Razzle Dazzle (Part 1)
By Bek D. Corbin
Townsend Communications & Entertainment Corprate Headquarters, New York
Thomas Townsend looked out the New York skyline from his office window and sighed with contentment. There are days when it’s just good to be alive. And there are days when you’re just satisfied kicking back and smelling the roses. And then there are days when you have REAL fun. “Showtime!” he said, half to himself, echoing something that he said before every performance, a bit he borrowed from his father.
But, because TV executives, even Presidents, CEOs, Chairmen of the Boards and primary stockholders, can’t know that sort of thing out of thin air, he had to wait until his executive assistant (OH, for the days when they were secretaries, and you could chase them around a desk without lawyers getting involved!) Valdez to buzz him. “Mr. Townsend? Mr. Redford is here.”
“Send him in!” Thomas said with not entirely affected enthusiasm.
Dustin Redford was shown in to the large, opulent office, which included two large computer maps of the world, one with markers denoting the various branches of the worldwide network of Townsend Communications & Entertainment offices and affiliates. The other map was a constantly fluctuating diagram of the always-changing balance of social, cultural, military, political and financial power across the world. The rest of the office was an eclectic blend of various furniture styles. Leaning against the large oaken desk was Thomas Townsend, master of the empire outlined on the first map. Townsend was tall, trim, athletic, and reasonably good looking, with straightforward regular features and intelligent eyes that drew your attention. He was dressed appropriately for a man in his prime, though from what Redford knew, he was supposed to be getting into his mid-forties. Townsend extended a hand and said, “Redford! Good to meet you!” He gave Redford’s hand a quick pump and said, “You have NO IDEA as to why I’ve asked you here, do you?”
“Aaahhh… NO,” Redford admitted. Despite his name, Dusty Redford didn’t look like Robert Redford; if anything he looked more like most reporters in the Information Age who weren’t War Correspondents who spent a lot of time out in the field did. He was average height, more than a little out of shape, pale, and he wore a cheap corduroy suit with jeans. “Not a clue.”
“Well then! Sit down! But first… Looking into this…” Townsend pointed at a strange lighted device, which gave out an eye-splitting flash when Redford tried to look at it.
Redford shook the dots out of his eyes and asked, “What was THAT?”
“Anti-eavesdropping measure,” Townsend said off-handedly. “Don’t ask, ‘cause I’m not really sure how it works. Drink?” As Redford sipped at the very smooth two-malt blend, Townsend continued, “Okay, the reason why you’re here, is that I’ve learned that you’ve been digging around for facts, cold hard facts, about a *ahem!* ‘supervillain’ of the nineteen twenties-through-eighties called ‘Mephisto’.”
Dusty perked up. “You know about Mephisto the Mentalist?”
“Also called Mephisto the Mystic, the Marvelous, the Malevolent, the Mad, and practically every other alliterative M, except maybe ‘Meek’ or ‘Mellow’.”
“Really?” Dusty leaned forward intently, “What do you know about him?”
“Everything! I am, hands down, the world’s leading authority on Mephisto, AND all his different noms de crime. I know things about him that even his few surviving nemeses, or what INTERPOL files as still exist on him don’t know.”
“How? Why? Mephisto was front page news, at least on local levels, back in the 1930s and 40s, but even if he’s still alive, he hasn’t operated in over twenty years! Why would someone at your level care about a cut-rate vaudeville magician turned second-tier supervillain like Mephisto?”
“Cut-rate?” Townsend said, wincing as if offended. “Hey, I will have you know that I headlined on BROADWAY, back when that still MEANT something! Second-tier, I’ll allow you, but still BROADWAY!”
“Redford, what do you know about Mephisto the Mentalist?”
Redford blinked, “Well, we don’t really know that much about his personal or family history. He told a LOT of different stories, most of which were pure hooey. Mephisto seemed to live to play mindfuck games on people. He first surfaced in 1925, appearing on the New York stage as ‘Mephisto the Marvelous’, doing a stage mentalist act. As ‘Mephisto’, he was a Society darling who mixed the high life with swindling, blackmail, jewel theft, insurance fraud, stock manipulations, drug peddling and bootlegging - all assisted by careful applications of hypnosis and brainwashing. He had already moved into influencing the New York mobs when he was exposed in 1928 by the Dark Avenger, and barely escaped with his life. Avoiding capture, Mephisto went underground and became a master criminal who mixed elaborate heists with attempts to take over the New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia mobs (on different occasions). However, Mephisto seemed to be a magnet for heroic adventurers of all stripes and his schemes were repeatedly foiled. He was repeatedly caught, but he never stayed behind bars long enough to get to court. But people were catching onto him and his games, and by the 1950s, Mephisto was reduced to being a ‘second banana’ for younger, more dynamic villains. However, in 1963, he seemed to turn his fortunes around when he used super-science to increase his cerebral mass several thousand-fold, and became Cerebrex the Super-Brain. Or, at least, he appeared to.
“As Cerebrex, Meitner returned to being a credible supervillain. At least, until 1982, when Dr. Amazing revealed that ‘Cerebrex’ was merely a ‘Wizard of Oz’ blind that Mephisto had been operating behind. Two years later, his aged body was found dead; according to his doctors, he’d developed a brain tumor and died during an operation to have it removed.”
Townsend nodded and said, “But you don’t think it ends there.”
“No,” Redford shook his head. “No, I don’t. No, it’s just the sort of thing that Mephisto would pull. I think that Mephisto got tired of the whole supervillain game, and traded up to bigger stakes.”
“Oh you got that part right,” Townsend chuckled.
“I’m following up on information that suggests that Mephisto may have been part of the infamous ‘Master of the World’ network. If I can track down Mephisto, we might be able to finally get a few answers as to who the Master of the World was, and what he was really doing.”
“Oh, I wasn’t just a part of the Master of the World network,” Townsend chuckled, “I RAN it!”
“I said, ‘I ran the Master of the World network’,” Townsend said with an expression of utter sincerity and candor on his face. “I was Mephisto.”
“Hey, why would I kid about such a thing?” Townsend said with calm reasonability. Redford looked at him as though a second head had sprouted from his shoulders and the two were singing Simon & Garfunkle tunes. “Okay, I can tell that you’re skeptical. I can respect that. Sit down, and let me tell you all about it. But, understand, in order for it to make any sense, you’ll have to hear about it from the very beginning. I’ve spent most of my life confusing the hell out of people, so, I’m gonna have to keep it as simple as I can.
“My name, my REAL name, which very few people living know, let alone can peg it on ME, is Thomas Farrel Meitner. I was born in 1894, in the middle (if my mother can be believed; it’s likely, but no one in my family ever let little things like facts get in the way of a good story) of my father’s afternoon matinee performance at the Wilkes-Barre Regal vaudeville theater.”
“What?” Redford gawped, “You’re HOW old?”
“One hundred and thirteen years old, this September.” Redford looked at the scotch suspiciously. “Oh, c’mon, I’ve torched orphanages for the insurance, but I’d never pollute good SCOTCH! Just bear with me, it WILL make sense in the end. As I said, I was - according to my mother - born during my father’s afternoon matinee act. My father was DiMedici the Marvelous, a reasonably talented stage magician. Don’t ask me why, but in the late 19th century, Italian names were de rigueur for stage magicians, right along with the penguin suit. My dad did three shows a day, with an extra Saturday matinee for my entire childhood.”
“Mister Townsend, WHY are you telling me this?”
“Bear with me! I’m going somewhere, but in order for you to understand, you’ll have to hear it from the very beginning. Anyway, my childhood and youth were pretty much out of one of those old Hollywood ‘vaudeville’ movies… only not as wholesome. Believe me, there was a reason why show folk had the bad reputation they did. You know how Groucho Marx got his name - yeah, I knew Groucho and the other Marxes; not huge buddies, but I knew them - anyway you know how Julius Marx got his nickname? Well, as the oldest of the five brothers, Julius was in charge of the money. And good thing, ‘cause if Chico had gotten his hands on it, he would’a blown it all gambling. Anyway, Julius was the one who wore the grouch bag, which was sort of a wallet on a thong that you wore around your neck under your shirt, so no one could get at it. You wore a grouch bag, ‘cause if you left your valuables laying around, someone would steal them. That says a lot about what life backstage was like. When she lost her figure, and my oldest sister took over Dad’s stage assistant, Mom became a fortune teller, setting up shop in whatever town we were playing in, and making some decent money with all the old hustles. I grew up learning stage magic, card tricks, ventriloquism, fortune-telling, ‘mentalism’ of course, cold-reading, sleight- of-hand, juggling, equilibration - y’know, the old balancing act?” Townsend balanced letter opener, a paperweight, an ashtray, and a pen on the tip of his finger. “It’s really easy, once you get the knack. Anyway, where was I? Oh, right - I learned trick shooting, escape artistry - you’d be amazed at how useful that’s been over the years - quick change, female impersonation, acrobatics, mimicry, tap dancing - hey, if there was someone practicing their act in the hallways of the theatrical boarding house, I learned it. Hell, I can still do most of the better bits from Shakespeare from memory - ‘now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the sun of York’.
“Mind you, in the same boarding houses, I learned counterfeiting, pick-pocketing - hell, I learned that from my old man! - street grifts, house-breaking, safe-cracking, bill-switching, shoplifting, stalling, shilling, casing, fencing, loan-sharking, extortion and a fair amount about pimping. Like I said, there was a reason why show folk had the bad reputations they did.
“BUT, what I really learned, the really important thing, I learned from my father. He told me that the audience knows they’re being tricked. The audience wants to be tricked. They want to be tricked, because the entire reason that they’re there, shelling out five cents for a hard wooden seat, and another two cents for popcorn, is that they know that they’re boring, meaningless, crass, totally inconsequential nonentities with hardscrabble, tedious and equally inconsequential lives, and they’ll do anything to forget that for an hour or two. And if you can convince them that they’re special, in any way, shape or form, they’ll make you rich and powerful beyond your wildest dreams. Not that he knew how to really DO anything with that idea. Still, it is the very heart of my philosophy. Give ‘em a little razzle-dazzle, make them think that they’re important, and you got ‘em by the BALLS.
“Anyway, in 1918, World War One - or ‘the Great War’ as we called it back then - was just over, we’d gotten over the post-war slump, everything was ‘Back to Normalcy’. I was a sharp young man who’d seen the writing on the wall. Nickelodeons were growing out of novelties into a real threat to Vaudeville and legitimate theater. Not that being in Vaudeville was any great shakes, let me tell you! I dropped out of the act, and decided that I was smarter than everyone around me by at least a block, and that you could get away with practically anything, as long as you did it BIG. I came up with a sweet little hustle, a variation on the old Pyramid Scheme that hinged on the fact that nobody ever really looks at messengers or stock boys. I’ll spare you the details, it’s not really important. Anyway, I ran this game in Columbus, Springfield, Indianapolis, Topeka, and Omaha - pretty much, I targeted those third-echelon ‘metropolises’ that had delusions of being big cities, with local businessmen who wanted to be in on the ground floor when the big thing that turned it around for their fair city happened. You’d be amazed at how many of them there were. Then I tried this game in Denver, which used to be the old stomping ground of Soapy Smith. BAD move. They got wise to me after my first stall, and I got sent to the Colorado State Pen for ten years, and I was lucky just to get sent to jail. Not that I stayed there.
“Y’see, just before I got arrested - and I DO mean ‘just before’, I got the call maybe 15 seconds before the Sheriff kicked in the door - I got a telephone call telling me that the jig was up, and the cops were onto me. He told me that if I managed to escape from the state pen and followed a very cryptic set of directions, not only would he hide me from the bulls, but he’d put me onto the greatest scam of my LIFE. I hung up, was just getting to the safe to get rid of the incriminating documents, when… BOOM, there’s John Law kicking in the door.
I didn’t even bother getting a lawyer; it would have just made me dip into the funds that I’d hidden if I had to pay him. They threw the book at me, and chucked me in the state pen for ten years, like I said. The place was big and cold and hard, and it took me three weeks to break out of it. And most of that was making sure that I got away clean. It was embarrassingly easy - I arranged for a phony ‘plague’, gave all the guards and prisoners a little food poisoning, and walked out dressed as an ambulance attendant. Hey, prison life is VERY boring. I threw a little drama their way, and they rolled over following my orders. Y’know, I think that if you went and looked up the records of that prison, they’d probably say that the name that I was arrested as was the only fatality of that ‘outbreak’?
Breaking out of the pen was easy. Following those directions? Now THAT was hard. It took me four months, and I spent two of them totally LOST in the Colorado Rockies. NOT something that I recommend. Then I saw all the signs, and I found myself in this picturesque valley with an equally picturesque monastery settled in it. I came up with a credible excuse, walked up to the door, and the first thing that the monk who walked up to me said was, ‘Greeting, Mister Meitner, we’ve been expecting you.’”
Redford gave him a disappointed look. “You’re kidding.”
“Hey, I’m an expert kidder,” Townsend replied. “If I was going to yank your chain, I’d come up with something a LOT better’n that! It turned out that the monastery was a base for an organization referred to in various esoteric works as ‘The Red Brotherhood’, or sometimes ‘the Red Monks’. Okay, turn your memory back, WAY back, before Mutants or Dynamorphs or any of that high-energy crap, say, back to my heyday, the Twenties through Forties. You may recall that a stock bit for Pulp and Comic Book heroes was that they would somehow stumble upon this strange order of monks who teach them strange mystical or mental powers, and then send them out to do good?”
“So…” Redford tried to see where Townsend was going, “You’re saying that these strange monks trained you in some esoteric technique and then you betrayed them by becoming a common thief?”
“nnnaawwwt quite…” Townsend said with a pained expression and a waggle of his hand. “Y’see, they wanted me to go out and become a ‘common thief’ - common thief! HAH! I may have been a thief, but I was NEVER common!”
“WHY would a group of mystic monks want to create a supervillain?”
Townsend grinned. “Good question, you’re not a complete loss. They do it, because they want to perfect Humankind.”
“Simply stated, they think that Humankind running around being a bunch of slack-jawed yard apes is a waste of time and potential, so they’re trying to get the race to shape up and live up to what it can be.”
“By… sending masked criminals out into the world to wreck havoc?”
“Okay, I see that I’m gonna have to lay out a little foundation out for you. One of the primary Laws of Magic is the Law of Balance. In the end, everything balances out. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every bane there is a cure, for every boon there is a price, and like all that. Which means that if you want to do anything real, anything material, it’s got to be slow, and very low key. You’ve got to trick other people into doing your dirty work for you. And, just to confuse things even further, you have TWO groups of mystics trying to do the same thing, but with very different outlooks. One of them is the Fraterni Albi, the famous ‘White Brotherhood’ that conspiracy theorists love to yak about. They’re very… obvious in their intentions, if not their methods: Support the Noble, Alleviate the Suffering of the Innocent, Hold High the Lantern of Learning, Scourge the Evil, Purify the Populace, all that cheap inspirational crapola. The other group, whose name even I don’t know and I’ve worked for them for the better part of a century, is generally known as ‘the Red Brotherhood’, like I said. Now, the Red Brotherhood realizes that getting humanity to shape up will be a lot harder and a lot trickier than the White Monks do. Do you know what ‘pathesis’ is?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘No’. And you a writer… Anyway, the Gnostics - they were an ancient Greek sect of esoteric philosophers - held that there were three ways that people learned: mathesis, gnosis, and pathesis. Mathesis is the basic, schoolhouse kind of learning, where a teacher tells you something, and you’re supposed to make sense of it. Thank God, I never got caught up in that! Gnosis is knowledge gained by experience, frequently of the mystic variety. Y’know, ‘experience is the best teacher’? And the meanest… And, finally, pathesis is knowledge, understanding, real comprehension, which can only be gained from suffering. And not that bullshit self-inflicted masochistic suffering that the Catholics do, neither. The real, ‘Oh God, when does the hurting STOP?’ kind of suffering.”
“So… your mission is to bring suffering into the world?”
“I prefer to think of it as ‘mess with their heads, until they come to their senses’. My job, my real job is to stir things up, get people going, knock them out of the ruts that they’ve built for themselves, rattle their cages, get them thinking about what they’re doing, what’s really going on. I mean, if you let them, people just roll over and go to sleep on you, and by and large, the ruling elite likes it that way just fine. People can and will get used to fucking anything. Before World War II, racism was seen in America as a distasteful but unavoidable fact of life. Then the Nazis started throwing Jews into death camps, and it took an willful act of ignorance to NOT make the connection between what the Nazis had done, and what America had been doing to Blacks, Indians, Chinese and so on for centuries. THAT is the proof of the value of discord. As Orson Welles said in ‘The Third Man’, ‘In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’
“Anyway, I stayed with the Red Brothers for, jeez, it seemed like decades, but when they told me that it was time for me to go, it turned out that only five or so years had passed. They taught me how to focus my mind, how to read a person’s thoughts as they passed through their mind, how to avoid being noticed, how to demand that people pay attention to me, and how to… confuse… people.”
“They taught you how to ‘cloud men’s minds’?”
“Hey, where do you think the people who came up with The Shadow got that idea?”
“Oh, PLEASE!” Redford snapped. “This is ridiculous!” He stood up from his chair.
“SIT. DOWN,” Townsend said in a calm level voice that brooked no defiance.
To his own amazement, Redford felt an invisible force, like a hand of stone, force him back down into the chair. It took a moment for him to realize that he hadn’t been physically forced down into the chair; his body had done it without his mind telling it to.
“Well?” Townsend asked lightly, eyebrows raised.
“You were saying?” Redford asked weakly.
Townsend smirked superiorly.“Anyway, when I finally made my way back into the Catskills mountains in 1924 -”
“I thought that you said that the monastery was in the Rockies,” Redford objected.
“Funny thing about that monastery,” Townsend admitted. “I was never really sure whether there was ONE monastery that just somehow… moved… from place to place, or whether the monastery was… somewhere else… and you could just ‘walk’ there from different places, or if there were a bunch of different monasteries all over the world. The monastery of the Red Brotherhood has been - and this is just in MY experience - in the Rockies, the Sierras, the Grand Tetons, the Catskills, the Blue Ridge, the Smokies, the Andes, the Atlas mountains, a ridge of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highlands of Scotland, the Alps, the Balkans, the Carpathians, the Urals, the Himalayas and the Tien Shan in China. I have NO IDEA how they do that.
“Anyway, after I finished my training, they told me that it was time for me to go out into the world. They didn’t give me any instructions at first, they just told me to go out and do my thing, and they’d get in touch with me when they needed something. So, when I got to what we laughingly refer to as ‘civilization’, I tapped into that nest egg that I’d built up, and I used it to set myself up as a headliner on Broadway.”
“How did you do that, anyway?” Redford asked. “I mean, a stage magician, headlining on Broadway?”
“The same way that Houdini and Blackstone did. PR. I pulled a few publicity stunts, did just enough to get ONE house packed… and then I hypnotized them all…” Townsend grinned maliciously, opened his eyes wide, and twiddled his fingers at Redford.
“NOPE! Mind you, I had to sort of lead them all through it, one step at a time, that first night. But after about an hour, I had everyone in the theatre under, and I just pulled the lamest, ‘nobody would fall for this in a million years’ tricks, and they believed every bit of it. And, at the end of the show, I simply informed them that they had just experienced a night such as they’d never had before. Wonders, surprises, feats of the impossible and strange, yada yada yada. I informed them that they had all had an absolutely wonderful time, that they thought that I was simply the most intriguing, most charismatic, most compelling personthat they’d ever SEEN! Oh, I also dropped hints to the female members of the audience that I was the most sexually arousing male that they’d ever experienced, and they’d like me to father their children.”
“Like a CHARM. Hell, I still have a clipping of the rave review that Alexander Woolcott gave my act in a scrapbook somewhere. I had packed houses for MONTHS. And, of course, as THE hot new act on Broadway, I got invited to a high-profile shindig, and, well, let’s just say that they were… enchanted… And I think that you can guess what happened from there.”
“Bootlegging for the Haut Monde,” Redford with a touch of distaste. “Drug peddling, pimping, orchestrated scandals followed by discreet blackmail, swindles, insider trading, stock pushing, influence peddling, embezzlement, misappropriation of public and private funds, and simple theft.”
“You make it sound like I invented all that,” Townsend said, sounding a trifle hurt. “It was already there, I just cut myself a big honking slab of the pie.”
“I remember that what finally got you in trouble was… jewel theft…?” Redford asked, clearly baffled why someone who had a hand in such lucrative rackets would blow it with anything as minor as jewel theft.
“What can I say?” Townsend asked, hands spread wide, “I got BORED! The reason that the Masters recruited me in the first place was that I was the sort of dynamic personality who’s always trying something. It was just… TOO EASY! I’d been playing to packed houses for over two years, I was on a first-name with everyone in New York’s High Society, and a good chunk of the Boston Brahmins and the Philadelphia Main Line, I was getting more debutante trim than Shipwreck Kelly, I had a luxury suite at the Astoria, I had steamer trunks full of cash packed away, and for all the FUN that I was having, I might as well have been punching a time clock on an assembly line! I remember clearly, it was the 9 o’clock show, I was going through my routine, and the audience was sitting there, gawping at me, and it occurred to me that I didn’t really need to BE there. I stepped out for a drink at the nearest speakeasy, and when I came back, the audience still applauded as loudly as if I’d actually put on a SHOW. It occurred to me that I had a perfect alibi, and I had a good idea as to where most of the Park Avenue matrons kept the good stuff. To be honest, I did it for the kicks.”
“And then the Dark Avenger caught up with you and figured out your scam, and it all came tumbling down like a house of cards,” Redford pointed out with obvious relish.
“Yeah. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded that much, if the sunuvabitch hadn’t put an bullet in me.”
“Do you have any idea as to who the Dark Avenger really was?”
“What?” Townsend peeped, “Was that supposed to have been some sort of deep, dark secret? Of course, I know who he was! He was my opposite number in the White Brotherhood!”
“The White Brotherhood is REAL?”
“Of course, they’re real! They operate in pretty much the same way as the Red Brotherhood, only they believe in that ‘Essential Goodness of Humanity’ bilge. And, like the Red Brotherhood, they field ‘mystery men’ and ‘master criminals’ and superheroes and supervillains and sponsor puppet secret societies and cults and all like that. Only, like I said, they don’t really GET how essential pathesis is to the human experience. They think that all they have to do is show some sort of ‘shining example’ for the rest of the feebs, and ‘show them a better way’ and all that crap. PLEASE!” Townsend finished with a snort as he took a drink.
“The Dark Avenger is a textbook example of the kinds of guys that the White Monks field. Same basic bag of tricks as me, very different agenda, and NO sense of humor. And a lot more willing to kill. Me? I doubt that I’ve directly killed in my entire life as many people as he did in the Thirties alone.”
“Did you ever find out his true identity?”
“Oh sure! Dozens of times. You gotta remember, that it was the papers back in the Twenties that put that ‘Dark Avenger’ label on him; I doubt whether he ever really thought of himself that way. I mean, he only put on that stupid black outfit when he was gonna go out and shoot some guys. And he wasn’t like Batman, who, admittedly, he inspired, with only the Bruce Wayne secret identity. Naw, he was more like The Shadow, with Lamont Cranston, Kent Allard, and all that.”
Redford looked like he wished that he had a notepad. “The Dark Avenger has dropped out of sight and then returned several times, usually in New York, but sometimes in other places. There’s been some speculation that it was different people, each taking up the mantle of the Dark Avenger. Do you have any ideas about that?”
“Oh, it was the same guy, every time,” Townsend assured him. “Different cover names, but the same guy; he has a very distinctive way of killing. He was as bad as me for slipping into new identities, only I built mine from scratch, while he hijacked the lives of guys that he thought ‘deserved a second chance to make a difference’ - that being a cute, warm-fuzzy way of saying, ‘secretly got rid of, so he could take over their identities’. Back when we first met, he was passing himself off as Alastair Forbes, your basic ‘millionaire playboy’. That lasted through the Twenties and most of the Thirties. Then, in the late 30s right up to the start of the war, he took over the life of Clark Abelard, the hotshot aviator. He staged a crash in South America and dropped out of sight for a while during the War. Then, in 1947, he showed up again and hijacked the New York Clarion by taking over the life of its publisher, Reed DeBrett. That lasted for a while, but for some reason he let DeBrett come back, and he disappeared for a few years, and came back and pretty much hijacked the entire Eff-Bee-Fucking-EYE, by stepping into the shoes of the Special Agent in charge of the Washington regional office, Linus Campbell.” Townsend let off with a nasty chortle. “I’ll bet that Hoover was shitting bricks the whole time that ol’ DA was there. Old Edgar never did like sharing power, fucking little control freak.”
Redford tried to recall the track they’d been on before they got off on the Dark Avenger. “Let’s see… Oh! Yes, with your high society scam blown, and your Broadway career in ashes, you went on to become one of the first supervillains.”
Townsend let out an amused noise. “’One of the first’? Dusty, I was THE first supervillain! Okay, there was Johnny Spook and Jean Diable, but they were just guys in Halloween costumes. Me? I was the first real supervillian.”
“I’m surprised that the New York mobs let you get away with as much as you did, with the way that got the media of the time so riled up.”
“’Get away with it’?” Townsend stifled a guffaw. “Pal, they PAID me to do that!”
“They PAID you?”
“Okay, they let me keep everything that I stole, without taking a cut, which is pretty much the same thing. I remember it all started over a hand of poker. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was 1932, and I was playing poker at the Carraway Hotel with Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Benny Siegel, Meyer of course, Joe Adonis, and a few other made guys-”
“What? You were a made guy?”
“Yeah! I helped out Lucky during the Castellamarese War. Hell, I was the one who got Joe the Boss’ bodyguards away from him, and got Benny and his backup into Sal the Butcher’s office. As far as Charlie was concerned, I was a made guy.”
“Why would you get involved with a vicious scene like that? I thought that you were laying low at that period, hiding from the Dark Avenger.”
“Orders. The Masters decided that they wanted organized crime to have more influence in America. They figured that the ‘Mustache Petes’, the old-style Sicilian Dons, couldn’t cut it in the big time, and they were right. Hey, I knew Sal Maranzano, and GOD, what a puffed up pompous little peon HE was! Anyway, the Masters knew that I was tight with the local mobs from the bootlegging that I was still doing, and they asked me to pick one crew that looked good to take the Mobs to the next level. I knew Lucky and his crew had apprenticed under Arnold Rothstein, and they didn’t call Arnie ‘the Brain’ for nothing, so I tapped them. Hey, I’d say that it worked out pretty well, wouldn’t you?
“Anyway, there we were, playing poker. I remember, I had three jacks, a six and a four, and I was wondering whether to shuck the six or four to go for a full house, or shuck both of ‘em, and see what the draw brought me.”
“Why didn’t you just read what the other players had in their hands?”
“Please! I only cheat at cards when it’s absolutely necessary, and it wasn’t absolutely necessary. It was a friendly game. Anyway, I was complaining about the itch that I had in my side from where the Dark Avenger had shot me. That started a whole bitch and moan session around the table about the Dark Avenger. Frank Costello mentioned that he had this thing planned to pay off a bunch of City Hall types, but he was afraid that the Dark Avenger would get wind of it and bust up the party. I mean, the last thing he needed was for ‘Mister Two-Blazing-Guns-of-Justice’ to show up and start shooting up the place! I mentioned that what he needed was for something to happen that would distract the Dark Avenger, get him all interested SOMEWHERE ELSE, while he had his little ‘do. Then Meyer-”
“Hey, there were a bunch of Franks and Joes and Charlies and even a few Bennies, but there was only ONE Meyer. Anyway, Meyer suggests that I pull of this big showy bust-in-and-shoot-up-the-place heist, and get the Avenger all het up to catch me. Well, we bounced it around for a while - and, I admit, between the seven of us, we’d put away about three bottles of Canadian Club, which explains a lot - and channeling WAY too much bad old-time melodrama, we came up with the whole ‘Theme Crime Spree’ thing, and sending clues to the papers, and the ‘Doomsday Device’ and kidnapping a Senator’s daughter…” By this time, Townsend was laughing so hard, he had to stop and laugh it out. “Oh God! <wheeze> GOD! Were we drunk! Anyway, it went off like clockwork, the Avenger got his big splashy ‘Good versus Evil’ face-off, the Papers got big splashy headlines like they hadn’t seen since St. Valentine’s Day, I made a piss-pot full of money, and Frank got to make his payoff without a hitch.”
Redford was confused. “But… didn’t you get ARRESTED?”
“Yeah, but we only did that to keep the cops sweet. I made a lot of noise, but the boys in blue got to be photographed dragging me off to the hoosegow in handcuffs. I escaped, but the papers only mentioned that on page Seven, below the ladies’ wear ads.”
“The police were in on this?”
“Enough of them were. To be honest, I’ve always been amazed at how many honest cops there really ARE.”
“How many corrupt police officers are there at any given time, would you say?” Redford asked.
“Usually? Just enough. You gotta remember, you got too many cops asking for a handout, it gets too fucking expensive to do business. So, dirty cops keep the pad as small as possible.”
“And keep the money for themselves.”
“Bingo! Mind you, they SAY that the whole force is on the take, just so no one gets the idea to complain to a clean cop. But then, the papers knew pretty much what was going on, and they LOVED IT! Not only did they print pretty much what we wanted them to, but some of my best, most out-rageous ideas, I got from reporters who wanted big, really lurid headlines. So, whenever the boys needed a nice big distraction for the Dark Avenger, or some crusading reporter or ADA who didn’t know the score, or whatever do-gooder was kicking up a fuss that week, Frank would let me know, and I or one of my buddies would set up this big production, and let the chump play the big hero, while Lucky and his boys took care of business.”
“Yeah. Y’see, Shiwan-Jhi, the Voodoo Lord, Prince Evil, the Stinger, the Red Hand, Death-bringer, Iron Talon, the Evil Head, the Red Cowl, Dr. Cobra, the Night Master, the Ghostly Hand, Dr. X, the Snake Lady, Madam Death, the Acid Witch, the Electric Woman, the Spider Queen, The Seven Sons of Sin, most of the ‘Master Criminals’ and ‘Super Villains’ of the Thirties - not ALL of them, but most of them - were actually guys or gals that I used to know from vaudeville or the circus. Y’see, it would look suspicious if I, Mephisto, kept popping up every week, especially if I’d just gotten thrown in jail - or it looked like it - so, if I was busy, or I’d just pulled a scam of my own, I’d ask my old booking agent if there was anyone from the old days who was having problems finding a gig. And, this was the depths of the Great Depression, and not only was money tight, but between Hollywood and the movies and radio, it was getting real hard for second- and third-tier performers to find work. So, we’d get together, we’d put together an ‘act’ and they’d go off being this big boogieman. They’d get to keep whatever money they made doing it, Frank Costello would buy them out of jail when they got caught if they kept their mouths shut, and it worked for everyone.”
“You’re saying that all supervillain activity is just a cover-up for corruption and organized crime?”
“Oh, for the first few years, yeah. I mean THINK about it! The costumes, the hokey ‘stage names’, the big publicity stunt build-ups, sending ‘clues’ to the police and papers - y’know, I once hired a billboard in Times Square to send a challenge to the Midnight Crusader? - the hostages, the elaborate death traps, the big threats to destroy the city, leaving ‘puzzles’ and riddles, the big overwrought schemes, the grandiloquent speeches and explanations, the splashy ‘battles between Good and Evil’, the doomsday devices, the ‘happily ever after’ wrap-ups with the Cops shaking the valiant hero’s hand… All of that was to keep the chumps watching this hand…” Towsend raised his right hand, holding a glass of scotch, which disappeared into his hand, “…instead of THIS hand,” he gestured with his other hand, where the glass reappeared. “Of course, the fact that we were really just a bunch of ex-vaudeville attention whores helped.
THE ELECTRIC LADY
The thick double front doors were securely shut. The chambers of the Science Institute were as empty dark as a tomb. The only sign of life in the building was one office on the second floor, where only a single desk lamp burned. Dr. Philo G. Flagstone, his normally natty appearance disheveled and rumpled, paced back and forth. Periodically, he would look at either the telephone or the clock, as if expecting a telephoned reprieve from execution. He stared balefully at the clock. The hands were at five minutes to midnight!
“Oh, do sit down, Flagstone,” said the beautiful young socialite, Brenda Dinah Foster Baines. “At this rate, you won’t need the Electric Lady - you’ll build up such a static charge on that rug that you’ll electrocute yourself!”
“You can afford to be flip,” Flagstone snapped. “YOU aren’t marked for death!”
“Yes, there’s a first time for everything,” she quipped in return as she took a draw from her cigarette.
“Dash it all, I should have given that accursed woman the plans for the coaxial cable,” Flagstone muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
“But if you do that, your partners, Maddox, Kinley and Tibbs, will have died for nothing!” Wilbur Beddoes, Flagstone’s assistant, objected. “You were so adamant about not giving away your life’s work… THEN.”
“Better my life’s work, than my LIFE!”
“Yes, well, look at the bright side - in five minutes it’ll all be over, one way or the other. I’ll give the Electric Lady this - she’s punctual!” Brenda noted. “She always strikes at the stroke of midnight. If I was so punctual, showing up at a party just when I told the host I would, I’d be the scandal of New York Society!”
“Yes, well, there’s only four more minutes left,” huffed Lafferty, the Institute’s armed guard. “And there’s no way that no kilowatt killer woman is getting past ME! Bulletproof force field… pfaugh!”
“Are… are you SURE that there’s no way to contact the Dark Avenger?” choked Melinda Flagstone, Dr. Flagstone’s daughter.
“‘Dark Avenger’,” scoffed Flagstone haughtily. “Stuff and nonsense! I might as well write a letter to Santa Claus!”
Curtis Balfour, Melinda’s fiancé, started to make his own response, but he was cut off. An explosion rattled the lobby on the ground floor. Rushing to the balcony overlooking the lobby, Balfour, Beddoes and Lafferty, all stopped and gawped in horror. The front doors had been blown clean off their hinges into the lobby! Standing in the wide doorway stood a woman who glowed with a ghastly blue light! She was wearing an old-fashioned long gown with a wide skirt that reached down to her feet. Her face was a ghoulish white and her eyes were a solid lid-less black. She looked up at the three men at the banister. “I do not want you,” she said in a loud, clear, flat, accent-less voice. “I am here for Philo G. Flagstone, who has cheated and stolen from me. I wish only that which is rightfully MINE.”
“SHOOT HER!” shouted Beddoes, who drew a pistol from his hip pocket. Balfour also drew a gun, and Lafferty already had his .38 service revolver out. As one, they opened fire and emptied their guns into the ghastly glowing figure. First Beddoes, then Balfour, and finally Lafferty, they all fired their guns until they heard them click on empty chambers.
“Enough of this nonsense,” said the Electric Lady. “Get them.” As the three men fumbled with their guns, trying desperately to reload them, four men in cheap suits, wearing bandanas over their faces, rushed past the Electric Lady and up the stairs. The three men fought desperately with the hired thugs, but the thugs only pressed their suit enough to delay the defenders from reloading their guns. The Electric Lady proceeded up the stairs at a stately pace.
Lafferty had just gotten two bullets into his pistol, when the Electric Lady reached out and touched him on the hand. He gave out a cry, stiffened, and collapsed on the floor. Beddoes fell a moment after him. Balfour fell back into Flagstone’s office, as he desperately searched his jacket pockets for bullets, and finding none. As Melinda cried out in fear, the Electric Lady reached out for her beloved!
“Enough!” barked a harsh, authoritative voice. “Turn away from him, or Die, murderess!” Out of the shadows emerged a man clad in black leather trousers and jacket, with a flowing black cape and a black fedora pulled low over his eyes. In each gloved hand, he held a .45 automatic!
“It’s the Dark Avenger!”gasped one of the thugs. He turned and fled down the stairwell, followed closely by his companions.
“This is none of your affair!” snapped the Electric Lady. “I am here on a mission of JUSTICE!”
“No, Murderess, it is simple greed that brings you here. I know everything! Surrender yourself now and put yourself in the hands of the Police, or Die! I am not eager to kill a woman, but Justice knows no gallantry or favor!”
The Electric Lady seemed to pause and moved as though to surrender. Then, at the last moment, she lunged forward and grabbed the Dark Avenger by the hand. The Dark Avenger did not so much as flinch, and fired both pistols point blank into the woman. The Electric Lady gave out an ear-splitting shriek and collapsed to the floor.
“But… but HOW?” Dr. Flagstone gibbered. “That electrical field around her should shunt steel-jacketed bullets aside!”
“There IS no ‘electrical field’, IS there, WILBUR BEDDOES?” The Dark Avenger pulled Beddoes up from the floor.
Beddoes gasped in shock. “NO! No, I’m innocent!” he whimpered.
“But HOW?” Balfour asked, stunned. “We saw Beddoes electrocuted, along with Lafferty!”
“Lafferty is not electrocuted, but merely stunned,” the Dark Avenger stated. “I noticed that the ‘Electric Lady’ always touched her victims on the hand- but YOU, Beddoes, she touched on the shoulder, where there’s an insulated padding under your jacket! Both you and Lafferty were wearing gum-soled shoes. Lafferty is a poor but honest man in a line of work where gum shoes are a necessity- what is YOUR excuse, Beddoes?”
“But Maddox, Kinley and Tibbs were all electrocuted by a single touch from the Electric Lady!” Dr. Flagstone objected. “We SAW them! That great a jolt could only come from a massive electric charge, in the hundreds of kilowatts!”
“Your partners weren’t electrocuted,” the Avenger insisted. “They were stunned by an electrical device powered by batteries hidden in her full skirts. They were rendered unconscious, as Lafferty is. Then, they were POISONED while unconscious, by Beddoes, when no one was watching!” As proof, the Avenger fished into Beddoes’ pocket, and fished out an object with a bulb. He hit a stud and a needle slid out of the object! “This injector is filled with a drug that mimics the effects of electrocution.”
“But… HOW did the Electric Lady ignore our bullets when we fired our guns at her?” Balfour asked. “She was BULLETPROOF!”
“Hardly. Beddoes here merely exchanged the bullets in your guns with blanks. This was why the Electric Lady needed her thugs to keep you busy, to prevent you from reloading your guns before she could get to you. If you need proof, when you search his pockets, you’ll find more blanks.”
“But WHY?” Melinda sobbed.
“Greed. With your father’s partners dead, he inherits all their patents, including the Coaxial Cable. With your father dead, YOU inherit everything. And with Mr. Balfour dead, Beddoes intended to press his suit to marry you. With nine murders, he hoped to gain an un-earned fortune.” With that, the Dark Avenger was gone, all but one with the shadows in the Science Institute.
“Don’t be so downhearted, Beddoes,” Brenda said blithely. “You can still carry out your research - in the electric chair.”
“At least, that’s the way it was at first,” Townsend admitted wryly. “Then, guys started buying into their own acts - hey, it’s a professional hazard - and then nutballs, cranks, flakes and weirdoes started crawling out of the woodwork, and rubes from the sticks came to town, wanting to be real live supervillains, and we lost control of it. But, of course, by then all the shticks were already in place, and they just sort of stepped into the framework that we’d built up and kept going, like it was for real. Hey, what can you do? Hell, we had to step down hunting for the Dark Avenger, ‘cause he was the one who did the best job of keeping a lid on those yahoos.”
“How did the ‘Master of the World’ factor into all of that?”
“Purely by accident.”
“Okay, first, we have to step back a few years from my card game with Lucky and the guys. It was 1928, and the Dark Avenger had just handed me my ass. I had to leave town and lay real LOW while I healed up. BUT, the Masters, in their infinite wisdom, decided that this is the perfect time to contact me. It seems that they want me to go to Chicago, and check out the Chicago Champion.”
“Yeah. I mean, they’d seen Mystery Men before, but Champion was something completely NEW.”
“Oh? What about the Mystic Six?” Redford asked.
“Oh, the Mystic Six had been around for a while, but they’d been smart enough to both not show that they had strange, superhuman powers - hey, they had an Indian and a couple of Japs on the team; America back then was so openly racist that the government would’a sicked the Army on them! - they made a lot more ‘Doc Savage’ noises, and they didn’t run around in circus outfits! Champ wasn’t FLYING – yet - but he was running around in that stupid blue-and-white boiler suit and CAPE at over 45 miles per hour, jumping to the tops of five-story buildings, getting up after being shot by a .38 at about ten yards, knocking big guys back ten feet with a single punch, and generally being pretty damned openly superhuman. The Masters decided that there might be something new under the sun, and they wanted to know what it was.
“So, I hired a plane to fly me from New York to Chicago - no big deal now, but back then? How Daring! What an innovation! - and snuck into town. Now, I was front-page news, coast-to-coast just then (not to mention, heavier by two .45 slugs), so I did for the first time, what I’ve done many times since then. I created an entire new racket, from whole cloth. I pegged this one rinky-dink little Irish gang that was paying tribute to Al Capone’s mob - and NOT liking it - and suckered the leader, a real yutz named Ollie Fitzgibbons, into getting him alone, gave him the ol’ Razzle-Dazzle,” Townsend twiddled his fingers, “and fed him a line.
“Ollie got his boys together in a warehouse, and I let ‘em have it over a loudspeaker - a very high-end for the period speaker, mind you.” Townsend leaned back in his chair, assumed a grave, impassive demeanor and changed the tenor of his voice. “I am the Master of the World,” he proclaimed in a deep, resonant, accent-less voice. “Mine is the hand that you have sensed, though not seen, at work in World Affairs. The empires, democracies and theocracies of the world are as playthings to me. By my hand, do armies and navies go into the field. By my whim do they triumph or fail. By my will, do dynasties and major corporations soar or crumble. My invisible armies are in the streets of every major city in the world, using the avenues of Crime to silently seize control from the fools who held the reins of power. I have chosen you to be the merest cog in the machine that makes the very world run. I will order, and you will obey. You will not question nor hesitate. You will go forth and do my bidding, without asking why, or attempting to puzzle out the cause or aim. Obey me, and you will succeed as only a soldier of the Master of the World can. Disobey me, and you will be crushed, as are all those who oppose me.” Then, Townsend resumed in his normal voice, “I had them run a bunch of weird shit past Champion, to see what he did, how he reacted, what he could survive, all that. Then the Castellamarese War started, and I hadda hightail it back to New York. I called them over a radio setup every so often, said a few cryptic things and I occasionally supplied them with some gimmicks that I picked up.
“Then, in… 1931, I think it was, I checked up on them. Not only where they still in business with the piddly little rackets that I’d foisted off on them to keep them busy, but they were FIVE TIMES LARGER, they were making money like crazy, and they had crews in Milwaukee, Springfield, Indianapolis, Lansing and Fort Wayne that all wanted to sign on with the ‘Master of the World’.”
“You’re KIDDING…” Redford said, aghast. “They BOUGHT that?”
“Did they EVER! And it kept GROWING, getting bigger and richer and more powerful! They never called any attention to themselves, let the local ‘big boys’ run things, but they were always there, waiting for an opportunity. And, since they all thought they were on the same side, they cooperated more efficiently and traded with each other honestly, so, in the long run, they made more money than they would have normally. Then, the ‘Master of the World’ network made connections in San Francisco - don’t ask me HOW - and I was shitting hot coals. Not bricks, but hot coals.”
“HELLO? I had created a nationwide crime syndicate - BY ACCIDENT! I had no idea how the Masters would react! Then they called me to return to the Monastery. I did, and I was expecting <ssslliiitccch!>” Townsend mimed slitting his own throat.
“What did they say?”
“They said, ‘Good Work’, and taught me how to speak Chinese, Spanish and Arabic, and how to use my voice to influence people over the telephone or radio.”
“You speak Chinese?”
“Seven dialects. Y’know, Chinese sitcoms are a lot funnier than American ones are? Their only problem is that they love puns and wordplay, and those translate for shit. And I needed all those. Even with world-wide radio, the Master of the World network grew like Topsy. It was in Chicago. It was in California. It was in New York. It was in Miami. It was in New Orleans. It was in Havana. It was in Mexico. Then it was in Brazil! Then Hawaii! Then Hong Kong! Then Singapore! Then London! Then Paris! Then Berlin! It was ALL OVER THE PLACE! I couldn’t stop it if I tried! So, I stopped trying, and made the most of it. I’m telling you, it was a GOLD MINE of money and sensitive information, and I never spent more than, say, an hour or two a week dealing with it. I started off giving them enigmas to deal with, and they wound up getting ‘messages’ that I never sent.”
Redford looked at his drink oddly, as if trying to make sense of all that. Then he remembered who he was talking to, and searched for another topic. “So… I’ve heard theories that you were involved in the infamous ‘Halloween Martian Landing’ hoax in 1938, the one that Orson Welles became famous for.”
Townsend gave an embarrassed grimace. “I…hate to tell you this… but not only was I NOT involved in that, but it wasn’t a hoax.”
“What?” Redford croaked.
“I was in Chicago, rattling Champion’s cage as the Crimson Dragon on Halloween in 1938. Look it up in the morgues of the Chicago newspapers if you don’t believe me!”
“What do you MEAN, ‘it wasn’t a hoax’?”
“I mean, I wasn’t in New York on Halloween of 1938, but the next day, I got an instruction from the Masters to return immediately to New York and investigate Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and to let nothing stop me. The Army was in control of the entire county, and they weren’t letting ANYONE in. Not that that so much as slowed me down, let alone stop me. They had Doc Wilde, Prof. Quartermane, the Brain Trust, and a few other double-dome types on hand, standing around saying, ‘Well, you don’t see THAT every day…’ I personally saw a LOT of torn up ground, some very BIG scorch marks, a lot of torched buildings and cars, a slagged tank, several very ugly burn deaths and some incinerated livestock. I saw some very strange equipment that MIGHT have been tripods. I actually managed to pick up some very strange bits of gear that had been tagged for some think tank in New Hampshire, which I sent to the Masters. But, I personally did NOT see any ‘Martians’; and believe me, I looked. What really happened? I have NO idea. I mean, I’d love to take credit for that if it was a hoax, but… I had nothing to do with it.”
DOC WILDE AND THE HORROR AT GROVER’S MILL
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Professor Quartermane stated. “These instruments were not forged on this world.”
“With all due respect, Professor,” came a powerful voice from the door, “you may wish to reconsider that opinion.”
“Well, well,” drawled Dr. Myra Cavendish, looking more like a prim spinster librarian than one of the greatest Engineering scientists of her age. “Hail the conquering hero. Come to claim the victor’s laurels? I’m sorry, but humble bacteria can claim THIS victory.”
“Bacteria?” The tall, powerful, broad-shouldered form of Doc Wilde, ‘The Man of Iron’, internationally renowned scientist, inventor, explorer and adventurer moved with panther-like grace through the door of the high school science classroom where the scientists were gathered. “Is that what you think stopped those things?”
“It sure wasn’t US!” growled Dr. Cyrus Seasons, the dwarf member of the famed ‘Brain Trust’, from his skeleton-like ‘walking frame’. “I personally put three of my experimental infantry rockets into one of those tripods, and it didn’t even flinch!”
“Are you sure about that?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dr. Hamish Blaise grunted, his large, brutish form belying a genius-level brain familiar with the most elevated advances in chemistry and geology. “Of course, we’re sure! Three sticks of TNT weren’t enough to put a dent in one of those things!”
“At least…” It didn’t SEEM to do so,” Doc said as he examined the ‘control pod’, disconnected from the rest of the tripod, paying special attention to the pudding-like mess in the central cavity, even as he made an odd skirling noise in his throat, which helped him concentrate and think.
“Really, Wilde,” the elegant Dr. Sanborn Kittredge murmured suavely, taking in Doc’s ‘ready suit’, with the jodhpurs, leather vest lined with pockets and gear, and ‘utility belt’, equally laden with tools - and Doc’s specially designed rapid-firing machine pistols, “can’t you ever let anyone else get the limelight? We got here first - along with General Winfield and his troops, of course - and we kept them from advancing. Of course, it’s as Myra says, dear Mater Terra’s humblest denizens, simple microbiota, are to credit. Now, now, you can’t be the life of EVERY party, you know…”
“Is that what you think happened?” Doc pulled a tray out from under his arm and started putting certain bits and pieces from the assembled wreckage into it, securing the pieces with straps.
“It’s the only explanation,” Dr. Seth Palm MD, the tall, thin, almost stick-like biologist, medic, and fifth member of the ‘Brain Trust’ said. “The tripods had ignored small arms fire, and as Cyrus said, their carapaces weren’t even dented by his infantry rocket shells. The tank gun only managed to knock the things off their legs, for crying out loud! Their heat rays were burning houses, destroying stone, brick and mortar, and completely melting automobiles and tanks! Then, suddenly, the tripods just stopped in their tracks and collapsed!”
“You saw this?” Doc asked, suddenly very intent. “You personally witnessed this with your own eyes?”
“YES!” Seth snapped. “Very well, it was dark, and we were wearing gas masks to protect us from that damned poison gas they were using, and the vapor itself was very thick. But we DID see the tripods fall!”
“OR, you were intended to,” Doc said, putting the tray down and closely examining the pieces, making the odd skirling noise in his throat again.
“What are you getting at?” Professor Quartermane asked.
“Merely that I find it unlikely that a group of otherworldly aggressors who bear an uncomfortable likeness to H.G. Well’s ‘Martians’ would land the night just before Halloween, on the very night that the Mercury Radio Theater was putting on a radio dramatization of ‘The War of the Worlds’, only to meet the very same fate as the ‘Martians’ in Wells’ book.”
“H.G. Wells based ‘The War of the Worlds’ on an actual landing of a similar craft, which landed in Woking, England in 1895,” Quartermane said sturdily.
“Yes, I’ve heard that rumor,” Doc allowed, still studying the samples, his humming even louder.
“It is NOT a rumor. It is a FACT.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because, I was in Woking, England, when the Martians landed. I was eight years old, and in possession of a full set of wits.” Quartermane drew up his eyebrows, as if to challenge Doc to contest his experience.
“That is as may be,” Doc allowed. “However, there are a few points that I’d like to make that question this being an actual extra-planetary expedition. First, if the Martians were intent on conquest, why did they send only five tripods? Second, if the Martians had experience with Earth from the Woking invasion, then why did they make the same mistakes? Third, if the Martians are so unfamiliar with Earthly biology, then how did they come up with that hideously effective gas? Fourth, if Martian and Earthly immune systems are so incompatible, then why aren’t we all falling down dead from Martian microbes?”
“Well, excuse me gentlemen, Dr. Cavendish,” General Winfield interrupted, “but speaking as a military man, to answer your first question, I’d say that that cylinder that those things arrived in was a pretty rough ride. I’d say that what we faced was a force to establish a secure landing area for the rest of the invasion. And, quite possibly, in a guess as to the second question, the small size of the force might be due to those ugly so-and-so’s being just large enough to secure the area, but small enough to be expendable. The Martians’ leaders couldn’t be sure that the measures they’d taken to deal with the failures of the 1895 effort would be enough. Apparently, they weren’t.”
“Thank you, General,” Myra said graciously. “And as for the third question, you’re assuming that the ‘gas’ was an intentional attack. The ‘gas’ was never deliberately sprayed on anyone. It was there mostly as a side effect of the Tripods. If it were an intentional measure that they’d packed inside that cylinder for no other purpose than using against humans, then they were using it very ineffectively. From the way it was all over the place and providing such good cover for the Martians, I’d say that it was probably not a weapon, but rather the exhaust from the tripods. A very, VERY nasty version of carbon monoxide poisoning.”
“And fourth,” Dr. Kittredge said, flicking a speck of dust from his lapel, “just because THEY are susceptible to OUR microbiota, does not automatically signify that WE would be susceptible to THEIRS. However, giving Dr. Wilde his due, General, I think that it would be wise to quarantine the immediate area for, say, three days. If Martian bugs are capable of overcoming our immune systems, we’ll dashed well know it in three days time.”
“Unnecessary,” Professor Quartermane said with authority. “There were no outbreaks in Woking, so there will be no outbreaks here.”
“Excellently reasoned, gentlemen, lady,” Doc allowed. “However, given the rule that the simplest answer is usually the correct one, let me pose this question to you: which is more likely - that a technologically advanced race of aggressive beings would travel vast distances to annex a planet that they could not comfortably occupy, and to land at precisely the correct time for their landing to be confused by a popular entertainment, with news broadcasts being accidentally mixed in with a radio play? Or that some trickster would arrange a hoax based on H.G. Wells’ book?”
“A HOAX?” General Winfield bristled. “Hoaxes don’t KILL scores of men! Hoaxes don’t burn down houses and destroy churches! HOAXES don’t turn TANKS into puddles of molten slag!”
“And neither do flamethrowers,” Hamish grunted. “But they DO leave chemical residues that can be detected. There were NO chemical residues found on the remains of the tanks, or the buildings… or the bodies. They’d been thermally burned, at a heat of over fifty THOUSAND degrees Fahrenheit. And flamethrowers don’t get that hot.”
“And Hoaxers don’t leave tracks in the ground, digging in deep to give those tripod things decent traction,” Myra pointed out. “The placement was poor, indicating that their speed was poor at first. But then, the Martians - or whatever we wind up calling them - obviously haven’t had a lot of experience in getting around in our gravity.”
“And Hoaxers don’t have armor plating that can ignore an explosive rocket round,” Cyrus pointed out. “Anyone who had a treatment that could make armor like THAT would have far better things to do with it, than run around playing trick-o’-treat one night early!”
“Excellent, Lady, Gentlemen-”
“Why is it that men only call me ‘Lady’, when they want me to be quiet, like a good little girl?” Myra quipped.
“-you’ve given me the fact that I needed to put all of this into proper perspective. The timing of this attack, along with the form it took, was deliberately and cold-bloodedly planned for a specific effect. The day was chosen, not so much for being just before Halloween, as it was to coincide with the Mercury Radio program’s enactment of the ‘War of the Worlds’. Any radio broadcasts from this area, or telephone reports, would be dismissed as either hysteria or crank calls. And, Dr. Seasons you are quite right - anyone who had an armor preparation that could withstand an explosive rocket as that did would have far better things to do with it. Such as test it under real-life combat conditions. This area is just close enough to Fort Dix that the Army would be able to send units, but remote enough that only the Army and the State Police would be able to get here. I think that its proximity to Princeton, and the symposium that you all were attending-”
“Sorry, you weren’t invited, Wilde, but I didn’t make out the list,” Dr. Kittredge murmured.
“-was a material concern as well. You would all definitely converge on the scene and make the conclusion that you were being led to, especially YOU, Dr. Quartermane.”
“But these tripods-”
“Are NOT the structures you fired upon, nor are the cylinders you’ve been examining the ‘heat beams’ that were used. The point of the obscuring poisonous gas was to conceal the fact the that ‘tripods’ that ‘fell’ were actually dummies that had been erected while the real weapons platforms were keeping you all busy. What we have here are all decoys, left there to keep you all busy while the real prototypes were all hurried off, no doubt for inspection to see how they fared in the battle.”
“HOW?” Hamish asked. “The entire area has been surrounded by the Army!”
“Why, in Army trucks, of course, being driven by men in stolen Army uniforms,” Doc said with a smile.
“And what about those ‘Martians’ we found in the control pods?” Seth asked.
“Martians?” Doc asked. “I don’t see any ‘martians’- I just see puddles of goo. Nothing remains of them that can be studied - they’re supposed to be mollusks, so there are no bones, no teeth - nothing but syrupy liquid and a few patches of skin.”
“But who would DO such an outlandish thing?” Myra asked, shocked. “Those things killed over two hundred people, and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage! Who would do that, just to test a new weapons platform?”
“There are several renegade scientists both brilliant enough to devise such a platform and callous enough to test it on living targets,” Doc said grimly. “But there’s only one man, and he’s not a scientist, who has the twisted imagination to conceive of this, the familiarity with show business to know of Mr. Wells’ intended broadcast, and the stagecraft to pull it all off - MEPHISTO THE MAGICIAN. And, as a capper, Mephisto has been laying low for the past month - a sure sign that he had something big up his sleeve. Isn’t that right… MEPHISTO?” Doc suddenly turned to look at where he’d left the tray.
But the tray was gone!
“BLAST!” Doc thundered. “I was SURE that his ego would demand that he hang around long enough to listen in while I talked about him!”
“What?” bleated General Winfield.
“I purposely selected bits and pieces that I believed would lead me to the identity of the inventor of those weapons platforms,” Doc said, whipping out both of his rapid-firers and charging out to the hallways. “It was bait for Mephisto! Quick! I took the precaution of sealing off as much of the high school as I could before entering the room! He’s trapped inside the building!”
Doc, Professor Quartermane and the Brain Trust all hurried through the halls of the school. “Keep looking!” Doc urged, “he’s an expert at concealment, but he’s still trapped inside the building!”
Then there was a sound of breaking glass!
“Yes, he’s trapped…” Myra snarled, drawing her six-shooters. “That is, unless he simply breaks a WINDOW! If those things were so important, WHY did you leave them where Mephisto could get at them?”
“I was hoping to draw him into revealing himself,” Doc said as they peered through the broken window into the early morning gloom.
“And HE probably saw it coming a mile away,” Cyrus said, pointing to a jury-rigged contraption on one shelf. “It won’t do any good to try to track him through that window - unless I miss my guess, that’s an improvised catapult, intended to draw us to this room, while your buddy Mephisto exits the building some other way.”
Doc led the assembled scientists back to the gymnasium. “General! All is not lost. In my car, I have a radio detection truck. Recognizing a cunning mind at work, I look the precaution of affixing a tiny radio transmitter, no larger than a common button, to the bottom of the tray. Its battery will only last for four or five hours, but we can still follow its signal to where Mephisto and his scientific crony are, with their deadly weapons platforms.
“Excuse me, Doctor Wilde,” Professor Quartermane said dryly. “By ‘the size of a button’,” he leaned down and picked something up from the floor. “Would you be referring to THIS?” He held up a small black metal disk.
Doc stifled a snarl. “There’s still hope. General! Have your men load these dummies and as much of these other props as you can, and have them taken to my lab on Long Island. I think with a few hours’ examination, I should be able to find evidence of where the workshop that these came from is located.”
General Winfield frowned. “I’m sorry, Doctors, Professors, but this has gotten far too complex. I’m having all of these commandeered by the United States Army for study. Your theory regarding this ‘Mephisto’ person is compelling, but whether or not these things came from another world, they need to be studied. And they will be studied.”
“Oh?” Kittredge asked. “By whom?”
“By top men.”
“We ARE ‘Top Men’,” Myra said suspiciously. “By exactly WHO?”
General Winfield met her eye with a steely gaze. “By top MEN.”
Redford paused for a second, digesting what Townsend had just said. “Wait a minute. Okay, I can see Doc Wilde setting that tray aside as bait for you. But why would he set the tray where he couldn’t keep an eye on it every second? If he was setting you up, why didn’t he put it where it would look like he wasn’t watching, but could, say with a mirror or something? Or had one of his men watching it from concealment?”
Townsend nodded appreciatively. “Very good. The very same thought occurred to me, once I was safe. The answer came to me when I examined the tray. I knew what it was, the second that I had a good look at it. It was a gimmick tray, the kind that stage magicians often use; two trays built to look like a single unit. You stack the lower tray on top of the upper tray, and it looks like the tray is empty.”
“WHY would Doc Wilde put those… whatever they were… in a gimmicked tray?”
Townsend gave him a disgusted look. “And you were doing so well… He put them there, because he wanted those bits for himself. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he hadn’t used all the confusion with chasing me to pull a switcheroo with a few other choice bits. Oh, and the broken window diversion and all the rest? I didn’t arrange for any of that. Mind you, I used it, but I doubt that ol’ Doc really got wind of me. He was just using me as a scapegoat.”
“Because he wanted to study the bits, and maybe reverse-engineer some big new revolutionary patentable development, so he could be the ‘Paragon of Science’ that his PR was always painting him as. But then, Doc Wilde always was a real piece of shit, always screwing over gullible young scientists and claiming their work as his own. The Wilde Variable Rotor Gear? That was the work of Elliot Langdon and Fred Dugan, two kids from Indiana, who you’ve never heard of. Somehow, they managed to die out in… Malaysia, I think it was, on one of Doc’s ‘freewheeling adventures’. The Wilde Magnetic Image Filter? That was the work of Pete Hraclav, a radio repairman from Syosset, who died up in the Northwest Territories, on another one of Doc’s adventures. And the Wilde Low-Temperature PolymerizationProcess? That was the work of Shadrach Clay, a young chemistry student at Tuskegee, who died somewhere in Persia, as it was still called, on yet another of Doc’s adventures. The Variable Rotor Gear is still used in most makes of helicopters and GEVs. The Magnetic Image Filter was standard for most radar and television rigs, and only became obsolete in the 1970s. And the Low-Temperature Polymerization Process was bought by Dow Chemical, to keep it off the market. All of those were worth MILLIONS. All those bright, eager, creative minds, all so fucking honored that the great Doc Wilde would take notice of them. Who knows what they would have come up with - if he just hadn’t taken them along on exotic adventures that they had very little to offer, and had little training or experience for?”
“Am I really supposed to take all that seriously? You crossed swords with Doc Wilde on several occasions.”
“’Crossed swords’?” Townsend snorted. “No, I never ‘crossed swords’ with Doc Wilde; I shot at him, stabbed him, blew him up, tried to run him over, knocked him over a ledge into the caldera of an active volcano, and I’ll allow that we’ve matched wits on occasion, but… swords? No, never swords. And I’ve, ah, ‘matched wits’ with every generation of the Wildes, with the sole exception of Professor Wilde, the ‘founder of the dynasty’. The Wilde Boys, Doc Wilde, Adam and Eve Wilde, the Wilde Kids, and well, the latest generation is still, what? Eight years old at the eldest? I think I’ll give them a chance to grow up a little before I find out what they’re made of. And I’ve given them all a run for their money… and I won a lot more often than they’ll admit.”
“Oh come on,” Redford scoffed. “Am I supposed to take that seriously? I know how much you hate the Wildes.”
“Hate?” Townsend responded, “I don’t hate the Wildes.” His voice dropped and went flat. “As a matter of fact, I pity them.”
“I know things… about the Wildes… and their connection to the White Monks… that would drag their precious name through the TAR, if it ever came out… and, at the same time, puts Doc’s, ah, ‘predatory’ research and development practices in a whole new light. Ask yourself this… that ‘Wilde Method’ that they’re always going on about, the one that makes you concentrate more effectively, learn more effectively, think more efficiently, remember more completely… WHY do they keep this in the family? WHY don’t they do humanity a HUGE favor and print it up and teach it to others? If Professor Wilde was such a great father and teacher, WHY did his teaching only catch on with his grandchildren, the Wilde Boys? And what happened to his eldest son, Ozymandias? And what happened to the Wilde Boys’ sainted Aunt Helena? And the other four Wilde Boys all went on to luminary careers in law, business, medicine and science - but what happened to the FIFTH Wilde Boy, Richard, the one who wanted to be a journalist? And WHERE did Samantha Wilde, Doc’s adventurous female cousin come from? What happened to Dennis and Nick and Paul, and all those Wilde cousins and third sons and daughters? What happened to Adam Wilde’s first fiancé Rosalyn? Remember the Wilde Kids, back in the Seventies? Whatever happened to sweet, shy, gentle, luckless Lorelei, the Kids’ resident disaster magnet?”
“Well…” Redford hemmed, “The Wildes were notorious for seeking out dangerous situations. Things happen. If anything, it’s a miracle that as many of them survive as long as they do.”
“Yeeesss…” Townsend purred. “Isn’t it amazing that a family that makes as much noise about decency and morality would habitually put their own children in harm’s way as often as they do?”
Redford sat there wordlessly for a moment, staring off into space. Then, obviously looking for a more comfortable topic, he veered off again. “Wait… you said that you were in Chicago, as the ‘Crimson Dragon’? But as I remember, the ‘Crimson Dragon’ was one of those ‘sinister Asiatic Masterminds’, like Fu Manchu, that were supposed to be running around Europe and North America right about that time. I thought that that was just cheap hype!”
“So did I,” Townsend admitted. “That’s the reason that I did it. Y’see, back then, I figured that if I went across the country pulling stunts as Mephisto, then they weren’t thinking that I was in New York, planning some other outrageous stunt. So, once when I needed to pull a stunt in San Francisco, and didn’t want to involve the Master of the World cell there, I saw a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu book in a store window, and decided, ‘Why not?’ Y’see, back then, the Chinese were in San Francisco and many parts of California what Blacks were in the South and Mexicans were in Southern California and Texas: a dismissed, despised - and feared - underclass. The Tongs had pretty much died out when Old Chinatown burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1906, and the Benevolent Societies were bending over backwards to prove to the roundeyes how benevolent and harmless they were. So, any hint of Chinese getting nasty towards the Anglos really put the wind up the Hearst newspapers - and therefore, the SFPD. Yep, I really had them jumping through hoops with the Crimson Dragon scam.
“The sugar growers alone in California and Hawaii relied so heavily on coolie labor that ‘the Crimson Dragon’ was a major threat to the local economy. So, wearing the stupid gown and mask, I hired a bunch of local Chinese thugs, the word got around, and before I knew it, I had maybe a thousand Chinese guys who were willing to kill for me. So, I ran some labor racketeering, drugs - of course – prostitution – always - a really nasty shakedown racket, and all that, but basically, what I was doing, was I was a semi-professional boogieman for the Nob Hill snobs.”
“There’s money in being a boogieman?”
Townsend gave a nasty chuckle. “OH YEAH. But, of course, the real thing was that I was poking a stick into San Francisco’s anthill and stirring things up. Believe me, it did everyone a world of good.”
THE CLAW OF THE DIABOLICAL CRIMSON DRAGON
The fog rolled down Union Street, turning the two earthenware guardian fu-dogs that flanked the Dupont Street entrance to Chinatown into the sentries at the very gate of doom. Captain Tom Spaulding shuddered as he saw Margo accompany the lissome Chinese girl through the gate. There was something about these all-too-prosaic buildings that was as if somehow several blocks of Shanghai had been lifted up and placed down in the middle of a modern American city. The paradox put Spaulding’s nerves on edge as nothing that he’d seen in his explorations of the interior of Africa had. And the way that Margo was placidly trotting along after Huli Jing! There was something odd about it, downright devilish.
“You see something that disturbs you, sir?” Tom spun around to discover standing at his elbow quite possibly the last thing that he expected to see - a white woman, a grandmotherly looking sort with white hair, wearing a well-made hat and coat against the late night chill. “You were looking after that young woman who just went in with the strumpet, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” Tom said suspiciously. “And who are you, and what business is it of yours?”
“Ah, my manners,” she said in a voice that carried the faintest touch of a crisp accent. “My name is Donaldina Cameron. And the goings-on in Chinatown have been my business for so long that it’s hard for me to stay put when I hear of devilishness afoot.”
“Donaldina Cameron!” Tom gasped. He’d heard of the ‘Angry Angel of Chinatown’, but he’d never thought to meet the woman who, for years, had been the bane of police corruption and the slave trade in Chinese women smuggled and tricked into the country from China. It was said that the only thing more instrumental in breaking the power of the tongs than Donaldina Cameron was the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, which had leveled Chinatown, as it had so much of old, wicked San Francisco. “My apologies, ma’am! I’d love to meet you more properly, but I fear that time is of the absolute essence! That young lady, she is my fiancé, Margaret Sprinkles-”
“Sprinkles?” Mrs. Cameron said with a significant arch of her eyebrow. “Would she be the daughter of Herbert Sprinkles, of the Sprinkles family that owns the Sprinkles Sugar & Molasses company, which controls much of the sugar grown and processed both here and Hawaii? The same Sprinkles family that has experienced so much heartbreak and horror over the past two weeks?”
“The very same, ma’am.”
“Well then… you do need to see to her, for she’s come under the power of the very devil himself, and the heathen that dwell past that gate won’t lift a finger to help her. I would help you, but even when I was younger, I only went past that gate with a squad of burly Irish policemen at my back. Even now, there are those in those hovels who’d dearly love to see me cold on the bricks. I dare not enter. But I can give you this advice. Look for a Red Dragon holding a white flower in its claw. Look for it in the lamps, look for it on the walls, look for it everywhere. Past that… well, if you’re smart enough to figure out what I mean, then you’re sharp enough to look after yourself and find the lady. And if not, well, the worst that will happen to you is you’ll spend the night on a wild goose chase; alas, the young lady will not fare as well. May God be with you, sir. For, from this point on, you are most assuredly on your own.” With that, the woman walked off into the fog, up Union Street and out of sight.
Feeling oddly both bolstered and made more wary by Mrs. Cameron’s words, Tom wrapped his trench coat more securely around himself, and fingered the Webley .38/200 in the pocket. He steeled himself and marched through the dragon gate.
‘Look for a red dragon,’ Tom thought to himself. ‘I might as well look for a green frog! There are red dragons all over the place!’ Indeed, the coiling sinuous dragon was almost everywhere, painted or carved to grace everything from the covers of books in windows to the paper lanterns that pierced the gloom. And yet, as he noted them, it became obvious that while there were red dragons, they were a distinct minority. There were more golden dragons and black dragons, a few silver dragons, and a few white dragons. And Mrs. Cameron had said ‘look for the red dragon holding a white flower in its claw’. But all the dragons had empty claws.
But no! There on the lamp post! He spotted a red dragon coiled around the post on one corner… with a white flower in its claw! Tom mused to himself as to what the dragon and flower indicated, and then it came to him. The dragon’s head was looking up the street! It was a sign post! Tom trudged up the hill, looking avidly for any signs of any dragons with flowers. And there it was, painted on the brick wall of one building! This time, the dragon was peering down the narrow side-street. Carefully, his hand clutching the Webley in his trench coat pocket, Tom advanced, eyes sharp, ears questing for the sound of anyone sneaking up behind him. There, at the dead end of the side-street, was another dragon, with another flower in its claw, peeking down one of the winding alleyways that crisscrossed Chinatown like a spider’s web. Tom pulled out an electric torch and shone the light down the alleyway. There were several doors, but no sign of any dragons. But there! Over the jam of one of the doors! There was painted a white flower, the same that the dragons had held in their claws - the opium poppy! Diabolically clever… the insidious Crimson Dragon had contrived a system of signposts that would infallibly lead those ‘in the know’ to his foul dens of iniquity, while they would blend seamlessly into the décor of Chinatown, unnoticed and unremarked, even by the honest denizens of that quarter.
Tom studied the door, and noted the slide ‘peephole’ and the stout lock. There was no way that he could talk his way past the door’s sentry. Time was of the essence! He’d already lost Margo’s trail, so he would have to abandon the silent track and risk stirring the Crimson Dragon’s minions to the defense! At least, he didn’t have to worry about the Police investigating the sound of a gunshot, not in Chinatown…
He pulled his Webley and shot the lock off. He kicked in the door, and shone his torch down the hallway. Strange, they had to know that he was here… If they weren’t storming to meet him at the door, then the cowards must be making their escape through another exit! Tom began running, but then something scuttled into his path, blocking his way. It was a huge metallic spider, the size of a mastiff! It crouched to pounce, clicking its razor-sharp mandibles in anticipation. Tom’s first thought was to run, get the unnatural guardian to follow him and use the door’s step to vault over the spider. But as he turned, he discovered that another enormous spider had moved silently in behind him! As Tom reeled, hemmed in between the two hideous monstrosities, something dropped down on top of him, knocking him to the ground and sending him spiraling down into the inky pool of unconsciousness.
Tom’s head rang as he struggled to full consciousness. His eyes focused on a figure that slowly came in to focus before him. It was a man in a crimson silk robe worked with embroidered dragons in gold thread, wearing a golden dragon mask. Through the holes in the mask a pair of feline green eyes sparked with malice. “So, finally, you awaken. Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer. Hooray, hooray, hooray…” the man in the mask droned sardonically.
“Who are you? Where are we? Where is Margo?” As Tom thundered his questions, he suddenly became aware that he was dangling off the ground, held in mid-air in the clutches of something that had his chest and arms held tight in a grip of iron.
“I have the honor to be he whom your barbarous language calls the Crimson Dragon,” the man in the dragon mask intoned. “Where you are, is in the grasp of one of my ingenious mechanical spiders. As to where your lovely fiancé, Margaret Sprinkles, is…” the Crimson Dragon spun Tom around, being careful to avoid Tom’s thrashing legs.
There, seated in a chair surrounded by flashing electrical equipment, her head encased in a helmet studded with leads, her face a mask of agony, was Margo, a vision in a diaphanous silk gown. “Margo!” Tom shouted. “Margo! What have you DONE to her, you FIEND?”
“I have made her into an instrument of JUSTICE,” the Crimson Dragon replied in the tones of a Grand Inquisitor. “After a lifetime of living off the blood, sweat and tears of the Chinese people, this child of wealth and ease will finally repay for the sins of the Sprinkles family!”
“What? You! You are the one behind the deaths of Leonard, Adolph, and Milton Sprinkles! Haven’t you done enough to the Sprinkles, you MONSTER?”
“Monster? I? I have committed No Crime! I have not kept the Coolies of Hawaii and California in conditions little better than slavery! And I did not kill Leonard, Adolph and Milton Sprinkles in their homes by tearing them apart with a savage three-bladed dagger! NO, it was HER, Margaret Sprinkles, who killed them! Hu-Li Jing! Prepare our instrument!”
With sinuous grace, the Chinese beauty slinked over to a table and prepared a syringe with a strange seething liquid. Then she walked over to Margaret, her sleek figure moving in her tight scarlet silk dress, where she expertly injected Margaret with the drug. Margaret’s face smoothed from her grimace of pain and she relaxed.
“Very good!” the Crimson Dragon gloated. “Now, Hu-Li Jing! Let her practice her little party trick!”
Huli Jing slithered over to a dark, unlit part of the chamber and turned on a desk lamp. The light shone revealing an area that was decorated to resemble a man’s private office, one that Tom recognized as an uncannily perfect replica of the private off of Julius Sprinkles, Margaret’s only surviving uncle. The recognition was made easy by the figure that stood there, an unmoving, but otherwise uncannily lifelike double for Julius Sprinkles himself, down to the unmistakable eyebrows and mustache, glasses and cigar. Huli Jing released Margaret from her chair of torture, brought her over to the incredible simulacra, and placed the gristly curved three-bladed dagger that was known as ‘the Dragon’s Claw’ in her hand.
The Crimson Dragon leaned over and whispered into Tom’s ear, “Now, to keep from enduring her agonies again, your beloved Margo will do anything, even kill. Even kill her closest and dearest relatives. I know this. I know this, because she has done it already THREE TIMES.” Then the Crimson Dragon turned to Huli Jing. “Now!”
Huli Jing put a whistle to her full red lips and blew. At the sound of the thin piping note, Margaret slashed the figurine’s throat, sending splatters of a red liquid over her white satin dress. She slashed the figure several times, reducing it to a mess, which was made even more horrible by the fact that under the false flesh, there was a human skull!
The Crimson Dragon gave an imperious clap of his hands, and Huli Jing blew her whistle again. Margaret slumped to inaction. “Very good,” the Crimson Dragon said matter-of-factly. “She has done it in form, so she will do it in fact. Go! You know what to do.”
Huli Jing led Margaret off over Tom’s loud protests. “What are you going to DO to her?” Tom demanded.
“To her? Nothing. Hu-Li Jing will take her to her uncle Julius’ house on Sacramento street. At the door, she will wave an aromatic under Miss Spinkle’s nose, bringing her to what passes for her wits. She will be led to believe that she has urgent business with her uncle. When they are alone, and Hu-Li Jing is in the proper placement, she will blow the whistle again. Miss Sprinkle will perform her ‘party trick’ and kill her Uncle Julius. Hu-Li Jing will take photographs, as she has each time that Miss Sprinkles has killed. When Julius Sprinkles is dead, Hu-Li Jing will take the dagger from Miss Sprinkle’s hand, and place it in the proper place, as to suggest that it was dropped by a fleeing assassin. Then she will remove Miss Sprinkles from her uncle’s house unseen, with no trace that she had even been there, and return her to her own home. Miss Sprinkles will have no memory of having killed any of her uncles, and we have contrived perfect alibis for her, for the times of all of her uncles’ deaths. There will be no evidence linking her to any of the crimes!”
“WHY are you doing this? Why are you making Margo your tool of murder?” Tom demanded, outraged.
“Because,” the Crimson Dragon responded, gloating, “with the death of Julius Sprinkles, the entire Sprinkles fortune - Sprinkles Sugar & Molasses, the Golden West Railroad, the Sprinkles chain of movie theaters up the Pacific coast, massive land holdings in Hawaii, San Diego and Seattle, the Great Western Bank, four major newspapers, and the White Star line of freight ships - all of it! All of it will devolve to Herbert Sprinkles’ ownership. And Missy Margaret is his only heir. I will present to Herbert Sprinkles conclusive PROOF that his daughter was the agent of his brothers’ demises. The implication will be that she did so at his promptings, so that he would gain full and total control over the massive family fortune. The proof will be photographs of her killing his brothers, the blood-splattered dresses that she wore when performing the murders… and proof that the ‘perfect alibis’ that Miss Sprinkles enjoyed for each and every one of her uncles’ murders were FAKED! Once her alibis are discredited, Miss Sprinkles will be fingerprinted - another reason for leaving the dagger behind. And the Sprinkles are infamous for their maltreatment of their Chinese labor pool - it will offend even Western sensibilities that the cold-blooded, ruthless Herbert Sprinkles contrived to blame his daughter’s murders on some mythical ‘Sinister Asiatic Mastermind’.” The Crimson Dragon chuckled viciously. “Herbert Sprinkles will do anything to prevent his daughter - and himself - from being exposed to the indignation - and criminal prosecution - that would result from exposure. He would even turn over de facto control of his newly-gained financial empire… to me.” The Crimson Dragon’s vicious laughter filled the chamber.
“You FIEND!” Tom raged.
“Ah, sweet revenge! You whet my appetite for when Herbert Sprinkles is equally outraged - and helpless! But now… YOU DIE!” Tom groaned as the mechanical spider tightened its grip on him, slowly beginning to crush him to death.
And then what?” Redford asked, incredulous. “You just had that spider-thing crush him to death?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Townsend breezed. “My entire plan depended on him escaping! I had one of the sing-song girls play the goody-goody and release him. Then she led him on a wild goose chase through the tunnels and back alleys of Chinatown, just long enough for it to appear that Margo Sprinkles killed her Uncle Julie.”
“Appear?” Redford asked, picking up on the choice of word.
“Yeah. Y’see, while the popular image of hypnotism back then had hypnotists being able to make their victims do ANYTHING. In the real world, hypnosis is pretty danged limited. Mind you, I can do things hypnotically that mainstream hypnotists couldn’t even dream of doing, but even I can’t make someone who isn’t a cold-blooded killer actually kill someone, let alone rip them apart with a knife.”
“Then… how did you get Margo Sprinkles to do all of that?”
“Oh, she was hypnotized all right. Everything else was just stage dressing. You see, she had been bitten by the acting bug, but her mother, ‘Big Edna’ Sprinkles, wasn’t having any of it. Maggie got a bit part in a play, where she played a rich heiress, who had been brainwashed by an evil scientist to kill someone. But Momma wasn’t happy, and she quashed the production. Good thing. It stunk on ice, and I ought to know; I wrote it.”
“So… Margo Sprinkles was ‘acting out’ her role from the play?”
“Yep. Give her this - Margo really threw herself into a role; good thing, ‘cause God knows, she couldn’t ACT.”
“But… why go through all that, just to let the Sprinkles off the hook at the last minute?”
“So? Who let them off the hook? Remember that ‘practice session’ I had Margaret go through? I had it photographed with a hidden camera. I had her go through similar ‘practice sessions’ for each of her uncles, and used just as convincing a dummy for each of them, and I photographed THOSE as well. So, when I sent PRINTS of Maggie hacking her uncles to death…”
“She had vague recollections of doing it, which she had no basis for. With Spaulding there, telling the Sprinkles about what you’d told HIM…” Redford followed the train of logic. “You suckered him into helping you convince the Sprinkles into handing over their entire FORTUNE!”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Townsend sneered. “The key to these things is letting the ‘heroes’ think that they’ve won! If they THINK that they’ve won, then they accept the conditions that you’ve set. I let Spaulding sell the SFPD that the mechanical spider that I let him have did it, and Margo went free. But, in order to quell any scandal - hey, the Sprinkles weren’t exactly LOVED, even by other Anglos in Frisco - they paid me off to the tune of ten MIL.”
“I thought you said that Blackmail was a mugs game.” Redford said reprovingly.
“It is - if you keep sticking them for cash. I settled for one big payoff, a few concessions as to improvements for the Chinese workers, and Sprinkles started letting me use his freighters for various… enterprises. Oh yeah, and I gained a major rep among the Nob Hill types as somebody who could fuck them over BIG TIME.” Townsend finished with a sinister chuckle.
“Then who DID kill Julius, Leonard, Adolph and Milton Sprinkles?”
“I did. Or, rather, one of those mechanical spiders really DID do it. I equipped it with one of those three-bladed daggers, and well, what do you know? That lox Spaulding actually got it RIGHT. Not that he ever knew. And Margaret died in 1987, thinking that she’d murdered her uncles.”
“And… what happened with the Crimson Dragon act?” Redford asked.
“Would you believe… I ran into Fu Manchu?”
“Okay, not ‘Fu Manchu’ by name, he called himself Fu Hsii, ‘the Serpent of Fire’, but if Sax Rohmer ever ran into him, then I guess I know where ol’ Sax got his inspiration.”
“You mean, there was a REAL ‘Sinister Asiatic Mastermind’ back then?” Redford yelped.
“’A’ real sinister Asiatic mastermind? There were dozens of them! All over the place! In Asia, California, New York, South America, Africa, Europe, Britain - everywhere where there was a Chinese community of any sort, you had one of those guys trying to stir things up! Some of them were agents of the Red Monks, some of them were agents of the White Monks, some of them were agents of… something else… but most of them were just really pissed off Chinese who were still honked about losing the Opium Wars. Oh, and the way that both the Brits and the Americans had been treating the Chinese ever since. How DARE those roundeyed devils treat the children of the Middle Kingdom the way that the Han treated everyone else!”
“What happened with the ‘Snake of Fire’?”
Townsend gave a rueful chuckle. “I admit it, I was shitting bricks when we finally met face-to-face. But get this - he was amused by me. I was basically doing his job for him, and doing a pretty good job of it. I think that the Masters put in a good word for me in with him. But, there was the whole thing about a roundeye impersonating a mandarin. So, he took over my organization, claiming that I’d been working for him from the get-go, and told me to take my ‘Crimson Dragon’ act east of the Rockies.”
“What did you do?”
“What do you think I did? I caught the next train for Denver! Hey, I had over a thousand Chinese street goons. He had maybe a hundred highly-trained martial artists who knew what they were doing. I was outnumbered!”
“Whatever did happen to all those ‘Sinister Asiatic Masterminds’?”
“To be honest? Mostly, they killed each other off. You gotta remember, most of them fronted for various Triads back in China and East Asia, and to this DAY, most of them hate each other more than they do the West. Still, those handful that are still around - the Jade Dagger, the Iron Dragon, the Black Starry Night Wolf, ‘Mister Brown’ - are probably both the smartest and the best of the whole crew. Right now, they’re laying low, and trying to figure out how to defeat American cultural imperialism. Y’know, TV is mucking with those guys more than opium ever did? The Chinese are building American style suburbs, ‘cause they saw them on reruns of ‘the Brady Bunch’.”
“So, you moved your ‘Crimson Dragon’ bit to Denver?”
“Nah, to Chicago and Kansas City. It gave me an excuse to mess with Champion on two fronts.”
“Yes, I notice that you did take on Champion, both as ‘Mephisto’ and as the ‘Crimson Dragon’ with suspicious regularity. And so did a few other ‘Masked Criminals’ who operated in ways that were strangely similar to yours. And, of course, the ‘Master of the World’ was constantly messing with him. Why did you target Champion so much? While he was the first of the ‘Cape’ heroes, there were other heroes in Chicago and the Great Lakes area. My impression was that you only dealt with the Dark Avenger in New York when you had to. I’ve heard one theory that suggests that you targeted other New York heroes, just so that you wouldn’t have to cope with the Dark Avenger. But why did you single out Champion?”
Townsend spread his hands imploringly. “Orders. The Masters were very interested in ‘the Olympian Force’, or the ‘Champion Force’, as they call it now. And, to be perfectly honest, it was a LOT more fun yanking Champ’s chain that it was in dealing with the Avenger. Champ was a really NICE guy…” Townsend let out a laughing sigh, “but not the sharpest pencil in the box, y’know?” He leaned back in his chair, put a hand to his brow and let out a long laugh. “Oh MAMA! Some of the things I pulled on him…? I ought’a be ashamed of myself…” He finished with a wicked snicker.
Townsend paused. “I gotta admit, I would’a gone after Champ, orders or no orders. It was… It was just so much FUN! I mean, it was like we were kids on a playground, and I just couldn’t help fucking with him; it was so EASY and so FUN. I mean, it wasn’t like I disliked Champ, or that I wanted to hurt him, it’s just that he was so much fun to heckle! He was like Elmer Fudd to my Bugs Bunny.”
CHAMPION vs. THE KNIGHTS OF AVALON!
Suddenly, three men in full jousting plate, riding horses in plate barding, charged through the front door of the stately Glessner museum in a proper Norman Wedge, sending the glass of the doors flying in splinters! As the guards reeled from the mind-numbing shock of it, they formed a single file and rode up the stairs to the second floor, scattering the museum-goers like tenpins. “Ah-HAH! SUCCESS!” One of them cried. “There it is, at last!” He pointed at an exhibit of Biblical era relics, safely contained behind glass.
The three men dismounted, drew their swords and advanced. Pushing the protesting museum guard aside, the leader, the knight in the red tabard, shattered the glass with his sword and took a large golden goblet from the case. “At last! The Holy Grail! Our Quest is finally complete! We can return to Camelot in GLORY!”
“OR, you can go to JAIL, which is a lot more likely!” blared a voice behind them. Turning, they saw a tall strapping figure in blue, with a white cape over his shoulders, and a large red ‘C’ on his chest. “I am the Champion of Justice and Decency!”
“You are too late, Blue Knight!” the knight in the white tabard shouted in a bad high school play ‘British accent’ as he waved a spear-like pole. “For we have gained the Holy Grail, and by its sacred power, we return to Avalon!”
As the other two knights looked at him, the knight in red held the cup aloft and shouted, “To Avalon!” Nothing happened. “TO AVALON!” he thundered. Still nothing. “Merlin! Merlin, where art thou?”
“Here, my liege,” said a smooth voice as a figure in blue robes with a pointed, wide-brimmed hat appeared in a cloud of smoke. “What troubles thee?”
“What troubles me? We have found the Holy Grail, yet the gates to Avalon are still shut to us! What trickery is this?”
“Be not dismayed good knights,” the figure said soothingly. “Ye hast gained the Holy Grail, true enow, but ye hast not yet defeated the Grail’s guardian,” he indicated Champion. “After all, what measure of a hero is merely bursting in and seizing something? And only heroes can truly gain the Holy Grail!”
“But we have faced this blue gargoyle three times, and lost each time, escaping due only to thy Dark Arts, wise Merlin!” the knight in green proclaimed. “How can we win against his unnatural prowess?”
“You can’t!” Champion said firmly, beginning to stride forward. “Now stop all this nonsense, put up the swords and come along! You have a date with a municipal judge.”
“Despair not, stalwart knights!” ‘Merlin’ said like someone trying to shoehorn Shakespeare into where it shouldn’t go. “For, each time, with your defeat, you have gained a sacred relic! The Golden Belt of Mambrino!” he indicated the wrestling championship belt that the green knight wore, which they had taken from the arena (along with the box office receipts). “The Spear of Destiny!” He indicated the pole that the white knight carried, which, when pulled from its place at the power station, had shorted out most of downtown Chicago (and allowed a spree of smash-and-grab robberies). “And the sword Excalibur!” he indicated the slat of steel the red knight carried, which, when removed from a bank’s vault, caused the vault to open (and quickly be looted). “With these relics, you have learned the chivalric lessons of persistence and fortitude! With these relics, and persistence and fortitude, you can defeat the Blue Knight, truly earn the Holy Grail, and return to Camelot in glory!”
“Wait a minute,” Champ said, “I know that voice!”
But before Champ could put a name to the voice, the three Knights of Avalon brandished their weapons and charged with a thundering cry of ‘Arthur Rex!” However, ‘sacred relics’ or no sacred relics, no amount of knightly persistence and fortitude could hold out against the might of the Olympian Force. In less time than it takes to tell it, Champion had the three deluded knights laid out, unharmed but unconscious.
Curious, Champion leaned over and picked up the golden chalice and examined it to see what all the fuss was about. Then he heard slow clapping, and turned to see ‘Merlin’ standing there, mockingly applauding him. “It’s about time,” ‘Merlin’ sneered. “I was starting to think that I’d have to shove that thing into your hands.”
“What are you up to- MEPHISTO?”
“Oh? What gave me away?” Mephisto shed his ‘Merlin’ persona with a wave that somehow made his costume disappear, to reappear in his usual outfit of evening clothes, opera cape, bejeweled white turban and domino mask. “My unmistakable style and panache? The fiendish cunning of my plans? My incomparable skill in maneuvering you into doing my dirty work?”
“No, only you can sneer and brag like that, in the face of complete defeat.”
“Well, phone the papers and tell them the big news!” Mephisto guffawed, “You made a funny! This is banner headline stuff!”
“Why do you want to have this golden cup so much, Mephisto?”
“Oh, I don’t want that grail, Champ. I want YOU to have it. All of this was to get that dingus into your hot little hands.”
“Because, by my expert calculations, that cup has mystic properties that will cause your Olympian Force to go into overdrive. Your strength, your running speed, your jumping, everything will be magnified by a factor of one hundred.”
“And why would you want THAT to happen, Mephisto? You can’t beat me as I am; with my strength a hundred times greater, I’ll be a hundred times harder to beat!”
“WRONG! You won’t be able to control your strength or speed! You’ll be a wrecking ball with legs! They’ll have to put you away, where you can’t hurt anyone - even little ol’ me! Champ, as of now, you’re OUT of the hero business!”
“Oh really? Let’s…” but Champion, intending to merely trot over to Mephisto, charged at blinding speed, barely missing the renegade stage magician, who expertly side-stepped him. Champ zipped past and plowed through the brick wall, leaving a gaping opening. Champ staggered to the opening, shaking his head. “What?”
“SHUSH!” Mephisto said in a stage whisper, “Listen!”
Champ listened and heard a groaning, creaking noise. “What IS that?”
“That’s the building’s supports starting to fail,” Mephisto said with a huge snide grin on his face. “When you crashed through that wall, you took out a load-bearing support. If you don’t do something NOW, the entire building will come down on us.” With lightning reflexes, Champ held up the top of the hole, taking the entire load on by himself. “Nice reflexes,” Mephisto said with a smirk. “Thaaank Yew!” he said with mock politeness as he slipped past Champ into the chamber just beyond the wall.
“What are you doing, you VILLAIN?” Champion raged.
“’What are you doing, you villain’?” Mephisto echoed a few moments later, his arms full. “Who talks like that? Oh yeah. You do. Oh, I’m just doing what I was really after, all along. These little sparklers.” He held up several large crystals. “The Eye of Typhon, the Heart of Geryon, and the Tobruk Stone. You should be especially interested in the Tobruk Stone. If I’m right, you should recognize it as an especially large chunk of… TARTAREUM!” he shoved the large black glassy rock in Champ’s face. “Yes, Tartareum, the substance that neutralizes your Olympian Force, and makes you just another ordinary slob like everyone else - well, except for the tights… But… you’re not withering… which means… what does it mean? Oh crud, it means that the Tartareum just neutralized the effect of the ‘Holy Grail’, and you’re back to normal…”
Mephisto paled slightly as Champ grinned victoriously back at him.
“Oh well!” Mephisto brightened, “It’s been a slice, as always, Champ, but I got a train to catch! Good luck holding up that wall!” As Mephisto stooped to pick up the golden grail, “Oh, and good luck explaining WHY you whaled the tar out of the President of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, the Chairman of the Police Athletics League and the head of the local school district.” Mephisto pulled the helmets off the fallen knights, revealing the faces of the well-known and respected civic leaders. “I wish that I could stick around and hear how you explain all of that. But I gotta go! Ta!” With that, Mephisto disappeared in a puff of smoke, taking his ill-gotten loot with him.
“Wait a minute,” Redford objected. “How could the ‘Tobruk Stone’ neutralize the effect of that grail? There IS no such thing as Tartareum!”
“Yeah, and there’s no such thing as a ‘mystic grail’ that can amplify the Champion Force by a hundredfold,” Townsend said. “It was all the power of suggestion. I couldn’t get into that vault by myself, so I suckered Champ into running full force through the wall. I couldn’t hypnotize him flat-out, but I could plant the suggestion that he couldn’t stop running. Believe me, I pulled crap like that on Champ ALL THE TIME!”
“Y’know, I think that most of my goons in Chicago hired on with me, just to see Champ get humiliated? Though that stupid costume of his didn’t help.”
“What was the matter with his costume?”
“Hello? He was running around in a blue-and-white boiler suit with a white CAPE! I mean, the boiler suit was bad enough, but the cape?”
“So? You wore a cape - and a turban!”
“Yeah, yeah, but I was a stage magician - the turban and the opera cape were part of the whole look. They set the tone for everything, people saw a magician, and they expected strange, outlandish things to happen, elephants to disappear, showers of flowers to appear out of nowhere, and the magician disappearing in a puff of smoke seemed plausible. It was part and parcel of how I worked. Okay, and the gem in the turban was tricked out in various ways. And have you ever tried getting a supervillain costume dry-cleaned or mended? Nobody so much as looks at you twice if you turn in an evening suit to be cleaned. Hell, the Dark Avenger wore a cape, but at least he had the good sense to make it a black cape, which he could use to hide with. But Champ? He had that flowing white cape that made him stick out a mile. That, and that,” Townsend assumed a goofy wide-eyed grinning gawp, put his fists on his hips and said in a goofy voice, “’I’m the Champion of Righteousness and Decency!’” Townsend dropped the act, “bit of his… And then, after the Superman comic book came out, he switched to tights! TIGHTS! I mean, how could you NOT mess with that? Still, as much as I ragged on him, I liked ol’ Champ. I was sorry to see him go. I mean, straight men like him just don’t come along every day.”
“Did Champion and the Dark Avenger ever team up to take you on?”
“Why only once?”
“Simple! They couldn’t STAND each other! They were both too used to being the big cheese in their town. There were other heroes in both towns, but in the Big Apple, it was always the Dark Avenger first and foremost, and in the Windy City, Champ was… well… the Champ! Champ thought that the Avenger was a vicious, trigger-happy murdering vigilante who didn’t care who got hit in the crossfire, and the Avenger thought that Champ was a big chuckle-headed goof who just powered his way through everything.” Townsend paused. “They were both right, of course - about each other. Champ tried to get the Avenger arrested, and the Avenger put a couple of slugs into Champ’s head. They bounced off, of course, but still, there was no way that they were gonna be buddies after that.”
“And how did you feel about the Dark Avenger?”
Townsend’s eyes narrowed. “Simple. I HATE the Dark Avenger.”
“Later. You don’t have the foundation.”
“Mister Townsend, WHY are you telling me all this?”
“Again - LATER, when you have a foundation. Then you’ll understand.”
Redford took another swig of scotch and rubbed his forehead. “Okaaayyy… then, how about Junior Champion and Miss Champion? How did you feel about them?”
“What can I say? You gotta love someone who brings his own hostages to a fight.” But Townsend relented. “Okay, okay, they pulled their own weight, and then some. And, to be honest, they really DID figure out more than their fair share of my puzzles, traps, and what-have-you. Mind you, I wasn’t the slightest surprised when Congress passed those ‘Kid Sidekick’ laws, back in the Fifties. Still, Champ was dead by then, and both Junior and Missy were in their twenties. Even if she didn’t look it. Y’know, I’m still not sure if Champ was totally oblivious as to how bad Betsy had the hots for him back then, or if he just liked having this juicy little bobbysoxer in a teeny blue dress panting after him.”
“Yeah, that was her name, when she didn’t have the mask on. Neither Champ nor Junior were very good at keeping to the ‘codename’, especially when she was tied up to something deadly.”
Redford waved that aside. “Okay, you may be in a position to answer a question that’s bugged me for YEARS. Where did ‘Junior Champion’ and ‘Miss Champion’ come from? I mean… that whole ‘Olympian’ thing was a complete mass of hogwash! HOW did he ‘pass along his powers’ to them?”
“Wow! An intelligent question! What a novelty! Okay, okay, sorry - yes, that IS a good question, and it’s one that I can actually answer. Where to start… Okay, first of all, as you just said, that whole ‘Olympian’ thing that Champ came out with was complete hogwash, it was SO corny that even I wouldn’t have used it. It took me years to figure this out, but as it turns out, Champ was NOT the recipient of some strange energy from some dying world. Rather, he was a mutant, a variation of a trait that they now call ‘Avatar’. Y’see, he sucked up spirits, devils, magical energy, spells, curses, all that, and he sort of mashed them all together into what they now call a ‘Force’, after the ‘Olympian Force’. The more spirits, hexes, and what all he mashed into that ‘Olympian Force’ the more powerful he got. By 1940, he was fucking FLYING!”
Redford leaned forward avidly. “What exactly IS ‘the Olympian Force’?”
Townsend shrugged. “Hell if I know. It doesn’t act like any spirit, godling, djinn, spell, hex, curse or blessing that I’VE ever seen. Anyway, it was 1938, and the Nazis were tap dancing all over Europe, and America First was telling the country that Europe had it coming. A couple of years before that, I’d been in Germany, checking up on the ‘Master of the World’ cells in Berlin, Munich and Nuremberg, and I was passing myself off as this big expert on crime.” Townsend chuckled. “Well… I WAS… Anyway, I got called to this big party in Berlin, and I was passed around to all the top Nazis, including Der Fuhrer himself,” Townsend made a Nazi salute with his right hand and made a ‘Hitler mustache’ with two fingers of the other hand. Get this… Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Heidrich, Muller, all the top Nazis who had anything to do with the weirder stuff, were all interested in those bizarre American ‘supervillains’ that the papers were full of. So, I put on my ‘psychoanalyst’ hat and started talking a bunch of trash about how Freud had his head up his couch - wasn’t hard, the Nazis hated Freud, and I never had that much use for Freud anyway - and Jung was right about archetypes, and that the ‘supervillains’ exploited primal fears and anxieties and frustrations and repressed desires of the populace, and used them to establish dominance, yada yada, yada, blah-blah-blee.”
“And Hitler believed that?”
“Are you KIDDING? He ate it up with a SPOON! It confirmed everything that he’d thought about terror tactics and how to use psychology to get the jump on people. He gave me a letter that greased my way through fucking everything in Germany. It turned out that I was a material influence on Hitler’s decision to field ‘Theme Agents’, or what we’d call today, ‘Nazi Supervillains’, using terror imagery. Anyway, later, I used that identity to wrangle a position as a Nazi agent in the US called ‘The Voice of Terror’.”
“WHAT?” Redford yelped, “You were a NAZI AGENT?”
Was Mephisto a Nazi Agent?
Was there NO depth to which this Malevolent Master of Mayhem would not sink?
And how does this relate to the fabled Champion Force?
Find out in the next thrilling chapter of…