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WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CAPES OF HEROPA?
By Andrez Bergen
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Andrez Bergen
All rights reserved.
While he may've felt like he'd been dropped on his head, he actually landed on his feet.
Even so, following on as this did from a spell of sustained darkness, Jack tottered in the middle of a sidewalk crammed with pedestrians. His body felt heavier, lethargic, cumbersome. When people began to shove past in brutal fashion, he beat one very hasty retreat to lean against a brick wall, overwhelmed and dazed.
There was a shop here, an archaic-looking place called the Big Trip Travel Agency, all posters of propeller-driven clipper planes, swirling bullfighters, and a dirigible marked with the livery of Latverian Airways, from which disembarked gaily-smiling, beautiful people in 1940s apparel.
The agency also grabbed Jack's attention because, back in his hometown, tourism had bird-dogged the itinerary of the dodo.
The man's heart was racing. He tried his damnedest to calm down, but this was bizarre.
In the reflection of one of the big windows, beneath a striped marquee, he'd noticed he was dolled up in a tight superhero costume — coloured a shade of dark blue, verging on cerulean — to which no one else here paid any heed. Peeling off the smothering mask, Jack inhaled deeply, coughed, and finally took time out to properly gawk. Revelling in the presence of no rain, he scanned a cloudless sky high above, and dropped his gaze to a metropolis — all flying buttresses, concrete and glass. This was something, he would allow that much. Not quite the Emerald City, yet hardly a place to sneeze at.
On street level caroused mint-condition antique vehicles snatched straight out of some tasteful car museum. Hurrying along the footpaths to either side were women in wild hats, kid gloves and fitted dresses with shoulder-pads, along with men in felt fedoras and double-breasted pinstripe suits who looked like they belonged in a photo with his great grandfather — which probably they did.
Outside Sam's Delicatessen, next door to the travel agency, an elderly gent had positioned himself in front of Jack. He was dressed in a jarring red military-style uniform with gold lapels, the only one of a horde of pedestrians to notice Jack's presence. The two of them looked like mismatched bookends in a sea of conformity.
"I'm Stan the Doorman."
Jack decided he liked Stan's eyes. They were warm and accompanied by a suave white moustache above a winning smile.
"You may label me the Doormat," the gent in red waffled on, "since there are some here who do just that — but I prefer to be considered a welcoming committee."
Jack looked at him for a few seconds, rediscovering anew the ability to speak. "Okay. Um. Can I call you Stan? That Cool McCool?"
"Of course. And appreciated."
"So — what is this place?"
"Everything has a starting point and your starting point is here."
"Actually, also very simple. Look around. Go on, then."
As if to encourage his charge, the old man performed a creaky, horizontal bobbin routine right there on the footpath, turning several times, so Jack hung on to his coattails.
This city was immense.
It stretched in every direction he could see, making him feel like a flea in a ridiculous blue suit of his own choosing.
The monumental skyline sweated neoclassical touches, its architecture early twentieth-century art deco colliding with Soviet formalism — offering tall, sharp-edged towers, soaring arches, looming statuary. Jack felt most of the places looked like enormous wedding cakes with kitsch columns and over-decorative façades.
One sculpture, a statue of some suited bigwig punching his fist heavenward, was in the vicinity size-wise of King Kong.
"Overboard," Jack muttered.
"Fear not. All this has happened before, and it will all happen again — but this time it happens in Heropa. It starts happening on a busy street in Grand Midtown. That corner skyscraper over there, the one that takes up all four corners of a city block, is the home of the Equalizers, and I suggest that you choose this particular building because there are people there who believe in you."
"Sure." Whatever, crossed Jack's mind.
The skyscraper the old man pointed out was dozens of storeys high. It ascended into a bullet-shaped peak a thousand feet up, with a glossy white exterior finish and mirror windows that caught distorted reflections of the neighbours.
"Come on then. I'll take you over. I am, you know, the building's doorman. Your first port of call," he chuckled.
"Handy. One thing, though — other people don't appear to see me."
"Give it time. The transition takes an hour or so. The Capes will have no problem."
Canvas awnings billowing in its doorways, a shiny, green, wood-panelled W-Class tram clattered past before they crossed a thoroughfare on which 1930s and '40s Packards, Buicks, Morris Minors, even a two-tone tan and chocolate-brown Summit Tourer from the 1920s, moved slowly.
These vintage jalopies honked one another while a traffic cop in jodhpurs, knee-high riding boots and white gloves, standing with rod-straight posture at the next intersection, used his whistle and energetic arm movements to control the flow.
After passing the crossroads they proceeded through a grassy square lined with elms and decorated by the occasional fountain and miniature pagoda, leading the two men to the tall, rocket-like building in question.
Stan grabbed a brass lightning bolt handle in order to push open a glass door that bordered on monstrous, and stood aside allowing entry.
"Welcome to Timely Tower."
"That's appropriate," Jack said as he brushed past.
"You get the inference?"
"I think so. Timely was the publishing company that predated Marvel Comics, right? From around World War II — they call it the golden age of comicbooks."
"I must say I'm impressed."
"Many of our residents wouldn't have an inkling."
"Not that big a deal."
Stan scrutinized the other man as he closed the door with a quiet swish. "Sir, it's never wise to doubt any knowledge."
"Fair enough. Call me Jack, by the way."
"Don't mind if I do." Again with that debonair smile.
White marble paved the foyer inside, while shiny white walls were indented with chrome fixtures. Suspended above a bank of four separate metal concertina elevator doors sat a woven square banner several metres in size, showing a circle pierced by a simplistic lightning bolt that cut diagonally down from the top left corner to the bottom right.
Whoever designed the thing had been sparing with the colours, since it was cast only in black, white and grey.
"The symbol of the Equalizers," announced Stan, "designed by the great Israel Schnapps."
"Nifty — but shouldn't it then have an 'E' in the logo? That lightning bolt looks like an 'N' and," here Jack cocked his head to the right, "there's a 'Z'. Something Zorro would conjure up if he had a set of tapestry tools, don't you reckon?"
"I wouldn't know, sir."
"Jack. And you must have an artistic bone somewhere."
"None I'm aware of — at my age the osseous matter tends to accelerate into disrepair." Stan also crooked his neck. "However ... now you mention it, I can see the 'Z'."
"But no 'E'."
"So, these people are expecting me, you say?"
"The Penthouse Suite — of course."
"Top of the heap, huh? Inside the bullet?"
"All the better to keep an eye on the city."
"Is that a good thing?"
Stan didn't respond. Either he'd missed the question or preferred not to offer up his two cents.
A half-moon shaped reception counter stood nearby. The guard sitting behind it would've been somewhere in the vicinity of forty to sixty — hard to tell — and his gaunt, expressionless face ignored them, so Jack ignored it back.
The guard was cradling a softdrink can of something called Dixi-Cola with red and blue ovals on a white background. He had his gaze fixed on a portable telly.
Jack stared at this small contrivance. "I thought TV wasn't invented till after the period we're supposed to be in — given the décor outside, I mean. Isn't this the 1930s?"
"Is it? I have no idea. But there is some debate about the true inventor of the television: Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, John Logie Baird, or Philo Taylor Farnsworth."
Having heard of none of these people blessed with three names, Jack remained mum.
"It was commercially available from the late '20s," the old concierge went on, "so television wouldn't be out of place here by any means. The TV dinner, on the other hand, wasn't invented until 1945."
Hearing about any kind of dinner made Jack's stomach growl.
Over on the TV in the here and now, the monochrome picture rolled occasionally, but on it was an old guy in a clown suit with a ventriloquist doll on his knee. The wooden figurine was crooning a sad-sack jingle:
'Be a Top Man, flee the Bop Man, and drink a bottle or can of Tarax Top Ten flavours!'
By the end of this, Jack decided he'd had enough viewing time, so he turned around.
Inset beside one of the elevators, a little plaque read 'The Foundation Stone of this Building was laid by Mr William Eisner, President, Leland Baxter Paper Company'.
"Huh. I thought foundation stones had dates on them."
"Well, now, as I think we've established, dates don't matter here," said Stan.
The traction lift was one of those antique movie jobs with teak panelling and bulbous globes; these announced each floor as it passed in sluggish fashion. Jack had left Stan the Doorman in the lobby to do his real job, and after a month of Sundays and the piped-in, mind-numbing instrumental sounds of 'A Walk in the Black Forest', the cubicle reached the Penthouse Suite. This had its own private globe with a 'P' marked on it.
There was a lovely leviathan awaiting him.
Shoving aside the metal concertina door like a shower curtain, she smiled down with something Jack would have called benevolence, if he knew what it looked like. He took in a face composed of strong cheekbones; enormous eyes with purple irises, long lashes, and tiny, swollen lips that in most cases would infer a mild food allergy.
A full twelve inches higher than Jack, this particular giant was gift-wrapped in frills and ribbons, most in plum, with a big periwinkle bowknot on her bosom, a pair of long white satin gloves and one very short, voluminous miniskirt.
She also had a headband holding in check lavender hair spiralling down to her ankles — a touch of Wonder Woman interbred with far too much Sailor Moon, making her resemble someone dragged out of a manga comic and stuck on a pair of towering legs.
"I'm Pretty Amazonia," the woman announced with a tight smile that nullified the sultry effect of her mouth. "And a quick warning — before you conjure up any unwisecracks, I could break both your legs in quite the jiffy."
"Nothing comes to mind."
"Oh, dandy. You must be Southern Cross. We've been expecting you." Pretty Amazonia gave him the once over. "To be honest, I thought you'd be taller."
"Sorry to disappoint."
"I'll live. Well, come on now."
He followed the woman down a brightly lit passage along which were framed monochrome and primary colour pictures of heroes in action and/or hamming it up for the artist.
There were dozens of these; no photos, but drawings in black and white or red, yellow, green and blue — heavily outlined in black — with names attached like Lord Evolve-A-Lot, Kardak Da Mystic, Slam-Dunk Ninja, Babe Boon, The Soldier, Big Game Hunter, McBlack, Vesper, Mister Sniffer, Ace Harlem, Fraulein Helmet, Captain Atom, Cowboy Sahib, Flasher Lightning and Kid Squall, Sans Sheriff, Curvaceous Crustacean, Vege-Might, That Bulletproof Kid, Trick-Or-Teet, and Yarko the Utterly Greatest.
Some of the monikers fitted the costumes, while others looked like they were sorely mismatched and the designers colour-blind. Most made Jack want to chuckle.
Tucked in amidst the visual mayhem was a portrait of his newfound hostess, a classier rendering in black ink, pencil and minimal watercolour that accentuated her traits, including the nonplussed demeanour.
"Our rogue's gallery," said Pretty Amazonia as she sauntered ahead.
"That was you," Jack mused, in hot pursuit. "Huh."
Having passed a metal door with 'G.M.R.' initialled across it and the Equalizers' logo beneath that, Jack thought twice, doubled back, and was about to take a peek.
"Don't go in there," the woman warned.
"Why, is it dangerous?"
"No, just a white elephant — the Giant Map Room. Has a layer of dust as thick as my heels. C'mon — this way."
They came to a set of double doors that the woman pushed open, revealing a huge inner sanctum, mostly white.
A Spartan, unadorned milky ceiling was far above them, along with a second-floor balcony that steered close by the walls and gave a view from up there to the room proper, where they stood.
Hanging from a picture rail that did a circuit of this space were a series of replica white, lifesize plaster of Paris faces, cowls, visors and helmets, likely lifted from those jokers in the passageway. They looked like death masks. The way in which the decorations stared down at them made Jack lose count after a quick tot-up to twenty.
There was also a capacious, round white table with a carbon copy of the Equalizers' symbol in the centre. From this angle he made out the 'Z'.
Two-dozen chairs wrapped around the table, and next to that sat a couple of comfy ivory-coloured couches beside a glass-topped coffee table. On the table was a collection of cardboard cup-placemats with the same lightning bolt logo.
"Home, sweet home." She scrutinized Jack again. "You certainly travel light. No luggage. Just that mask in your hands you flaunt so nervously. Relax — I won't bite. Not yet."
"Who are you people?" he decided to ask.
"Haven't you heard? Thought Stan would've filled you in. We're the Equalizers — sworn protectors of Heropa City, guardians of the peace, et cetera, et cetera, blah, blah."
She laughed — making him decide straight away he liked her. Sure she was formidable, but she also had a solid sense of humour.
"This place is impressive," Jack said, as he wistfully struggled for more meaningful dialogue.
"What, Heropa? You'll get over it." The woman looked him over once again. "You know, you remind me of someone."
"I do?" Jack's tone was edgy. "Who?"
"The actor George Peppard, when he was younger — circa Breakfast at Tiffany's. If he'd excessively worked out, I mean."
"You have no idea who I'm talking about, do you?"
"Sad. So, take a seat. The others will be here shortly."
"The other Equalizers."
Jack eyed one of the couches and went on over.
There was an attractive hardback tome nearby, something about 1930s automobiles, which he reached over to grab. As he did so, a huge shadow appeared across the table's surface and someone tossed a newspaper onto it.
The broadsheet grabbed more of his attention than the shadow or the book.
A headline was splashed across the top, each word several centimetres in height and in thick caps.
PEOPLE'S SAVIOUR SLAIN!
Beneath the by-line — trumpeting that the article was written by some journo called Chief Reporter Gypsie-Ann Stellar — sat a sub-header in unnecessary inverted commas:
"Shots Fired From Grassy Knoll."
The paper was called the Port Phillip Patriot, with the price five cents and credits including Donald Wright (publisher), Jean-Claude Forest (editor) and Arthur Simek (designer). Its huge front-page sketch came close to inciting Jack, again, to burst out laughing.
In black and white, this one showed an advertising billboard of two happy, smiling kids with a superhero crouched between them. A mask covered the top half of the hero's face, shades of Captain America. He had a toothy, honest grin as he gave the thumbs-up beneath a slogan that read Royal Vendetta, for Strong White Teeth! and positioned just above his giant brow was the letter 'O'.
Impacted dead centre in this fifteenth letter of the alphabet was a ragged hole with two tiny legs dangling out, apparently lifeless.
"Bull's-eye," Jack muttered.
"An' the same guy."
He glanced up to see a ton of bricks stuck together in the shape of a person. There were even patches of white cement smeared between the ochre-coloured bricks.
This arrival had on a giant-size trench coat that was open, displaying more paving across the torso, and propped up on the back of his great, stony skull was a small hat at a jaunty angle. The charcoal-grey straw number had an indented, fedora-style crown like every other man Jack had seen here, but contrarily sported a narrow brim, only about two inches wide, making it more 1960s than 1940s.
"The guy on the billboard an' the one inside it," the rock man was saying. "They're one an' the same. The Big O, as you can see from the symbol on his mask — a.k.a. Sir Omphalos. Not sure if we should be labellin' it irony, coincidence, or damn well freaky."
Excerpted from WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CAPES OF HEROPA? by Andrez Bergen. Copyright © 2013 Andrez Bergen. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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