by Martin Maenza
A day or so later, when the couple was allowed to return to the burned-out shell of the building, Mal Duncan still had the same determined look in his eyes as he did the night of the fire. Karen had not seen him this intense in a long time.
They were able to access the secret entrance to the Titans Lair and descended the stairs to the underground headquarters. The place ran on its own separate generators, so they didn’t have to fumble around in the dark.
Mal went over to his locker, opened it, and took out a blue uniform with yellow reinforcements all over it. “We’ll need to get this stuff out of here soon,” he said as he slipped on the exoskeleton uniform that increased his strength, “but first things first!” He then pulled out an all-blue suit, yellow boots and gloves, a yellow helmet, and a shield. He started to don them as well to become the second hero known as the Guardian.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Karen asked firmly.
“What does it look like?” Mal replied, placing the helmet over his head. “I’m going after that guy who did this! He’s obviously escaped from jail and on some revenge kick to mess up my life! I’m going to track him down and put him back in the slammer where he belongs!”
“Hold on one second,” Karen said. “First of all, you need to chill out! You’ve been runnin’ hot since the other night, and when you’re angry, you don’t see straight!
“Second, last time I checked, we were a team, remember? The Guardian isn’t going anywhere without the Bumblebee at his side, got it?” She opened her locker to remove a black-and-yellow-striped costume. “You just give me a minute to slip into something practical.”
“Fine,” Mal said. “Of course you can come. They attacked our place, after all.”
“Right,” Karen said. “Think we should call in any of the others? After all, the Horn was the Titans’ business, too.”
“No way!” Mal said, gesturing his hands. “They left us in charge, so we’ll handle it! I don’t need to go running to Robin or the others every time something comes up! We can handle this by ourselves.”
“Fair enough,” Karen said as she donned her bee-like goggles. “I trust your call on this one.”
“We can handle it!” Mal reiterated. “Besides, I did some checking. This guy’s running solo. All the rest of his former gang are still in jail. He’s the only one who’s on the outside — broke out a couple weeks ago.”
“So, what’s your plan?” she asked.
“First, the Guardian and the Bumblebee are gonna drop in on the prison,” he said. “I think maybe we can get one of those former gang members to give us a clue where to find our little arsonist. Then, we pay the guy a surprise visit to return the favor he did on us.”
And with that, the two Teen Titans took off for a correctional facility in Upstate New York.
At the New Paltz Correctional Facility for Men, the two costumed heroes sat in a visitation room with one of the prisons. A guard stood by the door to monitor the situation.
“Where’s your leader?” the Guardian asked. “Where’s Steve Macchione?”
Across the table from them sat a red-haired man with glasses. He had a scholarly look to him, which is why he earned the nickname of the Professor growing up. “He broke out of here weeks ago,” Gerry Harrigan said. “Didn’t bother to tell any of us he was planning it nor where he was heading.”
“I don’t buy it!” the Guardian said, slamming his fists on the table.
“Ease up,” the Bumblebee told her teammate. She then turned to the prisoner. “Gerry, did Steve talk about any visitors he had prior to his escape? Family, friends?”
The red-head shook his head. “He met with some lawyer. A blonde-haired guy dressed in real fancy threads. Some guy I never heard of. Beyond that, nothing. I don’t recall him having any other visitors in the past year or so. None he ever mentioned, at least.”
“That’s certainly more than any of the other Wreckers would tell us,” the Bumblebee said.
The Guardian spun back to the table. “Yeah? Well I think he knows more!” He lunged across the table and grabbed the prisoner by the front of his shirt. “Well, Professor, is that all you know?” The intensity in the hero’s voice and the look in his eyes had the prisoner very concerned.
“Hey!” the guard said as he started to move from his position.
“All right,” Gerry said. “All right! Maybe there is something more.”
The Guardian released him, allowing the man to sit back in his seat. “Yeah?” asked the hero. “And what might that be?”
“I doubt Steve’d go back to Gotham,” Gerry said. “Too many folks on Clemont Street know him. The police would have checked there, anyway. But he had been talking while he was still in here. Talking about how he missed the smell of fresh air, and going hunting and fishing at this cabin his uncle owns. He used to go there a lot during the summers growing up; he’d always come back and tell the rest of us of his adventures there.”
“Might you know where this cabin is?” the Bumblebee asked.
“Smart man, Professor,” said the Guardian.
A couple of hours later, as the sun was setting on the horizon, the two heroes approached a small cabin in a clearing of the woods. From the old chimney that showed some signs of crumbling, they could see a steady stream of dark black smoke rising. “Well, someone is certainly there,” the Bumblebee said.
“It’s got to be Macchione,” the Guardian said. “He won’t know what hit ’em!” And with that, the young man charged from the brush toward the front door.
“Wait–!” the young woman started to say. But already her boyfriend was on the attack. “Mal, what am I going to do with you?”
Inside the cabin, a dark-haired man heard a loud thumping on the front porch. “What the–?” Steve Macchione wondered as he put down his magazine and rose from the old sofa. Suddenly, there was a loud pounding on the front door. In another few seconds, the wood shattered into splinters as a golden shield burst through it. He caught a glimpse of the man wielding the shield. “You!”
The Guardian burst through the rest of the damaged door. “That’s right, Macchione!” the hero said. “Time for a rematch, sucker!”
A broad smile crossed Macchione’s lips. “You don’t know when to lie down and play dead, do you, Duncan? Fine by me!” His hands began to glow slightly red as he summoned up his power. “You think you got what it takes to play with me? I don’t think so! See, while you were just a kid playing with cars, I was mastering demolitions with the military. So, I know how to play with fire!”
“Yeah?” said Guardian, taking a defensive stance. “What I heard was that you was discharged for not followin’ orders! Ain’t no honor in gettin’ kicked out, is there?”
Macchione snarled at him. “Oh, yeah? Well, that was the past, boy! Now I’ve got power, real power!” With one hand out flat, he summoned forth a flaming ball of fire that begin to burn hotter and hotter in intensity. “I was rotting away in that prison until an opportunity came to me. I’d have done anything to be out of there, even sell my soul. A ghostly image came to me and offered me real power and a chance to escape. All I had to do was destroy you!” He hurled the flaming ball at the hero.
With amazing skill, the Guardian rolled out of the way as the fiery attack shot out the open door. And in the back of his mind he wondered, A ghostly image gave him powers and told him to destroy me? Could it have been…?
“Come on, loser!” Macchione taunted. “I’ll take you down like I did your little disco! When I’m through with you, there won’t even be enough ashes to put in a vase for your friends to mourn! I beat you before, and I’ll beat you again!” Macchione charged the hero.
As the hero threw up his shield to block the man’s two-fisted attack, his mind began to wonder as the man’s words rang through his ears. He did beat me days ago back at the Horn! I lost that fight, but I’m still here!
He was referring, of course, to the words the angel of death Azrael had said to him the first time he encountered the Wreckers over a year ago. Mal had been on death’s doorstep but was given a chance to battle Azrael for his life. The young man managed to beat the angel but was warned that if he ever lost another fight that he would die. Another angel, Gabriel, who refereed the match, had given Mal a magical ram’s horn as well, to help him in his future fights. Originally, the young man thought it was all a hallucination, but the reward was real and lying next to him when he awoke. Often after that, in times of battle, Mal would hear Azrael’s words in his head as clear as day.
Macchione stepped back and hurled a twin-barreled barrage at the hero. The Guardian dodged the first blasts, then blocked the second ones with his shield. The stray fire began to catch the various sparse furnishings in the cabin as well as the walls.
But, the Guardian continued to think to himself as he fought, ever since I discovered that the horn from Gabriel was missing, I haven’t heard Azrael’s voice, neither. It’s almost as if the two were connected somehow! It’s like the curse went away when the horn did.
Finally, a back draft blast nailed the Guardian squarely, knocking him clear out of the cabin. Macchione laughed. “Gotcha now, loser!” He strode through the burning fire as if he were immune to it. He appeared on the front porch of the burning building and eyed his target on the ground before him. “Time for you to die, Duncan!”
“Hey, hot-head!” a female voice called from the air. As Macchione turned to it, the Bumblebee shot sticky, honey-like goop into his face. “That should hold you for a moment.” She swooped down to where her boyfriend was slowly coming around from the blast. “Hey, Guardian, get your head in the game! My honey-mixture won’t keep him blinded for long.”
The Guardian shook his head to clear it. “Love that honey, honey,” he said, then charged the man who was still trying to burn the mixture off his face.
“Hey, Macchione!” he called. Still blinded, the man turned toward the voice. “Lights out permanently, sucker!” The Guardian swung back his fist and then let it go. He slammed Macchione hard into the jaw, knocking him backward to the ground. In another moment, the man was down for the count.
“Yes!” the Guardian cheered, his shield held high in victory. The flames of the burning cabin reflected of the shield’s shiny surface. For a moment, he reveled in the victory.
Later, Karen and Mal returned to the small apartment they had been sharing. The woman could tell by the worn expression on his face that the events of the last few days wore heavy upon him.
Karen came over to the couch where Mal had plopped down. “Can I get you something, baby?” She asked sweetly. “Something to drink or maybe a back rub?”
Mal looked up and caught sight of her beautiful brown eyes. They seemed to melt away all the negative feelings that filled him, acting as a beacon to what was truly important in his life. “No thanks, baby,” Mal said with a smile. “Just having you around is enough.” Then, suddenly, an impulsive thought came to him.
Mal bolted up from the couch. “Sit,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He then darted off toward the back room.
“What are you up to, mister?” Karen asked as she sat down.
Mal appeared back in the archway. “Close your eyes,” he said. “And keep them closed until I tell you to open them, OK?”
Karen let out a deep sigh, then did as he asked. “You’re starting to act weird, Mal.” She felt him grab her hands gently, and then he took her left hand into his. There was the sound of some scuffling. She then felt an odd sensation as something cool slipped onto one of her fingers. “Is that–?”
“Open them,” Mal said cheerfully.
Karen did so, glanced at her hand, and let out a squeal of delight.
“Karen Beecher, will you marry me?” Mal asked. She threw her arms around him, giving him a great big hug that almost knocked him off his one knee. “Is that a yes?”
“Of course that’s a yes,” Karen replied. The couple had been living together for the past few months, so she had hoped it would lead to a proposal. “Was there ever a doubt in your mind?”
“No,” Mal admitted. “Not when it came to you. Despite all the stuff that’s been goin’ down lately, there’s always one thing I can count on: your love. Somehow this just seemed like the right time to ask you to be my wife.”
Karen gave him another great big hug and a kiss. “No matter what life throws at us, we’ll be there facing it together.”
“And that’s pretty much where that story ends,” Mal said to Arisia. “A short time later, after we got the insurance money for the club, we moved out here to California. Karen finished her studies and then, with a recommendation from one of her professors, got an internship with STAR Labs. I tried my hand at being a novelist, writing about my experiences growing up in a fictional context. I also took a job tending bar and occasionally did some musical gigs as well.”
Mal paused for a second, stretched, and let out a big yawn. “Excuse me,” he said.
“No problem,” Arisia said. She turned to Karen. “It’s getting kind of late, anyway. We can finish another time if you like.”
“It’s not a problem,” Karen said as she finished the last of her cup of coffee. “We get to sleep in tomorrow, anyway. Besides, there’s not a lot more to tell, right, Mal?”
“Right,” her husband agreed. “Basically, Karen had been applying her science background over the years to work on an electronic horn of sorts for me. One that I could use as a weapon of my own should I want to be a hero again. She even whipped up the Herald costume I now use. Eventually, I got a yearnin’ to run my own nightclub again, so I convinced Karen to let me try.”
“When he’s being persistent, he doesn’t take no for an answer,” Karen said.
Arisia giggled at that. “Totally. He’s like that when he’s training me, Hal, and Gopher, too.”
Mal continued. “Anyway, once we got this place in shape, I contacted Nightwing about getting the old equipment moved from storage out on the East Coast so that I could keep it here. Since they had the Titans Tower with all its fancy new equipment, they had no need for the older stuff. Then last fall, things just kind of fell into place with Charley moving in with us and then Hank coming to town. It seemed right to get the Titans West back together and to unpack the old stuff.”
“I’ve just one more question for tonight,” Arisia said as she rose from her chair. “Like, whatever happened to that old horn that I read about, the one you got from the angel Gabriel?”
“Good question,” Mal said solemnly. “To be honest, I wish I knew. Right after Duela joined the Titans and we battled Two-Face, I discovered that the horn was missing. I searched high and low. Tore apart the Titans Lair and the old disco looking for it. I even rechecked the stuff we got out of storage. No sign of it, though. Either someone stole it, or it vanished as mysteriously as it showed up. In either case, it seems to be gone for good.”
“But the memory of it still lives on,” Karen said, “in the name of the nightclub. Mal had named the original disco, and we thought it was fitting to name the new club the same thing.”
“What can I say?” Mal said. “I’m a sucker for tradition.”
Karen put her arm around her husband and gave him a big squeeze. “That’s one of the qualities I love about you, honey,” she said. “You have a heart of gold and are as sentimental as they come.”
Arisia smiled as the happy couple made their way up the stairs. She followed behind them, switching off the lights as she went.