Cricket

Episode 4 of Relativity

by Michelle and James Lehmann

 

The man shone the flashlight into the corner, squinting to see. He nodded and made a few marks on his chart.

“I want to be sure that anything you spray is safe for use around children.”

Adjusting the cap on his head, the exterminator nodded. “Yes, ma’am. We only use environmentally safe products for family and pets. There’s actually quite a line of green pesticides available now.”

Sara Wolff glanced at the writing on the clipboard. “We need it to be safe around food, too.”

“I understand.” The man walked along the wall, his eyes scanning the baseboard. “Do you currently have a bad bug problem?”

“Oh, no. Only the occasional ant or spider. But we have state inspections periodically and I want to make sure we stay clean.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m going to finish looking around and then head outside. I’ll talk with you afterwards and let you know what needs to be done.”

As the man headed out the side door, Peter, one of the Home’s younger wards, approached the administrator.

“Are they going to kill the bugs, Miss Wolff?”

“Some of them, yes.”

The boy looked perplexed. “Mr. Morton says that bugs aren’t bad and that we should protect them at all costs.”

“Mr. Morton?”

“My teacher. He says that worms help gardens and that spiders control flies. He says even cockroaches are good for the environment.”

Shuddering at thoughts of the roaches in South America, Sara forced a smile. “That’s true. Bugs are very important, but they really shouldn’t be around people. Some spiders are poisonous and can get you sick if they bite you. Other bugs, like termites, eat wood and can destroy your house, so it’s important to keep them outside.”

“Okay, I guess,” he said before he darted back towards the common area.

Watching him disappear down the hall, Sara grimaced and headed back to her office.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Melody Krol glanced up from the register and smiled when she saw who her next customer was. “Hi, Leonard. You want your usual?”

“Yeah,” said the man with a shy smile. “Mint mocha, extra cream.” He always told Melody his order, even though it never changed and she’d memorized it years ago.

“How’s the museum?” she asked as she made his drink.

Leonard grimaced. “Rotten. Me and the rest of the janitors have to work late tonight. They’re going to stay open after-hours for a fancy party. None of us can get in there to clean until it’s all over.”

“Ah, that’s too bad,” she said. “Here you go.”

Leonard took his drink to his table. The two women behind him stepped up to the counter. “A couple of large coffees, please.”

Melody began to pour the drinks while the women continued their conversation. “A thief broke into her home, and all he took was a pair of butterflies encased in plastic.”

“Butterfly jewelry?”

“No, actual butterflies. They were encased in lucite by scientists so they could study them.”

The other woman looked puzzled. “But Juliet Sommel isn’t a scientist.”

“No, of course not. But they were a rare breed from the Amazon. She wanted them for display.”

“I’ve heard of her,” interjected Melody, “She’s the Butterfly Lady, right?”

“Yes. She has a huge collection of butterfly jewelry, pendants, statutes. Pretty much anything having to do with butterflies.”

“That’s so odd. She has so many valuable pieces. Why would they steal something like that?”

Melody switched into crimefighter mode. “So, if someone were to sell those at a pawn shop or something...?”

“They wouldn’t get very much. I think you can buy those types of specimens on the internet. They’d be a little costly, but certainly not worth thousands of dollars.”

“I see,” said Melody. “So what you’re saying is, this crime doesn’t make any sense.”

“Exactly.”

A high-pitched shriek sounded from the back of the shop. Melody handed the women their drinks then dashed into the storage room. She found Ravenswood cowering in the corner, clutching a ladle like a sword.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Spider,” he said, pointing.

Melody sighed. “Just smack it.”

“I did,” he whispered. “It survived.

“So? Smack it again.”

“I can’t. It went behind the sink.”

“Well, problem solved. It ran away.”

The look of terror remained in the man’s eyes. “But now it’s waiting for me.”

It never ceased to amaze Melody how someone who battled bad guys on the rooftops of Gale could turn into jelly when faced with a little eight-legged bug. “Why are you so afraid of spiders?”

“Seriously? They’re creepy. How can you not be afraid of them?” Taking a step forward, he craned his neck towards the sink. “Besides, I told you I lived in that pit in college. Our dorm was filled with spiders. I never recovered from it.”

Melody sighed again. “Just grab the cups I sent you back here for and come out.”

Ravenswood set down the spoon and picked up the box of supplies. “It’ll get me later, you wait and see.”

Watching the man walk out, Melody peeked behind the sink. Nothing. With a chuckle, she headed back into the main room.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Michael glanced across the parking lot, then looked at his watch. Sara was usually good about calling him if she was running behind, and he hadn’t heard from her since early that afternoon. While it wouldn’t normally concern him if his date was a few minutes late, he also knew that most other women didn’t spend part of their time as a superhero.

Just as he was about to reach for his cellphone, a cab pulled up. Sara smiled through the glass.

“Traffic was terrible,” she explained as he opened the door to help her out. She was wearing a fitted red dress with black pumps, and her auburn hair was pulled back into a loose bun. Grasping his hand, she stepped up onto the curb.

“You look lovely,” he said, squeezing her fingers.

“I hope this is okay. I never know what to wear to these things.” She glanced down, smoothing a few wrinkles from her skirt. “I don’t wear this dress very often.”

“It’s perfect. Let’s head inside.”

Michael led her up the steps of the building. The Gale Natural History Museum was premiering a new exhibit featuring the contents of a tomb of a lesser known Pharaoh. Michael had a particular fondness for Egyptian history, so he’d been eager to attend when he received the invitation. He was even more excited when Sara expressed an interest in going as well. He was still getting to know his sister and looked forward to any opportunity to spend time with her.

Sara glanced around the room, taking in the scenery. It was a sneak preview for high-end benefactors, so the crowd was modest.

“Have you ever been to this museum before?”

“Yes, but I’m usually here with thirty screaming kids.” She watched as a waiter passed with a tray of champagne glasses. “It’s a lot different this way.”

“I would’ve thought Bling would have taken you to something like this.”

“Oh, no. He didn’t like crowds. He’d do the theater and opera, but he hated open parties where he would have to socialize with strangers—unless he could make a business deal, that is.”

Michael grabbed a visitors’ guide from a slot in the wall. “Well, the whole museum is open to us. I figured we’d visit the main exhibit later on, after the line shortens. So what should we see first?”

“Dinosaurs?” she suggested with a child-like smile.

“I love dinosaurs.” Pointing to the gallery at the back of the room, Michael looped his arm around his sister’s. “Let’s go.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Overcast held the binoculars to his eyes, fixing it on the large slate-gray structure in the far distance. He scanned the back of the building, then moved to the front.

“What do you see?” Zephyra asked.

“A lot of rich people hamming it up.” He adjusted the focus, sharpening the view. There was a line of cars in front of the museum, various people getting in and out. He scrolled to check the surrounding area. There were a few cop cars nearby, but nothing that could be considered high security.

Zephyra kicked at a piece of roofing paper that was coming loose. “So why are we patrolling here tonight?”

“Criminals love to crash big parties. Museum galas are perfect fodder for that kind of thing.”

“Let me look,” she said.

As his girlfriend surveyed the scene, Overcast walked to the other side of the roof. The office building provided a good view of the museum, as well as the high-end neighborhood surrounding it. On the streets below, there was the usual amount of early evening activity, but nothing out of the ordinary.

“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day,” Zephyra said with a giggle.

The detective turned back towards his partner. “What?”

“Are there any comic conventions in the area?” She pointed. “That guy looks like he’s dressed up for something.”

Overcast couldn’t make anything out from such a distance. He grabbed the binoculars. “Where?”

“There.” Zephyra pushed his hands so his view was headed in the proper direction. Ravenswood could see an older man with thick black glasses dressed in a bright green bug suit. He was walking along, as if being in such a costume was perfectly normal. He carried a box and headed towards the museum.

“I think this warrants taking a closer look.”

“Way ahead of you.” Rushing to the far end of the building, Melody pulled out her grappling and leapt over. She was already on the ground by the time the detective made it to the edge of the roof.

“Zee, wait!” With a sigh, Overcast hit the ground, rushing to catch up with her.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Sara stared into the case, her face an inch from the glass. The mummy was a dark brown color, its nostrils spread wide open. Even though it was centuries old, the body and face were well preserved; she could see the resemblance to the painting that showed what scientists believed the man looked like. The body was found in one of the far chambers. While servants were typically passed down from one pharaoh to the next, researchers believed the man had felt it an honor to be buried with his master and had requested death and entombment.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Michael whispered into her ear. He pointed to the small statues nearby. “Those are Shabati. They were placed in the tomb to serve the Pharaoh in the afterlife. It was believed they would come to life if the ruler summoned them and needed their assistance.”

Further down the aisle, there was a variety of jeweled pieces, including several green stone beetles ornamented with gold.

“Why did they worship scarabs?” Sara asked her brother.

“They felt their behavior mirrored that of the Sun God, Ra. He supposedly rolled the sun away every night and brought it back in the morning. Since the dung beetles do something similar, the ancient Egyptians revered the connection.”

Moving down the line, Sara smiled. “You know a lot about this.”

“I love Egypt. I spent several months there, studying and seeing the sights. I had the most amazing guide, this woman, Samia.” Gazing off into the distance, his mouth pulled into a wistful smile. “Let’s just say, she gave me quite an education.”

Feeling her cheeks flush, Sara walked over to a case holding a 1/100th scale model of the pharaoh’s tomb. “Did you get to climb the pyramids?”

“No. They don’t allow that anymore. They’re all crumbling and dangerous. But I did get to go up close and touch them.”

For the first time since she had met her brother, Sara felt a bit jealous. She wished she had been able to travel the world and see its wonders. “I never saw Egyptian pyramids, but I did get to see an Aztec one once.”

“Really? How’s that?”

Realizing her faux pas, Sara sucked in a deep breath. As much as she was getting comfortable with her brother, she wasn’t ready to share certain details of her childhood just yet.

“My foster father travelled a lot,” she said with a forced casualness. “I got to see a few things when we went on trips with him. Oh! Look, cats.”

There was a case in the middle of the room containing a variety of cat statues. A large one carved out of black stone with ruby eyes grabbed Sara’s attention and she ran her finger over the glass. “The Egyptians were very cool to love cats so much. I had a cat once, back when I was in college. I miss him sometimes.”

“We only had a dog. My mother wanted a cat, but Dad’s allergic.”

“Allergies stink.” Sara turned around, realizing they had passed the last display case. “I guess that’s it.”

“So, where should we go next?”

“You wanted to see the ancient maps. Why don’t we head over there?”

The siblings exited the special area and wandered around, trying to locate the cartography section. “I think it’s in the lower level,” her brother said, pointing to a flight of stairs.

As they made their way to the bottom, a tall dark-haired man approached.

“Michael!”

“Dutch!”

The man grabbed Michael’s hand in a firm shake. “How are you? It’s been a while.”

“Yes, it has. Sara, this is Dutch Parker. He’s the son of one of Dad’s old business partners.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said, grasping his hand.

The man leaned to the side, peering down the hall. “So, did you come down here to hide, too?”

“Hide?”

Dutch looked surprised. “Didn’t you hear? Two of the beetle pieces in the pharaoh section went missing.”

“When?” Michael asked. “Just now? We were up there not more than fifteen minutes ago.”

“I know. But they’re gone. They’re gathering everyone up and questioning them.”

Sara stopped and scanned her memory. When she had entered the exhibit, one of the first things she had noticed was how well-made the display cases seemed. Even Michael had commented on how impressed he was with museum security. Feeling her crimefighter instinct kick in, she glanced around. What she really needed to do was slip away. She didn’t have her Dark Flame costume, but perhaps she could still get some information if she snooped around.

While she was wondering how she could ditch Michael without arousing suspicion, her brother clutched at his pants leg before pulling out his cell phone. “Dutch, could you wait here with Sara for a little while? I see I got an important call a few minutes ago and I can’t get reception down here.”

“Sure,” the man said with a cheesy grin. “I never pass up an opportunity to spend time with a beautiful woman.”

Fighting the urge to roll her eyes, Sara forced a polite smile then returned her attention to her brother—who was already disappearing up the stairs.

“So, what’s your sign?” Dutch asked, taking a step closer to her.

“No Parking,” she answered.

The man looked at her, blinking three times. “I don’t get it.”

With a sigh, Sara stared back at the stairs, wondering if she could use the phone excuse to get away from Dutch, too.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Michael crept through the back passages of the museum. He couldn’t get to his Black Torrent costume as it was out in his car, so he was hoping to find whatever clues he could by eavesdropping. From what he could tell, it didn’t appear that the police had arrived yet. There was just a large group of museum guards and a few off-duty police officers brought in to help with security. The patrons were being rounded up and funnelled into the main lobby.

Slipping into one of the smaller corridors, there was a door marked “conference room.” He heard two voices on the other side, so he leaned in close to listen.

“What did they pick up on the security cameras?” a woman’s voice asked.

A man answered, and he didn’t sound happy. “Nothing. They malfunctioned.”

“What do you mean they malfunctioned? What happened?”

“The wires were shredded. It looked like something chewed right through them.”

The knob to the door started to wiggle. Dashing across the hall, Michael ducked in to another room. It was a large utility closet and in front of him were two costumed figures. He yelped in surprise, remembering too late to be quiet. A gloved hand clamped over his mouth just as he realized the two were none other than his partners. The three stood in silence, their hearts pounding as footsteps sounded out in the hall.

When he was sure they were gone, Michael whispered, “What are you guys doing here?”

“We were following this weird guy in a bug costume,” Overcast explained. “We lost sight of him and thought he probably came to the museum, so we snuck in.”

Michael glanced around the room. It was filled with stacks of boxes and bottles of cleaning supplies. “Well, you were right to. Two of the scarabs were just stolen.”

The door opened. Everyone froze. Framed in the doorway was Sara, looking every bit as shocked as the rest of them.

Michael recovered first. “Hurry, before someone sees you.” He pulled her in and shut the door. It was a large closet, but still cramped with four people inside.

Sara’s eyes shifted between the costumed crimefighters and her brother. “Michael, what are you doing here?”

Thinking fast, he answered, “I, uh, saw this ex-girlfriend of mine. Really nasty break-up.” He glanced at Overcast and Zephyra, who looked more nervous than he was. “I didn’t want to run into her so I slipped in here.”

“And we told him not to leave, since we didn’t want anyone knowing our location.” Overcast straightened his hat. “We’re looking into the scarab thefts.”

“Oh,” Sara answered, sounding like she wasn’t quite sure she believed the story, but didn’t quite doubt it either. “I came here to get away from Dutch.” She leaned close to Michael. “He’s really annoying.”

Forcing a smile, Michael turned and tried to sound casual. “I’m sorry me and my sister disturbed you two. Can we go now, or do you still need us to stay in here and be quiet?”

“Oh, yes, you should go now,” Zephyra said. “I’m sure we’ll be able to do what we need to—”

Overcast screamed and jumped back, body-slamming Michael against the door. Sara ducked out of the way as the man frantically searched for the knob. Getting the door open, he leapt into the hall and pointed back into the room. “Huge, huge spider!”

Michael gestured for him to change his voice, hoping Sara wouldn’t notice.

Zephyra looked around where Overcast had been. “I don’t see any—whoa!” She backed up into the hall herself. “Okay, that is one big spider. I’ll give you that.”

Sara followed the heroes out, but Michael remained behind, leaning in for a closer look. The spider was quite large, several inches across. He thought it might be a tarantula, but couldn’t be sure. He could see something shiny on the floor next to it. “Find me a long stick or something to get this with, will you?”

Rolling her eyes, Zephyra stepped forward and simply reached down with her gloved hand and picked up the object.

“That looks like one of the scarabs.” Michael turned to ask Sara if she thought it was the same one, but she was gone. No one had seen her leave. “So, she does that when she’s not in costume, too,” he quipped.

Studying the green stone ornament, Zephyra shook her head. “That means the criminal never made it out of the building. The other stolen objects are probably here as well.”

“Put it back down. We need to get someone from the museum and tell them where we found it.”

“I’m not staying here with that spider,” stammered Overcast.

“Fine,” Zephyra said with a sigh. “I’ll guard the scarab, you go get somebody.”

Michael peeked around the corner into the larger corridor. “They’re going to notice if I don’t get back soon. I’ll find Sara and we’ll do the questioning with the police.” He glanced at his watch. It was nearly ten o’clock. “Why don’t we all meet up at the safehouse on Jefferson, afterwards.”

Zephyra nodded, placing the scarab back down onto the floor. “Okay. See you there.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was nearly eleven o’clock when the crimefighting couple made it out of the museum. As suspected, the other scarab was in the closet when the police arrived, but there was no sign of the giant spider. The heroes told the police all they knew about the costumed man, and after giving their statement, they were told to leave as the building was being secured.

As they stepped out into the cool October air, Overcast grabbed Zephyra’s arm.

“I just thought of something. The scarabs were stolen and hidden in a closet. Maybe the thief isn’t in the museum at all right now. Maybe his plan was to come in later and get them.”

“So where would he be now?”

“I don’t know. I would guess somewhere nearby, though. We should look around.”

The pair made a full circle of the building without any luck. Heading into the parking lot, they were surprised to once again spot the man dressed in green.

“Good evening,” Overcast said in greeting. “May I ask you what you’re doing lurking around out here?”

The man didn’t seem shocked or even concerned. “I’m not lurking. I’m going for a walk.” He still had the box with him.

“What’s in there?”

“My pet. Want to see?” He opened the box to reveal a large spider.

Overcast stiffened. “You have a pet spider?”

“It’s quite harmless.” The man pet the arachnid, then thrust it in the hero’s direction. “Wanna hold it?”

“No!” Ravenswood flinched and took a step back. “Listen, that museum is crawling with cops right now. There’s been a theft and I’m willing to bet they’d love to interview you about it.”

“I didn’t steal anything.” The man set the box on the ground, then spread his arms apart in an inviting manner. “Go on, search me. I don’t have anything.”

Overcast realized the man wouldn’t make the offer unless he knew it was safe, but he figured it was best to be sure. He patted him down, finding only a few dollars and a set of house keys. While Ravenswood searched him, Zephyra surreptitiously took a picture with her cell phone.

“What’s up with the costume?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” He glanced down at his clothes. “I’m dressed no more oddly than you.”

Ravenswood grimaced. They didn’t have anything to tie the man to the thefts, and it wasn’t a crime to be dressed like a bug. There was no real reason to detain him. “You’re on private property. You’d better leave.”

Picking up the box, the man leaned close to one of the air holes. “Come, Virgil. Let’s go home. You’ve had a long night. I’m sure you’d love a nice piece of meat for dinner.”

Although it normally took a lot to gross her out, Zephyra’s face contorted. “That guy is a freak.”

“Tell me about it.” Ravenswood thought for a moment. “You don’t suppose that could have been the same spider we saw in that closet?”

His fiancee shook her head. “I thought of that, too, but they looked different. Still, quite a coincidence, eh?”

“Yeah, quite.” Overcast pointed to the street beyond. “C’mon, let’s get to the safehouse.”

 

It was after two a.m. when Michael finally made it to the abandoned apartment building. Though the lights were on, his partners had both dozed off. Tossing his suit jacket onto the couch, he shook the couple to wake them.

“What happened to Sara?” Melody asked as she rubbed her eyes.

“I put her in a cab home.”

“She wasn’t suspicious or anything?”

“No. Actually she was too preoccupied. I think she was in Dark Flame mode and not really paying attention to me. She was trying to listen to everything the police said.”

The detective yawned and stretched. “So what took so long? When we left, the cops said they were going to release everyone and arrange for questioning later.”

Removing his bow tie, Michael opened the top two buttons of his collar. “Right. That was before three more of the scarabs went missing.”

“What?” Ravenswood and Melody asked in unison.

“You heard me. While they were questioning everyone, three more of the beetle pieces went missing from the case. Even though everyone was being detained when the scarabs were stolen, they kept us there, anyway. Though I overheard one of the curators say that given the lack of any forced entry, they believe it’s an inside job.”

“I’m sure it was that bug guy. At least I got his picture.” Melody handed her cell phone to the CEO.

“He looks like a big cricket.” Michael studied the picture closer, his mouth pursing. “But the question is, who is he, really?”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Sara waited outside the classroom, her calendar planner in her lap. She watched a stream of parents and children walk by, heading in and out of the various rooms. She remembered hating parent-teacher conferences when she was a child. She never did very well in school, and the reports were always less than stellar. When she was taken in by the Lira family, she went into private tutoring and did much better. Though, ironically, there were no parent-teacher conferences then.

A husband and a wife exited the room and smiled at her as they left. A moment later, a tall, slender man with dark hair and thick glasses peeked his head out. “Mrs. Wolff?”

Sara rose and headed into the room. “It’s Miss Wolff. I’m here from the Gale Home.”

“Oh, yes, yes. That’s right. Peter’s an orphan.”

Seating herself across from the teacher’s desk, she shook her head. “Actually, his parents are still alive. They had a problem with substance abuse, so he was placed in foster care with us. Hopefully they’ll be able to recover and take him back eventually.”

“How nice,” the man droned.

Smiling, Sara took the boy’s progress report from the teacher. “He’s very fond of you. He’s taken with your interest in... um... is it entomology?”

“Yes, the study of bugs.” Morton suddenly seemed interested. “Do you like bugs?”

“Oh, I generally don’t mind them, but I don’t like the very big ones.”

“Oh, large bugs are fascinating. I have some king beetle samples. If you examined them, I’m sure you’d find them much more loveable.”

Sara started to feel itchy just thinking about it and scratched at her arm. She glanced down to see a wolf spider on her shirt. “Aah!” Jumping up, she flicked it off. The arachnid landed on the desk and skittered behind the pencil cup.

“Don’t hurt it,” the teacher cried. “You scared it.”

Trying to keep composed, Sara fanned her face. “That makes two of us.”

The man leaned forward and made a series of clicking sounds. The spider peeked out and ran into his open palm.

“There, there. It’s okay. You shouldn’t be in here where it’s not safe.”

Amazed at the man’s ability, Sara watched as he walked to the window to release the creature. On the desk where the spider had been, she noticed a folded over newspaper. Making sure Morton was still preoccupied, she leaned forward to read the headline. “Arachni-Vision Goggles?”

As the teacher turned back towards her, Sara seated herself, brushing off her pants. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“No matter. Let’s get on with this, shall we?”

“Of course.” Squaring her shoulders, she clasped her hands. “How’s Peter doing in math?”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Michael adjusted his Black Torrent cowl and stared at the building before him. Overcast stepped next to him, peering up at the four story structure. “Looks old and rundown. I don’t see any sign of security. Should be easy to get in.”

“Then it should be easy for our bug guy, too.” Glancing over his shoulder, Torrent waited for Zephyra to fix her jacket. “Ready?”

She nodded. “What are these spider goggles supposed to do anyway?”

“The creator claims they give the wearer the ability to see like a spider—essentially with four eyes. He’s supposed to be making a presentation to the scientific community tomorrow, which is why I think our criminal is going to strike tonight. Those would be quite a prize for a bug-fanatic.” Torrent pulled out a mini tablet computer and pulled up the floor plans to the building. “I believe the scientist’s office takes up the whole third floor. It looks like there are eight rooms, with the front room being the laboratory. I’ll take the lab and the other two rooms. Zee, you take the middle three. Overcast, you get the rear.”

“All right.”

The three made it into the building quickly and quietly. Taking the back stairs, they arrived at the entrance to the office of Zoran Novelsky. It took Overcast fifteen seconds to pick the lock. Once inside, they moved to their positions.

The first room Overcast checked was a sparsely-furnished office. It appeared to be unused and held little more than a chair, a desk, and an empty filing cabinet. There weren’t many places where an object could be hidden, so it was a quick search.

Stepping back into the hallway, he noticed something on the floor. It appeared to be a pair of goggles with four lenses... and it was moving. Overcast followed as they disappeared through a partially-open door down the hall. It was a large storage room, but it was nearly empty. The lights were already on and he could see the goggles on the floor at the other end of the room.

Approaching the visors, he glanced through the lenses to see inside of them. There were two large hairy spiders, and as he watched, they pushed the goggles behind a box near the wall.

“Okay,” Ravenswood said to himself. “You’ve got to get over this. Melody’s right. You’ve got to face your fear. They’re just little spiders. They won’t hurt you.”

He pulled the box away from the wall.

The door shut behind him. He turned and saw the floor now covered with dozens of spiders of every size and description. Countless more hung from the ceiling, suspended on silk strands so thin they appeared to be hovering in mid-air. The army of arachnids created an effective blockade against anyone heading for the exit.

“Oh shit,” he muttered, taking a step back. His eyes moved upwards. More spiders began to move to the spot directly over his head, dropping down on him.

Overcast screamed, but he was so terrified it only came out as a gurgle. He frantically tried to brush them away, but they were falling on him faster than he could swat at them. He could feel them scurrying across his face, moving down inside his shirt.

“Help!” he croaked.

Cold mist hit his face and this time he managed a real scream. A hand grabbed his arm. “Hold still!”

The mist hit him again and he could feel the spiders jumping off of him. He turned to see Dark Flame holding a bottle in her hand. She was giving off little squeals herself as some of the spiders leapt onto her, but she continued to spray the orange-scented liquid. It only took a few seconds, but all the spiders retreated, even the ones who had managed to get into his clothing.

“What is that?” he asked, wondering if she’d object if he kissed her in thanks.

“Home-made insect repellant. I used to live in a place that had a lot of bugs. We made our own spray to get rid of them.” She squirted his jacket one more time for good measure. “Spiders hate citrus.”

Noticing a rogue spider skitter past his shoe, Overcast held out his hand. “May I have that?”

Dark Flame handed it to him. He spritzed at the spider, smirking as it recoiled and headed away. He then bit his lip and shoved the bottle into his trenchcoat pocket. The female crimefighter looked like she was about to argue, then thought better of it.

Zephyra rushed in from the hallway. “What happened?” She staggered back as she saw the plethora of spiders.

Black Torrent entered right behind her and stared at the Dark Flame. “How’d you get here?”

“Window,” she answered casually before squishing a daddy long-legs with her boot.

Black Torrent glanced around the room. The spiders were sticking to the far walls, but they were still hanging around.

“Giant spiders stole the goggles.” Overcast pointed to the corner. “They’re over there behind those boxes.”

“Not anymore.” Torrent made a quick sweep of the room. “They’re not anywhere.”

An older man entered, dressed in a white clinical overcoat. “What’s going on here?” he demanded before he noticed the spiders. “My goodness, so many.”

“The spider-vision goggles were stolen,” Torrent explained. “We came here because we believed a criminal had his sights on them. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stop him. I’m afraid your presentation tomorrow will be ruined.”

The man furrowed his brow, but he didn’t seem upset. He grabbed a few of the web strands hanging from the ceiling. “How many were stolen?”

“Just one.”

“Well, I’m not stupid. I made more than a single pair. I’ll just have to move the others to a more secure location.”

Torrent glanced down at a couple of spiders which had crawled onto his leg. Overcast pulled out the bug repellent, spritzing them.

“I don’t understand why someone would want those goggles,” Novelsky continued. “They’re really only good for research purposes. That is, unless someone wanted to hang out with a bunch of spiders.”

Overcast grimaced at the thought. “Well, that might very well may be what the criminal is intending.”

 

Despite being put-off at first, Novelsky was quite accommodating to the crimefighters. He was impressed with Dark Flame’s concoction of natural oils and water, and asked for the recipe to use in his testing. Once they had finished speaking with the scientist, the heroes headed back outside. For a change, the redhead went with them and didn’t try to disappear.

“How did you know to come here?” Torrent queried.

“Seemed obvious that a bug criminal would be interested in something like this.” She dug into her pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to the team leader. “This is who you should be looking into.”

“Matthew Morton?” Underneath there was an address and phone number. “This is his home?”

“No. It’s where he works part time. I’m sure you’ll be interested when you see where that is.”

Curiosity piqued, Torrent nodded. “All right. We’ll check it out.”

With a wink, the woman gestured to the hatted man. “Keep the bottle.”

As the redhead dashed off, Overcast’s cheeks flushed and he faced his friend. “We’re gonna have to tell her soon.”

The fact Ravenswood was treading into that territory made Michael feel better... and worse. It was encouraging that the team was starting to trust his sister. But it also drove home the fact that his father was still adamantly against it. Yule insisted on getting to know Sara first—which proved difficult when he wouldn’t even agree to meet with her.

Glancing at the paper in his hand, Torrent’s eyes narrowed. “Let’s go see what we can find out about Mr. Morton.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Black Torrent killed the engine and adjusted the rear view mirror. He watched as Ravenswood parked the Rambler down the street. Securing the earpiece microphone under his cowl, he exited and walked up to the front door of the Guberman Insect Research Institution.

“Can you hear me?” Torrent whispered before he headed in.

“Yeah, we got you.” Zephyra replied. “We’ve moved to the bushes just across the street. Great view of the front door and full side of the building.”

“All right. If Morton shows up, let me know.”

Torrent didn’t imagine there would be many people in the waiting area so late in the afternoon. As expected, the room was empty. The woman at the front desk had headphones on and was mouthing the words to a song she was listening to. She didn’t glance up and Torrent didn’t feel the need to notify her of his presence. Taking care to be quiet, he made his way along the outer edge of the room and slipped into the hallway behind her desk.

According to public records searches, Matthew Morton had held many jobs over the past decade. One stood out though. For the past eighteen months, he had been a part-time assistant at the insect research facility. Since they weren’t able to contact Morton himself, the team had decided to do the next best thing and visit the man’s boss.

Scanning the plaques on the doors, the crimefighter stopped at the office marked “Joseph Stern.” He leaned his ear close and could hear the shuffling of papers. Giving a slight tap first, he opened the door and entered.

“What is it, Kat—?” The man glanced up from his work and froze. Torrent usually gave people a few moments to get their bearings after seeing him. It took a couple of seconds, but the man finally gave a nervous smile. “I’m not in trouble, am I?”

“No,” he said, taking a few steps into the room. “I’m actually here to talk about one of your employees. You have a Matthew Morton working here?”

“He’s not an employee. He’s an unpaid intern who’s assisting in our studies. But, yes, he’s on our staff.”

“He’s a suspect in several recent bug-related burglaries. In particular, the theft of ancient scarabs from the history museum.”

“I read about that,” the man said. “I heard that police believe it was a museum employee, since none of the display cases were breached.”

“We believe that Mr. Morton somehow managed to manipulate insects to assist him in these crimes.”

Torrent expected the man to be skeptical, but instead he seemed perplexed. “Could he have done it?”

“Done what?” he asked, placing his hand on the back of the guest chair.

The man rose and shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I find this questioning unacceptable. If you want information, send the police. I don’t quite like the idea of vigilantes in my facility.”

“Fair enough. I’ll see to it that proper law enforcement authorities follow up with you shortly.” As the crimefighter exited the lobby, he noticed the receptionist had removed her headphones and was typing something on the computer. She looked shocked to see him leaving and hurried to the back room.

Torrent crossed the street and made it back to the bushes.

“Well, that wasn’t helpful,” Overcast grumbled.

“Sure it was.” Michael raised his hand, revealing a small metal disc. “I left a bug in his office. The mechanical kind.” He held up a small device and flicked it on. They could hear the voice of Stern, and it sounded like he was on the phone.

“That’s right, Black Torrent was here and he was asking questions. I think you’d better get down here right away and tell me what this is all about.”

Zephyra smiled. “You are good.”

The crimefighter shook his head. “Not really. And it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t bag this guy.”

The trio waited. It was getting cold and Torrent suggested the other two might wait in the car until something happened, but no one wanted to leave. About forty-five minutes after the call, the team was starting to get concerned that Morton would be a no-show.

“Find anything?”

“Ah,” Overcast yelped. The group whipped around, a familiar redhead in their midst. “What are you doing here?”

“Same as you, I presume. Following up on this case.” Dark Flame smiled. “Was my information good?”

Torrent was careful to remain stoic. “Yes. Morton’s supposed to be on his way here now, but I think he might have had second thoughts.”

“I don’t think so,” Zephyra said. Though they hadn’t seen anyone enter through the front door, the team could see Stern’s office from their vantage point and there were now two men inside, one dressed in a familiar neon green outfit. Torrent turned up the volume on the receiver.

“He said you have a connection to the museum robberies.”

“Of course, I do. I told you I could communicate with bugs. I simply told them to get what I wanted and they did it, without complaint. Unlike people, bugs don’t question. They do as told and are grateful when they receive their reward. Would you like to see what they brought me?”

There was loud gasp. “That’s a scarab. And white Morpho butterflies!” There was a slight pause. “What are those things?”

“Arachni-vision glasses. Four eyes are better than two.” Morton chuckled. “So, I have proven to you that I could do it. Now you’ll finance my research like you promised, right?”

“You haven’t proven anything other than you’re a thief,” the man yelled. “I’m going to report you to the police. I will not have this facility connected to the workings of a madman.”

“Madman?” Morton sneered.

“Yes. Look at you, dressed like some kind of... bug. Do you really expect me to believe you had the insects help you with this? I don’t know who you’re working with at the museum, but this is clearly a scam to coerce me to finance your meaningless research.”

Morton’s voice deepened. “I can talk to bugs.”

“Really? Then perhaps you’re insane as well.”

When Morton’s boss had mentioned the scarabs, Torrent knew they had enough to act on. The team was already at the front door of the building.

“I should’ve known you wouldn’t do good on your word. In fact, I planned for such a contingency and stopped in back to open some of the containment cells.” Morton’s voice changed, a series of clicking and ticks replacing it. Soon the transmission became garbled, static-filled. It took a few moments for the crimefighters to realize the sound was not static, but some kind of buzzing.

“What? Ah. AHHHHHH!” Stern began screaming, shrilly, in pain. “No, stop! STOP!”

“Believe me now?” Morton half screamed, half laughed over the noise.

It had passed closing time and the glass door was locked. Torrent didn’t pause for formality, but simply smashed the window with his elbow and reached in to turn the lock. “Go, go, go,” he screamed, heading for the back hallway.

Black Torrent was by far the fastest runner in the group, but he was amazed that Dark Flame kept pace with him. The two shot through the lobby and headed for Stern’s office. Torrent made it there first. The strange hum still sounded, but Stern’s voice had gone silent. Yanking open the door, he screamed as a swarm of bees shot out and flooded the hallway. Dark Flame shrieked and both of them instinctively raised their hands to shield their faces.

“Go back, go back.”

Dark Flame hadn’t waited for a command. She retreated, keeping her head down and arms close to herself. While the bees were swarming, they didn’t seem to follow, but instead headed back into the room with Stern. Michael broke into a run, taking up the rear behind his sister. Right off the reception area, there was a small lunch room with vending machines. Overcast flagged them in, shutting the door as they entered. A stray bee buzzed and Torrent smashed it into the wall.

“Oh, my God,” Zephyra panted. “Are you all right?”

Torrent nodded, pulling two stingers from his arm. He quickly counted. “Nine stings.”

“There were so many, it didn’t even sound like bees.” Overcast shook his head. “Thank goodness for heavy overcoats. I didn’t get stung.”

“Me neither,” Zephyra said. She turned to Torrent. “For once it paid off not being able to keep up with you.”

Dark Flame was silent. She had moved to the corner, facing away from the team. Her gloves were off and she was pulling stingers from her legs. Even from behind, Torrent could see her fingers were trembling.

“Flare,” he called. During one of their outings a week earlier, Dark Flame had told him that was the crimefighter name she had originally intended to call herself. He wasn’t sure why he chose to use it at that moment. “Are you all right?”

The woman turned, one obvious welt on her cheek. “I’m allergic to bee stings.” She scraped the last stinger out and started to clutch at her belt. “I have to get my epi-pen.” As she rolled up her sleeve, Michael could see a half-dozen more bumps.

Dark Flame injected the epinephrine into her arm, then leaned heavily against the wall. “You need to go get Morton.”

Though he wasn’t allergic to bee stings himself, Michael had been with Andy once, when they were kids, and had run into a bees’ nest. His friend had only gotten stung twice, but ended up having a severe reaction. It was one of the scariest moments of his childhood, watching his friend stop breathing and nearly die. It was only the fast action of one of the school’s teachers which had saved the boy’s life.

“You and Zee go back for Morton,” Torrent ordered. “I need to get her to the hospital.”

Overcast nodded and opened the door. “Good luck.”

Moving to the redhead’s side, he could see her holding her face.

“I promise I won’t let them take off your mask.”

“I’m scared,” she whispered.

I am, too, he thought.

“Trust me,” he said.

Taking her arm, he helped his sister to his car.

 

Overcast and Zephyra slowly made their way back down the hallway. The area was completely empty—not even a rogue bee buzzed. Ravenswood scanned the floor and ceiling, remembering there might be spiders to contend with.

The door to the room which housed Stern’s office was still open. Motioning for Zephyra to stand back, he peeked in. From what he could tell, no one was inside.

“What happened to him?” Melody asked.

“I dunno. Maybe he got out?” Taking a step in, Overcast noticed a shoe. On the floor, under the desk, was a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and gray hair. His face and hands were swelled up three times their normal size, and his limbs were covered in hundreds of red bumps. Overcast checked his pulse, but it was obvious the man was dead.

“He must have been allergic, too,” Zephyra said, making a retching noise.

Overcast shook his head. “With that many stings, I don’t think it would matter.”

“Freeze!”

Both crimefighters turned and raised their arms. A young black cop regarded them for a moment, then pulled back his gun. “Step away from the body, please.”

Two other uniformed officers entered the room, followed by a man in a brown hat and overcoat.

“Pechyvych,” Ravenswood groaned.

“Well, well. Overcast and Zephyra. Didn’t expect to find you here.”

Overcast thought of something snarky to say, but Zephyra beat him to it. “You must feel at home here, Pechy, with all the creepy-crawlers.”

The police detective narrowed his eyes and pushed past them. He grimaced at the man on the floor. “We got a call from a tipster that said the Bug Bandit was here.” Turning, he glanced around the room. “That cabinet over there.” Walking over, he pulled a latex glove from his coat pocket and put in on. He opened the sliding door and reached his hand in, pulling out an Egyptian scarab. “Just like he said.”

The couple exchange a glance as the police detective rose.

“I have to ask you capes to get out of here. This is a crime scene. We need to get our investigation team in here.”

“It’s a murder scene, too,” Overcast blurted.

“Oh, right. Let me see if I can have my men round up those killer bees.”

“That’s not what he’s talking about. One of Stern’s employees sent the bees in to kill him. He’s the real criminal.”

“I don’t think so. We already found another scarab in this guy’s apartment, just as the informant said.”

Zephyra glanced at her partner. “I suppose Morton could use bugs to plant things, too.”

The two headed into the hallway. “Do you even want to know why we were here?”

“I already know. The tipster told us he called Black Torrent also.”

“He did not!” Zephyra countered.

“Shoo,” the detective said, with a wave of his hand. “We’ve got everything under control. Now go.”

Zephyra sneered as they made it back to the lobby. “I hate that guy.”

“Yeah, he’s got the case all figured out.” Overcast rolled his eyes. “I wish I could talk to spiders. I’d have few jump on him.”

Melody giggled and followed her fiance out of the building.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was Michael’s first thought to take Sara to Metro Hospital. He knew they would be good about honoring the privacy provisions of the Superhero Protection Act. However, only a few minutes after getting her into the car, her breathing became labored and her limbs started to shake. He realized the twenty minute drive might prove fatal, so he decided to head for Mercy which was a mile and a half away.

Sara’s eyes looked glassy and her skin was taking on a pallor. During the whole drive, Torrent tried to talk to her, to re-assure her that she’d be okay. She didn’t respond. She simply looked out the window, terror in her eyes.

I’m your brother, he kept thinking to himself, over and over. I’m your brother and I can’t even tell you.

By the time he pulled his car up to the hospital, Sara was barely conscious. Leaping out, he yanked open the passenger side door and scooped her into his arms. He rushed her into the emergency room.

“She has multiple bee stings and is having a severe allergic reaction,” he explained to the woman at the admitting desk. “She self-administered an epi-pen shot, but I don’t think it worked.”

The nurse scribbled some notes onto her pad. “Those only last so long, and particularly with multiple stings, we need to continue treatment. Can you put her down in one of those wheelchairs, please?”

Placing his sister in the seat, her eyes fluttered open and she gave a weak smile. An orderly appeared and pushed the chair back into the treating area.

“You can’t go back there,” a voice called. A man wearing a white jacket approached. “Only relatives are allowed in with patients.”

Michael tensed. Part of him wanted to say he was a relative, but he realized there would be no way to prove it without revealing both of their identities.

“You can’t remove her mask.”

The doctor looked sympathetic. “I understand. I’ll do my best to honor her privacy, but she must be treated. If I need to make any decisions about her costume, I’ll consult with you first. But you need to stay in the waiting room.”

It was frustrating, but Torrent didn’t argue. “I don’t like the bright lights in here. I’ll be outside.”

The physician nodded before disappearing into the back.

Michael waited outside the building. It was brightly lit as well, but he had managed to find a spot off to the side which was in shadow. Most of the people walked by without noticing, but a few caught sight of him and stopped to stare. One kid even ventured up to give him a high-five. As the boy walked away, Michael thought of the children at the Gale Home and how he wouldn’t be the only one devastated should something happen to Sara.

It was over an hour later when the doctor he had spoken to earlier stepped out of the building. The man glanced around.

“Here,” Torrent said, moving to his side. “How is she?”

“Much better. She took well to the treatment and stabilized rather quickly. I think the combination of having the epi-pen and getting her here fast made the difference. Given her condition when she arrived, it could have easily gone the other way.”

“May I see her?” Torrent asked, keeping his voice low.

“I think given the situation, you could. But she’s not here.”

“What?”

“That’s what I came here to tell you. The nurse left to check on some of the other patients and when she returned, your friend was gone.”

“She does that a lot,” Torrent explained.

“Well, I suppose in your line of business, that might be a necessity.” The doctor pulled out a piece of paper. “I would have felt better having her stay overnight for observation, but she did look a lot better. On the off-chance you see her, I wrote out a prescription. It’s for a histamine blocker. She can get the same stuff over-the-counter, but this is higher strength.”

Torrent didn’t know what to say, so he simply held out his hand. “Thank you.”

As the doctor returned to the emergency room, Torrent grimaced. “Cricket,” he sneered before heading back to his car.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was near noon the next morning when Michael opened the door to the administrator’s office at the Gale Home for Children. He wanted to knock first, but Madge had smiled and told him to go straight in. Sara was on the phone. Even though she looked a bit nervous to see him, she held up a finger and motioned for him to sit down.

“Mr. Morton, please.”

The name perked up his ear, but he glanced down and fiddled with his watch, hoping Sara wouldn’t notice his interest.

“What? Really? Oh, I see. Well, you don’t happen to have a forwarding address for him, do you? Okay, yes, I understand. Thank you.”

Sara looked perplexed, so Michael felt it okay to press a little. “What was that about?”

“Oh, the teacher for one of the kids here. I wanted to talk to him, but he was fired yesterday. Apparently, he let one of the students hold a poisonous scorpion.”

“That’s insane.” Michael had wondered how Sara had learned about Morton. Now he knew. “Is the kid okay?”

“Oh, yes. But the parent was none too happy.” Sara grimaced and muttered under her breath. “I guess we’ll just have to wait for him to turn up again.”

That was exactly what he, Overcast, and Zephyra had concluded.

Sara’s concern melted away and she smiled. “You didn’t come by to hear me talk about crazy teachers. What’s up?”

It made Michael feel good to see his sister looking well. Even though the doctor had said she was fine, he’d spent the night wracked with worry.

After leaving the hospital, he had met up with Ravenswood and Melody at the coffee shop, getting the details of their run-in with Pechyvych, and learning of Morton’s success in framing Stern for his crimes. He had then headed home. Frustrated and furious, he had marched into his father’s study and given him an ultimatum—meet with Sara. He had warned him that if he didn’t go through with it, he’d tell her everything—without reservation. Even though he had come on strong, Michael was still surprised when Yule agreed without a fight.

“Dad wants to get together.”

“What?”

“He wants to meet on Sunday, if you’re available.”

Her lips spread into a smile, and he couldn’t remember seeing her so happy. “I’ll make myself available. Oh, gosh, Michael, this is great.” She grabbed his hand, squeezing tight. Then darkness flashed across her eyes. “I was in the emergency room last night.”

Michael felt his heart begin to race. “Why?” he asked innocently.

“I had an allergic reaction to a bee sting.”

He wanted to sound casual. “In October?”

“They were research bees, in a building. It’s weird, I know. Anyhow.” She leaned forward. “You’re my brother. If something bad were to happen to me, if there were ever a call from the hospital or something...” She swallowed. “I need to tell you something.”

Michael felt himself start to panic. He never anticipated Sara telling him about her secret identity. If she told him, would that mean he had to tell his? Would she be mad if she gave up her secret and he didn’t give up his?

“Okay,” he said, trying to keep all expression from his voice.

Sara sat, her mouth half-opened. He could see her resolve morph into uncertainty, then into fear. Finally, she clenched her fists and let out a deep sigh. “Maybe I should tell both you and Dad, after we’ve had a chance get to know each other more.”

“That’s a very good idea,” he blurted, then composed himself. “I mean, I want us to get comfortable as a family. I don’t want you to feel pressured into telling me anything.”

His cell phone buzzed. Michael glanced down, the details of a bank robbery scrolling past. “Um, I—”

“Have an important call?” Sara finished with laugh. “You’re a busy man. I understand. I’ll see you next Sunday.”

Probably sooner than that, he thought, but answered, “Next Sunday.”

“Thank you, Michael.”

It took him a moment to realize she was thanking him for setting up the meeting with Yule, not anything Torrent-related. “You’re welcome.” Heading to the door, he breathed a deep sigh of relief. “See you then.”