by Martin Maenza
Karen Duncan flicked on the lights to her work area and went right to the cabinet where she kept her white lab coat. “Time to start the new year with a new project,” she said to herself as she slipped on the neatly pressed jacket over her beige dress.
“Hey, girl!” a voice called from the doorway. It was a Hispanic woman, also dressed in a white lab coat. “Did you survive New Year’s?”
“I did, Carmen, I did,” Karen replied with a smile. “Truth is, I’m glad to be back at work. With all the bowl games going on, Mal and the guys were driving me insane.”
“I hear that,” Carmen Santiago agreed. “Jorge is a big football junkie, too.” The woman checked her watch. “Oh! I’ve got a meeting in a couple minutes, Karen. Wanna do lunch later?”
“I’ll give you a ring, Carmen,” Karen replied. Her friend then disappeared down the hallway, and Karen was able to think about work.
The phone rang shortly thereafter, and she let out a deep sigh. Maybe this was some kind of sign. Karen plucked the receiver up and answered it. “STAR Labs, Karen Duncan speaking.”
There was a male voice on the other end. “Yes, Mrs. Duncan, my name is Officer Thompkins of the San Francisco P.D.,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to reach you.”
Karen bit her lower lip. “Is there something I can help with, officer?” she asked.
“Yes, there is,” Thompkins said. “Am I correct in assuming you know one Lisa Morel?”
“I do. She’s an acquaintance of mine and a marine biologist.”
“So, you’re aware that she’s been working off our coasts of late?”
“Yes, I am. Is something wrong with Lisa, officer?”
“Well, ma’am, we’re not completely sure. It seems she has a houseboat, but it hasn’t been back to the docking slip in a couple weeks. The docking owner, concerned about the rent, called us to report a possible missing person. Your name was listed by Miss Morel with the docking folks as an emergency contact.”
“Oh,” Karen said.
“Mrs. Duncan, have you seen or heard from Miss Morel in the past few weeks?”
“No, officer,” Karen said. “Not at all.” And the woman’s mind began to race as she felt very concerned for her missing friend.
Moisture dripped down from the stalactites that hung in the damp subterranean cave. A couple of lanterns mounted on hooks in the walls provided what little light there was in the place.
A blonde woman in her late twenties sat huddled on the ground, shivering. Her hair was in disarray, dirty and tangled. Her clothing, too, was filthy. Though her body was cold, her heart was full of fiery anger.
Lisa Morel glared at the pool of water, its surface smooth but dark, in the center of the cave. If not for her waterproof diving watch, she would have no way to tell the passing of the time and days. How long had it been? “Weeks,” she said to herself, for no one was here to listen to her. It was before Christmas when her boat was attacked, and she was brought here. It was now January, and with each passing day, her hope for being rescued got dimmer and dimmer.
Her stomach grumbled loudly. Lisa looked over to the small metal plate on a nearby rock; the dish was empty, licked clean long ago. It had been a few days since she had anything to eat. That was par for the course. Her captor hadn’t been the most accommodating individual. Why should he be?
Lisa shook her head in disgust. Her mind went back over that old refrain: If only I could get out of here on my own.
It’s not like Lisa hadn’t tried. Every time her captor left, she used that time to scour every inch of the cave for an opening. There weren’t any to be found. If there was one high up in the ceiling portions, there was no way for her to reach it. The walls were too sheer and slippery, no doubt due to the water slowly dripping down over long periods of time.
The only other option was the water pool. Her captor used that to come and go, so she knew it had to lead out to the ocean and freedom. Lisa tried during one of his long periods gone. She took the deepest of breaths and dived into the cold water. She was a decent swimmer due to all her years as a diver, but the entrance tunnel was much longer than she ever expected. It got darker the deeper she swam, so she knew it was a long way to the surface. Her lungs would never get her there alive, and she turned back. What she wouldn’t do for the diving tank that was on her boat.
But the boat was gone. Her research equipment was gone — sunk to the bottom of the sea. “Just like my life,” she said, clenching her fist in rage.
Just then, she noticed a bubbling near the water pool surface. Lisa’s heart skipped a beat. Could it be? But her hopes soon dashed to the ground when a form emerged from the surface. It was her green-costumed captor with some items in tow. “Honey, I’m home,” the man laughed.
Lisa merely scowled at him silently.
Karen Duncan made a few calls and gave her supervisor some excuse about leaving work early. She was concerned about Lisa’s disappearance to the point that she couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
She headed down to the waterfront, where she rented a speedboat. Charley Parker soon arrived, a large duffel bag in hand. “Yo, Karen, here I am,” the blonde-haired young man said. He was dressed in jeans and a bulky athletic jacket. “So, like, what’s going on?”
“Climb aboard,” Karen replied from the deck of the speedboat. Charley did so, and he helped her cast off. Soon, the boat was speeding out into the harbor. All the while she told Charley about Lisa being missing.
“So, what makes you think it’s, like, something serious?” Charley asked. “Maybe she just, like, flaked out or something.”
“I don’t know her very well,” Karen admitted, “but she doesn’t seem like the type that just flakes out.” The African-American woman shook her head. “Lisa has always been responsible, especially with the equipment she’s borrowed from STAR in the past. Always checking in on a weekly basis.” Karen shook her head again. “No, my woman’s intuition tells me that there has to be something more to it.”
“Whatever,” Charley said.
This was the first time Karen had seen Charley so cold about the subject of Lisa. In the past, he’d been very attentive and excited any time her name was mentioned. Now, he seemed just the opposite. She really didn’t want to pry. Charley was a good friend who came to her call at the drop of the hat, especially given that her husband Mal was out of town. She let it go for the time being.
“So,” Charley finally said. “We just gonna cruise around out here, or what?”
“No,” Karen said. “We’ve got a rendezvous to make.”
Charley raised a curious eyebrow at that. “A rendezvous? With who?“
“You’ll see,” said Karen. She revved the engine and headed farther out to sea. Watching the instruments, she double-checked the course. There was a specific location she was supposed to go to. Only then could they continue with their search for Lisa Morel.
Charley paced back and forth across the deck. He loved the ocean as much as any other California resident surfer dude, but in the dead of winter he preferred to stay out of the cold air. He checked his watch again. “We’ve been sitting here for about twenty minutes,” he said aloud. “So, like, why?“
“Relax, Charley,” Karen said. She handed him a cup of hot coffee from the thermos she brought. “It should be any moment now.”
Suddenly, there was a sound of splashing off the port side of the drifting boat. Water splashed up over the side and onto the deck, followed by a figure who leaped from the water. A red-and-blue-costumed young man with dark, curly hair landed on the boat deck.
“Hey!” Charley said, nearly dropping his coffee.
Karen ran over to the newcomer. “Garth! Glad you could come on such short notice!” she said.
Aqualad smiled. “Always willing to help out friends when they’re in need,” he said.
“I appreciate that,” Karen said. “It’s been a long time. I’m so glad Speedy was able to rely my message to you when I contacted Titans Tower.”
“He did,” Aqualad said. “Oh, and he’s calling himself Arsenal these days. I was at Atlantis visiting with Aquaman. He and Mera have a new little girl named Nautica, you know. (*) Anyway, when Roy relayed your message to me, I figured I could detour to the West Coast and see if I can lend a helping hand.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Aquaman: Bride’s Head Revisited for the birth of Nautica.]
“Wonderful,” said Karen.
“Hey, gills,” Charley said to Aqualad. “How’s things? Like, Gar mentioned to me that you were dating some cutey from Denmark.”
“Yeah, sort of. But I don’t think now’s the time to swap girl stories, wings,” he said with a smile.
“Definitely not,” Karen said as she retrieved an oceanography map. “I’ve got the coordinates of the route that Lisa logged in before her last departure. It’s the only thing we have to go on.”
Aqualad surveyed the map. “No, it’s not a lot,” he said, “but it’s a start. If you can keep up, I can go swim on ahead. Maybe with the help of the local sea creatures, we can get an idea of where Lisa’s boat might be.”
The others agreed, and Aqualad dived over the side of the boat. Karen started the motor and proceeded to follow him. She tried not think of all the possibilities until evidence pointed to any one particular conclusion. With the help of their old friend, she knew that they might be able to find some answers.
Karen wished Mal could have made it back in time, since this was more his bag. But she knew he had commitments, too, and she didn’t want to have him break them for something that so far amounted to just a hunch.
In a gleaming tower of glass and steel high above Sunset Strip in downtown Los Angeles, a gymnasium area was the scene of an intense session.
“No fair!” said a red-haired lad in a gray workout suit. He dived for cover, barely avoiding a sonic blast. “How come we can’t use our weapons, but he can?”
“Gopher, he’s the teacher,” a brown-haired eighteen-year-old said. “He makes up the lessons; we just follow them.” The young man ducked behind some barriers to avoid being hit himself.
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it, Hal,” Gopher grumbled. Suddenly, he was hit from behind by a ricocheted shot and sent flying. “Ooof!” He landed hard on the mats.
The African-American man removed the specialized horn from his lips to dispense some advice. “Gopher, less talking and more working,” Mal Duncan stated. “You guys need to hone your natural skills. You never know when you’ll need them.”
“Like this?” Hal Jordan replied as he pounced on the instructor from behind. He grabbed Mal’s arm and gave it a good tug as he rolled his shoulder into the man. Caught off-guard, the man was flipped over onto the mats. “Black Canary taught me that move.”
Mal lay on his back and tried to force a smile. “Good one, Hal,” he said. The man made a mental note to himself that he needed to be working out more, too. Training these kids shouldn’t have been so hard on him; he was only in his mid-twenties. Mal started to rise up, and Hal extended his hand. “Thanks.”
“Sure thing, sir,” Hal replied. Suddenly, an alarm went off on Mal’s watch. “What’s that?”
Mal checked the time. “Just a reminder,” he said. “Got to meet a band here in town in a while. Trying to get them to do a gig up at the Horn this month.” He reached down and picked up his horn. “Guess we can hit the showers and call it a day. You two did good.”
“Thanks,” said Gopher Bloomberg, who in his costumed identity was known Kid Devil. He turned to the other young man. “So, did you want to stay and hang out? There’s a new horror flick filming at the studios. We could sneak in and watch.”
“No thanks, Goph,” Hal said, rubbing the kid’s hair. He was the second-generation hero called Air Wave. “I need to get back to Dallas before I’m missed. I’m supposed to be studying at the library.”
Mal’s ears perked up. “That right, you’re down in Dallas,” he said, knowing the young lad used his abilities to travel across airwaves to make the trip to California for the training sessions. “Any chance you’re going to the Superbowl next week?”
“I wish,” said Hal. “But I’ve got a ton of school work to catch up on. The sooner I can get through my senior year, the sooner I can graduate.”
“You gonna move out here after that?” Gopher asked.
“That’s one of my options,” Hal replied. “Just gotta see what happens, you know?”
Back in the Pacific Ocean, west of the San Francisco shores, the afternoon sun was sinking in the sky. Karen Duncan rubbed her hands together to keep them warm while they waited. “He’s been gone a long time, Charley,” she said.
Charley put his hands on Karen’s shoulders and rubbed them gently. “Karen, like, relax,” the young man suggested. “If anyone knows their way down below the waves, it’s Aqualad. He’s totally the best person to, like, have on this.”
Karen nodded. She closed her eyes for a second to rest them, but she opened them quickly when she heard splashing near the side of the boat. The two rushed to the rail. “Garth, any luck?” she asked.
The purple-eyed youth tread water and looked up at his friends. “The bad news is this,” he started to say. “I did find wreckage of her boat. It’s pretty bad. The craft’s not salvageable, but some of the stuff on it might be.”
“Oh, no,” Karen said. Charley put his arm around her shoulders to comfort her.
“But,” Aqualad added, “I didn’t find a body. If your friend was on the boat when it sank, she must have managed to get off in time. That means there’s a chance of finding her yet.”
“Say, dude, any chance you can, like, chat with the fish and see if they saw Lisa around?” Charley suggested.
“I can try,” Aqualad said. He ducked under the waves and used his telepathic abilities. While he couldn’t talk to sea life as expertly as his mentor Aquaman, he certainly was capable. After a few moments, his head popped back up above the waves. “Sorry. No go. Fish have rather small brains, so their long-term memory is kind of poor. If her boat sank as far back as a few weeks ago, even if any of these fish saw it, they probably wouldn’t remember.”
“It was worth a shot,” Charley said.
Karen walked away, trying to process all this bad news. She looked at the oceanography map for a moment. Then an idea hit her. She rushed back to the railing. “Garth, something just came to me,” Karen said, her voice carrying a bit of hope to it. “According to the map, there’s some small islands to the west of here a few miles or so. Do you think Lisa could have safely made it there, given her boat sank here?”
Aqualad considered for a moment. “It is possible,” he said. “If she’s a good swimmer in decent shape, or if the currents were right, she could have made it there. It’s worth investigating, at least.”
“Good,” Karen said. “You swim on ahead. We’ll follow in the boat.”
The sun had just about set when the speed boat arrived off shore to one of the islands. Karen cut the motor and dropped anchor just as Aqualad climbed up the ladder to the deck.
“We probably need to check out the island itself,” Aqualad said.
“Did your fishy friends see her around here?” Charley asked.
“No, not her,” Aqualad said, “but… someone else.”
“Someone else?” Karen asked. “Who?”
“If who the fish described is accurate, it’s an old enemy of Aquaman’s,” Aqualad said. “The Marine Marauder.”
“Let me suit up,” Charley said. He opened the duffel bag and began pulling out parts of his golden armor and wings.
Karen considered for a moment. “Hmm,” she said. “I’d better suit up as well. I’ve got my Bumblebee costume underneath my clothes, just in case.”
“So, gills,” Charley said as he took off his sneakers. “Fill us in on this Marine Marauder dude.”
“Not much to tell, really,” Aqualad replied. “The guy only battled Aquaman once. He’s got the power to command air-breathing sea creatures. Used it to hijack a large shipment of swine-flu vaccine using a fleet of whales. Aquaman managed to track him down to his hideout and recovered the stolen drugs, but the Marauder escaped. As far as I know, he’s laid low ever since.”
“Sounds like he can’t be much trouble,” Charley said.
“And maybe he might have a clue to Lisa’s whereabouts,” Karen hoped.