People have often said that the waiting is the hardest part. Dirk Darringer agreed with them at the moment. He agreed in part simply because the confined quarters of a five foot square crate didn’t exactly facilitate comfort. He also agreed in part because this abandoned warehouse featured no temperature control—and Dirk wasn’t wearing his thermal costume. In truth, however, neither of these were the main reason Dirk hated the waiting. The real problem was that Dirk Darringer was a man of action, and right now he was bored.
He occupied himself by reconstructing the events which had led him to this crate inside of this warehouse. It had all started with a kid toting a ray gun. Punks in this city didn’t normally mess with anything more sophisticated than switchblades, so the sudden emergence of hi-tech weaponry naturally disturbed Dirk. After all, the well-being of the city was Dirk’s business. He was its self-appointed protector: Paragon, the Ultimate Man!
Fortunately that kid had been easy enough to stop. Despite his formidable firepower, he was still relatively unskilled. The five shots he squeezed off before Paragon punched his lights out did little more than to rearrange the garbage cans of an alley. Nonetheless, the thought of such awesome weaponry in the wrong hands sent a chill down Paragon’s spine. He had no desire to test his near invulnerability against lasers.
Fortunately for Dirk, the kid scared easily. Paragon offered the boy two alternatives. The first option involved telling Dirk where one obtained an oversized pop gun like that. Paragon promised that the source of the tip would remain anonymous. The boy’s other option involved being dragged along for a few of Paragon’s missions until the criminal hierarchy of the city began to question the punk’s loyalty. It boiled down to a question of whether the kid preferred being a traitor perceived as a loyalist or being a loyalist perceived as a traitor. Like so many of his kind, he chose image over substance. Of course, this pleased Paragon because he knew damn well that the second alternative wasn’t really feasible anyway.
Apparently the boy hadn’t lied either. Dirk noticed more gadgetry in and around this supposedly abandoned warehouse than one was likely to encounter at a science fair. Although Paragon could not discern the function of the devices, they appeared particularly ominous. Furthermore, the walls of the building consisted of reinforced concrete, an unlikely material for the housing of innocuous freight.
Several days of surveillance indicated a clear pattern of activity at the warehouse. Clients such as the youth he interrogated made nightly visits to the place at 3am. Dirk seriously doubted that they arranged such a time in order not to miss their cartoons. No, there were definitely some shady dealings taking place in the warehouse, and someone was taking measures to prevent anyone from noticing. After all, only two types of people were still awake at three in the morning: thugs and the vigilantes who pursued them.
Still crouched in the crate, Dirk pulled his arm up in front of his face. The light on his watch showed him that it was 2:54am; only six minutes until show time. Paragon adjusted his mask as he began to wonder about a final puzzling detail. Although he had seen young toughs entering and leaving the warehouse, he never saw another party come or go. Who was supplying the criminals, and how did they remain undetected? There was only one way for Paragon to find out.
That’s how he ended up in the crate. As Dirk had suspected, the warehouse saw little to no activity during the day. Breaking in this afternoon had proved to be a relatively easy task. Next Paragon required a central hiding place to eavesdrop from. What could be more convenient than one of the many crates stacked inside? From here Dirk would be able to establish the identity of the second party to the transactions. Paragon had little time to continue reveling in his cleverness, however, before he began to hear voices.
“It time yet?” asked a young voice.
“Couple more minutes,” replied a husky monotone.
“It kinda freaks me out the way he handles this. Why don’t he just face us in person?” inquired the first.
“For the kinda deal he’s givin’ us, he can handle this however he wants,” responded the second.
“Yeah, but that’s the thing,” said the first. “Don’t you ever wonder if we’re gettin’ too good a deal?”
At that moment Paragon heard a new sound. The creaking of cables and the straining of pulleys preceded a booming loudspeaker which spoke in a tone familiar to Paragon.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” roared the loudspeaker. “Welcome back.”
“What kinda deal you got for us tonight?” asked the husky voice.
“Ah…Tonight is when you finally pay me for what I have given you.” observed the loudspeaker.
“But, we already paid you.” declared the monotone.
“If you refer to the paltry sum of money I received, I hope that you jest. That was merely a formality. Your true payment comes in the form of a service” said the loudspeaker in a matter-of-fact way.
“What are you asking us to do?” asked the monotone, audibly disturbed by this turn of events.
“Why nothing. You have already performed the service to my satisfaction. You see, you pawns were little more than bait. I knew it was only a matter of time before you brought my quarry to me as you have tonight.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Of course you don’t. It’s not your role to understand. The point is that Paragon is here now, as I expected him to be. My cameras indicate that he infiltrated this building earlier this afternoon.”
“Paragon!” exclaimed the monotone, even more shaken than before. “As in, the Ultimate Man?!”
Before the conversation could proceed, Paragon burst from the crate, his cover blown. As soon as he arose he saw the source of the creaking cables and straining pulleys—a large screen had been lowered at the front of the warehouse. Projected onto the screen was the source of the voice being transmitted through the loudspeaker…the nefarious Doctor Malevo!
“Nice to see you again, Doc,” shouted Paragon. “I’m honored to see the trouble you took to get me here. You could have just thrown a Tupperware party.”
“And so the Fates once more pit the ultimate man against the ultimate mind!” exclaimed Doctor Malevo. “This will be the endgame, Paragon, for with you out of my way, no obstacles remain to hinder my master plan.”
“Looks like you better check your dictionary, Doctor. The ultimate man includes the ultimate mind! And if you hoped to stop me with these two bozos, I’m surprised you made it past Kindergarten.”
“No, Paragon. I’ve made special preparations for your demise…”
At that point a towering crate near Dirk literally splintered before his eyes. Where the crate once was stood an impressive robot. It did not look friendly.
“Meet my Malevo-bot, fool! Right now there is only one thing on his mind…a fistful of spandex! Bwahahahahahaha!”
Dirk wanted to retort. If there was one situation that really angered him it was when maniacal geniuses laughed at him like that. Paragon wanted desperately to say something which illustrated his coolness under fire, but somehow the only word which came to mind didn’t really fit the bill. “Uh-oh” was definitely not a remark which demonstrated any level of confidence.
Fortunately he didn’t have time to say anything at all, because the giant robot immediately lunged toward him. For a machine so large, it certainly moved fast. Paragon’s heightened reflexes barely enabled him to dodge in time. Dirk issued a swift kick to the back of the android, denting its armor. In response the robot swiveled at the waist and immediately grabbed Dirk around his neck. Like a vice grip the metal hand began to contract.
Paragon dropped to a sitting position, throwing the machine off balance. Then using his momentum to propel his body into the motion for a backwards roll, he brought his legs up into the falling robot’s chest plate. With a powerful mule kick Paragon launched the robot into the air, breaking its asphyxiating grip. The android impacted against the concrete wall with a loud crash. Nuts and bolts scattered across the room as scraps of metal flew in all directions.
“Looks like I broke your toy,” said Paragon defiantly.
“Not a toy, my self-righteous friend,” corrected Doctor Malevo. “A diversion! If you look around you will observe that all of the exits from have been sealed. I needed to occupy you during the interval necessary to make this building inescapable. You see, Paragon, this is not a warehouse. It’s a tomb. The vast majority of devices you saw on both the outside and inside are little more than dressed up explosives.
‘Now, my old enemy, as I watch from the safe distance of my broadcasting location, I will detonate those explosives. I will end your meddlesome existence once and for all!”
“He’s not kidding!” cried the younger of the two toughs as he vainly struggled with a now vault-like door. “We’re doomed!”
Dirk scanned the room. Even in this moment of desperation he had to admire Doctor Malevo’s thoroughness. Trap doors had concealed vault encasements which now blocked every exit. Dirk supposed that these encasements were made of the same reinforced concrete as the walls. He knew that not even his super-human strength would enable him to force an opening. Dirk saw no windows or vents either.
Doctor Malevo must have perceived Dirk’s alarm, because once again he began to laugh. “God, I hate that laugh,” said Dirk quietly to himself. Yet at the moment it looked like the sinister cackle would be the last thing that Paragon ever heard.
Next issue: “Gunshots and Grapefruits” by Daniel Warren
I admit it—I am truly a bastard. Not only did I not have a cliffhanger to resolve, but Daniel was relatively kind to me with his title. How did I repay such kindness? I did my best to screw over the next author, WarDan. Not only did I leave him with a problematic ending, but I also gave him one very crazy title! Before you heave a sigh of relief because you’re not WarDan, just remember that once he resolves this mess in his chapter, he’s probably going to be feeling rather vindictive. I hope writer number three is up to the challenge!