Chapter 1 – The Vixen
If Mari McCabe were paying attention, she would be striking a pose that would accentuate the billowiness of her summer dress; instead, she is thinking of warmth. Detroit is a place of flux in March, with bitter windy days quickly becoming sunny and warm, only to slip back below freezing. In her home, off the Serengeti Plains, this was a time of comfortable weather, just under 30 degrees (what Americans would say is high eighties in their peculiar Fahrenheit measurements), with predictably brisk morning rains that leave everything fresh and green.
“Mari!” Todd shouts, pulling her out of her moment of distraction. “Come on, girl. Pull it together. You have the fan on you, let’s make that print pop!”
“Sorry, Todd. My mind slipped away for a moment.” Before the photographer can even give her any direction, she slips her head back into the shoot, giving the young professional a range of poses as his shutter clicks again and again. To her, modeling is a kind of dance, much like the movements of a jaguar in its habitat. Eyes open, she sees Todd behind his circular shutter but she is listening to the brush of the light summer cloth upon her dark skin, blown about by the fan beside her. “Is this more to your liking?” she coos more to the camera than the man wielding the tool.
“Yes! Yes, oh, yes, that is what we want,” Todd says.
After another fifteen minutes, Todd stops snapping photos. “Oh, Mari, I knew that if anyone could make these prints shine, it would be you. Take a break, beautiful, while we set up the next shot.”
Donning a heavy overcoat to cover her summer dress, Mari makes her way to the front of the ground-floor studio and emerges into the brightly-shining sun. There is heat today, but nothing like the warmth of her homeland. Again, the pedestrians seem to disappear as she drifts back to Zambesi and her family. It has been five long years in the USA, and lately she finds herself thinking about them more often than not. As she walks down the street, she gazes into the various windows, but doesn’t see items for sale. She can only see her father’s thin black moustache and hear his deep laughter.
“Get out of my way!” a man yells out as he pushes through the people on the street towards her. A quick glance identifies the automatic pistol in his hand. In her experience, nobody races down the street with a handgun unless they are in flight. Indeed, a short ways off behind him, a pair of security officers are in slow pursuit.
Mari slips a leg out behind her just as he passes her. He slips right into her step and careens awkwardly into an A-frame advertisement. With three quick steps, she is beside the man, and drives an elbow straight into his neck. As he reaches up to his throat, she kicks his gun back towards the uniformed men. Then, she is right back where she was before he started his approach. As she was channeling the speed of the cheetah, she expects the dozen or so people on the street would be none the wiser for how quickly and stealthily she took the man down.
The first of the uniformed men rushes past the gun and trains his own firearm on the man Mari took down. “Don’t move,” the guard says. A moment later, his partner comes behind with a pair of handcuffs. The second guard, stockier around the middle than the first, binds the perpetrator, who is still gasping for air, thanks to Mari’s elbow jab.
“What just happened here?” the first security officer on the scene asks Mari. He is the older of the pair and has a thin goatee that matches his jet black hair.
“It was that hero, Vixen! She knocked this man to the ground and ran off.”
“Vixen?” the thinner of the pair asks. “Really? Which way did she go?”
“Over there. Across the street and up on that building. Climbed up there like a squirrell.”
“Too bad,” the security guard says. “I’d have loved to see her. Well, her being here was bad luck for this guy.”
“What did he do?” Mari asks, pleased with the promotion she was doing for her other self.
“Robbed the boutique a block back,” the security officer says while his partner retrieves the perpetrator’s gun and updates his headquarters on the situation. Off in the distance, Mari can hear a police siren. The narrower of the two security men thanks Mari and turns to his partner. It is enough of a dismissal as Mari has ever witnessed, and as she walked away, she smiles to herself.
That evening, Mari looks at herself in the full-length mirror hanging on the apartment-side of her one bedroom’s bathroom door. She is dressed in the colors of her homeland: brown with gold. The gold is accentuated on her sleeveless costume, creating a wide slit down the front from high collar to her navel, where the gold breaks off in a quick point. Her arms are covered in long gloves. The flexible leather of her leggings are the same brown as the rest of the suit. She sometimes wears a leather jacket matching the print of her sleeveless shirt, but tonight, she doesn’t want it. It is loose enough, but today, in thinking of home, she wants to feel the night air on her shoulders.
This is the Vixen she had told the security officers about. She is a woman in a skintight dark brown- and black-dyed rawhide leather suit accentuated by golden trim. Over this, she has put on a black jacket accented with the same gold coloring as the rest of her outfit. She knows that in or out of costume, her powers are the same, but it just does not feel right to call herself Vixen without this suit. In a way, it is like being photographed for American Eagle: when she is in her company’s clothing, she is no longer Mari McCabe, she is just a living mannequin, there to make the clothing pop. The biggest difference is between the two aspects of her life is that the brown and gold of her costume is there to make her pop.
“… A robbery was foiled downtown today,” her television drones on in the living room of her small apartment. “Witnesses questioned at the scene report the presence of the costumed vigilante known as the Vixen, though none can report actually seeing her. This stands to reason, considering that whenever the Vixen has been seen in the streets of Detroit, she has fled the scene before any photos could be taken of her.”
“Quite the feat in this day and age, when everyone has a phone with camera available to them,” a female newscaster says, counterpoint to the male’s statement.
“That’s right, Nancy. Whether it was or was not the Vixen, one thing cannot be denied: the two security officers were only too pleased to credit the hero. In other news, The Red Wings-”
But Mari is not interested in hearing about the strange winter sports of her adopted country. Again, she finds herself thinking about her father and twin sister, Ella. With Mari here in Detroit, Ella has been left alone as guardian of their people. With a tinge of bitterness, she wonders if Ella is keeping half as busy as she is. The whole reason why she arranged to resettle in this city was to give her more of a fight. Both sisters received the mystical totems of Zambesi, but as hers was Tantu’s Totem, giving her the power to mimic the abilities of any animal on earth, it was hard to sit still in such a small area, not when there was so much more good she could do in less peaceful places around the world.
“I am here for these people,” Vixen says in the mirror before her. Her hand is holding the fox-headed totem worn around her neck and she can feel its power flowing through it. Closing her eyes a moment, she focuses on the potential just waiting to come through her. “I am the Vixen of Detroit.”
Opening the window to the fire escape, she slips out into the March air. The first thing she does is don the warmth of the protective layer of blubber that keeps whales warm even in the cold depths of the oceans. While she does not actually add the fat to her body, she does the warmth.
The city smells of people. Their garbage, their waste, their manufactured scents, their pollution. It is a scent that she has gotten used to, but sadly, it does not help her to pick out crime. No, for that, she channels the ears of a bat, able to pick up the peculiar frequencies of police bands. There is nothing on radar. Not around here. She needs height.
For that, she needs the lemur. Agility and movement, strength of leg and tail, and suppleness of body. It is how she always ascends her fire escape: climb out and up, and up, and up, and then she is there on her roof. The city stretches away, a shallow sea of lights all around her, broken by the river, and diffused off to the west, where the city fades into the hit or miss darkness of abandoned residences and factories. She curls her freshly-formed lemur tail around her body as she reaches out with a variety of animal senses.
It is always a struggle to adapt her senses to the noises and flashes of the city, but six months of prowling the night has given her plenty of practice. She has gotten good at it, and the various animals that she channels are instinctive.
But the first task of the night comes thanks not to the bat hearing that lets her tap into the police band, but rather to the more generalized hearing of a kit fox. It is a cry, the kind of high-pitched sound that can only come from a woman who is being turned into a victim. Racing through the rooftops, she finds herself looking down on a woman in an alley, being accosted by two men. Up here, there is no race or color, there is only intention, and knowing full well the ramifications of the situation, she takes action, dropping down into the alley behind the two men.
As she lands, the victim’s struggles become more aggravated, and she kicks out as hard as she can, and manages to catch the smaller man right in the mouth.
“¡Ai! Puta cut my lip! Oh, this gonna be more fun than I thought.”
“You think?” Vixen asks him, trying to hold back her anger. This is clearly a situation created by testosterone, and it is the kind of crime that she abhors all else. Women are no toy to be played with at the discretion of men’s whims.
The man turns and she knows exactly what he will behold: a dark-skinned woman who looked as if she were poured into a brown and gold bodysuit. He will be enticed by the clothing, and tightness of it all, and as she has struck a pose that she knows will distract thanks to how it shows off her natural curves; she hopes he will completely forget the victim. And for a moment, he does.
“Oh, baby. You here for some fun, too?”
“Oh, you know it.” Vixen struts forward with the grace of a model and stands before the man. She reaches out and touches his chest. His face lights up, like her touch is fire, and he stares at her, soaking her in. The action disgusts her, but it is a great distraction. “Sadly for you, that means fun for me. Painful for you.”
Vixen grabs a handful of the lapel of his Redwings jacket. As she moves, she can feel her totem channeling the power of an orangutan. Cranking her hand around, she spins him right around, head over heels.
“You make me sick,” she growls to the now-upside down man before throwing him into the wall.
Slowly, she turns to face his friend and the victim of their assault. There is a moment of confusion on the woman’s face before it turns into the barest leer of satisfaction.
“The hell? Juannie, you getting yourself tripped up in anticipation or what?” the other man asks, turning to see what the commotion was. Seeing his friend’s butt sticking straing into the air as he striggles to get himself together is not what he was expecting. Nor is he thinking to find a tall beauty in gold and bown. “The hell? Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the cockblocker that’s going to ruin your night. Now let her go.”
“Cockblocker? Heh. Yeah, I don’t think so, lady. How about you just walk away and this won’t get any uglier than it has to be.”
“Ugly?” Vixen asks as she hears the frist man grimbling as he struggles to get righted. She steps over to him and throws that orangutan stretngth into a punch. It smashes into the mans face with such force that he thuds against the concrete wall behind him. Sighing, he collapses at her feet. “Ugly. So it is alright for a man to attack a woman, and that is not ‘ugly’ but the moment a woman fights back, it becomes ‘ugly?’ Sorry to burst your bubble. This business is already ugly. How ugly you and your friend are afterwards is up to you.”
“Ugly it is. By the time I’m done with your, you’re not gonna look half as hot as you are now,” the man says. He is so large that when he shoves his victim aside, she careens a good couple meters away from him, and into the side of a metal garbage can. It is only when he turns to face her that Vixen notices the switchblade in his hand.
In the single step that he takes towards her, Vixen’s mind plays out a dozen ways to deal with this situation. She settles on an elbow jab just below the smaller of the two men’s sternum. With him too preoccupied with catching his breath, it leaves her with the opportunity to deal with the bigger man and his blade. Her arms come up as he strides forward, blade out before him. With her fists closed, she knows he is unable to see the claws she has popped from her fingertips. It is deception, but such things are often useful in a fight.
“You ready to bleed?” the man asks, coming ever closer. He seems completely indifferent to how quickly and easily she was able to dispatch his partner. Whatever he is riding – adrenaline, alcohol, drugs – has pushed him into a dangerous area of aggression. But that means he will also be easier to deal with. Indeed, just as she expects, he gets the first strike in, lashing out with his blade. Vixen waits for the finishing arc of the swipe and channels the strength of a gorilla into a punch to his kidney. She cannot tell which is louder: the sound of two ribs cracking or his yowl of pain.
Panting, he starts getting up.
“You do not want to get up, boy,” Vixen tells the man.
He doesn’t listen. A moment later, he is on his feet, one hand wrapped around his side. “I been beat down by the best, girlie. An’ after a day like I’ve had, I ain’t about to call it quits without getting my kicks in one way or ‘nuther. You hear me?”
One of his hands is obscured in the darkness of the alley, but with a quick adjustment of her eyes, channeling the night vision of a cat, she can see a .38 Special.
She paces the space before him, angling for a better position. “A little small for a big boy like you, isn’t it?”
He levels the pistol at her. “You know what they say, baby. It’s not the size of it, it’s how you use it. And baby. I was military. I know how to use it.”
With the way he is following her every motion, she can tell he’s not bluffing. Movement, speed, and agility are what she needs now. She thinks of the fruit flies that always appear during the dry parts of the wet months. She can’t take on their size, but she can take on their speed and lightness, their ability to dart in and out with nary a breath.
The pistol goes off and she can feel it sear the air by her head. In fact, she thinks it is the bullet itself that pushes her out of its own way. Five more shots blast off at where she was just moving in her unpredictable dance, and not a single one hits her.
“Looks like you are spent,” she taunts. Without further use of the fruit fly’s abilities, she switches them out for two animals far less spritely: a cheetah and a rhino. In the five steps that she has accelerated into the charge, she had gained enough momentum that when she shoulder checks him in the stomach, he is hurled back into the concrete wall behind him.
The victim of the rapists’ attack is in the darker recesses of the alley, and has just gotten to her feet following her push. “Are you alright?” Vixen asks her.
“Yeah,” she says, running a hand over her jeans to wipe off whatever alley gunk that might have attached itself to her. The thing that bothers Vixent the most is the fact that she isn’t done up at all. There is nothing overly enticing about her: minimal make-up, a black winter jacket, her hair’s natural curls held back with a hair clip. She is just another woman, beautiful in her own right, and that seemed to be enough to turn the men on. Beneath her eyes, Vixen notices two trails of helplessness and fear. The woman dabs at these lines. That done, she strides forward and kicks the smaller man, who is still gasping for air from the punch Vixen gave him. “The hell was that about, Daryl! The hell!”
“Easy!” Vixen says, pulling the infuriated woman away from the man. She tells herself that it’s the woman’s right to want to hurt him, but right now, it is unnecessary. “He is down. It is enough. You should call the police.”
“It’s not right. It’s not right, I tell you! They can do whatever they want, but we ain’t got no right to have a drink after a long day? Is that too much to ask?” She struggles against Vixen to kick Daryl again, but the heroine’s hold is too strong. “You can kiss any hope of ever getting with me goodbye! Damn!”
“If there is someone you can trust, you should call them, too,” Vixen tells the woman. Her heart goes out to her. She can only imagine how horrid it would be to be put into such a place of vulnerability. “Be with a loved one, if you can.”
The woman is already on her mobile phone as she rounds the corner and out into the brighter light of the street.
“Filth,” Vixen says to the two groaning men at her feet. She would have loved to let the poor woman beat them senseless, but she knows that such actions seldom bring the satisfaction that one would hope they would. No real satisfaction ever comes from vengeance.
As Vixen looks over the bruised would-be-rapists, there is a slow clapping from the shadows before her. Vixen’s animal senses lurch forward. She smells a man wearing cheap cologne, mint chewing gum, leather shoes with only trace amounts of polish – neglected from walking the streets of this city, no doubt.
“Impressive, young lady,” a man says, emerging from the shadows. He is old, well past 60, with short-trimmed grey hair and freckles that stand out on his dark skin even in this dim light. There is a sense of humor in his eyes, but his mouth is a cold slit, nearly as cold as the metal of the Detective’s badge he has extended out towards her. “But I think my friends can take it from here.”
Vixen stares at the man in utter befuddlement. “How did you get here so quickly?”
“Let’s just say I have been wanting to have some words with you, and leave it at that.”
“With me?” she asks. Her confusion has just become curiosity mixed with unease.
The old detective cocks an eyebrow. “You are the Vixen, are you not?”
“Who is asking?”
“Just a regular old detective with some questions for a superhero.”
Inwardly, Vixen smirks at the thought of herself as a “superhero.” “Not tonight.”
Using the elasticity of a kangaroo’s leg muscles, she leaps into the air and lands on the roof behind her, two stories up. She takes a couple of steps before deciding to say something to the man. She goes back over to the edge and leans over. “But thanks for showing up!”
“You’re quite welcome,” the detective says quite calmly from behind her.
“What?” Vixen snaps, dropping into a fighting stance. The old man is standing on the roof with his hands dug deep into the pockets of his trench coat.
“How…? How did you do that?” She is throwing all of her senses at him in the hopes that something that some animal has the ability to detect would be able to make heads or tails from him. All she gets is a repeat of her initial evaluation: cheap cologne, mint gum, and unpolished shoes. Adding to her superior sense of smell, she can hear a regular heartbeat, two lungs that inhale without difficulty. To all her senses, he is completely human.
“It is just a little thing I picked up. Are you interested in finding out more?”
“Not tonight,” Vixen says, despite a clawing sense of curiosity.
Snapping the tendons in her legs, she hurls herself farther up into the air than she normally goes. The landing is as graceful as the landing of a cat, and she races onward, from building to building. Her ears begin to focus again on the task of crimes in the act. Her curiosity drives it away from crimes and more towards the peculiar man she left behind. When at last she stops, she is panting. The warmth of the whale is clearly too much for such action, and she sheds it to let the night’s coolness wash over her.
“I’m curious about something,” the old man asks. He is on this rooftop just as he was on the one before. “Why leap? You can emulate the powers of animals, can you not? I saw squirrel, kangaroo, and I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a whale? It seems you can run the range of mammal. Are you limited to them or can you adapt your skills to those of any animal. Yet, even then, why not fly?”
“How?” Vixen asks, in incomplete shock. “Get away from me!”
She takes off again and pushes herself to the other side of the city. It is farther than she normally goes, and indeed, this part of town has so few crimes that she almost never even comes here. She is getting frustrated. The old man’s dogged pursuit is preventing her from doing her duty. Stretching her arms upward to help catch her breath from the speed and effort it took to get here, Vixen thinks for a moment that she’s escaped the detective, but her hackles stand up as she takes a whiff of the old man’s cologne.
Just as before, he is here.
“Who are you? Why are you following me?” she asks, popping claws and dropping into the defensive stance of a wolf.
The detective’s hands come up, palms out, very clearly non-threatening. “Easy child. I am not here to hurt you. As I said, I want to talk to you. You can relax, you know. If I had wanted to hurt you, I clearly could have.”
“I have nothing to say to a cop. Not tonight.”
“You are right. Sometimes, I am a cop. When it suits me. But tonight, think of my badge only as a means to an end. You have no reason to trust me, but you have reason to trust the badge and the code of ethics that comes with it.”
Vixen frowns at him, but does not leave.
The stranger accepts her lack of motion for compliance. “You are the Vixen,” he repeats.
It is not a question, so Vixen says nothing.
“Over the past several months, you have been fighting crime here in my city. I have seen three of these battles personally. I was there when you stopped the burglary at the First Street Bank. Then again, when you took down Marcus Hendrickson in that drug bust. The third time was the car shop ring. I am particularly appreciative of that last one. While I usually stay away from property crime, there is a lot to be said for taking them down. But the reasons for that are neither here nor there.”
“So I am saying I like your style. You get the job done without the limitations of the police. You are clearly moral, but not pretentious. You are fair, and can sympathize with victims – as tonight’s unfortunate situation so proves. Best of all, you don’t seem guided by a personal vendetta like someone I know.”
“Again. So what? You’re boring me, grandfather.”
“Fair enough. So let me ask you a very specific question. Why do you do it?”
“The Vixen. You are a beautiful young woman who clearly knows herself and how to use her own beauty. But what we do is thankless. There are seldom people who want to compliment us on a job well done. Even if we can take credit, there will be naysayers, pundits who decry what we do as something equally negative to our city as the crime we stop. People will hunt you and hate you. Oh yes, some will genuinely love you, but nowhere near enough. So again, I ask you why you are doing this.”
The question is good enough to get Vixen thinking. After a long moment of consideration, she finally says, “It has always been part of me. You cannot just switch off who you are, no matter who says you have to.”
“Indeed not,” the detective says. He slips a stick of gum from his pocket and folds the new piece into his mouth. Its peppermint odor is strong and sweet. “Even the roles we put on for a short time are only just temporary forms. Like this role you see before you. Let me ask you something. What if I gave you the opportunity to continue doing… this?”
“Are you threatening to stop me?”
“Not at all. I am merely offering an opportunity to do more. As you said, we cannot change who we are, but we can do more if given the opportunity.”
“What are you saying?”
“Saying? I am not saying anything. I am merely giving you an opportunity. So let me ask you something, if you can mimic the abilities of animals, why not fly like them? Why did you leap from building to building in the hopes of escaping me? If I was just a mere man, you could have just flown into the sky to escape me.”
“But you’re obviously not normal.”
“No. I am not. Would you like to find out more about me? And why I have sought you out?”
Vixen considers this. While she does not think she can fly, she cannot deny the cat-like curiosity that is pumping through her nerves. Of course she wants to know.
The detective does not move, but his feet lift off the roof, straight up. “Invoke the power of the hawk and follow me.”
He soars upwards a good hundred feet and turns to look down at Vixen. “Are you coming?” he calls down to her.
Vixen’s awe is shattered by the question. In her time as the Vixen, she has never seen so innocuous an individual soar so casually. She wonders if she can. A hawk is no mammal, but then, neither was the fruit fly that she just mimicked. The legends always claimed that Tantu’s Totem could bestow the powers and abilities of the entire animal kingdom upon its wearer; and that included birds. She invokes the spirit of the hawk and can feel a change come within herself. Like the blubber of the whale, she does not undergo any physical alteration, but can feel herself differently. Closing her eyes to the sense, she pushes upward and feels the press of gravity upon her, but she refuses its touch. It is wonderful and awkward, but it feels right. Opening her eyes, she finds the detective moving slowly away from her. Angling her body towards him, she takes chase.
The two soar across the starry sky over the city and land downtown before a building on the corner of Market and Palms. The only light on the block is the lamp above the door to the building. The nearly-abandoned street fills Vixen with sadness, as it is indicative of so much of this city. The detective pulls a key from his trench coat and unlocks the door. When he does not flick on any lights inside the doorway, Mari hesitates.
“Come in,” he says, waiting in the doorway with his hand on the door handle. “I need to lock up after you. I have no doubts that I can handle anyone brazen enough to come in here, but I am sure you understand.”
Slowly, Vixen walks through the door and up some stairs to another door with a large frosted window. From the single yellow bulb hanging outside the door, the fading print on the window is still quite visible. Detective Jones, Private Eye.
“A Private Eye?”
“Among other things,” he says without turning. Instead, he enters the small office. He takes his time walking behind the large wooden desk straight through and across from the door. Vixen looks around. It is like someone took all the props from a 1940’s pulp movie and crammed it into the tiny office. There is even an old computer on the desk that was old and archaic even to one growing up in a village with no electricity. Off to one side, there are filing cabinets and a bulletin board, a police radio and lots of papers covering nearly every surface of the place. Detective Jones then opens a small cigarette box sitting on his table.
“Please do not be too surprised.”
With the flick of some switch that she cannot see, comes a sudden motion of the floor under her feet. The whole office begins a swift descent into the bowels of the building. When the floor stops, Vixen is standing within a state-of-the-art lair that is well lighted. In stark contrast to the computer on Detective Jones’ desk, there are consoles here that are at least comparable to current technology – and some even seem to surpass what one can get in stores. This is a far cry from what she was expecting from this slightly worn old man. Vixen leaves the hardwood flooring of the office elevator and approaches one of the computer tables. She taps at the glistening flat surface and a backlighting of blues and greens glow to life.
“Police records,” Detective Jones says from behind her. He has approached a different console and has begun tapping at the touch-pad there. “Come here, I would like to show you something.”
“Who is this?” the file at her fingertips have pulled up the mug shot of a young woman, maybe about the same age as Vixen, looking scared, possibly even humiliated. Vixen has seen mug shots before, but never has there been a choker like the one around her neck, which looks to be of some kind of strange tech, not too dissimilar to the advanced tech in this lair.
Jones looks over at Mari’s screen. “Lashawn Baez. She was booked for breaking and entering. Petty theft. The choker around her neck prevents her from escaping.”
“I work in fashion and I’ve never seen a choker like this. What’s it for?”
“Like you and I, she is a metahuman, with the power of short distance teleportation. The choker can block her ability to use her power. Currently, she is on parole with a suspended sentence.”
“It is a delay of sentence. While convicted of the burglary, the judge was moved by her motivations. Her entire case was built upon the fact that her father suffers from a disease known as polycystic kidney disease. The short of it is that he needs tremendous medical attention or a transplant. Whatever her earnings in her life, it is far from suitable for her father’s needs.”
“Poor girl,” Mari says, knowing the helplessness that comes from not having the funds to support herself.
Detective Jones cocks an eyebrow at her comment. “Come here. I have a list that I would like you to look through.”
“The opportunity I mentioned to you. Much like Lashawn’s father, this city needs a lot of help. For a long time, I have aided it from the shadows, but now I think it is time that someone step forward into the light to help it.”
“I’m already doing that,” Vixen says.
“Yes. And your skills are great, but there are forces brewing in this city that one woman cannot possibly hope to defeat alone. I have seen what Arsenal and the Green Arrow have done in Starling City. They have turned a solo act into a team. It is a smart move. One that I wish I was better suited for, but as I have said, I have watched you, Vixen. You could create a team that would help this city in ways that you could not do alone. This is a list of possible allies for you to work with.”
“You are serious about this,” Vixen says to the old man, at once flattered and dubious.
“Very much so. I am… my responsibilities will be taking me far from this city that I have made home. It will need people to look after it. To aid you in your activity, I offer use of this office. You will find the technology to be quite state-of-the-art for whatever investigatory ends you would require. Additionally, it has access to certain… police lines with the right password and identity, which I will be providing you.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Not if it is authorized by the representative party. You do realize that providing you with such information demonstrates a significant leap of faith?” His bushy eyebrowed forehead arches up with this question.
“I do. This is madness.”
“Are you saying that you are not interested?”
“You are putting words in my mouth,” Vixen accuses the man with the slightest of a glare.
“Then, please, let’s get you familiar with this, shall we?” Detective Jones says.
Vixen approaches the monitor and skims through the names. “Tailgate? Searchlight? Huffer? The Silver Streak?”
“Are they not suitable?” the detective asks.
Vixen reads the background of the four people she just mentioned and considers it. None of them sound right to her. She can’t put her finger on what it is about them that don’t resonate with her, but she knows that they’re wrong for her. “Can I pick my team or is that against the rules?”
“Rules? No. There are no rules to this. What I have given you is merely compiled from people who could best aid this city. A certain quality of personality is required to do the job, and it was my belief that this collection would prove to be suitable.”
“And in her, I have everything I need in a partner,” Vixen says, pointing at the image of Lashawn Baez.
“You would hope to have her? Why?”
“Because I understand her motivation. I want to help her. She was training to be a nurse, but a criminal record has killed that. She won’t have many other options.”
Jones scratches at his clean-shaven chin as he stares at Vixen. “I will admit that I had not considered her.” He looks back at the list he compiled. “Perhaps I might need to expand my search a bit.”
“Do you know where I can find her?” Vixen asks of the young woman in the mug shot.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” Guillermo Barrera asks his traveling partner. The dark-haired Hasaraguan is hot, sweaty and greatly annoyed with the insects that keep swarming around him. For the past two days, the pair of them have been traveling through the jungles from a staging point in the western Africa country of Benin, and while his companion’s company has been pleasant to the trained assassin, the insects and humidity have been a constant strain on his patience.
“If you stop and listen for a moment, you’ll know,” Barbara Minerva says, pausing her tread. Unlike him with his clumsy army boots, Minerva travels barefoot. Like everything she does, she is unburdened by the heavier aspects of human existence. Why would she want to be? Thanks in part to the thin coating of spotted yellow fur covering every inch of her lean and extremely attractive body, she is known in most circles as the Cheetah. The fur is not the only element of her presentation resembling the speedy cats: poking out of her specially-tailored tan shorts, is a long tail; two pointed ears flank a head that sports long auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail.
Barrera lowers the machete he has been using to cut the underbrush of the jungle. The place is full of the sounds of wildlife: far distant growls of tigers, the laughter of monkeys in the trees, chirping of birds, and the buzzing of insects. He growls as a mosquito plunges its proboscis into his arm. He swats it dead with a swear.
“I hear nothing more than what I’ve been hearing for the past six hours since they broke camp this morning. The jungle is all around us, Barbara. What one thing am I supposed to be listening for?”
“That roar,” the lithe woman says, closing her eyes to listen more deeply. “That is the sound of the Healing Waterfall of Urzkartaga. That means we are close.”
Barrera strains, but can’t hear it. He is not surprised. Minerva’s senses are far beyond those of an average human like himself; they are more like those of a cheetah.
“Come. Let’s not dawdle.”
Barrera follows after the cheetah-furred woman, and it is not long before he, too, can hear the waterfall. They are soon standing on a bluff, looking down into a narrow circular chasm. This is the mouth of the river that they had followed at the beginning of this expedition into the jungles of Benin and into Nigeria. From the face of a wall carved in the intertwined image of a cheetah and plant, a massive flow of water gushes forth to fill the chasm down below. Two more stone cheetahs flank this waterfall spout.
“Friends of yours?” Barrera mocks. Deep in the darkness of the chasm, he can make out the roiling white of the waters striking the pool.
“Be nice, or I’ll throw you in.”
“Don’t look to be many rocks down there. I don’t think it’d hurt.”
“No,” the cat purrs, scratching at her yellow-furred belly button under the mid-riff-baring khaki tee-shirt she’s wearing. “In fact, it would heal you of that foul sarcasm you so adore.”
“How is that?”
“You did hear the name of it, did you not? It’s called the healing waterfall of Urzkartaga. They say that if you are pure of heart and drink from the waterfall, you will be able to heal yourself from any and all wounds.” She looks him over and gives him a cruelly mocking smirk. “Of course, you would have to be pure of heart. With all the men you’ve butchered, grand torturer, I’d be curious to see if it wouldn’t flay you, instead. Let’s move ahead.”
There is a well-hidden stairwell on their side of the waterfall source. It leads them up the short cliff, and at the top, they approach two more stone cheetahs. Several steps from the top, Minerva tells Barrera to stop. She then ascends two more steps, and to Barrera’s amazement, the cheetahs turn their stony heads to face her. A series of growls are then exchanged between the woman and the statues. At last, the cheetahs are pacified and return to their silent vigil over the valley below.
“What was that?” Barrera asks of his enticing companion.
“That was an exchange of ideas. They had an idea that I was here to no good, and I reminded them who I am.”
“I am their goddess. Behold my realm! It is the land of the god Urzkartaga, and I am the miserable old sod’s queen!”
What was once a grand ancient city stretches out before them over the plateau. Grey stone ruins of stone buildings poke out from the overgrowth of the jungle, the bones of a civilization long dead. There are no people around, but more stone cheetahs stand in various states of wear at just about every intersection. Trees have grown tall among the ruins, even so far as to sprout out from doorways or right between wall segments.
“I can see why you left it.”
“You are such a fool, Guillermo,” Minerva hisses and struts forward down what Barrera thinks must have been one of the main thoroughfares of the city. “I am a duchess of British nobility whose ancestry is nearly as long as this city. I was a ruler before I came here a hundred fifty years ago and was turned into the lithe goddess you see me as now. Sadly, the place has fallen on harder times since then, but even then, I never had reason to stay, not when my family’s wealth was always there to provide me with the lifestyle I craved.”
“Yeah,” Barrera says, indifferently. Though the thoroughfare is essentially clear, he does not put his machete away into the holster strapped to his hip. “So what are we looking for in here?”
But the goddess says nothing. She continues forward. Barefooted and with her long tail twitching with excitement below her backpack, she is bouyeyed by her anticipation in being back here. Through several blocks they travel until they come at last to what might have been a large stage, but like so much of this place, it has been taken over by the more lasting pillars of jungle trees and a variety of undergrowth. They pass this by and continue under the canopy of trees that has grown up through the city, where, at last, there is the barest hint of a clearing which sits at the foot of what appear to be stairs, though many of the stones have fallen away thanks to rots driving them from their lodgings.
“Up those stairs is the temple proper. But we’re not going there today.” Minerva leads Barrera to the left, and through a small, rubble-strewn entryway. Passing into the darkness, Barrera switches on the flashlight strapped to his belt. He can hear the slow trickle of water and is not surprised to see the beginnings of stalagmites growing near the wall. They travel through this dark tunnel for about ten minutes when his light flickers on something that reflects the light back on him. Barrera blinks away the sudden flash of light, and in that faintest glimmer of reflection, he is almost certain of what he saw.
“Rather impractical, isn’t it?” Barrera asks, shining his flashlight back onto the material. Moving toward it, he surveys what he thought of as just a statue. This is far larger, indeed, it is an entire temple composed of the precious metal. “It’s huge!”
The cavern that they have entered into is the size of a small warehouse, and right smack in the middle is a flat-roofed temple with golden cheetahs seated on the roof, looking down. All have a stoic look to them, as if this was a place for contemplation. Flashing his light aver the side, Barrera cannot find any door, but set at various intervals are massive stone structures that are well overgrown. The temple itself, is devoid of any moss or overgrowth, but appears to be as pristine as it was when first created, with its perfectly straight walls shimmering and glimmering in the beam of his electric light.
“Religion isn’t about practicality, Guillermo. As a Catholic, you should know that. It is about appeasing a deity, and if the cowering masses could build a perfectly square temple of gold to honor their gods, then why wouldn’t they? More importantly, why shouldn’t they? In any case, you should probably put on your knives. Things are likely about to become exciting for the pair of us.”
As Barrera pulls his knife belt from his backpack, Minerva circles the square building, slowly getting a feel for the place. Then, in one section of it, she pauses. Satisfied with whatever it is she is looking for, she strides forward. When she is about a dozen steps from the wall, two vine-covered boulders flanking her grind toward her. Two hands reach out and pull the hair-like plants aside, to reveal two massive plant-topped human-looking statues with reed armor carved out of their hides. Though they are very distinct in their definitions, the pocks of water erosion is clear on their shoulders and heads. In their hands, they wield massive obsidian spears. Barrera takes a step back, while Minerva does nothing.
“Stand aside. I have business in my temple,” she commands the statues.
One of the pair of granite monstrosities makes a sound like an avalanche cascading down a hill.
“I said stand aside.”
The two statues rock forward into an offensive stance, with their long stone spears projected out towards the two explorers.
“What now?” Barrera asks.
“We fight,” Minerva says with a grin. With a roll of her shoulders, her backpack drops to the overgrown stone of the cavern’s floor and she gets into a fighter’s stance with the ten sharp golden claws on her hands extended and ready to cut. Barrera feels that battle with two giant statues a tad unfair, but shrugs his doubts aside and grabs a handful of flichettes from his weapon belt.
The statues are ponderous in their movements, and with the first thrust of its spear, Minerva – the Cheetah – dodges and grabs it. The monstrosity is strong enough to easily carry her weight as she swings herself up and around the outthrust weapon before using this momentum to hurl herself at the other statue, which she kicks in the face. The blow sends the heavy opponent thudding to the ground with a tremendous roar of noise. Cheetah flips and lands on her feet. She dives forward and slashes at the downed statue’s exposed throat.
Were this a normal foe, the slashes would have ripped the throat to shreds, but as this is no normal foe, but a rock monster, she only manages to tear large gouges into the stone with the shriek of metal on granite.
Barrera, meanwhile, sinks his flichettes deep into the chest of the other guardian, but the thing moves as if it did not even feel them. The Hasaraguan then backs off several steps.
“They are tougher than I remember,” Cheetah admits.
“Don’t worry, chica,” Barrera says.
Just then, there is a flash of light and several small booms rock out as the flichettes explode with a small shower of pebbles blasting around the cavern. Barrera’s smile quickly fades. They have blown holes in the monster’s chest, but it is not as incapacitated as he hoped it would be. In fact, not at all.
The exploded one lumbers forward with smoke trailing off its body even as the other is slowly getting back to its feet. Cheetah lunges at this one again and drives her claws as deep into its chest as she can, then, pulling back, she manages to rip a large chunk of stone away. For all her efforts, the only reward she gets is a glancing blow to her shoulder.
Tumbling away from this one, Cheetah rights herself beside Carrera.
“We can damage them, but they don’t feel it.”
“Go for the joints,” she tells him. The one still trailing smoke from its exploded epidermis is almost upon them and with a sharp thrust of its spear, barely misses Barrera’s side, but the sweeping of the weapon knocks him off his feet. Cheetah leaps onto the monstrosity’s shoulder and slashes at the joint. Shards and chips explode outward with each of her four swipes. Before this guardian can react to her, however, the other statue has come up behind her and thrusts toward her with its spear.
“Please,” she hisses at it, dodging with ease. But the action gives her and idea. She leaps onto the hands of this second statue and shreds its fingers with the claws on both her hands and her feet. Within moments, she is able to yank the massive stone spear from the ruins of its hands. With this in hand, she jumps to the ground. Disarmed and unhanded, the statue lumbers toward her. Cheetah is smiling as she spins the heavy stone weapon in her hands. When the guardian is within range, she pivots her body and pushes all the spear’s momentum right into the statue’s face, exploding it into fragments.
“And that is how a cat kills.”
“Good! Then… kill this one!” Barrera shouts at her with what little wind remains in his chest. The blow from the statue and his awkward collision with the overgrowth on the cavern floor have put him on the defensive. With most of his explosive flichettes used up, he is being beat back with only his machete for protection.
Cheetah frowns, spins into a hop and hurls the spear right through the second statue’s chest, driving through it with such force that it yanks the statue off its feet and impales it on the wall behind it. The guardian jerks forward in an attempt to get free, but cannot move.
“Get on your feet. That won’t hold it forever,” Cheetah tells Barrara.
The Hasaraguan is slow to do so, but wheezing, he manages it and collects both his and Cheetah’s bags.
Cheetah is already at the wall to the golden temple, even as the golden cheetahs carved into its roof stare down at her. No door is visible, but Barrara notices that the wall is not as completely unadorned as he thought. There is a single small image of two seated cheetahs facing a stylized plant. Cheetah runs her hands over the cats’ faces and presses a particular leaf on the plant. There is a metallic clanging as a previously-invisible door rocks back.
“Torches,” Minerva tells her man-partner.
From his belt, Barrera produces his flashlight again, which he gives to his companion. Then, from his bag, he gets the spare for himself. As she enters, Minerva struts forward with purpose. In the flickering light of their flames, the walls seem to come alive with their movement. Approaching one of the walls, Barrera realizes that the gold on the outside isn’t limited to the exterior of the temple, but stretches all the way through.
“Dios mio! Look at this gold! There must be more here than in that fortress in the States!”
“Fort Knox,” Cheetah says absently. “Far more. This entirety of the records of Urzkartaga is pure gold. His followers knew how to honor their god better than anyone else in history. But this gold is not for you. If you touch anything, I’ll kill you.”
Barrera knows his companion well enough to know that this is no idle threat. “What are these images?”
“The story of Urzkartaga and the history of the people who used to make this their home. But I’m not interested in that. Keep an eye out for the totems that I mentioned.”
The pair continue their exploration of the golden temple. Inside, the pathways are narrow under the high ceiling of the single storied roof, and everywhere they walk, there are gilded murals that show the history. The pair walk slowly, casting their lights on every detail. With the shimmer of the metal, it is hard to make sense of just what they are seeing. It is a type of hieroglyph with more direct representational pictographic imagery. Very little of it appears to be actual words, but more illustrative narrative. Cheetahs, a plant, hunting, and spiritual guidance seem to be the most prolific images. After a while of dealing with this frustrating glow of wealth, Barrera’s gold-lust dwindles into something far more manageable, and by the end of the first hour of exploration through the almost-labyrinthine structure, he has almost completely given up the hopes that a stray innocuous nugget of gold has found its way to the floor.
“Here!” Cheetah calls from nearby. “Look. Do you see these?”
“They look like those… what are they? Power Rangers?”
“You’re not completely wrong with such a tasteless comparison,” Cheetah says, running her hand over an image sculpted into the golden wall. Barrera squints at the hyper-reflective image that she translates for him. “These are the five Keepers of the totems. This says that long ago, these five protectors looked over a faraway land, but then, at the calling of Urzkartaga, they offered up their totems. Alone, each totem is a remarkable source of power, but together…” Barbara moves down the mural. She stops at the image of a woman wielding a dagger. “Together, they can combine into that.”
“Far more than that, Guillermo. Far more.” She points to the images circling the weapon. It is a confusing mess to Barrera and he is unable to make sense of it. “Each of these images shows what the dagger can do. And this–” she says, pointing to one of the images, “is what I was wondering about. This is why we are here.”
“What does it mean?”
“It is a blood sacrifice,” Minerva purrs. “Much like the one that I performed to become the cheetah goddess in the first place. If I had had this dagger that first time, there would have been no side-effects. With the dagger in the ritual this time, I’ll become truly immortal.”
“Bring the five totems together, and you have the dagger, eh?”
“And do you have any idea where they are?”
Cheetah taps the brooch at her neck. It is something Barrera has noticed but hadn’t thought to ask her about. Looking at it in the flickering light, it almost seems to swirl and move like an invisible gust of wind. “With this, I hope to be able to find them.”