Wintertime in Gale City brought snow and ice, but it also brought a much-needed downturn in crime. While thieves and crooks worked 365 days a year, most didn't want to freeze their asses off in twenty-degree weather. For mid-February, it was unseasonably cold, but it was a small blessing. The night had been mostly uneventful and Michael looked forward to getting home before midnight and watching some late-night t.v. before heading to bed.
As his black Maserati crawled down a side-street, a man stepped out into the road, waving his arms. Torrent grimaced, realizing there were more than a few drivers who would have simply run over him.
Slowing to a full stop, the crimefighter rolled down his window.
"Thank goodness, finally," the man panted. "I've been calling 911 for over an hour."
"You have an emergency?"
"Yes, there was a break-in. Someone robbed me!"
"Are they still in your home?" Torrent asked, glancing over the man's shoulder at the row of brownstone buildings.
"No, of course not."
The crimefighter tried not to get irritated. "I understand your concern, sir, but the city is understaffed. Police have to prioritize their calls. I'm sure they'll be here as soon as they can."
"Bullshit," the man spat. "I pay taxes. If I have an emergency, the cops should come now."
Pulling his cruiser into a nearby parking spot, Torrent switched off the engine. So much for an early night. "All right, let me see what I can do."
The man's apartment was located on the top floor of the four-story building. The front door to unit 404 didn't appear to have been tampered with. With the lack of a fire escape, Torrent theorized a criminal would have made it to the roof and then shimmied down to one of the windows in order to enter.
From the furnishings within, Torrent could tell the man was well-off financially. At first glance, the apartment looked undisturbed. The bed was made, dishes were clean in the strainer by the sink, and the living room furniture still had a thin layer of dust on it.
"You live alone," Torrent asked, slowly moving through the rooms.
"Mostly. My teenage daughter comes to stay with me every other weekend, but other than that, yes. I'm not home a lot, I work late hours."
Noticing a crack in one of the living room windows, Torrent walked over to give it a closer look. "What did you say was missing again?"
"Most of my jewelry, a digital camera, and a PDA. Plus I keep some cash in a small can of beans in the kitchen. That was also taken."
The crimefighter turned. The man's jewelry box and dresser drawers would be an obvious target to search. A food canister, not so much.
Walking back into the kitchen, the crimefighter studied the counter. "Has anyone been in the apartment, recently? Other than your daughter."
The man paused a second, then shook his head. "No."
Torrent turned, staring hard at the man. "Sir, if you expect me to help you get to the bottom of this, lying is not going to help. I can leave right now."
"All right," the man stammered. "There was this woman I brought home this past weekend. We met at a bar. She was very nice, quiet. We spent the night together, that's it. It's not like I gave her a key or anything."
"Did she see you place money into the container here?"
Rubbing the back of his neck, the man shrugged. "I guess she could have."
"Have you seen her since?" Torrent asked, turning back to the counter. He opened several of the tin containers. Flour. Sugar. Beans.
"No. I never got her number. Listen, I'm not the type of guy who does that kind of thing, but honestly I have no clue who she was."
Torrent glanced inside the canister with the beans. Something glimmering had caught his eyes.
The man might not know who the woman was, but Torrent did.
"Vera," he whispered.
* * * * *
The two superheroes crept down the alley, glancing around. They had followed their target in from the street and were desperate to find him.
"Blood," Dark Flame said, pointing to the pavement.
Zephyra's eyebrows furrowed. "He's hurt."
The women separated, each taking one side of alleyway, checking behind garbage cans and under parked cars.
"I found him," the redheaded hero announced, pulling a cardboard box away from the wall.
There was a small dog, shivering on the concrete. His leg was matted in red, deep punctures near his foot. The duo had seen the animal limping along and had decide to see if they could help.
"He must have gotten into a fight," Zephyra said, kneeling down. It wasn't a good idea to approach a strange dog, but the canine looked seriously injured and she knew they couldn't just leave him there.
"Be careful," Dark Flame reminded.
Slowly moving her hand towards the dog, Melody let the animal sniff her hand before attempting to stroke its head. The cocker spaniel closed its eyes, leaning into the touch. He was such a cute dog and for a moment she wondered if Ravenswood would let her have a pet. "Poor thing is scared to death."
"We need to get it to animal welfare so they can take care of it," Sara said, dropping her English accent for a moment.
A clanking sound came from above. The crimefighters glanced up. "Someone's up there," the blonde whispered.
Dark Flame nodded. "You take care of him, I'll go check it out."
The red-headed superhero hurried up the fire escape stairs, stopping just short of the roof's edge. Slowly peeking over, she surveyed the scene. There was a woman dressed in a shiny catsuit at the far end of the rooftop, her brown hair pulled up into a beehive. She was faced away, fiddling with something that was out of view.
Sara bit her lip. It wasn't a crime to be on a rooftop, and there was no evidence the woman had done anything wrong. Still, she knew she had to investigate.
Making her way to the top, the female crimefighter walked halfway across the building. The woman in the catsuit was too preoccupied to notice, so Dark Flame realized she'd have to announce herself.
"A bit cold to be out without a jacket." It was a lame opening, but Sara couldn't think of anything better, and truth be told, she was curious how the woman was managing in the single-digit temperatures wearing only her flimsy outfit.
"Haven't you ever heard of long johns?" the woman droned, turning around. She was wearing an eye mask which obscured the top half of her face. "Oh, you're new. I thought you were the blonde."
Dark Flame's lips pursed. "What are you doing up here?"
The woman smiled wide. "You go first. Out for a midnight walk?"
Scanning the woman up and down, Dark Flame's eyes narrowed. "You always walk around with diamond necklaces hanging out of your belt pouch?"
The woman's face flushed red as she glanced down and saw the gems peeking out from the leather pocket. "Only on a good night," she purred. In an instant, she reached her hand into one of the other pouches, pulling out something round and white.
Is that a ping-pong ball? was all Dark Flame got a chance to think before the woman threw the orb and it hit the ground, releasing a cloud of smoke.
The powder immediately hit Sara's lungs and she began to cough. She gasped, trying to get oxygen, only to inhale more of the particles. Dropping to her knees, she glanced up long enough to see the woman drop over the rooftop.
Footsteps sounded from behind and hands grabbed her shoulder.
Zephyra started coughing. "Oh, my god, what is that stuff?"
As the dust started to settle, Sara managed to catch her breath and rise. "I think it was baby powder."
"Do you want to go after her?" Melody asked.
"You're damn right, I do," Dark Flame spat.
Both crimefighters headed over the rooftop. There was an adjoining building with its roof about five feet down, so they landed lithely. They could see the thief standing at the far end of this building. However, she wasn't trying to escape, but rather was standing still, waiting.
Zephyra made a clicking sound with her teeth and shook her head. "Been a while, Vera," she called out.
She knows her, Sara thought, and then realized that should have been obvious. Melody had been doing this a lot longer than she had. Still, she had no idea who this Vera was.
"I think you need to teach your little friend some of your moves, Zephyra. She was much too easy to take out."
Sara snarled. "Oh, really? How about we go another round."
The crimefighters kept advancing, but Vera stood her ground. "I don't think so. I wouldn't want you to get hurt. Or would I?"
Zephyra and Dark Flame had just made it to the half-way point on the roof. The slate was uneven and squeaked a bit as they walked over it. Vera's hand quickly moved again to her side. This time she pulled out a small rod-like device and pointed it in their direction. With a flick, a blinding white light shot out.
"Shit," Zephyra cried, stopping dead in her tracks.
Dark Flame raised her arm to shield her eyes, but it was too late. Sare felt herself blinded and she knew her partner must be, too. As she pressed her eyes closed, she could feel the ground underneath her feet sagging, deep creaks filling the air.
A moment later, the roof gave out.
Both crimefighters screamed as they plummeted down. The building they were on was being renovated and, thankfully, the room they fell into was mostly empty. Only a few cockroaches scurried away as the two women hit the floor.
Moonlight streaming in from the hole, a silhouette appeared. Vera shone the high-beam down at them. "Aww. Guess they weren't done with the roof repairs. I'd love to help you girls up, but I have things to do. Good night, loves."
Sara coughed deeply, fighting the urge to wretch. Her lungs were now covered in talcum and dirt. Though, as much as the fall hurt, nothing seemed to be broken. Rolling over, she stared at Melody. The woman's eyes were narrowed and her jaw hard.
"I hate that bitch," her friend grumbled.
Zephyra rose, brushing pieces of tarpaper and wood from her outfit. "Mostly. How about you?"
"Back hurts, but I'm okay." Adjusting her wig, Sara cocked her head. "Hey, what did you do with the dog?"
The walk back to the car felt like forever, and Sara was glad when she finally caught sight of the red sports car.
"Who was that?" she asked her teammate.
"Vera Barracuda," Melody grumbled.
"Seriously?" Dark Flame laughed. "What a name. Is she a regular around here?"
"Kinda. She's been operating two or three years. I really don't like her and wish she'd just go away."
The redhead wanted to know more, but the tone of her friend's voice was growing irritated. Sara decided to let the issue drop and find out more later.
As the women made it to the car, a head peeked up from the back seat, a wet black nose pressing on the window.
"Aww, he seems better," Sara smiled.
Opening the door, Zephyra jumped back. "Oh my gosh, what is that smell?"
Dark Flame leaned in, scanning the backseat. "I don't think he's housetrained."
"Oh no," the blonde droned. "I think we better drive home with the windows open."
* * * * *
The computer screen blinked, but nothing happened. Sara cocked her head. "Try hitting escape."
The young boy at the terminal hit the button as directed. The screen was still. "What now?"
Sara shrugged. "I don't know. I think we're gonna have to have Johnny look at it."
"Maybe I can figure it out."
Sara glanced up to see Michael Bruce entering the room.
The boy at the computer leapt up, rushing to the man. "Michael!" he called, hugging the CEO's waist.
"Hey, Timmy," he greeted, pulling the boy off the floor and returning the hug. "I swear you're an inch bigger than when I last saw you."
"Really?" the boy beamed as he was returned to a standing position. "Wow, that was only a week ago. I'll be as tall as you in no time."
"You sure will." The blonde headed man leaned over, placing a kiss on his sister's cheek. "Hi."
Glancing at her watch, Sara saw it was almost 3:00. "What are you doing here?"
"Slow day at the office, so I thought I'd stop by and see how everyone was." He rubbed his hands together. "So, what's on the menu for dinner."
Sara thought a moment. "Salisbury steak and potatoes, I think."
"Have they started making it yet?"
"They usually begin around 4 and we eat around 6. Why?"
"Well, how about pizza instead?" her brother suggested.
"For me and you?"
"No, for everyone. My treat."
Timmy jumped up and down. "Really?"
"Michael," Sara chided. "It's gonna take ten or twelve pizzas to feed everyone."
"I know," he said with a soft smile. He glanced down at the boy. "What kind do you want?"
"Pepperoni!" the boy cheered.
The CEO raised an questioning eyebrow in his sister's direction. "Veggie," she answered.
"Great." Michael pulled out his phone. "What's the closest place to here?"
* * * * *
Sara leaned back in her hair, drinking down the last of her bottled water. "That was good. Thank you."
The siblings had chosen to eat in the administrator's office, away from the ears of the kids. "I like helping out when I can. I know these kids don't get a lot of treats like this."
"On occasion, when we can afford it."
Michael ran a napkin over the corners of him mouth. "So, Dad said you ran into Vera Barracuda last night. Got pretty beat up."
"Yeah. She's quite the minx."
"I ended up checking out one of her other jobs. Some schmuck who got hooked up with her for a one-night-stand. Seems she's on a roll again."
The woman grimaced, subconsciously rubbing the scratches on her arm. "What's up with her?"
"We don't know," Michael admitted. "That's the thing. She's mostly into petty burglaries, house break-ins and stuff. But she's hit so many places for such an extended period of time, she's definitely on our radar."
"Well, that get-up of hers is something. Red catsuit and the beehive."
Michael laughed, recalling the first time he had run into the woman. She was dressed in a bright yellow outfit and stood out like a sore thumb. "She has a rainbow of outfits. She's like the fashion model of villains."
"Well, she's got the body for it."
The man balled his napkin and tossed it across the room, hitting the trash can with ease. "Well, that's a moot point for me, since she has the hots for Overcast."
"What?" Sara asked, surprise in her voice. "Seriously?"
"Yeah, she's always hitting on him. It's almost embarrassing."
Sara cocked her head. "No wonder Melody hates her." Michael shifted uncomfortably. His sister knew him well enough to read his body language. "You're jealous."
"What are you talking about?"
"You're jealous that she likes Overcast and not Black Torrent."
A protest came to mind, but Michael let it die on his lips. As much as he hated to admit it, Sara was right. Vera was a sore spot to his ego. He realized Ravenswood would never have an interest in the woman, but it irritated him that Vera wanted Overcast instead of Torrent. It always upset him when another man gained the attention of a woman he was attracted to.
Just like back in his college days with Tony.
"Well, it doesn't matter if I'm jealous or not," he retorted. "Vera's out there and we need to get her."
Michael was thankful his sister didn't press the subject. Instead, she grabbed a pen and started doodling on her blotter. "So, why is she so hard to catch? I mean, she's just a cat burglar, right?"
"That's the point. Her crimes are small, and we suspect a good number of them are never reported. Plus, she's clever. Her pattern is erratic and she works in waves. She'll hit hard for a few weeks and then disappear for months on end. We need to get the right break."
Sara was about to comment when the door opened. Two boys rushed in, flanking the CEO. "Michael, will you come and play basketball with us?"
"Yeah," the orange-haired boy smiled. "We still need to beat you from last time."
The administrator grimaced. "Oh, c'mon guys, I'm sure Michael needs to leave soon. He's busy."
"Actually, I think a game would be great. Work off some of that pizza. You guys go and gather up a crew and I'll meet you in the gym in ten minutes."
"All right," the older boy smiled. The two hurried out.
"They admire you," Sara said, rising and gathering the plates from their dinner.
Michael blushed. Thing is, he was quite fond of the kids at the Home and felt he was a better person having a connection to them. "I need to be a good role-model."
"In and out of costume, eh?"
"We'll do the costume part later on tonight, all right?" he said.
Sara smiled. "Maybe we'll finally catch Vera."
"Maybe," the man said, gathering his suit jacket from the chair. "I just wish I knew who she was."
* * * * *
Four Hundred Eighty, Four Hundred Ninety, Five Hundred.
Linda Bonner grimaced. She had hoped to get more for her recent pull as Vera Barracuda. Two diamond necklaces, three rings, and a Rolex watch should have brought in eight hundred dollars easily, but the pawn-shop owner had be chinchy. He reminded her that he would have to ship the goods to New York to be sold, as it would be too risky to sell the stolen items in Gale. Still, she was sure he had ripped her off and there wasn't much she could do about it. His was the only shop in town which took in her merchandise without any questions.
There was a sound in the hall and the woman opened the dresser drawer, dropping the money in. She closed it just as her husband appeared in the doorway. She picked up a hair brush and casually ran it through her brown tresses.
"Who was on the phone?" she asked, looking at him through the mirror.
"Jeff. He needs me to get those pro-rations figured out before the meeting tomorrow."
"So that means you're gonna work from home?"
"No, I'm going into the office."
Linda let out a long sigh, averting her eyes from her husband back onto her image in the mirror. "I was hoping we could go out or something."
The man turned and headed for the closet. He removed his t-shirt and pulled out a button-down work shirt. "Well, if you want to keep this fancy house and all of this stuff, I have to go in. It's not cheap maintaining this lifestyle."
Not this argument again, Linda thought to herself. She hated when they had money problems. Walking over to her husband, she placed her hands on his chest. "Don't be like that. You know you like having nice things, too."
"Yeah, but we can't afford half of it. Not to mention, I'm not nearly as caught-up in the parties and stuff like you are. It sucks keeping up with the Joneses."
"I dunno," she argued, running her hands over his shoulders. "We manage pretty well, between your overtime and me doing odd jobs. Besides, you know you wouldn't have gotten nearly as far in your company if you didn't have this status."
"I know. It's still a lot of stress. I don't want to have a heart attack at forty."
"You need to relax, that's all." Pushing away, the woman pulled a pair of slacks out of the closet and handed them to him. "Which reminds me, did you make reservations for June yet?"
The man was quiet and Linda felt herself bristle. It had been three years since their last vacation and her husband has promised to take the time off work so they could get away. She had found an amazing place on the coast in Mexico. It was a five-star resort and several movie stars were known to frequent there. It's all she had been dreaming of for the last few months.
"Keith?" she prodded.
"No," he answered simply, looping the knot in his tie. "We don't have the money for the down payment. When I get my bonus, we'll be able to cover the cost, but we just don't have the cash right now for the deposit."
"If we don't pay soon, we'll lose the slot," she gasped. The resort was almost always booked and it took an unexpected cancellation for her to get a reservation.
"I'm sorry. HR hasn't been authorizing double-time like they used to."
Thinking hard, Linda glanced back at the dresser drawer. Her 'odd jobs' helped her finance her lifestyle, but sometimes small pulls just weren't enough. "How much do we need?"
"Fifteen hundred dollars."
Linda nodded. "I'll get it. Call them and tell them we'll have it in a few days."
"You're not gonna hit your sister up again, are you?"
Thankfully Linda's sister lived in Australia and Keith didn't like her, so he never had an opportunity to talk to her and exchange notes. "Well, she is wealthy," Linda lied. "And she always likes to help. I'll make some calls and see what I can do."
Her husband sighed and grabbed his briefcase. "All right. I'll call you when I get into the office."
"I may not be home," Linda called as he walked out the door. "I think I have a few errands to run."
* * * * *
Madge Sinclaire spun the stirrer in her drink, watching the ice cubes and liquid swirl around in a circle. The man next to her hardly noticed. He was in the middle of another story, gesturing his hands wildly.
It was not her idea to go on the date. Barney was the equipment repairman for the Gale Home for Children. He had been flirting with her from the first time he had come to fix their photocopier, six months earlier. The man seemed nice enough, and he was fairly good looking, but Madge never found herself with much in common with him; all they ever talked about was the weather. Still, Tina had been insistent, pushing her to be friendly. When Barney had finally asked her out, the receptionist ordered her to accept the invitation to dinner.
What a mistake that had been.
Throughout dinner, the man talked non-stop and she couldn't get a word in edgewise. When the waitress came with the check and he instructed the server to give it to her, Madge knew it was a bust. She'd only agreed to go for a nightcap with him because she really needed a drink, but she was counting the seconds before she could ditch the loser and head home.
Barney had launched into a tale about a neighbor's fence that was encroaching on his property line and how he had tried to call the police in to help. Madge rolled her eyes and took a sip of her Mojito. That's when she heard the other voice.
"Yeah, I'm sure it was that chick. Picked her up at the bar and she totally cleaned me out. Must have taken three hundred dollars worth of cash and jewelry."
Madge shifted her gaze to a nearby table. Two men were talking. One seemed quite upset while the other one listened intently.
"Well, why did you take her home?" the other man asked.
"She was hot. I mean, smoking. Brown hair, green eyes. Gorgeous. Plus, she had her hand down my pants at the bar. I really thought she wanted me, not my wristwatch."
The secretary turned her attention back to her date. "What? I'm sorry."
"I asked you a question."
Barney rolled his eyes. "I asked if you thought that was funny?"
Forcing a smile, Madge let out a chuckle. "Of course it is."
Nodding, the man smiled back. "I know, it's hysterical, isn't it? Now, getting back to the story..."
Madge kept her eyes on the repairman, but tried to keep her ear on the two men.
"I wonder if she does that a lot, pick up guys and the rob them."
Barney's voice broke in. "And the police officer said they couldn't help in property disputes. Do you believe that?"
Madge wanted to scream to her date to shut up, so she could hear what the men at the table were saying, but she knew that wouldn't be good. She tried to focus again on the other conversation.
"I've seen her around a lot," the victimized man spoke. "She frequents a lot of the bars on Bridge Street. Usually on the weekends."
That was the piece of information she needed. Sliding off the stool, Madge grabbed her purse and pulled out a ten dollar bill, tossing it on the counter.
"Hey, where are you going? What about my story?" Barney hopped off his seat. "What about our date?" he said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
Flashing a smile, Madge shrugged. "It's over, that's what. See you." Getting more than a bit of satisfaction watching the man's mouth gape as she left, Madge hurried to the curb, flagging a cab. She only hoped Sara hadn't left on patrol yet.
* * * * *
Michael Bruce, in his Black Torrent costume, slowly scanned the crowd with his binoculars. He and Overcast were standing on the roof of a two-story building on Bridge Street. The area was well-known in Gale for its numerous bars and dance clubs. Even though it was nearly midnight, there was still a large crowd of people milling in and out of the various buildings. Unlike Torrent, Ravenswood Cadavre was watching the street below without binoculars. The rooftop was low enough that it was possible to recognize someone on the ground with your naked eye.
"So," said Overcast, "There's a woman who's been seducing men and stealing their wallets. How do we know it's Vera?"
"We don't," said Torrent, never looking up from his binoculars, "But given she's on the prowl again, chances are good it's her. If we're wrong, we catch some random female thief. Still a positive outcome."
"True," the man in the hat admitted. "Problem is, I don't know how we're going to recognize her. If she's around, she'll probably be in disguise. I mean, out of disguise. She normally wears a mask and a beehive. And lots of glitter. Not exactly low-key."
"Brunette with green eyes," Torrent reminded. "Narrows it down a bit."
Returning his attention to the street, Ravenswood watched the various women milling around on the street. His mind had just started to wander to an episode of his favorite sitcom when a loud cry came from down the block.
"Hey! That woman stole my wallet!"
The man was easy to spot, running out of a nearby bar and heading west. Looking in the direction he was going, the two heroes spotted a woman with long brown hair and a long overcoat weaving through the crowd. She was already a distance away, and as they watched, she darted into an alley.
"Crap!" yelled Overcast as he sprinted to the side of the building. There was a gas pipe that ran up the wall, which he used to slide down to street level.
While he shimmied to the ground, Black Torrent pulled out his grappling gun and shot it at a nearby streetlight, using it to swing down like Tarzan. By the time Overcast got to the sidewalk, he was amazed to see his friend already half a block ahead of him.
When Overcast reached the alley, Torrent was already at the other end. "Split up!" he yelled and ran to the left, which Overcast took as his cue to run to the right. It was a narrow side-street, with run-down apartment buildings on both sides. There was no sign of Vera and he realized she could have gone anywhere. It occurred to Overcast that she may have simply doubled back and returned to the crowds on Bridge Street.
He heard a noise behind him in the alley. Or maybe, he thought, she simply hid and waited for us to run past.
The alley had a number of potential hiding places. There was a pile of boxes, two dumpsters, and a building alcove with a delivery van parked in it. Overcast decided to look behind the boxes first. They were stacked near the wall, but there was just enough room that someone could have squeezed behind them. As he pulled the cardboard away, a large rat jumped up from behind. Overcast screamed and leapt back.
He heard Torrent's voice as he ran up. "Are you all right? Were you attacked?"
"I was attacked by a rat!"
Torrent looked around and grimaced. "Well, I didn't see her. How about you?"
"I thought she might be hiding in this alley, but I haven't found her."
"What's this?" Torrent bent down and picked something up. "It's a wallet. I'll bet it's the victim's."
"I didn't see that," admitted Ravenswood. "Some detective I am."
"No cash. At least he'll get his credit cards back, and maybe the police can get some fingerprints."
As the two crimefighters left the alley, there was metallic clang and the sound of trash cans being knocked over. Rushing back, they saw that the lid of one of the dumpsters was now open.
"Was she hiding in there?" Torrent wondered.
"She must have been," said Overcast, peering in. "Man, it stinks. Maybe we could track her by smell."
Torrent rolled his eyes. "C'mon, let's get this wallet to the police."
* * * * *
Yule sat at the computer, clicking through the various images slowly. Michael and Ravenswood flanked him on each side, watching as the line of eyes, noses, and mouths scrolled past.
"That one," the dark haired man said, pointing. "Those eyes. Definitely. Almond shaped."
Michael grimaced. "No. They were slightly upturned, not like those at all."
The team's leader kept clicking through the pictures.
"That nose," Michael said. "Thin with a little point to it."
Yule glanced at Ravenswood. "Well?"
It was his turn to grimace. "I don't know. Leave it there and we can come back to it later."
The computer was displaying a face composite program. Much like the books that were used by police to help victims give a composite of their attackers, the program would scroll through hundreds of facial elements which could be pieced together to form a face. What the program had over a book is that it could morph a feature, adjusting the size and length to make it look more accurately like the person.
However detailed and sophisticated the program was, it wasn't helping the teammates.
"That chin is all wrong," Michael groaned.
"Are you sure you saw the same woman?" Yule asked, clearly frustrated with the two.
"It was dark," Ravenswood admitted.
"All right, we're spinning our wheels here," the elder Bruce said, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. "I'm sure you guys spooked her good. Knowing her past pattern, she's going to go underground soon. We have to catch her now."
Melody appeared from the far end of the room, a stack of cookies in her hand. "Any luck?"
"No," Ravenswood said, grabbing a chocolate chip one. "Yule thinks we need to hit the streets and keep on this."
The gray-haired man nodded. "Right. She's always gone back to the same area, even after Sara and Melody nearly caught her."
Michael nodded. "Yeah, the area with the wealthiest men."
"Spread out and see what you can do. It's been quiet crime-wise, so you should have lots of time to cover some significant ground."
The detective popped the rest of the cookie in his mouth. "What about Sara?"
"She's working on her own cases tonight, some gang stuff," Yule informed. "I'll let her know the plan in case she has some time to help out."
"All right," Melody said, finishing her snack. She pointed to her husband, her voice stern. "But you're driving in the car with me."
"Yes ma'am," he said with a salute.
* * * * *
Vera glanced over her shoulder for the fifth time. She had never broken into a store before. She'd gotten good at picking locks on houses and condos, even cars, but most stores had deadbolts and security alarms. She'd been too scared to try one before. However, after her run-in with Team Torrent, she realized there was too much heat to continue working the bar scene. Maybe in a few months, once she disappeared and things cooled down. For now, she was still several hundred dollars short and she needed a quick take.
She'd watched videos on the internet on how to deal with deadbolts and padlocks. There were even tutorials on how to get past simple alarm systems. Because of that, she had chosen a small, local jewelry store. She'd gone into the shop earlier that day on the pretense of buying a pair of earrings. The burglar could tell they were a mom-and-pop operation and only had minimal security.
Working the lock, she was excited when it only took two minutes to open it. She slipped into the store, pulling a small flashlight from her belt. The items had all been removed from the showcases. Scanning the room, she noticed the large locked chest under the far cabinet. A sigh of relief left her lips. She was worried that the shop would have a safe. Vera had learned how to open those too, but never having done it before, she wasn't sure how successful she'd be.
Picking the heavy duty padlock, she smiled as she opened the box to see the various gems and jewelry inside. Grabbing two handfuls of necklaces and rings, she shoved them in her belt pouches, then closed the chest again, re-securing the lock.
"That was easy," she whispered.
"Not so fast," a voice said. The accent was British.
Not her again, Linda thought. "Good gravy, don't you have anything better to do?" she droned, turning to face the firey-haired superhero.
"I was just about to ask you the same thing," Dark Flame countered. "Can I ask you a question? What's with the name? Vera Barracuda?"
Smiling wide, the burglar shrugged. "It's because I'm a man-eater."
Even in the dark, Vera could see the superhero roll her eyes. "Seriously, did you think you were being clever with that?"
"Well, it's not like having an oxymoron of a name like yours, dearie."
Taking a step forward, Dark Flame pulled a pair of binders from her belt. "My team is on their way. Looks like it's over, Vera."
That's what you think. Reaching into the largest pouch, Vera grabbed three ping-pong balls. When Dark Flame saw them, she sucked in a quick breath and held it. The burglar laughed to herself. That wasn't the only type of bomb she had.
Squeezing to open them at the score line, she tossed them at the crimefighter's feet, watching them burst open and spill thick oil on the floor. Dark Flame instinctively jumped back, her feet sliding out from under her and forcing her to land on her behind. "Bitch," she cursed.
Normally Vera would stay to give a taunt or two, but this was too close for comfort. She darted to the back of the store, out the door, and made it a half-block away. Dark Flame still wasn't in sight yet, but she would be soon. Grabbing the jewels, Vera tossed them inside the tire rim of an abandoned car, then proceeded to run down the alley.
It was only a moment later that the female superhero appeared from the store and headed in her direction. At the end of the alley, a black car turned in. She couldn't make out the driver, but she guessed it was Torrent.
Turning, Vera veered to the side, heading to one of the fire escapes. She managed to make it to the top just as the three other heroes exited the car. They all took pursuit.
This isn't good, Linda, she thought in near-panic. Rushing to the edge of the roof, she glanced down. Two squad cars sped down the street, stopping in front of the building she was on.
"Shit," she cursed, glancing over her shoulder to see Torrent appearing from the metal fire escape stairs. "All right. Plan B."
Black Torrent saw the woman at the edge of the roof. She turned back, locked eyes on his, then darted to the door a few feet away that led inside the building. Fortunately for the woman, the knob wasn't locked and she disappeared inside.
Leaning back and glancing down at the ground, Michael called to his sister. "Get around front and cut her off."
He jumped over the brick ledge and darted across the slate roof. The door was locked now, but it only took a strong yank to break the frame and gain entry. He headed down the stairs, taking them three at a time. He could hear sirens outside and smirked. Thankfully his call to the police had been taken seriously. The cops didn't always respond to superhero requests for back-up.
Making it to the ground level, Torrent caught sight of the woman pulling the front door open. Beyond were two officers heading towards her. Instead of turning, Vera ran straight to them. The crimefighter sped up, catching up with her mere seconds later.
"I am requesting protection under the Superhero Protection Act," the woman stammered.
That was enough to stop Torrent in his tracks and he found himself momentarily without words. "What?"
Vera looked back at him, a mixture of fear and smugness in her expression. "You heard me. I'm requesting safe-harbor. You cannot remove my mask."
The police officer grimaced.
Torrent shook his head, shocked at the gall of the woman to use the Act to protect herself. "She's not a hero. We caught her breaking and entering."
"I was checking out a possible crime," the woman lied.
One of the cops looked her up and down, a small smirk cornering his lips as he took in the woman's curves. "Why don't I frisk you."
Zephyra appeared from the doorway and ran to Torrent's side. "I'm a woman, I can search her."
Vera batted her eyelashes at the cop. "Oh, I don't mind if he pats me down."
Torrent was quickly losing patience with the situation. He clenched his fists as the officer ran his hands up and down the woman. He then opened all of the pouches on her belt. "Nothing here," he announced.
"What?" Dark Flame had finally joined them. Her hair was matted and her costume shiny and slick with some kind of oil. "She took a bunch of jewels from that store."
"I never took them. I was checking to make sure they were secure and then left. How could you see anything, anyway? My back was to you and my body was obstructing your view." She turned to the officer, smiling. "It was very dark. She couldn't have seen anything."
"Without some proof, we can't keep her," the officer informed.
"This is bullshit," Torrent sneered.
Another car pulled up, this time an unmarked one. From the driver's seat, William Pechyvych appeared.
"Crap," Overcast cursed.
The rotund detective caught sight of them and rolled his eyes. "What big emergency do we have here now?"
"Just a bunch of capes, sir. Said there was a robbery, but we don't have any evidence."
"Go back and check that store," Dark Flame pleaded.
Pechyvych waved off the redhead. Vera gave the man a wide smile and a bat of her eyelashes. The detective smiled back.
"I don't believe this," Torrent growled.
"Why don't I take one of your men back to the shop and I'll show him everything," Vera purred, her eyes locking on the cop that had frisked her.
"That sounds fair. I'll be back in a few minutes," the officer informed. The two headed back down the gangway.
"I'm going with them," Zephyra sneered.
"Oh no," Pechyvych called. "You guys dragged my ass all the way down here, I want to know what the heck is going on."
It took ten minutes to give the detective the condensed version of the story. The group then headed back to the alley, but only the young officer from before was there.
"Where's Vera?" Dark Flame demanded.
"She had work to do," the man said, as he adjusted the fly of his pants.
"Did she just give you a blowjob?" Zephyra asked, not beating around the bush.
The officer shot Pechyvych a nervous look and then grimaced at the woman. "Don't be so crude."
Torrent didn't bother to inquire further. "Detective, just make sure your men check out that store. I think you're gonna find that Miss Barracuda isn't as innocent as she made herself out to be."
Cocking his head, Pechyvych pointed for his men to go take a look and then followed behind them.
When the police were in the jewelry shop, Torrent began looking up and down the alley.
"What are you doing?" Sara asked.
"She must have tossed the loot. She knew she couldn't have it on her if she got caught."
The team spread out, looking behind garbage cans and under cars. It was Dark Flame who finally called everyone over to an broken down Camaro on the side of the alleyway.
"Did you find it?"
"I found something," she said, holding up a single diamond ring. "She must have grabbed the rest of it after she took care of the cop."
"Damn," Overcast sneered. "Slipped through our fingers again."
Torrent shook his head. "With this, though, we can prove she's not a superhero. No more protection for her. Next time we get her, we get her for good."
* * * * *
Ravenswood rolled over, his hand falling on the empty mattress. He grimaced and sat up, scanning the room for his wife. Melody was in front of the mirror, adjusting her bra. It was one of the padded ones she used when dressing up as Zephyra. However, she was stuffing more tissue into it.
"I thought girls only did that in high school," he muttered, switching on the light.
The blonde blushed and turned to face him. "Sorry. Was just looking."
The detective didn't have to be a detective to see his wife was upset. He move from beneath the covers, sitting on the edge of the bed. "What were you looking at?"
Pulling a wad of paper from her chest, she shrugged. "I don't know. I thought maybe you'd like it better if I had bigger breasts and more curves."
"Like Vera?" Ravenswood asked.
Melody glanced away.
From the moment they had come home from the scene of the jewelry store heist, Melody had been quiet and reserved—much unlike her. Ravenswood had figured something was wrong, but didn't press the issue when she said it was "nothing."
"Honey, I love you." He rose, approaching her. His hands fell on her hips. "I love your body. I love your boobs. You're gorgeous."
She glanced down, insecurity in her features. "I look like a boy."
"You look like a woman. The woman I love."
"But you find Vera attractive."
"Well, yeah, I do." He scratched his head. "You find other men attractive, don't you?"
Her face flushed red again.
Ravenswood continued. "I think I recall you once telling me that Michael was a hottie."
"Yeah, but I meant for another woman. That he'd be a good catch for someone else."
"I know. But you had to notice in order to say that." He stroked her face. "It's normal to admire beautiful forms. It's another thing to be in love and desire the whole package."
"She's hot for you."
"Yeah, and I'm hot for you. You're bright, your pretty, you're sexy, and you could kick the crap out of her in a New York minute."
She giggled and that made Ravenswood smile. He pulled her to him, kissing her deeply .
Melody leaned into the man's lips, her hands rubbing his back. Pushing away, she sighed. "I'm not normally like this. I don't know why she drives me so crazy."
"I don't know, either. But does it make you feel better to know that I kinda like seeing you jealous? I mean, I always worry it'll be the other way around, that you'll feel I'm too old and you'll want to run off with some younger, more handsome guy."
"Why would you think that?"
Ravenswood raised a challenging eyebrow.
"Well, that's not gonna happen," his wife whispered.
"Right, and me and Vera isn't gonna happen either, okay?"
Melody smiled and nodded. "All right." It was her turn to kiss him. When she pulled away again, she gave him a hungry look. "You know, I got the new issue of CosmoGal yesterday. There's some great tips for lovers in there. Wanna try some out?"
Feeling wiped out from crimefighting, Ravenswood considered passing, but instead nodded. He didn't want her to start thinking of him as 'too old' already. "All right," he agreed.
The doubtfulness left Melody's eyes—once again she was the confident woman he knew and loved. "Maybe I'll show you some tricks like Vera showed that police officer."
"That was what I was hoping," the detective chuckled as he turned out the light.