by Martin Maenza
A pair walked about the main meeting room, carefully avoiding the occasional empty soda can and discarded pizza boxes. The tall man, with a muscular frame covered by a long-sleeve white T-shirt and jeans, had red hair. The woman with brown skin and beaded brown hair, slightly shorter and well-proportioned, wore a beige blouse and a slightly darker skirt.
Hank Heywood III brushed his hand gently across the surface of the steel table as he watched the woman look around, taking everything in. He rubbed his fingers together to get rid of the excess dust built up on them.
“Well?” he said, finally breaking the silence. “Is this helping any?” His voice carried a deep concern and genuine quality to it.
The beautiful African-American woman had stopped to stare at a photo on the wall. It was of a group of costumed individuals: a woman in green with green hair, a woman in blue and white with white hair, a man in a tuxedo and yellow turban, another man in an orange costume with a blue jacket, and in the middle a man in green and black with a bowl haircut.
“Hmmm,” Mari Jiwe McCabe said, frowning. “This picture… it’s not right. Wasn’t there another here?”
Hank Heywood beamed. “You’re right!” he said. “You remember!”
Mari nodded. It had been a few weeks since she washed up on the coast of China, hardly even knowing her own name, much less anything of her past. (*) It was only through the dedication of J’onn J’onzz and others in the Justice League of America that she had been able to slowly piece together the fragments of her former life. She turned to the young man. Even Hank has been so helpful, she thought to herself.
[(*) Editor’s note: See DC Universe: Invasion, Book 2, Chapter 2: Home.]
“It has been helpful coming here,” the woman said.
“Good,” Hank said. “And maybe the other stuff will…”
“What the hell is going on here?” a loud voice boomed, cutting the young man off. Standing in the doorway, his arms crossed, was the man from the photograph in the green and black uniform. The lantern symbol on the stylized jacket was a dead giveaway.
“Hello, Gardner,” Hank Heywood said with a slight frown and little enthusiasm.
“Save the pleasantries for someone who cares, kid!” Guy Gardner said as he crossed the room in three long strides. “I asked what’s going on here, and I don’t like asking twice.” His face was close to Hank’s, attempting to intimidate the younger man.
Hank didn’t need his steel-enforced skeleton to stand up to the other hero; he wasn’t about to back down. “Relax,” he said coolly. “We’ll be out of your hair in a few minutes.”
Guy pursed his lip and glared at Hank. “Yeah? Well how’d you get in here to begin with? You Leaguers vacated this place long ago. It’s Conglomerate turf now!”
“I may have leased it to Thomas Kord, who in turn is letting you all use it,” Hank explained, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to retrieve stuff that is stored here.” (*) He pulled out a card and flicked it under Guy’s chin. “Just remember, all this stuff — the bunker, the systems, everything — were built by my grandfather, Hank Heywood the first.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Conglomerate: Conglomeration and Amalgamation, Chapter 1: Moving Day.]
Mari winced. Something about that name bothered her. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, the memory too elusive or perhaps too painful.
“Oh, yeah?” Guy countered.
“Yeah! You just remember that you and your friends are renters here,” Hank said firmly. “Speaking of which, where are your friends?” He glanced about mockingly. “Didn’t see any of them. Don’t tell me the rumors of your team breaking up are true.” He turned back to Guy. “That’d be a real shame, now.”
Guy was about to launch into a tirade but stopped himself. “I don’t need to answer to you!” he said with a wave of his hand as he turned about suddenly. “Just don’t go taking stuff that doesn’t belong to you!”
“We won’t,” a voice came from the other doorway. A well-built African-American man with a thin mustache and slightly graying beard was standing there, holding a large cardboard box in his hands. The bald man moved over to the table where he set the box down.
“Hey! Don’t make a mess of the place, Gunn!” Guy barked.
“I can’t do any worse than you have, Gardner!” Dale Gunn shot back. “Back when I was in charge of operations here, everything was spic and span, running like a well-oiled machine.”
The Green Lantern paid him no mind, leaving the room to head for his personal quarters, instead.
Dale turned to Hank. “Just going down to the basement and back, I spotted a half-dozen things that could use some attention.”
Hank frowned. “Maybe we should take the place back,” he said, “to preserve the investment.”
Dale put his hand on Hank’s shoulder. The young man was like a son to him, having practically raised the lad himself after his father’s death in Vietnam. He was always proud to see Hank taking some responsibility for things. “Don’t worry,” the dark-skinned man said. “I’m just downtown. I’ll see if I can work some time into my schedule to drop in and take care of a few things here.”
“That’d be great,” Hank said.
Dale smiled. “Good thing I know the boss well.” He gave the young man a wink.
Hank nodded. Dale was a good man. He already did so much for him, watching over Heywood Industries and ensuring the company investments were sound, earning the hefty salary Hank paid him. “I appreciate that,” he said.
Mari cleared her throat. Both men turned. “I don’t mean to break up your heartfelt moment,” the woman said, “but would that be the stuff?”
“Indeed,” Dale said. He put one hand underneath the top flap and popped open the top of the box. “There you go.” He slid the box toward her, then he and Hank stepped back.
They watched as Mari slowly folded back the top flaps and began to look through the items in the box. There were loose photographs on top. The young women slowly flipped through them, one by one — one of herself with J’onn, and one with Zatanna, one of Hank and Paco arguing, and one of the quiet girl named Gypsy. A tear formed in the corner of her eye as she thought of those last two. It felt right to be sad, though she wasn’t completely sure why. (*)
She put those aside, wiped the tear away, and continued. Next was a framed photograph of herself at some gala. She was dressed to the nines. On the back was taped a newspaper clipping with the headline Model Newcomer Awarded. She thought to herself, Another part of my life I need to reclaim.
Next in the box were some dark wood sculptures of African art. And beneath that were a number of pieces of clothing, carefully folded and stored with the rest of the items. These were all her personal affects, all things she had left behind, but for no longer. After a few moments, Mari started to put the items back in the box.
“Do those help?” Hank asked.
“Yes,” she said softly as put things back. “They do. Thank you.”
“Let me help with the box,” Dale offered.
Hank turned and noticed the clock on the wall. “Oh, man!” he exclaimed. “Is it five already?”
Dale checked the watch on his wrist. “Yes,” he said. “You know, Hank, you really should wear a watch.”
“I know, I know,” the red-haired youth said as he hurried past. “I forgot I was supposed to meet someone!” He turned to his dear old friend. “Dale, could you do me a favor? Would it be too much trouble if you’d take Mari to dinner? I’ll be back later to help her with her stuff.”
Dale turned to the beautiful woman and smiled. “No trouble at all,” he said. “It would be my pleasure. Assuming, of course, that Mari is OK with it.”
Mari couldn’t help but notice the man’s charms. “Yes,” she said, smiling. “That would be fine.”
“Thanks, guys!” Hank said as he was already out the door.
Man, oh, man, oh man! Hank Heywood thought as his powerful legs propelled him down the sidewalk. I know it’s not far, but still…!
He darted out into the middle of the street to cross.
A car horn sounded, and he turned to see an approaching vehicle trying to stop. The look on the driver’s face was that of fear he wouldn’t be able to stop in time. The squeal the tires were starting to make enforced that conclusion.
Instinctively, Hank Heywood sprang into the air, leaping up and over twenty feet to safety. “Nice, Hank,” he chastised himself. “Nothing like endangering others when you screw up yourself.”
His actions started to draw some attention from people on the street and in the traffic. He noticed them staring. Hank made a feeble half-wave and started off on his way again.
Cutting about the corner, he turned onto Cameron Street, half-pausing to take it all in. The old neighborhood hasn’t changed, he thought to himself. I hope that’s a good sign. As he started to run past Mr. Papagaulos’ grocery store, he heard the sound of a loud crash, followed by an alarm going off a few blocks over.
“Nuts!” Hank cursed.
Only a hundred yards from his destination, he paused to look at one of the residents and then glanced to where the alarm had sounded. No contest; he knew where his duty lay as he darted off toward the sound of the alarm and ducked into a nearby alleyway. Pulling off his clothes, he revealed a colorful blue and red costume underneath.
A bald, well-built black young man with a long, flat-edged metal weapon finished prying the large device out of the side of the brick wall. The ATM machine hit the pavement hard. “Come on! Come on!” he shouted over the loud alarm. “Get it on the truck!”
Three other guys with Skull-logos on the back of their matching vests nodded and hoisted the heavy machine on to the back of a flatbed vehicle. “What’ll you think we’ll get?” asked one of the guys.
“They just loaded it up with money earlier,” the other said as he started to strap down the prize. “I know! I’ve been watchin’!”
“We’ll get nothing if you two keep flappin’ your yaps!” Crowbar yelled from the curb.
“You’ll get nothing anyway!” a voice boomed as its owner leaped onto the scene.
Crowbar whirled around. “Steel!”
The masked red-haired hero lunged forward with a punch. “Aw, you remembered!”
The black youth spun up his weapon and parried the blow. The sound of metal on metal clanged in the air. “Damn it!” the criminal cursed. “A guy can’t commit crimes in his own ‘hood without runnin’ up on you Justice Leaguers!” He spun his weapon around to strike Steel.
The hero blocked it with his forearm. “Figured a guy like you would learn his lesson,” Steel said. He punched but was blocked. “Didn’t Hawkman and Green Arrow round you up just this Spring?” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice League of America: May the Best Man Win, Chapter 4: Party-Crashers.]
“I got out!” Crowbar countered.
“Should have laid low!” Steel grabbed for the weapon. He tried to wrestle it from the criminal’s hands, but the man was strong.
“Slice! Icepick! Get ‘im!” Crowbar grunted. The two Skulls leaped off the truck, brandishing weapons.
Steel noticed they weren’t run-of-the-mill blades but wasn’t worried. He shoved Crowbar and his weapon aside long enough to spin around. “Take your best shot, boys!”
Slice sliced, and Icepick jabbed as hard as they could. While they managed to only tear at the hero’s costume, they failed to pierce his enforced skin.
Steel shook his head. “Now you’ve gone and ruined my clothes! Not nice!” He swung back his fist and knocked them both back with a sweeping punch. He watched with satisfaction as the weapons and the two gang members clattered to the ground.
The sound of the roaring truck engine snapped his attention back in focus. Steel turned to see the truck pulling away fast.
“So long, loser!” Crowbar called from atop the truck. With one hand held fast to the secured ATM machine, he waved his weapon defiantly at the hero.
Steel grimaced. “No, you don’t!” He started to sprint after the fleeing vehicle and then launched himself into the air.
Crowbar frowned as the projectile of a man drew closer. He wound back his weapon and waited. “I learned a thing or two from my old Cadre teammate Fastball,” he said. “And one was to wait for the pitch!” After a pause, he swung his metal weapon about.
The weapon connected to Steel’s gut.
The hero flipped over the bar and tumbled onto the back end of the fast-moving truck. “Ooof!” Steel grunted. He jerked his head about as he prepared to rise, noticing that Crowbar was bearing down on him menacingly. “Oh, this could hurt…”
“You’re down, hero!” Crowbar announced as he raised the weapon into the air fast. “And I’m gonna put you out for good!”
Suddenly, the truck jerked roughly, coming to an abrupt stop.
The bonds holding the ATM snapped; the box slid forward and smacked right into Crowbar. “Uggghh!” he groaned as it slammed him in the back.
Steel was thrown forward against the cab and was able to see what was happening to his attacker. He also realized what would happen next.
Got… to… move…! he thought, and rolled to the left with barely a second to spare; the runaway ATM managed to slam into the back of the cab right where Steel had been lying.
“Help…” Crowbar groaned, pinned between the metal.
Steel wanted to laugh.
Just then, the cab door opened. The driver jumped down and started to run.
“Hey!” Steel shouted, realizing he had a runner.
“Relax,” a female voice called out. “I got him!”
Steel stood up and looked over the cab to the street. There he saw the driver knocked to the ground by an unseen force. Turning his head, Steel traced back to where the female voice had come.
There, standing confidently in the street before the stopped truck, was a costumed woman. She wore black boots and yellow, billowy pants. Her shapely torso was covered in a plunging necked halter top of various-colored stripes in a vertical, angular pattern. About her neck was a red bandana. Her long, black hair framed her beautiful face, but her eyes were covered by stylized dark blue glasses.
The costume design was not lost on the hero at all. This woman, he thought, she looks like… Vibe!
The costumed woman put her green-gloved hands on her shapely hips. Just above the gloves on her forearms, she wore a matching pair of gauntlets. “What, ‘chu don’t know how to say thank you? Or do you like to stand there lookin’ slack-jawed and stupid?”
“Vibe?” Steel asked aloud.
The woman smiled, raised her hand, and wagged one finger at him. “Ah-ah-ah,” she said in a sassy tone. “Can’t ‘chu see I’m all woman?”
“Who are you?” Steel asked, jumping down from the truck.
The woman smiled. “Call me Vibra, a’right?” she said. Suddenly, the sound of police sirens could be heard approaching. “Sounds like the police are comin’. Be a dear and give ’em a statement, a’right?”
And with that, the costumed young woman ran off.
Steel wanted to pursue her, but he didn’t want to leave the defeated crooks until the police arrived. Instead, he turned and examined the damaged truck. The front hood was caved in, no doubt from hitting some kind of barrier or something. The metal was torn and twisted, smashed.
He glanced down the street to where the costumed woman had vanished. “Hmmm,” Steel pondered softly as he rubbed his chin.