Razzle Dazzle (Part 2)
By Bek D. Corbin
“WHAT?” Redford yelped, “You were a NAZI AGENT?”
“Yeah,” Townsend said in a ‘what’s your problem?’ tone of voice. “So what? I’m about as political as the wind.” Townsend paused and mulled the phrase over. “I LIKE that… ‘as political as the wind…’ The wind doesn’t care about nations or religions or corporations or families or individuals… it just blows as it wants to, for reasons all its own. It doesn’t care whether it brings rain or drought or flood or blizzard, or if it blows a ship where the captain wants to go, or if it sinks the ship. That’s me, in a nutshell. I have my own reasons for everything I do. The Nazis? So what? America? Yeah, I was born here, but I was raised in Show Biz - I got no real use for the rubes. The Commies? I saw ‘em come, I saw ‘em become a superpower, I saw ‘em fall, and now I’m seeing ‘em become history. So what? The only people that I really obey are The Masters. Why? Because, in my over a Century of experience, they are the ONLY people who have the slightest notion of what they’re doing. Everybody else? They’re just putting on a show, making out like they know what they’re doing and waiting for their paycheck.
“Where was I? Oh yeah - I’d used my ‘Professor Gernsbeck’ cover to get the ‘Voice of Terror’ gig.” Townsend leaned back and changed his voice again, making it deep, crisp and harsh, yet resonant, echoing even, with just a touch of a Prussian accent.
“This… is the Voice… of… Terror… The Hand of the Third Reich reaches everywhere. Even into the heartland of America. This may be the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave… But you are NOT free from the Fuhrer’s grasp. Are you brave enough to resist the Thousand Year Reich’s onslaught of TERROR? Our agents are everywhere, planning devastating strikes against America’s war machine! Will the Vaughn Aircraft plant be the next to suffer our explosive wrath? Or will the Lambert Office Building fall to our sabotage? Or will the 8:45 express train to Springdale, which the War Department THINKS we don’t know is carrying a load of explosive munitions through a densely populated urban area be blown apart, along with thousands of innocent civilians? Or will your water reservoir be contaminated by a colorless, tasteless, but very deadly POISON? Right NOW, by MY ORDER, one of my agents is ready to trigger my next attack on this wretched country! Which target will I choose? Will YOU be the next to suffer? Agent B-43,by my order, strike NOW!”
Townsend gave a malicious snicker. “MAN, I had people shitting in their britches with that one. GOD, I love radio… it made people visualize the most horrible things…” he snickered again. “Boy, TV just doesn’t get people the way that radio did…” he sighed.
“Anyway, I was just getting the whole ‘Voice of Terror’ thing going, when I was approached by a German agent who came up through Mexico. He called himself ‘Rottenadler’, which means ‘Red Eagle’. At first, I thought he wanted me to help him set up a Fifth Column, but it turned out that he worked for Thule Gemeinschaft.”
“They are a bunch of really nationalist German mystics, who are really into the whole ‘Germans as the Master Race’ thing. They backed the Nazis 100% and then some, and they were a big thing in the Ahnenerbe. Think ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, that sort of thing. They fielded a bunch of their guys as backup for the various Nazi Theme Agents. Anyway, Rottenadler was all het about the ‘Olympian’ origin that Champ had given to the Press. He thought that there was some kind of connection between Champ’s bozo ‘Olympians’ and Vril, which Thule was really into.”
Townsend chuckled and said, “Okay, I’ll give you that one, it’s pretty damned obscure. ‘Vril’ is a term for this kind of vital energy that permeates the world. It’s got all kinds of names: Vril, Odic force, Orgone, Elan Vitale, Ki, Prana, and the list goes on and on… People keep ‘discovering’ it and science keeps dismissing it. The joke here is that the term ‘Vril’ was coined by a Victorian novelist named Edward Bulworth-Litton for - get this - a SCIENCE FICTION novel that he wrote called ‘The Coming of the Vril’. Oh, don’t bother reading it; it was turgid Victorian bullhockey of the worst kind. BUT, for some bizarre reason, not only was it a HUGE best-seller, but people took it seriously! Including the Vril Society, which went out looking for Vril and found that vital force that I was talking about, which was close enough to Vril that nobody really cared. Big shock, like I said, this vital energy pops up in almost every magical system except skepticism, which believes that if you can sneer at it, it doesn’t exist.
“They developed this weird technology/ discipline/ ritual thing around Vril, which resulted in some of the more powerful Nazi Theme Agents. Anyway, Rottenadler was convinced that there was some connection between Champ’s Olympian hoo-hah and Vril. He came to me as ‘Gernsbeck’, and asked me to help him handle Champion, so he could study the effect of his Vril doo-hickeys on the Champ. Hey, it was 1938, and Hitler didn’t want to do anything that could be seen as an attack on American citizens, let alone on American soil, so they couldn’t use regular Nazi agents, so they needed a local to do the dirty work. I, as Gernsbeck’, hired myself as ‘Mephisto’ - hey, two paychecks for one job! - and I set up a bunch of situations where Champ got fried by one of Rottenadler’s gizmos or another, while Rotty took notes. Hey, it’s not like I wasn’t a little curious myself…
“After slapping Champ around a few times, ol’ Rotty came to me all excited because somehow his thingies had located three ‘Olympian’ signatures, one of which, obviously, was the Champ. But the other two? It took us a bit, but we managed to track down the signatures to these two teenagers, a 14-year-old girl named Elizabeth Brant, and a 15-year-old boy named Edward Trenton. Now, if it had been ME calling the shots, I would’a kidnapped the Brant girl first, done a few tests on her, and then the Trenton kid, and used the Brant girl as a hostage to keep him in line. But Nnnooo… Mister ‘I’m the big GENIUS here!’ insists on kidnapping them in ways that were BOUND to catch Champ’s attention.”
THE RED EAGLE STRIKES!
“You did WHAT? Mephisto screamed as the Red Eagle had his men bring in the two youngsters.
“I have acquired the two young Olympians,” the Red Eagle replied, pulling his red hood with the swastika on the brow over his head. “And I did it without your bumbling or overcomplicated plots!”
“WHAT? You just GRABBED them?”
“Are you ashamed that you didn’t think of it?” the Nazi agent sneered at the American professional criminal.
“I didn’t think of it, because it’s STUPID!” Mephisto sneered back. “This ain’t Germany, pal! You can’t just snatch people off the street, especially kids!”
“Oh? The Red Eagle retorted as he strapped the unconscious teenagers onto the exposure slats and adjusted the electrodes, “I thought it was done all the time here in America.”
“Yeah, but when we do it, we have the good sense to get the fuck out of town! We do NOT just drag them a few blocks and start doing experiments on them! Look, Champ got his start busting the chops of illegal labs like this! He may not be the smartest guy around, but he knows what to LOOK FOR!”
“So? Handle him. That’s why we hired you in the first place,” Red Eagle grumbled.
“Yeah, and I handled him because I know how to keep him off balance! That’s the only way to handle the Champ - keep him confused, keep him guessing, play to his Achilles Heel - his HEAD! But this? This is playing to his strengths, you PUTZ!”
The Red Eagle glared suspiciously at Mephisto. “Are you by any chance… Jewish?”
Mephisto glared back. “NO. I was in Show Biz - they use a lot of Yiddish, because Yiddish has so many great words for people who are being STUPID! If I was Jewish, would I be working for the fucking Nazis?”
“It doesn’t matter! For now, my Telludynamic Vril Synthesizer is at full capacity! Now, I can observe the actualization of two Olympians as the Vril saturates their bodies, making them super-human! With this information, I can determine how the Olympian exaltation works, so that it can be duplicated on Aryans! Imagine it, Mephiso! An entire ARMY with the strength and speed of your so-called ‘Champion’!” Red Eagle finished with a loud raucous laughter of triumph.
“What? You’re going to make two very teed-off KIDS superhuman?” Mephisto quickly wrapped the two figures in heavy chains. “Okay, now can we get this thing moving before Champ shows up? I have ten bucks on a filly running in the fifth at Arlington Park, and I don’t wanna miss that.”
“It’s a pity that you’re going to have to miss that race,” a voice from above intoned. “You’ll be in JAIL when the bell goes off!” Up in a high window stood the blue-clad, white caped figure of… CHAMPION! “I am the Champion of Truth and Justice!”
Mephisto turned to the Red Eagle and gloated, “Tol’ja So.”
“What are you WAITING for?” Red Eagle screamed, “GET HIM!”
“Okay, boys, you know what to do,” Mephisto said calmly. As his thugs drew their guns and fired at Champion, who dropped to the floor and waded through the gunfire, Mephisto calmly strolled over to a lever and pulled it. The sides of four boxes in the warehouse dropped, revealing square boxy robots that raised their arms and advanced on the Windy City’s greatest hero. Mephisto looked at his watch. “Maybe if I left now, I might be able to catch the Daily Double…”
Red Eagle cackled maniacally as he threw the switch and electricity arced over his fiendish device, blanketing the two youngsters in energy. Mephisto winced. “Wow. That does NOT look pleasant.”
Then the Red Eagle looked over to see Champion putting the last of the robots down for the count. “Mephisto! DO something! HANDLE him!”
Mephisto leaned against a crate and said sardonically, “Hey, you’re the big genius, you know everything, YOU handle him.” Red Eagle pulled a probe from his Telludynamic Vril Synthesizer and sent a volt of searing power through the air at Champion. “Oh yeah. Real bright. Use the very power that you say gives this guy ultra-strength as a weapon against him. So, do you Germans fight fires by throwing kerosene on it too?”
“NEIN!” Red Eagle screamed. “These readings are ALL WRONG! They are not reacting as predicted! Their Olympian Energies are interacting with the Telludynamic Vril Synthesizer in the wrong way!” Red Eagle raced to his control panel, but the Champ beat him there. With a mighty effort, Champion threw the Red Eagle into the Telludynamic Vril Synthesizer, triggering a massive explosion!
When the smoke cleared, Mephisto peeked out from his place of safety. “Wow. What a mess. Glad I don’t have to clean this up.”
“I’ll ask the judge to see if you can be put on the clean-up detail,” Champ said as he reached down and picked Mephisto up by the collar.
“Ah, Champ?” Mephisto said calmly, pointing a finger off in one direction. “Innocent bystanders in dire and immediate peril?”
“Oh, not that old jo- Oh, Good Lord! Those kids!”
“Yeah, I’m sure that those kids’ parents will be fine with you letting them DIE, just so that you can knock me around a little…”
Champion dropped Mephisto and raced over to the tables where the two teenagers were still twitching in pain. “As predictable and reliable as ever. Oh well, at least I got paid…” Mephisto smirked as he dropped a smoke pellet and disappeared.
Champ shook first the boy and then the girl, but they didn’t respond. Champion could sense with his incredible Olympian Force that some strange energy had been pumped into their bodies, one that didn’t burn them, but they still couldn’t assimilate. He could feel them dying. Realizing from what he’d heard Red Eagle say that these two youngsters somehow were Olympians, even as he was, a desperate thought entered the Champ’s brain. Calling up all the Olympian Force in his body, he sent waves of it through his hands into the bodies of the boy and girl, bolstering their physical strength. Then even as he sensed a renewed spark of life in them, there was a fantastic surge of energy that flowed back from them and into him, which caused his Olympian energy to flare like an exploding star! A see-saw effect with Champ sending energy into the kids, and them sending energy back was established. Finally, Champion managed to stabilize the flow of energy, and first the boy and then the girl flickered their eyes and became instantly aware.
“Wow, keen!” the boy blurted out, “CHAMPION!” Not realizing his situation, the boy sat up, breaking the thick chains that Mephisto had shackled him in.
The girl did likewise. “What? What happened, Champion?”
“Now, you’d think that after sharing out his power that way, Champ would be like a wet rag. No such luck! If anything, he’s even MORE powerful, ‘cause the ‘Vril’ that Rotty had been pumping into Betsy and Ted somehow mixed with his ‘Olympian Force’, backwashed into him and turbocharged the Olympian Force that he had left. And, of course, Betsy and Ted got ‘ooohh… nifty keano super powers’ and became his kid sidekicks. Don’t ask me how he talked their parents into going along with all that. But then, Champ really did have this… bizarre… charisma… I mean, you really couldn’t help but liking the big bozo, and thinking the best of him.”
“I shipped those bits and pieces of Rotty’s gear that everyone thought had been destroyed in the explosion to the Masters. I never heard about any of it again. My guess is that they already had stuff like it, only better, and they only really wanted to be sure exactly where the Nazis were with that technology.”
“Wait a minute. If Champion was a mutant… then doesn’t that mean that Junior Champion and Miss Champion were also mutants?”
“Well, they were similar kinds of mutants,” Townsend allowed. “What they’d call ‘Avatars’ now. If Champ hadn’t come along, both would have stumbled onto one kind of spirit or another, and things could have gone very differently for a lot of people.”
“But doesn’t that mean that Rottadler’s Vril gear could be used to locate and identify at least certain kinds of mutants?”
Townsend smiled sinisterly. “Why… YES… it could.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because it doesn’t suit the Masters’ purpose to do so. And I agree with them totally. The uncertainty factor that applies to mutants being among baselines suits our purpose just fine.”
Redford absorbed that for a bit. “You said that you just made up new identities to suit the occasion? How many? Who were you?”
Townsend paused. “I think we’ve gotten a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s jump back to… say… 1932. Yeah, I came up with a bunch of different names. Hey, I didn’t want to get predictable, and I tried new stuff with different identities. In 1932, Charlie Luciano was so happy with the success that I was having with the whole ‘supervillain’ shtick that he pretty much gave me free license to run a vice operation in New York, as long as I didn’t mess with existing operations. How’s that for double-talk? I decided that if I was gonna do it, I’d do it BIG. And, I already knew a lot about New York’s so-called ‘elite’, so I opened up shop as ‘Doctor Vice’, and I had a very nice business prescribing whatever sick thrill people wanted.”
Townsend gave a nasty snicker. “Yeah, I had an office where I claimed that I was a psychiatrist, and people would come to me and I’d tell them that the root of all their problems was that they were frustrated, and the best thing for them to do was indulge in all those dark fantasies and get them out of the way. I set the Park Avenue crowd up with girls, boys, goats, drugs, orgies, whips, chains… oh yeah… and THIS time, I FILMED everything!”
“So you blackmailed your clients?”
“Not THIS time! This time, I learned! Blackmailing for money is a mug’s game. Nope, I’ve figured out the best use for blackmail is leverage. Get people to do things they’d never do on their own, and the money just keeps rolling in. Squeeze them for cash, and it’s only a matter of time before they come for you with a gun. The blackmail that I got as ‘Dr. Vice’ has done me a WORLD of good over the years. Hell, it worked so well, that only a couple of months after that fucking Dark Avenger creep busted up my ‘practice’ I was in Hollywood, doin’ the SAME THING. But, again, I kept learning and innovating. That time, I dressed it up as a ‘Pleasure Cult’, and called myself ‘Bacchus’. It was the same scam, only with a bunch of the same hoo-hah that you see in New Age stuff. Y’know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they hadn’t lifted a bunch of that from me… And y’know? I learned a lot from running the Bacchus racket. That time, no Dark Avenger, no Sky Hawkins aviation hero, no crusading reporter, no nosy private eye came along to screw it up. Nope, I made sure that my patsies provided all the security, and it just kept chugging along for four years, with more and more money, and more and more blackmail just churning out like a machine…”
“Then why’d you give it up, if you weren’t chased away from it?”
“Not enough time. I had too many balls up in the air, and the whole Bacchus thing needed too much of my time and personal attention. My style requires that I move around a lot, and that meant being out on the road most of the time, which even with air travel, meant that I simply couldn’t BE there enough to really keep track of things. Things almost went south on me a couple of times. Come to think of it, one of those times was how I met Marla Fontaine…
THE BIG WAKE-UPCALL
Hollywood was in the business of selling dreams. So was the rest of Los Angeles. Hollywood sold celluloid dreams of love, action, adventure, horror, daring-do and screwball comedy. The rest of Los Angeles sold dreams of stardom, fame, glamour, wealth, sunshine, and new beginnings. ‘Bash’ Brannigan sold dreams of justice and redemption. And occasionally, the truth. But for the most part, he sold facts and secrecy.
The man known as ‘Bacchus’ also sold dreams. He sold dreams of lust, dope, release and thrills without consequences, wrapped up in paper called ‘transcendence’, and tied up with glib philosophizing. Right at the moment, Bacchus was having a sale. One of the salesgirls appeared briefly at the window of the converted Spanish Mission, only to disappear with a giggle when a customer asked for a demonstration. Father Junipero Sierra would not have approved of her sales technique.
Brannigan only had to knock once, despite the loud jazz playing inside. Marla opened the door. She was an ice cream blonde, cool and sweet and smooth, just begging for you to lean over and take a lick. She stood there, looking at him, and for a moment, just a moment, he saw a frightened girl who had just realized that her tough, exciting boyfriend really was the ruthless hood that her mother kept telling her that he was. Then, like she was pulling a sheet up over her head to keep out the boogieman, she was the cool, collected, hard-as-nails young starlet again, ready and willing to do whatever it took. “I’ve talked to Bacchus. He’s willing to buy the pictures from you.”
“You found out how Louise got the photos out of Bacchus’ safe in the first place?”
“Yeah. There’s a spyhole that Bacchus uses to keep tabs on people in his office while they think he’s out. She was in it when Bacchus opened his safe, so she saw the combination and wrote it down.”
“So, I give Bacchus these prints and the negatives, and the first thing that he’ll do is put them in his safe. While I keep his goons watching me-”
“I’ll be in the spyhole, watching him open the safe. I’ll pass the combination to you-”
“And I’ll leave, get back in, open the safe, and get all the blackmail that he has on all his ‘disciples’,” Brannigan finished it. “Yeah. It works. With all that, we should have enough to prove that Bacchus is running a blackmail factory. And when the DA starts shaking the tree, someone’s going to spill that Bacchus had Louise killed.” Brannigan paused. “You’re sure that Bacchus had her killed?”
For a moment, Marla’s eyes were an old woman’s, full of rage and regrets and painful recollection of lost yesterdays. “I’m sure. Louise was a ditz, but she was too smart to get hooked on the dope. And Bacchus is just the type to use dope as a weapon to get rid of someone who crossed him.”
It was the look in her eye that did it for Brannigan. He pulled her to him and kissed her. Hell, compared to what the skinny guy in the arm chair was doing to the brunette, it was tame. He remembered what his older brother told him: ‘If you ever get with a classy dame, don’t bother trying to be nice and polite and genteel. Be the working class lug you are. ‘Cause odds are, that’s what she wants. She’s bored with the nice, well-brought up, clean-cut college boys, and she wants it rough. Either that, or she’s seen better than anything you can come up with. Either way, trying to be all sophisticated and such is a waste of your time and hers too.’ Brannigan held her to him and reminded her that even with all the pervy kink that she had to wade through, that there was still simple honest passion in the world. The ice cream blonde melted against him, and he wished that he had some chocolate syrup.
Then the man himself walked up, all polish and sophisticated charm. “Ah, you must be Bash Brannigan, two-fisted, hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving private dick.” Bacchus was trim, sleek, well-groomed, well-dressed, and absolutely repulsive, in the way that only someone who spends too much time in front of a mirror can be. His eyes sparkled with malicious glee, and he must have spent as much time maintaining his smirk as he did his brilliantine hair. “Come! We have business to take care of.”
Bacchus’ office looked like a movie set of the office of a debonair man of the world, complete with the big Chinese vase. It’s one thing to sell dreams; it’s another to use your own product. “So, you have the pictures?” Bacchus asked, getting right to the point, against type.
“Yep,” Brannigan said, just as to the point, and with more right. He pulled the envelope from his coat and held it up. “So. How much would you pay for these?”
“Are the negatives in there as well?”
“Of course. Holding out on a deal is a punk move.”
“Well then! How does two thousand sound?”
“Sounds like I may actually be able to meet my bills this year.”
“Let’s make it two thousand, five hundred,” Bacchus offered. “If you’re just getting by, then you’re losing.”
“You’re pushing an extra five hundred on me?”
“You can’t shake a man’s hand with a tight fist, as my father always used to say,” Bacchus said with a chipper tone.
“I’ve never said ‘No’ to fifty bucks, let alone five hundred.”
Bacchus counted out an extra five hundred and pushed the stack of spending stuff at Brannigan. Brannigan put the envelope on the desk, and the hostages were exchanged. Brannigan tucked the cash away immediately, but Bacchus opened the envelope and closely studied each picture. “Those are the real thing,” Brannigan assured him.
“Oh, I’m sure they are. I’m more interested in figuring out who took these pictures.”
“You mean, you didn’t?”
“Of course not. My doctrine is based on trust and security. My followers have to face their demons and deal with them. To do that, they need to feel completely safe in this place. Nobody here judges or condemns them, let alone tries to exploit them. If even one of my disciples was to be blackmailed, the delicate sense of security that I’ve developed here would pop like a soap bubble. I’m doing good work here, Brannigan; it would be a tragedy if all my hard work were destroyed because one vulgar moron got greedy.”
“I have a pretty good idea as to who took those pictures,” Brannigan offered.
“Louise Rivers. She is - or at least, was, one of your, ah, ‘acolytes’.”
“She was found yesterday night with a needle in her arm and enough coke in her bloodstream to have half of Burbank up and dancing.”
Bacchus paused. “That’s odd… Louise knew what she was doing. There was no way that she’d accidentally overdose.”
“You allow your ‘acolytes’ to dope?”
“As long as they have a grip on it. Half of my disciples experiment. It would be hypocritical to deny my acolytes the same experience.”
“And do YOU dope, Mr. Bacchus?”
Bacchus smiled a smile like a coyote with a jackrabbit in a corner. “I’ve moved beyond the need for pharmaceutical stimulation. But I did travel through that country, Mr. Brannigan. My teachings are about the journey to enlightenment. To come to the light, you must pass through darkness.” The smile flickered. “Do you have any ideas as to who killed her?”
“A bunch of ‘em. Louise knew some very… how did you put it… vulgar people?”
“I’m not surprised. Many of my acolytes have less than elevated acquaintances. Did any of them get these pictures?”
“For a short time. Y’know, Mister Bacchus, a lot of people have died in the last three days, just for a bunch of pictures of a guy dressed up in high heels, a corset and a blonde wig, and getting cornholed by another guy.”
“Mister Brannigan, I’m sure that you’re aware that Tex Granger is a big name in cowboy pictures. That requires that he adhere to a very strict, very narrow interpretation of masculinity. But, being human, instead of iron and rawhide as Zane Gray would demand, he has a feminine side. So, here, he’s safe to explore that feminine side. The basic nature of ‘Sin’, Mr. Brannigan, is the forbidden. If something is forbidden, it is our nature to want it. It becomes desirable, even an obsession, and it can rule our lives, both the obsession and the fear of the obsession. But, when you can have it, in safety and without recrimination, you can get used to it. You can see it with clear eyes. Tex can come here, explore his feminine side, and in time, he’ll see how silly he looks in thatgetup. The illusion and fear disappear like mist in the morning light. And then he can move on, secure in his manhood. But all that goes away, if these pictures get in the papers.”
Brannigan smiled the smile of a bartender giving absolution to a steady customer. “Who am I to point fingers? He wants to sashay around like Mae West? Let him! I’m two and a half grand richer, and I have a good idea as to who killed Louise Rivers. Once that’s settled, as far as I’m concerned, it’s none of my business.”
Bacchus raised a lofty eyebrow. “Oh? Who do you suspect?”
“I’ll… share that with the boys at Homicide,” Brannigan hedged. “They get testy if they get cut out of the loop too often.”
Bacchus started up with a little more of his home-brewed philosophy of pleasure and excess, but Brannigan excused himself, and headed for the less rarified escape offered by the bar. He was communing with the spirits - the 120 proof kind - when he felt a touch, a tug as of a butterfly flitting by and grazing his hip pocket with a wing. He sipped the bourbon and casually slipped his hand into his pocket, seemingly taking in all the diligent meditation and enlightenment that was going on all around him. When he did look at the slip of paper, it was as simple and cryptic as gut-deep fear could make it: ‘13-44-21. Guitar’. Brannigan finished taking the mass, paid the weary-eyed priest at the altar, and left with the air of one who’s made his peace with God.
Brannigan left and waited on the side of the road just within sight of the old Mission. At about two, the last of the faithful had either left or were in their cells for the night. Brannigan slowly drove up to the bend and left his car. As promised, the side door was unlocked, with a key in the hole and the key to Bacchus’ office attached to it on a ring. If anything, Bacchus’ office was even tackier by the light of the match that Brannigan lit to find his way. The safe was behind a rather morbid picture of a man playing a guitar, done in a very ugly shade of pink. It took Brannigan a couple of tries to dial out ‘sesame’ on the safe, but Ali Baba’s treasure cave opened up. Inside, along with several bundles of cash, he found a folder stuffed with pictures, an accordion playing a sad song of sin, shame and satori infinitely delayed. This was the key to a huge walk-in closet full of skeletons, one of which could be convinced to finger whoever Bacchus told to silence Louise Rivers. Bacchus sold dreams that turned to nightmares, but his dream store was about to be shut down.
Brannigan stole out of the mission, silent as the Sandman. But there was another ghostly figure in a pale silk robe waiting by his car. “Marla! What are you doing here?” Brannigan asked, keeping his voice as low as he could.
“Bash! I tried to get to the spyhole, but Bacchus’ goon Carver was guarding it! So, I went to his bedroom, and I found this.” She held up an identical accordion folder.
Suddenly, it all made sense to Brannigan. Bacchus may have been a lot of things, but he was no chump. No wonder he’d been so generous and easy to deal with. He’d known about Bash and Marla all along. He’d even seen them together, just before they went into his office, and he’d smiled about it. The folder in his hands was full of fakes. Worse than fakes, they’d probably implicate powerful people who’d never even heard of Bacchus, and he’d be lucky if he just got chucked in the hoosegow for years on a blackmail rap.
Then Bacchus appeared out of the darkness, looking more dangerous than a guy who wears silk pajamas to work has any right to, with a .45 in his hand. “You disappoint me, Marla,” Bacchus said before he let off a round.
Marla gave out a sharp cry, clutched her stomach, and fell. When Brannigan pulled her hand away, there was a bullet hole and her immaculate exquisite front, that temple to life and passion, was desecrated by a hot, sticky red stain. Brannigan pulled out his .38 and let off a couple of shots at Bacchus, who seemed surprised that Marla hadn’t just fallen down, like in the movies. Brannigan called out her name, but by the limp boneless way she moved, he could tell that she was dead. He let off a few more shots in Bacchus’ direction, dropped the folder he was carrying, and took the folder from Marla’s hand.
A sickness in his heart and a fire in his gut, Brannigan tore off in his car. It had started off as a bad business, and it had finished up worse. It was too late for Marla. All that Brannigan could give her was Justice. Yes. Justice for Marla, and Louise, and Phil, and Pepe. Bacchus’ sweet dream was all a lie. He was setting up everyone, all the way down the line. But he’d made one mistake, and now this bundle of truth would put the lie to all of Bacchus’ glib fantasies. Now, Bacchus was the one who was going to get the Big Wake-Up Call.
Bacchus walked up and looked down at Marla. “What IS this? I never even came near you! That was just a warning shot!”
Marla sat up with a minxish twinkle in her eye. “You underestimated Brannigan,” she said with a giggle in her voice. “He’s been gamed and suckered ever since I walked into his office, so he was expecting some sort of last-minute twist. The first thing that he would have done was he would have checked the pictures you foisted off on him, and spotted something. Then he would have known, and he would have come after both of us.”
“So, you GAVE him the REAL pictures? Those could ruin EVERYBODY!”
Marla chuckled. “Of course not. I handed him the second set of phonies, just in case ‘Sir Galahad’ took both sets when he lit out of here on his white charger.”
“Very niiiccceee…” Bacchus said with an appreciative smile that was very different from his usual smirk.
“Besides, now Brannigan will be absolutely convinced that he’s got the real goods,” Marla said as she stood up. “He’s all revved up and ready to charge at the windmill.”
Bacchus nodded. “Okay, but we still don’t know who broke into my safe and stole those pictures of Tex.”
“Oh, that was Louise,” Marla said off handedly. “She stole them so she could pressure Tex into getting her into his pictures. She never could wrap her head around the fact that the camera just didn’t like her.”
Bacchus nodded again, a little more slowly, showing his appreciation for Marla’s moxie. “And she probably mentioned that to some of her junkie buddies, the little idiot. So, any idea as to who did kill Louise? ‘Cause I didn’t.”
“Oh, that was Phil. He shot her up while she was all hopped up and helped himself to the photos. But I took care of him.”
Bacchus tisked. “Okay, but we need someone to hand over to the cops. There are too many dead bodies lying around, they need to have someone they can pin all of this on. If we don’t have a fall guy, some other lox like Brannigan will come snooping around, and there goes this sweet crib. And it can’t involve the Cult, either.”
“Why not pin it on Brannigan?” Marla asked, picking the blood pack from her ruined dress. “He’s killed two people on this already, the cops are already giving him the evil eye over that, and he was unconscious in the next room when Louise was killed. It shouldn’t be that hard to convince them that he killed her for the five-pound stash of pure cocaine.”
“Five pounds of pure cocaine? Where’d she get that?”
“She got it from Pepe, using the photos as collateral.”
“And where is this five pound stash of pure cocaine that nobody heard about before?”
“In the back of Brannigan’s desk drawer in his office. I stashed it there, after I found it in Louise’s purse. Hey, I didn’t like the idea of having that much coke anywhere near me when I could be picked up and searched by the cops at any time. And I could have gotten it back any time I wanted; Brannigan doesn’t spend a lot of time doing paperwork. And Brannigan thinks that I have a thing for him, the whole ‘Sir Galahad rescuing the fair damsel’ shtick, so he wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if I visited him at his office when the heat died down.”
Bacchus raised a suspicious eyebrow. “And why are you going through all of this? I didn’t ask you to find those pictures.”
Marla smirked and brushed up against Bacchus. She held her face close to his, a gleam in her eye. “Because I know a class act when I see one. Normally, I get big lugs like that lummox, Brannigan, guys who think that they can take on the world with a gun, fists of iron and a fifth of bourbon. Guys who think that if they can see two inches beyond their nose, and are smart halfway around the track, then they’re geniuses. Chumps. But you? You’re smart all the way around the track. You’re not perfect, but this ‘pleasure cult’ thing? That’s smart. You’re the real thing, Bacchus- or whatever your name really is. You’re going places, and I want to go there too. How’s that for straight up?”
Bacchus laughed. “GOD, you are such a bitch.”
“Yeah, but I’m YOUR bitch.”
Bacchus grinned and offered Marla his elbow. “Sounds like a deal. Now, I know a guy on the Narco Squad who needs a big bust. Which drawer did you say you stashed that coke in?”
Townsend keyed in a sequence on his computer and the large display that was showing where all the Townsend branches and affiliates were changed. Now it showed a digitization of an old black-and-white ‘glamour’ headshot of a woman who was very beautiful, in the style of actresses in the 1930s and 40s. There was an inscription: ‘All my love, Marla’. “Marla Fontaine,” Townsend said with a sigh and an atypically tender expression on his face. “Okay, she was born Doris Pierdolic in Hamtramck, but down where she really lived,” Townsend thumped his midsection with his fist, “she was always Marla Fontaine. God, women like her don’t come along very often. I admit it, when I first hired her on at the Bacchus compound, she was just another round-heeled Hollywood starlet wannabe, a pretty face, a nice rack, and a pair of good legs, and not much else. God, there were so many of them, back then. It seemed like every Podunk Princess in the US, Canada and Mexico headed either to New York to become a model, or to Hollywood to try to become a star. Marla could’a been big. She could act. GOD, could she act! She could be innocent, she could be posh, she could be naïve, she could be spunky, she could be vulnerable, she could be wholesome, she could be wild, she could be snotty… she could be anything that pushed a man’s buttons. And smart! Sharp as a whip, picked up just like that!” he snapped his fingers. “She not only kept UP with me, but she pointed out where I was assuming things, where I was forgetting things, where I was overlooking things. And she never rubbed it in my face. She was just one more moll… at first… but then we clicked. MAN, it was GOOD with Marla!
Townsend leaned back with a nostalgic smile on his face. “Oh Yeah… 1938… Even then, I knew I was on a roll. I mean, it was all going just SO RIGHT! I was all OVER the place! New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Havana, Rio De Janeiro, Buenos Ares, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo, Shanghai, Peking, Singapore, Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad… if there was action, I was there, mixing it up with the best of ‘em… Red Brotherhood, White Brotherhood, Invisible College, the Adepts, Illuminati, Black Dragons, Nazi agents, British Intelligence, Comintern, Grand Hall, the Great White Hunters, Doc Wilde, the Brain Trust, the Mystic Six… of course, it helped that I was running the ‘Master of the World’ network, and I usually knew more about what any one of them was doing than they did. And, of course, the Masters knew even more about what was going on than even I did. If I missed anything with my connections, they gave me the heads-up and made sure that I did what I wanted them to. Still, that didn’t stop the occasional cluster fuck, with me tripping up other Red Brothers.”
“The Red Brotherhood was fielding other agents besides you?”
“Oh, dozens of them! Hundreds, if you count the dupes and pawns, who didn’t know who they were working for; hundreds of thousands, if you count the people that the agents and dupes controlled. Of course, that could get confusing. I remember, one time in 1936, I was pulling this land-grab in Montana, your basic ‘They’re trying to take over the ranch!’ anthill poke to get the locals to wise up to the way the local banks were screwing them. This masked cowboy hero type was screwing up my moves seven ways to Sunday, and finally, I had him down on the floor, a gun in his face…”
THE MIDNIGHT RANGER RIDES AGAIN!
The door to the barn burst open, and the Copperhead’s men dragged in Old Man Nettlehurst’s spitfire daughter Hope, kicking, screaming and cussing. “DAD!” Hope wrestled herself free from her captors and threw herself around her father, bound as he was. “Why are you doing this?” she yelled at the Copperhead, cursing him for her father’s bruises.
“Perhaps, now that YOU are here, this stubborn fool will finally see sense! Sign your water rights over to me, and all this unpleasantness will finally be over…” the Copperhead gloated through his copper-mesh mask.
“We’ll NEVER sign over our ranch to YOU, you FIEND!” Nettlehurst spat his fury at the villain.
“I’m not asking you to sign over your property, just your water rights,” the Copperhead said in tones of abject reasonability. “I’ve already GOT the land rights, but if I don’t have the water rights, the property is worthless.”
“What do you mean, you’ve already GOT the land rights?”
The Copperhead sighed heavily. “LOOK, you’ve already LOST. This isn’t about you, it’s about the BANK. Remember that loan you took out ten years ago? There’s a balloon payment-”
“Balloon payment?” Nettlehurst asked, befoggled. “But I didn’t buy any damn fool BALLOON!”
The Copperhead sighed heavily again. “‘Balloon payment’ means that after years of a modest regular loan repayment, the final payment is ten times the regular amount.”
“TEN TIMES?” Nettlehurst yelped like a scalded cat. “I’m barely making the payments as it IS! I can’t afford TEN TIMES that much!”
“Yes, that’s the entire point, you sodbuster!” the Copperhead hissed. “You pay all the money loaned back, plus a big interest, and the bank STILL gets to foreclose on you! That’s how these things work! But, if I can get the water rights to the entire valley…”
“Put that paper down and step away from the rancher,” a low voice from the door of the barn, said like a cold wind from off the prairie.
All eyes turned to the door, where a figure all in black, tall and lean, wearing a black full-face mask, stood holding two six-shooters trained on the scene. “Thank Heavens!” Hope gushed in the tones of the damsel rescued, “It’s the Midnight Ranger!” The Copperhead seemed to comply and set the document down on the table. But at the last moment, he turned the table over, and threw the lantern at the Midnight Ranger.
The Copperhead’s henchmen leapt at the opening and rushed the Ranger, forcing his guns from his hands. Though they outnumbered him six-to-one, the Midnight Ranger fought bravely, using the layout of the barn to his advantage and put them down one by one, until only one of them was left to weather his savage barrage of iron fists.
But, while the Copperhead may have been a sneak, a cheat and a thief, he was not a coward. As his last man went down, the Copperhead broke a chair over the Midnight Ranger’s head, sending him reeling. The Copperhead lit into the Midnight Ranger with a withering rain of blows of his own, and then had him down in the hay. They grappled for a bit, and they managed to pull the masks from each other’s faces.
“John? John DILLINGER? Dammit, Johnny, what are you doing here?”
“Excuse me? John… Dillinger… was a masked cowboy hero?”
“Oh hell yeah! And he was a damned sight better at it than most of the masked cowboy yutzes running around in those days.”
“You KNEW John Dillinger?”
“Knew him? Hell, I RECRUITED him!”
“John Dillinger was a Red Brotherhood agent?”
“Wasn’t that the gist of what I just said?”
“Why would the Red Brotherhood recruit John Dillinger?”
“Why WOULDN’T we?”
“He was a murderer and a thief!”
“SO? Some of my best friends are murderers and thieves! Look, John Dillinger was a primo candidate for recruitment by the Red Monks: he was smart, he was tough, he was savvy, he was tenacious, he was dynamic, he was charismatic, he was daring, he wasn’t afraid to kill or to die, he didn’t give a shit about trivialities like the Law and he LOVED to stir things up. So, when things were getting too hot for him, I offered him an out, and set up this one punk named Sam Yeames to take the fall for him at the Biograph theater. Ana Sage got her moment of fame as ‘the Lady in Red’, and John and I took a car out into the hills, where I dropped him off at the Monastery. Next thing I heard from him, he was wearing a black full-face mask as ‘the Midnight Ranger’.” Townsend guffawed. “I guess he still had a few cowboy fantasies to work out.”
“When and how DID Dillinger die?”
“When? He’s still alive!”
“What? But he’d have to be over a hundred!”
“Yeah, and so am I. Last I heard, John had handed in his cowl as the Street Judge in Detroit, and he was gonna lay low for a while before he started anything up again.”
Redford paused and raked over his memory. “The Street Judge…? But… wasn’t the Street Judge a superhero who died two years ago?”
“Meeehhh… Superhero? More like a masked vigilante. But yeah, John switches off between being a superhero and a supervillain; whichever way stirs things up the most, he figures. Now, when I drop an identity for whatever reason, I just quietly let that character fade into the background. Let ‘em wonder… Besides, I might want to bring that act back some day. But John? John LOVES a good funeral; especially his own. Nothing tickles his fancy like hearing guys who hated his guts go on about what a great person he was. John says that nothing hits people right where they live, gets them up on their hind legs, like someone important to them dying.”
Townsend paused. “Where were we before we got off onto John? Oh Yeah, 1938… Good times…”
“How did World War Two affect your ‘good times’?”
“World War II? It was GREAT for me! Okay, it was pretty hard on the people of Europe, but I was having the time of my life! Everyone was shitting bricks trying to figure out whether or not the Master of the World was behind Hitler.”
“Were you?” Redford waved a hand. “Or… at least… were the Red Brothers?”
Townsend shook his head. “Not us. Or, at least, not me or anyone I personally knew.”
“Really? Because, from the way that you describe Dillinger, Hitler sounds like a prime candidate to be recruited by the Red Monks - he was highly intelligent, extremely motivated, had noteworthy physical courage, and his personal charisma was legendary. He came out of nowhere, a rootless nobody who rose to become the master of most of the European continent. He comes out of left field with this uncanny mastery of oratory that he uses like an evil spell, and like you, he had almost no compunction against lying, cheating, breaking his word, killing and destroying anyone in his path.”
“Oh, I agree, he definitely looked and acted like a member of the fraternity,” Townsend allowed. “But I met him a bunch of times in various guises, and I threw recognition signals at him, and he never even blinked. To be honest, I think that he started out as a White Brotherhood pawn, and got turned by the Nagas.”
“Forget I said that, you don’t have the foundation, and I’m doing way too much explaining as it is.”
“And speaking of the explanations,” Redford said with a weary tone, “I STILL don’t understand why you’re telling me all of this.”
“Keep your hat on! I’m getting there! And you WILL get it.”
“Okay, if not the Red Brotherhood, then who WAS controlling the Nazis?”
“And nobody ‘controlled’ the Kremlin, or the American Federal Government, or Wall Street, or the International Banking Community, the Vatican or even the Freemasons. They’re simply too big. Nobody’s flat-out controlled a major institution or community since the American Civil War. Things are simply too big and too complex and too watched. You control factions, and use them as puppets. So, different Orders controlled different factions within the Nazi regime, but, despite everyone’s best interests, Der Fuhrer was the guy with the last say. I have never seen a more paradoxical package of gullibility and paranoia than Adolph Hitler: he saw conspiracies everywhere - he really DID believe in the International Jewish Conspiracy - but he would swallow some of the most unbelievable horseshit you could imagine, if you pitched it to him right.
“On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Joe Stalin was a Red Brotherhood stooge.”
Redford waved that aside. “But if you were the Master of the World, how could you also be a Nazi agent?”
“Nazi agent? Yeah, I was a Nazi agent and the Master of the World. I was also an agent for the OSS, the FBI, the American State Department, G-2, American Naval Intelligence, the British Foreign Office, the Special Branch, MI-5, MI-6, Polish Intelligence, Turkish Intelligence, and the OGPU (that was Russian Intelligence back then). All under different names.”
“Well, that definitely explains some of the… confusion… that seemed to run rampant in Intelligence circles.”
Townsend chuckled evilly. “Hey, it was fun, profitable, gave me all KINDS of benefits and clearances, and the Masters loved it, and you know what? Doing all that took less of my time than even the Master of the World network did.”
“I’ll bet that most of your reports were on your own people,” Redford said sourly. “Aside from your espionage efforts, how did the War affect your business?”
“Okay, I hadda be a lot more low-key, especially about my Nazi intelligence and sabotage efforts. Y’know, you’d be amazed at how patriotic American gangsters and hoodlums are. If Charlie Luciano had known that I was doing work for the Nazis, he’d have plugged me himself. I dropped most of my more outrageous personalities and stuck to nice, low-key crimes: war profiteering, black marketing, like that. It was like Prohibition again, only without all the turf wars! Due to all the wartime restrictions, people were willing to pay crazy money for simple stuff, like meat, gas, tires, silk, all that! And suddenly everyone’s a fucking PATRIOT! All the heroes, with the exception of some of the better established ‘old guard’ types, like Champ, were running around in red-white-and-blue, with these ridiculous patriotic names, <heee!> It was like the Fourth of July, all year round!
“And kid sidekicks! All over the place! I thought that there was a mass breakout from the national closet, until I figured it out.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Redford sighed. “What was so significant about guys in flag jammies running around in rather questionable situations with young boys?”
“Well, when I finally ran into one of those guys, I noticed that the big guy in the pair was definitely the muscle, but the *ahem!* ‘kid’ was the brains of the outfit. He was the one who was really calling all the shots. I bagged the ‘kid’, and it turned out that he wasn’t a kid at all! He was a guy in his early-to-middle twenties, with a real baby face and a costume that was designed to make him LOOK younger at a distance. When the ‘hero’ came to rescue the ‘kid’, I noticed that he was… not so much upset, as confused… as if he NEEDED the smaller guy for something. I let them get away and followed them. The first thing they do when they’re out of sight, is the smaller guy reaches into his belt buckle, pulls out a small phial, puts it into an injector, and shoots up the big guy. The big guy calms down and looks a lot better.
“I put that together with the fact that right after Pearl Harbor, a bunch of so-called ‘Mad Scientists’, and may I add the better ones, the ones who actually WERE geniuses, not just nuts, suddenly dropped completely out of sight. As in, *poof!* ‘I’m sorry but Dr. Demented has left town and left no forwarding address, and even left his hunchbacked assistant behind’. Now, before they dropped out of sight, most of those guys had been involved in what they called ‘Human Optimization Theory’. Y’know, using drugs, surgeries, implants, conditioning, radiation, and all like that to make people stronger, tougher, smarter, faster, all that ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ hoo-hah?”
“You’re saying that the Government hired those lunatics to create a super-soldier program?”
“Hey, if they’re doing it on their own, they’re ‘lunatics’; if they’re working for Uncle Sam, they’re ‘eccentric’. Now, speaking as someone who saw those yahoos operate up close too many times, I can tell you that the ‘supervillains’ that those ‘mad scientists’ created really were borderline cases. They really would go berserk at the drop of a hat, and they were usually pretty close to the edge. Now, given that the best use of an expensive super-soldier is as a deep-penetration covert ops agent, like for the OSS or the SOE, a time bomb with legs is NOT what you want. Now, these ‘flag heroes’ had a strange tendency to pop up, make a lot of noise on the Home Front for, maybe two or three months, and then sort of drop out of sight for a bit. Then, they’d show up again, and if you looked REAL CLOSE, you could see that it wasn’t the same guy!
“What I figured out, was that the Army had recruited my old buddy Dr. Demented and his chrome-domed colleagues and put them to working on a super-soldier process. I found out that after April of 1942, every, and I DO mean EVERY white man or woman inducted into the service was given an ‘allergy test’, and those that passed that test - which were about 70% of the inductees - were given a barrage of ‘antibiotic’ shots. Most of which were legit antibiotics; but there were about four or five prep drugs for the various super-soldier processes that they were using.”
“Why only the ‘white’ inductees?”
“Hey, Dusty… this was 1940s America we’re talkin’ about here… Nazis or no Nazis, there was NO WAY the Brass was spending money to create a Mexican or Chinese superhero, let alone a BLACK superhero. Now, as I said about the ‘supervillains’ that these guys had created back in the 30s, most of those super-soldiers tended to be a little… twitchy…”
“As in ‘go into crazed super berserks and kill people with their bare hands’?”
“Yeah. No way were they letting these guys loose, so they could kill thousands of their own troops. Only GENERALS get to do that!”
“So, the ‘kid sidekicks’ were actually controls for the ‘Flag Heroes’ as they learned how to use their super powers?” Redford asked.
“Yeah, I figure that the Brass decided that they hadda see how their super soldiers could handle being in a real firefight. Get the goon ready for the field, and see if they could take the stress. If the guy could handle it without flipping out, they liaison-ed him over to the OSS, who sent him into Europe to do all that spy-movie behind-the-lines stuff; if not, they crammed him into the ‘Captain Freedom’ costume and sent him to get his ass shot off in one of those ‘Cap wades into the Nazis and tears them a new one’ scenes that the newsreels loved so much. They usually gave him an amphetamine or other drug, so he was so amped up that he never felt it when he got shot. Of course, the second that the drug wore off, super-soldier or no super-solider, he usually went into SHOCK and died, poor chump. But they always had another patriotic schmuck waiting in the wings.”
“But it was always the same guy in the newsreels, giving the inspirational talk.”
Townsend gave him a mildly disgusted glower. “Tell me… is the word ‘actor’ new to your vocabulary?”
Redford looked confused. “There’s something wrong there… even if these WWII super-soldiers were mentally unstable, why were there so many of them? And what happened to them after the war?”
“As for the ‘why there were so many of them’ question, like I told you, they shot up every white guy and gal who entered the service, and tested their reaction to the serums at the end of Basic. So, they had a pool of several MILLION to pick from. Which, by the way, has always been my favorite answer to the tricky question, ‘where did all those super powered mutants in the late 50s and early 60s come from?’”
“You think that they were the children of men or women who’d been in a super-soldier project?”
“Maybe. I’d say that it’s a good bet, especially when you consider the unbalanced number of whites among the first batch or so of super-powered mutants. But there are a bunch of theories about that; that just happens to be one of my favorites, especially since I was involved in it.”
“How were you involved in the super-soldier projects?”
“Simple! I stole notes and samples from the various projects, and sold them to the Nazis.”
“You sold government secrets to the NAZIS?”
“Yeah, I thought I told you that. Hey, I played fair! I sold the same secrets to the Soviets! And I stole Nazi and Soviet super-soldier secrets and sold them to the Americans.”
“And how did J. Edgar Hoover feel about the Army and Navy running these ‘Flag Heroes’ in the States?”
“Oh, he hated it. With a passion. He hated superheroes and vigilantes to begin with, he hated other government agencies poaching on his preserves even worse, and he hated the fact that his FBI was kept out of it almost entirely worst of all! But, it was wartime, and even Edgar knew better than to mess with the brass in wartime.”
“Okay… but what happened to them? The super-soldiers. I mean, they didn’t all DIE, did they?”
“Well, eventually, yeah. But one of the dirty little secrets of the Veteran’s Administration - and God knows, they have so many of them - is that a good chunk of those ‘flag heroes’ went on to become Post-War supervillains.”
“WHY?” Redford gasped, aghast. “They’d gone through all that to be heroes, why would they turn villain?”
Townsend chuckled. “Well, first of all, even the best of them were a little twitchy, like I said. And they’d seen things, done things, on orders that made them not so much heroes in their own eyes. Effective wartime covert operations aren’t exactly what you’d call compatible with 4-color morality. And finally, the reason that they were so pissed off, was that it had finally occurred to them that they’d just gone through hell for a nation that was run by Wall Street, the American industrial elite and a bunch of bankers who’d just as soon throw them all out on the street as look at them. Y’know? The REAL bad guys? The bastards who make guys who run around in Halloween costumes look like choir boys? BOY, were those guys MAD! WHOO!”
Townsend took another swig of whiskey. “After the war, things were… well… weird… on one hand, everyone, and I DO mean everyone, was fucking exhausted. At the same time, America was so smug, so fucking full of itself, that it really needed the Red Brotherhood to burst its bubble. I figured that the country needed a few years without any of my more outrageous stunts, so we stuck to the basic ‘Three Man Scams’ for a while.”
“’Three Man Scams’?”
“Y’know? The Brain- Beauty- and- Brute classic trio? Me, Marla and Lazlo?”
“I didn’t tell you about Lazlo Kurac? Oh well, Lazlo always did have the damnedest ability to slip people’s minds… and MAN, he could use that like a blackjack! Well, right about a year after I wrapped up the ‘Bacchus’ racket, I found myself needing a new brute. I’ve always found that having a brute, a big, tough, very strong, and not-terribly-bright guy, around to be very useful. But at first, I tended to run through them rather quickly, because they were not-terribly bright and got killed, or they were TOO bright and got killed - by me. Anyway, Marla mentioned that she had a cousin from Michigan, name of Lazlo, who fit the bill and was looking for a job.So I hired him. Well, I’ve had brutes who were bigger, or tougher, or stronger, or meaner, but not by much. And Lazlo knew how to take orders, he knew how to be fucking terrifying when needed, he knew how and when to blend into the background, he didn’t take women that seriously, and he was the kind of drunk who just rolled over and went to sleep. After singing for a while. And Lazlo was a great fighter. He started out as a professional wrestler, and MAN, did he have moves! But, better than all that, Lazlo was just… smart… enough… I didn’t have to explain things a thousand times, and he could think for himself, and he was smart enough to realize that I was a LOT smarter than he was. And best of all, he was LOYAL. USMC loyal. When your stock in trade is deceit and treachery, you really learn to appreciate loyalty. Yep, Lazlo was the package, and I was smart enough to treat him right.
“Anyway, Lazlo fit right in. The Three-Man Gang is a great bit, I really do miss it sometimes. You have as much punch as a bigger gang without a lot of the hassles of having twenty or more guys. You can move around faster and more quietly, you can get as much done, you can find out as much, and you can hit as hard but you don’t send up any signals the way that a big bunch of guys would have.
“Anyhoo, during the War, the Nazis had done a brisk business in walking away with Art and Cultural treasures, and the Masters had Marla, Lazlo and me busy tracking down various bits of mystic regalia that had gone lost.”
“Your masters wanted those dangerous relics removed from the general circulation?”
“No, they wanted those dangerous relics put back INTO circulation. Archeologists and occult investigators and monster hunters kept squirreling away idols and sacrificial daggers and cursed jewels, so they couldn’t hurt anyone. And, well, nothing knocks a guy out of a rut like having a demon coming after him. We shook down a few guys who had been sitting on troves of nasty toys, and passed them along to specialists that the Masters had, who made sure that the, ah, ‘toys’ found new homes.” Townsend shuddered. “Man, was I glad when the Masters let me move along from that.”
“Why?” Redford asked. “I would have thought that you would have jumped at the opportunity to gain a few power items.”
“Oh, HELL no! I stayed as far away from the ‘super-sorcerer’ set as I possibly could.”
“Why? Afraid of them?”
Townsend was completely unfazed by the question. “Yeah! And not just because they were throwing around green fire and purple lightning! Look, Dusty, remember when we first started this stirring little tete-a-tete, I told you about the ‘Law of Balance’? Now, this is one of the fundamental laws of Magic! Doesn’t it strike you as ODD that in the face of that immutable law, that you have guys flying around throwing bolts of energy and creating elaborate structures out of primal mystical force?”
“Yooouuu’ree saying,” Redford groped around a bit, “that by doing all that… these ‘super-sorcerers’ create all the things that rise up to face them? That they cause the demons and undead and things like that, which would have simply rested in obscurity, if they hadn’t been messing around with magic?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Townsend admitted. “Usually, it’s more a matter that the uber-nasty senses them, stops whatever unspeakable thing it’s doing at the moment, and goes to see what’s making all the ruckus. But, ah, I’ll admit, your basic super sorcerer does get the creepy-crawlies to come crawling out of the woodwork pretty good.” Townsend smiled nastily. “Why do you think we keep letting them find those stupid power rings, in the FIRST place?”
“Did the end of the war affect the Master of the World network?”
“Oh YEAH! The war had been great for the network, but the chaos at the END of the war? WOW! You had ex-Nazis all over the place! All of them willing to kill their own MOTHER to keep from getting handed over to the Allies, let alone the Soviets! MAN, did they have great stuff! Weapons, deadly chemicals, drugs, exotic technologies, codes, classified information, stolen artworks, stolen mystic relics, stolen tomes of lore, and more blackmail than you could possibly even THINK of! And not just Germans! You had French, Brits, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, White Russians, Cossacks, Georgians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Italians - pretty much anyone who signed on with the Nazis early on, thinking that they were backing a winner. And you had deserters from every side, and former partisans who couldn’t hang around the country that they’d killed for. And soldiers without a country or war. And beyond that, you had refugees of every stripe, people without money, papers, a past, a country, NOTHING! And all of them looking for the Master of the World, to take them in.
“I had so much manpower and firepower in the various cells of my network, that if I’d wanted to, I could have become the REAL Master of the World!”
Redford looked at Townsend skeptically, “And why DIDN’T you?”
“What? And get stuck with all the PAPERWORK? Hell, one of the things that Adolph told me as I was arranging his passage from the Azores to Havana, was that while he LOVED running Germany, he HATED the paperwork. He sloughed off as much of it as he could, but you know Germans; if he’d let them, they’d have buried him in paperwork.”
“Adolph? You transferred HITLER? From the Azores to Havana?”
“Yeah, Cuba was at war with Germany, but that was mostly for show. Batista didn’t do much, and they never expected me to move Adolph onto their turf. Still, he didn’t stay there long, and he had his own ticket to Argentina.”
“But Hitler was DEAD! He committed suicide! The Russians had his skull, which they identified through his dental records!”
“What? You believed the RUSSIANS? They let the Americans stew for twenty years, and then, when they could embarrass the West, THEN they came up with that skull. Nah, Adolph set up shop in Paraguay. Not that he lasted long. Losing the war really took it out of him. He managed to stick around just long enough to leech a bunch of ex-Nazis out of my ‘Master of the World’ network and form his ‘Fourth Reich’. He died in 1950, in Paraguay.”
“And he was succeeded by Martin Borman, I suppose.”
“No, by Heinrich Himmler. Who do you think got him to the Azores?”
“But Himmler was DEAD!”
“No, he just arranged it to look that way. Ol’ Heinrich was almost as slippery as me.”
“WHY did you HELP him?”
Townsend shrugged. “Okay, the death camps really did take it too far, even for the Red Brotherhood. Just processing people like cattle is just NOT what we were hoping the Nazis would do. But that was out of our hands. And, without the power base, the Nazis really stirred things up, without having the foundation to go too far. They kept sending out those Nazi supervillains for decades!” Townsend sighed. “There are still a few out there - Baron Blitzen, the Purifier, Kolonel Sturm, The Iron Cross, the Iron Claw, Sturmfahn, Totenkompf, Fenrir, whoever’s the latest Silver Skull - but let’s face it: the glory days of the Nazi supervillain are behind us.” Townsend let out a gustier sigh. “The Sonnenkinder have been SUCH a disappointment…”
Townsend perked up. “Still, ’49 was when I ran what I still think was my most audacious scam EVER. I like to think that even if the Masters hadn’t ordered something like it, I’d have come up with it, just for the yucks.” Townsend let out an evil chuckle. “The Masters wanted me to rattle the cage of the US Army, west of the Rockies. So, I went to all the nuthouses in the Midwest…”
VANGUARD FROM THE FORBIDDEN PLANET!
Jim Corbett, Dr. Jane Dale, and Professor Quartermane struggled frantically at their bonds as the gauge on the Illudium refining kiln showed the heat climbing up to disastrous levels. “If it reaches critical heat, the explosion could destroy this entire complex!” Prof. Quartermane gasped.
“Wait!” the eager young cadet blurted out, “Can you hear THAT?” There was a sound of roaring jets and rushing air and a man wearing a leather coat, a metallic helmet with eyeholes and an elaborate chest-mounted control for the rocket pack on his back landed nimbly with a whoosh.
““Thank Heavens!” Jane gushed in the tones of the damsel rescued, “It’s Sky Hawkins!”
As Sky Hawkins, King of the Rocketmen, rushed to free them, the Professor shouted, “Don’t waste time with us! Vent the heat from the Lydecker kiln, or the explosion will destroy us ALL!”
Sky Hawkins furiously adjusted the controls on the kiln, sending as much of the infernal heat upwards, resulting in a massive fiery explosion over the lab, which might have led someone viewing from the wrong angle to think that the lab had been destroyed. That taken care of, Sky Hawkins freed the three captives. “It’s a good thing that you managed to send me that warning, Jimmy. Varan and his hideous sun demon would have gotten me without it. Very well, what happened here?”
“The Altairians attacked and overpowered the guards,” Jane said as she massaged her wrists. “They’ve taken all the Illudium that we’ve been able to refine.”
“Hawkins!” Professor Quartermane gasped, “With only a few grains of refined Illudium Q-36, that Purple Monster, using the Explosive Space Modulator, launched a ship with a crew of over a hundred all the way from Altair to Earth! With all the Illudium that we’ve refined, he could return to Altair, and fuel an entire unstoppable invasion of saucer men!”
“Well then!” Sky Hawkins set his jaw firmly. “I’ll just have to stop those Radar Men from the Moon from launching!” With that, he charged off for a running leap and activated his strato-pack.
“Wait a minute,” Redford interrupted. “WHERE was he going? All this time, he’s been running around looking for you. HOW does he suddenly know where you are?”
“I LET him know,” Townsend said confidentially. “Some of those ‘heroes’ I fought couldn’t find their way to the water at the beach, and the scams often required that they find my ‘evil lair’ and get the whole ‘this is what’s really going on’ bullshit speech. So, over the years, I’ve come up with a real grab-bag of suddenly letting them know where my lair is, when I want them to find it.”
Zooming over the countryside looking for the Army trucks, Sky Hawkins spotted a huge silvery disk tucked away in a box niche of Piedras Blancas. “Great Scott! How could I have missed THAT?” Using his incredible body control and understanding of momentum and propulsion, Sky Hawkins cut the power on the strato-pack and came down near one of the Army trucks. A handful of ordinary Earthmen - mostly likely hired thugs with no loyalty to anything or anyone past their next paycheck - wearing average clothes and hats watched as green-skinned men in red tights with hoods and wide belts, and pasty-skinned men in blue tights with hoods and wide belts wrestled wooden crates from the Army trucks and carried them laboriously up the ramp to the door into the saucer. He recognized Varan in his purple robes and the cloche-like hat with the lightning bolt crest, and his voluptuous lieutenant, the astounding she-monster Nyoka, wearing a clinging latex outfit with a cape and a similar hat without a crest, at Varan’s side. Flanking them were a pair of the odd cylindrical robot enforcers. The robots were slow, but deadly and impervious to gunfire. Sky Hawkins knew that his only hope was to take out the flesh-and-blood hooligans quickly, before the robots tore him limb from limb.
Pulling his galvanostatic pistol, Sky Hawkins blasted three of the Earthling traitors. They clutched their midsections and fell. One of the others gasped, “It’s Sky Hawkins!” and fled. He was quickly followed by his equally cowardly companions.
“It’s Sky Hawkins!” Varan snarled. “Attack, my Zombies of the Stratosphere! The rest of you, keep loading the crates! We must get the Illudium Q-36 to Altair! Nyoka, initiate the Explosive Space Modulator!”
As the robots wound up and started to toddle in Sky Hawkins’ direction, the pasty-faced men in blue tights hustled to engage him in hand-to-hand combat. Sky Hawkins dropped several of them with his galvanostatic pistol, but the futuristic weapon was useless against the ferrobranium armor of the robots. He threw the useless weapon against the robot, but it bounced off, harmlessly. Sky Hawkins slipped out of the clumsy reach of the robots, and leapt fearlessly into the mass of Stratosphere Zombies, scattering them with his ferocity.
Seeing his vaunted forces thwarted by the actions of a single courageous Earthman, the cowardly Varan, the so-called ‘Sky Marshall of the Universe’, crept around the edge of the combat, trying to get to the ramp to the saucer’s entrance. Sending one last Zombie reeling with a devastating punch to the jaw, Sky Hawkins pounced upon the craven would-be conqueror of worlds. Sky Hawkins pounded Varan relentlessly, but the Menace from Outer Space was tougher than his effete appearance suggested. Varan returned Sky Hawkin’s blows with own, and forced the hero away from him. Varan pulled a deadly looking pistol from his robes and started to aim it at the Daredevil Ace, but Sky Hawkins kicked the gun from his hand. They grappled some more, but Sky Hawkins got the better of Varan. “You Fighting Devil-Dog!” Varan snarled.
But, just as Sky Hawkins was about to finish off Varan, there was a loud electrical snap. Above them, in a turret that rose from the saucer, Nyoka, Varan’s seductive lieutenant, was at a large mounted energy weapon. Ruthlessly, she shot Sky Hawkins in the back, saving her craven superior’s hide! The astounding she-monster smiled viciously as Sky Hawkins crumbled to the ground, stunned but not unconscious. As the robots pulled Sky Hawkins to his feet, she jeered, “Congratulations, Sky Hawkins! You will live to see the Day the World Ended!”
“Devil-Girl from Mars!” Sky Hawkins spat. “To think I almost married a monster from outer space!”
“Well, such things happen, when worlds collide!” Nyoka laughed.
“Laugh while you can!” Sky Hawkins snarled, “I’ve alerted the Sky Raiders and Federal Operative 99 to your location by my teleradiophone. And G-Men Never Forget!”
“Enough of this!” Varan snarled as he scrambled to his feet. “Nyoka! Execute Plan Nine!”
“Plan Nine?” she echoed back to him.
“YES! PLAN NINE! By my authority as the Master of the Stratosphere, so I command it!” Assisted by his hulking subhuman enforcer, Tobor the creature with the atomic brain, Varan scrambled into the saucer, followed by the robots as the Stratosphere Zombies held a furiously struggling Sky Hawkins. The Altairians dropped their crates and hurried after the Phantom from Space. The door to the saucer sealed, leaving no visible trace of the opening. The ring around the edge of the saucer began to turn, a light rotated around the circumference of the ship and a ‘whoom’ sound started repeating, and gaining in speed and pitch.
By the time that Sky Hawkins had completely wrested free from the Killers from Outer Space, the noise the saucer was making was at a furious pitch. Sensing that the spaceship was preparing to take off, Sky Hawkins engaged his stratopack, fought free of the Zombies and was off! Just as Sky Hawkins was clear of the landing site, there was an earth-shattering kaboom that destroyed everything in the clearing, throwing the Army trucks hundreds of yards. It was the day the sky exploded!
Twisting furiously to keep his strato-pack flying, Sky Hawkins righted himself and turned. He barely managed to catch sight of a gleaming silver disk traveling at incredible speeds, leaving a contrail of vapor behind it. “There’s no way that I can catch up with that thing!” Pulling the microphone for his teleradiophone up to his helmet, Sky Hawkins blurted out, “Sky Raiders! There’s a bogey entering your sector at these vectors! This is an order! Catch that thing from another world and shoot it down!”
The Sky Raiders tried valiantly to catch up with the disk. “What IS that? It looks like it came from outer space!”
“It’s not of this Earth! I can’t get a bead on it, it’s traveling too fast!” Then, somehow, the disk simply disappeared.
Sky Hawkins returned to what remained of the landing site. As Professor Quartermane, Jane Dale, and Jim Corbett drove up in a jeep with General Winfield, Sky Hawkins dragged the last of the crates with Illudium inside from the wreckage of the trucks. “Great Scott!” Winfield thundered, stepping from the jeep.
“What happened here?”
“The Altairian’s Explosive Space Modulator,” Sky Hawkins answered. “It launched the flying disk at the expense of the zombie-drones. They were blown to vapors.”
“You mean, they got the Illudium Q-36?”
“Only four or five crates of it. Not enough for an armada.” Sky Hawkins looked up to the heavens. “But enough that they can return, and try again. But this time, we’ll be ready for them. Now, we know that an explosive space modulator works, and we can take the battle to them. We’ve taken their measure, and in a battle beyond the stars, I’m sure that we can win.”
“Maybe so,” Professor Quartermane said, “but we can’t be complacent. Varan is only the most human-seeming of the Menaces from Outer Space. Others have come before, others will come again. We must be vigilant! The next time, we may not be so lucky…” Together, Sky Hawkins, Dr. Jane Dale, Professor Quartermane, General Winfield and Cadet Jimmy Corbett looked up into the sky, as if to see the perils that lay beyond it.
Redford blinked stupidly. “Okay, I’ll ask… HOW did you pull that off?”
Townsend grinned evilly. “The ‘Flying Saucer’ was a dummy. When we walked through the ‘hatch’, we passed through it and rode down an escalator.” Townsend made a comic expression of shocked wonder. “ooohh… futuristic… escalator… ooohhh…” he snickered. “We went down into a chamber well below the saucer. I explained that our ‘advanced Altairian technology’ made the saucer larger on the inside than it was on the outside, making it easier to move large masses interstellar distances. Total bullshit, of course, but they ate it up with ladles. Anyway, the ‘flying saucer’ shell was made up of this composite that looked solid and metallic and all that, but actually damn near disappeared in a big flash of blinding light if you burned it.”
“Which is what happened in that ‘launch explosion’,” Redford guessed.
“BINGO! We used the ‘escalator’ as a launch ramp for a smaller decoy that was made of dry ice spray painted with aluminum. The decoy was a smaller version of the ‘flying saucer’. I figured that in all the hubbub, no one would notice that it was only ten feet across, instead of fifty.”
Redford massaged his brow. “Let me guess - the decoy melted from the friction at high speeds, with the aluminum coating and low temperatures at high altitudes keeping it from melting until Air Force pilots actually managed to get a fleeting look at it. They reported tracking it on radar, and getting a very brief look at it before it disappeared without a trace.”
Townsend smiled indulgently. “You’re starting to get the picture.”
“What happened to all of your ‘Altairians’?”
“Oh, the ‘Zombies’ died in the blast, of course. As for the rest of them, Marla, Lazlo and I took them to these rows of ‘stasis modules’, and told them that in order to have enough food, water and air for the journey ‘back to the homeworld’, they’d have to go into cold sleep. And they bought it! They just climbed into the pods and put the breathing masks on and went to sleep, dreaming of finally going ‘home’.” Townsend finished with a snicker.
“How did you get all of those modules out before the Army found them?”
“Oh, I didn’t. The explosion that destroyed the ‘flying saucer’ façade had so much explosive that it dug a big hole in the ground and collapsed the cliff. It also collapsed the tunnel with the ‘escalator’, which I also lined with explosive. So they never found the chamber where all the modules were. We had another way out, so we just left the chumps there.”
Redford ran through that in his mind for a moment, until something clicked. “What were you piping them, through those breathing masks?”
“Oh, nothing really nasty. Nitrogen. Odorless, tasteless, colorless… they just drifted off to sleep and never woke up again. For all I know, they’re still there.” Townsend snickered. “I wonder what people will make of them, when they finally dig them up?”
“You just LEFT them there?” Redford asked, aghast.
“Yeah.” Townsend said in a ‘what’s your point?’ tone of voice.
“You could have just…”
“What? Sent them back to the nuthouse? Okay, they were a bunch of delusional paranoids with an unbelievable story - but there were FIFTY of them! If anyone noticed that a bunch of psychos who all disappeared at the same time suddenly reappeared at the same time with the same fantasy, it would have blown a perfect scam. Hey, I got a TON of money and good will selling those military secrets to the Chinese, all for a few props and a bunch of silly jumpsuits. There was no way that I was blowing all that for a bunch of laughing academy rejects.”
Redford shrank away from this man, who could so blithely dismiss betraying fifty people to their deaths, all for the sake of convenience. He needed another topic, so he leapt on one minor issue that had bothered him about Mephisto’s tale. “What where did that jet pack that that Sky Hawkins guy was zipping around with, come from?”
“Oh, the Army was testing ‘air infantry’ for decades. The Nazis got the jump on them with their Himmelsturmer units, and the Brass decided that they just HAD to have Buck Rogers flying units. So, they threw a lot of money at the idea, and tried damn-near everything that even looked like it might work. Jet packs, rocket packs, flying buckets…”
“Yeah, I know about that. But no flying rig that I’ve heard of was ever cleared for anything more complicated than PR stunts. But the rig that you describe Sky Hawkins flying sounds like a working combat-effective unit: small, lightweight, fast, quiet, and with a decent range. And from what you describe, it didn’t slow Hawkins down much in close-quarters combat, so it wouldn’t slow down, say, a Marine doing a ship-to-shore landing. What happened to it?”
Townsend smirked. “Well, the Army chose Hawkins to test-fly that thing for two excellent reasons: one, the man was a fucking DIVA at powered flight; he could fly just about fucking ANYTHING, even that POS. Second, he was absolutely fearless. And no, I don’t mean he was brave, he was fearless! He was fucking NUTS! He literally did *not* understand the concept of fear, or caution, or self-preservation. He would just charge into anything, no matter what the odds were. I used to think that it was shell-shock from his days flying Sopworths over the trenches in World War One; then I thought it was a Death Wish, then I thought that he’d pickled his brain with drinking, and more recently, I thought that it might be survivor’s guilt over all the people that died because of his jackass stunts. Now? I just think that he was nuts. And believe me, the only person in the world who could have made the X-RP67 work was Hawkins. Everyone else who tried it broke their necks. The thing only had one speed that actually got a person off the ground, at about, oh, 60 mph or so. It was like being shot out of a cannon; you pointed in a direction, and off you went! And, if you were very, very lucky - or Sky Hawkins - you landed in a bruised heap. Otherwise, you broke your neck. They never did figure out a workable landing sequence for that thing.”
“The X-RP67’s other fatal flaw: the fuel was unstable as all hell. One day, while they were testing… something… Hawkins was flying, like always, and the fuel exploded. It blew both the X-RP67 and Hawkins all to bits. But that’s super-science for you: one minute, it’s, ‘behold the power of SCIENCE!’; the next ‘BOOM!’”
Redford cocked a suspicious eyebrow at Townsend. “Come to think of it… why IS it that superheroes and supervillains have jet packs and flying cars and ray guns and intelligent robots and force fields, but none of these things have made it to the open market? What is it about ‘super-science’ that makes it so much more effective than regular science?”
Townsend waved a hand at Redford. “Okay, valid question. The problem is that there isn’t one answer, there are a ton of answers. The big one being that most people just don’t understand Science enough to really get what is feasible and what’s not, so they make a ton of wrong guesses as to what’s doable. Especially Hollywood. Worse, Hollywood foists its ideas of what Science can and can’t do off on everyone else, so the Average Joe gets this pretty uniform wrong idea. Like I said, there are a bunch of different reasons, but there are four that cover most of the bases:
“The first one is called ‘The Schimmelhorn Effect’. Y’know how those wacko ‘Mad Scientists’ back in the 20s and 30s were always trying these impossible experiments, and somehow making them work?”
“You mean, like those ‘super-soldier’ experiments that we were talking about a little while ago?”
“Okay, how DID they pull some of those things off? I mean…” Redford searched for the right words, “They were INSANE!”
“Exactly! Y’see, the ‘Schimmelhorn Effect’ happens when a scientist believes in his pet theory SO MUCH, that he sort of wigs out, and MAKES it happen, whether reality wants it to or not.”
“You mean… ‘I reject your reality and substitute my own’?”
“Basically. It takes a lot of work, the closer it is to consensual reality it is the better it works, it won’t work for other people, and it has a nasty tendency to either blow up or go berserk - BUT it does things that are strictly speaking impossible. Apparently, this happens a bit in various R&D labs, that fantastic result that somehow, you just can’t get someone else to make.”
“So, ‘Cold Fusion’ was a Schimmelhorn Effect?”
“Maybe,” Townsend said coyly. “The next reason why ‘super-science’ stuff has such a hard time getting into general use, is that major corporations are in the practice of purchasing crucial technologies while their inventors are up against the wall, and then sitting on them - the patents, that is.”
“Companies really DO that? WHY?”
“Because, while some businesses thrive on innovation - cell phones, for example – others - agriculture, energy, lumber and automobile manufacturing being prime examples - do NOT. Retooling to accommodate the new tech would cost billions. The old tech works just fine, thank you very much, and most of the bugs have been found and hammered out. The new tech WILL have bugs that haven’t been found yet, and will cost millions to find and fix. And, when the inventor is a super-genius like Dr. Amazing, there’s a good chance that he’ll come up with something even BETTER, five years down the line, just when you’ve gotten all the bugs from THIS innovation smoothed out.It’s easier and cheaper to just buy the brain boy off.
“And, I gotta admit, I’m responsible for the third reason. You’ve heard of ‘Stage Magic’? Well, I invented ‘Stage SCIENCE’!”
“You mean… you posed as a ‘Mad Scientist’ and… all your ‘science’ was bogus?”
“Yeah,” Townsend guffawed. “I was the first to pull that scam, but hardly the last! Though, I gotta admit, one guy that I gave his big break to, ‘Doctor Hephaestus’, really took it to the next level! I gotta give ol’ Hef his due, he came up with some wrinkles that STILL blow me away! The Atomic Ray’? A bunch of pre-planted explosives! His ‘Gravitic Displacer’? A Bunch of guys on wires! His ‘Mass Hypnosis’ beam? His victims had been drugged without their knowing it! What a genius! Oh, practically everyone in the supervillain racket back in the Thirties wanted to know how Hef did his shit! Whoo!” Townsend broke down laughing. “Oh! You mentioned robots! That was one of Hef’s ideas too! You wanna know why all the ‘robots’ that Mad Scientists had back in the Thirties and Forties looked like guys in big clunky robot suits? Because they WERE guys in big clunky robot suits! Mind you, big clunky bulletproof robot suits. Okay, proof against most small hand guns, up to a .38. But a .45, or, God forbid, a .30 or a .50? Might as well have been tinfoil. Hef lost a couple of really good men that way…Oh, and some of them were just big puppets on very strong, very thin wires… but you get the idea.”
Redford raised an eyebrow. “People were so unused to, and so impressed by science, that they were willing to suspend their disbelief?”
“Pretty much. Hey, it was the same deal as my usual ‘magical powers’ shtick, just in different dressing. Instead of ‘ooo… it’s MAGIC…’,” Townsend mugged a grimace and twiddled his fingers, “it was ‘ooo… it’s SCIENCE!’
“And the last thing that you gotta remember is, ‘Feasible does not equal practical’. Just because you can build a death ray that can fry someone in the lab, doesn’t mean that that it’ll work out in the field with a moving target. And it certainly doesn’t mean that it’ll be an effective military weapon. Hell, only person that ever built a ‘death ray’ that was ever actually USED in a military situation was Nicola Tesla, the ‘Mad Scientist’s Mad Scientist’. His ‘Electric Ray’ knocked the Nazi’s ‘Flying Swastika’ right out of the air! Of course, the ‘Flying Swastika’ WAS bigger than ten Flying Fortresses put together…”
“Yeah. Big honking heavily armored skyship in the shape of a swastika. No bombs. Apparently, the idea was that it would cut through the skyscrapers of Manhattan like a buzz-saw.” Townsend looked at Redford’s ‘oh, gimme a BREAK!’ glower. “I said that they were desperate, didn’t I?”
“When did this happen?”
“Early in 1945 - the Nazis were desperate; they were throwing money and materials into anything and everything, on the off chance that it would work.”
“Why haven’t I heard about this?”
“It happened at midnight, and Tesla’s stupid ray needed so much power that it blacked out New York, Buffalo, Albany, Philadelphia and Boston. Nobody SAW it! Of course, blackouts were pretty commonplace for the duration, so no one was that suspicious.”
Redford still looked dubious, so Townsend gave it up with a sigh. “Anyway, the American government has entire warehouses full of doo-hickeys that they either paid for or confiscated, that technically work, but simply aren’t worth the effort for some reason. Jetpacks that explode if you fly too long, ray guns that cost a hundred grand a shot, flying cars that require a full maintenance after ten minutes of flight, ‘flying buckets’ that fly at a whopping twelve miles an hour and never get higher than 50 feet and are louder than a woodchipper trying to eat a full-grown oak tree, anti-gravity devices that requires giga-watts of energy per second to neutralize a whopping 3 OUNCES of weight over an area the size of a dime, anthroform robots that are dumber than a toaster and can lift all of 5 pounds, capture adhesives that only work up to three feet away - mind you, all of it is stuff that COULD have been great, COULD have been huge advances, COULD have been game-changers… But weren’t.”
“Then why keep them?”
“Well, first of all, so they don’t waste money on the same project. It has happened before, not everyone gets the memo, y’know. ‘Yes, it’s a great idea, but it doesn’t work, see we have this prototype that’s exactly like what you’re proposing, and it sucks’, that kind of thing. And, just because it doesn’t work NOW, doesn’t mean that they won’t come up with something that will make it effective later. It does happen, you know.”
Redford mused on it. “So, the Red Brotherhood doesn’t suppress new technologies that would make life better for mankind?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course we do! So does the White Brotherhood, and a few of the others. Though, I gotta admit, we do it mostly because right about the time we were discussing, we dropped the ball on an invention that has changed the world in ways that nobody likes.”
“The atomic bomb?”
“Hey, from the point of view of the Red Brotherhood, the Bomb was GREAT! Nothing wakes people up like the threat of imminent DEATH. And the Bomb? That threatened to wipe out EVERYTHING! People started wondering about things like the transience of existence, the futility of conventional status, what really matters in the long run, IMPORTANT THINGS! Having a better car than Mr. Jones next door doesn’t mean that much, when you could both be reduced to ashes at any moment. The Bomb woke people UP!”
Townsend’s voice and face fell at the same moment. “And TV put them right back to sleep. TV was SO not what we were expecting, any of us. We were expecting TV to be like Radio, only better. But Radio made people use their imaginations; it relied on the power of suggestion, and got people to thinking about things. TV, on the other hand, had everything set out for you. It put people to sleep. To give that putz McLuhan his due, it was an entirely passive medium; you just sat there, and impressions were poured into your head. It was like an electronic sedative for the entire fucking WORLD. Man, if I’d have known what TV was going to do to people for the next forty years, I’d have blown Milton Berle away in front of the Supreme Court Justices.” Townsend sighed. “Well, they say that the Internet is killing TV. If so, God Bless the Internet…” Townsend hefted his glass in a toast, “and where were you, fifty years ago?”
Townsend perked up a bit. “Still, TV did help out a lot in one of the greatest hustles of MY ENTIRE CAREER!”
“Which WAS?” Redford asked, with a note of dread in his voice.
“I got one of the White Brotherhoods’s most famous ‘sterling examples’ thrown in JAIL,” Townsend gloated through a wide grin.
“You remember I told you about how Doc Wilde tried to swipe those *ahem!* ‘alien artifacts’ at Grover’s Mill in 1938?”
“What? You got Doc Wilde thrown in jail for stealing the alien artifacts? How? And… Doc Wilde went to jail? How come I never heard of that?”
“Well, the Alger Hiss case did sort of muscle it off the front pages,” Townsend admitted. “Though, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if *ahem!* ‘crusading publisher Reed DeBrett’ –who I happen to know for a fact was the Dark Avenger’s ‘face’ at that time- had a hand in that. Though, maybe not. Doc and the Avenger didn’t like each other anymore than he and Champion got along.”
“How did you prove that Doc Wilde stole those artifacts? I mean, you told me that YOU managed to steal them before he had a chance to.”
“GOOD! You were listening! Simple! I didn’t! I remember, it was ’47, I was playing cards with Prince Evil, Dr. X, the Stinger, the Spider Queen, the Red Cowl, and Madam Death - all buddies of mine from the Thirties - when Marvin - that was what ‘Prince Evil’ was named when he didn’t have on the makeup- Marvin mentioned that Cosmo - or ‘the Red Phantom’, to use his criminal name - had gotten caught by Doc Wilde and taken up to that *ahem!* ‘sanitarium’ that Doc ran up in Vermont. And we all knew what that meant. You remember in those pulps that Doc had printed up about himself, where he said that he had this surgical process that ‘excised’ a part of the brain that could work evil? Well, of course, he said that the ‘patient’ was just fine afterwards, he just couldn’t do ‘evil’ - however you define evil?”
Redford paused and thought that one over. “Yeah… I remember hearing about that… but… HOW? How can you ‘excise’ evil with a surgical operation?”
Townsend’s eyes glittered, and his grin turned hard. “Simple. You CAN’T. It was brainwashing, plain and simple, accompanied by burning out certain bits of the brain with electric probes inserted directly into the cerebrum. Yeah, they were okay afterwards… mostly… but they got worse, mostly after people stopped paying attention. Now, while I didn’t know all of the guys that he did that to, I DID know a fair number of them. And they were drooling wrecks, who could barely eat off a plate! And we were all bitching and moaning about how poor Cosmo would never be the same again. Then, suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, it HIT me! This was ILLEGAL! He was performing surgical operations that hadn’t been cleared by the AMA, on people who not only didn’t agree to it but had to be dragged into the operating theater kicking and screaming – literally! - without a judicial order, as punishment for crimes without due process! If he hadn’t been Doc Wilde, the famous doctor, philanthropist, adventurer, blah-blah-blee, he would have been thrown in JAIL for doing all that. Well, I already knew where most of the guys that I’d known who’d *ahem!* ‘gotten the cure’ were, and I was able to find the rest of them pretty easy. Y’know, before, they’d been pretty sharp guys. Not NICE guys, but…” Townsend tapped his temple, “…sharp enough to be a challenge to Doc Wilde. Then? One of ‘em had to work hard for an hour to tie his shoes!
“It took me about a year, but I was able to nail down all the corners on an iron-clad indictment against Doc - how’s that for irony? It took a little arm twisting, but I managed to convince the Attorney General that it was a Federal Matter; partially because Wilde was transporting these guys from all over the country - if not the world - to that charming little New England hellhole of his. But when the Attorney General’s guys starting looking into it for real? MAN, the stuff they found!” Townsend let out a piercing whistle. “They threw the BOOK at him! There was some public outrage that the wonderful ‘Man of Iron’ was being treated in such a shabby way. That ended when I got Thorny Bellinger on TV, jerking and drooling, as he tried to answer the questions that the TV reporter was throwing at him. After Belsen and Auschwitz, and especially the Doctors’ Trials, there wasn’t a lot of sympathy for Doc pulling this shit. That fancy lawyer of his tried every trick in the book to get him off. But those scenes with Thorny just did Doc right in.” Townsend settled back in his chair and gloated. “And the best part? None of it was a lie. I didn’t have to fake or fudge a THING! Doc did it all to himself. Me? I was an instrument of ‘The Law’, bringing a reckless mad scientist to justice! I was the toast of the underworld for MONTHS on that one!” Townsend cackled in triumph. “Yep, it’s been 50 years, but I still think that that was my shining moment! I sent the ‘Paragon of Science’ to JAIL!”
Then the look of nostalgia and triumph ran from his face like cheap paint in the rain. “Of course, that’s the problem with reaching for the heights. You never realize that you’ve gone too far, until you slip and fall. It was about a year and a half later. Professor Quartermane - y’know that whacko who kept insisting that we were being invaded from outer space? - he’d put together the Whiz Kids-”
“The… ‘Whiz… Kids…’?” Redford asked in a pained tone.
“Hey, don’t look at me, that’s what the Press called them. Maybe he felt that without Doc Wilde around, the world needed more ‘Science Heroes’, as they were calling them then. So, he rounded up a bunch of high school age science prodigies from the States, Canada, and Britain, some of whom had already had some adventures on their own, and shown some real spunk-” Townsend stopped and palmed his face. “I can’t believe I actually used ‘spunk’ in a sentence… Anyway, it was supposed to be this ‘advanced education seminar’, blah-blah-blah. Basically, he got these eight real genius level kids together and went around on ‘Educational Trips’ - that somehow always managed toinvolve some sort of bizarre situation. WHY those kids’ parents agreed to that program of planned child endangerment, I’ll never know. Well, maybe Quartermane had something to do with it; despite being a prime example of a crackpot, he always somehow managed to stay on the payroll of either the American, British or Canadian governments.
“Still, I gotta give Prof Q his due. He really did put together a kickass team, especially considering that none of them were old enough to drink, let alone vote. They were all fifteen or sixteen years old, and they all had at least one college degree. He didn’t have a lot of patience with the social sciences, but he pretty much had hard sciences covered: Chemistry, Math and Physics, Zoology, Botany, Geology and Paleontology, Archaeology, Engineering, and Medicine. And what a lineup! Amos Messing - that would be Doctor Amazing these days - Hank Hazard, Vance Vanderberg, Hector Hernandez, Tommy Tsung- what WAS it with the alliterative names back then? - Adam Wilde, Ellen Ferris, and Eve Newton. Hey, four white boys, two white girls, a Mexican and a Chinese kid - for 1949, that was pretty daring. All of them went onto stellar careers in their fields, all of them ‘Adventuring Scientists’ of the highest water. So much potential, so much promise, so wholesome, so full of optimism… GOD, they pissed me off!”
Townsend swirled his drink around with a sour look on his face. “Quartermane and his Whiz Kids had just taken down Madelyn Sykes, aka ‘The Acid Witch’, an old vaudeville and supervillainy crony of mine. She was - oh Hell, I don’t remember anymore - anyway, they were answering questions from the Press, and one of them - I think that it was Messing - said something about ‘everything having a rational explanation’ and how everything proceeded from that. Smug little turd! I remember watching that on in the newsreel - we still had newsreels in the movies back then - hearing him say that, and saying to Marla, ‘That little shit needs to be taught a lesson’.
“I was riding high in those days, so I decided that it needed to be a classic scam. I had to make money, get a little something extra on the side, and make monkeys out of those know-it-alls. I came up with the Scarlet Pharaoh. I, ah, oh, I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that towards the end of it, I had them ALL eating out of my hand, Quartermane, Messing, the whole LOT of them! I was deliberately using the cheesiest props imaginable, and the hokiest stuff you could imagine, but because I’d set it all up right and led them down the garden path, with them thinking that I was trying to shake them with all my might, they were buying it, hook, line and sinker! I had them convinced that the aliens, who had been the ‘gods’ of ancient Egypt and built the pyramids, were coming to invade the Earth - beginning at a pyramid in the middleof FREAKING CENTRAL NEW JERSEY! HAH!
“Okay, okay, so I used the alien invasion gag - but Quartermane had a bug about alien invasions; it would have been stupid not to use that! So sue me… Anyway, I remember, I was standing on top of the pyramid of gold in my ‘Scarlet Pharaoh’ outfit, Marla was at the bottom of the Pyramid, tied to the ‘sacrificial altar’ in her ‘Princess Hamunaptra’ outfit, screaming her head off, as per the script. Lazlo was standing where he was supposed to, in his ‘avenging mummy’ outfit with the hidden body armor. A blinding light was shining down on me from a strange disk-like object up in the sky…”
“And where was this light coming from?”
“From the balloon that we had tethered right overhead, with the big-ass spotlight that shone down on us. There was no way that even a yutz like Quartermane wouldn’t see it, so we turned it around and tricked it out with flashing lights.”
“How very… Close Encounters…”
“Well, that WAS sort of the entire idea… Anyway, a nice little storm had obligingly whipped up, but the balloon was securely tethered. Quartermane’s goon, Vince Leonard, was trudging up the stairs - y’know, odd for a bunch of geniuses, but it never occurred to them that it was strange that there was an Aztec style staircase up the side of an ‘EGYPTIAN’ pyramid - Quartermane was furiously trying to get the Army at Fort Dix to take him seriously on his field radio, the boys were all trying frantically to figure out something smart to do and not coming up with anything, the girls, Ellen and Eve were clinging to each other and screaming - pretty much as planned.”
Townsend’s face went hard and stark. “THEN, out of fucking NOWHERE, it’s the DARK fucking AVENGER! He jumps out of the fucking shadows, firing his twin .45s all over the place, picking off my henchmen like ducks in a shooting gallery. Okay, I knew that this scam was seriously screwed, but I’d already achieved my goals, so I blew the whistle for a bug-out-”
“What WERE your goals?”
“One, make Quartermane and his kids look like chumps; two, create a big distraction, so my second team could get into Fort Dix and steal some prototype air-to-air missiles for the Chinese while the Army is out dealing with this. Anyway, everybody’s bugging out like they’re supposed to. I’m making all sorts of distraction moves, Lazlo had the trap door all set, and Marla had unshackled herself and was hauling ass. Then the Dark Avenger gets her with a bullet, and she goes down. Okay, I’m worried, but Marla was tough, she’d taken bullets before and come back, no problem. I rev up my bogus ‘secret weapon’, so the Avenger will focus on me, and leave Marla alone… But… she’s like, ten FEET away from the staircase… he walks the ten feet over to her… puts one of his guns to her head… she’s trying to crawl away… she was down, she wasn’t a fucking THREAT… but he SHOT her in the head! He SHOT her like she was a fucking DOG!”
Townsend bolted up to his feet and threw his glass at a wall, shattering it. “He KILLED her, the fucking insufferable son-of-a-BITCH!” he screamed raggedly. “Why did he DO that? She was down! She wasn’t a threat! She was TEN FEET AWAY FROM THE STAIRS! Why did he SHOOT her? The only reason he would do that, was that he knew how much she meant to me! He killed her just to hurt ME! Why didn’t he shoot me? I was right there… I was fair game… why didn’t he shoot me?” Redford sat there uncomfortably as a man who he knew was the author of countless evils broke down and sobbed, mourning a woman who probably was as vicious and corrupt as he was.
The awkward moment was dispelled when Townsend’s Executive Assistant called him on his intercom and asked if anything was wrong. Townsend begged her off, and told her that his meeting was going well. Shutting off the intercom, Townsend slumped back into his well-upholstered chair and looked at Redford with drained and exhausted eyes. “It’s been fifty years… but sometimes… sometimes, it’s like it just happened. And I remember it all, in perfect detail. That fucking Red Brotherhood mental training won’t let me forget. I remember the exact color of the dress she was wearing. I remember that she had dyed her hair black, though she preferred being a blonde. I remember that she liked the stupid Egyptian headdress that was a part of her costume, and she wanted to keep it. I remember that we were gonna go down to Havana afterwards, to celebrate. I remember that she used to look in the mirror for hours, checking for signs of crow’s feet, ‘cause she didn’t know I was feeding her the Brotherhood’s anti-aging serum. I remember the sound of the gun going off. I remember my gut tying itself in a knot. I remember screaming her name, and that asshole Leonard knocking me off the top of the pyramid and falling down the side. And I remember hitting the bottom and being knocked out. I remember waking up a couple of days later, remembering what happened, and realizing that Marla was dead…” The normally glib man paused opened his mouth as if to say something, but nothing came out, except a small choking sound. He looked at Redford with eyes glistening with tears, trying to express a pain that was an essential part of him. Townsend spun the chair around, turning his back to Redford, and there was another awkward silence.
A moment later, Townsend turned back to Redford, and seemed to have regained control of himself. He took a deep, wet breath and resumed his narrative. “Lazlo… Lazlo, God bless him… Lazlo got me away from the Army and into hiding. It took me a few days, but I was back on my feet again. Okay…” Townsend started getting his feet back under him, and he seemed more focused. “Okay, if that was the way that the Dark Avenger wanted to play it, FINE! It was WAR! There were RULES, you didn’t shoot people when they were down! You didn’t drag family into it! But if that was the way he was playing it, FINE! I knew that he was passing himself off as Reed DeBrett, the publisher of the New York Clarion - it was so fucking obvious! DeBrett drops his five usual girlfriends and suddenly is a one-woman guy! Not only that, but he’s dating that bitch Brenda Dinah Foster Baines, who had dated both Forbes AND Abelard! He stops visiting his usual gambling spots and only gambles at ‘respectable’ places like the track, his sudden ‘crusades’ with the newspaper, the way that his reporters worked, the wimped out ‘millionaire playboy who doesn’t really do anything wrong’ act… oh, it just had the Dark Avenger written ALL OVER IT! So I went to WAR! I blew up the City Room of the Clarion, killed his main editors and a bunch of his reporters! I torched their morgue! I put ACID into their printing presses! I blew up their delivery trucks! I hunted down his ‘ace reporters’ and I TORTURED them for every scrap of information I could get! I got his girlfriend Baines, and I painted her apartment red with her own blood!” By now, Townsend was breathing heavily through clenched teeth.
“You… killed… her?” Redford choked.
“YEAH! SO WHAT?”
“But… how was what you did any different from what the Dark Avenger did to you?”
“Hey, I didn’t CARE about that Baines bitch! I didn’t care about ANY of them! But Marla was different!”
“Oh? How?” Redford demanded. “How was she any different from the hundreds - if not THOUSANDS - of people that you’ve murdered over the years?”
“Because she was MINE!”
“Oh, so, you go around killing people for fun and profit, and it’s all fun and games! But the Dark Avenger kills your girlfriend, and suddenly it’s a big CRIME?”
“Marla wasn’t my girlfriend!” Townsend snarled. “I’ve had hundreds of bimbos over the years, dozens of girlfriends. Hell, I’ve had WIVES whose names I don’t remember anymore! But there was only ONE MARLA! She was my WOMAN! She was the only female who ever meant anything to me! She was smart, in ways that most people only THINK they are! She was alive, really ALIVE, in world most people are stumbling through life, looking for a place to lay down and ROT! She was my woman… and I was her man… we were bound together in ways that no piece of paper could improve, and no stupid ritual with vows and rice and organ music could sanctify! She was a PART OF ME, and I made him PAY for it!
“And I didn’t stop there! I took out his entire street organization! His fleet of taxi cabs, his drivers, his contacts, his informants, his drops, his clipping centers, everything! But does the big bad Dark Avenger DO anything? NO! He HIDES like the little SHIT that he is! I’m waiting for him! I WANT him to show himself, so we can go at it, just the two of us, and FINISH it! But does the big hero SHOW himself? No! Every superhero, masked vigilante, cop and reporter in New York tries to butt into it, but not the DARK AVENGER, the guy that everyone’s so fucking scared of!” Townsend slammed his fist onto his desk, his face flush with rage.
“I waged WAR on the Avenger for over a YEAR! I threw everything I had into it! I scoured all five boroughs, the suburbs, Buffalo, Albany, Syosset, Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Chicago, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles… I even turned Denver upside down, looking for that fucking little creep! But, after a while… that greasy little fink, Vito Genovese, came to me and told me to shut it down for a while, I was kicking up too much dust. I was bad for business…” Townsend spat. “I did more to clear out those fucking nancy boys in their fucking TIGHTS than anybody, and got rid of the Dark Avenger, which they’d been trying to do for YEARS! But they were running ME out of town!”
Townsend calmed down a little. “Okay… I got a little carried away… and I’d been hitting the bottle kinda heavy… So, I went to Chicago, and set myself up as ‘The Puppet Master’.” Townsend let out a disgusted grunt. “Jesus was THAT a fucking cluster fuck…” He let out weary sigh. “I even got Lazlo busted with that one. *heh* I even tried to bust him out, and I couldn’t make it work… It was fucking Chicago, a made town if there ever was one, and I couldn’t make a stupid breakout of Joliet work… Hell, I even dusted off the ‘Crimson Dragon’ bit again, mostly to try to get close to this really hot-lookin’ ‘Dragon Lady’ type… <sigh> oh, the less said about that, the better…
“After that… it was like you said. Second banana for younger, more dynamic villains… the Iron Hand, Red Vengeance, Col. Destiny, the Atomic Vulture, the Living Cyclotron, AtomBlast, Dr. Atomic, Dr. Nuclear, the Atomic Queen… God, there were a lot of ‘atomic’ villains running around in those days…”
“Whatever happened to them?” Redford asked. “As you said, they were all over the place in the 1950s, and then by the 1960s, they’d all dropped out of sight.”
“What do you think happened? They all died of cancer, leukemia, and radiation poisoning. That’s what happens when you fuck around with hard radiation without really knowing what you’re doing. Anyway, there I was, running around doing all the scut work for a bunch of yahoos in tights - in tights, supervillains started wearing TIGHTS! Jesus! - and even then, I kept screwing up! It wasn’t just that I was drinking - and oh God, was I drinking! I… I’d just lost it. Losing Marla… it just reached in and ripped out a big part of me. After I calmed down from that initial big rage, I just didn’t have it in me to just pick up and get going again. With Marla gone… it just wasn’t fun anymore… And without Lazlo there… I got sloppy.
“Sloppy?” Townsend grunted a disgusted chuckle. “I was a fucking JOKE. Everybody and his kid sidekick made a fool out of me. Hell, that putz Amos Messing took me on a couple of times, and handled me without breaking a sweat. Guys who I would have just run over without noticing before were beating the hell out of me. The Masters stopped contacting me. I couldn’t find my way to the Monastery anymore. I stopped running the Master of the World network, and it fell apart without me. All my old buds, the Old School supervillains, at least those that weren’t dead or in jail, started avoiding me. Guys started walking off with my caches of equipment. They just drove up, loaded up, and drove off. It… it got so bad…”
THE MYSTERY OF THE MANSION ON THE MOORS
Thelma looked at the tracks in the dust and murmured to herself, “Jeepers! It almost makes sense! Almost… but… WHY?”
Then Orvy and Shuwop came clambering into the room in a full panic. Shuwop, showing less courage than an Old English Sheepdog properly should, immediately cowered behind Thelma. Orvy all but jumped up into Thelma’s arms, which sent them all tumbling to the floor. “What was THAT for?”
“Like, it’s the GHOST!” Orvy managed to stammer out, the weedy stubble all over his face sticking out. “It’s AFTER us!”
“Orvy, don’t be ridiculous, there are no such things as… ghosts…” Thelma’s lecture died on her lips as a sheet-like apparition wafted in through the door, glowing a ghastly green and making a high pitched not-quite-laughter that echoed through the halls of the rickety old mansion. “Oh, PLEASE, don’t tell me that you’re afraid of someone dressed up in a sheet!” Thelma shed both Orvy and Shuwop with a shrug and marched over to where the ‘ghost’ hovered. She grabbed at the sheet, but her hand passed right through it.
Thelma froze and gazed at the apparition as it cackled demonically. “Like, I TOLD you so!” Orvy gasped as he grabbed his girlfriend by the hand and hauled both of them out of the hallway and up the stairs. He saw Ted and Laura running down the hallways. “Hey, like what are YOU running from? The Ghost’s… NARF!” he yelped as, somehow, the ghost was also following the quarterback and cheerleader down the halls. They all ran down the stairs again, only to realize that Shuwop was still upstairs with the ghost! As they charged up the stairs, the dog ran down the stairs, and they quickly got completely mixed up as the ghost - or ghosts - seemed to flow effortlessly through the walls to catch up with them.
Then, when the ghost had the high school kids trapped in the upper staircase, which had a locked door at the very top, it paused and did nothing. “Okay!” Ted crouched down. “On my mark! Three! Two! One! Charge!” He bolted down the staircase, followed closely behind the others.
The ghost did nothing, and Ted led the others past it and down to the ground floor. They saw the front door, but Laurel said, “Wait a minute! I heard something over there!” As the others complained she walked over to a section of wall.
“See?” Orvy said, “There’s nothing here… Let’s get OUT, while the getting’s good?”
“No,” Laura said, pointing her flashlight at the wall, “there’s this blue smudge, that wasn’t here before.”
“Are you sure about that?” Thelma asked.
“Have I ever been wrong about clashing colors before?”
“Good point.” Thelma poked at the smear. “It’s fresh. Still wet. And it’s a bit of a handprint. And what’s that I smell?”
Laurel sniffed at the air. “It’s machine oil. And… tobacco?”
“No, that’s just this,” Ted pulled a pack of cigarettes from his varsity jacket.
“Have you been smoking?” Laurel said accusingly.
“No, of course not!” Ted said defensively. “I found a stack of maybe twenty or more of them up on the second floor. They’re fresh, and that struck me as odd. I took this pack, to prove that I found them. And it’s a good thing, ‘cause the last time that I looked, they were gone!”
Thelma was carefully examining the pack of cigarettes. When she looked at the bottom, she snapped her fingers. “Jeepers! Now it all makes sense! Orvy, you know about wiring and stuff. Where would be the best place to put heavy wiring, in an old place like this?”
A few moments later Orvy was looking at a wiring panel. “Hey, like, this is WAY TOO heavy-duty for an old wreck like this place!”
“Perfect! Shut it down, Orvy!” Orvy threw the switches, and it seemed as though nothing happened. “Okay, now we check those places where we were going to look, but the ghost stopped us.”
They tied Shuwop’s leash to the post at the bottom of the stairs, and the sheepdog whined piteously as they went up to the next story. They were up on the second floor when Laura heard the creaking of floorboards. “There!” she cried, sending her flashlight into the shadows. But suddenly, the ghost was there, glowing the ghastly green again, and let out the nerve-rattling cackle again.
“Go get him, Teddie!” Thelma said, shoving Ted at the ghost. Not seeing how it would help, but never one to say ‘no’ to a good scrimmage, he hunkered down and charged at the ghost. He missed, but this time, you could see the ghost dodge. Thelma, Orvy and Laura kept the ghost from slipping back into the shadows, while Ted recovered and charged again. This time, Ted connected, and the all-too-solid ‘ghost’ went flying and landed with a thud. It got up and scrambled away, heading down the stairs.
“Hey!” Orvy demanded, “Like, howcome he suddenly makes noise when he moves?”
“He’s heading for the front door!” Ted said, running down the stairs. “He’s making a break for it!”
“Like, don’t stress yourself, Man,” Orvy said, adjusting his sunglasses, suddenly every inch the cool, collected beatnik hipster. He pulled a pouch from a pocket, held it over the banister and shook it, “It’s taken CARE of.” He let out a piercing whistle and said, “Shoo-WOP!Din-dins!”
The big shaggy sheepdog eagerly jumped up to the stairs and started to wolf down the doggie treats, just as the ‘ghost’ hit that landing. The ghost tripped over the big dog, just as almost everyone else did at one time or another, and just as invariably, he got tangled up in Shuwop’s leash. Together, they landed in a concussed heap on the landing in front of the stairs, the ‘ghost’ knocked squarely unconscious.
“What’s all this about then?” The Virginia State Police Officer asked when he arrived at the Old Mumford mansion, to find a figure in a sheet soundly tied up by a dog leash.
“It’s about smuggling,” Thelma explained. “But it’s not drug smuggling, or diamonds. It’s cigarette smuggling. In order to move large amounts of cigarettes from the South to, say New York City, the cigarettes have to be taxed. When they’re taxed for transport, packets of cigarettes are stamped on the bottom. But these cigarettes,” she showed the Police Officer the pack that Ted had shown her, “have NO tax stamp. When we asked about the Mumford family before coming to this house, the historian mentioned that the Mumfords had been in some very bad odor with their neighbors, a feud that started before the Civil War. The Mumfords were Abolitionists, and they were also involved with the Underground Railroad. So, my guess is that when this place is thoroughly searched, you’ll find a tunnel that goes across the state line to Pennsylvania, which was created to get Slaves across the Mason-Dixon line.You’ll also find a setup for stamping untaxed cigarettes with a forged tax stamp. They bring in untaxed cigarettes through another tunnel, stamp them by hand- we found an ink smear on the wall, from when this clown was moving stuff from one hidden room to another - and then they move them to a warehouse that’s probably at the other end of the tunnel, in Pennsylvania.”
“Okay, but who IS this man?” The State Police Officer asked.
“Oh, it’s obviously Mister Hotchkiss, the man next door!” Ted said confidently. “He’d do it, so he could make enough money to buy this property out from that developer and expand his own!”
“No, it’s Mr. Collins, the property developer!” Orvy guessed. “He’s making all those noises about tearing down this place, to cover up the fact that he’s using it for this neat-o grift!”
“No, it’s Mr. Gripps, the Historical Preservation guy!” Laura guessed. “He’s the one who was keeping Mr. Collins from buying this place, despite the fact that it’s falling apart!”
“No,” Thelma corrected them all. “This place isn’t falling apart, that was my first clue and he’s none of those.” She reached down and pulled the hood of the sheet back.
“IT’S OLD MISTER JENKINS!”
“Yeah, it’s me, Old Man Jenkins, the caretaker” wheezed the geezer. “And I WANT THESE CRAZY KIDS ARRESTED! They broke in and attacked me!”
“Nice try,” Thelma said. “But Old Man Jenkins wouldn’t know how to arrange all those stage magic tricks to make the place look like it was haunted, or to set up those hidden TV cameras all over the place, so that you could keep track of what was going on, to put on your little horror show whenever anyone came to look at the place. Let’s see who you really are!” She tugged at his face, and his false face ripped off his real one like an old scab.
“Okay, who IS he?” Orvy asked, baffled.
“Why I recognize him!” the State Policeman exclaimed. “That’s Mephisto the Magician! He used to be a big noise in vaudeville, before he became a crook.”
“BAH!” Mephisto snorted, “I would have gotten away, if not for that stupid DOG of yours!”
DONE IN BY SOME MEDDLING KIDS AND THEIR DOG?
IS THIS WHAT IT’S COME TO FOR MEPHISTO?
IS THIS THE END FOR THE MADCAP MASTER OF MAGIC AND MAYHEM?
Find out in the next episode of…