Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 
ARENA
(a sequel to "The Crusaders")

by Linda Thackeray

CHAPTER ONE

I

Sometimes Guy Gardner wondered why he bothered teaching high school.

He certainly didn't need the money. In fact, thanks to his bar 'Warriors', Guy need never concern himself with being employed again. Even with mild competition from Booster's new Planet Krypton restaurant some blocks away, Warriors was still as popular as ever. It was seldom in the red and always yielded a tidy profit. The financial security afforded by the bar had given Guy to pursue his need for adventures without the vulgar concerns of money. Which was indeed fortunate because his times were occupied much of late, what with keeping company with Buck Wargo and then playing leader to the Crusaders.

It was just that in between all the extraordinary events that seemed to make his life one long roller coaster ride, there appeared to be more quiet moments that he would care to admit. Unlike the rest of the Crusaders whose private lives seemed to require much attention, Guy did not have that concern. When he was a Green Lantern, Guy had believed it to be a full time occupation and discarded any need for a secret identity. However things had changed and he was no longer the Green Lantern of Sector 2814. His playground that had once been a large chunk of space had dwindled significantly and kept him bound to one planet.

Guy didn't mind not being a Green Lantern any more because the kid who now wore the emerald ring was doing okay by Guy's standards. It was just that he did not know what it was to have a private life after so many years of not requiring one. The rest of the Crusaders had no difficulty adjusting to being civilians when there were no replicants and errant mystical entities to fight. Beatriz De Costa when she was not the super heroine Fire, was the Revson girl. Her modelling career took her across the world and although Guy missed her when she was gone, he was proud of her success. Besides, he had to confess that there was nothing like walking into a room with her at his arm and seeing man in the room turn green with envy.

Hey, he hadn't changed that much.

Ted Kord, who was once the unluckiest of them all, had appeared to change his fortune. Ted was now CEO of Lightspeed Entertainment, a software company that he had carefully nursed into a multi-million dollar giant. Although Ted remained a partner with Booster, he had been left in charge when Booster had gone off to pursue other projects. Not that Ted appeared to be too heartbroken now that he was involved with a certain raven-haired beauty with eyes older than world. Guy was actually surprised that Zatanna Zatara would actually give Ted the time of day. They seemed so unlikely and yet it worked beautifully. Guy supposed he should be the last one to judge unlikely relationships. No one had believed he and Tora would last either, but it had. In any case, Guy was glad that between the two of them, at least Zatanna had the mindset of someone older than ten.

Ted was crazy at the best of times.

Since the conclusion of its first mission, less than a month ago, the Crusaders had been playing it low key. Despite the camaraderie of being a team again, its members had to be realistic. Their time in the League had come to an unceremonious end because they allowed their personal lives to intrude on the work. Guy did not want to see the Crusaders end that way. Thus, at one of the meetings, it was decided that all of them should spend adequate time keeping their private lives in order. In the old days when they were still Leaguers, Maxwell Lord had taken care of everything. He paid their bills, put a roof over their heads and kept the mediocrity of everyday life from ever intruding into their heroic existence. While it was nice to be taken care of like that, it tended to make them complacent.

When the League collapsed, they realised just how much Max had taken care of and for many of them, the lesson learnt had began with a steep descent into despair. Guy himself, had undergone changes that opened him up inside and made him evaluate the future and his part in it. Even without Tora. He realised then that more than anything, he loved being a hero. It surprised him even more to realise that his love for it had nothing to do with and glory or the fame.

Once upon a time, the glamour of it had been everything to him but not any more. During the months following the loss of the ring that made him a Green Lantern and before he discovered his Vuldarian heritage, Guy did a great deal of soul searching. He remembered what it was like to be weak. Guy remembered how it felt being bullied by someone stronger just because he was too weak to stop them. Those years had made him stronger as an adult and set out the path for the rest of his life. Just like General Glory, he would fight for those who could not. He would offer the hand that had been denied to him.

Why?

Because he could.

It was shortly after the formation of the Crusaders that Guy decided to return to teaching full time. To be truthful, he had been teaching before the formation of the group but only as a substitute teacher in the tougher neighbourhoods of New York. His presence had been mostly as a security measure, rather than a concerted effort at actually teaching students. When a position was offered to him to teach social studies at one of the high schools in Brooklyn, Guy had found himself accepting without question.

Wargo and the others had thought he was crazy. However, their reaction only served to convince him that he was doing the right thing. Beatriz thought it was a great idea and Guy had gone to his first day feeling pretty good about his decision.

Okay, reality seeped in eventually. It did not take long before he realised just how much work lay before him. Washington High was a typical of any school far removed from the excesses of Manhattan Island. Here, the people lived on welfare, were mostly blue-collar workers and were completely aware that the deck was stacked against them the moment they found themselves on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The kids, whose education was his responsibility, were a monument to the illusion of the American Dream. They were second generation immigrants, whose parents had come here hoping for something better and finding that the streets of America were not paved with gold. Far from it actually. The streets they knew, were paved in the white certainty of Crack, gang violence and a growing underclass that were beaten even before they began. It was enough to make a superhero feel like a complete failure.

He walked into the school hoping to teach and finding most of his students, looking at him with a mixture of indifference and downright contempt. They knew who he was of course. It was probably the only thing that kept him from getting a knife in the throat by some of the students wearing gang colours. Guy was determined not to give up. He had fought creatures none of these kids could even begin to comprehend and one thing they learnt quickly, Guy Gardner did not scare easily.

For weeks, he stood in front of a classroom full of kids who saw him as the enemy, a defender of the status quo of which they were the most exploited. They baited him, insulted him, at some point even tried to attack him but Guy stood firm. He had the blood of the most fearsome race to ever emerge from the cosmic byre, running through his veins and he did not intend to let a bunch of teenagers' get to him. Not that they did not come awfully close at times.

An amazing thing happened after a few weeks though. Guy was so surprised that when it finally happened, he did not know what to think. He actually thought it might have been a trick. They began to acknowledge him. Slowly but surely, whether it was his perseverance or sheer stubborn stupidity that impressed them, Guy could not be certain. However, they allowed him the chance to prove that he was more than just a superhero.

They took him at his word.

**********

For Guy Gardner, speed was relative.

After he had seen the Flash run a mile in less time than it took to bat of an eye, everything else seemed to crawl at a snail's pace. A great deal of his perceptions fell into the context of meta-human world. He ran with an extraordinary crowd and normal standards seemed outdated and lacking any ability to surprise. Thus when he had taken over the job as coach of the athletic team, he was rather dubious that he could objective when viewing the potential of normal human beings compared to his meta-human colleagues.

The first time he saw Kevin Sharp run, all doubts left Guy's mind.

The boy was a bona fide sprinter. He moved through the wind with so much ease, Guy was almost tempted to believe that he was meta-human. In his youth, Guy had played college football and he could tell the difference between a flash in the pan and a genuine prodigy. Kevin Sharp was the latter. He worked hard to be the best and Guy was able to see a future for the boy that did not involve gangs or drugs.

"That's the best time yet." Guy said as he studied the stopwatch in his palm.

Kevin was breathing hard, rivulets of sweat glistening off his ebony skin. He walked across the rubber surface of the track towards Guy who was waiting from him on the grass. The State Athletic trials were only weeks away and Guy truly believed Kevin had the talent to win it. The opportunity to the boy's future could not be underestimated and Kevin too much potential to waste. Winning the trial could get him an athletic scholarship and Guy did not intend to let him lose that chance.

"You really think I got a shot at this?" Kevin looked at him sceptically.

"I wouldn't waste my time other wise." Guy said slipping the stopwatch into the pocket of his track pants.

"Yeah, big time superhero and all." Kevin grinned.

"Better believe it." Guy retorted. "Look, you got the speed and you got the drive. I think you can go all the way, provided you work at it."

Kevin sighed and dropped to the ground. Guy wondered if he was ever filled with so much doubt when he was seventeen. Of course he was, all seventeen-year-olds were. He admired Kevin a great deal, to grow up in a neighbourhood like this; free of all the dangers that had trapped lesser wills. Kevin was one of the few who struggled to be free of the ghetto, who saw an education as an asset not a waste of time. The boy did not even realise his potential until Guy had seen him run the first time. He was a natural athlete and given the right guidance, he could be a world class one.

"What's the problem kid?" Guy asked planting himself into the soft grass next to him. Beyond the horizon of the sport field bleachers, the sun was beginning to set. It was hard to imagine that a harsh world existed outside this place with its bright uniforms and youthful voices. There were still other kids on the field, some engaged in football practice and other team sports. Guy wondered if all of them had Kevin's reservations. God, he hoped not.

"I'm thinking whether its worth it." He looked at Guy directly.

"I've been where you are kid," Guy said honestly. "It is worth it."

"College is four years of my life," Kevin pointed out. "I can't expect my momma to take care of my brothers and sisters on her own. I should be helping her out."

Guy knew something of Kevin's situation at home. His mother had lost her husband years ago and had been raising four children on her own. Over the last month, Guy noticed that Kevin's lunches were made and although they were anything but fancy, had the undeniable traces of a mother's touch. This was a woman who cared how her boy ate and from what Guy had been told, actually made appearances at what passed for the PTA in these parts. So with a certain amount of confidence, he knew the lady well enough to be able to speak in her place.

"I think your mother would prefer it if you got that scholarship." Guy replied. "Your mom is a pretty tough lady, I think she wants the best for you."

Unfortunately, Kevin did not seem convinced. "I wish I could help her out."

Even though it sounded cliché, the best advice Guy could give him was the one Kevin was already aware of. "You know how to do that already Kevin. Give her something to be proud of."

Kevin smiled faintly and rose to his feet. In the distance, the sun was gradually disappearing from the afternoon sky. "I better get going. I got stuff to do."

"Try not to party too hard," Guy retorted knowing that was the furthest thing from Kevin's mind. Being the oldest child in the family, his responsibilities to extend to the younger siblings he was charged to look after during his mother's absence.

"Sure coach," Kevin said picking up his sports bag, before continuing to on to the locker room.

Guy watched him go, wishing that it was not necessary to simply accept the way things were. Kids like Kevin deserved a chance at being more than just a statistic. He could sense the boy's concern regarding the merits of a college education compared to what a paying job could mean to his family. He would speak to Wargo and see if they needed another hand at Warriors or perhaps Booster needed another waiter at his restaurant. In any case, Guy had better find a solution to Kevin's problem soon, before the lure of quick money ruined him forever.

II

A college education was not something Kevin Sharpe had ever considered within the realm of possibility. His ambitions had never expanded beyond the desire for a high school diploma to get him the job that would help ease the burden on his mother. Kevin had never been interested in drugs and the gangs because he had seen what both had done to his father. Last Kevin had heard of the senior Mr Sharpe, he had been doing time. No surprises there. Still, he was determined not to go down that road because he could not bear to see the look in his mother's face if she ever knew.

Instead, he tried to do what the coach had encouraged him to do. To work hard at school and never give her a day's grief. If that meant being called a coward because he refused to carry a gun or sell crack, so be it. The fools who did that were on a one way ticket to a quick death any way. Still, he could not ignore them with their fancy cars and the wads of cash they stuck in their pockets with bejewelled hands.

But the money was nevertheless tempting.

Kevin walked along the grimy sidewalk, trying not to hate everything that this neighbourhood represented. Was it a pipe dream, hoping to get out of here? At times, he truly did not know for he was seventeen years old and the world had already disillusioned him. Everything here was grey, the low rent tenement buildings, and the wooden houses that were far away from being dilapidated. He stared at the faces during his journey and saw that they too were grey, trapped in amber as he was.

Kevin was lost in thought and regret for his existence and completely unaware that he had been followed since he had left school ten minutes ago. He turned around the corner that would take him to the cul-de-sac where a beaten weatherboard house waited for his return. The sun was almost completely set and he knew it was probably best to get inside before the darkness enveloped the neighbourhood completely. This was not a safe place to be at night.

The lights of his house appeared over the crest of the hill when he heard his name being called behind him. The voice was familiar and so there was no reason to be alarmed. Kevin paused and looked over his shoulder.

"Hiya doing Hex." Kevin greeted one of the few people he called friends.

Hex was very much into the game but Kevin did not care because Hex understood him. They had been friends for as long as Kevin had lived here and even though Hex wore vibrant gang colours that had never intruded on their friendship.

"Man you walk fast." Hex retorted as he reached Kevin. Hex had dropped out of school when he was sixteen and had gone to work for the gangs. His clothes were designer labels and the bulge under his coat told Kevin he was packing heat. Kevin tried to ignore such observations because it was not his place to judge Hex and the life he had chosen to lead. Just as Hex did not judge him for his own convictions. "I've been trying to catch up with you."

"What's up man?" Kevin asked, since it appeared that Hex was after him for a reason.

"Listen I know you hate selling and all that stuff but I got a business proposition for you." Hex said leaning close.

Immediately, Kevin stiffened, disliking where this conversation was going. Hex noticed his reaction and quickly responded. "It ain't nothing like that man." He declared somewhat wounded. "But it is sweet and right up your alley."

Kevin let out a sigh but was still unprepared to completely trust Hex just yet. However, he was not averse to hearing Hex out. "Talk to me."

"You're an athlete right?" Hex said wearing a broad smile. For a moment, he reminded Kevin of one of those used car salesman on late night television. "While I know some action that you might be interested in. Some high roller is looking for strong, healthy types for these private games he's got going. Its nothing illegal and I hear the money is really good. You interested?"

Kevin was interested but was unwilling to commit himself until he knew more. If there was one thing he had faith in, it was his athletic ability. If he could use it to make some quick money that was not illegal, what was the harm? He would be helping his momma and he would not be getting into any trouble that would affect his chances of a scholarship.

"Okay," Kevin said firmly. "Tell me more."

*********

His time had finally come again.

How long had it been? The years had moved past so quickly, hiding the shadows of his defeat with the ravages of time. He remembered those left behind, who had not survived the war and each memory stabbed at the core of him, rekindling waves of hate at those who caused his fall. For a long time after the end, he was tempted to disappear into the security of anonymity, to forget the dream that destroyed the others.

But it would not disappear.

It stayed in the mind as the Furies had once pursued Orestes across the world. Every moment served to remind him that those who had caused the Fall were now glorified as none before while his and those who followed him were vilified as freaks of nature. It enraged all that was strong and proud within him until there was no recourse but to stand up and remind the world of who he was and what he had demanded to be.

However, he would not make the mistakes of the past. He would remain hidden in the shadows like the predator he was. He would make them love him and be willing to die for him. This time, his weapons would not be savagery or fear, although they would always know it was never best to incur his anger. No, this time he would play the game wisely. His enemies still existed and when he was strong, there would be plenty of time for revenge.

For the moment, there was much to occupy his time. Those who become part of his army would first have to survive the test of blood. Weaklings had led to his downfall. This time he would cull such influences before they were given leave to cause him any harm. He had to harden his own resolve as well because once it was faith in another that had been his undoing. There would be no one before him and she who would serve to try, would find herself ripped to shreds.

There was no greater betrayal than she who was called woman.

He had learnt that lesson all too late. She burned in his memory, she whom he wanted to make queen to his king. He had found her, even though she had tried to hide in the aftermath of what happened. Almost dead and greatly wounded, he had crawled through the agony of defeat and found her. It was with great relish that he tore her limb from limb and that feasted on her flesh as a final reminder to himself of her terrible sin.


They say revenge is hollow. They were wrong.

She was but the first, in time there would be others.

When he struck, it would not be at a name. He remembered the faces well. Each burned into his memory like the pain they had inflicted upon him. All of them, supposedly perfect specimens of man. An evolution of god and human. They had the audacity to mock his godhood and call him a monster. He had looked into the mirror a thousand times and knew that they had lied. In their eyes, he had seen envy because he evolved beyond egg sucking primates into a higher order of being.

He understood now why they had sought to destroy him, because he would make them all obsolete. He would not kill them, not all. In fact, what would make his eventual revenge so deliciously sweet would be how he dispensed justice for his fallen children. He would give them the secret of his godhood and empower them with a new existence they never imagined possible. They would be in striking distance of perfection.

Before he put the chains around their throats and damn them to eternal slavery at his feet.

Yes, he would enjoy that a great deal.

CHAPTER TWO

I

Guy walked into his social studies class, hoping for the best. As he entered, he saw a sea of familiar faces behind the steel desks in the room. His eye moved across their faces, knowing that the one he sought was not here but was nonetheless compelled to look. They came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, his students, Latino, Asian, African American and Caucasian. Some appeared indifferent to his presence, others looked at him with expectation and then there were those who glared at him with unconcealed hatred. Guy had come to expect that after a month here. These were the forgotten youth of America, forced to carve their future in this wasteland of public education. Schools in these neighbourhoods were under funded, with textbooks older than they were and equipment that could rarely be replaced when damaged.

After a moment, he had to conclude reluctantly that his hope had been in vain. Among the minds that he had attempted to reach, Kevin Sharpe had offered the most encouragement and he was not here. In fact, Kevin had not been to school for the past week. With each day, Guy's concern started to expand beyond the boundaries of the normal teacher student relationship. This was not a boy prone to take such indulgences with his academic career, such as it was in a place like this. According to the rest of the faculty, Kevin was a good student with an exemplary attendance record in comparison to most.

If he was not here, it was for a good reason.


Guy reached for the book on his table and opened it without really reading any of the pages or aware of what topic he had intended to cover today. His mind was still wrapped around the subject of Kevin's absence. The inner instinct that kept him alive in so many battles had started to sing its siren song of warning in the back of his mind. He looked to the back of the room, where a young Latino girl was in the midst of a quiet conversation with her boyfriend who sat at the next desk.

"Hey Theresa," Guy called out. "You live near Kevin, don't you?"


Theresa was one of his less hostile students. She was a pretty thing, an active participant in class room discussions and one of the few that might make it out of this neighbourhood if she did not get pregnant first.

"Yeah Mr Gardner," she replied, her voice thick and accented but possessing a melodic quality to it. "He lives around the corner from me."

"Do you know where's he's been all week?" Guy inquired, trying not to sound meddlesome but unable to hide his concern to the those in the room.

"What you worried about your boy?" Someone in the room sneered. The remarked provoked a short rumble of laughter from the back section of the room.

Guy did not have to see whom it was to know who had spoken. The boy sat right at the back of the room and was surrounded by the members of his gang. They were a variation of Puerto Rican and Latino, who had made their contempt at his presence known, almost immediately after he started teaching this class. The leader, a fearsome looking kid named Alvarez, ruled the senior class with his collection of switch blades and worse once he was outside the school. Guy had earned his enmity because Alvarez could rile him.

Guy gave Alvarez a look that translated pure ice and silenced the punk from speaking any further. Alvarez shifted uncomfortably in his seat before letting loose a series of expletives under his breath. Guy returned his attention to Theresa. "So have you seen Kevin around?"

"No Mr Gardner," she said casting an apprehensive glance at Alvarez who might take exception to her if she chose to answer him. "I haven't seen him at all."


Guy let out a sigh, realising that he should not have expected any better from them. He did not blame Theresa because he understood the rules of her world. She had to live among people like Alvarez and Guy could not blame her for wanting to stay out of trouble. This was no school yard bully she had to deal with. Alvarez would have little conscience over killing her if he felt she had somehow crossed him.

"Thanks anyway." He answered before turning his attention back to the book in his hand. "Okay, let's talk about what's going on in Washington today."

**********

He knew he was letting himself get too involved but Guy could not help it. For the first time in many years, something other than fighting alien threats and mystical monsters had made him believed he was capable of making a difference. When he had returned to teaching, Guy had promised himself that there would be no half measures on his part. He was not going to be one of those teachers who claimed that things are the way they are and he should not be responsible in raising any false hopes. Kevin was not a false hope. He was a good kid and someone had to give a damn.

He stepped out of his car and looked at the weatherboard house the Sharpe family called their own. It was old and it was far from being a mansion but there were signs that it was frequently painted and the small patch of green that passed for a yard, was well tended. Guy walked through the rusting front gate and noticed a child's red wagon parked in the middle of a sand box. He could hear voices of children behind the front door.

Guy stepped onto the front porch and heard the wood creak underfoot. Knocking on the front door, he waited for a moment before it swung open. The woman who emerged before him was in her late thirties but could have been older. She was a handsome woman was but time and worry had left their marks on her lined face. Guy could see Kevin in her face, mostly around the eyes and lips. He could also see the redness in those eyes that indicated she was emotionally wrought even if she tried to hide it with as much dignity as she could muster. Her face softened upon him seeing however, probably because she recognised who he was.

"Mrs Sharpe?" Guy asked politely.

A ten year old boy stuck his head from around the door way. "Momma, its him! Its Warrior!"

Guy shifted uncomfortably, wishing now he had that secret identity that he had so easily discarded years ago. He was here not as a former member of the Justice League or as a superhero but rather as Kevin Sharpe's school teacher. He wanted no more recognition beyond that.

"I've seen you on television." She declared.

"I'm still a nice guy." Guy replied and was pleased when she rewarded him with a faint smile. "Mrs Sharpe, I came to see Kevin."

Her eyes immediately dropped to her feet and from the sudden silence of the child next to her and her inability to meet his gaze, Guy immediately knew something was terribly wrong. "Please," he urged. "I'd like to help if I can."

She swallowed hard and looked up after a moment. "Please come in."

Guy followed her into the house and was shown into the living room. The boy kept staring at him wide eyed, despite the apparent crisis the family was facing. The house was modest and well kept. It was not at all lavish but Guy sensed the warmth here and knew Mrs Sharpe kept her family well. Now more than ever, he realised how lucky Kevin was and why he was so torn about making his mother work another four years to put him through college.

I should have listened more. Guy told himself. I should have come through for him before this.

"This is my son, David." Mrs Sharpe introduced the child. She rubbed his head affectionately as she did so.

"Do you really know Superman?" The boy asked trying to restrain his enthusiasm.

Figures, Guy thought silently. "Sure, the Big Blue and I see each other at every major crisis." He answered trying not to sound too sarcastic.

"Davey, why don't you go out back and keep an eye on Michael and Phoebe." Mrs Sharpe instructed, aware that their conversation should be held in private. Although the children were aware that Kevin was missing, Mrs Sharpe saw no reason to further add to their anxieties. The boy nodded quietly and plodded off towards the backdoor, through the kitchen. Guy had the impression that Mrs Sharpe was hiding nothing from him.

When they were alone, she made a few obligatory offers of coffee or refreshments. Guy accepted a glass of lemonade out of politeness. He could sense how worried she was and her concerns heightened his own. What the hell had happened to her oldest son? In this neighbourhood that question could have translated into anything but then the school would have been notified in the event of a death or even trouble with the law.

"I want to thank you for all the kindness you showed Kevin." She began slowly, her fingers were knotted hard on her lap. "You can't imagine what it was like for him, to have someone like you show an interest."

"He is a good kid." Guy said honestly touched by her words. In the world of superheroes, it was easy to forget how extraordinary a paranormal must seem to every day humans. "Mrs Sharpe, where is he?" He asked finally.

She took a deep breath. "He didn't come home from school on Friday. I haven't seen him more than a week. I've looked everywhere and I've called all his friends but they haven't seen him."

Her voice was starting to crack and Guy wished Beatriz was here, he was not good at being comforting. Kevin had been gone a week? He thought back to the Friday, which was incidentally, the last time Guy had seen Kevin. The boy had not confessed to having any special plans for the weekend. If he recalled correctly, Kevin had mentioned something about having stuff to do but Guy had naturally assumed he meant at home. "Have you gone to the police?"

"I did when I got home that night," she continued. "But they were no help. They told me they couldn't file a missing person's report until 48 hours after the disappearance. I couldn't wait 48 hours, I know my boy," she exclaimed desperately. "He wouldn't stay away like that unless something was wrong."

Guy did not have to hear the rest being able to visualise the full entirely of her meeting with the police. Kevin was after all, just another black kid, living in the slums. If he was missing, it was probably because he was shot up on crack or into something illegal. It was hardly worth the effort of the police to waste time searching for a kid who was mostly likely to show up as an offender.

"I believe you Mrs Sharpe." Guy declared because she needed to hear it. Her son was missing and instead of being aided by the local authorities who would bend over backwards, if the kid had been from Beverly Hills, she was treated like some overwrought nut. "Kevin wouldn't do anything illegal, he cares too much about you for that. If you let me, I'd like to try and find him. I can't let my star runner go astray can I?"

He managed to get a grateful smile out of her but neither voiced the reality of the situation. Kevin had been gone for a week already. If he had not returned home yet, chances were good it was probably because he could not. Under such circumstances, the possibilities of what might have happened to him narrowed to an unhappy conclusion.

Guy hoped it would not come to that.

II

"Sire, we have a problem."

Titus stood by the door. He would not enter the room unless his master had given him permission and his master had not. The great man sat behind his desk, his enormous hand drumming his thick fingers over the smooth surface of the fine oak desk. The Master often kept his room in the dark, for he liked the shadows and the security he afforded. Of course, Titus was not about to confess to knowing any of these things.


The master liked keeping his secrets.

"Be specific Titus." The Master said coolly. "The gift I have given you has allow your form to transcend the mundane but it did not destroy your ability to articulate."

Titus bowed in acknowledge neither injured nor angered by the insult. The Master was right of course, he always was. "Someone has been inquiring about one of our charges."

Through the darkness, he saw the Master's eyes flare with reddish light. "Police?"

"No," Titus shook his head. "Not the police."

"Then what concern are questions to us?" The Master retaliated. "Those who could answer them know better than to speak to strangers about our affairs. Have our lessons not be instructive?"

More than instructive, Titus wanted to say. He had seen the remains of those who had crossed the master and the thought of it sent shivers of ice down his spine. His master did not suffer betrayal well and those who were unfortunate enough to bear his wrath, had cause enough to regret it. "It would not normally have caused me concern, Sire, except the one asking the questions may be a danger to us."

"I waste no more time with this!" The Master bellowed. His voice was a loud roar that bounced across the walls and forced Titus back into the shadows. "You will speak clearly Titus."

Titus felt his heart pounding in his chest, almost afraid to tell his king what had been brought to his attention. Unfortunately, matters had progressed beyond his ability to make the decision on what was to be done about the situation. "I am sorry Sire," he said summoning up the courage to speak. He was privy to the violence the Master was capable of when he was enraged and Titus knew he had real reason to be afraid. "It is one of the superhumans."

The master's enormous fist curled into a bawl and he smashed his hand against the desk so hard, Titus actually saw the wood buckle underneath his flesh from the strain. "Which one?" The Master demanded, his voice nothing more than a low growl.

"It is the superhuman called Warrior." Titus answered.

"How did we overlook that?" The Master asked. "I had believed our charges were carefully screened."

"The superhuman is apparently a teacher at his school." Titus explained quickly. "Our agent was unaware of this when he inducted the boy."

"Has the boy undergone the process?" The master inquired with no trace of the former fury in his voice. Now he spoke as calmly as ever, filling Titus with confidence that he knew how to proceed. Titus chided himself in ever doubting that the Master could ever be outmanoeuvred. The Master was all things great. A true king.

"Yes," Titus answered. "Although he was unsuitable to be an Alpha, we had him placed in the Omega tanks. He was scheduled to be removed tomorrow."

"I see." The Master let out a sigh. "We cannot risk discovery now, not when we are closer than we have ever been. What do we know of this superhuman?"

Titus fumbled for the papers in his hands. Like all good aides, he had produced a full dossier on the superhuman known as Warrior to precipitate the master's question. Letting his eyes scan over the pages, he quickly picked out the relevant facts that would interest the master and neglected the trivialities.

"His real name is Guy Gardner and goes by the code name Warrior. According to the reports he is one of the metamorphae, apparently possessing the ability to morph into a variety of alien weaponry. He has been classified as a Level 8 superhuman, extremely formidable and highly aggressive."

"A metamorph." The master mused with uncharacteristic interest. "That might prove to be quite interesting." For a moment, the Master remained silent as he contemplated the next course of action. "Send a contingent of Alphas," he said after a few seconds. "I want this Warrior captured alive."

Titus blinked. "Alive, Sire? Is that wise?"

"I want him taken alive Titus, make that very clear to the Alphas. If the superhuman is harmed by any of them, it will be at my severest displeasure." His eyes seemed to glow even brighter as he said those words.

"Of course sire," Titus swallowed, knowing full well that it was not a threat to be taken lightly. "May I ask, what you intend to do with him once we have him?"

The master did not answer but through the darkness of the room, Titus saw a gleam of light bouncing through a smile of long sharp teeth.

**********

Guy Gardner was not happy.

He walked down the steps of the high school's main entrance feeling somewhat depressed. The lack of progress in his search for Kevin was difficult for him to accept. For the past two nights, he had been scouring the neighbourhood, shaking down every two bit hood that slimed across the streets of Kevin's world. He had come up with nothing. No one had even heard the name Kevin Sharpe and even less knew why he had suddenly fallen off the face of the planet.

The sun had disappeared behind the horizon of ugly, grey buildings hours ago and when Guy emerged into the school parking lot, his was the only car still parked there at this time of night. He supposed he should have known better than to leave a new model Cherokee Jeep in this neighbourhood and not expected it to be on blocks when he got back. Still, the vehicle survived intact to face the odds tomorrow. After a full day in a classroom and then spending the past two nights searching for Kevin, Guy was ready for an early night.

Still, he could shake the feeling that something terrible had happened to the boy, neither could he face the fact that perhaps he was too late to save Kevin already. Both conclusions left him helpless and impotent that he, Guy Gardner, Vuldarian champion, could do nothing to protect one young boy. The taste of defeat was something he could never stomach.

He reached the jeep and fumbled for the keys within the inside pocket of his jacket. Guy was considering the possibility of bringing Ted in on the search when he almost missed a flurry of movement behind him. If he was anything but a Vuldarian, he might have missed it. Immediately, all thoughts of Kevin evaporated from his mind as the alien seed inside Guy Gardner surfaced like a swamp alligator about to snap.

He continued the pretence of trying to open the car door as they approached. Through the reflection of the passenger window, he saw them moved towards him. There was a certain grace to their advance, a fluidity of movement much to smooth to be human. Guy remembered thinking that only Bats had the expertise to practise stealth with such efficiency. They narrowed the distance between themselves and the prey with little knowledge that Guy was ready for them.

Suddenly, the dead of the night was broken by the sound of glass breaking. It erupted in quick succession as Guy swung around. Darkness enveloped him before he realised that one of them had shot out the light globes in the lamp posts. He could not see which one. In the dark, they attacked. They leapt towards him like coiled springs. Guy had barely enough time to morph Vuldarian armour across his skin as the first attacker landed on him.


Guy fell against the windscreen with such force the glass shattered beneath him. He managed to throw the attacker off him before he was knocked off his feet by something that had the strength of a locomotive. Guy hit the pavement hard enough to be dazed for a few seconds. His attackers, taking advantage of his momentary lapse, pounced at him from all sides. The united assault only served to enrage him who then unleashed the full fire of Vuldarian battle lust. His arms morphed into plasma weapons that gave no quarter as the artillery fire spewed from him in all directions.

Amidst the roar of the weapon, he heard the high pitch screech of what he could only describe to be animal sounds. He was aware that some had fallen, because he could see their dark silhouettes crumbling to the floor across hot embers of plasma. Despite the flare of the plasma weapon, it was still difficult to see what exactly the creatures were that he was fighting so savagely. He lay down a wall of plasma that effectively halted any more lunging attacks and the sounds they made did not appear to be remotely human. Perhaps now that they were somewhat subdued, he could find out what this was all about.

Suddenly, without warning, he felt a sharp sting in his neck. Instinctively, he reached for his neck and knew immediately felt the warmth of blood under his partially formed fingers. The pain was hardly registrable but with a sinking feeling, Guy realised whatever was fired at him had penetrated the skin. His gaze scanned the distance and quickly honed in on a lone figure at the top of the school building.

Decoys! Those who attacked him were decoys!

The pain struck him with the force of a physical blow. Its initial impact was so sharp that Guy could not help crying out. Seconds crawled by as the pain increased to such intensity that he was forced to his knees. His arms began to lose shape as he was unable to maintain his morphing abilities.

"What have you done to me!" He managed to scream as the tendrils of agony slithered to the core of him.

They stood watching him, their faces still hidden by the dark, saying nothing. They had done what the Master had instructed. The poison inside the veins of the superhuman would do its work. Although the prey still struggled against the venom, he was lost and they knew it. Perhaps he did as well.

As the dark overcame him, Guy allowed himself one final thought.

This was gonna to hurt…….

CHAPTER THREE

I

They say Paris is the most romantic city in the world. You can stroll along the Champs-Elysées with a lover and feel as if the world had paused just for you. It was hard not to be swept up the atmosphere of Paree. It was a place where every gaze that met your own was filled with smouldering fire. Even the most unimaginative love song seems to take a life of its own when sung in the language of France. The language some had ardently believed to be the eternal language of love. Romance oozed from every Parisian cafe, every naked sculpture. It beckons like siren song sweeter than anything composed by the great maestro of history.

However, if you happened to be in Paris alone, the city took on a completely different persona. It was miraculously transformed into an asylum of rude taxi drivers and psychotic Citroens aiming to spill blood before the altar of the Arc de Triomphe.

In other words, it could really suck.

It was in this happy state of mind, that Beatriz de Costa was expected to be the smiling face of Revson cosmetics. It was hard to be excessively enthusiastic about anything when she was modelling underwear in the somewhat icy temperatures of Europe's rapidly approaching winter season. With the background scenery of the Eiffel Tower behind her, Beatriz forced herself to remember that she led a very glamorous life even though she was freezing her ass off. Gucci or not, this was not the outfit of choice for outdoor wear.

Nevertheless, she had endured worse as a super heroine and she knew the shoot was almost over for the day. Her assistant, Monique (could she have a more French name), was waiting for her with a lengthy, mink coat. Okay, it was not mink. Thanks to having a best friend who was a former ice goddess and a bona fide lover of anything warm and furry, Beatriz had been converted to avoid fur. The mink coat, she called it to console herself in the face of her damnable conscience, called to her with its inviting promise of warmth.

Next to Monique, stood Catherine Colbert. The United Nations delegate seemed to step of a magazine cover herself. It annoyed Beatriz to no end that Catherine did not need to spend hours selecting the perfect ensemble. Catherine was one of those fortunate women to whom style was as natural as taking a breath of air. Since the formation of the Crusaders, the two women had rekindled their friendship and Beatriz made it a point to see Catherine whenever she was in Paris.

"Okay, that's a wrap." Enrique announced.

Beatriz let out a sigh of relief as the cameras stopped flashing in front of her face. Finally, she could discard the cheeky but alluring smile she had been forced to wear for the last four hours.

"I am going to lunch!" Beatriz announced loudly and made a beeline for Monique and her nice mink (all right already, fake fur) coat.

No one said anything to stop her. She supposed she could hardly blame them if they thought she was a bit temperamental. This cold weather had left her in a bad mood. As she walked towards Catherine, the UN diplomat offered her a look of sympathy.

"I do not envy you at this moment." Catherine declared as Beatriz slipped into the warmth of the coat.

She hugged the thick material around herself and released a sated sigh. It took a few seconds before she felt any blood was once again flowing in her body. "The things I do for fashion." Beatriz managed a grin even though her teeth were still chattering slightly.

"So are we still on for lunch?" Catherine inquired.

"Sure, we are." Beatriz responded and looked towards Monique. "Did you make those reservations?"

"Yes Mademoiselle." Monique declared. "I have told them to expect you and Mademoiselle Colbert."

She was a tiny thing, not more than nineteen years old, Beatriz estimated. It was hard to think that this young girl was a university student. Looking at Monique made Beatriz feel somewhat jaded. Had she been anything life this waif when she was nineteen? Beatriz could not think that far back. "Why don't you take a break, I'll be an hour at least." Beatriz replied before indicating to Catherine to follow her.

They did not have to walk far. Across the street from the shoot was a pleasant little bistro located on the edge of the Seine River. Although she felt a little underdressed for any meal at the moment, the coat provided enough cover for her to appear reasonably decent for the public.

An elderly man who looked as if he might have fallen out of a postcard showed them to a table facing a picture window that overlooked the famous river. With a cheesy moustache and an outfit that looked straight out of the Middle Ages, he showed them to a table with a picturesque view of the Seine. It was a quaint establishment, being one of those places where it was possible to watch the world go by over a cup of expresso. After placing their orders and being served with warm beverages, Beatriz felt slightly more at ease after the morning she had endured.

"So how are things between you and Booster?" Beatriz inquired as she took a sip of coffee.

Catherine produced a smile that might have been a blush. "Going slowly," she admitted. "It's difficult with both of us on different sides of the Atlantic but I'm working on a permanent UN assignment in New York."

"That's great!" Beatriz exclaimed although she did not add her surprise. She had not believed the relationship was on such a level that Catherine was willing to make such changes in her career to accommodate spending more time with Booster. "Booster is mostly based in the Big Apple anyway. His new restaurant is doing okay." Neither was she exaggerating when she made that remark. Although most superheroes preferred Warriors for casual gatherings without the interference of the paparazzi or fans, Booster's new Planet Krypton restaurant attracted tourists in droves. She had made an appearance at the restaurant as a favour to Booster about a week ago and she was shaken when she found herself before an audience of hundreds cramming themselves through the doors.

"Yes," Catherine agreed. "I'm glad that he's experiencing some success at last. Although I am surprised that he left Lightspeed wholly in Ted's hands."


"Not really," Beatriz replied. "When it comes to being in charge of anything hi-tech, Ted's pretty reliable. I know he behaves like a juvenile some times but that's a lot going on under those goggles."

"Such as it is." Catherine chuckled. "What about Guy? Booster tells me he's gone back to teaching."

"Yeah," Beatriz answered, still having trouble believing it. "I can't get over it sometimes. How long has it been since we were thinking of having him neutered for the sake of humanity?"

"Not that long," Catherine laughed remembering those times well. Guy Gardner had been an absolute nightmare in those days. It was amazing what some alien genes could to a man's personality.

"Sometimes, I think that him giving up the Green Lantern ring was the best thing for him." Beatriz said with no humour in her voice. It took a moment for Catherine to realise she was utterly serious about that remark.

"You think so?"

Beatriz nodded. "Consider how Guy's been since Hal Jordan took the ring from him. He has really straightened himself out. I never imagined he would go back to teaching again. As it was, I had a hard enough time believing that he had ever passed kindergarten." Much of Guy's early history had been a mystery to Beatriz because there were some things he disliked talking about. From his League files, there was some mention of an injury that left him in a coma for a long time. Considering how much his personality had altered after his emergence from the coma, those injuries must have been extensive.

"How long has he been teaching?" Catherine asked, still unable produce a mental picture that associated Guy Gardner being a high school teacher.

Beatriz was about to answer when suddenly she heard the shrill sound of her cell phone ringing. She rolled her eyes in frustration and dug her hand into her coat pocket before her fingers touched the smooth plastic exterior. The other patrons in the bistro had started to look at her as the noise echoed through the peace of the quiet establishment. Some muttered among themselves and Beatriz was sure she had broken some restaurant etiquette by forgetting to switch off her phone.

Offering Catherine an apologetic look as she activated the phone, Beatriz hoped it was worth the embarrassment.

"Bea de Costa." She answered finally.

"Hello, is this Beatriz?" An unfamiliar female voice asked.

"Yes, this is she." Beatriz said impatiently, wondering who had been divulging her private number to strangers without permission. "Who is this?"

"Verona."

Beatriz straightened up immediately in her chair. "Verona? This is pleasant surprise." She lied but decided to be polite anyway. Verona was one of Guy's entourage at Warriors. She had returned with him from the Nubba Jungle when Guy had discovered his Vuldarian heritage. Verona considered it her personal obligation to protect the last Vuldarian seed from any harm. Unfortunately that protection also made her believe that her counsel should be extended to other areas of his life, in particular his romantic relationships. Verona had not disguised her dislike of Guy's relationship with Beatriz. Beatriz on the other hand, had the impression that Verona did not feel anyone but she was good enough for Guy.

"My reasons for calling are nothing so pleasant, Beatriz." Verona said imperiously.

Despite her attitude, Beatriz refused to be baited. "Then get on with it." She said co.

"Have you heard from Gardner recently?" Verona inquired. There was a hint of something Beatriz was quick to identify as genuine worry in her voice. Immediately, the Brazilian beauty stiffened with alarm.

"No, I haven't. Why?" Beatriz demanded. Her gaze met Catherine's; who was perceptive enough to guess from her body language that something was amiss.

"No one has seen him in three days." Verona said quietly. "We believed he might be conducting Crusader business but then the school called in today to inform us that his car had never left the parking lot and appears to have been damaged."

Beatriz forced herself to remain calm. The life of a superhero was filled with uncertainties and it was not unusual for Guy to simply go off on undisclosed business. However, something else nagged at her. Even though he was under no obligation to do so, Guy made it a habit to call whenever she was on a photo shoot. Now that she thought of it, she had not heard from him since coming to Paris. The realisation did more to shatter her resolve that any portents of doom from Verona. "I haven't heard from him either." Beatriz confessed. "As far as I know the Crusaders aren't on any ongoing cases. Have you tried John Henry? Guy might have gone up to see him in Metropolis."

"I attempted to contact the Justice League Watchtower." Verona retorted sounding somewhat annoyed that Beatriz could believe her to be so inept as to not consider that alternative. "I was informed that Steel is presently on League business. I do not believe Gardner would be with him."

"No, he wouldn't be." Beatriz mused, knowing Guy's feelings about the League, well enough. As for Crusader business, Beatriz discounted that theory promptly. As far as she was aware, they were not working on anything at the moment. "I'll call a Crusader meeting." She said firmly. "See if any of the others might have any ideas of where he might be." Taking a deep breath, she made another decision as well. "I'll be back in the States of the next plane. I'll talk to you then."

"Very well, Beatriz." Verona answered. Beatriz heard a slight pause in the woman's voice as if she had something further to add but decided against it.

After a moment, the phone went dead and Beatriz looked at Catherine. "Guy's missing."

********

Thanks to her lawyer, Jack Small who specialised in paranormal legalities, her contract allowed her the freedom to come and go as she pleased. Jack had modified her Revson modelling contract with the inclusion of a clause that would allow her absence in the even of superhero emergencies. With this freedom, Beatriz had just enough time to for the crew enough time to finish up the shoot before she was booked on the Concorde and on her way back to the States. Before she left France however, she sent an automated message through the Crusader beepers to organise a meeting when she reached New York.

II

For many of the Crusaders, Warriors was fast becoming a second home to many of them when they were in New York. When Buck Wargo had built Warriors for Guy, he had instructed the architects designing the structure to create the perfect headquarters for a superhero on the upper floors of the building. While most people were aware that the first two floors of Warriors were for the paying customers, the rest of the building was a maze of hi-tech equipment and state of the art living quarters.

Sigrid Nansen who was one of the Crusaders based in New York was the first to arrive. Her fortune, since joining the Crusaders had changed for the better. Although she had to prove herself to her colleagues at Star Labs when she had first signed on as a research assistant, lately she had been given more responsibility. Not many were aware that Sigrid had a doctorate in biochemistry, specifically in the expanding field of hyper normal gene development. Sigrid had neglected academic qualifications in favour of her paranormal ones. Since the Justice League she had joined disbanded, Sigrid had been paying more attention to her personal life. She supposed much of her success had to do with a new found confidence as well. It was reflected in the way she carried herself and in the manner she approached her work at Star Labs.

Although she was wearing her Ice Maiden uniform, it went unnoticed hidden under a dark trench coat. Sigrid made her way into Warriors and did not require being shown the way to the private meeting room upstairs where the Crusaders usually held their meetings. It was late in the evening and the restaurant's dinner crowd was especially busy today. She navigated through waiters and patrons, trying to look inconspicuous without much success. A few voices revealed her presence to the rest of the room. Sigrid decided that it was not easy to ignore a woman with silver white hair and blue skin walking past. Although Warriors was meant to be a superhero establishment, it was easy to forget that many people came here to catch a glimpse of their favourite heroes.

All apart of the service, she decided, as she disappeared up the staircase.

When she reached the large room where most of the Crusaders meetings were held, she noticed that the restaurant staff below had prepared things for them. The room was lit, the curtains drawn, offering a charming view of the city and also for the benefit of members who were used to arriving by air. Communication equipment was located on the far wall of the room. From this room, they had the equipment to make everything from a simple telephone to accessing the most sophisticate satellite equipment on the planet.

In the centre of polished wooden floor was a heavy, dark table with chairs enough for ten. Sigrid could never understand the need for the extra seats when the Crusaders only numbered seven. Although there was a small wet bar in the corner of the room, Guy's employees had nonetheless graciously set out a tray containing a jug of water and appropriately numbered glasses. Sigrid slipped off her coat and draped it across the back of her usual seat. She was about to reach across the table and pour herself a drink, when she heard movement at one of the windows.


Looking up, she saw General Glory coming through the window left open for the more aerial inclined members of the Crusader. He sailed through the opening and landed in the narrow passageway between the wall and the table.

"Hi Don." Sigrid greeted.

The young General Glory was in full uniform as well and Sigrid wondered momentarily what he looked like under the mask. Although the group had chosen to drop the formality of keeping their secret identities, for some of them the point seemed moot anyway; Sigrid had never actually seen Donovan Wallace without his General Glory uniform.

"Hey Sigrid." He responded in kind and walked around the table towards her. "I guess we're early."

Sigrid swept her gaze across the empty room before she nodded in agreement. "Do you know that the meeting is about?" She inquired.

"Not at all," Donovan said planting himself in one of the chairs. "I am sure that it's urgent though. Bea did sound worried about something."

"Yes she did." Sigrid agreed, knowing Beatriz well enough to be certain of that. Deciding that there was little point in guessing until the others arrived, she moved on to something else for the moment. "So how's things with you?"

Surprised by the personal inquiry, Donovan hesitated before responding. He considered whether it was wise to reveal too much about his personal life and then decided what harm could there be in it. After all, he relied on these people with his life and considered them friends. "I turned down my parents offer to move back home to Iowa."


Sigrid was aware of his situation of course. They all were. Unless Donovan Wallace said the words that transformed him into General Glory, he would have spent most of his time as a paraplegic. Donovan had been a rookie cop until a gunman's bullet ended a promising career with one fatal shot. While he kept his life, he had lost the use of his legs and any hope of a future in law enforcement. If it had not been for Joe Jones choosing to pass on Lady Liberty's legacy before he died, Donovan would have remained a paraplegic permanently.

"How did they take it?"

Donovan let out a heavy sigh, indicating they had not taken it well at all. "They're worried I'm trying to push myself too hard. They don't know about General Glory so they think I spend most of my time in a wheelchair."

"Do you?" Sigrid asked. With the strength and freedom of movement being General Glory meant to him, Sigrid wondered whether he returned to being Donovan Wallace at all.

"Sometimes, when I have friends coming to visit." He confessed. "However, most of my friends have sort of dried up. When it first happened, they tried to visit but it was awkward. There are so many things they believed I couldn't do, so they went out of their way not mention it. After a while, they just stopped coming."

"I'm sorry." Sigrid said sympathetically. "When I underwent the process of DNA mutation into this," she gestured to her hair and skin. "My friends thought I was crazy. They said they did not mind that I looked so different but I could see it in their eyes. They were trying not to care because they did not want to be called shallow but I could tell they were uncomfortable being around me. It did not bother me that they were gone when I went to join the Global Guardians but after I left and got out of the game, it was hard being so alone."

"I keep busy." He replied. "Thanks to my disability cheques, I've got money coming in. I've been thinking of going back to work lately."

"Really?" She said trying to sound encouraging. "What are you looking at?"

"I have no idea." He laughed. "I haven't got that far yet. I minored in computing when I was in college so that might be where I'm headed."

"Sounds like a plan." She replied.

Suddenly, there was a puff of smoke a few metres away from them and despite the sudden flash of light, both Sigrid and Donovan were unconcerned with the display. It merely signalled the arrival of Zatanna, Mistress of Magic as she was sometimes called.

"Hello all." She greeted as she stepped out from the dissipating cloud. With her was the Blue Beetle, better known to all of them as Ted Kord. It was not unusual for the due to arrive at meetings together. From the gossip she had been hearing around town lately, it appeared that Ted and Zatanna were an item these days.

"Hi gang, what's up?" Ted greeted exuberantly.

"Not much," Donovan replied. "We're just waiting for you guys to show."

"Is Beatriz not here yet?" Zatanna inquired. "I thought she would be the first one here, she did seem worried when we talked. The magician strolled languidly towards the wet bar and poured herself a glass of mineral water.

"Well she is coming from Europe," Ted pointed out. "Even if she can fly, its still faster for her to take the Concord."

"Ah the traditional means of travel." Booster Gold declared as he announced his presence at the window. Like Donovan, he made his entrance through the window.

"Is that Booster Gold?" Ted declared mischievously. "I didn't recognise you, I thought you'd be running with Sly Stallone and his crowd, now that you got one of this Planet restaurants. "

"Nah, Sly is busy tonight, although Demi wants me for sure." Booster replied.

"I'll be sure to mention that to Catherine." Beatriz said as she entered the room from the stairs. She was still wearing her Chanel suit and had not even changed into her Fire uniform. Beatriz had come here straight from the airport. Since the telephone call from Verona, she had barely time to breathe. As for Verona, she and Wargo had taken time to track down Guy's old enemies, in case they were the reason for his disappearance.

She walked straight to the head of the table and sat down. Her manner indicated that she would not tolerate delay and the rest of the Crusaders quickly found their places and waited for her to begin.

"Okay Bea," Ted said once they were all seated. "What's this about?"

Beatriz took a deep breath, hoping on a wild chance that they might know where Guy was and end this torture for her. The more time passed, the more she became certain that something terrible had happened to Guy. There was a knot of fear slowly strangling her heart that she was unable to dispel, no matter what she told herself.

"It's about Guy," she finally replied. "He's disappeared."

CHAPTER FOUR

I

"What do you mean missing?" Ted looked at Beatriz.

Everyone was staring at Beatriz, waiting for her to reveal the details of Guy's disappearance. The Brazilin beauty tried to sound level as she began speaking. "I got a call while I was in Paris this morning. It was from Verona." The Crusaders knew who Verona was and while they might not know the tenuous relationship between her and Beatriz, they did know she was apart of Buck Wargo's group who resided permanently as Warriors.

"Verona told me that no one has seen or heard from Guy since Friday." Beatriz continued. "I rang the school from Paris and I found out that last time anyone saw him was Friday. Since his car is still in the parking lot, I'm assuming whatever happened to him, took place at the school parking lot. The car's wrecked so I'm guessing that he made it as far as the lot and no more that than that." She paused a moment, strengthening her resolve because her fear for Guy was starting to appear in her voice.

"Have you checked around?" Ted asked. "We're all on League reserve now, so he might be on their business."

Beatriz had thought about that and remembered that Verona had put in a call to the Watchtower during her initial inquiries. Shortly after the formation of the Crusaders, Jonn Jonzz, the Martian Manhunter had approached them about joining the League reserve. Jonn had been persuasive and a part of them all could not help feeling a certain pride at being asked to join the greatest superhero team of all, even in this limited capacity. It was also an added bonus that despite their membership in the League, it would not impede any of their obligations to the Crusaders.

"No," she shook her head. "They've got a couple of things going," she responded, "but nothing that requires any reserve members."

"What about enemies?" Donovan inquired. "I seem to recall Guy had a few."

"Already covered." Beatriz answered the young man automatically. "Verona and Buck are running down all of Guy's old hit list and so far, they've turned up nothing."

"Listen this is Guy remember," Booster declared in an attempt to lighten the mood and perhaps alleviate Beatriz's fear a little. "The one true Green Lantern, Guy Gardner, who goes where he wants, when he wants."

"He didn't really say that did he?" Sigrid looked at him in mild disbelief.

"He was priceless back then," Booster remarked. "He just oozed poetry."

Sigrid shrugged and then muttered under her breath. "That's one way of putting it."

"Look, I know what he was!" Beatriz shouted angrily. "He's not like that anymore. I think something is really wrong and if you guys can't see it, I'll damn well go look for him myself." She stood up abruptly and was almost about to leave.


"Bea," Zatanna said quickly. "We're sorry," she apologised and threw Booster a stare that told him patronising Bea was no way to proceed. If it was Ted in this same position, Zatanna would have been similarly afraid for his life. "Please we want to help. Is that all you know?"

"I'm sorry," Beatriz replied realising she had over reacted somewhat. "He is different these days," she let her gaze move across their faces so they would know that she was in earnest about this belief. "He usually calls me when I'm abroad and he hasn't done that. He knows he has people in his life now and going AWOL like this is not the way to behave." What she did not say was that Guy loved her and he would not willing put her through this kind of anxiety unless something had physically prevented him from contacting her. That was as far as she was willing to go in the reasons for his silence. The idea that he might be dead was unconscionable. She could not imagine and knew if she did, she would be no good to him.

"Okay," Ted said flashing Zatanna a warm smile in gratitude for how she had handled Beatriz. "He's missing and judging by the evidence, whoever's got him is someone new." Ted thought quickly, trying to decided what to do because Bea needed to feel that there was some plan to follow, some five step guide to finding him. Even though expectation might have been a little unrealistic, she needed to believe they had a plan to find Guy and right now, Ted had to provide it.


"Where does he teach?" He asked Beatriz.

"Washington High School in Brooklyn." Beatriz replied softly, no longer looking at any of them.

"I know it." Donovan announced. "Its a rough neighbourhood, full gang violence and drugs. He picked himself a real firecracker to go riding into."

"That's Guy." Booster stated. "He loves the good fight, in or out of the classroom."

"Alright," Ted nodded "So we start there. Don, you and I will go down there tonight. You know the turf better than I do."

General Glory nodded but added a moment later. "I'd suggest we go in the morning and that we go in without the costumes. These people don't like talking to outsiders as it is, let alone superheroes."

"What about the rest of us?" Beatriz finally spoke up. "I can't just sit on my hands and wait."

"Yes you will." Ted said firmly. "Bea, if Guy is missing, its going to take good old fashioned detective work to find him."

"So we're getting Batman right?" Booster asked.

Ted glared at him with narrowed eyes. "You're such a good friend." He said sarcastically. "I don't know why I need enemies with you around."

*********

There was pain.

So much pain. He fought hard against it. He tried to keep the tidal wave of it behind a wall of strength but to no avail. There was so much blackness. The ability to think clearly was slipping away into a dark abyss he could no longer reach. Other thoughts began filtering into his mind from places gratefully forgotten. Rage, hatred, fury, predatory madness, they were emerging from some hidden receptacle inside him, rejoicing their dance of freedom with a song of victory. They forced away everything else that made him who he was.


Or he might have been.

Through the darkness a voice anchored him to what was, but it was not strong enough to hold back the tide. The drugs had weakened it as easily as it had overcome him. In the few moments of clarity he managed to produce whilst fighting the agony, he remembered things. Things like green fire and cold ice. He knew they were important to him, almost as important as staying alive, by why was eluded him. In the fiery battle raging inside him, the green fire offered a place of rest, a warmth around which he was drawn to feel comfort.


Why?

There was no answer. There was just silence and in the darkness, he would pray to the green fire for an end to his torture.

He would pray to the green fire to take him away or kill him.

II

Ted Kord surveyed the deserted parking lot of Washington High School. It was an hour before the school day began and he had arrived here early for that very reason. The school staff had left the vehicle as they found and although it had been in the open for four days, Ted was reasonably sure that some evidence might still exist to be found. According to the weather report, the skies over New York had been clear those past few days, so he was assured that rain had not washed anything away.

The vehicle was in worse shape than Beatriz had originally described. As Ted walked around it, studying the damage, a vague mental picture began to form of the events that led to its abandonment. The side of the vehicle on the passenger door had been smashed inward. The force of impact had shattered both windows as glass covered the seats of the jeep.

He got down on his hands and looked beneath the jeep. From that angle, Ted was able to see just how violent the impact had been. The vehicle chassis was practically bent out of shape. Whatever had hit the jeep had the velocity and strength of a truck. After a few seconds, he climbed from underneath the vehicle and studied the paintwork. The red paint had bubbled in places, indicating tremendous heat.

"Plasma." Ted said under his breath.

Beatriz was right. Guy had met his kidnappers here. The plasma scorching told Ted that Guy had made a fight for it and had lost. He let his gaze move across the parking lot, taking anything of value into account. Booster was correct in saying Batman was the greatest detective in the world today but Ted had done his share of investigative work, enough to be able to gumshoe with the best of them. His eyes noticed the damaged light bulbs immediately. The glass beneath them had not been swept away and Ted immediately observed that the pattern of destruction was not as random as it appeared. Almost all the light bulbs that had been damaged were from lamp posts nearest to the car.

His attackers did not want to be seen.

Ted paced the floor of the lot, thinking of the ambush would have taken place. Guy was attacked at the car but not caught completely unaware. What had given them away? Vuldarian perception was well honed, so he might have seen them before the trap was sprung. Perhaps that was why the lights were shot out? No, Ted shook his head. That was too premeditated and too much to chance. To shoot out the lights would indicate that they knew Guy would work late that night. From all evidence, Guy had not planned to stay behind after all. It was just chance that he did.

So, it would have been shot out when they saw him leave the school. They must have done it after or during the attack. Guy would not make for his car after hearing gunshots. He would have investigated the source. That left another unlikely option for Ted to dismantle. He did not believe that someone would be shooting out lights during a fight with Guy Gardner, Warrior. Guy could take Superman when fully provoked and although he would not beat the Big Blue, he was capable of giving the Kryptonian a decent challenge before succumbing. No, it did not make sense that their attackers would waste any resource while Guy was being attacked.

Suddenly, another thought came to Ted. What it a full frontal assault was meant to disguise something else? Perhaps the lights were meant to be off so that Guy would not see the primary assault but someone else, hidden in the darkness? Ted immediately scanned the area and saw that the school building was in view of all the lamp posts. It was a long shot but Ted relied on instinct more than he relied on logic.

Picking the lock of the door in the main school building, Ted moved through the silent hallways. As his footsteps echoed through the long corridors, it was hard to imagine that in hours, this place would be full of teenagers. He admired the murals on the walls, covered in colourful but amateurish art. His own high school had not been this different, with pennants hanging on the walls and hard earned trophies adorning the display cabinets in certain junctures.

He found the staircase leading to the roof and reached the top in a matter of minutes. Emerging through the steel door, the colourful inside of the school was replaced by unimaginative grey finishes on air vents and other protruding projections. Ted knew where to begin the search and he made his way to the part of the building that faced the parking lot. As he walked along the concrete edge, his eyes studied the rough, grey floor.

After about two minutes, he was rewarded with a find.

In truth, it was not much of a find rather something that at once, seemed out of place in these grim surroundings. The piece of fibre was almost minuscule. A lesser person might have missed it but Ted spotted it immediately. He reached into his coat and produced a tiny leather case he used to keep tools for such instances. Using a pair of fine tweezers, he picked up the strand of red fibre and dropped it into a clear plastic bag. For all he knew, this could be the piece from a kid's sweater but Ted was dubious that it could so simple an answer. He had a faint suspicion was this substance was but needed a laboratory to confirm it.

By the time his examination of that roof was complete, students and teachers began making their appearance on school grounds. Ted was not wearing his Blue Beetle costume so he looked like any other person on the street. He waited at the front steps of the school, watching students file past him, wondering if adolescent was as nightmarish as these kids made it out to be. Even in this part of town, it was the cliques that ran the school. He saw the cheerleader types, the jocks, the nerds and of course the newest classifications in the cliques' encyclopedia, the gangs and the junkies. Watching them was like watching a dark mirror of the American Dream, the one he was certain, no one spoke of when the first settlers came to the new world.

He was almost grateful when he saw Donovan's face through the crowd. Like Ted, General Glory was attired in civilian clothing. Compared to the kids he had just seen and the weariness of the teachers who were forced to educate them, it was practically comforting to see Donovan. Ted rose to his feet and walked through the bodies, like a man swimming against the tide.

"How's it going?" Donovan inquired as they met in front of the steps.

"Spooky." Ted said honestly. "I see good kids here but they're drowning in the system." He looked around sympathetically.

"I know what you mean." Donovan agreed as both men started up the steps towards the main entrance. "Our generation and the one's before ours are to be blame for this." He replied. "These kids can't help what they are, they're just trying to survive."

Ted could not disagree. However, they were here on other business instead of a debate on the moral conscience of America. "Guy never left the parking lot." He announced.

Donovan did not meet his gaze but took the information with a slight nod of acknowledgment. "So she was right about that."

"There's more." Ted continued. "They didn't take him by surprise either. I looked his car over. There is no sign of blood but he gave them a fight before they took him down. There's plasma burns on his car." He did not need to explain that part of Guy's Vuldarian arsenal was his plasma artillery.

"Anything else?" Donovan asked.

"There's this." Ted reached into his pocket and showed him the clear plastic bag. Donovan took a close look at it, saying nothing for a moment.

"I've seen this." He stated.

"I've seen it too." Ted nodded. "We need a lab to confirm it for sure."

"You got one?" Donovan averted his gaze from the red strand Ted was holding.

"Sigrid works at Star Labs," Ted replied. "I think we can rely on her to check this out for us."

"I thought Vuldarian biochemistry protected him from all forms of drugs." Donovan declared.

Ted nodded. Until Sigrid placed his discovery under a microscope, nothing was for certain. However, for the moment, it was enough that both Donovan and himself had come to the same conclusion without any form of prior collusion. It only added to further convince Ted that his initial suspicion had been correct. Getting Sigrid to prove it was starting to feel like just a formality. "Who knows what that is?" Ted declared. "What do we really know about Vuldarians? Guy's the last of the race. Whoever did this wanted him alive, which means they would not have come after him unless they were capable of taking him alive."

"But using a tranquilliser dart? Would that work?" Donovan asked. Like Ted, he believed the fine strands looked very much like those found on the tails of tranquilliser darts used on wild animals at the zoo or something similar.

"Like I said before," Ted repeated as they went through the front doors. "Whoever did this isn't stupid. This was a planned attack. Someone was waiting for him on the top of the roof while he was distracted. A frontal assault would take Guy's attention from the sniper who probably shot him while he was fighting the other half of operation."

"Well then whoever it is, is not local." Donovan stated firmly. "This neighbourhood's main trouble is gang related. The gangs run this area and I've known them to have any meta-human or hi-tech assistance."

********

Ted and Donovan spent the most of the morning speaking to people who came into contact with Guy on the Friday of his disappearance. Although Guy's day had been busy dealing with school business, nothing out of the ordinary had transpired. He had come to school, teaching his social sciences classes and then chosing to work late to grade some papers. It had always been difficult for Ted to imagine Guy Gardner as a school teacher. During their League days, Guy was little more than a royal pain in the butt, let alone a colleague. However listening to the way some of the students spoke about Guy, made Ted proud to call him friend.

To some of the students, Guy was the mentor they never had, the one teacher who was not afraid to stand up to the gangs and knew how to give as good as he got. Although the more troublesome students may have disliked Guy, Ted sensed that on some level, they respected him. Ted supposed that it was not every day that a superhero came down from his ivory tower to try and make a difference in their world. Of course, in this world, there were rules and the rules prohibited them from giving Ted and Donovan any real assistance.

They received more success from the teachers who told them that Guy took particular interest in his students. After everything he had heard so far about Guy's teaching technique, Ted was hardly surprised by that revelation. Guy could be driven when he chose a cause and this was no exception. Guy took his work as a teacher seriously and his dedication to helping those students that could be saved was nothing to be underestimated. Ted heard stories about his attempts to help some kids further themselves. Apparently, he had done the rounds of the local businesses to persuade owners to hire students for part time jobs. For kids in this neighbourhood, the opportunity to make money honestly was almost non-existent. An honest job was all that stood in between them and a future that did not involve them selling drugs for extra cash.

Ted and Donovan left the teacher's staff room after deciding there was nothing more to be learned from the school. Despite receiving Guy's glowing credentials as a teacher, Ted was disappointed that they had not learnt anything truly useful. He was starting to think that maybe Booster was right, maybe they did need a professional like Batman.

"When we find Guy, I'm going to see if Lightspeed is in any position to help these kids. The company is growing, I'm sure we could afford a couple of scholarships."

"I think that's a great idea." Donovan said approving wholeheartedly.

The halls were empty as most of the students were now at classes. However, as Ted and Donovan emerged into the quiet hallway, they saw a young Latino girl standing by a locker. When their eyes met hers, she turned back to her locker and started twisting combination lock to open it. Ted and Donovan exchanged glances, recognising the possibility of information from her behaviour. Although she was not making any attempt to leave, Ted could sense she was hesitant to approach them. He decided to make it easy for her and walked straight towards the young woman.

"Hi there." He greeted. "My name is Ted and this is my friend, Donovan."

She turned around slowly. Her gaze barely grazing them as she raised her eyes to theirs briefly. She was a willowy thing, with long dark hair held neatly in a braid and dusk coloured skin. Ted did not want to rush her because he could see her lip quivering as she decided whether or not she ought to speak.

"Theresa." She said finally. Her voice escaped her throat like a caught breath.

Ted extended his hand forward while Donovan offered her an encouraging smile. "Pleased to meet you Theresa." Ted answered shaking her hand.

She did not respond to that but swallowed her fear again. Theresa seemed so fragile that Ted wished he could alleviate her fear somewhat. "Theresa, do you know Mr Gardner?"

She nodded quickly, as if the name spoken would yield tragic things for her if anyone else were to hear it. Her eyes darted about the corridor once again, like a frightened animal. "Yes." Theresa spoke. "He was really worried about Kevin Sharpe."

"Kevin Sharpe?" Ted asked. "Who is that?"

Once again, it took some moments before she was capable of responding. Each word to escape her lips did so with effort. "He's in my social science class." She replied. "He didn't come to school for a week and Mr Gardner was really worried about him being gone."

"Worried enough to look for him?" Donovan inquired, even though he knew the answer before he asked the question. If Guy was the teacher everyone believed him to be then Guy would have surely tried to find out what happened to Kevin Sharpe.

"I think so." Theresa said. "I live near Kevin so Mr Gardner asked if I have seen hom at all."

"Have you?" Ted looked at her.


Theresa shook her head slowly. "No one has seen him." With that she clutched her books to her breast tighter and started forward. "That's all I know." She said finally and broke through them before she disappeared down the hall. Ted watched her leave, hearing her footsteps on the floor until they finally abated with the sound of closing door somewhere in the building. Only when there was silence in the hall did Ted turn back to Donovan and spoke.

"Let's find Kevin Sharpe."

All characters are ™ DC Comics
This story is © 2000 by Linda Thackeray.
 
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