by Brian K. Asbury
After a brief moment of silence, the man called Edward Stacker turned away and walked back toward the shadowy corner where he had been standing when Firestorm arrived.
“Hold it,” said Firestorm. “Don’t walk away from me. What am I supposed to do now?”
Stacker ignored him and reached down into a briefcase that he had left behind. He withdrew a small plastic case and extended an aerial from it. Firestorm stared at it curiously, then it dawned on him that this was a cellular phone — although very much smaller than the brick-sized ones he had seen the yuppies at college using. “I guess it pays to be a spook, huh?” he said. “You get access to all the latest technology.”
Stacker, meanwhile, had dialed up a number and now spoke into the phone. “Faraday? Stacker here. Yes, I’m fine. Listen, old boy, I’m afraid the operation has been compromised. Moran used the machine himself, while Becca wasn’t there to keep an eye on him. I’ve got Firestorm here, de-powered… Yes, that’s right. I said Firestorm… Yes, she had to break cover to get him away from the Moran gang… No… she’s gone back in to take on Moran herself and recover the psi-phon. I know… I know that wasn’t the plan, but she had no choice but to act… All right, I’ll keep you informed. Ta-ta.”
Firestorm stepped up to him. “Do you mind if I borrow that thing?”
“Well, they took my JLA signal device away, but there are people I could phone.” He had already gone over a few choices in his mind. The real names of some of the JLA members — Ralph Dibny and Wally West were two names that readily came to mind — were in the public domain, so he could not compromise them by contacting them over the public telephone system. Any of them could mobilize the rest of the League for him.
“I’m sure there are,” said Stacker smoothly. “And I’m sure you’d love to phone some of your super-heroic friends and bring them to your rescue. However, this is a classified operation, and I’d like to keep it that way, if you don’t mind.”
“What? Are you serious? Moran is running around with my powers and you think you can keep this as some kinda cloak-and-dagger spook game?” He balled one fist, then thought better of it. “OK, OK, James Bond, have it your own way. I can always go find a phone booth.” He turned away. I hope Wally or Ralph will accept a collect call, he thought.
“I don’t think so.” There was a click. Firestorm turned to see a gun, complete with silencer, in Stacker’s hand.
“You’ve gotta be kidding!” Firestorm exclaimed. “Don’t be ridiculous. No way are you gonna shoot me!”
Stacker declined to reply, but fired his gun over Firestorm’s head.
“If you think I’m bluffing, go on. Try to step through that door, my friend, and see how far you get.”
They stared at one another for long moments. Then the impasse was broken by a burst of light flashing through the broken window that Firebrand had exited by. The blazing fireball streaked to the floor, stopped abruptly, expanded with a great boom, and finally coalesced into the beautiful redheaded form of the girl who had rescued Firestorm.
“What’s with the gun, Stacker?” she said.
“Nothing, old girl. Just deterring our costumed friend, here, from doing anything silly. I didn’t expect you back this quickly.”
“No…” She glanced at Firestorm, who was silently fuming on the spot. “However, we have a minor problem, Stacker. Moran’s gone. He and his gang have cleared out of the Milgrom Building — lock, stock, and psi-phon!”
“This was only to be expected,” Stacker said calmly. “He is the Getaway Mastermind, after all. It seems you were right about him having built a teleporter, old girl. Really quite ingenious, I suppose.”
“If I’m right, though,” said Firebrand, “it was only a one-shot device.”
“Duh. Like that matters!” exclaimed Firestorm. “It’s all very well for you guys to calmly stand there discussing it like it’s the price of fish or something, but however he did it, the key point here is that he’s gone!”
“It’s not so bad as it sounds,” said Firebrand, smiling.
“Easy for you to say! I’m the loser here, y’know. It’s my powers he’s skedaddled with!” He turned to Stacker. “Now will you let me call in the JLA?”
Firebrand placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “It’s OK, hotshot. He might have gone, but we know exactly where to.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you’ll stop getting all emotional and think, you might remember me presenting Moran with some papers. They were the lease on a penthouse in Metropolis, similar to the one he was renting here in Pittsburgh. Don’t you remember him giving orders to send a couple of men there? It was obviously to set up the receiving station for that one-shot teleporter I mentioned.”
“Yeah, fine. Brilliant — not!” Firestorm exploded. “That might have been Moran’s original plan, but why the hell should he have still gone through with it after we escaped? He’d have to be incredibly stupid to do that, knowing there was somebody out there who knew where he’d gone!”
“Calm down!” Firebrand raised her fist to Firestorm’s face. Flames crackled around it. She breathed in deeply and said, more calmly, “Moran thinks we’re dead, remember? He thinks he killed us trying to escape.”
“So, as far as he knows, nobody in the world knows he’s gone to Metropolis, much less where in Metropolis. Except that we do. And Stacker does. And half the CIA does, because they found the place for me to pretend to have secured for him! Now do you get it?”
Edward Stacker, who had remained silence through this heated interchange, now stepped forward. “So if you’ve sorted that out, kiddies, and finished your bickering, perhaps we could do something about the situation. There seems little point in us remaining in Pittsburgh, my dear. I think you should fly us to Metropolis right away — just in case Moran has other plans we don’t know about and decides to move on immediately.”
She nodded. “Yes, you’re right, of course.”
“Hey,” said Firestorm. “I hope that includes me!”
“Why should it?” asked Stacker.
“Why — listen, you arrogant excuse for an ersatz James Bond, Moran has my powers. I want ’em back. I also know better than anybody else how they work, so if you want to stand any chance of beating him, you need me around.”
“I’m willing to take my chances on that.”
“Yeah? Well, the other thing is, the minute you fly out of here without me, I’m heading for the nearest phone booth and calling in the Justice League whether you like it or not!”
Stacker snorted with derision. “Is that so? We’ll see about that.” He turned to Firebrand. “Becca, my dear, I think we’ve heard enough from this so-called hero. I suggest you use your powers to put him out of the picture while we professionals handle this crisis!”
“Now hold on a minute, Stacker,” said Firebrand. “I’m not going to do any such thing.”
“I gave you a direct order, miss!”
“Do you want to hear where you can shove it?” she snapped. “Listen, Stacker, Firestorm has a point. His powers — the powers Moran has stolen — have limitations that weren’t mentioned in our files. When Moran tried to transform Firestorm, something happened which knocked him for a six. It was that which gave me the opportunity to get alone with Firestorm and pull him out of there.
“And in any case,” she added, “I know how he feels. If it were my powers that Moran had stolen, I’d feel pretty miffed at someone trying to keep me out of the efforts to recover them.”
“If you want a free ride to Metropolis, Stacker, Firestorm comes along, too. Otherwise you can use public transport.” She folded her arms and stared at him.
“Thanks,” said Firestorm.
“Don’t mention it, hotshot. Well, Stacker?”
Stacker looked ready to explode, but there was clearly nothing he could do. “Very well. I have no choice, it seems. But this is gross insubordination, Firebrand. When we get back to London, you and I are going to have some serious words.”
“I’ll look forward to it — just as I look forward to you explaining to our superiors how your keeping the super-hero community in the dark about this led to one of them being captured by Moran and his powers stolen. If we’d warned Firestorm about this, I’m sure he could have helped us — right, hotshot?”
“Yeah. I think. So, er… are we going after him right now?”
“You’ve got something better to do?”
Well, as a matter of fact… thought Firestorm. If I’d followed up what I wanted to do instead of falling into Moran’s trap, I’d be on a date with Doreen right now. Boy, is she gonna be ticked with me — if I ever see her again, that is! If I don’t get my powers back, I’ll be stuck as Firestorm for the rest of my life! And then there’s the professor! What’s happened to him?
“I can only carry one passenger at a time,” Firebrand was saying to Stacker. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take Firestorm first, then come back for you.”
“Suits me, old girl,” said the now-more-composed Stacker. “I’ll phone Faraday in the meantime and bring him up to date on these developments. He’ll want to get his men into position around the Conway Building as soon as pos.”
“Right,” she agreed. “Firestorm, give me your hand.”
“You’re gonna take me to Metropolis? The same way we got here?”
“That’s right.” They clasped hands.
Energy flared, and suddenly Firestorm was standing in the open air. Wind whistled around him, and it was drizzling with rain. “Geez!” he exclaimed, staggering back with the disorientation of it. “I thought you said you couldn’t teleport!”
“I can’t,” said a smiling Firebrand. “As I did before, I converted our combined mass to energy and flared us here. I’m sorry, I know how disorienting it can be, but I don’t know any way I can keep my passenger conscious during the journey. It might seem instantaneous to you, but in reality it’s taken a couple of minutes for me to cover the distance from Pittsburgh to Metropolis and find this place.”
Firestorm looked around, taking stock of his new surroundings, and did a double-take when he saw the huge globe set on the roof behind him. “I know this place,” he said. “This is the Daily Planet Building.”
“That’s right,” said Firebrand. She pointed. “And that’s the Conway Building over there, where Moran and his gang are now sequestered. Right across the street from where Superman’s best friends work!”
Before Firestorm could comment, Firebrand changed once again into her energy-fireball form and streaked away — presumably to pick up Stacker and bring him here.
That gives me a few minutes to myself, he thought. But what do I do?
He looked around again. This was the Daily Planet. It may have been Sunday, but that didn’t mean there was no one here; after all, papers had their Monday morning editions to prepare, didn’t they? In fact, if the building were empty, the paper’s famous helicopter, the Flying Newsroom, would be on its pad — but it was empty, suggesting that someone, somewhere, was out using it to chase up a story.
He scanned for a way into the building itself. Jimmy Olsen worked here — and Jimmy had a signal-watch which coould summon Superman. With Moran possessing the power to create green kryptonite, Superman was probably not the best choice to send against him; but Superman would be able to summon the rest of the League, and surely someone like Green Lantern or Zatanna would be able to find a way to take down an enemy who possessed the powers of Firestorm.
Of course, that jerk Stacker would be furious. But given the lack of respect that the English agent had shown Firestorm, pissing Stacker off would be a bonus. He wondered why somebody like Firebrand worked with a louse like that, as she didn’t seem to like him very much. Maybe he had some sort of hold over her?
He finally found a doorway and tried the handle. Damn! He thought. Locked! Of all the lousy luck!
Now, come on, Ronnie, he thought to himself. This shouldn’t deter you. You’re a hero. A member of the Justice League. You should be able to find a way around this obstacle.
“Yeah, but I don’t have my powers,” he said aloud. “If I did, I could turn the door to water, or the lock to taffy. Whatever. I’m not used to having to face situations like this without them.”
Hell! he thought. The professor isn’t here, but I’m still talking to myself! It must be habit-forming.
The thought brought Professor Martin Stein back to the forefront of his concern. Where are you, Professor? he thought. I need your advice more than ever, and you aren’t here!
Then a bright light in the sky interrupted his reverie. There was no time now to find a way past the locked door. Firebrand was returning already.
Monty Moran was convinced he was going mad. The one-shot teleporter had worked like a dream, transporting the entire contents of the Pittsburgh penthouse instantly to the apartment here in Metropolis. No doubt the cops were even now breaking down the doors of the Milgrom Building’s penthouse and wondering why the place was completely deserted.
But since they had arrived here, he had found himself totally unable to concentrate on the next task in hand — the capture and conquest of Superman. There was a voice in his head: there was no doubt about it, now. It was getting louder, and it was annoyingly persistent — no, annoyingly was too weak a word. It was there all the time now, going on and on and on — constantly berating him, rebuking him, condemning him for a murdering, filthy…
No. No. He had to shut it out. Concentrate! Think of something else! Mathematical formulas, circuit diagrams, anything complex and requiring absolute focus to picture it in his head. Anything to shut out the constant nagging drone of the voice telling him how he was not going to escape justice for his crimes, how he was going to pay.
“We’ve gotta do something about this,” said Burt Luthor softly as he bent over a piece of equipment next to Kowalski. “The boss is going nuts! Look at him!”
They peered across to the other side of the room, where Moran, instead of working on recalibrating the psi-phon as he was supposed to be doing, was pacing nervously, eyes pinched in painful concentration as if he was trying to shut out some outside noise.
“So what do you suggest? God, Luthor, use your head. If we suggest to the boss that he’s going crazy, what do you think he’ll do to us with those powers he stole from Firestorm? Look what he did to Amy!”
“Yeah, but we can’t just keep on acting like everything’s normal, man. Something’s obviously gone wrong. The psi-phon wasn’t supposed to work like he used it. He can’t handle those powers, and it’s affecting his mind.”
Kowalski looked again at his boss, who seemed now to be oblivious to everything else in the room. “As a matter of fact, I agree with you, Burt. But I sure as hell am not going to be the one to tell him. Are you going to do it?”
Burt glanced at his friend, then around the room, noting that the others were also nervously watching their boss, then back toward Kowalski again. He shook his head.
“Then let’s get on with our jobs,” said Kowalski, resignedly.
And across the room, the voice in Moran’s head screamed ever louder: “Killer! Killer! KILLER!”