by Martin Maenza
At Gabriel’s Horn, a small but popular nightclub on Lombardi Street, the last set on this Thursday evening had just completed. The D.J. had just begun spinning tunes to keep the crowd dancing until closing time.
Mal Duncan grabbed a towel from behind the bar to wipe his brow and crossed the room to where his friends were seated. “Man, it’s good to just cut loose and jam,” he said as he folded the towel and placed it on the table. “I haven’t done that in ages.”
“Dude, you still have the best lip around,” a bottle-bleached-blond young man responded. “We could have a killer jazz combo — you on the horn, me on the guitar.” He sipped his drink. “Hank, you play anything?”
The burly brown-haired young man just grunted at him.
“Charley, give Hank a break,” Mal said. “He’s been traveling across the country for a while now and has barely settled in here in San Francisco. You are planning to stay for a bit, right, Hank?”
Hank Hall grabbed a peanut from the dish on the table, crushed it in his hand, and picked out the meat from the shell pieces. “I don’t know yet. Ain’t decided where I want to end up. Haven’t found anywhere that seems right since…” His voice trailed off.
Charley Parker and Mal looked at one another silently. Charley started to say, “I was sorry to hear–” But Mal quickly cut him off with a firm negative head shake. The blond stopped, then attempted a recover. “–um, that, uh… Karen had to miss out on tonight.”
Mal kind of chuckled. “Well, you know how it is. Being a research technician at STAR Labs, she sometimes has to go in at odd hours of the night to run her tests. I don’t mind it much on nights that the club is open, anyway — this way we both get to sleep in.”
Hank had finished staring off at the crowd and chimed back in to the conversation. “How about you, Parker? You still working fast food? Last time we all hung out, you had yourself a promising career at the Chicken Shack or something.” He laughed loud at the thought of that.
Charley Parker put down his drink. “Yeah, something like that. Things weren’t working out down in Malibu, so that’s when I decided to make a change. I knew Mal and Karen had moved out this way, so I thought I’d try to hook up with some old friends. I’m juggling some classes, some part-time here at the club and some elsewhere to kinda foot my bills.” He took another drink. “Luckily, the Casa De Duncan has some comfy sofas.”
The man from behind the bar came over to the table. “Hey, Mal, phone for you. It’s Karen.” He handed the cordless phone to the club owner.
“Thanks, Bobby,” Mal said to him. “Her ears must have been ringing.” He put the phone to his ear. “Hey, honey, what’s up?”
From the other end of the line, Mal heard a whispering voice say, “We got trouble down here! I think it’s Crazy-Quilt and his gang!”
Mal wore a serious look on his face, then said into the phone, “Are you sure? Are you all right?”
On the other end of the line, Karen said quietly, “If memory serves me, yes. And yes, I’m safe.”
“Hold tight, stay out of sight, but keep an eye on them. We’ll be down!” Mal clicked off the phone and ran it over to the bar.
“Bobby, you got your keys, right?” Behind the bar, a man with the dark wavy hair brushed to one side nodded as he continued to mix a Long Island iced tea. “Great. I need you to lock up later if I’m not back.”
“Where you off to?” Bobby asked his boss.
“My friends and I need to run an errand for Karen is all,” Mal answered. The black man then quickly returned to the table where his three friends were sitting.
“Where’s the fire, dude?” Charley asked.
“STAR Labs,” Mal replied. “You guys up for a little action?”
Charley’s eyes lit up as he bolted from his chair. “You know I’ve got my gear handy!”
The two looked over at their third friend. He scratched his chin, chugged the last of his beer, and then stood. “Sure, why not?” Hank stated as he rose from his seat. “Been a while since I busted some heads.”
The trio turned and hurried out of the club.
But their exit did not go completely unnoticed. From across the room, a young blonde woman focused her blue eyes, saw them go, and smiled. She took a couple of bucks from her purse and laid them on the bar. Then she quickly made her way across the room to follow in pursuit.
From a darkened office on the second floor, Karen Duncan tried her best to keep to the shadows, yet at the same time watched what was transpiring below. Outside, a group of seven men were attempting to load a large piece of equipment into a nondescript van with only marginal success. A tall, thin, middle-aged man in a long gray coat and a bizarre-looking helmet was gesturing feverishly to the group of thugs. Beams of light emitted from the helmet danced over the van and the men as he gestured.
It took them a long time to remove what they came here for, Karen thought to herself. “That experimental laser is fairly complicated and large.” She leaned forward to get a better look, but pulled back quickly before being seen by one of the men. They must have overpowered the security before the police could have been called. Maybe I should have called them instead of Mal first. She reached into the lower right pocket of her lab coat and produced a large cellular phone.
Karen shook her head. “I don’t know what I was thinking before. These things are better left to those who can handle them.” She brought the phone up to eye level and quickly dialed 9-1-1, all the while keeping one eye on the lot below.
It rang two times before a voice answered on the other end. Karen said, “Yes, hello. I’d like to report a theft in progress at STAR Labs. Corner of Haney and Chua.”
Outside, the man in the long coat barked muffled orders to the others. “Hurry it up, you idiots! We need to get out of here before we are discovered!”
“Too late for that, dude!” a voice from the air stated.
“What? Who the–?!” Crazy-Quilt whirled around. Light from his helmet danced off a flying man in golden winged armor as two costumed men dropped from the sky.
A burly man in a white costume with a short red cape, red trim, and mask somersaulted effortlessly to the ground. As he landed, Hawk leaped forward and headed for the largest group of opponents.
Meanwhile, the second man in a grayish-white costume with a blue hood and short blue cape landed a bit less gracefully on his two knees and left hand. “I’m a bit out of shape,” the Herald said under his breath as he reached into his cape with his free hand. He pulled out a shiny, horn-like weapon and raised it to his lips. “Maybe I can take the wind out of their sails to even things up.” He punched in a few sequences on the device’s keypad, blew into the mouthpiece, and an ear-splitting sound projected from the instrument.
Two of the thugs let loose painful screams. They stopped pushing the equipment and covered their ears, hoping to block the sound. The other thugs shook off the effects and moved to intercept. “Let’s get ’em!” one of the men yelled.
As Hawk landed near the side of the van, he snarled, “You guys think you’re tough? Okay, let’s see what you got!” He swung his red-gloved fist at the nearest of the men.
Hawk’s right fist connected solidly with the first man’s nose. The bridge of the nose shattered with the force of the punch, causing blood to fly and the victim to slump to the ground in pain. “So much for your point man!” Hawk laughed as he stepped over his fallen foe and continued forward. “Anyone else care to try his luck?”
Three more of the thugs attempted to surround Hawk. “He can’t take us all!” one of the men yelled as they together rushed the costumed hero.
Hawk felt a number of strong hands grasping him about the shoulders, trying to pin his arms. He grinned wickedly, almost enjoying the fight and the release it brought. “Is this the best you got?” he roared as he flexed his biceps. He kidney-punched the guy to his left. Next he brought a knee around to nail the guy to the right. Finally, he reached behind with both hands to grab the man on his back and slammed him forward onto the side of the van. “Nice try, morons, but it takes more than that to capture a Hawk!”
The Herald watched from the sidelines. “Very impressive, my friend. You always were a one-man army.” The hooded hero noticed that one of the men had been cowering behind the van. Seeing how quickly the others had fallen, the man made a break for it around the corner of the building. “We got ourselves a runner! I’ll–“
“No!” Hawk barked. “I’ll get him! You go help the Eagle with the leader of the crew!” The red-caped hero bolted toward the building and quickly disappeared around the corner.
The man appeared to be fast and had a good lead, but that didn’t concern Hawk in the slightest. In fact, a part of him was enjoying the thrill of the hunt. Secretly, he hoped the thug would put up a bit of a struggle. All this brawling was almost therapeutic, keeping his mind off of things he would rather not dwell upon.
As Hawk rounded the next corner, he stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes opened wide with shock and amazement. Before him, the thug had pulled a gun and was firing at a moving target. It was, in fact, the target that had drawn Hawk’s critical gaze.
Dressed in a light blue costume with a short white cape and white trim was a masked woman with platinum blonde hair. She was leaping through the air, almost effortlessly, as she dodged each of the bullets fired. Finally, as the gunman appeared to have exhausted his rounds, she knocked the weapon away with a kick. She spun upon her leg, landed the first foot, and brought the other foot around to knock the man aside the head. He fell to the ground.
She turned and noticed that she had company. “This isn’t how I planned our first meeting, Hawk.”
Anger began to well up inside the hero. The sight of this woman standing there in that costume was enough to set him off. “No! You’ve got no right!” He took two steps forward. “Who do you think you are?“
“Who are you? Tell me!” the blind Crazy-Quilt demanded. Laser beams began to project from his helmet as he attempted to stop the aerial assault upon him.
Golden Eagle banked sharply to the left, then darted up. “We’re the Titans, and you’re toast!” the hero said. He turned sharply once more as one of the beams barely tagged the tip of his right armored wing. “Whoa.”
“Titans!” spat Crazy-Quilt. “Is that accursed Robin with you? I’ll destroy him and you!” His laser blasts became more erratic with his changing mood. They shot in all directions, hoping to connect with the winged hero.
“Whoa!” Golden Eagle continued to be on the defensive. While he barely managed to stay out of harm’s way, he also couldn’t get close enough to strike his foe. “Chill, old dude! You can’t take us out with some funky fireworks display.”
A smile crossed Crazy-Quilt’s face. Because of his blindness, his other senses had to compensate for the lack of sight. His ears had managed to pick up and track the flying hero’s movements. “Quite right, my young fool,” the villain responded. “But I don’t need to fight when I have others to do it for me.” From his helmet, the lasers ceased, and a rapid sequence of colorful flashes was broadcast instead.
Golden Eagle drew back in the air, watching Crazy-Quilt to see what the villain might be doing. The lights drew his gaze and captured it. Within a few seconds, his mind began to cloud.
Crazy-Quilt watched as the hero’s moves began to slow. “Excellent! Now that I have you under my hypnotic control, you will do my bidding! Attack and kill your fellow heroes!” Golden Eagle merely nodded, looked around quickly, and targeted the unsuspecting Herald.