8FOLD/ACRA: Jolt City # 13, The Sensational Character-Find of 2007, Pt. 2: The Strange Menace of Abner Schrebel!
milos_parker at yahoo.com
Thu May 8 22:35:52 PDT 2008
Dani & Pam-- the love triangle resolved!
Dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Darkhorse!
A woman from Martin's past-- and Derek's future!
The truth about the High Roller!
All this, and...
THE STRANGE MENACE OF ABNER SCHREBEL!
EIGHTFOLD COMICS GROUP PROUDLY PRESENTS THE
////////////// 2006 & 2007 RACCIE WINNER FOR
//// ////// /// ////// FAVOURITE ACRA SERIES
// //// // // /// //
////// ////// ///// //
# 13 MAY 2008
////// /// ////// \ // THE SENSATIONAL
/// /// // \// CHARACTER-FIND
////// /// // // OF 2007 PART 2
BY TOM RUSSELL //
The great thing about Dani becoming Jolt City's Four-Colour Liaison is that it provides another layer of insulation between Martin Rock and his heroic alter-ego. Previously, Roy Riddle had served as the go-to guy for persons wanting to contact the Green Knight. But since the Knight's Den is underneath Father Riddle's church, and Martin might be seen coming and going on the church-grounds, anything that drew that kind of attention to Riddle could be disastrous.
But now, any contacts for the Green Knight are vetted through Dani Handler's office at police headquarters. Anyone paying attention to that building would only glimpse the Green Knight, in full costume: hardly something that could, in and of itself, compromise his secret identity.
Unfortunately for Dani, the accompanying workload is a bit daunting. Not only are there all manner of letters, e-mails, and packages for the Green Knight, dozens arriving on a daily basis, not only from Jolt City but also from other parts of the world, but there are also the letters, e-mails, and packages, slightly less numerous, for Jolt City's other major four-colour, Darkhorse, only just released from the hospital. She also has to deal with the occasional four-colour wannabe that shows up at her office, and the slightly more numerous four-colour wannabes that show up in traction. It is, in its own way, more stressful than working on the street or in Narcotics.
Since she took the post in April, she's received a number of letters for the Green Knight from one Abner Schrebel; Schrebel claims to be the hero's official joke writer, and wishes to set up a meeting. This is not particularly unordinary, as there are several persons and companies claiming that the Green Knight has chosen them for the post. Martin, of course, has done no such thing, and so Dani has been content to file them with the rest of the cranks.
Which brings us to June of aught-seven, during which, in addition to the his usual daily deluge of fan letters and hate mail, business proposals and costume redesigns, love letters and nude photos, fan-fiction and gifts, interview requests and custom unicycles, Green Knight-inspired recipes and Acro-Bat-inspired collages, screenplays and comics, requests for help and reports of suspicious activity, pre-qualified credit cards in the name of Mr. G. Knight and free tickets to a vacation getaway that is (it is promised) in no way affiliated with any kind of timeshare presentation, and a puppy, there is also a letter from Mr. Schrebel's lawyer, indicating that if the Green Knight does not honour the original terms (both expressed and implied) of their contract signed in March of this year, he will be sued for the breach thereof. A photocopy of the contract is helpfully enclosed.
"That's not my handwriting," Martin says, running his green-gloved fingers over the signature. "It's a forgery, and a bad one at that."
"That's what I thought," says Dani. "And so I called the lawyer."
"He says he drafted the contract himself. And what's more, he says he was there when you signed it."
"That's what he says?"
"That's what he says," says Dani. "And looking at the date of the contract..."
"I was at Earbox," says Martin.
The Knight's Den.
When Martin arrives, Derek is already waiting for him. "Martin, I got a question for you."
"I got a question for you first. Do you know Abner Schrebel?"
"Uh." He smiles awkwardly; embarrassment washes over his face. "Yeah... I guess."
"Derek," says Martin, "did you sign a contract in my name with Abner Schrebel?"
"Well... um." Again he searches for an answer, in hopes, perhaps, that in doing so he might side-step into a parallel world in which the answer is different. But no such luck. "Yeah."
"Derek," says Martin, "why did you sign a contract with Abner Schrebel in my name?"
"Um. I don't know."
Martin nods, doesn't make eye contact.
"Um, Martin?" says Derek.
"Are you, like, mad at me?"
Martin doesn't answer the question, but Derek's smart enough to figure it out from the context clues. "How many other contracts did you sign using my name while I was in prison?"
"Just that one," says Derek.
"Just that one. Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I mean, I got some stuff from Cradle and Proctor, but there was no real agreement with that, no paperwork or anything."
Martin nods, though it's hardly encouraging.
"But," Derek adds quickly, "that was the only, uh, contract. Um. If you-- if you look at it, you don't have to pay him or anything. It's completely pro bono."
"Yeah, I know," says Martin. "And that'd be great, if I wanted a joke writer."
"But you don't," says Derek.
"No, I don't."
"I know that now," says Derek. "I mean, I figured it out pretty soon after you came back. But when I was, uh, using the costume, I didn't know. I thought-- I guess I thought you'd be happy about it. Like, you'd come back and I'd have set this up for you."
"Well," says Martin, "I ain't happy about it, but you know that now. And I guess that's not important. Now, the thing that's important is for me to deal with it, and that means either meeting with this guy every other week and using his jokes, or sitting down with a bunch of lawyers to extradite me from the contract. And, frankly? I don't know which is worse."
"Couldn't you just tell them that it wasn't you?" says Derek. "That someone else had taken your place? I mean, the costume change, the height change-- surely it makes sense?"
Martin reaches under the bed and pulls out a long cardboard box. He quickly sorts through a collection of newspapers and clippings until he finds the front page of the Herald, the afternoon after the Apelantian Invasion was thwarted. Splashed on the front is a photo of Martin Rock standing next to the Green Knight. He hands the page to Derek.
Derek looks at it, nods, and hands it back: throwing the identity of that Knight into question invalidates the only explicit piece of evidence that shows Martin Rock and the Green Knight together at the same time. Having made his point, Martin returns the clipping to the box and slides the box under the bed.
"On the bright side," says Derek, "he is funny."
"Well, we're going to drop the subject now, okay?"
"Okay," says Derek. "Sorry again."
"I don't think you apologized for it initially, but that's okay. Incidentally, your forgery was awful. Do you know why?"
Derek shakes his head.
"Well, that's next then, I suppose," says Martin. "How to identify a forged signature or document. Handwriting analysis. It's a pain in the neck, but I think you might like it."
"I'm game," says Derek.
"But you had a question for me?" says Martin.
Derek knows better than to play the 'never mind' game with Martin; patience with having to drag something out of someone is not one of his mentor's virtues. "Well," he says, "this is probably not the best time for me to be asking. But. I was wondering when I get to start."
"The whole sidekick thing."
"That's what we're doing," says Martin.
"No, I mean, actually doing the whole sidekick thing," says Derek. "I mean like in the field. We've been training for months now, and I just want to have some idea when the training ends and the real thing starts."
"When you're ready," says Martin.
"Well-- and no offense, and I know this Schrebel thing doesn't exactly speak well for me, but-- I think I am ready. I mean, I did a pretty good job with it while you were, um, indisposed. And you've given me a pretty good grounding in a lot of things since then. I mean, you're not going to teach me everything before you let me do it, are you?"
"Not exactly," says Martin. "People learn by doing, and we'll get you out in the field, but when you're ready. When you show me that you're ready."
"Okay," says Derek. "Um. But. One more question?"
Martin shrugs his palms outwards.
"This showing you that I'm ready," says Derek. "Is it some kind of abstract thing, where you wait until whenever and you see that I've grown or some shit, or is it, like, some kind of actual test I have to pass?"
Martin covers his mouth with his hand, thinking. "Do you want a test?"
"Sure," brightens Derek.
"I'll give you two," says Martin. "But they're pass or fail. You only get one shot. And if you fail, that's it."
"That's it, what? What's it?"
"Finito," says Martin. "Training stops, you're not my sidekick, and you never will be."
"That's a little harsh, isn't it?"
"Maybe," says Martin. "But that's the way it's going to be."
Derek doesn't hesitate. "Okay. Hit me with it."
"First test," says Martin. "Now, you'll like this one, because there are no shards of glass or extenuating circumstances. Completely abstract."
"Thanks," withers Derek.
"Bank robbery," says Martin. "Two robbers, one on each side of the bank. Each has a hostage, each has a gun. Each is prepared to kill their hostage. Others have died already.
"One hostage is a single mother. The other is her eight-year-old daughter. They have no other relatives."
"How do I know this?"
"It doesn't matter how you know it," says Martin. "What matters is that you have time to save one of them. Only one. Whichever one you don't save will die. There's no maybes about it. One will live and one will die. There's no talking them out of it, or figuring out how to disarm them. No gimmicks. Just your choice. Decide who lives and who dies."
"You only get one chance," says Martin. "Get it wrong, and it's good-bye."
Derek nods. "Um. Can I... is it okay if I think about it for a while?"
"It's more than okay," says Martin. "It's advised. When you've found the right answer-- and there's only one correct response-- whether you find it tomorrow or next month or next year, and when you're sure it's the right answer, absolutely one-hundred percent positive-- then, and only then, should you answer. And then, and only then, will you be ready."
"What's the other test?" says Derek.
"That's the hard one. You have to choose a name."
"Well, excuse me, but that doesn't sound hard at all."
"No? You have to live with that name, Derek. You have to live with it for a long time, maybe the rest of your life. There are three things that happen to sidekicks: they die, they trade up, and they go off on their own. First one's kinda self-explanatory.
"And trading up is just what it says. I step down, you step up, you become the Green Knight.
"Third one-- going off on your own-- now that's the key. Because if something happens, if we have some kind of argument and things go bad and we split off, you don't want to go around calling yourself Green Knight Jr. or the Scarlet Squire or something like that. You need a name that stands on its own, and you don't want to be thirty years old with something like Acro-Bat hanging over you."
"Well, if that happens, which I don't think it will, but if it happens-- I'll just pick a new name."
"No," says Martin, and about this he is quite adamant. "We got so many assholes out there changing their names at the drop of a hat. It's just confusing. And most of all, it's not honest. So-and-so screws up, screws up bad, so he picks a new costume and a new name and all of the sudden, he doesn't have to deal with that history anymore. You can't erase the past. You got to pick a name and you got to stick with it."
"Isn't that what you did, though?" says Derek.
"Well," says Martin slowly, "that's why we're here. So you don't make the same mistakes I did. So you can be better than I was."
The next day.
Dani's waiting for someone from the animal shelter to finally pick up yesterday's puppy, in addition to this morning's, when an officer steps in from the hall. "Ms. Bierce to see you."
"Pam Bierce?" says Dani.
The officer nods.
Dani sighs. "Give me two minutes, then send her in."
The officer nods again and disappears.
The two minutes passes all too quickly: Dani had hoped to gather up her thoughts, to squeeze them together into sentences and silences, both pregnant with meaning and ready for whatever Pam had to throw at her. But she's scarcely begun when Pam steps inside her office.
Dani should greet her-- perhaps with a chilly 'Ms. Bierce' or a surprisingly informal 'Pam'. But she says nothing instead. She waits for Pam to explain the reason for her visit.
Pam, for her part, is never one to be shy. "We gotta talk, you and I. And I don't think you want anyone to hear us. You got that scrambly thing?"
Dani pulls it out of her pocket and activates it; Pam steps into the soundproofing field.
"I love him," says Dani.
"I love him too," says Pam. "That's not the problem."
"Problem is he loves us back," says Pam. "Problem is he can't make up his mind. And I don't know about you, but it's been three months since he got back and it's a little ridiculous. It's..."
"It's killing me inside," says Dani, and she almost instantly wishes she hadn't: makes her look weak. Pam, for her part, wishes she could have said the same thing, but doesn't for much the same reason that Dani wishes she could take it back.
But she can't take it back, it's out there, so she has to go with it. "Every day, it's killing me a little. It hurts so bad. But I can't let him go. I won't let him go." Emboldened by her last statement, she adds: "Not without a fight."
"Same here," says Pam. "And since Martin's pretty damn nigh incapable of making a decision, I guess we have to settle this ourselves."
The office of Abner Schrebel is cramped and sparse: a desk and a few chairs crammed into a ten-by-ten room with an adjacent bathroom. Schrebel himself takes up a great deal of the room.
He greets the hero with a warm handshake, looks him over head to toe, and says bluntly, "You're not the same guy."
"I'm the Green Knight," says Martin obtusely.
"Now I know you're really not the same guy," says Schrebel. "Even your voice is different." He frowns, and it seems to come naturally to him. "I guess this means the contract's void, huh?"
"Maybe," says Martin delicately. "I don't want a joke writer, but I don't want to contest the contract anymore than I want to be sued for breaching it."
"Where does that leave us?" says Schrebel.
"Contract's good for one year," says Martin. "You can tell people you're my joke writer for that long. We don't meet, you don't send me jokes. You can use my name to promote yourself, and you don't have to do any work. That sound good to you?" He extends his hand for another shake.
Schrebel shrivels up indignantly; no easy task for a man of his girth. "What kinda hero are you?" he says. "I can't do that. That'd be lying!"
"It's not lying," says Martin. "I mean, you are my official joke writer. You can write me jokes if you want. That doesn't mean I have to use them, or that I'm going to. Nowhere does it say I absolutely have to use them."
"That's not the point," says Schrebel.
"It ain't exactly about the press," says Schrebel. "It's about the work. And I ain't going to take credit for work that I haven't done."
"Who would know, unless you told them?"
"I would know," says Schrebel, thumping at his heart with his prime finger.
Martin smiles under his mask. "I think you're a good man, Abner Schrebel. Hit me with some jokes."
"Now we're cooking with gas," says Abner, rubbing his hands together. "Okay, here goes. Did you know that Stephen Hawking is writing a cookbook? Yeah, it's called a Brief History of Thyme."
"No, it's just..."
"Okay, I get it: too subtle. Try this one. Ahem. I met a man who said he hadn't had a bite in weeks."
"So you bit him?" says Martin.
"I bought him a sandwich," says Abner. "Or, how about, I'm on a seafood diet, I only eat fish."
"Um, you see, the problem is..."
"Hold on hold on hold on," says Abner breathlessly. "This is my best one, the absolute best. Okay, so-- you know, actually, you should sit down for this one. You might fall over from the laughing. Are you comfortable? Yes? Okay, so here goes, here's the joke: the Bush Administration. Eh? Eh?"
"Abner," says Martin measuredly, "the thing is, those are all fine jokes, uh, in their way, but, the thing is, I can't really much use them in the field."
"Too highbrow? I can do low. A priest, an imam, and a prostitute walk into..."
Martin holds up his hands.
"Too low? I can do middle. Please..."
"You see," says Martin, "I don't really tell jokes, per se. I can't really do the whole set-up and punchline thing. It's more of a quip than a joke. A one-liner."
"Like, Henny Youngman?" says Abner. "Take my wife, please?"
"Well, the thing is, I don't have a wife," says Martin. "And if I did, she wouldn't really be out in the field with me, you know?"
"Take my sidekick, please?"
"That's a little better, I guess," says Martin. "But why would I ask someone to take my sidekick? The kind of thing I'd be looking for is really very specific, very situationally-based."
"Like, um, observational humour?"
"A little bit, yeah," says Martin. "It's kind of hard for someone to write material like that ahead of time, you know? It's really spur of the moment type stuff. So, um, you can send me stuff, and I'll read it, and if I can use it, if an opportunity presents itself, then I will. But I can't really make any promises."
"Okay," says Abner. "Well, now that I know what you're looking for, I think I might have a few ideas. And, uh, I'll send them along. But you'll try to use them?"
"I'll try my best," says Martin.
"Okay," says Abner. "That's good enough for me."
Jolt City Public Library.
Derek approaches the desk. It's occupied by a man in his late thirties, using a particularly dry-looking piece of asparagus as a bookmark. "May I help you?"
"I'm looking for some books on four-colours," says Derek.
"Ah," says the librarian. "Popular subject today. Would you like the short answer or the right answer?"
"What's the difference?" says Derek.
"Short answer is you'll find it under 308 in our non-fiction. The right answer, however, is that most of our material is located under 308, 308.1 to .8, inclusive, covering most general aspects of superhumanity, while .9 covers heroes and villains, or, to be more precise, super-conflict, with .91 being heroes and .92 villains.
"But some books about villains are filed under terrorism, 303.625, and also 363.3, .32, and .34, public safety, the prevention of terrorism, and the control of or response to natural disasters and rescue operations.
"Some books on the history of four-colours can be found under 308, and others in the 900s, in the relevant period of history. The scientific aspects, on the other hand, if one wishes to get more technical, would of course be in 530, physics, 599.935, genetics, and various parts of the 600s, applied sciences; for magic, you've got 299.94, religious witchcraft or 133, the occult, depending on what the OCLC, in their infinite wisdom, decided upon."
"308 will do just fine," says Derek.
"That's just what the other one said."
Derek has no trouble finding the 308s, or, rather, he has no trouble finding the barren shelves where the 308s should be. He walks down the aisle, and, peering down, spots a table that's absolutely lousy with books, stacked like mad. Intuiting, perhaps, that this is where the collection went, and that here he will find the aforementioned "other one", he approaches the table.
There's a woman at the table, in her late forties probably, and it must be said that she is gorgeous and striking: blonde, imperious, and very fleshy in all the right places. It's strange; Derek isn't usually attracted to white women, and certainly not to ones outside his age group, but he has absolutely no problem with tucking her image deep inside his spank bank.
The woman looks up from the book she's reading, and Derek darts his eyes to the stacks of books surrounding her. He was right: these are the 308s.
He darts his eyes back to hers. "I was wondering if you need all these books."
"Do you work here or something?" she asks-- no, not asks; demands. There's something chilling about her tone.
"No; I'd like to look at some of these books."
"Which ones?" she says, almost as if they were negotiating hostages.
"None specifically," says Derek. "I'm just browsing. Something on, like, ethics maybe. I just have an interest, I guess."
She perks up a bit. "How much of an interest?"
"Um," says Derek. "A pretty intense one, actually."
"Me too," she says, her eyes flashing. "It's strange; a lot of people have some kind of interest in them. Everyone has a favourite-- do you have a favourite?"
"Green Knight," says Derek. Then, with a wry smile that only he understands: "Or Darkhorse, maybe."
"Green Knight's my favourite, too," she says. "Everyone has a favourite, but a lot of people get quite jaded about it, don't you think? All these wonders going around all the time, and it's just-- it's nothing to them. But it's not nothing."
"It's not," Derek agrees.
"It's, it's spectacular," she says. "To think that every day these wonderful things are happening, and that every day there are people who are good, who are just good people, doing good things-- it's just amazing, and most people just gloss over it."
"I know what you mean."
"Never stopped being surprised," she advises. "You know, a lot of people your age, they stop believing in the good things, they tend to get cynical. I hope you don't."
"I hope so too," he says. "I don't think I will, at any rate." He extends his hand. "I'm Derek Mason."
She shakes it. "Erika," she says. "Erika Fumetti."
Martin rushes over after getting a page on his bleeper. "Is everything okay?" he asks her. "What is it?"
"I got something for you," says Pam. "In the bedroom."
"What, like a present?"
"Sort of," she says. "You'll see." She leads him to the door and opens it.
She sits up on the bed, quite naked. "Hiya, hero." Then, she smiles somewhat demurely. "Martin."
"But I don't understand," says Martin. He turns around. "Pam, what..."
Pam has already removed her top, and is wriggling out of her pants.
"I..." Martin turns back to find Dani off the bed and squarely in front of him. She begins to remove his shirt. "What's...?" He turns back to Pam.
"Dani and I had a talk today," says Pam. "And we're tired of you waffling, all this suspense, and all this bullshit."
His shirt hits the ground. Dani kisses him on the mouth as Pam presses up behind him, her soft breasts against his hard back.
"And so," says Pam, kissing his neck as Dani undoes his fly, "we decided to stop the waffling, end the suspense, and get rid of the bullshit. No more hurting. No more feeling like we're the other woman, or wondering if we're going to get dumped."
"You want us, hero?" says Dani. "You got us. Both of us. For keeps."
Oh shit, thinks Martin: Roy is going to kill me.
He kisses Pam, and then Dani, and then he smiles sheepishly: "Now you kiss each other."
Pam crosses her arms. "Nuh-uh. Not my thing."
Dani appears hurt. "Look, just because I said I'd share you, doesn't mean I want you to share me."
"Sorry, sorry," says Martin. "I don't know where that came from."
"You're a man," says Pam.
"Let's just go back to where we were," says Martin.
Roy doesn't actually kill Martin, but he comes pretty damn close to excommunicating him. "This is wrong. This is wrong on so many levels."
"I figured you'd say that," says Martin.
"Because you knew I was right," says Roy. "That's why you told me. Because you had a need to confess."
"I told you because I thought you had some kind of right to know," says Martin. "Because you're my friend and I don't keep things from you. It has diddly squat to do with your collar."
"Martin, I want you to think about the example you're setting for Derek," says Roy. "He's an impressionable young man, and what you do does have an effect on him. What are you teaching him here about relationships, about how to respect women?"
"I do respect them," says Martin. "I'm going to treat them with respect and love and decency."
"That's not respect," shrills Roy. "God meant for us to be monogamous. That's you and one other person, not two, not two! It's a sin and--"
"You can shove the God shit right now."
Roy's jaw sags, and his face loses every quality that had previously identified him as Roy Riddle. He seems to melt inside his cassock, to be consumed by it, a butterfly in reverse, moving from colour and fancy to something sad and small and black.
He turns and makes his exit.
Martin calls after him. "Roy! I'm sorry. I didn't mean it...!"
Soon, Martin is alone.
Pam's apartment, that night.
"He'll forgive you," says Dani.
"Of course he will," says Martin. "That's his job. I just... I dunno."
"What, you expected him to be cool about it?" asks Pam.
"I guess," says Martin.
"Seriously? He's a priest, for God's sake."
"That's not what hurt him, though," insists Martin.
Pam waves her hand dismissively. "Sanctimonious asshole. He doesn't play the game, he don't get to make the rules."
"Well, speaking of," says Martin. "Um. Uh... anyone want to have sex? Uh, with me?"
"Not right now," says Dani.
"I'll pass," says Pam. "I wouldn't mind a foot rub, though."
"Oh, yes," says Dani. "A foot rub would be nice!"
"Well," says Martin. "I wasn't really..."
They begin to unlace their shoes.
"I don't particularly feel..."
The shoes hit the ground with a hard clump, followed by the soft sound of socks doing the same.
Martin sighs. "So, who wants a foot rub?"
The women squeal and wriggle their toes. "Ooh! Me! Me!"
Dani's office, the next day.
"Got something for you." She hands him a rather official-looking card. "Invitation from Darkhorse. He wants to have you and one guest over for dinner tonight."
"Seriously?" says Martin.
"He's given me directions to the meeting place and authorized me to release it to you if you are amenable."
Something on the card attracts Martin's attention. "Costumes optional? What? Are you sure this is legit?"
"Very much so," says Dani. "I confirmed it with his contacts in Washington, spoke with him on the phone, and it arrived through secure channels."
"I don't really want to spend any more time with him than I have to," says Martin. "At the same time..."
"At the same time, you did put him in traction. And," she adds, smiling brightly, "in my official capacity as Jolt City Liaison, I'd like to advise you to, uh, engender good working relationships with your colleagues."
"Alright," says Martin. "But I'm definitely wearing my union suit."
"Excellent," says Dani. "I'll let him know." She smiles again.
"What?" says Martin.
"Well, you have to choose one guest."
"He was very adamant about that."
"Probably only has enough food for four, the stingy bastard."
"Be that as it may, it's kind of amusing, don't you think?" says Dani. "All this time, you can't make up your mind, and things turn out okay. But now here you are, forced to choose between us anyway. ...What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
Martin tosses Derek a costume and mask as soon as he enters the Knight's Den. "Don't get your hopes up," he explains. "We're just going to have dinner with Darkhorse and his wife. Hurry up and get changed and meet me upstairs."
A few moments later, Derek closes the trap door behind him. He's wearing the old Ray-style costume he had used during his short stint as a replacement Green Knight.
"Um," say Derek, "just to make sure, this isn't what I'm going to wear when--"
"No," says Martin. "We'll pick something that matches the name."
Our two heroes emerge behind the church; they unchain their unicycles (normal, glorious, everyday unicycles!) and begin to wheel their way through the uneven grass. They pass by Roy's manse; the priest is sitting on his porch; he heads inside.
"He seemed a little off today," says Derek.
Martin doesn't comment.
They follow Dani's instructions to the letter, wheeling their unicycles along a small river running through the dense woods just outside Jolt City. They come to a bridge and slowly ride across, the creaking of the boards providing a counter-rhythm to the steady spinning of the wheels.
"That must be it," says Martin, pointing to the back of a rather large house several yards hence. It's not a mansion or anything, but it's big enough to reek of money. There's a concrete patio leading up the door; Martin dismounts his unicycle and tucks it under his arm. Derek follows suit.
As they approach the house, the back door slides open. On the other side of it is an extremely naked woman.
Martin's about to ask if they're in the wrong place when she introduces herself. "I'm Daphne. We've met before, while my husband was in the hospital."
"Oh," she says, brushing her hand over her bare torso, "we're nudists. That's why we said costumes were optional. Don't worry," she assures him, "you won't offend us. Come on in."
She turns, her fleshy bottom ping-ponging back and forth. Our heroes set their unicycles down against the building and follow. Martin whispers to Derek: "Don't look."
"I thought you said I have to be aware of my surroundings at all times."
"I'll be aware of our surroundings," says Martin. "You just look at your feet."
"But my feet don't have curves!"
Daphne leads them into a large room: big staircase, big television, a couple of sofas. She turns towards our heroes. "It'll just be a moment while I bring him in."
Daphne heads into an adjacent room; soon thereafter, she returns with her extremely naked husband, guiding his wheelchair towards the center of the room.
"Oh my God," he says. "There are two of you! That's why you got shorter and then tall again. God, I hate it when this happens. What was it, clones? Alternate universe?"
"No; he's my sidekick."
"Oh," says Darkhorse. "What's his name?"
"He doesn't have a--"
"--name yet. You're not calling yourself Ass-Kicker."
"How about Captain Traction?"
"Hey," interjects Darkhorse. "That's kinda catchy. I like Captain Traction."
"I don't," says Martin.
"It's better than Acro-Bat."
"The Man," says Derek. "C'mon, it's like, look out! It's... The Man."
"No," says Martin.
Dinner. Darkhorse asks his wife for the gravy. She reaches over the table, and it is glorious.
Daphne looks at Martin and Derek, and then to their untouched plates. "Aren't you going to eat?"
"We can't," says Martin, "not with our masks on. If you'll wrap it up for us, we'll be sure to take some home."
"It smells really good," adds Derek. He, for one, is hungry, but he knows better than to contradict his mentor-- at least on this count.
Darkhorse clears his throat. "There's no pressure or anything," he says, "but you're among friends here. I was kinda hoping you'd trust us, the way we're trusting you."
"I didn't ask for your trust," says Martin.
"No," says Darkhorse. "But that's not the way it works. Trust is given. And maybe someday you'll give me your trust in return."
"Maybe," says Martin. "I mean, I trust you enough to--"
"My name is Brian," says Darkhorse. "Brian Cl--"
Martin holds up his hand. "Please. I don't want to know."
"I really don't," says Martin. "I know that you're Darkhorse, and that's enough, okay?"
"Okay," says Brian. He looks a bit disappointed.
"We're sorry," say Daphne. "I guess we're coming on a bit strong." A bit of mashed potato drops onto her bosom; she wipes it away with a napkin. "It's just that we don't have many friends here, in either, um, circle. Civilian or... professional. Brian was kinda hoping to have someone to, uh, to confide in, I guess is the word I'm looking for."
"Someone to hang out with," says Brian. "Socially. This was a bad idea. I'm..."
"No," says Martin, with a shake of his raised hand. "It's not a bad idea. I'm just... you can't force these kind of things, y'know. Like when you kept asking me for a team-up. You can't just make it happen. It just happens or it doesn't."
"Yeah, I know," says Brian. "I just..."
"It's me," says Daphne, though not entirely convincing. "It was my idea. I was hoping you'd bring a girlfriend or a wife or something. I really want someone who I can talk to about being the wife of a four-colour. It was my idea, not his."
"Well, I brought my sidekick. So I trust you enough-- consider you a friend enough-- to bring--"
"GKO!" says Derek.
"-- my sidekick. No one else knows about him. Well, almost no one. You're pretty much the first. So I trust you enough to let you in on this while he's still on training. Maybe, um, maybe you can even help fill out his education a little."
Derek knows from the way Martin says this that the chances of it actually happening are unlikely.
"Hmm," says Brian.
"What?" says Martin. "What's that look for?"
"Well, nothing," says Brian. "It's just-- um, I mean, how old are you?" He says this to Derek, then turns to Martin. "If you don't mind me asking?"
"He's eighteen," says Martin.
"Eighteen," says Brian. "Huh."
"Nothing," says Brian again. "I mean, you obviously know what you're doing, you've been through this whole process before with your first sidekick, and he was what, twelve or thirteen? So eighteen... just never mind."
"No," says Martin. "You got something on your mind, go ahead and say it."
"I just-- I dunno. Times are a little different now, what with the High Roller and everything..."
Martin rolls his eyes.
"But you know what you're doing, so never mind."
"Then why did you even bring it up?"
Daphne plays peace-maker. "Don't mind him. He's just crabby. He's been like this the whole time, ever since the-- incident."
Martin is glad for a change of subject. "How much longer till you're out and about?"
Daphne answers for him. "He's starting physical therapy next week. So he's on his way."
"And I'll be done the week after that," says Brian.
Daphne smiles. "He's optimistic."
She wraps up their paper plates, hands them off, and hugs them good-bye (Derek is a little too giddy). Brian and his wife wave them off and close the door; our heroes mount their unicycles.
"I like her," says Derek. "I like her a lot."
"I'm sure you do," says Martin.
They start off back into the woods. As they come to the bridge, Derek asks Martin if he can ask him something.
"Who was the High Roller?" asks Martin.
Martin stops at the bridge and dismounts. He places his aluminum-foil wrapped plate on the ledge and peers into the water. Derek follows suit: "I mean, of course I've heard about him, sorta. Mostly people talk about him like everybody already knows, and so I didn't... I've never actually heard exactly what the deal was."
Martin nods, clears his throat, and begins:
"It was sometime in the eighties. Eighty-five, maybe, or eighty-six or eighty-seven, somewhere in there. There was this guy, this hero, the Bookie, operating over in Vegas. Um. To put it nicely-- he was a moron. Went around saying things like, 'If you bet against justice, you're going to lose', and, oh, what was it?, something like, 'I'm here to collect!' Well, that wasn't it, but you get the idea. He just... he wasn't very effective, let's put it that way. And by all accounts he wasn't very smart.
"Anyway, he meets this kid, and it turns out this kid has luck powers."
"I thought luck powers didn't exist," says Derek.
"No; luck doesn't exist, but luck powers do. It's-- it's much too much to get into right now. Suffice to say, luck powers are about the most useless and unreliable powers known to man. But the Bookie meets this kid, and decides, hey, it's time for a sidekick-- and voila, we got the High Roller.
"Now, one could say that the Bookie didn't do a good job training the kid, but I would go you one further; I'd say he didn't train the kid at all. He met him, got him a costume, taught him a few tricks, and a week later they're dancing on rooftops. Bad judgment on the case of the Bookie, but from what I heard, it was pretty much par for the course."
Martin presses his hands on the rail, tightening his shoulders, shaking his head in disgust.
"Something happened to the kid," says Derek.
"Not at first," says Martin. "Bookie and the High Roller go out, and they rough up crooks and whatever else, and they always manage to narrowly escape one scrap or another. The problem is that the High Roller has a chip on his shoulder. He gets angry at the drop of a hat, he'd get pretty brutal, and, heh-heh, luckily-- as they say-- he'd get away without a scratch. The other guy wasn't always so lucky. A lot of them ended up in the hospital, and most of the time he didn't wait to find out if they had done anything wrong. He didn't do the kind of surveillance work, the detective work-- the kinds of things that the Bookie should have been showing him-- he just ran in and started beating people up.
"Well, the Bookie took notice of this, and to his credit, he tried to reign the kid in. He said-- or at least he claims he said-- why don't we start over, take you off the street, do some training?
"Well, like I said, High Roller had a chip on his shoulder. Had something to prove. You know the type. So he went out to prove himself. He was going to go out on his own and bust a case and show the Bookie that he was capable and yadda-yadda and all that. Well, unfortunately, the guy he decided to go after was Blue Max. Have you heard of him?"
Derek shakes his head.
"Well, if you knew who he was, the name would mean something. He was a Nazi. He had been a Hitler Youth during the war. Apparently he did something that impressed the top brass and they asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to kill Jews. So he went to one of the camps-- I don't know which one. And he killed people, raped people. Men, women, children. He was twelve or thirteen at the time."
Derek waves his hand. "I don't need-- I get the idea."
"Whatever he did in the war, he did it worse, and in spades, after. He was the kind of villain a lot of guys-- a lot of powerful guys-- were a little afraid of. They still went after him, but he always seemed to get away." Martin takes a deep breath.
"And so this is the guy that the High Roller decides to go after by himself, and he found him." Martin swallows, hard. "They found the High Roller's head in the street somewhere. Most of the skin had been pulled off. Just a little bit of it around the eye-mask. His eyes had been plucked out. Teeth were gone, so they couldn't identify the body by dental records.
"They found a few other parts of his body, in different places around town, but not enough to stitch him back together for a proper funeral. He was cremated instead.
" There was a lot of uproar-- in the media, in the community, and especially in Congress. There were hearings-- a lot of talk about shutting down superheroes period. Dark times, bad times. I mean, here was this dead kid. It was a real moral panic. And then the hero made it worse, because he wouldn't reveal the kid's secret identity. And that dragged on for weeks, and then he committed suicide, and no one knows who the kid was. There's something going on right now about DNA testing, but I don't know what's going on with that. Anyway, there was talk at the time of outlawing sidekicks altogether... in the end, nothing really came of it, legally-- but in the end, a lot changed, I guess.
"I dunno-- felt kinda the same for me, but I was in my twenties then. But there have been a lot less sidekicks the last twenty years, and a lot of people who are anti-sidekick-- or anti-four colour, for that matter-- they'll drag out the High Roller.
"I mean, really, what you had there was a perfect storm: sub-par hero, stupid kid, stupid powers, no training, chip on his shoulder, and a villain like Blue Max. And this one case-- the worst possible case-- is used to judge the whole community, the whole system, the whole thing."
Derek clears his throat. "Wouldn't oversight be a good idea, then? Some formal training, some kind of system? To make sure that doesn't happen again?"
"I see what you're saying, but if there was that kind of system in place-- government regulation, official oversight, whatever-- we wouldn't be having this conversation, because, let's face it, I wouldn't be a hero and you probably wouldn't be a sidekick. The whole thing would get pretty political-- guys who are buddy-buddy with the right people get in and guys who aren't get shafted. Government can decide to send you off to war, they can tell you not to go after villains who are useful to them and to go after heroes who aren't. They decide who the good guys are and who the bad ones are.
"I mean, what we got, it's not a perfect system. What we're doing basically is breaking the law. We're vigilantes. But we're tolerated, and that's basically because we really don't overlap most of the time-- we pretty much go after supervillains or aliens or robots or whatever. If we're on patrol, we'll come across a mugging or something, and we stop that, which is-- you'd like to think-- what any citizen would do for another. But basically the police do their thing and we do ours, and so we don't bother each other."
"What about Snapp?" says Derek.
"Well-- sometimes we work together."
"Sounds like there's a lot of overlap," snarks Derek.
"Yeah, well, in theory, there's not a whole lot of overlap, but the real world's a whole lot different than theories and abstracts. No system's perfect-- if there was something that could solve all our problems, we wouldn't have them in the first place-- we would have solved them already. If you don't mind a little criticism?"
"You're too wrapped up on abstracts, I think, on absolutes. On making things perfect, on smoothing out the inconsistencies and mitigating circumstances. And you have to be realistic-- you have to ground yourself in the real world, in real things-- and in the real world, things aren't perfect, and people make mistakes, and there are stupid people and petty people and good people-- there are always good people. But you get hung up on abstract thinking when you have to make a decision that's not clear-cut, that's not abstract-- and either you make a bad decision, or you don't make any decision at all. You hesitate, and it can cost you your life in this business."
"Alright, alright-- I get your point."
"You're a smart kid, Derek. If you weren't smart, you wouldn't be here. We got some work to do-- some training-- but we'll do that, okay?"
Derek nods. "Can I ask you a question? ...if it's not too abstract?"
"I get all this training," says Derek, "and I use my head, stick to the rules-- after all that-- is it safe?"
"No," says Martin. "No, it's not. It's not safe. Think about... think about this: look at that house." He points back at Darkhorse's place.
"That man in that wheelchair is there because of me, right?" says Martin. "I put him there. I put him into traction. He's been in the hospital for months, and no matter how fast he is, it's going to be a while before he can walk on his own, let alone run again.
"Now. I don't have any powers. And I wasn't trying to hurt him."
"Yeah," says Derek. "I wouldn't blame you for it..."
"You're not listening," says Martin. "I did that, without powers, without trying to, to someone who has powers. I'm one of the good guys, right? Well, there are bad guys out there. Some as bad as Blue Max, some not so bad, some worse. Bad guys who have powers-- terrifying powers-- who are trying to hurt the good guys.
"If I can do what I did to Darkhorse, just think to yourself, what can they do to him? And more importantly-- he can run near the speed of light, he can make himself intangible-- more importantly, we don't have any of that. So what can they do to us?
"This is a dangerous thing we're doing," says Martin. "Most heroes don't retire of old age. Most of them die, or lose their powers, or end up crippled. That's the best they can hope for. And every day we do this, we're one day closer to that happening."
Derek's quiet for a long time. Finally, he squeaks out a thank you for Martin's honesty.
"You having second thoughts?" says Martin.
"Nah," says Derek.
Martin pats him on the shoulder. "Good. Let's go home."
They hop onto their unicycles and speed off into the night.
(C) COPYRIGHT 2008 TOM RUSSELL.
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