Josephine Cooper had to wonder how she got into this mess. Same way as always, she reminded herself, following the trail of slime. As an amateur crime fighter, she did that a lot. But this time, she was following a real slime trail, which lead into the basement of the Washington University Biology Department. At 12:30 AM, no less.

This is supposed to be a school night, and I never practice "the trade" on campus. Why is it always the Biology Lab? Last year a trio of vigilantes had attempted to stop a break-in by the Second Syndicate, and the building almost came down. Several ongoing lab projects were completely destroyed, a big FDA hearing had to be canceled, funding was lost. Please, not again. Where's campus security, anyway? Jo crept down the darkened basement hallway, hefting the saber she always carried when she walked home from the lab after dark—fringe benefits of being on the fencing team.

She continued following the trail, and noticed a similar slimy hand-print on the wall. Leaning in close to examine it, she found it smelled wrong, began to feel lightheaded, and quickly backed away—then stifled a shout as she realized there was someone behind her! As she turned around, Jo's saber slashed up and across with a practiced cut that should have disemboweled the silent stranger. And it would have, but he was armed as well, and at the last possible moment he blocked her slash with a... pool cue???

"Note to self: Fencers are damn quick. You're a little keyed up there, Missy. If I'd been campus security, you'd be in big trouble about now." He spoke quietly, barely above a whisper, with a typical Midlands/St. Louis accent. In other words, no accent to speak of.

"And who the hell are you?" Jo could see he wasn't student, faculty, or staff, and had no business being on campus. Aside from the pool cue, he was dressed like he'd come straight from a Granite City billiard hall; the kind where it's easier to get a mugging than a pool table. Stern, clean-shaven face, dirty blonde hair. He'd look okay with a wardrobe overhaul. Jo didn't trust this guy any farther than she could throw him. She'd enjoy throwing him....

"It's not important. They call me Hardball. Looks like we're here for the same reason. You're a student here?" Jo nodded.

"Wonderful. And if I asked you to leave...."

"Forget it, Mister."

"You have no idea what you're getting into. At least you know how to fight, a bit. How's your throwing arm?" Jo shrugged.

"Okay, I guess."

"Good enough." Hardball produced three billiard balls from somewhere and began juggling them with one hand. "Do please handle these carefully." Without warning he tossed one to Josephine and continued juggling the other two. She scrambled to catch it. "Number one there, that's a 'flash-bang' grenade." He repeated the move twice more in rapid succession, and Jo caught both the others more easily. "Number two is a paralytic gas, and three, that's fear gas. The high explosives, I'm keeping, no offense. Don't throw them if the target is within thirty feet--you'll be too close when they go off. Just... lunge at him or whatever it is you do. And scream. As loud as you can."

"Um... why?"

"If you see him, you'll know. Oh, and Death Vengeance is covering the roof, so don't go up there. He's in a killing mood. Just try to drive our slimy friend up towards the roof--that's the plan. Good luck, Missy." And Hardball took off silently down the hallway, leaving Jo alone in the dark, more confused than ever. Who was she chasing, exactly? Was this Hardball guy out of his mind? And what the hell was Death Vengeance doing here? This was bad, bad news. Here she was, stalking down the basement hall of the Bio-Lab in the dark, alone at 1 AM, with a saber and a number three billiard ball full of fear gas, looking for a burglar who left slime-covered tracks, on a school night! And did she even want to be part of this now? If she succeeded in chasing this guy (person? thing?) up to the roof, he was as good as dead. Did he (it?) really deserve that? Hardball was right—she didn't know what she'd gotten into.

Jo's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of an earsplitting explosion down the hall, followed by... silence. She took off like a shot, and around the corner she found the hallway wrecked like a bomb had went off. Emergency lights flickered, water dripped from broken pipes, and Hardball's inert form lay in the middle of the floor, covered in slime. It smelled just like the mark on the wall—vaguely sickening and soporific. Jo held her breath and knelt to check on Hardball; he was breathing, and didn't appear to be injured, just unconscious. Then she realized the dripping noise wasn't coming from the pipes. It was getting louder, closer, and resolving into wet, slapping, footfalls behind her. Jo stood up, turned around, and what she saw made her want to scream.

He looked vaguely like a man, but thick layers of stinking slime completely covered him, and they moved. When he walked, or lifted an arm, or even breathed, rivulets of stinking filth seemed to squirm about, all over him, or drip off as if desperate to escape. And his face was the worst--she tried to look into his eyes, but they kept moving around. His nose and mouth were almost completely obscured, and when he spoke, he sounded as if he were gagging on baby food. She could barely understand him.

Pointing at Hardball, he snickered, "Didn't call pocket. Game over."

Jo wanted to wretch. She lunged instead, running him clean through. He stood there and laughed, as her eyes went wide. Oh-for-two so far tonight. Not good at all. Then suddenly there was slime everywhere. She was smothered in it, unable to move, just like Hardball. The stench was unbelievable! "It's about time to go up to the roof, Missy." With dismay, Jo realized this creature had overheard everything Hardball told her. And it was covering her in its own slime, so when they got to the roof....

"Death Vengeance is in a killing mood tonight, I hear."

Jo concentrated on working loose her saber hand, and managed to turn the blade around. There wasn't much time left--she was almost completely covered, and getting very sleepy, but once her blade began to part that awful slime, it gathered speed, freeing her arm in seconds. Taking her would-be captor off-guard, she skewered him again, and this time he wasn't laughing. Her blade passed harmlessly through him, as before, and continued into the 480 volt breaker box behind him. A massive shock surged through both of them, and the slimy freak let out a hideous scream. Jo convulsed and passed out, dropping the fear gas grenade, which exploded, sending her attacker running into the dark in a panic.

She awoke only moments later, with Hardball standing over her. "You scared him off, but good. Nice job." He reached down to give her a hand standing up, and an electric shock arced between them. He jumped back in surprise, and Jo fell back down again. Her hand landed in a puddle of water, which began to boil and spark. She withdrew it quickly, looking up at him in confusion.

Hardball realized immediately that something truly bizarre had happened to the girl, and she was now some kind of freak, like that thing she had chased off. That was unfortunate—she really had shown promise when they first met. One at a time he took off his gloves, then tossed them on the floor next to her. "Put those on, you'll need them, Missy. And welcome to the St. Louis Underworld. It would appear you're suffering from a very nasty case of culture shock!"

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