Lily DeLuna in: Still the Same Old Place

September 12, 1943

Mysterious Late Night Encounter

Man, it's great to be riding again! Lily DeLuna thought exultantly, as she roared down a back road on her 1926 Harley Davidson Peashooter. Wouldn't Mr. Wrigley throw a fit if he knew one of his players actually owned a motorcycle? I love playing in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, but living up to the 'oh so demure' image Mr. Wrigley wants sure gets old after a while!

Lily was a tall, slender girl with jet-black hair. Half Korean, half Spanish, she had an exotic beauty that few other women in the league could match, and Mr. Wrigley, who owned the AAGPBL, had kept her in the public eye as much as possible. Lily didn't mind, but Mr. Wrigley didn't know much about having fun!

She hadn't been home to Redcliff, Ohio, since she'd whisked directly from her high school graduation to her dream job as the starting left fielder for the South Bend Blue Sox. The inaugural season of the first professional baseball league for women had just finished, and Lily had a couple of weeks of vacation before she started her other new job. Mr. Wrigley looked out for his girls; he'd found her a winter position as a mechanic at an airplane factory in Cleveland. She would be close enough to come home for weekends if she wanted, and she would be helping the war effort.

And, she thought sadly, it'll help me feel closer to Eddie. Her brother had been shot down over Italy in 1939 while flying for the RAF. Lily's dad had been a fighter pilot in the Great War; after the war, he'd purchased a biplane and started his own crop-dusting business. Lily and Eddie had grown up around planes, and they both loved flying.

Lily's parents had greeted her at the Redcliff train station around noon, and they had spent the afternoon getting reacquainted. After dinner, Lily hurried out to the barn, gave the bike a quick once-over, and roared away. She'd been riding for several hours now, just letting the wind blow away the big city dust. The bike was running a little rough after sitting for three months, and she would have to tune it up tomorrow, but for now it was great just to be riding!

Wow, I'm a long way out! she realized when she noticed it was getting dark. Better take it slow; the roads are pretty bad these days. Road maintenance had suffered due to war-time rationing, and it would be better to take it easy than to hit a pothole at 60 mph in the dark, so she eased along at less than 50.

Around about 10 pm, though, her headlight gave out near a lonely intersection just a few miles from home. Tonight's moonlight wasn't bright enough for safe driving, so Lily hopped off the bike, pushed it well off the road just to be safe, and opened the under-seat tool kit. There was another bulb secured to the inside of the headlight, and it would only take a few minutes to change it out.

Lily was pulling her electric torch from the tool kit when she saw the headlights of an approaching car. If the driver saw her, he would probably stop and offer help she didn't need, so she decided to leave her light off until the car passed. She was startled when the car pulled into the field next to the road and parked behind some bushes. When the headlights were doused, the car was invisible from the road.

Nice spot for a little necking, she thought, smiling to herself. Pretty quiet way out here. Wonder what they'll think when I start my bike? Just then, another pair of headlights cut through the dark, and a minute later, a big gasoline tanker squealed to a stop at the corner. In the bright glare of the truck's brake lights, Lily saw a man wearing a suit and a hood step into the road and raise his hand to his head.

The next second, Lily was lying on the ground, and the tanker was gone!

She didn't remember falling, but when she tried to stand up, she realized that she was very stiff, as if she'd been lying in the weeds for hours, instead of only a few seconds. She was astonished when the glowing radium-painted hands on her watch revealed that it was actually past midnight. I must have fainted and been lying there the whole time! she thought with alarm. I'd better see the doctor tomorrow and find out if I'm okay! She flicked on her torch to make sure her bike was still there.

"HEY! You with the torch! Where the hell is my truck?" She swung her light towards the voice, and jumped out of the way as a very angry man rushed her. He looked very much like she felt, a little stunned, bewildered, and worried that he might be going crazy. And in his case, mad as a hornet! "I don't know how you stole my truck, but I'm gonna make you give it back!" He lunged at her again, but she easily moved aside.

"Take it easy, mister! If I took your truck, I surely wouldn't be here, now would I? I don't know what happened, but I didn't have anything to do with it." She watched him uneasily; he was poised to attack again. "Maybe if you take it easy and tell me your story, we can figure it out!"

It wasn't going to be quite that simple. Lily tripped him the next time he lunged, and sat on his back until he finally calmed down. Then they shared stories, and it turned out his experience was similar to hers. He'd stopped the truck at this forsaken stop sign and instantly found himself lying in the ditch, his truck missing and Lily standing in the road. He had no sense of time passing, and he hadn't seen the hooded man or the car. They checked, and at least the car was still there. So it really had happened.

"Ain't the first time, neither," the driver added, now that he'd had time to think. "Didn't believe it up 'til now, though. Past three weeks, six tankers disappeared on back roads like this one — no traces, 'cept a stolen car parked nearby. It won't start, neither, he always pulls some wires. Guess I'm Number 7. But you're the first what seen the crook. We gotta go to the police!"

"Tell you what," Lily offered. "I don't feel like spending the night at a police station. My folks will probably let you use our spare bedroom, and we'll see the cops tomorrow. Sound fair?"

As she drove cautiously home, the truck driver perched uneasily behind her, Lily pondered the mystery of the missing tankers. When she was through playing baseball, she planned to go to journalism school to become an investigative reporter, just to cover stories like this. What a feather in my cap it would be if I figured this out myself! she thought excitedly. What a fun way to spend vacation!

Her folks weren't especially thrilled to be awakened at 1 am, but they graciously set the driver up in the guest room for the rest of the night. Early the next morning, Lily's mom drove them downtown to tell their story to the Redcliff Police. The RPD quickly called in the FBI. A couple of hours later, the FBI investigators agreed with Lily that the hooded man was probably selling the stolen gasoline on the black market, and theorized that some sort of sleeping gas had knocked out Lily and the drivers. Shortly after noon, Lily and the driver were released.

No Place Like Home

Lily had plans for the rest of the day. First, she was going to drop in and see her uncle, George DeLuna, and catch up all the news and gossip she'd missed since she'd run off to play baseball, and this evening the town was throwing a welcome home party in her honor. She wasn't quite comfortable with the party idea, but she figured she was probably Redcliff's most famous citizen at the moment. Besides, it'll take people's minds off the war for a while, she told herself.

Before she could head out, though, her mother wanted a little of her time. Heather DeLuna was an unusual woman with an unusual history. She was Korean, born in 1900, and had been trained extensively in the Korean martial art of Sul Sa Do so that she'd be able to protect herself in a country that was under the harsh rule of a foreign invader. In 1913, her family had managed to escape to the British Naval Port at Wei Hai Wei in China, from whence they made their way to Great Britain, ironically arriving just in time for the Great War.

Heather wanted to do her part in the war effort, so she volunteered as a nurse at a military hospital in London. There she'd met Jacob DeLuna, an American fighter pilot who was waiting to be sent back to the States with a medical discharge while recuperating from a field amputation of his left foot. He and Heather fell in love and she accompanied him back to Redcliff, where they were married.

"Say, Lily Loo, got time for a workout?" Heather asked her daughter eagerly. Practitioners of any of the Far Eastern martial arts were in disfavor right then, and Heather didn't get many chances to hone her skills. Lily had learned Sul Sa Do from her mom, and she hadn't had a chance to practice much either since she'd left home in June. She jumped at the chance, and they had a spirited workout.

"Baseball's been good to you, Lily Loo!" Heather panted after an extended series of falls. "You're stronger and quicker than you used to be!" Without warning, Lily swept into a spinning sidekick, aimed at Heather's chest protector. Heather dropped under the kick and launched a leg sweep about four inches off the floor, catching her daughter behind the ankle of the leg that was still planted. Unable to regain her balance, Lily fell, but twisted in the air and managed to land on her hands and knees. Heather put her foot on Lily's rump and pushed, sending her sprawling on the mat. "But you still can't get the best of the old lady!"

"Phooey, I thought I'd catch you off guard. Fat chance of that, though!" Lily laughed. "I guess 43 isn't all that old, Mom! But I'll get you next time." They faced each other, bowed, and went back to their respective days.

A little while later, Lily dropped into the administration office of the Redcliff Hawks semi- pro baseball team, greeted the secretary with a sunny "Hi, Betty!" and breezed right into the owner's office.

"Heya, Uncle George!" she greeted a man who looked a lot like her dad. "I hear the Hawks are pretty good this year. What news have you got for me?"

George DeLuna knew almost everyone in town, and always knew what was going on. He rarely told everything he knew, though, and your secrets were probably safer with George than they were with you. After they exchanged hugs, they started talking baseball. "Well, Lily Loo, most of our best players enlisted or got drafted," he said mournfully, "but we got us a coupla secret weapons. Your friend Pete Lincoln is one of the best pitchers in the state, and his older brother Joe is a great center fielder."

Lily was astonished to hear this. "Why aren't Pete and Joe in the military? They're young, smart, and strong — they've got everything Uncle Sam could want in a GI!"

"Except the wrong skin color, Lilly Loo," George said sadly. "They tried to enlist and got told the military had enough coloreds already. 'Don't call us, we'll call you!' they said. It's hard to believe we're at war with a real enemy what threatens the whole world, and we treat our own citizens that way."

"Have they forgotten that the strongest man in the world happens to be colored?" Lily demanded, outraged.

"Well, Major Power's special, ain't he? Say, I'll be he'd look pretty good in a Hawks uniform!"

"Dream on, Unk! Can't believe the military is so stupid. Hmmph. Idiots!"

Lily and Pete had been good friends growing up, partly because they'd shared some similar experiences with bigots — Pete because he was 'colored,' and Lily because she was 'mixed.' It rarely happened in Redcliff, where everyone knew everyone else, but there had been bad experiences on school trips, family outings, and occasionally with out-of-town visitors. She would have to drop in and see him soon.

George was a little alarmed about Lily's interest in the military. "Say, gal, you aren't plannin' to give up baseball for the service like Eddie did, are you?" Sadly, at 17 his nephew had made that decision and enlisted in 1937, even though the US hadn't officially entered the war yet.

"I tried, George. But the Navy isn't accepting any women to be fighter pilots, even if I can already fly rings around half of 'em!" Lily's tone was sharp; she was still annoyed about it. "Anyway, when's the next game?"

"Tomorrow night with the Toledo Mud Hens. If'n you ain't busy, why don't you come out'n watch? You can sit in our dugout, if'n you want."

Just then, Frank Coles, the coach of the Hawks, rushed into the office. "Hey, Boss! We got a big problem!" he half-shouted. "Them idiot Bannister brothers got in a bar fight last night over West Falls way. Billy got a broken arm and Chris smashed his hands up real good. I got no left fielder tomorrow. Called everybody I could think of, even that great kid from the high school team, but no luck." He finally ran down, noticed Lily. "Hey, Lil! I saved the box scores for every game you played. You sure had a great year, kiddo!"

Suddenly he paused, as an outrageous idea occurred to him. "Say, George, we got us the best damn left fielder, beggin' yer pardon, Lil, from the AAGPBL, and ain't that a mouthful, right here in the room with us." He launched a wad at the spittoon in the corner. "Looks like I ain't got a problem after all." The two men smiled at each other, then turned to look quizzically at Lily.

Lily looked from one to the other and back again, then burst out laughing. "You guys aren't serious? Does your league even allow women players?"

"Damn… er, sorry, Lil…darn right we're serious!" George exclaimed seriously. "I checked the league rules when Joe Lincoln started to play for me, and there's nothin' in the rules 'bout girls nor coloreds neither! Who plays on my team is up to me, Lily Loo, and I say you can play. What do YOU say?"

"Okay, guys." Lily laughed again. "I'll be there tomorrow, with bells on!" She did love a challenge! She quickly changed the subject; after all, she'd come to George to get the news. "So, what's been going on in Redcliff while I was away?"

For the next hour, George gave her all the news about her hometown that had occurred over the past three months. He saved the worst for last. "One more thing," he said, worried. "If'n you see Biff Redondo around, watch out for 'im. Some folks," his dark expression convinced Lily that he was part of 'some folks', "think he might be holdin' a grudge against you, since you beat him up a coupla years ago."

"Oh, Unk, how'd that get out?" Lily was surprised; it sounded like a lot of people had heard about that fight. "I always kept it tip-top secret, and there's no way Biff would tell anyone." She thought for a second. "Musta been Skinny Spooner. But he was always Biff's toady."

"Guess you never noticed, Lily Loo, but right after that fight, Skinny quit hangin' 'round with Biff and started doin' the Charles Atlas thing. He ain't skinny no more, and he turned himself into a right nice kid. I heard he's leaving for the Navy real soon."

"Guess you're right, Unk, I never noticed," she agreed. "Skinny and I were never friends, and after that fight, he always avoided me. Well, good for him!"

"Anyways, Biff got drafted, and in boot camp he had some kinda 'lectrical accident what blinded him in his left eye. Came home with a medical discharge, sporting a big black eye patch what he thinks makes him look dashing." His sneer told Lily what George thought of Biff's new look. "Thought his injury would make him some kinda big- shot war hero, and when it didn't, he took to drinkin', and when he got drunk he got mean. Drove away his friends, couldn't keep a job, let his place go to hell, beg pardon."

Lily rolled her eyes. "I've heard that word before, you know. And a lot worse, from the girls in the Blue Sox clubhouse."

George nodded in acknowledgment, then continued. "Couple days ago, Biff was braggin' 'bout landin' a big-shot job in Cleveland. Started keepin' himself clean agin, wearin' some fancy new duds, and flashin' a wad of cash. Hard to believe anyone would hire Biff, but I guess mosta the good workers are overseas these days. Anyways, I hear he's still mad at you, so you watch out for him, huh?"

Lily promised to keep an eye out for Biff, then took her leave and stopped off at the town library for an hour of research, reading through the back editions of the Redcliff Review. It was fun, she'd been writing articles for the Review since she was 14. The Cleveland Plain Dealer had even picked up a couple of them. If I find out anything in my investigation, she decided, I'll submit a story to the Review. Why, if I could solve the gasoline hijacking mystery, I might even get some national play!

All six hijackings had made the paper, but she couldn't see any obvious pattern to them. She made a list of all the dates and got the names of the drivers, but that was about all she learned. One of the drivers lived in Redcliff, though, and she decided to try to talk to him later in the week.

She still had to get ready for the party, so she wrapped up her research for the day.

The Bad News… and the Good News

Pete Lincoln's dad Clifton owned the Redcliff Inn, and had volunteered one of his function rooms for Lily's welcome home party. A lot of her friends were there, and she enjoyed herself immensely. She had one disturbing encounter, though, and learned a lot about another old acquaintance at the same time.

Lily was picking up a couple of hors d'oeuvres from the buffet when Biff Redondo walked up to her. He was about six feet tall and strongly built, clean-shaven, with his black hair neatly trimmed and greased back. He was wearing a really loud zoot suit — wide lapels, padded shoulders, wide brimmed hat. With his patch, she conceded that he actually did look a little mysterious, perhaps even a bit dashing. He wasn't belligerent, as she had expected he would be...at least, not at first.

"Hey, Lil, welcome home! You sure look nice tonight!" Biff all but gushed. "And you sure had a good season for the Blue Sox! I read your box scores every day. Who would ever have guessed that there'd be a professional baseball league for girls?"

"Hello, Biff," she responded coolly. Except for the one time he'd asked her out, he had spoken to her only once in the past, just before he started their fight. She didn't feel any compulsion to pretend that they were, or ever had been, friends.

"Say, do you think we can let bygones be bygones and try and start over? I was pretty stupid back then, but I'm wised up now. Can I buy you a drink?" He pulled out a big wad of cash. Lily realized that she was supposed to be impressed, but seeing that much money just made her wonder where he could have gotten it. Could he be selling stolen gasoline?

But she had no proof, and no reason to be rude.

"Thanks, Biff, but I don't need a drink right now. And please call me Lily — I really don't like being called 'Lil'. And you needn't worry about bygones. I forget things like that almost before they're over." Well, not really, but a fight that had happened over two years before wasn't worth getting upset over now, unless Biff made an issue of it. "I'm very sorry about your eye and the Army. I know it's got to be difficult, being stuck here in Redcliff when everyone else is heading overseas." Patriotism was running very high right now, and almost anyone who could was joining the military.

"Lily it is, then!" Biff replied heartily. "Hey, I've got another eye, right? And who wants to go someplace where a bunch of Nazis and Nips are going to be shooting at you anyway?" He shrugged, clearly dismissing the war from his thoughts, and he sidled a little closer, almost touching her. His attitude towards the war really surprised her. There were many people who would have accused him of treason, if they had heard him say those words in that tone of voice.

"Besides, with half the men in the country overseas, it leaves more girls for the rest of us!" He leered at her. "Most of the guys that are left are either old coots or there's something wrong with them. I think I look pretty good next to them, don't you? A pretty girl like you shouldn't waste her time with those weak sisters, not when I'm around!"

He moved another step closer, and she realized that she hadn't been paying attention — that he had somehow maneuvered her into a corner between the table and the wall. She was just getting ready to break his wrist if he tried to touch her, when a voice called out to them from behind Biff.

"Hey, Lily, I brought your drink. Hi, Biff! Haven't seen you in awhile, but you sure look a lot better than the last time I saw you. Great suit, and it looks great on you!" Over Biff's shoulder, Lily saw the last person she would ever have expected to come to her rescue: Skinny Spooner. It was clear from the mocking smile on his face that he didn't really think much of Biff's suit.

"Hey!" Biff said sharply to Lily. "I thought you said you didn't want a drink!"

She seized on the chance to get out of this unpleasant encounter without violence. "Thanks very much for offering, Biff," Lily said sweetly, thinking fast to try to remember Skinny's real name. "But...Richard was already getting me one." Richard Spooner, she thought, and prayed her memory was good, or it would be embarrassing for both of them.

"Richard, huh? Sounds like you guys are pretty close! What do you see in a jerk like him?"

This was more like the Biff she remembered. She was about to tell him it was none of his business, even though she was sure it would start something loud. She refused to be talked to that way by anyone!

"Say, Lil, would you like to dance?" Richard cut in, before Lily could reply or Biff could say any more. He also wanted to head off this fight off before it got started.

"Why certainly, Richard. Thank you!"

Biff turned to Richard, allowing Lily to slip out of the corner. Lily took Richard's extended arm, and they whisked away to the dance floor. Biff watched them go, his face dark as a thundercloud. He hadn't missed the fact that Skinny had called her Lil and she hadn't told him that she preferred being called Lily. She was definitely going to pay for that, and all the other trouble she'd caused for him.

As they reached the dance floor, Lily smiled at her savior. "Thanks for the rescue, Richard."

He grinned back. "I suspect Biff's the one who needed the rescue. He didn't learn much the first time he backed you into a corner, did he? By the way, the name's Rich."

She stepped back and looked him over appraisingly, scanning from his feet to his face. She liked what she saw, a tall, handsome young man with red hair, freckles, and very wide shoulders. "You've changed a lot since the last time we talked, Skinny. And it looks good on you, surely!"

Rich actually blushed. "To be honest, Lily, I should be thanking you. After our last, well... shall we say 'encounter'? I realized I didn't want to pal around with a bully who tried to beat up girls, and I sure never wanted to get beat up by any girl again, either! So I stayed away from Biff after that, sent away for the Charles Atlas program, started thinking for myself, and here I am!"

Lily was just a little bit alarmed. That line about never getting beat up by a girl again...what did that mean? "I hope you didn't rescue me just to try to get your own revenge?" she asked, a warning tone in her voice. "I've had enough of that tough guy crap for one evening!"

Rich held both hands up. "Honest, Lily, that fight was the best thing that ever happened to me. Anyway, I'm joining up on Monday and I don't want to fight against Americans. I want to save my fighting for the Axis!"

"You really have changed, haven't you, Rich? Say, you brought me out here to dance, didn't you? So let's dance!"

Neither of them noticed Biff storm out of the hall, almost knocking down several people as he pushed them rudely out of the way. Instead, they danced several dances together, and Lily realized that Rich really had changed, and that she liked the new Rich a lot. She invited him to come to the ballgame the next day, and of course he said yes. Since she did have a game tomorrow, and she really wanted to play well, she decided to call it an early night. Rich asked her if she wanted a ride home, but she had her bike with her. He kissed her hand before she left, which impressed her quite a bit. Too bad he'll be going off to war in a few days!

Encounters on the Roads

The ride home was a good time to reflect on the day's events. Coming home, she'd been worried that she was going to be bored stiff in Redcliff...but now it was starting to look like she was going to have to take a rest after her vacation! She had girlfriends to gossip with, an intriguing new man in her life, baseball to look forward to, and mysteries to solve. Plus, I can ride my bike again! What more could a girl want?

Actually, she wanted to fly again, too.

Greedy girl! she laughed at herself. But crop-dusting season is over, and Dad probably doesn't have enough fuel to go joy-riding. Well, even Lily Loo couldn't have everything!

Due to the poor road conditions, Lily was driving much more slowly than she usually did. Man, that guy's going way too fast! she thought in disapproval as a big car roared past her.

E7 and CRAP! she swore to herself a moment later, as she came out of a corner to find that same big car parked across the road. It had to be deliberate, the way the driver had picked this spot and blocked the entire road. There was brush on both sides; she couldn't have swerved and gone around, even if she'd had more time to react. Only her cautious driving saved her from serious injury. She barely had time to dump her bike and push herself away before she bounced on the rough pavement and slammed into one of the car's front tires. The bike disappeared under the car with some heart-rending screeches, and Lily forced herself to crawl into the brush-choked ditch.

Someone was pushing through the bushes, moving towards her. Probably coming to finish me off, she thought grimly. We'll see about that! She dug in the muck and was gratified to come up with a couple of fist-sized stones. She pulled her legs under her, and adrenaline surged through her as she caught a glimpse of a man's shoes. She surged to her feet and threw one of the rocks as hard as she could before the man could react. It struck him in the chest with a sickening thud, and then Lily slammed into him. He fell backwards and she came down on top of him, bouncing his head off the hard ground. She was ready to brain him with the other rock, but he was already unconscious.

She swore at him anyway. "You wrecked my bike, you jackass! My leathers are in shreds, my ribs hurt when I breathe, and I've got bruises in places I didn't even know about an hour ago! And I don't even know you." She carefully took a deep breath and composed herself. "Lucky for you I never hit someone who can't hit back!"

She saw that he'd dropped a pistol, so she picked it up. A roll of black tape from the wrecked bike's tool kit served to bind his wrists and ankles, then she struggled to get him into the back seat of his own car before she took off. A short time later, she was at the police station, where she was quickly becoming well known.

By the time Lily and her dad went back out and recovered her bike, it was after midnight. Lily managed a few hours of sleep that night, but when she woke up, she was so stiff and sore that she almost decided not to play ball. A brisk workout with Heather, mostly setting-up exercises, showed her that everything still worked.

"Look out, Toledo Mud Hens! Here I come!" she yelled in exuberance. The late-night attempt on her life was forgotten — for the moment.

***~~~***

The same night that Lily captured the thug, on another dark road about 40 miles away, history repeated itself: the hooded man hijacked another truck. This time, though, there was a difference — there were two extra men in the cab with the driver, and they were all wearing gas masks.

"Fat lotta good it did them!" the hooded man smirked. "Wonder who these other guys are?"

He was alarmed to discover that the other guys were both carrying FBI badges. "Crap. No way am I tangling with the FBI! Guess it's time for the Oculist to get out of the gasoline business. I'll sell this truck and lay low for a while; I've got plenty of scratch." The Oculist was what the hooded man called himself, though so far, the rest of the world was ignorant of his existence.

The Oculist pulled the three men from the truck and left them in the ditch, then started the truck and headed for a warehouse in Erie, where he exchanged the tanker for $800 cash and headed for home.

He was pleased to see that the kids he'd hired had mowed his lawn and trimmed his hedges. The inside of the house was spotless. It ought to be, I paid through the nose for that cleaning lady. He hid his hood under a loose board in his bedroom, threw the clothes in his laundry hamper, and had a beer. So what if it was 7 am; hadn't he earned it? One beer led to a second, and then a third, and then, by damn, the case was empty! Well, it was breakfast time anyway, and he could always buy more beer later.

He made his breakfast, making a mess and not bothering to clean it up; why should he? He had a maid now, didn't he? Around 11:30, he got dressed and headed into town for more beer. He didn't know it yet, but he was in for a lot of excitement that day.

An Exciting Afternoon

Lily had arranged to meet Rich for lunch, and they planned to spend the afternoon together before heading to the ballpark. They were sitting in the shade of an umbrella at an outdoor table, getting better acquainted, when a car roared past the restaurant going much too fast, followed shortly by a Redcliff Police car, lights flashing and sirens wailing.

"That's Biff's car!" Rich yelled. "Geez, I hope he doesn't hurt anyone driving like that. I wonder why he's running from the police?"

Lily had her suspicions. Two nights ago, she'd seen the hooded man hijack that gasoline tanker truck. Last night, someone had tried to kill her, and the only person she could think of who had a beef with her was Biff, who had just mysteriously come into quite a bit of money. She was willing to bet that Biff was the hooded man. But she still had no idea what had knocked her out.

Well, if John Law caught Biff, that mystery might be explained. She really itched to be involved, but it looked as if she would only read about it, just like everyone else.

Just as they finished their lunch, the patrol car rolled back down the street. The front left fender was smashed and the car was covered with mud. It pulled up to the curb at the police station across the street, and the driver went in to report.

"Looks like Biff gave 'em the slip," Rich observed. "I'll bet I know where he went!" He recognized the cop sitting in the passenger seat of the patrol car, Tracey Thomas, the older brother of one of his best friends. He said enthusiastically, "C'mon, Lily! I wanna talk to Trace!"

They walked over to the parked patrol car. "Hey, Trace! That was Biff Redondo you were chasing, wasn't it? What'd he do?" Rich wanted to know.

"That thug Lily brought in last night..." He looked at Lily and nodded. "Good job, Lil, by the way. Anyway, when he finally woke up, he told us Redondo was the guy who hired him. Claimed to be a mystery man of some kind, too, calls himself the Oculist, if you can believe that! We thought we had him, but he somehow gave us the slip on the river road, over near the cemetery." He sounded disgusted.

Lily was watching Rich closely, and she could tell that he was pleased to hear what Trace had just said. She was dying with curiosity to find out what he was smirking about. "I'll bet you catch him soon, though," she spoke up brightly. "Sorry, Officer Thomas, we gotta go; I told George I'd show up early for some extra batting practice. Good luck finding Biff!"

Trace brightened. "Yeah, we all heard about you playin' for the Hawks today. Wish I could watch, but I'll probably be down by the river, crawling through muck, looking for Redondo. Probably end up covered in leeches, yeccchh! Anyway, good luck to you, too!"

Lily grabbed Rich's hand and pulled him away. "What's the big secret?" she asked him excitedly.

Rich grinned. "Heh, years ago, Biff and me used to sneak off down near the river and shoot his dad's pistols. We built a kind of fort down there, right by the river. Sometimes we'd go there to fish, too. I'll bet that's where he is. I'm gonna go try and talk to him. Wanna come along?"

"You betcha! All Hitler's men couldn't hold me back!" Lily was determined to get this story!

As they drove down the river road, Lily was thinking out loud. "I bet Biff was the hooded man. I wish I knew how he knocked me out."

"Didn't you say he took his hood off?" Rich asked, eagerly. He couldn't believe how nifty it was, racing off in hot pursuit of a wanted criminal. Exciting stuff like this never happened in Redcliff! "Why would he do that? Why not just keep his face hidden? Unless..." he stared at Lily, excitement in his voice and eyes.

"Unless..." she finished for him, "taking off the hood unleashed some mysterious power, like the mystery villains who fight Major Power or the Volunteer!" They smiled at each other in triumph, and Rich was stunned when Lily leaned over and gave him a quick kiss. "Thanks for helping me figure it out, Rich! It's gotta have something to do with his 'bad' eye, and that's why he wears the patch. That would explain the 'Oculist' nickname too!"

Rich was still flustered by the kiss. He was struggling to find something else to talk about when suddenly, they were there. Rich pointed out a narrow gap between two trees, free of underbrush, on the left side of the road. It didn't look wide enough for a car, which was probably why the deputies had missed it their first time down the road. "There's an old wagon path back there, runs about a hundred yards down towards the river," he explained. He carefully squeezed the car between the trees. Almost instantly, the path made a sharp turn. Already, it would be impossible to see them from the road.

"What a great place for parking," Lily teased. "You ever bring any girls out here?" She'd just discovered how much fun it was, making him blush.

Rich desperately changed the subject. "Um, uh, we were right! There's Biff's car. Either he's still here, or he walked out."

"We should be really careful from here on," Lily warned. "It could be a trap." She thought for a moment. "I think we should split up. You go in first and try to talk to him. If you can distract him, maybe I can sneak up on him."

It was a better plan than any he'd thought of. He gave in to an impulse, pulled Lily in for a hug, and kissed her. "Be careful!"

He turned and set off down the narrow footpath towards the river. A few feet further on, he turned back to look, but Lily had already disappeared into the brush. He kept walking, making noise and calling Biff's name. A couple of hundred yards later, he came out into the clearing he remembered, next to the river, and was unsurprised to see Biff sitting on a log, holding a pistol. He was wearing his zoot suit, although he'd taken off the hat and jacket. The black patch covered his left eye.

"Hey, Skinny! Fancy meeting you here! Good thing you let me know you was comin', or I woulda plugged you! What are you doing way out here in the woods? Come to do some shooting with me?" He was mocking his former friend; Rich thought he sounded a little drunk.

When Rich remained silent, Biff smoothly raised his pistol, and almost before he heard the pistol shot, Rich was sprayed with wood splinters as a bullet smashed into the tree closest to him. He quickly bolted behind that same tree.

"Biff, pal, don't shoot me! I just came out here to help you! The cops are searching all over for you. Searched your house, and trashed it too, the bastards!" He tried to inject righteous anger into his voice, but wasn't sure he'd succeeded. The fear of being shot was hard to overcome, and he knew his voice was squeaky and quavering. "Look, we may not be friends any more, Biff, but we used to be. I couldn't let them catch you, no matter what they say you did!"

"Ah, and what did they tell you, eh, stoolie? That I'm a criminal named the Oculist? I am. Or that I shot somebody? They're lying. If I shoot you, you'll be the first! Something to look forward to, hey?" He stood up and walked slowly forward, dangling his pistol at his side. "Out from behind that tree, Skinny. If I have to come any closer, I'll shoot you sure as the sun's out." He put another bullet into a tree further away.

"Okay, Biff, I'm coming out. Please don't shoot!" While Rich was scared, as any rational person would be in this sort of situation, what he really wanted to do was tell Biff where to go. But Biff seemed to like seeing his ex-friend grovel, and it was Rich's job to hold Biff's attention as long as possible.

Just then, there was some noise in the woods off to Biff's left. "A trap, huh? Shoulda known! But it won't do you no good!" Biff turned towards the noise and pulled off his patch. They both heard a noise like something heavy falling through the branches of a bush. "Might as well be sure," Biff mused, almost to himself, and he turned around slowly, his gaze sweeping the woods.

Strangely, the normal sounds of small animals and insects stopped as Biff's gaze swept by, and by the time he'd almost completed the circle, they were surrounded by an eerie silence. Just before he turned his head to look at Rich, he stopped and replaced his patch. When he did look at Rich, Rich had been replaced by Lily! He heard a crashing noise in the woods behind her, as if Rich were running away.

"DeLuna? My guy was supposed to take care of you last night. But I'm glad he didn't, 'cause now I get to take care of you myself!" He pointed his pistol at her and fired...but she wasn't there any longer.

There are legends about martial artists who can dodge bullets. Heather didn't believe them, so Lily didn't either. But Heather had taught her to study her opponents closely, to try to learn how to anticipate their actions. Lily had observed intently when Biff shot at Rich. Each time, he'd been holding his pistol down by his side, and had swung it up into line with his target and fired in a single, smooth motion without any pauses, even to aim. So as soon as Biff started to swing his arm up, Lily dove forward and down.

Biff ended up shooting at empty air, and Lily lashed out with a hammer-hand punch to his wrist as she flashed by him. He dropped the pistol, but he didn't care. Instead, he just used his other hand to remove his patch again, and as soon as he turned his head towards Lily, she fell to the ground, unmoving. With a satisfied sneer, he started to walk towards her. She was in his power now, and he definitely had plans for her!

Without warning, two clasped hands crashed down on the back of his neck, a blow containing the full power Rich had learned from Charles Atlas, with 195 pounds of fighting mad Rich Spooner to back it up. It was a dirty blow, but Rich realized he couldn't risk Biff turning around and looking at him. Biff stumbled, fell to his knees, but he somehow managed to catch himself on his hands, and he started to turn his head towards Rich.

Charles Atlas would hardly have sanctioned what Rich delivered next: a powerful kick from behind between Biff's legs! Biff didn't even have the breath to scream out his incredible pain. He fell forward, his face digging into the detritus on the ground, moaning softly. Rich quickly knelt with one knee on Biff's back and the other on the side of his head, pinning his dangerous eye to the ground. Biff's whimpers and pitiful cries of pain tore at his heart, but he knew Biff's mystery power continued to make him dangerous. If Biff managed to knock him out now, he knew he would be better off never waking up...

Rich pulled off his shirt and carefully wrapped it around Biff's head, knotting it tightly. He then wrapped his belt around Biff's head to help hold the shirt in place. Finally he bound Biff's hands, using Biff's own shirt and belt, and only then did he feel safe enough to check on Lily. She seemed to be sleeping, which was consistent with the story she had told him. He found some old fishing gear in the fort, and began wrapping Biff's wrists with nylon line, just to be safe.

While he was securing Biff, Trace Thomas and his partner came crashing out of the woods. They'd been nearby, starting their search, and had heard the gunshots. A few minutes later, Trace broke a tube of smelling salts from the first aid kit in the patrol car under Lily's nose, and she awakened, complaining about the horrid smell with words that even the cops had never heard before.

Trace and partner were happy to take custody of a subdued super-powered criminal — and Lily was happy to let them take credit for the arrest, as long as she got to write the story.

Finally, the Ball Game!

The ballgame itself was pretty much an anti-climax. The stadium was packed with the largest crowd since before the war, all come to see the local girl who'd made good play against the boys. George was right, the manager of the other team argued about letting a girl play, but when he realized how much the visiting share of the gate would be with this large a crowd, he stopped arguing. Lily played a good game, going one for three with a walk and two runs scored, and made all the plays in the outfield. The Hawks won easily, 5 to 1.

She met Rich for a late dinner. "Well, Lily, you've solved the mystery, helped capture the super-powered villain, and won the ballgame," Rich commented admiringly. "And all in two days! Sorta running out of things to do, aren't you?"

Her smile was stunning. "Still a couple of things left undone. I still need to fix my bike. And there's a nice boy in town I'd like to spend some time with, before he goes off to war."

Rich smiled back. "I'd like that, too."