Mr. Flibble (crispengray) wrote in ilovejeffparker,
Mr. Flibble

The Menace From Space, pt 1

The following story was a story/novella that Jeff Parker put together as part of the online support for the original Agents of Atlas miniseries. It was spread over many locations online, and some of the strange moments in the text were intended to be clues for the readers to use to find the next piece early. I've collected it together here for ease. It's a story of the team back in the 50s, and it's titled:

The Menace From Space
By Jeff Parker

Glowing embers pulsed and hoarded their heat in the large fireplace. The metal hand telescoped in to turn the logs over, then the other placed two more large chunks of pine on top. With a casual squeeze the hands split open the new timbers so that they might catch aflame faster. Within minutes a sizable conflagration roared steady like an engine, warming the old Federal drawing room and all the agents inside. The tender of the fire stepped to the side of the mantle and resumed a vigilant position. A brandy snifter smashed suddenly against the crackling wood fueling a bright flare, and the unmoving figure spun its head around to rest a cyclopic gaze on the gorilla, who winced.

"Watch where you're pointing that death ray, Howdy Doody! Throwing the glass in the fire is an old custom. Hey, when's Golden Boy showing up? I'm ready for dinner." Ken Hale loped over to the chair next to Jimmy Woo's desk to pore through a stack of betting forms.

The reclining figure on the couch stretched and pushed back a thick drape of shining hair to let more of the fire's heat warm her perfect face. She didn't open her eyes, but smiled as she answered her teammate.

"I believe Bob is in Huntsville, Alabama consulting Dr. Von Braun and the new space agency on stellar travel. He should be back soon. He gets so frustrated when Earth scientists can't follow his directions."

Though the young woman's response was brief and factual, her speech had a profound effect on the visiting government agents in the room. Both went into a slight stupor as the ethereal locution wound through the men, like a ghostly serpent coursing through their bodies. The man seated at the large oaken desk kept his fingers against his temples, calm and unaffected. Some have supposed that his ability to retain his wits at these instances was the result of having mastered ancient Chinese disciplines of meditation and concentration. In fact, a careful observer would notice that the fingers against his temples was not a gesture of focus, but a convenient way to put his thumbs in his ears whenever the woman began to speak.

The taller man, Oglethorpe, shook his head quickly as if to revive. "Ahem... so, ah, those are the ships that disappeared last week. None of the cargo has been reported turning up yet, at least not at the ports we can rely on to admit it."

"If this is all part of the same operation, it's one heck of an operation, I'll say. So why are you guys coming to us in particular with this? Because one of the ships was docked out here at Hunter's Point?"

"Actually, Mr. Woo," the shorter man volunteered, "because it does look to be so large an effort, Washington suggested that it's probably the work of someone you know best. The eastern mastermind known as-"

"YELLOW CLAW?!?" roared Gorilla-Man. The visiting agents both crouched a bit, bracing themselves against Jimmy Woo's desk. The pencil he held with his toes snapped in two. Jimmy Woo held up his hand to indicate that calm and order was called for. Disturbed from her firewatching, Venus sat up and rested her head and arms on the plush back of the leather couch.

"I seriously doubt The Yellow Claw is behind this," said Jimmy Woo. "My team and I delivered a major setback to his organization just over a month ago."

"There's a great big hole in Outer Mongolia where a fortress used to be," Gorilla-Man added smugly.

"Well sure," Agent Dirsken rejoined, "there's no arguing your outfit is top dog since that big rescue mission. Don't think the rest of back in D.C aren't green all over- I mean, the fact that you can run a team like this out of San Francisco proves you don't really answer to J. Edgar!"

"We completely respect the Director's wishes," Jimmy assured the man.

"Well sure. I didn't mean to- anyway, what I'm getting at is that--Yellow Claw or no- whoever's behind this thing has a major network behind him." Gorilla Man lost interest in the visiting agent and picked up the newspaper.

"Or her." Venus added. Normally a reminder to consider female prowess rubbed Agent Dirsken the wrong way, as it usually came from his wife or her sister. Instead of offering his glare in such cases, Dirsken made a grateful smile to let Venus know that he would never think her as intruding, and in fact her help was very, very welcome.

A flash reflected on the glass of the grandfather clock near Woo's desk, catching the eye of Agent Oglethorpe. He looked out the large french windows for the source. Over the buildings in the distance hung layers of cloud banks trapping a citywide cache of fog that kept the sky gray and visibility to a minimum. As the cumulonimbus lit up, the agent thought he was seeing a lightning storm. Then he remembered that the west coast rarely gets such electrical activity, and the flashes were coming closer. They seemed to be forming a trail. Agents Oglethorpe and Dirsken quickly stepped away from the window while Jimmy Woo simply raised his hand to shield his eyes. An aurous glow flooded the opening and bathed half of the room in shimmering warm light that looked to have the consistency of water. The lithe figure of a young man gracefully described an arc through the window and glided to a stop before the office door. Rather than switch off when the man stopped, the light seemed to retreat into the thick bands around his wrists.

"What's shakin' Bob. Are those slide-rule jockeys hep on how to make rockets yet?" Jimmy asked.

“They have a ways to go," Bob Grayson answered with a grin. "Everyone's still sweating over the Sputnik satellite program the Soviets are running. I told them the first one didn't have anything more than a simple transmitter that pinged out the temperature, but those fellows at NASA are working around the clock anyway."

Realization landed on the face of one of the visiting agents. "Say, with you pitching in, we could have men up in space-- on the moon in no time!" said Agent Derskin, suddenly rapt in thought. "Wow, the Ruskies would probably kill to have their own spaceman."

Bob lowered the intensity of his usual smile, indicating he was about to be serious for a moment. "Astronaut is the term they use at the Flight Center, actually, and-"

"Star sailor?" asked Venus.

"Yes," said Marvel Boy. "...I don't actively show the scientists how to build anything. Mostly I let them know when they're on a trail that's leading to dangerous results. Which is often. They're pretty eager to get the Space Agency up and running, and the test pilots who have signed on to be the first astronauts are fearless. They'd throw themselves into orbit with a giant trebuchet if they could."

"Hah-ha, my kinda guys!" laughed Gorilla Man, busily scribbling his pencil on forms for tomorrow's Kentucky Derby. "Heck, I'm just gonna put everything on Tim Tam, he looks good. Still, we ain't ever gonna see the likes of Citation again. Now that was a horse! Wonder how late that bookie is up."

Unfettered by Ken Hale's non-sequiter, Agent Derskin returned to Marvel Boy. "You can't let those commies get ahead of us in the Space Race! Why don't you just show 'em the plans to your own rocket, the Silvery... Missile..?"

"Silver Bullet," replied Marvel Boy, now quite serious. "Look sir, I know the country is gripped hard by the fear of the Reds, but I assure you they're not ahead of the United States with their technology. They're just being less careful. I'll pipe up to keep good men from dying, sure. But it's incredibly dangerous to give people technological advancements they weren't ready to discover on their own. The people of Uranus will decide when they want to share their technology with people of Earth."

"Yeah, but you're from Earth, right?" Derskin's face grew more flushed. "I mean, you're still an American, ain't ya?"

"Legally speaking, I'm not a citizen of any country. I could pursue citizenship, but it might be tricky. If my father had never taken me from Earth, I'd be a German."

Derskin's eyes bulged. "A German! No wonder you don't have any loyal--"

The words hung in the agent's throat, stopped as his collar pulled up against his adam's apple. He became aware that a gorilla was holding him in the air by the back of the neck. "Son, I'd remember whose office I was in," said Ken. "Especially seeing how that window is still open."

Jimmy Woo got up from his desk. "I think you guys can head back to Washington, we can take it from here."

After the men left, Jimmy drifted over near the ape, again engrossed in his betting forms.

"Ken, your expertise as a mercenary might be a help here."

Even under the massive brow, Gorilla Man's eyes could be seen to roll in weariness. "I prefer Soldier of Fortune, thanks. Mercenaries will fight anyone for the right price. I like to think I've been a little more particular."

"We'd all like to think that," Venus added with a big sweet smile. That was as close as she had ever come to a verbal jab, but the light teasing lowered Gorilla Man's hackles. As far as anyone could tell, Venus was mostly incapable of delivering sarcasm, though she did appreciate it.

"Sorry Ken, I get terms confused sometimes. I mean heck, you fought with us in Mongolia out of national loyalty with no promise of compensation. There's no question about your principles, big guy- you've got plenty."

Ken put down his list of horses and raised up on his knuckles to have a look at the photos Jimmy Woo held. He seemed embarrassed that Jimmy felt it necessary to apologize.

"Let's have a look at those. I don't know that I'll be any real help.

"Well look at this," Jimmy offered. "This looks military-"

"That's a Coast Guard Cutter," Ken blurted. His massive hands began flipping through the photos rapidly. And that's a PT 728... that one's an old PT boat too..."

"So, do they have anything in common?"

"They're all pretty fast," the ape replied, "and they all have cargo holds. My experience? Smugglers like to use vessels like this."

Jimmy turned to Marvel Boy. "Bob, do you think your rocket could track the equipment on any of these ships?"

"Not likely. There's nothing about the technology here- as I can see it- that would differentiate it enough to track just by its makeup. Your engineers are starting to use transponders on aircraft, but I doubt these ships would have them. Eventually you'll probably have them in all vehicles working with a system of tracking satellites. Then any pilot or skipper will know their exact coordinates at all times." Bob Grayson realized that he'd digressed into what Jimmy called "Criswelling" once again. The speculations were interesting but not always helpful, so he wrapped up his musing. "For now though, all you have is a Russian metal ball that pings."

"We'll get cracking at six," said Jimmy. "Everybody go visit the Sandman- we need to be rested up."

"Let me go phone this in," said Gorilla Man, loping off with his Derby picks. Everyone but the robot soon left the top floor office and went to their private suites in the old Federal Building. M-11 stepped out of the large window onto the ledge and walked to the corner of the structure. His head pivoted methodically from side to side as he scanned the city for criminal activity. After five minutes at one corner he walked the ledge to the next and scanned from there. This would continue until daybreak.

* * *

Jimmy Woo found himself walking down a corridor, though the details of his surroundings were hidden by mists. He thought of how unreal it all felt and then realized he was dreaming. Attempts to pinch himself seemed to hurt, but he was still certain that he was in deep sleep. It occurred to him to try to fly- he had been able to do so before when Venus explained the concept of lucid dreaming to him. Then he realized he would hit his head on the ceiling of the corridor. He walked a bit further before remembering that the corridor was still a dream, and that if he were in control of things, it wouldn't stop him from flying. He began to raise his arms and concentrate when he became aware of movement at his feet. Two large boa constrictors were slithering around him, winding ever closer. Looking up quickly he saw a murky form move closer to him from down the corridor. At ten feet away it became clear that the form was a human skeleton, walking as steadily as if it had complete musculature. Which of course, it did not. Jimmy not only could not fly, but he also couldn't move-- the two snakes had worked up his body and had him held fast. The skeleton walked closer until its skull was inches away from Jimmy's face. No part of his body could move. He could only see the black of the cavernous eye sockets and hear a constant thumping. The thumping was steady enough that Jimmy thought it was his heart, and something in the back of his mind told him that it was knocking at the door of his suite. Opening his eyes confirmed this, and he raced over to open the door and thank M-11 for waking him.

Thirty minutes later after coffee and a half-toasted bagel, Jimmy Woo grabbed his overcoat off the rack. "Okay, the bad guys aren't going to come to us, so let's do some footwork and see what shakes loose."

"Should I start up The Silver Bullet?" asked Marvel Boy, eager to be more help.

"Nah, we're taking the Ed. One of the boats was snatched from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, that's only a few minutes drive. Especially at this hour, no one's on the road yet."

The five agents entered the dedicated freight elevator outside the office and descended to the basement garage. As the metal doors slid apart a slight reflective outline gleamed from "The Ed," the 1958 Convertible Edsel that Jimmy requisitioned upon the group's return to the States. The car was big enough to accommodate a party of five that included a rather bulky robot and a mountain gorilla. It had also been the suggested choice of Marvel Boy, who found all fuel-combustion engine vehicles primitive, but did acknowledge that this model at least showed some innovation. Soon the auto was rolling down Divisadero Street and towards the bay.

Ken Hale's large nostrils took in the smells of the shore. "Love that salt air. Look into that blue. It's been a long time since I was out on the high seas. Now that's living. Well, maybe not for the tin woodsman back there, he might rust solid." Venus looked at the robot with concern. Sitting in the back seat, M-11 was so inert that it was easy to imagine he was merely a Hollywood prop, or perhaps some part of the car itself.

"M-11 can't corrode anymore," said Marvel Boy. "I converted all the metal of his frame to a Uranian alloy that won't bond with oxygen. I can't think of many natural forces on Earth that could degrade his body."

Ken Hale scratched at his massive brow as Jimmy Woo smiled. "See Bob, that's what we on Earth call a joke. Granted, I'm no Sid Caesar, but I'm just havin' a laugh at our one-eyed pal." Marvel Boy slid down in his seat a bit and pretended to pay no attention to the gorilla. One of his favorite things about being on Earth was the admiration and respect most people showed him. A few minutes of interaction with Gorilla Man always reminded him that he was still young and quite literally grew up in a bubble. Since joining Jimmy Woo's team, Grayson was excited to be out in a larger world with its vast lands and people so he could get the kinds of experience unattainable in the controlled environment of the Uranian Colony. Yet the worldly wise Hale constantly made him realize how far he still had to go. The resentment drifted away quickly with a pleasant melody that made any more barbed talked seem ridiculous. Perhaps inspired by the view of the Pacific Ocean, Venus was humming Bali Ha'i. Jimmy's made an extra effort to control the steering wheel. "Man, I usually think musicals are for squares, but then you make the song really go. You oughta cut a record, V."

Venus smiled with genuine modesty. "Aw, I'm not that good, Jimmy. Anyway, it would be kind of like cheating-- but who knows? Maybe just a recording of me wouldn't have the same kick."

Hale rapped his knuckles on the bench seat. "Huh. It never occurred to me to try that. Boy, if we could broadcast your effect over the Voice of America transmitters..."

"Maybe we could create world peace!"

"Uh... I was thinking we could stymie the Soviets, but yeah- same thing."

Bob's confidence returned. "It wouldn't work, unfortunately. Any more than pleasant music already calms people down. I've watched how Venus affects men we go up against. Her proximity determines the potency of the effect, so I think her biology figures heavily into it."

"I'll say it does," said Jimmy, winking into the rear view mirror. Venus gave the back of his head a playful swat as everyone except M-11 enjoyed a laugh. Soon the Edsel was entering the main gate of the Naval Shipyards. Jimmy kept trying to show the guard his FBI identification card, but the young ensign couldn't stop staring at the unlikely group of passengers. His stare widened more as the gorilla in the front seat started speaking, and he realized the ape was in fact, addressing him.

"Close that mouth son, you might swallow a bug. What, you haven't seen an Edsel before?"

", I--"

"Check your day schedule," Jimmy said helpfully. "I let Petty Officer Arlidge know we were coming a while ago."

The guard looked over at the flagged note. "Oh...yes. Yes, go right in, sir."

The convertible motored into the shipyard and eventually stopped at Dock 7, where the Coast Guard Cutter Cape Hedge had been taken. The group piled out of the car, which raised noticeably when M-11 stepped out at last.

"You were a Navy man weren't you, Ken?" Jimmy asked.

Ken ambled along pleasantly, watching all the activity around the yard. "Naw. I was in the Merchant Marine though. I'll tie any knot you want. Alright, let's get this caper cracked by midday so I can go down to the bar and watch the race."

"Feeling antsy, Ken?" asked Venus.

"Yeah... I think I put a little too much dough down on that horse. Ahh. Too late now."

"Ken, I gave you a formula three weeks ago that would predict Equine victory eight out of ten times. If you would follow that-"

"Thanks kid, but I couldn't make heads or tails outta that. It's all Greek to me. I just put it up on my wall and called it modern art." The team continued walking in shadow, and Gorilla Man looked up at what cast it- a large aircraft carrier in for repairs.

"It's just math- the universal language," explained Marvel Boy in a louder voice to compete with the nearby sound of a motor.

"I thought love was the universal language." countered Venus.

"Impossible. There are cultures that don't have the concept of love."

"Well I wouldn't want to meet any of those folks!" the silvery-haired woman returned, aghast at the very idea. Her hair was blowing towards the bay and briefly laid down as the breeze died. Now the sound of propellers could be heard growing louder. Almost as one the team turned to see a P-51 Mustang reach the edge of the Carrier and continue down towards them. It was already so close they could see that the pilot in the cockpit was a skeleton.

Jimmy Woo's arms and legs wouldn't budge. He had never frozen in fear before, and he was still sure he hadn't. Though every instinct screamed for him to run, duck and roll, or jump into the water, he could only stand as the propeller of the Mustang grew quickly closer. The blasts of concentrated light he expected to fire into the plane weren't coming, neither was the clutch of a hairy arm to pull him out of harm's way. The distance between the plane and the team closed enough that he could even see missing teeth on the death's head of the skeletal pilot. The old warhorse of a plane was likely retired from active use, only kept around for training purposes. Still, it flew, and standing in its path was not the best place for anyone who wished to continue living.

Then two projectiles slammed into the aircraft- one at the base of the right wing, and one directly into the engine, jamming the blades instantly. Jimmy could now see the length of the silvery missiles, which were actually the extended arms of M-11, the Human Robot. The arms swiftly changed the course of the Mustang, first lifting its body just before it would have wiped the ground with the five agents. As fast as it all happened, the events seemed slowed down to a crawl. Jimmy could make out art on the nosecone, mere feet over his head. Some overzealous young team had painted a little rebus.

Underneath a slogan was written out. Five letters were faded, but in context of the rebus Jimmy understood it was supposed to say I GUN COMMIES. Jimmy preferred pretty girl art. Then the plane swung around as M-11's torso rotated 180 degrees and released the four-ton warbird towards the empty section of the shipyards. It slid and spun, spitting up waves of sparks until came to a crashing halt against a supply shack, the wing knocking out a window over an officer's desk.

"Thanks M-11," said Jimmy, now fascinated with his ability to lift his arms up and down. "I don't know what happened- I couldn't move a muscle."

"It was just like in that bizarre dream I had last night," said Venus. "Snakes had me bound so tight I-"

"You dreamt that too?" said the surprised Marvel Boy. "My dream had snakes- I was in this dark hallway walking and I saw a skeleton-"

"Then the big boa constrictors wrapped you up," finished Gorilla Man. "Either we're such a tight team that we have all the same nightmares, or someone's got our number somehow. I knew I was in a dream, too, 'cause a couple a' stupid snakes can't hold me in real life."

"Somebody's put a whammy on us. We all saw the skeleton, and then the snakes tied us up. Then when we see a skeleton in the cockpit of that plane, we're frozen just like in the dream." Jimmy Woo then looked over to where the plane sat, smoke rolling out of its engine from being punctured.

"Good thing M-11 doesn't have nightmares," said Marvel Boy, looking at the gleaming figure of the robot. "Of course, he doesn't do anything that approximates sleeping. I wonder if he did, would he dream?"

Marvel Boy's musings were cut short by the group now rushing over to the plane, led by an angry gorilla. "That skeleton is behind this! I'm gonna rattle his bones for him!" The plane was already being hosed with water pumped out of the bay by the Naval fire service in case the fuel tank might explode. The men jumped back when they saw Ken Hale leap up onto the empennage and scramble to the front. His huge fingers clutched the hatch and pulled. A bullet spray of rivets shot out as the entire cockpit ripped from the frame. The skeleton tried to evade his reach but Ken Hale soon had hold of its ribcage. As he pulled the pilot out he saw something behind it flashing in the morning sun. The skeleton's right arm rotated freely in its socket to reach for the flashing object, then returned quickly, plunging an ornate dagger into Gorilla Man's forearm.

"WAARRROOORRRHHH!!!" The beast roared in pain, whipping the skeleton completely from the plane and slinging it down onto the asphalt to smash into several pieces. The skull rolled several feet to stop before Jimmy Woo, who reached down to pick it up. The death face's last act was to open its mandible and clamp down with full force on Jimmy's hand. "YEEOOOWWW!" blurted Jimmy, who then swung his hand back to hit the plane's wing. The skull cracked into two sections and the jaw popped off. Jimmy held his throbbing hand against his chest and Venus ran closer to examine it.

"Did it break the skin?" she asked. "No," Jimmy said through a contorted expression. "But it smarts like the Dickens! It feels like I just put my hand in one of those oversized rat traps!"

"I bet it feels better than this," said Ken Hale through a row of clenched teeth. He grabbed the lavish hilt of the dagger sticking out of his arm, and pulled it free.

"Nuts," said Jimmy. "I wanted to try and get some info out of that pilot."
Marvel Boy made an attempt to ease his team leader's conscience. "From my experience with animated skeletons, and I have some, not many of them can speak anyway."

"Just what I was going to say." added Venus, whose voice helped take some of the sting out of the injuries. "The magic needed to move a skeleton servant is usually temporary. It would have probably gone inert in a few minutes, and wouldn't have made anything more than a clacking sound if it tried to talk. They're tough for me because my power doesn't work on them at all." Her observations shed little light on the matter but served her goal of soothing her friends' aches somewhat. A helpful officer brought a first aid kit over to treat Gorilla Man's wound, and another came to lead them to their original destination, the docking slip where the Coast Guard Cutter had been stolen. Marvel Boy flew over the deck of the Carrier to see if it held anymore kamikaze-style surprises. When he was satisfied that it didn't, he flew around the shipyard and pondered the history of sea vessels and how they laid the groundwork for spaceships like he often flew now. He saw the light cruiser USS San Diego being stripped of artillery in preparation for being sold into scrap. He thought he should probably update M-11's technology a bit more than he had a few months ago. Finally he rejoined his team who were talking to the crew members on duty at the time of the theft. They had witnessed nothing; their accounts led Jimmy to believe a sleeping gas had been used on them.

"That's all we know sir." finished the young yeoman. "Thanks," replied Jimmy Woo. "It's not much to go on, but maybe we'll scrape up some kind of a lead."

"To find the location of the stolen Cutter? Because I know where it is, if so," Bob said as he landed.

The gorilla rolled his eyes at the young man. "What was all that about not being able to track ships yet with our primitive technology, then?" Ken growled.

"I've found something like the transponder I mentioned," returned Marvel Boy, a bit happy at having flustered Ken Hale. "That dagger you're holding has rare earth minerals in its makeup- very distinctive. And I'm picking up similar objects about a hundred miles offshore. The chances are very good they're related and involve the stolen ship." Bob Grayson's wristbands began to glow again and he turned towards the ocean. "I'll go check it out and tell you what I find."

"Hold up, Bob," said Jimmy. "I know you're still used to years of tackling danger solo, but we do things as a team now. We're all going out there."

"Thanks Jimmy, but I think I'll be fine."

"And how fine would you have been earlier if M-11 hadn't been around to stop that plane from cutting us up?" The debate came from Venus, strangely enough. Jimmy was grateful that she anticipated his reasoning and put the idea out herself. Though Marvel Boy generally took Jimmy's advice without question, there was still always the chance that pride could be hurt or one of the team might feel manipulated. Coming from her, such statements never seemed unwanted. "Point taken," smiled Marvel Boy. "But I can't carry all of you with me. How will we get out there?"

"This baby right here!" shouted Ken with glee, scrambling up on top of a boat unlike any Jimmy had ever seen. "Lookit! This is a hovercraft! They've been working on small versions of this, but this looks like its got real power behind it. I bet this'll get us out there in a hurry!"

"Uh---sir, that's off limits," stammered the formerly helpful officer. "That's a prototype we're fine tuning, and no civilians should even be near it... sir..."

"Except these civilians," boomed a voice from up the dock. Everyone turned to see a tower-straight man with graying hair marching toward them. The young officer turned perpendicular to the man and his body pulled up as if a cable had retracted over his head. The decorated speaker was Admiral Peter Noble, who didn't take his eyes off Jimmy Woo's team even when saying "At ease." The sea-hardened man rested his hand on the sword at his side and his face made something approaching an approving smile. It was uncharacteristic for swords to be worn, even at full-dress ceremonies, but Admiral Noble always sported his without question. It looked so appropriate that no one mentioned it, even in private.

"While I'm not at liberty to reveal specifics, this group recently did our country a great service," announced the military figure. "If they need to borrow one of our vessels, they can do so for as long as they wish with the Navy's blessings." It seemed perfectly natural for this man to speak for the Navy with full authority, and several sailors hustled to make sure the hovercraft was full of fuel.

"Thank you sir," said Jimmy. "The FBI appreciates your help."

The old sailor saluted, turned 90 degrees, and left.

* * * * *

Spray kicked up behind the hovercraft as it raced behind the flying figure of Marvel Boy. Beams of light aimed down in the water from his wristbands, and smaller beams fed up to his headband. He began to slow down, and Gorilla Man dropped speed accordingly. Soon the craft came to a rough stop, gliding around the area that Bob Grayson had pinpointed. The caped man flew over and landed on the boat's deck as if his task were done.

"I thought you said the Cutter would be right here, Bob."

Marvel Boy shrugged. "It is. Whoever stole it must have sunk it."

Ken moved his furry hands around on the controls to bring the fans to low throttle, and it became easier to hear his remarks. "Kids. Always stealing Coast Guard Cutters for joyrides and sinking 'em in the Pacific when they're done. Whatcha ya gonna do."

"Shoot," said Jimmy. "I wish Namora were around. This would be the perfect time to have her along." Jimmy referred to the cousin of Prince Namor, known more commonly on the surface as the Submariner. Her actual name had been Aquaria, and she was one of the very rare Human-Merman hybrids like Namor.

"No use thinking about her, she sent you packing when you asked her for help rescuing the President. She ain't gonna show up to check out a shipwreck for us."

"Well, she is royalty in the undersea world," answered Marvel Boy. "I believe there was civil unrest in Lemuria and she felt she was needed more there after helping surface people for years."

"I'm betting she's got a fella down there," said Venus with a wink.

"Besides, she found M-11 for us- she's okay in my book," added Jimmy, still staring down at the waves. "How far down is the boat, Bob?"

Marvel Boy touched his hand to his headband. "It's only a little more than seven fathoms deep, at the top. We could pull it up with a trawler, or inflate gaseous bladders inside its hull to-" His speech stopped with the sound of a splash. Quick glances around revealed that the only person not on the hovercraft now was Venus. Everyone turned to look at a spot of foam on the water that was quickly growing calm.

"Hey, what gives? That water's freezing!"

"She musta got tired of hearin' Bob talk." Marvel Boy glared at Gorilla Man, largely in disbelief that anyone could joke when a team member was possibly in trouble. "I'm kidding, son. Remember our lesson on jokes and what they are? You all need to cool your jets. She's a goddess or whatever- they don't drown."

It would take a minute before her eyes would adjust to the dark sea. Daylight still had yet to take a foothold in the Pacific. She swam all the way down until she felt bottom, and began to move along gradually from there. Her hand felt masses of coral, part of a reef system. She hoped it hadn't been hurt by the ship. Schools of fish darted out of her way as she progressed, leaving a tickling sensation on her skin. Her hand came to rest on something that had a tough surface, yet was amorphous in shape. She drew her arm back immediately and the thing drifted down her side. She felt the Octopus Press against her leg, and its suckers began to adhere to her skin. "Hey, no getting fresh," she thought as she peeled the cephalopod from her. Doing so caused the creature to use its primary defense, and a cloud of black enveloped her.

Suddenly a light cut through the sea, penetrating even the natural defense of the octopus. "Thanks Bob," thought Venus, who could now make out the hull of the Coast Guard cutter a mere twenty yards in front of her. She swam to its side and upward. Not at speeds like Namora, she thought, but she could get along pretty well underwater. There were no signs of life on deck, which sat at a slant. She coasted around a bit and then decided to venture in to the pilot house. Without the aid of Bob Grayson's light her eyes would have to adjust again. It didn't take long- she was already starting to distinguish an instrument panel. On a round glass she saw the movement of a shape, and then a sparkle. Realizing she was seeing a reflection of something behind her, she spun around in time to see an alabaster hand brandishing a knife similar to the one Ken had pulled from his arm.

The chalky hand holding the dagger pushed through the water towards Venus. She darted from her position to another section of the pilot house. More shapes arose from the black, shapes she knew to be people possibly, but she couldn't make out anymore than that. She easily outmaneuvered them and found the door she swam in. One of the shapes was trying to close it, but Venus braced her foot against the wall and pulled with everything she had. Her would-be trapper fell away, and she made it back out to the Cutter's deck. Now the shapes started emerging from the doorway behind her, and she thought to ascend as fast as possible. Afraid these attackers would somehow be gone upon another investigation, she turned to get a look- maybe she would see something that would help her teammates with this stolen ship case. As they moved out into the light still being sent from Marvel Boy on the water's surface, their forms coalesced to reveal themselves. They were skeletons like the one who nearly ran the team down with a plane back at the shipyards. Upon visual identification, Venus' legs went stiff, and her arms stopped moving. The same hypnotic suggestion or whatever had bound them before was at work again. She also couldn't open her mouth to cry for help, and her friends likely wouldn't have heard that anyway.

The skeletons advanced. There were six- no, seven of them altogether. Three of them had daggers like the first had, one was carrying the blade clenched in its teeth. Venus thought of how much she relied on her sway over men in dealing with danger, and how at this moment it seemed to not even be a power at all. The skeletons now were only about fifteen feet away, lurching steadily forward. They had no ability to swim, but with little body mass to create resistance, they could walk almost as fast as they might on dry land. They were ten feet away when a large shape plunged between them and Venus, ringing a loud boom upon contacting the deck. As bubbles dispersed around it, it was clearly M-11. His torso turned to the side and his right arm extended twelve feet. Then his torso pivoted quickly in the opposite direction so that his arm shattered the skeletons in one movement. Skulls spun in an orbit and drifted out through the water. The effect on Venus ended and she began moving. Her first act was to try to hug the robot, but M-11's mass proved difficult to embrace. The robot turned its head and looked upward, and Venus realized that M-11 couldn't get back up to the ship. "Hang on," she said, though she wasn't sure if the robot could understand her speech here. She made her way quickly to the surface.

"Hey! Going my way?"

"Venus! Are you okay?"

"Yes, thanks to M-11. He came down just in time! There was a whole skeleton crew coming for me, and I couldn't move -just like before! But he broke up the party. Say, he can't swim-- do we have a way to bring him up?"

Gorilla Man hopped over to grab a steel cable and hit the release on the winch. "Here ya go. Take this down there and wrap it around him- hook it good, he's heavy!"

Venus took the cable back down to the Coast Guard Cutter's deck where M-11 stood as before. She wound the line around him under the arms and pulled the hook tight onto it. After she gave the cable a couple of tugs, Ken Hale began cranking the winch, soon using both arms once the slack went out of the line. Marvel Boy helped Venus back onto the hovercraft and the robot began to emerge from the sea. Jimmy Woo watched, and thought how much this Atlantean Princess Namora. The robot wasn't functioning then, and was covered with barnacles and other sea life that had attached to his body. This time was very different. Water rolled off the android, but none poured out from inside him. His head turned slightly to see where Gorilla Man was operating the much simpler machine that retrieved him now. The ape snapped his fingers as he held his hand out in the gesture of a pistol.

"That was a close one," said the woman as she raked salt water from her silvery hair.

"Yeah, sorry," said Jimmy Woo. "Not long after you went under, we were talking and then it occurred to us that if a skeleton could fly a plane, that might be what took the boat as well. Since M-11 clearly isn't affected, we elected him next to go down. Like Bob said earlier, he doesn't rust these days." Jimmy turned to the robot who was now coming to a stand on the hovercraft. "M-11, did you detect anything else down there-- besides skeletons, I mean?"

The cyclopic eye glowed slightly as M-11 made a rare utterance. He could speak, but no one could predict when it might happen. Such communications were almost always directed to Jimmy Woo.


"Thanks," said Jimmy. "Not sure what to make of this, gang. A bunch of skeletons steal a ship, go until they run out of gas, then sink it."

"I have a theory," said Ken Hale, retracting the winch completely. "I think they had a diabolical scheme involving a fast ship, they took it, then forgot what the plan was because they don't have any brains in their heads!"

"I'm feeling like I don't either, right now." said Jimmy. "Okay, I don't think there's any more we can do here. Let's get the Navy their vessel back and tell them where the Cutter is. Though they'll probably just leave it here to become a reef."

The gorilla pulled the throttle back and the engines roared. The hovercraft lifted up noticeably, and the team made their way back to the mainland.

* * * * *

Later Jimmy Woo and his unusual band of Federal agents were mulling over the events of the morning at Ling's Tea Room. Jimmy poured another round of hot tea as he went over the details again. Bob Grayson waved for their regular waiter to see that his bowl was empty. The young man nodded and disappeared into the kitchen. "I don't know why they don't have sizzling rice on Uranus," said Marvel Boy as he spooned out the last bit. All our food there is the same texture." Since the formation of the team and establishing of the group in San Francisco where Jimmy had been based, Ling's had been a regular stop during their weekly duties. Ling was a family friend of Jimmy's and his restaurant was accessible through certain underground passages in the city that Marvel Boy and the Human Robot connected to their own base of the Federal Building. This allowed them to go to Ling's without too much attention, as the FBI had asked them to be discreet in public appearances. A private room in the back was always made ready for the group.

Jimmy took another sip of tea before speaking again. "Every time we get a straight-on look at one of them, the spell kicks in. Or hypnotic suggestion. Whatever it is, we need to shake this thing off so M-11 doesn't have to do all the work when a skeleton shows up."

Marvel Boy looked to be preoccupied, touching his headband often. Whatever his concern was, it was put aside as the waiter brought him another bowl of sizzling rice soup. "Thank you," said the young hero.

"I know someone who may be of help," said Venus. "This kind of thing is right up his alley. His alley is in Manhattan, though. "

"No problem when one our pals has a rocketship," said Gorilla Man through a mouthful of dumplings. Bob Grayson sat up more attentively, a bit surprised to hear Ken Hale refer to him as a pal. Maybe he had been taking the gorilla's ribbing too personally, as Jimmy often said. The colonists on Uranus didn't tease one another, as a rule, and the practice was alien to Bob.

"Great," said Jimmy. "Can you give him a call and let him know we'll be over soon?"

"He doesn't open for business until night time. And I don't think he has a phone, but he'll probably be there. I guarantee that when we show he'll say he was expecting us."

"Well, then we've got a few hours to kill. It may be a late night, so I'd suggest everyone take a nap when we get back to the building." Jimmy Woo then added: "Try not to dream."

* * * * *

No one saw Marvel Boy's rocket when it landed directly behind the Statue of Liberty. The Silver Bullet was a bit shorter than the copper-plated lady, and was well hidden by it at night. A private ferry came to take the group over to the main island, where a private cab was waiting to transport them the rest of the way. The driver had taken the odd bunch into town several times, but was still unsettled at having a gorilla in the front seat. He tried to focus instead on the young woman who smiled pleasantly at the sights outside her window. The oversized cab made its way up further to Midtown, and over to 387 Park Avenue. The Packard motored into an alley where it would wait for the five to return, and the team piled out.

Venus held Ken's arm on one side and M-11's on the other, and made a bounce like she wanted to skip down the street. "We're off to see the Wizard!" Hale made an amused grunt at her joke. "I ain't a lion, and I ain't cowardly. Or was he the one that needed a brain?"

"No, that was the Scarecrow- right?" offered Jimmy.

"Yes, and the Tin Man needed a heart." explained Venus.

"Just like ours," said Ken.

"Aw, ours does too have a heart!" said the young woman looking up at M-11. Marvel Boy didn't know what everyone was talking about, and made a mental note to ask later. He was more concerned that they were about to meet a practitioner of the occult, which he was never comfortable with. He liked things that were science-based, logical and orderly. After leaving Ling's he had confided in Venus that he felt he confused about his abilities. He thought he should have been able to undo the effect of the shared dream with his headband's help, but it seemed to be limited- unnaturally so. "It's an impressive piece of technology," he had told her. "But sometimes I think I'm not getting the full use out of it, like I'm wasting it." Venus assured him that everybody feels this way about their abilities at times. Bob Grayson thought that she didn't quite get his meaning and he didn't know how to express himself more clearly on the matter. Nonetheless, her assurance had consoled him some. The group had reached the top of a stairway, and stood outside a door with an onyx plaque. Engraved golden letters stated simply and directly:


Jimmy reached out to knock on the door, and it swung open quietly before his knuckles could connect. He looked back at the group and then back to the door. "Come in," said a measured voice. "You have been expected."

A sophisticated man wearing a suitcoat and a dark green turban appeared from around the corner. He knelt to kiss the back of Venus’ hand. "Good to see you again my dear. You honor me by bringing along such esteemed guests."

"These are my friends, Magar. I’m working with the FBI these days, and Jimmy Woo here is my team leader. The charming gorilla is Ken Hale, and you probably have heard of Marvel Boy before. Our personal Univac there is called M-11." Hands were shaken and the mystic led the group over to a round oaken table that had seven candles. Everyone but M-11 took a seat as Magar instructed. Magar said something quietly that no one could understand.

"Mister... Magar, we’ve recently been put under some kind of hoodoo," began Jimmy. "Somehow we all had the same dream of a skeleton, and now when we encounter them- which is surprisingly common lately, we freeze up. No one can move, except M-11 of course."

"Yes," replied the somber man. "You have been the targets of Dream Hypnosis- a very potent form of suggestion, since it is placed in the subconscious during deep sleep. I could see it when you entered, and I’ve already removed it."

"You saw it?" asked Marvel Boy.

"This practice leaves a psychic marker, if one is able to see such things. And I am. You each had a small floating skull beside the left temple. Dispelling the suggestion was a simple matter. And one that was more scientific in nature than magical, if that lessens your concern, Mr. Boy."

"It’s actually Grayson," returned Marvel Boy, "and are you reading my mind, now?"

"No, I read your face. It is very revealing." Bob Grayson felt a little embarrassed and yet relieved that his telepathic abilities seemed to still be unchallenged. Magar opened a brass box and took something out. When he turned around, he was holding a human skull.

"Move your arms please."

Each of the agents was satisfied to find full motion in any tested body part even as they stared at the skull. "Not bad!" said Ken. "Jimmy, slip this guy an extra Hamilton. Wait ‘til those bonebags try to get the drop on me again."

"Well great, I guess we don’t need to take up anymore of your time, sir." Jimmy Woo started to push himself up from the table and Magar held out a halting hand. "No one comes to Magar for mere jinx and hex removal. Any gypsy witch could do that." Marvel Boy frowned. "No, whether you know it or not, you have sought me out for greater answers. Please, enlighten me to your quest."

Jimmy sat back down and turned more towards the mystic. "Well, we’re investigating a number of stolen sea vessels, that all went missing at the same time. The one we’ve found so far was crewed by a group of living skeletons, I guess you’d call them."

"I have encountered such acolytes. In great numbers, they can be very dangerous."

"Tell me about it. I’m guessing the other ships were taken in a like fashion. So the reason for the hex is pretty clear. But we couldn’t find a reason for the theft."

"Ah," said Magar, now reaching to remove a thick piece of red velvet from an object on the table. From the size, Ken expected to see another skull. What he did see was a crystal ball, reflecting the candlelight of the table. The glints of light seemed to swirl inside the orb, moving as if by choice. Magar put his fingertips on either side of the sphere without touching it, and the clear ball became opaque, not mirroring the candles at all. "Venus may have told you of my gift- the ability to commune with the formerly living."

"Dead people, I call ‘em," said Ken.

"It depends on your point of view. That is not my greatest gift, however. More valuable is the ability to know which ones to talk to. Merely being in a spirit realm doesn’t qualify a being to answer any question. More often than not, they seek answers from us. Since your mission concerns piracy, I believe it logical to go to the greatest of that number."

Magar began chanting words that Jimmy couldn’t understand and that seemed to make Venus momentarily dizzy. Clouds of obsidian formed inside the crystal and began to swirl at great speed. On Magar’s last word, the candles on the table flared a couple of feet high, producing a haze of smoke over everyone’s heads. Though the window by the bookcase was open, the soft night breeze didn’t affect the cloud, which now looked like the ones in the sphere. In the smoke a dark shape began to approach from some distance. Near its head were small flashes of light. At once the figure became clear, clothed in a long coat with its fists resting on a large belt around the middle. A scabbard hung from the being’s left hip, and its head sported a large hat with a curling side brim. The flashes of light were now distinguishable as burning matches twisted into the man’s thick black beard.

"YAHRR!!! Who be of such hardy stock that would summon the shade of Edward Teach!?"

"Dread specter, you are here at the request of Magar the Mystic. I summon you on behalf of these mighty heroes. They are the ones who have business with you."

"Ahrrh... such a motley bunch I’ve not seen in over two hundred years then," said the spirit, his eye widening as he looked around the table. Uncharacteristically, Ken Hale was unnerved by this development. He had assumed he was seeing something that worked like television, and wasn’t expecting the vision to acknowledge his own presence. The pirate then made an expression similar to the ape’s, and Ken followed his gaze to see that the object it studied was Venus. "Shiver me timbers."

"Great Captain," said Venus, even being sweet to the long dead Scourge of the Seas. "We are seeking stolen ships. We do not know the culprit, but he appears to be using magic. We cannot discern the motives either. The first vessel we found was sunk for no apparent reason. Can you offer insight?"

The thickly garbed spirit stared at her some more, and then resumed its former manner. "Remember lass, not all pirates steal for treasure, and not all commandeers mean to keep the ship. When me crew and I fired upon the HMS Scarborough the first time, we were not after the King’s Man O’ War. Me other vessel plundered two Merchant ships right out of port! Ha-har, ‘twas a good day!" Amused with his past victory, the pirate pulled out a long pistol and fired it off into the air with a loud report. Ken Hale noticed that an actual blast mark was left in Magar’s vaulted ceiling.

The boisterous pirate then broke into laughter and his image fade into the murky smoke.

"Now I’m more confused than before," said Jimmy.

"Spirits and oracles are rarely direct in communication. Being cryptic is how they judge the tenacity of mortals. When you begin to understand them, you often earn the bond of the spirit.

"Do I really want a bond with a murderous pirate?" asked Bob.

"That is always a question worth asking," said Magar with a smile. The smoke over the table began to drift apart, then stopped and began swirling. Another dark shape drew closer and an aged woman’s face appeared, her eyes wider than seemed possible. She had been groaning softly and now the sound built to a shriek as she blurted:


The image then vanished and the smoke blew apart. The crystal ball became clear again.

"What was THAT?" asked Venus.

"Other spirits often invade openings to our world with their unwanted communications." Explained Magar. "I would pay it no attention."

The team got up from the table, each shaking hands with Magar while mulling over the visions just seen. As they walked out the door, Jimmy turned suddenly. "Oh, I’m sorry. How much does that session cost?"

"My services are always free to friends of the lovely Venus. Were it not for her powers of influence, I would be but a shrunken head hanging from a tree in New Guinea today."

"Thanks again," said Jimmy from the bottom of the staircase. They exited onto the street where the cab waited, its driver leaned back and snoring. No one noticed the shadow across the street studying the team intently.

* * * * *

Jimmy Woo wound his watch as he and his team walked back to the cab that awaited them. "Okay everyone. Let's hightail it over to Lady Liberty and catch the Silver Bullet. We can put in some facetime at the Bureau in the morning, see if they've turned up anything." Suddenly a flash went off from across the street, and everyone but M-11 recoiled at the bright light. The robot shined a light of its own at the tall dark-haired man with the camera, and the beam grew brighter. "Wait M-11, it's just a photographer, turn down your ray." This came from Marvel Boy, whose eyes were used to adjusting fast to sudden changes in light. The man stood in place as the group approached him, realizing that fleeing would be useless anyway.

"Say, why are you lurking around here snapping our photo?" asked Jimmy Woo.

"Kind of obvious, isn't it? I mean, I don't know who you- people- are, but you look like news to me," answered the burly young man. "I haven't been back in the states for a while, but last I heard it was still a free country."

"You're... Pat, right?" asked Gorilla Man. The man with the camera was stunned.

"Uh. Yeah. That's right. How do you know-"

"You used to hang around Jann of the Jungle some, I think."

"Yeah, good ol' Jann!" said the man, relieved. "We saw some gorillas together, but never one who talked! I haven't seen her in a while, do you know how she's doing?"

"She seemed fine when I saw her last. She's the reason I'm working with this bunch. That's a nice one. Can I see that?" Surprised to have found someone who knew of him, the man called Pat handed over his camera with almost no consideration. Ken Hale looked at the device for a minute, then crushed it in his hand.

"You wanna shoot wildlife, head back to the Congo. Now beat it." Ken turned and climbed into the cab. Venus made an apologetic shrug before Pat, who stood with his mouth open. Jimmy Woo turned quickly so no one could see him stifle a laugh.

* * * * *

Upon touchdown at the secret location in Arlington, Virginia, a government driver pulled up to escort Jimmy Woo's team in to the District of Columbia. Assistant Director Wall welcomed the five at the front door of the Department of Justice Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, making several quick asides to employees warning them not to stare. Once in Wall's office everyone sat down except M-11, who stood vigilantly at the window. "Good to see you again, Agent Woo. So what brings the FBI's top dog unit to our offices?"

"Thought we'd see if you boys have made any progress on this stolen ships case your agents brought to us," said Jimmy as he leaned back in the leather chair.

Wall stared at Jimmy Woo blankly as if waiting for more information that never came. "Stolen ships."

"Yeah, the ships that all went missing at once last week. Derskin and Oglethorpe gave us a file full of photos and notes."

"Derskin and Oglethorpe."

Gorilla Man was growing annoyed at Wall's unresponsiveness. "You know, that Abbot and Costello team who works outta here. Short stocky guy and a taller one."

"We don't have any men working out of this branch by that name."

"Could you look through your files?" asked Jimmy, now leaning forward in his chair.

"I don't have to. I know every agent in Washington, and we don't have any named Oglethorpe or Derskin. When did these men come to you?"

Jimmy felt blood drain from his face and was uncharacteristically uncomfortable. "I don't get it. The front desk in the Federal Building sent the guys up like business as usual." The arm of the chair Ken Hale sat in crunched under his grip. "Somebody played us like prize chumps! I knew I didn't like those guys. I should have shook 'em down for more I.D."

"I blame myself," said Marvel Boy. "I could have scanned their minds and picked up any deception."

"You came in late," reminded Venus. "When you arrived we were already talking to them like it was official business- you had no reason to be suspicious." Jimmy hopped up from his chair, now much more animated. "That's right. In fact, one of the men started in on an argument with Bob almost as soon as he got in. Probably to keep him on the defensive and too busy to use his headband." The young agent paced around the desk and came to a stop next to the Human Robot. "Somebody sent us on a wild goose chase. For what? We weren't working on a case at the moment."

"They wanted us dead," said Ken matter-of-factly. "The skeleton pilot was supposed to take us out, and if that didn't work, there was the backup of the ones on the Coast Guard cutter. All ready to work because of the dream whammy they threw on us. Classic villain stuff- everybody wants us dead because we're good guys. End of story."

Venus countered in her manner that never gave offense. "No, anyone who would plan so well as to sneak in fake agents, plant a suggestion in our subconscious minds, and hide an animated skeleton at the Naval Shipyards - - that planner would certainly take into account the robot on our team who wouldn't be affected by the magic."

Assistant Director Wall took a bromo-seltzer out of his desk drawer and poured it into a glass of water. "You people lost me back at the skeleton pilot."

* * * * *

The gleaming rocket soared above an ocean of clouds. Its chrome surface took on the golden hues of sunset- a sunset that stretched on much longer than usual since The Silver Bullet was on a westward trajectory. Inside the large cockpit of the craft, the pilot fussed with the instrument panel, though he had already programmed the course into the guidance system and didn't need to do anything else. Jimmy Woo sat in the copilot's seat with his face firmly lodged against his hand as he stared out the window. "If you look on Monitor 8 you'll see the Mississippi river below." said Marvel Boy.

"Fascinating," returned Ken Hale, who spun around in his seat and got up. He walked over to the Preservation Cell, a trunk-sized refrigerated chamber that Marvel Boy used when procuring organic samples for study. The ape reached his arm in and pulled out a small bottle of Coca-Cola. "Anyone else want one?"

Bob Grayson grimaced slightly at Ken Hale's misuse of his equipment, then raised his hand. The variety of flavors on Earth still fascinated him, and he rarely passed up an opportunity to taste anything. For some time no one said anything. Then Jimmy got up to go get a drink as well, and Venus smiled, realizing her team leader was starting to emerge from the dark mood he had been in since the D.C. visit.

"Sorry I've been such a pill, everybody." Jimmy said. "I've been worried that Jerry back in Washington thinks we're losing it. I guess it's inevitable when you get talked up as much as we do- everybody slips up some time. I just want you to know the blame lies squarely with me."

"Hey buddy, we're not worried what they think. Well, I'm not. And I'm sure the robot isn't."

Venus chimed in too. "Besides, we've got some clout built up. We did rescue the President after all. That should be good for something."

Ken grew more animated. "Yeah, the pressure oughta be on him! What's he been doing since then? All I ever hear about is new places he's played the back nine."

As usual, Bob Grayson missed the ape's gruff joke and gave an actual answer. "He does have a plan in effect to create a new highway system. If you ever plan to motor west, multiple interstate roads will allow for a straight drive."

"You sure get a lot of weird facts from The Silver Bullet," said Hale as he swigged his soda.

"I didn't get that from the ship's computer, I read it in the New York Times while we were there-after I finished the crossword. They need to make those puzzles tougher, I finished it too fast."

"Well they ought to post your mug on the cover of Popular Science. In fact, why not go on Twenty-One and make us a fortune."

"Well, I have a bit of an edge. It would kind of be cheating."

“Professor Van Doren can do it, so can you," said the gorilla.

"Aw, now that's just a rumor," said Jimmy. "You always think everyone's cheating, Ken."

"From my experience, everyone is. At least, everybody who looks to be the best at something. I'm not judging, I'm just saying."

Venus leaned back in her seat with a grin. Hearing her friends banter about news and trivia again meant the cloud had lifted and they would be ready to get back cracking on the mystery in no time. Their renewed enthusiasm would have to wait until morning though. Upon reaching San Francisco, Jimmy Woo insisted as usual that the group turn in for the night to get an early start the next day. Venus admired this tendency of Jimmy. Other crime-fighting organizations she had known were often insistent on burning the midnight oil, driving their people to the point of exhaustion. With exceptions, Jimmy always tried to keep his team well fed and rested, encouraging any practices that led to being more focused and sharp.

As the group retired to their rooms, M-11 stepped through the large window onto the ledge to begin his nightly surveillance.

* * * * *

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