.

"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth." - Siddhartha Gautama

#

Shadow Play

Chapter Three

The Case of the Green Lama

#

Might if I join you for a swim?" Diana asked.

Timothy Roland just smiled. "A pretty thing like you doesn't need to ask." Diana turned a shade of pink. "Just jump in." Diana did what looked like a double back flip into the Olympic-size pool.

Tim shook his head. "Show-off."

Diana smiled at that. "Thanks."

A month and some change had passed without Ace ruining either of their lives with another mission. Diana's red two-piece was getting harder and harder to ignore. "So, heard from Ace lately?"

Tim grinned. "I should be the one asking you that question, girl." Tim shook his head. "Nah, she's too busy up in her ivory tower crunching numbers." Tim shrugged. "Hey, good for us, right?"

Tim looked down at himself and realized his rather indecent situation. "I'm sorry," Tim said as he beheld his nudity. "I'd bet you'd be more comfortable around me if I put on some clothes, perhaps?"

Diana shook her head. "Nah, you're good." Diana smirked. "Nothing I haven't seen before ... Not-So-Tiny Tim." Tim blushed a bit.

"But if you're the one who's uncomfortable ..." Diana swam away from Tim. "I guess I could turn around for a minute and let you get dressed." Tim could literally feel his face turning neon red.

Tim smiled sheepishly. "Would you?" Diana turned around.

Tim slipped out of the pool and put on a pair of black trunks.

Nudism wasn't his bag. This was because of the bits of fire ant inside of him. Quick biology lesson for any transgenic hopefuls out there. Augmenting one's durability through chitin production could cause early cooling issues. It got so bad in the beginning that Tim picked up the habit of going au naturel whenever possible.

Even now, years after his last brush with heat stroke, Tim still caught himself getting butt naked more often than the ordinary hot-blooded American ought to. "That's better," Tim said with relief.

Desperate to change the subject to something other than his accidental bout of exhibitionism, Tim looked around at the pool. "You ever wonder how much money the average taxpayer spends so these knuckleheads can put in a pool in an underground base?"

Diana grinned like the Cheshire cat. "Trying to change the subject, I see." Tim couldn't help but blush again. Diana laughed at that. "Actually, you'd be surprised how little of our money funds these guys. Almost all of this gets paid for with market speculation backed by Nazi gold recovered at the end of the World War Two."

"No kidding?" Diana shook her head. Scout's honor. Tim shouldn't been that surprised. An organization without any ethical bias against kidnapping American citizens wasn't going to bat an eyebrow at the prospect of looting the Third Reich's private stash.

"Well, I guess Nazi gold's gotta be good for something, right?" Tim smirked. "Imagine that. A black dude swimming in a pool Adolf Hitler himself helped pay for." Tim and Diana laugh at that.

The trouble with Tim being poolside with a certified twenty like Diana Adams was this. Except for his mother and Aunt Debbie, this was the longest time he had spent in the company of a woman.

Tim shook his head. "Hey, D." Diana looked up at him. "How did you think Ace would react if I asked for another month off?"

A voice chimed in. "Not very well." The two looked over to see Ace flanked by guards on all sides. "Get dressed." Tim and Diana scrambled for their extra clothes. "We have a situation."

The word "situation" took Tim's breath away. In his extensive experience with authority figures, "situation" was the catch-all term for a long list of unpleasant occurrences. Bloody riots breaking out in the streets. That was a situation. Nuclear arsenal found in a subway station mere minutes from detonating. That was a situation.

These hardcore black-ops babes had a situation alright and what Ace wasn't telling them sounded like three different flavors of awful. Tim followed Ace and prayed that he was wrong about this.

#

Alice McCoy cleared her throat as Timothy Roland and Diana Adams took their seat at the Round Table. "For months now, we have attempted to locate and detain any and all associates of this man." Alice punched up the picture. "Jay Wheeler."

Tim smiled. "Gee, the guy like a 300 reject in a business suit." Alice suppressed a small smile. Indeed, Jay Wheeler did look a bit overmuscled for someone who pushed pencils for a living. "Close. Jay Wheeler is actually of Roman descent. Formerly a gladiator."

Tim's eyes widened a bit. Diana shared his shock. It made sense that only Alice knew how far down the rabbit hole went. Alice was taken aback by Diana's reaction. After hearing about the incident in Haiti two years back, one would think a Roman gladiator alive and well in the modern times would be easier to to stomach.

Alice punched up another picture. "I trust you all know who this is." Tim and Diana nodded simultaneously. Anthony Edward Trent. One of the wealthy and famous businessmen in the world.

Alice nodded. "You must also be aware that he has been missing for quite some time." The two nodded again. Trent Industries had been run by a board of regents ever since their star player had vanished to parts unknown. "Family and friends cited severe nervous exhaustion as the cause of his strange and abrupt disappearance."

Tim grinned. "That's not the real reason, is it?"

Alice nodded. "Hardly." Alice pulled up the two webs of associates of the two men. "As you can see, these two share much of the same social network." Alice pressed a button and zoomed in the shared contacts. Since they both disappeared at roughly the same time, I suspect some sort of collusion between these two."

Alice shook her head as she looked up at the shared connection. Particularly at Teodoro Molini. "So far, none of the shared contacts have been able to supply any viable intelligence."

Alice took a deep breath. "While Jay Wheeler has proven impossible to locate, we have made some strides in determining the location of Anthony Edward Trent." Alice pulled up a street map of Chicago. A big dot appeared on the screen. "We believe that he has relocated to this secure compound in downtown Chicago."

Tim shrugged his shoulders. "It doesn't sound like a situation at all." Diana nodded in agreement. "In fact, this sounds like good news." Tim smiled. "So we just have to go down to Chicago, put the bad guy in a black bag and make him squeal." Tim smiled again.

Alice shook her head. "That is where the situation gets complicated." The smile vanished from Tim's face. "We know where Mr. Trent is because it seems as though someone is hunting him."

Alice punched up a blurry surveillance camera footage. "He was the next potential recruit." Alice let that sink in. If they had recruited him earlier ... "We don't know much about him but he appears to already be on the job." Alice sighed. "Right now, it is impossible to determine if he'll be on our side or in our way."

#

"What part of 'I wanted him alive' did you not understand?" Anthony Trent asked Lonny as he unzipped the black body bag containing the corpse of the Green Lama. Tony gritted his teeth.

"Why is he still wearing a mask?" If he had to deal with the fact that the Green Lama is dead, he might as well get to know who he ready was the whole thing." Lonny stumbled over his words.

Kyle, the witness to Lonny shooting the Green Lama spoke up. "His entire ... costume is rigged with an electrical defense." Kyle twitched. "Nobody can take it off without getting fried first, boss."

Tony smirked. "Now, that's interesting." Tony got up from his seat and circled Lonny a bit. "Lonny." The man straightened up like a board upon hearing his name. "You were the one closest to the Green Lama when you died." Tony peeked his head out from behind Lonny. "Why didn't you try taking off his mask first?"

"Sir?" Lonny either didn't understand the question or was pretending not to understand the question. Either way ...

"It's quite simple." Tony pointed to Kyle. "It's clear to me that Kyle determined the presence of an electrical defense by good old-fashioned trial and error. So, that leaves two possibilities."

Tony held up his index finger. "One, you suspected the presence of a bobby trap and let poor Kyle here get electrocuted anyways." Kyle sneered at Lonny. Tony held up two fingers now. "Or two, you were closest but you were not particularly curious about finding out the Green Lama's true identity for some reason."

Tony flashed a row of razor-sharp teeth. Lonny quivered. "Given the Green Lama's tendency of flipping enemy agents, your reluctance to take off his mask makes you very ... suspicious."

Tony paused a moment. "Lonny," Tony started in. "Do you think I'm a bad guy." The question sucked the air out of Lonny's lungs.

"Be honest." Lonny nodded. He knew better than to lie to him. Tony laughed. "It's my face, isn't it?" Tony laughed a full-on belly roar. "I mean, face looks like a skull, doesn't it?" Lonny nodded.

Tony grinned at that. "I appreciated your honesty, Lonny." Tony paced around Lonny. "I really do. Even in this nice suit, I still look like a cross between the Grim Reaper and some used car salesman."

Tony made a long face. "It's not like I don't shared your disgust for this horrific mug. I used to wear a mask to hide this ... this ... affront to nature but eventually covering up just didn't cut it anymore." Tony smiled again. "So, I'm going to do whatever it takes to get rid of this ugly old face and trade it in for a nicer newer model."

Tony batted him on the back.. "Lucky for you, none of that requires me to kill you." Tony reached into his vest pocket and produced a deck of cards. Tony shuffled it and placed it on his desk. "Whoever draws the high card in the deck decides your fate."

Like some many others, Lonny was caught unaware by Tony's generous. "Just cut the deck." Without hesitation, Lonny cut the desk. Tony looked at Lonny's card. "King of Diamonds." Tony cut the desk. Lonny's jaws went slack, silenced by his card. "Ace of Spades."

The hunting knife stabbed through the bottom of Lonny's jaw. Lonny wriggled like a fish on a hook as Tony lifted him off the floor. One of the few perks of the accident. The ability to sense people's fear and draw strength from it. And, right now, this room was a nuclear power plant in terms of fear-based energy production.

Tony returned the hunting knife to its holster. Tony looked over at Kyle. "Would you please bring the janitor up here?" Tony looked down at the floor. "I got so caught up in the action and I completely forgot about the Venetian rug I just put in. A terrible loss, indeed."

Kyle stood there motionless. "What's the matter, Kyle?"

Kyle tried to catch his breath. "That's right, Kyle. Breath, relax, we're all friends here." Tony smiled. "What's on your mind, Kyle?"

Kyle stuttered. "Was ... was ... the ... the deck stacked?"

Tony laughed at that. "Believe it or not, that's a very philosophical question you just asked me." Kyle smiled uneasily. "Was the deck stacked? Did Lonny have a fair chance to save his own life? Or was the Ace of Spades hiding up my sleeve the whole time? It's like me and the accident that caused this. Did God mean for me to get disfigured or what it just the luck of the draw?"

Tony sighed. "Like me, you'll just have to go on not knowing." Kyle nodded eagerly. "It is the burden that we all must bear."

Tony shrugged. "Oh and could you please take that with you when you go?" Tony pointed at the Green Lama's corpse. Kyle grabbed the body bag and dragged it out of his office.

Tony smiled at Kyle's haste. "Kyle sure can run fast." Tony laughed at that. "You'd think the Devil was chasing after him."

Tony didn't consider himself sadist. It just drove him crazy when people thought they were better than him. Anthony Trent built a multi-billion-dollar industry from nothing just to prove them wrong.

Even before he started his love affair with the common knife, Tony always had a deep-seated need to compete. He never took much note of this compunction to outlast and outdo everyone back when the only effect it had on his life was making him insanely rick.

Tony remembered the first time he ever killed anyone. He was on some two-bit punk who had just robbed a convenience store. Still recovering from a messy break-up, Tony went out onto the streets that night when he probably should have stayed at home.

Sure that his fear would fuel him, Tony had found himself wrestling a gun away from a guy pumped full of PCP. The emotion left inside of him was pure rage. There wasn't any fear in him.

As Tony had struggled to get the gun away from him, the unthinkable happened. It went off and stripped away all his pretenses. Tony was scared but only for at first.

He saw a man, a drug addict, a leech on society, so full of himself, so sure of his place in the universe. Then, it saw the same man humbled by death, his bloated ego gone with his final breath.

That was the moment he realized that being a caped crusader wasn't his calling. He was a death dealer. For in death, all men were equal, regardless of what really looked like underneath their masks.

Tony stared enviously at Lonny's dead face. "Damn. Even dead, your face's prettier than mine." Tony pulled out the hunting knife again. "Let's fix that, shall we?" Tony went to work.

#

Jethro Dumont needed to be very careful with this next part. Many yogis died reviving themselves too quickly from the death sleep. While the original practitioners didn't know the exact nature of the risk, Jethro knew that flipping one's autonomic functions on and off like a light switch could lead to a fatal cardiac arrhythmia.

Poor Lonny, Jethro Dumont thought as Kyle paused a moment to stare at his utility belt, probably wondering if it were rigged like his mask was. It wasn't. Thankfully, Kyle decided not to try his luck this time. Jethro would have breathed a sigh of relief if he was able to.

Alonso Pescador didn't deserve what was, in all likelihood, happening to his corpse right now. Sure, Lonny had been middle management in a crime syndicate. Sure, he only turned on Trent because he had flashed a whole lot of money in his face. None of that changed the fact that he shouldn't have died like that.

Slowly and steadily, the rhythm of his breathing patterns returned to him. Kyle was still in the room, working up the nerve to rob a dead guy who might be bobby-trapped. Jethro's breaths were shallow and quick, nothing that Kyle would have noticed right away. Besides, for all he knew, he was the only living thing in here.

Kyle pulled out a pack of cigarette and lit one of them with a match. "That son of a bitch gives me the creeps." Kyle took a long drag on the cigarette. He blew the smoke out his nostrils. "Kyle O'Quinn isn't supposed to be second banana to a freak. He should be the one running the show by now." Poor deluded soul.

Even when Anthony Trent used to fight on the side of angels, he always had to be the center of attention. He couldn't stand the thought of anyone stealing his spotlight even for a microsecond. So Kyle O'Quinn had a better chance of sprouting wings and flying away than he did of moving up in Trent's seedy little organization.

Jethro tightened his fists. First, the right, then the left. Jethro couldn't wait for his full strength to come back. Kyle was starting to get suspicious. Every word of Kyle's body language told the tale.

Jethro sat up straight. the remains of Kyle's cigarette fell to the checkerboard floor of this custom-made morgue sub-basement. "Holy crap!" Kyle screamed as he ran for the door. "Get me out of here." Kyle had locked the door for his cigarette break. Now, he was having trouble working the lock. Kyle turned to him. "Don't kill me!"

A few dusty old yogi tricks and a little showmanship had gotten him quite far in the hero business. Oddly enough, convincing someone that the Green Lama couldn't die was a lot easier than convincing them that he could fly or shoot lasers out of his hands.

Jethro couldn't blame him. Lonny had shot him with a real bullet. The squib he punctured had real blood in it, his own blood actually, refrigerated for just such an occasion. If Lonny hadn't been so against electrocuting himself, he might not be dead right now.

As per conditions of the plan, Lonny had aimed for his chest, the most heavily armored portion of his body. The 9mm bullet had knocked him off his feet, adding to the illusion that he had killed him.

Jethro Dumont sprinted towards the door and ripped the knob clean off. The Green Lama's legendary speed and strength weren't complete lies; they were just facets of his extensive training regiment.

Jethro didn't even have to ask his question to get his answer. "He's in the last room to the left on the second floor." Kyle panted. "It's where he goes to work on his projects." With that, Kyle fainted.

#

Timothy Roland had been drafted into a special branch of the armed forces. As such, he would incommunicado for months on end. That was his cover story. Tim hated lying to Uncle Dave and Aunt Debbie. Ace spared him the trouble and did the lying for him.

Tim had been warned repeatedly about this Green Lama guy. He was supposed to be as sleek as oil and twice as valuable. Ace's people had been hunting this guy since he popped up on their radar in the 1980s. So far, they had hit nothing but dead ends.

Each time they thought they had zeroed in on the Green Lama, it turned out to a clever disguise or a deep cover alias. The only current information they had on him was a vague description: a moderately wealthy Caucasian male in his mid-to-late sixties with Olympic-caliber physicality and extensive mental conditioning.

A lot of things rubbed him the wrong way about this fellow but nothing scratched the chalkboard in his head more than his tendency to fake powers. Tim had knocked on death's door for his powers. He had earned them. This guy just knew how to psyche out criminals. Flight and energy blasts. Please. He might not even be that fast or strong. It could all be an act. Especially for a senior citizen.

In short, somebody needed to feed this aging circus act a big fat piece of humble pie. And Tim wanted to be that somebody.

Ace had joined them on this mission. Capturing the Green Lama was the high priority on this particular dungeon crawl. Everything else (and everyone else) was expendable.

Tim smirked. Good to know where he stood with these folks. Even it was at the bottom of a ditch on a dark moonless night.

Tim looked up at the sky. It was a full moon. Tim loved full moon nights. People saw so many crazy things by the full moon's light that the gas mask and crossbones hardly stood out among the menagerie of images that rose up from the collective unconscious.

It sort of aggravated Tim that the Green Lama had beaten him at his own game. Compared to someone who had all the bad guys thinking he was an invulnerable holy man with magical abilities, Tim was a rank amateur when it came to building upon his myth.

Tim smiled. He had seen enough Scooby-Doo as a child to know that wandering off by himself in a spooky old building would make him a magnet for masked men. Sure enough, the Green Lama appeared to me. "You always offer yourself up to your hunters?"

Green Lama sighed. "I know what you're trying to do but you'll only get in the way." The Green Lama turned to walk away. "Tell your people to fall back. I have this situation under control."

Tim shook his head. Such arrogance. Tim needed to set this guy "My people don't care about the situation." Tim walked after as the Green Lama as he walked away. "We're here to bring you in."

The Green Lama kept right on walking. "Hey, I'm talking to you." Tim grabbed his shoulder. Next thing Tim knew, he was on his back in considerable pain. Tim grinned. "If that's the way you want to play it ..." Tim went for the leg sweep. The Green Lama nimbled jumped his legs like a little girl playing double dutch with jump ropes.

"Why do you wear that gas mask?" The Green Lama looked around absently. "There are no breathing hazards in this area."

Tim shook his head as he looked at him. "I don't wear it for protection." Tim made a growling noise. "I wear it to intimidate."

The Green Lama nodded. "I see," he said as he circled Tim. "Which is, actually, my next question." The curl of a smile pulled at his lips. "Does the ability to intimidate make up for your lack of peripheral vision?" Tim's tightened his fists in anticipation.

"Or I have overstepped my bounds?" Tim scrambled onto his feet. Tim went for the straight jab to the bridge of the Green Lama's nose and punched through a cement column instead. The guy did a double take at the ruined remains. "A simple yes would suffice." Tim was ready to end this charade once and for all.

"You're strong." Tim swiped at him again. "And fast." Tim swung at him with a wild haymaker. "But you're also impatient and undisciplined." Tim went for a front kick. The Green Lama grabbed the leg and dumped him back onto the floor again. "A dangerous combination." Less than a second after Tim had gotten to his feet, the Green Lama chopped him in the throat. "But only to yourself."

Tim bent over, his hands on his knees. Tim struggled to catch his breath. "You are not the person I came here for." The Green Lama walked away as Tim tried to hobble after him. "I suggest you use that to your advantage." With that, the Green Lama vanished.

#

Alice McCoy aimed her Luger pistol into the darkness of the Chicago compound. While Alice couldn't have had a lower option of Nazis, it could not be denied that Germans made a quality handgun. The original 9mm Parabellum were built for a Luger P08.

The ground level was an ambush zone. Trent's first line of defense was to give the base the impression of being abandoned. Free-roaming squads were hiding in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to pick off those who lingered around a bit too long. Despite the initial cunning of the set-up, the free-roaming squads were only a cut above mall security. Ace located a group of eight and polished them off with a single magazine. Diana looked over at her, a twinge of jealousy in her eyes. At this range under these conditions, anyone with a piece could be a gunslinger.

These weekend warriors were pushovers compared to the tens of thousands of red-eyed fiends that had nearly eaten her alive in Port-au-Prince. The Culper Ring had covered the whole thing up as a cholera outbreak. Considering that it was an infectious condition that caused fits of extreme rage, it wasn't a complete lie, per se.

Timothy ran up next to Alice. "Ace," he said with haggard breath. "He's in there." Tim pointed down the hallway. "Get him." That was a grim solemnity in his voice. Obvioulsy, the Green Lama had been his usual charming self. Alice reloaded her pistol and ran down the hall. Good thing too. Three more squaddies down there.

Alice remembered the after attack reports of failed attempts to contain the Green Lama. There was some speculation that he used audio equipment to keep people from sneaking up on him. "I know you can hear me," Alice lied. "It doesn't have to be like this. I have the resources you need. Just tell me what you are doing here."

The Green Lama appeared. Alice fired a shot. The bullet ricocheted off a demolished cement column and buried itself in a wall. The Green Lama was teasing her. Alice decided to go out on a limb. "If you're searching for Jay Wheeler, you're making a big mistake." Alice holstered her pistol. "He is a very dangerous man."

Once he was sure Alice wouldn't go for her pistol, the Green Lama stepped out of the shadows. "Dangerous?" He shook his head. "Anthony Trent kidnapped Wheeler. He knows where he is."

Alice nodded. "That is only half the truth." The Green Lama narrowed his eyes. Despite his enormous physical vigor, he had the old eyes of a man who had seen way too much. "Trent knows where he is but the kidnapping was staged. Wheeler is working with him."

The Green Lama shot Alice a look that could freeze a volcano. "I wonder if you ever feel even the slightest bit of remorse from your lies." The Green Lama shook his head. "Jay Wheeler is a good man. He would never sink so low as that. Not in a thousand years."

Alice smirked. "Anthony Trent was a good man. Once. He was corrupted and it didn't take a thousand years. It took less than a decade." Alice sighed. "Now just imagine that same person after he has lived hundreds of decades and you tell me I'm lying."

Alice's heart ached for the Green Lama right now. He now tasted that foul curse that was her lot in her life. To never be able to trust anyone. To see the noblest of heroes worn down by time and turned into the monsters they had fought their whole lives against.

The Green Lama retreated into the safety of the forgiving dark, away from the searing light of truth. Alice couldn't blame his desire to fall back into ignorance for not all truth pointed to enlightenment.

#

Anthony Trent felt just like Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption as he crawled like a worm through the secret tunnel leading out of his secure compound. The Death Dealer always had an ace up his sleeve. Tony emerged in the dank subbasement of an abandoned building. He walked two blocks to a waiting limousine.

"Airport," Tony said to the driver, a dark-skinned gentleman by the name of Mohinder. Tony needed to disappear for a while. If they were hitting him at Site B, then they must also be at his home and downtown office. Tony needed to avoid those places at all costs.

A smile crossed Tony's face as he opened the door to the limo. Tony would have loved to see all the looks of their faces when they found his private gallery. It almost made the loss of his home and business worth it. Almost. Something didn't feel right about all this.

Alonso Pescador had been a double agent but this didn't feel like his people. Then, it occurred to him. Kyle O'Quinn. Stupid pissant had been gunning for his job for years. He must have talked. To who, Tony had no idea but this was definitively bigger than the feds.

CIA? No, their bark was worse than their bite. Tony ran through the list in his head of all the alphabet boys who might want to shut him down. None of them quite fit. Who were these mystery men?

It wouldn't help him sleep better at night if he knew who these G-men were. It couldn't change the fact that his organization had been compromised. For all he knew, he had a dozen guys like Kyle O'Quinn on his payroll, eager to get theirs by ratting out their creepy boss.

When faced with the perils of an unreliable workforce and the raising costs of doing business, Anthony Trent decided to do what any self-respecting head of an American corporation would do. He decided to outsource it to China. Anthony flipped open his iPhone.

Tony dialed the number and waited for a reply. "Hello."

"Princess." She had insisted upon the use of her nickname. It was childish but he found it necessary to indulge her fancy from time to time. "I need you to take care of something for me." Tony emailed her the details. A pause followed. The delivery would be delayed but, if he acted quickly, it would not be intercepted.

"Oh my," the Princess said with melodramatic relish. "This will cost you extra." The Princess snickered. "And it just might cost you everything, dear sir." Tony rolled his eyes. He hated her little games.

Tony threw his hands up in defeat. "What's that supposed to mean?" The Princess was making all kinds of sense right now.

"It means that I had nothing to do with her husband's death."

Superstitious chink. The woman she was referring to was dead. It didn't matter that they never found the body. The damned hotel had burned down around her and her idiot husband. Regardless of what her coolies might say, that woman was deader than dead.

"She might use me to get to you." Tony sighed. "Are you willing to risk that?" Of course, he was willing to risk that. Even if that woman was alive somehow, that delivery was more important than staving off any misguided vendettas of widowed wives. "See you soon."

The master waited in the Beyond, relying on the Princess for his freedom. All the while, Anthony quietly envied her ability to panic.

Fear was the real opiate of the masses. People craved the sensation. Moviegoers forked over billions of dollars a year for directors and actors to scare the living hell out of them. While he fed off of fear, he didn't experience it anymore. Tony used to take the feeling for granted. He was just like billions of others who saw fear as a weakness instead of a strength. Fearlessness was his curse now. Life lacked that element of fun without a little fear every now and then.

Fate had a sense of humor. One of Super-Brain's old gadgets had exploded during reverse engineering. That psychic blastwave granted him the ability to feed on the fears of others. If it hadn't also mutated him into a skull-headed freak and made him emotionally dead to his own fears, it would have been a win-win situation.

Anthony Trent's "phobic energy absorption" gave him the privilege to vicariously experience that intoxicating sensation known as fear. Tony often wondered what it'd feel like to have fears of his own again, instead of ones extracted from other people's minds.

#

Alice McCoy watched dispassionately as Timothy Roland pulled off his gas mask. "Omigod." Tim's words running together as he puked up his guts. "Why would someone do something like that?" Alice could have given him a dozen possible reasons for why Anthony Trent AKA the Death Dealer carved off the faces of his victims post-mortem. None of them would help him sleep at night.

Alice ignored Tim as he vomited a second time onto the floor. Trauma counselors were on call at the Chicago headquarters if he required any therapy. Right now, Alice's only real concern was this: Diana Adams had gone AWOL during the raid on the compound.

Alice could be in the hands of the enemy right now. Alice pulled up the number of the head lab coat at the Chicago headquarters. While a nondescript single-story office building on the outside, the Chicago headquarters extended almost ten stories underground with one of the finest R&D tech departments this side of Silicon Valley. What she needed done wouldn't be hard for folks who were always a generation ahead of the latest Best Buy gadget.

A shrill nasal voice came through the call as Alice saw something moving along the east wall of the compound. "I'll call you back." Alice hung up and gave chase. Alice pulled out her Luger. She should have shot him when she got the chance. If she aimed for his chest, it wouldn't kill him. Just soften him up a bit.

Alice had been starstruck. The legend himself in the flesh. Evading capture by the Culper Ring wasn't easy. Evading capture this long without ever exposing one's true identity should have been next to impossible in this day and age. Somehow, he pulled it off.

At last, Alice caught up with the runner. The signature green hood and cowl shimmered in the light of the full moon. Alice shot the target at chest height, hoping to score an incapacitating hit. The hood and cowl collapsed into a heap onto the asphalt. Alice closed the gap as her gun searched franticly for a new target in the dark.

A smile of appreciation forced its way onto Alice's face. Damn, he's good. The Green Lama's hood and cowl had been propped up on a discarded coat rack. Her shot had knocked it over. Taped to the cowl was a note. In letters clipped from magazines, it read, THE ANSWER IS STILL NO. "The answer is still no," she said to nobody.

In the eyes of her superiors, the mission was a complete failure. They hadn't been able to bring in the Green Lama. Anthony Trent, formerly Mister Face, currently the Death Dealer, had escaped. One of her operatives was missing in action and the other one was going to need a lifetime's supply of barf bags to make it in this line of work.

Still, nothing could quell her enthusiasm as of this moment. After all, Alice McCoy actually got to meet the Green Lama in person. He was everything the mission dossiers had described. A thoughtful educated soft-spoken older gentleman with a flair for theatrics. Moreover, he would make a magnificent asset, given the right set of circumstances to enable a proper partnership of convenience.

#

"Happy birthday to me," Jethro Dumont said as he peeled off the coat and beard of his hobo disguise. He looked down at his birthday cake. The two candles were a six and a three. Jethro didn't even know if sixty-three regular candles would have fit on a cake this small. "Sixty-three years young," he reminded himself as he sat alone in the dark. Jethro sighed. "What happened to my life?"

It was the curse of being in the hero business. Jethro Dumont did everything, the martial arts, the magic tricks, the death-defying derring-does of ascended masters, for people he barely knew yet cared for as if they were his own flesh and blood. And what would be his reward for all that kindness? Dying alone in an empty house.

Mastering what he needed to know to fight evil took years and perfecting them under the most brutal conditions imaginable took even more years. So Jethro just gave and gave until one terrible day he realized that he just didn't a lot of years left to give anymore.

Perhaps, it was this earning for a few more years that had formed the basis of his friendship with Jay Wheeler. Originally Gaius Martius, a vicious gladiator of the Roman Empire, Jay had used his endless supply of years to furnish quite a comfortable life for himself.

Jay Wheeler seemed so happy. Or had Jethro Dumont been deceiving himself in seeing something that wasn't there? How coud he be so miserable with a gift so miraculous that alchemists and madmen the world over had wasted their entire lives looking for it?

"Grass is always greener on the other side." Kindergarten wisdom at best but very true nonetheless. As Jethro grew older and older, he became to see the aging process in an antagonistic light, an adversary who hoarded time and mocked his attempts at youth.

To such a nostalgic soul as his, the possibility of immortality would seem a tremendous boon but what of his own loneliness? He could barely stand a few decades of it. Jethro shivered when he thought of how many generations the gladiator must have spent alone between social circles that never suspected his true age.

Jethro now wondered how often Jay had revealed his dark secret to naive mortals only for them to lust after his unending life. A dozen times? A hundred times? A thousand times. Who really knew?

Jethro Dumont tried not to beat himself up over his supposed blindness. After all, Jay Wheeler had ridden the winding rollercoaster of Western civilization. He knew how to blend in with whatever new social order rose out of the ashes of the old one. It would not be in any immortal's best interest to show his true feelings.

Jethro Dumont sighed as he heard the front door creak open and shut down the hallway. Armed with the finest security his parents' money could buy, his home was not an easy target for the common prowler. This was someone who knew how to hunt people.

#

Diana Adams could have sworn she had seen someone in this room. The lights of the chandelier illuminated everything. The titanic bookshelves reached up to the ceiling. A mahogany desk sat next to a fireplace. The cinders were still burning. Someone had been here. Quite recently. Yet through what door could he have exited? Diana had been guarding the only way in or out with her Colt .45s.

Diana had seen the Green Lama in action. This old man made Batman look like a slacker. He had a dozen cons operating at once. Not one of her thoughts in her head could be entirely her own. The Green Lama could have thought of it too and planned accordingly.

Diana looked down at her feet. A trapdoor, perhaps. A perfect escape for a Houdini fan. Diana kept her back to the wall. Diana didn't want to risk even the slightest possibility of getting ambushed by someone with the home court advantage. "Man's slippery," Dad said as Diana checked the floor for any hidden opening. "You could learn a lot of him." Diana ignored Dad as she continued her search.

Something heavy pressed up against the back of her neck. "Drop them." Diana dropped her weapons. "Turn around ... slowly." Diana turned around as a snail's pace. Diana saw the Green Lama, out of costume and devoid of his hobo disguise. "Who sent you?"

The Green Lama lifted the butt of his walking cane off of her neck. Diana looked at the wall. A secret door into a hidden room. Brilliant. "I sent me," Diana answered as she held her hands up high.

The Green Lama, even unmasked in a Hugh Hefner robe, carried himself with a sense of majesty and authority. "How did you find me?" Diana grinned. She had worried that he would never ask.

"Let's just say I spend a lot of time around the homeless and you obviously didn't have your mind in the game." The Green Lama had been sloppy as if overwhelmed by stress. His hobo walk had been stilted and uncertain like an actor who had forgotten his lines.

Despite his early failure as a hobo, the Green Lama was clearly making up for some lost game. "Were you followed?" Dad nodded and grinned a big silly grin. The Green Lama could speak cop. That was the easiest means of worming one's way into her father' heart.

"Nope." Diana sat down on the chair next to the desk. "And nobody has to know I found you." Taken aback, the Green Lama took a seat in the tall red chair next to the secret door. "I just wanted to see if it could be done." The Green Lama bowed his head.

The Green Lama sighed and lifted his head. "They will make you talk." Diana's eyes bulged in reply. "If you even look like you know more than you ought to, they have ways of making you talk."

Diana shook her head in disbelief. "You mean torture?" The Green Lama nodded solemnly. "Ace would never do that to us."

The Green Lama sighed. "Ace is not a name. It is an excuse for not giving you her name. She doesn't even trust you with her name and you trust her not to do what she has to do to serve her country?"

Diana cleared the air with her hands. "Listen." The Green Lama sighed. "Even if she did what she had to do, I don't know anything." Diana gestured to the door. "I don't know your name. I didn't get a good look at your address. I don't even know which neighborhood I'm in aside from the fact that it looks like one for rich white people."

The Green Lama rubbed his chin. A long unbroken silence followed before he spoke again. "Why did you really come here?"

Diana sighed. Moment of truth. "You chopped my friend in the throat." Diana wagged her finger at him. "A big no-no in my book."

A sigh. "He was in my way. I had to do something."

A laugh. "So, you chopped him in the throat. Good call."

Another sigh. "I'm sorry, alright." A pause. "Your friend OK?"

Diana nodded. "My friend's OK." Diana pointed at herself. "I'm OK." Diana smirked. " Even Ace is OK. We're all good people and we're just trying to help. OK?" The Green Lama nodded.

"I know," he said at last. "That's what I'm afraid of."

#

"Where were you?" Alice McCoy listened carefully as Diana Adams lied to her. It was a transparent lie. Something about going out for some fresh air. Diana wasn't being dumb. Diana wanted her to see through that lie so she could tell her a more convincing lie.

Diana apologized, not for lying but for doing the thing she was lying about. "It's alright this time but don't let it happen again." The lady gunslinger was sweating bullets. She would never stop to think about how easy she had gotten off the hook. "If anyone asks, you were severely reprimanded for this." Diana nodded and thanked Alice.

Diana left Alice's new office. Alice had requested to be as close to the lab coats' area as possible. The office was cramped and dark and the various vermin crawling around on the carpet were probably escaped experiments that got loose in the building.

Ace never told them about the tracking chips she had inserted into their bodies. Any tracking chip could be disarmed so company policy stated that the knowledge of their use on prisoners would be limited to a need-to-know basis. Diana and Tim didn't need to know.

The lab had sent over a file of Diana's movements in the last twelve hours. Tracking chips could be used for observation. For that purpose, they worked best when no one knew they had them on. Diana might not have visited Jethro Dumont at his home if she did.

Ace had tracked Diana to an address in Hyde Park. Correlating the information with county records, Ace determined the owner of the property to be one Jethro Dumont, age 63, the only son of John Pierre and Janet Dumont, both prominent Chicago citizens.

In 1969, both of his parents died in a car accident during his tour in Vietnam when he himself was erroneously declared dead. As a result, Jethro inherited a fortune of an estimated ten million dollars.

Alice now had to decide what to do with this information. The lab coats didn't know what this was for. While exposing the Green Lama's true identity was a major coup for the agency, reporting any of this to her boss, Star, would simply be a waste of time and money. The Green Lama would just disappear again and this time forever.

Ace shook her head. She couldn't let her feelings cloud her judgment on this matter. The Green Lama would have to be brought in sooner or latter. The only question here wasn't "if," it was "when." Alice smirked. Harrassing an old man wasn't going to save the world.

Alice was still shocked and amazed by how easy it had been to finally unmask the Green Lama. After all these years, the stray fancy of one of her newest operatives had shed some much needed light on the true identity of the mysterious Green Lama.

Ace needed to concentrate. The SHADOW in the SHADOW Initiative stood for something. It stood for "Special HAzards Division of Occult Warfare." The occult items stolen from Prisoner D were the supernatural equivalent of nukes. A war was coming their way. Ace needed to focus on getting their troops assembled and in the field.

.