His voice was soothing as he gently relieved her of the weapon, taking it from her now-trembling hands. He looked at her, his mask impassive, and she wanted to tear it from his face, see his eyes, know what he was feeling. She wanted to be sick, to cry, to run away, anything but relive the last few moments when she had killed two men. She could tell herself it was self-defense. There was no denying they would have killed them all, but...she knew it was anger, violent retribution because they had hurt him.
But he didn't seem hurt. He seemed, once more, in control. While she wavered on her feet, barely coping with what she had done.
The Black Mask stepped to the man, turning him over gently.
Rose gasped, stumbling backward, when she saw him, for he looked like a child, a boy of barely eighteen. He had been a gleeful murderer moments before, lobbing a grenade to kill them, firing on them with passion. Now he was a terrified, injured child, face gouged and bloody from his crawling escape, uselessly trying to stop the free flow of his lifeblood from exiting his body with each pounding of his heart.
“Help won't arrive in time, boy. But I can make it less painful if you tell me who sent you,” the Black Mask whispered.
The young man clutched at his long coat, wailing like a babe lost in the woods.
Rose could see the boy growing more pale by the second, the strength falling from him as he gasped and cried.
“Please,” she whispered, “make him stop.”
She wanted to put her hands over her ears, so awful was the wailing of the boy.
The Black Mask glanced at her, taking his eyes from the youth, who clutched at him again, and then passed out, soon to be dead in his arms.
When the boy gasped out his last breath, the Black Mask laid him down gently and came to her. She backed away as he approached, suddenly afraid of this man who could so easily take a life, who felt no remorse for killing.
He stopped, and his shoulders fell as she stared at him, the look of horror plain on her face.
“You saved us, and it is hard on you, I know. To see the pain you've caused is never easy.” His voice was gentle with her, too, and she suddenly shivered, rubbing her hands on her arms.
“I'll take you home, as soon as I make sure that Dr. Wilson is safe.”
He brushed past her, moving to the stairwell that led down into the chaos of her battle. She watched him go, not following. She waited in silence.
From behind her, there was a cough, and a shuffle. Looking back, she saw the young man move, saw his eyes staring at her. His mouth was moving slowly.
Without thinking, she raced to him, kneeling at his side to hear his words. She had to lean in close, her ear inches from his mouth.
His hot breath tickled her like a lover as he breathed, then spoke again.
“I should have shot you faster. Should have blasted you down instead of Harry.”
The words shocked her.
“I would have had a dozen dames like you crawling at my feet when the Professor takes over the city. It should be you dying, not me.”
He had no remorse, she realized, even while dying, he was a monster.
“Where is the Professor?” she asked, her voice hard.
The boy coughed, and his breath was rancid on her face as he laughed.
“No stupid dame is ever gonna stop him. He knows that you're tryin', but he's ready for you. He showed us that you're not equal, in his lab. That your kind is less than us. Biologically...inferior.”
She remembered the horrors of the lab, those innocent women in pieces, in jars. She looked at the boy anew, saw what he was now.
“I'm better than you. I defeated you. Remember this. When you get to Hell, remember who sent you.”
His eyes widened at the vehemence in her voice, and then they fell to one side as his last breath rattled out of him, and he was still.
Rose stood, looked into the night sky, at the mass of buildings around her. Thought of men like this in control, and shivered again. She had to stop them. Somehow, they had to be stopped.
Turning to the still-smoldering stairwell, she walked down to the parlor.
The Black Mask was bandaging Dr. Wilson, who sat in silence, his face contorted in pain, when Rose stepped into the room.
“Is he okay?”, she asked.
The Black Mask looked at her, saying nothing.
Dr. Wilson turned slightly toward her, grimacing as he did.
“I am alive, thanks to you, my dear.”
He turned back to the Mask.
“What is your next step, boy?” he asked.
“When I'm done here, I'll take her home to safety, and then...”
“I'm not going home,” she said, her voice solid.
The Black Mask stood up, his full attention on her.
“Listen, I understand...” he began.
“I said I'm not going home,”she said, cutting him off. “They're monsters. Maybe once they were men, but now, now they've chosen to follow evil, and have become evil themselves. I'm not going home until they're stopped, no matter what.”
He turned from her to the scientist sitting on the couch, who was smiling just a bit.
“Oh, I like her,” he said.
The Black Mask shook his head, laying a hand on the doctors shoulder.
“We have to get you to safety, Doctor. They may come back for you.”
Rose shook her head.
“They weren't here for him. They were after me. The Professor particularly views me as a threat.”
Dr. Wilson arched an eyebrow.
“Why would that be, my dear?”
“Because I'm a woman,” she said, with a hint of anger in her voice.
The old man turned to the Black Mask.
“She certainly is,” he whispered.
Rose considered taking one of the machine guns, but accepted a small automatic from the old scientist, instead. It would be easier to carry, and they needed haste this night.
Afraid the building would be under observation from more of the Professors men, they made their way deeper into the building through a series of hidden stairwells and hallways until they came to the basement.
In the back, beyond the boilers and machinery that made the building live, she followed the old man and the masked vigilante to a doorway hidden among the pipes. Further in, she found herself in a long corridor, moving quickly as if the hounds of Hell were baying at her heels, rushing into the darkness with the two men, all the while listening to the scientist consider the problem of the melted man.
They spoke of various scientific methods by which a man could be disintegrated, all the while moving along tunnels and access passages through and beneath the city, never leaving the corridors that connected buildings. Sometimes they climbed down ladders, and sometimes crawled along ducts. They moved through a hidden warren that few suspected, and even fewer would believe.
Finally, Dr. Wilson asked if they could stop to rest, and he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his brow as they sat in a dimly lit corridor somewhere beneath the sprawling urban jungle.
“We're almost there” the Black Mask remarked, hardly winded.
But Rose was panting, and there was a stitch in her side.
The old man was sweating profusely, and his hands shook as he reached out to steady himself.
“My boy, in all the years I've known you, I must say this is the first time I've not envied you your nightly adventures. It's a wonder you don't collapse each day.”
Rose looked across at the shadowy figure. “Nightly? You do this every night?”
His body language was embarrassed, and he turned away.
The old man chuckled. “Don't let him fool you. He lives for this. There may be nights that are a bit less of an adventure, but this is his reason for living.”
The Black Mask stood, offering a hand to the old man who groped for it in the air, and another to Rose, who took it willingly.
“I didn't mean to pry. I just...”
The Black Mask began to lead the scientist down the corridor to their destination, but his words drifted back to her.
“Didn't know the city was so dangerous? Few do.”
They found their way through a series of doors and up three short flights of stairs. Coming to a stop before a simple wooden door, Dr. Wilson stepped forward, felt for the handle while fishing a set of keys from his pocket.
Upon unlocking the door, they entered a suite that was not quite so magical as the white parlor, but similarly decorated. It was a simple flat, all white except for the edges of the room and the furnishings.
Looking down, Rose noticed a spattering of blood on the ground where the doctor had made his way to one of the chairs.
“You're bleeding!” she exclaimed.
“Oh, it's barely a scratch, hardly anything to worry about,” proclaimed the doctor between gasps for breath.
“It's worse than that, Dr. Wilson. I should contact Clarke.” The Black Mask made his way across the room to a small wireless set.
“Oh, please. The good doctor is hardly ever in these days, gallivanting about with his friends. Just let me calm my heart, and I'll re-dress the wound myself.”
The Black Mask shook his head.
“In fact, why don't you call Wentworth? He'll send his man, the one that smells of curry, and they'll take care of it.”
Nodding, the Black Mask dialed in on the wireless set, spoke a few words into the microphone, and then returned to their side.
“We'll wait for him to arrive, and then be on our way.”
The old man waved his hand in the air.
“Where will we start?” asked Rose, looking at the growing pool of blood beside the doctors chair.
Before the Black Mask could answer, the wireless receiver squelched. He went to it, listened intently, and then turned back to them.
“We need to go now. To City Hall.”
There was great urgency in his voice, and Rose stood.
“What is it?”, Dr. Wilson asked, gravely.
“The mayor. Reports say, he's been sent an ultimatum. If he doesn't turn control of the city over to the Professor within an hour, hundreds of people will be liquified.”