DarkAngel begins to seem more peculiar. Janet and Eric attend a rally.
But it was becoming him. The one thing he knew to be true was that he liked the power. He might be scared of the power, but he knew he liked it.
Downstairs, Wilson is glad to find the cafeteria is open for dinner. None of the food looks particularly good, but at least its hot, and the coffee is dark and strong. He is also able to pick up a newspaper, his attention immediately grasped by the cover story regarding Wasp, Fasces, and the posse appointed by Birmingham's elite to patrol "colored neighborhoods" in order to guard against "rabble-rousing outsiders."
Not too far away, standing outside, Stern watches an ambulance, lights flashing but siren silent, roll to a halt before the emergency room doors. The paramedics, both white, move quickly, diligently, pulling the heavy black woman on the stretcher from the back of the ambulance. Two black nurses meet the paramedics halfway to the ER. Four pairs of hands tend to the patient, checking vitals, assessing her condition. One of the paramedics leans near the patient's head as he pushes the stretcher. Stern can see his lips moving. He's talking to her, whispering close to her ear.
Stern mulls the scene absently. He wonders if anyone listened to his mother when she was dying? It was so long ago...he couldn't seem to remember her face any more. The sudden realization that he no longer could recall her face sent a wave of panic through him. Then the voice....
* Black is only the hue of an evil soul * A familiar, seductive voice hisses in Stern's head. * Flesh is irrelevant to judgement *
With closed eyes, Stern prayed he wouldn't hear that voice again. Each syllable was a barbed hook tearing his flesh as it announced its presence then retreated to some unknown region of his mind. He opened his eyes slowly, half fearing someone would be standing in front of him. No one was there, nor was the woman being brought into the hospital.
Stern needed something to do; the new patient seemed a good antidote to his own turmoil. He walked around to the ER doors and entered.
"Excuse me. What was that woman brought in for," Stern asked the admitting nurse. The nurse, a painfully thin black woman with bright red lipstick, looks up and frowns.
"You ain't next of kin, are you?" she says with a crooked grin. Before Stern can reply she goes on: "Hold a sec' and I'll find out." She runs a finger down the admittance log. "Robinson, Emma. Appendicitis. She's going straight to oh ar. That all you waAAH!"
Her words is cut off by a painful pinch to the arm by an older nurse who had just exited the file room behind the counter.
"Don't you sass people in my space, girl," the older nurse, a considerably heavy woman nearly six feet tall, says with unmistakable authority.
The younger nurse turns, looking up defiantly. "What you want to me do? Kiss up to the man?"
"An' don't spout none of that hippie crap at me either, girl," the senior nurse commands. "Get back in that file room and get yo' work done."
A thick finger points imperiously towards the room. The younger woman opens her mouth to speak, but then reconsiders. Silently, she sulks off as told. The older woman turns to face Stern, a wide grin spreading across her ample face, a high-pitched titter escaping from her throat.
"I apologize, sir," she says without a trace of sarcasm or obsequiousness. "Some of these young uns got real attitude problems. Gonna set the whole race back. You a friend of Emma's?"
Stern is caught unprepared by the question. What was he thinking?! "I'm a--"
Damn, what was the word? he thought. They won't buy that I'm her friend. I'm her...her--
A voice from the back of his consciousness yelled in hot, annoyed tones, "Acquaintance, you fool!"
"I'm an acquaintance; not really a friend," Stern said. It came out unforced and unhurried. It wasn't him speaking. "Will she be all right?"
The senior nurse smiles, and there is some skepticism behind the expression, but her words tell another story.
"Oh, I'm sure she'll be just fine. We got some good surgeons here. They'll fix her up good as new," she replies. "I'm Joan." She extends a large hand. "And you are--?"
Stern nodded his head in greeting. "Sam Stern." He looked down the now empty corridor.
"Appendicitis. That's pretty regular stuff, isn't it?"
Meanwhile, upstairs, Sam Wilson sits next his father's hospital bed. Mrs. King left about fifteen minutes ago, pausing only to squeeze Sam's shoulder. In the waiting room nearby, Adrian Toomes is fast asleep, oblivious to the stares and conversation about him among the men and women assembled in support of the seriously injured Paul Wilson. Then, most annoyingly at first at seems, Adrian becomes aware of someone prodding his shoulder. His eyes flutter open. Fred Shuttleworth is kneeling next to him.
"I found you all a place to stay," Shuttleworth says. "You all look tired. I can drive you out there. Let you get a home-cooked meal and a comfortable place to lay down."
Adrian shakes his head, clearing away the cobwebs after the much-needed nap. "Thanks, Reverend. Sorry if I fell asleep there. I'm not as young as I once was. let's collect Sam and, um, Sam, and head out there."
"Someplace to stay?" Sam shakes his head sharply. "Thank you Reverend, that would be good."
Once Adrian reunites with his two younger friends he questions them briefly if they discovered anything else (being careful to make sure that Reverend Shuttlesworth is out of earshot). "Oh well. at least we have one lead. We'll go check out the woods tonight."
Shuttleworth found a parishioner to put the trio of heroes up for the night. The house is a narrow, tall, two story affair, with a peaked roof and a screen-enclosed front porch.
"This is Harriet Webster," Shuttleworth introduces the remarkably old black woman who owns the house.
Her face is a map of wrinkles, and her skin is so papery that it seems almost a wonder it doesn't tear when she moves. Thick glasses magnify her watery blue eyes, one clouded over with a cataract, which rest longest and most intently on Sam Stern during the introductions. There isn't a single tooth in her mouth, and her white hair is thinning and uncombed. She wears a faded blue dress with a floral pattern, and a tattered lace shawl adorns her sunken shoulders.
Stern's brows furrow at her gaze as he looks at her with a sideways disconcerted glance. The probing cuts to the core and Stern is instantly angered, although he doesn't know why. The duality of his feelings once again cause him to feel like he's watching his life on television and not truly living it. Stern forces the anger to subside, although the confusion remained unshakable. So did his furrowed brow.
"Good t'meet ya'll boys," she says, her voice rough and slow. "F'give ma looks, but tain't much reason for me ta git fancied up at ma age." She laughs, a soft wheezing sound.
After Shuttleworth leaves, Harriet takes the heroes around and shows them to their rooms. All three bedrooms are small, but comfortable, sparsely furnished with the bare necessities. She then conducts a slow tour of the house, ending in the kitchen.
"Mi casa es su casa," she says, and again wheeze-laughs. "Dat's what dey useta say in Mexico." Harriet pronounces it may-hee-ko. "Ya'll need anythin, ya let Miss Harriet know."
At their accommodations, Adrian gets another hour or so of furtive sleep before locking the door on the guest bedroom and going over the armor's new weapon systems. If they do find something tonight, he wants to be as prepared as possible. _Should have thought to add a flashlight to the armor's exterior. I can increase its electrical glow, but I don't know how good that will be for searching..._
Roughly an hour before sunset, the trio go out for 'a walk' to 'clear their heads', and make their way down to the area Mrs. King described as where Paul was injured. Adrian is hoping to make it there before full darkhoping to tread the line between avoiding notice and still being able to locate clues.
Waking after a brief nap, and feeling better than he has any right to, Sam leaves the house with his companions. Dressed in combat boots, a t-shirt and a black leather jacket, he moves fairly easily in and out of the shadows.
Harriet smiles warmly as the trio exits the house. Before Stern shuts the door, she lays a cool hand on his arm. Stern looks down at the old lady, whose watery blue eyes meet his with a hard, sincere gaze.
"Ya watch yersef out dere, mister," she whispers softly to Stern. "Dere's danger in dem woods, especially for a man wid da darkness in his soul."
Eric and Janet pay their bills with large tips and leave the hotel, intent on looking for the latest rally. The odd pairwealthy socialite and obsessed businessmanexchange one last glance before splitting up outside. The sun hammers down on the sidewalk. In the heat of the Alabama summer, it seems as if everyone and everything moves at half speed. The unfamiliar city sprawls lazily on all sides.
Janet walks quietly down the street. The oppressive heat lessened by the gentle breeze that seemed to follow her as she walks. As she walks down the street, with her wide brimmed hat shading the sun, people step aside for her. It only takes a minute for her to realize, the colored people are following unspoken rules she doesn't even know. _Am I doing this? Does something about me unconsciously affect people? or am I just seeing it for the first time._
Janet is lost in thought before she realizes she is lost in person. She walks past grocers, and banks, and hospitals, and gas stations. Everywhere there are subtle reminders that people are forced to maintain their differences. Signs that say 'Whites Only' and 'Colored Only' intrude on her senses. As she walks, she listens in on a conversations, some people, mostly white, are in favor of the Wasp, and blacks seem to be against him. _If they only knew the truth, maybe they would know I was here to help_
Elsewhere in the city, Janet Van Dyne and Eric Williams left their hotel to hit the streets, searching for information about the Wasp and Fasces. Fortunately, such information is not hard to come by. It seems that little else is being discussed. Slowly, over the space of a couple of hours, a pattern emerges. While the blacks of Birmingham seem unanimously opposed to Bull Connors's "super-possee," it is not the case that the whites of Birmingham express glowing approval. Almost all the white people Janet and Eric meet or eavesdrop on dislike the "trouble" that's come to Birmingham, caused by "that Reverend King." Most think that even if things in Birmingham ought to change, they ought to so slowly. There is real sense of fear in many people's words, and the presence of the Wasp and Fasces only seem to add to the anxiety.
"Ya don get a beehive to calm down by pokin it wid a stick," Janet overhears one old timer comment.
Janet and Eric both find about the "counter-demonstration" to be held on Robert E. Lee High School's football field at evening at seven. The Wasp and Fasces, along with several prominent Birmingham citizens, will be addressing the concerns of the "white community" regarding the "uncivil rights protestors." The general publicexcluding blacksis invited to attend for free.
Janet Van Dyne checks her watch, and goes into a small restaurant for dinner. Most of the time is spent thinking to herself. _I'm sure DustStorm could stop the rally, or the very least, stop the speeches. or I could go to Henry's apartment and check it out while he's gone._
Janet plays absently with her food, although it tastes good, she doesn't seem hungry. _Eric is undoubtedly going to the rally. I should go to keep him safe. If Henry, as The Wasp decides to cause trouble, DustStorm should be able to stop it from getting out of hand._ Janet looks again at her watch. _Five till seven, I left the costume back at the motel. But it would probably be better not to make such a vivid appearance. I can still arrange things without exposing myself._ Janet pays and leaves the diner. She hails a cab, hoping to arrive at the rally about 15 minutes after it starts, she doesn't want to risk being spotted by Henry or Simon.
Eric watches the rally with increasing disgust. "I can't believe Simon would support these...pieces of garbage.", Eric thought, his mind racing. "Well, if Hank or Simon decide to get violent today they're going to get a quick visit from Ghost Rider. There's no way I'm going to allow them to hurt Janet or anyone else!"
Whatever Eric and Janet were expecting about the rally, it isn't quite what they expected. No burning crosses, no ugly men in white robes, no screaming lynch mobs. There are men and women and children, whole families, dressed comfortably but not casually. Some have brought picnic baskets. Many know each other, exchanging handshakes and hugs, patting kids on their heads while commenting about how much they've grown.
Centerfield is a stage and podium, with speakers on poles to either side. Several wooden chairs are set in a line on the stage. Flying to the right is the Stars and Stripes. To the left, the state flag.
Polite young men pass out flyers with the bold headline: MEETING FOR CONCERNED WHITE CITIZENS ABOUT THE ASSAULT ON OUR WAY OF LIFE.
Underneath are three paragraphs explaining that the White Citizens Council, working with other civic organizations, will explain about an upcoming demonstration by "racist agitators and Communists" that is scheduled for Sunday. Also, the super-hero possess will be introduced officially, and given time to answer questions from concerned citizens.
About ten minutes past seven, most of the crowd is seated. It looks that a few hundred people have arrived. Sitting on stage is Bull Connor and four other older men, all wearing suits, except for Bull, who is in uniform. There is also a noticeable police presence, monitoring the crowd and the various entrances.
"All right, ya'll," a distinguished-looking, silver-haired man drawls into the microphone. "Let's quiet down now. It's high time we got started." A murmur ripples through the crowd as people end their conversations. "Let's all welcome Grace Robinson, last year's homecoming queen, who will sing our national anthem."
There is a hearty chorus of whoops and applause as a pretty young girl comes onto the stage. She is wearing a pink party dress and a sparkling tiara.
"O say can you see..."
Her voice is clear, emotional, and lovely, as she sings the Star-Spangled Banner. All around the crowd, men remove their hats and everyone's right hands cover their hearts. There is more applause when Grace finishes. Following her performance, a ministerobviously well-known by the response to his introductionleads the audience in a solemn prayer for peace and safety during "these troubling times."
Janet stands during the anthem. _She does have a nice voice._ During the other prayers and speeches, she scans the crowd looking of a sign of Eric, although she doesn't make contact.
Next up is Sheriff Connor.
"Evenin," he begins. "I know a lot of ya'll are nervous about recent developments. I've been answering questions all day about our new posse. Seems a lot of good people are worried that the situation is gettin outta hand. For that, I must apologize. To help ease your minds, we set up this get together so that you could meet, right up and personal, the supermen who are helpin us keep the peace. So, ladies and gentlemen, I'm right proud to introduce --"
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© 2000 Mark L. Chance et al