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Freedom's Finest #1: Cat Scratch Fever

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April 4th, 2015
 
The door to the convenience store swung open with a chime from the bells hung above it and the resounding impact of the boot smashing into it. "Hey! I need a hand over here!" In her customary crimson and black, Jill O'Cure burst into the store in enough of a hurry to almost knock a rack of corn chips over, a boy of about ten or eleven unconscious in her arms. The heroine set the child down of the counter in front of the shocked cashier, unceremoniously sweeping a display of novelty butane lighters to the ground. "He got hit with some sort of fever," she explained, losing patience as the teenager behind the counter stared at her blankly, mouth agape. "Hey! Pay attention! I've got him stable and he shouldn't be contagious but he needs water and an ambulance, got it?"
 
"Ah, r-right, I'll call for one right now, right," the cashier stammered, snapping her mouth shut over braces and reaching for the yellowing corded phone with chipped nails. She took a second look at Jill and worked up the courage to blurt, "Is this, like... a super thing?"
 
The masked EMT-B paused for a moment, her shoulders dropping slightly in her dark red jacket. "...not sure. Maybe. This is the fifth case I've run into tonight and the symptoms are getting worse." She looked down at the unconscious boy for a moment before heading back for the door. "I need to get back out there. Take care of him, alright?" The teenager nodded more resolutely this time and Jill was out the door again in a sprint.

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Wildcat, quite literally, jumped ten feet in the air as the door banged open and a sudden presence in red and black nearly bowled him over, instead passing beneath him before he landed in a wary crouch, hands raised defensively.

 

He'd been following scent trails for the past twenty minutes, a sharp, somehow angry reek that he'd never encountered before that raised his hackles -- which was impressive, because he didn't actually have those.  He was almost positive it wasn't anything wholly natural, and if it was, it was from somewhere a long, long way away that had been bred under very hostile conditions.  So, he had been both worried and on edge, and when the latest branch of the trail had lead him to a door that had discharged a fast-moving opponent, he had reacted...vigorously.

 

"Whoah, lady," he protested, an edge to his voice.  "You wanna maybe not trample people, huh?  Just a little common courtesy, maybe?"  Definitely on edge -- although, with a mask in place protecting his identity, he found his mouth shooting off a little more than usual.  Probably a common side effect, truth be told.

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A shimmering blue barrier of translucent electric blue burst into being an inch away from Wildcat's outstretched fingers as Jill whirled about, the burst of motion from the corner of her eye eliciting a decisive response from the agitated medic. By the time she'd turned to face him she'd dropped into a serious looking fighting stance, fists at the ready. She took one look at the young man dressed in black and his military surplus 'costume' and rolled her eyes behind her crimson bandana mask. "I'm a little busy for amateur hour, American Ninja. Just-- are those little kitty ears?" Making an annoyed sound in the back of her throat, she unclenched one hand and waved it dismissively in the air, the force field obligingly dissipating in response. "Look, I'm dealing with some sort of outbreak right now; you know anything about that or are you just staking out mini-marts?"

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Wildcat ignored the jibe about his mask -- like he had an unlimited budget for things like costumes? -- his heart hammering in his chest as the woman backed down the light display and got all dismissive.

 

"Outbreak?  Is that what it is?" he asked dubiously, his nostrils flaring.  "It's on you, but just traces -- what's going on here?" he demanded, upset that there was something bad going down in his neighbourhood and he had no idea what it was.  "There's something...foul...in the air tonight," he told her, his tone angry but not directed at her.  "And I don't know what it is, I've never run across it before."

 

As much as he didn't like the idea of asking someone for help -- despite pointed advice that he do just that when the situation warranted -- an 'outbreak' not only sounded serious, it sounded like something far beyond the ability to fix by punching it a lot.

 

Unfortunately.

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Jill took a shallow breath through her nose, putting the brakes on a snappish response and immersing herself in the cool rationality of triage. The black-clad man was wound tighter than a mousetrap spring and had a feral air about him to match; getting into a mask measuring contest was just creating one more hurdle for herself she didn't have time to deal with. "You can smell it? Can you track it?" Enhanced senses would explain the questionable cat motif and cagey posture at least. "People are keeling over sick left and right; my powers let me cure them but each victim I run into is worse off than the last by the time I get to them and I'm sick of putting out fires. So congratulations, Kitty Commando, you've been drafted. Find me a disease vector!"

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Okay, the mask thing he could let go, he knew it was pretty weak.

 

But...Kitty Commando?

 

"That's 'Wildcat', to you...ah...Miss Go-Go Boots," he retorted brilliantly.  Okay, so witty repartee wasn't his thing, he knew that.  "And no, of course I can't track it, I was running around randomly and just happened to be right on your tail," he went on sardonically.  If she was going to be snarky, he could be sarcastic.

 

"Yes, I can follow a scent trail," he told her in response to her unimpressed look.  "But it helps if I have an idea which way is the point of origin; following this trail lead me here, which is down-trail, not up.  Did you find most of these people in a single area, or anything?" he asked.

 

She was probably going to slow him down, though -- as fast as she'd been moving when she'd burst through the door, she'd only been moving normal-fast....

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"Oh, honey, no," Jill reacted sympathetically to the attempted rejoinder, shaking her head. "It's alright, you keep thinking and we'll come back to it, okay? So far I've been moving east but they've been spread out," she explained, lips pressing into a thin line as she got down to business. The first victim, staggering with dizziness and abruptly appearing varicose veins, had just been lucky that she'd been close by while out running errands but once Vince had let her know about an emergency call from two blocks away reporting a similar case she'd gotten a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. Sure enough just following the shouting and scanning the streets while dashing from rooftop to rooftop had kept her busy for the better part of the previous two hours. "At least some of them collapsed with plenty of other people around, unaffected, but there haven't been any reports elsewhere in the city yet so best guess is the common denominator is nearby." The logic was sound but there was more than a little wishful thinking at work, too. She'd been able to flush the worst of the affliction out of the systems of the victims she'd found but she could still only be in one place at a time.

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Wildcat glowered at her condescending 'sympathy', but the matter at hand was too potentially disastrous to continue sniping.

 

"So it's here...in my territory," he growled, eyes glittering with anger.  "And it doesn't seem to be passing from person to person?" he clarified, looking to her.

 

He scowled.  "That means someone is making it happen.  Someone who doesn't seem to know this is a bad place to mess with people."  His tone promised pain -- he might not be able to punch a disease, but he could certainly get his hands on someone who was deliberately infecting people.

 

"Take us back to where you found this one," he told her, nodding toward the convenience store.  "If each person is being infected from the source, I should be able to pick up the trail there."  He hesitated, looking her over.

 

"You can keep up?" he inquired.  He never recalled anything about 'Jill' needing to be carried about by her teammates, so he assumed as much...although he wasn't sure how she did so.

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Jill's mask didn't do much to hide the arched eyebrow she raised when Wildcat referred to 'his' territory but she evidently decided that that was something they could hash out later if it became necessary. Instead she withdrew a boxy, vaguely pistol shaded device in battered stainless steel and matte black from her jacket and replied, "Can you?" Pulling the trigger she fired the grappling line up to the rooftop ledge of the three storey building next to the convenience store while an immediate double-tap sent her sailing acrobatically up through the air as the cable forcibly retracted then released at the apex of her arc. With a combination of swinging and gymnastic leaps from roof to roof she was soon setting a pace that the feline fighter would have been pressed to match if they'd been going further than half a block to an abandoned bicycle sized for the boy she'd just rescued.
 
Skidding down the adjacent brick wall, Jill touched down surprisingly quietly atop a closed dumpster in a nearby alleyway, eyes narrowed and expression serious. "So? Smell anything?"

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Wildcat had to admit -- her little toy made for faster travel than his own leaping did, the cable hauling her about with admirable speed.  He kept up by determination and nearly overreaching his own capabilities on a couple of occasions, but managed to more or less stay apace of her, albeit by a much more athletic exertion of self.

 

He would be damned if he was going to let her show him up in this, no matter how she managed it.

 

Dropping into the alleyway himself with -- well -- catlike grace, his eyes flicked cautiously over the area before emerging to approach the bicycle.  He scented through his nose, face twitching with distaste at what he was drawing from the air.

 

"Definitely the same scent," he growled, eyes glittering inside his mask.  "Let's see...maybe I can...."  He prowled about the bike, trying to identify the oldest part of the trail, the plan to follow that back to the original point of contact.  With luck, there'd be an element of that odour that would let him differentiate source from infected, and they could track down the source before much more harm was done.

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The metallic tang of blood stood out by familiarity alone, a streak of red on the concrete leading up to the bike where the boy had lost his balance and scraped up his knee and palms. A half-dried puddle of regurgitation overpowered that smell to Wildcat's right, little half-moons of blood on either side of it where the victim had tried to prop himself up while his stomach emptied itself. The rankling scent that had drawn the feral vigilante to the trail in the first place rose unmistakeably from the puddle along with a stew of half-digested lunch meat and cheap candy.

 

The smell of the dumpster upon which Jill was perched almost kept him from looking more closely but the bent metal piping of a water bottle holder on the bike that had been ruined in the fall caught his eye. Rolled away from the sidewalk and under a discarded newspaper Wildcat found an emptied sports drink bottle, dented in one side. The drops of the drink around the fastened cap reeked of the contaminant, the strongest scent marker yet. He didn't even need to unscrew the top to know he'd found their culprit. He didn't recognize the logo, the word 'Maul' written in a faux-tribal font that took him a few passes to decode, but if the starbursts proclaiming the drink to be 'all new' and 'all different' were any indication that wasn't surprising.

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The various sour odours of bile and blood weren't pleasant, any more than the reek of garbage from the dumpster was, but travelling through a world of pungent odours and noises beyond the scope of human hearing had been his lot for years now.  Whatever it had been that had caused the boy to lose his balance and empty his stomach...it certainly wasn't pleasant.

 

A sifting of the scene turned up nothing at first, until he located the dislodged bottle -- and his face twisted immediately into a scowl of distaste as the foul stench washed over him.

 

"Eaugh," he enunciated with disgust, holding the bottle out at arm's length.  "This is it.  They're not being infected, they're being poisoned," he told Jill angrily.  "I've never heard of this 'Maul' crap before," he admitted, looking to her to see if she had.  Hopefully, with this, they'd be able to do something.

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Jill scowled and held out a hand. Rather than taking the bottle directly, however, the gesture brought a hollow half sphere of force field shimmering into the air between them with a faint crackle of energy that even Wildcat had to strain to hear. "Drop it in there. Probably not a contact poison but no point in pushing your luck." Once the empty bottle was inside the force field closed into a little floating ball that Jill was careful to feel a foot or so away from herself. "The first vic was at a basket ball court, could've had a bottle of this stuff, too, maybe." Her voice had a cool, sharp edge to it, a clinical analysis of the situation insulating her from a rising anger. "If it smells strongly enough you could follow it just from the people who'd been poisoned, now that you know what you're looking for could you track it to the source? If it really is new it's probably not in every store yet."

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Wildcat frowned.

 

"I...don't know," he admitted, and hated that he had to admit ignorance.  "In theory, it should be easier, but I've never tried anything like that before," he growled, eyes glittering darkly.

 

"All I know is, it'd better not be in every store," he went on grimly.  "Or we're going to have a huge problem on our hands.  It might not eve be in any store," he added as a thought struck him.  "Could be someone handing out 'promotional samples' or something, like the Red Bull girls," he went on to explain his reasoning.  "That would probably make more sense than something being cleared for manufacturing and distribution that slipped past all the FDA regulations."  The reasoning seemed sound to him, at least.

 

"Of course, it could be something that's got a website and a list of distributors," he continued, pulling out his Otterboxed phone and bringing up the web browser.  "Might get lucky," he told Jill with a grin and a shrug as he typed in 'maul energy drink'.

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Wildcat's search turned up a fairly standard publicity campaign, the same jargon heavy blurb lauding Maul copy and pasted across a dozen sites, worded more to optimize search engine results than to preserve the illusion that it had been posted by anyone other than an employee of the manufacturer. Who that manufacturer was remained unmentioned, however, and he didn't see anything talking about where the drink could be purchased or giving the location of a promotional event.
 
"Alright, the free samples thing is still a good idea, let's just think. Bring up your maps app and show our location," Jill instructed, leaning forward to get a better view of the plastic covered smart phone and frowning in concentration. She pointed out several nearby points, the spots where she'd encountered victims. "The only place I can think of where it'd make sense to do something like that that's also close to all of those points is the Green Elm strip mall. We'll head that way while you keep your nose open."

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Well, that clearly hadn't been his most fruitful idea to date -- but then again, all this computer and web searching stuff wasn't really his thing.  It had just...seemed like a good idea, at the time.

 

"Green Elm Strip Mall, right," he agreed, checking location on the map and taking a few moments to orient himself by landmark like he'd been taught not so very long ago.  "I'll let you know if anything comes up about the scent," the cat-masked hero agreed, tucking his phone away again.  He hesitated half a moment, then figured he should probably get things clarified before they ran across anything important.

 

"So...if we do find whoever's doing this, what's the plan?" he asked.  He was entirely game for getting physical if necessary, but Jill was some sort of healer, wasn't she?  She might have other ideas, and he didn't want to piss her off by doing something she might find...objectionable.

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"The important thing is making sure nobody else drinks this stuff," Jill told him, already pulling her grappling pistol from her jacket but sticking to jogging along at street level for the time being to make it easier to talk to Wildcat. "This might still be an honest albeit colossally negligent @#$% up. If they were stupid enough to hurt people on purpose in my territory? Then hopefully they're stupid enough to resist getting taken in, entendido?" If the tone of voice had left any question, the look she shot her new ally over her shoulder left little doubt that she had her own, unique interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath. She didn't go out of her way to pick a fight and her priority was protecting the innocent, not punishing the guilty. That didn't mean she had any patience or mercy for someone who knowing put children at risk.

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Wildcat wasn't entirely enthused at how she referred to his neighbourhood as 'her territiory', but he decided it was something they could hash out later if it became necessary.

"Either way, they're going to pay," he agreed grimly.  If it was a screw-up, the lawyers would have a field day; if it was deliberate, then things would get a little more low-brow.

"I'm thinking it's no accident, though," he told her as he loped along easily at her foot pace.  "This stuff doesn't smell a little 'off' -- it's vile," he told her with a an expression of disgust. He honestly didn't know how a normal nose didn't detect it -- or was it that people expected their energy drinks to be nasty, a Buckley's Effect?

"Come on," he told her, abruptly wanting to make sure that nobody else got taken down by this crap.  Picking up speed, he bounded for the rooftops, counting on her to be right with him. 

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Sure enough Jill's grappling line allowed her to keep pace with Wildcat and at that speed it didn't take them long to reach the strip mall. On a Saturday Green Elm was about as busy as the West End natives had ever seen it. Even if the collection of stores and eateries hadn't quite lived up to its own ambitions as a shopping destination and almost a third of the store fronts they could see from the far side of the small parking lot were advertizing either space for rent or blowout clearance sales there were still a few dozen people milling about.

In one corner of that parking lot a small white tent had been set up with a folding table in front of it and a banner proclaiming 'MAUL' in aggressively pointy font alongside a combination of smaller text and starbursts that might have benefited from greater input by a competent graphic designer. Two women in their late teens or early twenties wearing similarly garishly branded t-shirts were in the process of handing out bottles of the stuff to passersby from a few big blue barrels packed with ice, while a scruffy looking teen with a patchy beard recorded promotional footage with a camera rig that was a little too big for him to wield easily.

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Wildcat's keen senses had no trouble picking out details as he perched on the rooftop, surveying the situation and getting his breath back.  This was, possibly, the most manageable of immediate scenarios -- there wasn't going to be fight to keep them from continuing to try and force samples on people or anything.

"If those kids have any idea what's really going on, I'll be shocked," he muttered to Jill.  "They're clearly short-term hires to hand out promotional drink samples."  He'd never done that kind of job himself, but it wasn't an uncommon thing.

He glanced over at the super-powered health care professional.

"You wanna take point on this?" he inquired.  "People around here know who you are, they'll probably listen better to you than just some random guy who comes jumping in out of nowhere."  He wasn't able to keep all of the disgruntlement out of his voice, but he did keep it to a minimum.  He didn't have to like the fact that he was pretty much a nobody, but that didn't mean he had to be a total dick about it, either.  He'd have his day, soon enough.

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"Probably, yeah," Jill agreed without protest, not rubbing it in but not exactly going out of her way to spare Wildcat's feelings, either. They were in a rush, after all. Firing her grappling line off one more time with a flick of her wrist she snared the side of the strip mall's multi-tiered sign and brought herself arcing through the air in a somersaulting flip that ended in three point landing atop one of the closed barrels. If she was going to start barking orders it sure wouldn't hurt to make an appropriate entrance.

She got the reaction she was going for as one of the young women handing out samples jumped back with a yelp while her partner instinctively raised both hands to cover her face. The teen with the camera was so startled he tripped and fell loudly on his rear but to his credit he trained his bulky equipment on the newly arrived superhero and kept shooting. "I need you to stop what you're doing right now!" Jill barked in the tone of someone used to taking charge in emergency situations. She lifted the small force field containing the bottle they'd found into view. "These drinks have been tainted, they've already made several people very sick. Wildcat, make sure this is what you've been smelling." The small crowd reacted immediately, dropping open bottles of Maul to the parking lot and murmuring nervously to each other.

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Given his cue, Wildcat made a similarly dramatic entrance, dropping into the middle of the parking lot in a crouch -- it's raining heroes, hallelujah! -- nearby some of the discarded bottles currently disgorging their contents onto the dirty tarmac.  His sudden appearance amongst the crowd prompted a few startled cries and a general drawing-back of the gathering, like a drop of dish soap introduced into greasy water.  Prompted, not in the least, by the fact that nobody knew just who this was.

Not immediately drawing himself up to his feet, Wildcat took a moment to sniff at the drinks that had been spilled nearby.  If, indeed, the entire supply of this 'MAUL' had been tainted, there would very likely be a large medical emergency in short order.  But...he wasn't so sure that would be the case -- if so, shouldn't there be a lot more sick people here and now, or scattered about?  There wasn't just eight or ten people involved, but anyone who happened to be passing by and was willing to accept a free drink.

If it was anyone who had put any of this stuff into their system, there was going to be a lot of people who needed some immediate help, and that was a prospect he found...daunting.  He was no sort of doctor, he was well aware of that....

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Wildcat made a face, his nose wrinkling reflexively at what he could smell.

"It's here," he told Jill grimly, not bothering to get into more detail than that.  Sure, she'd already told people that the drinks were tainted, but he didn't think that coming outright and saying 'Yep, I sure smell poison!' would have a positive result on people who had already been affected.

Except....

Looking around, he didn't see anyone who appeared to have been affected.  Sure, people looked unsettled, but nobody looked actually sick

There...wasn't really a lot he could do at this point, though.  If these people were poisoned, then Jill would have to deal with it.  He did keep a wary eye one the people in the immediate area, and the kids doing the filming and the distribution -- if anyone bolted, he'd make sure they didn't get far.  Either to avoid trouble, or to keep from getting help because they panicked.

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Jill noticed the lack of immediate symptoms among the crowd as well and pursed her lips. "We're still missing something," she muttered under her breath, scanning the parking lot of some new clue or connection.

A more immediate answer came in the opposite direction as an unmarked black van pulled up to the the edge of the strip mall's lot with a screech of protesting tires. The vehicle's side door slid open and a half dozen imposingly built figures jumped out dressed in similarly unadorned tactical gear that Wildcat couldn't help but notice had clearly come with a higher price tag than his own equipment. The thin rectangular muzzles of the weapons they carried didn't look like they disgorged bullets but the overall shape still announced their unfriendly intent. "Put your hands on your heads!" the lead paramilitary trooper shouted, half of his team aiming at Jill while the other half targeted the cat-themed vigilante. "You are interfering unlawfully with sanctioned corporate interests and will not be warned again! Get on the ground!"

"Well now, which is it, meathead?" Jill asked coolly, hopping down from the barrel with faint blue light crackling around her fists. "Hands on our heads or down on the ground? Better yet, why don't you tell us which corporate interests we're interfering with specifically? I think I want to talk to your supervisor." The glint of the high tech firearms didn't seem to phase the medic for a moment as she took a step toward the armed ground while position herself between them and the civilians, most of whom had frozen in indecision.

"Target is uncooperative!" was the only response she received. "Open fire!"

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Already on a twitchy hair trigger, Wildcat didn't wait to see what sort of firearms these guys were packing.  Taking two bounding steps towards the gunmen, he hurled himself into the air and vaulted over them, landing on the far side and putting some of those who were still targeting Jill between himself and those who were trying to track his movements.

Stepping in close and taking care to present as difficult a target as he could, he slammed a stomp kick into one of the goons pointing a gun at Jill.  There was a painful crunching sound, and the man went sprawling heavily to the ground with a distressed cry.

"You're goddamn right, target is uncooperative!" he snarled.  "Get your sanctioned interested the hell out of my neighbourhood!"

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