by Brian K. Asbury
Coming as she did from a world where mysticism and the occult were everyday realities, Princess Projectra was finding the Emporium of the Third Luck a fascinating place to visit. The shop was dedicated to the folklore and superstition of not only every conceivable culture from Earth, past and present, but also that of a hundred other worlds. Projectra had been expecting a quaint little backstreet shop, but it was in fact a sprawling maze of shelves and counters as big as a warehouse. Even so, somehow the place managed to feel like a small backstreet shop. That was uncanny in itself.
“This is what the woman who was killed was looking at,” said Rashel Li, a young woman who had been directed by the establishment’s main proprietor to show the princess around. She indicated a huge shelf crammed with artifacts and charms from Ventura, the Gambler’s Planet.
Projectra looked around. Twenty-four hours before, this floor had presumably been covered in shards of broken glass. Now there was little sign of any trouble save for a few scratches on the furniture. “These are meant to bring the buyer luck?” she asked.
“Some of them,” replied Rashel. “The Venturans specialize in luck, of course, but some of these trinkets have specialist purposes, supposedly to give gamblers the edge in whatever game they’re betting on.”
“I’ve looked at the murdered woman’s profile,” Projectra said. “There is nothing in it to indicate that she was a heavy gambler.”
“Well,” said Rashel with a smile, “it’s often the quiet ones who have secret vices, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid I would not know about that,” said Projectra, with no trace of irony in her voice. “What, specifically, was Ms. Virdee interested in?”
“You mean, what was her game? I don’t know, I’m afraid.”
“What I meant was, was there any specific object in your collection that she was interested in purchasing?”
“Oh, I see.” Rachel moved down the shelf. “She was asking about this, and a few others like it, when the intruder appeared.” She picked up an ornate necklace in jet and onyx.
“You were there?”
“No. Normally the store is largely staffed by robots, of course. But someone has to stand monitor duty, and that was me. I saw the whole thing. Horrible.” She shuddered.
Projectra accepted the necklace from her, removed her white glove, and turned it over in her elegantly manicured hand. “It does not feel out of the ordinary. What is it supposed to do?”
“Make the wearer invisible.”
A platinum-blonde eyebrow rose quizzically. “And does it?”
Rashel laughed. “Of course not.” She accepted it back from the princess and placed it over her own head. “See? I’m still here.”
“Then why would anyone buy it if it clearly does not do what it’s supposed to? On my world, a buyer of such a trinket would insist that the vendor demonstrate it before buying. Is that not so here, or on the planet where this comes from?”
“Probably. But this isn’t supposed to make the wearer totally invisible,” she said, taking it off, “but selectively invisible — that is, invisible only to certain people or when performing certain actions.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s a cheater’s tool,” explained Rashel. “If you want to cheat at gambling, this is supposed to help you get away with it. For example, if you’re playing tri-D roulette and don’t want the croupier to spot you moving your chips…”
“Ah!” Projectra smiled. “Now I see.” The smile abruptly became a frown. “Yes. I do see…”
Projectra looked her squarely in the eye. “These other things Ms. Virdee was looking at — they supposedly perform similar functions? To hide one’s actions or one’s self from someone?”
“Yes. More or less. Is that important?”
“It might be. It suggests that she might have been trying to find a way to hide herself from someone or something. Perhaps… perhaps from the very person who killed her!”
They started to make their way back toward the main atrium at the entrance to the store. “You have been very helpful, Rashel, but I think that I can learn no more here.”
“Thank you, Your Highness. I’m glad to help in any way I can that will bring the man who did this to justice. The way he just broke her into little pieces after he’d changed her…” Her voice trailed off, and the two women walked in silence back to the entrance.
There, a familiar figure was talking to one of the robot assistants.
“Officer Salkind?” said Projectra. “What are you doing here?”
The Science Police official stared at her with a look of shock on his craggy features. “P-Princess Projectra? What… what a surprise! I didn’t expect… I mean…”
“Invisible Kid decided that it would be sensible for us to investigate this area thoroughly,” Projectra explained. “Since I have some knowledge of the occult, I elected to ask some questions here.”
“Oh. Well, what… what a coincidence, Your Highness. I, too, felt that there was something more to be learned from this place.”
The princess walked right up to him. “Officer, why did the Science Police reports not include the fact that the victim Ms. Virdee was looking at artifacts and charms which supposedly make someone partially invisible or undetectable?”
“It didn’t?” exclaimed Rashel in surprise. “That’s odd, because I did tell them…”
“Perhaps it was overlooked,” suggested Salkind. “Is it significant in some way?”
“It may well be,” began Projectra. However, she did not complete her sentence. Across the other side of the atrium, the air shimmered, and a silver-clad figure suddenly appeared.
Projectra was momentarily paralyzed by indecision as the villain raised his weapon. He must be after one of the three of them, but which one? One glance at Officer Salkind answered the question for her: his face was a mask of absolute horror, but there was a hint in his eyes that this situation was not altogether unexpected.
As the gleaming figure fired, she shoved Salkind with all her strength, pushing him behind a counter. The two of them went down in a heap. She looked up. “Oh, no!” Where Rashel had stood was now a glass statue. Ghost winds of Orando! she thought. Was I wrong? Was Rashel his target after all?
“No, no, no!” said a voice. “You foolish woman! What did you do that for?” She heard footsteps approaching and sprang to her feet. Salkind also began to rise, but she roughly pushed him down again.
The silver-garbed intruder glared at her. “You’re another of them, aren’t you? Well, I didn’t allow your comrades to interfere, and I won’t allow you to do so, either. Get back down there!”
He fired again. Projectra ducked, but realized as she dropped down that she had been too slow. Even so, the beam missed her. What is going on? she thought. Was that only a warning shot?
As she contemplated a possible means of attack, she saw Rashel’s statue suddenly become flesh once more. “What–?” began the girl.
Projectra grabbed her arm and pulled her down on top of Salkind, who seemed to be cowering in terror. Well, he was obviously going to be no help here.
She stood up again and moved out from her cover. “I do not know what is going on here, but it ends now,” she said regally. “I will not permit these people to be harmed.”
“Oh, be quiet, woman,” said the intruder, adjusting something on his weapon. “I restored the bystander, but I’ll happily glass you if you try to stop me. Just let me get on with my mission here, and you won’t be harmed.”
“I will not allow you to harm anyone else.”
The man grunted. “So be it.” He raised his weapon, and a flock of Orandian quetzalhawks materialized around him and began to assail him from all directions. “What the–?” He fell back, flailing with his free hand and firing wildly at the birds.
Projectra looked down at Salkind and Rashel. “This is your chance! Get out of here! Get away from this place now!”
Rashel needed no further encouragement, and ran for the back of the store. Salkind simply sat there. “Protect me! You have to protect me!”
“That is contemptible!” sniffed Projectra. “Get up, you coward!”
Projectra looked up. The assassin was ignoring her illusions. “Clever, but how long did you expect them to fool me?” He raised his weapon, aiming directly at her. “Time to put an end to your interference, I think.”
“I don’t think so!” He whirled about in alarm as something orange burst through the door and flew directly into him, sending him flying back into a large display unit.
Karate Kid stood before him in an attack stance. “Surrender!” he demanded. “Attack one Legionnaire and you attack us all — and suffer the consequences!”
“Pompous!” grunted the assassin. He raised his weapon and fired, but Karate Kid wasn’t there. Before he could figure out where his opponent had gone, he found himself flying through the air again, and this time his weapon parted company with him.
Again, he had no time to catch his breath before Karate Kid was upon him again, raining blow after blow upon him. Projectra could only watch in admiration as the youth who boasted having mastered practically every martial art in the known galaxy battered the villain relentlessly. True, blows that she would have expected would cripple a normal man seemed only to sting, but Karate Kid was clearly wearing his opponent down.
Even so… she thought, looking down at the cringing Salkind. Better have a contingency ready, just in case.
The assassin flew through the air again, the victim of another expert throw that seemed to be turning his own strength against him. Karate Kid stood back, panting slightly but looking confident. “Had enough? You’re strong, my friend, but you’re no match for me. I went one on one with Superboy to prove I had a place in the Legion, so beating you is just a walk in the park!”
“As I said,” the killer murmured. “Pompous. That will be your undoing!” He reached behind him, and came up with his weapon.
“Oh, grok!” exclaimed Karate Kid, realizing that he had thrown his opponent into the very display where his weapon had earlier fallen. He dived to one side to avoid a blast. Suddenly he had lost the initiative. He cursed himself for letting himself become overconfident.
Meanwhile, the assassin spied Princess Projectra leading Salkind toward the door. “Oh, no, you don’t!” he said, firing. Salkind turned to glass, and the princess gasped in horror. Firing again at Karate Kid to keep him off-balance, he picked up an incense burner from the ruined display and hurled it at the transformed policeman with all his strength. Karate Kid leaped at him, but too late. There was a shattering crash as the two men went down, the Kid again raining blow after blow on the silvery armor.
“You murdering space-slug! You’ve killed for the last time!” cried the Kid, letting loose with a mighty elbow jab that left a dent in his opponent’s armor. “I’m going to make you pay!”
“I… don’t think so…” gasped the killer. And he shimmered and faded away, leaving Karate Kid flailing at empty air.
“Damn! Damn! Damn!” Val Armorr punched the floor in frustration, his blows shattering the high-impact polymer. “I don’t believe it! We failed again!”
Projectra rushed to him. “No, Val. It’s all right. Really, it is.”
He looked up at her kindly regal features. “How can it be? You don’t know this, Jeckie, but the others failed, too. Three other people have also died today at the hands of that killer!”
“It’s true,” he said, picking himself up. “It was just fortunate that I was intending to swing by here to see if you needed a hand even before Invisible Kid called me and asked me to cover his sector while he went back to S.P. H.Q. But he also said that your communicator didn’t seem to be working, so I said I’d come over here anyway and make sure you were OK.”
Projectra examined her comm unit. “Hmm… I was not aware of a problem, but this store contains many strange devices. Perhaps one of them is causing interference.” She smiled. “That’s the trouble with your reliance on advanced technology. It so often goes wrong.”
The Kid was staring at the pile of broken glass near the door. “I’m glad you can take this so lightly, Jeckie, when the day has gone so horribly wrong.”
“Not as wrong as you think, Val.” He stared quizzically into her blue eyes. She smiled again and gestured toward the door. Most of the broken glass vanished, to be replaced by a puzzled-looking but quite intact Officer Salkind.
Val’s jaw dropped. Salkind said, “What… what just happened?”
“He missed you,” Projectra explained, leaving Karate Kid and walking back to him. “However, my powers of illusion — and a glass bowl from one of the displays dropped at your feet to provide a suitable noise — made him believe that he had killed you.”
Karate Kid rushed to her and impulsively kissed her. “That’s amazing, Jeckie! You saved the day after all!” Then he turned his attention to Salkind. “Are you OK, Officer? That was the last thing anyone expected, the killer going for you!”
Salkind opened his mouth to reply, but Projectra spoke first: “No, Val, I don’t think it was the last thing anyone expected. I think one person certainly did anticipate it. Didn’t you, Officer Salkind?”
“I-I don’t know what you mean!” blustered Salkind. “Look, your trick may have fooled that lunatic for now, but sooner or later he’ll realize his mistake and come back. We’ve got to get out of here!”
“And how could you possibly know that? You know who that silver-suited killer is, don’t you?” Projectra said accusingly. “You were expecting him to come after you. That was why you were here — for the same reason that the earlier victim, Ms. Virdee, came here. You were looking for a device or charm which would hide you from him, weren’t you?”
“This is ridiculous!” snapped Salkind. “I have no idea why this maniac singled me out as a potential victim! I was here because I’m investigating this case myself, and I wanted to clarify some details of the statements the staff had given.”
“Really?” said Val. “I’d have thought visiting the scene of at least one of today’s earlier killings would have been more constructive.”
“I didn’t know about them!”
“You expect us to believe that? Just as you expect us to believe you didn’t know he’d be coming for you?” Val turned to address Projectra. “Duo Damsel also said she thought the man she saw killed knew the murderer’s identity.”
“Perhaps all of them knew his identity,” Projectra suggested. “There were details missing from the police reports, too, Val. I believe there is something going on here that runs much deeper than mere random killing, and I also believe that Officer Salkind knows far, far more about it than he has told us.”
Karate Kid nodded. “I agree. I think we’d better recall the troops and take Officer Salkind back to S.P. H.Q. He’s got a lot of explaining to do.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you…” Salkind began. He started to go for his stun-gun, but Karate Kid was faster, shattering the weapon still in its holster with a single straight-fingered, super-karate blow.
“Well, I think that settles that argument,” said Projectra. “Come, gentlemen,” she added, sweeping regally toward the door. “It’s time to find out the truth.”