The brothers emerged into something straight out of a spy novel. Windowless, with several low-hanging bulbs burning hot under utilitarian shades, all of it concealing a brain center of tables, computers and file cabinets that made easy movement around the cramped room almost impossible for someone of Ben’s size. There were two men in pressed, military shirts and loosened neck sitting around a large table in the middle of the room, and they barely even paid heed to the two men who had just entered. As soon as they had looked up, their bloodshot eyes went back to a paper they were studying, and they scratched at stubble-strewn chins while taking care not to burn themselves on what looked like their fiftieth consecutive cigarette.
“Ugh,” Ben remarked as they walked through the smoke, “stinks.”
“Yeah,” Dan nodded as they left the two bleary workers behind a row of cabinets, “I always notice it so much more since Mom & Dad quit smoking.”
“Mom smoked?!” Ben replied, a little surprised.
“She quit right after you were born.”
“Good thing it didn’t mess me up at all,” he said with a smirk, glancing down at the power ring on his left hand. Dan wound their way through this and that until finally coming to one of those doors you just don’t see anymore: solid wood with a large, frosted glass window, like something out of a dime store detective novel. The name, in embossed gold, had been so worn and scratched from years of use that it was unrecognizable, and probably had little to do with the man that was inside, anyway. As Dan opened the door, Ben saw another military man pouring himself a cup of coffee, and this one was impeccably dressed.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, putting down his ceramic mug and automatically reaching for a Styrofoam cup, “look who’s here.”
“How’ve you been, Tim?” Dan asked as he entered the room casually, taking a seat on one of the hard wooden chairs across from Tim’s hard wooden desk.
“No coffee for me, thanks.”
“How about the Big Six?”
Dan looked over to Ben, who could only wear a confused expression.
“Yeah, you,” Dan shot back, rolling his eyes.
“Don’t mind him,” Tim said, pouring black coffee into the cup, “He’s an asshole. Then again, if you came with him, you probably know that by now. I’m Colonel Timothy Scott, US Army. Coffee?”
“Uh… no thanks,” Ben stammered, “Just had breakfast… and I’m Ben.”
Tim shrugged and took both cups back to his desk.
“Oh well,” he sat down behind the desk, adjusting his uniform as he sat, “More for me.”
“Still all spit and polish, huh?” Dan leaned forward in the chair as Tim took a long drink.
“Says Mr. Six O’Clock News,” Tim shot back over the rim of his mug, “Is that fella gonna sit down?”
“He’s just my little brother,” Dan said, almost embarrassed.
“You call that little? He’s about as wide as he is tall.”
“Ben, get over here and sit down!”
“Okay,” Ben did as he was told, again feeling very lost in all of this. Tim turned his peculiar look on Ben and smiled.
“He reminds me of you, you know, Danny.”
Ben winced. Nobody called his brother Danny. Not even Mom.
“Bullshit,” Dan continued without a hitch, “I knew my shit from day one.”
“Hardly!” Tim snorted into his coffee, “Ben, you shoulda seen Mr. Punch-It here when we first had to bail his blue butt out of Sarajevo.”
“It’s not my fault you guys didn’t have the stones to follow me in the first place.”
“WE have orders, you know. Besides, you think they would have trusted the word of a Lieutenant in the middle of a firefight? ‘It’s okay guys, I’m totally the superhero’s friend, it’ll be all right!’ Jesus, Danny boy…. the amount of times I almost got my ass blown because of you.”
“Knock it off with the ‘Danny boy,’ shit, Tim…” Dan lowered his eyelids threateningly, “I’m also the reason you got promoted… but I’m starting to think it was a mistake coming down here again.”
“Oh, but I missed our little spats,” Tim grinned, “And I’ve got to say Iraq was no fun without you and your rowdy bunch of rebels.”
“I’m sure that was the ONLY reason.”
“Um, excuse me?” Ben interrupted the argument and saw four eyes suddenly shift their complete focus on him.
“we, uh… we had a question for you guys and all of your… intel… stuff.”
There was an uncomfortable little silence, until Dan finally smiled and turned back to his friend.
Something about those two words made Ben feel a little better.
“Tim, we heard about the incident,” Dan continued, “What can you tell me about whatever the heck went down in DC?”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Tim.”
“No, really!” the Colonel put his mug down, “I don’t know anything about it. They’re not telling me shit number one.”
“But…. you’re intel?”
“The only thing blacker than my operations is this fine cup of Sumatran in front of me,” Tim took another rapturous drink from his mug, emptying it.
“Jesus…” Dan leaned back in his chair, a little taken aback. Ben tried his best to put it together.
“So, if they won’t even tell you…”
“It means it’s something bad, kid… and let me tell you, I’ve seen some shit.”
“What do you think this means, Tim?” Dan groaned, rubbing a frustrated hand over the bridge of his nose.
“I think it means you need to stop by The Building.”
“That’s where it was?” Dan’s voice was smeared as he ran the hand down his face, his eyes opening wide.
“As near as I can gather, yes.”
“Someone tried to bust into The Building?”
“I don’t think they just tried to, Dan.”
Ben hadn’t seen his brother this worried in some time, but at the same time, he was overjoyed to see some fire back into Dan’s soul. Following what had happened with Dr. Holocaust, he’d gotten so quiet, so distant, but in these last few hours Ben had really seen him come alive again.
“So what do we do?” Ben asked.
“You and me, little brother? We’re going to visit a building tonight.”
“Which building are you two talking about?”
“It’s about six blocks from the White House,” Tim offered, “and it’s got Secret Service protection 24/7. If I was a dealer… it’s where I’d keep the good shit.”
“All the X Files stuff,” Dan butted in, “UFOs, Hitler’s brain, Doomsday weapons, the last three cases of Ecto Cooler…”
“Ah, knock it off,” Tim gave him a sneer, grabbing a keycard out of his desk drawer and tossing it across the desk and into Dan’s lap.
“There’s a service entrance tunnel that no one is supposed to know about. This’ll get you in, it’s one of our sockpuppets and you’ll be able to look around. Just… don’t mess anything up, all right?”
“Oh, Timmy,” Dan picked up the card, beaming, “We wouldn’t dream of it.”
Ten minutes later, they were back in Dan’s truck, heading back to Pennsylvania.
“You OK with tonight? I didn’t think about it when I told Tim, but is it OK? I mean, Lucy…”
“If we go late, she’ll be asleep. I’ll just say I’m heading to the gym.”
“And she’s okay with that?”
“She hasn’t said she isn’t.”
“Be careful with that, Ben,” Dan said as they changed lanes, “Little things like that can go unnoticed… it can really screw things up later.”
He didn’t know what else to say. But, after a moment, something did pop into his head.
“Hey Dan… why don’t you come to dinner over at our place, in Elizabethtown? Lucy always loves having people over, and I know she’d be happy to have you.”
“Nah, you don’t want a sad sack like me around…”
“Dan?” Ben had to summon up a lot of courage to interrupt his older brother, especially during what was becoming a very serious talk.
“I’d like you to come over. I think it would be good for… for both of us.”
“On one condition.”
“You fire up the old SNES and we play some MarioKart. Old school.”
Ben grinned as they pulled off the expressway.
“I’m sure Lucy will be thrilled to see the two of us sitting on our fat asses when she gets home from work.”
“Eh. You got the day off.”
“Yeah…. I should probably make the dinner.”
“You’re so whipped.”
“Gladly, with a wife like mine.”
He bit back those words, but it was too late. He knew Dan felt uncomfortable now, and he wished he could take it back.
“No Rainbow Road.”
Ben laughed. It felt good to laugh.
“This is a nice surprise, honey,” Lucy said as the three sat down to a dinner of Chili mac & cheese with a green salad.
“I took the day off to spend some time with Dan,” Ben shrugged, “so I figured I should make myself useful at home.”
“Better be careful, or I’ll keep you barefoot and pregnant, chained to that stove.”
“Oh, ugh…” Dan closed his eyes, “That is not an image I ever wanted in my mind.”
Lucy enjoyed a small, slightly malicious laugh, and all three tucked into dinner.
“How’s things working for the government, Lucy?” Dan asked around a bit of salad.
“Oh, you know: we the unwilling, lead by the unqualified…”
“Sounds like work at the station. You know what it’s like to correct the fifth grade spelling mistakes of someone making six figures?”
“I just make sure they spell their names right.”
“Cripes,” Ben sighed, “you mean you actually get to SEE your bosses?”
“It’s not worth it, trust me.”
“I dunno, Dan… you get to make decisions. At least one or two a day, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Man… that must be nice. Me, I sit in my cube, I do what I’m told, I read off that script that sounds like it was written by a chimp with brain damage… just once, I’d like to say something different and NOT have some fat bastard jump down my throat about it.”
“Oh, honey,” Lucy tried to smile, “It’s not that bad, is it?”
“Not that bad? Last month I fixed an issue… fixed it! And all my shit-stupid supervisor could say was that I didn’t do steps one and two. Doesn’t matter that I knew step three would fix it and save us both ten minutes of bullshit…”
He saw that he was starting to upset Lucy, and decided to swallow the rest of his anger with a forkful of macaroni.
“Tell you what, Banjo,” Dan sighed, patting his stomach, “If something opens up at the station, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“I’d take it,” Ben muttered darkly, “With this damn degree they won’t let me scrub toilets most places.”
“I kinda like the idea of you scrubbing my toilets,” Dan replied with a grin.
“Ew, this is no longer dinner talk,” Lucy moaned, pulling a face. All three of them smiled and laughed a bit. The rest of the night was spent watching a Flyers game until Lucy’s eyes began to droop and she starting gently snoring on her husband’s shoulder.
“She works way too hard,” Ben said sadly, gently caressing his wife’s freckled face.
“You got a good thing going, Ben,” Dan said with all seriousness, “Don’t fuck it up like I did.”
“It’s not your fault, man. None of us knew you’d marry a crazy person.”
“Yeah… I suppose you’re right.”
Ben put Lucy to bed, and then the two were off, bound for the Capitol again, this time in Ben’s car, the Judge Intrepid.
“So how did you meet that Tim, anyway?” Ben struck up a conversation a few minutes into the drive.
“Like he said, Bosnia,” Dan replied, “I was helping out over there, and after we both were home he was the only one who was able to figure out who I was.”
“Mild-mannered reporter and all that?”
They sat for a bit in silence, watching the lights zip by them. Ben had a question that had been boiling inside him for a while, and it finally came out.
“… what’s a ‘Big Six,’ anyway?”
“Ha!” Dan laughed one large, full-throated bellow, “You’ve been thinking about that all day, haven’t you?”
“Tim’s a big Roaring Twenties nut.”
“That explains the butchwax and the shined shoes.”
“Pretty much. A ‘big six’ was a name back then for a big fucker like you.”
“Oh,” Ben nodded, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, “I like it.”
As Tim had promised, the keycard got them in without an issue. They had pulled off a few blocks away to change into their costumes and had walked the rest of the way.
“There’s one nice thing about Urban Decay,” Ben muttered, “no one’s out at night to ask what the hell we’re doing out dressed like this.”
“And if they are out, they’re probably stoned out of their minds, anyway.”
They exited the service tunnel through two heavy double doors and into a massive room full of items of all shapes and sizes: boxes, crates, brown-paper and cloth wrapped bundles, and even some arbitrary piles of things in this corner and that.
“So what are we looking for in here, anyway?” Ben asked, adjusting his mask slightly.
“To be honest, I don’t know. But if it’s as bad as Tim said, it won’t be hard to find.”
Ben began to look around in the near darkness, generating as much light with his forcefield as he could. He glanced down at the floor with surprise.
“Did this place use to be a school?”
“The floor… looks like a basketball court. I bet this was the old gym.”
“Would stand to make sense… hey, can you hear that?”
The two stood perfectly still among the detritus as a rhythmic pattern could be heard on the roof and windows.
“Aw, hell… is it raining?” Dan grumbled.
“Sounds like it,” Ben answered.
“These boots really reek if they get wet, y’know. Just saying in advance, sorry if the ride home is…”
A bolt of lightning lit up the gymnasium, and again both of them stopped in their tracks.
“That’s okay, Traveller,” Ben said, relishing being able to use the comic book names in public, “Not like I haven’t been there… Traveller? You there?”
“Did you see that?”
Dan’s voice was quiet, urgent. Something had definitely gone wrong. Ben immediately wet on alert. Another bolt of lightning lit up the gym, and this time Ben saw his brother standing in his blue and yellow armor, stock still, his eyes behind a visor staring directly at a far wall of the building.
“What is it?”
“I think… I think we found it.”
The Blue Traveller activated a small flashlight on his right gauntlet, aiming it toward the wall. There, scrawled in blood with letters nearly ten feet tall, wrapping nearly all the way around the gymnasium, were the words MADAME CARNAGE HAS RETURNED.
“What the…” Ben staggered backward into a crate, disturbed to his core.
And then, suddenly, a shrill, piercing, shrieking cackle of a laugh ripped through the building, bouncing of all the walls at once, making the painted blood sing out in a grisly chorus.
“She’s still here.”