"We're on it."
The visage of Karl Dexter winked off the screen and was replaced by the grid of Kewanee. On the grid were various red areas, indicating trouble spots. Occasionally, one would turn green, then disappear. But many would not. For those, Sean felt regret. He knew that there was nothing more he could do about it, but he regretted it just the same. The police were spread just as thinly as Checkwolf. Well, maybe not that thinly.
Sean looked around the cavernous communications room, his eyes alighting on the clock. He still had two and a half hours by himself before Jay came in. He yawned.
Sean's mind drifted back to the topic he had just been considering, namely, the size of Checkwolf. He'd thought for awhile that more members would be appreciated, at least as far back as their excursion to New York and the profitable pairings with the members of Rabbit's Headhunters. The main problem was figuring out how to find qualified people, contact them, and convince them to join. It wasn't as easy to expand now as it had been when they were all getting started. In the beginning, the only requirement for membership had been to be recommended by another member.
That was no longer the case. Nobody was "unqualified" anymore; while Sean had been in New York, everybody else had gone to great lengths to acquire skills: martial arts and fighting skills, weaponry training, physical regiments, as well as various other abilities that had interested each one. The members of Checkwolf may not have gone to any formal academies, but they had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, so to speak. To complement them, then, it was important to find other qualified personnel.
An idea arose in Sean's mind. What if the Bishops took some time to make a thorough search, not just in Kewanee, but throughout the country, looking for references to people that might be desirable to Checkwolf, people that had skills that would help their fight, perhaps people that looked to go outside the system to a certain extent? Yes, that could work. He only had to get them working on it, something that could be accomplished in the nice, warm base, without having to go out into the cold December weather.
Sean took his feet off the console and swiveled in his seat, looking toward the east doorway of the comm room, where the voice had originated from. Standing there was Cop, minus his spiked shoulder pads. A thought occurred to Sean as he looked at Cop walking toward him. "Why aren't you on duty?" he asked mildly, in a non-condemning tone.
"I'm sorry, sir," Cop said. "Remember I mentioned to you that I was feeling ill?"
"Oh, yes," Sean said. "I remember." He creased his brow. "You're right. You don't sound too good. Why are you down here in the middle of the night? Shouldn't you be resting?"
"It occurred to me that I have been keeping my secret from you for months now," Cop told Sean, ignoring Sean's question and proceeding with his own agenda.
Sean nodded. "Yes. Your secret identity. Why do you mention it?"
"I would like to stop hiding behind this mask," Cop said, touching the mask with his one good hand.
Sean was surprised. He certainly hadn't been expecting this. "Well, if you feel comfortable doing so . . . ."
Cop nodded. "I would rather. I think that I can sufficiently trust you now, enough to reveal my identity, and the reason I keep it secret. You've certainly earned my respect; I'd like to earn more of yours."
Sean motioned for Cop to have a seat. Cop took the proffered seat gratefully, lowering his bulk into the chair, slumping slightly once he did so, presumably from the illness. He reached up and lifted the helmet off of his head. Underneath was a good-looking man with a tanned face (though at the moment he looked a bit pale), chiseled features, short brown hair, and milky brown eyes. "My name is Brent Slin," Cop said, extending his hand.
Sean was again surprised as he grasped the man's hand. "Good to meet you, Brent."
"I told you about my brother, Edwin, when I first came here." He paused. "I see you also recognize my last name."
"Of course," Sean said, nodding. Added to the story that Cop had told Sean before of how he started this line of work, the mask was already beginning to make sense.
"When I first started my work a few years ago, I didn't wear a helmet or mask. My identity was open to the world, something I hadn't considered." Sean admired Cop's manner of speaking, the carefully considered words, the emotion in his face, which, of course, was an element that Sean had never been able to appreciate before. "But after awhile, I obviously made somebody very, very angry. It seems logical that this person dug deep, found out who I was, and struck back at me."
Slin nodded sadly. "Yes. Jessica." He sighed once before continuing. "Because of me, her life was ruined."
Sean nodded. Cop didn't need to explain that part. Everyone in the country had heard of Jessica Slin. Three years previous, she had become quite a popular singer, with a string of hit songs. Everything seemed to be going right for her. But early last year, according to the news reports, she had been brutally injured by unknown assailants. She had been paralyzed from the waist down and had evidently lost her ability to sing. Everyone had assumed it must have been an obsessed fan, a stalker. But from what Cop was saying, evidently it wasn't. "It wasn't your fault," Sean said sympathetically.
"But it was!" Cop yelled as he stood in outrage and frustration. Sean was again surprised, for he had never seen Cop angry before. "If it hadn't been for me, that would never have happened to her."
"It wasn't intentional, though," Sean said, offering what even to his ears sounded like weak consolation.
"No, of course not," Cop said, sitting back down, regaining his composure. "Jessie said much the same thing. It just rings hollow to my ears."
Sean simply nodded in sympathy.
Cop stared off into nothingness. "So I made sure that the people that hurt her didn't come back and try to finish the job. Any of them that knew anything about the relationship between myself and Jessie." He paused. "I didn't kill them, just as I didn't kill Edwin's murderers. I restrained myself. I hurt them badly, and I made sure that, for those that could, they went to jail for a long time. The others, I was able to simply . . . convince to keep quiet. Anyway, after that I started wearing this mask," he said, lifting an edge of the mask that was lying on the console, "so that no one else would make the connection. At least in that way Jessica was safe." Cop replaced his helmet and looked at Sean.
"I understand," Sean said simply.
Cop nodded, a brief movement of his head. "I trust this won't go beyond this room."
"Until you're ready, of course," Sean said. "Not a problem."
Cop clapped Sean on the shoulder as he stood. "You're a good man, Sean. I'd hate to have to kill you."
Sean tried, in vain, to see through the mask, to get a glimpse at the man's face. Cop spun on his heel and left the room at a brisk pace. Sean knew that Cop had been kidding, but a shiver went up his spine nonetheless.
"I was thinking," Sean stated as Jay walked into the communications room.
"Never a good sign," Jay commented as he took a sip of his coffee.
Jay closed his eyes in thought. "That's the bone that connects the shoulder and the elbow, in the arm of most, if not all mammals." He reopened his eyes. "Correct?"
"Not humerus. Humorous."
"Oh, of course. Thank you for that clarification."
"As in 'funny'."
"Ah," Jay said with a smile as he brought the coffee cup to his mouth again. "Anyway, what were you thinking about?"
"Well," Sean began as he leaned back in his chair and watched Jay start the top-of-the-hour sweep, "I was thinking that, considering how thinly we're spread over the city, that we would do well to have some more members."
Jay put the camera system back on automatic. He then leaned back in his chair, picked his cup back up again, and raised his eyebrows as he took another sip of the bitter liquid. "Good idea. But, how exactly do you propose going about this?"
"I was thinking," Sean said, becoming more intent, "that we could search through the major police networks across the country and see if we could find any good candidates for the organization."
"Because cops are more accustomed to the way we do things."
"Right," Sean said, nodding.
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Jay said. "If we could find more Bishops, for instance, then we could ease up a little on monitor duty, maybe even getting to the point where you wouldn't have to be in here on regular duty at all."
"And," Jay continued, also becoming engrossed in the subject, "it would be really great if we could find three more members to put into the squads. That'd bring the total to twelve. But-"
"Split that into squads of four . . . ," Sean continued.
"And, voilá! Gamma Squad," Jay finished.
"Right. I take it you agree with me then?"
"Definitely," Jay said, nodding. "In fact, why limit the search to just this country?"
"You mean check out the whole world?"
Jay shrugged. "Why not? It'd be a little more time-consuming, but I bet it would be, ultimately, more rewarding. For us. That way, we could compile a longer list of candidates. Of course, we'd only be able to bring in a few, due to our limited resources. Not only money, but manpower, too."
"That's a good point," Sean said. "It wouldn't be very bright to bring in twenty or thirty people to be trained by just us."
"That way lies chaos."
Sean nodded and became quiet for a few moments. He then glanced at Jay, who was gazing at the monitor. "When can you start?"
Jay grinned. "I was wondering when you were going to ask." He shrugged. "Anytime, really. In fact, if you want to cover for me here, I could start right now."
"Please do," Sean said. "One other thing."
"Weight your criteria more toward women."
Jay raised an eyebrow. "Why? Gettin' lonely?"
"I'm thinking of our public image," Sean replied, ignoring Jay's jibe. "It couldn't hurt to look less like a boys' club."
"But we've always had girls in the club-"
"But we don't anymore, do we?" Sean asked.
Jay nodded. "It's a good point." He paused. "That it?"
Jay inclined his head deferentially and stood. He sauntered over to a research terminal, logged on, and got to work.
"Wow!" the youth exclaimed. "That's cool!"
The older man nodded with a humorless smile on his face. "So, do you think you can use any of these?"
"Definitely!" the youngster exclaimed again. Then, old reflexes took over and he became wary. "What do you get out of all this?"
The man smiled again, this time with a hint of dark humor, a glint in his eyes. "Well, my boy," he said, his voice taking on a different register, slightly more inhuman, "I'm a nihilist. Do you know what that is?"
The boy laughed, displaying bravado. "Kinda like a Democrat?"
The man grinned again. "No. Nihilists like to see things destroyed." He grabbed the youth by the shoulder. "When I see people terrified, when I see violence, death, destruction," he pulled the frightened youngster closer, "these things make me happy. They give me pleasure."
Fearfully, the teenager said, "I don't know if I want to get involved in this after all, then."
The man's eyes turned steely and unpleasant. The next thing the youth knew, one of the knives was against his throat, the cold metal pressing against his flesh uncomfortably. "Are you sure?"
"N-no," the boy stammered. "I mean, yes, I'll help you."
The knife disappeared and the man's demeanor instantly reverted to the way he had been before, a wide grin on his face. "Good. And besides you wanted to get revenge on the gang, didn't you?"
The youngster smiled his own version of the older man's humorless grin. "Yes," he said, rubbing his hands together.
"Of course you do," the older man said. "Now, come with me."
The two walked from the building.
A man in early middle-age eased himself out of the shadows to watch the two departing figures. Yes, that's got to be him. The face is different, but the build, the voice, the demeanor are all exactly the same. After all these years, it's payback time.
"Everybody here?" Jesse asked as he looked around. Besides himself, also on the court were Sean, Ryan, Jay, Clayton, Karl, Scott, and Brent. He absent-mindedly dribbled the basketball. He received nods all around.
"What are the teams?" Jay asked.
Jesse shrugged. "Let's say Ryan and Sean are captains," he suggested. Again, nods from all.
Sean ended up with Jay, Jesse, and Karl while Ryan took Scott, Clayton, and Brent. Sean then sized up the teams. While his team was probably higher in overall skill, the other team had three big guys, which could easily translate into some painful bumps and bruises.
"Let's go!" Clayton exclaimed.
"This is really starting to get old," Ruben said to the air. He looked around the empty comm room. "I always get left out of the games." He sighed. "Ah, well."
He turned his attention back to the matter at hand, namely, that of combing the various databanks for anybody that seemed like a good fit for Checkwolf. They were using as their guides such things as medals, commendations, certificates, as well as other degrees and citations corresponding to a wide variety of skills. And, of course, gender. Ruben couldn't suppress a grin at that particular instruction.
Since that morning, they had already finished with the West Coast and Midwest. Ruben was now starting to work his way toward the East Coast. They had found three excellent choices in the West, and five more in the Midwest: two in Kewanee, two in Chicago, and one in Dallas. It's gonna be a major pain narrowing this field down to just four or five if we keep finding people at this rate, Ruben thought.
Ruben was excited at the prospect of new members, though. He glanced up at the massive grid of Kewanee. There were several trouble spots showing, but Checkwolf wasn't in a position to go out and help clear them up. Both squads, Alpha and Beta, had been working all of last night and would be working again tonight, and again the night after that. They couldn't be asked to go out just for these specific spots, or to cruise around Kewanee in a van twelve hours a day instead of eight, either. What was needed, Ruben thought, was another squad, a Gamma Squad, so that there would be somebody out there at all hours of the day. It would still be woefully inadequate, but it would be markedly better than what they had now.
Ruben shrugged to himself and continued poring over the data.
Ryan nodded and brought an object out of a jacket pocket. He tossed it onto the desk.
Sean narrowed his eyes upon seeing it.
"We found this on one of the kids we were fighting."
Sean lifted the object. "Not good. Not good at all." He turned it over in his hand, examining the trigger mechanism and the unique craftsmanship of it. He seemed to momentarily forget that Ryan was even standing there until Ryan cleared his throat. Sean looked up.
"Will there be anything else, Sean?"
"No," Sean said, shaking his head and returning his attention to the object. "No. Thank you." He glanced up at Ryan. "I'll take it from here, thanks."
Ryan inclined his head and left the office, leaving Sean in the early morning hours to consider what his next move would be in this game. He had been led to believe, had been directly told by the police in fact, that all of the knife guns had been confiscated. And now for one to appear suddenly in the hands of a gang member, and one of the Cutthroats, at that, was not good. Not good at all.
The only deductions that Sean could make were that either someone broke into the installation where these deadly weapons were being held-which was not likely considering the importance that Chief Morrison had placed on these objects-or, the more logical but far more disturbing conclusion, some rogue on the inside of the police force had gotten ahold of these weapons and distributed them, for reasons unknown.
Brent McGwire pulled the dusty box out of the confines of the closet, where he had placed it five years before. He had vowed to himself then that he would never open it again, due to all of the problems that its contents had caused. And he wouldn't have taken it out now, if not for the fact that he had seen a certain former agent of the Secret Police Agency: Daniel Williams.
Nearly a dozen years before, when Williams was an SPA agent, he turned rogue and caused a lot of destruction and mayhem. McGwire had stopped him and had nearly captured him, had come within inches of success, but had failed. Williams had escaped.
Now, though, more than a decade later, Williams had resurfaced, this time in the guise of an officer of the law. To top it off, Williams had gotten his hands on some deadly weapons, the so-called "knife guns". McGwire had heard stories about these things from his contacts in the KPD, and he knew that they were nothing but trouble. Back in the spring, the upstart organization Checkwolf, led by a man McGwire deeply respected, Sean Matts, had stopped the Insanes, a relatively minor gang, from taking on their enemies with the deadly weapons. The knife guns had, in turn, been handed over to the KPD after Matts and his crew had taken them from the Insanes.
McGwire lifted the lid of the box and set it aside. He then reached inside and lifted out the costume. He held it up against himself and looked in a full-length mirror. It would surely still fit; he had no doubts about that. One of the positive side effects of the radiation that he had received was that he was able to eat anything he wanted without having to worry about gaining weight. One little perk.
McGwire made his decision. He didn't want to tackle Williams alone. He had made that mistake twelve years before. On the other hand, Checkwolf's hands-on expertise with these weapons could prove valuable.
Now he only had to go about contacting them.
"You say this was an anonymous call?" Ryan asked Brent again, turning in his seat.
Brent rolled his eyes. "Yes," he said, with a hint of impatience. He hated the way that his cousin had a tendency to repeat himself over and over.
Ryan nodded and turned back around, oblivious to Brent's discomfort, wondering who could have called them out here at this late hour. He checked his watch. Ten to midnight. He looked around the area they were in, a fairly desolate patch of land in the Annawan district of northern Kewanee.
"We're here," James commented as he pulled up to the curb and put the vehicle in park. He leaned on the steering wheel and looked around.
"All right." Ryan opened the door to the chilly December air. "I'll be back in a moment." He slid off the seat and shut the door. He could hear the whirring of the rooftop cannon as Wil tracked him from inside. Before him was a bus stop, abandoned at this late hour. It would at least offer some shelter from the bitter cold. He went over to it and watched as the van drove off, around the corner. Those had been the directions specified in the untraceable call. Ryan didn't like this idea. He shivered, and not just from the cold.
"Thank you for coming," a voice behind him said.
Ryan whirled and saw a familiar-looking man standing before him. He had a bandana of sorts tied around his head with eyeslits cut out of it. He also wore what looked like a comic-bookish "superhero" outfit. Ryan recognized the man instantly, helped, too, by the black and orange colors and the large letter "K" on the chest.
The man nodded, seeing that Ryan recognized him.
"I thought you'd retired."
"I had," the man replied. "But I was forced to come out of retirement to help you out with this whole knife gun dilemma."
"How did you hear about that?" Ryan inquired, trusting implicitly one of his childhood heroes.
"I have some contacts in the KPD. I also have firsthand information on the perp behind this whole mess."
Ryan nodded. He was still in a bit of a state of shock in seeing Kewanee Man in person. Even though the name sounded corny, when Ryan thought of what this man had accomplished during the ten- or fifteen-year span of his career, all thoughts of the name being corny disappeared. Kewanee Man had been a crimefighter like Checkwolf, helping the police out on a number of high-profile cases. Unlike Checkwolf, though, he had augmented abilities. Rumors circulated constantly as to what might have caused his abilities, ranging from a typical science fiction premise of an unfortunate lab accident to the idea that he was a mutation. Whatever the nature of his "powers", it was hard to doubt his success. He was very secretive, though, which led a number of critics to rise against him. Ryan wasn't sure if it was this or something else that contributed to his sudden disappearance from public life about five years before. Pride would lead him to believe that Checkwolf's growing prominence may have had something to do with it, but Ryan somehow doubted that. "So that's your connection with this whole mess."
"Yes, but it goes a bit deeper than that." Kewanee Man took a deep breath. "Let me start at the beginning. Twelve years ago, a renegade SPA agent named Daniel Williams was supplying arms to various criminal elements. I was notified to assist in stopping the problem. I failed, one of my few failures and my first up to that time. A lot of people were hurt for my failure. Williams escaped before I could close in on him, and remained at large. I made sure that I kept watch for anywhere he might resurface. And he did resurface, not three days ago."
"The knife guns."
"Right," Kewanee Man affirmed. "I'd been tipped off that there would be some sort of armament transaction going on, so I dropped by to check it out, eavesdropping. I saw Williams, wearing a policeman's uniform, making a deal with a gang member, one of the Cutthroats. I wasn't in a position to take down Williams then, but he has to be dealt with. With my knowledge of Williams, and Checkwolf's knowledge of the knife guns-not to mention your high-tech equipment-I decided to seek your help."
Ryan nodded after hearing the account. He raised his comm to his mouth and called James. "We'd be glad to have your assistance," he said as the van came back around the corner.
"Well, we've trailed him to here," Ryan said as he turned and faced Kewanee Man. He still was having trouble fighting feelings of inadequacy with a living legend right amongst them. Wil, who was seated next to Kewanee Man, was feeling the same way, to judge from the look on his face.
Kewanee Man nodded. "Let's go, then." He got out of the van, followed by Alpha Squad.
"How do you want us deployed?" Ryan asked.
Kewanee Man thought for a couple of seconds as he sized up the building. "James, Wil, Brent: you three cover the exits from the building. Ryan, you and I will go to the top of the building and work our way down."
Ryan nodded. The other members took up their positions around the building. Ryan noticed that not even Brent had complained, even jokingly, about being left out of the action; everybody's respect for Kewanee Man was clear.
They had gotten to this point by backtracking through the KPD computer and finding out exactly where Daniel Williams had been stationed for his shift. After that, it was simple to find him and shadow him around the city until he got off his shift at two-thirty. His final destination was the building which they were at now, where, coincidentally, Kewanee Man had first been tipped off to Williams' plan. Evidently, this was Williams' base of operations.
"Ready?" Ryan asked Kewanee Man. He pointed his grapple at the roof and fired it. The hook flew upward through the air, went over the ledge of the roof, and caught on the other side. Ryan pushed the button to reel in the line and found himself being pulled up along the side of the building. He got to the top and pulled himself over the edge.
Crouching down, Ryan quickly made sure that he hadn't been seen. Then he turned and looked over the edge. He waved his arm, signaling Kewanee Man. Instead of using a grapple to scale the four-story building, though, Kewanee Man just jumped, seemingly without effort, landing beside Ryan. Ryan had been aware of Kewanee Man's abilities, but seeing them in person was simply amazing.
"Let's move," Kewanee Man urged. They looked around the roof and found the door leading off of it. Reaching the fourth floor, they saw no lights and no sign of activity. "You go on down to the third floor, Ryan," Kewanee Man said. "I'll check up here."
Ryan nodded and moved down to the third floor. This floor, too, looked deserted. He moved quickly, at a half-run, down the corridors, not finding any signs of life. When he returned to the stairwell, Kewanee Man was waiting. "I've already checked the second floor, too. Nobody there." Ryan momentarily wondered how he could do that so quickly before remembering Kewanee Man's abilities, including the ability to run for a prolonged time at speeds greatly higher than normal men could run. "But the ground floor looks like the jackpot."
Ryan nodded. Upon reaching the ground floor, Kewanee Man gestured that Ryan should go to the left and search that direction, while he went right. Ryan did so and moved down the corridors, still finding no one, but seeing lights ahead. Moving toward the lights, he noticed Kewanee Man waiting on the other side of a door. Ryan gestured at the door, wondering if this was the right place. Kewanee Man nodded.
Leveling his weapon at the door, Ryan nodded, covering Kewanee Man as he kicked in the door. Standing inside was a middle-aged man, who Ryan took to be Williams, and the leader of the Cutthroats. "Hello again, Williams."
"Kewanee Man?" Williams asked, incredulous. His hand was reaching to his left for something, but Ryan brandished his rifle menacingly and Williams froze, raising his hands. The Cutthroat leader, looking frightened, bolted for the door. Ryan quickly fired the rifle, dropping him, before turning back to Williams.
"Well, Williams, I don't think you'll be able to get out of this jam," Kewanee Man stated as he walked over to him. "You should have put more security in this place. In fact, I'm almost disappointed. You weren't much of a challenge. What were you thinking?" Kewanee Man asked as he put a pair of handcuffs on Williams.
A malicious grin spread on Williams face. "You haven't stopped me, you know."
Ryan looked at Kewanee Man, confused.
"What do you mean?" Kewanee Man asked.
A maniacal gleam was in Williams' eyes. Ryan gripped his rifle more tightly. "Wherever you go, there will be the knives. It's inescapable." He started laughing. He turned to Kewanee Man. "I have foreseen that you will die, one by one. It's your destiny!" His laughter then escalated into an unearthly cackle.
Ryan, baffled by all that had just transpired, looked to Kewanee Man for an explanation. The confused look in Kewanee Man's eyes was slowly replaced by sorrow as he contemplated the laughing, drooling man that he held loosely in his hands. "Williams was never too tightly hinged. He's a self-proclaimed nihilist, getting his kicks from causing mayhem, and was always just a step away from insanity. Being captured must have finally snapped him." Spittle and foam were on Williams' mouth and his eyes were unfocused as he dangled in Kewanee Man's grip. "I'll take him from here. Thanks for your help."
"Thanks for your help."
Kewanee Man nodded, then turned to leave.
"Wait!" Ryan called out.
"Are you going to come out of retirement? The city could really use your help. You could even join us. I'm sure that Sean would-"
Kewanee Man raised his hand and Ryan quieted. He shook his head sadly. "No, I'm too old for all of this. That was the reason I retired in the first place. Besides, Checkwolf has accomplished more and is better respected than I ever was. Continue to grow; continue to improve." He lifted his gloved hand in farewell, then turned and departed.