Author's Note: "Free Spirit" is Cathy Webster, who was an apprentice of Captain America's for awhile in the mid-90s and hasn't been seen doing much of anything in the Marvel Universe since then. She is the narrator; this story is set back in that mid-90s era when she was still a rookie receiving regular training from Cap and then going out on the streets and trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice. If you want to know how to visualize her, click on my name and follow the "Free Spirit" link near the top of my Profile.

Chapter One: Handcuffs

The cop's nametag said he was "P. Alonso." I didn't know the full story, but he must have handcuffed the suspect's right wrist to his own left wrist before losing consciousness. Now the suspect was kneeling beside the officer, searching for the right key to liberate himself from two hundred pounds of inert police officer. He didn't see me yet; I had just now come down the stairs into the basement of the building.

I stood there for a minute and let him find the handcuff key and unlock the cuff on the officer's wrist. Then I said sweetly, "Don't bother unlocking the other one, sir. I'd just have to snap it back on!"

His head jerked around. (Male Caucasian, probably under thirty, blue eyes, sandy hair underneath a Yankees baseball cap, freckles, pug nose, thin moustache, I noted automatically.) Something about his body language gave me the idea that he briefly pondered the pros and cons of trying to yank Officer Alonso's gun from the holster—but I could be doing him an injustice. He didn't actually reach for it and from his current angle he couldn't possibly have gotten it out quickly enough to do him any good. He tried a different approach.

"Are you a superhero? Great to see you!" he said heartily. "I think this poor policeman had a heart attack! I was planning to run and call 911 as soon as I could get loose, but now you can—while I stay to give CPR!" The funny thing was how incredibly sincere and convincing he sounded. But when a man is handcuffed to a cop as I first meet him, I don't give him much benefit of the doubt.

"Somehow, sir, I just don't feel right about leaving him alone and helpless with you," I said pointedly. "So I think we'll go find a phone or police radio together."

His eyes widened and he looked absolutely horrified at my insinuation. "Surely you don't think I'd be so unsporting as to abuse a helpless man? A paladin of law and order? Even if he did arrest me in a misguided fit of zeal?"

"I don't know you, do I? Perhaps Unsporting is your middle name." I didn't believe the "heart attack" story, but I still crouched down on the other side of the cop and checked for a pulse in his throat. Felt strong and steady—he was unconscious, but if I were a gambler, I'd bet twenty-to-one that it wasn't because of inherent health problems. No blood anywhere in sight, no clear sign of any head injuries—what had kayoed him?

The suspect's free hand had slipped into a pocket of his leather jacket and now it was coming out again. I chopped at his wrist and he yelped. It should be at least a minute or two before he could really use that hand again. Meanwhile, the temporary numbing of his hand caused a hypodermic to slip through his fingers and roll on the floor. I checked his jacket and found two more hypos, one fully loaded and one almost empty. "Was this what you used on the cop?"

He sighed theatrically. "You're terribly suspicious, you know that? I just happen to feel the need to give myself another allergy shot so I can keep breathing comfortably at this time of year, and then you—"

"The forensics people will nail it down, then. Comparing the contents of these needles to whatever they find in this poor man's bloodstream." I slipped all three hypos into a plastic evidence bag. Then I glared at him and said, "Turn around and put your hands together behind your back." One cuff was still attached to his right wrist and I was going to put the other one on his left. That would make him a lot less dangerous when we went looking for a way to call the local cops.

He didn't cooperate. His eyes widened and he stared frantically over my shoulder. He snapped, "Look out!" and I frowned because even a rookie superhero knows that's the oldest trick in the book. How gullible did he think I was?

"Warning her? Now that wasn't nice, Fortescue," said a contralto voice with a bit of Texas in it. "A girl might almost think you ain't glad to see her!"

I thought I saw a flash of panic in his—Fortescue's?—eyes before I rose and swiveled around to see the new arrival. But even as I did, he was saying in a warm tone, "What? No, I was trying to warn you off, Laralie! She's one of those superheroes; no telling what she might do!"

"That's right sweet of you, Fort," said the voice with a clear note of skepticism—and now I could see the speaker.

My first impression was that I loved her patriotic color scheme. Beyond that, she seemed to be going for the cowgirl look. Red fringed boots, blue jeans, white gloves, and a long-sleeved red checked shirt that was knotted across the middle of her chest instead of properly buttoned, thereby showing quite a bit of skin above and below. Pearl-handled revolvers in white holsters on her hips, a white cowboy hat, and blond hair. (Later, as she moved around, I realized most of her hair was in a very long ponytail hanging down her back.) Her hands were currently occupied with a rope with a big loop at one end.

Cap had made me study dossiers on a few hundred costumed characters and this one looked familiar. "Wrangler." A mercenary. She'd fought Cap and she'd fought the Black Widow (not simultaneously).

"Howdy," she said politely. "Honey, I don't know who you are and I don't care. No need for a ruckus between us; I've got other fish to fry. What say you just mosey along with no hard feelings?"

I smiled. "I was about to say much the same! I want to call an ambulance for that police officer and I want to hand this other fellow over to the authorities. As long as you don't interfere, there's no problem!" (As far as I knew, there were no outstanding warrants against her at the moment, so I was ready to take a live-and-let-live attitude if she'd reciprocate. One problem at a time, please!)

She sighed. Apparently it wasn't going to be that easy to settle this one. "So we're laying our cards on the table, honey? Okay, I'll tell you how it stands. If you want to pick up that cop and lug him up the stairs, go for it! I don't mind! But I've got some unfinished business with Fortescue here, so if you leave him behind, I promise he won't just get off with a slap on the wrist for any crimes he's committed lately. Does that make you feel better?" She was slowly twirling her lasso as she spoke, and the tight grin on her face suggested unpleasant things for Fortescue.

I blinked at the implications of her offer. Was she trying to set herself up as a female Punisher? No, she probably had her own grudge against him. But she was trying to persuade me to think of it as "justice"—even if her reasons for hurting him (or killing him?) wouldn't be the same as the law's reasons.

I had never practiced fighting a lasso. If she sent the loop sailing toward me, should I duck and then move toward her fast, or try to grab hold of the rope for leverage? I was trying to find the right words to stall for time when I suddenly heard a Click! and felt something press against my left wrist. I spun around and saw that Fortescue had just snapped the other cuff onto me. Even as I reached toward him, his left hand flashed and a shiny bit of metal sailed through the air and disappeared into what appeared to be an overloaded garbage can.

Wrangler laughed at the situation as I spun my head again to monitor her activities. She might have snared me with that lasso when I was distracted, but she hadn't bothered. Through gritted teeth, I asked Fortescue, "What was that all about?"

"Now you have to stay close and protect me," he said simply.

"What, you thought I was just going to bail out and let her skin you alive and then tan the hide, or whatever she has in mind?"

"It was possible!" he said defensively. "After all, I'd—" He broke off suddenly, but I got the drift. That was what he would have done if the shoe were on the other foot.

"Yes, he would," Wrangler said agreeably, responding to what he hadn't finished saying. "Just like he'd sweet-talk a girl into letting him invest the bounty money she'd just collected on a job, and then disappear with it instead of coming back for the candlelit dinner he said he couldn't hardly wait for!"

"Ah," I said, the light dawning. "He's a con man!"

"Yup. Real charmer. Back in the old days, he would have made a great snake oil salesman. Now he thinks chaining himself to you and throwing away the key is going to keep him safe. Although frankly, honey, I reckon he'd have done better to leave you your mobility and count on your 'sense of duty.' I got the feeling you just weren't feeling right about sashaying out of here and letting me teach him some proper manners."

"I'm getting more tempted by the minute," I growled. "I don't suppose you know how to pick the locks on police handcuffs?" (Cap probably knew, but so far the subject had never come up in my training exercises. I made a mental note to mention it next time.)

"Nope. I admit it's a bit of a problem. Like I said, I've got no beef with you, honey. But the two of you seem to be a package deal at the moment. You can have a few minutes to search that cop for a spare key, or go rummage around for the one Fort threw away—I can wait a mite!" As an afterthought, she added, "I'd offer to shoot through the middle of 'em for you so you each ended up with a separate bracelet, but I'm afraid stray bits of metal might fly off any which way and gouge your hide something awful. No big deal in Fort's case, but I don't want to do that to an innocent bystander."

"I appreciate that," I said politely. "It's a good point about this officer's keys; he might very well keep spares for a rainy day. I'll take you up on that part of the offer. Whatever happens later, at least it won't be so messy."

"I ain't going anywhere." She stopped twirling her lasso, presumably to let her arm rest for a minute. But she was about thirty feet away and I was sure she could react swiftly with rope or gun if Fortescue and I tried to rush her.

I stepped carefully over the officer and crouched down on his left side. "Okay, you check the pockets on your side and I'll check mine," I said. I gave Fortescue a wink that was supposed to reassure him, and hoped he could read lips as I mouthed silently:Diversion. If he could do something to buy me at least a few seconds. . . .

Fortescue got that panicked look in his eyes again and then did something I never thought he'd be dumb enough to do. He yanked at the unconscious cop's holstered gun. Well, it was a diversion!

Wrangler yelled and made a fast draw. A gun barked in her left hand and there was a noise of metal bouncing off metal. Fortescue jerked and the tremor was transmitted through the cuff to my left arm, but it didn't stop my right hand from getting a good grip on the police officer's nightstick where it stuck through a loop on his left side, which was all I had wanted. Wrangler was saying sadly, "You really shouldn't have tried that, Fort. Now I've got to—" but, before she could finish her sentence, I was throwing that nightstick for all I was worth from thirty feet away.

A year ago I never would have tried that, because it probably would have flown off sideways and beaned a kid or something . . . but what Superia did for my coordination has got to be seen to be believed. One end of the nightstick clocked Wrangler on the forehead and she staggered. The gun she had just used clattered on the concrete floor.

"Come on!" I snapped at Fortescue, and tugged him along as I sprinted across the basement. Do him justice; he kept up with me once he got the idea. We had to get to Wrangler before she recovered and started blazing away with her other gun.

We did. She wasn't out cold, but from the way she was groaning and clutching at her head, she wasn't going to put up much of a fight. I kicked her fallen gun far across the room, pulled out her other gun and threw it after, and then hog-tied her with her own lasso—slightly hindered in the process by having a criminal chained to my wrist, although he kept quiet and didn't try to interfere. Then I retrieved the fallen nightstick. The mood I was in, if Fortescue had tried to touch it first—or any other weapon—I think I would have hurt him pretty badly and called it self-defense. I guess he'd figured that out without being told; he was meek as a lamb while I was wrapping up his ex-girlfriend, or latest victim, or whatever the exact relationship ought to be called. (Just how much had he done to "charm" her into trusting him with money? I decided I really didn't want to know.) By the way, Laralie was apparently one of those sharpshooters who liked to show off; the sole shot she'd fired had knocked the cop's Glock out of Fortescue's hand without actually hurting him. Just numbed his hand all over again from the shock.

When I was ready to leave, I twirled the nightstick in my free hand and said to Fortescue, "You lead the way up the stairs; I follow. Then we call the authorities. Give me any more grief and I'll invoke the bit about 'spare the rod and spoil the child'—meaning the swindler with a small child's self-centered mentality, in this context."

"I never took you for such an Old Testament kind of girl," he complained as we proceeded up the stairs. "And so judgmental! Haven't you heard there are always two sides to the story?"

"Sure, but I don't really care what your side is. Why should I? Save it for the judge!"

When we got to the ground floor, I steered him toward the nearest exit. As he led the way out into the sunlight, a woman's voice said, "Hello, Fort! Great to see you again! I let Wrangler have first dibs, but if you got away from her, you're fair game now!"

(Did you ever get the feeling it was going to be one of those days?)