From the maestro of mayhem, D.K.
Latta, who brought us two serials featuring his superpowered "Midnight Sons",
comes yet another two-fisted tale of costumed
calamity! P&D is proud to introduce "Drooling" D.K.'s
superhero team "Essential Justice"
in a tale previously published in the e-book anthology,
Meet Tiny Tom, Whirling Dervish,
Impervia, Warp, the Arctic Owl and Dr. Dementia! Once they were the scourge of the Underworld, until a
mission went tragically awry.
Or did it? ...
Echoes of the Dead
By D.K. Latta
About the author
HE SURVEYED THE
DESERTED FACTORY BUILDINGS and boarded-up warehouses surrounding him,
then squinted up at the darkening sky, streaked with crimson ribbons. A
wind caught his white cape, causing it to flare out, tugging familiarly
at his shoulders. He reached up and secured the cowl covering his face
from the nose up.
He felt a curious comfort wearing the costume he had not so much as looked at in almost three years.
Tugging at his gauntlets, he strode toward the deserted factory and kicked out at the rotted old door. It crashed inward with a deafening groan, mouldering dust blooming up to take its place.
"Well," said a voice, "the gang's all here."
Framed in the gaping doorway, all his suspicions, all his fears, fell by the way. Whatever he had expected to find, it wasn't this.
Straddling an old folding chair, leaning his arms on the rigid back, was a lean man in green pants and a tunic that affected the appearance of a starfield -- Warp, the man who could be anywhere. Beside him was Whirling Dervish, the deceptively petite Asian woman in the red and black ninja-style garb whose mastery of fighting skills combined with her superhuman speed making her truly formidable. Leaning against a wall was Tiny Tom, still wearing his familiar blue with a short yellow cape. He was fully eight feet tall and a metre or more at the shoulders.
Against the opposite wall -- and here his gaze softened slightly -- was a red-haired woman in a yellow body suit. Impervia, whose self-generated force field made her invulnerable. It also granted her super-strength since the human body was naturally capable of tremendous strength, if you weren't worried about breaking a bone or popping a hernia.
Finally, his eyes fell on a sad figure in the centre of the room. Garbed in civilian clothes, his body twisted awkwardly in his electric wheelchair, was a man once called Dr. Dementia. An ominous appellation for a good man with the power of illusion. But no one had called him Dr. Dementia in three years. He was just Lewis Kravitz -- when people called him anything at all.
Warp spoke again, his grin having the hint of a sneer to it, instantly reminding him that he had never liked the teleporter even under the best of circumstances. "The Arctic Owl hasn't been seen in costume in three years. Now we all get summons to come here, reuniting the valiant troopers of Essential Justice, and you come traipsing in here in your old duds. What gives?"
He scowled. "I received a note to show up, in costume. Few people know I used to be Arctic Owl, so I was curious. Actually, I kind of figured it was one of our old foes: Torrent, or Mr. Mayhem, or something."
"Maybe it's a fan club that wants Essential Justice to reunite," Impervia said, a hint of weariness in her voice. She stepped away from the wall and smiled at Arctic Owl. "It's good to see you, Brian."
It was good to see her. Achingly so. Three years ago, he had thought the two of them might... He stopped that line of thought as abruptly as stamping a foot. That was another lifetime, before it all went to hell. Instead of responding, he just returned her small smile. Then, slowly, he frowned and looked at the man in the wheelchair. Of all of them, Lewis was the only one he had stayed in touch with, visiting the man regularly. "You all right?"
"I'm fine," Lewis said, his face canted slightly to the side, his skin badly scarred, his words slurred. Even speaking was an effort. Arctic Owl wasn't at all sure that he should be out by himself like this. "But...I am...curious."
"We're all curious," said Whirling Dervish.
"Yeah," said Tiny Tom. "If none of us sent those notes..."
And what foe would lure them together? thought Arctic Owl. Choosing to fight them as a group?
The lights flickered.
From somewhere, a sound as of a howling wind. They looked around, startled. With a clap of imploding air, Warp vanished from his chair only to reappear instantly in a fighting crouch.
Then the lights went out entirely.
"The lights!" squeaked Tiny Tom, stating the obvious.
Arctic Owl wondered if the simple-minded human powerhouse might be afraid of the dark. If so, the big man need not have worried. The blackness was quickly being dispersed as an eerie green aura rippled out from one dark corner of the room, undulating like a fog. At the centre of the fog, a figure took flickering form.
Arctic Owl couldn't attribute the entrance to any foe he remembered tackling. Though any number of nutbars might have arisen while he was inactive. The others, though, seemed equally nonplused.
Then he squinted his eyes, peering into the rippling green glow. "My God," he muttered. "Stanley?"
"I am he you called Stanley Cunningham," agreed the apparition. "I am Sunburst!" he roared.
Again, it fell to Tiny Tom to state the obvious. "But...you're dead."
Stanley Cunningham, a.k.a. Sunburst, was dead. He had been blown to smithereens three years ago when Essential Justice had broken up Mind Master's scheme of nuclear blackmail. They had succeeded in stopping Mind Master, all right -- when his orbiting space station exploded. An explosion that killed Mind Master and Sunburst and crippled Dr. Dementia for life.
And with both Sunburst and Dementia gone, the rest of the team just went their separate ways, relegating Essential Justice to being a trivia question in the para-human category on "Jeopardy!"
All this flashed through Arctic Owl's mind as he stared at the weird evocation of their dead comrade.
From somewhere a voice spoke. Whirling Dervish, he thought, but he couldn't quite pull his eyes from the glow to verify. "I-is this a gag?"
"One of you killed me," hissed the apparition. "Now is the time of judgment."
Arctic Owl felt like he'd been hit in the chest. What had the ghost said? One of...them?
"What the hell are you talking about?" demanded Warp, too belligerent to even back down before a ghost. "You were the one who screwed up. One of your solar blasts set off Mind Master's nuclear reactor."
"No," said the ghost, so quietly as to be almost a whisper. "And one of you knows that. I will haunt you all, filling every dream with nightmare, every waking hour with terror, until the truth is known. You are warned..." His words faded away, even as did his physical image.
For a moment there was darkness, and quiet. Then the lights flickered and came on again.
They stared around at each other. There was so much to say that no one could find the words.
"I like that," said Warp at last. "He figures one of us toasted him, so he's going to haunt us all. That's fair."
"But-but...why would Stanley do this?" asked Tiny Tom. "We were his friends."
"His spirit," muttered Lewis, straining to force the words between lips reluctant to do as they were bid anymore, "is...restless. He...needs...closure."
Lewis would know better than anyone, Arctic Owl thought. It was an open secret that Dr. Dementia and Sunburst were lovers. They had kept it low-key. Para-humans faced enough condemnation and bigotry, without it being known that the two charter members of Essential Justice were gay.
"This is crazy," objected Impervia, throwing her arms open in exasperation. "I don't believe any of us was responsible."
Arctic Owl stiffened. That was a loaded word, wasn't it? he thought. After all, he had dropped out of the hero game precisely because of guilt, a sense of culpability. Not because it was his fault, but simply because he had been there. One friend had died, another condemned to a slow death, all because they thought they could play heroes. Instead, they learned they were amateurs goofing at a very deadly game.
Impervia continued. "Sunburst fought Mind Master in the reactor room while the rest of us were in other wings, battling Mind Master's robots. Mind Master's powers were strictly psychic -- and he wasn't about to kill himself anyway. So it had to be one of Sunburst's solar rays that exploded the reactor accidentally."
"Jeezus, Dementia," said Warp, mimicking looking at a watch, "I can grow a five o'clock shadow in the time it takes you to say your name."
Arctic Owl grabbed Warp by his collar. "You've got a big mouth, you know?"
Warp just grinned snidely, then teleported effortlessly away.
"..but...I have...recently...re-examined the blueprints...we located...for...Mind Master's station. I no...longer...believe a...solar...blast...could have...induced the...explosion."
"That's stupid," said Whirling Dervish. "What motive could any of us have?"
"More to the point," said Tiny Tom, "what are we going to do about it?" The others looked at him blankly. "I mean, aside from the fact that Sunburst is threatening to haunt us, which scares the bejeezus out of me, he was our friend. If someone killed him, shouldn't we find out who?"
Arctic Owl stared, then slowly, a smile turned his lips. Tiny Tom may not have been smart, but he had his own wisdom.
"But how?" asked Impervia, adopting the big man's comment almost as a unanimously decided upon course of action. "None of us was there in the reactor room to provide eye witness evidence."
"One of us was...apparently," said Arctic Owl dubiously.
"Perhaps...I can...help," mumbled Dementia.
Yes, Dementia, thought Arctic Owl. No longer was he simply Lewis Kravitz. Imperceptibly, he had become Dr. Dementia again -- hero, leader, fighter. Then he realized that Lewis had seemed like that from the moment he had entered the warehouse, as though the crippled crimefighter was infused with a purpose he had not known in three years. Arctic Owl suspected he knew why.
Dr. Dementia continued. "As...you...know, I can...generate...illusions conjured...from...the subconscious. Pooling the...memories...of every...everyone here...we can...relive...those...last moments."
They were all aware that Dr. Dementia couldn't read minds literally -- else he could simply probe them and discover if anyone was a murderer. He had once described the process to them as being like fishing. He couldn't throw in a hook and simply catch a fish -- a specific memory -- but he could bust a hole in a dike annd let water, fish, and whatever, flood out. That was how he was able to conjure illusions that attacked the subconscious of his foes, without knowing what form those illusions would take ahead of time.
"I don't know about this," said Tiny Tom miserably.
Arctic Owl had to agree. He'd spent the last three years reliving those few minutes over and over in his dreams. He wasn't sure he wanted to do it in Dementia's patented 3-D and surround-o-sound process. But what choice did they have? Not because he was scared of a ghost, but because they had to know.
He had to know.
Impervia spoke for all of them -- well, all but one, theoretically. She said, "Do it."
And the warehouse twisted around them, the brick walls running like hot wax, swirling around them faster and faster. Arctic Owl clutched at his head, his eyes overwhelmed, his stomach flipping over. He thought he heard someone scream...
And then he was struggling with one of Mind Master's golden robots. For a moment he almost froze, shaken, then the "reality" of the situation imposed itself -- it really was three years earlier. He was in the gleaming metal corridor that led to the air-lock -- as far from the reactor as you could get, and the only reason he had survived the subsequent conflagration. He slammed his fists into his metal adversary, denting the polished skin. Then, with one, final twist, wrenched its head from its body.
It clattered to the ground.
He whirled to face the rest...but the corridor was empty. "This isn't right," he muttered. He remembered fighting a dozen of them, at least.
Then, emerging from the wall as if it didn't exist -- which it didn't, he reminded himself -- Dr. Dementia rolled his electric wheelchair. But Dementia was crippled during the battle, he recalled, not before it.
"I...am...not part..of the...memory, Brian," said Lewis. "I have...broken your...own...personal...illusion. I...need...your...help."
Arctic Owl stared at him. "There's no ghost, is there? That was an illusion created by you?"
"Always...the detective." Lewis grinned feebly. "I needed...a catalyst. Something...to...encourage you...all..to agree...to this. I...did not...lie about...the...blueprints. I became...convinced...Sunburst...was not...responsible." He coughed. "But...though...I...maintain this illusion...I cannot...monitor it. I...need you...to discover...who betrayed us."
"How do you know it wasn't me?"
"Like me, you...could...not...have survived...being in...the reactor room...when it...blew. Impervia and Tiny Tom...are invulnerable. Warp...could warp...away. Whirling...Dervish...could ...run..."
"My God," breathed Arctic Owl. "Lewis, you're bleeding. Your ears. Your nose. I don't remember you trying this big an illusion even when you were strong. Christ, you'll kill yourself if you don't stop it."
"Hur...ry," was the only response from the man who had once led them into battle.
Torn with indecision, Arctic Owl hesitated, then flung himself into the air and flew off down the gleaming metal corridor. He prayed he could accomplish what he needed before it cost Lewis Kravitz his life. And if he couldn't? What if all this was just a pipe dream conjured up by Lewis to exonerate his dead lover from a charge of incompetence?
He flew around a corner and sailed over Impervia's head. Absorbed fully in the recreated illusion, battling Mind Master's robots, she did not register him as he flew by. It was as if he were a phantom. After all, he was not part of her memories. He allowed himself a momentary wish that the fact that she was behind him, still fighting, meant she, at least, was innocent of any crime.
It had been so long since he had flown, had permitted himself the luxury, that he had almost forgotten the exhilaration, the pleasure of wind in his face, the light-headedness of defying gravity. He had also buried the memory of what it felt like to do this -- to struggle to set right a grievous wrong. For three years he had denied that to himself, denied that he had anything to contribute.
He burst into the reactor room, and allowed himself a momentary twinge of regret. There was Sunburst, still alive, battling it out with Mind Master.
He frowned, the detective in him taking over. Lewis generated all this from combined memories...but no one was alive who could remember this scene. It shouldn't exist until the hypothetical killer showed up. But no one was in the room except Sunburst and Mind Master.
Suddenly Mind Master collapsed. Sunburst caught him, seemingly as bewildered as the unseen Arctic Owl. Sunburst hadn't touched him.
Then a red and black blur shot into the room, almost faster than Arctic Owl could register. He saw lights flash, gauges shoot into the red, as the rapid moving figure threw switches, punched buttons. Then it shot out of the room...
..and everything went white.
Arctic Owl hit the dirty floor of the old warehouse, head throbbing. He staggered to his feet and ran to Lewis. But it was already too late. "He's dead," he muttered bitterly, quietly. "The strain was too much."
"Christ, I'm gonna puke," gasped Warp, clutching his head. "It was like I lived it again -- I couldn't control anything I did."
"But what was accomplished?" asked Impervia. "Lewis threw his life away for nothing."
"Not nothing," said Arctic Owl, turning. "Isn't that right Whirling Dervish...or should I say Mind Master?"
"What?" said the woman, grinning incredulously.
"The only way Lewis could've conjured an illusion of what happened is if someone in that room survived. Sunburst or Mind Master. I saw Mind Master collapse, moments before you entered the reactor room, setting off an explosion. It was Mind Master's body that collapsed...because he'd sent his mind out into Whirling Dervish's body."
"Ridicul-" Not finishing her word, Whirling Dervish whirled and shot toward the door. Except Tiny Tom was in the way and she rebounded off his invulnerable hide. No one could match her speed, but she wasn't getting through that door while Tiny Tom blocked the way.
Arctic Owl turned toward Warp, and suppressing a mischievous thrill, said, "Sorry, 'pal'". He slugged the obnoxious teleporter, hard, knocking him out. If Mind Master could leap to one body, he could leap to another, but Warp was the only one he could use to get out of the building.
Launching himself into the air, Arctic Owl said, "Tiny, keep on the door. Impervia..."
"I'm on it." He couldn't see it, but he knew she must be stretching out her forcefield. It was like old times again.
Whirling Dervish was shooting back and fourth, an almost invisible blur. Suddenly her feet collided with the force field and she went tumbling. Like a bird of prey, Arctic Owl swooped down on her as she staggered to her feet.
One punch put her down for the count.
That fast, it was over. He landed lightly.
"Tie her up," said Impervia. "Our old equipment is still around, right? Some of it donated to various museums? We'll need it if we're to figure out how to get Mind Master out of Whirling Dervish's head. Poor kid. The last three years must've been hell for her."
Arctic Owl stared at the twisted figure of Lewis Kravitz. It had been hell for all of them. But it wasn't their fault, he now knew, it wasn't even Sunburst's fault.
If he did not know better, he'd swear Lewis' corpse was smiling.
"So after three years," asked Tiny Tom, "we solved our last case?"
Stirring as if from a dream, Arctic Owl said. "Have we? I'd say we just solved the first of our new cases."
Impervia looked up. Tiny Tom grinned. "You mean...?"
"There's no telling what sort of trouble Mind Master was up to in Whirling Dervish's body. It's time to let the underworld know...Essential Justice is back in town."
Table of Contents
Echoes of the Dead is
copyright by D.K. Latta and was originally published in the e-book anthology, Playing Solitaire.
It may not be copied
or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for
(Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)