“This is Saeko Tachibana reporting live from the scene of the forth mysterious fire to occur during the last two weeks,” announced the Japanese reporter who stood before a burning cafe. “Unfortunately this time we were unable to catch any footage of the same mysterious man leaving the scene that is believed to have caused the other fires.” The image changed then to a shot taken a week earlier at the first strange fire where a man could be seen walking away. His full face could not be seen, but he wore a black tuxedo with orange circles on it. What was more was during a brief moment you could see his eyes which, of all things, appeared to be on fire themselves. The image was paused.
“This mystery man has been dubbed 'Fire Eyes' by some,” continued the reporter. “No one has been able to explain as of yet who, or what, this man is. If you have any information, please contact the police and FBI immediately.”
At this the television was turned off. “Another one of our recent acquirements up in flames,” muttered James Anderson. Beside him on the couch in the lounge of his mansion was his daughter Lilly. “First the mannequin factory, then the chemical plant, and now four outlets!” roared James in frustration. “Damn it all! And to make matters worse Welski is missing! Vernon Enterprises is facing a crisis!”
“Don't worry father,” Lilly told her dad reassuringly. “Lady Justice and Judgement Girl are on the case, and they have a brilliant scientist on their side. They'll get to the bottom of this.” James smiled as his daughter and took her hand, stroking it gently.
“Your friends are lucky to have such a strong supporter like yourself,” he told her. “Considering they managed to capture that Gorgun person and those weird green creatures, I suppose they're the best chance we've got. I just wish they could hurry up somehow...”
* * *
“What the heck is this?” asked Lady Justice as she examined the contents of a small box. “Burned wood? What good will that do in the investigation?”
“That isn't ordinary wood,” explained Elsa Louiselle. “I hate to say this, but while examining it I discovered trace elements of dormant human DNA.” At this Judgement Girl, who'd been on the other side of the lab examining another piece of rubble from the fire, looked up with horror on her face.
“You mean that that charred wood used to be...?” breathed Victoria, clearly looking ill.
“I'm afraid so,” admitted Elsa. “Someone somehow managed to turn those people into wood carvings. Then they set the building on fire, and they were all consumed in the flames.”
“That's disgusting,” muttered Nathan Goldwin, who was being called Silent Dragon a lot more by the media now as of late due to his assistance with the superheroes. “This can't be Gorgun, Tick and Tock or Jason. Dusa and Humington don't have the stones to kill, and that doesn't sound like something those goblins would do. They'd cause chaos, but never death...”
“Which means it could be this Fire Eyes character,” realized Lady Justice.
“If he's capable of such a thing,” added Judgement Girl. “Still, given our record with these things, I don't think that's entirely outside the realm of possibility.”
“Any idea who this guy could be?” Nathan asked Elsa.
“The last six major fires in the city were all connected to Vernon Enterprises,” explained the doctor. “Four were more recent but at minor buildings, but many are considered missing. These wood traces could be the key to identifying some of them, but even then the first fire yielded no traces of this particular type of lumber. They first appeared at the second fire, but only a small amount. If I had to guess, I'd say something happened at one of the first two locations. Could have been someone discovering a genetic mutation, could have been a horrific accident which caused mutation, could be science, it could even be magic. All we know is some lunatic is killing innocent people. This is way beyond any of the others.”
“In all the fires, a total of twelve employees went missing, but none are confirmed dead,” said Judgement Girl, looking over the list. “A few stock and maintenance people, a janitor, a clerk, and a sales rep.”
“What about the Enterprise's vice-president, Trent Welski?” asked Lady Justice.
“There's no reason to believe he was involved with the fires,” answered Judgement Girl. “His disappearance follows the second fire, but predates the four minor ones. Maybe he knew something and the person got to him?”
“Could be,” commented Nathan. “I hope Lilly's father is holding up okay. When was the last time you guys spoke to him?”
“After the fourth fire,” answered Judgement Girl, her voice showing some concern. “He's pretty much been holed up in his mansion since the fifth. He even hired extra security. Lilly's missed a few classes.”
“We should probably go see him again,” offered Lady Justice, hoping to put her sidekick at ease. “Plus if we're seen on TV with him, it might deter Fire Eyes from coming after him.” Judgement Girl agreed and headed out the door. Nathan however stopped Lady Justice before she followed suit.
“I'll head over after I check the background on Vernon Enterprises a bit more,” he told her in a low voice. “Be extra careful, okay? In case it hasn't been said enough, this guy's a much bigger threat than the others.”
Smiling at her boyfriend's concern, Lady Justice took Nathan's hand and squeezed it. “Don't worry, we can handle him,” she told him softly. She left a moment later.
“Those two have done well so far,” commented Elsa. “I'm sure they'll find a way to deal with whoever is doing all this.”
“Please, be serious,” Nathan replied. “They've both been turned into stone statues at least twice and have been frozen in time who knows how many times. At this point I might as well get myself a costume and join them. I may not be able to sense lies, fly or smash rocks, but at least I can't get incapacitated so easily...” Elsa could only nod at that with concern.
* * *
“So no one has contacted you yet, claiming responsibility?” asked Saeko, the reporter from Channel Six. She was fairly attractive Asian woman with short black hair, smooth, pale skin and an amazing smile. Even in a business dress James Anderson found her attractive, though she far too young for him. He found it amazing that she was already doing interviews after only a few years with the station.
“No, I'm afraid we only have speculations,” admitted the president of Vernon Enterprises. “We did receive threatening letters from a few environmental groups before the first fire, and it was at our mannequin factory, which was due for inspection due to concerns of pollution. Still, we can't rule out other possibilities such as a pyromaniac with a vendetta against us. I just hope that whoever is doing this will stop attacking my employees speak openly with me so we can stop this madness.” Beside her father, Lilly smiled, proud at how he was handling the situation.
“Well, lets hope whoever it is can be civil,” agreed Saeko. “From the Anderson mansion, this is Saeko Tachi-” the reporter cut herself off as she screamed. The cameraman had suddenly been struck by a green beam and had flown out from nowhere that they could see. The man gasped once as a strange transformation took place. He'd been struck in the hip and had done little more than twitch. The point of impact was no longer his sweater, but what looked like part of a wood carving. As James, Lilly, Saeko and the security guards watched in horror, the wooden texture swept over the cameraman in less than a few seconds, turning his flesh and clothing alike into solid wood. Even the camera was transformed as the transmission died.
Everyone was now turning the direction from which the beam had come. James and Lilly were backing away as the security team stepped forward, drawing their weapons. From behind the news van had emerged an older gentleman with almost purely white hair wearing a tuxedo with orange circles on it. However, his most peculiar attribute was his eyes, which literally appeared to be on fire.
As the guards readied their pistols, more green flashed, originating from the new-arrival's eyes. Everyone instantly froze and could do little more than quiver as the four men were turned into wooden statues. Saeko meanwhile was frozen and shock but still managed to scream as the attacker unleashed another blast, striking her square in the chest. Lilly and James could only watch in horror as the reporter was consumed as the transformation swept over her body, her mouth open in shock, her eyes wide, her arms raised in front in a failed attempt to protect herself. A moment later it was over.
“Lilly, go inside, now!” James ordered his daughter. “This man is after me no doubt, and I don't want you to get hurt!” Lilly, tears in her eyes, nodded bravely and ran through the mansion's gates. The attacker did not even so much as glance at her. His demon-like eyes were fixed on James.
“Hello Jimbo, did you miss me?” asked the man as he casually walked forward.
“Jesus, is that you Trent?!” exclaimed James, completely shocked. He'd always assumed his vice-president was on vacation or kidnapped, but it seemed he was the one being called Fire Eyes all along! “What in the hell happened to you?!”
“Some earth-loving whelps tried to kill me, that's what happened,” explained Trent. He paused beside the transformed Saeko, casually leaning an arm on her rigid shoulder. “They had a problem with the way I was handling our chemical disposal and forestry interests. I tried to reason with them, but for my trouble they set fire to the chemical plant and tried to kill me. It turns out their concerns were well-founded, as thanks to what I was exposed to during the fire this transformation happened to me.”
“So that means the chemical plant and the mannequin factory weren't you,” realized James. “Still, you were seen at the site of the other four fires. Did you have anything to do with them?!”
“Cool your jets, Jimbo,” Fire Eyes told him. “Yeah, I caused them. Those stores and the cafe? All had card-carrying members of the group that torched our plant and factory. I decided to rub them out before coming to see you.”
“Dear God...” muttered James. His face showed even more anger now. “As glad as I am that you're alive, Trent, you still killed people, dammit! Why the hell didn't you just come to me?! We could of contacted the FBI or something and avoided this!”
Surprisingly, Trent wasn't daunted by his friend's words. In fact, he began to laugh. “Funny you should bring that up, Jimmy,” chuckled Trent. “I've decided that the only way I'll ever be able to regain my rightful place in society is by taking over the company. What say we head into your office and you sign a document I've prepared which makes me the new president of Vernon Enterprises?”
“You're insane,” spat James. “I'm not going to do such a thing! And don't think you can threaten me with that power of yours! If I die the company will become the property of the bank until a new president can be chosen, and it won't be you! You're fired!” Despite his brave words, James was now incredibly nervous and preparing himself for the expected green beam that would turn him into a human tree.
“Who gives a damn about your measly little life?” said Trent, moving away from Saeko. “I have a more devious idea in mind. What say you sign the document, or I made your daughter the center of a bonfire?” At these words James began to shake and clenched his teeth. “Oh, and just in case you think this is all I can do...” added Trent, indicating the wooden statues around them. He then turned to face the news van and coughed. A moment later came a burp. However, with the exhale can a thin torrent of flames, which struck the vehicle, causing it to explode as the gas tank became too hot.
“You're a monster, Welski,” muttered James. “Alright, lets get this over with. Just don't lay a finger on my daughter or fire-breathing or not I'll tear to to shreds.” Letting out a howl of frustration, James walked towards the mansion.
“Temper temper,” scolded Trent. “Keep that up and I might just have to give a few your employees the chop.” He moved to follow his former employer, but stopped when he saw an SUV headed their way. “Oh, go on inside,” he called to James. “I'm afraid we have a couple of uninvited guests arriving...”
A moment later the vehicle carrying the superheroes stopped and both of them emerged. “You really shouldn't attack people where security cameras can pick it up,” chided Lady Justice, cracking her knuckles. Beside her came Judgement Girl, who was holding a tranquilizer pistol.
“Ah, the city's fairest defenders,” greeted Trent. “I'm sorry, but this is a private matter. But tell me, have you ever been to an arboretum? Well, now you'll be part of one!” Before she could raise her gun Judgement Girl was struck by Trent's green gaze and cried out, dropping her weapon.
Lady Justice, who'd been advancing, stopped and watched in horror as her partner was turned into wood. Victoria had a pleading expression on her face, her mouth open slightly with fear all over her face. Her hands were slightly above her hips, her fingers spread in surprise. Jessica felt a chill as she saw the transformation overtake Judgement Girl's eyes, turning them from white pearls into a solid lump of brown wood.
“You monster!” shouted Lady Justice as she turned and leapt at Fire Eyes. She'd gone light and soared towards him, right fist extended with a look of determination on her face. That was how it would remain as Trent's eye blast struck her next, causing her to drop to the ground a moment later, looking like little more than a giant wood carving.
“You two are pathetic,” scolded Trent as he moved to pick up Lady Justice. “All I needed to do was look at the two of you and I won. And you even claimed to have seen me attack these other folks! God, are all the kids as stupid as you?! Some superheroes...”
* * *
Trent stood in front of James who was signing the paper at his desk in his office at the mansion. Also in the room was Lilly, whom Fire Eyes had tied to a chair, keeping his promise not to turn her into a wooden statue. Also present was a maid Trent had used his powers on, who stood by the bookshelf, also frozen in a position that was effectively begging for mercy. Trent thought the classic maid's outfit looked cute on the short-haired woman. Outside the room in the main lobby of the home lay all the statues from outside, including the two superheroes. Also dotting the room were other members of the mansion's staff, including maids, butlers, and security. Fire Eyes wasn't feeling nice, plus a few of them had been armed anyhow.
“There, it's signed,” grunted James, clearly wrestling with his rage as he moved the pen away from the paper. “Vernon Enterprises is yours now. Now let her go.”
Grinning, Fire Eyes took the paper from the desk and scanned it. “Why thank you, Jimmy,” he told his former boss. “Well, that concludes our meeting. I'll be seeing you around.” His business done, Trent turned and exited the office.
“Daddy, what have you done?!” cried Lilly. “You're just going to let him get away with this?!”
James sighed deeply and walked over to Lilly, untying her. “My heart is heavy, my dear daughter,” he told her softly. “However, the thought of losing you or anyone else is too much to bear. I just which your friends had been able to stop him...”
Suddenly there came a burping sound, followed by what was easily the sound of a floor catching on fire. James spun around in surprise and saw that Trent had set fire to the doorway to the office. “What the hell is this, Trent?!” he yelled. “You're not satisfied with the company, you want to kill me too?!”
“Oh of course!” exclaimed Fire Eyes, still grinning. “Sooner or later you'd probably try to get me back. Oh, and in case you didn't notice, this paper's actually a will, not a contract. I took out your lawyer yesterday and destroyed the original one. Now I just need you to die...”
“You fucking asshole!” screamed James as he tried to get passed the flames but to no avail. “I swear I'll see that you pay!”
“No, I think you'll just burn to death,” replied Trent. “Neither your skinny little daughter nor your own chunky ass will be able to get though those foolishly tiny windows you have in there. At least they'll think you two were the only victims, right?” What Trent failed to realize was that by now a figure had appeared behind him. The person snatched the will from Trent's giddy hands and, before he could be stopped, threw the paper into the flames.
“Your plan just went up in smoke, Fire Eyes,” rasped Nathan, his hands cupping around Trent's neck. “You're going to pay for all those lives you destroyed.” Choking, Trent's eyes flashed green, but Nathan merely smiled. “Sorry, but a dragon is immune to the abilities of mortal men,” he told the villain. The martial arts master then proceeded to drive Trent into the floor and slid him across it, causing him to slam into the wall and go prone.
“Nathan, help us!” cried Lilly desperately. Looking at the fire, Nathan realized he had to put it out fast or the office and the rest of the building would go up. Scanning the lobby, he spotted some large drapes on the curtains. Moving quickly, he pulled them down and balled them up as best he could. Finally Nathan returned to the fire and used the drapes to carefully smother the flames, being sure not to expose too much lest they ignite themselves.
On the other side of the blaze Lilly and James managed to grab a couple of thick books and did the best they could to beat out the flames at their end, though Nathan's drapes did most of the work. The flames out, James and Lilly sighed with relief while Nathan turned attention back to Fire Eyes. “Aw shit,” he cursed. While they'd been busy Fire Eyes must of regained consciousness because he was now gone.
* * *
All the people who'd been turned to wood were restored to normal thanks to another one of Elsa's gadgets. Fortunately this time no one was hurt, but it was confirmed that all the missing people had been victims of Trent's gaze and been set on fire. Nathan for one was glad he hadn't set anyone else ablaze.
James rewarded him by putting up more money to keep his studio afloat, though he still had enough students that money had never been a big concern. Still, he thought it was nice to be able to rest easy for once.
Still, Nathan was very quiet that night as he sat with Jessica on her couch at her apartment. Noticing him drifting off from the movie they were watching, Jessica learned over curled some of his hair around her finger. “What's wrong, tough guy?” she asked him with a smile.
The action did get Nathan to smile as he looked at her, but there was still some concern in his eyes. “I just realized how dangerous what you do really is,” he told her with a serious tone. “I mean, I considered it no more dangerous than what police do, but now... Villains like Fire Eyes and Gorgun, they can have you at their mercy with ease. I'm worried soon another nut like Welski will show up and not be as merciful as he was.”
“Nathan, I'm fine with it,” Jessica assured her boyfriend. “You have no idea what you feel as you get turned to stone or wood. It's frightening, but after the first time I became confident I'd always recover. It's like waking up from a bad dream, and they happen. Now how about I really cheer you up?” Nathan was going to ask what she meant, but got his answer without even asking when she took his hand and rubbed it against her breast. Finally smiling a happy smile, Nathan leaned in to kiss his girlfriend.
Continued in Preserving Beauty...