A bit late, but here’s the third part of “Homecoming,” here in The Home Front. This particular file got corrupted, so I didn’t have any choice but to rewrite about half of it, which put things off a bit. And here we are!
Of course, it occurs to me that Greg Fishbone, my former editor, children’s author, and man about town, might well have a copy of the file sitting on a zip disk somewhere. On the other hand, I think he has better ways to spend his time than coming up with my old crap for these purposes.
Anyway, here then is the third chapter in our story. I hope you like it. And yeah, I know full well there’ll be theories on what the All American Lad could have done differently. Just keep it to 1946 technology, if you will. ;)
I sat on the ground, staring at Victoria Esterhaus, who was lying next to me. I’d gotten the helmet off her face – it was her all right. The same black curly hair. The same delicate features. She looked like she should be playing the Queen of the May in a Junior College play. Not wearing a ton of metal and flying around the city, burning criminals.
I was good at first aid – you kind of have to be, in that line of work. I got her bandaged, and I got a blanket from my motorcycle – sneaking around. I didn’t want to talk to the police right now. There was too much I had to figure out.
She probably had some cracked ribs, but none of them seemed broken through. That armor shell might have been shattered by Browbeat, but it also cut the blow enough to keep her alive, if unconscious. I wrapped her up, and I started for Topaz City Mercy Hospital…
And I coasted to a stop.
I couldn’t take her in the front door. Oh, sure, she’d had her name published. But no one knew what “V. Esterhaus” looked like, and pretty much everyone assumed Lieutenant Blockbuster was male. If I blew her identity….
I couldn’t do that. No matter how much I resented Lieutenant Blockbuster, you didn’t mess with a Mystery Man’s secret identity. You just didn’t.
Besides… it was easy to hate the iron soldier rocketing over the city so smugly. It was harder to hate a girl who’d saved your life and nearly gotten herself killed doing it.
I sped off again, heading for home. I didn’t know what else I could do. I had to talk to Sam… I had to get Blockbuster under cover.
I had to figure out what to do about Browbeat — a man who flung cars like baseballs. A man I shot in the eyes eight times and didn’t even scratch.
I got her up the fire escape and through the back window. My mother was shocked. “Lad,” she half-shouted — she was great when it came to keeping my identity, just in case — “who–”
“Lieutenant Blockbuster,” I snapped. “She’s hurt. Get Sam up here — and we need to get her a change of clothes before we can take her to the hospital.”
My father blinked and ran for the door, to go and get Sam. I brought Blockbuster into my room, and laid her on the bed. I started examining her to work out just how badly her ribs were cracked — which made me glad my mask covered my face, I was blushing so much.
“You’re good at that,” she said weakly.
“Huh? Oh. Thanks.” I kept working. “How long have you been awake?”
“Since… since the motorcycle.” She closed her eyes. “I finally… got to ride with the All-American Lad.”
My mouth dropped open… just then the door burst open and Sam came in with Dad, carrying his first aid kit. “So, this is the famous Blockbuster,” he asked?
I nodded. “She took a hit — some guy who bounced bullets like raindrops. I’ve never seen anything like it–”
Sam frowned. “So not all the Gods are good ones,” he murmured.
“We’re not Gods,” Blockbuster half-moaned. “Have to… get home….”
“Nuh-uh,” I said. “You need to get changed, so we can get you to a hospital. You’ve got some banged up ribs, and you’re lucky you don’t have a punctured lung. You have to get checked out.”
She opened her eyes and mouth to argue, then closed them and nodded.
Sam and Dad took her. They were going to claim she got smacked by a door in Sam’s shop. I watched her go, then sat at the kitchen table.
“Was it bad,” Mom asked.
“It wasn’t good,” I said. “He shattered that metal shell she wore with one punch.”
Mom nodded. “And you’re going after him?”
“It’s my job.”
She nodded again. “Lenny?”
I looked at her. “Yeah?”
“Don’t worry about fighting fair. Just stop him.”
I looked down. “I already shot him eight times in the eyes. It made him run, but it didn’t hurt him. I don’t know how much dirtier I can fight.”
Mom frowned. “Well then. I guess you’ll have to find something better than shooting him in the eyes.”
The Ninth Precinct wardroom was somber when I walked in. They knew me there — no one questioned me walking in.
“Hey Sarge,” I said to Desk Sergeant Carlotti. “Any word on Browbeat?”
He snorted. “No. And I hope it stays that way.”
“Good. We can start planning how to take him down, then.”
He gave me a long look.
I frowned, and looked around. Six or seven cops were all staring at me. “Come on, boys,” I said. “The city’s counting on us.”
“Then the city made a mistake,” Officer Gerber said sullenly, his hands in his pockets.
“Hey!” I looked around again. “I know how it looks–”
“C’mon, Lad,” Carlotti said. “These are good cops, but you saw that monster. We can’t stop him.”
“He barely noticed us,” Officer Rossi said. “I emptied two clips into him, and I was just an annoyance.”
“Yeah, you shot him in the eyes!” Gerber said.
“And that drove him off! He’s not invulnerable, guys!”
“Drove him off but didn’t really hurt him. It just stung him,” Carlotti said. “Besides….”
I looked at him. “Besides what?” I asked quietly.
He shuffled, hands in his pockets. He looked like a little kid instead of a veteran cop. “You saw what he did to Lieutenant Blockbuster,” he said. “He killed him with one punch!”
“Blockbuster isn’t dead,” I snapped. “I took care of he-him. Got him to medical attention.”
“He might as well be dead,” Gerber said. “We have what’s left of that metal shell he wore? It looks like a couple guys took it apart with jackhammers! I’m just a cop! What do I do–”
“Hey!” I shouted. “Stop it, all of you!”
That got their attention. And not in a good way. But I stuck to my guns. “Look, Lieutenant Blockbuster’s tough. We all know it! And Browbeat scares you. Well he scares me too. But he’s not all powerful. We don’t need superpowers to stop him. We need each other and we need our brains and we need to have a plan! We know he’ll be back. And we have to be ready for him, once and for all!”
“Geez, Lad — how are we supposed to do that?” Rossi asked. “Blockbuster–”
“Blockbuster had firepower. God or science gave Blockbuster abilities we don’t have. But that doesn’t mean we can’t level that playing field. Gerber — is your brother still stationed up at the National Guard base?”
“Well, sure — but we can’t call out the Guard! That would take the Governor, and if we call the Governor’s mansion and tell them we can’t protect Topaz City from–”
“We’re not gonna call out the Guard, but can your brother get his hands on some ordinance for us?”
“They don’t just hand out machine guns, Lad,” Carlotti said. “Gerber’s brother could get in a lot of trouble.”
“Maybe — but I know the Colonel.” He was one of the few who knew why Second Lieutenant Len Davis was awarded a Silver Star. “I don’t think I could get him to authorize some heavy firepower — that’d call attention to himself — but I bet I can arrange some unofficial blind spots for Gerber’s brother to get us the gear.”
Rossi frowned. “You really think it’ll work, Lad? Against Browbeat?”
“I think we need to try. He’s still human, no matter how thick his skin is. And if he’s human, he can be hurt.” I looked around. “I know. It’s scary. It was a little awe inspiring to think about heroes with these weird powers, and now it’s frightening to think of criminals with them. But no matter what they can do, they’re still people. The law still applies to them. And when they break the law, we go in and stop them. Right?”
There wasn’t any response.
This time there was a half-hearted ‘right’ from a half-dozen or so of them.
“Okay. Then let’s get to work. We’ll take this bruiser yet!”
The organization and setup were surprisingly easy. The Colonel was more than happy to help, and even loaned us a couple of Guard soldiers to actually use the equipment. Which looking back I’m pretty sure was illegal about six different ways, but this was a new world for him, too. When we actually began organizing, enthusiasm built up. I mean, I get it — it’s hard not to feel helpless, sometimes. But when you actually knuckle down and start doing, it shakes you out of it.
We set up a loose network, beat cops staying close to their callboxes. If they saw someone matching the description — or, you know, throwing a bus or something — they’d call it in. Dispatch would get our new “Anti-Browbeat” squad dispatched. The plan was I’d go in ahead. I’d stung him — a little — in our last encounter, and so we hoped I’d be good bait. We’d tangle a bit, while giving the squad a chance to set up, and then?
Then the Colonel’s help would kick in. That help was a couple of privates and what was officially called the Rocket Launcher M9, but what most people just called a bazooka. These things took out German tanks — I had to believe they’d take out Browbeat.
Of course, Lieutenant Blockbuster was known for being able to take out German tanks too. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was pretty actively not thinking about Blockbuster in any way, really. Which probably makes sense. On the one hand, I felt guilty. I’d had such a hate on for her. On the other hand, I still resented her for all the same reasons. And on a third hand, she’d saved my life. Sure, I was grateful, but I’m given to understand some Japanese words for ‘gratitude’ can also translate as ‘resentment,’ and that’s what I was feeling. I resented Victoria Esterhaus for saving my life — for being able to save my life when there was little or nothing I could have done to save myself. It took me out of the role of hero and into the role of victim, and I didn’t like that.
Irrational? Sure. I mean, if you think about it I also saved her life. But I was feeling better now that I had a plan to stop that behemoth with normal men and a normal, if powerful, weapon.
It was a day and a half before the call went out. He was seen on Forty-third, heading for the bank. Me and the boys rolled out almost immediately.
I swear, he looked bigger. His hair was wild, almost like an animal’s, and his eyes were wide. He looked like he was on uppers, staring every which way, his back almost vibrating as he walked.
“Browbeat!” I shouted. I know. I’d had a day and a half to come up with witty repartee and all I could say was ‘Browbeat.’ Sue me.
He turned to face me. His face contorted and he hunched down. “You!” he spat. “You shot me in the eyes!”
“You should thank me — you look better with your hands covering your face.”
“Funny man,” he said. “So funny.” And he scooped up a ’42 Packard and threw it at me. Just like that. He reached out, grabbed the back of the car — I think it was a 160 Family Sedan? You know the ones, with the long body in two tone? Sort of wagonish?
I guess you don’t really care. It was a big car, and his fingers gripped into the metal like it was butter, and he heaved it up and at me in one fluid motion, like he was scooping up a baseball. If I sound amazed, it’s because I was then and I still am now. The ease of it. I kept forgetting this guy wasn’t like me.
I dove to one side and the car smashed behind me, skidding, I fired four quick shots, two from each revolver, bouncing them off his skull. He was being cagy enough that getting another eye shot would be hard, but I didn’t care. I was trying to keep his attention while the privates got the artillery ready. He charged at me, growling like some kind of animal. I dove to the left and rolled — waiting until the last second so he wouldn’t have a chance to wheel around, and I tossed a gas grenade at him. I didn’t normally carry these, but I knew where to get ahold of them and I wanted to hurt him.
My luck, he didn’t seem to care about the gas. He didn’t cough, his eyes didn’t sting — he just whirled and leaned down and tore a chunk of pavement out and threw it at me. This time he caught a piece of me, too — I was doing another leap to dodge but a chunk of the pavement separated on his throw and tagged me in the leg. Even through the thick leather it felt like I’d been clubbed, but I ignored it and did a forward roll, coming up with guns hot and firing another couple of shots. I swear they almost sparked as they bounced off his skin, it was so hard.
“You’re just trying to get me mad,” he growled at me. “Don’t you get it? You’re nothing but a bug to me, ‘All American Lad!’ This is my town now, and no one’s takin’ it away from me!”
“You never had it to begin with!” I snapped. “If you keep this up, you’re going to get hurt — is that what you want?”
He stared at me for a moment. And then he chuckled. “I’m going to get hurt?” he asked. “Are you even paying attention?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Better believe I am.” And the boys fired from the roof of a brownstone.
It was a beautiful shot — nailed him in the back, halfway down, the shell exploding on impact. He screamed something as the explosion threw him forward, rolling, the remnants of his shirt burning before he hit the Western Auto storefront, shattering the window and sliding to the ground.
I grinned. “Yes!” I shouted, running to the side, covering him with my guns and keeping out of the way of the bazooka fire–
Browbeat pushed up onto his feet. “You really are an idiot, aren’t you?” he asked.
I blinked. “That was a bazooka,” I said. “That’s not possible. I was a little worried it would kill you!”
“Yeah, I’d stop worrying about that,” he said, and rushed me.
The boys fired a second shot, but he was running now, so they just managed to take out that Western Auto — fortunately, everyone in it had run when he threw the car. I dove to the side, but this time he swung an arm like a hook, snagging my left leg and hurling me across the street like a ragdoll. I felt blind panic for a half-second, and then I felt the bricks I smashed into. Bullets began bouncing off Browbeat as the cops began shooting. Some of the bullets sounded high powered. Rifles of some sort. They might as well have used spitballs.
I didn’t make it back to my feet before he got hold of me. The guns went silent as he lifted me up. He pulled me close and looked me in the eyes. “You talk and you talk and you talk,” he said, very quietly. Almost like he was hissing. “But you don’t listen. Your little toys can’t hurt me. I don’t care if they go pop or they go boom. They can’t hurt me. You can’t hurt me. I didn’t want to cause trouble during the war — that was big. It was a war. But it’s over now, and this town is mine now, and you need to remember that.”
I didn’t answer. I was scared, and in a lot of pain, and there was nothing to say. Tough talk would have just sounded stupid.
He leaned close, and almost crooned. “I want you to think about this, All American Lad. I want you to go home and think all this over. I want your policemen friends to think about this. I want everyone down here to think about this.” His nose almost touched mine, we were so close. “You can’t. Hurt. Me. All you can do is get hurt yourself. And to be honest, I’m sick of you trying. So I’m going to go away for one week. One week, ‘Lad.’ And then I’m going to come back and make a day of it. And anyone who gets in my way or tries to stop me is going to die. Do you understand me?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Do you hear the words coming out of my mouth, boy?!” he roared.
“Yes!” I snapped. “But you better be ready to kill us, then.”
He laughed. “Kid, I’m ready to kill you right now.” And he threw me halfway down the block, into a pack of cops.
The throw hurt. My shoulders hurt from where he squeezed them. My whole body hurt from slamming into the brick wall. I felt nauseous. I felt humiliated.
I felt small.
But I pushed up. The cops around me were getting up, too. “Jeez, Lad,” Gerber said. “What’re we gonna do?”
“Plan B,” I said.
The privates were running across the street. “We couldn’t get another shot,” the P.F.C. in charge of the detail said. “I didn’t want another miss and then he was holding you and then he jumped off–”
“It’s all right,” I said. “Next time, we just have to be smart. I’ll try to get him in position and then you need to shoot for his eyes. I know they can at least sting him when I shoot them, so–”
“Aim for the eyes?” the Private said. “Jeez Louise, Lad — this is a bazooka. At even short ranges it’s hard to aim at a tank and hit it. You think I can do rifle sharpshooting with it?”
“There’s not going to be the next time,” Carlotti said. “I was talking to the Captain before this came down. He said if it failed, he was going to call the Governor. This is the National Guard’s problem.”
“Hey, we weren’t even supposed to be here today,” the second private complained. “What, you’re going to have the Governor declare Topaz City a state of emergency for one guy?”
“This one guy threw a car like it was made’a balsa wood!” Rossi shouted. “This ain’t a normal situation!”
“It’s going to be,” the P.F.C. shouted. “Don’t you get it? It’s one guy today, and then another tomorrow, and another after that — are you gonna put the city under Martial Law every time one of these freaks show up?”
“If we got more gear, and better training,” Carlotti said.
“Oh no way,” Gerber said. “When the War ended, I got outta the army. I’m not gonna stick around for a new one.”
I rubbed my brow, tuning out the fight. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
It was Sam. He must have heard about the fight on the radio and come down to see it. “Hey,” I said.
“You did good,” he said quietly. “Very brave. I was very proud.”
“I got my butt kicked,” I said. “I couldn’t hurt him.”
We walked to where I had my bike parked. I was limping. I know he wanted to offer me a hand — some support, to let me lean on him — but he didn’t. He knew the All American Lad had to walk on his own, without a civilian’s help. “You didn’t give up. Next time, you’ll find a way.”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand,” I said. “The gas didn’t stop him. The bazooka didn’t stop him. What, next time I’ll carry a grenade and try to get it on his eyes? Or acid or something? Sooner or later, I’m not being a hero. I’m just finding more and more brutal things to shoot at him. And who knows if any of them will work.”
“I liked your plan,” he said. “The one about shooting him in the eyes with the bazooka?”
“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head. “I liked it too, but the soldiers are right. Bazookas aren’t designed for precision aiming, but nothing we have that can be aimed that precisely would hurt Browbeat. I mean, maybe if we got a high enough powered sniper rifle, but I’m not sure even a fifty cal to his eye would stop him.”
“There must be a way to have a sniper’s precision with a shell’s power, Lad. You just need to figure it out.”
And then it hit me.
“Excuse me, Sam,” I said softly. “I have to go.”
I got into civvie clothes before going into the hospital. I managed to get her room number, and headed up to see her. We needed to talk before visiting hours were over.
As it turned out, my timing was about perfect. She had put on a pair of slacks and a blouse, and was clearly waiting to be picked up. I knocked on the door frame.
She turned. “Yes?” she asked.
“Victoria, we need to talk,” I said.
She cocked her head and looked at me. “Do I know you?” She seemed so petite, standing there.
I took out the silver star badge I wore. We’d always worn badges — the whole western thing, after all. Mine was silver now because I was the sheriff, and because I’d been awarded a Silver Star, and even though I couldn’t officially make the connection, it meant something to me.
She looked at it, and comprehension flashed in her eyes. She blushed and turned away. “I meant to thank you,” she said. “You saved my life.”
“You saved mine first,” I said softly.
She shrugged. “I should have stayed out of it. Let you handle him. I’m sor–”
“I couldn’t have handled him. I can’t handle him, Victoria. He nearly killed me today.”
She stopped, and turned to look at me.
I looked down. “He’s not my enemy, Victoria. My enemies were guys like Desperado Dan or Dapper Boy Thompkins or Doctor Hans Konrad. Normal guys. Maybe a little smarter or a lot more evil than their neighbors, but normal guys. This is your enemy. And we need Lieutenant Blockbuster.”
She looked at me for a long moment. “You’re out of uniform,” she murmured. “I don’t know what to call you.”
“Len,” I said, softly. “Len Davis.”
“Well, Len Davis… you have a problem.” She looked down. “Lieutenant Blockbuster is dead.”