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July 4th, Monday, 2022, 4.33PM

Sunset Hill, Emerald City, Oregon, USA


One hour after a giant bowling ball almost crushed the Liberty Dome...


Fort Cutler was well-named, a broad, square, red-brick mansion shouldering its way between other, milder mansions clustered at the top of Sunset Hill, overlooking the grey Pacific Ocean and the glittering twin Emeralds below. It was an open secret in the contacts that the Clines maintained that some of the most successful supercriminals in the world, retired by reason of age or injury, lived behind these handsome doors.


Richard Cline was looking for two in particular, Preston Cutler and Josephine Sherman. A few decades back, they'd done crimes as the masked duo of the Sportsman and Princess Poison. Tony played the Robin Hood gimmick by robbing sports events and showing up world champions at their specialties (barring a spectacular defeat at the hands of Bruce Lee), while Josie prowled the society circuit for daring (and deadly) jewel thefts. Both had been pals and accomplices of Richard's in his youth, and they'd eagerly kept in touch well into their current age, even asking him and Paige to be godparents for their now-grown son, Michael.


And, very recently, a giant bowling ball exactly like one of Preston's had nearly crushed the Liberty Dome where Richard, Paige, and their children had been. The Cutlers hadn't picked up the phone when called, and somehow couldn't be contacted by less mundane means. And so, here he was.


In answer to his knock, the door emblazoned with a stylized 'C-S' swung in, and a trim old man with a neat black suit, a bristling mustache and great wings of white hair peered out. It took a second before his resemblance to Diomedes, one of the deadliest assassins of the 20th century and vicious rival to the second Bowman, sunk in.


"Oh!" he blinked, smiling warmly, "Young Mr. Cline! What a pleasant surprise! Mr. and Mrs. Cutler are in the garden, hosting an Independence Day party. Dr. Devastator just got out of prison, they thought it fortuitous. Shall I show you to them, sir?" He stepped partly aside, silently acknowledging that Richard knew the way and could get there *very* quickly.

Edited by Ari
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An advantage of being husband and father to telepaths was that Richard knew exactly what was happening back at the Liberty Dome, where Paige, Will, and Holly were all helping clean up or treat the injured, along with watching Bryant. He looked at Diomedes and considered the man's face, looking him over with a skeptical look. Seems a lot shorter than the last time I saw him. A lot of old supervillains had found ways to cheat aging one way or another, certainly he and Paige didn't look like they were in their early sixties. Diomedes was fit for a man who'd been able to fight the second Bowman and be seen on the arm of the glamorous Clock Queen but it was hard to tell if he'd actually found a backdoor or if he was just a physical culture freak. 


No use wasting a lot of time thinking about it. "Yeah, yeah, they're real Patriots, I'm sure. Lead the way, buddy." He considered what to say as they made their way through the living room, studying the place with new eyes, as intense in a few seconds as a good detective in minutes. "What's going on in Casa del Cutler these days?" 

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"Oh, the humdrum operations of a comfortable family, sir." Diomedes led the way through a tangled maze of lavishly-appointed rooms packed with photos of both the owning family and their infinite constellation of relatives and criminal chums, hallways crowded with photos of Josie's more famous thefts and newspaper clippings of Preston's triumphs. "Mr. Cutler's brother, Simon, was just here to thank the mistress for her help in getting him that state Senate seat. His predecessor's health took a rather sudden turn for the worse, forcing her to resign."


This far in, Richard could hear the laughter and music coming from the backyard, and smell the barbecue smells mixed with one of Preston's beloved cigars. For what felt like a longer time than it hopefully was, Richard and Diomedes walked past shelves and display cases packed with trophies, from mundane kids' leagues to (stolen) Olympic statuettes. 


"Young master Michael has recently completed his apprenticeship, and embarked on his solitary journey to manhood. It is the fond hope of his parents that he follow in their footsteps, but alas," Diomedes shook his old head, sighing, "there is a scourge of youthful rebellion these days."


That had to be a joke, coming from a man who had killed his own father for trying to get between him and a target.


Abruptly, the two turned a corner and stood on the threshold to a large flag-wreathed patio, where a grill was set up being manned by a pair of servants. Around the long tables circling it, dozens of other familiar faces smiled, ate and talked and laughed. Children raced back and forth, or played around the jungle gym stretching perilously over the diners. In the centre of the centre, pale and thin as death, the genius inventor of the Devastoids kept her eyes down and sipped at an iced tea. 


With a light cough, Diomedes caught the attention of a tall middle-aged man with bright blue eyes in a polo shirt and khakis, smoking in a lawn chair in a huddle of other men, who quickly excused himself and hurried over.


"If you could, tell Miss Devas how well she looks. Her time of confinenment was hard. Ring if you need anything, sir." With a bow, the butler vanished. It was an impressive standing jump into the rafters, most people couldn't have caught it even if he hadn't clicked on his invisibility watch.


"Rich! You got my invite! Two home runs in one day, how are you doin'!" the smoker was on him now, Preston Cutler beaming from ear to ear as he grabbed one of Richard's hands in both of his. Unlike his butler, the former sports-themed supervillain hadn't retained all his vigor, but he was still strong.


Suddenly taking in his guest's look, Preston's face tensed. "I...wait. Rich, has something happened?"


Several of the other guests had started to take notice, watching curiously from the tables. 

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Richard put his hand to his mouth and considered his response. This would require due thought. Luckily that was something he was very good at - or at least good at doing very quickly, which in his experience was all you needed.


There were a lot of ways to do this. Subtle prop comedy where he pulled out first a television playing news broadcasts of the attack on the Liberty Dome, then pictures of his family, then the marked dome cross-section that Preston or whoever hadn't been smart enough to hide. Talking the other man aside and telling him he had a heavy goddamn secret for him and they needed to talk in private. Punching him in the goddamn face at super-speed for threatening the safety of his wife and family. 


He considered his options in the space of a barely-perceptible blink then said in a voice not designed to carry. "Meathead," it had been a term of affection when they were younger - mostly. "The Liberty Dome. The bowling ball." He looked at the other man for his reaction. 

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For a few seconds Preston looked baffled, staring back at Richard as he visibly tried to work out what he meant.


Then, a dawning realization and horror flashed in his bright blue eyes.


Then he plastered a great big smile on his face.


"Josie!" he called back to a middle-aged brunette done up like Lady Liberty, helping hand out food with conspicuous long white gloves, "Rich needs some quick insurance advice, I'll be right back. And turn that music up! This is America, and our pal is free again!"


Slightly disappointed, but curiosity placated, the guests turned right back to what they'd been doing before, though slightly louder thanks to the cranked-up volume. The woman, Preston's wife Josephine, the former Poison Princess, smiled a smile as pretty as her touch was deadly and waved gracefully to Richard.


Stepping quickly, for a normal human, into an adjoining room, Preston faced Richard, visibly paler even in the warm golden glow of the lamps. "Rich, I...I know who did it. My son, Michael. I gave him my gear before he left. If he's hurt your family, it's on me too."

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Fast-Forward's response was sharp. "I'm standing here talking to you, so you know they're fine." Richard looked away, trying to modulate his tone a little. Just a little. "The girls saw it coming; the boy and I got the civilians out of the way. People could have died," he said bluntly, "and you know what'll happen to your wife, and your kids, and this nice house, if they start digging into it." He'd technically been a superhero longer than he'd been a supervillain but under enough stress the former were always 'they.' "Where is Mike now?" An effort not to call him Mikey. 

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"They wouldn't dare! We're the home team here, protected by every-!" for a second the old Preston, fiery and sneering, stood before him; then the older man was back, quieter and thoughtful, "No, you're right. They can't risk the exposure, we'd be dead this time tomorrow."


"Well, you didn't see him, so he probably didn't stick around..." Preston rubbed his chin, squinting at a painting of a storm-tossed sailing ship inexplicably dominating the sitting room, then suddenly stepped closer and tapped the "C" in its name, Cornwall, "...hey 'Deez, how's the transmitter working?"


The painting slid aside to reveal an LCD screen, which switched on to show Diomedes and a read-out of computer data. Without missing a beat the old archer said "Master Michael's brain implant is working perfectly, and indicates he should be at his usual spot in Slapshot's old lair below the hockey rink at War Memorial Stadium, downtown Emerald City on the Washington bank." 


As he spoke, a map appeared, threading a cold red line from Sunset Hill to the inner city.


"Huh! Now that was a softball. Thanks, 'Deez, keep me posted." Tapping the screen so it was once again concealed, Preston flicked the map onto one of the other walls, where it neatly expanded and showed a list of directions. Very few of them had anything to do with streets, and much of the route was underground. Logos showed corporate territory holders, and their boundaries were clearly marked.


"Best thing about this town, Rich," Preston gestured to the map, "it's all for us. We can go anywhere we like, and there's always a lair or a cache or a secret passage handy. Slapshot's pad is pretty basic, but it's low-tech too, so easier to hide. Just head through the janitor's closet on the second floor, you'll know what to do when you see it."


"Do you mind heading in first? I gotta break this to Josie and the kid, could take a while."

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Richard, like most people who had been in the business, knew there was something up with the Emerald Cities - something that had been up for a long time. But he wasn't particularly worried about it. Lots of places had bad guys in positions of power; it was just sometimes they liked to put on costumes in their spare time. He didn't have much patience for that. A guy who actually had power in the world who then used his powers to get more power was just an asshole, not like the people he'd grown up around. Anyway, whatever was going down in the Emeralds was something to deal with another time. 


He considered the situation. With anyone else, he'd have expected a trap. But Preston wasn't stupid, most of the time. Taking Richard by surprise when it counted was damn near impossible, and of course he was in constant communication with the most powerful telepath in the world. 


"Yeah. See you soon, meathead." Then he was off. 

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