The exciting thing about paying a visit on Daniel Rand at his place is getting to play with all of his expensive toys. Rand is wealthy—filthy, in fact. A corporate fat cat. One of these money-is-no-object types who spends lavishly—some would say scandalously—on his hobbies. So naturally if you happen to share his interests, as Colleen Wing does, then you always have something to which to look forward. She spies an unfamiliar wakizashi resting against the wall in the corner and figures it for a practise sword, but of course, once she gets a look at it, she can see that it's an authentic Japanese piece from the Edo period. She lifts it, still sheathed, gets a sense of the heft, and quickly decides to discard the scabbard. For a wakizashi mount (wakizashi essentially amounts to "short sword"), this is a long piece of tempered metal at about 20 inches from tip to hilt. The polish is nice for a sword this old, but the real eye-catcher is the beautiful sterling silver mount, embossed with kiri and water flower. It would not surprise Wing to find out that Rand had paid upwards of $15,000 for this. Facing the wall, she starts solemnly performing thrusts, which is when Rand takes notice and says:
"You're going to be careful with that, right?" in a tone of preemptive admonishment tinged by abject terror.
"No worries, Danny," Wing says. "I have swung a sword before, you know?" This, of course, is an understatement, since Wing is quite possibly amongst the most accomplished swordswomen living. Her maternal grandfather trained her in the bushido and the techniques of the samurai almost since birth. Her focus is unshakeable. Her nerves are steel. Her movements are even and precise through years of continuous practise. Even in dreams she has frequently been given to honing her craft. Clearly, this is an obsession, but to Wing's mind, there are worse obsessions.
"Well, just try not to swing around any more antique tapestries, okay?" If she lives to be a hundred, Wing figures that Rand is never going to allow her to live down that isolated incident in which she accidentally carved one of his Asian tapestries clean in half on her backslice. Mistakes of that order do not happen to her, but of course, Rand always seems to be around to make fun of her when they do. She opts to take the high road and leave his remark hanging in the air, unanswered, while she continues thrusting into the wall, bringing the point to within millimetres of the panelling each time. Her partner in crime (fighting), Misty Knight, pipes up from behind her.
"Okay, sweets, leave Colleen alone for a minute and tell us more about this job you've talked us into taking on with you." It doesn't take much coaxing to draw Rand's attention away from Wing and to invest it in his girlfriend. It is actually rather amazing, Wing reflects, that he noticed anybody else was in the room in the first place. Though she supposes that even he couldn't be completely oblivious to three other people sharing the room. If it were just her, maybe, but Luke Cage and Jennifer Walters are fairly impossible to ignore. Even when putting on the mute act, you can't forget they're around. They both take up so much space. It's a tangible presence.
"Well, like I was saying, the five of us aren't going to cut it."
Wing huffs haughtily and can feel Rand screw his eyes over in her direction and burn his gaze into the back of her skull. Cage sheds his experiment in laconism and interrupts Rand mid-glower.
"I think what my boy's sayin' is that based on the info we've got right now, it's looking like at least a seven-man show. It's just the way it's gotta go down if we want to cover our backsides. Once we're up in space, we can't be comin' back to pick up reinforcements, so its best we decide on this now." He stands up and commences a pace around the room. "By the way, we appreciate you two takin' some time out of your no doubt busy schedule with Nightwing." Nightwing Restorations, Ltd.—the private detective agency that Wing and Knight jointly operate.
"Our pleasure," Misty assures. "We just got off our last case ahead of time, so we had an open slot on our business calendar."
"Beautiful. Word around the campfire's you made a big bust. Congrats on that, ladies."
"Thanks. Yeah, endangered animal smugglers."
Rand interjects. "Their marks were a pair of American bald eagles."
Misty chuckles. "Which is to say smugglers of endangered animals. The job was tougher than you'd think. Lots of hired muscle."
"No doubt. No doubt," Cage remarks. "So anyway, seven's the magic number. The people in this room makes five, which, if you'll do the math, means we need two more."
Wing tosses in a thought, mostly to assure them that she has been paying attention. "Did you have anybody in mind?"
"Nobody in particular," Rand says. "We were thinking mercenaries. We thought maybe you two might have some ideas. Luke and I have been off the streets for a little while so we don't know all the hungry, new faces."
"Mercenaries, huh?" Wing says.
Walters, the She-Hulk, rises to her full six-and-a-half feet. "Mercenaries," she says. "Normally I don't like working with mercenary types, myself, but I think it's inevitable in a situation like this. Most of our associates have their hands too full with Earthly matters to pick up and leave the planet for half a month or more. These people have lives and responsibilities that can't take a hiatus. But for a mercenary, this sort of job is bread and butter."
"In that case, we know some people who know some people," Knight says. "What are you looking for?"
"Weapons experts," Cage replies. "Anybody who can handle a piece, a sword, two-by-four, whatever. Mean muthas who know how to take care of business when the fit hits the shan. Adaptive. Clever. Unconventional. You know what I'm sayin'. They've gotta think outside the box and all that good stuff."
"Basically," Rand breaks in, "they've got to be good...but kinda crazy. No, scratch that—a lot crazy." Wing abandons her swordplay and turns her head to watch a crooked, near feral smile work its way into Rand's expression. "Because...you know...they'd have to be crazy to agree to this."
Don't get me wrong—riding shotgun on high speed car chase is fun, but just realised forgot to set VCR to tape Iron Chef. Could kick myself! Mental note: look into that digital tv thingy. Heard you can rewind live broadcast. Great if you need to step out for bathroom, snacks, or to break pinky of noisy guitar-playing neighbor. Only consolation for missing Iron Chef is don't have to listen to Taskmaster boast what a good cook he is. Actually he is a good cook—just don't like image of him with knives. Brings back painful memories of multiple stabbings and missing body parts. Should change his nickname to Stabmaster. Stupid stabby jerk master.
"Uhh...hon? Are y'all talkin' to yourself?"
"I'm sorry. Did I say that last part out loud?" Alex Hayden flips shut his marble notebook journal and shoves it into the bottom of the glove compartment. When he first began training to become a mercenary, his friend and contractor Sandi Brandenberg suggested he maintain a training journal in order to focus himself on his strengths, weaknesses, and to just generally keep track of how many pints of blood he was losing. Since then it has become something of an obsession.
"Yup," Outlaw drawls as though she just stepped off the dude ranch, shaft of hay still stuck between her teeth.
"Don' worry about it none. Didn't mean to drag you away from yer diary."
"Okay, let's get one thing straight, Inez—it is not a diary! Diaries are what teenage girls keep hidden under their Barbie Dream Houses. This is a mission log. Mission logs are cool. Captain Kirk keeps a mission log. Got it? Diary equals Barbie Dream House. Mission log equals Captain Kirk."
Hayden slaps his forehead with the palm of his right hand and tries to figure out how possible it is that she truly doesn't know about Captain Kirk. Texas isn't necessarily synonymous with the boondocks, and dressing up like some sort of rawhide cowgirl and being able to toss a lariat doesn't necessarily mean she grew up on a cattle farm. But it is probably a good indication. Despite the Spaghetti Western shtick, Hayden finds it somehow difficult to imagine that she came from one of the further out areas in cattle-rustling country—one of those places where they've never heard of the Sci-Fi channel, or Blockbuster video, or...indoor plumbing. He resolves to ask her about it later at a more opportune moment—like, say for example, if the subject of outhouse etiquette should ever come up in casual conversation.
It occurs to him that he cannot remember having watched any Star Trek since turning up on Sandi's doorstep with amnesia a few months back. His own name is a blank, but he can remember James Tiberius Kirk. The idea of it really burns him up, because he wishes he had thought about this sooner so that he could have decided to name himself after a Star Trek character. Who did select Alex Hayden, anyway? Was that him or Sandi?
"Sorry to interrupt yer reverie, but would you mind shooting out their tires?" Outlaw asks.
"Huh?" he says, snapping to attention. "Yeah, sure." He digs into his shoulder holster and pulls out his SIG-Sauer P220, draws back the hammer to put it in single-action mode, presses the automatic window button, and leans out like an excited pooch. "Captain's log. Stardate...some numbers." He pops off his first shot as the black 2003 Audi TT Roadster in front of them careens around a sharp corner. The bullet misses and ricochets off the cast alloy wheel spokes. Alex is a fairly crack shot with a pistol so he mentally chastises himself for missing such an easy shot—even though he thinks Outlaw must have driven over a pothole. The Audi TT's chassis is set close to the ground, and at his angle, that disallows an effective shot at the tires from the rear. This means he will have to wait for another clear shot at the side of the wheels. "The Enterprise is in pursuit of a ship of...uh...space pirates who have absconded with a briefcase containing information vital to the Federation." He takes another shot at the right rear tire and this time it bursts, but takes longer to deflate than he would have imagined. He considers that perhaps he should have taken out his Eagle instead of the SIG-Sauer—but a .45 should really, normally be good enough. He must have not hit it as squarely as he had thought. The car in front fishtails dangerously, but continues furiously forward like a desperate animal that, because of adrenaline, hasn't yet realised that it has been injured.
Inez chimes in from inside their rented Beemer. "Space pirates? You've gotta be kiddin' me—stop goofin' around an' jus' shoot out their other tire." Her Texas accent comes out in full effect during stressful situations, and "tire" ends up sounding more like "tar" in this case.
"Despite the protestations of my crew," he continues, "it is my firm belief as Captain that the best course is not necessarily the fastest, but rather, the one that will give away their plan for the information." Sparks from the grinding of the cast-allow hub against the road concrete fly up into Hayden's face. Luckily, he wears a pair of modified welding goggles at all times. No joke. He closes his eyes briefly by instinct and then reopens them. Immediately upon reopening them it seems to him that the sparks are still kicking back into his eyes, but he quickly comes to realise that he is in fact looking up into the blinding stadium lights above the tarmac at a small airfield. If this is their destination—and it undoubtedly is, it's no wonder they didn't stop and shoot it out with him and Outlaw when they lost their back tire. "Now!" he shouts, and pulls the trigger. The front, passenger-side tire on the Audi immediately turns into scrap rubber and actually tears right off the hub as the driver slams on the breaks, the car skidding like a juggernaut through a chain-link gate tracing the perimeter of the tarmac. Inez is shouting.
"Hell and breakfast, Alex! Get your keister in the car now!" she says, obviously wanting to slam on her own breaks in order to avoid a nasty collision.
Hayden attempts to pull his torso back down into the car but is miffed to find the zipper of his jacket snagged on the side-view mirror. So instead of pulling himself inside the car, he lithely slips out through the window and perches in the frame like a primate. Fastened to the car by one hand reaching back to the ski rack, he puts the other hand to use attempting to dislodge the coat from the clutches of the side-view. How is it even caught on there?
To many people, this manoeuvre would seem ill-thought-out, foolhardy, half-baked, moronic. But to Alex Hayden, this was, for various reasons not worth discussing, quite simply the natural decision. Why opt for the obvious solution to a problem when there exists a needlessly dangerous one?
He continues to tug gently at the catch, ignoring the din of the tire squeals that resonate like a thousand baby seals all being simultaneously clubbed to death. Finally it decides to come loose almost of its own accord, and Hayden responds with an enthusiastic "A-ha!" just seconds before their Beemer rams head-on into the right side of the wrecked Audi and sends him flying twenty feet onto the lawn lining the tarmac. His body reproduces the sound of a pad of thunderbomb firecrackers exploding in rapid succession as the bones in his right arm bust into sawdust and his lower ribs shatter. At this point, Hayden is fairly sure that he passes out, because the next thing he remembers is Outlaw standing above him cradling his chin and anxiously looking into his eyes. One of her blonde braids dangles down and brushes against his left ear, tickling him, and he must sort of giggle, because she says to him:
"Glad you think this is funny, 'cos our boys are gittin' away. Why didn't you just tear the jacket and get in the car like I said?"
"I really like this jacket."
Outlaw rolls her eyes practically into the back of her head. "You okay?"
She offers Hayden a hand, and he accepts it with his good arm, allowing her to pull him to his feet. His left arm feels all tingly, like that sensation you get on your scalp that lets you know the Head & Shoulders is really working. "I've been better." Looking down at his left hand, he notices that his middle finger is bent almost completely backwards, so he snaps it into place with a short wince, and immediately feels the bone correcting itself.
"Now that right thar was gross," Outlaw says airily, as though attempting to detach herself from the situation. "Doesn't that hurt?"
"It's best if you do it quickly—like ripping off a band-aid."
"Eww...band-aids," she shivers. "I hate that."
"Me too," he says. "Anyway, I'm good as new, cowgirl—so let's git!"
They start running after the two men from the Audi, who managed to drag themselves out of their vehicle and start making for a charter plane on the far side of the airfield during Hayden's unconscious. One of them clearly has a black, metallic suitcase handcuffed to his wrist. That's their contract.
"I can't believe you just said 'Yee-haw!' That's so cute."
"Thanks, pardner," she says, starting to pull ahead. Outlaw is fast. Hayden is having a hard time keeping up with her. This must have something to do with the enhanced muscle strength she has never bothered to attempt to explain to him. How did she get so strong? Mutation? Some sort of secret experimental serum? A really good Tae Bo instructor? The number of things he still doesn't know about Outlaw has been piling up in his head all night. Add another one to the heap.
As the two men scramble up the flip-out steps to their plane, the pilot has already started the engines, and Hayden begins to worry for the first time that they might not fulfil their contract. At this point, however, the two men make their fatal mistake. The one without the suitcase has taken the lead and is set to dash through the door to the plane first, leaving his partner with no coverage. In football, this would be equivalent to your lineman deciding that there are more important things to do than block for you while you run the ball. These are not winning tactics. Hayden reflects that if things don't pan out now, they've lost to a couple of amateurs.
"Inez!" he shouts out. She is about ten to fifteen paces in front of him already and he realises that if they stand a chance, it is going to rest on her beautiful shoulders. "Do you think you can lasso Mr. Suitcase?"
She has the lariat spinning outwards from her hand almost before he finishes his sentence. Here is where the man with the suitcase makes the bonehead move of the century. Somehow he must catch a glimpse of the lariat coming his way, so he tosses his arms up in the air as though to deflect it. Instead the lariat ends up settling around his manacled arm. Outlaw jerks the line to constrict the loop and the noose slides down along the forearm until it hits the bottleneck at the handle end of the suitcase, where it fastens itself tight. The plane has already commenced its taxi to the runway and the man with the suitcase seems to have a hand grasped onto something on the inside of the plane, but Outlaw has her feet firmly planted, with her end of the rope secured by some kind of knot around her waist, and she isn't letting go. Hayden whips out his SIG-Sauer with the idea of taking a potshot—while he is still facing the open hatchway dead-on—at Mr. Suitcase. At the same time, Outlaw palms the taut line hand over hand, clearly intending to reel this one in.
For reasons that will probably be inexplicable to him later on, he bellows to anybody within hearing range: "Maybe you wouldn't mind...dropping in for a little chat." Suddenly Outlaw loses footing and the plane is dragging her like a suffocating fish. She no longer has any leverage.
"Not good," Hayden mumbles to himself as he sprints after her, his window of opportunity for a solid shot now roundly blown. "You had to pause to make a witticism, didn't you? You just couldn't help yourself."
He grabs Outlaw by the calves and what proceeds is a spectacle that would actually be incredibly funny were it not so stupid. As he pulls her boots up to his armpits, her entire body raises off the ground, and Hayden is skidding on his heels like a barefoot water skier with Outlaw functioning as his handle on the tow line. And somehow despite about three hundred pounds of dead weight anchoring him down, Mr. Suitcase is still holding fast to the inside of the cabin with one arm. Strong guy. Before any of them has an opportunity to marvel at the predicament they've all gotten themselves into, the plane begins to lift off the ground, and Hayden loses contact with Terra Firma as well. The two of them are truly dangling.
There is some frantic shouting from inside the plane and Hayden can see that Mr. Suitcase's partner has produced a pocket knife from somewhere and is attempting to reach for the suitcase so that he can sever the rope. Outlaw must see this as well, because she says:
"If you've got any bright ideas before we're tarmac pancakes, I'd love to hear em."
Without responding, he begins to slither his way up along the length of her body until he is laying directly on top of her as though she were a body board. This momentarily gives Hayden all manner of ill-timed, carnal notions.
"Watch the hands, pardner."
"Oops! Sorry, Inez," he says while he fumbles inside his jacket for his shoulder holster, almost dropping his .45 in the process, but eventually getting it out and sighting through the handgun's reticle.
"What are you doing!" She is frenetic.
"Better if you don't ask. Just try to land on top of me, okay?"
Hayden fires off a cigar-winning shot and the manacle chain snaps apart. They seem to hang in the air for a few seconds in cartoon-like defiance of gravity. The last thing Hayden witnesses before they start their inevitable plummet is Mr. Suitcase tumbling backwards into the cabin and taking his partner with him. On their way down, Hayden has just enough time to manoeuvre himself directly beneath Outlaw, as they plunge backs-first toward the runway, the suitcase trailing behind them kite-like. In an act of inspired synchronicity, they both belt out operatic, stentorian "Yee-haw!'s", and then smack against the concrete. Hayden's final thought before he blacks out again is that he's pretty sure that eardrum rattling snap was his spine.
An indefinite amount of time later, his eyes open and he briskly sits up like a shot and finds Outlaw still passed out in his lap. In a James Bond movie, this would be the point where he plants a passionate but delicate kiss on her supple, pink rose-coloured lips and she wakes up smiling, but instead, he vomits all over the flawless skin of her exposed midriff. That wasn't very suave. Naturally this performs as well as smelling salts towards the goal of bringing her to consciousness.
"Are you in one piece?" he asks her.
"I dunno," she replies groggily. "Am I?"
"You look good to me. Except...uh...I think you may have vomited on yourself."
"Huh? I did?" she slowly sits up, a hand on the back of her head making clockwise rubbing motions. "Ohhh, yuck."
Hayden smiles and puts a hand on either side of her head to readjust her wig of back-length, blonde braids.
"Alex," she says, "I feel like something the cat drug in."
"Look on the bright side—at least we got what we came for." He gestures with his chin in the direction of the suitcase, which has crashed down a few feet from where they sit.
She takes a long, hard look at the metallic case before responding with a ponderous: "Whadda ya think's in there anyhow?"
"Don't know, don't care."
She at once chuckles and groans in pain. With one hand to her ribs, she begins tugging with her other hand on the line, miraculously still secured to the handle of the suitcase somehow, which is when Hayden's cellphone rings. Procuring it from the inside pocket of his jacket, he flicks it open and puts it to his ear. It doesn't occur to him right away how astonishing it is that his cellphone is still in one piece.
"Agency X: If you've got the bucks, we've got the guts."
"So did you get the suitcase?" It is Sandi Brandenberg, Agency X's contractor and all around nice lady. How many other women would let a scarred, possibly dangerous, amnesiac stranger bunk down at her place until he could get back on his feet? Very few. Hayden makes a mental note to buy her a long overdue fruit basket or a yacht for her trouble.
"I'm fine thanks. So is Inez."
"Great to hear it. How about the suitcase?"
"Also fine, but experiencing a bit of separation anxiety."
"Alex, you're beautiful!"
"Thanks. It's the moisturizer I use. It's a natural exfoliant that keeps my skin silky soft."
"Lovely. Can you get Inez's ear over here? I've got a proposition for the two of you. I think this could be big."
Hayden curls his finger repeatedly in his direction as indication that Outlaw should bring her head over to the phone. In a moment they have the edges of their foreheads pressed together with their ears both listening at the receiver for Sandi's proposition. It turns out to be a doozy.
"How would you guys like to join up with the Heroes for Hire for—wait for it—a trip into outer space!"
Alex Hayden's first thought is that he can't wait to write about this in his journal. Subconsciously, he begins whistling the opening strain of the theme to Star Trek.
To be continued...