Leather, sadly, will have to wait until Thursday, or even to next week. There was just no writing time…well, at all since last Thursday. None. Not a jot. Which isn’t normal for me, but it’s start of school. And you know… start of school.
So, we move on to the last of the Home Front stories instead — but not the last Home Front post.
This was actually the only serial in The Home Front. And it was also the only one of these that was written entirely for Mythic Heroes, with no Superguy antecedent. It had been tentatively picked up by Greg, though the magazine had suspended production even before it was scheduled, if I recall correctly.
It’s not as downbeat as the last one. And it has actual story and conflict. So, you know. We’ll see what you think.
And now, I pass out and, with luck, die. But before I do, I thought you might like to see one other thing. See, to get the serial sold to Greg, I had to send him a pitch document. And this is the first paragraph from that pitch document. And it may be as good a statement about The Home Front that I could make.
At the end of any play is a cast party. Generally, the set is struck by the cast and crew working together, symbolically returning the stage to a neutral state. There is a liberal amount of alcohol consumed. Someone has ill-advised sex with someone else. Two good friends will get into a loud fight that might involve actually hitting each other. A videotape of the performance will be watched, to the great embarrassment of all who are involved.
And, inevitably, there is the last person at the party. He listens to the music by himself. He seizes upon any passer-by, regardless of any connection to the play, and talks incessantly about it. He walks the stage by himself, listening to the hollow echo of the naked boards, staring out into the auditorium, and swearing he can still see the audience, accept their accolades, hear their laughter and feel their tears. He goes through “post-theatric depression” for weeks, the connection he feels to the play refusing to die along with that play. And, if he’s not involved with the next production, he inevitably resents it and compares it unfavorably to “his” play, regardless of its merits.
The year is 1946. The age of the Mystery Man — for better or worse — is over. The Age of the Super Hero has begun.
This is the story of the last person at the party.
*** *** *** ***
Do I just talk into this? Really? That’s really neat.
Okay… you want to talk about Nineteen Forty-Six, right? After the Liberty Brigade broke up and we all went back home? To our cities?
Great… no, that’s no problem. I can talk about that. This isn’t about me though, is it? I mean, I didn’t do anything that incredible in the war. I mean, if this is going to be a money-maker, you need some of the big names on the marquee, don’t you? The Quick, or Excalibur, or Spycracker or–
No, I really don’t have a problem talking about it. I know it wasn’t the most heroic event to come out of double you-double you double eye, but it’s who I was and who I am, so why not talk about it, huh?
All right — the quick and easy backstory. I first started as–
What? My name? Oh, for the tape. Gotcha. Sorry. I suppose you have to be careful, especially given my political career. You don’t want to get sued later, right? Anyway, my name’s still Len Davis, originally from Fall Creek, West Virginia, but my parents and I moved to Topaz City when I was about two years old. Dad was a radio engineer for R.K.O., and they opened up that huge broadcast center–
But you don’t really care about that, do you? I mean, what does it have to do with fighting spies or busting up gangs or anything? Nothing. And you can look up the Smithsonian archives and get a better description of most of those, right? The quick and dirty was this — I was the All American Lad. I worked with Six Gun Sam — Sam Bochioni, who was a greengrocer and the son of Sicilian immigrants. He had a real Western Thing going, wore a kerchief over his face and trickshot his way through crime and spies and stuff like that.
Here’s the thing, though. His cousin Alberto was still in Sicily, which means he was still Italian, which means he was in the Axis. He was kind of Six Gun Sam’s opposite number — an assassin.
Sam lived his career terrified that his family connection to the Black Stroke would be revealed. Alberto apparently felt the same way about Sam, according to letters and stuff we found later. Neither one told on the other, though, and Sam died without kids in ’52, so it’s all pretty safe to say now. Sam had a heart attack — that’s why he wasn’t in the army. He had a bum ticker. Strange, isn’t it? A man with a bad heart being a Mystery Man?
Anyway, in ’41 I was fourteen. Sam needed a real All-American with him, in case the connection to the Black Stroke came out — something to insulate him. Pretty naive, huh? Well, that was Sam. And me? I was a football hero and an ace student — math specialist. So what the heck, huh? Sam saw me every day because I lived in an apartment six floors over his store on East Forty-Fifth.
It was a good thing he did. Sam was all heart and western accent, but frankly he couldn’t figure out a clue if it shot back at him — which it sometimes did. Heck, the Autorepeating Rifle Robot of Doctor Hans Konrad would have aced Sam if I hadn’t shot the power cord leading to the wall. Sam just kept shooting it, “looking for a weak point.” But I always worked to make Sam think he’d figured out the mysteries and stopped the crimes. Why not? Sam deserved it, and I was having a ton of fun.
Anyway, in ’44 President Roosevelt called the Mystery Men to the capital, and formed us into the Liberty Brigade. That was a blast! Travelling around the country on train, hanging out with other people in the cape and mask business… it was like being in a Carnival, and what seventeen year old deep down doesn’t want to join the circus? And the crowd loved us. I mean, maybe we weren’t super human, like the Quick or Lieutenant Blockbuster or any of them, but we were heroes and we stood for something. Besides, there were some pretty girl ‘Mystery Men’ too, and the crowd loved that. Not that I ever did much more with the girls than neck one night with Solitaire — she was a lot older, but she loved to play the field, especially when her kid partner left the tour halfway through it.
But anyway, that’s still not what you’re here to listen to, is it?
In 1945, I volunteered and was made a Second Lieutenant in the army and kept right where I was in the Liberty Brigade. For right then, I was popular — a golden boy blond in a patriotic costume — wait a sec. I still have the costume. And the guns. Let me go get them.
–we are. I’ve put on some weight, so it doesn’t really fit any more, but I keep it anyway. Hey, it’s more fun than a varsity jacket. The wife understands, but she would, wouldn’t she?
Yeah, those are ivory handled. Yeah, I guess it is a little like General Patton — not intentional, but there you go. Sam gave ‘em to me. Which is where the story you want to hear starts, I think.
Anyway. I volunteered at 18, was commissioned, kept in the tour, and then the war ended and I was discharged. The only soldier in the history of warfare that shot at more of the enemy as a civilian than as an Army man. So Sam and I climbed on a train after long tearful goodbyes and a dinner and things, and rode back home.
Sam stared out the window the whole way, of course. He cried a few times, he was so happy. You’d think he stopped Hitler himself. And heck, why not? No one tried harder than he did.
“Gonna be nice to be home, huh?” I asked him.
“Shore is, pardner,” he said with a laugh. He never talked like that out of uniform before then — it was part of his disguise.
“Careful,” I said, “that voice got kind of famous in the War Bond movies.”
Sam shrugged. “Let someone recognize me,” he said with a grin. “Why not? The Germans have surrendered. The Japanese have surrendered. The war is over and there won’t be another one. So why not be recognized?”
Won’t be another one, he said. I nodded and agreed with him, even though I knew better. Human beings like to fight. They believe in it. They believe in war. It’s why our peacetime military budget’s so overinflated. I could get some numbers for you–
No, I guess you’re not hear to talk politics. Sorry. Guess it’s hard to get out of the patter, at least in an election year. Heh heh — yeah. Anyway, back to the story.
“Sam, you still need a secret identity,” I said to him. “I mean, come on — you don’t think the racketeers’ll be just as happy to figure out what store to shoot up?”
Sam stared at me, and started laughing. “Racketeers? What — we’re back in the twenties, are we?”
“You know what I mean–”
“I don’t think I do, quite. Len, what do you expect to do when we get back to Topaz City?”
“What do you mean? I’m going to College at T.C.U. in the fall, I’m–”
“That’s not what I mean and I think you know that.” He leaned back. “Shoot straight, pardner, whut do yuh think about Six Gun Sam and the All-American Lad?”
I sort of blinked at Sam. “I… think it’s going to be a lot easier to keep the streets safe without Bunds and spy rings blowing things up.”
“Easier, yes… very easy indeed. Len, the war’s over. The soldiers get to go home now, and get married and have lots of kids.”
I guess I looked shocked then. “Sam… you can’t be saying we’re giving up now?”
“What giving up? We won. We beat them. We did it, Len. I’m so proud of you, too–”
“Sam, I’ve been a vigilante since I was fourteen years old. You’re not telling me my career’s over now. You can’t do that!”
Sam looked a little startled, and a little saddened. “Len… I’m not as young as you. When the Nazis were threatening our very way of life… well sure. We all had to pull together and kick them right back to the Bosch. But they’re done now. The war is over.”
I stared at Sam, and I turned and sat back in my seat. I felt… wounded. Like I’d taken a bullet right in my heart. Not be the All-American Lad? That wasn’t what I wanted!
We rode together in silence for a while, the American heartland whizzing past us. I was thinking about all of it — running the streets in the night, the time we actually had to grab police horses and lasso the Cold Street Gang while they fled with the gold from a Brinks delivery… trying to keep my girl Holly from figuring out just who I was… the whole nine yards. Over?
“Len?” Sam said finally.
“Why do you have to retire just because I do?”
I turned and looked at him, stunned. “What?”
“I mean it — oh sure, I won’t be there to bail you out any more — but you’re not fourteen any more, either. You’ve seen me all these years, how I fight, how I figure out mysteries and all of it. So why not strike out on your own? Lots of mystery men don’t have sidekicks, you know.”
So that’s when the All-American Lad went solo. It seemed awfully weird to think about — sure, Sam wasn’t half the crimefighter he thought he was, but he was always dependable. And besides, he bought the bullets. Fortunately, he agreed to keep me stocked up. In fact, he said that if I were going to be on my own, as an adult, I’d need a new costume — that’s the one I brought out. It’s a beaut, huh? Leather coat with the shoulder buttons, the pants are tough, like bush-pants. And the coat has all the armor of a bullet proof vest — here, hold it. Heavy, huh? It was load bearing though, so it didn’t bother me.
Homecoming was weird, in the meantime. Mom and Dad were thrilled, and proud — they showed off my Silver Star to every one — that kind of embarrassed me. I mean, sure, I thought I earned it. Heck, we took out dozens of fifth columnists. But I wasn’t in the Army at that point. I’d never even seen combat. Besides, the honors weren’t the point. But it made them happy. Holly had, in the meantime, gotten engaged to Brett Wallace — kind of a smarmy kid who didn’t bother volunteering — he figured when the draft took him, he’d go. And heck, if the war ended before then, that wasn’t his fault.
That hurt. Holly going with that coward, when I was fighting for our country. I didn’t go overseas, sure – but there’s a huge difference between volunteering and letting someone else volunteer.
Yeah, I know my voting record’s pretty anti-war. I didn’t say I liked war. I sure don’t like the one we’re getting sucked into now, though I’m hoping maybe we can talk our way out of it privately. One Korea’s enough. Would War Two was different — we were sneak attacked, and then Germany declared war on us. We had to do something.
Anyway, it was still strange. I was eighteen. I graduated high school on the road with the Liberty Brigade. My girl was marrying someone else. My friends were spreading out, getting jobs — some few like me were getting ready for college. But most of the people I was close to had gotten into better schools than Topaz City University and were moving away or had moved away. I hadn’t had much of a chance to apply to college.
So, I went away a high school kid and came back to a city that seemed completely different to me. Even the places we loved to hang out had been taken over by… well, children. You’re laughing, but it’s true. The underclassmen were coming into age, taking over the spaces that had been ours for all those years.
But, finally, my costume came in.
Dad knocked on my door the evening the package arrived, and I asked him to come in.
“Son,” he said, setting a cup of coffee on the end table. “Can I bend your ear a minute?”
“Sure, Dad,” I said. “Seven to two you’ve been talking to Sam.”
“No bet,” he laughed. “He says you’re just about ready to start your solo career.”
“Yeah. It’s going to be odd, but I don’t think there’ll be–”
“Oh, you’re going to do just fine, Len. We both know Sam wasn’t exactly the senior member of that team.”
I laughed. “I wouldn’t have done it at all without him.”
“I know, I know. No, I just… wanted to have a few words with you.”
He put an arm around me while we sat there, and didn’t speak for a little while. After a bit, he struck a cigarette and smoked it. “I guess I want to be sure you’ve thought this all through, Len.”
“Thought… what through, Dad?”
“Well… Sam’s attitude is the War’s over… the fighting’s done. And now he’s moving on with his life. Are you sure this is the direction you want to move into in your life?”
“Dad… I know it sounds weird–”
“Yes, it does. It’s a rare sort who elects Vigilante Justice as a job, you know.”
That made me laugh. “But Dad, I’m still going to go to College. I’m still going to prepare for a career. It’s just….”
I looked at the wall for a while. “I lost most of high school to fighting crime and fighting Nazis, Dad. It was the most significant part of my life during the most significant part of my life. And… I can’t get back my school, or my friends, or Holly… I can’t go to my Senior Prom half a year too late. I… can’t lose the All-American Lad too. I have to have something left. And… I do good work at it. It comes so naturally to me. And I’m proud to protect Topaz City.”
“Does Topaz City need protecting?” he asked quietly.
“The Golden Swashbuckler and the Sleuth started years before the war,” I answered. “And they do good there. I can do good here.”
“All right… I suppose a world that can have someone like the Quick or Phalanx can have the odd Mystery Man or two.” He grinned.
“How does Mom feel about this?”
“Proud. She always understood, Len. More than I did at first, strange as that sounds.”
“I think Sam wants to talk to you now,” Dad said. “He’s been waiting in the living room since before I came in here.” He grinned.
I reflected it. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s see him.”
Dad nodded, and crushed his cigarette in my ash tray before walking out. I got up, and paced a bit before Sam knocked on the open door.
He was wearing his hat and his guns which seemed strange. But, if you haven’t guessed, Sam was something of a strange man. I still miss him sometimes, when I need someone to talk to who I know won’t tell anyone my secrets.
“You’re not wearing it,” he said.
“Haven’t had a chance to change,” I replied. “Want me to–”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I’d like to see how you look in it.”
I nodded and got the box and went into the bathroom. I took off my clothes and pulled the new costume on. I remember, weirdly, how it smelled. New leather, dyed. The pants felt a bit rough inside. They had that new clothes shape to them too, like they were related to cardboard. The boots fit, and were comfortable. The mask kept my hair exposed, but covered the back of my head and the lower half of my face. I had thin metal disks over my ears — didn’t block sound much, but they helped protect them. Besides, your ears are a key to who you are. Their shape could identify you.
I walked into my room, feeling the clop-clop of the boots on the wooden floor. Sam turned, and looked at me for a long moment. His eyes glistened.
“You’re all grown up,” he said quietly, shaking his head with a smile. “I didn’t really believe that until now.”
“No, Lad. Just listen for a moment. You hear a call. You’ve told me that. If this is what you want… I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
He drew his pearl-handled pistols, and handed them over to me. “And you’re going to need some straight shooters on your side. Your .25′s were nice, and you were good with them… but….”
He started crying for real now, with pride. And I felt a lump too, taking the pistols with a kind of reverence. Six Gun Sam was never the brightest mystery man… but he was the best shot I’ve ever known.
He gave me the belt, and I took mine off. The holsters that fit a gun like mine wouldn’t fit his. He also gave me the speedloaders he’d built for them — six-guns had a built in disadvantage in reloading.
I belted them on. I checked my gear. I made sure I had spare ammo. I checked the whip, and the lasso. I checked the small, compact camera the Minuteman gave me on tour.
I looked at Sam, and he gave me the thumbs up. I stepped into the hallway, and saw my parents in the living room, watching. I nodded to them, and I made my way to the window at the end of the hall. It was open to the sweet night air.
And then I was down the fire escape, and running into the night. The motorcycle I’d stashed earlier. It roared into life beneath me. The wind rushed through my hair, and I took to the streets, police band radio tuned.
As I swung down East Forty Fifth, there were shouts, and waves. Holly was one of them, and I saw something in her eyes for a half-second I knew Brett Wallace had never seen. Cars got out of my way. There was a catch in my throat as I rode into my city.
It was Mister Miller’s liquor store, and he was cashing out. There were six of them, with shotguns. They’d forgotten that Topaz City had a protector. They’d learn better.
“You know,” I said from the door, “temperance is a virtue.”
They spun, and I fast-drew and shot three shotguns out of their hands. “Against the wall,” I snapped, and they moved.
“You didn’t count on that, did you,” Mister Miller cackled, slapping his knees. “You didn’t count on the All-American Lad, did you? You didn’t — look out Lad!”
I threw myself down, spinning and firing even as the shotgun blast ripped over me and into the far wall, shattering bourbon bottles. There was a seventh. I’d missed of course — you shoot to distract them, but you weren’t trying to kill them. I put a bullet in the shotgun’s stock but took a club to the back — must have been a broom. I rolled, kicking, and got to my feet first, though my guns were down. They rushed me.
I was a football player. I could take a crunch. Besides, I was well armored. I took a shot to the chin that hurt , though. I punched one square, and kicked a second.
That was enough — they started to run. I snapped the whip out and cracked it, getting one around the ankles halfway out the door. He cracked his chin on the sidewalk and was out. I hopped over him, scooping up my nearer gun and running after them as they went for their car.
I grabbed the lasso — shoot the tires out and tie them up, I figured.
But I didn’t get the chance. I was beaten to that punch.
It was a whistling sound… and it looked like a burning comet that seared into the top of that car and exploded with the force of a rocket, throwing the gang back even at the distance they were at. They ducked and covered, yelling. In the air, we could hear a dull roar.
As one, we looked up.
He wore an olive drab solid metal piece over his shoulders and torso, with a pressure suit under it and armor pieces on joints and knees. The helmet covered his whole face. Burning fire rippled from his back, holding him high in the air as he panned over us.
“Give it up now, boys,” he said in a voice that was wired to some sort of megaphone.
“Who… are you?” Mister Miller asked in awe from his door.
He turned in the air and gave Mister Miller a thumbs up. “Lieutenant Blockbuster!” he called down. “Just here to do my duty, sir!”
There were others on the street… and the cheering started, and shouts of joy. Lieutenant Blockbuster turned his attention back to the crooks, and fired a ripple explosion from his hand, which impacted with a burst five feet from one who’d been trying to inch away.
I just stood there, staring at this… thing in the Topaz City sky. He slowly turned, and looked at me through thick lenses. He somehow managed to look amused, and gave me one of those thumb’s ups as well. “We ought to talk,” he said, and roared into the night.
“Did you see that,” Mister Miller asked, grabbing my arm. “One’a those Super types like in the war, right in our city!”
“I saw it,” I answered. “I saw it.”
Can we take a break? I’m kind of tired. Thanks.