Hanging in mid-air and obscured by inky shadows that spilled out from the water tower topping a warehouse on 295th Street, the Wing used his hyper-acute senses to track two figures across the street as they emerged from the main building of the Belfrey Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The asylum’s tall, wrought-iron gate may have obscured some of the finer details of their faces and bearing, but the Wing knew both men well.
The shorter of the two, Archibald T. Pupper, a.k.a. Archetype—the most formidable foe the Wing had ever faced—had murdered the Wing’s first manservant Raja, more than two dozen policemen, and countless others. He had stolen millions in jewelry, artwork, munitions—even historical landmarks such as the Metropolitan Fountain, and the Knightsborough Bridge. He had caused billions more in property damage and had repeatedly violated the well-being of every man, woman, and child in Excelsior City.
Despite this, the medical board at Belfry Hospital had seen fit to parole Pupper not once, not twice, but—as of this very night—three times. Even so, the Wing did not find himself concerned as he watched Pupper walk to the gate, accompanied by the noted neurosurgeon Dr. Van Hellion, himself a reputedly-reformed super-villain. Pupper looked frail tonight, his wily, maniacal mind hidden in the deceptively meek frame of his face. He was wearing inmate’s whites, not the burgundy riding coat and yellow jodhpurs he favored as Archetype, and he clasped his little sack of personal items in a pinched grip, like an old woman gingerly squeezing a coin purse. His hair had been thinning from the first and now, after his latest stint behind Belfry’s walls, he was completely bald.
He is getting old, thought the Wing, but he knew that age wouldn’t stop Archetype. First thing, no doubt, Pupper would serve his vanity and procure a toupee—following that, maniacal plots and outrageous crimes were sure to follow. The Wing, however, did not find the prospect worrying in the least. When Archetype strayed again, the Wing would catch him again—and again after that if he must, same as always.
Van Hellion shook his patient’s hand farewell, then turned back to the dark halls of Belfry. Pupper minced his way up 295th Street until he reached North 40th Avenue, where he stopped to wait for the bus. He had no minions to call for transport now—the Wing had finished them, too, years ago—but the Wing knew it would not take long for someone with Archetype’s reputation to assemble a new crime army.
Pupper, seemingly oblivious to the Wing’s scrutiny, sank down on the lonely bus-stop bench to wait. He displayed no emotion when the Wing left the shadows and dropped into the street, inches from his face, nor did the Wing expect him to. They had played out such scenes together countless times.
“Evening, Archie,” rasped the Wing.
“Good evening, Wing.”
“Of what, Wing?”
“Your parole. It coincides with the unveiling of the Venus Diamond at The Excelsior City Supernatural Wonders Museum.”
“Ah,” said Pupper. “Interesting indeed, but I’m afraid I haven’t the time to peruse cultural exhibitions. I would enjoy attending the event, were it not for a rather full schedule of rehabilitation therapies monopolizing my time.” Archie folded his hands together and rested them on his lap. “Tell me how the unveiling goes, won’t you?”
“I’m watching you,” said the Wing. Then he made himself disappear. Archetype could consider himself warned.
The Wing glided above the city, tower to tower, rooftop to rooftop, back toward the Lower East End for a quick patrol. It had been a quiet night, a quiet week, a quiet month. Now, with Archetype free, the respite was near its end. The Wing’s thoughts turned to the past as buildings flew by.
Archetype had been first in an almost endless line of super-foes. Over the years—the decades—the Wing had faced and defeated hundreds of such villains. They ranged from the truly deranged like Archetype—Fastdollar, Vertigo, The Theist, Night Musik, and Ironclad—to the merely violent: Henchman, Sap, Shellacker, and The Knuckler.
Others, like SuperZero, Toy Boy, The Gosling, and Shenanigan, were more nuisance than foe. Then there were the good but misguided, such as EcoTerror, The Downtowner, and Incoming. The repulsive: Firebelly, Sheeptick, Toxicity. The short-lived: Midas Murphy, Monocle Man, Mr. Midget. Some had appeared once or twice in subsequent decades only to vanish; gone now, they were fads of an era long-past: Sheik, Sister Sappho, Joint, V-8, Bolero, and Cherry (or was it Apricot?). There were the Jacks, too—Jackknife, Jackboot, Jackdaw, Jackanapes, Jackalope, Jackpot, Jackal, Jacqueline the Ripper, Jackhammer and, decades later, an unrelated Hammerjack. The truly apocalyptic were, thankfully, far fewer: Ion, Cassandra, and Doc Apocalypse.
Then there were the women, each one unforgettable: Irony, Trio, Heartbreak, Crescendo—the Wing had fought all comers. Every time, with everything at stake, at the last possible minute, defeat certain, he’d found a way to prevail. They kept coming anyway, or they had until these recent, calmer times.
In the beginning, the Wing had worn leotards and a cape. Then he dropped the cape and replaced the leotards with leather. The thick, body-protecting rubber armor he favored now was sculpted to resemble the physical definition he’d had naturally in youth, but found impossible to maintain as he aged. He did not mourn the loss; with age came experience. Fighting skills and acrobatics, he discovered after years of lessons learned the hard way, were the least of his crime-fighting tools.
No matter the uniform, though, he’d always worn the same mask. The mask defined him. He felt most alive when, as now, he wore the mask and glided above his beloved Excelsior City.
Just before dawn, all appeared quiet. The Wing swung back toward midtown and the mighty Kryse Building, home of EmpireTV, the city-wide cable news station. He had an early meeting with his star reporter, to discuss the Venus Diamond story, and had no time to return to his uptown penthouse. Instead, he dropped straight down the hidden chute into his private office. There he removed the mask and became Lang Lofton once more, billionaire philanthropist and owner/operator of media mega-giant EmpireTV. After stowing the Wing’s gear away, Lang showered, Ben-Gayed his aching limbs, and flopped on his leather couch for a generous two-hours rest.
With the recent lull in crime, he’d been getting at least that much sleep every night and he welcomed it. There’d be hell to pay soon enough, at the meeting with Ginny Flynn. She was still fuming at him for abandoning her at the altar a few months back—an abandonment that came one year to the month since the Wing called off their wedding in an identical, last-minute fashion. A double-life, complicated by a love triangle in which he himself was two of the principals, tended to make a mess of things.
Ginny Flynn bounded into her boss’s office at 7:00 AM. After the meeting, she had to go straight into makeup before anchoring the early morning news, and her silver-streaked red hair was wrapped tight in a terry towel. She found Lang, snoozing away even at this late hour, on his overstuffed leather divan. Leader of a cutting-edge media conglomerate, and yet he managed to loaf half the morning!
Ginny considered the situation. Lang was asleep with his face turned into the cushions, and his altar-leaving butt poked upwards. It made a tempting target for her Italian pumps, but she chose instead to lean close to his ear, thrust two fingers into her mouth, and let loose a drum shattering whistle.
Lang sprang up, coiled himself in a ball mid-air and landed soft as a panther on the divan, gazing calmly at her as though he had been sitting there all along. She leaned over him. “Pretty spry for an old man,” she said.
“You’re no spring chicken yourself,” said Lang, awake and unfazed, not a single salt-or-pepper hair displaced, just as if he hadn’t been sleeping at all. What a nimble, unpredictable lover he would be. She imagined.
“Hurry up, boss,” she said. “You asked to see me, and I’m on the air in less than fifteen. If it’s about your rumored run for mayor, don’t bother. It’s a conflict of interest for me to report on that.”
“I want you to dig into the Venus Diamond story.”
“Oh good lord.”
“There’s something in this beyond an ordinary legend.”
“Oh?” she said. “How’s it different from any other space alien or magic jewel that’s ever turned up in Excelsior City?”
“I think it’s the key to something larger.” His face darkened, the way it often did. “There’s a celebration tonight at The Supernatural Wonders Museum. I’ve got two tickets. I want you to go.”
Ginny shook her head. “Put Wally Wilcox on it. I’m still working on the Wing’s secret-identity investigation.” She waited half a heart-beat, then sighed. “Don’t tell me you want to table that again.”
“I’m afraid we’ll have to,” said Lang. “You’re my best reporter. I need you on this.”
Sure he did. “Well, Archetype was paroled last night. There’s an angle. I can interview him about the Venus.”
“Why?” asked Lang.
“He’s always favored high-profile targets. I’ll get some background.” Besides, she’d already lined up the interview for her Wing profile. Though she’d never file a story on the Wing’s secret identity, she didn’t feel the need to let Lang off the hook by admitting the fact. He had his secrets. She could have some too.
“Stay away from Archetype,” said Lang.
“Ginny, I’m not telling you what to do—”
“—you had better not be—”
“I’m just concerned,” he said. “I care about you.”
She waved him off. “I know. You said so in the note you sent when you left me at the altar. Anyway, the Wing will protect me from Archetype.”
The creases around his eyes deepened. “The Wing has other responsibilities.”
“You’d never know it,” said Ginny. “How many times would you say the Wing has come to your star reporter’s rescue?” Lang shrugged. “Roughly once a month, I’d guess, for the past sixty years. Though I really shouldn’t count the time we were all trapped in that glacier.”
“That’s nothing to joke about.”
“You’re right, Lang. Nothing’s funny about being locked in suspended animation for decades. Nothing’s funny about living in a holding pattern.” She turned away from him, her voice falling. “I don’t blame you for not showing up to our wedding, Lang, any more than I blame the Wing for doing the same thing twelve months ago. I blame myself for thinking that you—either of you—would commit in the first place.”
Lang stood and almost touched her shoulder. “Ginny…”
She moved away from his hand. “Don’t ‘Ginny’ me. I’m not mad. I’m just me, and you… well, you’re somebody else altogether, aren’t you?”
She watched his jaw, his impossible, square jaw, work itself. Years, she thought, years and years even if you discounted several decades of suspended animation in a glacier. Years of being sprung from traps and lairs, years of being carried over rooftops, years spent just inches away from that impossible, square chin, being whispered at by that impossibly deep voice. Years, and one simple human truth still escaped him: she knew. Of course she knew.
Ginny started to leave but turned back. “Show me those tickets.” He took them from his desk drawer. Two small envelopes, with gold printing. She snatch them both.
“One’s mine,” said Lang.
“Get yourself another. I may want to bring a date.” Or scalp it, at least, to spite him.
Early that evening, after a brief stop at her apartment across from the Clocktower Building on South 12th Avenue, Ginny went to the flop-house address she’d uncovered for Archibald T. Pupper, the erstwhile Archetype. The criminal mastermind opened the door to his room immediately when she knocked. “Ms. Flynn,” he said, smiling, a bit of noodle on his chin. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought he was eager for company. “You’ve caught me midst a small repast. I apologize. Please do come in.”
He led her into the room and cleared a Styrofoam Cup-o-Raman, and a half-pint carton of milk, from the small table. He invited her to sit. “Good to see you again, Ms. Flynn. Though I venture you do not share my sentiment.”
“On the contrary, this is much nicer than our last meeting, when you strapped me to a nuclear warhead.”
Pupper chuckled, embarrassed. “We have enjoyed our share of improbable predicaments, have we not, Ms. Flynn?”
“Call me Ginny. Everybody does.”
“Short for Virginia?”
“More or less.” Virginity Flynn actually, but she didn’t like advertising it, damn the Wing. “How’s freedom treating you?”
“I shall not complain. The people of Excelsior City are kind and forgiving. I’m blessed to be back among them.”
“That’s a sound-byte.”
“Is that not why you have come?”
“Do you see a camera? A tape recorder?”
He stared at her. “Indeed not. So why are you here, Ms. Flynn? I am no longer the villain you once knew. If you expect me to return to my old ways, I am afraid you, and your vast audience, are doomed to disappointment.” He said nothing for a moment, then tilted is head gracefully. “However, if I may assist in some other capacity, please allow me to do so. For old times’ sake, let us say.”
“Tell me about the Venus Diamond.” She produced the engraved invitations to the unveiling. The tickets had pictures of the diamond on their face, a green-hued, perfect teardrop. Pupper snorted.
“My dear lady. That is not the Venus Diamond.”
She looked at the picture. The diamond, famous the world over, looked as it always had to her. “Even if it is a forgery, how can you tell from a photo?”
“That is the display diamond. The actual Venus would hardly garner the attention and crowds this gaudy bauble will. No, the real diamond—the one that grips men’s souls—appears too prosaic, and is far too dangerous, to parade before the masses.”
“Where is it?”
“I conjecture an ordinary wall safe in the curator’s office. Professor Wendell Whipple is an aficionado of the great Edgar Allen Poe. You know ‘The Purloined Letter’?”
“The diamond is hidden in plain sight?”
“I stress: this is my conjecture.”
“And no one has ever seen the real diamond?”
“To my knowledge, it has never been photographed.”
Ginny beamed. Lang wanted a diamond story, did he? Well, she would give him one. “Mr. Pupper, have you got a tuxedo?”
The ball took place in the marbled lobby of The Supernatural Wonders Museum. Except for Lang Lofton’s conspicuous absence, Excelsior City’s entire elite was in attendance, including Mayor Dirtly, who stood to one side, chatting with some of his goonish aldermen toadies because no one else would meet his eyes. His administration was in shambles, and if the opposition succeeded in drafting Lang into the campaign, this would be one of Dirtly’s last functions in an official capacity.
The invitations had stated midnight-blue or green tie, and evening wear. Ginny wore a floor-length, forest-green leather coat and matching knee-high boots with razor-sharp heels. Underneath was a kelly-green leather bustier, and short-shorts. Christof, Excelsior City’s most sought after designer and her trusted friend, had made it for her. At her request, he’d also outfitted one of her jade earring with a miniature camera, which she had supplied. A jade finger ring, and its hidden compartment filled with knockout drops, completed the outfit.
For Pupper, Ginny had procured a dark tuxedo, with green cummerbund. Even with lifts in his sparkling shoes he failed to reach her shoulders—but then, few men did. He had trimmed his sideburns and pulled the last remnants of his white locks back into a tiny ponytail. He looked, all things considered, rather natty.
A diamond the size of a large cat, the faux-Venus, gleamed on in its crystal display case, surrounded by red laser beams and a thin blue line of Excelsior City’s finest. Its greenish hue attracted wealthy socialites like moths to a bug-zapper, and everyone had to have at least one photograph taken of them posing beside it. Archie Pupper proved to be quite the sensation as well. His long imprisonment had diminished the fear he’d once caused in the public, while the myths around him had continued to grow. Tonight, he found himself surrounded by beautiful women who laughed at his self-deprecating jokes, and he charmed the men who wanted to be seen shaking hands with him.
Ginny’s plan was simple. By bringing Pupper along as a beacon for the police—to say nothing of the Wing—she could blend into the background. Modest and polite, she would stay in the background until she had Professor Whipple dead in her sights. Once they were alone, she would unbutton her long coat to reveal her secret weapon: her bare midriff. Everyone knew the Professor fancied himself a Geological Romeo. The sight would render him powerless. After that, the rest of the job—taking the first-ever picture of the real Venus Diamond—should be simplicity itself.
Ginny slipped away from this commotion and kept her eyes open for Professor Whipple. She jumped, surprised, when a throaty whisper said, “Enjoying yourself?” in her ear. She whirled. “Lang!”
“What are you doing here… with him?” he hissed.
Eyes wild, hair disheveled, she’d never seen him like this. “With whom? You mean Pupper?”
“You know very well who I mean.”
“My job,” she said. “I’m doing my job.”
“But you’ve brought him right to the diamond!”
“He hardly needs me to get into the Museum,” she said, ignoring for the moment that the gala was invitation only. “It’s a public place. Besides, he’s harmless. I’ve spent half the day with him, and he hasn’t tried to kill me once.”
“Good lord!” said Lang. “Are you a fool!”
She stepped back. His eyes were red. Had he been crying? “I don’t think I like you like this, Lang. Go mingle or something; let me work.”
Brewster Stevens, community activist and chair of the Draft Lang Lofton for Mayor Committee, pressed his way between them. “Lang! How’s our next mayor! Look at Dirtly over there! He won’t even acknowledge you’re in the room! Come on Lang, I’ve got people here dying to meet you. You don’t mind if I steal him away, do you, Ginny?”
“Please, Brewster. Steal him.”
Lang tried to make an excuse, but Brewster wouldn’t have it and pulled him away. Lang shot Ginny a last, desperate look, and she stuck her tongue out at him and grinned.
She found Professor Whipple soon afterward and put forward several pointed questions about the Venus Diamond’s cleavage and the internal pressures which caused diamonds to grow. When Whipple, attempting smoothness, suggested going somewhere a smidge more secluded, she tugged one corner of his bowtie and told him she’d always wanted to see a geologist’s spectroscope. Whipple found himself leading her to his private lab even as his mouth struggled to finish stammering out his agreement.
Once inside the lab, Ginny’s high-hopes immediately plummeted. The lab’s warren of shelves and counters were piled high with papers, gems both precious and semi, beakers, flasks and test tubes. How could she find something in plain sight when there was no plain sight to begin with?
While Ginny tackled this latest development, Whipple grabbed champagne from a nearby fridge and filled two beakers with the bubbling liquid. He slyly admitted he happened to keep the bottle handy for just such an occasion.
“Oh my,” said Ginny. “I’ll have to watch myself around you, Professor.” She couldn’t help but smile. He was trying so hard!
Professor Whipple gave her a well-studied “who-me?” look that made him instantly sleazy as well as pathetic. She would have felt no compunctions about slipping a Mickey into his beaker right then, but first she needed to make sure she knew how to find the diamond.
“So, Professor,” she said. “I’m told the Venus has special properties. Magic powers, they say.”
“A legend. We are safe, my dear. The crystal enclosure around the Venus protects from its delirious effects.”
“Oh, my! Is it very dangerous?”
“Exceedingly,” said Professor Whipple. “Even momentary exposure to the skin can cause feverish symptoms, followed by extraordinary exhilaration, leading to impulsive bravado, reckless abandon, and truth-telling. It is not to be trifled with.”
“I can’t believe one little diamond can do all that.”
“Little? I’ve never heard the Venus described as little.”
“I meant that figuratively,” said Ginny quickly. “It’s certainly the largest, hardest diamond I’ve ever see.”
“Indeed it is beautiful—but it is not the most beautiful gem in the museum tonight.”
Ginny sighed inwardly. “No?”
“You are the most beautiful gem in the museum tonight, my dear.”
“Careful,” said Ginny. “You’ll flatter the pants off me.”
“Am I so transparent?”
“I’m afraid so, Professor.” She closed in, placing her arms around his neck and fingering her champagne flask behind his head.
“A-am I?” he stammered.
“You are. And you know what else you are?” He shook his head rapidly, barely breathing. “You are a big fat liar.”
“Call me Ginny. I know your secret; there isn’t any magic diamond is there?”
“Miss Ginny, why certainly there is. You’ve seen—”
“A fake. Now show me the real one, or I will tell Excelsior City what a naughty boy you’ve been.”
Whipple swallowed. “I’ll be ruined.”
“I want one little photo. No one need know how I got it.”
“It won’t matter, the minute the public finds out the real diamond has been…”
“…under your protection, safe from the hands of super-villains, foreign powers, and alien invasions, why you will be a national hero! It’s all in how I write it, lover. And right now, I could go either way.”
Whipple nodded. She took a step back. He stuffed his hand under his belt, and her gut constricted. She’d miscalculated. Whipple was going to pull a weapon. At least, she hoped it would be a weapon.
A moment later, with the sound of his waistband tearing, Whipple produced a diamond the size of her pinkie nail instead of—whatever else. He held it forward.
“Did you have it in your underwear?” His shoulders contracted. He nodded. “Wipe it off, please.”
He polished the diamond with a bit of gauze, then cleared a space on the counter to set it down. The diamond was extraordinary. Immaculate clarity, with no hint of the stand-in’s gaudy green. Each angle of cleavage was cut with precision, infinitely sharp. Ginny was no expert, but she understood perfection when she saw it. “Lord,” she breathed.
“Didn’t I tell you? Now please, Miss Flynn. Take your picture and go.”
“Call me Ginny,” she whispered. “Everybody does.” No picture would ever do it justice. “Professor, is it chipped?”
“Chipped? There’s no chip,” he said, incredulous.
He put his nose to the diamond, exposing his neck. One quick karate chop dropped him, stinging her hand in the process. Less subtle than the knockout drops, true, but the moment had inspired her. Ginny seized the diamond and shivered.
More solid, and heavier than she’d guessed, clasping it electrified her. From the instant she’d first seen it, Ginny knew she had to possess the diamond. The Venus wanted her to possess it. The life-energy it exuded belonged to her, to any and every passionate, yearning soul by right, by natural law.
Her heart began to beat faster as Professor Whipple began to stir on the floor, moaning. What to do with the diamond now that she had it? Christof had thoughtlessly designed the outfit with exactly no pockets. Damn fashion! Only one thing to do—she pressed the diamond into her belly-button. The diamond cleaved to her skin like it belonged there. White light shot through her spine.
She moved to the door only to stop. She should tie Whipple up, or something. No. Hit him again. No. Put the diamond back? No—run. She ran.
Her heart pounded as she reached the corridor’s end. Which way to the ballroom? That way—she could hear the music. She turned and went the other direction. The corridor soon grew darker, and the ballroom revels began to fade. She had just begun to relax when an invisible grip seized her, snatched her into a corner. She smelled the rubber body armor, felt the familiar, heavy breath heat her neck. A voice like the night commanded her silent while an iron hand, not trusting her to obey, covered her mouth.
“Ginny…” he breathed, as his other, equally powerful arm ran across her mid-drift, just above her belly button and the diamond lodged within. “Ginny, Ginny… I spoke with Lofton. I agree with him. Archetype is dangerous. Please be careful. If anything were ever to happen to you—Lofton couldn’t bear it.” She tried to turn around, but he held her fast, his giant body cocooning her. “Ginny, if I could explain…” She pried at the fingers clamped over her mouth. He held them tight but she kept prying, and so he relented.
“Then explain,” she said. “Tell me, Wing. Tell me everything. I’m right here.”
The grip on her midriff loosened. She almost stumbled he let her free so quickly. Gone, she realized when she turned; gone as silent as he’d come. No surprise there.
Ginny lurched back the way she came, back to the party. She was perspiring. She removed the leather trench coat, throwing it over her arm, holding it before herself to hide her diamond-studded belly button. The Wing had no idea she’d taken the real diamond. All he cared about was poor old Archie Pupper.
The ballroom was in uproar. Brewster Stevens, his brow damp, ran up and seized her shoulders. She jumped at his touch. “Ginny! The Wing was here! I didn’t see him, but he swung right across the ceiling. He stared down Archetype and pointed right at him. Then poof! He disappeared! I was using the facilities and missed the whole thing!”
“That’s something, Brewster. Come to think of it, no one’s ever seen you and the Wing at the same time.”
“Ha ha! Good one, Ginny. Say, do you think the Wing would endorse a Lang candidacy? And where is Lang? I wonder if he saw the Wing?”
“I don’t know where he is, but when you find Lang, give him this from me.” She grabbed Brewster’s face and planted a wet kiss right on his lips.
Brewster flushed. “Jeez, Ginny! What’s gotten into you?”
“Must be the exuberance of the evening,” she said, and she slipped into the crowd.
It was a warm night and, after the ball, Ginny walked with Pupper in the general direction of her Southtown apartment and his Lower East End flop house. At 24th Street, a trio of street toughs spotted them and began making vulgar, though not altogether unflattering, and absolutely accurate, remarks about the magnificence of Ginny’s figure.
“Gentleman,” said Pupper when the toughs drew near. “This lady has been kind enough to escort me safely through a rough neighborhood. Please do not insist upon embarrassing yourselves.” The toughs snickered and moved closer. Pupper seized a nearby garbage can lid and spun it toward their heads. They ducked, and the garbage can lid embedded itself in a concrete wall behind them. The toughs ran.
“That wasn’t necessary,” said Ginny.
“I am aware. But allow an old man at least the pretense of gallantry.”
“It was nothing.”
He massaged his shoulder, and Ginny couldn’t help but stare. “You’re going straight, I think,” she said. “For real.”
Archie nodded. “I am. Ours is a young man’s game.”
She laughed. “Tell the Wing.”
“I would not presume.”
“However,” said Archie. “The Wing is not long for the world.”
Ginny blinked. “What do you mean?”
“He’s an egg uncommon, your champion,” said the aged super-villain. “He always wins, but one day, I fear, he shall fall victim to his own triumphs. Now, with nary an enemy left, he shall begin to fade away. He knows little else, and will not find retirement easy.”
“Like Alexander weeping, with no worlds left to conquer.”
Pupper stopped and gazed at her, eyes shining. “Yes! My, do I wish I had said that.”
Ginny chuckled. “Feel free to use it.”
“Perhaps I will!” They arrived at Pupper’s doorstep shortly afterward. “It seems I am home,” he sighed.
She looked up at the decrepit hotel. “Didn’t you put anything away for your old age, Archie?”
He looked down his long nose. “It’s just isn’t done, my dear. However, I assure you I will be fine. Thank you for a wonderful evening, Ms. Flynn.”
“Call me—never mind.” She fingered the diamond in her belly button, hidden beneath her coat. It still filled her with the same delicious fever it had from the first. She loved the feeling. She continued touching the diamond, until the night air became charged with sudden, unexpected electricity. “Archie,” she said. “Would you like to come home with me?”
Pupper smiled with his eyes, and shook his head. “Dear lady, though your sofa is more comfortable than my hard cot to be sure, I must—”
“I didn’t say anything about any sofa,” she said. “It’s just that, well, we’re not getting any younger, Archie.”
Pupper seemed unable to meet her eyes. “Um. I recall a villain named Vertigo once had some success with an experimental chrono-reversal ray that—”
“Archie. The moment’s not going to last forever.”
He looked up at her. “Yes. Well. Oh my …”
Professor Whipple twitched awake, his neck throbbing. What had happened? The girl reporter—she stole the diamond. Cripes! Fug! He looked at his watch: 3:00 AM. What time did the early papers come out? Oh gosh, no! She was a television reporter. The whole story could be out by now. By now, she must have discovered that not only was the green display diamond a fraud, but even the real Venus had no special powers. He was trapped in a net of his own lies. It was a diamond: a beautiful, valuable stone, but it had no curse, no magic power. But such simple baubles yielded no Lang Foundation grant money.
He jumped up, threw flat champagne in his face, and took the only logical next step. He stuffed his pockets and brief case with as many gems as he could carry, to convert to cash later. Marching straight downstairs, he walked calmly past the night watchman. Once outside, he ran to Grandiose Central Station and took the train on the first track he came to, without marking its destination. Centre City, Las Pacificas, it mattered not. Any place with plastic surgeons and a dark corner to hide in would do.
In a first class compartment, once the train was moving, he sank into plush purple cushions and wiped his face with a tuxedo’s rented sleeve. What a narrow escape!
Ginny sank in her heart-shaped bed’s center, silk sheets curling betwixt her toes, arms outstretched as she welcomed her lover. The panoramic cityscape twinkled through the bay window beside them. This was it, she thought. It was going to happen. Not the way she expected, certainly not with the man she expected, but with a kind, willing man anyhow.
Archie kissed her neck, (so this is how kisses feel, she thought) unlaced her bustier (so this is what it is to be naked in someone’s arms, she thought), and pressed his length against her. She moaned. Her nipple hardened between his lips. “Oh lord,” she whispered. He kissed down her body, so excruciatingly slow she wanted to scream and force him even lower, faster. He kissed her belly button—delicious fever!
Archie coughed. He choked, and the fever died. Ginny opened her eyes. Archie’s face was purple. “Archie! What is it? Is there… is there something wrong with me?”
He pointed to his throat, pounded at his chest, said nothing.
“Oh, my stars! The diamond!” shouted Ginny. She spun him around and hugged under his ribs, balling her fist. Three sudden thrusts, and he coughed it out. “Archie, are you okay?”
He wiped the tears from his eyes, and swallowed. He picked up the diamond. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“I’m so sorry, I forgot I had it in.”
“Forgot you had it in! This is the Venus Diamond! Land’s sake!” He jerked his head up, listening, desperate. He scrambled to the bay window and dragged the vertical blinds shut. His old, naked flanks shook. “He’ll think I took it! Did you do this on purpose?”
“Archie, what are you talking about.”
“The Wing! He’ll come for me now.” Archie ran to the corner, picked up his pants, couldn’t find the leg holes.
“But you didn’t have anything to do with it!”
“He won’t believe that! What have you done? He’s going to get me!” Archie collapsed in a ball, a little old naked man trying to hide in the corner. She ran to him and put her arms around him, making shushing noises. He resisted. “He’s everywhere! Everywhere…”
After several minutes he became calmer, allowed himself to be led back to bed. She drew the blankets over herself and Archie, let him cry into her breast until sleep took him. The Wing was everywhere in Excelsior City. Inside Archie’s head, under the covers with them—everywhere, except the church come wedding day.
Sometime after four, she nearly drifted off herself. A sound came from the balcony—perhaps she dreamed it; a soft tap on the window. A moment later, the sound of crashing glass filled the night. The memories faded by daylight.
The Wing’s gut twisted in knots. He saw the coiled bodies of Ginny and Archetype through the vertical blinds, and he fought the impulse to crash through and kill him in the animal act, the villain. But, there was no telling what Archetype had done to Ginny’s mind. If the Wing killed him, whatever spell or psychological trick Archetype used on Ginny might be irreversible.
The Wing dropped from Ginny’s balcony, spun off a flag pole across to the next rooftop, ran full speed for the edge, then leaped. He careened ten or twelve floors then trampolined off an awning, up and across to the Clocktower Building. He scaled fire escapes until he reached the minute hand of the enormous art-deco clock.
Whirling up, feet together like a battering ram, he crashed into the clock face. Glass shattered, covering him and littering the street below. Crouching amidst the oversized clockworks and broken shards of glass, the Wing finally forced himself to see the truth. It was no spell. No psychological torture had been used. No, he’d lost Ginny all by himself.
The Wing stayed still, a statue of rage, grief and self-doubt. He needed a face to smash, a chest to kick. Why now, after so long, had everything and everyone he’d ever known chosen to abandon him? Tears ran from beneath his mask, dripping off his chin one by one as the seconds passed. The night seemed to last forever.
Two hours later, the next morning, Ginny put Archie in a cab home and went in to work. On her way in, the secretary told Ginny that Lang had asked to see her before she went on the air for the morning broadcast. When Ginny reached his office, she found Lang sitting on the edge of his divan. “Ginny,” he said. “Before you say anything, hear me out.”
“Go ahead, Lang.” she said, unsure what to expect. A delicious thrill—hope, maybe—shimmered through her belly.
“Thing is, Ginny, I’ve decided to run for mayor and I’m turning the network over to you.”
She smiled inwardly. Of course. “Oh,” she said. “For a moment I thought…”
“Congratulations, Lang. You’ll make a great mayor.”
“I pray that I do. I couldn’t bear to let this city down, although the job does means curtailing certain… other activities. Such as the station. I need someone here I can trust. The mayoralty will be an all-consuming job…” he trailed off again when he saw the look on her face. “What is it?”
“Lang, can you have Wally sub for me on the air this morning?”
He looked stunned. Except when held hostage, she never missed a broadcast. “What’s the matter?”
“A little fever. Nothing.”
“Go straight home,” he said. “And get some rest.”
“I have to stop by the Museum to return something first.”
“I’ll come with you,” he said quickly.
Ginny shook her head. “I’ll be okay. Is there anything else?”
He frowned. “Nothing comes to mind,” he said.
They looked at each other. Lang broke the long silence. “I can’t say you seem bowled over by your new assignment,” he said. “But then, you’re not feeling well.”
She nodded. “That must be it.”
He nodded back and watched as she left the office.
Downstairs, outside, the street was snarled up with an armored car delivery. Two rotund guards dragged a canvas sack toward the First Ethical Bank branch in the lobby of the Kryse Building. The sack’s drawstrings were loose and a packet fell out. The guards seemed not to notice. Ginny picked the money up. She whistled to get their attention, then tossed the packet on top of the sack.
“Thanks, lady,” said one.
“You boys seem a little relaxed,” she said.
“What’s to worry about? If anyone tries anything the Wing will get ‘em.”
Ginny raised her eyebrow at that, but said nothing. She turned back to the street, and hailed a cab. A short ride later, she arrived at the Museum and asked an apple-cheeked docent where to find Professor Whipple. The young girl looked around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned forward. “Took a powder,” she said. “Know what I mean? Vamoosed. Made like a library and booked.”
“Why would he do that?”
The girl shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
“Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. People. Funny, ain’t they?”
“Are you okay, lady?”
“You know, I keep getting asked that.”
“Your cheeks are all flushed and everything.”
“Don’t keep it all bottled up. You know, like—” and she nodded in the direction of nothing.
The girl whispered. “Like Professor Whipple. One day a mild-mannered geologist. The next, phhht. Could be aliens, a foreign power, magic, super-villains. We may never know. Anything can happen in this city.”
Ginny did not return the Venus diamond. She went home and tried to sleep, leaving the jewel in her belly button. She tossed and turned and her skin tingled. Her toes and fingers kept grasping; she grew alive, more electrified and more feverish as the hours passed. She wanted a man, but there wasn’t any man. Something had awakened in her in the last twenty-four hours, a genie that would not be forced back into its bottle.
Mid-afternoon, she took the green outfit she’d worn to the museum ball and stuffed it in a hefty bag. At Christof’s boutique, Ginny upended the bag at the designer’s feet. “I want this,” she said. “But times ten.”
“Oui, madam. You would like ten outfits like this.”
“No, Christof, I want one outfit like this but ten times sleeker, ten times more durable, ten times sexier. And I want it in midnight blue. And scarlet. Midnight blue and scarlet. And I need if for tonight. And pockets.”
“Oui, madam. Will there be anything else?”
“A mask. Something understated. Something to highlight my cheekbones.”
He looked at her evenly. “A mask. Is there to be a masquerade?”
“To my knowledge, no.”
“Can you have it by, say, 2:00 AM?”
“To anyone else I say, I am not a miracle worker. But you are my favorite customer so to you I say, I am a miracle worker. You will have your costume by 2:00 AM.”
“Thank you. Now I have to get to the hairdresser’s and a hardware store, I suppose. And Christof?”
“Don’t call me Ginny.”
“Oui, madam. How shall I call you?”
“Let’s try… Fevre. Spelled, vee-are-ee.”
“Fevre, spelt vee-are-ee. Oui, madam, I have it. Until tonight then.”
Pupper slept in his own bed. He had been asleep there since 9:30 PM, in fact. Wing checked back every couple hours, but the super-villain never stirred. Long past midnight, Wing made a final patrol over the Lower East End.
The Wing decided, as he made his way above the city streets, that he would bury his costume at dawn. A fitting marker, he thought, for the end of his career. He would do it in the underground warrens beneath the sewers, where he and Dasher had defeated the Vole Legion. He called that secret land, known to no other living soul, the Cavern of Champions. Dasher was buried there, along with Raja, Wing Girl, and Kid Spirit—each of his fallen comrades. Now at last the Wing, former mentor, failed protector, would join them.
The Wing swung past Ginny’s place one last time on his way to the cavern, telling himself it was just to see if restoration had begun on the Clocktower Building that he had so shamefully wrecked the night before. The apartment was dark when he arrived. He dropped onto her balcony and put his ear to the glass; his heightened senses detected no heartbeat, no breathing. Out on the town, most likely. Ginny must have recovered from whatever ailed her earlier.
Why did the thought bring him such little comfort?
Perhaps because she was out of his life forever, now. As busy as the Wing had been, unable to commit to romantic entanglements, Mayor Lang would be even busier. The Governor’s Mansion beckoned even now, and then perhaps would come the White House. It was time to grow up and work within the system, he thought, his eyes blinking back his emotions.
An alarm sounded in the direction of the Kryse building, interrupting his grief. The Wing sighed. Another false one, he was sure. However, it was almost 4:00 AM and the bars would be letting out soon. A burglar alarm so close to Heritage Square might rile a few inebriates, could maybe lead to a scuffle or two. The Wing swung toward the noise. What was it the poet said? Not with a bang, but a whimper?
Fevre learned several lessons about super-villainy the moment she knocked off the First Ethical Bank in the Kryse building. She used her—no. She used Ginny Flynn’s key card to get as far as the lobby. So lesson number one, super-villains could take shortcuts. Then she kicked in the glass door of the bank branch using her maniacal super-Venus-Diamond strength, and learned lesson two in the process: super-villains could break things, and breaking things was fun. She learned the third lesson as she climbed, swag-bag on her back, to the top of the Fairview Hotel and looked across into Heritage Square: it’s never about the money.
Citizens poured from the bars, heads craning to see what was causing such ruckus. If the people on the street could see her at all, it was as no more than a speck—and that wouldn’t do at all. Fevre ripped open the canvas bag and released its contents into the air. As the bills drifted down, and people realized it had begun raining greenbacks, the citizens below her began to cheer. More of them ran into the streets, arms outstretched, grasping.
Fevre watched and laughed, catching in the process part of the brilliantly lit sign below her; it read “Fairview Hotel.” Thousands of individual light bulbs comprised it, and she noticed that if she looked at the letters a certain way…
Fevre hooked her grappling rope to a nearby ledge and swooped down to dangle before the sign, kicking and shattering bulbs with precise, nimble kicks. Below her, people began to point past the money and gasp.
Pandemonium greeted the Wing in Heritage Square. Some madman had thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars in the streets, causing mayhem. There were even some policemen below, stuffing their own pockets with the bills. Were Lang Mayor, such acts would not be tolerated.
No doubt, thought the Wing, this display was meant to distract him while the villains committed some other, more nefarious deed across town. He should have checked his bed more carefully—Pupper could have substituted an animatronic dummy for himself. Clever trick, thought the Wing, cursing his gullibility. He should have known!
Citizens, drunk and giddy with their ill-gotten cash, began shouting into the sky and chanting one word again and again. The Wing followed their pointing fingers and saw for the first time that the sign above the Fairview Hotel had been vandalized. The letters were jagged, but clear enough to read: it was the same word the mob chanted.
A new one.
From nowhere, a foot collided with his chin. The Wing tumbled backward, rocked by the magnificent blow. He plummeted several stories before regaining enough equilibrium to swing back up. He settled on the rooftop again and there she was, all in midnight blue leather. A bit standard, he thought, not very original at all, but then it never did to underestimate a new foe.
Seeing her formidable legs, corded with muscle and enmeshed in fishnets, he moved his aching jaw and realized he was lucky to still be conscious. Bare, diamond-studded mid-drift and flowing mane of magenta hair—maybe she wasn’t so standard after all.
He rubbed his chin with one hand and glowered at her. “That was your free one. Enjoy it, Fevre. You won’t get another.”
She grinned, a broad toothy grin. She looked thrilled by this! The Wing fought the urge to grin back at her. The quiet nights were over now—the deadliest foe of all was one who did it for fun!
Fevre took one step towards him, then another. She gathered speed, racing right at him at such a pace he half expected her to leap into his arms. It could be an amateur’s mistake, he thought, a full-frontal assault against an expert and expectant opponent. If so, she would be a short-lived enemy indeed. Or it could be something else, a trick, a rouse, so he crouched, deciding to play it safe and slow and learn more about her.
She leapt as he crouched, disappearing over the side of the building. He whirled in the direction he thought she’d gone, peered after her, and saw only the backdrop of the night’s sky until a loud, sharp whistle caught his attention. It brought to mind some other whistle—no. He discounted that. It was a red herring. He had to focus on the immediate. He turned toward the sound, and saw Fevre standing on another rooftop, across the street. She had the audacity to wave at him before disappearing again. Lord, how quick!
He grinned through the pain that washed over his jaw. He might even have a hairline fracture—and there was certainly another ugly bruise for Lang Lofton to explain in the morning! Lang had a lot to explain, actually. The mayor’s race would have to wait—everything would have to wait, while he dealt with this new foe.
Was she working with Archetype? Or Van Hellion? Perhaps all three in unholy alliance together, this newcomer Fevre the mastermind behind all the others! And she wore a diamond in her belly button—of course! The Wing snapped his fingers. The Venus Diamond! Hadn’t the museum’s curator disappeared under mysterious circumstances after the ball? So many possibilities. A world of them.
The Wing leapt to the next rooftop, the one she’d taunted him from. From that one to the next, and the next, and the next, he pursued his magnificent new foe. Fevre glided away, ever seductive, always threatening to elude his hyper-acute senses—but never quite escaping them altogether.
And where she fled he would follow, light as air, silent as shadow: two flashing figures together, racing each other through the endless, ink-blue night.