Author's Note: You are about to learn the name of the other superhero involved in this story, but if you don't already know exactly who she is and what she can do, then please believe that I have good reasons for not giving you a quick summary of her distinguishing characteristics until the Aufthor's Note at the vfery bottom, after I've wrapped up the plot!
Chapter Two: Comparing Notes
The Crimson Fox was stretched out on a blanket atop the roof of an office building across from The Grasshopper. For the past three hours she'd been scrutinizing any man who came out that door—and quickly losing interest in each as he failed to make the proper signal.
A woman of action by temperament, she had precious little experience in stakeouts—and was already convinced she didn't like them. So much time wasted, lying still and doing nothing! She'd much rather be the one inside the club, flaunting her legs and living on the edge as she tried to charm a criminal into trusting her, but she'd already tried that approach tonight and it had fizzled.
For at least the twentieth time since choosing this vantage point, she reflected that if anyone ever invented a surefire vaccine for all strains of the common cold, it would make her life so much easier . . .
A man with thin brown hair strolled out of the club and paused to scratch the back of his right wrist with his left forefinger, as if he had just noticed a mosquito bite. One . . . two . . . three . . . four times, and then he turned and started moving west along the sidewalk at a brisk pace.
The Crimson Fox smiled, not caring that no one could see it.
The man was Nemesis; he had finished his approach and was ready to call it a night; and now she had something to do!
Per the plan, she would let him get at least a block ahead before following him from above, and study the street to see if anyone else was likewise shadowing him (probably at ground level). Then stay above and behind him for several more blocks, checking and double-checking to see if any tails had been waiting for him to pass their stations before they fell in behind.
By the time Nemesis had gone two blocks, three people had caught The Fox's eye as possible tails.
Within another minute, one couple had disqualified themselves by going into a restaurant and getting in line to wait for a table.
That left a young African-American male whom she wasn't sure about—roughly one minute after Nemesis left the club, this other fellow had emerged from a doorway and started walking in the same direction, lagging about half a block behind.
But after four blocks, Nemesis turned south on Pinellas. When the black guy reached the same intersection, he continued westward without a flicker of hesitation.
Of course, there could have been a tag-team of followers, but The Fox studied the terrain and saw no trace of anyone else moving in to take up the slack. She kept leaping from rooftop to rooftop and soon caught sight of Nemesis again. (The young black man never reappeared.)
Five turns and twelve blocks later, Nemesis was standing motionless in the space behind an apartment building. Not a situation she would have recommended for a lone man in this part of Opal City at this late hour, but any Justice Leaguer who couldn't handle the occasional street tough in a dark alley would be a feeble excuse for a superhero!
(Not that any such toughs appeared to be taking an interest.)
The arrangement was that when Nemesis stopped cold this way, it meant he was ready to chat. He'd loiter for five minutes.
If she didn't approach him in that time, it would mean he was wearing a tail, and then he'd have to improvise—without blowing his cover, of course. Later, if and when he felt the time was right, he'd give her a buzz via their JLA communicators, but until then they were maintaining radio silence.
In the event, there were no tails and The Crimson Fox saw no need to keep him waiting.
"So 'ow did it go?" she inquired as she dropped lightly from a fire escape to land four meters in front of her colleague.
The scar-faced man scowled and spoke in a harsh tone, full of resentment. "He seemed to think I was too good to be true, see? I told him about workin' with Joker's gang for a spell, so he'd savvy I was no amateur, but that didn't rub him the right way."
Coarsely, he spat to one side. "Well, I don't need his crummy job, see? I've been around. Gotten m'hands dirty. That counts for somethin' in this racket. Lots of other masked guys're gonna know they can get a good deal by hirin' me for a caper 'stead of some snot-nosed kid who thinks he's already a hardcase just 'cause he's packin' heat."
If she hadn't known better, she'd never have believed this was the same fellow who was always so urbane in his remarks to any woman he encountered aboard the Watchtower, whether a costumed teammate or just one of the support staff. This was the first time she'd seen proof that Nemesis had the spark of a true actor. (Did he follow the Stanislavski Method?)
Clearly a superb performer in addition to the whole master-of-disguise bit, but his masculine pride must be wounded by the way his best effort had fallen flat with a skeptical audience of one.
"Zat was—'ow do you say?—ze rotten luck, mon ami. I truly think you 'ave ze patois of ze classic American tough guy down pat, if ze film noir productions I 'ave seen are any indication."
Before she finished speaking, the scar-faced man had reached up to fiddle with something in his jacket collar. A puff of green smoke occluded his features for a few seconds, and then a much more appealing face, square-jawed and handsome beneath a full head of blond hair, was smiling at her warmly. A moment later, it became clear that his voice had changed accordingly.
"Thanks!" he said cheerily. "That genre and a lot of hard-boiled detective literature were what I modeled this role upon. Glad to know someone appreciates the effect." His smile broadened. "But your attempt to cheer me up is misplaced—the evening hasn't been wasted."
"Well, sure. Kovacs may have rejected me the last time around, but he still hired me the other four times, didn't he?"
"Four?" She blinked. "M'sieu, you are pulling my leg, no?"
"No!" he said agreeably. "As in: I'm not. I was a bearded lumberjack, and a well-dressed dandy, and a lean fellow with an old suit and a stutter, and an intense black guy with a shaven scalp who speaks as little as possible. You must've seen them all going in and out?"
"But of course! But none of zem gave ze signal as zey exited, and I never thought you'd need to go in more zan once before making contact. Why so many roles?"
Nemesis spread his hands with an expressive shrug. "I call it 'the shotgun approach.' Fire enough pellets in the right general direction, and at least one of them is likely to hit something. Remember, you called me in on this one rather abruptly. No time to do much research on Mr. Kovacs, meaning I started with no idea of what sort of hoodlum he'd prefer to hire for his latest client, so I reached into my bag of tricks, pulled out several faces, voices, and outfits, and figured I'd try one personality after another until I struck gold. When I got lucky on the first try, I figured I might as well keep practicing my thespian skills and see how far I could take my luck.
"He probably has a quota—'hire up to ten henchmen,' or whatever the magic number is. The more of me he hires to show up at the right place and time, the less real henchmen will be hanging around with itchy trigger fingers when we make our bust. No need to complicate the scene with too many random factors!"
"But will 'e not be suspicious if only 'alf of 'is new recruits appear at ze designated spot?"
"He might be . . . but I was planning to pad things a little in order to jolly him along until he gives his client the signal that it's safe to come in and greet the new blood. If we can get a few other guys from the League to give us a little of their time tomorrow evening, I can spruce them up to look just as I did in different roles. That's assuming the Martian Manhunter isn't in the mood for a little field work—if he cares to join the game, he could just download the relevant memories from my head and then shapeshift to match."
"Enough men to fill four of your roles, plus myself, would make five. Do we really need so many 'eroes for one bust?"
"Beats me—I still have no idea who Kovacs is fronting for, this time around. But I don't mean to be greedy," Nemesis added good-humoredly, pulling a card from a pocket and holding it out toward her. "Here's where I'm supposed to be at 7 PM tomorrow. Now you know everything I know. It was your case first. If you want me to bow out right now, and let you cover the warehouse alone tomorrow night, I'll grit my teeth and pretend I'm not worried about worst-case scenarios."
She accepted the card, then waved aside his concerns with a sweeping gesture. "Zere is no need for such restraint. Invite 'omever you please."
Tactfully left unsaid by both parties was that her superpowers were fairly low-key, and that Nemesis—according to the form he'd filled out on the day they both joined the League—had none. As far as artificial weapons were concerned, The Crimson Fox had retractable steel claws built into her gloves, and Nemesis preferred to use an ordinary sidearm (usually firing special "bullets" that knocked out ordinary people without drilling holes in their flesh).
But if the mystery client of M. Kovacs proved to be someone far more formidable, perhaps with incredible strength and bulletproof skin, then it would be very handy indeed to have an ally of similar sturdiness on the scene. The Crimson Fox did not relish the alternative of needing to report back that the two of them had merely managed to identify the villain who was hiring a new crew . . . while he contemptuously shrugged off their best attacks before making a clean getaway.
It was a fair guess that Nemesis felt much the same . . . but she noted with satisfaction that he'd been willing to defer to her decision since she was "the first hero up" in this investigation.
Put that together with some of his other strange habits, such as the way he consistently looked at her face each time they conversed, and she had to admit that this blond American was much more of a gentleman than some of his fellow males among the League. (B'wana Beast sprang to mind as an obvious counterexample, but not the only one.)
She decided to steer the conversation away from line-of-duty matters and into a more personal vein. "One question, mon ami, if I may be so bold . . . do you use tricky electronics to change your voice to match each face, or is it just zat your vocal cords are versatile and well-trained?"
He seemed startled by the question, but answered readily enough. "Training, usually—electronic aids, occasionally. I took a few acting classes in college and was a regular in the amateur theatricals. Had a certain talent for mimicry. The audience didn't fall asleep when I was onstage; that's usually a good sign. Always knew I was meant for law enforcement, though—but later, when . . . things changed . . . and I decided to become more of a lone wolf, I started doing this kind of undercover work on a regular basis, and found I was better at real-life impersonations than I had dared hope in my college days." He cocked his head at her. "So, do you also have some training as an actress, or is it just natural talent for imitating different accents?"
Honestly surprised at the suggestion of a thespian background, she blinked at him before asking innocently (in her native French): "Pardonnez-moi?"
"Well, I heard you chatting with Flash at the last general meeting, and there was just a trace of Gallic lilt in your English, but tonight it's much more obvious that this is not your birth tongue. What do you do, deliberately turn the stronger accent on and off in alternate weeks, just to keep everybody guessing?"
He paused expectantly . . . and she didn't take the bait, preferring to give him an enigmatic smile. (She might not be the versatile actor that he was, but she had practiced that smile in front of her mirror a good many times and was quite proud of it.)
"Not necessarily a bad tactic," he finally conceded (evidently meaning the variable accent).
The Crimson Fox made a decision and increased the voltage in her smile. "Your acting may be superb, but your interrogation technique needs some work, mon cher Némésis. Do you really expect to coax a woman into sharing some of 'er intimate secrets in zis dismal setting?" She waved a hand at a nearby dumpster to illustrate her point. "Per'aps we should adjourn to a café in Paris for breakfast and zen you can try to charm some answers out of me?" (Her native France was seven hours ahead of where they were standing—meaning this was a perfect time to sit down for breakfast in the City of Light if they arranged to teleport over there right now.)
For a moment she thought he was going to take her up on it . . .
"Oh my gosh, will you look at the time?" he said suddenly, pulling back his sleeve to peer at a watch and seeming agitated for the first time in their conversation. "I really need to get back to my van—over thataway—" he pointed—"before the real Delavane wakes up and makes a ruckus."
"The black guy whose face I copied. I figured I might as well be ready to impersonate one honest-to-goodness case of local talent; someone whose credentials are easily checked if Kovacs makes a couple of phone calls. So I found Delavane and shot him (with my special mercy bullets) before I ever went into the club. The back of my van has no windows; no way for rubberneckers to peer in and realize there's a handcuffed prisoner curled up on the floor. Now I'd better give him another dose, and then figure out where I'm going to stash him for the next twenty-four hours so he can't blow the whistle on my charade before we've wrapped this up."
The Crimson Fox smelled something fishy about this excuse. "Could you not just 'ave 'im beamed up to the Tower and placed in a 'olding cell?"
"Not a great idea," Nemesis said quickly. "Strictly speaking, he's not under arrest on any criminal charge at the moment. I don't want to put Superman and Wonder Woman and all the rest in the awkward position of being knowing accessories to unlawful detention. I'll have to rustle up something on my own—a problem I've faced before, but one best tackled alone. No need to spread the guilt."
As far as she was concerned, the key word was alone. That made it painfully clear: He wasn't about to offer her a lift in his van, and if she pressed the point, he'd just say it was for her own good. "Plausible deniability," and all that.
Looking helpless (assuming she could?) and appealing to his chivalrous instincts by asking if he really meant to leave her stranded in a bad part of town wouldn't work either . . . for one thing, he knew she could use her Justice League communicator to ask the Watchtower to beam her up, and then to beam her back down to wherever she wanted to go. (A favorite breakfast café in Paris, for instance.)
All this flashed through her head in a second or two . . . then she decided she had enough pride to not make it look as if she were desperate to prolong this unfruitful conversation. "Call me a few 'ours before the scheduled rendezvous," she said cheerily, and then leaped upward, grabbed onto a fire escape, swung herself up over a railing and began scampering up the steps toward the roof.
When she reached the top and glanced down to see if he had been admiring the way her lithe body moved with superhuman agility, she only saw his back from a distance. Nemesis had wasted no time in jogging towards the nearby parking lot where he had left a plain black van.
Well, she told herself philophically, at least he trusts me enough to let me know he's breaking a few laws by holding M'sieu Delavane overnight.
If there really was a prisoner languishing in the back of that van—she only had Nemesis's word for it, and he had remembered that hoodlum awfully suddenly . . . when he wanted an excuse to get away from her?
Eligible men in Paris did not normally try to find excuses to move away from the lovely and wealthy Vivian D'Aramis when she was in a playful mood, so this was terra incognita for her. Why was the American so skittish?
It was almost enough to make her reconsider the policy she and Constance had sworn to uphold: Never using their super-pheromones on close friends and teammates!
Twenty minutes later and six miles away, Nemesis parked his car inside a warehouse he'd leased a year ago (just in case he ever needed some private storage space in Opal City) and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. That had been a narrow escape!
There he'd been, listening to The Crimson Fox flirt with him in that flattering way that Frenchwomen had . . . and suddenly becoming aware of the strong urge to reciprocate by agreeing to a ridiculously fearly breakfast (by his biological clock) . . . and then in the nick of time he'd remembered why he'd been called in on this case at all!
The Crimson Fox had somehow gotten word that Kovacs was hiring at The Grasshopper, and had gone in there herself to flirt with him while cranking up her super-pheromones to make the recruiter more garrulous. Ideally, he'd have tried to impress her by blabbing about the scary supervillain he was representing tonight. Unfortunately, Kovacs proved to have a head cold that made him nearly immune to The Fox's primary superpower, so she'd quickly abandoned that approach and called in an expert on infiltration tactics to assault the problem from a different angle.
So far, so good; heroes joining forces to use their different strengths against one tricky problem after another was pretty much the entire mission statement of the recently-expanded Justice League.
The only problem was that Nemesis didn't have a head cold. While standing just a few feet away from him and looking adorable, The Crimson Fox might have been flooding the air in that alley with her unique super-pheromones . . . if she felt the urge.
Tom Tresser had enough trouble in his life without being distracted and manipulated by invisible biochemical factors meant to sap his free will. He'd realized in a flash that he had to get away before his self-control slipped and he made a complete fool of himself—and he'd also realized there was no point in asking her if she was cranking out super-pheromones for his benefit. Whether she was or wasn't, it was dollars to doughnuts that she'd indignantly deny it!
Fortunately, the captive Delavane had provided a reasonable excuse when he started searching for one . . .
Well, he was committed to following through with this case tomorrow evening, which meant that he'd better find a way to shield himself from her pheromones before he saw her again.
Imitate Kovacs's method? No. The incubation of a cold virus averaged about two days . . . trying to expose himself tonight was no good; it wouldn't pay off as early as tomorrow night.
Blatantly wearing a gas mask to the bust would be offensive—not to mention blowing his cover when Kovacs wondered why a new hire was dressed as if he expected a SWAT team to shoot in the tear gas any minute now . . ..
Were there any fast-acting drugs that gave you a stuffed-up head when you were otherwise in the pink of health; the exact opposites of decongestants? He'd never wanted one before; he'd have to research it on the Internet.
Failing that, he did keep some sets of nose filters in his workshop, but he almost never wore the silly things and wasn't sure how well they'd fare against pheromones, metahuman or otherwise. There might be a way to test that in a hurry . . .
Tom Tresser sighed. Somehow, he didn't think he was going to get much sleep tonight . . .
Author's Notes: Now to explain about The Crimson Fox. If you already know all about that character, you can skip down to the last two paragraphs of this Note if you're in a hurry. As with Nemesis, I assume that the DCAU version of The Crimson Fox is much the same as the character who debuted in old comic books in my collection.
In the Justice League Europe comic that began in 1989, the European branch of the League acquired a mysterious new member called "The Crimson Fox." She was obviously French, but didn't share her secret identity with her new friends right away. Eventually "she" was revealed to be identical twin sisters (Constance and Vivian D'Aramis) who took turns wearing the same costume. Both women spoke English, but for some reason Vivian had much less practice in that language, so she came across as more exotic (and dare I say "funnier"?) because her dialogue was written with a strong French accent. For instance, she might say "zis is not so 'ard" instead of "this is not so hard." (I used Vivian in this story, and it's the first time I ever tried to write such an accent.)
The twins had identical superpowers. These were supposed to include some degree of superhuman strength, speed, agility, etc., to make them more effective in hand-to-hand combat (although we're not talking "I can move faster than a speeding bullet" or anything equally obvious), but their key superpower was of a very different nature. Each sister could emit a "super-pheromone" which the typical red-blooded man would find incredibly alluring. These pheromones were only released when Vivian or Constance wanted them to be; not a constant, automatic process. I don't think the super-pheromones affected other women at all. (For that matter, although readers were told this power existed, I sure don't remember either sister getting much use out of it when the JLE confronted male supervillains. Perhaps murderous fanatics tend to be immune to such distractions? And let's be fair: some of the JLE's scariest foes weren't even human, so how much impact would you expect a human pheromone to have on them?)
I assume the super-pheromones are most effective if plenty of molecules are inhaled through the nose and quickly reach a man's olfactory nerve. Going in through his mouth and then down into his lungs just doesn't have that same kick. Therefore, Kovacs's congested head makes him (temporarily) almost immune to this superpower. The woman whom he regarded as a "dizzy French dame" (Vivian D'Aramis in civilian clothes) quickly realized she wouldn't be able to charm him enough to make him spill his guts about his current client, so she called in some help!
I figure new recruits in the DCAU Justice Leafgue are required to explain what superpowers and notable skills they have (if any) . . . so that any given member will know what can reasonably be expected of any other teammate during a field mission. Thus, The Crimson Fox called Nemesis when she wanted a master of disguise, and he previously had heard about what her super-pheromones are capable of doing to affect a man's judgment.
But Nemesis doesn't have a surefire way of telling whether that power is actually being used at any given moment. So when he suddenly notices himself feeling very attracted to the lady, he assumes the worst and beats a hasty retreat to get far away from her unfairly manipulative super-pheromones. You know and I know that she scrupulously wasn't emitting those pheromones at him in the first place—preferring to "play fair" by relying on her natural charm—but the point is that Nemesis has developed "professional paranoia" after all that dangerous undercover work he's done! I don't know when (or if) they will get that straightened out, but I'm afraid it won't happen soon (since this fanfic is now over, as far as I'm concerned).