A Black Spectre Adventure
Note: This story follows the events of “The Undressed Widow.”
CHARLIE “Cherry Nose” Caifano had been cooped up for the past three days in the hotel room where he lived in the lower South Side of Terminal City. It had been that long since he’d received The Spectre’s mark – a note card inscribed only with an “X.” He would never have admitted to anyone that he was scared, and certainly not even to himself. He was a hired gun for Vito “Spats” Gennaro, after all, boss of the South Side mob. He’d plugged many a guy that had it coming to him. So many, he’d nearly lost count. In fact, just the week before he’d taken down Frankie Maritote. Walked up and plugged him with a shotgun right outside his house, just after dark. Only it hadn’t gone off as planned. Just as Cherry Nose had squeezed the trigger, Frankie’s four-year-old little girl opened the door. It was a darn shame. But these things happen, Cherry Nose told himself over and over.
Frankie had it coming. No one else was supposed to have been home. It was an accident. So why should Cherry Nose even worry? He didn’t have anything to be afraid of.
But the fact was, Cherry Nose hadn’t gone out since getting that card. He’d heard plenty of stories about The Black Spectre. Stories about how he may not have even been human. Stories that couldn’t possibly have been true.
But Cherry Nose was hungry, and he was really itching for a drink. Even though the sun was already going down, Jack Smithy’s bar was only two blocks away. Cherry Nose shook off his nerves, reminded himself that he, too, was someone you didn’t want to meet in a dark alley, and grabbed his coat and .38 before he bolted out the door.
He’d only made it a half a block from the hotel before he heard footsteps behind him on the cold, snowy pavement. He stopped short and looked back. There were plenty of people on the sidewalk behind him, but none that seemed to have been following. He made it only a few more yards before stopping again, certain that someone was right on his heels. But there wasn’t. Not that he could see, anyway.
Cherry Nose shrugged and chuckled to himself. His mind was getting the best of him. Just what The Spectre wanted, he told himself. It was crazy, he thought. He really needed that drink.
Cherry Nose set his sights on the bar ahead, charged directly toward it, and tried not to let his thoughts get the best of him anymore. He was completely oblivious to the alley as he passed it. He could almost taste the whisky in his mouth when something unseen grabbed him from out of nowhere and hurled him like a rag doll down the dark brick passageway. He was barely able to come to his senses when he saw the tall, shadowy figure loom above him. The gleaming skull on The Spectre’s mask was all that was visible of his black-cloaked form.
The stories were true, thought Cherry Nose. The Devil had surely come for his soul. There would be no escape.
But that didn’t prevent him from trying.
Cherry Nose scurried to his feet and ran full bore down the dark alley. He never stopped to look back as he navigated the tight turns, banged his shoulder on one corner and scraped his knee on another.
Finally, he reached a dead end. It was there he would either have to give up the ghost or make his stand. He chose the latter.
Cherry Nose reached into his shoulder holster and was relieved to find his .38 was still there. In all the commotion, he was sure that he had dropped it.
He stared back down the long alley. All he could do was look and wait for the demon to come. His breathing was hard and labored. And it wasn’t from running. He could feel his heart beat loudly inside his chest.
A shadow loomed over him. From above.
Cherry Nose only had a second to realize his mistake. He quickly swung around with his gun and fired upwards, the flash from his pistol belching out into the darkness above.
But it was no use.
His volley was answered by two .45s screeching back like angry dragons. The bullets ripped through Cherry Nose’s chest and neck and knocked him down to the snow-covered stones beneath his feet.
His wide-open eyes stared straight up to the heavens open as his warm, crimson blood dyed the cold, lily-white snow that surrounded him like an angelic cloud.
He remained just like that until the Police found him a short while later, except for the worn card that was tucked in his lapel pocket.
A card marked with an “X.”
RECLUSIVE millionaire Brent Gregor sat in his wheelchair at the breakfast table and once again pondered the invitation that he held in his hand. As one of the wealthier residents of Lakeview Heights, he received a regular stream of invitations to the events hosted by the “blue blood set,” and had only in the past year begun to attend any of them.
But this particular invitation was of a very different sort. It was from the office of Mayor Eugene Barker: an invitation to the double execution of housewife Ruth Johnson and corset salesman Judd Gormon, who had conspired in (and blamed each other for) the murder of Ruth’s husband, Albert, the previous year.* Vicky Rose, reporter for the Daily Crusader, and The Black Spectre had aided in their capture and, after a sensational trial, both were sentenced to die in the electric chair. The state needed witnesses for each execution. The higher on the social ladder, the better.
The thought of it nagged him. As The Black Spectre, he’d already taken his share of lives in the name of justice. Just two nights earlier he’d killed the vicious gangland executioner “Cherry Nose” Caifano. But this was different. Or was it? It was a question he couldn’t answer. And that was what nagged him.
“Shall I tell the Mayor you will attend, Sir?” asked Bernard Worthington, his older, gentlemanly valet and confidante.
“I’m just not sure, Bernard,” Brent responded, lost in thought.
“Not sure how you feel about the execution, or not sure you want to attend?” Worthington asked.
“Both,” Brent replied.
“YOU have to let me go!” reporter Vicky Rose demanded as she plopped herself down on top of City Editor Frank Matson’s desk and thrust her face directly into his.
She might have been more intimidating had it not been for her lovely auburn hair and soft features. Frank just leaned back in his chair and shook his head. He liked it when she got mad. It made her a better reporter.
“No can do, Red,” he answered matter-of-factly. “An execution is no place for a woman. Besides, I thought you were against capital punishment?”
“Well, I am,” Vicky retorted, “but I helped solve this thing! I have to see this story through.”
“Even if I said yes,” Frank explained, “Mayor Barker’d never allow it. You can bet on that.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he’d realized where he’d made his mistake.
“So,” Vicky asked as she hopped back off the desk with that knowing tone in her voice, “if Mayor Barker says it’s on the up-and-up, then I can go, right?”
Frank didn’t even have time to answer before she whisked herself out of his office and the fast clacks of her heels echoed down the tiled hallway. There was no doubt about it. Come hell or high water, she was going.
He hoped it wasn’t the former.
“MISS ROSE to see you, Sir,” Bernard Worthington intoned as he led an anxious Vicky into the large study of the Gregor Mansion where Brent sat behind the great mahogany desk in his wheelchair. As usual, his eyes lit up at the sight of her.
He could tell immediately that this meeting was different. Normally, Vicky’s eyes wandered about her lush surroundings anytime she came to the mansion, having never gotten used to the overwhelming opulence. But this time, her eyes were locked on him.
“Brent, I need your help,” she quickly blurted out as she sat down. “I want to go to the execution, but Frank won’t let me unless I get an okay from the Mayor. What do you say?”
“By ‘the execution,’ you mean Ruth Johnson and Judd Gormon?” Brent asked to clarify.
“Yes, yes, of course!” Vicky trampled on his words as she answered. “What other execution is there?”
“But I thought you were against capital punishment?” Brent asked, rather puzzled.
“I am,” Vicky shot right back, letting her irritation with Frank get the best of her.
Then she stopped for just a moment to get her emotions in check. “Like I told Frank, this is my story and I have to see it to the end.”
Brent eased back in his wheelchair and clutched his chin. Vicky waited breathlessly for a moment before asking in a soft, pleading voice, “Will you call the Mayor for me, please?”
So, Brent thought, his decision had been made for him. If Vicky were going to attend the double execution, he would have to be there for her. He knew she certainly would not see it as such, but it would be that way just the same.
“Let me think it over,” Brent finally answered.
He could see the fire build within her eyes and could already hear the counter arguments coming from her lips about how it wasn’t right to keep her from doing her job just because of her sex. He also knew that were he to tell her the truth about his decision that she would have probably leaped across his desk and kissed him. And as much as he wished for that day to come, he knew full well that this was certainly not the appropriate circumstance.
She would find out soon enough. After she’d gotten back to her office. And his decision was delivered to her in a message.
“Are you just telling me that, or are you really going to think it over?” Her suspicion was even more evident in her tone.
He leaned forward and looked her straight in the eye, just to make sure she didn’t doubt him. “Yes, I’m going to think it over.”
There was nothing left for Vicky to do except thank him graciously and hope for the best. She shook his hand gently and Brent savored her touch as Worthington returned and showed her out.
Brent took a deep breath and tried not to think of the circumstances under which he would see her again.
VICKY’S arrival at the prison death house was greeted with surprise and disbelief. Her chief rival newshounds, Charlie Hecht and Ben Gelbart of the Terminal City Standard, both shook their heads at the too-familiar sound of her heels against the tile floor, followed by her triumphant smile as she sauntered through the door.
“Hello, Boys,” Vicky cooed to the tall, handsome and bespectacled Hecht. She always thought he looked more like a playwright than a newspaper reporter, but aside from her stories on The Black Spectre, it was usually a neck-and-neck race to see who got the headlines first. Somehow, when it came to The Spectre, there was never any contest.
Gelbart, the older and shorter of the two, took a long drag off of what was probably his twentieth cigarette of the day and asked, “So, who did you hustle to get in here?” The spin he put on the word “hustle” left no doubt as to what he meant.
“I didn’t ‘hustle’ anybody,” Vicky shot back. “There was no way anybody was keeping me off this story.”
This got Gelbart’s dander up, but Hecht stepped between them before it got any worse, only to lob another volley of his own. “Look, Doll, you don’t want to see this. You just don’t have the stomach for it. Trust me.”
“Don’t worry,” Vicky retorted as she pushed her way past him, “I’m man enough for it.”
Several hours passed as both Ruth Johnson and Judd Gormon were given their last meals, said their good-byes, and were prayed over by the Chaplain. Soon, the time had crept well past midnight. The final hour was nigh.
WORTHINGTON pushed Brent’s wheelchair down the snowy walk and up to the small, red brick death house, where three Prison Guards leapt to his assistance and carried his chair up the stairs and inside. As soon as the two of them entered, Brent was immediately greeted by Mayor Barker who quickly dispatched an assistant to get them both coffee.
“Mr. Gregor, thank you for coming to do your civic duty on such a somber occasion. I thank you, and the city thanks you,” Mayor Barker intoned, sounding more like he was making a speech than a greeting.
Brent accepted his chubby and hearty handshake and the appreciation, as real as it may or may not have been. He remembered that Barker had taken office at the same time he had become The Black Spectre, following the murder of former Mayor Nibley. Barker was a consummate politician, and firmly within the grip and pocket of Mob Boss Vito “Spats” Gennaro. But Brent smiled anyway.
After the necessary pleasantries, Barker trundled off to shake a few more hands and Brent found himself in the sights of his own personal nemesis, Julius Kennelly II, who was already well intoxicated. Julius stumbled over to nudge him hello and spill a few drops on scotch on Brent’s shoulder. Julius paid no mind as Worthington dutifully cleaned it up with a handkerchief.
“Let’s hope we don’t see another ghost tonight, eh Brent?” Julius chuckled, referring to their neighborhood’s long-standing childhood Halloween ritual of staring into the old, haunted Patterson house. Brent had only done it once and had actually seen a ghost, or something like it. This was the same night that he and his parents were shot.
Julius either didn’t remember or didn’t care.
“Let’s hope not,” was all that Brent could answer in return as he hoped that Julius would move back to the bar. Then Julius raised his glass and did just that.
Brent looked around for Vicky. Certainly she was there, and most likely with the Press. He would see her soon enough, but how he wished it were under different circumstances.
FRANK arrived at the Press Room with Thomas Delmont, whom he introduced to Hecht and Gelbart as another reporter “just in case,” nodding towards Vicky as he said it. Vicky would have taken great offense had she not known the truth. Delmont was actually a photographer and strapped to his leg was a small German-built camera with a long tube than ran up his pants leg to a squeeze bulb in his pocket. Frank’s plan was for Delmont to snap a photo of Ruth in the chair just as she got the juice and then plaster it on the front page the very next morning.
“So, we all set?” Vicky asked Frank when they got a moment alone.
“Yeah,” Frank answered, anxiously. “Just help me make sure Tom gets on the front row, okay?”
FINALLY, the time came.
Worthington wheeled Brent into the rear of the death chamber along with the Mayor, Warden Kellman, and a dozen other prominent citizens that Brent knew personally or by reputation. Julius stumbled in at the tail end, determined to finish his drink before witnessing the event.
Vicky, Frank, and the other reporters filed in moments after them. Vicky and Brent both acknowledged each other with a simple nod. Hecht and Gelbart both noticed and nodded to each other.
It was a small, bare red-brick room with an obvious focal point – the utilitarian chair made of hard wood and adorned with leather straps and wired with electric cables. On the right-hand side, set off so that they didn’t have a direct view of the execution, were three rows of short “church pews.” On the right-hand wall was a small window through which Brent could see a man only from the eyes up. This must be the Executioner, he thought. Next to the window was a plain, wooden door. Above it was posted a small sign that read “Silence.”
Vicky took a seat on the front row of the pews, then cringed and fanned her face as she moved to the back instead, and offered her place to “fellow reporter” Tom Delmont. This struck Brent as a bit odd. He knew something was up. Delmont took the front row seat and crossed his legs with his ankle hoisted over his knee.
Worthington dutifully locked the wheels on Brent’s chair and asked if there were anything else he needed.
“Don’t worry,” Julius interrupted as he leaned over two others to answer Worthington, “I’ll keep him company.”
“No, I’ll be fine,” Brent replied quietly, then touched Worthington’s comforting hand as his friend and valet took leave.
Vicky noticed that Charlie Hecht did not look well. He had broken out into a cold sweat and tugged at his collar. When the Doctor, who’s job it was to confirm that the prisoners were, in fact, dead, entered the chamber, Hecht bolted for the door and nearly knocked the poor man down in his efforts to escape. Everyone closed their eyes and lowered their heads as Hecht vomited in the outside hallway.
The sound of it all did not do much for Julius, but he managed to hold it in. A personal triumph that clearly satisfied him.
Finally, the door behind through which they’d all come was closed (without Hecht’s return). Ruth was led into the chamber through the “Silence” door by two Prison Guards. Behind her was the Chaplain, his worn Bible clutched firmly in his hands. Her hands and feet were shackled.
Brent was surprised to see that her head was unshaven, until she was turned towards the chair and he saw that they had only shaved the back of her head, just enough for the electrodes. She was calm but had clearly spent much of the night crying. This was the first time that Brent had seen her in person. Even in her drab gray prison dress, Brent could see the faint sparks of beauty that had once attracted her husband, Albert, and bewitched her accomplice, Judd Gormon.
Ruth struggled lightly against the guards as they put her into the chair and strapped her down. Brent continually glanced between Ruth, Vicky, and Delmont, who at this point had shifted in his seat and put one hand in his pocket.
With Ruth secured, the Guard stepped back and the Chaplain said his final prayer. It was at that moment that Brent realized he had the power to stop the execution. Using the powers granted to him by the Spirit Force, he could stay the hand of the executioner and keep the electricity from being turned on. It was a weighty decision to be sure, but he quickly found himself right back asking the same questions he had asked himself only days before. Was this murder or was this justice? Was he just as guilty as Ruth? Or was that different?
He suddenly found himself plagued with these and other questions. Were he to save Ruth, what would happen then? Would they then execute her on another day? Would he have to douse the lights and whisk her away as The Black Spectre? And if so, what would he do after that? Where would he take her? What would happen when the lights came on and everyone saw that he was gone as well? Would he give away his identity? Would he truly set her free? She needed to pay for her crimes, but how? Could he have her locked up somewhere else?
His mind raced as he pondered these questions over and over. As much as he wanted to stop the executioner’s hand from pulling the switch, it was the unknown answers that kept him from acting immediately.
Brent looked over to Vicky, hoping to find some resolution. She sat silently and anxiously waited for the final moment to come. He knew that if he saved Ruth, that certainly she would approve. But did he really want to save Ruth to win Vicky’s heart? He knew that wasn’t the reason, but at the moment he wasn’t completely sure it wasn’t.
He wanted her to look back at him, to give him some sort of nod, a glance, or any kind of brief acknowledgement. She had no idea what he was thinking. She couldn’t. Looking to her was useless. He needed to make the decision on his own. Or not. To not act would be to decide.
He needed a moment to think. He needed control of the situation, not burdened with panic, forced to wonder what he should do and how many seconds he had left to decide.
He quickly scanned the room. Through the small window, he could still glimpse the Executioner. That was where the switch was. He closed his eyes and focused his thoughts upon it. He saw it there, felt it in his mind, and clutched it in his own mental grasp.
The Warden gave the nod, but when the Executioner threw the switch, it wouldn’t budge. Brent held it firm, free to truly consider his actions. Or so he thought.
He was still distracted. Warden Kellman nodded again, then stepped through the door himself to see what was the matter. The witnesses all grew restless and wondered just what was amiss.
Julius let out a very vocal, “What the hell?”
Vicky, Frank, and the other reporters whispered back and forth to each other. Tom Delmont shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Ruth tried to look around through her thick leather blindfold.
Brent had to shut everything out. He held a woman’s very life in his grip. Did he let her live or die? To give her hope at this moment seemed needlessly cruel. But he had to make up his mind.
Should he give her the same consideration she gave her own husband when she, Judd, or both of them, smashed Albert’s skull in with a sock full of quarters and then strangled what little life remained in him with a piece of piano wire?
Then another thought struck him.
Ruth’s life was only in his hands because he deemed it so. Were it not for his powers, he would have been seated there just the same as any other witness. Ruth Johnson put herself where she was. She gave no such consideration to her husband.
She murdered him.
Then she tried to blame it on others to collect the insurance money from the multiple policies that she had taken out on him. She had tried unsuccessfully to murder him three times before.
It was just too much to consider.
Brent released his grip on the switch. The executioner shoved it down with unexpected force. Ruth’s entire form tensed up as the electricity suddenly surged through her body. The lights overhead flickered on and off. Tom Delmont squeezed something in his pocket.
The executioner let the electricity flow for what seemed like an eternity. There was an audible sigh of relieved tension in the room when he finally turned it off. The smell of singed flesh filled the room.
Again, Julius was the most vocal to acknowledge it.
Brent opened his eyes to the gruesome sight before him. Ruth was dead. The Doctor stepped forward to confirm it, though it was obvious to all.
Brent looked down at Vicky. She sat silently, not saying a word. He wanted to comfort her, but knew he could not. He wished that Frank would, but Frank sat just as still.
The room remained quiet as the Doctor and two Guards loosened Ruth’s body from the chair. They laid her out on a stretcher, then quickly covered her with a sheet and carried her out. Then another Prisoner was led in to clean up afterwards.
As soon as the chair was ready, Judd was led into the death chamber and immediately reacted to the still-lingering scent. His head was shaven and he put up much more of a struggle as he was strapped in.
Brent didn’t struggle this time, however. He was too emotionally exhausted. Besides, he’d already made his decision. He looked away and found himself glancing over at Julius. He’d passed out. Well, Brent thought to himself, perhaps Julius had the right idea after all.
Moments later, Judd Gormon was dead, too. Then, just as before, the Guards put him on a stretcher and carried him out, too. Finally, it was all over.
Brent kept his eyes on Vicky as everyone got up to file out into the hallway. She stood quietly behind Frank and Tom Delmont, whose leg appeared to have gone to sleep.
Gelbart leaned over to Vicky and smugly asked, “So, you still think this is any place for a woman?”
Vicky snapped back at him, “The hell with you! The hell with all of you!” and stormed out of the building.
“Guess that answers that,” Gelbart chuckled.
Frank would have decked him except that he was too anxious to get Delmont back to the office.
Brent watched as they quickly followed Vicky out.
Worthington stepped back into the room and reached down to unlock Brent’s wheelchair, then looked at him with surprise.
“Sir, how did your wheels become unlocked?” he asked.
“Please, just take me home, Worthington,” Brent replied quietly. Worthington nodded in obedience.
THE NEXT morning, Brent opened the morning issue of Daily Crusader to find a photo of Ruth, strapped into the electric chair, locked in the throes of death. It was a gruesome sight, and sure to sell thousands of papers.
So, he thought to himself, that’s what that fellow was hiding. Should have known.
It wasn’t much longer in the day before the phone rang and Worthington announced that Vicky was on the line.
“I didn’t get a chance to thank you,” she told him, though it sounded more like an apology. Then she went on to actually apologize for the doubt she displayed when she had come to see him, and especially for her outburst at the execution.
“No need to apologize,” Brent assured her. “I’ll always be there, whenever you need me.”
She was silent for a moment, then thanked him again before adding, “I should have known that.”