by Brian K. Asbury
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.”
The audience in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, were held spellbound as Raven Black, playing the role of King Henry V, launched into one of William Shakespeare’s most famous speeches. Spellbound, yes! thought Billy Palmer. This isn’t natural. Not natural at all. Even I can feel it, and I was expecting it. I was warned.
“But when the blast of war blows in our ears;
Then imitate the action of the tiger…”
Palmer shook his head, forcing his attention away from the award-winning actor. His hand slipped under his jacket, groping for the device given him by Mr. D. This stops now! he thought.
“Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage…”
He withdrew his hand and turned the device over, flicking the switch to the on position. Red lights flashed in sequence, indicating its readiness. Palmer became aware that the man in the next seat was staring at him in puzzlement. He glared angrily at the gawper, who looked away in embarrassment.
“The game’s afoot…”
He stood up. There were hisses from the rows behind him.
“Follow your spirit…”
Someone whispered, “Sit down. What are you doing?” Palmer ignored it and raised the alien device.
“…and, upon this charge…”
A hand tugged at Palmer’s jacket. He slapped it away with his free hand and took aim.
“God for Harry! England and Saint George!” Palmer bellowed at the top of his voice. Raven Black looked up, startled, his eyes searching for the man who had usurped his line. Palmer’s thumb stabbed down on a contact, and a blindingly golden beam lanced from the device, striking Black squarely in the chest.
There was an explosion of light and smoke, and a sickly, greasy smell filled the air. The actor’s eyes momentarily went wide, and then he fell back with a smoking hole the size of a cricket ball where his heart had been.
“And thus die all alien scum!” yelled Palmer triumphantly. “Let this be a warning! England is for humans!”
He whirled about, and the patrons in the seats behind him shrank back in terror as he waved his deadly weapon to and fro. Palmer grinned and vaulted over the empty seat to his left and into the aisle. As he ran up the few steps to the rear of the balcony, his thumb slid up a second contact on the weapon, then stabbed down on the trigger button again. The rear wall exploded outward, and as the echoes faded they were replaced by the sound of rotor blades. A rope ladder snaked down into the opening.
Palmer turned to face the shocked audience members who were simultaneously staring at him in disbelief while cowering in their seats. “And gentlemen in England, now a-bed, shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here!” he yelled triumphantly.
Then he leapt for the rope ladder and was gone.
Chief Superintendent Kenneth Hanson was a worried man. Bad enough that one of Britain’s leading actors had been savagely murdered in front of several hundred people in a major theatre, but the nature of the crime and of those who claimed to have perpetrated it was deeply disturbing.
The days when British police forces called in the Man from the Yard had long since vanished, of course — at least under normal circumstances. Every county, every metropolitan area, now had its own serious crime squads who were perfectly capable of dealing with murders and other serious breaches of the law without aid from London. But these were hardly normal circumstances. Britain, a country not previously troubled to any great degree by super-villains and the like, had seen more than its fair share of bizarre disasters in the last year and a half. First the Crisis on Infinite Earths, with antimatter demons and other horrors swarming all over the place; then the entire country had been shanghaied into space by invading aliens, for God’s sake. (*) And barely had the U.K. recovered from that trauma, than a combined force of Martians and Atlanteans had attacked merely two weeks later. (*)
Small wonder, then, that the Home Secretary had ordered the formation of a new squad, acting out of Scotland Yard, to deal with meta-human crime and related affairs. He allowed himself a small smile as he recalled the name that some wag at the Ministry had christened his department — CINEMA Squad, the acronym standing for Crimes Involving Non-conventional or Exotic Means or Abilities. It was a name that was earning him more than a few sniggers from his Yard colleagues, but it would do until they could come up with something better.
But Hanson was finding already that the job was not going to be an easy one. The manpower and resources that had been made available to him were limited, and he felt ill-equipped to deal with assassins who used exotic energy weapons. Which was why he had sent for some very special help.
A wolf-whistle interrupted his reverie. He turned to see the perpetrator of the whistle being whisked off his feet and dumped unceremoniously head-first into an open laundry basket. The statuesque costumed beauty responsible for this never even broke stride as her impossibly long and lush hair, which seemed to be possessed of a life of its own, released the hapless police officer and returned to form a cloud of gold framing her classically beautiful features.
Hanson’s sombre expression changed to a grin. “I’ve told you before, love. You really have to expect that if you will keep flashing those lovely legs of yours to all and sundry.”
She smiled back. “And hello to you, too, Ken — or should I say, Detective Superintendent Hanson? Congratulations on the promotion, by the way.” She smoothed her distinctive blue and white costume. “But I’ve also told you before — I’m not changing the outfit. It suits my personality.”
Meanwhile, the startled police constable climbed out of the basket, physically unharmed, but his ego bruised beyond repair. It would be a long time before he lived this down. And it would be absolutely the last time he would ever be stupid enough to wolf-whistle at the U.K.’s premiere super-heroine — Godiva.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Ken?” said Godiva as she greeted Hanson with a peck on the cheek.
“Too long,” Hanson replied. “And that’s Detective Chief Superintendent, actually.”
“I stand corrected. That’s a lofty rank to be still turning out in person to investigate crimes.”
“Tell me about it! I don’t have enough properly trained subordinates yet to delegate properly. That’s life under Maggie Thatcher for you. Miracles expected, but no cash to fund them.” He shook his head. “But how are you? I notice you’ve taken at least one piece of advice from me, even if you’ve kept the chorus girl outfit.”
“The accent, love.”
“Ah.” Godiva blushed slightly. “Yes. That’s one thing I really should have listened to you about. I dumped that some time ago, though. During the Crisis, I happened to catch a TV documentary on super-heroes while I was delivering some victims to a hospital. It included a clip of me — and my God, I couldn’t believe the way I sounded!”
“Told you so!”
“Yes… well, I thought the fake Cockney accent was a good idea at the time — something to help conceal my secret identity, y’know? But I really went over the top with it, didn’t I? I mean, on that clip I actually said lumme! Lumme! Can you believe that? I sounded like a bloody Victorian parlourmaid! What’s worse, the commentator was even speculating that I wasn’t British at all, but an American whose idea of an English accent was based on Dick Van Dyke’s performance in Mary Poppins. Well, that’s it, I thought — time to change your image, girl!”
She paused, then burst into laughter. Hanson could not help but join in. “But on a more serious note, Ken,” she said, “the media are having a field day about this murder, and the fact that you seem to be keeping it all under wraps isn’t helping. What’s going on? Are there really aliens involved?”
Hanson took her arm and drew her toward the morgue, out of earshot of the officers on guard. “We don’t yet know for sure. What we do have is several excellent descriptions of the perp. Five-eight, stocky build, balding dark hair, longish at the sides, moustache, neatly trimmed beard…”
“You mean the rumours are true? Ken, you just described William Shakespeare!”
“William Shakespeare?” said Hanson, smiling at the thought. “Not quite. It also describes Billy Palmer, AKA Billy the Bard, a small-time protection racketeer who usually operates out of London. The name comes not only from his resemblance to Shakespeare but his fondness for quoting him.”
“Ken, small-time crooks like that don’t go around shooting famous actors with high-tech blasters and screaming that they’re aliens.”
“It gets worse. A few minutes before you arrived, responsibility for the killing was claimed by an extreme right-wing group calling themselves England for Humans. They claim that Raven Black was an alien, and that they’re going to eliminate all aliens in England.”
Godiva shook her head, her animated hair seeming to billow like a cloud with the movement. “Given everything that’s happened in the last year, I can understand feelings being high against aliens, but surely somebody as famous as Raven Black couldn’t have been an alien, could he?”
“I’m afraid he was, actually.”
They both turned to face the newcomer. “Ah. You haven’t met Sandie Bremmer, have you, Godiva?” The two women shook hands. “Sandie is our department’s new chief forensic scientist.”
The attractive young black woman thrust a computer printout into Hanson’s hands. “That’s my report, sir. Raven Black was definitely not human. His blood chemistry was exotic, and many of his internal organs are displaced or missing altogether in the form you’d expect.”
“So what was he?” asked Godiva. “A shape-shifted Martian? Surely he can’t have been left behind from the Martian attack? Black has been around since the ’60s!”
“Yes,” agreed the grim-faced Sandie, “but he’s also been known as the Peter Pan of the stage, remember. The media have remarked lots of times that he never seemed to look any older.”
“So what was he, then? Thanagarian? Atlantean? They look pretty much human, after all. Or… no!” Godiva checked herself in mid-thought. “Surely he wasn’t a Kryptonian?”
“None of those. I checked Interpol’s link to the Justice League database. Our man’s anatomy doesn’t match any known alien race. He’s something we haven’t encountered before.”
“And what about the weapon that killed him?” asked Hanson, thumbing through the notes.
“That’s even more worrying,” Sandie said. “I used the analyser the JLA supplied us with to scan the residual energies both on Black’s wound and the hole the killer made in the wall of the Swan Theatre. The readings confirm that our alien-hating murderer was using an alien weapon — and it seems to have been Khundish in origin!”
There was no such place as Wordenshire, at least not anymore. As a county, it had ceased to exist long ago as changes in government and shifts in local boundaries caused old names to disappear, and new ones were brought in to take their place. Now all that remained of Wordenshire was a village that bore part of that name, containing a small castle (really a Victorian folly built around an ancient manor house) and a hereditary peerage.
The man who currently held that title looked up at his troubled friend, who was slumped against the window frame and staring out over the elegantly manicured lawns of Wordenshire Castle. As if sensing that he was the centre of attention, the man turned around. The Earl studied him with some interest. Peregrine Redhawk looked young — perhaps in his early twenties — and his long, coppery hair helped to accentuate that illusion. But his eyes — so light a brown that they appeared almost gold — suggested a much greater age.
“They killed Raven, Percy. Killed him in front of hundreds of people.”
“I know, my friend,” said Percival Sheldrake, eleventh Earl of Wordenshire. “We discussed this earlier, remember?”
The other nodded. “Sorry. This has hit me hard. I’m repeating myself.”
“You’re distraught, Perry,” said Percy. “Come and have a brandy. Calm your nerves.”
“No. I need to keep a clear head. As clear as I can, anyway. I have to decide what to do about this.”
“Have you informed your friends?”
Perry snorted. “How? You know what they’re like… well, maybe you don’t. Let’s just say I’ve been out of contact with them for years. Raven was the only one who I ever spoke to. I think he mentioned that Moonwing was still out in Japan, but the rest — God only knows. For all I’m aware, they didn’t survive the Crisis.”
“Do you think they’ll come after you next?” asked Percy, deciding that if his friend didn’t want a brandy, there was no sense in him abstaining also.
“I don’t know. Raven was pretty conspicuous, whereas I’m not. But then again, they figured him out somehow. Maybe they have some means of detecting us. Who knows? Damn it, I think I will have that brandy.” He crossed to the drinks cabinet to join his friend.
“Perhaps,” began Percy slowly, “it might be prudent if you were not to simply wait here for them to find you…”
“The armour?” said Perry; Percy nodded. “No. We built that for you, not me. I’m no hero.”
“Really?” said the shrewd earl. “And I am?” He slapped down on the blanket that covered his legs. “A man in a wheelchair makes for a poor crime-fighter, Perry.”
Perry stared down at his crippled friend with pity in his eyes. The great Crisis that had enveloped the whole world had left a sorry mark on the Earl of Wordenshire as he and his son had engaged in a desperate battle with the shadow demons of the creature called the Anti-Monitor. Percy’s only son, Cyril, had perished in the conflict, while Percy himself, his spine crushed, would surely also have died if not for the intervention of a mysterious stranger who was not what he appeared.
“You saved my life,” said Percy. “That makes you a hero in my eyes. And you wore the armour once, against the Martians. Wear it again. Avenge your friend.”
“The new armour is for you,” repeated Perry. “We designed it to compensate for your disability. Paralysed legs or no paralysed legs, in that suit you can walk, run, even do gymnastics!”
“But I’m too old for this, my friend. The Crisis showed that up. It’s time for someone better-suited to take up the mantle. And my nephew David is only too eager to fight alongside you, as he did against those alien creatures.
“Will you do it, Perry? For me? Will you wear the armour and keep the legend of the Knight and the Squire alive?”