8FOLD/ACRA: Jolt City # 12, The Sensational Character-Find of 2007 Part 1: A Beginning...!

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Wed Apr 23 23:28:59 PDT 2008

   Derek Mason is seated in an old wooden chair, his hands tied behind his back, struggling, as a bemused Green Knight looks on.
   Looming overhead, and unseen by our heroes, are the colossal, menacing ghosts of Fidel Castro and John Wilkes Booth.
   This is a story of the past, but also of the future.  It is a story of fathers and sons, of a legacy continued and one passed on.  It is a story of discovery, growth, and most importantly of all, of forgiveness.
   It is not the story of one man finding himself, but of two.  And that story starts here.  This is--

          A BEGINNING...!

//////////////  2006 & 2007 RACCIE WINNER FOR
    ////  //////  /// //////  FAVOURITE ACRA SERIES
// ////  //  //  ///   // 
//////  //////  ///// // 
   # 12 APRIL 2008
  ////// /// ////// \  //  THE SENSATIONAL
 ///    ///   //     \//    CHARACTER-FIND
////// ///   //      //    OF 2007 PART 1

April, 2007: right where we left off.  Martin Rock-- the Green Knight-- has just agreed to take on Derek Mason as his sidekick.  The first thing to pop into our hero's mind immediately afterwards runs something along the lines of, what the hell am I doing?
   And it's not like it's a surprise, like it was something he blurted out.  He thought about it a lot over the last couple days.  He weighed all sides of the issue, and had satisfied at least himself that this was the right thing to do.
   But now he was faced with actually doing it.  With actually training Derek and teaching him.  And Martin's been a lot of things in his life.  He's been a sidekick and a soldier, a vigilante and a hero.  He's no dummy; he's a smart man.  But he's never been a teacher and, let's face it, he's not really what you'd call a people person.
   Of course, Ray Cradle hadn't been much of a people person either, and he taught Martin just fine.  The bond may have frayed over time, and Martin was never sure if it really got repaired at the end, but he could still say that Ray had been the single most important person in his life.  That Ray was more than a mentor or some distant (and he was distant!) father figure.  Ray had made him who he was; Ray had made him.
   And Martin supposes that maybe that's part of it, too, maybe the biggest part: would he be as good for Derek as Ray was for him?  And, of course, he'd been asking himself that same basic question over the years, like playing different arrangements of the same sad melody: would he ever be as good as Ray?
   It's different this time though.  The question is raised, but now it recedes from his mind.  A sort of calm explodes inside him-- an emptiness.
   The question's there, but it doesn't matter.  It remains unanswered, and it doesn't matter.  His intentions, his doubts, his anxieties: they are like the age in his muscles, always there, and nothing he can do about it.  What matters is what he can do.  The actual things he does in the actual, exterior world.
   And the thing before him right now is Derek Mason.

   He starts by showing him the ropes.  Literally.
   That evening-- now secluded from view deep below the church basement in the Knight's Den-- Martin sits his pupil down and ties his wrists behind his back.
   "What you want to look for is a weakness in the knot.  Find the weakness and exploit it."
   "Just, like, tug at it?"
   "Tug and wriggle, basically," says Martin.  "Now, what you want to do eventually is do it so no one can see that you're doing it.  So that there's no visible movement in your shoulders, or your arms, or your neck.  And a lot of people, when they do that, they try to-- what they do is, they get very tight, because they're trying to control their muscles.  Or they transfer that tension to their facial muscles.  And all that gives it away, too.  The trick is to be calm.  Relaxed."
   "I'm trying," says Derek testily.
   "Well, don't worry about it now," says Martin.  "I just meant that's what we'll be working up to.  I got ahead of myself there.  I'm sorry.  Just-- just concentrate on finding the weakness.  Don't worry about the rest of it now."
   Derek finds the weakness and pulls the knot apart.  He hands Martin the rope and rubs his wrists.
   "They're going to be a little sore," says Martin.  "We'll do this a few times, get you used to it, then we'll work on a couple of other things."

   The next few nights don't go too badly.  Derek still betrays too much movement when he's untying himself, but he's getting better, quicker, and more agile.  They spar a bit, and Martin builds on Derek's already solid base in martial arts.  He's not as graceful as Martin was when he first started, but he's not as clunky as Ray was either.
   Martin shows him how to pick certain locks the old-fashioned way and how to crack safes.  Derek's slightly amused by this.  "Are you sure you're teaching me to be a hero and not a villain?"
   "It's stuff you need to know," says Martin.  "I can't tell you how many times it came in handy myself."
   "But, look," says Derek, pulling some kind of gizmo out of his pocket.  He presses a button and the lock pops open.
   "That the thingamabob the Sprocketeer gave you?"
   "No; this is another thingamabob they made for me over at Cradle," says Derek.  "It does the same thing for safes, doors, computers-- you name it."
   Martin swipes it from him and resets the lock.
   "Aw, come on!" says Derek.  "What's the point if the gadget does it all for me?"
   "And if you don't have it?"
   "I'd have it if you'd give it back to me," says Derek.
   "You don't have it now," says Martin.  "You're in a room, you've got vacuum's sucking out all the air, you've got to get out in fifteen seconds.  Can you get that lock out in fifteen seconds-- without the gadget?  What about ten?  What about five?"
   Derek sighs and works at the lock.  It quickly pops open.
   "Can I have it back now?  I showed you that I could do it, so just give it back."
   "You can't just do it.  You have to do it good."
   "I have to do it well," Derek corrects.
   "Well is fine.  You have to be better than well.  You have to be good.  Damn good.  Now try it again.  Faster."
   "You know," says Derek, "I could just destroy the vacuums.  Gives me more air and more time."
   "What if they're vacuum-pored walls?"
   "They actually have those?" He pops the lock.
   "They have humidors of doom.  Of course they have vacuum-pored walls." Martin resets the lock and hands it back to Derek.  "Faster."
   "Wait.  Humidors of doom?"
   "Humidors of doom."
   "Who has humidors of doom?" He pops the lock.
   Martin resets it.  "Faster.  Well, a humidor of doom, actually, singular.  It was Castro."
   "Castro?" Pop.
   "Faster.  Castro."
   "You fought," (pop!), "Castro?"
   "Faster.  Hmm-mm."
   Pop.  "Where, like in--"
   "No.  I've never been out-- faster-- of the country except for Iraq.  Faster.  It was here."
   "Castro was here?"
   "Faster.  Yes."  Martin puts the lock aside and continues in Spanish: He was here in the seventies.  I had only been the Acro-Bat for a couple of years.  He was hiding in Jolt City-- it's a very long story about a lot of stuff that was happening in Cuba at the time.  Anyway, we tangled, and he put us inside his humidor of doom.  It was kind of funny, actually.  That morning some kid was trying to get me to start smoking, and, then, bam!, here I was in this humidor of doom.  And the box just sweated cigars.  It was an awful smell.  Bottom line: never started smoking.  It was a weird time in my life.  Like every time we fought a villain, I learned some kind of lesson.  Some of them were real important stuff, and a lot of them were kind of, I dunno, after-school special type of things.  But, anyway, that was Castro and his humidor of doom.
   "I'm sorry," says Derek.
   I'm sorry, says Derek.  He continues in halting Spanish: I have no idea what you were saying.  You have to remember, I learned this back in banana school.  I'm still rusty.
   Banana school?, says Martin.
   Yeah, banana school.  I just said banana school.  What about it?

   As is so often the case in his life, Martin finds himself wavering between two extremes.  Sometimes, he moves much too quickly-- Derek misses things or can't keep up, and most of the time Martin knows the fault lies with the teacher and not the student.  The other times, he moves at a glacial pace-- and this gets Derek frustrated.
   "Ropes again, yippee."
   Martin ties what he feels is a particularly difficult knot.  "This time, let's try to control those muscles."
   Derek tries his best.
   "Shoulder's twitching."
   "You're moving the tension to your face again."
   "Just relax," says Martin.
   "What if there's no weakness?"
   "You'll find it," says Martin.  "Don't let it frustrate you."
   "No; I mean, what if someone ties me up and the knot has no weakness?"
   "Well, there's always a weakness, so that's a moot point," says Martin.
   "No, it's not a moot point.  I mean, what if?"  The rope falls to the floor.  Derek picks it up and hands it to Martin.
   "You're saying, what if there's this rope where every single fiber is precisely as strong as every other fiber, and the bad guy ties you with this rope absolutely perfectly-- uniform tension through-out, every strand as tight, something not even a robot can do absolutely right absolutely every time.  That's what you're saying?"
   "Yeah.  I mean, what's the trick?  I mean, this can't be it-- just wriggle and tug at it.  There has to be something else to it."
   "That's pretty much it," says Martin.
   "So, if there's this perfect knot--"
   "An impossible knot."
   "Right," says Derek, and he's getting about as irritated and as irritating as Martin is, "if I'm tied with this impossible knot that I can't wriggle or tug my way out of, I'm pretty much screwed, is that what you're saying?"
   Martin thinks for a moment.  "Well, if there's a shard of glass laying around, you could--"
   "What if there is no shard of glass?"
   "Pocket knife--"
   "No pocket knife."
   "-- let me finish!-- pocket knife in your utility belt--"
   "They took the belt."
   "-- and you probably would struggle as you were being tied up anyway--"
   "And if I can't struggle?" says Derek.  "What if there's a hostage or something, and if I struggle they're going to kill her?"
   "You struggle in a way that doesn't look like you're struggling," says Martin.  "Just like tugging and wriggling.  And we'll work on that, and--"
   "No," says Derek.  "No, no, no!  What I'm saying is, what if I can't struggle, what if there's nothing to cut it with, what do I do then?  What if they use plastic tubing, or a tough thin cord?"
   "Well, then.  Then, I guess you're screwed."
   "Thanks," says Derek.
   "I mean, Derek, what you're asking me about here is a perfect storm.  A situation where there are no options.  You might as well be asking me, what if someone points a gun in my face and pulls the trigger, how do I dodge the bullet?  Well, you don't, and that's the truth.  There's no trick that's going to help you there.  The trick is to not put yourself in those situations where someone's going to put a loaded gun right up against your temple and shoot.  The trick is to pay attention to your surroundings and not fooling yourself into thinking you're in a perfect storm, because there's no such thing."
   "No, that's not what I'm asking," says Derek.  "That's not just a little different, that's a lot different; that's ridiculous.  I'm asking you a legitimate question here, about this specific situation, and your answer is, well, maybe there's a fairy princess laying around and she'll make everything all better.  Just leave it to chance.  I thought you were going to train me, show me the real stuff.  This crap I could have figured out on my own."
   Martin sets the small length of rope down on his bed and pulls his pocket-knife out of his utility belt.  He takes a long strand of rope and cuts a large length of it before setting the knife on his night-stand.
   Derek takes his cue, sitting back down in the chair and putting his hands behind the chair's back.  "This'll have to be the last one for tonight," Derek reminds him.  "I've got to get home in a bit or else my dad will give me crap."
   To Derek's surprise, Martin binds him at the elbows, then down the length of his forearms.
   "If you tie someone at the elbows," says Martin, "it's almost impossible for them to get out of it by wriggling."
   "It's a bit painful, too," says Derek.
   "Yes it is," says Martin.
   Derek doesn't make any pretense to hiding his wriggling this time around.  "So, how do I get out?"
   "I'm sure you'll figure out a way," says Martin.  He starts towards the stairs.
   "Where are you going?"
   "Oh, we're done for today," says Martin.  "Once you get out, you can go home.  See you tomorrow."  He opens the trap door, exits, and sets it back into place.

   Nearly an hour later, Derek shows up at Roy Riddle's manse.  His right arm is bleeding, though not severely.  Riddle invites him in and immediately sets to work bandaging the wound.
   "What am I going to tell my father?" says Derek.
   "Don't look at me," says Riddle.  "I'm no good at lying."
   "Say, aren't you in a tough spot there?  I mean, what if someone suspects and they ask you, point blank, if Martin was the Green Knight?"
   "Well," says Riddle, "I have thought on that a little, yes.  And I've come to the conclusion that, given the nature of what all he told me and how, that it constituted a confession."
   "Was he in the booth?"
   "No.  He was sitting right about where you're sitting."
   "Doesn't it have to be in the booth to count?"
   "No.  It's not the church that makes the sacraments, but the sacraments that make the church.  I could baptise you right in my kitchen and it would count."
   "No thanks," says Derek sourly.
   "Probably for the best.  Whether I bless it or not, the water in the kitchen still comes out brown and disconcertingly slushy.  Must be the Big Guy's way of telling me I need to get new pipes."

The next day, the office of Lt. Danielle Handler-- Jolt City's Four-Colour Liaison.  The Green Knight comes by to talk shop, reeking of alcohol.  Dani dismisses her secretary, locks her door, and pulls down her blinds.
   She presses near to him before activating the audio scrambling device that Derek had given her: privacy.
   "I missed you last night."
   "Sorry about that," says Martin.  "I ran into Merlot while I was on patrol."

   This time around, Merlot's plan was inspired by the Great Boston Molasses Disaster.  Only instead of flooding Jolt City with molasses, he was going to use three million gallons of 1994 Saint-Emilion Boudreaux wine.
   Every time Martin thought he had captured him or halted his plan, Merlot threw something else at him, the same basic Merlot tricks: imperiled drunks, automated corkscrews, his mutant grapes of wrath.
   From hideout to hideout the chase went on.  Martin spent the better part of ten minutes treading wine inside a gigantic slosh bucket shortly before he escaped, thwarted the plan, and captured the madman, more-or-less in that order.

   "I just dropped him off downstairs about five minutes ago," says Martin.  "I didn't even have time to change.  Sorry about the smell."
   "S'alright," says Dani.  "How's the sidekick coming along?"
    "It's alright," says Martin.  "I mean, he's a good kid, he's smart and he's scrappy.  I think he lives inside his head too much, maybe.  Gets too hung up on abstracts and gadgets.  But otherwise a good kid.  He's a little slow.  I mean, he learns fast, but when he moves, physically, he doesn't have a whole lot of grace.  He's a little clumsy with his body, I guess.  We got to shave a few seconds off his reaction time.  It'd be fine anywhere else, but in this vocation, it can be a big difference."  He shrugs.  "But, we'll get there."
   Dani just nods; Martin can tell she turned off about mid-way through his blathering.  "So.  Any chance you'll be staying over tonight?"
   "I don't think so," says Martin gently.  "I already told Pam I'd come stay with her tonight.  Maybe tomorrow?"
   Martin watches her shrivel up.  "Yeah," she says.
   The silence hangs there in the air, thicker than the stench of his slightly purpling costume.  Suddenly: screams, somewhat muted by the scrambler's field.  It's followed by a slightly slurred but highly recognizable laugh.
   "Merlot must've escaped," says Martin.  "Just what I need."
   He rushes off to be the hero, to save the day.  In many ways, it's easier than dealing with this woman and her breaking heart.
   And Martin realizes, with a bit of a chill, that this is exactly how Ray handled his personal relationships.

   One giant cheese sampler, one long hot shower, and two rinse cycles later, Merlot is back into custody and Martin is no longer smelling like a particularly well-heeled souse.  He meets Derek in the Knight's Den.
   "Before you say anything," says Derek, "I got the point.  No such thing as a perfect storm, right?"
   Martin nods.  "But they want you to think there is.  They'll go on and on about how their plan is perfect, how there's no way out.  And if you believe them?  Well, then you won't get out.
   "Don't go looking for ways that you're trapped.  You got to concentrate on finding ways to get out of that trap.  All that being said..."
   "I knew there was more."
   "If you're in a pinch and you just don't have time to get yourself untied, there is always the fine art of chair-fighting."
   Martin gestures for him to sit down and he does; Martin ties Derek's wrists to the back of the chair.  "Chair-fighting.  Fighting with the chair."
   "Pardon my insolence here, oh great and wise master who art schooled in the fine arts of chair-fighting," says Derek, "but if I've got a world to save or some shit, I don't think beating on a poor defenseless chair is really going to remedy the situation."
   "Not fighting against the chair," says Martin.  "Fighting with the chair.  The chair's kinda like your sidekick."
   "Gee, thanks."
   "Let's say, for example, that I'm a thug and I'm coming at you, like so--"
   Before Martin even gets started, Derek leaps to his feet and twists his back towards Martin.  The chair swings and Martin dodges it with ease; the chair flies to the floor and with it, Derek.
   "Not quite like that," says Martin.  "Let me finish."  He helps Derek up.  "You do it like that, you're going to lose your balance, and that won't do you a lick of good.
   "Now, you don't have the use of your fists.  And without your arms to counter-balance, using your legs, kicking and stuff-- not a good idea.  Swinging the chair like that, also not a good idea-- in most circumstances.  There are exceptions, but we'll get to that.
   "What we're talking about here is using your shoulders, using your weight as a weapon.  Knocking guys flat on their ass and doing it clean and doing it fast.  You know what?
   "Let's start over, without the chair, just with your hands tied behind your back.  I should have done that first, and built up to it."
   Derek nods and quickly loosens his arms from the bonds.  Martin gets set to retie him, sans chair, when someone starts knocking on the trap door.
   "It's me," says Roy, peeking his head in.  "Costume's dry."
   "Thanks," says Martin.  "Just toss it down."
   "Actually, can I talk to you a minute?"
   "Uh, sure.  Be right up."
   Martin heads up the stairs and closes the door.  "What is it?"
   "I want to talk to you about the boy," says Roy.  "You left him alone yesterday."
   "He had a certain lesson to learn, and he learned it," says Martin.  "At least to an extent.  It's not like I left him over a vat of boiling oil or anything."
   "Did you see the cut on his arm?"
   "Nothing major."
   "It could have been," says Roy.  "He could have cut a vein.  And you're not there, and I'm in the manse.  There's no way I'd be able to hear him."
   "... You're right," says Martin.  "I'm new to this.  I'm sorry."
   "I know you didn't mean any harm.  You just didn't think it through all the way.  You just got to stay with him from now on.  I know you can't protect him one hundred percent once you're out in the field, but here and now--"
   "I'll stay with him," affirms Martin.
   "There's something else you've got to think about," says Roy.  "I don't know your business like you do, but it seems to me that you're more than just a teacher.  You're a mentor.  A father or uncle or big brother or whatever.  And that means you have to set an example.  You have to make moral choices."
   Martin stares at him.
   "I mean, I'm not saying that you don't do that," says Roy.  "Most of the time, you do.  And especially when it comes to your business.  But in your personal life... well, like I was saying, you have to teach by example, you know?"
   "Yeah," says Martin flatly.
   Roy throws up his hands.  "Okay, okay.  I'm not trying to preach at you."

   "So," says Derek when Martin returns, "chair-fighting, without the chair."
   "Yeah, well, now that I think about it... I hate to do this to you, but I haven't slept since yesterday morning.  I need to get some rest before I have to go on patrol again."
   "That's cool," says Derek.  "Same time tomorrow?"
   "Yeah," says Martin.
   "Um, before I go... I got to talk to you.  It's about my dad."
   "He in any kind of trouble?" says Martin.
   "Nah," says Derek.  "Nothing like that.  He just wants to know what I'm doing with my time, why I get home so late."
   "What'd you tell him?"
   "Nothing, really.  Just kinda been avoiding the questions.  But now I think he's started to get the wrong idea.  Maybe he thinks I'm mixed up with drugs again or something."
   "Has he said that?"
   "No.  But he doesn't have to.  I can see it in his eyes.  He's worried about me.  And I just don't want him to worry.  Worried enough over me.  And I can't tell him what I'm really doing."
   He says it almost like a question; Martin is firm.  "No, you can't.  Besides, that'd probably worry him just as much."
   "What'd you do?" says Derek.  "Your dad was still alive when you started, and you were a lot younger than I am."
   "He's still alive, far as I know," says Martin.  "But he didn't care then and doesn't care now."  There's no sadness in his voice, no bitterness.  There's just plain nothing in his voice at all.  "But I had a cover story, sure," he adds.  "I'll see what I can do to get you one.  Anything else?"
   "No," says Derek.  "That's it."

The next day, Martin shows up at Cradle Industries.  "Martin Rock to see Anders Cradle."
   The receptionist stares right at him.  "You have an appointment?"
   "He's not going to see you without an appointment," says the receptionist.  "He's a very busy man."
   "Tell him it's Martin Rock."
   "Okay," says the receptionist, throwing up his hands.  He makes the call, gives Martin's name, listens, blinks, and hangs up.
   "He'll be right down."

   He had actually been here a few days before, interviewing for a job.  Anders had suggested he do so earlier in the year: with his past history with the company, he'd have a good shot.  But by the time they called him in for an interview, he was in prison; now that he was out and cleared of all charges, he had rescheduled.
   However, the interview didn't go very well.  After all, he had no employment history (or place of residence) for a ten year stretch; he had twice been accused of murder and twice acquitted because the victim wasn't dead; he was associated in the public's mind both with taking down the Crooked Man and bringing Nathan Willis into Jolt City; he was the only man ever to escape from Earbox Super Security Prison, shortly after being officially recognized as being the highest threat level in the prison; he had put Darkhorse into the hospital: and the interviewer was surprisingly candid about all this.
   "I mean, that's quite a resume, Mr. Rock," he said in closing.  "Now, let me be frank here.  We really can't hold any of that against you, legally.  If you had anything approaching any kind of qualifications for any kind of job opening, I wouldn't even bother bringing it up.  But you don't.  And if it wasn't for the fact that Anders asked me to see you, you wouldn't even be sitting in front of me today.
   "But, here you are, so let me shoot straight with you.  Products aren't important.  Companies aren't important.  What's important is the marketing of products and the perception of companies.  And if a publicly-held company hires someone with no qualifications and your notoriety-- it's not good perception-wise, and that hurts our products marketing-wise.  Frankly?  Frankly, you scare us shitless."

   Anders greets him with an awkward handshake and an apology.  "I'm sorry to hear that the interview didn't work out."
   "Your dad would have just given me the job."
   "Are you saying I should have?"
   "No; I'm saying that's how you're different from your dad.  You're completely on the straight-and-narrow.  I'm giving you a compliment."
   Anders nods as if he didn't know what a compliment was in the first place.
   "I got a favour to ask you, though," says Martin.  "Somewhere where we can talk?"

Anders's office, eleventh floor.
   "So," says Martin.  "Tough break about Harvard."
   Anders had been kicked out under less-than-ideal circumstances.  "I was never the academic type anyway.  What is it that you want?"
   "I'm wondering if you have any part-time jobs," says Martin.  "Like for a teenager or something."
   "I think there's something," says Anders.  "Unpaid internships at the least.  And my recommendation would probably carry some more weight there.  Who for?"
   "This kid I know," says Martin.  "He needs something flexible.  I mean, he'll show up, he'll be there a lot of the time, but he really needs it more to say that he's there."
   "Like my dad did for you?"
   "Yeah, something like that."
   "Well, like you said, I'm not my father," says Anders.  "And this isn't the old days.  Cradle's a big company now, and there'd be a lot more people who would notice an absence.  Raise all sorts of red flags and you don't want that, do you?"
   "No, that wouldn't be good."
   "I'd hire him on as a personal assistant," says Anders, "but the fact is, I'm not exactly a nine to five person myself.  I don't plan on spending a whole lot of time at the office.  I'd rather let the people who know how to run the business run the business.  So I wouldn't be here to cover for him.  I'd like to help, but..."
   "It's alright," says Martin.  "I got a couple other places I was thinking of trying."
   Martin turns to leave when a large horse-like humanoid wearing a comic-con t-shirt comes crashing through the plate glass window.  "Better make your saving throw, Anders Cradle!" it proclaims in a slightly nasal yet still strangely stentorian voice.  "... Because you'll never escape Hobby-Horse!"
   Anders clears his throat.  "Okay."
   "Okay, what?" says Hobby-Horse.
   "I won't try to escape you," says Anders with a shrug.  "What do you want?"
   Martin, as yet unnoticed, sidesteps towards the two figures at an angle; he wants to make the distance between himself and either one more equal, so that if he needs to run and push Anders out of the way, or if he needs to sock Hobby-Horse in the jaw, both will be within easy reach.
   "I'm going to hold you ransom," says Hobby-Horse.
   "Really?" says Anders.  "Who will pay it?  Both my parents are dead."
   "Your company will pay it, soon enough," says the villain, throwing in a sound that was half-way between a whinny and a maniacal laugh.
   "How much?" says Anders.
   "The ransom?" says Hobby-Horse.
   Martin's in position now.  He stops moving for fear of coming into the villain's peripheral vision.  Now he just has to wait for the right moment.
   "Yes," says Anders.  "How much?"
   "A hundred thousand," says Hobby-Horse.
   "Only a hundred?  I must be worth more than a hundred.  Quarter of a million, at least."
   Hobby-Horse scratches the top of his head with one of his hooves.  "Yeah, I guess a quarter million."
   Anders pulls out his bulging wallet.  "How much is that in hundred dollar bills?  Martin?"
   Martin nearly has a heart attack as Hobby-Horse turns towards him.  "Um," says Martin.  "Uh, I dunno.  Two thousand, five hundred?"
   All three mentally do the calculations at the same time, and discover that Martin's guess was correct.  "Geez," says Anders as he begins to slap bills on his desk.  "This is going to take awhile.  Say, I got some old ten thousand dollar bills stashed away from before they stopped printing them.  They're perfectly legit, spend just the same...?"
   "Might draw attention," says the villain.
   Anders motions to Hobby-Horse.  "Press that button there then, will you?"
   He does.
   A secretary's voice over the intercom. "Mr. Cradle?"
   "I need you to run to the bank for me," says Anders.  "You'll need to-- hold on."  He looks to Hobby-Horse.  "I don't suppose you'll accept a check?"
   Hobby-Horse stares at him, slack-jawed.  "Um.  Wouldn't it be better if I just kidnapped you?"
   "What, and get yourself caught?" says Anders.
   Martin butts in: "It's not like you'd be hard to find.  There can't be more than a couple dozen horse-people in the world, and that's tops."
   "Sir?" says the secretary.  "Are you in trouble?"
   "No," says Anders.  "So, a check?"
   "I don't think so," says Hobby-Horse.
   "Very savvy," says Anders.  "Gretchen, I need you to run to the bank and get out, oh, let's see, two hundred and forty thousand dollars."  He pushes a large stack of bills towards Hobby-Horse.  "There's the first ten.  She'll be maybe an hour or so with the rest of it.  You want something to eat?"  He smiles, a rarity for Anders.  "Oats, perhaps?"
   But Hobby-Horse is not amused.  He points at Anders with one of his hooves.  "You do not want to be messing with me, little man!  I will kitbash you into Abe Lincoln with exploding brains action!"[*]
   "Sorry," says Anders.
   Hobby-Horse bristles loudly, then: "Wouldn't mind some pizza, though."
   "Pizza it is," says Anders.

[*-- This reminds Martin of the time when he and Anders's father found themselves occupying the bodies of Lincoln and Booth, respectively, due to a botched séance conducted by Mary Todd Lincoln the week before the assassination.  As that fateful Good Friday approached, one terrible day at a time, "Lincoln" and his future murderer would meet in secret, trying to figure out what to do: if events did not adhere to the established timeline, the repercussions would have been catastrophic; if the two acted their roles as history intended, Ray would be murdering the boy who was like a son to him.
   And so our heroes found themselves in Ford's Theater, awaiting the biggest laugh-line in "Our American Cousin", Ray pointing his pistol at the back of Martin's head, both wondering if they could go through with it.
   During all this, however, the minds of the real Lincoln and Booth were waging psychic war on the astral plane.  Lincoln triumphed and Booth fled; Lincoln followed him back to the corporeal world.  Ray and Martin were knocked out of the bodies they had bakula'd into.
   Unfortunately, Booth had arrived in Lincoln's body and Lincoln in Booth's.  During the battle on the astral plane, Lincoln had become one with the universe and thus became aware of his fate.  Lincoln-in-Booth's body pulled the trigger, committing the strangest case of suicide in the history of the human race.
   But Ray and Martin did not immediately return to their own bodies and their own time.  They had to assist Lincoln in his imposture of Booth, coaching him as he made his escape and spent twelve long days on the run, until his death at Garrett's Farm.
   The continuum of space and time having been made whole, Ray and Martin returned to their bodies shortly after they left them.]

   Roughly an hour later, Hobby-Horse zippers up his bag of money, slings it over his shoulder, and heads towards the window.  He trots onto his hovercraft and exits.
   Martin looks to Anders.  "Let me get changed and I'll follow him."
   "Why bother?  He didn't break any law-- just a window.  And I can certainly afford to replace the window."
   "He was going to kidnap you," says Martin.
   "But he didn't," says Anders.  "So I thank you not to butt into my business, okay?"
   Martin puts up his hands and begins to unbutton his shirt.  "Okay, but I'll still going to follow him.  He might try to kidnap somebody else."
   "There are cameras here," says Anders.  "Cameras in the whole building.  Best to change elsewhere."

   By the time Martin gets changed, the trail is very cold indeed.  He asks numerous passersby if they saw where the equine evil-doer got off to.  They'd like to help him, but no one has any answers.
   He changes back to his civvies and heads over to Jolt City University.  Once there, he dashes towards the Kistler Building and knocks on the door to lab four.
   The door opens just enough for Dr. Fatima Tarif to slide her face into view.  "Mr. Rock," she says, as if she was ordering him with a side salad.  "What brings you to my neck of the woods?"
   "Got a favour to ask you, actually.  It's kind of a peculiar favour..."
   "The best kind.  Come on in..."
   She opens the door.
   The thing most notably different about Dr. Fay's lab is the presence of a ginormous water tank, and residing within that tank a rather pensive-looking Apelantian.  The last time Martin had seen him, it had been in Dani's bathtub; he had given them valuable information that helped link Samson Snapp to the Apelantian invasion.  Because Snapp's trial for treason would not be going to trial for sometime, the Apelantian's testimony would be required.  In exchange for his cooperation, he would be allowed to stay in the United States; while the feds fiddle-faddled over exactly what to do with him, he's been discharged to the care and custody of Dr. Fay.
   Fay taps on the glass lightly, pulling the Apelantian-- whom Dr. Fay had named Alister, as his actual name is not pronounceable in English or, in fact, in any surface language, since the Apelantian language is a non-verbal one-- out of the water-proof book he was reading.
   Look who's here, Dr. Fay signs in American Sign Language.
   Before she can even finish, Alister greets Martin warily.
   "He probably still remembers our little interrogation session," says Martin to Dr. Fay.  He turns his attention to Alister: Don't worry; I won't hurt you.  We're friends now, yes?
   I suppose.
   Do you like it here so far?
   Well, it's no ocean (says Alister wistfully), but on the other paw if I was in the ocean, I'd probably be executed.  The Aquatic Ape Empire does not smile on failure.
   That's probably why it doesn't get anywhere (muses Martin).  Killing off your troops after every battle can't be good for morale.  (Once he says this, he immediately feels as if he's been rude.)
   Well (says Alister), that's not quite true.  They spare your life if you demonstrate incredible bravery.
   And what constitutes that?
   Being the son of a senator.
   Your dad...?
   Not really a senator, no.  So, all things considered, this is not so bad.
   You must be lonely.
   Actually, no, not really.  Never really been the gregarious sort.  It's kind of peaceful.  It is nice to have some company, though, I suppose.  You'll visit?
   Excellent.  Well, if you'll excuse me, I'll get back to my book...
   Of course.

   "So," says Dr. Fay after they have left Alister, "what's this rather peculiar favour you have to ask me?"  A single twisty strand of hair slips salaciously out of her hajib.  "I do hope it's something dirty."
   "Sorry to disappoint," says Martin.  "No, it's a little complicated.  There's this kid, this friend of mine.  He's really interested in technological stuff, has a real talent for it."
   "Let me stop you right there," says Fay.  "I can't just get people into college.  It doesn't work that way."
   "I know that," says Martin, perhaps snapping more than he'd like to.  "No, but-- um-- he needs a job, sort of.  Doesn't even need to get paid for it, just needs somewhere to be."
   "Like a lab assistant?"
   "Not exactly," says Martin.  "Well, yeah, but the catch is, he's not going to be there all the time.  He just needs somewhere to be some of the time, and if his dad calls, you can just say that he's here, or that he's out in the hall, even if he's not and why are you looking at me like that?"
   "What's it for?" says Fay.
   "It's... complicated.  It's private.  I mean, it's nothing bad or anything..."
   "Nothing sexual?"
   "God, no," says Martin is disgust.
   "In which case, it must be something criminal.  You need a cover story for someone."
   "It's not anything crooked..."
   "If it was something straight, you wouldn't need the cover story," says Fay.  "I'm kinda disappointed in you, Mr. Rock.  I had you pegged for someone on the straight and narrow.  You just got dealt a bad hand, is all.  That's what I thought, anyway."

   This was a stupid idea, Martin decides.  He looks at JCU's looming clock tower and notes that it's nearly supper.
   He heads over to Pam's apartment.
   He knocks on the door and is surprised when Derek answers it.  "It's Martin," Derek announces.
   Pam strolls out of the kitchen, every inch a woman and every inch in glorious motion.  She kisses Martin wetly on the mouth before admonishing him to take his shoes off.  "Help me in the kitchen?" she adds, half-demand and half-invitation.
   Martin takes off his shoes and follows slowly; he presses behind her and slides his fingers up her shirt and across her belly.  "Derek?" he asks.
   "Showed up at work today," says Pam.  "Wanting to know if he could have a job.  Well, not a job, but, y'know."
   "I know," says Martin.  "I'll give him this, he ain't shy about taking the initiative.  What'd you tell him?"
   "No, of course," says Pam.  "Can't have a kid out there running around doing bail-bonds shit."
   "Well, he wouldn't really be doing it, would he?" says Martin.  "I mean, that's the perfect cover job, isn't it?  He'd be out for long stretches of time..."
   "It'd be perfect if it was plausible," says Pam.  "And an eighteen year old kid looking for guys who don't want to be looked for?  That's just not plausible."
   "I guess."
   "Besides, Anna is suspicious as hell," says Pam.  She tastes her stew thoughtfully.  "He stays out in the field and never brings anything back, she'd ask a lot of questions."
   "Well, I wasn't going to ask you anyway," says Martin.
   Pam is not convinced.  "Uh-huh."
   "I mean, you're right, it's completely stupid.  Doesn't make any sense."
   "I wasn't going to ask you.  Seriously."
   "I'm not saying a thing."
   "I wasn't."  Martin's hands start to stray north.
   "Grind me up some coriander, will you?"
   Martin pulls back away from Pam and looks for the coriander.
   "You should ask Dani," says Pam, the natural hardness in her voice curling in on itself.
   Martin pours some coriander into the mortar and proceeds to pestle the living shit out of it.

   Dinner is pleasant yet tense; Martin and Derek both compliment her on the stew.  When they are done, she piles their plates and utensils together and heads back into the kitchen.  Both males watch, as males are wont to do, as Pam's rear gradually recedes from view.
   "You know," Derek says to Martin, "if it turns out you can't make up your mind, I'd be more than happy to take Pam off your hands for you."  He smirks.
   Martin tries very hard not to be amused.
   Pam calls out from the kitchen: "I bet you would, at that!"

After dinner.  The Knight's Den.
   "Before we move on to the finer points of non-chair chair-fighting," says Martin, "I wanted to say something to you.  Um, this whole thing with Pam and Dani.  I, uh, it's not... it's not..."
   "Stop," says Derek.  "It's not important."
   "No, it is," says Martin.  "I know I'm not setting a good example here, and..."
   "Seriously, don't worry about it.  I'm not stupid.  I'm not some stupid kid who's going to do whatever you do because I see you doing it, or I want to be just like you or some shit.  I'm perfectly fine being myself, thank you.  I can make my own decisions and I'm not going to imitate you like some damn idiot.  I still remember how we could have got Snapp behind bars last year."
   "Okay," winces Martin.  "Good point.  Let's just get back to work."

   Moses Mason is sitting in the living room when his son creeps in at nearly midnight.  "Derek," he says in his deep long voice.
   "Yeah, dad?"
   Moses takes a deep breath and lets it steam out his nostrils.  "Nothing," he says.  "You're going to do whatever the hell you want to do no matter what I say."
   "I love you, dad," says Derek.  "And I ain't doing anything to make you ashamed.  Not no more."
   "You said that before," says Moses.
   "But I mean it now," says Derek.
   "Maybe you do.  But you still said it before, and at that time it didn't mean a thing."
   "I'm tired, dad," says Derek, and it's true-- his muscles ache and whine, and each night they feel more miserable than the night before; "I'm going to bed."  He starts towards the stairs.
   "Son," says Moses.
   Derek stops, and he wishes his dad knew how much this means; when he was dealing, he would've kept on moving, but now, now he stops dead cold.
   But his father doesn't seem to notice.  "Tomorrow, I expect you to be home at a decent hour.  I'd rather you stay home.  But if you're going to go out, I'd like you to be home when I get off of work.  We got to talk, you and I, and you're not going to like it.  But tomorrow we're going to do it, and you're not going to be too tired, understand?"
   Derek nods.  "Yeah, dad.  I understand."

   "Ugh," says Martin to Roy as he suits up in the Knight's Den.
   "Ugh?" says Roy.
   "Ugh," says Martin.
   "Why ugh?"
   "Sometimes I wish I was still out there by myself," says Martin.  "I mean, I like where I am now.  I like being the Green Knight, I like having friends.  I'm making a difference now, even if it's just a small one, and that's great.
   "But at the same time, everything was a whole lot simpler before.  And no, I'm not even talking about Dani and Pam, and no, I don't want to talk about it."
   "Who's talking about it?" says Roy.
   "But I mean, this teaching stuff, this mentor stuff, in addition to the job itself-- and I still got to find myself a day job.  And one for Derek, as well."
   "But Derek hasn't even started yet," says Roy.  "You're still training him."
   "His dad's starting to get persnickety," says Martin.
   "I don't blame him," says Roy.  "Sadly, not enough fathers care about their sons.  Well," he adds as he darts his eyes upwards, "except for You.  Thanks for being awesome, Big Guy."
   "Regardless, I still need a cover for him," says Martin.  "And I've tried everywhere I can think of."
   "You didn't ask me," says Roy.
   "Ask you?" says Martin.
   "He can work here," says Roy.  "I mean, it won't be lying because here is where he'll be anyway.  And when he's not working with you, he can help me keep the place tidy."
   "But he's an atheist," says Martin.

   Derek introduces Roy to his father.  Roy explains that Derek's been working at the church for nearly a month now.  Moses asks a few questions and receives answers he considers satisfactory.
   "Well," says Roy, "I better be on my way."  The priest leaves, and Moses turns to his son in disbelief.
   "But you're an atheist."

   Derek walks through the pews, picking up a surprising amount of candy wrappers left over from the Wednesday night mass.
   "Want a wafer?" offers Roy, a box full of hosts tucked underneath his arm.  "It's just bread," he adds hastily.  "I haven't transubstantiated them; these ones are a little stale, actually."  He pops a few in his mouth.  "Still tasty, though."
   "I'll pass," says Derek.  "Thank you anyway.  And thanks for squaring things with my dad."
   "No problem," says Roy, his mouth full and mushy.
   "Can I ask you a question, though?"
   "Sure," says Roy.
   "You do know I'm an atheist, right?"
   "And you don't have a problem with me working here?"
   Roy shakes his head, as if the answer was obvious.
   "Alright," says Derek, shrugging his shoulders.  "And-- look, I do appreciate you letting me work here, but don't-- don't be pushing stuff on me, okay?  Seriously.  You don't push yours, I won't push mine."
   "Who's pushing?" says Roy.  "I just offered you some munchies.  They're actually pretty tasty.  Especially with some salsa."
   Roy pulls out a small jar of salsa and unscrews the cap.  "Come on, give it a try."
   "Isn't that, like, sacrilegious?"
   "What?  No.  This is just bread," says Roy.  "After it becomes the actual flesh of our Saviour?  That would be sacrilegious, yes.  You definitely don't want to use salsa then.  (Found out the hard way.)  But right now, it's just a wafer, and let me tell you, it tastes darn good with a little salsa."



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