I’d decided to re-sort my comic book collection, but I hadn’t taken into account what a huge job it would be. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by so many stacks of brightly colored pulp that I couldn’t keep track of where Shamus Comics Starring Catman ended and Splendid Boy, the Adventures of Splendid Man Before He Was a Man began. I threw open a window and whipped out the old SOS Comb. An instant later, Splendid Man was standing in the middle of my room, looking around at the mess.
“I get the picture,” he said, before I could explain why I’d signaled him. “How do you want them rearranged this time?”
“By month and year,” I said. “I’ve enjoyed reading through entire runs of a single title, but I’ve discovered that if I commit myself to reading all my Apocalypse Brigades, say, or all my Mexican Manhunters, I find myself yearning to read some Northern Lights or an issue of Our Boys in Harm’s Way, Featuring Sgt. Clod. So I figure that if I read them by year of publication, I can jump from title to title and never have to miss the adventures of any of my favorite heroes for long.”
Before I’d even finished speaking, Cal had become a blur. Suddenly my twenty-seven-inch convention boxes began filling back up as the stacks of comics shrank away to nothing. The instant the boxes had to come to rest in the various closets I’d designated for them all, Splendid Man reappeared in full, regular-speed glory.
“Thanks, pal,” I said.
“Don’t mention it, pal,” he said. “Say, have you got anything planned for the rest of the evening?”
He removed his cape and held it toward me. “Come on,” he said. “Somebody wants to meet you.”
“Who?” I asked eagerly. “Please say it’s Va Va Voom, that voluptuous Amazon! Or Titania, the sexy robot with the faulty SympaticOmeter that makes her more womanly than most real women!”
“Let’s keep it a surprise,” he said.
It was a short flight this time, just from one coast to the other. When he downshifted from ultrasonic speed and it was safe for me to unwrap my head, I took a peek at the earth below. I saw the lights of an enormous city that could have been Municipalitus or New York. But soon the lights fell away and we were gliding over the outskirts, passing over a series of palatial mansions with enormous grounds.
“Oh,” I said dully. “Queens City. And that must be stately Brewster Manor we’re zeroing in on.”
“Gosh, Will. I thought you’d be excited about meeting Catman.”
“I will be,” I said. “Just as soon as I get over my disappointment that he’s not Va Va Voom.”
“Duck your head.”
I did, and we whooshed through a window. A moment later we alit in a vast, oak-paneled drawing room where a man reposed before a blazing log fire, a sleeping hound curled at his feet. He stood at our approach, and I saw that he was precisely Splendid Man’s height. Above the waist he wore a satin smoking jacket and an ascot. Below, I saw the tights of his Catman costume and boots of tabby-fur.
“Wyatt Brewster,” Splendid Man said, “I’d like you to meet my pal, Will Jones.”
“Honored,” I said.
Wyatt had a firm handshake, but it wasn’t one of those bone-crusher grips. His face was rather square, his features even and strong, his ears curiously small and set close to the sides of his head.
He was staring into my eyes intently. I’d never encountered such a penetrating gaze. I felt as if he could see into my inmost self, down to the very molecules of my DNA. And then I realized what he must have been up to. Being the world’s greatest detective, he was filing everything his keen eye could glean of my character into his mental crime files so that, should I ever turn to a life outside the law, he would know how best to go about bringing me to justice.
“You have striking eyes,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Gee, thanks.”
“Remind me to teach you some eye exercises I developed that will restore your vision to 20-20, if you practice them diligently. It’s a shame to hide such a glittering cerulean behind a pair of discount Cardins. You don’t want to look like Ken Clayton, do you?”
“Did I warn you that Wyatt can be disconcertingly direct?” Cal put in.
I turned and saw that Splendid Man had already sat down in one of two armchairs that flanked Wyatt’s own. He picked up one of a pair of snifters from a small table and took a sip of amber liquid. That’s when it hit me that I’d interrupted their evening together. “Oh, no,” I said to Cal. “I’m butting in on you and Mr. Brewster, aren’t I?”
“Mr. Brewster was my murdered father’s name,” Wyatt said. “Please call me Wyatt. And would you mind if I call you William? I’m inordinately fond of the name William.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “I’m awfully sorry to have called Cal away.”
“I’m glad you did,” said Wyatt. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for ages, and it was I who suggested that Calv’In bring you here when your summons came through. The emergency wasn’t too dire, I hope?”
“Er…not too,” I said.
He yanked on a pull chord, and an elderly man who looked remarkably like Sir Ian McKellen stepped in and stood expectantly at attention. So closely did he resemble the great actor, in fact, that I wondered if he was one of the dead-ringers for earth people from Strontor, the City in the Can, whom Splendid Man had somehow restored to full size.
“A splash of the Trés Vieille for William, Ian.”
“Immediately, Master Wyatt,” he said, and padded off soundlessly.
When Wyatt and I had sat down he said, “Calv’In tells me that you’re a cheese grater at Domino’s.”
“Well, temporarily, of course.”
“Of course. I understand you want to be a writer.”
“Well,” I said, fidgeting, “I do like to…”
“Tell me, have you ever written any short-short stories? I’m awfully keen on the form.”
“Uh, no. I can’t say that I…”
“And I adore absurdist fiction. You’ve read Donald Barthelme, to be sure?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “I like him very…”
“And have you ever tried to emulate his…approach to fiction, shall we say?”
“Well, now that you mention it, there was one story called…”
“Of course you agree that the master of the short form was Henry James. Not only for his ingenuity of construction but for his skill at weaving a taboo subtext between the lines of his narratives where only the most astute eye can discern it.”
“Well, I have to admit that James’s style has always left me cold,” I said, with a smile I hoped wasn’t too smug, “but I do pride myself on my ability to spot a subtext that most people would miss.”
He gazed at me a moment and then smiled. “Why, I’ll bet you do at that,” he said, and I was pleased to have scored a point with the greatest deductive mind of our times. But seconds later he was leaning forward, his gimlet eyes boring into me again. “And to what do you attribute this acuity, William, a unique power or rigorous training?”
The return of Ian with my cognac saved me from Wyatt’s third degree. For a minute there I’d had a taste of what the Cat-Eared Combatant’s enemies, like the Punster or Bipolar, must have endured under his remorseless interrogation. I thanked the stars that no strange quirk of fate had indeed turned me to a life of crime.
My respite was brief, however, as Wyatt started in again. “And what do you think of the absurdist style known as ‘camp,’ William? You know, before my late friend Susan Sontag popularized the term, it had a genuine…”
“Oh, zip it,” said Splendid Man. “I’ve already told Will how much you know about everything. You can stop trying to impress him.”
Wyatt sighed and sat back in his chair. “Ah, the man knows my foibles all too well.”
“I’ll say I do,” Splendid Man said. “Now settle down for a spell.”
But Wyatt was coming erect in his chair again. “I’ve got a bone to pick with William first,” he said, and turned to me. “Calv’In used to be such a good listener when I was in the mood to pontificate on art and literature. But since you’ve taken him under your wing, he now has the temerity to interrupt me with opinions of his own. Why, just last week, he wanted to argue the finer points of Nietzsche’s notion of the superman.”
A warm glow filled me. After all Splendid Man had done for me, it was certainly gratifying to hear that I’d given him something of value in return.
“Just don’t pat yourself on the back too strenuously, dear boy,” Wyatt continued. “I guarantee that if you ever stop recommending books to him, he’ll be back reading whatever he sees at the supermarket checkout counter within a week.”
I looked across Wyatt’s body at Cal to see how he was taking these gibes, but to my surprise he was just gazing at the fire and chuckling softly. I realized that I had never seen him looking so much at ease. Slumped down on the base of his spine as he was, his legs stretched straight out with his red boots crossed at the ankles, his hand lazily swirling the cognac in his snifter, he presented a picture of a man entirely at peace with the world. Everyone knows that Splendid Man and Catman often fight crime together as Earth’s Grandest Duo, but I’d always assumed that their partnership was confined to the business of defending justice. After all, Wyatt Brewster doesn’t have any Ps in his name. Only now did I understand what close friends they must truly be. I couldn’t help feeling a little jealous, even as I felt honored to share with them an evening at home of the sort they must have enjoyed a thousand times before.
For a while we sat in silence, listening to the crackling of the flames and basking in the serenity. Of course it was Wyatt who shattered the spell. “You just passed a significant test of mine, William. You’ve demonstrated the rare talent—one, I must add, of which I myself am bereft—of sitting quietly in a hushed room. To quote Pascal…”
“Man’s unhappiness,” I said, glad to be interrupting him for a change, “stems from his inability to sit quietly in his room.”
Wyatt arched an eyebrow in my direction. “Bravo, William.”
“Pascal said that?” asked Cal. “Pox Pascal, the evil scientific genius who’s been my archenemy since boyhood?”
Wyatt looked incredulous for a moment, then burst into gales of laughter.
“Oh, calm down, silly man,” Cal said. “I know you’re talking about that Frenchman, Blaise Pascal. Will lent me a copy of his Pensees last summer. I was just playing the bumpkin because I know you enjoy it so much.”
When Wyatt had regained his breath he said, “After all these years, you can still surprise me. Never let it be said that the Dusklit Deducer can never be fooled—or worse, wouldn’t enjoy it!”
They clinked glasses and drank.
We heard a door open, then high-pitched titters, and a moment later a young man in slacks and a v-neck sweater escorted a very pretty teenaged girl into the room.
“Hi, Wyatt. Hi, Splendid Man,” he said. “I’d like you to meet Muffy.”
“Y-Y-You know Splendid Man?” Muffy sputtered.
“An old friend of the family,” the young man said matter-of-factly, but not without a trace of cockiness.
We were all on our feet.
“Delighted to meet you, my dear,” Wyatt said. “Muffy, Greg, this is William Jones.”
And I realized that the young man was none other than Greg Dickson, Wyatt Brewster’s young ward and, when in his secret identity of Sparrow, the Pugnacious Prodigy, his partner in crime-fighting.
“Oh, yeah, the writer,” Greg said.
“Well…” I started to say, but Wyatt broke in, adding, “He does like to write, to be sure. Now, can I have Ian bring you young folks anything? Bosco, Sno-Balls, whatever it is you children indulge in these days?”
“’Bosco’?” Greg retorted. “Holy shit, Wyatt!”
“Away with you and your sailor’s tongue,” said Wyatt with a flick of his wrist. “Those who are old enough to have developed some manners are attempting to hold a conversation.”
With a barking laugh and some rude remark about “sailors’ tongues,” Greg ushered his friend out of the room. We soon heard their feet tramping up a flight of stairs.
“I worry about that lad,” Wyatt said, resuming his place before the fire. “He’s just turned sixteen and every night that we’re not on patrol he brings home a different nymphet. I only hope he has the sense to sheathe his whistle ‘ere he wets it.”
“Gosh, I wonder who he takes after,” Cal said.
“Now, let’s not get catty,” Wyatt said.
“Not me, Mr. Catman sir,” Cal said.
“Oh, ho! Now we’re getting word-play out of the big oaf!” chortled Wyatt. “I tell you, William, your influence on this man has been nothing short of pernicious.”
I was enjoying the repartee—now that I was no longer the focal point—and hated to cut it short, but what I’d seen left me with no choice.
“Excuse me, fellas,” I said. “But I think you should look out that window.”
They craned their necks to look past the sumptuous velvet drapes bordering the window I indicated. There, above the gnarled silhouettes of trees, clearly limned against the starry backdrop, glowed the giant silhouette of a cat, one paw outstretched and slightly curled, as if poised to strike—the redoubted Cat Signal!
“How dreary,” Wyatt said. “The commissioner must have known we were having too pleasant an evening.”
In spite of his words, he came to his feet in an instant, peeling off his smoking jacket to reveal the lithe, pearly costume beneath. He unwound the ascot, and it flowed into an ominously billowing cape. Finally, he reached behind his neck and pulled over his head the feline cowl that has struck fear into the hearts of countless criminals. There before me stood the Secretive Sentinel himself in full regalia.
“To the Catcave, gentlemen!”
The hound had slept like a brick all evening, but suddenly it leapt to attention. I saw that it wore a mask over his eyes.
“Go back to sleep, boy,” Wyatt said, patting the dog’s head. “William should be able to provide us with all the assistance we’ll require tonight.”
As the dog curled up again, Wyatt turned and touched a hidden stud on the wall and a panel slid aside to reveal two fireman’s poles. Wyatt and I each took one while Cal floated down beside us. A moment later we landed in a…garage?
“Forgive my little joke, William,” Wyatt said, noting my disappointment. “There isn’t such a thing as a Catcave. All my scientific equipment, crime files, mementos and trophies fit easily into that monstrosity upstairs I call home. Yes, even the giant subway token. I’ve just loved saying that line ever since Manly Westman, who played me on the television show these long years ago, delivered it with such élan.”
The Catmobile didn’t let me down, though. It was as futuristic-looking, as sleek and finny, as the comics had always portrayed it to be. Plus it was a hybrid.
“William and I will take the Catmobile,” Wyatt said to Splendid Man. “You can fly alongside.”
But Cal shook his head. “I think I’d better drive,” he said. “With my invulnerable brain cells…”
“Yes, yes,” Wyatt interrupted, “alcohol has no effect on your mood or behavior. But you’re right. It does on mine, and I must confess to being a trifle embalmed. William, to the rumble seat!”
We all piled in, the rocket engines roared to life, and Cal guided the Catmobile down the long tunnel that led from Brewster Manor to a distant exit cleverly disguised as the mouth of an abandoned asbestos mine. Soon we were driving along a deserted country road toward the distant lights of Queens City.
“Any idea what the trouble might be?” asked Cal.
“Some so-called archvillain or other, to be sure. That’s all Commissioner Kitchener ever calls me out on any longer. He can’t seem to get it through his head that any rookie cop walking a beat could take down these costumed popinjays in a second.”
“Have you heard of any prison breaks in the area?”
“Pox Pascal and Cerebriac break out of prison, Calv’In. The pathetic jokers I put away stay put. Of course, I don’t jail all the clowns I apprehend,” he added. “Some I douse with gasoline and burn alive.” He cackled piercingly.
“Let’s not get started on the movies they make about us,” Cal said.
“No,” Wyatt agreed. “Let’s not.”
Before long we were driving through the city limits. As we neared police headquarters, Wyatt said, “Let me warn you. The old commish is in his dotage, I’m afraid. Don’t mind me if I start acting according to his expectations. I like to jolly the old boy along. Bring a little sunshine into the autumn of his life, you know.”
When the three of us burst into the commissioner’s office, Catman did a peculiar skip-jump and came to rest at attention by his desk, his arms crossed across his chest so that one hand gripped each shoulder. Commissioner Kitchener was a dried-up little prune of a man. Beside him stood an aging Irish bull in harness.
“Ah, Splendid Man!” Kitchener quavered. “How good to see Earth’s Grandest heroes together again!” Then he noticed me. “But why is the Pugnacious Prodigy out of uniform?”
“His jerkin is at the cleaners,” Catman said. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“We’ve got quite a mess on our hands, Catman!” the old man said.
“Saints alive, that we do!” added the bull.
“A new malevolent villainess calling herself Batwoman and her gang of costumed cutthroats broke into the Stroganoff Import Company warehouse on Drayage Street—just after they’d gotten in a secret shipment of rare sapphires all the way from Malaysia! Before the crooks could escape with the loot, a squad of our boys happened by and boxed them up inside! But, curse the luck, they’ve got hostages!”
“Saints preserve us,” croaked the bull, “that they do!”
Catman drove a fist hard into the palm of his other hand. “The fiends!” he shouted, his voice rising into a weird ululation.
Splendid Man caught my eye and winked.
“We’re bringing in a hostage negotiator as we speak!” said Kitchener.
“Forget the hostage negotiator,” Catman said. “We’ll take care of things.” He turned to Splendid Man and me and intoned, “Gentleman, to the Catmobile!”
As soon as we were out in the hall Splendid Man and Catman started giggling like girls. They laughed so hard that I practically had to support them down to the car. Only then did they calm down. As Splendid Man pointed the car toward the warehouse district, Catman seemed downright laconic.
“Are you always this mellow when you go into action?” I asked.
“It’s these supposed master villains that bore me,” he said. “You can have all your Conundrummers and your Venus Flytraps and your Emus. ‘Conundrum me this,’ my ass. I wouldn’t crap into a thimble for the lot of them. Give me a case of political corruption or corporate malfeasance any day! There are your real villains these days. Congressmen taking bribes and selling the elderly down the river! Senators condoning the torture of some poor Afghani taxi driver who never hurt a fly! Chickenhawks who send the children of the working poor off to die in an obscene war! Oilmen posing as energy czars! The former CEO of a pharmaceutical company heading up the FDA! Captains of industry who befoul the very air and water their own children will have to breathe and drink! Voting-machine manufacturers who throw national elections to the two-bit Machiavellis who line their pockets! Smarmy so-called journalists who lap up the lies of the war profiteers like grateful dogs in exchange for TV exposure and a fat paycheck from billionaire media moguls! And don’t get me started on attorneys. Attorneys who pick loopholes in the articles of the Geneva Conventions! Attorneys who change our laws retroactively, not just to cover for the crimes of our highest officials but to argue that the laws they defecate all over don’t even exist anymore! Attorneys who would shred our Constitution so that a cowboy can play king! Just don’t get me started!”
“Boy,” I said, “now I know why they call you the Masked Muckraker!”
He turned around and looked at me where I sat scrunched up in the rumble seat. “Nobody ever called me the Masked Muckraker,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I just made it up.”
He glanced at Splendid Man. “I like your pal.”
“He is a fine pal,” Cal said.
Wyatt turned back at me: “May I borrow it?”
“I’d be honored,” I said.
We arrived at the Stroganoff Import warehouse and piled out of the car. My legs had fallen asleep and I almost fell on my face. A bunch of cops surrounded us.
“The hostages still in there?” Catman asked.
“Yes, sir,” a young patrolman answered breathlessly.
Catman said, “Splendid Man,” and Splendid Man vanished.
In the distance, we heard the tinkle of broken glass.
“The hostage negotiator should be here any minute,” another cop put in.
“Tell him to go home,” Catman said, just as Splendid Man reappeared, two hostages under each arm.
“That all of them?” Catman asked.
“Yes,” Splendid man said. “Shall I round up the fiends?”
“Let me try something first.”
Catman borrowed a bullhorn from an officer. “Okay,” he said into the horn, “this is Catman talking. We’ve got the hostages. In three minutes, we’re going to douse the building with gasoline and burn it to the ground. Over and out.”
In less than a minute they all came dashing out the door, tripping over each other in their haste. I guess they’d all seen the movie.
These “Bat Boys,” as we later learned they called themselves, were just a bunch of rowdies wearing striped shirts and bat ears. They meekly allowed themselves to be herded into a waiting paddy wagon, nary a BAM or a ZAP required.
Then, last of all, came the Batwoman. When I saw her my heart nearly stopped. Sheathed from head to toe in a black leather jumpsuit that followed every undulation of her willowy frame, she moved with the long-legged grace of a Broadway dancer. As an officer guided her into the black mariah, she stopped suddenly and made sizzling eye contact with Catman.
“Don’t you want to handcuff me yourself, Calico Crusader?”
The cops whistled, wiped their brows melodramatically, and pulled at their shirts as if to indicate a sudden heat wave, but Catman only yawned. What self-control, to resist an innuendo from a woman like that!
Crestfallen, the villainess slunk into the dark van. The police thanked Catman and Splendid Man profusely—and me too, to my embarrassment—and we took our leave. Despite his contempt for costumed criminals, Catman seemed well pleased with himself on the drive back. “Did you see those buffoons come scrambling out of there?” he said.
Cal chuckled. “In a bit of a fright, weren’t they?”
“A fright? They pooped their tight little pants!”
“Maybe we should feel grateful to the folks at Hollywood,” said Cal. “They might make our jobs a lot easier if all our foes buy into their portrayals of us.”
“Three cheers for Jerry Jacobs!” said Wyatt.
“That jerk wrote your movie, too?” I asked.
“Wasn’t his distinctive and rather vulgar style apparent?”
“’Batwoman,’” Cal mused. “What will they think of next?”
“She sure was hot, though,” I said. “You guys have to admit that!”
Wyatt spun around in his seat and impaled me with another of his penetrating stares. “Do you honestly have no idea…”
I saw Splendid Man shoot him a glance, and Wyatt’s eyes softened. “…how much trouble a costumed archvillainess can get a boy into?” he finished.
We all laughed, but a bit forcedly. I got the distinct impression that Wyatt had been about to say something different until he caught Cal’s look, something, perhaps, that would have confirmed the rumors of the throbbing erotic undercurrents that entangled him and his most glamorous female foes. I understood then that there were secrets within the fraternity of heroes to which even I, Splendid Man’s pal, was not privy.
Back at Brewster Manor, we took our seats again before the fire that Ian had kept banked in our absence. We sipped our cognac and sometimes we talked politics and sometimes we talked literature and sometimes we didn’t talk at all. This went on into the wee hours, and if I live to be a hundred years old I don’t believe I’ll ever spend a grander and stranger night on this earth.
To be continued!