Marsha came to with a headache. She lay awkwardly on a hard surface. Her recent memories were blurry and confused. Squinting in the dim light a grid of metal bars came into view in front of her. She didn’t recognise her location. She tried to get up and found that her wrists and ankles were tied with rope. Fully conscious now, Marsha realised she was in a cage. She groaned.
Footsteps thudded beyond her prison. Her groan had attracted attention. The resounding echoes suggested a big, empty space -some kind of warehouse, or an old factory perhaps? The footsteps strode towards her.
“Miss Taylor, we meet at last,” a man said.
A pair of black boots appeared on the other side of the bars. Marsha rolled onto her back and looked up. Above the boots was a silver jumpsuit, the kind worn by extras in sci-fi B-movies. It was too big for its owner. Marsha could see rolls of loose fabric pooled on the boot tops. An obscure, red symbol was sewn on the chest and a long black cape completed the outfit. Above the costume was the face of an ordinary-looking guy with dull, brown hair. His chin and nostrils seemed large, but from that angle anyone’s would. Only a superhuman–or a wannabe–would wear that outfit, and the fact that he wasn’t bending the bars and removing her restraints did not bode well.
“What time is it?” Marsha croaked.
He bent forward, further revealing an unremarkable face and a whiff of cheap aftershave. He looked put out by her question, but didn’t let it throw him off.
“Fear not Miss Taylor, I am sure your beau will soon notice your disappearance.” His voice was oily and his formal tone sounded forced. Marsha was dealing with an amateur, which didn’t make him any less dangerous than an accomplished villain. It just meant he had more to prove.
“Is this about John?” she asked wearily.
“Ah,” said the caped creep, “so you are aware of your fiancé’s double life?”
Marsha sighed. “Considering I had so-called journalists following me everywhere, I’d have to be pretty unobservant not to know who people thought John was.”
The last few years had seen a growing media obsession with superhumans. Marsha had never understood the trend. Rummaging through the dirty laundry and secret identities of society’s protectors was a demoralising, not to mention risky, exercise. Several leading heroes had practically retired, appearing only to combat major threats. It was the best way to protect their privacy from the paparazzi, who were more persistent–and less respectful–than most supervillains. True heroes became alienated from the public, which caused a rise in attention-seeking wannabes. Marsha thought the whole situation was shameful, but she was in the minority. Everyone and their aunt wanted the hidden gossip behind the superhumans, and so journalists were keen to investigate them.
Three months earlier a reporter called Peter Selby had published a list of six Kegworth City citizens who could be Astro-man. Among sportsmen, actors and a local philanthropist, he had named John Laing, personal trainer to various celebrities. The choice made sense. John was at the peak of physical fitness and his pictures were all muscles, good teeth and a scattering of scars. Marsha still didn’t know where Selby had gotten the pictures, and if she ever found out who sold them she wasn’t sure what she would do. The scars and scratches on different parts of his body caused particular interest. Readers were led to believe that these marks were the price paid by a man who went out at night to fight crime.
In the rash of online polls that sprung up afterwards John was voted equal favourite with millionaire Richard Darnley. John and Marsha weren’t used to media attention, being followed by trigger-happy photographers left the couple in despair. Marsha was a private person, and the sudden attention had put her on edge. They turned to Mr. Darnley for assistance, hoping he would be sympathetic, and he had agreed to lend the aid of his PR men. Public medical tests, and a rare, official statement by Astro-man, finally convinced everyone that John wasn’t worth their frantic attention. Well, almost everyone.
“Listen, whoever you are,” Marsha continued with irritation, “it’s been proven that John isn’t superhuman. Maybe you’re a bit behind on the news. I can understand that, it happens to all of us. I’ll make a deal with you: if you let me go now I won’t mention this kidnapping incident to the authorities. How about it?”
Her captor laughed, a textbook villain laugh, derisive with more than a hint of megalomania. Not good.
“Tell me, Miss Taylor. If your fiancé isn’t Astro-man, how do you explain the way he keeps rescuing you?”
Marsha rolled her eyes and wished she could stand up. It was hard to impress a point on someone when lying at their feet.
“There were a dozen other people in that bank, not counting the staff! I’m sure Astro-man foils crimes even when they don’t involve people he knows.”
“What about the attack on your workplace?” the villain asked.
“It’s a big building with a lot of offices. The Squealing Squad were targeting a different company, and I wasn’t even in that day,” she countered. “Also, you haven’t told me the time yet.”
“And the incident at the docks before Christmas?” he asked.
Marsha raised her eyebrows; he had done his research. No one else had connected her with the blurry woman in the background of that particular Astro-man photo. “I like to shop for a bargain, and you can get things cheaper straight off the boat. I didn’t know what else those guys were mixed up in. Now tell me the goddamn time!”
Her captor looked dissatisfied. “It’s about six thirty,” he snapped. He had probably envisioned more begging and weeping. He stomped out of sight, his footsteps echoed off to her left.
Six thirty. That meant Marsha had been unconscious for a couple of hours. She knew she wasn’t at the docks; the smell of the sea was missing. However she could be in any of the other industrial units dotted around the city. Her headache was fading as whatever he had dosed her with wore off. She tested the ropes without success. Not that being tied up was her main concern; she was more worried about the cage. She had never liked being cooped up, and soon she would really freak out. Escape was her first priority, and she would need to figure it out by herself.
She managed to roll to the wall and, slowly, with much strenuous wriggling, propped herself up in seated position. She wasn’t comfortable, but could examine her surroundings. The cage was built into the concrete behind and below her. It separated off a rough six foot square area and was just taller than she was. She guessed it had been used to store dangerous equipment. The door was made from the same metal grid as the rest of the cage; it had solid, sturdy hinges and was locked with a large padlock. Beyond the bars was a big, grey manufacturing space. Hulking machines lurked, neglected and covered in cobwebs. The place had a metallic, industrial smell, overlaid with dust and oil. Light filtered through dirty skylights, creating pools of brightness in the murky interior. Here illuminating a pile of scrap metal, there a few discarded crates.
The unit made a good lair, Marsha reflected, but she couldn’t imagine anything here would stop Astro-man. He was in the big leagues and this guy looked like he was just starting out. She scanned the floor around her, but couldn’t see any conveniently discarded keys, knives, or bits of metal. She did spot small pile of dust just beyond the cage door. It looked as though her captor had swept it out. She smiled a little at that.
“So, what do you call yourself?” Marsha shouted out. The kidnapper was out of view, but she could hear him. He had been huffing, and she heard thumping and dragging noises. It sounded as though he was moving something heavy. After she spoke there was a silence, and then his footsteps approached.
“You do not know me?” he asked, appearing in front of the bars. He wasn’t surprised by her change of position. Marsha had been far from silent herself. From sideways-on he was no more impressive. He looked shorter and smelled sweatier now.
“No, I’m afraid not.” Marsha spoke lightly. She didn’t intend to act scared, but she realised that seeming sympathetic might help her cause.
“Your fiancé never mentioned me?” He sounded displeased.
“I’m sure he would have if he’d met you,” she assured him. “But, as I’ve explained, John isn’t Astro-man.”
He snorted and shook his head. He wasn’t going to believe her.
“I am Gloom Lord.” His tone was self-important and he twisted his shoulders as he spoke. Marsha realised that he was attempting a dramatic flourish. His cape was too heavy to swish, so it just swung sadly behind his back.
Marsha nodded and tried to look impressed, or at least keep from laughing. Gloom Lord stood looking at her, the silence grew and became excruciating. Villains were supposed to be talkative, prone to monologuing at the drop of a hat. She shouldn’t have to start the conversation.
“So… Why Astro-man?” Marsha asked. Not original, but current. “There are easier, more accessible, heroes.”
“Judge a man by the reputation of his enemies,” Gloom Lord said, he sounded as though he was quoting someone. “Besides, Astro-man and I have met before.”
“And yet here you are, kidnapping people?”
“Indeed,” he said angrily. “Now that I’ve got you, he’ll have to take me seriously.”
“Oh!” Marsha exclaimed, realisation dawning. He wasn’t just a wannabe. He was a wannabe with a score to settle. “So, what happened?”
“I stole a police car.” Was that a hint of pride in his voice? “It took daring and skill. The police couldn’t get it back. Then Astro-man found me.”
Marsha could guess what came next. When John had been the popular face of Astro-man, Marsha had discovered that the hero had an antagonistic relationship with the city police department. John had received hate mail ranting about humiliation to police officers. Marsha suspected that Astro-man wouldn’t hesitate to go after a stolen squad car. The cops would have been pretty pissed off, and Astro-man knew they would take their frustration out on the guy in custody. As Gloom Lord spoke Marsha read between the lines. The hero had let Gloom Lord go with a friendly warning, before racing off to leave the car sitting smugly outside the precinct.
Of course, for Gloom Lord the whole thing was a humiliating failure. To be foiled by a hero was one thing, but to be reprimanded like a naughty child then let loose again was another. He couldn’t convince Astro-man he was a threat. The hero had even saved him from police custody.
Marsha nodded along with his tale. She was finally getting somewhere with her captor. A good thing, as she guessed she had about an hour to get out of the cage.
“Well you’ve done your research,” Marsha said with approval. “No one else ever realised I was at the docks.”
“Well,” he puffed a little. “Once I knew what I was looking for it wasn’t difficult.”
“So, what are you going to do when he gets here?”
“I shan’t tell you. If I do, you’ll just warn him.”
“I’d be lying if I said that hadn’t crossed my mind,” Marsha agreed. “You seem confident, though. I take it you’ve got something pretty powerful?”
“Indeed,” he smirked, trying to raise only his right eyebrow. “I have discovered Astro-man’s weakness.”
Her reaction made him smile. His wasn’t an attractive smile, it had a smug quality. Marsha could see that she was more than just bait to him now, he wanted to impress her. She looked around.
“This is a good place, plenty of room for doing battle. I suppose it’s a nice isolated location? Not many neighbours around?”
“I will not tell you where we are.”
“Fair enough. I was just wondering how long it’ll take Astro-man to get here. He’s no Tornado Sue, but his top speed is about sixty miles an hour. I’ve been gone over two hours, and I would’ve thought he’d be here by now. But I suppose you could have taken me out of town. Yeah, that must be it.” She watched as he thought about this. She could almost see him figuring it out. “He does know I’m here, right?”
“Of course.” Gloom Lord didn’t sound so confident now. “I left a message in your kitchen.”
Marsha inhaled sharply through her teeth. “That’s not going to work. I keep telling you, John isn’t Astro-man.”
“He must be! There are so many links between you.”
“I’d know if he was. And even if my fiancé has been lying to me, John won’t be home yet. He’s got appointments all over the place. I wasn’t expecting him back until late.”
“Well, a night battle is better for me.” He glanced up at the skylights. The light was fading and becoming orange. Marsha was running out of time.
“You’re assuming he’ll look in the kitchen. If he goes straight to bed he won’t see the note until morning.”
“Won’t he notice that you’re gone?”
“We, uh, sleep in separate rooms, sometimes. He won’t want to disturb me.”
“Oh.” Gloom Lord looked so disheartened, Marsha almost felt bad for him. His shoulders hunched and his voice went quiet. “I suppose I’ll just wait.”
“Hold on!” Marsha snapped. “It’s alright for you to say that. I’m not waiting here all night. It’s cold, and uncomfortable, and I’m getting hungry.”
“Well, I can’t let you out.”
“What if I helped? I could call John on his cell. If he’s not Astro-man, he can alert him somehow. He could be here in an hour.”
Her captor looked tempted. “Give me his number and I will call.”
“Oh no! Do you know how many prank calls we’ve had since that damn article? John won’t believe you, he’ll think it’s a joke. He needs to hear from me.”
He looked uncertain for a moment, but made his decision. “Oh, all right.”
Marsha became agitated while Gloom Lord got keys and unlocked the cage. He had a gun, and made sure she saw it. He removed the rope from her ankles so she could walk. This took some time, and she wanted to scream at him to hurry. She managed to restrain herself. Any misstep now could get her locked in the cage again, and that was the worst place she could be tonight. She let him help her up and escort her.
They walked across the wide space to an old metal staircase. Walking up ahead, Marsha saw it led to a shabby office that looked out over the factory. The smell, and a mattress in the corner, told Marsha that Gloom Lord had been living here. Using his gun, he motioned for her to sit on a battered chair behind the desk. Light came from a window in the far wall. Marsha glanced warily outside. The sun was sinking behind the neighbouring buildings.
The phone was an old one, with large push buttons. Gloom Lord dialled as Marsha told him the number. Then he held the receiver for her and leant close so he could listen.
“John Laing, personal trainer. How can I help?”
“Marsha? It’s an odd time for you to call.” John sounded worried. “Are you alright?”
“Not really. I’ve been kidnapped by a caped villain, and he’s holding me in an industrial unit.”
“Oh God! Marsha!” Now he sounded scared.
“It’s actually nothing to do with me. He’s an amateur who thinks you’re Astro-man.” She tried to sound reassuring.
“Not that stuff again! Where are you?”
Marsha shot a look at Lord Gloom. He shook his head, irritated by the amateur comment, then jabbed at the phone. “He won’t tell me, John. He wants you to trace the number.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Astro-man could do it,” Marsha said with a hint of irony.
“What do you want me to do, darling?”
Marsha smiled, John’s confidence in her abilities always touched her.
“Go home,” she told him. “I won’t be back tonight, but I’ll call you as soon as I can. We may have some clearing up to do. Sorry.”
“Why are you apologising? It’s not your fault.”
“I know, but I’m sorry you’ve got to deal with this.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” John asserted. “I love you.”
Marsha grinned. “I love you too.”
She indicated that Gloom Lord should hang up. He did so, loudly.
“What was that? You were supposed to tell him to rescue you!”
Marsha stared out of the window, watching the sunlight disappear from the sky. The streetlights came on, but couldn’t counteract the silvery glow. Marsha’s vision went monochrome, colour bleeding out of everything.
“John knows I can handle the likes of you,” she growled. “He trusts me to look after myself.”
The change was coming now. She kicked her shoes off, they didn’t fit anymore. Her nails grew longer and thick hair sprouted all over her body. Her shadow was growing, her silhouette changing. She could feel her clothes getting tight and heard the seams start to tear. She was aware of Gloom Lord behind her, backing towards the door. He wouldn’t be able to see much in this light, and she could smell his confusion.
Marsha couldn’t resist stretching. She pulled her arms apart, ripping through the rope. Sitting in the chair didn’t work anymore as her body shape changed. She staggered to her feet. She heard a whimper behind her as Gloom Lord saw how much she had grown. She turned to him, yellow eyes glinting. He stared at her with a mixture of fright and curiosity. She had to speak before her jaw changed too much.
“Say nothing about this.” Her voice rasped. “Have your scent now. Can track you anywhere.”
Her mind was becoming dim, complex thoughts harder to process. All the human trivialities were disappearing from her consciousness.
“Buh-but you’re…” he tried to speak. Even in her transitional state Marsha knew this was stupid.
“Go!” She lunged towards him, snapping her jaws.
At last he understood the danger. He stumbled out and hurried down the stairs, cape flapping behind him. Marsha could hear his quick footsteps echoing through the factory, then the louder bang of a big metallic door. At least he’d had the sense to shut it. She hoped, for his sake, that he would drive away.
Alone now, she clawed at her clothes, tearing them away. She fell down and landed on four feet. She shook herself to remove the last remnants of fabric. Transformation complete, she sniffed the air. Prey had been here not long ago. She bounded down the stairs. A trail of sweat and fear led across the large space ahead. She raced forward joyfully, enjoying the movement and eagerly anticipating the hunt.
Catherine Hill comes from Worcestershire in England. She spent much of her childhood with her head buried in a book. An interest in history and mythology led her to an Ancient History degree. A love of the fantastical and impossible led her to most of her favourite people. She now lives in Birmingham with her husband and works in a public library. She rambles about things she enjoys at http://www.catherinetjhill.blogspot.com