Rose recounted the events of the night with a reporters eye for detail, and without the embellishment of emotion. She glanced occasionally at the Black Mask, still as a statue, but couldn't tell if he noticed it through his armored mask. Once she was done, Dr. Wilson sat forward, his hands clasped together before him, and a rueful smile playing at his lips. He tossed a sidelong glance toward the masked man, and muttered, “My, that is quite the adventure, isn't it?”
Rose felt herself blush, as if the old man had somehow read in her words what she hadn't said.
“You said something early on, that I would like to pursue, dear. You said the city coroner mentioned the remains were...What was the word he used?”
Rose answered instinctively, “Gritty.”
The old man sat back, staring upward, resting his hands on the back of his head.
“Interesting”, he commented.
The Black Mask broke away from the wall, striding with that confident gait towards them.
“Doctor, what would liquify a man?”, he questioned.
“Oh, my”, said the old man, in contemplation, “there are a variety of methods I would say. Acid, obviously, though you said his clothes appeared to be untouched, so that would be unlikely. Perhaps it would help if we knew who the man was. And, you know, there was a second victim in the subway car. I have little proof, but I would bet they died of the same cause, and...I believe, at the same time.”
This was the first Rose had heard of a second victim, and she put her hands in her lap to keep from reaching for a pen and pad which she didn't have.
The Black Mask laughed, mirthlessly.
“You've been listening in on the police band again, Doctor.”
The old man, smiling beatifically, shrugged.
“What would you have me do? I get bored.”
Rose realized that she was hearing a common debate between them. That Doctor Wilson was a prisoner within his elegant home, somehow. That, perhaps, the Black Mask was his warden.
“You could begin working again, Doctor.”
The old man harrumphed, waving the suggestion away as if it were smoke in the air.
“To what end, I ask? To see my work corrupted? No, again I tell you, I won't have it. I would rather that I were dead than that.”
The Black Mask's shoulders slumped, and she realized he wasn't the warden, the man who kept Doctor Charles Wilson a prisoner. No, it was Doctor Wilson, himself, who had chosen to turn his back on the world, to disappear without a trace, to be dead as far as that world was concerned.
“You've done great work, though.” The words were barely a whisper from the Black Mask, still not looking at the scientist.
The genius stood up, placed a sympathetic hand on the shoulder of the warrior. His heart was, for one instant, upon his sleeve as he patted the shoulder.
“You, my boy. You are the best work I have ever done. Though none may know of it, I know. And there is almost nothing more I would rather leave to this world.”
Rose stood, averting her eyes from the moment, and, looking away, noticed the cigar box on the table. It was ordinary, a bit dirty, certainly out of it's surroundings. But most intriguingly, it was slowly moving across the table.
The doctor turned to it, as did the Black Mask.
“What...”, began Rose.
The Black Mask swept past her as the old man moved towards the table.
“It's an alarm”, he whispered. “Someone is on the roof.”
Rose understood now how the old, blind scientist knew they had arrived. For hidden in an ordinary cigar box was a clever device that would vibrate tellingly, warning if anyone approached. Doctor Wilson opened the box and a small screen illuminated within, a perfect negative of the roof. Again understanding flooded Rose. The images of three men, shadows on a white negative image, appeared on the screen, fanning out, and slowly moving towards the shack, Thompson machine guns at the ready.
How had they found them, she wondered, as she felt the anticipation climbing in her chest. The Black Mask was walking into that pack of murderers, one man against three. Of course, she had seen him defeat more than that earlier this very night, but she also knew he was running only partially on his skills, and equally on luck. Frighteningly, she realized that eventually, when playing the odds, the house would win, and that would be the ace of spades, the card that fortune tellers had deemed the Death card.
The old man heard her sharp, quick intake of breath, and reached out to take her hand in his own, just a moment of support.
Rose heard the raising of the secret panel beneath the cot, knew that the Black Mask was making ready his attack before the men could find their way into the shack, possibly discovering the hidden panel, and the two refugees within. Two he had sworn to protect, for reasons only he could know. She held her breath in anticipation.
On the small screen, she watched one of the men shoulder his weapon, and pull something like a baton from his coat. The others held their weapons steady on the shack, while this one held the device with both hands, made an odd gesture with one hand, and then, his arm drew back and he hurled the baton at the shack. The other two rapidly retreated.
It was a bare moment, a blink in time, that Rose realized what was happening as the grenade twirled end over end through the night sky, shattering one of the small windows of the shack.
She tried to scream as the explosion blasted the shack to splinters, hurling wood and glass into the night. And releasing a fireball down the hidden passageway, along with the limp body of the Black Mask.
She pulled away from the old man, racing to him, trying to pull him from beneath the burning wreckage of the hidden door. He didn't move at all, and the fire upon him seemed not to cause him any more damage than had already been done. She beat at the flaming timbers, tossing them aside when she could, straining against their weight to extract him.
She was coughing from the smoke that filled the passageway as the heat from the flames seared her eyes, making it that much more difficult to see her ill-fated rescue attempt. Frustration filled her with rage, which in turn filled her with strength enough to pull his motionless body from under the wreckage and away from the narrow stairwell. It was just as well, for as she backed into the white room, she could hear laughter from above, approaching.
The old man was beside her, helping to pull the body of the inert hero into the room, when the first rounds from the machine guns ripped into the still-flaming wreckage on the stairs, sending splinters and shrapnel bounding about the hallway. He grunted and stumbled, but righted himself, continuing to aid her.
She heard them descending slowly, and the rage that had filled her a moment ago seemed to double within her.
When the first of the assassins stepped into the hallway, surveying the burning timbers, she snatched the pistol from it's holster at her back, sending three bullets as a greeting. The first one went wide, but startled the killer enough that the other two punched him into the flames where he screamed horrifically and thrashed maniacally before dying in the roaring fire in preparation for his eternity in Hell.
Rose knelt down, making a smaller target of herself, aiming with both hands at the entrance to the white room. She knew she was exposed, but didn't want to risk moving to a hiding place lest one of the other assassins rounded the corner and found his way into the room. No, if she was going to die, it was going to be here, and while taking out the men who had killed her...
The thought went incomplete as the next killer ducked his head around the corner and she fired at him, spasticly throwing away a single round, but chipping the door frame next to his head. He howled in pain as splinters leapt into his face, and he swung the barrel of the Thompson into the room, firing blindly.
He was at the wrong angle to reach her, and the bullets tore through the velvet couch, and into the cigar box on the table. She held her fire, waiting while he sprayed that corner of the room, trying to inch the barrel of the weapon around the corner without exposing himself.
But eventually, he moved too far into the doorway, and Rose fired a shot that gouged a deep trough through the would-be killers throat, which emitted a fountainous spray of grue that bubbled as his breath fluttered up from his lungs while he fell.
“Damn you!”, came a cry from the stairwell, and she could hear the final killer racing up the narrow stairwell, towards the safety of the roof.
Without thinking, she raced after him, her pistol clutched in a vice-like grip, ready to kill him the moment she had the chance.
Out the doorway and into the hell that was the hallway, facing into the stairwell, she realized, too late, her mistake as she saw the final assassin at the top of the stairs, his machine gun prepared to tear her to shreds where she stood.
The killer fired a bit too high though, chipping no more than a foot over her head, and as he readjusted his fire towards her, the man she had shot through the throat clutched at her leg, bringing her down onto the stairs while his associate punched bullets into his prostrate fellow.
Rose raised her gun, firing upwards at an odd angle, but putting her final bullet through the shoulder of the man who would have killed her, spinning him into a drunken pirouette. He lost control of the Thompson with the force of the twist, flinging it down the stairs where it bounced along, coming to a stop for less than a tenth of a second before she had it scooped up and was racing up the stairwell with the death bringer in both hands.
Emerging onto the roof, she found her quarry wriggling along grotesquely, leaving a thick trail of blood on the tar and gravel of the roof like a slug in a garden. He howled and kicked, clutching at the destroyed shoulder with his good hand, his forward momentum made exclusively from his legs. His face was being ground into the gravel, and he was screaming incoherently when she raised the weapon to fire, to kill this worm who had tried to kill them all...
She hesitated, her anger and adrenaline flushing out of her with each sensational howl from the wounded mans throat. Her stomach fluttered. Stumbling, she tried to keep the weapon raised, prepared to kill him the moment he was a threat again, but now...
Now he was barely human in his pain, like a dog she had seen in her childhood, run over on the street but not yet dead, crawling to a safety that would never come.
She was sickened. Horrified.
A hand rested on her shoulder, and she nearly fired so startled was she, but the hand was now on the barrel of the weapon. A hand clad in thin black leather.