Woodward stood next to Val One, her hearing protectors hanging from the back of her neck. As she looked out upon this hidden valley, Bonnie Clayton came up the trail. She looked tired. It had been a long three hours for them both.
"All of the bodies have been moved to a place at the edge of the village, belonging to what they call a mortician here," reported the muscular brunette. "And we moved Janie to a hut on the far side of the village. Wilma's keeping an eye on her."
"Janie," sighed Woodward, remembering. "I knew it would come to this, Bonnie. Almost wish they'd have died together."
Clayton nodded slowly. "Yeah, I know."
Woodward couldn't help reviewing the details once more, looking for a way it could've been avoided. But her conclusion was always the same. There was no way. It was war, she rationalized.
The beachhead had been going well, with little resistance. Then Janice was killed by one of Penelope's guards. And that pushed Janie -- certifiably psychotic already -- completely over the edge. According to the accounts, Janie went berserk and mowed the guard down with her automatic weapon, practically cutting him in half; she was still pulling the trigger long after her ammunition and the guard's life had both expired.
She had to give credit to one of the natives of this place, whose brave actions and aim with a rock brought Janie down. Woodward shuddered to think what she would've done otherwise.
Janie was now a dangerous liability to them, and she had no idea what to do with her once they were finished in this valley. So, for the time being, she had ordered Janie heavily sedated and moved 'out of the way' in one of the helicopters.
"What about you?" asked Clayton, thankfully interrupting Woodward's thoughts. "Did you settle things with the queen?"
Woodward nodded. "Yes. She's agreed to cooperate, and I believe her. She's a fascinating lady." She paused. "Something odd, though. When I told her all we wanted was Penelope Savage, she acted like she didn't know who I was talking about."
"Boss," someone called from the doorway of the palace. "She's awake."
"Good," she called back. "Okay, Bonnie, round 'em up ... it's Showtime."
The cotton in Pat's brain was slowly being cleaned out. There was no more ringing in her ears, and she clearly heard a voice say, "She's coming out of it. Get the boss."
The boss. Woodward. Just to think that she had been behind Apex caused her to seethe, and that helped clear the fog from her mind. She was tied to a chair -- not tied, handcuffed -- and her recovering vision told her that she was in her room in the palace. Some of the furniture had been moved aside, and she was well out of reach of anything to help her, even if she could free her arms.
Someone dressed in one of those paramilitary uniforms stood by the door, and, for the first time, she realized it was a woman. She was armed with the same kind of weapon Woodward had shot her with earlier, which she now recognized as a tranquilizer gun. The woman responded to something outside the room, and opened the door. Two people walked in, Woodward and another woman of considerable height and build. They both carried holstered tranquilizer guns; standard issue, she assumed.
"Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," said Woodward, approaching. Her tone was smug.
Pat's response was a stream of obscenities that didn't seem to affect her adversary. She just stood there, waiting patiently, until Pat paused to take a breath. Then she said, "C'mon, Penelope. You're ours now. You can't get out."
Angrily, she unleashed another stream of profanities at Woodward, while pointing out the fact that their heads would roll once her mother got hold of them. The women stood there, seemingly unfazed, until she was done for the moment. By that time, Woodward had dismissed the woman she first saw when waking.
Now she turned back to Pat. "Look, sweet cheeks, you're way out of your element here. Your guards are dead, your protection is gone, and nobody but us knows you're here. Now once this is all over and we have what we want, then you'll be released, and we can both go our merry way."
She was still seething, but knew they had the upper hand -- for now. "All right. What are your demands?"
Woodward didn't hesitate. "First, money. We need operating capital just like you do. And you're going to provide it."
Pat snorted, "Typical. Next?"
"We want your attention," Woodward said slowly and simply, without her standard smirk.
This momentarily surprised her. Then she caught on. "Why should I?"
Woodward shot her a nasty look. "Look, MIZ Penelope. Do you think we just sprung up overnight, with a rabid hatred for you and your company? Your company is just one of many businesses that exploit women by appealing to their vanity. You were targeted because of several people who were hurt -- badly -- because of businesses like yours, and a few because of your company in particular. Your victims have become my people." She paused. "Basically, we want you to see the faces, and know the stories, of those people you and your kind have harmed."
Woodward gestured to the tall woman, who went to the door and opened it. Another figure entered and stood before Pat. She wore the same uniform as the others, but also wore gloves and a face-concealing hood. "My name," she said hesitatingly, "is Jodie Sims. Do you recognize that name?"
Pat thought a moment, then said, "I think so. You tried to sue us because of a bad reaction you had to one of our products."
"A 'bad reaction' she says," shot back Sims with a bitter laugh. "Let me show you what kind of 'bad reaction' it was."
And she started removing her clothes. First the gloves, revealing red rashed hands. Then she removed her hood, and Pat gasped. What hair she had was in patches across the top of her head, and her face was horribly disfigured as if burned severely. Without comment, Jodie removed the uniform, undressing to panties and bra. Her entire body showed the same discoloration and burned appearance as her face. What had probably been a lovely woman was now a disfigured freak.
"You made me this way -- at least a couple of the products your company made did," she explained. She moved in closer to Pat, who recoiled and tried to move back. "I'm not contagious, if that's what you're thinking. This is the 'bad reaction' your products did to me. They were labeled as hypo-allergenic, and yet produced this reaction in me. I tried going through the legal system, but your high-paid A-Team got it thrown out of court. 'I should've known my limits,' 'I had not been forced to use the products,' and so you weren't liable for what it did to me. They labeled it as 'unfortunate' and threw the case out of court." She paused. "Oh, by the way, two weeks after that, the products that caused this were all pulled from the shelves -- due to a 'marketing decision' in the Corporate Office. One freak is an 'unfortunate individual' -- two freaks are a pattern. My fiancee couldn't stand to be around me. My friends got more and more distant. I was dismissed from my job, under the excuse 'poor work'." Her face showed the grief and pain, and Pat's breathing became shallow during the demonstration. "I almost killed myself, thinking suicide was the only way out -- when Jill found me. She became a friend, my only friend at the time. She didn't pity me, didn't condescend to me, but accepted what I was inside. And she gave me a reason to live, if only to get back at you and your kind."
"What do you want me to do?" asked Pat.
"What I want, you're not capable of doing. You can't reverse the hands of time and make me as I was before. But I appreciate the fact that you asked, and that you heard my story."
She gathered her clothes and walked away. Woodward moved forward. Her tone was sober, without her previous attitude. "Jodie's a sweet person, once you look past the outside. In a way, I apologize for hitting you with her story first. Hers is the most graphic of examples, and shows you just how serious we are. This isn't a game."
Woodward called in people, one by one, who stood before Pat and gave their stories.
"I'm Alexandria Foster, Ms. Savage. I'd always been self-conscious about my looks, so I spent ... a bit more ... on cosmetics."
"Tell her how much, Alex," gently prompted Woodward. "Go ahead."
"Uh, well ... fifteen thousand dollars last year, ma'am. That's what led to my Henry leavin' me, and takin' our two boys. After that, I had to work three jobs just to earn enough for the make-up."
"Just call me Larabee. I know I look older, but I'm only 29. I used your stuff for four years before they diagnosed my skin cancer. It went into remission for a while after chemo, but it's back now. All my body hair's gone, lady, and the doctors say I've got maybe a year left. I've got nothing to live for, except to make your life a living hell like you made mine."
"I'm Rosa ... Rosa Dutton. My story's the same as Alex Foster's, but I wasn't married. I wanted to be beautiful, desirous. I went into prostitution in order to feed my 'habit'. I wanted to be like some of those supermodels you hire. Well, that's not what happened. I got AIDS. That's my fault, not yours. But it was because I wanted to be beautiful ..." She started crying, and Clayton came over and comforted her, directing her out of the room.
A brassy blonde stood next before Pat. She looked in her mid-30's but she guessed she was at least five years older than that. "My name's Jeannie Simpson." She moved back and forth from one foot to another, as if she couldn't stand still if her life depended on it. "My boyfriend wanted me to look like the cuties in your ads. I used your cosmetics, hoping they'd keep him attracted to me. Spent my parent's inheritance doin' so, on that and on some assorted plastic surgery." She ran her hands down her body to illustrate where she had the work done. "In the end, the crumb left me for some little eighteen-year-old cheerleader type." She twitched nervously, like she was under the influence of drugs. "Anyhow, your company promised the world if I used your stuff. That's pure crap, lady."
Others came forward -- Cherry, Geraldine, Phyllis, Gina, Roberta, Sun Li, Cathy -- the names blurred after awhile. The stories were tragic: wasted lives, broken families, lost opportunities. But the common thread was that businesses like Pat's influenced the results for the bad.
A muscular brunette came in next. She looked at Pat with venom, and stepped closer. "My name is Kristi Armstrong. I'm 33 years old, and I ... was ... the mother of a wonderful little girl named Susie. When she was ten years old, she got one of your 'My First Makeup' kits. She was good with it, too. It made her look nice. It also made her look older than she was. She started hanging out with some older boys. She liked the attention because of the makeup." She paused, trying to compose herself; she looked to Woodward, who nodded supportingly. "One night she was picked up after school by some of those boys and taken to a party. I got the phone call four hours later, from the police. She had been involved in an accident. The driver of the car had been drinking, and he drove the car into a telephone pole. They were both killed." She spat the words out of her mouth like they were bullets. "I tried to hold your company criminally responsible for the influence their products had on my daughter, but the case was dismissed. Six months later, the 'My First Makeup' line was pulled from the shelves without explanation." Kristi's eyes flared with hatred, and she lunged for Pat, cursing. "You made it look good to them. SHE WAS JUST A CHILD! Did you have any clue what it would do to them? DID YOU?"
The brunette suddenly lunged at the manacled Pat, grabbing her by the throat and toppling the chair over backwards.
Woodward and Clayton rushed in. "You get Kristi, I'll get Penelope," she ordered, drawing her tranquilizer gun.
Clayton pulled hers. "Gotcha."
The two women fired simultaneously into the struggle. The action froze instantly, then they melted as one to the floor, ending up in a crumpled heap of bodies.
Disgustedly, Woodward said, "Okay, Bonnie, let's clean up the mess. Let's tie Miz Penelope to her bed, then carry Kristi to a neutral corner."
As the amazonian Clayton dragged the unconscious Kristi, she commented, "I told you she'd do this, Jill."
"That's why I put her last in line, Bonnie. Now where are we -"
The door to the room suddenly burst open, and Queen Monja came in with a frustrated redhead close behind.
"What's going on here?" she was exclaiming. "If you've hurt my friend Patricia, you shall feel my fury!"
"I tried to keep her in her room, but she pushed past me," said the embarrassed redhead.
"That's okay, Eva," comforted Woodward, holding up a hand. "What did you say, Your Majesty?"
Monja stood there defiant, her fists on her hips. "If you have done any harm to my friend Patricia, I will make you regret it."
"She's fine. She's just been given something that will make her sleep for a short time. She has not been harmed." Then Woodward did a double-take. "Did you say Patricia? Patricia Savage?"
"Yes. The cousin of Doc Savage."
Her eyes narrowed. "I think you may be confused. Patricia Savage is over eighty years old. This is her daughter, Penelope."
Monja laughed, which momentarily irritated Woodward. "Daughter? You must be joking. Her youthful appearance is due to a special herb, the same one which restored my youth."
Woodward ventured cautiously. "Your Majesty, how old are you?"
"I have seen eighty-three summers," she replied without hesitation.
"And that person is Patricia Savage?" She pointed to the body on the bed.
The black woman paused, deep in thought. "Thank you, Your Majesty. Would you please return to your room with this young lady?"
She hesitated, then conceded. "Very well."
Eva graciously directed Monja from the room. Woodward and Clayton looked at one another, confused expressions on both their faces.
"Is it possible?" asked Clayton, amazed.
Woodward shrugged. "I don't know. I remember seeing a lot of interesting things in R&D when I worked for her, so I suppose anything's possible."
"But that would mean ..."
"That would mean that she's pulled off one of the biggest con jobs in history. She's made everyone in the whole world believe she is ... her own daughter. But that would make sense. I don't know the last time Patricia Savage was seen in public. It's been Penelope Savage making the personal appearances all these years."
"If that's the case, then how can we prove it?"
Woodward was looking thoughtfully at the woman sleeping on the bed. "I think I know of a way, Bonnie."
Pat was coming out of her tranquilized stupor. She looked over at Woodward, standing off to the side, and groaned.
"Welcome back," Woodward said with an annoying grin. "Sorry I had to do that, Pat, but Kristi would'a torn your head off if we hadn't stopped you two."
Pat's face showed confusion. "What did you call me?"
"Oh," she replied, lobbing a object the size of a large white marble into the air and casually catching it. "I called you Pat. That is your name, isn't it?"
She released a chuckle she hoped would sound convincing. "No. Pat is my mother's name. I'm Penelope. What are you trying to do, test my memory?"
"If I wanted to test your memory, I'd ask you what you were doing in the early 1950's."
"I wasn't born then."
"Oh, really?" Woodward turned around the chair Pat had previously occupied, and sat facing the bed. "In a way, I've really got to give you credit. You pulled off the biggest con job I've ever seen."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she commented half-heartedly.
Woodward stopped playing games. "The Queen spilled the beans, Pat. She told us about the herb that has been keeping you young. You gave her the same herb to make her young again. She fingered you as Pat Savage, not Penelope Savage."
"You're crazy. But I'll bite. If what you say is true, how could it ever be proven?"
"This," she cooed, and tossed the white object into the air again.
There was something about it that looked familiar. Pat followed it as it sailed in the air, and suddenly recognized it. She groaned and released a profanity.
It was her eyeball.
Woodward smiled smugly. "Ah, yes. You do recognize this. I thought you would. Being a part of the company, I knew that you lost your eye many years ago, and had it replaced with an artificial glass eye just like this one. While you were asleep, we did a little testing to see if your eyes dilated when exposed to light. When this one didn't react like the other one, we ... removed it. Now what mother and daughter both have identical artificial eyeballs?" She paused. "Now let's cut the crap. You've been busted ... Pat."
Pat opened and closed her eyes. There was no pain, except for a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"Okay. So now what?" she asked her captor.
The black woman stood. She had the upper hand, and knew it. Her smug expression was even more annoying. "Before, our intent was ransom. Now, it's blackmail."
Pat shifted on the bed. Okay, she thought, you wanna play hardball, then let's play hardball. "It won't work. Who would they believe, a Fortune 500 executive, or a kidnapper and a terrorist?"
Woodward was not dissuaded. "Very true. Very true. It would make exposing you difficult if we did it ourselves. However, if we 'leaked' the information to the world -- say, via the internet -- it might pique the interest of an ambitious investigative reporter or two. Someone who would have the tenacity to keep checking into things, until they discovered the truth and revealed it to the world. And your credibility will -- like your company -- crumble like dust and be blown away with the wind."
Pat's silence was all too clear. Woodward had the upper hand, and now both women knew it.
Clark was alone in the cavern that sheltered the rebuilt Helldiver. The lights were on but dim, and he moved about the rock floor performing his two-hour exercise routine. As he did, he took advantage of the solitude to commune in prayer with God.
"Well, Lord, tomorrow we leave for the Valley of the Vanished. And into the unknown -- again," he started.
"We've got the new superfirers, and enough mercy bullets to fend off a small army." He paused. "I pray it doesn't come down to that. I mean, I know Pat's not stupid, and she'll probably not face us alone -- not after Lincoln City. But I ask that You give us grace to overcome her and whoever she has on her side.
"I thank You for what You've been doing in Perry. He, Dot, and Amy have been working out in Napoleon's Alley since early this morning, running the gauntlet over and over with the new superfirers. He's been improving, and Amy's targeting system is excellent, but I still ask that You give them all good eyes and steady hands.
"Getting into the Valley's not going to be easy, either. The last time was quite nerve-shaking. I know Gumball's a good pilot, but he could sure use an assist from You, even though he doesn't know You. Give him a strong hand and quick reflexes. You've given him a good plane in the Osprey, and it's all set up with the pod for the anaesthetic gas cylinders.
"Speaking of which, thanks for giving Monk and Dr. Egan guidance in modifying the anaesthetic gas and making it compressible. And the Paradox. It was an excellent idea to treat the diving suits Perry, Dot, and Amy will wear, making them almost as effective as a suit of armor. It'll give them an advantage they'll need."
He lowered himself into a seated Yoga position, silent as he took several deep breaths. Then he continued.
"I am ... concerned for our safety. Who wouldn't? But I have seen how You have worked in our lives over the past months, and I know I can trust You with my life and the others' lives. You have such a marvelous perspective on time, being able to see all time in the same way we would look at a single point before us. You know where we've been, and You know where we'll go. Knowing that makes it easier to trust You to direct my life. And knowing that You are in my heart makes it much easier to enter into a potentially-fatal situation. Paul said, 'To live is Christ, to die is gain.' I have no need for worry.
"And You have blessed me so very much with this place. I admit, when I learned that the Trading Company had been leveled and replaced with a park, and the 86th Floor was now an observation deck, and ... of course ... the College ... I lamented. I had always hoped that something of my achievements would outlive me. But they were gone, all gone ... until You allowed me to see this." He paused. "Thank You. You've given me back my team, my friends. Now all we have to do is get my family back. If there was any other way ... but there isn't. Please work on Pat, Lord. Draw her to you, somehow, some way."
Well-muscled legs glided him up into a standing position. "We're about as ready as we'll ever be, Lord. Now it's in Your hands to do with. Thy will be done. In Jesus' name, Amen."
He retrieved a towel and his commlock and started for the exit. He had only gone a couple of steps when the commlock alerted him to an incoming call.
Without waiting for Clark to identify himself, Drake's voice came through the speaker. His tone was urgent. "Clark, it's Mitch! There's been an accident in Monk's lab ... non-life threatening! There's a med team heading there right now!"
"Have you informed the others?"
"You're the first! I'll do that and meet you there!"
"Very good! Clark out!" he said, as he picked up his pace towards the airlock.
"Doggonit, Katie, it's only a sprain! Just let me stand up, okay! Hey -- put that shoe back on -- it's cold! Katie -- tell this bozo to put my shoe back on my foot!"
The simian chemist was flat on his back, with a pair of EMTs tending to a quickly-swelling ankle. A middle-aged woman in a lab coat leaned back patiently against a table and watched. Amy arrived first, followed by Gumball, Drake, Clark, and Perry and Dot.
"Katie! Get these goons offa me!" continued Monk. As he saw the new arrivals, he pleaded for help. "Son! Boy, help your old man up, willya?" "Mitch -- you're in charge, they'll lissen to you -- tell 'em to go home! I'm fine!" "Doc, tell 'em -- I'm fine! We've gone through worse than this, and walked away with barely a scratch! It's only a sprain -- honest! Now get these goons offa me!" "Perry ... Dot ... I'm fine -- honest! Awwww -- c'mon!"
Drake ignored Monk's protesting and turned to the EMTs. "Report," he asked curtly.
"It appears to be a clean break, sir. But we won't know the extent of it until we have it X-rayed."
Monk reacted to the news with a renewed wave of panic.
Perry and Dot were standing next to Kate Egan, who reacted to his bawling with a revolted grimace. Then, glancing at the table behind her, she retrieved a small metal canister and boldly moved towards the center of the disturbance.
"All right, that's enough!" she suddenly shouted. "Everybody, hold your breath!"
All but Monk obeyed the order. The woman shoved something in front of Monk's face and pressed a trigger. There was a brief hiss, and his simian face took on an expression of betrayal before his body succumbed to the effects of the anaesthetic gas and went limp. The sudden silence was surprising. A few seconds later, several relieved people exhaled and returned to normal breathing. The two EMTs looked up at her and broke into a round of applause, to which she responded by smiling and offering a slight bow.
"I just wanted to shut him up," she admitted to the group.
"Very efficient, Kate," complimented Drake, and nodded to the EMT's. They put a temporary restraint on his leg, then carried him to a special medical cart. Amy climbed into the following cart with Gumball, while Perry and Dot stayed in the lab and observed Drake questioning Kate Egan.
"So how did it happen?" he inquired.
She gave him a sheepish grin. "We were having ... a farewell party, and he was showing me how he could make salsa in glass beakers. Things got messy, and some of it got on the floor. Look." She pointed to several spots. "He was coming around the table when he hit one of the spots and down he went."
"Mitch, your EMT's were correct," commented Clark. "It doesn't appear that Monk will be able to accompany us."
The black man's face showed his regret. "I'm truly sorry. He can recuperate here, if you like. Or we could arrange transportation back to Oklahoma."
"It would probably be best for him to return home."
"Consider it done," said Mitch. "If I can swing it, I'll fly him back personally."
"Thank you." He walked over to Perry and Dot. "This is not good. As undiplomatic as he is, I was hoping he could help persuade Pat into surrender or truce." He paused. "We can't change our plans now: we leave in the morning."
"I understand," replied Perry. "It'll work out."
Clark nodded silently. "Let's see how Monk is."
The effects of the gas lasted roughly half an hour. During that time, Monk's leg was encased in a lightweight cast and he was placed in a hospital bed with his leg raised. The first sign that the effects of the anaesthetic gas had worn off was an extended-length volley of some of the rawest language any of them had ever heard from the man.
"Boy, is he ticked," commented Gumball, cringing. "I haven't heard him talk like that since I drove the Cord into the lake back in '69."
Clark's countenance was like flint, his eyes narrowed. "I'm going in."
"'You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din,'" quipped the tall pilot, taking a seat in the waiting room.
As Clark stepped into the hospital room, the only thing that changed was the volume. Monk's language was filled with anger and frustration, and he seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the bronze man was standing there. Clark took a few steps towards the bed, then his voice virtually boomed like thunder as he said, "ENOUGH!"
The barrage of verbal abuse was halted in mid-sentence. But the look in Monk's eyes still mirrored frustration. "It ain't fair!" he mumbled. "It just ain't fair!"
"I know it's not fair, Monk," the big man said calmly. "I'm sorry. What can I do?"
"Take me with you," he pleaded. "Gimme a pair of crutches, and I'm good to go."
"You know that's not possible."
"Katie gassed me, didn't she?" he asked bluntly, changing the subject.
"Yes, she did. And if she hadn't, brother, I would have." His expression was cold. "In all the years we've known one another, Monk Mayfair, I have never seen you do such an accurate impression of a two-year-old spoiled brat!"
The strongly-worded rebuke deflated most of Monk's immediate anger. "It's just not fair, Doc," he persisted. "We've fought dinosaurs, monsters, and more baddies than you can shake a stick at. We've been in more life-threatening situations than anyone I know, and ... and I bust my ankle slipping on some blankety-blank salsa!" They were silent for several moments. "So now what? You gonna leave me behind?"
"I have to," he replied with regret. "Mitch will make sure you get home."
"Doc ... did you tell Lea?" His tone reflected concern for his wife.
Clark shook his head. "No. Both Dot and Gumball wanted to, but I stopped them. It would be best if she heard it from you."
"Thanks." His eyes turned downward. "I'm ... sorry 'bout my language."
"Accepted." He jerked a thumb towards the door. "You also need to repent to them."
"Your little tirade carried through the walls."
His face turned a deep red. "Oh, God," he moaned.
"Him, too." Clark smiled. "Shall we start in prayer before I let the rest of them in?"
A smile came to Monk's face, the first since he had the accident. "You betcha!"
The bronze man stood at the bedside of his friend and reached out a hand. Then together they went before the throne of grace for a humble recharging. After they were through, Monk looked up and said, "I'm sorry. It's just that this was so ... important to me ... to get back into action."
"Look, brother, you're not getting off this easy," said Clark, surprising the simian chemist. "But for some reason neither of us are aware of, God's decided you've got a job to do on this side. Look for it."
The bronze man continued to the door and opened it. "It's okay," he announced, and let the people in.