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TalonRider

A Hero's Story

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Part II

Chapter Seven: What Makes A Hero?

"And so the last thing I saw before I blacked out was the roof of the Research building twisting and then imploding. After that I don't remember much till I woke up back at John's house. Apparently Jason was able to make it out and he was able to get us all home unseen by all the cops and emergency personnel that arrived soon after."

The young reporter leaned back in his chair, letting out a breath he had not known he was holding. "That's amazing. Everyone just assumes that you and the rest of the Guardians were Mutants. I don't know if people will believe this, but I do know this is going to be a big story. So what happened next?"

Kevin smiled at the single mindedness of the young reporter. "Well, we all had been exposed to the pure undiluted serum, and no one can walk away unaffected by that. Jason and I were the least affected; me because I had already been exposed to it and my body was already changed. The only lasting side effect was my ability to fly. I've had it explained to me a hundred times-- all the stuff about the different energy fields my body produces that counteract gravity and then propel me… but I have never really gotten it. All I know is that I can break the sound barrier if I work at it." Kevin got a distant look in his eyes, as if remembering the sensation of flying above the clouds. "There is nothing like it. There is a feeling of total freedom when you're up there. It's also a good place to get away and think… though I think the old North American FAA would have a different point of view. In my younger days, I gave them a hard time." Kevin shrugged. "What do you expect? I was young and enthralled with my new powers."

Nodding his head, Rick laughed. "I can see why you would be. The ability to fly only seems to manifest in about thirty percent, from the research I have done for this story. I take it your enhanced endurance allowed you to survive the speed and the cold air?"

"Yup; they say it also has something to do with the energy field I create when I fly. I technically can carry someone with me and they are protected too."

The reporter leaned forward slightly and asked, "Really? That must be amazing. So you gained the ability to fly-- what happened to the others?"

"Well, Jason was the next least affected. He was only exposed to a small amount of the slimy goo, and he was able to use his mental abilities to hold the changes at bay… nearly. As I told you earlier, Jason used drugs, not for recreational purposes, but to help dampen his powers and allow him to put locks in place. The side effect for him was to gain the same type of healing factor and regenerative abilities. That meant that he was, like me, immune to nearly every disease on Earth, and all poisons, toxins and drugs. It also did something to amp up his power level. So he no longer just heard everyone for a few blocks… he was able to hear nearly everyone in Western Washington. How he kept his sanity long enough to help the rest of us, I'll never know. All he ever told me was the effort it took to keep our systems from falling apart, and keeping the changes under some form of control, wiped him out and he didn't have the energy to hear anything. But I'm still amazed by it. Soon after the incident the others started to awaken, and we needed a place to practice and to come to terms with our new powers…even me. I had killed too many people without meaning to in a fight because I didn't have full control of my strength. So Jason took us to the place he learned to first control his mental powers: a small Shao-Lin Temple in Redmond. The monks there had studied Jason's type of mental abilities for centuries, and then even seemed to have some experience with people with our type of abilities too. They took it all in stride and took us in, helping us cope and teaching us the techniques needed to identify, control and then master our powers. They taught me how to fight, how to use not only my hands and my feet as weapons, but how to use everything around me."

"John and Theresa were both hit hard by the serum. With John the changes were more subtle, but just as extensive. He went to bed a thin, somewhat clumsy bookworm and woke up with an athlete's hard-toned body, near perfect vision and reflexes. His hair changed to a universal brown and eyes to match. He became totally normal in his appearance: average height, apparent average weight, nothing to stand out in a crowd. The power that gave him his name took some time to discover. We began to suspect what it was when medical equipment could not pick up his vitals and automatic doors would not open for him. It turns out the serum caused his body to produce a field which no electronic devices could pick up, not vid cameras, not still cameras, not an EKG, not even a motion sensor. A camera could pick up splashes in the water if he ran through it, but not him at all. The next ability he manifested seems kind of strange, in contrast: he gained the ability to link with his mind directly to any mechanical or technological device. While in contact, he would be able you tell you how it worked, what might be wrong with it, and how to fix it. He could even operate it with his mind. In the case of computers, unless there was an AI or, later on, a human-transferred intelligence in control, then he could override all the controls and programming and make it do say or act in any way he wanted. At first that was kind of scary, to tell you the truth…the way the whole Net became an open book to him. No firewall could keep him out if he wanted in. But other than once or twice, he never abused it as far as I know. The last change we found out about was what made him so feared on the streets. Something about the changes made to him allowed him to instinctively adapt to any opponent's fighting style and match their skill level. No mater how advanced the opponent was or how complex the fighting style, he was able to-, within seconds-, match and counter any fight he was in. He never had to learn any hand to hand or melee. The monks were always very admiring of his abilities, but warned him that an opponent that was fast enough could take him out before he could adapt to their style, so he would need to keep that in mind at all times."

"One thing I don't understand, sir, is how they ended up with the powers they did. I mean, why didn't they end up just like you?"

Kevin nodded, "I asked the same thing more than once, but as it was explained to me, I was given a diluted and modified version of the serum, one designed to have very specific effects. The others were exposed to a pure form of it, and it simply activated powers locked away in their DNA, powers and abilities that a million years of evolution would have brought out anyway."

Rick reached up and turned the hovering holo-cam unit's recorder off and then switched off his wrist controls. "Sorry to do this... but… umm…"

Kevin smiled and stood up, filling the room with the sound of his joints popping. "You want to know where the bathroom is, right?" Getting an abashed nod, he waved out the door. "Down the hall, second door on the right. I'll tell you what: it's past noon, so let's have some lunch. I make a good ham and cheese sandwich, if you would like one. I know I'm starving. And it would also allow us to stretch our legs. How's that sound?"

Rick stood and nodded his agreement, "That sounds great; can we continue the interview while we eat… if you don't mind, that is?"

Leading the way to the office door and out into the hall, Kevin laughed. "No, not at all. That is why you're here, and I still need to tell you about Theresa and her wakening…" Kevin got a sad, faraway look in his eyes, as if seeing a dark day from decades past. "She was Kitsune, you know…the trickster and master illusionist… She was the first of us to fall." Sighing, Kevin clapped the young man on the shoulder. "Well, you get off to the bathroom and I'll start lunch. You can find your way?"

Rick just nodded and headed down the hall to the bathroom. After finishing up in the bathroom he started back down the hall but then stopped, remembering from the tour that the study/family room was just off of this hall. He looked around and spotted the door to the study. Instead of continuing down, he took the door on the right that led into the study. He looked around the warm, well-appointed room. A large Persian rug dominated the floor. On the far wall, one large floor-to-ceiling window showed a star field dominated by the moon in half eclipse. Not for the first time, the reporter found his breath taken away by the views of this home. The room was furnished with a couch, love seat and then two old worn and comfortable looking chairs next to a fireplace. They can't really have a fireplace up here…can they? Rick crossed the room and crouched down in front of the fireplace, and, to his utter surprise, he did find the charred remains of logs within the fireplace. Standing back up, he walked slowly back across the room, angling towards the bookshelf built into the wall next to the door. The room was paneled in aged, worn and stained wood, continuing the organic home feeling the whole dwelling exuded. He slowly ran his fingers over the spines of the books on the shelf, taking note of classics and modern works, history and fiction, even a set of children's books. The thought coming unbidden to his mind: Could the rumors be true? How I would love to ask him about them…but if they are…it is a wonder that anyone could keep saving the lives of people who would do such a thing. The reporter shook his head and continued looking over the books. His hands stopped on three small dog-eared, well-used paperback books stuck between a leather-bound first printing of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and a classically bound second edition of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Taking the three old paperback books off the shelf, he looked at the faded covers. Whatever image had originally been there had faded from sight over decades of use and mistreatment. But the names still showed on the covers as if the reader always taken care to protect that one part of the books: "For the Love of Pete", "The Brian and Pete Series", and "Brian and Pete :The Power Within". Having never heard of any of the books, he made a mental note to look up the books and their author once he was back planetside. Clearly for the books to be so used and obviously of such prominence to a man like the Brawler, he was certain that the story was one worth knowing. Sliding the books back onto the shelf, he turned back to the door, deciding that if the chance arose, he would ask about the books during the interview.

As Kevin pulled out the mayonnaise and sliced meats from the fridge, he watched as the young reporter walked into the kitchen with a thoughtful look on his face. "In the cupboard to your left are some chips. I hope you like Tim's Jalapeño chips-- I can't get enough of them."

The reporter opened the indicated cupboard and pulled out the large bag of chips. "Are you kidding? I am a college student at the University of Washington, after all. Chips and ramen bowls are the main staples in my diet. Should I put some onto plates, or should I just leave the bag out?"

Kevin nodded to the plates sitting on the small kitchen table as he started putting ham, roast beef and cheese onto the sandwiches. "Just drop the bag on the table. I tend to just wolf them down, and after today, it's not likely I'll get much chance, so we might as well finish off the bag."

Kevin carried the sandwiches over to the table and dropped them down onto the two small plates. "Here you go. If you want more, don't hesitate to ask." Taking a seat opposite the young man and smiling at him, Kevin said, "I'll likely have to make myself three or four. My metabolism, you understand-- this body requires a huge amount of fuel to run like it does." Rolling his eyes, Kevin stood and walked to the fridge. "I forgot the drinks…I'm sorry, but it's Kool-aid for lunch." Kevin poured two tall icy glass of the dark red beverage and set one down in front of Rick.

The two men sat in silence as they worked through the simple lunch, each deep in his own thoughts. The reporter swallowed the last of his sandwich and then cleared his throat to get Brawler's attention. "Do you mind if we continue?"

Setting down his third sandwich, Kevin nodded to the young man. "All right; where were we?"

The reporter switched on his wrist recorder. "You still had not told me what effect the incident at the lab had on your friend Theresa, who, from what you told me, became Kitsune."

Taking a swig from his glass, Kevin nodded again. "That's right…well, with Theresa, it was very different then the rest of us. But they suited her well. Theresa was a very creative and playful woman; some might call her mischievous. She gained the ability to create illusions, very complex and very real illusions. Anything her mind could dream up she could project, complete with smell and sound. If she concentrated enough the illusions could be nearly solid: you could feel them, but they could not move objects or people. Also the energies she used to create the illusions allowed her to fly, not nearly as fast as I can, but fast enough to keep up with a commercial airliner. Her power also allowed her to concentrate the energies she used into bolts of force and fire them from her hands or eyes. At first she could do no more than light a candle with them…but as time went on and we kept training, she was able to buckle armor plating. "

"So what happened to that woman you saved that first night? Did she make it?"

Kevin smiled. "Yes, she made it. I had planned on just going after the ring leader and roughing him up till he agreed to leave her alone, but John had a better idea…."

________________________________________________________________

The small group of young people sat around the kitchen table, Theresa dressed in jeans and a Kenshin t-shirt, across from Jason in tan slacks and a white collared shirt. Next to him, John sat in black shorts and his DogHouse Newspaper t-shirt in the school's purple and gold colors. Finally, across from him, sitting in urban-camo fatigue pants and a black t-shirt, Kevin shook his head, hoping to make his friends see reason. "Listen, guys: I have to do this… I promised her I would do something to help and now… now that we have things under control, I am going to. Jason, the money you gave me to give her so she could stay hidden has helped a lot, and John, your contacts on the street have helped me keep her one step ahead of the goons still looking for her… but I have to put a stop to this so she can get back to having a life for her and her son."

The other three at the table all nodded, and John smiled like the cat that has eaten the canary. "Kev, we totally understand…and what's more, we agree with you: this has to stop. But we can't just go in there like you want to and start kicking butt; we need to do this smart. We each now have talents that we can use in this. Not only can we help your friend, but we can also see to it that this thug will never be able to hurt anyone ever again. And that is something worth a little risk."

Kevin gave the others a hard look. "What's all this 'WE' you keep throwing around?"

Theresa pulled her legs up underneath her and sat in the chair cross-legged. "Well, Kev, we all decided that if you're going to get to be a hero…then so do we. We know you can likely do this on your own…but not as well as we all can together. We all want to help, and besides…I can't wait to see you guys in that new skintight Kevlar we got from Jason's company."

Raising his hands in defeat, Kevin laughed. "All right, all right…I accept your help…but I am not wearing only that Kevlar…I mean, it leaves nothing to the imagination."

ith a wink, John also laughed. "Well, I don't mind so much…actually, I might keep it for the…"

Jason held up his hands to forestall any further discussion, and, with a grin on his face said, "TMI, guys…I need to soundproof your room as it is, John. You and Kevin are keeping me up at night…. and I'm learning things I never wanted to know about you two. Let's get back on topic. John, you told me you have a plan… something that will allow Kevin's friend to come out of hiding and start a new life. Well, let's hear it."

Nearly an hour later, John stood and stretched as he finished outlining his plan. "So… now that you know what my plan is, what do you all think?"

Theresa leaned back and put her booted feet up on the table. "You want to know what I think, John? I think I never, ever want to get on your bad side…I mean, that whole part about what you want to do to his house… ouch, man… that's just mean. But I like it, so I'm in."

Jason sipped at his glass of white wine and smiled. "I'm in, too. Your plan has a certain kind of justice to it. And it will make it impossible for him to go after her in the end."

Standing, Kevin slipped behind John, wrapped his powerful arms around his lover and rested his chin on John's left shoulder. "Well, since I can't talk you guys out of helping me… I have to agree, I like this plan. At least in the end I get to knock that SOB around some. The only things I see we need now is first, we need to go over everything we do know about the guy, I mean, all I know is he's some kind of criminal, and second, we need to pull the supplies together to do this."

John turned his head and gave Kevin a kiss on the cheek, leaning back into the warm protective embrace with a sigh. "Well, I actually know a lot about him… or I should say a few of my contacts did and I had them forward the info to me." Reluctantly, John slipped out of Kevin's arms, glancing over his shoulder to the people at the table as he headed to his office. "I'll go get the files they sent me and we can go over it."

John returned shortly with a small stack of papers and took his seat back at the table. "Ok, the target is one Roddic Stephons. According to what I have been able to get on him; he's a survivor of the gang wars of the early forties. That means he's tough and likely a little paranoid. He's part of the new syndicate that took over after the collapse of the old family system. His boss is some former Yakuza boss based out of the Bay Area. Stephons is reputed to run most of the smuggling and hijacking in the city. The cops have been after him for years but he has always been able to stay one step ahead of them. His legitimate front is a shipping company called TransCorp Shipping Inc. He also runs a few of the less reputable bars and clubs down near the piers."

Kevin nodded at the information. "And I already know he lives in Bellevue, the Medina area. But I don't have an address for him-- you got that in that stack of papers, John?"

"But of course: I have his address and a breakdown of the place's security. His estate is not nearly as big as the Gates place, but it's large. The house is four stories and has three wings, plus a gym with an indoor pool and a large garden. It should be easy to move around unnoticed if we're careful."

Jason laughed, "So says the Human Ghost…"

John snapped his fingers. "That's IT! That's what I'm going to call myself… GHOST. What do you think?" The others around the table nodded agreement that the name fit. "… and Kevin, because you're wearing all that urban camo, I think you should work that into your name."

Kevin held up his hands to forestall any suggestions. "What name? I'm just going to be me out there; it's not like I'm a superhero or anything."

Theresa took her feet off the table and they made a solid thump on the floor. "Kev-chan… you are a hero, and you have powers… so I'm sorry to say, by the definition, you are a superhero. Take it from me… I've read enough comics, so I should know. By the way…you all can call me Kitsune, the spirit of mischief and illusion. Sounds cool, don't you think?"

Kevin rolled his eyes and groaned. "You're not getting me to go by some silly name, guys. I will wear the Kevlar and then the fatigues over it with a balaclava, but why would I need a name?"

With an exasperated sigh, Theresa looked Kevin in the eyes, and as if speaking to a particularly slow child, said, "Because, dear, we can't very well call you 'Kevin' in public while we do this, now can we? That would defeat the purpose of the masks and could lead to people finding out who we are… so you have to have a name. Call it a code name if you want, or a nickname, ok?"

Clearly defeated, Kevin just rolled his eyes. "Ok, ok... you're right, but I don't want some stupid name, ok? And I have no idea what to call myself without sounding stupid."

John reached over and squeezed Kevin's hand. "Well, I have an idea for that, and Theresa had a good point, because you are going to be using the urban camo that should fit into the name, and your strength and reflexes make you one heck of a hand to hand fighter… so how about 'Urban Warrior'?"

Theresa made a face like she just bit into a lemon. "No… not that. It sounds too… well, it just doesn't sound right. How about 'Urban Hunter'?"

Kevin shook his head. "Sorry, but I don't like either of them… they just sound so silly. I mean, I can't be in the middle of a brawl and have one of you yell out 'Urban Hunter' or "Urban Warrior'. It just doesn't sound right to me."

Jason snapped his fingers and a triumphant smile crossed his face. "That's it, Kevin." Everyone looked at him, puzzlement all over their faces. "Think about what you just said… how about 'Urban Brawler'?"

Kevin began to object but stopped before the words were even formed. Closing his mouth, he thought over the idea, then nodded. "I like it-- I really do like it. Ok then, when we're out there, I'm Urban Brawler…call me Brawler for short."

Jason looked around the table at each of his friends. "Well, we have Ghost, Kitsune, and Urban Brawler…as for me, just call me Doc."

Kevin pointed at Jason. "Now that's a cool name…." Kevin was cut off by the sound of the phone ringing. Jason stood up and walked across the kitchen to the wall phone.

"Hello, this is Jason…..yes, he is-- hold on." Covering up the mouthpiece, Jason turned to the people at the table. "Kevin, it's your coach-- he wants to talk to you."

Taking a deep breath, knowing this was bound to happen, Kevin stood, walked over to Jason and took the phone, then slipped out the kitchen door. Jason walked back to the table but didn't sit down, just leaned against the wall next to the table. "I hope everything's ok for him. I mean, he has missed, what, four games due to 'illness' after what happened at the lab? That can't make the coaches happy."

John shifted in his seat so he could see the door Kevin passed through. "They can't be mad about that… You got him a letter from a doctor stating he was sick, right? And so they just put him on the inactive list…"

Jason nodded as he looked at the door across the room as well. "Yes, I did, but that only kept him on that list for a few weeks. He's technically better now, and the coaches likely know that. My friend at the clinic told me they called nearly every day to see when he would be able to play again… and as of yesterday they were told he was good to play. This call is likely just the coaches confirming that with him."

An oppressive silence filled the room till Theresa sighed. "Listen to you two, all gloomy; try to be more positive. Kevin loves to play football and he knows the team needs him if they're going to make it to the Rose Bowl this year. It's been killing him to not be able to play. Getting back onto that field will do him a world of good. And besides, John, don't you want to see him in his football gear again?"

John blushed and simply let a playful smile spread across his face.

The door to the kitchen opened and Kevin came walking in and hung up the phone, looking to his friends. "They want me at practice today… and the rest of the week. We have a game this weekend at home and they need me on the field. I'm sorry, guys, I should just…"

John stood and walked up to Kevin, placing a finger on his lips and cutting him off. "Don't worry about it-- you go to practice, and then meet up with us later tonight. I think we all have some class work to catch up on, and the first part of the plan I can do all on my own from here, so go and do what you have to. Your team needs you as much as we do, but we can do our teamwork at night." Leaning in, John gave Kevin a kiss on the lips. Kevin returned the kiss and the two were quickly swept into a deep passionate embrace. Kevin reluctantly broke the kiss and whispered into John's ear, "Now I really don't want to go… I'd rather take you back to your room and…" John gave him another quick kiss and then pushed slightly away. "Now you need to go, Kev, and we all have things we have to do too. So, team, let's get to it."

Reluctantly, Kevin left the kitchen, grabbed his stuff from John's room and headed out the door to his car for the drive to the practice fields and his teammates.

After the door shut behind Kevin, John leaned against the kitchen doorframe. "Well, I do have some work to do before I get started on our project. Jason, I'm going to need some account numbers I can transfer the money into. I can't just slip in and erase the bank balance on his accounts. I need to do something with the money, or it could cause problems with the finance system. Also, it can't be Swiss-- they have that new AI protecting all their banks, and, as we discovered, I can't bypass something that advanced."

Jason stood up and headed to the side kitchen door. "All right; let me make some calls, and I'll get you a good dozen accounts you can bounce the money around in. Pick one for it all to end up in for now and then later we can split it up more. By the way… what are we going to do with the money?"

Theresa giggled, "Buy a Batcave, what else?" The others just looked at her with bemused looks on their faces. "Guys, I'm not kidding…well, ok, not a cave really, but we will need some gear and some equipment. The basement of this place will work as a base for now, but we need money," she looked at Jason to stop his protest, "non-traceable money, to support this team. So that is what we're going to do with it… but let's not tell Kevin unless he asks…I don't think he would understand right now."

The other two nodded agreement and then exited the kitchen. Theresa stood and also walked out to the hall, heading to the garage and her car, Just think of everything I can do to you, baby, with the money from that sleaze's accounts…this is going to be so much fun.

_______________________________________________________________

Kevin walked off the field, feeling exhilarated to be back in uniform and back on the field at the end of practice. Pulling his helmet off and running his hand though his sweat-soaked hair, he took in a deep breath, reveling in the sent of the fresh turf and mingled body sweat, the smell he has always associated with the game he loved. Looking around at the faces of the other players all shining with sweat from a particularly hard practice, but one that was sure to sharpen the edge of the whole team in preparation for the game the coming weekend against the Oregon Ducks, he felt the excitement at the prospect of playing after nearly a month off the field. He watched as Coach Wipple moved through the crowd of players heading to the locker room to intercept him. "Hi, Coach."

The middle-aged, gray-haired man had clearly been a powerhouse in his younger years, but like most old athletes, his body had slipped a little on him, giving him a small potbelly and the stiff joints of age. "Jones, you did good out there today. Looks like your illness didn't take too much of an edge off, and that's good. We need you at peak if we're going to win. Because of your absence, I would like you to take some extra time in the training room, ok? Just to keep this edge of yours." The hard-nosed taskmaster and sometimes father figure placed a hand on Kevin's shoulder-pad. "Is everything all right, son? Your body was here today and you were able to execute the plays, but… well, after seeing you play before and how you looked today, your mind must have not been fully here, and that is not like you."

Kevin began moving again, the coach falling into step next to him. "Sorry, coach…I just have a few things on my mind… but I promise you, it will not affect my play or the game. I'll get it all sorted out, don't worry." Kevin flashed one of his million-dollar smiles, filled with gratitude for his mentor's caring look.

The older man simply nodded and began to move off. "Well, Jones, if you tell me you have it in hand, that it won't affect the game, then I have to believe you. You're a good kid, smart and dedicated. I know you can deal with this too. But remember, if you do need to talk… my door is always open." The coach was lost to Kevin's sight as he moved through the crowd of players, giving words of encouragement and advice as he went.

Taking a deep breath, Kevin continued into the locker room and over to his locker. Never one to be bashful in front of his teammates, he quickly stripped and grabbed a towel from a nearby table. Ignoring the roughhousing and horseplay going on around him, he stepped into the communal showers and picked an unoccupied tap, twisting the dial all the way to the cold setting. The player next to him shouted in surprise and cursed at Kevin, then moved over one spot. Kevin smiled to himself. Everyone thought he was nuts to love the cold like he did… but it just made him feel so alive. Lost in his own thoughts, Kevin did not notice two of his teammates, a slim African-American with a shaved head and a gold and diamond stud earring, named Terrance and a huge Samoan lineman with short black hair nicknamed Tiny because his real name turned out to be too long for anyone to say. They walked up on to either side of him. Tiny leaned over and nearly shouted, "HEY KEVIN!"

With a start, Kevin looked to his left at the beefy lineman. "Yeah, Tiny? There is no need to yell, man."

The two teammates laughed and Tiny slapped Kevin on the shoulder. "Really? Then why didn't you say anything the first two times I said Hi? Let me guess… thinking again? You know, man, if you keep that up, people are going to think you're not a jock."

Kevin smiled and returned to his shower, letting the ice cold water wash the soap off his body. "Can't help it, Tiny. I have a lot to think about these days. So what you and Terrance been up to?"

The young black man piped up. "Nothing much, dude. Just hanging and banging. There is a party tonight at Lesley's house; you have to come, dude. It's going to be a total trip: tons of girls, tons of booze, and tons of fun."

Kevin shook his head, "Sorry, man, I can't… have plans tonight. But give Les my best. Her parties are always the best."

Tiny looked down at Kevin, which was no mean feat. "Man, you got a date? I thought you didn't have time for the ladies. Who's it with… that Theresa chick you hang out with? She is one hot piece of a**, you know what I mean? I wouldn't mind…" he was cut off as Kevin turned his steely gaze on him, fury raging behind his eyes. "Don't you ever talk about her like that! You hear me, Tiny!?"

Taking an involuntary step backwards, the massive junior held up his hands defensively. "All right, man... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to… I just meant she's hot… Didn't mean to insult your girl or nothing."

Kevin took a deep breath and felt the rage that had flared up inside him fade away. "I'm sorry, Tiny… I know you didn't mean anything. You're just rude and crude. That's why I think this loser here--" he pointed at Terrance, "hangs out with you. You make his horrible manners look like a gentleman's."

Terrance clutched his chest as if wounded. "I am struck deep; how can you say I am anything but the most respectful of men, the height of chivalry?"

The other two laughed loudly, and Kevin shook his head, sending ice cold water flying. "If you're what chivalry has come to, then it truly is dead."

Terrance laughed and turned up the temperature of his shower. "How can you stand that water being so cold? Don't it make your manhood shrink up and fall off?"

Shifting his stance so that some of the icy water sprayed off of him and at his friend, Kevin replied, "No, not at all; it feels good, makes me feel alive. And besides, it normally gives me my privacy."

Tiny poked Kevin on the shoulder. "You can be so queer sometimes, Kevin…" Luckily neither of his teammates were looking at him as he stiffened and shivered, "… but you looked good out there, pal. I mean, your aim is dead on. And I don't think anyone can toss the bomb as far as you can. We are soooo going to rock this weekend with you back. That Robbers kid is a total wimp. No guts… not like you. He can't stand to take a hit, and if he does, he whines like a sissy. I swear, he must be a faggot."

Terrance glared at Tiny. "You're such an a** sometimes, you know that, Tiny? Just because he's a wimp don't mean he's one of them… I mean, come on, we all know what happened to the last powder-puff to try and stay on this team… after the s**t he took, none of them would be stupid enough to even think of staying on the team. They know they would get their fairy a** beaten to a bloody pulp. Right, Kevin? I mean, you were on the squad with that guy… didn't it freak you out knowing he was probably scoping you out and having his sick little fantasies about you? I mean, I know it's genetic, they proved that years ago… but still it's just sick. Someone should come up with a gene treatment for it or something."

Kevin turned his face up to let the freezing cold water spray over his face, hiding the rage and tears in his eyes. "I never really noticed, guys. He was one heck of a player. It never occurred to me, and after he came out, I never thought it made a difference."

Tiny shook his head. "Of course it makes a difference, Kevin… they don't think like us, they can't keep their hands to themselves, and they're always trying to get…"

Kevin held up a hand, cutting Tiny off. "I would love to hear everything they ARE, Tiny, but I need to run. I can't go to the party because I have loads of work to catch up on tonight. Well, you two have fun… and toss one back for me, ok? And by the way, no, Tiny, she's not my girlfriend… we're just good friends." With that, Kevin turned off his shower and made his way through the crowd of fully-dressed and half-naked athletes to his locker, drying off as he went. He used every bit of control he learned over the last few weeks to keep his anger in check and to keep from breaking down in the locker room. And this is why I can't ever let them know…it would be all over. Once at the locker, he tossed the towel down the long line of lockers into the bin. To the admiring oooohs and aaaaahs of his fellow teammates, it went right in the middle. Turning to his locker, he pulled it open and began to dress, tuning out the others around him and thinking once more on what he needed to do that night… Yup, lots of hard work tonight…hard and dangerous.

Pulling on a pair for running sweats and a t-shirt from his locker, Kevin sat down on the locker room bench and pulled on socks and then his shoes. Grabbing a second clean towel from the shelf, he closed the locker. Ignoring the ebb and flow of conversation around him, he made his way through the crowd, out of the locker room and across the hall to the weight room. Looking around the room, he saw it was relatively empty. The other players were working out on the multitude of machines. That made it easy for him to work out, releasing the pent-up emotions that were surging through him, and not have to interact with anyone. Well, I'll have to take a second shower, but I need a work out right now. I nearly took Tiny's head off back there…and I know I can now, without even trying. It quickly became apparent to Kevin that the weight room was insufficient for his needs. His new enhanced strength meant that even on their highest settings, the machines could not provide him with even a mild workout.

Walking out of the weight room, he still felt the torrent of emotions flowing through him, mixed with a sense of loss that the one thing that had always allowed him to relax and release pent-up emotions was now lost to him, due to the changes brought on by the serum.

Kevin bypassed the showers, never even working up a sweat in the weight room, and went straight to his locker. Changing back into his street clothes, a pair of old faded blue jeans, a dark blue t-shirt, and his new combat boots, Kevin pulled on his jacket and tossed his backpack over his shoulder. Locking the door to his locker, he strode out of the locker room with a new idea to release some of his emotions taking form.

Pulling the dark balaclava over his face, Kevin crouched on the edge of the five-story office building overlooking Cowen Park. His eyes scanned the street, the bike paths and the park itself, taking in everything at a glance: the biker riding along the outer edge of the park, the young couple walking hand in hand, and the elderly women carrying her groceries home, taking a short cut through the park. Kevin's eyes narrowed and locked onto a new figure stepping out of the bushes some distance in front of the women and moving towards her with a strong arrogant stride. Not tonight, slimeball. Kevin sprang off the edge of the building, soaring over the street. Somersaulting in midair like an Olympic gymnast, he landed in a crouch, arms out to his sides for balance. Hitting the ground, Kevin sprinted off across the park towards where the elderly woman and her would-be attacker would meet each other.

Crossing the last stretch of grass with only a large hedge between him and his target, Kevin heard the woman gasp and the raspy voice of a habitual Flair user.

"Your purse and your jewelry, lady, now."

"P…p…please…don't, you can have anything you want," the woman replied as the bags she was carrying crashed to the ground.

"Shut up, you b****, and hand it over before..." the mugger was cut off as Kevin vaulted over the hedge and landed in a crouch between him and the elderly woman.

Standing, Kevin glared at the young, pale, hollow-cheeked junkie waving a small vibro-knife back and forth, clearly experienced in how to use the small but lethal weapon.

"Drop it and I let you walk away." Kevin hissed.

"What the f**k? Who the hell do you think you are?" asked the junkie as he took an involuntary step backwards.

In a blur of movement, Kevin closed with the young man, swiping away the knife so that it sailed though the air and sank up to the handle into a nearby evergreen. Then in the same motion, he picked the mugger up in his right hand, lifting him six inches off the ground.

The junkie's eyes went wide in surprise and fear. He opened and closed his mouth three times without being able to make a sound. He just hung there from Kevin's grip, too surprised to even struggle.

Still holding the mugger in the air, Kevin looked over his shoulder at the elderly woman standing in shock, staring right at him. "Are you all right, ma'am? Did this dirt bag hurt you?"

Eyes as wide as saucers, the gray-haired grandmother shook her head then looked up at the now-struggling attacker. "N…no; I'm fine, thanks."

Kevin gave the women a quick once-over with his eyes. Not seeing any obvious injuries, he turned back to face his captive just in time for a foot to swing up and strike him across the face. Kevin's head was jarred back by the impact, but if the struggling hoodlum had hoped his attack would force Kevin to drop him, he was sadly mistaken. Pulling the young man towards him so that his gaunt, pasty face was bare inches from Kevin's masked face, the reek of body odor and Flair nearly did what the kick could not. Snarling through gritted teeth, Kevin said, "Now, that was not a good idea. I have had a really bad day, and that is bad for you." Tightening his grip on the front of the other man's shirt, Kevin brought his head back, ready to slam his forehead into the bridge of his opponent's nose, when he was brought up short by the soft sound of the woman's voice. "Please; sir; don't hurt him. He's clearly no danger to either of us now."

In shock, Kevin turned back to face the elderly black woman with the snow white hair. "But this scum bag was trying to rob you. He would have likely enough killed you if I hadn't stepped in."

Taking a few steps forward, the elderly woman, face creased with age, placed a light restraining hand on Kevin's forearm. "Yes, but he didn't. At this moment this young man is living in a world of despair. There is nothing you can do to him worse than what he does to himself. I cannot bring myself to hate him. I can only have profound sadness at what has happened to bring him to this state. So I ask that you… that you let him down and do not harm him."

Not really knowing why, Kevin lowered the punk to the ground and let go of his shirt front. The would-be mugger slowly began to back away from Kevin, trembling. "What are you, man? No…no way you can be real." With that, the junkie turned and ran off into the descending gloom of early evening. The elderly woman sighed and turned to pick up her fallen groceries strewn all over the ground. "Poor child, his life must be in such darkness."

Kevin stooped to pick up a ripped bag and began piling the contents in his arms. "How can you just let him go like that? Aren't you mad that he tried to hurt you?"

Straightening up with a grunt and an audible pop, the woman smiled at Kevin, a smile so full of love that he was nearly knocked back by it. "Mad, why? What would that get me? That young man has a problem, one he is likely ill-equipped to deal with. Should I condemn him for the weakness that led him to this point? No… it is not my place to condemn; it is left to me to feel compassion." Seeing Kevin pick up the last of the grocery items, she placed a light hand on his forearm and nodded to the far exit to the park. "Would you be so kind as to help me home with these? The bags seem to have ripped."

"I would be happy to." Beginning to walk with the elderly woman towards the exit, Kevin looked down at her slight frame. "You should have at least let me teach him a lesson. He could try to jump you or someone else, you know."

Smiling up at Kevin, the woman nodded her head. "Yes, I suppose he could, but life is made up of risks. If I had let you 'teach him a lesson', he would have been hurt and likely you would not have taught him anything. Pain is a good motivator, but we seldom learn anything lasting from it. Compassion and love, on the other hand, my young protector… they teach a lesson to the heart and no one can ever truly lose that kind of lesson. Besides…you are a hero and heroes never harm those weaker than themselves. A hero protects everyone, friend or foe; it does not matter. In that respect, my boy, you are the embodiment of love."

"How…how do you know I'm a hero? I could just be some nut job in a mask for all you know."

Squeezing Kevin's arm, she replied, "I looked into your eyes. In them, I saw anger fueled by sadness, but not hate. You also gave mercy when you had no reason to. I could not have stopped you if you truly wanted to harm that man. You protected me, you showed mercy, and now you offer an old woman help in carrying a small burden. That is how I know."

Kevin walked the woman across the park and to her apartment, feeling a sense of calm come over him as they walked.

"Where are my manner--, my name is Gloria Davin. Thank you for helping me. Would you care to stay for a cup of tea or a sandwich?"

Opening his mouth, intending to say he had other things to attend to, Kevin heard himself agreeing to join the woman for tea. "Yes… yes, I think I would, and my name is Urb… it's Kevin."

After helping Ms. Davin unload her groceries, Kevin was chased from the kitchen so he walked into the woman's living room, looking around. He took in the warm homey nature of the small room, the two overstuffed light green armchairs facing an obviously working fireplace, a low slung wood coffee table, a small dining table along one wall, and a worn, battered but comfortable brown fabric couch along the far wall under the windows. Kevin's eyes were caught by the framed photos over the fireplace. Walking over to them, he also admired how well a woman of these advanced years was able to keep even an apartment of only three rooms so well-appointed and clean. I can't even keep my room clean, and I have super-powers, Kevin laughed to himself.

Kevin picked up the first photo, showing a group of young women dressed as US Army nurses all standing in front of a large sand-colored tent. A small plaque sitting in front of them declared them the 1737 United States Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Placing the photo back, he looked at the others along the mantel, photos of a young black woman with friends, a wedding photo of the young woman in a long flowing dress standing next to a tall black man dressed in an Army Airborne Dress uniform. After that photo, all of them had the couple arm in arm or hand in hand, smiling at the camera. Turning from the mantel, Kevin scanned the room, his enhanced vision taking in everything in one sweep. Everything in the room was clearly that of a woman, and a single woman at that: the second chair was clearly used infrequently, all of the magazines were on one end of the coffee table and the small dining table had a single place setting.

Mss. Davin walked into the living room, carrying a tray piled high with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and two tall glasses of milk. "Well, young man, I can't offer you much, but here, have some lunch." Kevin opened his mouth to protest but was cut short by a stern look from his host. "Now don't you dare say no, and don't even think of telling me I didn't have to do this. You acted to help me, and this is the least I can do. And besides, I have known young men like you all my life, and I have yet to meet one that was not always hungry. So sit, eat and we can talk."

Smiling, Kevin shook his head, walked over to the small table, and pulled out one of the chairs for the woman. Once she was seated and the tray was on the table, Kevin took his own seat. "You have a lovely home, Ma'am. Very warm… very… Well, it just seems to remind me of where I grew up, but in a non-specific way… you know what I mean?"

Patting Kevin on the hand she nodded. "Yes, son, I do; it's what my mom called 'The rightness of a home' feeling. Even if it is totally different, any place that is truly a home to someone will make others feel the same way and remember their own homes."

Kevin wolfed down the first of the sandwiches and picked up one of the two glasses of milk from the table to wash it down, looking sheepish for his bad manners.

Squeezing Kevin's hand, she gave a light laugh. "No need to be abashed; I have seen baser table manners in my day. I'm glad you like the sandwiches." Picking up a sandwich and tearing a piece off, she popped it into her mouth, smiling at Kevin.

Washing down the second sandwich with the dregs of milk in his glass, Kevin looked directly at the older woman. "You told me you could tell I was one of the 'good ones'-- how could you tell? I mean, for all you know, I'm some wacko ."

Sipping from her glass, she looked deep into Kevin's eyes. "I know because I have seen the darkest depths of the human soul, and I have seen the highest reaches of the human spirit. I noticed you were over there by my photos. As you must have noticed, I was an Army nurse. I served nearly thirty-six years in uniform and retired a Major. During all those years, I served in two wars and countless disasters.

"Back in 2023 I was part of the US deployment to West Africa, back when that madman Dormic Umbotu and his followers had taken over most of that area. I was stationed at a small Army and Air Force base in the Ivory Coast at the time. I lived off base next to the home of a local doctor who had a wife and three kids. They were all born and raised there, but were white. So when Umbotu said that all Westerners needed to be purged from the continent, a mob attacked my home and my neighbor's home. Luckily I and my husband Jake were able to get away. We tried to get to our neighbor's home, but by the time we got there the mod had killed him, his wife and the children, but not before raping them and torturing them." The old woman shuddered from the memory of that night, as real now as it was then.

"That was the night the West African War started, and it didn't end for nearly seven-teen years. Of course, the base was ordered evacuated, and all Westerners were to be pulled out. But in the middle of that horror, I saw young men and women no older than you volunteering to go back into the city and help save others. I watched as men and women who were safe offered up their safety in order to try… only try to save others." Lifting her glass to her lips then setting it down again, her gaze into Kevin's eyes intensified. "That night and the following nights I got to look into the eyes-- the souls-- of butchers, madmen, and heroes. And ever since then I have looked into the eyes of everyone I meet.

"During the riots in New York when the chemical attack was launched by that militia group, I watched as looters took all the food from stores, even food that would spoil and they had no chance of using up, and I watched as a lone man took off his gas mask and placed it on a small child, one clearly not his own, as the clouds of gas approached them. There is something in the very essence of a hero, something clear but indefinable. And you, young man, have that. I could see it from the moment you landed in front of me. All you have to do is trust yourself, and I have no doubts that you will always be that hero. You're a lot like my Jake that way. He spent his whole life trying to help others. He had a saying he was always fond of: 'God gave me a strong body and a sharp mind, and in exchange, all I have to do is the right thing at the right time.' Just remember that."

During the whole of the woman's story, Kevin simply sat spellbound drinking every word. "He sounds like a good man…I take it…"

"Yes, he died in the field years ago, but he died doing exactly 'the right thing at the right time' and someday, I may even tell you what that was."

Feeling bad for dredging up what must have been a painful memory, Kevin sighed. "Sorry; I didn't mean to…"

She waved away his apology. "No need to feel sorry; I loved him and he loved me and that bond held us together even when we were a world apart, even during the years when we saw each other only a few times. It still connects us and will lead me to him when my time comes."

Kevin smiled, thinking. 'I hope John and I can be like that some day.' Pushing himself away from the table and standing, Kevin looked at his watch and realized he was late. "Thanks for the sandwiches… and thanks for the talk; I really needed it."

Standing and stepping around the table to place both hands on Kevin's shoulders, the old women looked up into his eyes. "Thank you for saving me, and thank you for listening." Placing one small arthritic swollen hand against Kevin's right cheek, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed his left cheek. "But you promise me that you will come by and see me again."

"I promise; I know there will be times where I will need someone to look and see if I'm still a hero or not, and besides, it's obvious to me that you have some stories to tell and I can't wait to hear them." Turning, Kevin walked to the apartment door and out to meet his friends, hoping that tonight was the right time to do the right thing.

The friendship formed that night would become one of Kevin's greatest. In years to come on nights much like this first one, when his mind would be troubled or his soul in pain, he would find that his runs would take him inevitably to the old woman's home, where he would find, no matter the hour, no matter the issue, a warm cup of tea and an open heart.

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Chapter Eight:

Change of Plans

Kevin landed lightly onto the darkened rooftop of a sprawling mansion. "Sorry I'm late, guys-- lost track of time. Have I missed anything?"

A rooftop air-conditioning vent appeared to waver and bend, then just blinked out of existence, revealing two dark-clad figures. A young Japanese-American woman dressed in jeans, t-shirt, fingerless driving gloves, and a baseball cap, put her hands on her hips and pouted at Kevin. "How did you know we were there? I worked really hard on that illusion. It was perfect."

Turning to look at his closest friend, Kevin smiled. "Kitsune, it was perfect, but you forgot that there is already an air vent right over there." Kevin pointed across the roof to an identical vent quietly humming away as it sucked in the cool night air. "And that one had some bird droppings on it and yours looked like it was just installed."

The second person hidden by the illusion, dressed in a gray tailored three-piece suit, long coat, fedora and red tinged gold rimmed glass, let out a short laugh and tapped the roof lightly with the silvery tip of his black obsidian cane. "Good work, Brawler, very good work. I guess I owe Ghost. He said you would have no trouble telling where we were."

Turning back to look out across the open ground separating the estate where he stood and the posh home of their target, Kevin laughed. "Good, sounds like I might get a nice night on the town then. By the way, Doc, you look very tres chic. Nice charcoal gray suit, and a fedora… I haven't seen one of those since I watched 'The Godfather' a few years ago."

The doctor and psychic stepped up next to Kevin and nodded at the well-lit grounds of the mob boss. "Ghost is over there right now. He's just getting past the sentries and the sensors on the grounds. He should be inside in the next minute or so."

Theresa slipped between the other two, squinting out across the two estates. "How can you tell, Jason? I can't see him."

"I'm using my mind. I'm in constant contact with him. We didn't have time to get the sub-vocal units he wanted, so I'm doing the job of the radios tonight. You two want to be linked into the loop on this?"

Kevin suppressed a shiver. However good a friend Jason was, he had never really been comfortable with anyone just moving around inside his head. "Naw…no need yet. If something happens, then ok, but no need to make more work for you, and the extra thoughts might distract him."

Theresa sat down on the edge of the roof, dangling her feet over the edge. "I wish he had let me go with him. I'm small and I can be quiet. I don't see why he should have all the fun."

Jason reached down and patted his young friend on the head. "Because, Kitsune, even with your talent for illusions, the sensors and cameras would have seen you. On his own, Ghost can move around that tech-filled labyrinth and not have to worry about that kind of stuff. And besides, in the next part, you get to have loads of fun."

Kevin crossed his arms over his chest and let out a deep breath. "So, Doc, how did phase one go? Did we get most of it?"

Jason turned his crimson gaze upon Kevin and nodded. "From what Ghost told me, yeah, we did. Most of his U.S. accounts are drained dry and he left a trail to a few of his associates. But you'll have to ask him for specifics. He seemed very proud of himself, so he'll likely tell you even if you don't ask."

"What did he do with the money?" Kevin asked.

Jason shrugged and nodded at the far house. "I don't know. You want me to ask him?"

Kevin shook his head. "No, that's ok; I'll ask him once his work tonight is done. By the way… aren't we a little obvious standing right here like this?"

Theresa giggled and rocked back and forth on the edge of the building. "Nope… I have an illusion up covering us. I was wondering if you had noticed."

"You mean you can make an illusion around us and we can't even tell?" Kevin asked.

"Yup! I'm getting good." Theresa grinned in self-congratulation.

Kevin began to pace back and forth along the edge of the roof. "Well?"

Not even looking at Kevin, Jason sighed. "He's still working his way through the house, Kevin. Relax everything… Oh-ho..." Jason's brow creased in concentration.

Spinning around to face Jason, Kevin stepped up to him. "Oh-ho? What's that mean?"

Tilting his head to the right as if listening, the look of concentration intensified on Jason's face. "There's something wrong-- one moment, I'm linked with Ghost as he is making his way to the office… and then nothing. Someone down there is blocking me." Jason screwed up his face in fierce concentration, sweat beading on his forehead. "I can barley even sense Ghost. I think we…" Jason was interrupted by Kevin's barely audible swearing.

"Can you give me an Idea as to where he is in the house, Doc?" Kevin asked.

Reaching out with a hand and laying it lightly on Kevin's shoulder, Jason replied, "Yes, I can still track him, but the jamming, or whatever you want to call it, is getting stronger." Kevin's eyes got a vacant faraway look for a split second, then refocused.

"Thanks, Doc. Try to get past that jamming; I'm going in to back him up."

Stepping to the edge of the roof like a diver preparing for the plunge, Kevin bent his knees and rocketed off the roof, flying through the air like a bullet out of a gun.

Jason and Theresa just looked at each other. Theresa stepped up to Jason. "I can fly us over there once you get a handle on who or what is blocking you."

Gritting his teeth in concentration, glaring at the distant house, sweat running down his face and neck into the collar of his silk shirt, Jason just gave a jerking nod.

Sinking back into the shadows Ghost waited to allow past two guards with sub-machineguns and stun rods and armored in the light tactical armor favored by S.W.A.T the world over. He slowly let out his breath as the guards turned the corner, making no indication that they ever noticed him.

Slipping from the shadows Ghost moved over to the service entrance on the ground floor of the large imposing mansion. Placing a gloved hand against the security keypad next to the door, Ghost bypassed the locking and alarm system with no more effort then it would take to open a can of pop. Smiling to himself, the young hero opened the door and slipped into the darkened service hallway, shutting and locking the door behind him. Ghost moved down the hall into the large, darkened state-of-the-art kitchen, chrome and marble covering every surface. Moving silently across the kitchen, he pressed his back against the wall next to the door leading into the dining room. Not hearing anything on the other side of the door, he slowly pushed the door open and slipped into the dinning room, careful to keep to the shadows on the off chance that some lucky guard might pass by the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up one wall. Slipping past the elegant, carved wood dining table with its china and crystal place settings, Ghost paused at the large double doors leading into the main part of the house. Hearing muffled voices, he crouched down and pulled a small box off his utility belt. He extended the fiber-optic lens and slid it under the bottom of the door. Ghost flipped up the small screen built into the device. He was able to see the large entry hall and grand staircase leading up to the second floor. Directly cross the large entry hall he was able to see a second set of large double wood doors that, per the blueprints he had studied earlier, must lead to the ground floor study. He was also able to see the source of the muffled voices: two armored and armed guards standing on ether side of the grand stairway. The office is on the second floor, and there are the ground floor guards Jason told me he sensed. And now that I know where they are, I can take the back stairs. Retracting the lens and placing the small device back on his belt, Ghost smiled under his mask and made his way back across the dining room into the kitchen.

Once on the second floor, Ghost slid up to the doorway at the top of the stairs, sliding a small tactical mirror to look around the corner to confirm that the coast was clear. Ghost slipped into the second floor hall, stopping at each door to listen for any movement or voices. Crouching down at the corner of the main stairs, he was able to see the two guards, backs to the stairs, chatting quietly.

With the guards facing the other way and clearly engrossed in there own conversation, Ghost easily slipped across the open space of the grand stairs to the hall on the far side. He moved silently down the hall, past one door then another, heading to the double doors at the end of the hall with light coming from underneath it.

Reaching the door, he listened carefully. The voices inside were muffled by the wood of the door, so he was unable to clearly make out what was being said. He reached behind him and pulled off a small sticky microphone the size of a quarter. The listening device had an adhesive on one side and a fairly sophisticated microphone sensitive enough to pick up sound through doors and thin walls. Ghost placed it against the door and then slipped the earpiece into his ear, activating the link. Then he removed the fiber-optic camera and screen from his belt and began to slip it under the door.

The room was large; the wall to the left of the doors gave a stunning view of floor to ceiling windows with a door built into them leading out onto a terrace. The wall opposite to the windows was dominated by an elegant fireplace with intricately carved borders and mantel. Hanging over the fireplace was a detailed map of the Seattle area with areas shaded different colors, flanked by two comfortable chairs and a small table. Directly across from the doors sat a massive oak desk backed by small pieces of art and a black leather chair. The light in the room came from a crystal chandelier hanging from the vaulted and frescoed ceiling. The middle of the room had a large and exquisite Persian rug.

Standing behind the desk was a powerfully built, square shouldered man with close cut black hair, dressed in a three piece suit, matching the newspaper photo of Roddic Stephons. Behind the desk with his back to the wall stood a massive muscle-bound bodyguard dressed in a too-small suit with a large automatic handgun tucked in a shoulder holster. Standing in front of the desk was a slight women dressed in a gown of silver and black silk cut to accentuate her curves and attractive body. Over in front of the fireplace, a tall lean man with close cut white hair ,dressed in slacks and a khaki shirt, the light of the fire glinting off bulbous chrome optical implants clearly showing that he was far more then he appeared.

Stephons placed a three-foot silk-wrapped object onto his desk. "This was harder to come by than we thought, Miss Malvagita. The Greek monks that had it were better at guarding it than we thought, but, in the end," the crime boss made an off hand gesture, "they didn't stand much of a chance. And it's unlikely anyone will find the bodies for a long time."

The woman reached out and removed the folds of silk from the object on the table, revealing a 'Xiphos'-- a Greek short sword with a two-foot-long leaf-shaped blade in a black scabbard, the hilt and cross bar covered with intricate carvings and studded with gems of all varieties. There was a sharp intake of breath from the woman as she lifted the ancient weapon off the desk.

"Yes, this is it, Mr. Stephons; you did a fine job getting it." She drew the blade from the scabbard, light glinting off of the blade as if it was freshly smithed, deep runes carved into the blade catching the light and glowing as if from an inner fire. Setting the scabbard down, she passed her free hand over the flat of the blade, fingers less than an inch from the blade, but never touching it. It must have been a trick of the light, but it seemed as if the surface glowed brighter.

"Yes, this is the Sword of Mars. To think it's come to light again after all of these years."

Stephons nodded and smiled at the woman, letting his eyes trace over her scantily-clad body. "It's very pretty, but not very practical. But I make it a point never to criticize women who pay me ten million dollars."

Never taking her eyes off of the weapon, she smiles. "A trivial sum of money, really. Do you even know the history of this weapon, Mr. Stephons? This blade was carried by Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Attila the Hun."

Barely able to keep the look of boredom off his face, Stephons pulled a small envelope out of his jacket and placed it on the table. "Here is the information you asked about. It's a little larger than I would have thought, but my people can get ahold of it. We have caught some luck; it's being shipped to the Seattle area for some kind of multi-cultural month at UW. One of the professors there is going to be studying it. To be honest, till you placed the order, I had never heard of a 'Sarcophagus' before."

"Thank you, I should have no trouble getting my hands on it then."

Placing his hand on top of the envelope, Stephons continued, "My men are more than capable of handling the acquisition. But the cost has gone up: I will need another five million."

The blade sang as it sliced though the air, sinking deep into Stephons' neck. A spray of blood followed the arc of the blade splattering the wall, desk and bodyguard. In the same instant, the man next to the fireplace whipped a small silenced pistol out from behind his back. Pif pif. The bodyguard's head snapped back as the contents were blown out the back, splattering the wall behind him.

The crime lord's hands flew to his neck in an attempt to keep in the life blood that drained from his neck. His mouth opened to scream, but he only emitted a faint gurgle as his eyes lost focus and his hands stopped groping, falling forward face first onto the ornate desk, a pool of dark blood staining the wood.

Sliding the blade back into the sheath, the woman smiled at the body before her. "That is all right; your services are no longer needed." Turning to the chrome-eyed man, she strapped the scabbard around her waist. "Mr. Tri, we are done here, other than that fool crouched outside the office door. Please be so kind as to kill him before you leave. I am going straight home."

Ghost yanked the camera from underneath the door and rolled away from it just as two rounds punched holes in the door, splintering it and shattering a vase of flowers on a small table in the hall.

"s**t!"

Ghost sprinted down the hall and just reached the far corner as the door to the office burst open, one of the two doors flying off the hinges. Ghost dove around the corner as a third round slammed into the wall right where his head had been a second earlier. Doc I need some help here…Doc? Doc, where the hell are you, man? If you can hear me, I'm going to the roof-- I need pick up.

The door to the roof of the mansion swung open, and the tall chrome-eyed Tri stepped out onto the roof just as a storm broke and began to dump a heavy downpour onto the city. Turning his head from left to right, he let the door shut behind him. With a thick French accent, he stated, "Mon Ami, you are very good to have made it this far. But now you have run out of house, and I will find you. If you make me hunt for you, I will make you suffer, but if you accept the inevitable, then I will make it quick." The gunman slid the clip out of his pistol, sticking it into his pocket and then replacing it with a new fresh clip.

Ghost popped out from behind one of the roof's many air-conditioning units as the killer was swapping out clips, and leveled a small hand tazer, pressing the firing trigger. Two small darts shot out from the small hand-held weapon and impacted into the target, emitting a faint blue glow as the two charges were expended.

Glancing down, the gunman smiled and brushed away the two darts. "That was a silly thing to do. I take more than that to stop." The pistol came up in a blur and the gunman squeezed off three rounds in quick succession.

The rounds slammed into the stonework of a set of chimneys as Ghost hurled himself to the rooftop. Doc, Brawler, anyone-- NOW would be a good time!

"Vonus devriez etre fier de vous-meme mon bon ami, peu avez pu vivre ce long." (You should be proud of yourself, my good friend; few have been able to live this long.)

Ghost crawled along the rooftop in order to put more space between him and his attacker. "Sorry, but my French isn't that good… what did you say? You would like to surrender to me? Very well; I accept."

Tri chuckled, "We are feeling cheeky, aren't we? I know you don't have a gun, and you know your little tazer can't harm me, so what makes a little mouse like you so sure of yourself?"

"That's easy, frog; the really cute guy in tight urban camo behind you is going to so kick your a**. And Brawler, thanks for showing up—you're just in time."

The gunman stepped forward laughing, "Please, you have seen too many old vids, this door is the only way up here on this side of the complex."

Brawler lightly landed on the roof behind the gunman, dressed in his tight urban camo pants, shirt and mask. "Well, not the only way, but I did cheat just a little."

Spinning around, Tri brought his pistol to bear on the new arrival, shock registering on his face for only a brief moment before he pulled the trigger. The rounds slammed into the door to the roof as Brawler sidestepped the shot and then lashed out with a snap kick at the handgun, knocking it from the other man's hand.

The two men faced off with each other. Brawler dropped into a simple two-point fighting stance, his left leg a little back with his foot at an angle, hands coming up in fists before him in a semi-boxing and martial arts position. The other man set his feet a little less than shoulder-width apart at right angles with his knees slightly bent, his arms and hands loosely extended and moving slightly.

"I don't know who you are, but you were a fool not to strike while my back was turned. That mistake will cost you your life." With that, Tri launched a flurry of fast knife hand strikes targeted at Brawler's neck and face, forcing him to react quickly with sweeping blocks and move slightly to the left. With blindingly fast jabs and roundhouse punches, Brawler counterattacked.

The two combatants traded blows as they circled one another, lashing out with lighting fast punches and kicks. Brawler dodged a roundhouse punch, slipped in under his opponent's guard and, with his hands clasped together, landed a massive double-fisted blow to the other's jaw. With an audible crashing sound, Tri was lifted off his feet and hurled across the slick rain swept roof, sliding to a stop thirty feet away at the edge of the roof. Tri rolled away from the edge, arched his back and flipped onto his feet in a low fighting stance.

Shaking his head, Tri locked his eyes on Brawler. "Very nice, mon ami, but I am not without my own surprises." With the sound of metal scraping on metal, two foot-long, wedge-shaped vibro-blades extended out from behind his wrists and forearms.

Ghost slipped out from behind the air-condition unit. Reaching behind his back, he pulled out a pair of slick black metal telescoping fighting batons. "Actually, he was just keeping you occupied long enough for me to study your fighting style. Now it's my turn."

The killer shifted his stance to face off with Ghost, and then launched into a blindingly fast flurry of lunges and swipes with his forearm blades.

As if knowing where each blow would strike beforehand, Ghost spun the fighting batons in sweeping blocks, using his opponent's own speed and strength against him. He allowed the blades to come within inches of him, but never let the blows connect. After a few moments of countering each attack, Ghost slipped inside his opponent's defenses and delivered a hard point jab to the other's midsection, forcing his breath out in a whoosh. Continuing the inside step as the other doubled over, he swung the other baton at the right knee, catching the knee with the baton and sweeping his opponent off his feet.

The killer hit the wet roof with a slap and then rolled to the left just in time to avoid the baton aimed at where his head had been only a split second before. He rolled up onto one knee with his left side facing Ghost, swinging up his left arm. He pointed the tip of the blade at Ghost. "Vous etes changez bon, bien mieux alors j'auriez pense mais les volonte de I vous tuent toujours." (You are very good, much better than I would have thought, but I will still kill you.)

With that the wrist blade launched off his arm and flew through the air, aimed directly at Ghosts face at the speed of a bullet. Seeming to know that even this surprising attack was coming, Ghost was already in motion, flipping to one side, feet leaving the ground, rolling in the air to the right, water flying off his body by the force of his spin. He swung up one of his batons, deflecting the blade just enough so that it did no more than slice the shoulder of his clothing, not even breaking the skin. The blade flew and sunk deep into the stone of one of the many chimneys, the tip of the blade sticking out of the far side. Ghost continued his roll and landed on the roof in a crouch, face to face with the Frenchman. With rain dripping off the two combatants, each breathing heavily, they each launched a new flurry of attacks, each one barely able to block the other's attacks and unable to land any further hits. The speed of the attacks was such that it was impossible to tell who was attacking and who was defending.

As the two slowly backed off, circling each other and catching their breath, the door to the roof burst open and three body armored guards charged out onto the roof, brandishing their AKL laser assault rifles. Ghost and Tri leapt apart, hitting the roof and rolling as a hail of laser blasts peppered where they had been standing. Ghost reached to his belt, pulled off two marble-sized black spheres, and tossed them in the direction of the gunmen. The gloom of the night was shattered by two massive flash bangs lighting up the roof as bright as day. The roof itself shook from the sound of the detonations. When the after-effects of the flash bangs had faded, the roof was clear of everyone but the three disoriented and confused gunmen.

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