(Author's Note: This story is narrated by Free Spirit (Cathy Webster), whom some of you may remember from her brief career as a protégée of Captain America in his title in the mid-90s, when the late Mark Gruenwald was still writing Cap's adventures. I've posted on my profile a URL for a webpage that can tell you more about her.)

The Perils of Shopping

The bell rang above the door of the bookshop as I entered and I saw the man standing in front of the counter spin around. Nervous type, I decided compassionately. Jumpy. The politest thing would be not to notice. Surely he'd calm down on his own when he realized I wasn't threatening him—

Oops! Maybe not. That looked like a Glock 34 coming out from under his jacket—or maybe it was a Glock 35? Hard to tell them apart at first glance—the point was that he was swinging it around in my direction. I kicked his wrist and the gun went flying to land somewhere behind the counter.

"Sir!" I said severely. "I don't know what you think you're doing, but waving guns around isn't going to make you any happier—"

I was interrupted as he threw a haymaker at me. He was a hefty man and that wild swing might actually have cracked my jaw if my head had just stayed there waiting for his big fist to arrive. Instead I grabbed his wrist in the middle of its trajectory and flipped him over my shoulder, hoping to knock some sense into him without hurting him too badly.

He rolled over and braced himself, starting to get up. I jumped and landed on him with both boots and he said "Oooofff!" and was promptly flattened against the floor by the impact, and stayed flat for awhile now that I was perched on him. Which was mildly embarrassing—I don't weigh that much, do I?

"Now then, sir," I began anew, still standing on his back. "I want you to tell me why you thought a gun was the proper way to greet a stranger walking into the store—"

"That would be my fault; I told him to guard the exit while I was cleaning out the safe," said a man's voice from behind me. I turned around and saw a costume I didn't recognize; all black and green with a fancy mask and even a cape. (I really don't know what good he thought the cape would do.)

"Don't tell me who you are; let me guess," he added. "That patriotic red-white-and-blue theme . . . are you 'Vagabond'?"

I shook my head.

"'Miss America'? I once read about one from the World War Two era . . . you could be reviving the name, I suppose. Her granddaughter, or something?"

I shook my head.

"Of course not; what was I thinking? These days, it would probably be 'Ms. America!' Or 'American Woman,' or—"

I saw this could go on all day. "Just call me 'Free Spirit.'"

He sighed. "I'm sorry to have to say this, doll, you being so easy on the eyes and all—but I never heard of you! I was hoping my first confrontation with a hero would be someone with a real reputation—like Spider-Man, or Captain America, or one of the X-Men, or . . ."

"Count your blessings, sir," I advised him. "Most of those people are very busy; they wouldn't even have the patience to let you play your little guessing game before arresting you. Now, I recommend you simply put your hands behind your head while I call the police, and that way we can avoid any further—"

Some people call me a bit naive, but I didn't really think it was going to be that easy. Captain America has warned me that thugs who put on fancy costumes seem to think they magically become ten times tougher and scarier. Overcompensating for the poor self-images they had before, perhaps? Pathetic, really. It didn't even surprise me when his left hand started to glow. (A sort of pale green.) I reached to a nearby shelf and threw the heaviest book I could find at his head, hard and fast. It made him duck and possibly threw off his aim for whatever he was trying to do.

"Hold still, doll!" he yelled as I jumped sideways to put a thick bookcase between the two of us while I pondered my options. "None shall defy the Muddler! It's in your own best interests if we settle this quickly and painlessly!"

The Muddler? I managed not to giggle at the name. Cap had also warned me that these types like to speak about themselves in the third person a lot, but frankly, I hadn't really believed him. At the time, I'd figured he was just judging everyone by two or three of his own worst enemies who had very old-fashioned habits. I'd have to apologize to him the next time I saw him. I wondered if the Muddler expected me to reply in the third person.

We danced around a bit, ducking back and forth from one aisle to the next, while I waited to see what he was going to do with that green energy around his left hand. Not a heck of a lot, apparently. I kept expecting green lightning or something to flash toward me whenever he spotted me again, but that kept not happening. So I began to suspect his power—whatever it might be!—only operated via direct contact. If so, that would make this a lot simpler. I could move in close to clobber him; I just had to prevent him from slapping his left hand against my body before I had kayoed him. Of course, it was possible he could channel the same power through his right hand, too . . .

I grabbed books with each hand and threw them at him again the next time we had a clear line of sight at each other. He dodged one and blocked the other with a hastily raised arm. The Muddler's reflexes weren't half bad, but they weren't nearly as quick as mine have been ever since that special conditioning I got from Superia. Hand to hand, it would've been no contest—if his hands had been physically normal, like mine. I still didn't know how bad it would be if he touched me for a split-second before I could stun him. But I knew darn well that Captain America wouldn't have timidly played hide-and-go-seek with this specimen for very long.

Then I heard a floorboard creak behind me and knew what was up. The man I had landed on must have gotten his wind back and was trying to sneak up on me from behind. Maybe just planning to wrap me up in a bear hug, pinning my arms so his boss could do whatever it was he did with that green glow. (Two husky men conniving to gang up on one young lady who probably weighed at least eighty or ninety pounds less than either of them did—how brave of them.) I pretended I hadn't noticed a thing and stepped forward to face the Muddler down the length of an aisle framed by bookcases seven feet tall.

"At first I thought you might be something scary, Mister Muddler, sir," I said sweetly, "But now I've decided you're just another loudmouthed thug with a cute little gimmick. You still want to settle this as 'quickly' as possible? I'm game if you are!"

He grinned and shifted into a boxing stance. "Bring it on, babe!" I could tell from the flickering of his eyes that his pal must be getting close. So I didn't linger where I was; I strode forward fast to close the gap, feinted a high strike with my right hand to get the Muddler to raise his glowing left, then went low and did a leg sweep to bring him crashing down. That bought me enough time to spin around and handle his buddy coming down the aisle from the other way. It only took a couple of seconds to block his first strike, then soften him up with a few blows of my own, then throw him again so that he landed right on top of the Muddler who still flailing about with his glowing left hand, hoping to touch me!

If someone had to be the guinea pig here, better the henchman than me!

Actually, nothing terribly dramatic happened. He didn't scream in agony or disintegrate or anything like that. He just went limp and didn't move at all. The Muddler cursed and tried to shift about two hundred and thirty pounds of dead weight off himself. He would have made it out from under, eventually, if I hadn't chopped at exactly the right spot on his neck while his hands were occupied. (But of course I did.)

It turned out I was only carrying a single pair of handcuffs. I used that to fasten the Muddler's hands behind his back and then went looking for a piece of cord or something that I could use to restrain the henchman. That was when I found the proprietor. Stretched out on the floor behind the counter, where I hadn't seen him before. Out like a light, but no blood or other visible signs of injury. Pulse and respiration were okay. Best guess: the Muddler had touched him and knocked him out cold. Anyway, I found something to use on the henchman and then I called 911. The cops took a while to show up—I had assured them there was no longer an ongoing emergency, and I imagine they had other things to do that couldn't wait. Before a patrol car actually showed up, the Muddler was awake again and complaining.

"You didn't have to get so rough, sweetie!" he said indignantly. "I wasn't going to harm a single hair on your pretty little head! All I had to do was touch you, and then you'd be too dazed and confused to give me any more trouble, or just out cold if I preferred, and I could be on my way without any harm!"

"Yeah, right," I said drily. "And what, exactly, would you be likely to do after you had a girl like me at your mercy, unable to resist?"

He did his very best to look shocked. (I could tell because I'd already stripped off his mask before he woke up.) "Did anyone ever tell you you've got a dirty mind?"

"No, as a matter of fact."

He decided to change the subject. "Anyway, I admit you defeated me." (He sounded as if he were making a generous concession.) "But will you just tell me one thing, now that it won't matter anyway? How did you know I was here? I'd only stunned the owner about five minutes before you showed up, and I'd swear he never had any time to hit a silent alarm. Some psychic crime-detecting power of yours?"

I decided to tell the truth, as I generally do if I answer personal questions at all. "I didn't know you were here. I didn't know anything was wrong. I suddenly remembered I wanted to buy a certain history book, and I just didn't want to take the time to run home and change into civvies first. If your henchman had just moved behind the counter and offered to ring up my purchase on the cash register, I might never have suspected a thing! I guess he panicked when he saw the costume!"

The Muddler closed his eyes, as if in pain. "Please tell me you're joking. Why would a total babe like you want to waste her spare time on some dusty old book when there are so many other things she could be doing to make the world a happier place?" (I could easily guess what sort of things he had in mind.)

"No joke," I said patiently. "I like to exercise my mind. You might want to try that yourself. I hear the prisons have pretty good libraries, these days. You might learn something!"

Then the police showed up and I handed the problem over to them, explaining about the dangers of letting his left hand (and possibly the right one) touch you at all. They acccepted it calmly; they've probably heard much stranger stories from people in costume!