A Kindness for RavenCallie Summers opened her own door, unlike other debutantes. A handsome man stood in the hallway, a valise in his hand, and not dressed for the summer heat. Instead he wore an old-fashioned black suit.
"Greetings, I am Liang Jiangua," said the man in Mandarin Chinese. She gave him no impression she understood, instead staring blankly. "I am your birthday gift." She showed no signs of understanding. He sighed and repeated himself in English. He smiled. "You may call me...Edgar." He looked at her as if it were significant.
"Thank you," Callie said. "My birthday is not until tomorrow, and we already have an Edgar." A loud squawk came from the penthouse as Edgar heard his name mentioned.
"May I come in?" asked the man. Callie moved to one side, and the man entered. He set down his bags and then stood stiffly at attention. "Liang Jiangua, lady's gentleman," he said. "References available on request. I hope you don't mind that I was in the hall. Someone was leaving, so I entered the building." He frowned. "Having a Chinese mother, I assumed you would speak Mandarin."
"No, I never learned the language," Callie lied. "Too much shopping to do." Her mother had been the daughter of an international criminal mastermind, but that was not common knowledge.
"Perhaps your mother Jasmine wanted to put her past behind her," he agreed. "I was hired by your father."
Callie considered for a moment. Her father was out of touch right now, looking for a new student for the Claremont Academy at a place near Death Valley that was so remote it didn't support cellphones. "How overprotective of Daddy," she said. "But not needed."
"He was most insistent." The man looked at the truncated hallway. "Surely you have this whole floor?"
The hallway hid The Rookery from visitors, but most visitors didn't notice it was shortened. "No, that part of the floor is owned by the building for maintenance and equipment."
Edgar the raven squawked again. Callie looked over at the clock—she had someone to meet soon. "I have to go—I have to get ready for an appointment. Thank you."
"I will stay and wait."
"You will go. A girl has to worry about appearances." She escorted him with bags out the front door and shut it firmly behind him. He had been cute but with no way to check on him, she wasn't about to give him access to her home. Especially when she had an appointment as the Raven.
* * *It was hot and windless out. The small man stank of fear. He kept looking over his shoulder.
The Raven stood in the shadows so no one could see her. "You wanted me." In costume, she pitched her voice lower, in her natural range. As far as the other debutantes of Freedom City were concerned, Callie Summers had a higher, different voice.
"Yeah. The Crime League is holding auditions. They're expanding." His voice was reedy.
"Where and when?"
He told her: an auto wrecking yard in Lincoln, that night.
The Raven was there first, hiding. Too bad the League was off-planet, but she would just observe.
* * *"Isn't this a bit of a comedown for you?" Wildcard asked. "Babysitting, I mean." He had a deck of cards in a hand and was practicing one-handed cuts.
"Nah," Orion said. "I think about ways of hunting them. It passes the time."
"Riiiiiight," said Wildcard. Cut. Cut. Cut.
"Sure. Those two?" he said of Rant and Rave. "I'd separate them, first off. Others, I don't know what their powers are yet. You don't use a sharp stick on an invulnerable person, right?" He sniffed. Oil and gas, rust, old metal.
"I do, but it often turns out they are vulnerable to that kind of stick," said Wildcard. "Kind of a disappointing turnout." There were five people auditioning: Rant and Rave, a thin man in a cardboard helmet, a mild balding scientist with a potbelly and his blond friend.
"Just plan more ways to kill each one, is all." Wildcard looked at Orion, but he seemed imperturbable. Orion strode to the center of the lit gravel beneath the gantry of the car-crusher, and looked at the five hopefuls. "This is the first stage. Impress me and you go on. You first." He pointed at the scientist.
"Well, uh, I'm Dr. Olim. And I've worked on certain...techniques...to control people. And things. As an example, I brought along a young man of my acquaintance." He indicated the blonde young man beside him, who looked half-asleep. He wore no shirt, and he was in green slacks. No shoes.
"Techniques?" asked Wildcard, lounging on the hood of an old car, still warm from the heat of the day. Today had been a scorcher. He could wear the uniform now that the day had cooled a bit. The scent of oil still rose from the car.
"Mind control techniques. My work brings me into contact with...special...individuals." He pulled out a device that had hung at his side and twisted a knob. "Behold!"
Hair sprouted all over the young man's body, and other changes twisted and shaped him. In a minute, a man-wolf crouched there on the claws of his hands and feet.
"He's a mutant," explained Dr. Olim. "Extract of wolf glands helped bring out his latent abilities. And I can control his every move. Does anyone want to fight him?"
"I'll take him on," said the man with the ridiculous helmet.
"Impervious to damage?" asked Orion in a bored fashion.
"Better. I'm magnetic. I call myself...Dipole!" He struck a pose.
"Eventual aim?" asked Wildcard, noting it on a piece of paper.
"Retire with my own island."
"Ah, money." To Orion, sotto voce, he said, "Easier to control than the world domination types."
"Just different," said Orion. "To-may-to, to-mah-to."
The man-wolf lifted a leg and urinated on Dipole. Orion permitted himself a snicker. "Best move, son, or he'll be humping your leg next."
Dipole turned on his force field and a yellow glow surrounded him. "Just you wait!" said Dipole, and he moved back as cars flew off nearby piles to form a cage around the man-wolf: left, right, front, back, top. A dark shape flew from one of the cars.
"Raven!" cried Wildcard. A boomerang hit him on the side of the head, but it was only a flesh wound. Raven had melded with the darkness around them.
Gingerly protecting the side of his head, Wildcard said, "She'll leave and bring the Freedom League on us!"
Orion shook his head. "She won't. They're off-planet. And I prepared a few surprises." He spoke to the candidates. "New test. Anyone who brings me Raven goes to the next level."
Wildcard watched them go, then said to Orion, "They won't win."
"No," he replied. "But they'll tire her out."
* * *Didn't get Wildcard, thought Raven. Mutant luck powers. Of course that was the car I was in. Got to get out of here—odds are bad—
She felt the wire almost too late: the precariously-balanced car came down, and she stepped back in time, but the noise let them know where she was. She immediately dodged to the side and down a different aisle in the yard. I hope none of them can fly.
* * *Rant held his sister's hand as they moved slowly in the darkness, the beams of their flashlights stabbing the darkness. "Even if we see her, we won't recognize her," said Rave. She touched her hair again. She had only dyed it green yesterday.
"She won't look like a car," said Rant patiently. "You've got your blindness up?"
"Of course. Do I look like an idiot? If we can get into the Crime League, we'll always have someone to spring us—"
Something hit the ground behind them. Rave turned around to see the source of the noise.
The stun grenade caught her full on. She stood like a deer caught by a car.
Rant was shielded from the blast by her body. He looked for the source of the grenade. Whump! and his sister was torn from his hold. She rolled to a stop away from Raven. He screamed then, a shout more potent than dynamite, but he missed, shattering a tower of cars.
Raven shared her father's distaste for psionicists. If you can't trust your mind, what can you trust? She had to put Rave down now. She took position and lashed out with her leg, a powerful position but one that left her open. Rave twisted and took the force of the blow on her arm. Not good enough. Fortunately, Rant missed again. That gave Raven an idea.
She grabbed the green-haired woman from behind and put her in the way of Rave's next shout—which hit his sister; Raven's fingers tingled from the sound, but Rave slumped in her arms. My files show you have ultrahearing, thought Raven, so let's see how you like this. She tossed a grenade at him, averting her eyes, and trusted her earplugs to filter out the worst noise.
The grenade went off loudly enough to deafen a normal man, but Rant wasn't a normal man. Still, the shock was enough to surprise him, and his next shout went wide, tearing the side mirror off an old Toyota.
Raven swarmed in and kicked Rant in the solar plexus—if he couldn't breathe, he couldn't scream. Rant staggered back with a painful oof sound. He held his arms up and made a mewling sound, surprised by it, and Raven closed in with a series of swift blows to the head and gut that knocked him out.
She was going to tie them up—there were warrants on these two—but she heard footsteps. My grenade has attracted attention. She melted behind a pile of cars as Dr. Olim and the man-wolf came nearer.
The man-wolf stopped, bent his nose to the ground, and seemed confused by the fight. Then he stopped and urinated on Rant, but it didn't wake the man up. Finally, the creature began casting around for her scent, going in ever-larger circles.
Finally, he was looking straight at the place where she was. His nostrils twitched. There was no question of surprise—he knew she was there. Dr. Olim twisted a knob on his controller, making the man-wolf yelp as he slashed at Raven.
He was fast, faster than she was, but he missed her with his first slash. Raven moved away from the tower of cars and tossed a grenade at him; the explosion didn't seem to bother him or blind him at all. His front claws tore at her cape as she dodged out of the way, and she could feel the sweat popping out on her back and forehead.
Got to take him down fast, too. She shifted position and kicked. He was better than Rave, so this was more of a risk, but she had to take him down and she had the feeling that a boomerang blow wouldn't be enough.
And his hide was tough: tough enough to shrug off one of her hardest hits. He slashed at her extended leg and caught her, but she went with it and minimized the hurt.
But it still hurt.
Okay, take him down from a distance. She withdrew and threw down a smoke grenade—but the man-wolf didn't depend on sight. He surged forward and hit her again, but this time she had more room to maneuver and managed to ride the blow.
Raven twisted again and hit him as hard as she could but connected with the big muscles of the leg. He shredded her costume again—she felt the coolness of his claws against her skin, and then the heat of her own blood down her arm.
One more time she hit him, and connected solidly with his temple. The blow would have incapacitated a normal man, but it only slowed the man-wolf down. She followed that with a hard punch to the solar plexus, but it bounced off the muscles of his belly.
He raked his arm across her back, but they shredded her cape and only tore skin and flesh. Weakness ran down her side and she toppled to the hard gravel.
Dr. Olim took this moment to dash forward and kick her.
She snatched the controller from the doctor. With one twist of a knob, she had the man-wolf on its knees.
Dr. Olim tried—and failed—to get the controller back. "You fool! You don't know what you're doing!"
Raven smiled grimly and flipped a switch. Dr. Olim backed away, then screamed as the man-wolf neared him. She let them get out of sight, then turned the creature back into a man and broke the remote control under her boot heel. There were four ways out of the next intersection: one led the way she had come, another to the center, the third had been the way Dr. Olim had run. She chose the fourth.
Her blood smell was added to the scents of rust and oil. If the light were better, pursuers would easily see the bloodspots—as it was, they were merely hard to see. Her arm and torso hurt, and her claw-slashes burned. All of the entrants to the Crime League were in this half of the auto graveyard; if she could double around, she might be able to avoid Orion's traps and get out, get the police. She was going to need medical attention for these wounds.
She got two hundred more feet, around the circle, when cars flew from the nearby piles and caged her on all sides. She didn't resist.
"No fight?" asked the slim man in the cardboard head-dress. His leg was still dark where the werewolf had urinated on him. If he had kept his force field up— Hmm. It was down now.
Raven shrugged, saving her strength. She could crawl there and she could get loose—
A fifth car landed atop the others, making a neat box. Now she was trapped; exit would involve going through the cars—the back window was gone on this old Taurus, so she could wriggle in, lower a side window, and get out, but it would take time. Fortunately, the cars blocked his sight of her as well. She dove into the Taurus.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Hey, I've got her! Down here! Hey!"
She was pleased he hadn't remembered to use his powers to, say, use the solenoids in the car engines to generate electricity. But she supposed he would have to take apart the car engines for that, and he didn't want to get close to her.
He yelled all the time for the others, and they seemed to be taking their time. Finally, he paused, and she stopped moving.
"You're my ticket to the big leagues," he told her conversationally, gasping between words. "The big money."
She hit him on the head from behind, then, and he never saw her. Another shot, and he was down.
Some day, he would learn to keep his force field up all the time.
Raven sprinted as fast as she could. Orion and Wildcard were coming, and she hadn't the strength to deal with both of them. Her arm throbbed and her side ached.
The way out should be down here. Focus, she thought. Focus.
A large figure 4 blocked her way. She stopped, played her flashlight over it. It's a deadfall, she thought, looking at the car balanced there, but he can't imagine I'd fall for that. Perhaps for runners? She decided that Orion had set up a few of these traps for candidates who lost their nerve.
She edged past it, careful not to disturb it.
When the snare caught her ankle, it was a complete surprise. A car hit the ground in the next aisle, and the cable attached to it yanked her upward. She hung upside down in the middle of the row of cars. And they knew where she was.
She twisted upwards. The cable was metal, so there was no breaking it. She reached for a small torch normally used for solder and began burning through the cable. With her weight on it, the cable might break sooner.
It was awkward holding her body twisted like this. Her cape hung to the ground—and caught on something. Looking down, she saw the spikes below her.
So she grabbed the cable with one hand and pushed her body to one side, beginning to swing. With luck, the rhythm of the swinging would let her fall to one side of the spikes when the cable broke. The cable was white-hot now, but still intact. She kept the flame on it.
She could hear Wildcard's footsteps in the dirt. Orion made no sound. Break, damn you, break!
It broke just as she passed over the spikes, and she flew into the darkness onto a car hood, with a loud thump.
Her ankle throbbed. She moved to cover—Remember Orion has night goggles—then probed it. I think it's just a sprain, but I may not be able to walk on it.
She saw Orion, backlit by lights at the central electromagnet.
But he doesn't know that.
* * *Orion sniffed. He smelled blood. It wasn't Dr. Olim's—he had found the man in the trap two rows over, the blond man standing dumbly over him. Rant and Rave were still out, as was Dipole. It had to be Raven's.
She didn't have the powers that Lady Liberty had, so she should be easy game. He had tracked her to here. All he had to do was find her. Close work—he would switch to a pistol for this.
"You're underestimating her," said Wildcard. "I've seen that before, too."
"Shut up," said Orion.
"You know what? You deserve to get yourself beaten by her. I'm going home. There's nothing for me here—everyone else has lost."
Orion said, "She's nothing but practice."
"For your precious Lady Liberty? And what am I?" Orion said nothing. "We were supposed to evaluate some people. They failed. We're done." Wildcard knew when his luck had run out. He called out, "Done, do you hear?" and left, his flashlight bobbing as he walked.
"I'll get her." Something glinted in the artificial green light of his night goggles. He picked it up—a length of cable with a loop fashioned in the end.
Behind him, there was a tinkle of breaking glass. He looked, scanning for activity, and saw only a boomerang that hadn't been there before.
A scream beside him deafened him, and he glance: a dark shape blocked out the light, hit him across the eyes: it didn't hurt him but broke his goggles. The cape wrapped around her, hid her, but he fired blindly three times.
Missed, he thought. But the smell of blood was fresher, stronger. She's close.
He rolled down the eyepieces so he could see. It was dark here. He had planned on Raven moving away from him, so he could control her, but she had moved the attack to him. Animals didn't do that, unless they were hurt.
Unless they're hurt.
He backed off quickly and swapped his pistol for his rifle. I want aim and power, he thought.
A grenade fell at his feet. He dived, but the smoke still enveloped him, blinded him. He moved slowly to his feet. According to the files of the Crime League, she couldn't see through this either. He was relatively safe as long as he was in the smoke. Good thing there wasn't any wind tonight.
The smoke started to clear. He lifted his rifle to shoot at her. Assume she's still over there—she's hurt, remember.
She swung on a cable into the darkness, directly into him, hitting him in the chest with her boot. He flew backward, and hit his head on a car. He didn't move again.
* * *She fell going over the fence and had to choose between calling the police—there were eighteen warrants on Orion alone—or between getting on the motorcycle. She chose the motorcycle. Lincoln didn't have enough tall buildings for her to swing, and by the pain in her arm, she couldn't have done it again, anyway.
She wobbled going down the streets, and though she took back streets, as she approached the Rookery she still had to swerve around several cars.
In the secret garage under the Rookery, she slid the bike into a wall. Eventually she moved. Stupid to die like this, she thought. But he got me with one of those bullets... If I can just get upstairs—
There was a figure over her. A figure in a dark suit.
"I am also trained in combat medicine," he said, and he reached for her.
She said in Mandarin, "I suspected as much." Then she fainted.
* * *The sheets were clean and crisp. She was in her own bedroom. She looked at her arm and belly. Her wounds had been cleaned and neatly stitched. She looked brown with disinfectant. She made a phone call, speaking quietly. She was just breaking the connection when Liang came in.
"Ah. You are awake," he said in English. "I am sorry I had to give myself away."
"I knew you'd be there," she said in Mandarin.
"I am glad you trusted me." He answered her in the same language.
"No. I knew. A deduction. You're not a gift from my father."
He said nothing.
He looked straight ahead. "I am a gift from your grandfather."
"My father would not have sprung such a gift on me without checking to see if I liked him first. And because you are a gift from my grandfather, you have a secondary mission."
"You have never said my father's name."
Liang nodded. "I am to kill him."
"I thought so. You would be surprised at how well he can defend himself, but he won't need to. I have arranged for someone to take you to Togo. I'm sure that someone of your talents can find your way home from there."
Callie grew cold and dark. "You have saved my life, and now I have saved yours. If you return, all bets are off."
Liang nodded. "I see. So this is good-bye?"
"And that's my cue," said Johnny Rocket as he zipped into the room. "You don't want to struggle," he told Liang. "At my speed, you'll get hurt if you hit the ground."
And they were gone. She allowed herself tears, then, and went to sleep.
An hour later, Johnny Rocket re-entered the Rookery. "Done. Hey—happy birthday. I picked you up a card."
"Thanks, Johnny. You'd be perfect, if you weren't gay."
"I like to think I'm perfect because I'm gay."
"You have any problems off-planet?"
He shrugged. "The usual. You have any problems while we were gone?"
She looked out the window. "The usual," she said. "But I'm older and wiser now."