by Martin Maenza
The morning sun rose on the West Coast, ushering in another day in San Francisco.
In a well-furnished apartment, a blonde woman in a long blue night shirt yawned as she stepped into the hallway. She took off her wire-framed glasses as she walked so that she could rub the sleep from her eyes. She then wiped the lenses on the hem of her sleepwear to clear them.
When she stepped into the bathroom, she heard a slight gasp. “Harleen,” another female’s voice said.
Harleen Quinzel put on her glasses once more to see a dark-haired woman quickly covering her bare torso with a fluffy pink towel. “Oh, God, Paula!” the sleepy blonde said. “I’m so sorry. I forgot you were here.” She started back to the door.
“It’s OK,” Paula Brooks said. “I just thought you were still sleeping.” Paula’s hair was still damp, and water droplets dripped from her legs down to the bath mat in front of the tub. “I hope the sound of the shower didn’t wake you.”
“Not at all,” Harleen said. “I’m a pretty sound sleeper until my alarm clock blares at me for the second or third time.” The blonde averted her eyes to the floor and noticed something odd. She tried to discreetly continue investigating what she saw. “I’ll go…”
“That’s fine,” the woman said. She continued to towel off her pregnant stomach, which protruded out about four inches more than normal. “It’s no big deal. We’re both mature women. I’m married, and you’re a doctor, anyway. It doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t bother you.”
“OK,” Harleen said, leaning against the doorframe in order to continue the conversation with her guest. Paula had given her the opening she was looking for, anyway; Harleen was not going to let the opportunity go to waste. “How’d you sleep?”
“The sofa was OK, once I found a good position,” Paula said. “That in and of itself is a difficult thing, being this far along. Though I was up and down quite a few times during the night. She tends to press upon my bladder a lot.”
Harleen nodded. “So, you’re having a girl, then?”
“Yes,” Paula replied. “That’s what the last ultrasound said. They’re not one-hundred percent accurate, but that’s all I have to go on until I deliver.”
“I see,” Harleen said, getting into her clinical thinking mode. The brief small talk had allowed her to get a good look at her house guest. It was time to press the inquiry further, given that she had a captive audience in a rather vulnerable position. “So, tell me, Paula, did that husband of yours start beating you before or after you guys found out the sex of the baby?”
Paula’s eyes widened by the question. “What… what do you mean?” she asked in an evasive voice.
“I saw the bruises,” Harleen said, “on your lower back and shoulders while you were drying. Sorry to be so nosey, but they looked bad enough to concern me.”
Paula dropped her head slightly. Her voice fell with it. “Don’t be,” she said.
“Now don’t tell me you banged yourself on a door or something,” Harleen started to lecture. “That’s an old excuse, and I wouldn’t buy it, anyway. Given your natural grace and how much you obviously care for this child, I know you’d never be that clumsy.”
“Nothing gets past you, does it, Doc?” Paula said.
“I take it the joyful news of the baby didn’t help with the marriage problems, did it?” Harleen recalled the discussion the two women had a number of months ago in Paula Brook’s driveway. Harleen had come to speak to the couple as a favor to an old college friend of hers, James Dillin. James knew of Harleen’s working experience with the criminal element and thought she’d better be able to help the quarreling couple of crime. Sadly, her visit with them didn’t fix the problems. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Secret Origins: The Huntress and the Sportsmaster: The Games People Play.]
“No, it didn’t,” Paula answered. “Crusher took the whole thing rather hard at first. He felt I did it on purpose to interfere with our ‘career.’ Like I did this alone, right? He ranted and raved for a couple weeks. I just kind of tuned him out. He seemed to be getting used to the idea of having a child, though, as I entered the second trimester. I think it started to sink in, and he started to think about all the things he could teach a child. You know, the whole ‘playing catch in the front yard’ and stuff. I really thought things were going to get better.
“Then we went for the ultrasound. The doctors said they got a good picture and asked us if we wanted to know the sex of the baby. We did. But Crusher got all quiet when they told us it’s a girl. He didn’t speak to me at all on the way home. He started to drink more after that and kept going out until all hours of the night. I assumed he was pulling jobs, and part of that time it was crimes. When he started to hit me again, I couldn’t take it anymore! I had to get out of there, for myself and for my baby.”
“Of course!” Harleen said. “No woman should stand for abuse like that at the hands of a man, especially one who claims to love her so.” The psychiatrist caught Paula’s use of the word again, but did not comment on it. She had a feeling from her first visit with the couple, seeing how they went after one another with objects for weapons, that the two had no doubt dealt with domestic violence both ways for a good part of their marriage.
“I know,” Paula said. “It was one of the hardest things I ever did. One day, while he was out, I made my run. I packed what I could carry and withdrew enough money from our bank accounts to set myself up somewhere else. I was on the train out of town when I realized I didn’t know where I was going to go. I needed some place that Crusher couldn’t find me, some place he’d never look. Then I remembered the card you gave me, so I headed here.”
“I’m glad you did!” Harleen said. “But I think my place might end up being a problem for two, and then some. It’s a little small, even for brief visitors.”
“I didn’t think of that,” Paula said. “I’ll go…”
“No!” Harleen said. “You can’t! You have another life to consider now, and can’t be on the run. You just need someplace a bit more secure and more spacious.” She paused for a second to ponder.
“You have one in mind?” Paula asked. “I can’t really afford a lot, nor can I work in my condition right now.”
“I know,” the blonde said. “I think I know of a place you can crash for a bit. I just need to make a call.”
“I hope you’ve got a good reason for gettin’ me up early,” yawned a large talking gorilla. “Had a rough night last night.”
“So we heard,” a blonde man in purple said standing off to the side of the lab. “What was all the ruckus when you got in late last night?”
“Don’t be so nosey, Chad,” the brown-haired Blindside said to his longtime partner. “Not everyone kisses and tells.”
“Can I help it I’m a people person?” Throttle said with a wicked smile.
“Ain’t nothing like that,” Power Fist said, dismissing their accusations. “Me and Sapph were off gettin’ a new recruit is all.”
“Well,” Throttle said, “from what I heard from the hallway, it sound like she’s into you — this new recruit.”
“Whatever,” Fist replied. He looked down at the dwarf in green who was affixing some electrodes to his simian body. “Gizmo, couldn’t this have waited?”
The brown-bearded criminal scientist smiled from ear to ear. “P.F., old pal, I think this time I’ve got it!”
“Oh?” Power Fist said in a lackluster way. He knew Gizmo meant well. After Grodd had transformed him into an ape last fall as part of his force to infiltrate Gorilla City, Gizmo had been working hard to reverse the process. (*) Every time the dwarf thought he’d gotten close, both men’s enthusiasm was dashed upon the rocks by failure. Power Fist had pretty much given up on ever being human again. He sighed.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Secret Society of Super-Villains: Gorilla Warfare, Book 2, Chapter 1: Infiltration.]
Gizmo noticed, but didn’t let it affect his mood. “Big guy, you’re gonna thank me in about two minutes!” he said as he bounded over to a ray-device across the way. It was the original machine created by Grodd to do the transformation the first time. The dwarf entered the sequence to power up the ray.
Power Fist braced himself as Throttle and Blindside looked on. He knew the type of excruciating pain that came with the process; it had become second nature to him. While he still remained in ape form after every attempt, at least his pain threshold had been increasing. He was thankful for that. “Giz,” the ape called out over the hum of the machine, “what makes you think this time’s the charm?”
Gizmo smiled. “Let just say someone showed me the light last night.” He eyed the readings; they were into the recalculated threshold. It was time. “Get ready to be a man again!” He dropped his goggles in place and squeezed the trigger mechanism.
A beam of energy shot into Power Fist. “Aaa-aaa-aah!” the ape-man cried out in pain. It was just like before — no, even worse. It tore into his very being; his body felt as if it was on fire. None of the other restorations were like this one. If that being different meant anything, maybe the dwarf was right. Through the pain, he said a silent prayer.
There was a brilliant final burst.
Throttle shielded his eyes. “Could have warned us, dwarf!”
It didn’t seem to bother Blindside at all. “Look!” he said, pointing to the platform.
Throttle shook his head to clear his vision. “Easier said than done,” he snapped. When his vision cleared, he saw Power Fist collapsed to the floor.
The dwarf ran up to him, shouting with glee. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Gizmo threw his short arms about the naked black man.
Power Fist groaned as he pushed himself up to his knees. Gizmo, excited about the success, was hugging all over him. Then Power Fist realized that he could feel the cold floor of the lab. Not like it had felt before. He looked about his arms. “No hair all over! I’m a man again!” He stood up proudly, thrusting his arms in the air victoriously. “Sweet Arbor Day, I’m a man!”
Gizmo stood there smiling. Thanks to those corrections in the calculations by that guy in the bar last night, he had succeeded in helping his friend. “Welcome back, P.F.!”
Power Fist smiled a big smile. “Dwarf, I could kiss you right now!”
Throttle elbowed Blindside. “Reminds me of that film we rented a while back — Bo White and the Seven Dwarfs!”
Blindside tried to suppress his smile. “Oh, behave, Chad,” he said.
In his private office, Mirror Master was on the phone. “What?” His voice was a little agitated.
On the other end, Dr. Harleen Quinzel spoke a bit more softly, in part to keep from being overheard by Paula and in part to get the man to calm down and listen. She found it to be a good tactic. “Sam, listen to me. She can’t go back home. She doesn’t have any friends or family she can turn to. She has nowhere else to go, and it’s not a good time for her to be alone.”
“So you think having her around here is good?” Mirror Master said. “This isn’t a halfway house, you know!”
“Look, Sammy,” Harleen said. “You brought me into this venture because I have a knack with people. I can get inside their heads and help them come around on difficult issues. I know she’s struggling with a lot of things, including her career choice. I think it would be beneficial for her to be around others who aren’t like that husband of hers. I think it will sway her. And that gives you a potential resource to draw upon in the future.”
“How far along is she?”
“Seven months. You’ve got some staff there, so you don’t have to worry about her being any bother. I know you’ve got the space. Offer her that room you were going to give me.”
“What about medical needs?”
“I’ll arrange for that. And I’ll keep an eye on her, too.”
“I thought you told me you try to keep things between you and your patients on a strictly professional level?” Mirror Master asked.
Harleen smiled. “Sammy, you know it wouldn’t have worked out between us, anyway. We’re too much alike. But this one is a different case. There are a number of factors involved, including an innocent unborn child. Now, can she stay there?”
“I’ll have to reflect on it some before I give you an answer.”
Harleen could hear the wavering in his voice. Having had him in intense session for a good part of a year, the woman knew the reflective rogue well. He had been through a life-altering experience that had left him a bit more vulnerable. She would exploit that if she had to. “Consider the other life involved, too,” she added. “That’s all I ask.”
“I’ll call you later, Doctor.” Mirror Master hung up the phone, leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his chin while he considered all the angles involved.