There are eight million stories in Burlington City. This has been most of them.
She flipped through nonsensical books on Atlantis and Lemuria, false promises of hope for the hopeless which contradicted themselves, let alone reality. A few magazines along the same lines, their readership a sort of community of those who had no community. She always found it strange that those who are most likely to believe in karma, or cosmic justice, or that everything happens for a reason, were those who suffered unjustly and without purpose. Such ideas were more popular than ever, with the rumors of atrocities and a new Great War coming out of Europe.
This line of thought, she told herself, wasn't helping solve the case. On the other hand it kept her mind off that other, more intimate form of investigation, the autopsy currently being performed by Doctor Death in another part of the agency. He was, in reality, entitled to the first part of his superhero name. Whether he deserved the second depended on which stories you believed. The Night-Witch imagined him enjoying his work, perhaps licking his lips, or talking to the corpse as one talks to a lover. That was unfair, she thought, a naive reaction to the persona he cultivated to intimidate criminals. He had, to be sure, a head start from Nature. Everyone else at the agency joked that he was the very image of a villain from the movies; a Nazi officer, a warlock of the Middle Ages, or a priest of ancient Egypt. When his waxen, skeletal face peered at you from the darkness, it became less funny. Criminals weren't the only cowardly, superstitious lot.
She read through Penny's letters. The most noticeable thing about them was what wasn't there. They were all from her family in Nebraska. There was no letter from a boyfriend or lover. It looked like she had most likely caught her disease from a one-time fling, or perhaps the grimmer possibility suggested by her sister. The phone on her desk rang.
"Katie, it's Doctor Death here," said the voice. "I've just finished the autopsy."
"What'd you find?"
"Well, she was indeed in the terminal stage of a venereal disease. There were a couple of puncture marks on her arm, but she had a post-mortem blood test, so she doesn't seem to have been using any narcotics. But, ah, there was something strange." He seemed uncharacteristically nervous. The Night-Witch waited for him to speak. She had a great dislike of phone conversations where she said nothing but 'what?' and 'go on' and 'what then?'.
"Are you still there?" asked the Doctor at last.
"Yes, of course I'm still here. What was unusual?"
"Well, she wasn't under the influence of any drugs, but her brain did show signs of damage from the disease, right where you'd expect from someone who committed an impulsive crime of violence. But, ah, well, I examined her in the, er...the intimate regions-"
"Oh for the love of God, don't be so damn dainty! What?"
"Well, she wasn't assaulted. In fact," he exhaled sharply, "in fact, she was a virgin."
The heroes shut down the office for an emergency meeting.
"Where's the body now?" asked Princess Iron Fan.
"On ice," Doctor Death replied. "I held off incinerating it."
"Did you fill the grave back in?" the Princess turned her attention to the Kabbalist.
"Of course we did," he replied indignantly.
How dare you suggest we don't know how to defile a grave - we're superheroes damn it! the Green Dragon thought.
"Is the disease one that can be caught any other way?" asked the Blue Pharaoh, a distinguished-looking man whose kingly bearing did not stop the Green Dragon joking that he looked just like a real Pharaoh: the obvious product of incest.
"Well, in very rare cases. Maybe if certain types of wild animal bit her, or she drank their blood. But we're talking about African wild dogs here. They wouldn't even have them in the zoo."
"The client told us she'd never left Nebraska until she came here," the Green Dragon added.
"You know," the Night-Witch said, "drinking blood sounds like the kind of thing that some cults might do. Most of her books were about magic, mysticism, that kind of thing. I didn't see anything from a particular group, but..."
"The kind of group that drinks blood might not advertise too openly," the Kabbalist finished.
"Damn, that's a long shot." The Night-Witch stubbed out her cigarette. "But you know what? I got nothing better. Anyone else?" No one answered her query.
"OK, well, maybe Blue Pharaoh can ask around if there are any groups that might fit the bill. Janus can check out the neighbors, Green Dragon - Morty's bookshop is pretty close to Penny's hotel, maybe he'll know something? And Doctor, no offence, but-"
"None taken." the Doctor nodded. "You and I will have a second look just to make sure."
"OK, Rocket Ranger and the rest of you are all still on that insurance thing right? Right, unless anyone's got anything else, let's go."
The Green Dragon parked his Chrysler and opened the door to the second-hand bookshop. The smell of yellowing paper was strong and comforting. The customers, and Morty himself, looked as worn and ill-used as the books which were piled almost to the roof.
"Jesus Christ! What the hell are you thinking? You know my customers don't like you people coming round. You're as bad as the cops."
The Green Dragon's gloved hand pointed to a display case at one end of the store. The red, white and blue costume with the gold American eagle was the only new-looking thing in the place, but in fact was decades old.
"It was different then. Asshole. All right, let's go into the back room. Hubert!" A thin man in a faded greatcoat looked up from his book. "If you take anything I'll know." Despite Morty's shabby appearance, rather like a seedier version of the scientist Albert Einstein, his voice carried the certainty that, somehow, he would.
Morty was the longest-surviving superhero anyone knew. In the 20s he fought crime as The Fighting Eagle. At least someone had, and Morty claimed it was him. In a job where real names were secrets, identities were inherited and stolen, and life stories were at least half fiction, who knew for sure?
That many people say they're the last survivor of the Russian royal family, they can't all be lying. The Green Dragon dragged up a quip from the past, and smiled to himself. Anyway, Morty said he was the longest-surviving superhero, and while a lot of people said it was bullshit, no one popped up to say they were, or even pointed to someone else who might be. It was, as he said, different then. A time of strikes and strike-breakers, cops and Pinkertons with itchy trigger fingers, the Red Scare and the Criminal Vigilantism Act. The Scarab caught a rapist and murderer, or at least a suspect. A black man, the prisoner had been lynched soon afterwards. The Scarab's note left it ambiguous whether he intended to commit suicide or merely retire his superhero persona. Ramblin' Rose built a case against some railroad company security guards who beat a hobo to death. She said it was water-tight. The DA disagreed. Soon after that Red Vengeance changed his name "to avoid misunderstandings", before he too disappeared. So there was no one to dispute that Morty was indeed the Fighting Eagle. Of course, there was no one to confirm it either.
It struck the Green Dragon that he was in a similar situation. No one at the agency knew anything about him other than his first name. Maybe his description too, but 'tall, brown-haired man' wasn't going to track him down. He could just walk out one day and disappear. He could do it right now. Say goodbye to Morty, just go home, get a regular job. For a moment the temptation was overwhelming. But he came back to the present, where criminals and cops were on basically the same side, there was no more Red Scare, and the Criminal Vigilantism Act, while still on the books, was largely ignored.
"Sorry about that," Morty said. "I know you're a good kid. But I also meant it; people like Hubert ain't gonna make a fine distinction between you and a Pinkerton. And now he's gonna steal all the Agatha Christies."
The Green Dragon frowned. "If he's a radical," he almost said 'a Red', "why would he read Agatha Christie?"
"You kidding? The only stories where at least one aristocrat gets murdered, and then at least one gets hanged?" Morty laughed at his own joke. "No, I'm kidding. Because people aren't consistent is why. Nobody spends their whole life being one thing. Except for people like us huh?"
The Green Dragon smiled, unsure if Morty was joking.
"Listen, Fighting Eagle - I need information." The use of the superhero name sounded false to the Green Dragon, but Morty swelled with pride, straightening his back and patting down his unruly hair.
"Some information huh? OK, whaddya need?" The Green Dragon handed over a copy of the only photograph of Penny that Catherine had supplied. It was a small, black and white picture of the whole family, but he had a written description as well.
"Did this woman ever come into the shop? Her name is Penny Moore. She'd be likely to have bought books on astrology, mesmerism, that kind of thing."
"Hmm. Lemme see. I might have. Was she a little thing, maybe five foot five or so?" The Green Dragon realised he didn't know.
"Uh...yeah, around that."
"What, you don't know? Kind of sloppy there," Morty wagged a finger.
"Yeah, well, you want the professionals I can always get the FBI."
"What did you say to me?" Morty rose to his feet. His hands balled into fists that, for a moment, looked as powerful as when they were smashing the jaws of thugs.
"I just...calm down OK Morty?" He realised, too late, that calling him 'Morty' instead of 'Fighting Eagle' was adding fuel to the fire.
"You think you're special because what? Because you got a mask and a special gun?"
"A special gun that I invented in the Great War."
"Yeah, I love how you say that like you went anywhere near the front. You're a regular Unknown Soldier - no soldier ever heard of you."
"How the hell did you know that? It's not my fault they wouldn't take me! What, are you spying on me now?"
"No, that's called psychology. Christ, I hope you never run into a smart criminal, buddy."
"Yeah well, I hope you never take that costume out of its case and run into any criminal!"
"I helped catch Mac the Knife you little dipshit! Don't you try to intimidate me. I saw his hideout. Jesus, now you made me think of that again." Abruptly, Morty sat down. "You made me think of...You don't know what it was like."
"I've seen murders."
"This was something else. It was like a slaughterhouse. You couldn't tell where one person ended and the other started. Now I'm gonna have nightmares. Is that what you wanted? Your big mission was 'give Morty some nightmares' huh?"
"Oh shit. Jesus, I'm sorry...Fighting Eagle. I wouldn't ever get the FBI on you." He awkwardly patted the older man.
"Yeah, I guess you wouldn't. I'm sorry too. Just don't talk to me like I broke a window and you're gonna call my parents OK? And listen, seriously, don't ever get into an argument with a crook if you're going to blurt stuff out like that. The first time he says something, you just say 'you're gonna be the funniest guy in the whole jail'. Next time, you just smile, but keep your lips together, like you got a secret. It's all psychology. Did I ever tell you I met Zorro? I was only a kid of course. But you know what? He wasn't even that big in real life. It's all about how you project yourself. The Scarab used to tell me, he'd say 'Dames dig confidence, and crooks fear it'. You remember that."
"OK Fighting Eagle. I'll remember."
"And another thing: never tell a crook you're gonna go away and get the cops. All they hear is 'go away'. And when you come back they're gone, or they've flushed the evidence, or at least they've got their story straight. Anyway, half the time the cops won't listen, and then you gotta go back without 'em. Then they'll never listen to any threat you make again. You gotta let 'em know - the only way to get rid of you is to give you what you came for."
"OK, check." The Green Dragon nodded humbly.
"All right. Now let me look at that young lady again." Morty squinted at the photo and the typed description. "Yeah. You know, I'm pretty sure she did come in here. Started about six months ago."
Roughly when she arrived in the city, the Green Dragon thought.
"Yeah. Didn't say very much. And just like you said, she bought all kinds of books on ghosts and UFOs - but not stories, the kind of thing that says that stuff is real. Then she stopped coming after a couple of months."
"She stop coming right away, or did it get less frequent and then stop?"
"You know, I think it was all at once."
Both men looked up at the sound of footsteps. Hubert, the customer Morty had warned not to shoplift, stood in the doorway.
"Are you OK Morty?" he asked. "I heard shouting."
"I'm fine Hubert."
"OK," Hubert said doubtfully. "Well, I'll be out here. I got some books I wanna buy. You just call if you need me," He looked suspiciously at the Green Dragon, but withdrew.
"I guess he's not gonna steal anything," said the Green Dragon.
"Who, Hubert?" Morty sounded as if he'd never considered the idea. "No. He knows I'll turn him in. But I'd do it in a radical way."
"What does that mean?"
"It means I promise to feel guilty about it. Ha!" Morty slapped the desk. "Anyway, this girl. Now that I think about it, she didn't just come in to buy books. She also looked at the noticeboard, quite a few times as I recall."
"What kind of stuff is on the noticeboard?"
My God, the Green Dragon thought, This might not be a waste of time.
"C'mon, I'll show you. Just lemme ring up Hubert's stuff first."