Rudy Gonzales Gonzales stood on the street corner smoking a Newport. Darkness had cloaked Capitol City an hour before. That didn't matter. Rudy was a lookout. He couldn't leave until the deal was done, then he would get paid if there was no trouble.
Capitol City's underworld was experiencing problems, and Rudy's gang had started to be more circumspect about their deals. Rumblings of a gang war filled the news even though no one knew anything.
A man dressed like a cowboy came down the sidewalk, head down, hands in his pants pockets. A shadow from the wide brim of his hat masked his face in shadow. Rudy watched him step closer, wary of the police.
"Can I get a cig from you, pard?," said the cowboy, head still down. "I have had a long day."
Rudy peered in the top of his pack, placed in his shirt pocket. He pulled one out, handing it over. He wondered how many others would be bumming smokes from him before things were wrapped up.
"Light?," said the cowboy.
Rudy thumbed a BIC to life, holding it out. The flame from the lighter revealed the man's face was masked by a bandana. Rudy dropped his lighter as he went for his gun in the back of his waistband.
He found himself looking down the barrel of a Colt revolver before he was halfway there.
"I wouldn't," said the cowboy.
The cowboy cuffed Rudy to a light pole, after searching him for other weapons. He gave a wave in the air to say he was ready.
A dog's howl answered his wave.
The cowboy walked over to the alley mouth. His goal was at the far end. This part of the plan was the most dangerous.
He was supposed to herd the men doing their deal to the other end of the alley in the arms of the others.
He would be in trouble if they decided to rush him.
He stepped out in the light.
"This is Nevada Jones," the cowboy said. "Throw down your pieces and no one gets hurt."
The dealers went for the sidearms and submachine guns they carried. Jones emptied his revolvers before any of them could point a gun at him, much less pull a trigger. Bullets drove the men to cover with some going down from holes smashed through them.
None of them ran the other way.
The two cars started up as Jones reloaded his pistols next to the wall. They roared down on him as he pulled both barrels up and pulled the triggers. Bullets smashed the lead car's front window in a cloud of smoke. The car slid into a wall, spun when the other car hit it from behind.
"So much for the plan," Jones said to himself as he sprayed the rest of his rounds at anyone who looked like they were aiming a weapon at him.
A man dressed in green and red dropped behind the wrecked cars. A boy in black leather was right behind him. The armed men turned when the pair fell on them with swinging fists.
Jones reloaded as he ran forward. No use letting the others have all the fun.
The two gangs found themselves in hand to hand with the three costumed guys and afraid to shoot for fear of hitting each other.
A woman in a bathing suit fell out of the sky, impacting against the roof of one of the cars with a terrific violence. The roof caved in, trapping whomever stayed in the car when it crumpled up.
"Time for some Pow-Girl action," she said as she hopped on to one of the gun men, punching him in the face.
The kid in black gestured and a knife pinned a man to the other car by his sleeve. The man wrenched at the blade as the kid kicked hard below the belt. He collapsed, pulling his jacket free with the pain.
A dog barked as it leaped on the leader of the sellers. It clamped down on the man's neck and held him there as they hit the ground. The dog growled, the threat clear.
"Looks like we win," Pow-Girl said, smiling.
John Raymond listened to the radio as he shaved. His houseguest had decided to cook breakfast while he was getting ready for his day. He had followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming a professor of criminology, and taking on the guise of the Web. The teaching had taken precedence since his guest had literally dropped out of the sky.
The news announcer caught his attention with a blurb. He stopped to listen.
"Last night, a group of vigilantes calling themselves the Capitol City Crusaders, led by a woman calling herself Pow-Girl, captured several alleged major drug dealers. Taped evidence of the deal was handed over to the police with the wounded men.
"Enrique Camerone, the alleged ring leader of the group captured, stated he was not guilty, and planned to file charges for attempted murder, since one of the Crusaders shot him in the hand."
Raymond cut the rest of the broadcast off. His mother had once called herself Pow-Girl before he was born. He remembered his father had said it was the only case she had took part in. He needed to check with Dad in Washington, but knew his mother had not suddenly gone back in the hero business after harassing his father about it.
John went back in the bathroom to finish shaving. He would have to ask for time off to chase this down. He couldn't have someone besmirching the family name.
John ate his breakfast slowly, watching his houseguest putter around the kitchen. He didn't want to leave her alone, while he was out chasing phantoms across the country.
"Darla?," he said, groping for the right word. "I'm going out of town for a few days. I was wandering if you wanted to go with me, or stay here and house sit for me until I get back."
The brunette smiled at John, almost laughing. She dumped the remains of her meal in the trash, placing dish in the sink.
"Are you sure?," said Darla. "My powers have returned almost to full power. I would be happy to go with you and look into whatever it is that is bothering you."
"It's just that you seem frailer since you have got back," said John. "I don't want to risk your life on some kind of snipe hunt."
"Don't worry, John," said the former Darkling. "I will be as careful as I can be."
"I'll get tickets for us after I arrange for some time off from class," said John. "We'll fly out and take a look at these Capitol City Crusaders."
"Good," said Darla, smiling quietly. "It'll be good to get back in harness after so long trapped in my mind."
Evan Russell was dressed in his usual black, half mask applied to his face. Evan moved across the rooftops of the city nimbly. He had an uncanny feel for which way his body should move to get him across the cornices and blind spots caused by different types of buildings being put up with no eye for similarity.
The group called him Kid Satan, after a vigilante that came and went with World War II. Evan didn't mind. A name doesn't change what you are, even a name as bad as that.
It still wasn't as bad as Pow-Girl, or Rang-a-tang, to his way of thinking.
Evan paused as the man he was following paused. When the man finished his look around for any tails and started walking again, the Kid was right behind him six floors up and to the right.
The man stepped into a restaurant, heading for a table in the back. Evan used a set of small binoculars to make sure the man sat down before using a traffic light cable to cross over to the restaurant's roof.
He sat down to wait for his lead to finish talking and get on with his journey.
Joanne Delarosa jogged through Washington Park with her dog, Rang-a-tang. He stayed at her side growling at anyone who came too close to Joanne's path. She smiled, wondering how such a dog latched on to her.
She never owned a pet before in her life, then Rang-a-tang appeared out of nowhere, vanishing sometimes only to return.
Sometimes she felt an almost human intelligence glaring at her. Most times, the dog acted like a dog who wanted to play fetch and chase cars.
That's when she felt he was putting her on.
Joanne's pager went off as she reached the far end of the park. She checked it as she ran up the hill to the entrance. Henry wanted her to call back as soon as possible. She looked around for a pay phone, spotting one down the street. She jogged to it, aware that some guys were surrounding her.
Rang-a-tang looked at them, suddenly friendly and tail wagging. His ears pointed forward as his tongue hung out over his lower jaw.
Joanne picked up the phone, noting the cord had been cut as she looked at it.
"Hey, baby!," called one of the four men. "We was wanting to know if you could go down on us."
"I don't have time right now," Joanne said, slamming the inoperative phone down.
"Make time," said the spokesman, pulling out a knife with a smile.
Something seized him below the waist. Incredible pain shot up through his spine. He reversed the knife to stab the suddenly vicious dog.
"I wouldn't," said Joanne. "He would rip them off before you killed him. Then I would finish the job he started. I think it's time for you guys to move on."
The gang took their wounded leader with hateful glares at the strange German Shepherd.
It seemed to be laughing at them.
John Raymond and Darla Lang arrived at La Guardia with overnight bags in tow. John had collected a book of clippings to study on the flight out. His analytical mind kept itself with the problem as he tried to carry on a conversation with Darla at the same time.
"We could have asked for a lift from Joe," she said as she looked around the departure area.
"This isn't important enough to bother the team with," John said. "I just want to look at these guys and find out what they are thinking."
"Helping the public good," said Darla, smiling slightly.
"They aren't Thunderbunny," said John, smiling to himself. "I still bad about that."
"You can't doubt a seven foot pink rabbit," said Darla.
"Tell me about it," said John. "Uncle Ralph still has something to say about that."
"I am sure Jaguar has had his own misjudgments."
The number of their plane came up over the public announcement system. The couple picked up their carry-ons, and headed toward their flight. A few hours later, they would be in Capitol City, looking for the group of strangers.
Henry Jones waited quietly as Joanne Delarosa and Rang-a-tang walked up. He checked his watch as he pushed his fedora back slightly from his brow.
"What's going on, Henry?," Joanne asked. She had showered and changed into a pants suit before driving to the meeting. She had parked her car in a public garage and walked over. The dog had rode in the back seat, staring at passersby.
"Someone raided a graveyard this morning," Jones said. "Took every body out of the ground and got out before anyone noticed."
"What's that got to do with us?," Joanne asked. "The police can handle grave robbing."
"One of the dead guys is sitting in the same restaurant as Juan Ortiz," said Jones. "Evan spotted him when he went in and took a seat. He seems to be watching Ortiz like we are."
"A zombie is watching one of the biggest dealers in town in a restaurant," said Joanne. "You have got to be kidding me."
Jones shook his head.
"Evan knows his stuff," he said. "That's why I called. I want to find out what is going on."
John Raymond and Darla Lang got through Capitol Airport's security easily enough. They grabbed a cab to the hotel that John had arranged rooms at. He had wanted to just get one, but didn't know how to ask Darkling to share a room with him.
He was attracted to her, but didn't want to seem like he was taking advantage of her return, and the time she was using to recover from her ordeal.
Mr. Justice had done his best to heal her, but no one knew kind of repercussions her coma would have on her.
"Penny for your thoughts," Darla said.
"I thought we would get settled in," said John. "Then we can start checking on these crusaders using the local newspaper morgue."
"Okay," said Darla. "Are you sure you want to do this, John? This group does seem to be trying to help out."
"I am giving them the benefit of the doubt," said John. "I just want to know why they picked a name my mother once used back in the fifties. It wasn't general public knowledge as far as I know."
"I expect they picked it because it has been inactive for so long," Darla said. "They might just think the original died years ago."
"I know," said John. "My dad commented on her trying to keep him home often enough when I was a kid. Adventuring was not for the happily married man."
Darla smiled. She had met both of John's parents. The elder Web had taken his son's place on a case, and gotten the Fox to help him against the Gasser and Martial Law, minions of the Brain Emperor. John had told her about that when he uploaded the new files into the Crusader data base one night before she had been flayed alive.
Jerry Kendall dropped beside Evan Russell at his vantage point. He wore green pants and shirt under a red jacket. A red mask covered his face, but not his glittering eyes.
"Where's our guy?," he asked quietly.
"He's sitting down there next to the plant in the window," Evan said, pointing. "What do you think?"
"That certainly looks like Garcia," said the Scarlet Avenger, frowning at the sight. "I wonder how that can be with the burial I went to. Dummy in the coffin?"
"We could go down and ask," said Evan.
"It will alert Ortiz we are casing him," said Jerry. "I alerted Nevada, and he is getting Pow-Girl and the dog. We might have to let Ortiz slip through so we can find out how Garcia slipped out of being dead."
"This could get nasty if Ortiz spots the guy," said Kid Satan. "They didn't exactly get along before Garcia bought it."
"I know," said Jerry.
Garcia has been surprised in the mansion he had bought from his efforts in the drug trade by a hit man. He had been shot five, or six, times in his tub. Ortiz supposedly bought the hit, but proof was scant while speculation ran wild. Jerry had been at the funeral, taking notes on the other attendees. It read like a list from the FBI's most watched list.
Henry Jones and Joanne Delarosa arrived minutes later. They had changed into their working clothes before arriving.
"Where is the evil dog?," Evan asked.
"I told him to stay in the car," said Joanne. "You know how he is."
"He might be there or not," said Evan.
"It's just a dog," said Jerry, watching the street.
"Sure, pard," said Nevada Jones, voice different in inflection from his unmasked persona. "You just keep thinking that."
"The dog isn't in the car," said Jerry. "He's down in the street."
The Scarlet Avenger uncoiled some thin rope from around his waist. He wrapped one end around the ventilation outlet. He wrapped the other end around his fist. He dropped over the side of the building, and slid down toward the street in a controlled fall.
"You have got to talk to Rang-a-tang about being a team player," Evan said. "He's your dog."
Kid Satan ran to the edge of the roof and jumped down to a flagpole, bounced against the side of the building, and used a canopy for a trampoline.
Joanne jumped off the side of the building, landing lightly on the sidewalk. Energy flowed into her from the impact. She leaped across the street on the rebound. She landed lightly at the door, sweeping it aside with a shoulder.
Ortiz jumped to his feet at the noisy intrusion. He reached for the pistol under his arm, only seeing the woman in the pink bathing suit charging across the room. Then something with too many teeth grabbed his arm, pushing him back over his chair with a growl.
Pow-Girl ran across the room, her attention on the yellowed eye man standing up at his table. She leapt the last few feet. She channeled the impact into the zombie, slamming it back against the wall. She landed on her feet, arms raised on guard.
Garcia climbed slowly to his feet, swinging one hand at his attacker. A gloved fist knocked the blow aside, leeching the kinetic power away from the impact. A counterpunch slammed the dead man through the plaster to the wood underneath.
Kid Satan and the Scarlet Avenger rushed into the cafe next as people started panicking. The Kid used the wall to bounce around to where Ortiz and Rang-a-tang were struggling for dominance. A simple kick to the head stopped that.
"We can't take you anywhere," Evan said to the panting Shepherd.
"Arf," the dog said back, then a low growl as it turned to face where Joanne had backed the reanimated Garcia against the wall.
The Scarlet Avenger thrust through the crowd as they tried to decide to stampede the door. He pushed people aside with his broad shoulders, reaching for a crystal salt holder. He pulled clear to join Pow-Girl, who was keeping the zombie busy, even if she wasn't hurting it.
Garcia grabbed Joanne around the neck and proceeded to choke her. She struggled, kicking him and punching him, but she had used up all of her absorbed kinetic energy. It lifted her off the floor to minimize any leverage she might be able to purchase.
Jerry Kendall came in on its left, top off the salt shaker. He crammed the thing into Garcia's mouth as hard as he could. The white crystals flew out of the container in a white cloud.
"Salt!," the zombie said.
Garcia's body stopped again, releasing its grip as it fell over a table and dropped to the floor. The salt marked its lips, a white blemish against bluing skin.
"Thanks, SA," Joanne said, rubbing her neck.
"Let's get Ortiz and ask some hard questions," Jerry said.
Raul Ortiz awoke in a dark room, arm complaining about the treatment it had received at the cafe. Blood crusted the sleeve of his jacket, and the shirt underneath.
A light flicked on in his eyes. He squinted against it, finding his arms were handcuffed to the arms of his wooden chair. He tried to move his legs, found them manacled to the chair's legs.
"What's going on?," he demanded, making his chair skip in outrage.
"Why don't you explain why a dead man was watching you?," a voice drawled in the darkness. "You do know that Juan Felipe Garcia was watching you eat?"
"I don't know what you are talking about," said Ortiz. "Garcia's dead."
"Let me rephrase," said the accent behind the light. "Somebody was watching you at the restaurant. He looked like Garcia. What do you think the explanation is?"
"I don't know," said Ortiz. He shifted his face so that the light would not be shining directly in his eyes. "Everybody thinks I put a contract on the old coot. Maybe someone wanted to rattle me. Scare me."
"Did you put the contract on Garcia?"
"No," said Ortiz. "No one knows who did it. I had heard some guys from Jamaica did it. The Posses were trying to grab his coke business at that time. It saved them a war."
"Interesting," said the voice, as the light clicked out.
John Raymond and Darla Lang stood on a sidewalk. Across the street police and forensics techs examined the evidence of an assault by the Capitol City Crusaders. They watched the processing, waiting for the place to clear so that John could take his own look.
Darla had been able to overhear witnesses making their statements on the street. She had a general picture of what had happened inside the café.
John just wanted to walk through on his own to see if he could find anything the police might miss. He and Darla planned to look at the evidence locker later in the night.
After hours, the official investigators cleared out. Night had stalked down, clearing the street of casual pedestrians. Yellow tape blocked the front door.
"Do you think you can get us in?," John asked.
Darla had not used her powers as far as he could tell since Mr. Justice had healed her at Mercy General. He didn't want her to strain and hurt herself when he could just pick the lock with the tools concealed in his jacket.
"Easily, John," Darkling said, waving her hand around him.
The couple popped out of existence on the sidewalk. They reappeared inside the darkened eatery. John flicked his flashlight on, sweeping the main dining room in its beam.
"Let's walk through the story," John said, going to the door and turning to face the room.
Darla started speaking, stating what she had heard. John stepped through the account, using the light as a pointer. They went over the dining room, using the remains of the room to back up or discredit the points of what was said.
"What do we do with Ortiz?," Evan Russell said.
"We let him go," said Henry Jones. "This thing with the zombie should be our first priority."
"Garcia wasn't the only one dug up," Jerry Kendall said. "I did some checking. At least ten others have been exhumed. We can probably assume that they are walking around Capitol City too."
"That's a pleasant thought," Joanne said. "How do we find out who created the Garcia zombie?"
"We start asking questions until we find someone who can point us in the right direction," said Jones. "Creating these guys and turning them loose may mean the brain is getting ready to strike at the big dealers in the city. A zombie might be watching all the competition for a chink in the armor."
"Sounds like the only plan we got," said Joanne. "How do we divide this up?"
"Evan can dump Ortiz where he'll be found," said Jones. "Jerry is our best researcher, and can look into anything that raises dead men. We'll look for someone watching the dealers and their places."
"Let's get it done," Evan said. "One of the kingpins is bound to notice a dead guy watching his house. Who knows what will happen when that happens."
The group split up to carry out their duties.
Jerry Kendall started his research in his library. He had amassed numerous files and scrap books on every known paranormal incident in the world. His collection went back to the war, and the first appearances of Mr. Justice and the Green Ghoul. These books were stored side by side with every nonfiction book he could get his hands on about his chosen field.
Someday he hoped to have it computerized so he could instantly have an answer for any inquiry he came up with.
For now, he went a section dedicated to supernatural events and started reading. His finger dialed down each page with amazing speed. In a few hours, he had isolated a series of events that happened during World War II. He made a list of the known facts on a piece of legal paper, before putting his resources back where they belonged.
It was a slim lead, but better than nothing at all.
He cut the lights, using the abandoned secret door to get out on the street without being seen. He went to his car and drove back to HQ. He could pick Evan up, and join the others.
Evan Russell stood on the roof across the street from his favorite police precinct. He had simply dropped Ortiz on the front steps in the middle of a lull and vanished back to the rooftops before anyone had seen him. A few minutes later, cops had spotted Ortiz struggling to get out of his bonds. They took him inside.
Evan wondered how long they would be able to hold him. He had no doubt that Ortiz would join the hunt as soon as he could get out of their custody.
That would give the vigilantes another shot at him with his hand in the cookie jar.
Evan turned away. He headed across the roofs, leaping across any gap with the agility of a monkey. He had always had that gift. It had helped him survive on the streets after his parents had died.
He wasn't quite sure about this hero thing. He definitely didn't like the dog. Still Henry and Jo had taken him in and given him something to look forward too. That was something at least.
It beat running from gangs who tried to catch him to rob, and beat him senseless because he wandered on to the wrong turf.
Henry Jones and Joanne Delarosa sat in the old Buick that Henry had bought as a cover vehicle with a fake license and insurance coverage. He had wanted a car that he didn't care if it was destroyed in the line of duty.
They had toured a few other places before parking down the block from Luigi Corleone's place. They had found zombie watchman at the other homes they had looked at. They hadn't seen one on the street like they had at the others.
So they waited for the watcher to show itself.
Finally something in a set of bushes moved slightly. Jones locked his binoculars on the shrubbery. An opossum wandered out of the brushes. It's head faced over its shoulder, glaring at whatever had driven it from cover.
"It looks like we have a hit here too," said Jones, putting the binoculars in a case on the floorboard of his car. "Looks like we need to regroup and figure out what we're going to do about it."
"Zombie invasions," said Jo, looking at her reflection in the window. "That's a heck of a next step up from busting drug deals."
"I know," said Jones, turning the key in the ignition. "Obviously something is in the wind. We might not have a bunch of little bosses to deal with if a takeover is done."
"Is that good, or bad?," Jo asked, as the car pulled away from the curb.
"I don't know," said Jones. "A war might start if the current guys start blaming each other for what is going on. A lot of innocents could get caught in the crossfire."
The Buick rolled pass the watcher, vanished around a corner into the night.
John Raymond and Darla Lang shared an interrogation room with Juan Ortiz. He had been brought in for questioning about the scene at the restaurant earlier.
"I am not with the police, Mr. Ortiz," John said. "All I want to know is what you saw because I am interested in your assailants."
"I didn't get to see much since this ugly German Shepherd grabbed my arm."
Ortiz rolled up his sleeve to show the bite marks in his forearm.
"Did you know that Garcia's grave was dug up?," John asked. "The police checked and found that out when they saw who was on the floor."
"I don't know anything about that," said Ortiz. "When that girl busted in where I was eating, I just thought she was after me. Then that dog was all over me. I fell down and was knocked out. Then those guys were asking me questions. Then they gagged and blindfolded me and dropped me off here.
"Since I haven't done anything, I would like to leave," Ortiz said.
John looked over at Darla. She nodded silently.
"By all means," said John. "You're free to go."
The Capitol City Crusaders regrouped at their headquarters. A few minutes of comparing notes over soda and tea left them silent as they thought about what their next move should be. Removing the zombies was a temporary measure if they couldn't find the creator.
"If we could find out what happened to Zarro when he fought Mr. Justice, that might be able to give us a starting point," said Jerry. "Unfortunately, Mr. Justice didn't leave us any record of what happened."
"Maybe we could check real estate records," said Jo. "He might have settled in a house, or an empty building."
"The hall of records would have any property changes," said Henry. "How would we narrow that down if we found someone likely?"
"I say we get one of these zombies and make them talk," said Evan. "Turn the dog loose on him."
The others looked at Evan, who shrugged. It was the only thing he could think of to say.
"You know," Henry said. "You are so much of a genius, it's scary."
"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?," said Jo.
"I don't follow," said Evan.
"Rang-a-tang is going to lead us to our mastermind," said Henry. "Hopefully his nose will be the only clue we need."
"No way," said Jerry. "His nose isn't that sensitive."
The huge German Shepherd growled in disagreement from the floor. Its ears pointed straight back for a moment as sharp fangs glinted in the lamp light.
"I could be wrong," said Jerry, holding up his hands.
The group decided to confront one of the zombie sentinels. Their main purpose was to scare the zombie back to its creator, and trail it using Rang-a-tang. If that wasn't successful, they would take that zombie, and examine it for clues.
Henry and Jo drove up within a block of the target. Rang-a-tang rode in the back seat, large head out of the window, tongue lolling. Jerry was in his scarlet cruiser a few streets over. Evan was on foot.
His speed and climbing ability would allow him to track the zombie on foot if he had too.
Henry raised his hand radio, keying the button with his thumb.
"We're getting ready to release the hound," he said. "Everyone ready?"
"Let's go," said Evan.
"On the mark," said Jerry.
"Sic him," Jo said to her monster dog.
Rang-a-tang leaped out of the window, barking at full strength. Barks from other dogs in the neighborhood joined the chorus as the shepherd charged down the sidewalk. The zombie turned at the uproar, slow surprise on its face. Rheumy eyes widened as the giant dog leaped at its chest. Both went down in a flurry of swinging limbs.
The zombie got to his feet. He pulled away from the teeth ripping at his ankle with an effort. He started running as Rang-a-tang barked at him. The dog gave chase, tail wagging in a friendly manner, almost grinning.
"Our boy is on his way," said Henry.
"I got him," said Evan. "He's slower than dirt."
"Take it easy, Kid," said Henry. "We just want to follow him until we find his base."
Jo called Rang-a-tang back. The giant dog romped back, tongue lolling out of its mouth. Its tail wagged its whole back end.
"Good dog," Jo said, scratching the shepherd between its ears. "You made me proud."
"Get him in the car," said Jones. "We have to go."
"You heard the man," said Jo, pulling her seat forward. "Get in the back."
Rang-a-tang bounded into the car, rocking the frame as he settled in his seat. He licked Jo's ear as she slid in the front seat. Then the giant nose went out the open window, sniffing the air.
"I keep telling you," Jones said. "Obedience school would do wonders with that galumpher."
"He obeys just fine," Jo said.
"Arf," said Rang-a-tang in agreement.
"Yeah, he's a regular Scooby Doo," said Jones, putting the car in gear. He rolled forward, looking for the fleeing zombie.
"The guy is heading down Conover Street," said the Kid. "He jumped a fence, went across a back yard. I'm right behind him."
"I am on Eastland," Jerry said. "He's crossing the street to my left."
Jones checked the streets as he drove. He turned when he crossed the two mentioned streets. He was parallel to Jerry's street, pausing to watch for the subject. He nodded when he saw the zombie keep going on Conover two blocks down.
Jerry passed moments later in his car, passing the zombie and then turning down a side street.
"SA," Henry said. "We're running off to one side. Can you lead this guy from the front?"
"Maybe," said Jerry. "Depends on how smart he is. How many other cars are out there that look exactly like mine? He is sure to notice a red sports car dogging him, no matter how stupid we think he is."
"Copy that," said Jones. "Same for my car."
"Guy is heading for a bus stop," said Evan. "Corner of Conover and Westlake. He seems to be waiting for a bus."
"What's the route number?," Jerry asked.
"Number Thirty-four," said Evan. "It's outbound."
"Got it," said Jerry.
Jerry kept the bus in sight, following the route a few streets over. When it stopped to let someone on or off, he swung cross the streets to make sure his subject was not getting off the bus.
It was risky. He might be seen. Red sports cars roamed the streets, but how many would intersect a bus as it rolled through the city?
Jones and the girl were already on the way to the last stop on the line. It was a five story mall on the edge of the suburbs. The zombie might lead them to its creator when it got off the bus. Jerry didn't want to think this was a wild goose chase.
Maybe one of them should have stayed to watch the dead man's subject.
Jerry put the doubt aside. They could second guess when things went south. Right now they only had this one lead. If they blew it, who knew what could happen. A gang war was never confined to the gangs fighting it.
Jerry waited for the bus to stop. He winced when he saw Evan get on the bus. The Kid must have sprinted top speed to make the stop, so he could catch a ride. The Avenger knew that he couldn't use the radio to let Evan know anything as long as the zombie could hear it too.
Jerry followed the bus at a distance as it headed for the last stop. He hoped Evan knew what he was doing.
Kid Satan pretended to be looking at the passing streets. His eyes, concealed by the sunglasses he wore, were really looking at the reflection of the zombie in the rearmost seat. The pale cadaver kept his face averted from the other passengers as he waited for the bus to reach his stop.
Evan wondered what it was like to die and be brought back to life. It didn't look that great to him.
The bus pulled up to the front of the mall after circling the parking lot. The driver opened the double doors for his passengers, letting them off before he went inside the mall himself. It was time for a bathroom break.
Evan joined the line as soon as he could, and got off. He went to the door. He tried to keep an eye on the bus without looking conspicuous.
The zombie might be stupid, but sooner or later he would notice Evan was watching him. Then they would lose their only lead to the headman.
Evan wasn't about to do that.
The watcher passed the boy without interest. He headed toward the main concourse as Evan slipped in behind him. The walking dead man led the way to a Sears. He headed into the women's lingerie section. Evan hung back.
What can a zombie want with frilly underwear?
Evan smiled as the zombie stepped into the women's changing rooms. There had to be an exit in there.
"He just went into the women's changing room in the Sears," Evan said into his radio. "I suggest Rang-a-tang be brought in here to sniff him out somehow."
"Got it, Kid," said Jones. "We're getting a face ready. Jerry, circle the building. This could be a run to another door while we're looking at his fadeout."
"Got it," said Jerry.
"Okay, Kid," Jones said. "We're coming in."
"Right," said Evan. "If he comes out, will give you the heads up."
John Raymond and Darla Lang had been able to use the glimpse into Juan Ortiz's mind to plan the next steps in their investigation. They decided that finding another zombie to question was the thing to do.
A quick inspection of other major criminals allowed them to pinpoint dead watchers on the street. Unfortunately Darla couldn't scan what passed for their minds.
The couple sat in their rental car down the block from the latest one they had found.
"How do you want to go about this?," John asked. "I think we're at a point where we have to let the authorities know what we think."
"There's nothing to tie these zombies with any crime other than abusing a corpse," said Darla. "There's no evidence of anything else criminal intended. We don't have a lead to whomever's behind this."
"Questioning the living talent won't get us far," John said. "They seem unaware of what's going on."
"Let's tell them," said Darla. "We don't have anything else in our hand."
John considered the suggestion carefully. He smiled.
"Let's do that," he said. "It might be just enough the leverage we're looking for."
It took a little time, but John was able to get the unlisted numbers for the people he wanted to call. Then he left messages with whomever answered the phone. He and Darkling moved to watch the resulting actions as one of the local mobsters and his bodyguards confronted the undead snooper across the street from his small estate.
The zombie made a break for it as shots rang out. John winced as the watcher fled, bullet holes appearing in his back like sprouting, rotten flowers. The observer headed for a bus stop, looking for anything to get it out of its problem.
It settled on stepping in front of a car. It bounced to a stop on the pavement as the driver slammed on his brakes. The concerned motorist jumped out from behind his wheel. He ran to inspect what he thought was an injured pedestrian. Two pale hands pushed him out of the way as the zombie surged to the driver's side of the car. Suddenly aware his car was being stolen, the victim tried to stop the thief. A punch dropped him to the ground.
The bodyguards ran up to the car. Bullets punched holes in the metal as the zombie drove off. The driver bitterly complained to the gangsters. The men dismissed him as they walked back to their estate.
"That went better than I thought," said John.
He was talking to himself because Darkling had already stepped across space to keep their spooked quarry under supervision.
Phase one was complete.
Jo Delarosa walked in the store, cane tapping in front of her. Wraparound sunglasses covered her bright eyes. She, and Jones, had contrived to get Rang-a-tang on a leash. He walked at her side with an evil grin.
Evan pretended to look at clothes on a rack as he watched Jo cross the room. Every few steps, the giant Shepherd snorted, almost sneezing. The Kid thought it was because of the smell the zombie left behind. He fidgeted as he waited for the pair to enter the changing rooms. He sighed when they vanished.
"They went in," he said into his radio. "I have my eye on the door."
"You see anything, Jerry?," Jones asked, voice crackling on the handset.
"Just you circling the lot with me," said the Scarlet Avenger.
"Let's go in," said Jones.
Evan shifted position, heading for a perfume counter where he could still see the entrance. He got the attention of the clerk on duty, and pretended to be interested in her sales pitch while trying to look like a customer.
By the time the other crusaders had met him, Evan had started to worry. Jo had not returned from looking at the rooms. He didn't say anything. Jones and Kendall looked grim with worry themselves.
"We give her five more minutes," Jones said, glancing at his watch. "Then we go in and get her."
One quick look around with Rang-a-tang was enough for Jo to find the hidden door in the last booth. It was concealed behind the wall across from the modeling mirror on the other side of the cubicle. She pulled on the hook, twisted it, until the panel slid out of the way to let her through.
Jo stepped into the uncovered passage, cane gripped tight in her hand. The gigantic dog skulked along behind her. A buzzsaw growl escaped his throat as his ears pressed back against his skull.
"Quiet," said Jo. "We're being sneaky."
The dog stopped growling, sniffing the air suspiciously as they walked on.
Jo paused at a door at the end of the hall. She pushed on it gently. It creaked quietly as it opened.
Zombies stared at the two intruders with dead, yellow eyes. Their features hung slackly on their skulls. Pale hands came up in a lurching fashion.
"Great," said Jo. "The short bus brigade."
Rang-a-tang leaped forward with an angry machine gun bark. He pulled one of the animated corpses down with one massive bite around a leg. He dragged his helpless victim across the floor with a vicious shaking of its head. The unlucky corpse knocked some of its comrades down with its flailing limbs.
Jo swung at the closest foe, absorbing the impact as she swung again. Boosted strength leveled the next one in line. She flung herself on her enemies, sucking in what she could as the group grabbed her. Her energy was nowhere near what she needed to escape.
They dragged her away as the dog was held back by the remaining zombies.
"This is taking too long," Jones said. "Jo must have got into trouble."
"Let's go in," said Jerry. One hand pulled the scarlet wraparound mask he used out of a jacket pocket.
Even nodded. One of his knives was ready in his hand, blade against his arm for concealment.
Jones pulled up the kerchief he used for a disguise and led the way into the changing room. A few moments of embarrassing searching showed them the way Jo went. Rang-a-tang's frantic barking echoed down the secret passage.
Jones pulled one of his pistols as he stepped inside the tunnel. He proceeded quickly but warily along, pistol at the ready. Bullets wouldn't stop any zombie for good, but they would act like a hammer when they did hit.
The trio arrived where Rang-a-tang danced at the edges of a crowd trying to corral him. The big dog barked like a machine gun as pale hands reached for him. Jones took careful with his pistol. The six shooter roared in a cloud of smoke. His target flipped head over heels from the heavy blow.
Jerry produced a bottle of salt from his red jacket. He leaped forward, flicking the salt in from of him at the end of his waving arm. Some flew in the face of the nearest dead men. The corpses looked around in sudden realization before running down the tunnel towards the light from the department store.
Evan leaped among the crowd swinging his knife in slashing arcs to keep the minions back as Jerry threw more salt on the dead men. Rang-a-tang took advantage of the sudden melee to rush past the fight to be at Jo's side where he was needed.
Darkling easily followed the zombie she and John had disturbed. Her cape whirled around her as she stepped across city blocks. It was easy for her to follow the blank spot in the background thoughts on the street. The creature led her to a store in a shopping mall.
Darkling stood on the roof of the building. She was supposed to rest and recover, not do field work. Mr. Justice had washed most of the major wounds away, but her mind still bore scars from the mental blasts she had suffered from the Brain Emperor.
It was a miracle she had even returned to this dimension after what she had undergone.
Darkling returned to where John waited in the rental car. He had changed into the green and yellow checkerboard costume of the Web while she was following their quarry.
"I think I have found the zombie's home base," Darla said. "It's across town. It seems to be in a shopping mall."
"Let's drive over, and look at it," said John. "I wouldn't be too surprised that the place we want is in some secret underground base."
"That would be par for the course," said Darla, smiling slightly. It felt good to smile again.
John started the rental car and drove through the city streets until Darla's directions led him to a parking lot. He pulled in close to the store's front doors. Darla put an arm around John's shoulders, and yanked him across the intervening space to the roof of the building.
Playing in the Minors 33
"I think we might be too late, Web," said Darkling. "There is something desperate happening."
"Let's see what we can do," said the Web. "Just stay behind me when we get there."
Darla smiled at the thought.
She wrapped her cape around them, shunting them to the center of the disturbance she felt. They arrived in an inner hall away from the busy storefronts.
"Stupid dog," a man with a bandana around the lower part of his face. One hand had a zombie around the neck, while the other used the butt of a pistol on its skull. "Kid, get after him."
The boy in black leather used the face of his opponent as a vault to shoot over the whirling crowd. He landed on the other side of the defensive line as gentle as a falling leaf. Then he vanished down the corridor in a dead run.
"Stay here," said John.
He charged forward before Darla could say anything. She read the worry that was uppermost in his thoughts. He was afraid of allowing to her to be injured again. Still others were in trouble and she had to help. She wrapped her cloak around her to follow the Kid.
The Web crashed among the zombies. His sudden move threw back the line, causing several to fall to the floor. A right hook dumped one on the floor as the man in green and red mask poured something white on the face of his enemy. The zombie shook on the floor in a second death throe.
"What is that?," the Web, using a throw to clear room around him.
"Salt," said the Scarlet Avenger. "These guys hate the stuff."
The three crusaders formed a triangle, already deciding to fight their way out of the trap. John was glad that Darla was waiting away from the action as he threw an animated corpse down to be salted by the Avenger. She was out of danger, and he wanted to keep it that way. He didn't want to lose her again.
He looked around after a moment. He realized that all of the enemies had been taken care of. The other two were already heading after their comrade.
Jo Delarosa staggered as her captor pushed her into a large chamber. Other zombies stood around, staring blindly at their surroundings. Their leader glared at her with wild, red eyes. His shock of hair danced atop his skull. Fangs parted his red lips in a grimace of displeasure.
"Another meddler," said the zombie master. "Get rid of her. My plan has no room for interference."
The zombies closed on the crusader without emotion. Their master had ordered, and they would obey.
Jo backed up in a corner. She needed to charge her powers to effectively fight back. That meant that she would have to be hit, or hit something.
You just have to stall long enough for the others to get here. Do that.
"Who are you?," Jo asked, holding her hands up to fend off the advancing attackers.
"I am Zarro, the Zombie Master," said the pale giant. "I've finally returned to exact my revenge on the homeland of my enemy, Mr. Justice."
"Mr. Justice?," said Jo.
"It'll have to wait a while longer," said a somber female voice.
A long, dark cape appeared out of thin air, draping over Jo's shoulders. The cape retracted into nothingness. Jo vanished with it.
Barking echoed down the long hall as Rang-a-tang appeared with glistening fangs. He growled as two women appeared at his side. One was Jo in her pink Pow-Girl costume. The other was Darkling, cape swirling slightly from entering reality.
"Let's try this again," Jo said. A smile crossed her lips.
Zarro held up his hand. His thin lips drew back in a snarl at the intruders in his lair. His minions were tough, but he knew they were no match for superhumans of any stripe. His lair was compromised, and needed to be vacated before more meddlers arrived on the scene.
"Kill the women and the dog," he commanded, as he limped to a concealed door behind his throne. Beyond that were tunnels leading out of the mall, to the sewer system under the city.
He was surprised by the boot striking his face as the Darkling appeared in front of him. He staggered back off balance. His pale flesh shivered under the impact, sliding along the bone and retracting back in place.
"I think you should stay," Darkling said, cape whirling around her.
Zarro reached in his sleeve. He pulled out a cloud of smoke that obscured his tall form in a moment. It spread out in wavy fingers in a foggy shield.
Darkling waited for his next move. Her telepathy slid off his mind as she tried to probe for his intentions. She was not surprised by the mental block.
She felt clawed hands reaching for her throat. She flickered to let the grab pass to one side, pushing forward with her own thrusting hands. The giant zombie master fell off balance. He slid on his face across the gritty floor.
Darkling kicked him in the side of the head before he could get back to his feet. His rubber flesh seemed unaffected by the move.
How had Mr. Justice defeated this menace?
Jo used the wall to give her a little energy to channel into a punch that knocked the first zombie reaching for her to the floor. She should retreat, knowing that she couldn't hurt them with her fists. Instead, she did a flying tackle into the crowd. The front rank of zombies collapsed with her on top. She struggled to back to her feet as dead hands tried to hold her for the others to grab.
Rang-a-tang leaped forward. His powerful jaws clamped and tore as he bounded through the crowd. His massive shoulders knocked over any of the creatures trying to contain him. His ferocity drove the creatures back to give Pow-Girl a reprieve.
Most animals would retreat from the smell of the things, but the Shepard glared at them with hatred in his brown eyes.
Jo kicked one of the walking corpses as she got to her feet. Absorbed energy flipped it across the room. She pushed grabby hands away as Rang-a-tang snapped at ankles by her side. She had to retreat as the zombies tried to surround her and pull her down.
The slight figure of Kid Satan leaped on the scene, bowling over half of the crowd with a powerful drop kick. He bounced away, somersaulting to land on his feet gracefully. He blocked some slow punches before slicing his opponents with his dagger. The rubbery flesh parted slowly under the blade.
"Help Darkling," Jo said. Some of the zombies had stumbled on her, allowing her to leech their impact energy. One punch later cleared an area around her and Rang-a-tang.
Evan crossed the room. It didn't look like Darkling needed his help to him. She had a giant ghost of a human being on the ropes, using her teleportation and martial skills to beat on him at will. Evan didn't know what else he could do except jump in swinging.
Evan jumped the last few feet, kicking with both feet. He drove Zarro into the wall. He used the impact to bounce away, then attack from another direction before the zombie master could recover.
Evan felt Zarro was on the ropes from the blows he had taken from him and Darkling. He was unprepared for the fiery blast that roared at him. He covered his face as the fire picked him up and flung him away.
Darkling stepped across the intervening space to catch the young hero. She carried him through the thin air out of the battlefield. A probe of his mind revealed that he had been burned across his chest and arms.
He needed to be rushed to a hospital, and she was the only one who could do that.
Zarro, or the injured boy.
She made her choice and flickered out of the underground lair.
Nevada Jones led the way to the inner crypt. A set of tactics had been discussed on the way to the battleground. Rescuing Pow-Girl was a priority, but stopping the mastermind behind the zombies had to come first.
If they could stop him, Jones thought as he pushed through the last portal.
Jones paused to size up the situation. Darkling seemed to be vanishing with Kid Satan wrapped in her cloak. Jo and Rang-a-tang were holding a mob of the dead men at bay. A pale giant with weird green hair ran for the door at the back of the room.
"Web," Jones said, indicating the fleeing commander of the dead.
The emerald crusader nodded as he vaulted over the milling riot in the center of the room. He flipped lightly to land on the other side. He charged after the running Zarro.
Jones and the Scarlet Avenger grabbed the first zombie they reached. Their combined strength let them throw the walking corpse to the floor like they had discussed in the long hall. Jones held the zombie down while the Avenger dropped salt in the slack open mouth of the thing. It shook desperately before giving up the ghost again.
Jones turned to the next creature in line.
John Raymond swept over the yards separating him from the pale mastermind. He turned the sprint into a bound. His legs extended in front of him as he sailed the few feet he needed. Both feet landed between Zarro's shoulders. The zombie master slammed into the wall, sliding to the floor with his arms extended. John somersaulted from the impact, gently touching down.
"No one said you could leave," the Web said, smiling under his green half mask. "Grave robbing is still illegal."
Zarro twisted, mouth opening in a shout. Green flame roared out in a flat stream. The burning vomit flew pass John's face as he ducked a shoulder. His extended collar vanished as swung a fist. The punch cut off the vitriolic spray as Zarro's face tried to slide to one side of his skull.
"That trick only works once," John said. "Give up before I decide to get rough."
"I won't be stopped by a poltroon wearing a green and yellow checkerboard," said the corpse animator, spitting a broken fang to the concrete floor.
He raised his hand. The walking dead stopped fighting the other invaders. All of them turned to face the Web, and started walking. Cold hands reached for his caped form to drag him down.
Jerry Kendall frowned at the sudden change of tactics. Jo and her dog was shrugged off as they tried to stop the zombies from reaching the Web. Jerry hefted the small bag of salt he had brought to deal with the mindless minions.
Maybe they were trying to neutralize the symptoms, and not the cause of the problem.
Jerry ran forward, punching Jo as hard as he could on the back of the head.
"Get me to the front of this," he said, pushing her forward.
Jo Delarosa smiled as energy from the blow and push rushed to her hand. She swung as hard as she could at the zombie who happened to be nearest. Her fist struck him from behind. The corpse crashed into the ones in front of it causing them to stumble as they walked forward.
"Hit me," Jo said.
Nevada Jones took aim with one of his six shooters and shot her.
Jo Delarosa's power, only power, was the conversion of kinetic energy into strength and endurance. The bullet from Jones's pistol hit her on the shoulder and simply stopped in place. A small bulge of muscle showed where the impact energy sank into her body. Then the spent shell dropped to the concrete floor with a small tink.
Jo smiled as the energy from the impact swept along to her fist as she went into her wind up. Then she released that absorbed energy into the nearest zombie. That set off a chain reaction that formed an aisle in the middle of the group. The dead men were scattered on the floor, trying to get back to their feet.
Jerry Kindall charged through the cleared path, ruthlessly kicking any dead man that got in his way. The bag of salt rested in the palm of his hand, as he ran toward where the Web and Zarro dueled next to the exit. He pulled out a handful as he went.
He hoped his deduction was right as he got ready to tackle the mastermind, with the salt in his hand.
The Scarlet Avenger leaped the last few feet, shoulder crashing into the taller Zarro. Both went down to the hard floor. The salt bag dropped to the floor.
Jerry knew he was right as he shoved an elbow under Zarro's chin, forcing the taller man's head back. His other hand was full of salt, some of which spilled as he fought the corpse master.
He had the mastermind down, now to administer the death blow if he could.
The Avenger pinned Zarro down. His free hand grabbed the pale man's chin. He tried to pry the mastermind's mouth open. The rubbery flesh puddled away from his grip as he struggled to open the orifice.
Green gloved hands grabbed the sides of Zarro's head. They held the man's head steady as Jerry finally forced the weird mouth open. He dumped what was left of the salt in the open cavity.
Zarro's putty flesh began to smoke as the salt burned through his mouth and throat. It peeled away from his skull in clumps. Jerry and the Web pulled back as the rest of the living corpse began to burn away, setting fire his robe.
Jerry got to his feet as the Web dusted his hands together.
The other zombies had fallen to the floor as soon as Zarro began to cook himself. They were lifeless without his influence. Some had not been embalmed, and their rankness was finally noticeable now that the battle was over.
Darkling appeared in a swirling of her cape. She looked around, smiling at the sight of her companion.
"I took the boy to the closest hospital," Darkling said. "I also took the time to call the police to help clear this place out."
"That's our cue to be going then, Miss," Nevada Jones, pistols back in their holsters. "It was a real pleasure to meet a famous hero and all, but the police frown on us lowly vigilantes."
The cowboy walked to the exit Zarro had been trying so hard to reach and vanished through the door. The other members of his group followed with a nod, or wave at their colleagues before using the villain's escape route.
John Raymond and Darla Lang waited at the airport for their flight home to New York. They explained everything to the police when they had arrived at the entrance to the underground lair. They left the men to dispose of the corpses while they went to check on the injured Kid Satan.
He had checked himself out of the hospital as soon as the nurse turned her back on him.
John decided to let things go. He had gotten involved because he didn't want anyone to misuse the identity created by his mother. His adventure with the Capitol City Crusaders had shown he needn't worry on that score.
Pow-Girl, while impetuous, seemed ready to defend others to the best of her ability. Her friends were a sobering presence.
John couldn't imagine they would ever stop upholding the public welfare. He knew they wouldn't listen to him.
"You made the right decision, John," Darla said. "The world needs more heroes, and it could do a lot worse."
"I know," said Raymond. "I wonder how Mom is going to take someone else in our line of work using her identity."
"She probably won't like it," said Darla, smiling. "But we can't help that."
The Web smiled, as he placed his arm around Darla's shoulders and pulled her close. She hugged him back, before their flight was called and they broke apart.
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