by Martin Maenza
At a gas station just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the impeccably dressed red-haired man had just pulled in to fill the tank. Deciding not to sully his own hands, he had the attendant provide him full service. “How far to San Francisco from here?” he asked.
The young man in grease-covered overalls answered, “About three hours if you stay on the highway.” He put the handle back in its cradle and returned to replace the cap on the tank. “Can I do anything else for you?” His tone was one of indifference.
“Clean the windows, if you don’t mind.”
The attendant gave him a bit of a dirty look, but then went to comply.
The red-haired man casually moved back to the pump and took the handle from its cradle. He squeezed it until it was locked open, dropped it to the ground with gas flowing, and went back to the front of the blue rental car. “Here,” he said, handing the attendant cash. He quickly hopped in the car and started the engine.
Before the car started to pull away, the attendant went back around and saw the handle out of the cradle. “Hey, wait a second…”
The red-haired man smiled wickedly, slammed the car into drive, threw a lit cigarette out the open window, and gunned the engine. The car reached the edge of the parking lot before the burning smoke hit the gasoline-covered ground.
In an instant, the gas ignited, and the flames raced to the pumps. The entire gas island exploded in a fiery ball of flame that engulfed the shocked attendant as well.
“Tsk-tsk,” the man said as he sped away from the scene. “Such poor customer service. What’s the world coming to?” And the man who called himself Kestrel laughed wickedly.
Later that afternoon, at the Duncans’ home, Charley Parker was stretched out on the couch while talking on the phone. “I’m telling you, Gar, you’ve got to drop everything and come out here! Besides the whole Titans West vibe, the girls have only gotten better and better-looking! Even a green guy like you could be scoring some major dating action.”
On the other end was Garfield Logan, better known as the shape-shifting super-hero Changeling. “Charley, it sounds like heaven. It really does. But I’ve got two things stopping me. First, my steady girl Jillian would have my head since she moved east to be with me. Second, my adopted dad Steve Dayton is in a bit of a bad way, and I need to hang out here to help him recuperate.”
“Whoa, sounds to me like Gar Logan’s gettin’ all responsible! Say it ain’t so, dude!”
“I don’t know about all that,” Gar tried to say. “Tell you what, though. I won’t turn your offer down flat, but I also can’t promise you anything, okay? Maybe if my life here starts to settle down some, I can come out and give the Titans West a chance. It’s just not a good time for me right now.”
“That’s cool. I can respect that.” Charley took a swig of his soda. “So, you seen Lilith lately? I don’t have a number for her, but I wanted to extend an invite to her as well.”
“Yeah, Lilith’s one of those folks that are hard to keep up with. She’s recently discovered her roots, went all Olympian, and has been trying to break up the rise of the Children of the Sun. When I see her next, I’ll tell her you asked about her.”
“Yeah, give her my best, and pass the invite along to her, too,” Charley said as the wind began to let out of his sails. He snatched the pad of paper and pen off the table and crossed off two of the three names listed there. The only one remaining untouched was Betty Kane.
In the subbasement under Gabriel’s Horn, Hank Hall helped Mal Duncan connect the last of the computer equipment. “Hope Karen didn’t give you too much grief about all this,” Hank said as he placed the monitor down on the stand.
“Well, it took a bit of special coercion, if you know what I mean,” Mal said with a wink.
Hank slapped his friend on the shoulders. “You old dog, you!”
Mal just puffed out his chest some. “Well, you know how it is.” They both laughed. “I put the smooth moves on her, and then promised I’d also handle the suppliers for the next six months. Once the deal was complete, she had to get back to work at STAR.”
“You gotta do what you gotta do.” Hank plugged the monitor cable into the main system unit.
“So, where’s Charley? He’s never around when the heavy work needs to be done.” Mal slid the main monitoring unit back against the wall.
“I dropped him off back at your house. Said he needed to make some calls. I don’t know if it was to our old friends or the new girl he met on campus today.” Hank put the keyboard in place and powered up the box. “What the boy lacks in responsibility, he makes up for in enthusiasm.” A Titans logo screen came up. “We seem to be good here.”
“I’m all through, too,” Mal said. He looked around and saw that the makeshift headquarters was starting to come together. The systems were mostly in place and online. The conference table and chairs and the workout equipment were still boxed up, however. “I think this is a good start for one day. I’ve got time for a beer before getting ready to open up the club.”
Hank wiped his hands on his jeans to remove the dust from them. “Sounds good to me.” The two ascended the stairs, turned off the lights, and locked the door behind them.
Finishing their beers, Hank and Mal were about to head back to the Duncan home. As they opened the front door to the Gabriel’s Horn nightclub, a woman’s scream could be heard. “Sounds like trouble!” Mal said.
They ran out into the street and saw four rather large bikers surrounding an elderly woman just down the block.
“Hand over the purse now!” one with a crewcut demanded of their victim.
“I don’t think so,” a female voice stated from behind them. They turned to see a shapely woman in a blue costume with white trim. “Let’s see if we can settle this peacefully, shall we?”
“Dream on!” one of the men growled. “You’re in no position to be making requests.” He pulled a couple of shurikens from his coat and prepared to throw.
“It’s four to one, odds in our favor!” another pointed out as he grabbed a nearby two-by-four and lunged at her.
Dove stepped into the board-wielder’s attack. “Can I borrow this?” she asked, and with a lightning-fast move relieved him of his weapon. The man couldn’t halt his momentum and hit the wall next to her. “Thanks.” She swung the board around to her left and let the wood intercept the flung shurikens.
She tossed the board back at the remaining muggers. “You rely too much on your weapons. A good fighter wouldn’t need them.” It clipped two of them, knocking them to the ground. “But you’re not good fighters, are you?”
“Oh, yeah, you’re so smart,” the man with the shurikens spat as he pulled out three more. “Try these, you stinkin’ super-hero!”
Before the man could hurl his weapons at the costumed woman, a red-gloved fist slammed him in the jaw, dropping him to the ground. “That’s how to handle scum like this,” stated Hawk.
“Way to go, both of you,” cheered the elderly woman as she grabbed her purse back.
Hawk spun around to address Dove. “So what’s the deal, lady? You help nail Crazy-Quilt when I tell you to get lost. Then you seem to show up here. You must’ve been spying on me ever since I got into town. You trying to be my shadow, or what?”
Dove turned without saying a word.
“Dammit!” Hawk exploded. “Let’s get one thing straight: I can’t stop you from pretending you’re Dove, but I can make damn sure you don’t do it around me! Got it?” The hero looked again, and Dove had already vanished without a trace.
“Great, just great! A regular Houdini,” Hawk muttered as he darted back up the street before he automatically changed back to normal.
When Hank rejoined Mal a few minutes later, the black man was full of questions. “Hank, who was that woman? She was dressed just like–”
Hank stopped his friend in mid-sentence. “Dove. Yeah, I know. That’s what she calls herself, and she keeps crossing my path!” He slammed his right fist into his left palm. “I need to find out who she is and what she’s up to! Her showing up can’t be mere coincidence.”
“Well, you can count on your friends to help get to the bottom of this,” Mal reminded him.