(a sequel to "The Crusaders")
by Linda Thackeray
After almost two weeks, the trail to find Kevin Sharpe was cold. Donovan's contacts at the local police precinct offered little information as well. Mrs Sharpe did indeed file a missing person report on her son but the police had taken it no further than that. Why should they? Kevin Sharpe was just another black kid from the worst part of town. What did it matter to them that he was never into drugs, was almost a straight A student and had a bright future as a track athlete? The colour of his skin seemed to dictate how he was he was perceived, no matter how unfair the standard.
Nevertheless, Ted was faced with the same frustration Guy must have felt, in his search for Kevin. Ted had even visited the boy's mother who told him of the promise Guy made to find her son. Although it seemed unlikely that Kevin's fate might have had anything to do with the kidnappers who took Guy, it was all Ted had to go on. Ted allowed Donovan to do most of the legwork in the neighbourhood because the younger man had his sources who appreciated their anonymity.
Instead of impeding Donovan's progress by his presence, Ted ran down the list of Kevin's friends provided as provided by his mother. Judging from the short list, it appeared Kevin was somewhat of a loner. Ted could understand that. Kevin believed in his future and kept company with people who believed in the same. In this neighbourhood, that number did not add up to much. Kevin had a few friends but mostly kept to himself. His attention was mostly focussed on his studies and from what Ted learnt from his mother, his younger siblings. The more he spoke to Kevin's friends, the more Ted realised why Guy had been so intent on finding the boy. He was a kid who was smart enough to know that an education was the ticket to a better life. No way would this kid simply go off on a whim. If Kevin Sharpe was missing, there was good reason to worry.
The name Hex was almost the last one on the list. Kevin's mother had added it as almost an afterthought. Apparently, Hex was into the gangs and he was into drugs, which was probably the reason why Mrs Sharpe had discounted Kevin having any present associations. Ted never discounted anything until he knew otherwise. Finding Hex was no easy thing. The boy's family saw him occasionally and was not eager to tell Ted where to find him. Finally, Ted managed to get the name of his gang at least. After that, it was not difficult for Donovan to find the places the gang usually frequented.
It had been a long since this neighbourhood had seen better days and this ramshackle and abandon collection of grey buildings seemed to be the source of all expanding deterioration. It was not hard to locate the gang once they landed on the roof of the building. The sound of loud rap music thundered from the lower levels at full blast. As Ted peered over the edge of the roof, he saw a collection of expensive cars, ranging from Cadillacs to BMW's parked at the main driveway.
"I'll go in first." Ted instructed Donovan. "You stay out here and keep an eye on anyone who tries to leave the party."
"No problem." Donovan replied as Ted started down the stairs leading to the interior of the building.
It did not take Ted long to reach the ground floor of the building. Most of the machinery had been removed long ago and the room he moved through was empty and derelict. Almost all the windows had been smashed in and among the rising layer of dust on the floor, were random piles of glass. The lack of furnishing prevented any possibility of concealing his approach and Ted decided not to try.
The main factory floor was also devoid of machinery but in its absence, Ted saw old sofas and chairs strewn haphazardly around the room. He assumed that these additions were made by the building's latest tenants. There was a refrigerator in the corner, with a big screen TV, VCR and a pretty expensive stereo system. A regular little clubhouse, he thought. There was about ten of them, wearing sunglasses, expensive clothes, adorned with heavy jewellery. It was not the kind of opulence that could be earned on a paper route, that was for certain. They were Reebok and Nike liked badges of honour and Ted did not have to see it to know they were all carrying guns.
"Hi there." Ted greeted loudly.
Heads turned around simultaneously and at the sight of him, they all leapt out of their chairs and jumped to their feet. It took even less time that that to draw weapons. In less than thirty seconds, Ted was staring down the barrels of an assortment of guns.
Who the fuck are you?" One of them demanded. Ted knew immediately that the speaker was the gang's leader. He seemed meaner than the others. There was something in his eyes that bore little humanity. He reminded Ted of a wild animal, territorial and savagely ruthless.
"Fortunately for you, not the profanity police." Ted replied coolly. "I'm looking for someone."
"This is our turf man! Nobody invades our turf unless they want to get dead." The leader declared proudly.
Fine, Ted thought to himself. We will do the territorial dance. He heard the heavy thud of a firing mechanism locking into place. It was followed by others in the room. The rest of the gang was taking cue from him and although he did not display fear, he was poised to react. Ted's eyes narrowed as he glared at the youth and responded icily. "You fire that thing at me and you'll regret it." Ted warned, with an edge to his voice that indicated he was not bluffing. "I can tear those guns apart like paper."
His words affected them on some level because he saw one or two of the weapons wavering slightly. They were wrestling with the prospect of taking on a superhero. Ted decided to give them more incentive to co-operate.
"If you actually do get lucky and hit me, I have friends." Ted warned. "I really don't think you want the entire Justice League coming down on your ass. Are you ready to deal with Superman?" He walked closer to the leader and stared into the man's black eyes. "Are you ready to cross swords with the Bat?"
The gang leader's eyes widened at the mention of Batman. Ted could see genuine terror seeping into his eyes no matter how much bravado he might try to project. Of course Ted was exaggerating when he had used the League's name but these kids were dumb. They were more aggression than brains and years of undisciplined lives had made them dumb. They lived on the belief that they were too smart for everyone, adults, the cops, and perhaps even their parents. However, even the smartest knew that that there was always someone better out there. It was the law of their jungle. Ted hoped the reality check was instructive.
After an eternity, the man's gun dropped to his side. "What do you want?" He asked sourly. He gestured to the others to do the same.
"Good choice." Ted said smoothly. "I don't want any trouble, just some answers." As he watched the weapons being holstered, Ted continued speaking, even though his eyes were rarely off any of them for a second. "I am not interested in your business," Ted declared, hoping that would put them at some measure of ease. H e did not want this to erupt into a shooting match. "I'm looking for someone named Hex."
Hex gave himself away almost immediately. He was the only one who reacted at the sound of his name. Not to mention, when Ted had spoken the name, nine sets of eyes had turned to him. The boy named Hex was standing towards the back of the group. As they looked at him, a small island had formed around Hex when his friends took a step backwards.
"Hex," the leader spoke, his eyes still on Ted's. "Get out here."
Hex looked to his fellow gang members for help but saw none available to him. Finally, he began approaching hesitantly, fighting the urge to run because he knew the consequences if he did. Even if the superhero did not catch him, his own gang members would. Running out on the brothers was a quick way to an early death. The gangs did not suffer cowards.
"I'm Hex." He admitted reluctantly.
Ted looked the boy over carefully. He was about the same age as Kevin but they were poles apart. Hex was typical gang alumni. From the expensive sweat suit, to his nice clean Nikes and the faint silhouette of a gun hidden beneath his jacket, he was a world away from Kevin Sharpe. Ted's scrutiny made him uncomfortable and Hex did not seem able to meet his eyes. Everything about him oozed guilt. He knew what this was about all right. Ted was sure of it. "Kevin Sharpe. Do you know him?"
Hex did not answer but the gang leader whose name Ted learned was Roscoe, did. His brows knitted in recognition and looked at Hex critically "Ain't that the brother that wins all those races at Washington? The one who is a friend of yours?"
"That's him." Hex nodded.
"He's disappeared." Ted told Roscoe for his information. "No one has seen him in almost two weeks."
"We don't know nothing about that." Roscoe replied. "Nigger had a lot talent. I seen him run. He's clean Mister, he didn't wear no colours."
Ted flinched at the use of the word 'nigger' but believed Roscoe was genuinely telling the truth. What Ted knew of Kevin certainly indicated that the boy would not become involved with the gang. However, Ted saw a different expression on Hex's face. Hex was starting to sweat and he looked as if he was going to start running any minute. His anxiousness was so overt that even Roscoe was starting to see it. The gang leader's face hardened and he grabbed Hex by the collar and made him face him.
"I ought to kill you for bringing down his kind of heat!" Roscoe shouted glancing at Ted as he spoke. "What you got us into? Tell the man what he wants to know!" He slammed Hex into a nearby wall as the young man looked to the others for help. However, it was not forthcoming. None of the other gang members appeared willing to risk a confrontation over Hex's welfare if he had it coming.
"I don't know nothing!" Hex protested, hoping someone would help. By now, Roscoe had a gun to his cheek and did not appear afraid to use it. Of course, there was no way Ted would allow him to kill Hex. For the moment, however, the Blue Beetle held back. He wanted to Hex to talk and if a little intimidation helped things along, then so much the better.
"You better start talking man!" Roscoe demanded. "You been working for someone else?"
"No!" Hex looked shocked at the very mention of such a thing. "Kevin's a brother you know," he said quickly, his words leaving his mouth with the uneven frequency of a jackhammer. He was practically blubbering. "Kevin was always straight but we was talking and I know he needed the money for his momma, so I told him that I'd keep my ears to the ground."
"Hex, he's been gone for two weeks! How legal is that?" Ted shouted. "What did you get him into?"
"I swear I didn't know anything was going to happen to him." Hex confessed meeting Ted's gaze. "There's been a high roller moving through the neighbourhood, says he's a recruiter for something called the Arena. "
The Arena. For some reason that sounded familiar. Ted was trying to place when he had last heard the reference. He knew for certain that if was fairly recently but the details of it escaped him for the moment. He shook the thought out of his head and looked to Hex for more details. "A name." Ted glared at him. "I want a name."
"I don't have a name!" Hex declared helplessly, still wrapped in Roscoe's sights. "If you are interested, you go to the corner by Vine and Bowery Street on Saturday nights and wait. If you're what he's looking for, you go with him. I told Kevin about it because he's an athlete right? I thought he could make some money out of it, I swear I didn't know he was going to disappear. I didn't know they were going to take your friend either."
Ted looked up sharply. Until this point, he had not made any mention of Guy. "I didn't say anything about my friend, what do you know about it?"
Realising his mistake, Hex tried to repair the damage. "I don't know nothing!"
Roscoe however, was not so easily appeased. "You stupid bastard. Did you mess with one of them?" He pointed to Ted, indicating superheroes. "You know what kind of trouble that is? Roscoe barked. "You're going clean up your mess nigger, tell the man what he wants to know so that he'll leave us alone!"
Hex looked at Roscoe with pure terror in his eyes and Ted guessed at that moment, he was more afraid of telling the truth than of the gang leader. However, the comparison faded quickly when Roscoe cocked the barrel of his gun. The sound was loud enough to make Hex jump with fear and that was all the prompting, required by the young man into revealing all.
"Okay, okay!" Hex finally conceded. "Your friend was asking questions about Kevin, so I passed the word along to the dude. He said there was nothing to worry about. He ain't been seen since they took your friend. I think he's cleared out. "
Ted had expected that much. Those responsible for Guy's abduction were not amateurs. Once paranormal involvement was apparent, they were wise enough to disappear, leaving little evidence behind. To tell the truth, Ted was somewhat surprised that Hex was still alive to tell the tale of their existence. In any case, he had learnt all he could here. It was time to go.
"If anything happens to my friend," Ted glared at Hex so that the kid would understand the full weight of his words. "I'll come back for you and your friends." He let his gaze meet Roscoe's and added further. "I don't want this kid hurt." He told the gang leader whose eyes narrowed with hatred at being given orders by anyone like. "If I find out that he is dead, I'm going to assume that you killed him and I will be back."
With that, the Blue Beetle took his leave. He could no longer stomach the lot of them.
Hours later, Ted had returned to Booster's penthouse suite in Manhattan. Donovan Wallace knew nothing of the arena about which Hex had spoken. However, the new General Glory had promised to use the reference with his contacts to see if any information existed on the streets. Ted wracked his memory trying to remember when it was he had heard the term. However, the knowledge was not forthcoming. He was doubly certain now that Guy and Kevin were abducted by the same people. What was the arena? Somehow, he knew that this entire mystery hinged on the answer to this question.
"Not much," Ted said glumly. "I've got a couple of leads though. I don't suppose you've heard about something called the Arena?"
Booster who was pouring himself a drink at the bar, stopped what he was doing immediately. He set the glass down on the surface and turned to his best friend. "Did you say the Arena?"
Ted had not really expected an answer when he has spoken. It was more of a rhetoric than anything else. He looked up at Booster immediately. "Are you saying you've heard of it?" Ted responded, almost afraid of the answer.
"Yeah, I've heard of it." Booster nodded, still shocked by the serendipity of the moment. "You're the second person in the last week to mention it."
Ted almost fell out of his chair. This was more than just good luck, it was positively eerie. He rose from the chair and crossed the room towards Booster. "When did you hear it?"
"Claire." Booster stated.
"Claire?" Ted exclaimed in surprise at the unexpected name.
"I didn't know you still kept in touch." Ted replied.
"She calls me now and then." Booster admitted. "We go out to dinner and that sort of thing. To tell you the truth, I think she misses being apart of the game."
"Not much." Booster admitted. "I didn't think it was right to see her now that Catherine and I are a thing." Booster did not want to talk about the intimate relationship he and Claire had shared for a brief time. Even though they parted as friends, Booster wanted nothing to interfere with his growing relationship with Catherine Colbert. He had waited too long for a chance with the French beauty to waste it on dalliances with old loves.
"Call her," Ted said firmly. The tone of his voice indicated that he would tolerate no argument from Booster on this matter. They simply did not have the luxury of minding Booster's sensibilities when two lives and perhaps even more might be at stake.
"Ted " Booster started to speak but then thought better of it. "Okay, I'll call her."
Within minutes, Booster was on the phone to Claire Montgomery. Unsurprisingly, Claire was still in her office when he called. She was the atypical 90's career woman who felt the need to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. During their brief relationship, Booster had decided that Claire relied on that fallacy to justify being a workaholic. Her dedication to her career was part of the reason they had gone their separate ways. Booster was not as committed to a career as she was.
"Booster Gold," Claire exclaimed. "Twice in as many weeks, I am honoured."
Booster tried not to sound uncomfortable but he could not help it. Normally, he would have little trouble charming women, well except Catherine. However, Claire was similarly gifted in that she was able to see through his debonair persona to the person beneath the image. "Claire, I need to ask you a question." He decided that there was no reason to deceive her. Claire was better at it anyway.
"I sense something important." She retorted smoothly.
"It is very important." Booster confirmed. "Do you remember that invitation to the Arena?"
"The one you turned me down for?" Claire responded, unwilling to let him off so easily.
"That one," Booster responded, starting to squirm. "Claire, I need to know what it is."
Claire paused for a moment. She sensed real concern in his voice that stripped away any desire to keep playing her little game. Claire Montgomery knew how to play it straight when it mattered. "I'm not sure myself Booster." She replied honestly. "I got an invitation because I expressed a passing curiosity when I was a cocktail party at Lexcorp about a week ago. From what I understand, you get to go to the Arena by invitation only and you are expected to have your chequebook. I expect it's a private game that's being held in town. The guests are all very rich, very influential and of a certain type. Risk takers, boardroom gamblers, you know the kind."
Booster nodded. He did know the type she meant. The invitees to the Arena had to be rich and unafraid of taking chances. The kind of people who decided hunting rhino in Africa was worth the extinction of the species in exchange for the rush of killing such a rare animal. "Do you still have the invitation?" Booster inquired after a moment.
"I was told to be discreet." Claire remarked. "And I don't think the invitation is transferable."
"Claire," Booster let out a deep breath. "I need that invitation." He said simply. "Guy Gardner is missing and we believe this Arena has something to do with it."
There was another pause but Booster knew Claire well enough to realise that it was not hesitation but rather shock at how sinister events had crept into her life without her knowing. Claire liked being in control of all situations. She would not accept the entry of something so unsavoury into her life without her knowledge. It left her feeling vulnerable. Claire hated being vulnerable.
"It's yours.' She said simply. "It's yours."
The gravel underneath the tyres of the limousine heaved as the vehicle drove over it. Pieces of loose dirt scattered as the dark chariot moved through the night. During the day, the waterfront district was a hive of activity. People came and went by the dozens, dock workers, stevedores, sailors and captains. They were undisputed masters of this domain. However, as then sun began to set behind the horizon of the sea so many of them worshipped, they sought temporary solace in the city. It was permissible to abandon the domain for more creature comforts.
In their absence, the domain was easy prey for those who wanted the security of its deserted warehouses and darkened alleys. In the night, this was hardly a safe place and in every corner lurked the whisper of danger. Those who wanted a reality far removed from the opulence of their normal existence came here to touch a part of themselves most would rather let alone. They arrived in their stretched limousines, their shiny BMW's and exotic foreign cars.
Headlights followed one another through the silent streets, like ghosts on spectral march as they converged at a common destination. Like worshippers at an altar, the cars came to a stop outside the largest building at the docks. During the day, it was responsible for the transportation of goods from ships arriving from the Four Corners of the world. Now, it had a darker purpose.
Ted Kord stepped out of the Mercedes he had rented for the night, surprised by how many faces he recognised among the guests. There were playboys and senators, tycoons and movie stars. Apparently, the organisers of the games felt no need to discriminate, as long as the money was there. He adjusted his bow tie of his tuxedo before proceeding to open the door for Zatanna.
She was dressed elegantly as always, in a flowing velvet gown. Although she was dressed for the occasion, anyone else who looked at her would have seen the visage of Claire Montgomery. As Zatanna had explained to him, she had cast a minor glamour over their party so they could fit into this gathering without suspicion. If Ted looked in the mirror, he would see himself but others would see millionaire playboy, Bruce Wayne. Ted had it on good authority that Wayne was currently travelling the country, trying to raise support for the reinstatement of Federal aid to the devastated Gotham City.
"Look at this group." Booster declared as he stepped out of from the back of the car. "There's a lot of money here tonight."
"I still wish I knew what this had to do with Guy's disappearance." Beatriz grumbled. Like Ted and Zatanna, Booster and Beatriz were also disguised. Guests would look at them and see a world famous super model Katrina and currently popular soap actor, Dirk Foster.
"That's what we're here to find out." Ted retorted as they observed the other guests entering the building. Through the crack of the main doors, Ted caught the glimpse of a power strobe light and wondered what they were in for tonight. He reached for Zatanna's hand and started forward, making a mental note to tell her how awesome she looked, glamour or not. He would have done so earlier if not for the circumstances of their being here. Despite her outward calm, Ted could tell Beatriz was nervous. The prolonged silence of Guy's whereabouts weighed heavily on her. It did not help matters either that Verona and Buck Wargo had been unsuccessful in their investigations with Guy's past enemies.
Entering the building, they were confronted by a huge gorilla of a man, who was inspecting everyone's invitations. Although he was wearing a tuxedo and appeared well groomed, he looked barely a notch above civilised. He was easily nine feet tall, with a protruding jaw and solid, tree trunk like arms. Zatanna offered her invitation because it was addressed to Claire Montgomery.
He looked at the invitation then studied all of them closely, trying to find a reason to bar them admission. "Welcome to the Arena." He said after a moment, obviously unable to find one. His voice was a low rumble and sent shivers down Zatanna's spine when she heard it.
The interior of the building had undergone a considerable transformation, considering that a few short hours ago, this has been a working part of the docks. In the centre of the room was a steel mesh enclosure. The walls of the fence were almost ten feet high and looked like one of those outrageous wrestling rings often used by WWF. Surrounding the structure on all sides were bleachers for the guests. Powerful lighting was aimed in the centre of ring and had all the atmosphere of a prizefight about to begin.
The rest of the floor was carpeted in red, with dealers catering to guests as roulette, blackjack and other gaming tables. Ted swore he could hear the singsong of a slot machine somewhere in all this. There was a bar at the corner of the room, with waitresses in tight black dresses, strolling about serving drinks. Ted also noticed the presence of what looked like a betting parlour for the evening's main event.
"I don't believe this." Booster managed to say. "Its Vegas on the waterfront."
"I don't like the look of that cage." Zatanna responded. Her eyes were fixed on the steel enclosure. The proceedings had sparked a memory within her but those events she remembered were years in the past. It was a coincidence, she told herself, but the knot in her stomach would not go away.
"Who could blame you." Beatriz replied, shivering a little. Something about that enclosure chilled her blood. Actually, it was not just the steel cage; it was the people around it. Although they appeared to be civilised and well bred, there was something about these guests that made Beatriz feel uneasy. It would take nothing but a gentle nudge to strip away the polished veneer to reveal something more sinister beneath the surface.
"Look mingle," Ted instructed quietly. "We're here to nose around a bit."
"Come on Bea," Booster offered her his arm. "Its not everyday I get to be a famous actor. Let's take these identities out for a spin."
"I'm here to find Guy." Beatriz said gruffly.
"I know," Booster returned unperturbed by her manner because he knew she was worried about Guy. "But to do that, we can't seem out of place."
"All right," the Brazilian woman conceded. "Lead the way Dirk."
Zatanna and Ted were already crossing the floor towards the roulette table. Whatever main event was scheduled for the night did not appear to be starting for a while and this was a good chance to learn all they could about this establishment. Ted however, noticed Zatanna was somewhat preoccupied.
"Something wrong?" He inquired as he removed two tall glasses from the tray of a passing waitress.
"Nothing really," Zatanna shrugged. Judging from his expression, Zatanna knew he did not believe her. It was disconcerting for a magician to have someone read her so well, disconcerting and at the same time, fulfilling.
In the last month or so, Ted and Zatanna had been spending weekends together. Since he was mostly based in Las Vegas at the corporate headquarters of Lightspeed Entertainment and Zatanna resided in New England, they often met in New York. The arrangement was suitable for both since neither wanted their relationship to proceed any faster than necessary. Ted was enjoying getting to know Zatanna and he realised that she appreciated not being rushed. As self-assured as she could be in all things magic, emotionally she was vulnerable as any woman forced to live such an unusual life. Ted knew he cared for her a great deal and it was a mystery what she saw in him. However, it was obvious something truly wonderful could emerge if they allowed it time to develop.
"This seems familiar." Zatanna admitted.
"Tell me about it," Ted retorted taking a sip of his wine. A good year, he mused before continuing. "When I heard about this place, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I knew I heard about it somewhere before but I couldn't remember."
"Do you know now?" She asked.
"It was one of those fund raisers I was at recently," Ted answered. "I overheard some rich asshole talking about it, how it was suppose to be the living end of everything. Of course, he clammed up when I approached."
"That's why it's good to have a secret identity." Zatanna pointed out. "He probably didn't want Ted Kord finding out about this little party, or more accurately, Blue Beetle."
"I can't figure it out thought," Ted admitted, allowing his gaze to sweep across the room. "Even if it is an illegal fight, why all the secrecy? There's enough money to sweep all this under the rug even if the cops did know and what has this do with Guy and Kevin Sharpe."
"I don't know." Zatanna replied. She was glad he did not pursue her about her familiarity with the Arena. She prayed to whatever spirits that granted prayers that she was wrong about her suspicions.
It was quite evident that although the patrons were content to amuse themselves at the gaming tables, their main reason for attending the night's activities was for the event yet to take place. Eventually, the powerful strobes above the ring came alive as the lighting elsewhere began diminishing gradually. Guests moved to the bleachers, eager for the entertainment to begin, unconcerned at simple wooden seats that would have given rise to complaints had they been anywhere else.
The Crusaders felt similar anticipation themselves. However, the reasons for their anxiety had to do with the friend who was missing and the answers the arena would provide them in aiding his recovery. It was impossible however, to be immune to the thrill or excitement in the air as the lights dimmed around them. The single focus of the room became the steel fenced ring, glaring under power white lights. The expectation charged the air as voices fell silent and all eyes were locked onto that one place.
Ted Kord looked around him. It was now difficult to see the faces of the other guests. He caught glimpses of a face here and there, reflected by the light but unquestionably, his gaze kept returning to the empty arena. In what seemed an eternity, a lone figure stepped into the centre of the ring. The man was dressed in a white tuxedo, with a face that reminded him of a used car salesman. The MC stood in the centre of the spotlight, an expression of exultation on his face as he looked at his audience.
There was a rumble of approval from the audience and the Crusaders began to feel uneasy about the dangerous complacency of the patrons. Nevertheless, for the moment, they watched and waited.
"Tonight, we have a special fight." The master of ceremonies continued. "From the dawn of human existence, we have been preyed upon by the greatest of hunters, the big cats. Can you imagine what it must have been for our early ancestors, to have their fates decided by a pair of glowing eyes and flash of teeth? Even now, our fear is so great that we have been forced to create smaller version of the original, to make slaves of as retribution for the blood spilt. So, in the spirit of that conquest and to remind ourselves that we are undisputed masters of our domain, I give you the battle of the big cats."
He stepped back grandiosely just as a powerful roar was heard throughout the warehouse. Undoubtedly, the sounds were amplified by electronics but the authenticity could hardly be ignored. From the corner of his eye, Ted saw the creature lumber into the ring. It moved like silk, muscles rippling under its exquisite coat.
"That's a cheetah." Booster hissed.
Not any ordinary cheetah, Ted wanted to say but did not waste energy on speaking when he was observing the creature so closely. It was the biggest cheetah he had ever seen. Had it stood on its hindquarters, it would easily be more than seven feet tall. Its tail swung around languidly but what captured Ted's attention most was not that it was so huge, but that it entered the arena without any assistance from a handler. It seemed to know what was expected of it. As it appeared in the arena, the crowd started to cheer and yet the animal seemed unperturbed by the attention. Instead, it allowed its eyes to move across the faces, studying the audience as closely as it was being studied.
"And now for our second contestant." The GMC's voice broke into Ted's ears again. "The Establishment spends no expense to bring you the ultimate in entertainment, I give you a most ancient enemy."
Another animal stepped into the arena with similar fanfare. Ted blinked, unable to believe his eyes for an instant. Surely this was a trick. Amazing things could be done with prosthetics these days. This must be an elaborate hoax. However as he saw the creature move, he knew it was no trick. The crowd's roar became deafening until it drowned out the sound of the world.
"That can't be!" Zatanna exclaimed, her voice could barely be heard over the crowd.
But it was. It was a sabre-tooth tiger.
For the next twenty minutes, the house lights were switched on as guests went to place their bets. In the meantime, Ted was watching the creatures in the arena. To maintain the ruse, he instructed Zatanna to go make a bet. The idea of gambling on blood sports did not amuse her. Unfortunately, they were here for a reason. As odious as it was to allow these animals to tear each other apart, to interfere would be to lose any chance of finding Guy Gardner. Their only chance was to wait until the fight was over and then follow the MC to his master.
"Look at them." Ted said to Beatriz as they waited for Zatanna and Booster to return. "They're just sitting there."
Beatriz could see what he found so unusual. Both the deadly predators, known for their aggressive behaviour as hunters, regarded each other unlike any animals she had seen. They remain in their corners, making no move towards each other although there was nothing to prevent them even if they wanted. Either they were extremely well trained or the relationship between the big cats was sorely mistaken.
"I don't like this." Beatriz replied. "Its too creepy."
"Not to mention politically incorrect." Ted remarked.
Beatriz threw him a look. "Are you ever a grown up?" She retorted before facing the arena again.
"I thought I was doing okay," Ted joked. "I actually wore the right colour socks this time."
"How do you think they managed to get a hold of a sabre tooth?" She asked, admiring the creature. Other than artist's renderings, the world had never seen a sabre tooth tiger. If the creature were to die here tonight, they never would. It was larger than the cheetah, with its famous extended teeth jutting forward with lethal intention. Its pelt was tawny and yet she could see the movement of every muscle as it paced up and down the corner.
"I don't know." Ted answered honestly. "After Jurassic Park, nothing is impossible."
"You think they cloned it?" She asked.
"We can't even keep animals from our era alive in this day and age, I doubt that a creature like that could survive without man's interference for the last twenty thousand years." Ted retorted.
The house lights were dimmed once the bets were placed. The MC stepped into the arena and faced the audience once again. The creatures in the ring made no move towards him and the feat garnered a hearty round of applause from those watching. The MC bowed as if he was not the least bit worried that he was standing in between too ferocious predators. Not that he needed to worry; neither of the cats seemed inclined to approach him.
"Let the games begin." He replied loudly, letting the words escaped him as an explosion of cheering began.
His attention snapped back to the arena as a large roar signalled the beginning of combat between the two creatures. The cheetah moved like lightning, its lashed out in a flurry of movement to quick to see. Although considerably smaller than the sabre tooth, its speed and agility gave it an advantage. It struck the sabre tooth across the face in a multitude of rapid strikes before withdrawing.
The sabre tooth roared in defiance and rage. Its powerful bellow filling every corner of the makeshift amphitheatre. The ancient cat leapt forward in a powerful lunge, surprising the cheetah enough to land on it. As the smaller cat tried desperately to move out of the way, the sabre tooth lowered its enormous teeth. There was a shriek of pain as the teeth sank deep through the cheetah's body. Ted flinched as he saw a crimson stain expanding from the gored wound.
The cheetah was far from done however and as the sabre tooth raised its head to remove his teeth, the younger cat took the opportunity to escape.
"Ted, we can't let this go on." Zatanna whispered in his ears.
"I don't like it either," he replied. "But this place may be our only chance to find out what happened to Guy."
He could see the helpless pain in her eyes at being unable to help either creature but Zatanna knew he was right. The reality of their situation was simply this, they had no idea who had kidnapped Guy or Kevin Sharpe. As horrible as this spectacle was, they had to allow it to continue to learn its secrets. If the Crusaders were to interfere now, whoever had Guy would disappear and they would never find their leader.
By now, the floor of the ring was drenched in blood as the cheetah made its desperate bid for survival. Its injuries had slowed it down considerably and thus eliminated its only advantage over a superior opponent. The sabre tooth did not strike as many times as the cheetah because it was slower, but its claws were almost as devastating as its extended teeth and did much damage upon contact. The more it struck, the further it drove the cheetah into the corner and even the younger animal knew that it was going to lose.
Perhaps in a desperate bid for survival, the cheetah lunged out of its corner and sank its sharp teeth into the sabre tooth's left flank. It dug its long claws into the older cat's flesh and hung for dear life as the sabre tooth tried desperately to shake the cheetah off. However, the cheetah was not about to let go when doing so would mean death. As its teeth hung firmly to the sabre tooth, blood began to spatter across its face until the spots on its magnificent coat were obscured by crimson.
The cheetah hung on, proving its endurance as the larger cat tried desperately to shake it off. Blood and spittle went flying in all directions as they continued the combat, urged on by the screaming crowds around them. Ted could almost hear his heart pounding as he watched the animals made their bid for supremacy or survival if they understood the outcome.
Surprisingly enough, it was the sabre tooth that finally yielded. As the loss of blood and the continuous pain wore it down, the creature dropped to the floor. The cheetah had not let go and when the sabre tooth was down, sank the claws of its hindquarters into its opponent's soft belly. After a moment, the sabre tooth no longer struggled and as its head lopped to one side and its eyes glazed over, Ted could almost see the resignation to its fate and the sour scent of defeat. The cheetah clung on until the sabre tooth moved no more and after a few minutes of silence, delivered its final blow when it tore the immobile creature's throat open.
None of the Crusaders could speak as a pool of blood began to form beneath the dead animal's body. The cheetah lumbered back into its corner as the fight was done, bleeding from its own injuries. The aftermath that followed the end of the conflict was an eruption of sound as the audience clapped and cheered the end of the gladiatorial exhibition. Ted looked at the audience and saw no remorse for either of the creatures on anyone's face. All he could see was a delicious pleasure in their eyes over the spectacle of seeing magnificent animals brutalising each other in a barbaric display. For a moment, Ted was at a loss to name which species was more savage, the great cats who had just fought or the humans who revelled in the performance.
His companions were similarly sickened by the entire display but shared his regret in having stood by and allowed it happen. Even though each of them had understood that it had was necessary, their conscience would not let them off so easily. At what point had their desire to save Guy Gardner become more important that preventing the loss of life, even if it belonged to animals?
It was question that would haunt them for a long time.
It took forever for that incessant clapping and cheering to finally die down. For the Crusaders, that moment could not come soon enough. It was harder to pretend that the performance of the evening had been entertaining rather than sickening, then it was to disguise their true identities. In the aftermath of the fight, the strobe light over the ring disappeared and for the moment, the audience was enveloped in darkness. After a moment, the house lights returned. Taking that a cue that the evening's entertainment had come to an end, most of the audience began to rise from the bleachers.
Some filtered back to the gaming floor, while others went to collect or pay their debts at the booking parlour. In any case, it appeared that the main event for the night had come and gone. Ted looked around to see where the MC had gone but like the cheetah that was now, nowhere in sight, he too had become as elusive. The carcass of the fallen sabre tooth had been removed during the darkness between lights. All there remained of the carnage that had been was the still, wet pool of crimson in the centre of the ring.
"Zee," Ted turned to Zatanna's and asked quietly. "Do you think you could get a blood sample of those animals?"
At the request, her eyes shifted from his face to the ring and then back again at the request. Although he had not mentioned it, Ted did notice that something was clearly disturbing her and in fact, had done so most of the evening. He was tempted to question her further but decided it could wait until they were back on more familiar terrain.
"Why?" She asked, her voice almost a whisper.
"I don't know." Ted answered truthfully. "Something about the way the animals behaved before and during the fight just doesn't feel right. Can you do it?"
It require a minor spell but yes, she was more than capable of living up to the task. "Yes I can." Zatanna nodded. Wasting no time, she turned to the ring once more and considered the spell she would use. After a moment, she had decided and closed her eyes briefly to focus her concentration. ".doolb hserf tilps fo noitrop a reh ot gnirb, arataZ fo rethguad eht roF"
They were now one of the last few people on the bleachers and Ted decided they had better get moving before they were noticed. "Come on, let's get off this thing." He motioned to the others and rose to his feet. The group started moving across the bleachers towards the gaming floor with the rest of the audience.
As they proceeded forward, Ted moved along side Booster. "Booster," he said quietly, making certain no one was eavesdropping on them as he spoke. "I need you to get outside and see where they took that cheetah. It's been hurt badly, so they'll need to get it veterinary attention soon. I'm assuming they'll take the animal back to base. We need to know where that is."
"I see your point." Booster agreed.
"Remember, quiet surveillance." Ted reminded even though he was certain Booster was smart enough to know that. "If they see you, all bets are off."
Booster nodded quickly, knowing perfectly well what was at stake here. He was still seething from having to let those two animals tear at each other, helpless to do anything. Somehow watching endangered animals engaged in such a barbaric practice angered his liberal sensibilities. He wanted to put a stop to it badly.
"I'm on it." Booster replied and was about to break away from the group when suddenly Beatriz spoke up.
"Wait a minute, I want to go with him." She said staring at Ted.
"Absolutely not." Ted said firmly without requiring any time to think it over. "I hate to be the one to tell you this Bea, but you're not exactly inconspicuous. I'm pretty sure they're going to notice a woman made of green fire following them, especially at night. I'm sorry Bea, we can't take the chance of blowing our cover."
"I can't sit down and do nothing." She protested.
"I'm not asking you too." He looked at her and gestured to keep her voice down. "However, we need to keep a low profile. We're no good to Guy unless we can do that. We need to find out where he is and right now, Booster's our best chance."
The defiance on her face melted into vulnerability and Ted could see just how fearful she was for Guy. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Beatriz nodded her acquiescence to Ted's words. He was right and she knew it. "What do I do?" She asked after a moment.
Ted released a sigh of relief, glad that the matter was settled. "I want you to go find Sigrid and tell her that we need a blood sample analysed." He instructed. "Zee and I will meet you both at Star Labs in an hour. " He handed her the keys to the Mercedes. "Take the car, don't attract any attention by flaming on."
"Okay," Beatriz nodded, realising that it was a good suggestion. She took the keys and quickly placed them into her handbag.
They needed an answer on the blood sample fast and Sigrid being a part of Star Labs made things considerably simpler now that they did not have to go through channels. Ted made a mental note at the next Crusader meeting to bring up the point of getting access to a fully equipped laboratory. Although Star Labs was quite accommodating to most superheroes, he preferred Crusader business be kept private. Besides the JLA and the Titans had their own
Having being given something to do went a long way to calming Beatriz down. The Brazilian woman was never very good at biding her time when her friends were in danger. With Guy, her emotional control was even more unreliable. Ted supposed if it was Zee or Booster, he would probably be the same way. Nevertheless, even after so many years of friendship, Ted still had difficulty getting her to cool her heels when her ire was up. Ted glanced at Booster who was still waiting for further instructions.
Beatriz remained with Ted and Zatanna long enough to become lost into the crowd before she too, made a discreet exit.
Ted and Zatanna watched her go before he turn they wandered over to the blackjack table. As they pretended to observe the games being played, Ted leaned over to Zatanna and whispered in her ear. "Did you get it?" He inquired.
Zatanna nodded quietly. She opened her little black handbag wide enough for him to throw a discreet glance in its direction. Amongst her lipstick and compact, there was a thin vial of red, sealed carefully with an airtight stopper.
"Good." He mused.
"What's on your mind?" She asked quietly.
"There's something about those animals that doesn't seem right." Ted said softly, making certain no one heard him as he said that. "I can't put my finger on it."
Zatanna understood completely and decided it would soon be time to tell him what she had been dreading all night. If this was in some way connected, he needed to know. However, it could wait until they left this place. If she was right about her suspicions, then it was not wise to let the enemy they were aware of his existence.
Booster found a dark alley between the warehouses and changed into his uniform. Although he could still hear the voices of guests in the background, the immediate vicinity was deserted enough to ensure his privacy. Booster slipped on his goggles over his blond hair and adjusted it one his face. After a few seconds, the ensemble was completed and Booster went to work. He immediately leapt into the air and soared high above the alley and the warehouse. The moon was hidden beneath the clouds so the night was pitch black. Only the illumination of the buildings below offered any light through which he could see.
Booster studied the people moving out of the warehouse. Apparently, the evening's entertainment was over and those who still remained were there for the gambling. Through the sea of limousines and exotic cars, Booster saw only one vehicle that appeared out of the ordinary. It was a long, black truck, parked at the rear of the building. He adjusted the magnification of his goggles and the truck grew larger before his eyes. Booster was given a close up view of the proceedings taking place around the vehicle.
Men wearing dark ski masks and overalls were moving a large cage into the back of the truck. Inside the cage, he saw the faint silhouette of the cheetah, lying on its side. Although it did not move, Booster did not believe it to be dead. Its handlers were taking to much care to place it in the truck. No such consideration needed to be taken with the dead sabre tooth, however. Booster did not need to see inside the black body bag, to know that its carcass was being disposed.
Thanks to the moonless night, he was almost completely hidden by the darkness and was able to observe the truck without fear of being seen. Nevertheless, Ted's words of caution against discovery were never far from his thoughts. He wondered if Ted had any idea how well he had assume the role of team leader in Guy's absence. Booster had always suspected such depths in his friend were buried under years of insecurity. For all his genius, Ted still had difficulty believing he was anything more than a second rate superhero. Part of the reason that Booster had little trouble leaving Lightspeed in Ted's ministrations was because he knew Ted was capable of running the company.
And Ted had proved him right time and time again.
The truck had started pulling away from the warehouse and Booster began following its exodus from the waterfront district at a suitable distance. The vehicle was moving at a leisurely pace and did not appear to notice his presence. It was a warm night and Booster was able to keep the truck in his sights without having fly to fast. The wind brushed against his skin as he heard the sound of birds flapping in the distance. Sometimes, it was good to be reminded that there were other inhabitants in this lofty realm.
The vehicle moved across the city and continued westward. He had to concentrate, as it travelled through the maze of New York City for it was easy to lose one vehicle in the criss-cross of roads, streets and highways. As they moved across Union City, Booster wondered just how far the journey would take him. Obviously, those in charge of the arena wanted their location well hidden.
The night air was starting to get colder and he no longer noticed the sounds of wings flapping in the distance. As the truck travelled along 53rd Street, he saw the dim lights of a fast moving train in the distance. Although his focus was mostly on the truck, his attention had begun to waver somewhat as he surveyed the landscape below him. In the near distance, he could see the light bouncing of the New Jersey Shoreline. The truck was moving on the outskirts of Miller Park and at another corner of the landscape, he saw Macphelah Cemetery running parallel against another length of track.
Suddenly, without warning, he heard the loud rush of wind against his ears and looked up in time to see a large set of wings come crashing down on him. Booster rolled in mid-air to avoid the brunt of it but the change in air turbulence sent him spiralling towards the ground. As he quickly resumed control of his descent, Booster recovered enough to hear a high pitch shriek coming at him.
All he could see in the darkness was the silhouette of mighty wings, coming towards him. He reacted quickly, throwing a force field up that immediately halted the progress of the enemy. Trapped inside a solid bubble of energy, the creature shriek in outraged as taloned feet stabbed at its confines. Booster flew forwards, intent on getting a better look at the creature. However, he did not progress any more than a few metres forward when he felt another rush of wind followed by the sharp pain against his side. This time the enemy was closer and had managed to sink its inch long talons into his skin. He felt warm blood on his skin as he raised an arm and fired a blast of energy from his gauntlet.
The blast was intense enough to send the creature flying backwards. Feathers were loosened as it plunged downward and Booster was able to see that it and the one in the force field were not alone. Whatever these flying creatures were, they certainly were not birds. Despite their ornithoid appearance, they were human sized. He counted at least six of them in the air. Booster looked down long enough to see the truck disappear beneath a canopy of trees before the rest of the flock swooped in for their attack.
He released his force field on the creature trapped and blasted it with an energy pulse from his gauntlets. The heat of the weapon set some of its feathers on fire and as it disappeared into the darkness, trailing flames. The others were almost upon him now and they were close enough for him to hold them in the force field. Aiming the field for a wide spread, he concentrated as the invisible bubble engulfed them all.
They reacted like fish in a bowl, slapping hard against the invisible barrier. He saw the confusion that the confinement caused and in that they acted very much like caged animals. There was little thought to their actions as they spent a few seconds aimlessly flinging themselves against wall of energy. Since they appeared to be momentarily immobilised, he took the opportunity to get a closer look at them. He wondered if these creatures could be any relation to the former Leaguer Hawkman but somehow he doubted. Most of that hero's accruement's were artificial but the wings on these birdmen did not seem to be fake. Their movements were too fluid and graceful, even when they were panicked.
Booster approached the energy field as closely as possible when suddenly one of the creatures lunged against the barrier. As Booster pulled back quickly, he caught a glimpse of the birdman's face. Calling them birdmen had not been far from incorrect. Although there were distinctively human features on their faces, Booster could see the dark outline of a hooked beak belonging very much to a bird of prey. Their eyes were wide and without eyelids. Although the feathers on the creature's face were nowhere as thick on normal birds, it appeared to resemble the fine coverings on new-born chicks.
Booster was so astonished that he simply stared at them for a few seconds, before he suddenly remembered the truck. Swinging around but carefully maintaining the force field around the birdmen, he surveyed the landscape for any sign of the dark vehicle.
Booster was suddenly aware that the birdmen had stopped thrashing about and have become somewhat sedate. He had assumed that they had simply tired themselves out and given up realising that there was no way to escape the force field. However, on closer observation, he realised that they were no longer moving. In fact, they were quickly slipping into unconsciousness. Without wasting any time, Booster immediately descended to firmer ground.
He landed in the darkness of Miller Park and was glad that most people were wise enough to stay out of the place at this time of night. For his purposes, he did not wish to be distracted by innocent bystanders if this was a trick. However, as he deactivated the force field once he had brought his prisoners to the ground, they still remained unmoving. Booster approached them carefully and drop to one knee as he kneeled down on the grass to examine them. He noticed then that they had no arms to speak of and that their wings were as he suspected, real. Their abdomen and their legs were humanoid except their feet were the definitely bird like, if the predatory talons on them were any indicator.
He put his hand to one of their necks to search for a pulse. The birdman's skin was already starting to cool and there was no indication of a heartbeat. Booster stood up with a sinking feeling in his chest, that these creatures were programmed to die in the event of capture. Ted was right, he decided. There was more to the arena than simply illegal animal fights and gambling. The possibility of questioning the prisoners now seemed remote. Perhaps Sigrid would be able to learn something when she examined the bodies.
Any further thought regarding interrogation was driven from his mind when a shrill beeping noise started emanating from all the bodies. For an instance, Booster was unsure of how the sound was being transmitted until he saw an electronic device attached the ankles of all the birdmen. As they increased in pulse, a flash of insight made Booster leap into the air.
He had not risen more than ten feet when a flash of light blinded him from below. An expanding wave of heat surged towards him as he increased his acceleration. He could feel the intensity of it against his skin, even through the protection of his suit. The shock wave propelled him upwards uncontrollably. He looked down long enough to see the explosion engulfing the surrounding park. Trees and grass were incinerated in the expanding wave of fire. The blast radius was only less than a hundred feet wide but from the air it seemed worse. Once he was able escape the currents of force of the shock wave, he surveyed the destruction below him.
In the epicentre of the blast was a small crater of blackened earth. There were no signs of bodies, which Booster gathered was what the exercise was meant to achieve in the first place. The terrain looked like a war zone, with trees slight ablaze along with park benches and any substantial sized bush. The fire made the night sky glow with amber light and Booster hoped that no one else was in the park. He remained long enough to hear the siren of fire engines approaching in the distance before deciding there was nothing more to be done here.
The enemy if anything was quite adept at keeping their secrets.
After surviving alien invasions, temporal disturbances, the threat of a dying sun and even the age of the Millennium Giants, the personnel at Star Labs could confess to having seen it all. Star Labs was mostly centred in Metropolis. However, in the past decade since its conception, offices had sprung across the country and were quickly reaching a global platform as the leader of paranormal scientific development.
While normal research facilities still wrestled with concepts like cold fusion and finding cures for cancer, Star Labs were busy decoding the DNA sequences of a dozen alien species. From stock standard Khundian to the more exotic and endangered Kryptonian samples, Star Lab had become the leader in paranormal genetics. Research involved genetic mutation of alien cross breeding, the in depth study of the Oan power ring and more recently, the new emerging field of the Worlogog artefact. A most challenging field considering the object itself was no longer on the planet.
In the face of all this, the Blue Beetle's request to analyse a DNA blood sample seemed rather dull in comparison. As one of its rising new talents, Sigrid was on occasion allowed to pursue her own projects and Star Labs was well aware of her paranormal background. While she had begun her career with them as a research assistant, she was fast proving herself to be a competent scientist who could be trusted to behave in the best interests of the organisation.
Sigrid Nansen was already waiting for her fellow Crusaders by the time they arrived at her laboratory. Although it was hardly the most equipped lab in the building, it was nonetheless far more advanced than anything available at conventional research centres. Allowing her the use of this laboratory exclusively was an act of faith on the part of her employers. Perhaps in her conduct here, could she be evaluated for more important research work.
"How long will it take for you to test it?" Ted inquired once he and Zatanna had joined them.
Sigrid studied the crimson fluid inside the vial. Until about forty minutes ago, she was soundly asleep in her bed. The drowsiness still clung to her eyes and she blinked hard at the vial to shake the sleepiness away. Despite the urgency of the situation, she wished she could have had at least a few hours sleep.
"About two hours." She answered.
"Two hours?" Beatriz whined. Impatience seemed to be her most prominent quality since Guy's disappearance. While Sigrid understood the reasons for her concerns, Beatriz could nonetheless be trying at times.
"Yes, two hours." Sigrid retorted as if she were explaining it to a child. "Be lucky that it is two hours. If it was anywhere else but here, it would take a day." It was not far from the truth. Star Labs equipment was some of the most advanced in the world. The company often used experimental alien technologies to enhance their own equipment. Many of their prototypes had made the company a billion dollar corporation because of the patent rights.
Ted Kord who understood research and scientific methodology better than most, had no complaints. He could see the weariness in her eyes and understood better than most what it was like to hold a day job and still be a superhero. Fortunately, unlike Sigrid he had the freedom to push one aside whenever it was necessary. "We'll be at Booster's penthouse." He answered. "Call us as soon as you have any news."
"Don't worry," Sigrid answered, examining the vial carefully and starting to become lost in the secrets within it. "I won't stop until I have an answer."
"Thank you." Beatriz said placing a hand on her shoulder. Although Beatriz was worried out of her mind for Guy, she understood the effort Sigrid was making for them all.
"Now get out of here." Sigrid replied, "I've got work to do."
Ted was awake when the phone rang.
It was almost two o'clock in the morning and until Ted had an answer, sleep would not come. Zatanna and Beatriz had turned in shortly after they had returned from Star Labs. Until Sigrid's call, there was little else that could be done. Both women had taken up the guest room in the penthouse and Booster had yet to return. Although Booster's leather sofa was comfortable enough, Ted found he could not sleep. Mysteries tended to make him the worst kind of insomniac. Instead he switched on the TV and found himself watching a news broadcast about an apparent bomb blast in Miller Park. What was the world coming to these days? Fortunately no one had been hurt but authorities had yet to work out what type of explosives was used.
"Sigrid?" He asked automatically, knowing it could only be her at this time of night.
"Did you find anything?" Ted questioned.
There was a slight pause. Clearly, Sigrid had found something. Even though he was not in the room with her, he could sense the apprehension in her manner.
"You were right to be suspicious Ted," she volunteered after a moment. "There is definitely something wrong with those animals."
"What?" His voice was almost a held breath. "Are they mutants or something?"
"In a manner of speaking," she said quietly. "Ted, the DNA suggest that they're not animals at all. They're human."
Anything he was going to say caught in his throat as another thought filled his reality.
All characters are DC Comics
This story is © 2000 by Linda Thackeray.
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All DC Comics characters, trademarks and images (where used) are DC Comics, Inc.
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