"In ancient history, there were times when the Bad Guy was really the Good Guy" -- Oglethorpe's Universal Encyclopedia, Vol 1 No 1

SMOKESCREEN
by Rick Brooks

The tabloids had a field day.

The Vigilante Kid had gunned down Big Charlie, alleged head of the local prostitution and white slavery racket, as well as both his body guards. The masked figure in black then dived into a dark grey or black or deep blue station wagon. Or car or pick-up truck.

Three police cars were on their tail. Their vehicle ducked into an alley. And didn't come out.

Later Sergeant George Sanders, ex-Military Police, stood at attention in front of Police Commissioner Boardman and Police Chief Rinehart.

"Suddenly there's this cloud of smoke ahead of it. The vehicle drives into it without slowing down and disappears at once. I hit my brakes. Smoke that thick, I don't want to speed into.

"Then the stuff fades. Vehicle not in sight. Car 55 pulls into the other end of the alley. Vehicle couldn't have gone out without Joe and Frank seeing him.

"Checked the walls along the alley and the buildings beside it. No place the vehicle could have gone."

"Why didn't anybody get the license number?"

"I don't know. I had a bit of trouble seeing it. Looked blurry. I thought Sam would get it."

"Damn it, George. The Mayor is getting the heat on the Vigilante Kid and his driver, Smokescreen, as the papers call the two of them. And that heat gets passed to us."

The Commissioner made the word "papers" sound like a cuss word.

He shook his head. "Nobody got the license number, not even any of the witnesses. None of the witnesses noticed it before the shootings. They can't even say if it was a car or a pick-up truck."

He pounded on the table. "What the hell is going on here?"

"I wish I knew, Sir."

"The tabloids," Commissioner Boardman bit off the words as though they tasted bad. "The tabloids say that Smokescreen has the power to cloud men's minds. Like that Cranston fellow on those old radio shows."

"We never have gotten a good description of him," Police Chief Rinehart said. "People agree the Kid is about five feet tall and slender. Has a high-pitched voice as if it hasn't changed yet. But no description of Smokescreen. Or too many."

Commissioner Boardman snarled. "Poppycock! It's been dark each time. He's been lucky. We'll get a good look at him sooner or later. But we don't have the time. We've got to do something now!"

Chief Rinehart shrugged. "What more can we do, Commissioner?" He spread his hands. "We've got more cops on the streets. None of the stoolies know anything despite what we're offering. We've investigated all the places Smokecreen has disappeared as well as everybody who lives nearby."

Chief Rinehart looked his boss in the eye. "All we can do is wait for them to make a mistake. And they don't seem to have made any yet."

Commissioner Boardman stared back. "I hear that some of the boys don't want the Kid caught. So far, he's wiped out sewer rats like Big Charlie and Little Lewey, the Piranha Brothers, and Slippery Sal. So they figure, no loss."

Chief Rinehart stood up. "Commissioner, all my boys are going to do their job."

Commissioner Boardman stood up. "For all our sakes, I hope so. Now I've got to go to City Hall, and do what damage control I can."

He turned as he reached the door. "For God's sake, get the Kid and Smokescreen. Or we may all be out our jobs."

On his way down the hall, Commissioner Boardman walked past a workman dressed in grey coveralls. The Commissioner gave the man an incurious glance and went on his way.

The workman blinked behind wire-rimmed glasses. He was used to such treatment. Other officers wandered by as he worked on wiring behind an opened panel.

None paid much attention to the man working there or asked him what he was doing. He worked slowly and carefully, checking out his work.

Then he replaced his tools in their box. He closed and locked the panel and moved down to the next one in the hall.

He carefully pulled three more wires through the batch already there and made his way down the hall.

The workman was down in the basement toiling away over his lunch hour. He paused twice to eat a candy bar. A Payday and a Zero. He didn't like chocolate-covered candy bars.

Finally he closed up his tool box at five and strolled out of the police station. He passed by Chief Rinehart, heading up the hall with a worried look on his face.

Chief Rinehart didn't even glance at the workman.

The workman walked about three and one half blocks to a parking lot. He presented his ticket to the attendent and paid with exact change.

He walked over to a dark grey station wagon, a small J2000 Pontiac. He put his tool box in the back. He got in and drove off.

He drove slowly and carefully. Other drivers tended to overlook him.

Several blocks away, the workman took a shortcut down an alley.

No one saw the station wagon slowly drive into a cloud of smoke and vanish.

Cecilia Roush paced up and down the subway platform. She ran her hand through her short black hair. She looked more like a boy with her slight figure.

She was the only one on the platform. Which was hardly odd as the subway tracks were covered with crushed stone. About fifty feet on either side of her, the subway tunnel ended in a blank wall.

Cecilia glanced at her wrist watch still another time. She sighed and walked into what had once been a long narrow storage room.

One end was filled with computer equipment. Harold Farmer didn't notice her approach. He had eyes for nothing but his computer screen.

Cecilia glanced at her watch. In about two hours, she'd bring his supper down. She knew Harold would nibble on junk food all day if he didn't have something decent to eat.

She put a hand on Harold's shoulder. Gradually he switched his gaze to her. Light reflected off thick glasses as he turned his head.

"Cecilia?"

"Anything, yet?"

"Plenty." He gestured at the confusing screen. "I can read everything on the police computers."

"Everything?"

"Well, I haven't hacked my way into some of the accounts. But I soon will." Harold turned his head and was instantly absorbed in his computer display.

Cecilia shook her head. She might as well be invisible. This must be how poor Gareth felt all the time.

She walked back out onto the subway platform and began pacing again.

Cecilia had been back and forth about a dozen more times when a cloud of smoke obscured one end of the tunnel.

Out of it came a charcoal grey station wagon. It slowed to stop in front of her and Gareth Hunt Morganstern unfolded himself from behind the wheel.

At just over six feet, he was nearly a foot taller that she was.

Faded blue eyes looked down into her hazel eyes. His eyes widened a bit when she didn't look away. Gareth still wasn't used to someone that really saw him.

Then he noticed the look on her face. He gestured toward what had been a waiting room. Cecilia turned and Gareth put an arm around her, just below her small breasts. They walked into what had been a subway waiting room.

A fantastically ornate glass chandelier hung from the center of a high domed ceiling. It was in good shape, but most of the faded furniture wasn't.

They sat down on a sturdy sofa covered by a navy blue blanket.

"Gareth. I wish you wouldn't take such risks."

"Oh. And who shot it out with Big Charlie and his two body guards?"

"That was different. I'm a poor target and I got the drop on them. I was wearing my Kevlar undies, too. You walked to the lion's den. And spent most of the day there."

"Sorry. I had to be sure my work was okay. Got it so Harold can tap their

computer without being traced here."

He twirled a lock of his sandy brown hair around his forefinger. "I didn't

find it easy to wait while you dodged bullets either."

Cecilia looked down at the tile floor. "This isn't a good life for you."

"Better than when even my own folks had trouble remembering who I was. Now I've got you."

Cecilia blushed. "After that crook gunned Dad down from behind and Mom couldn't keep on without him, I had to do something."

"I know. Sooner or later, we'll clean out all those rats."

"There will always be more."

"After the Kid blows away most of them, the rest will leave town."

Cecilia sighed. "I hope so. But somehow I can't believe it will ever happen."

They sat together in silence.

Chief Rinehart's face was flushed and he tried to hang on to his temper. He resisted the impulse to hammer on his desk.

"You traced the hacker to WHERE?!

"We doubled checked it three times, Chief. He's got to be sneaking in and using your computer."

I don't give a hoot. Even that damn Smokescreen couldn't slip in and use my computer while I'm sitting here."

"But each time we checked it, we got the same answer. And our monitoring software has always been right before. Sgt. Ritter admited to playing Spacewars. Lt. Wickham didn't admit to downloading porn, but he sure was. Jonesie.."

"Damn it, I know. I may not use my computer that much. But nobody else does!"

"We'll check it again, Chief."

"Check it a dozen times. It's gotta be a trick. If Smokescreen can manipulate my computer without my seeing it while I'm sitting here, we might as well all quit and turn over the city to him."

After the technician shut the door behind him, Chief Rinehart stared at his computer screen. It looked the same. But if he couldn't see Smokescreen, maybe he couldn't see what Smokescreen was doing on his computer either.

He sagged in his chair. Suddenly he sat up, a look of horror on his face. "How am I going to explain this to the Commissioner?"

-END-

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