Crimson paced in front of the statue on Peregrine Island. Word had reached him, as it had all through Paragon City, that Tropic was dead. Crimson frowned as he walked. He knew he had sent the hero into something dangerous and he knew he didn’t give him all the facts. But he had felt that the fiery hero would have been able to handle whatever was thrown his way.

And now Tropic was dead. The spy shook his head and paced some more.

Then from above him he heard a familiar voice. "You’re going to wear a rut in that stone!" Crimson spun around and looked up to the sky.

"Tropic!", he exclaimed as the superhero dropped down next to him. Crimson rushed to meet him. He grabbed him by both shoulders. "You’re alive! They said you were dead!".

Tropic raised his eyebrows in surprise. "All right! Still here!", he said disentangling himself from the man’s grasp.

Crimson looked him over. Tropic’s usually spiky blonde hair lay flat and long, past his shoulders. His costume was ripped and torn, the shirt almost completely gone. Crimson shook his head. "You look terrible.".

Tropic looked at him with a weary expression. "Well, I have been dead you know."

Crimson smiled crookedly. "Well. It took you long enough to get here. I’ve got some information for you."

"Yes", Tropic nodded, "the ledger. What did you find out?"

"Not here,", Crimson frowned. "Can you get me to that warehouse?". He indicated the two story building across from the ferry.

Tropic nodded, grasped the spy by the arm and flew across the small channel to the building. They entered and walked up the stairs to the second floor.

At a nondescript frosted office door, Crimson inserted a key, first turning it all the way to the right and then to the left. Beside them, on the wall of the hallway, a panel, which Tropic had thought was a light switch, flipped up. Beneath it was a number pad and a small black square. Crimson punched in a code and pressed his thumb onto the square.

A metallic woman’s voice came from the number pad. "Code and thumbprint verification complete. Proceed with voice code identification."

"Zero-One-One-Zero-Alpha-Zero-Three Confirm.", Crimson said firmly.

"Thank you. Code and voice identification confirmed." With that there was a hiss and a click. The office door swung open and Crimson entered. Tropic stood outside for a moment then he shook his head and went inside.

Tropic stopped inside the doorway and looked around in amazement. What had appeared from the outside as a small warehouse office in reality took up almost the entire second floor. Straight ahead of him was a large solid wood desk strewn with papers. On its corner was a computer screen of such slim proportions it was almost translucent. In front of the desk were two large thick leather chairs. To the right against the wall was a bank of computers and electronic equipment that would make M.I.T. green with envy. On the left a row of bookshelves and filing cabinets filled a wall that led to another open doorway. Tropic could just see enough inside that it appeared to be some living quarters.

Crimson exited that room and threw Tropic a white t-shirt. "Here, put this on.", he said as he walked behind his desk.

"You live here, Crimson?" Tropic asked as he put on the shirt.

"Sometimes." He waived Tropic to one of the chairs and picked up the ledger in his left hand. "This ledger, Tropic," he began, "it’s full of…it’s got a…", the spy took a deep breath and started again. "As you know, Malta Group has it’s fingers in everything. Office buildings, warehouses, laboratories. It takes an enormous amount of capital to keep their holdings running, from upkeep to equipment, staff, men, materiel, not to mention munitions, ammunition, even the uniforms their operatives wear. All that costs money, lots of it. Recently, due to the efforts of Paragon City’s hero population, you in particular and some others, Malta has failed in many of their most current operations. Consequently, their finances have not met their requirements. So, basically, the Malta Group has been operating in the red."

Crimson looked directly at Tropic. "In other words…"

"Malta is broke.", Tropic said quietly.

"Exactly right."

Tropic stroked his goatee. "Well, I can see why they needed an accountant. But why kidnap the women?", he shook his head in thought.

The spy leaned on his desk. "It’s all pieces of a puzzle, Tropic."

"Pieces of a puzzle", Tropic repeated and began to think out loud. "Malta’s broke, accountant, kidnapped super heroines…this accountant is morally bankrupt so whatever Malta does is OK by him…Malta needs money…kidnap the women…the accountant…".

Tropic jerked upright in his chair. "Oh, no…oh my God…".

"Tropic?", Crimson asked, looking questioningly at the hero.

"I…I think they’re going to sell the girls." Tropic looked at Crimson with an expression almost begging the spy to tell him he was crazy.

Instead Crimson walked to a file cabinet and said, "That may explain this.". He pulled out a file folder and returned to his place behind the desk. "In here," he held up the folder, "are some of the individuals on the United States persona non grata listing. Over the past 48 hours all have entered the country, all have evaded Customs and, within the past 12 hours, all are in Paragon City."

Crimson pulled a photograph from the file and tossed it on the desk. Tropic leaned in to look at it. It was of an Oriental man, thin, his long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. He was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, thin black tie and was smoking a cigarette. "That’s Akio Fuanki. Yakuza.", the spy said.

"Japanese mob.", Tropic whispered.

Crimson nodded and pulled out the next photo. It showed a man and woman. The man was bald; his neck was as thick as Tropic’s thigh and he looked mean enough to eat a hand grenade. The woman was delicately beautiful with jet black hair and her lifeless eyes were of such a pale blue they looked almost clear. "This is Boris Badromanov - formerly of the Russian special forces - spetsnaz and the woman is Irina Boganskya formerly a top interrogator for the KGB. Both now work for an organization that appreciates their talents."

"Russian syndicate."

The next picture was an olive skinned man, his greasy hair combed straight back. He was dressed all in white - white suit, white shirt, white tie. "Fabritzio Maraldo. The Ice-Cream Man. Formerly of New York City, now lives abroad."

"The Five-Families.", Tropic murmured.

Crimson tossed down another photo. It was obviously taken by a telephoto lens and showed a tanned blonde man in a bathing suit at a beach. "Carlos Bergmann. Does a lot of work in Central America but his last known address was in Argentina."

"South American Cartel."

The last picture Crimson showed him was of an Asian man, dressed in traditional clothing. He was bald except for a long top-knot of hair and there was scar running down the right side of his face and through his marbled right eye. "Liu Sun Kang. Has some ties to the Tsoo but operates mostly within the Golden Triangle."

"Triad.", Tropic said quietly.

There was silence in the room for several moments until Tropic said what was on both their minds. "Well, I think we know who the buyers are." Tropic sat back wearily in his chair and rubbed his forehead.

"Um Hum," Crimson said as he returned the photographs to the folder. "They are spread throughout the city staying with their entourages in some of the finest hotels here." He put the folder back in the file cabinet and returned to his desk. "Take them out and the sale will be stopped. We’ll have more time and Malta will have to find another way to generate some funds."

Tropic sat quietly pulling on his goatee. Finally he shook his head. "No.", he said simply.

Crimson raised his eyebrows in confusion. "No?…If we can stop the…"

"No,", Tropic cut him off. "I need to find the accountant.", he said softly. "If I go in and take out the buyers it’s going to tell Malta two things. One, I’m alive and two, I know at least something about their plans. If that happens the girls will disappear and I can’t risk that." He looked up at Crimson. "No, I have to find the accountant. He may not know all their plans but he is the money man. He’s in some of the loop and if he can’t tell me exactly where the girls are he’ll be able to tell me where the…’auction’…will be held." He paused for a moment. "No, my best bet is the accountant."

Crimson stood behind his desk staring at the hero as though he were arguing with himself. At last he spoke. "All right. But there’s something you should know."

Tropic looked at the spy through narrowed eyes.

"Around a year ago,", Crimson began, " a Malta operative was tried and convicted of attempted murder, assault, conspiracy, theft…hell, I think they even got him for jaywalking. Let’s just say he was convicted of everything. He was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. Two months later he escaped from a maximum security prison and the Malta Group got him out of the country. They set him up to oversee some of their European and Far East operations. Four days ago they brought him back to the city. We’ve tracked him since he returned and he’s been in an office building in Steel Canyon this whole time."

Crimson paused and took a deep breath. He looked Tropic directly in the eyes and continued. "His Malta designation is Dreadnaught Zero-One-Three. But you know him as…"

"Gunslinger Sam.", Tropic’s voice was barely a whisper as he spit out the name. He had fought him before and he was the worst of the worst.

Gunslinger Sam was a psychopath, sociopath and Tropic was certain the man was a few more -opaths that hadn’t been invented yet. Sam was part of a Malta operation that had gone bad and Tropic was in the middle of it.

At that time, the Malta Group was trying to develop a laser weapon that drew its power from industrial diamonds. They sent Sam and his people to the Lohman Brothers Mercantile Group to acquire the stones. It went wrong from the start. An alert secretary hit the alarms and soon the place was surrounded by the police. Hostages were taken and a call went out asking for assistance. Tropic answered and worked his way through the Lohman offices that stretched from the 39th through 42nd floors of the building.

Soon all the hostages but one were freed. Gunslinger Sam was holding a terrified woman with his gun pressed to her temple. Tropic tried to end it peacefully, telling the Malta criminal to let her go, it wasn’t worth it, and that there was no where to run. The Gunslinger looked at the hero and later Tropic could almost swear he could feel the thug smile beneath his mask.

The Gunslinger giggled and said, "No where to go but down!", pushed away from the woman, shot her in the stomach and pushed her out the 42nd floor window. Stunned, Tropic leapt out the window after her and caught her finally at the tenth floor. She was in shock but she lived. When he returned for Sam, the villain was long gone.

Two weeks later, Tropic received word that the Malta operative was hiding in the caverns that stretched out beneath the city and along with two other heroes, Vetman and Special-Ops, he went to hunt him down. It was a lucky thing that he had brought the two with him because they had to pull him off of the would-be murderer. That was a year and a half ago.

And now he was back.

Tropic sighed and tugged on his beard once more. "They wouldn’t have brought him back unless it was for something important. My guess is he’s either guarding the girls or the accountant."

Crimson nodded. "Yes.", he said simply.

Tropic stood and looked out the window past Crimson at the nighttime sky. It was around eight pm and he felt the heroine’s time running out. He turned and walked to the door. "OK, I’m going to head over to Steel Can…yon…" Tropic’s voice trailed off in mid-sentence.
Something Crimson said had begun to sink in. He looked questioningly at the spy still behind his desk. "You said you’ve been tracking Gunslinger Sam for four days?"

Crimson met Tropic’s eyes. "Yes?"

Tropic looked at the floor, his mind spinning, then at Crimson. "And you agree with me that he’s either guarding the girls or the accountant."

Crimson said nothing and stared at his desk, one arm folded across his chest, the other stroking his chin.

Tropic continued on, his eyes flaring brighter, as he started to realize the truth. "If you’ve been tracking him…you know where he’s at and…he’s guarding some of…you’ve known…"

Tropic’s expression changed from confusion to controlled anger.

"Who is he guarding?’

Crimson turned and looked out the window, staring unseeingly at the docks beyond. "The accountant.", he said quietly over his shoulder.

"You son of a bitch.", Tropic whispered. "You’ve known all this time where the accountant was and did nothing." Another terrible thought hit him. "You didn’t want the accountant at all! You used him to get me involved, to find…what? Not the accountant…not the girls?…the ledger?…", Tropic stopped abruptly. "The ledger! All you wanted was the ledger. You never cared about the missing women at all!".

"That’s not true.", Crimson interrupted, still staring out the window. "My superiors deemed the super heroines ’expendable’. I needed to find a way to get the ledger and somehow get someone interested in finding them. Remember at the start of this? I told you I needed someone who would sink their teeth into it and lock their jaws. That’s why I picked you. That’s why I planted the accountant’s name at the warehouse."

"You? You planted Asam’s name? And Indigo. Was Indigo in on this too?"

"No,", Crimson shook his head, "I kept her out of the loop. She played it straight with you."

Tropic sighed heavily. "You’ve known where he was for fourdays. We could have saved them all that time ago. What they’ve gone through…if they’ve been hurt…"

"No, they’re too valuable to the Malta. They won’t be injured."

Tropic closed his eyes and shook his head. "That’s not the point and you can’t even see that its not."

He crossed to the door and put his hand on the knob. Turning back to Crimson, his voice barely above a whisper, he said, "I’m going to that office building in Steel Canyon. I’ll deal with Sam. I’ll find that accountant and make him tell me everything he knows. Then I’m coming back here and whatever the accountant tells me I need to get those women back, you’re going to provide. And then, when this is all over and done, don’t you ever contact me again."

Tropic opened the door and left, closing it silently behind him.

Crimson didn’t move. He just kept staring out the window into the dark.


They were moving the girls again. Gogo followed the other women as they were hoisted up into the back of a large truck. "No canisters this time," she thought to herself as she took her place in the rear, last in line.

The truck was like one of those military vehicles in the old movies. It had benches running along both sides and another shorter one along the cab. But it wasn’t covered with canvas. It was completely closed in and the rear was a locked double door with two small windows. The Malta operatives stood in the middle holding their weapons with one hand and a strap attached to the roof with the other.

Gogo saw that she was still handcuffed but the women were not chained together. Even in her dazed state she knew that was a mistake. She shook her head from side to side, her two ponytails slapping her face. All she had wanted to do since her capture was fight but her body was so slow to respond to her commands and her mind seemed like it was wrapped in wet paper. But still she tried.

The truck rumbled and bounced through the streets of Paragon City. It had stopped a few times for maybe a minute or so and Gogo began to plan. She tried to gather her strength and waited for the truck to stop again.

She felt the truck slowing and come to a stop once more. Gogo gathered herself, trying to clear the cobwebs from her mind, willing herself to get ready. The truck rumbled and began to move forward again. Suddenly, while the guards were off-balance due to the movement, she swung her handcuffed arms and caught the guard closest to her right in the stomach.

The air fled from the guard’s lungs and he doubled over. Behind him the next Malta guard shouted out and moved to the struggling heroine. Before he could get there Anita Black, another captured superwoman, pushed herself forward into the oncoming man and knocked him into the women on the other side of the truck. He fell into Giddy Yup, who tried her best, in her befuddled state, to tangle up the Malta thug.

Gogo kicked the guard she had struck and he fell backwards, his feet tripping over the guard now fighting to free himself, still struggling with Giddy. Gogo threw herself at the double doors of the truck and they sprung open.

She saw the night sky and the cool evening air began to revive her somewhat. In the distance she saw the headlights of another car. She heard the yells of the Malta guards. Gogo prepared to leap from the truck but before she could it screeched to a halt. The centrifugal force hurled her back into the rear of the truck and into the arms of a Malta operative. The thug stretched his arm out and Gogo was encased in arcs of electricity as the criminals stun gun shocked her into submission.

Gogo stood there for a moment twitching uncontrollably and then, when the electric assault was finished, she simply crumpled to the floor.

The truck’s driver appeared at the open rear doors of the vehicle. "What the…What’s going on back here?", he exclaimed after seeing the disarray of the cargo. The two guards that had been attacked were on their feet and in control again. Gogo was picked up and unceremoniously dumped back in her seat, her head lolling to the side.

"No problem. Just had a little excitement back here.", one of the guards said.

"Yeah…well,", the driver grinned, "their last big adventure before tomorrow night then they’ll be out of our hair and somebody else’s problem." He slammed shut the doors and made sure they were locked. Then the truck started and slowly made its way through Paragon City.

In the back, Gogo sat quietly recovering from the effects of the stun gun. She just kept repeating to herself the same word, over and over.

"Almost. Almost. Almost."
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