By James Hutchings
Genre: Cross-Genre, Mystery, Superhero
With an innocent girl dead, America’s finest superheroic detective agency must find and destroy a sinister cult.
~ Jukepop Blurb
The corridor’s smell was not unpleasant, but hinted of unpleasant things; the cleaning-product smell of a hospital or a public toilet. Lettering on the door read All-Costumed Private Investigations Ltd. – and underneath, in smaller letters, America’s Finest Superheroic Detective Agency – serving Burlington City and the entire United States. Catherine opened the door, half-expecting to find the office shrouded in thick clouds of cigarette smoke, occupied by a defeated-looking man with his feet on the desk and a bottle of whisky in his hand. But the office was bright and cheerful, and the blandly-smiling man at the reception desk did not look like a cynical, wise-cracking gumshoe. He nodded a greeting. Janus the Unknown, Man of a Thousand Faces, rarely spoke first. He gauged the client’s age, class and ethnic origin and, in general, adopted a similar accent and vocabulary. He wore no mask. Or rather, no obvious mask. He had subtly altered his facial features, by natural and artificial means, to appear more open and trustworthy. It was hard to tell what age or even what race he was. It was as if he had bleached himself away, creating a blank canvas on which, like a sidewalk artist, he could draw whoever was required.
“I’m Catherine Moore,” she said, “I have an appointment for three thirty.” The man made a mark in the ledger before him.
“Very good Miss Moore. If you’d care to wait, someone will see you in a few minutes.” His tones were soothing and reassuring, like those of a doctor – or, perhaps more relevant to the agency’s business, an undertaker. She sat down on the unoccupied leather couch. She sank into it, and she had a momentary vision of finding other clients hidden in the cushions. A glass coffee table was covered in current affairs magazines; Spicy Detective Stories, Weird Mysteries and the like. She read for a while about the Cult of Ra and the Jack of Spades murders, until another voice said,
“Miss Moore, we’re ready to see you now.” Like the unremarkable man at the desk, the new figure wore no brightly-coloured leotard. Indeed, apart from a domino mask which matched his suit, he could almost have been on his way to church, or a job on Madison Avenue. His voice was neither booming nor sinister.
The guiding principle of the agency was that there was no boss and no underlings. Everyone fought the villain’s henchmen, everyone cleaned the desks. Yet not everyone could do the job of manning the office. It was no good expecting a grieving widow or the parents of a missing child to feel safe in the presence of Doctor Death or The Night-Witch.
“I’m the Green Dragon,” he said, in the same professional tones with which Janus had greeted her. “I’ll be your liaison with our agency.” She realised his suit was very dark green rather than black.
“So…what, you breathe fire?”
“Metaphorically speaking,” the man said smoothly, opening the door to a small interview room. “I use an adapted pair of pistols, which work in a similar fashion to a flame-thrower. They can also be used to project knockout gas, electricity, and a few other things. But please, sit down. Now, what can we help you with?”
“It’s about my sister Penny.” The Green Dragon gave a wordless, sympathetic murmur. She took a deep breath. “Well, she died a few months ago.”
“I see.” His tone betrayed no surprise. Perhaps, she thought, there was none to betray. Perhaps he would have been surprised to hear she was alive and well.
“She…she was shot by the police.”
“Oh. I see. But if you feel there was an injustice, I have to warn you that a lawyer would be more likely-“
“No, that wasn’t the injustice,” she interrupted. “She got into an argument over change with a bus driver. She had a kitchen knife that she’d bought and she stabbed him to death. She was ranting, threatening the police. They told her to put the knife down but she wouldn’t. I think they call it ‘suicide by cop’ don’t they?”
“Did your sister have any conditions that might have-“
“It turned out she was in the terminal phase of a particularly virulent strain of syphilis. She would have been dead in a few months even if the police hadn’t shot her. The rage was part of it too. I’m told that victims of most forms of syphilis just get forgetful, like old people.”
“What would our agency be aiming to uncover?”
“I want you to find out how she got the disease.”
“I take it she had no beau that you knew of?”
“That’s not what I meant. Penny wasn’t the kind to sleep around. If she had a disease like that, she was raped.”
“Ma’am, there’s no reason to think your sister was, uh, intimately involved with more than one person, or on short acquaintance,”
“You don’t-” She seemed to be struggling to stop herself shouting. “With all due respect, you don’t know my sister.”
Then why does this all seem so damn familiar?Many of the Green Dragon’s best cracks were delivered only in his own mind.
“Miss Moore, I must caution you that our agency cannot be party to any vigilante activity. Our legal position is already shaky. The police officially take the view that what we do is illegal under the Criminal Vigilantism Act, but don’t prosecute. We can try and find this fellow, but the most we can do after that is present a case to the police, if he’s guilty of a crime.”
Catherine lit a cigarette. It forced her to speak from the side of her mouth, like a gangster in a film.
“I’m not going to stab him. She was the crazy one remember?”
“I don’t think you’re crazy Miss Moore. But I think you might be making a mistake. I also have to warn you that we charge on a per hour basis.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“More plainly, if we can’t find anything, or if we find something that isn’t what you thought we’d find, you still have to pay us.”
“Truth, justice and the American way,” Catherine muttered.“