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Summer 2021 

 

When Raina's phone rang, it was from a contact she'd actually picked up from Talya - the one Talya had just dubbed Anna. "Hey! Is this, er, a secure line?" The woman on the other end had a heavy, old-fashioned Jersey accent, the kind that Raina associated with very elderly people or cartoons. "Because I got yer number from Talya, see, and she said you were the right person to help me with a job." 

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Raina stared at the phone, baffled. A secure line? What the hell was this, a spy movie? "Hey Merlin," she called, "is this a secure line?" Merlin indicated that it was, in fact, not a secure line at all, and if she wanted one of those he was going to need some advanced notice because he had better things to do than encrypt Raina's college gossip. Raina hmphed, then turned back to the phone. "Yes," she said guilelessly, "go ahead. What kind of a job are we talking about?" She sounded too old to need a babysitter. 

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"Hey, that's great," said Anna breezily. "I'm Anna Cline, but you may know me better as Clock Queen!" Raina had in fact heard of Anna from Talya, who had evidently been the "brick thrown through a window at high speed" to Talya's more delicate operation back in the day. She had to be at least...70? 80? "Anyway, I have an object, or really a collection of objects, see, that was taken from me some years ago, and I need help getting it back from the pervert holding onto it right now. It's not stealing because the stuff is mine." She said the last words with great emphasis. 

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"Yeah, aren't you like a retired supervillain or something?" Raina asked skeptically. "Is this something that's actually, like, yours-yours, or it's yours because you stole it fair and square before somebody stole it from you?" Merlin pointed out that most of Talya's stories with Clock Queen involved museum robberies, which often meant that the stole-it-fair-and-square chain did not begin with Anna. It was a fair point, but Raina wasn't sure how to square that up morally. She suspected the police wouldn't be impressed.

 

"And I don't really like dealing with perverts of any kind, that's gross." Merlin also pointed out that Anna was super-old, so 'pervert' could mean a sex offender or could mean she was a terrible bigot. Raina muted the phone. "Talya wouldn't have anything to do with her if she was like that, even if she is super old. It's gotta be some creeper for real." She unmuted the phone. "What exactly do you want me to do?" 

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"Ah, jeezenheimer..." Anna's voice trailed off for a moment before she said, "All you gotta help me make it in past the security on this guy's place. He's got some kind of robot guards or something, I don't know, I ain't no kinda tech person. You don't even have to talk to the guy, pretty sure he's off doing god knows what to some damn funny books at that convention for weirdos in the civic center. I'll do anything technically actionable, you're just helping a senior citizen, right? Heh. But yeah, I should tell you what it's about. I happen to be in Freedom City right now, and I could meet yez somewhere in the West End? That is a neighborhood that has changed a lot since back in the day, sweetie, let me tell you!" 

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"Okay, that answers like, zero of my many questions, but it does tell me that you're probably looking to hire my familiar instead of me." Merlin perked up at that, actually peeling himself away from his laptop to get closer to the phone. Raina obligingly put it on speaker before continuing. "You don't fool modern security with magic tricks, you fool it with computers, unless the guy's a magician or something and you're just not saying that because you like spinning out the drama? Also I'm 100% sure that breaking and entering is legally actionable even if you don't do the stealing yourself." She was ready to let it go at that, but Merlin, damn him, actually seemed kind of interested in the old lady's gig. "But if you want to meet somewhere and talk, I'll listen anyway. Can you get to Taza Temprana in forty-five minutes or so?" 

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"Sure, I heard about the Science Monkey; I'll throw some bananas his way too. I'll be over in yer neighborhood in one. Well...ten, maybe." Anna wound up needing the actual street address for Taza Temprana from Raina, a rarity that required Merlin to actually look it up, then thanked Raina and Merlin before hanging up. It was an easy enough matter to get herself dressed, zip out of the hotel, and then find herself in a West End that really had changed a lot since the last time she spent a significant amount of time there. (She'd stopped by for visits to Talya's place from time to time, of course, but only to catch up and play girltalk. They had not been the closest of friends back when they'd been young and the world was new. The fact that Talya, who was a couple of decades her senior, now looked some thirty years her junior, and had a couple of kids in the bargain...well it had been a while since she'd caught up with the cat burglar.) 

 

When the time came she was sitting at a table  outside the little coffee place, one of Freedom City's finest papers on her table as she sipped the cream-topped Mexican coffee she'd ordered. In a tourist's blouse, slacks, and dark sunglasses, she looked like any other single woman of mature years as she waited for her contact. 

 

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Raina didn't bother to dress up for meeting one of Talya's old criminal friends, but she wasn't going to go out without being presentable at least. A change of clothes and twenty minutes on skin and hair was enough to at least leave the house with, and gave Merlin time to finish building some kind of elaborate fish trap thing for his Vikings-meets-the-Sims game. Or something like that, she didn't pay a lot of attention. Slinging the messenger bag with her telescoping broom over her shoulder, she rattled down the back stairs of the dojo. "Bye, heading out to do crimes with Talya's old criminal friends! I'll try not to get arrested!" she yelled on her way out the door. There were, fortunately, no classes currently in session. 

 

The old lady looked to be set up pretty well at the sidewalk table, so Raina skirted past her to go and buy her own whipped mocha latte and a puppacino for Merlin, who objected strenuously to the name but always ate his cup of whipped cream anyway. Neatly balancing cup, bag, and monkey, she say down opposite Anna. "So, what couldn't you say over the phone?"

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"Ah jeez, he is a monkey! Hello there!" said Anna in surprised delight. "I mean, ah, sorry, I didn't want to make a thing about that," she said, pulling her glasses back on. "I used to know a chimp who'd curl your hair..anyway, business, yeah." She fidgeted in her seat for a moment, then said, "Listen, the stuff that this collector guy has, it's mine. It's stuff I helped make, and I'm..." She hesitated again, obviously thinking, then said, "You like taking those...selfies on yer phone, yeah? And you probably, you know, heard about girls who took, ah, personal pictures, and somebody came in and took them?" 

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Raina and Merlin exchanged a long glance. Merlin didn't have anything to say, just stared at her over the rim of his cup. "So what you're saying," Raina finally summarized, turning back to Anna, "is that you've got either porno or nudes floating around out there and you want to get them back. I'm not gonna say I don't sympathize," she added without waiting for a response, "and they've got to be super old so it's not like you'd be thinking about them getting leaked on the internet in the first place. But you know that if a naked picture's out there, it's out there, right? Especially if it's of somebody people know about." 

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"They ain't exactly nudes, per se," said Anna, waving her hand a little. "But they are, uh, of the burlesque variety, I'll put it that way. Like, you know, Bettie Page?" she hazarded, looking at Raina for understanding. "I did 'em when I was young and hung onto 'em afterwards, there's some...personal stuff on 'em. They were seized back in the 80s when I was, y'know, incarcerated for a time in Blackstone. Luckily they were in a safe place in my old dresser or those dirty pigs would have gotten their filthy mitts on them back then."

 

She frowned, real venom in her voice when she talked about the police that Raina had never quite heard from Talya. "The dresser got sold a couple of times, and I actually thought they were gone for good, but my friend heard about them being found and some guy here in Freedom City planning some kind of pervert sale. Wouldn't even take my freakin' calls..." She sighed. "I know you can't unring a bell, Raina, but those are my damned pictures, and even if he does make a million copies before we can stop him, I can take back what those...men took from me." 

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Raina furrowed her brow. "That seems weird." She leaned in to converse with Merlin for a moment, a conversation that would be very hard for any outside party to follow. The monkey seemed to be doing a lot of the talking. "Okay," Raina said. "This setup is hinky. Dude's got dirty-ish pics from the thirties, which probably means stuff they put on romance novel covers these days. And I'm sure you had it going on back then," she offered generously, "but you're not exactly Lady Liberty or somebody everybody knows. He's not going to pull down so much from those pics that he wouldn't even ask you to pay up first." 

 

She took a sip of her drinks. "We think it's a setup. We think he wanted you to know he's got the pictures and he wants you mad. Dude knows who you are and what you specialized in. He's gotta be expecting you to break in, which means there's something in it for him if you do. What do you know about this guy besides the fact that he collects old nudies?" 

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"1963. V-February, 1963," Anna said with great firmness. "Just for the record, _I_ was just in skirts and pigtails when the Second World War ended, unlike certain elderly British dames I could name..." she added grumpily. Annoyed or not, she listened to the girl's words and found herself nodding along. "Yeah, all right, I can see that. You are a real smart cookie." She hmmed. "I ain't what you'd call loaded, seeing as how most of my worldly goods got sold off the last time I went up the river, but I ain't poor, and...my boy's got money. Not that I'd take one nickel from him for this, let me tell you." She added that while her contact wasn't Freedom-local "and that's all I'm sayin' about that", she had been able to figure out that the guy was named Elric Marshall, he was active on Youtube, and Anna's friend had tracked him down from location data from one of his videos and several local phone calls. "Even found where his parents live, but that ain't a conversation I'm gonna have neither. He put them robot guards on his Youtube video but I bet he's got more he didn't show." 

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"Elric Marshall," Raina repeated, and Merlin nodded. Raina pulled the laptop out of her bag and set it up, then sprinkled a few grains of concealer powder over Merlin and hummed a little tune. The monkey disappeared, and suddenly the laptop seemed to be operating itself at very high speeds. "Before we go anywhere else with this," Raina said to Anna, "we need to know what exactly you want from this guy. Like, getting the pictures back, sure, fine, whatever. We can even ruin his life online if that's what you want, if it turns out he's really the kind of guy who deserves it. But if you're planning on trying to kill him or castrate him or sell him to the Crime League or whatever, we need to know that going in." 

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Posted (edited)

"Honey," said Anna gently, "I like the way you think, but this is not the first time I dealt with a man taking liberties with me. There ain't a lot of honor among thieves. I ain't gonna go in planning to kill anybody or do any maimin' Besides, I got grandkids, you know? They don't want their old nana going up the river because she killed some guy." That was all she was going to say on the subject, especially under the circumstances, so she said, "I just want to get back what he took from me, and I want...I want to show him I'm not some old broad he can just push around. I may be old and...slow," she admitted, a revelation that seemed to be a harder tell than the idea that she'd been robbed, or that someone else was viewing images of her semi-clothed body, "but I'll be in my grave before I let somebody play with me like that. Hell, I'm double-mad figuring out that he's just playing with me for some other stupid reason." 

Edited by Avenger Assembled
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"Okay, stealing and maybe humiliating, but no murder or gross physical violence unless he starts it," Raina nodded. She took another sip of her latte, waiting for Merlin to finish his work. The monkey was very fast, but they were still on shitty public wifi that needed encrypting before they could do anything, and art always took some time. He'd be done soon. "So I'm guessing you don't want anybody you know hearing about this, and that's why you're not calling Talya on this?" 

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Anna blinked, looked at Raina, and said, "Ohhh, I get it." She reached into her purse and dug around for a minute, then came up with a bright gold ring with a pea-sized stone that glittered at its top, a gem like a translucent opal that shimmered like nothing Raina had quite seen before. "That's yer down payment. They can't make me put it in no museum if there ain't nobody left who remembers the place, right?" She smiled tightly. "There's more where that came from if you keep this just between us girls. There are things you wouldn't want...you know, your girlfriends to hear about. Even if they have known you a long time." 

 

Meanwhile, Merlin had found a solid biography of Elric Marshall, who it seemed was quite the little tech-head from his home in Grenville, or rather from his parents' home where he lived in a first-floor apartment. There were pictures of him; with his raggedy beard, glasses, and knitted cap and sweater, he seemed almost the stereotypical geek. Marshall really was, as far as Merlin could tell, an engineering genius; some of the devices he showed off on his Youtube channel like a talking robot dog that could order pizza for you, a security drone that could call the police while pretending to be you, and a few others actually showed real genius. But whether for lack of ambition or some other reason, he'd seemingly never gone further than that. Maybe it was the shyness that made him stutter and avoid eye contact with the camera, even in what had to be edited videos he'd posted himself. 

 

The strange thing was, as such things went, Marshall didn't seem to be much of a super-geek. Oh he had the usual posters of Miss Americana on his wall and had a couple of videos where he spoke with great admiration of the teenage robotic heroine Angelic, but his interest seemed to be primarily in technology rather than superheroes or villains 

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Raina frowned over Merlin's shoulder. "This doesn't make sense," she muttered. "I mean, he looks like a nerd, but not a neckbeard, you know?" Merlin chittered agreement. "This isn't plain nerd stuff we're dealing with. Auctioning nudes is deep neckbeard territory, and auctioning a supervillain's nerves takes balls. He's either got something going on under the surface, or we're looking the wrong way entirely. Try and get deeper on him; see what he looks like when he's on 4chan." She waved off whatever incredibly pedantic correction Merlin was about to make. "You know what I mean." 

 

She looked up at Anna, ignoring the ring for a second. It was pretty, but calling it vintage was an understatement. Selling it would probably be a pain in the ass, and she was more interested in the mystery for the moment, anyway. "Hey, I know you don't like giving up your buddies, but how confident are you that this is your guy? Like, how do you know?" 

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Anna shifted in her seat uncomfortably, then said suddenly, "Scuse me, I gotta callanature." Despite her age and claims of slowness she actually did move pretty fast when she rose to her feet and walked into the cafe's ladies room. She was gone for one minute, then two, not really that long for an old lady in the bathroom, before she arrived again at the table opposite Raina and Merlin. 

 

"This is...not the first time I've met him," admitted Anna. "Not, you know, face-to-face or anything, but the guy, he...well he managed to find my mailing address through a friend of a friend, and he sent me these letters." She made a gesture with her hands, then added, "Who sends letters anymore, right? So I thought I'd read them. Not, you know, perverted stuff or nothing, but really...nice stuff. About what a role model I was for young people with superpowers, fighting the Centurion while raising my boy and all, and how he thought I was real glamorous, and how it was a shame they didn't make them like they used to anymore. I told him I for sure didn't want no meetup even in a secure location, but he still wanted to talk, and..."

 

She hesitated a moment, then admitted, "People don't, uh, usually say nice things to the likes of me, so I let my guard down and I wrote him back. Nothing that could get traced to me, mind, I ain't stupid or nothing, but I thanked him and asked him if he wanted to talk more, and he did. I was the one who told him about how some of my old things were going up for sale if he really wanted a piece of Clock Queen, not knowing the dresser with my old scanty pictures was in there. Next thing I know, the little bastard tells me he has them, has a little surprise, goes dark on me, and then I hear about the auction." She smiled tightly. "Fifty years ago, I probably would have wanted to break his goddamn legs, but like I said, it's not the first time a man trifled with me. Nice to know somebody still cares, I guess." 


Meanwhile, Merlin had one more discovery about Elric Marshall, thanks to a leaked password here and a shared email address there. Someone with Elric Marshall's contact information was a regular poster on reddit forums and the like, where he was a devotee not just of tech groups but especially those that talked about the supervillains of days gone by. In all those forums, every one, his avatar image was that of Anna Cline, Clock Queen, resplendent in the glory days of the early 1960s. 

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Raina studied the information Merlin dug up, trying to slot the pieces together into anything that fit. It made her feel a little better to know that Merlin was doing the same thing next to her and also coming up empty, since he was usually the better one at logic puzzles. "He never doxxed you," she mused aloud, "always said basically nice things about you online, even in the places where saying nice things is very rare. From the way he talks, I would think having you for a penpal would pretty much be the highlight of his sad little life. He's blown that to smithereens, put himself at risk of jail, and put himself in physical danger too. He has to know you wouldn't let this go." 

 

She looked again at the address Merlin had brought up. "Something's not right," she decided. "We've got to figure out what it is. Are you still in, like, cat burglar shape, or would you rather be on the sidelines for this one?" 

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"Well..." Anna touched her purse, seemed to consider something, then said, "I better not scrap with no superheroes, and not just on account of my criminal record, but I can handle myself in a scrap against a bunch of robots." She looked at Raina and temporized, "Bout as fast as a race car if I'm runnin', sonic if I don't mind spittin' blood afterwards. Up in Bedlam sometimes I go out in bad neighborhoods and make sure people there respect a lady. Still got some gas left in the tank, anyway." Her smile turned brittle for a moment before she said, "So what's the play? We know where he lives, we gonna go give a little wackadoo?" She ended that question by finishing off her sugared-up coffee. 

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Raina gave Anna another look that suggested nothing she was saying was really answering the question, while Merlin opined, very quietly, that that was what had started all the trouble in the first place. That got him a very gentle elbowing from Raina, who stifled a snort as she tried to come up with some kind of response to all that. "Okay, you can run really fast and you can hit people, that's not bad, but not exactly what we're looking for. We can always beat him up and take his toys later if we have to, but I'd rather not go into this guy's parents house swinging, especially since he might not even be our guy." Merlin nodded assent to this summation. "I mean,  Oscar's razor and all that, if a guy you've never met in person starts acting like a totally different person, maybe he's a totally different person. It's worth figuring out. I can fly and turn invisible, so I'm pretty sneaky, and Merlin's the electronics guy. You wanna be on comms?" she offered generously. 

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"Isn't it-" Anna broke it off, shaking her head, and said, "Sure, this ain't exactly my first time; and I know you don't necessarily want me running in there fists up and ready to scrap. But, uh, won't the gear be all...monkey-sized?" she asked. "Unless you got more like that laptop over there. Geez, isn't that heavy for you? Uh, sorry there buddy," she added apologetically in Merlin's direction. "I just don't think I could fit my fingers onto little monkey-sized keys and the like. Is he like a super-strong little monkey?" she whispered to Raina.

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"For a monkey, yes," Raina said dryly. "He's about a strong as a normal human, when he really wants to be, but he likes to pretend he isn't so I have to carry things. Plus leverage can be a problem." Merlin gave her a glare for that one. "And I'm mostly thinking you'll have your cell phone and a laptop unless you've got some top-secret spy gear stashed away somewhere. It's going to be dark in another hour or so, we can go over then. Might as well do it quick before he manages to line up a buyer." She turned to Merlin,suddenly thoughtful. "Hey, can you dig up whatever's out there about the auction itself? Who's getting the information out, what they're saying, who might be interested in buying?" 

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The days of auctions of naughty pictures being secretive affairs carried out in dark rooms was a thing of the past, which certainly made tracking them easier. The rights to Clock Queen's 12 pictures were being sold through a Ukrainian cash app, on a remote corner of the Dark Web which explained why no computer people working with her son's old TV show had tracked it down. Though the proposed payment was in anonymous bitcoin, the actual pickup was going to have to be in person here in Freedom City once the bidding was complete, or by snail mail if the bidder was willing to pay a more significant fee. The alleged seller was quite firm that there were no electronic copies of the images as of yet, just hard copies, and only a physical exchange would be possible. This had limited interest given the risk of a sting, but the interest was indeed there.  By Merlin's estimation a few thousand dollars had already been spent, and more was probably coming.

 

There was a single image from the collection to tantalize the buyers; a black and white shot in a tight white sweater and half-pulled up ski pants that displayed just a little butt, winking saucily at the camera. Behind her a just-visible calendar for 1963 said "JANUARY." 

 

"All right, I can...do that," said Anna doubtfully, "but I gotta warn ya, yer better off with Hercules the Monkey Man over there if ya need actual expertise on those things. I can use 'em but I'm a little out of date on the new stuff. We could get..." She looked away for a moment, then shook her head. "No, better keep this one between us mere mortals." 

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