Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blessed Event

1938 had been, historically, one of the hottest summers New York City had ever seen. People had fanned themselves with copies of the Globe, sweltering in their shirt sleeves, since late May, praying for the heat wave to finally break with autumn's onset. But September had rolled in and back out again like a disappointing low tide full of dead seagull feathers and spoiling crabmeat, and on October 3, Ned Logan sat on the Manhattan penthouse balcony of one of New York City's richest adventurers, staring out over Long Island Sound and wishing there was a breeze.

Idly wishing, with maybe a tenth of his consciousness. The rest of his brain was firmly fixed on the woman leaning fifteen feet away from him, one Amazonian hip hitched casually to perch on the top of the safety rail running around the lip of the balcony. She sat with a panther's grace, dressed casually in what some conservative types still called, fussily, 'men's clothes'... corduroy trousers, a white button up short sleeved cotton shirt with shoulder epaulets, unbuttoned halfway down to show deep swells of cleavage as tanned as her equally bare arms. A battered safari hat sat casually on clean, coiled blonde tresses that fell, half pinned, to below her collar.

"I've never been in the Congo in my life," she said, her deep voice carrying a hint of laughter, leaning forward slightly to give the statement a confidential tone. "I did most of my hunting in Zaire and Rhodesia. That pirate crew I kicked hell out of off Zimbabwe? I got sold to them by a crew of ivory poachers who slipped me a mickey in Capetown. Went back and finished those jamokes off a month after I guided the Barbary Queen back to shore... they were surprised as hell to see me, you betcha!"

"I wasn't the one who came up with the 'Congo Queen' tag," Logan said, half apologetically. He scribbled in his notebook, then tucked his pencil stub back through the wire binder and picked up his glass of iced tea. Sipping it, his nose wrinkled. Too much lemon. His mother had always kept a pitcher of the stuff in the icebox in the summer when Ned was growing up, but hers had been strong and unsweetened.

The French doors from the air conditioned living room opened; a tall, muscular man with black, curly hair, glinting blue eyes, and an athlete's controlled agility paced out, turning to carefully close the doors behind him. He was dressed as casually as the woman, although his outfit of choice were white tennis togs.

You wouldn't have thought either of them could possibly be packing, Logan reflected idly to himself, yet he'd have placed at least a fin that a strip search of either would turn up at least one automatic pistol each. Charles Champion, collegiate All American and multiple Olympic medal winner, could rely on his judo and boxing skills in a crunch, but neither he nor Candace "Congo Queen" Carson would be caught completely unarmed by choice in the presence of any unknown. Even as apparently unimpressive an unknown as Ned Logan.

Champion sat in a wire chair and leaned back, keeping his balance with the unconscious ease of a lifelong world class athlete. The Queen lifted her hopelessly unladylike hand -- all callouses and cracked nails -- and affectionately stroked a curl of dark hair back off his forehead. His eyes glinted appreciatively at her, then focused on Logan.

"No," he agreed, having apparently heard the conversation from the sumptiously appointed living room, "you didn't. That was that rat Kent, at the Planet."

Logan nodded. "He works the 'action and adventure' beat for them," he said affably enough. "I did hang the Black Scorpion's monicker on him, though. He wanted to call himself the Ace of Spades. What with that turret mounted autocannon sticking up from the tailpiece of his plane, though, it looked kinda scorpion like... and my editor prob'ly wouldn't have printed the other."

The woman known around the world as the Congo Queen narrowed her eyes. "I met the Scorpion, a few years back. He's a good man. I was as glad as anyone when he made his comeback... that Salamander thing was a tragedy." She stopped, as if inviting comment.

Logan just pursed his lips and sipped his lousy with lemon iced tea. He knew what she was hinting at... there were rumors floating that the resurrected Black Scorpion was, in fact, another black ace pilot and crimestopper using the same name and costume as the one who had perished in that warehouse fire. To Ned, that was funny... like the yegg who spent all those years trying to prove that the Odyssey had actually been written by a completely different Greek named Homer. But if he knew anything and wanted that thing known, he'd put it in his column, not drop it in casual confab with a couple of modern day privateers like these two.

"You don't look like much in person, Mr. Logan, " Champion observed casually. "That must come in handy to you."

Ned raised his eyebrows. "Beg pardon?" he said, innocently enough.

"I had Scarlett Flayme in her Empress outfit chained to a radiator on top of a burning skyscraper for twenty minutes while I was waiting for Charles to get back with our autogyro and rescue us," Miss Carson mused. "She's quite chatty when you get her loosened up... but you'd know that, wouldn't you, Mr. Logan? Two years undercover as her valet, infiltrating the Satanic Society. that takes a kind of cold, hard nerve uncommon even in our line of work..." She gave him a frankly admiring look, then chuckled. Ned could not imagine the Congo Queen doing anything as girlish as giggling. "I actually learned one or two new curse words from her, when your name came up in our conversation."

Logan smiled... more around the eyes than anywhere else, but even that was more than he usually let on. "I wouldn't buy too much of anything that dame tries to sell you, Miss Carson. Not to put too fine a point on it, but her reputation ain't exactly sterling."

"She had little reason to lie about you," the Congo Queen responded, smiling widely. "And probably wasn't fully in control of her faculties, given the number of times I'd kicked her in the head in the preceding half hour or so."

"Or so she wanted you to think," Logan pointed out. "She eeled out of the paddy wagon pretty slick for someone with a concussion."

The Queen's smile curled a bit, then vanished. "Well, yeah," she admitted. "We should have taken her in ourselves."

"Wouldn't have mattered," Logan said, a trace of bitterness in his tone. "We didn't pop the whole Satanic Society... she's still got people under her thumb all over the City. Somebody would have left a door unlocked for her, soon enough. Hardly anybody who's anybody in New York society wants that bird singin' on a witness stand."

Charles Champion fidgeted. "If you're suggesting, Mr. Logan, that Candace or I should have facilitated a more permanent solution... we are both staunch believers in due process of law."

Logan couldn't help it; he had to chuckle at that. "Alla you joes say that stuff," he said. "Well, alla you but maybe that anarchist fella, Red whatshisname." The levity fell out of his voice like a dropped cloak as he continued: "But we all know, there's some folks out there that just need killin'."

"I've killed nearly everything that walks, crawls, or flies," Candace Carson said grimly. "Including men, when I had to... in self defense. I'm tired of it. And I'd never urge anyone else to do it. It leaves a mark on a person's spirit, Mr. Logan. I'm very glad, for Charles' sake, that he hasn't been pressed to that necessity."

"You must have had the opportunity to kill Miss Flayme a time or two, during your long stint within the Satanic Society," Champion observed. "What stayed your hand?"

"Nothing," Logan gritted. "I poisoned that bitch three times, when I saw some of the things she was gettin' up to. And at the last, when the clean cops from the list I passed out to Commissioner DeWitt broke in and all hell broke loose... almost literally... I put two bullets in her back, point blank range, from her own .32." He shook his head, then touched the streak of pure white that ran back through his otherwise carroty red hair. "Where do you think I got this? That woman won't die... not until her Master in Hell wants her to. Not then, if she can squirm out of it somehow. And I wouldn't bet against her."

A shadow seemed to fall over the 42nd floor balcony then, although the sky was clear of clouds.

Finally, Champion cleared his throat. "Do you think Flayme is behind all these recent..."

After a moment's thought, Logan shook his head. "It ain't her style," he said. "She tried for revenge on the City once, with that Times Square bomb, but she's normally more cold blooded. She likes behind the scenes stuff... getting control, pullin' the puppet strings." He shrugged. "It could be, I s'pose. Don't feel like her, though. But people change."

Carson spoke up. "We've been keeping our ears to the ground," she said. "Jeremiah is too..." Ned nodded, that would be Cap Atlas... "and the Velveteer has access to extraordinary information, sometimes. But none of us have heard anything meaningful about any of this. It does feel... rather Satanic, though."

Logan turned one hand palm up. "Sure," he said. "But she generally doesn't show her hand like this. Her schemin' is all done in private, off stage. Ideally, she don't want anyone to even realize anything is goin' on, while she sits in the middle of her web, pullin' on strands." He looked at both of them, puzzled. "So... I thought you guys had a scoop for me? Did you just want to chew the fat over old cases instead?"

The two exchanged glances, then locked hands. "No," Champion said, clearing his throat. "We do have rather a story for you, old man. Ah... hrm..." He looked abashed, something Logan found confounding.

"I'm pregnant," the Congo Queen finally said, correctly judging her paramour paralyzed by the announcement's weight. "Due in April. Charles and I are going to be married on November 15th, in Madison Square Garden."

"They'll carry the ceremony live on the radio, we think," Champion spoke up, weakly. "But you're the first newsperson we've spoken to, really."

Logan's head was buzzing. Pregnant? Out of wedlock? But going to be married... Good God, it would be the wedding of the century! Everyone who was anyone would want an invitation... the whole world would listen in... his paper's circulation would jump another hundred thousand once they printed this...!

"Wait," he said. "You get married in public, every black hat in the world is gonna come gunnin' for you. Especially if they know you're expectin'." He looked up, warily. "If this is a hoax, to smoke Scarlett Flayme out of hiding... or whoever's behind all this spooky stuff lately..."

Champion stared at 'the Newshound' directly. "This is no hoax. And we are going to be taking it easy for the forseeable future, so if anyone else out there could find a way to deal with these eerie events, we'd be very appreciative."

Candace "Congo Queen" Carson tilted her head slightly. "As for my wedding," she said, quietly... "Let any man, or woman, who wants to try and put my child, or my beloved, in danger..." Her eyes flashed, and her hands, perhaps unconsciously, mimicked the motions of gripping a large bore elephant gun. "Well... let them try." She paused, then stood to her full six feet of height, squaring her broad shoulders, the tendons in her arms flexing under tropically tanned skin. "I said I was tired of killing. That doesn't mean I shan't kill if its needful."

Ned Logan picked up his notebook again, and began writing. This would be the scoop of a lifetime... and he felt sorry for anyone who tried to mess with this wedding.

They would, doubtless, forever hold their peace... at least, when bride and groom were finished with them.

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