s load up and get this show on the road.”

 

The family dog sat in the shotgun seat. He barked at the kids as they ran up to the van.
The tail wagged.

 

“Back seat, Ruff,” said Uncle Marty. He gestured with a thumb.

 

The wrinkled face vanished from the window and reappeared in the side door
window. The dog grinned at them.

 

Uncle Marty opened the side door for the kids to climb in. Ruff danced around to
make that harder than necessary. His tongue left slobber everywhere he attacked.

 

“Down, Ruff,” said Mark. “We’re camping.”

 

The dog climbed into the back of the van and lay down. His tail still wagged. They
could hear it beating against the seat.

 

Finch placed the boys in the middle seats, and the girls in the back. She gave her
children a look. Then she closed the van door. Camping could be traded for work
around the Scouts’ home, and helping Barry with his inventions.

 

Something exploding was not all that fun when it set your hair on fire.

 

Stella looked over the seat at Ruff. The dog looked up at her. She didn’t sense
anything from it. She turned to face front before she got another face licking.

 

Marty got behind the wheel. Finch took the front passenger seat. She nodded at them.

Stella felt a little ping of something from her then. She didn’t have time to examine
it before it was gone.

 

Bond turned to the last page of the book. He looked down. Then he shook his head.
He pulled out a pen and wrote something down on the last page of the book. He put
the pen and book away.

 

“What’s wrong?,” Stella asked.

 

“I am in training to be a detective,” said Bond. “Part of that is figuring out these
mysteries. My dad tears out the last few pages and makes me write down who I think
did the deed.”

 

“Sounds boring,” said Melinda.

 

“You have to train to be something,” said Bond. “This is Dad’s way of training me.
Look at you two. Your mom makes you run in front of a pitching machine to get
fast.”

 

“And we’re fast,” said Mark.

 

“Same principle,” said Bond. “Dad wants me to figure out what happened in the story.
He calls it evaluating things. Once I get that down, I can move on to other parts of
things.”

 

“Why don’t you look up the endings at the library?,” said Stella.

 

“That’s cheating,” said Bond. “And Dad always knows when I do that.”

 

“Really?,” said Stella.

 

“Yep,” said Bond. “He always knows.”

 

“He’s got eyes in the back of his head,” said Mark. “Bond is right. You can’t get away
with anything when he’s around.”

 

“He’s constantly evaluating things,” said Bond.

 

“I thought my dad was bad,” said Stella.

 

“Eventually I hope to join a sports team and get out of all this training,” said Bond.
“I’m not quite sure if being a detective is something I want to do.”

 

“Sports takes just as much training as detecting,” said Mark. “Only you have to be
good at running and catching and a hundred other things.”

 

“And you’re not that good at any of them,” said Melinda.

 

“I could be a great football player,” said Bond. “I have grace according to my mom.”

 

The siblings sniggered at that. Melinda covered her mouth so she couldn’t howl with
laughter.

 

“You two are being mean,” said Stella. She frowned at the two. “Fighting is not that
great a skill either if it doesn’t get you a job to pay your rent.”

 

“It’s a great skill,” said Mark. “It has a lot of uses.”

 

“Name one other than fighting,” said Stella.

 

“Breaking things,” said Mark.

 

“Physical fitness,” said Melinda.

 

“Taking a punch to the face,” said Bond.

 

“The last is covered by fighting,” said Stella.

 

“All right, kids,” said Marty. “I need to make a call. Try to keep things down to a dull
roar.”

 

Ruff barked from the back of the van.

 

“That includes you too,” said Marty.

 

He pulled on a headset and plugged it into the dashboard. He waited for someone to
answer before he started talking. He nodded at something said. Then he disconnected
the headset, and put it away again.

 

“All right, guys,” said Marty. “We’re getting off at the next exit and then start up
toward the forest. There’s a small place to shop for groceries. That will be the place
for whatever supplies you think we’ll need. Think about it.”

 

“How much can we get?,” asked Mark.

 

“Five dollars worth,” said Marty. “I think that should be enough for the four of you.”

 

“Five dollars apiece, or together?,” asked Mark.

 

“Together,” said Marty.

 

“That won’t even buy soda pop for the four of us,” said Mark.

 

“It should,” said Marty. He looked at Finch. She held up two fingers. “All right, I will
give you two dollars apiece for your personal use.”

 

“Three dollars?,” asked Mark.

 

“Two fifty,” said Marty. “That’s my final offer.”

 

Mark looked at the other three kids. He nodded at the looks he got back.

 

“We’ll take it,” he said.

 

“He gets this haggling thing from your side of the family,” Marty said, smiling at his
wife. Finch shook her head. She pointed at him. “Me? I don’t think so. I never
haggled a day in my life.”

 

Stella wondered what she could get for two dollars. She planned to keep the fifty
cents for later when she got home.

 

“All right, here’s the exit, kids,” said Marty. “We’re looking for signs heading to
Redwood. The camping area is north of that.”

 

“We could have camped around the old place,” said Mark. “We didn’t have to drive
out this far from home.”

 

“Barry is doing experiments at home,” said Marty. “I figured that camping away from
that would prevent him trying to con us into helping him move machinery around
while he got things the way he wanted.”

 

“Good call,” said Mark. He settled back in his chair.

 

“I’m so glad you approve of my decision making skills,” said Marty.

 

“Who’s Barry?,” asked Stella. She saw an image of a human looking machine in a
Scout coat, waving what looked like a flamethrower in one hand.

 

“He’s one of the Scouts,” said Bond. “He’s big on doing experiments to find out
things.”

 

“He’ll work us like dogs,” said Mark.

 

“He says it builds character,” said Melinda. She stuck out her tongue at that idea.

 

“Don’t listen to them,” said Marty. “Barry is my adoptive father, and Mark and
Melinda’s adoptive grandfather. He gets a little enthusiastic when he decides to do
things. This weekend is all about taking things slow and enjoying the time outside.”

 

“Which we wouldn’t be able to do dodging lightning and some of the stuff he’s
testing,” said Mark.

 

“Killer frogs with two foot long tongues,” said Melinda. She shook at the thought.

 

Ruff added his own sentiment to the description from his spot at the back of the van.

 

“You kids are exaggerating,” said Marty. “Those frogs weren’t nearly that big.”

 

Stella saw an image in the Morgan siblings’ minds. The frogs looked big to her. The
size of a greyhound sprang to mind. Mark held his hands out to show how big the
frogs were. Melinda nodded in agreement.

 

“Humongous,” said Finch.

 

“They were a little outsized, but we handled it,” said Marty. “You guys act like
you’ve never seen strange wildlife before.”

 

“Mr. Morgan,” said Bond. “Those frogs were the single most dangerous things I have
ever seen in my life. I think that you are just used to that kind of thing and they
looked small to you.”

 

“You haven’t really seen anything that dangerous, have you?,” asked Marty.

 

“Not like that, no,” said Bond. He turned to Stella. “They chased us all over the
building, trying to eat us. Mr. Nicklaus found an old flamethrower and lit them up.
They exploded and covered us with goo. I spent a week showering to get the smell
out.”

 

“That was the worst part,” said Mark. “The slimy skin and the tongues weren’t as bad
as the smell when they blew up. We had to clean that up too. It was awful.”

 

“It was horrible,” said Melinda. She made a face at the memory of the odor.

 

“Indescribable,” said Finch.

 

“Et tu, Brute,” said Marty. He glanced at his wife. Her placid mask almost smiled
back at him.

 

The van pulled into the gravel lot of the small store Marty had told them about. He
counted out two fives and handed them to the four kids. They looked down at the two
bills.

 

“How are we supposed to split this?,” asked Mark.

 

“I suggest that one of you pick one item and pay for it to get change, then split it like
that,” said Marty. “Or one of you can buy their two bucks worth of stuff and give the
change to the other.”

 

“Boys together, then girls,” said Finch. “No fighting, no arguing.”

 

“Come on, Bond,” said Mark. “Let’s see what we can do with our five dollars.”

 

The boys went in first, talking about how to maximize their buying power. A giant
pool of things to split would be the way to go as far as they could see. And they
wouldn’t have to give any to the girls.

 

“Could you help me pick stuff out?,” asked Melinda. “I’m not good with numbers
yet.”

 

“Okay,” said Stella. “You hold the money.”

 

“I can do that,” said Melinda. “No one will take our money as long as I have it in my
hand.”

 

Stella saw a show of violence rushing through Melinda’s mind at the determination
of stopping a thief before he got away with their five dollar bill.

 

“If you girls hurry, maybe you can convince the boys to share their five so you have
ten dollars altogether,” said Marty. He smiled as they rushed into the store to talk to
the boys.
 

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Scouting in the woods

2

Stella mediated a deal between the four of them so they could each get a bit of what
they wanted without being too greedy. She glanced at Mister and Mrs. Morgan. They
watched the conversation but didn’t interfere.

 

“All right,” said Mark. He sipped on his cola. “This is great.”

 

“Thank you for helping me,” said Melinda. She held out a bag of candy for Stella to
take one piece.

 

“Everyone got something?,” asked Marty. He had secured a bottle of soda and a moon
pie for himself. He offered a bite to his wife, but Finch declined with an upraised
hand blocking it from sight.

 

The chorus of yeses made him smile. He took a bite of his moon pie and a sip of soda
from the bottle while gesturing for the kids to head back to the van.

 

Finch patted him on the cheek as she passed.

 

“In the back, Ruff,” commanded Mark. “We’re headed up into the woods.”

 

The dog jumped in the van and made its way to its spot. It loomed over the seat to
watch the girls eat their treats.

 

“No, Ruff,” said Melinda. “Candy is bad for dogs.”

 

Ruff barked before settling with his head on his paws.

 

“She’s right, Ruff,” said Marty as he got behind the driver’s wheel. “Candy is bad for
dogs.”

 

One bark answered that.

 

“Don’t be a trial,” said Marty. “I have steak we can cook tonight over a roaring fire.”

 

Ruff jumped up to to look over the seat. His ears were pointed at the front of the van.

 

“Yes, steak for us,” said Marty. “Everyone else is getting vegetables.”

 

Ruff barked. He dropped down. His tail started beating the seat again.

 

“And you said steak was bad,” Marty said. He glanced at his wife. She shook her
head.

 

“Everyone buckled in?,” asked Marty. He looked over his shoulder at the kids.
Everyone nodded back at him. “Let’s head up to the camp site. We want to set up our
tents before nightfall.”

 

The van pulled away from the store and headed down the road. Stella looked out the
window on her side. The trees encroached on the road as they rolled along.

 

“There’s our turn,” said Marty. “We’re going to have to park and walk up the rest of
the way.”

 

“Walking?,” said Mark.

 

“Not walking,” said Melinda.

 

Ruff barked.

 

“Yes, walking,” said Marty. “The exercise will do you good.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Mark.

 

“And that’s why we don’t pay you to think,” said Marty. “There’s our spot.”

 

Marty pulled the van into the slot reserved for vehicles like his. He cut the engine and
got out. He walked back to the rear of the van and opened the rear door. Ruff sat up.

 

“Coming, or going?,” Marty asked.

 

Ruff jumped down to the gravel parking lot.

 

Finch herded the kids out of the van. She checked them visually before sending them
to the back. She pointed at the dog. It sat where she pointed. It grinned easily at its
surroundings.

 

“All right,” said Marty. “We’re going to take our things up to the camp site. Stay
together and don’t wander off the trail. There’s still some dangerous animals that like
to hang around and eat a kid. Here we go.”

 

Marty opened a cargo space in the rear section. He took out two backpacks, and
handed them to Mark and Melinda. He pulled out two bags with long sections of cloth
and rods in them. He handed one to Mark, the other to Bond. He pulled out a case of
canned drinks and handed those to Melinda. He pulled out three big coolers last. He
handed one to Stella, one to his wife, and put the last on the ground. He checked to
see if he missed anything before closing everything up and locking the van down.

 

“Let’s go, guys,” said Marty. “We want to set up our tents and cook dinner before the
night comes.”

 

“Do you think there are bears?,” asked Melinda.

 

“I’m sure there are,” said Marty. “That’s why I brought your mother along. No bear
is going to get in our camp with her around.”

 

“Don’t be a scaredy cat,” said Mark. “No animal is going to get close with Ruff on
duty. He’s a good dog.”

 

“Don’t underestimate the scavengers and bugs,” said Marty. “Even with a dog around,
that doesn’t mean it will stop them from foraging. And larger predators may attack
if they are having problems. Again that is why I brought your mother along.”

 

“I suppose that’s okay,” said Mark.

 

“I’m so glad you agree with me,” said Marty. He kept his eyeroll down to one turn.

 

The group trooped into the woods. Marty sang songs from his youth off key and
annoying to the kids, and his wife. He didn’t care. He had a cooler on his shoulder
and a place picked out where they could take it easy for the whole weekend. He didn’t
plan to do anything more than petting his dog, and napping under the shade of a tall
tree.

 

“The singing is bad, Dad,” said Mark.

 

“That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang, son,” said Marty. “Your
mother will explain it to you when you’re older.”

 

Mrs. Morgan shook her head. There would be no explanation from her.

 

“All right, guys,” said Marty. “Take a left off the trail there and look for a clear spot
next to a small pile of rocks.”

 

“Should we be going off the trail like this?,” asked Bond.

 

“That’s why we brought the dog,” said Marty. “Don’t go anywhere without him. Ruff
will always return to me.”

 

“Always?,” asked Stella. She glanced at the hound sniffing trees as they walked.

 

“That’s what his nose is for, hon,” said Marty. “He can sniff a trail for almost a week
before it gets old. Take him with you wherever you go, he’ll always bring you back
to camp.”

 

“And he’s a good pillow,” said Melinda. “He likes that a lot too.”

 

Ruff barked in agreement. He loved the laying around and reading over people’s
shoulders.

 

“There’s our pile of rocks,” said Marty. “Let’s see what we got to work with as far as
putting up our tents and getting ready to eat.”

 

The clearing was an oval surrounded on all sides by bushes and trees. A pyramid of
rocks had been set up in the center. Stella noticed someone had cut an hourglass in
a circle on one of the stones.

 

How many times had Mister Morgan camped in this spot?

 

“All right,” said Marty. “Melinda, Mark, gather firewood. Stella and Bond, we want
something where we can just drape the tent halves over and then spike them to the
ground. If you don’t mind getting the fire started, Honey, that should get most of what
we need going.”

 

Mark and Melinda vanished into the surrounding undergrowth. Ruff went with them.
He didn’t bark as he kept an eye on the younger Morgans.

 

Marty took all the camping equipment out of the storage bags. He set all the tents up
with a minimum of effort. He gave directions to the kids as he let them help out.

 

Finch turned the pyramid into a circle of stones. She gathered up some twigs and
piled them in the center. She took a dry piece between her thumb and index finger.
In a second, it was burning. She put that on top of the pile of wood.

 

“Wait until the kids are adults before you show them how to do that,” said Marty.

 

Finch smiled. She breathed on the flame to keep it going. Mark and Melinda pushed
out of the trees with armloads of wood. Ruff panted behind them, wagging his tail.
Finch and Marty took the wood and set it up to burn without too much smoke.

 

The last thing they wanted was trouble with the park rangers.

 

“It looks like all we have to do is cook our food, and then decide what to do before
we go to bed,” said Marty. “Tomorrow, we’re going hiking and taking in the great
outdoors.”

 

“How far are we going, Dad?,” asked Mark.

 

“I thought we could walk up to the Peak,” said Marty. He placed a grill on the flames.
He opened the coolers and placed small steaks on the grill. He looked inside. “Need
to slice the potatoes.”

 

“Kids,” said Finch. She pulled two knifes and handed them to the siblings. She began
throwing potatoes at them. Quartered potatoes dropped on the grill. Stella sat back at
the display.

 

“Not as bad as the last time,” said Bond. He had a pack of candy orange slices in his
hand. He opened the bag with a twist of his wrist. “The last time I got splattered with
mashed potatoes in my hair.”

 

“I don’t think Melinda could do that on purpose because she knows what would
happen if she did,” said Marty. “We can’t really punish people for accidents, can we?
Excitement at the use of a new skill sometimes causes things to happen that the
person using the skill knows shouldn’t happen.”

 

Stella felt the trace of guilt from the younger girl. She had splattered Bond on purpose
and made it look like an accident. No one had been fooled by her act.

 

They had just given her punishment and made that look like regular work.

 

Stella didn’t think Melinda knew she was getting punished for bad behavior. Maybe
she had, and it had sailed through her mind as something she could deal with without
thinking about it.

 

Stella supposed that having a brother like Mark would make any punishment worse
than it was. He was the type to rub things in from what she could see.

 

Bond offered her some of the orange slices. She took one of the candies and chewed
on it. It was like a jelly bean with a spark of sugar and orange tasting on top.

 

“Are they any good?,” asked Melinda.

 

“They’re really chewy,” said Stella. “But I think I like them.”

 

“Would you like one, Melinda?,” asked Bond.

 

“Yes,” said Melinda. She glanced at her mother. “Please.”

 

Bond stretched out so she could reach into the bag and pick out her own slices. She
pulled out three. She popped them in her mouth and started chewing.

 

“You’re supposed to eat them one at a time, Lind,” said Marty. “Otherwise, they get
to be too sweet.”

 

“They’re okay,” said Melinda. She chewed the rest in her mouth and swallowed.
“They’re pretty gummy.”

 

Marty flipped the steaks with a knife. He nodded at the coloring on them.

 

“Did we bring any plates with us?,” he asked.

 

Finch pulled out a small stack from a bag. They were wrapped in plastic to protect
them.

 

“Let’s divvy up the spoils and eat,” said Marty. “Then we can sit back and relax a
spell.”

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Scouting in the Woods 3

Stella liked most of the outdoors except for the lack of bathrooms. Everywhere she
looked simple brains went about doing what they did best. There was nothing
complicated about them and made not listening to them easier.

 

Disregarding the others camping with her was almost as easy. Bond bothered her the
most with his worry, but the Morgans seemed to have worked to make things easier
by concentrating on one point. Mister Morgan had some concerns but he kept them
hidden behind a catalogue of animals moving in his brain.

 

Stella wondered if the Morgans had trained themselves to be unreadable by people
like her. She decided not to ask. The answer would be as embarrassing as the question
in her opinion.

 

“How do you know my dad, Mister Morgan,” asked Stella. That seemed a safe topic
to talk about with the adults. “He never told me he knew someone famous.”

 

“I wouldn’t say I am personally famous,” said Marty. “I knew your dad when I was
a kid. He used to help Barry out sometimes. He retired sometime in the seventies from
doing the weirder side of things. When he asked me to look after you, I owed him
enough to include you in our camping trip.”

 

“I didn’t know Dad was a Hazard Scout,” said Stella.

 

“He wasn’t,” said Marty. He shifted on his log seat. “Your dad operated on his own,
and Barry would give him side jobs to look into because we were doing something
else on the other side of the planet. Your dad and a couple of others would look into
things and get back to Barry if the Scouts needed to do something about the
problem.”

 

Stella sensed something being left out that was more than just handing her dad side
jobs. It was something about the nature of the jobs, and how her dad went about doing
them.

 

“Dad said he had a job come up,” said Stella. “Do you think it was a weird job? This
is the first time he asked me to leave town while he was working on something.”

 

“Don’t know,” said Marty. “Your dad can take care of himself. If there was a
problem, I would leave you and the other kids with Barry, and look into things
myself. I have a good record of finding out things since I have been working with
Bond’s dad.”

 

“Is Mister Tamagochi a good detective?,” asked Stella. Fleeting memories of
deductions proven right flowed through Morgan’s mind for a second.

 

“He’s decent,” said Marty. “He’s better than the others that trained with his teacher.”

 

Finch nodded at the assertion. Stella still couldn’t read her. She had to take the
assessment at face value.

 

“I’ll be back,” said Finch.

 

She stood and vanished into the darkness. Ruff watched her go. He lay with his head
on his paws, a small growl escaping his throat as he looked out beyond the campfire.
He stopped growling just before she reappeared from the tree line.

 

The dog closed his eyes and settled in place. Whatever had been bothering him
seemed to be gone.

 

Stella wondered if Mrs. Morgan had run into an animal and the animal had fled from
her.

 

Mrs. Morgan leaned over and said something into her husband’s ear. Stella caught an
edge of what was being said from his brain, but all she saw was a bear and cubs.

 

“Okay,” said Mister Morgan. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll put up a picket fence around
us.”

 

“A picket fence?,” asked Stella.

 

“We have some wildlife roaming too close to the camp,” said Mister Morgan. “I’m
going to put out some watchers to let us know if any of it gets too close. We still have
Ruff, but something further out will give us a faster warning of things.”

 

Stella felt he was hiding something, but she couldn’t break down his defense to get
in and find out what. She decided to let it go. If he wanted to tell her, he would.

 

She wondered what her dad was doing. It had been a while since he had taken a case
that couldn’t wait. Usually when he did, he let her stay home with her mother. This
time they were both out on this case, and she was stuck in the middle of the woods.

 

Mark and Melinda had picked up sticks and were practicing against each other. She
could read the variations, but she knew in a real fight she would lose. She just didn’t
have the reflexes to match what they were doing. Melinda would take her apart if they
ever matched up, and she was smaller and lighter.

 

Bond sat by himself. He waved a hand over the camp fire. His mind processed
calculation after calculation without glancing over the work. He caught an ember in
his hand. He held it up. It gleamed like a crystal instead of a piece of burning wood.
Then it turned black as he watched it.

 

Stella had the impression that he had held a ruby for that brief second. He frowned
as he went back to waving his hand over the fire.

 

“Who wants to tell some campfire stories?,” asked Mister Morgan.

 

The children except for Stella groaned. She looked at them. This was something she
had never done. They seemed to have done it numerous times before.

 

“Dad, your stories are boring,” said Mark.

 

“And we’ve heard all of them,” said Melinda.

 

“The sick dog?,” asked Mister Morgan.

 

“Bit the fingers off a burglar,” said Mark.

 

“The concrete truck?,” asked Mister Morgan.

 

“The wife was selling the house,” said Melinda.

 

“The ghost of San Francisco?,” asked Mister Morgan.

 

“Which one?,” asked Bond.

 

“Good question,” said Mister Morgan.

 

“One Eye Wilson?,” asked Mrs. Morgan.

 

“I don’t remember that one,” said Mister Morgan.

 

“One Eye Wilson followed his murderer around,” said Mrs. Morgan.

 

“Okay,” said Mister Morgan. “I do remember that now. All right, kids. I’m going to
tell you the story of One Eye Wilson. How does that sound?”

 

“Boring, Dad,” said Mark. “I would rather listen to Barry talk about lightning making
bugs glow.”

 

“It doesn’t make the bugs glow, it makes the bugs grow,” said Mister Morgan. “Do
we have any more Negative Nancys in the audience?”

 

“Negative Nancys?,” asked Melinda.

 

“Whiners,” said Bond. “Crybabies.”

 

“Oh,” said Melinda. She looked at her brother. She pointed at him. “You’re a whiny
crybaby. Does the baby need a binky?”

 

Bond covered his face with his hand.

 

“Binky?,” said Stella.

 

“I got this one, Bond,” said Mister Morgan. “A binky is a pacifier, Stella. Melinda,
quit bullying your brother. A Negative Nancy isn’t a cry baby. They are wet
blankets.”

 

“What’s the difference?, asked Melinda.

 

“One whines about life, the other brings people down because they are along for the
ride and they don’t like it,” said Mister Morgan. “Now since you are all stuck out here
with me, we’re going to hear the story of One Eye Wilson. Then you are going to turn
in for the night.”

 

“But it’s not even eight yet,” said Mark.

 

“And what does that have to do with anything?,” said Mister Morgan. “We’re
camping. I need you to be fresh tomorrow so we can do our camping stuff.”

 

“Camping stuff?,” asked Mark.

 

“Hiking, and catching fish, and loving nature,” said Mister Morgan. He waved his
arms to indicate the great outdoors around them. “Plus one of you will have to walk
Ruff.”

 

“One of us?,” said Mark. He looked at the other children.

 

“I’m not going to do it,” said Mister Morgan. “All right, let’s get the storytelling out

of the way. Tomorrow, one of you can tell a story.”

 

“Okay,” said Mark. “We’ll think of something we can tell that’ll be scarier than some
old ghost story.”

 

“This isn’t just a ghost story, son,” said Mister Morgan. “This is a story of crime and
punishment.”

 

“Crime and punishment?,” asked Melinda.

 

“Someone did something bad, and got caught,” said Bond.

 

“He was caught by his own conscience,” said Mister Morgan. “Now gather around,
kids. Let me tell you the story of One Eye Wilson. Try not to interrupt until the end.”

 

“Really?,” said Mark.

 

“The more you heckle tonight, the more I will heckle tomorrow,” said Mister Morgan.

 

“And it is bad manners,” said Mrs. Morgan.

 

“So let the storytelling commence,” said Mister Morgan, trying out the spooky hand
gesture for the kids. They looked unimpressed at his efforts.

 

The story of One Eye Wilson was a standard revenge story, except the person who
wanted the revenge was dead. Shot down in cold blood outside his favorite eatery,
Wilson became the bane of the local crime lord, Ari Schmidt. Everywhere his nemesis
went, the body of Wilson appeared. Schmidt broke down and gave a confession of his
crimes. He was tired of having the ghost following him around and causing problems
with his colleagues.

 

“That’s it?,” said Mark.

 

“What more do you want?,” asked Mister Morgan.

 

“Why did Wilson come back to life?,” asked Mark. “Why was he wandering around?
Why didn‘t anyone else see him? There are a lot of questions in this story, Dad.”

 

“He was a ghost,” said Mister Morgan. “No one saw him because of that.”

 

“So this lame ghost just happened to follow this guy around until he cracked?,” asked
Mark.

 

“The guy did happen to murder the ghost when he was alive,” said Bond. “It’s a
standard ghost thing.”

 

“It is?,” asked Mark, unwilling to concede the point.

 

“Yes,” said Bond. “I have been reading about the Lamplighters. They are doing a lot
of things about ghosts, how to find them, how to get rid of them. Some of their papers
indicate that you can expect a spirit to try to do what it’s modeled after when it was
alive.”

 

“What does that mean?,” asked Mark. He indicated general disbelief at the assertion
with a wave of his hands.

 

“It means that according to these Lamplighters, that if a ghost hated someone enough
when they were alive, they would want to take revenge if they came back after they
were dead,” said Stella. “I guess they got proof to prove what they were saying.”

 

Bond nodded at the assistance.

 

“So One Eye Wilson could be a true story?,” said Mark. “You’re kidding me.”

 

“Never,” said Morgan. He hid a smile. “You’re too smart for something like that.”

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Scouting in the Woods 4

The Morgans put the kids to bed. Ruff was placed on guard. Any animal who came
into the camp site would get a fanged fury to contend with while he was laying by the
tents.

 

“Do we have time to snuggle?,” asked Marty. “I think that would be nice before we
look at this other thing. And it will give the kids time to go to sleep.”

 

Finch gestured for him to sit with his back to his log. She sat down beside him. He
put his arm around her. She leaned in.

 

“This is nice,” said Marty. “Why haven’t we done this more often?”

 

“Work,” said Finch.

 

“That’s a good point,” said Marty. “We do travel a lot. Maybe we should do this
every year as a way of slowing down.”

 

“Maybe,” said Finch. She smiled. “It does seem quiet.”

 

“I know,” said Marty. “Maybe we could come up here by ourselves. Leave the kids
with Barry. The two of us alone in a romantic spot.”

 

They sat like that for a while. Marty stared at the fire. He had been on the run for ten
years, then gathered some people to be a new version of his adoptive family, and now
he had a natural family of his own. It was a lot of change for him to think about with
his wife by his side.

 

At one point, he thought he would already be dead by now.

 

“The children are asleep,” said Finch.

 

“So we should take care of this other thing?,” asked Marty. “I’m enjoying the
snuggling too much. Can’t we do the other thing in the morning?”

 

“Mark gets his laziness from you,” said Finch.

 

“I like to think of it as tactical brilliance and smart use of resources,” said Marty.

 

“So does he,” said Finch.

 

“All right,” said Marty. “Afterwards we snuggle some more.”

 

“Maybe,” said Finch.

 

“All right,” said Marty. “No more snuggling for you. I’ll get Ruff to do it. He loves
to snuggle and he doesn’t mind if I move around.”

 

Finch got to her feet in one flowing motion. She turned and held out a hand. Marty
took it. She yanked him to his feet with a single pull of her arm.

 

“I wonder what Petey got involved in,” said Marty. “Guard the camp, Ruff. Protect
the kids for me.”

 

The dog barked once, but didn’t move from where it was laying. It had an eye on the
whole area from its spot.

 

“Let’s take care of this so we can get some sleep,” said Marty.

 

Finch led him into the woods for some yards before she stopped. She pointed
upwards. Marty pulled a tiny flashlight from his pants pocket and shone it on two
men trussed up in their own clothes and left hanging upside down from a tree. Gags
from dirty socks had been used to ensure silence.

 

“If I take the socks out, are you going to scream for help?,” asked Marty. “If you do,
I’ll have to put them back in. I can’t have you waking up the kids. I don’t want them
to know my wife likes to beat people up and hang them up like pinatas.”

 

The pinatas made noises to show they understood what was being asked of them.

Marty reached up and pulled the socks out of their mouths. He dropped them on the
ground.

 

“Let’s have some introductions,” said Marty. “I’m Marty Morgan. This is my wife,
Finch. And you are?”

 

Finch handed him two wallets. He opened them and shone his light on the license
cards inside. He handed the wallets back.

 

“Joe Constanza, and Mike Mulligan,” said Marty. “Why are you here?”

 

“We were just doing a nature hike is all,” said Constanza. “Then this broad came out 
of nowhere and hung us up.”

 

Finch punched him in the face. He spun on his tether, dragging his partner with him.
She stepped back. She showed Marty the two handguns she had taken.

 

“Let’s try again,” said Marty. “Why are you here? If you lie again, I will walk away
and let my wife beat the both of you until your brains come out of your ears. If you
tell the truth, I will take you down to your car and let you drive away with just the
beating you have already taken.”

 

“Broken bones,” said Finch.

 

“Really?,” said Marty. She nodded. “One of you is going to have to go to the hospital.
Sorry. That’s the way it is. You know how women are.”

 

“One of us has to go to the hospital?,” said Mulligan. “Which one?”

 

“The one that lies,” said Marty. “The one that tells the truth gets to go home with
everything intact. I think that’s fair. Why are you here?”

 

“We’re here to grab the girl,” said Mulligan.

 

“Shut up you,” said Constanza.

 

“You shut up,” said Mulligan. “I need my legs, and I don’t want to go to the
hospital.”

 

“So you’re not here to bother us, just the girl?,” said Marty. “Which girl?”

 

“What do you mean which girl?,” said Mulligan. “The Marston girl.”

 

“Okay,” said Marty. “That’s better for you. For a minute, I thought you were talking
about my daughter. If that was the case, well let’s just say the bears would be getting
fatter in the morning.”

 

“They don’t know,” said Finch.

 

“I kind of agree,” said Marty. “What’s Petey doing to stir you guys up enough to grab
his kid for leverage?”

 

“What don’t we know?,” said Mulligan. “Who are you people?”

 

“I’m going to give this to you because I still need a few answers,” said Marty. “Your
boss sent you into a meat grinder. We’re superheroes. As soon as I am done with you,
I’m going to give your names to the mother of the other kid I am babysitting. Her
husband will tell her who you work for. By this time tomorrow, Petey Marston will
be the last thing on his mind because everything he owns will be burned down.
Bond’s mother is a berserker who loves to hurt people.”

 

“Are you serious?,” asked Constanza.

 

“Hazard Scouts,” said Marty. He directed the beam of his light on the patch he wore
on his jacket. The hourglass in a circle gleamed. “Your boss didn’t know, did he?”

 

Constanza said some expletives at that.

 

“No, he didn’t,” said Mulligan. “Marston is supposed to be some divorce snoop. We
were just supposed to grab his kid so he would back off looking into Lorraine Greco.”

 

“I don’t know who that is so I am going to take your word for that,” said Marty. “I’m
really debating telling Corona about this. Once she starts burning stuff down, she
might decide to go after the two of you. I don’t really care, but it seems like overkill.
What do you think, hon?”

 

“Burn them down,” said Finch.

 

“I don’t think we need to do that,” said Marty. “I think what we should do is give
these guys some time to warn their boss that Corona is on the way, and he should
leave the country.”

 

“Collateral damage,” said Finch.

 

“Yeah,” said Marty. “She might burn down the city looking for the guy. We can’t
have that. Barry would lose his mind.”

 

“So you’re not going to tell your friend about this?,” asked Mulligan.

 

“I don’t think we should,” said Marty. “I think we’re going to enjoy the rest of our
weekend. The only problem I see is what to do with the two of you. We can let you
go, but I feel like you would come back and spoil things for us. This is the first
weekend I have had in a while, and I don’t want you guys ruining it for us.”

 

“Bears?,” said Finch.

 

“Do we really want to kill them?,” said Marty. “It sets a bad example for the kids.
Putting one of you in the hospital just doesn’t seem like enough to keep you out of
our hair.”

 

“We’ll leave, and you will never see us again,” said Mulligan. “I swear. Please don’t
break my legs.”

 

“They will come back,” said Finch.

 

“I think I have an idea where all of us will be happy,” said Marty. “This is the
situation as I see it. You guys want Stella to use as leverage to stop Petey from doing
whatever he’s doing. We want to enjoy our weekend without more of you guys
showing up to bug us. Neither of us want to get anyone else involved because your
boss might kill you for screwing up, and if something happens to my kids, I will
definitely kill you. That seems pretty accurate, right?”

 

“Yeah,” said Constanza. “It looks right to me.”

 

“This is what’s going to happen,” said Marty. “I’m going to give you guys a weekend
in the woods. By the time you get anywhere with a phone, we’ll be at home, Petey
will be done doing whatever he’s doing, and you guys will be safe. Your boss can’t
kill you if you’re lost in the woods for two days, and all the bad stuff happened while
you were gone. And we won’t kill you in retaliation. That seem okay to you two?”

 

“You’re not going to hurt us?,” said Mulligan.

 

“No, I’m not,” said Marty. “I think you have been hurt enough. What do you say,
Honey?”

 

“Bears,” said Finch.

 

“We’re not going to feed them to the bears,” said Marty. “We can take a step back
and not be excessively cruel.”

 

Finch glanced at him.

 

“To the bears,” said Marty. “A people diet isn’t good for them.”

 

“I agree with that,” said Constanza.

 

“And he agrees with me,” said Marty. “I think you should cut them down.”

 

“Don’t like it,” said Finch.

 

“If they move, break a leg,” said Marty. “But we really need them away from the
camp site before you do that thing you do if you want to do that.”

 

“What thing?,” asked Mulligan.

 

“My wife’s teachers taught her how to cut people a hundred times in a minute,” said
Marty. “It’s really messy, and totally against what I am trying to do here.”

 

“Please don’t do that,” said Mulligan. “Please.”

 

“How many people have you actually killed, Mulligan?,” asked Marty.

 

“None,” said Mulligan. “I usually do the numbers.”

 

“Oh, okay,” said Marty. “What about you, Constanza?”

 

“I haven’t killed anyone,” said Constanza. “I do break things.”

 

“A legbreaker and a gambler,” said Marty. “I don’t feel that bad with letting you two
go now.”

 

“Thank you,” said Mulligan. “Thank you.”

 

“Shut up, wussy,” said Constanza.

 

Finch dropped them from the branch after scaling the tree in a moment. She came
down just as fast. She retreated to Marty’s side.

 

“Here comes your ride,” said Marty.

 

A thing of green and tan erupted from the air. Wings spread to let it flutter in the air.
It looked as big as an elephant to the would be kidnappers. Yellow eyes glowed in the
dark as it looked at the two men.

 

“I need you to take these two deeper into the park, Daisy,” said Marty. “Say about ten
miles north of here. Can do?”

 

The dragon roared. It lifted off and grabbed the two men with giant claws. It breathed
on them, singing their hair.

 

“Take Spike,” said Marty. He tossed a yellow squirrel up to the dragon. The animal
caught an arm and scrambled to the shoulders of the dragon. “Spike, these guys need
some exercise. Make sure they can find some berries and water, but they don’t come
back this way. Understand?”

 

The squirrel chittered and rubbed its paws together. Little sparks danced around its
ears.

 

“All right, guys,” said Marty. “Spike will look after you until you reach civilization.
Don’t come back here if you know what’s good for you. Understand?”

 

Daisy headed up in the sky. She vanished against the night as soon as she was away
from the tree line. Marty waved at her captives.

 

“Soft,” said Finch. She smiled.

 

“I know, I know,” said Marty. “We should have broken both their legs and arms and
made them crawl down to the ranger station. Really teach them a lesson. I’m on
vacation. I didn’t want to ruin it with something that was a lot like work.”

 

“Soft,” said Finch. She hugged him close and took his breath away.

 

“Why did we have to bring the kids?,” said Marty after a minute. “I could do this all
night.”

 

Finch smiled. She released him and led the way back to the camp. Marty took the
pistols apart and dropped the pieces as he walked. The last to go were the empty
magazines.

 

He took the money out of the wallets and threw them in the dark.

 

They reached the camp and found Ruff still in position. He gave them a look, but
otherwise didn’t move.

 

“Looks clear,” said Marty. “Let’s spread our blankets and sleep next to the fire like
cowboys used to do.”

 

Finch nodded. She pulled the blankets from the tent and they lay down against the log
Marty had used as a rest. She threw the blankets up and they covered the two when
they landed.

 

“You have to teach me how to do that one day,” said Marty. He held his wife close.

 

“Stella?,” said Finch.

 

“Pete must have gone back to criminal investigations,” said Marty. “He might have
put his mask back on. I thought he was out. He seemed to like divorce work the last
time I talked to him.”

 

“Some kind of threat?,” said Finch.

 

“Maybe,” said Marty. “I don’t know. I should have asked Cog to back Pete up.”

 

Cog helped out when he wanted, but he liked to stay out of the spotlight, and kept to
himself whenever possible. He patrolled underground Chicago when not on a case
with the Scouts, and fixed things in the infrastructure with his tentacles and tools.

 

Turning him loose on some Syndicate would be like using dynamite to hunt sheep.
But the reports filed with Barry would be something to read despite his dry style and
humorless affect.

 

“Corona will be mad,” said Finch.

 

“I know, but I can’t just whack every wiseguy I run into in a national forest,” said
Marty. “There would be piles of bodies if I did that. I would rather keep things down
to a dull roar until I’m ready to really do damage.”

 

“Soft,” said Finch.

 

“It is what it is,” said Marty. He kissed her neck. “We can’t all be death dealing divas
of darkness like yourself.”

 

“Don’t wake the kids up,” said Finch.

 

“I’ll think about it,” said Marty.

 

Someone stirred in one of the tents. Ruff looked up.

 

“Next time, we’re definitely leaving the kids with Barry,” said Marty.

 

“Agreed,” said Finch.

 

Melinda peeked out of the girl’s tent. She rubbed an eye. She looked around the
campsite.

 

“I thought I heard Daisy,” said Melinda. “Is something going on?”

 

“Not anymore, Lin,” said Marty.

 

Finch lightly punched him in the leg.

 

“What?,” said Melinda.

 

“Go back to sleep,” said Marty. “If there’s trouble, we’ll wake you up.”

 

“Are you sure?,” said Melinda.

 

“That’s why we have Ruff, honey,” said Marty. “Go back to sleep before you wake
the others up and we have to tell another boring ghost story.”

 

“All right, Dad,” said Melinda. She gestured for Ruff to follow as she climbed back
into the tent. The dog settled down where her feet might be and kept an eye on things
from his new position.

 

“It looks like the romantic bubble has popped,” said Marty.

 

Finch smiled. She snuggled in closer.

 

“Why did we have kids?,” said Marty.

 

“Experiments,” said Finch.

 

“Barry wanted to do experiments on them,” said Marty. “I’m thinking we should have
said yes.”

 

“Frog children,” said Finch.

 

“I am not seeing the downsides now,” said Marty.

 

That earned him another light punch.

 

“You keep doing that, and I will have bruises, and not in the good way either,” said
Marty. He wrapped his arms around his wife with a smile.

 

“The two men,” said Finch.

 

“Right about now, Spike is giving them a run for their money,” said Marty. “I imagine
two days of running from lightning will teach them a lesson, but who knows.”

 

Finch kissed him on the cheek.

 

“Hard,” she said in his ear.

 

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Scouting in the Woods

5

Marty got the kids up in the morning. He cooked breakfast in an old frying pan. He
portioned everything out. The family and guests sat down and enjoyed their eggs and
bacon.

 

“So the first thing on the agenda is a walk to look at things from Old Baldy,” said
Marty. “Then I’m going fishing. You kids will be doing exercises with Finch while
I get to enjoy the peace and quiet. How does that sound?”

 

“Sounds like you’re lazy, Dad,” said Mark. “Shouldn’t we get to fish too?”

 

“I don’t see why,” said Marty. “After all, you don’t have a fishing pole. And I do.”

 

“So you don’t want us to fish?,” said Melinda. “We are good fishers.”

 

“Noise scares fish,” said Marty. “You would have to be very quiet.”

 

“We can do that, Dad,” said Mark. He shared a look with his sister. “We’re ninja.”

 

“What about you two?,” asked Marty. “Want to fish, or hang out with the missus
while she practices her yoga?”

 

Stella caught a glimpse from the siblings. What she considered yoga, and what they
considered their mom practicing yoga was two very different things. And she realized
she didn’t want to be chased around by a woman with a stick with the intention of
using the stick on her.

 

“We would both love to spend a peaceful afternoon fishing,” said Stella.

 

“We would?,” said Bond. He looked down at her.

 

She elbowed him to take the hint.

 

“We would love it a lot,” said Bond. He rubbed the spot where the pointed elbow had
sunk in. “Nothing but fish and quiet.”

 

“I’m surprised,” said Marty. He smiled. “Let’s go up and pay our respects, then we’ll
go down to the fishing hole.”

 

“Fishing hole?,” said Melinda. Her face twisted at the concept.

 

“Yep,” said Marty. He pulled on his jacket. “That’s what we country folk call a small
lake full of fish. That’s because it looks like a hole full of water.”

 

“Country folk?,” said Mark. “What kind of country folk? Strangeville, U.S.A.?”

 

“Don’t hurt your father’s feelings like that, son,” said Marty. “It’s rude and
inconsiderate.”

 

“I can’t picture you with a piece of hay in your mouth, chasing some cow around,”
said Mark.

 

“I could be a cowboy,” said Marty. He inspected the kids. “I could even get my own
cows.”

 

“But you couldn’t eat them,” said Mark. He paused to think. “You can’t eat them,
right?”

 

“I’ve never tried,” said Marty. “Seems inconsiderate.”

 

Ruff looked at the fussing humans and remained in place next to the tents. He had his
head on his front paws, tail curled around him like a blanket. His ears were down.

 

“You want to stay with Finch, Ruff?,” Marty asked.

 

The dog huffed, and beat his tail twice.

 

“You know she doesn’t need you to protect her,” said Marty.

 

The dog just looked at him.

 

“Are you being lazy?,” Marty asked.

 

Ruff grinned at him.

 

“You are being lazy,” said Marty. “I can’t believe this. You’re supposed to be looking
out for me and the kids. Instead you’re going to lay here and do nothing. We’re
fishing later. You can lay by the water all you want.”

 

Ruff sneezed in the face of the accusation.

 

“All right,” said Marty. “Keep an eye on things. We’re going to walk up the hill and
look around, then I’m coming back to get my fishing pole so we can fish later.”

 

Ruff barked, but didn’t move. He closed his eyes and settled in place.

 

Marty shook his head. He looked around. Finch had packed the blanket and cleaned
the dishes and pan in the time he had sorted things out. She stood with her hands
intertwined in front of her. The dying fire was at her feet.

 

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” said Marty. He walked over and they hugged.
“Fishing?”

 

“Yes,” said Finch.

 

“You’ll have to get your own pole,” said Marty.

 

“Covered,” said Finch. She kissed him on the cheek. “Catch more than you.”

 

“It’s not a competition,” said Marty. “Fried fish?”

 

“Depending on how many caught,” said Finch.

 

“I’ll do the best I can,” said Marty. He kissed her. “We should be able to catch
something between the two of us.”

 

He started for the trail. The kids fell in behind him. He pointed out landmarks as they
walked from the campsite toward the top of the small mountain that set west of their
camp.

 

Marty enjoyed the sunshine and clean air as he walked. It had been a long time since
he had walked somewhere just to be idle. It felt good to just be wasting time, instead
of spending it to chase someone down before some invisible deadline passed.

 

“You used to come up here with the Scouts?,” asked Bond, pulling him back to the
present.

 

“Jim loved it up here,” said Marty. He shrugged. “I think it made him feel better to
just look around and not have a lot of human minds around.”

 

Stella knew that feeling. She reached out a little. Their group and the local animals
were all she could feel. It seemed restful compared to the city.

 

Maybe when she was older she could move up here and just live here without
worrying about other people.

 

“Was that thunder?,” asked Mark. He looked around. “I don’t see any clouds.”

 

“Probably some freak of sound,” said Marty. “If it starts raining, we’ll head back to
camp and have some cold vittles tonight.”

 

He looked around himself. Stella got the impression he knew what had caused the
faint blast of thunder. She didn’t say anything since she wasn’t sure.

 

“All right, guys,” said Marty. “We’re reaching the start of the trail to head to Lookout
Point. You’ll be able see for more miles from there.”

 

“What about snow?,” asked Melinda.

 

“We’re not high enough to have to worry about that,” said Marty. “We would have
to climb up a blank stone wall to get to where we could play in the snow. The rangers
wouldn’t be happy with me taking you kids up there.”

 

Stella caught an impression of something else also going on, but she didn’t know
what. She wondered if climbing the stone wall was such an obstacle as Mister
Morgan pretended, or there was something where he couldn’t climb it like he
normally would and he didn’t want them to find out.

 

Stella fell into line as Marty ushered them up the trail. It was a climb up the large
cone with the path circling the mountain to reach an outcrop where a telescope was
mounted to look out over the valley. A small coinbox collected tourist coins for the
pleasure of a close look at the scenery.

 

“You can see for miles from up here,” said Mark.

 

“It’s a straight line back down from here,” said Melinda. She was at the rail, looking
down. “We don’t have to walk back if we climb down this way.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Bond. He kept his distance from the edge. He had not learned
how to fly yet, and didn’t want falling off the side of a mountain to be the way he
learned.

 

Stella went to the telescope. She fed in coins to unlock the telescope. She smiled as
she looked out at the greenery. It was a nice view.

 

Her time ran out all too soon. She stepped back to give the others a chance to look
through it.

 

Mark and Melinda took their turns after flipping a coin to see who would go first.
They stepped back when they were done looking around.

 

Bond went last. He scanned everything slowly. He paused at one point. He looked
on either side, then back through the telescope. He stepped back.

 

“Mister Morgan,” Bond said. “I think lightning is shooting up from the ground over
there.”

 

Marty smiled to cover the grimace. He should have expected one of the kids seeing
Spike on the job. That had been careless of him.

 

“That’s probably Spike,” Marty said. “I turned him loose on some aggressive deer last
night. Don’t worry about it.”

 

“Aggressive deer?,” said Bond. Disbelief colored his words.

 

“Yeah,” said Marty. “They like to wander into camp and stomp on things. I told Spike
to herd them away from us. I didn’t want to explain to your mother why you had a
hoof print on your face.”

 

“Your mom does get angry really fast,” said Mark.

 

“That’s true,” said Bond. “Aggressive deer?”

 

“They’re worse than easy going bears,” said Marty. He took a turn at the telescope
and nodded. “Way worse than wolves.”

 

Stella didn’t think lightning was being used on deer. Her babysitter was hiding
something. Whatever was out there was something he didn’t want them finding out
about, or going to look for on their own. He had the look of an adult not trying to
worry the kids when things were bad.

 

She had seen it sometimes when her dad talked about things with her mom. They
both knew how to hide their thoughts from her, but she picked out when they didn’t
want her to know something because of the circular talk. It was like listening to
gangsters on television giving orders over a bugged phone.

 

She decided that she was supposed to be staying out of trouble. She wasn’t going out
there to chase something that lightning was being used on.

 

She could see the siblings wanted to go and find out what Spike was chasing. She
spotted the trail of thoughts that were running on parallel tracks.

 

“Can we swim in the fishing hole?,” she asked. “I didn’t bring a swimming suit.”

 

“I didn’t think of that,” said Marty. “I’m not much of a swimmer.”

 

“He’s graceless,” said Melinda.

 

“I would have said clumsy,” said Mark.

 

“You keep that up and it’s no pie for you,” said Marty. “I happen to have the normal
grace of a man my age and ability.”

 

“Can’t be much then,” said Mark.

 

“Definitely no pie for you,” said Marty. He shook his head. “All right, guys. I have
to get my fishing pole from camp so we can go to the fishing hole. We’ll have a few
hours to fish before the sun goes down.”

 

He started down the mountain, following the path. He waved at others climbing up
to use the telescope.

 

Stella wondered how she was going to get Mister Morgan to tell them what was really
going on. She doubted she could force the issue. The Scouts did dangerous things all
the time. Lying to a kid couldn’t be that hard for someone facing villains as part of
their day.

 

She fell in line and looked at the others. They were all thinking the same thing as
she was. They just couldn’t decide on what Mister Morgan had set Spike loose on.
Aggressive deer was not on any of the mental lists she peeked on.

 

She doubted a Sasquatch was on the move, but refrained from saying anything. She
had heard stories before going camping with the Morgans. Some of them were weird
and outlandish, but her dad had assured her they were the truth.

 

If Melinda thought a Sasquatch was in the area, then there was an outside chance
that a Sasquatch was in the area.

 

Her thoughts carried her back to the campsite. She paused as she realized her legs
hurt. She hadn’t walked that far ever.

 

She decided she should sit down before she fell down. She hobbled to the log and sat
so she could lean back on it.

 

“Something wrong?,” asked Bond.

 

“My legs hurt,” said Stella. “I guess I haven’t walked that far before.”

 

“We were walking pretty fast,” said Bond. He rubbed his own legs with his hands.
She noted that he winced for a moment, but the reaction was from the pain in his legs
going away.

 

“Mom!,” called Melinda. “Stella’s broken.”

 

“Not so loud,” said Mrs. Morgan. She appeared out of the trees. “Where’s your
father?”

 

“He went to get his fishing pole,” said Melinda.

 

“All right,” said Mrs. Morgan.

 

Mrs. Morgan walked over to where Stella sat. She hunkered down and looked at the
girl. She poked the girl’s legs with her finger. It was like being poked with a piece of
metal. She did it again twice more. The pain from the muscle ache faded. Stella
smiled.

 

“Nerve block,” said Mrs. Morgan. “It should fade. Might have pain then.”

 

“Nerve block?,” said Stella.

 

“Body has nerves to carry signals to the brain,” said Mrs. Morgan. “You can numb
them to prevent signals. A temporary block will carry you through minor problems.
A permanent block will hurt you in the long run.”

 

“Why will it hurt?,” asked Stella.

 

“If you can’t feel anything, then you don’t know much you are hurt,” said Mrs.
Morgan. “If you don’t know how much you are hurt, you can’t judge how close you
are to failing.”

 

“Thank you,” said Stella.

 

“Take it easy when you get back from the fishing,” said Mrs. Morgan. “The pain
will come back as the block wears off. You’ll have to let it fade on its own.”

 

“I understand,” said Stella.

 

“All right,” said Marty. “Who’s up for fishing?”

 

“We are!,” shouted the siblings. Stella felt it was a cover to let them break off and
chase down the Sasquatch.

 

Mrs. Morgan helped Stella to her feet.

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Scouting in the Woods

6

Stella watched as Mrs. Morgan broke limbs into the approximate length to be fishing
poles. Seconds of hand waving cleared off any branches. The string came next. One
end went around the pole. The other end went around a hook on a bobber.

 

Mister Morgan settled on the ground next to the small lake where he had guided the
campers. His hook was on the water. Ruff lay beside him, using him as sort of a
pillow. One hand petted the dog as he waited for the fish to bite.

 

“What’s the point of this?,” asked Mark. He stared at the pole in his hand.

 

“It’s to relax,” said Mister Morgan. “It’s to be still and watchful. Fishing is about
waiting for things to happen so you can take advantage.”

 

“Sounds boring,” said Mark. He looked at the lake with a frown.

 

“It’s also about being silent so you don’t scare the fish,” said Mister Morgan. He
reeled in his line and recast with a flick of his wrist.

 

Mrs. Morgan cast her own line and then settled next to her husband. She carried
herself just as alert as she always seemed to Stella. Maybe this was her relaxed state.

Stella looked for a spot for herself where the sun didn’t directly shine down. She cast
her line out. She didn’t really think any of the fish were going to bite. She liked just
sitting and letting her mind wander.

 

She found that fishing didn’t take much effort on her part, just relaxing in the shade
was good for her mind, and it was an activity enjoyed with similar mindsets around.
Mark and Melinda were trying too hard to catch fish. Their impatience impinged on
her ability to relax.

 

Bond almost vanished behind a set of numbers. She glanced over at where he sat by
himself. He stared at the water, but he seemed to be seeing invisible factors in the
ripples.

 

She wondered about that, but didn’t want to ask. He would know she was peeking
into his mind. And she had learned that some people didn’t like that violation of their
privacy.

 

She glanced at the Morgan siblings. They were at the other end of the pond from their
parents and guests. They seemed to be having a contest to see who could flick the
hook on their makeshift poles the fastest.

 

She shook her head. They were supposed to be taking it easy. She supposed the
children wanted to be chasing something rather than sitting still.

 

Mark flicked his wrist. The string snapped forward and snapped. His hook and bobber
flew along the lake, skimming the surface. It embedded itself in the bank of the pond
on the other side.

 

Mister Morgan clapped his hands slowly. Then he went back to taking it easy.

 

Mark made a sound of disgust before stomping around the lake to retrieve the hook.
He glared at his family. They mostly stared back, but his sister laughed at him.

 

“We should have left the kids,” said Mister Morgan. “Maybe some hard work will
grind down this hatred for taking things easy.”

 

“Barry?,” asked Mrs. Morgan.

 

“He would love some assistants,” said Mister Morgan. “Corralling some weird
experiment would let the kids know that just hanging out and smelling the roses is a
thing.”

 

“It would cut down on the whining,” said Mrs. Morgan.

 

“I can’t really argue with that,” said Mister Morgan.

 

Stella felt her line pull on her pole. She looked around. She seemed to be the only one
with a bite. She hadn’t expected to get something. She started pulling on the pole,
trying to lift the fish out of the pond.

 

“Do you need help, Stella?,” asked Mister Morgan. He made no move to join the
struggle.

 

“I think I got it,” said Stella. She pulled on the limb until it bent and then released it,
and then pulled on it again. She could sense the fish not liking what she was doing.
She thought about letting it go.

 

Mark appeared at her side. He tugged on the string and the fish flew out of the water.
He caught it before it hit the ground.

 

“What do I do with it?,” asked Mark. The fish flapped in his hands, trying to escape.
He exerted a small amount of pressure to shock it into being still.

 

“Put it in the fish bucket,” said Mister Morgan. He indicated an empty cooler beside
where he sat.

 

Mark dropped the fish into the bucket. He rubbed his hands against each other.
Finally he resorted to washing his hands in the lake. He shook them dry.

 

“Good job, Stella,” said Mister Morgan. “See if you can catch another one.”

 

“I don’t think I like fishing all that much, Mister Morgan,” said Stella. She didn’t
want to explain the feelings coming from the fish as she struggled with it. They knew
about powers, but she didn’t want to reveal her own until she had no choice.

 

“It’s fine,” said Mister Morgan. “No one has to like everything.”

 

“I got one!,” shouted Melinda. She yanked the pole backward so fast the fish had no
choice but to fly to her hand. “I caught one.”

 

“Put it in the bucket,” said Mister Morgan. “A couple more and we’ll have the making
of dinner.”

 

Melinda dropped her catch in with the other. The fish flopped around inside the
bucket. She stepped back, a sad look on her face.

 

“I don’t think I like fishing either, Dad,” she said. “I can’t explain it.”

 

“That’s fine,” said Mister Morgan. “How would you guys like to go play? I think I
can catch dinner by myself.”

 

“No more fishing?,” asked Mark. He looked around at the unexpected freedom of
movement he had been given.

 

“No more fishing,” confirmed Mister Morgan. “Don’t wander around and get lost.
Stay in sight.”

 

“We can do that,” said Mark. “Come on, guys. No more gross fish for us.”

He waved his arm for the kids to follow him away from the water.

 

“That boy,” said Mister Morgan, shaking his head. “Go with them, Ruff. I don’t want
to have to search for them for days because they went off the trail.”

 

Ruff grumbled as he got to his feet and fell in behind the children. He walked up
beside Stella with a wag of his tail.

 

Maybe she would give him some scratchings. He liked those when he could get them.

Stella wondered what they were supposed to play if they couldn’t leave the trail.

 

Mark wasn’t too afraid of being out in the wilderness. Melinda and Bond didn’t like
it. She didn’t mind it one way, or the other, but preferred her own room with her
books beside her.

 

Ruff settled in so he could watch them. One ear listened for anything bigger than a
squirrel that might be coming their way. Experience had taught him that Mark would
be the bigger troublemaker if there happened to be a problem.

 

Stella settled in beside Ruff. She rubbed his fur at his shoulders. He wagged his tail
to show he liked it.

 

“We’re going to play hide and seek,” said Mark. “Ruff will be home base. Let’s draw
to see who’s it.”

 

“Dad said not to leave the trail,” said Melinda. “I don’t think we can play hide and
seek and stay on the trail. Maybe we should do something else like Pirates.”

 

“Pirates?,” said Mark. He looked around and picked up a short limb. “I’m Captain
Blackbeard.”

 

“I’m Barberrossa,” said Melinda. She grabbed another limb to act as her short sword.
“I’m the scourge of the Barbary Coast.”

 

“I’m Captain Decataur,” said Bond. He picked up his own sword. “I killed all the
pirates in my day.”

 

“What about you, Stella?,” asked Melinda. She waved her imaginary sword as a
rallying gesture. “What kind of pirate do you want to be?”

 

“Sitting here with Ruff is good enough,” said Stella. She moved to sit with her back
to a tree. Ruff moved with her, settling at her feet. “We’ll watch out for you until
Mister Morgan gets done fishing.”

 

“All right,” said Mark. “How do we do this?”

 

“Hand over your treasure, you cowardly coward that cowers,” said Melinda. She
pointed her sword at Mark. “The better captain is here to take it.”

 

“Both of you heave to under the command of the United States Navy,” said Bond. He
alternately pointed at the siblings with his sword. “I’ll be putting you both in prison.”

 

“Blackbeard will never see the inside of a prison, you scurvy cur,” said Mark. He
waved his sword around. “I would rather go down fighting.”

 

“What he said except for Barberrossa,” said Melinda. She grinned. “I would rather eat
grass than give up my ship to a spineless spine such as you.”

 

“Really? A spineless spine?,” said Bond. “Couldn’t you think of something more
practical?”

 

“You’re breaking character,” pointed out Mark. “Come on with the comeback so we
can have a duel to the death.”

 

“I don’t think I know any comebacks other than die fiendish knaves like the vicious
animals you are,” said Bond. His delivery came with a look of puzzlement. He smiled.
“Die fiendish knaves like the vicious animals you are!”

 

“That’s what I’m talking about,” said Mark. “On guard, running dog of the oppressor
capitalist pigs.”

 

Stella shook her head. She rubbed Ruff’s neck. He barely moved. A faint wagging of
his tail told her he liked the attention well enough.

 

The other three kids mock sword fought up and down the trail. It was mainly Mark
against Bond. Melinda attacked both sides, usually when one side looked stronger
than the other.

 

Stella noted that the Morgans slowed down to let Bond have some moments in the
sun. She didn’t know if he knew that. He seemed content enough as he chased after
them.

 

And she didn’t want to spoil that feeling.

 

Ruff looked up. The fur on his back stood straight. He vanished into the woods
without a sound.

 

Stella stood up. She brushed off her pants as she looked around. She saw something
on the edge of her senses. They weren’t alone on the trail. That must have set Ruff
off.

 

“Hey guys!,” she called. “Ruff took off.”

 

The fighters froze in mid-motion. Mark looked around. He waved Bond and Melinda
over to where Stella stood. He joined them silently.

 

“Ruff doesn’t usually do that,” said Mark. “I think we need to head back to Dad and
Mom. They’ll want to know about this.”

 

Stella looked around. She spotted Mister Morgan’s thoughts about fishing in the
distance. They were close, but still out of sight.

 

“They’re that way,” said Stella. She pointed at the direction of the thoughts.

 

“All right,” said Mark. “Lead the way, Stella. Keep an eye out, Lin. Ruff might need
help if he went after some animal he didn’t like.”

 

Stella set off for the pond. Mark didn’t think Ruff had taken off after any animal. She
could see it in his thoughts. Bond followed her. His hands glowed as he walked. She
didn’t know what that was about, but felt it had something to do with his mother.

Melinda vanished into the brush as they went. Stella wanted to call out, but didn’t in
case there was trouble on the way.

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Scouting in the woods

7

The kids found the Morgans by the lake. They weren’t fishing any more. Whatever
had set Ruff off had seemed to have warned them. Stella didn’t quite follow the link.

 

“There’s someone on the trail, Dad,” said Mark. “We think Ruff went to see who they
were.”

 

“Could be other campers like us,” said Mister Morgan. He looked down the trail.
“Where’s Lin?”

 

“She went into the woods while we were coming back,” said Stella. “She’s a few
minutes behind us.”

 

“Waiting,” said Mrs. Morgan.

 

“I’ll go down to get her while you take the kids back to camp,” said Mister Morgan.
“Ruff can get back to camp on his own when he is satisfied.”

 

“I’ll go,” said Mrs. Morgan. “Faster.”

 

“All right,” said Mister Morgan. “Maybe we can salvage the rest of the trip after
we’re sure that we’re dealing with regular campers.”

 

Mrs. Morgan nodded and then vanished in the trees. Stella marked a presence but
couldn’t see her at all.

 

“Get the fish bucket, Mark,” said Mister Morgan. He made sure his fishing line was
wound up and secured. “Bond, get the other fishing poles in case we want to fish
tomorrow. Stella, police up any trash. Then we’ll walk back to camp.”

 

The kids hurried to get things done. Stella noted there was a couple of candy bar
wrappers but nothing else for her to grab.

 

“How did your mother vanish like that, Mark?,” Stella asked.

 

“Training,” said Mark. “She does it constantly. Everything she does is part of her
training. Even folding laundry is used to train reflexes.”

 

Stella caught an image of Mark having to fold laundry while defending against a
stick. It made things twice as hard as it had to be.

 

“Why?,” asked Stella.

 

“Because she wants us to be ready to take over for her when she’s gone,” said Mark.
“There’s been a line of Finches fighting since ever. And she wants us to be ready to
step up and take our place if we want to do that. If we don’t, we still have to deal with
stuff that the Hazard Scouts carry with them. It’s like two sets of weights for two
different things. We don’t have to be either, but we have to be ready for people who
think we are. And Lin and I didn’t get Dad’s animal power.”

 

“It’s the same for me and my dad,” said Bond. “He’s a detective that’s trained all his
life to be a detective from a long line of detectives that have all trained all their lives
to be detectives. And he’s a Hazard Scout too. Sometimes when we visit Japan, I
know the adopted cousins look down on me because I don’t train as hard as they do
in all the techniques we can use.”

 

“I don’t have that,” said Stella. She understood how the others looked at things from
the feelings she picked up.

 

“There might be some excitement before we get to camp,” said Mister Morgan. He
shepherded the kids along with gestures of his arms. “Mark, I want you to get Stella
and Bond back to the van. Your mother, or I, will come to get you.”

 

“I can do it, Dad,” said Mark. “So much for our camping trip.”

 

“I don’t think it will be that bad,” said Mister Morgan. He glanced behind them.

 

Stella looked behind them. She saw Mrs. Morgan and Melinda off to one side of the
trail. A group of hostile feelings were beyond them and closing fast. She imagined
they were mad because they didn’t want to be in the woods, and they had to come up
to look for her.

 

She didn’t like that last part at all.

 

She wondered where Ruff had gone. She couldn’t sense him, but she thought there
should be something to tell her where he went. Maybe there was something about him
she couldn’t read.

 

“I think you kids should keep going,” said Mister Morgan. He waved them to move
faster down the trail. “I’ll see what’s going on.”

 

Stella didn’t like that. She brushed off Mark’s hand.

 

“They’re looking for me,” she said.

 

“And I think they shouldn’t find you, so go with Mark and Bond so I can handle this
without worrying about you getting hurt,” said Mister Morgan. “Go ahead. If there’s
any real trouble, Finch will take care of it.”

 

“All right,” said Stella. “This is about what my dad’s doing, isn’t it?”

 

“Talk about that with him when you get home,” said Mister Morgan. “Now go ahead.
This is nothing but trouble, and you don’t want to be around to see this.”

 

Stella didn’t like it. Her dad trusted the Morgans, and she did too. They shouldn’t
have to protect her at the cost of their own safety.

 

She would talk to her parents about this. She was old enough to take care of herself.
Her gift made it easy.

 

Mark led the way, swinging the fish bucket in one hand. Somehow he had taken
Mister Morgan’s fishing pole and carried it in the other. He hummed as he walked
along.

 

“Your dad could be in trouble,” said Stella. She glared at him. How could he be so
cheerful when things were going wrong on their camping trip?

 

“Anybody who hurts Dad, better be looking for Mom,” said Mark. He gave Stella a
smile. “Cause she will hurt them right back.”

 

“Mark’s right,” said Bond. “Mrs. Morgan is formidable.”

 

“And she lives for stuff like this,” said Mark.

 

“Are you two sure about this?,” asked Stella. Maybe they were right. They seemed
unconcerned about a group of men talking Mister Morgan in a hostile way.

 

“Trust me,” said Mark. “They’re not going to let us get anywhere close to anything
exciting. This is their day off. I’ll start worrying when part of the park goes up in
flames.”

 

“Not that we need to be anywhere near anything exciting,” said Bond. He ran his
hand through his blond hair. “I’m happy just waiting at the van for the grownups to
show up to tell us everything is okay.”

 

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Mark. He shook his head. “Maybe if Ruff shows up.
Everything will be all clear then.”

 

“Ruff will be back when the trouble is over?,” asked Stella.

 

“Sure,” said Mark. “He’s supposed to watch out for us. When there’s nothing to look
out for, he’ll come back.”

 

“How do you know he’s doing that?,” said Stella. “He could be hurt and lost.”

 

“He’s one of Dad’s animals,” said Mark. “He’s not hurt, or lost. He’s hunting. When
he’s done, he’ll come back.”

 

“I thought he was alive,” said Stella. “I thought I was picking up a weird vibe from
him, but I didn’t think it was because he wasn’t alive.”

 

“I don’t know if he’s alive, or not,” said Mark. “Dad still doesn’t know how his
power works. He could be alive, just smarter than a normal dog.”

 

Stella kept her assessment to herself. She hadn’t picked up thoughts from Ruff
because he was more like a machine than a normal animal. She should have seen that.
Mister Morgan was known as the Animal.

 

At least she could let Mark and Melinda pretend that Ruff was alive. That made it
better for them. She had liked Ruff enough to wish he were alive instead of a furry
puppet.

 

He didn’t behave like a furry puppet. Stella realized she only had her talent telling her
that he wasn’t alive. She wasn’t that sure of it.

 

She put aside the question of Ruff’s mortality and looked back behind them. The
hostile feelings had run into Mister Morgan’s animal categorization of his thoughts.
Neither seemed that happy about it.

 

“There’s going to be trouble,” said Stella. “I can see it in the way they are looking at
each other.”

 

Some of the hostile thoughts vanished to Stella’s senses. She paused in their escape
to search for them. They were afraid of something. She couldn’t figure out what it
was. Then they were painfully knocked down from the real world.

 

“There’s something behind the group talking to your dad, Mark,” said Stella.

 

“So?,” said Mark. “We should keep moving.”

 

“It’s something other than your mom, or Melinda,” explained Stella.

 

“It’s probably Ruff,” said Mark. “This is what he supposed to do when he’s not
looking out for us.”

 

“Whatever it is, it is scary,” said Stella. “It’s just grabbing minds and causing fear.”

 

“How do you know this?,” asked Bond. He looked back where they had walked from
the pond. He couldn’t see the interaction going on himself.

 

Stella realized she had said too much. No one was supposed to know about what she
could do. She supposed she thought they would miss it in the excitement. She should
have known that Bond would catch the slip.

 

“I can sense things from a distance,” said Stella. “And I know that the group with
Mister Morgan are starting to realize that someone is picking them off one by one.
They want to know what’s going on.”

 

“Mom’s probably taking some of that action where Ruff couldn’t grab someone,” said
Mark. “Dad’s not going to like us getting too close. Do you see Melinda? We should
get her and take her down to the van with us.”

 

“She’s closer to us,” said Stella. She searched for a more precise direction. “I think
she wants to join in, but she’s holding station.”

 

“Let’s go up and get her,” said Mark. “Then we can head back to the van like we’re
supposed to be doing instead of getting in trouble.”

 

“Okay,” said Bond. “We can’t let them see us. We really can’t let them see Stella if
that’s why they are here. They’ll stop what they’re doing to go after her.”

 

“I agree with that,” said Mark. “We can’t ask her to stay behind either. What if there
are more goons out here? Dad will be irritated if we lost her.”

 

“So we all go as sneaky as we can,” said Bond. He nodded. “Let’s do this before more
trouble shows up.”

 

“This is better than running from expanding frogs,” said Mark. He grinned. “Which
way do we go, Stella?”

 

Stella pointed at where she felt Melinda’s thoughts. Mark set off, vanishing in the
undergrowth like a ghost. Bond started after him, working his way slowly along. She
fell in with the blond boy, helping him push branches out of the way.

 

Mark and Melinda met while Stella and Bond were halfway to the spot. The siblings
came back toward them faster than they could travel the same distance.

 

“All right,” said Mark. “Mom and Ruff are taking care of things. We should get to the
van before Dad does. He doesn’t look like he’s in a good mood.”

 

“His weekend is ruined,” said Bond. “I can see why he wouldn’t be in a good mood.
I mean we have his fish dinner right here that he won’t be able to cook because of
what’s going on.”

 

“I know,” said Mark. “Let’s go. Maybe we can salvage something if we beat him
down to the van.”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Stella. “I think we’re going to be packing up the camp and
going home early.”

 

“Maybe that will blow over if we don’t say anything,” said Mark. “Let’s go.”

 

Mark led the way down to the van. He kept an eye open for more trouble. Ruff
usually ran interference when possible. The guardian was back on the trail with
their parents.

 

They reached the van without a problem. Cars marked by trail dust were in other
slots. Mark checked them but he didn’t see anyone sitting inside.

 

“I think we should key them,” said Melinda.

 

“No,” said Mark. “If any of them make it back here after dealing with Mom, Dad
would want them to be able to get out of here without problems. We just need to get
in the van and make sure they can’t see us.”

 

He opened the back and stored the fish and the poles. He closed the hatch. He
went to the side and opened the door and helped Melinda inside. He pointed for
her to get in the back, and be ready to hide if someone other than their parents showed
up.

 

Bond and Stella took their own seats. Stella looked out the window. There were a few
people close by, but nobody was interested in them.

 

Mark took the front after closing the side door. That gave him two doors to use if
he had to get out of the van for any reason. And his dad had been showing him how
to drive so he was reasonably sure he could follow the signs to any ranger station
that might be near by.

 

“Who knew camping could be so exciting?,” said Bond.

 

“This is because of my dad,” said Stella. “They were looking for me. I wonder what
he did.”

 

“Your dad is a detective, right?,” said Mark. “Maybe he found out something he
shouldn’t have.”

 

“But he’s been handling divorces,” said Stella. “All he does is prove people are
cheating on each other.”

 

“That’s all he does now,” said Bond. “He might have taken a criminal case again.”

 

“Those guys looked like criminals,” said Melinda. “Maybe your dad took a divorce
case that involved criminals.”

 

“The main thing is they didn’t know who Dad and Mom were,” said Mark. “If they
had, they probably wouldn’t have come up here after you.”

 

Stella looked out the window and saw Ruff sniffing along the trail. Mister Morgan
walked behind him. He seemed in a better mood than what she had felt previously.

 

“It looks like we’re eating fish tonight,” said Mark.

//253693

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Scouting in the Woods

8

The rest of the day went by in a whirl for Stella. She had to sit back and watch
everything from the sidelines, but the Morgans and Bond acted like what came next
was something they did all the time.

 

Mister Morgan asked them to stay in the van while he went to get the park rangers.
Then he returned with men in uniform and they went up the trail. About an hour later,
the adult Morgans and rangers escorted a group of men in torn clothes and battered
faces from the trail.

 

Ruff rested his body on Stella the whole time so she had to struggle to watch what
was going on from inside the van. The beating of a tail on the seat didn’t help.

 

As soon as all of the goons were taken away, Mister Morgan got the fish bucket and
had them go back to their camp. They had to cook the fish for dinner.

 

The next part was the preparation and cooking of the fish. Stella was glad to sit that
out as the Morgans did all the work. The strips of fish were speared and set over the
fire to cook.

 

A pot was produced and noodles were dropped in. Mister Morgan used water from
a bottle for cooking. He frowned when the water didn’t boil over the open fire. He
asked a small animal to heat the pot to the right temperature to boil the noodles. The
salamander agreed, and soon they had fish and noodles ready to go.

 

Mrs. Morgan cut up vegetables and put them in the pot with the noodles and let them
simmer for a bit. Then she served all of it out on paper plates. Plastic forks were given
to Bond and Stella. The Morgans had chop sticks.

 

The meal went fast. Stella noted that no one talked about what had happened in the
woods, or the men being hauled away by the rangers.

 

She also noted that being a furry puppet didn’t stop Ruff from trying to sample some
of the food from her plate. She finally pushed some off on the ground so he would be
stalled in his efforts to take the whole plate from her.

 

That worked for the six seconds it took for him to clean the ground with his tongue.
Then he was back for more with his puppy dog eyes.

 

“Down, Ruff,” said Mister Morgan. “Let the girl eat. We have some dog food for
you.”

 

The rest of the dinner went a bit faster with Stella being able to eat without a pest at
her elbow. When she was done, she put the small amount left down for Ruff to eat.
He devoured it with gusto.

 

“All right, kids,” said Mister Morgan. He put his own plate down on top of Stella’s.

It was empty to Ruff’s annoyance. “We have to head home tomorrow. Stella is going
to have to catch her flight home in the afternoon. Let me feed Ruff, and then you can
tell me a story better than the one I told you yesterday. Then it will be time to hit the
sack.”

 

“It’s pretty early, Dad,” said Mark. “Can’t we stay up longer?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Mister Morgan. “Do you think you have earned the right to stay
up longer?”

 

“Yes,” said Melinda. “We didn’t do anything bad the whole day.”

 

“And we kept out of the way when you wanted us to,” said Mark. “Plus Bond solved
his mystery in his book.”

 

“If you guys want to take Ruff for a walk and play,” said Mister Morgan. “I guess that
will be fine. Don’t wander off that far. When you get back, you can tell your scary
story.”

 

“Then it will be bed time?,” asked Mark. Stella could see he was already trying to
find ways to stretch out his awake time.

 

“Sure,” said Mister Morgan. “I want a good scary story.”

 

“I’ll see what I can do about that,” said Mark. He jumped up. “Come on, guys. We
can hide and seek.”

 

He rushed off into the dark, calling not it behind him. Melinda and Bond rushed off
after him. Ruff looked up from his dog food and then continued to eat. He could hunt
the kids down at his leisure.

 

Stella remained where she had sat through dinner.

 

“Something wrong, Stella?,” asked Mister Morgan. He put another log on the fire. He
sat down against his log.

 

“The thing that happened today,” said Stella. “That was because of me, wasn’t it?”

 

“What do you mean?,” asked Mister Morgan.

 

“Those men wouldn’t have come up here if I hadn’t been here,” said Stella. “So I
caused that mess.”

 

“Do you think so?,” asked Mister Morgan.

 

“Yes,” said Stella. “They come up here because they were looking for me to find my
dad.”

 

“That’s a good chain of causality,” said Mister Morgan. “Take yourself out of the
chain. If you weren’t around, what would they have done to find your dad?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Stella.

 

“You were the easiest fix for their problem,” said Mister Morgan. “If you hadn’t been
around, someone else would have been used to put pressure on your dad. The thing
is you can’t make people do what you want. You can trick them, you can make them
think the thing they are doing for you is what they wanted to do in the first place, you
can pay them to do what you want, you can coerce them. There’s always going to be
people who only do what they want and nothing you do is going to change that no
matter what you do.”

 

“If I hadn’t been here, they would have threatened someone else?,” said Stella.

 

“I guarantee it,” said Mister Morgan. “People who threaten other people’s loved ones
will find something else to threaten if there aren’t any loved ones at hand. Something
else deemed as valuable would be used. I’ve seen it a few times since I have been
doing this heroing stuff. Most people who do that are bullies on the inside.”

 

“Is that why you started being a hero?,” asked Stella.

 

“No,” said Mister Morgan. “I was a kid, and I was adopted. Being a Scout was
adventuring with your family. It was about doing things to help people when no one
else could. When the Scouts were killed, I lost my family. I had to make do on my
own for a while. Then I adopted others as my family, and then I had a natural family
to go with the one I helped forge. Protecting the planet like we do is the same to me
as protecting my family.”

 

A lion drifted across Stella’s mind. She understood what he meant.

 

“And he’s the finest example of the saving the planet hero I know,” said a voice out
of the darkness.

 

“Dad!,” shouted Stella. She jumped to her feet with a grin on her face.

 

Pete Marston stepped out of the darkness as if appearing out of thin air. He wore a
smile on his thin face. Keen eyes took in the camp as he caught Stella on the run.

 

“Hey, Petey,” said Mister Morgan. He waved a hand. “Eavesdropping is bad for you.”

 

“It’s how I make my living, Marty,” said Marston. “I heard you had some excitement
up here.”

 

“Nothing the wife couldn’t handle,” said Mister Morgan. He looked around. “She
must be watching the kids to make sure they’re not scaring the bears. I didn’t expect
to see you until tomorrow.”

 

“When the Goreman Mob left town, I came up after them,” said Marston. “I heard
what happened on the radio. You made the news with your capture of them.”

 

“So much for my weekend off,” said Mister Morgan. “It’s a good thing we’re leaving
in the morning. Reporters will be all over the park looking for us.”

 

“Thanks for looking after Stella for me, Marty,” said Marston. “I didn’t think the mob
would go for her, but I wanted her to be safe in case I was wrong.”

 

“The next weekend I get off, you can look after my terrors for me,” said Mister
Morgan. “Look out for Lin. She’s a biter.”

 

Marston laughed.

 

“Could I say goodbye?,” said Stella. “I don’t think it would be good if I just left
without a word.”

 

“Go ahead,” said Marston. “I’ll be waiting for you to come back.”

 

Stella walked down the trail. She saw the thoughts of the children, but not the placid
lake she associated with Mrs. Morgan. She wondered where the woman had gone.
Maybe she was back at the campsite doing something to get ready for their leaving.

 

“Hey, guys,” Stella called out. “My dad came to pick me up and I have to go.”

 

“What?,” called Melinda. She appeared out of the darkness. “Your dad’s here? I
thought he was meeting us at the airport.”

 

The boys joined them. Mark frowned at the thought that Mister Marston had arrived
at the camp and Ruff did nothing. Shouldn’t he have signaled danger, or new guest,
or something?

 

“So you’re going home now?,” said Bond. “That’s too bad. Mark and I have been
trying to come up with a scary story to tell.”

 

“It was great hanging out,” said Stella. “Mister Morgan already asked my dad to look
after you guys the next time the weekend is free. I think Dad said you can come visit
us.”

 

“All right,” said Mark. “We’ll be in the city. Maybe we can chase some bad guys or
something.”

 

“I don’t think Dad is going to do let us do that,” said Stella. She smiled.

 

“Wait,” said Bond. “You live in San Francisco?”

 

“No,” said Stella. “I live in Los Angeles. San Francisco is a train ride away.”

 

“I was thinking if you lived in the Bay area we could hang out,” said Bond.

 

“I think all of you should come down and see the neighborhood with me,” said Stella.
“It might even build character.”

 

She smiled at the faces the siblings gave her for that.

 

“I have to go,” said Stella. “I just wanted to say goodbye so you wouldn’t think I just
left because I didn’t have some fun this weekend.”

 

“It’s all right,” said Mark. He put out a hand. She shook it. “Scouts for life.”

 

Bond did the same, then Melinda. The younger girl looked like she was going to cry.

Ruff held out a paw to be shook with a grin and floppy ears hanging. He wagged his
tail at the paw shake.

 

“Let’s go back to camp,” said Mark. “It’s too bad you’re going to miss the scary story
we’re going to tell.”

 

“I know,” said Stella. “Come up with an even scarier one for your visit.”

 

“I can do that,” said Mark.

 

The four of them traced their way back to camp with Ruff bringing up the rear. They
found the dads talking around the fire. Stella didn’t see Mrs. Morgan anywhere. She
knew that her ability might be clouded by the other’s control of her thoughts.

 

“Kids,” said Mister Morgan. “Say hello to Petey. You already know my kids, Petey.
The other boy is Bond. He’s Corona’s and Ren’s.”

 

“Hello, kids,” said Marston with a smile. “Thank you for looking after Stella for me.”

 

“No problem,” said Mark.

 

“She’s cool,” said Melinda.

 

“Pleasure was ours,” said Bond.

 

Mrs. Morgan appeared out of the darkness. The kids jumped back a little. Ruff
wagged his tail. He snuffled in the direction of the box she was holding under one of
her arms. She gestured for the kids to come closer.

 

“I totally forgot about that,” said Mister Morgan. He got to his feet. He walked over
and opened the box. He smiled. “Look what we have here. Who would like a piece
of cake? We were going to save it for tomorrow, but since Stella is going home now,
I don’t see why we can’t divvy it up now.”

 

He handed out slices for the kids before taking one for himself. Mrs. Morgan sliced
the last piece in half and gave one half to Marston while taking the other half. She
threw the box in the fire to let it burn.

 

“We should have got a bigger cake,” said Mister Morgan.

 

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