Chronicles of a Caped Crusader: Of Beauty and Brawn - Part Two
"Thank you for the lovely dress. Making fun of my mom to her face without her suspecting was a lovely touch," Chloe said sarcastically, sitting down at the chess board across from Judge Hog.
"I had Loraine pick that out for you. She said it would look good on you, especially if you dyed your hair black for the evening," Judge Hog replied, setting the board.
"Yeah, that's what Kristy said," Chloe replied, moving her knight out.
"So, she's game?" Judge Hog really didn't need to ask.
"Yeah, she's thrilled. She's turned it into work; she's writing an article on the Beauty Contest. Sometimes I think she's more dedicated to her job than I am. Also, the Contest has a theme, 'masks'. Which seems to make this more of a fashion competition if our faces are covered," Chloe commented. "I have a feeling that this isn't a random choice."
"No, it will certainly be harder for us to tell who Degrass is meeting with if everyone is wearing masks. It also means it will be easier to send our agents in to back you up. No one else is entering the contest, which means we are still relying mostly on you, but we'll have several other agents there to keep an eye on you, and if things go bad, your mother."
"I'm thankful for that. I was a little worried about the possibility of something going wrong, and about trying to do my job and protect her," Chloe admitted. She hissed as he captured her knight.
"Ah, she's resilient. She's survived all the stupid things she managed to do over the years. You don't have to worry about her," Judge Hog laughed. "And-"
"Make one more joke about her screaming and, I don't care if it is insubordination, I'll shove your queen up your nose," Chloe threatened.
"That would be unpleasant," Judge Hog laughed.
"Very. I have you in check."
Chloe walked into the office. It was Thursday, the day before the Beauty Contest. She was beginning to get a little jittery about it. She didn't like the idea of going into a situation out of costume and as a civilian. She was only going to be keeping an eye on Phillip Degrass to see if she could spot him making suspicious contact with any other participants or spectators, but she still worried things could go south.
Of course, other Defenders would be there. Blackwing and Lightning Lenny would be there, and the Masked Intruder and Dr. Flexo would be on back up. They weren't about to send her in there unarmed alone.
She walked into the lounge to drop off a book she'd borrowed a few days ago before heading to the control room. She was on monitoring duty that day, so she had no need to slip into her costume. She put the book back on the bookshelf and turned to leave. That was when she noticed Loraine sitting alone at one of the tables in the far corner of the room.
She had turned her chair so she could look out the window, so Chloe had almost missed her.
"Good morning, Loraine!" Chloe called. "I never see you in here. What's up?"
Loraine didn't respond, she just sat staring out the window. Chloe walked up to her and noticed a full coffee cup. She surreptitiously touched the outside of the cup and found it was cold. Loraine's hair was loose, held back by a headband. She'd never seen the Ixi wear her hair down. Loraine usually looked a few years younger than she was, but today she looked years older than her actual age.
"Loraine, are you okay?" Chloe asked, feeling uneasy.
"Oh, yes, fine," Loraine replied, but distantly, her tired eyes still staring out the window.
Chloe opened her mouth to say something, then closed it. She left the room, looking over her shoulder at Loraine as she left. She collided with Judge Hog right outside the door.
"Hey, Boss. I was just coming to find you. Loraine doesn't look well," Chloe said quietly.
"I know. I was just about to go in and talk to her. I'm going to convince her to go home," he replied.
"What's wrong with Loraine?" Chloe asked.
"Go ask Captain K. He's in the control room. He'll tell you. Loraine's going to be fine, but I expect she's going to need some understanding in the coming days," Judge Hog said.
He walked into the lounge and pushed the button to close the door behind him. Chloe hurried down the hall, trying to silence all the out of control thoughts about what could be wrong. She reached the control room and walked in as composedly as she could. Captain K was seated at the chair in front of the computers.
Before Chloe could say anything, he called out, "Good morning, Chloe. You want to know what's up with Loraine, right? We got a possible hit on Buzz."
Captain K brought up a picture on the computer screen. A Blue Aisha girl with platinum blonde hair and a maniacal grin was the main focus. She was wearing a black and crimson bodysuit. Next to her, a Grey Lupe was partially captured in the frame. He was in a matching suit of body armor. There was something about the Aisha that bothered her.
"I feel like I know her," Chloe said aloud. "Is that Lupe supposed to be Buzz? He's turned away from the camera, and it only captured some of his shoulder and the back of his head. How can we tell?"
"We were sent this picture by the Resistance three days ago. It was all that was salvageable from the computers of a pirate ship they found adrift in space a little over three weeks ago. The pirates they rescued were certain they were attacked by Buzz and a woman he called Ava Star. However, we can find no record of an Ava Star ever working as a merc or listed among the ranks of Dr. Sloth's soldiers, as she'd have to be either, given her obvious combat expertise. She took down most of the crew herself, according to the pirates' accounts. However, these two have disappeared without a trace. Loraine has been following every single lead she can and calling on every single informant she has up there, but her search finally came to a dead end last night. She's been at it for the last thirty-two hours straight. This Ava Star girl doesn't seem to exist, and if that was Buzz, he vanished too. It's like these two were phantoms. If it weren't for this image, I wouldn't have believed the pirates were telling the truth, honestly."
"So, you know nothing about these two? Why they were the ones who hit the ship or for whom?" Chloe asked.
"The pirates had hit a freighter of Virtupets cargo, so it seems likely that anyone sent after the pirates were on Sloth's payroll. Still, if Buzz was making a comeback, then we'd have heard about it. All we have are dead ends. None of Loraine's contacts have heard whisper of Buzz in more than a decade. These two don't seem to exist. They just appeared here and vanished as suddenly as they came," Captain K explained. "Loraine is pretty broken up. She was hoping to get some confirmation that it was Buzz, though she is certain it is. Obviously, hearing something about him would have been preferable."
"He seems to be up to no more good than he used to," Chloe pointed out. "Wouldn't it be better for her not to try pursuing these leads? It would only be painful, wouldn't it?"
"If one of your family members or friends disappeared, even if you knew they were likely involved in underhanded dealings, wouldn't you still want whatever information on their whereabouts and wellbeing you could get? Regardless of what he is up to these days, if he's alive, Buzz will always be the most important person in Loraine's life," Captain K said. "Oh the ironies of life. I still can't believe I like Loraine and work with her, or that I'm actually hoping Buzz is alive and well somewhere."
"I guess I would want to know," Chloe said slowly, though not quite sure if that were the truth. "I'm just sorry for Loraine. Is there anything we can do for her?"
"No, just let her be for now. I'm sure she'll lean on you if she needs it. She's not so closed off as she once was. Anyway, my ship needs some modifications done. I got some new tech smuggled out from Virtupets by the Resistance recently. If you've got nothing pressing today, come down when your shift is over and I'll let you help if I need any assistance."
Captain K rose and offered her the chair. She sat down and wished him a good day, promising to come and help later. She looked up at the screen, hoping something would come in soon to occupy her time and mind.
As hard as Chloe tried, she couldn't keep her mind from wandering back to a tender subject that had been bothering her for months.
She knew a Grey Lupe named Buzz, one who was very much like the Buzz in question. However, she was far from certain that it was the same Lupe. She had done a background check on Buzz Johnson a long time ago, and everything seemed to be real. She knew the Meepits might be able to forge a fake identity for him, but she couldn't poke any holes in the identity, as she had expected to be able to if it were fake. Either they were very good, or Buzz Johnson was a just startlingly like Loraine's Buzz.
Of course, she couldn't just tell Loraine and have her rule it out, since no matter who Buzz Johnson was, he was still working for an evil organization. One she couldn't risk exposing for fear of what would happen to her family.
She took off her glasses rubbed the bridge of her nose, feeling emotionally exhausted. An arm wrapped around her shoulder and she looked up.
"Feeling bad about Loraine?" Lightning asked.
"You have no idea."
To be continued...