A Black Spectre Adventure
LITTLE Ricky Bartholomew sat poised on the edge of his cushioned seat high in the balcony of the ornate Orpheum Theater, his gaze transfixed on the action that took place on the stage far below him. He didn’t care that he and his kind, careworn mother, Mrs. Estelle Bartholomew, were seated in the cheapest section available, nor that his feet didn’t quite touch the floor and he was forced to maintain a careful balancing act throughout the entire show to keep from flopping backwards. None of that mattered to his ten-year-old mind, for he was living a dream that night, one that his mother had brought true by carefully saving pennies, coupons, and Green Stamps in order to afford it. His heart and soul were on that stage, transported back to 1790s Paris, and he bravely fought the unjust as The Scarlet Pimpernel. It was the most glorious night of his young life.
When the play was over, young Ricky dropped to his feet to join the standing ovation then quickly realized that he couldn’t see anything and had to pull his seat back down so that he could stand on it. Once again, he was involved in a precarious balancing act. His mother worried that it wasn’t proper behavior, nor was it very safe. But there was no deterring him from joining in the applause full-force. When the actor and actress portraying Percy and Marguerite had taken their final bows, Ricky knew in his young mind exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He wanted to be a stage actor and bring the same cheer to others that he had experienced on that wonderful night.
Ricky hopped down (thankfully, without getting injured) and clutched his mother’s hand as she they made the long climb down the narrow, winding iron staircase to reach the richly-decorated theater lobby. Actually, it was more like him leading her. Ricky was so full of exuberance that when they finally landed upon the ground floor, he jerked free of his mother’s grasp and bolted headlong across the lobby towards the waiting street outside.
“Ricky!” she called out, but she needn’t have worried. He came to a sudden stop when he ran smack into the back of a large, very well-dressed man in a bowler hat and gleaming white spats. Ricky let out a quick gasp when the man wheeled around with eyes aflame that burned brightly above his waxed moustache. Ricky instinctively took a step backwards and swallowed hard. The man’s expression quickly turned from anger to a broad smile when he saw his young adversary. Mrs. Bartholomew clutched her son’s shoulders from behind and curtsied apologetically.
“Beg your pardon, Sir,” she asked softly. He’s just a little full of himself this evening.”
The large man nodded with a smile and turned so that his very young wife (or was it his daughter? Mrs. Bartholomew wondered) could get a look at the mischievous offender.
“Such a cute little boy,” the young woman said with a gleaming smile.
Ricky was dazzled by her gleaming white dress that left far less to his young imagination than his mother would have liked. Mrs. Bartholomew quickly turned him away and towards the door. “Enjoy your evening,” she told the couple, then pushed Ricky along until he was well outside the theater.
Had they lived in Terminal City and read any of the local papers, they would have easily known that the couple in question were notorious South Side crime boss Vito “Spats” Gennero (Terminal City’s very own Chauvelin) and his young wife, Annette. It was probably just as well that they didn’t. Though outwardly respectable, Vito Spats was a bloodthirsty killer, responsible, both directly and indirectly, for the deaths of scores of men. Not to mention countless other innocent casualties.
Outside on the sidewalk, the crowds dispersed in every direction as the patrons returned to their hotels and climbed into waiting cabs. Ricky did his best impersonation of the gallant Lord Percy: “We seek him here, we seek him there! Those Frenchies seek him everywhere! Is he in heaven? Is he in–?“
Mrs. Bartholomew quickly interrupted her young son. “Okay, that’s enough young man.” She looked at her watch and was immediately flustered by the lateness of the hour.
“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed, worried that despite the fact that this was a special occasion, Ricky was out far past his bedtime. There was a short line of taxis that still waited at the curb, but, sadly, her budget couldn’t allow it. They would have to walk the four blocks back to their hotel. Mrs. Bartholomew took Ricky by the hand again and pulled him along towards the closest intersection.
Ricky looked around at all the buildings as his mother stopped to button his coat up to the top. Something didn’t seem right, but he wasn’t able to adequately protest until they had reached the next street corner.
“Mother, I don’t think we’re going the right way,” he told her. He looked around again to get his bearings, hoping to spot some landmark that would prove him correct.
Still flustered by the lateness of the hour, Mrs. Bartholomew looked in both directions, but wasn’t completely certain about either one. “I think we came this way.”
Ricky spotted a beat Cop at the far corner on the other end of the block. Before he could suggest that they ask for directions, his mother tugged him along across the street and added, “We’ll try going this way and if it isn’t right, then we’ll just have to turn back.”
They had only scampered another two blocks before it had finally become quite obvious that they’d gone in the wrong direction. Mrs. Bartholomew looked nervously about for a policeman, but this time there was no one nearby.
“We definitely need to turn back,” she said in a vain attempt to hide the anxiety in her voice. “Come on, if we hurry we’ll be back there in no time.”
They only managed to go a short distance before they noticed two dark shadows that followed them — one in front and one from behind. Mrs. Bartholomew casually leaned down to her son and whispered, “If anything happens, I want you to run find a policeman as fast as you can. Understand?”
AUBURN-HAIRED reporter Vicky Rose stormed through the hospital as she raced down the gleaming tiled floor of the hallway. As much as she wanted to get the scoop on the terrible events that had happened just a short while earlier, her previously-unknown motherly instinct had kicked in. She found herself more worried about the poor boy who waited there at the hospital alone, with just a single thought in his young mind: whether or not his mother was going to live.
“Thank goodness, you’re here,” the large and grizzled Detective Shayne said as he greeted her in the hallway. Having a child as the only witness to a potential murder was not a situation for which they were prepared at the police precinct. What they really needed was a female officer, but that was completely unheard of. But since Vicky was such a regular fixture there, she would have to do.
Det. Shayne quickly ushered Vicky into his office where young Ricky Bartholomew waited quietly. He looked up with something akin to a relieved expression as Vicky entered. She reciprocated with a warm and friendly smile as she kneeled down, took his small hand, and introduced herself. As she did, she felt a sharp chill as if something unknown had entered the room with her. A quick smile of reassurance from her was the only thing that betrayed the presence of someone else there.
“My Mom, is she okay?” Ricky sobbed.
“The Doctors are doing everything they can,” Vicky reassured him. “And the police are, too. But if they’re going to catch the men that did this, I need you to tell me everything that you can remember.”
Ricky nodded in agreement.
“Just tell me what happened after you and your mother left the theater.”
“Okay,” Ricky nodded again, then recounted in just a few words how they’d gone the wrong way and gotten lost. “We only went a few blocks, we were pretty scared, and that’s when we saw them. They followed us at first, and then when we tried to turn back, they wouldn’t let us go.”
“How many were there?” she asked.
“Two,” Ricky answered.
“Can you tell me what they looked like?”
Ricky thought for a moment then nodded again. “They were tough guys, just like you see in a Jimmy Cagney picture. One of them was real thin, kind of wiry. He did all the talking. He had on an old suit with a tie. He had a beat up brown hat with a hole in it.”
“What kind of a hat? A fedora?” Vicky asked.
Ricky confirmed it with a quick nod then continued. “The other one, he was real big. A real tough guy. He had a cap like regular guys wear. Just wore a button shirt and an old coat. They smelled real bad, too.
“Like liquor?” Vicky inquired, “or like they hadn’t had a bath in a while?”
“Both,” Ricky told her.
“Did they have any scars or tattoos or anything that you could see?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Ricky answered as he sat up a little. “The thin one had a scar down one side of his neck. And the big one had a scar on the back of his hand, like he’d been burned or something.”
Vicky and the unseen Black Spectre came to the same unspoken conclusion. They were both quite familiar with Fred Karpis (the thin one) and Elmer “Big Fitz” Fitzgerald (the big one), two small-time pinch thieves who were known for working that section of town. The scars were the result (and reminders) of previous run-ins with Vito “Spats” Gennero’s men after the two had gotten two big for their britches.
“We tried to go around them,” Ricky told her, “But the thin one, he wouldn’t let us. He said not to rush off and called my mom ‘Sweetheart.’” She tried to be real nice about it. She told him we didn’t have much and that we just wanted to get back to our hotel. Then the thin one, he kind of laughed and said they were there to help us. Kind of like the Welcome Wagon. Then he said they just need a little donation for the widows and orphans, and asked if we got his meaning. That’s when he opened his coat and showed us his pistol.”
Vicky could feel the room grow even colder.
Ricky gave a quick shudder. He felt it, too, but thought it was just his own fears getting the best of him.
“So what happened then?” Vicky asked.
“The big one laughed. He thought that was pretty funny. I was really afraid, so I held my Mom’s hand just as tight as I could. I looked around again for a policeman, but there just weren’t any around. I kept thinking one would show up, but he never did. I’ve never seen a street before that didn’t have a beat cop making the rounds.”
“Well,” Vicky explained, “I’m afraid Terminal City is a lot different from what you’re used to.”
“So anyways,” Ricky continued, “That’s when the thin one started talking real tough. He told my mom that he didn’t have all night, so he grabbed her pocketbook and threw it to the big one. The big one looked all through it, but all he found was two dollars and our bus tickets home, just like we told him. My mom begged for him to let us go, but he just stood there and thought about it for a minute. That’s when he looked down at her wedding ring.”
Ricky stopped for a moment and swallowed hard. This was the part of the story he didn’t want to remember.
“It’s okay,” Vicky reassured him. “Take your time.”
Ricky swallowed again and choked back his tears. “I guess he figured Mom wouldn’t give it up too easily. I suppose he was right, ‘cause it’s all she has. That’s when he pulled out his gun. Just to make sure we knew he meant business.”
Ricky stopped and stared down at the floor. His father had always told him that boys never cry, but he was having a hard time fighting it back. It was bad enough that he’d let his Mom down, he thought, and now he was letting his father down, too.
Vicky clutched his hand tightly and wiped the tears from his eyes. Her hands were softer than his mother’s. He looked back up at her. She smiled back at him like a comforting angel.
“My mom stepped in front of me,” he continued, “so I couldn’t see the gun no more. But I knew it was there. You could hear it in his voice. He got real mean. He told her to hand over the ring and not to give him any trouble. My mom begged him. It’s the only nice thing she’s got. I think she was probably worried, too, what my father would do if she lost it. He was always going on about how long it took him to pay for that ring. That she better ‘guard it with her life’ because ‘it was worth more than she was.’ But the thin one, he didn’t want to hear none of that. He just said she better hand it over real quick. I think he was pointing the gun towards me, but I couldn’t tell because my mom was holding me so tight. That’s when I got real mad.”
Vicky’s eyes lit up with concern. “What did you do?” she asked softly.
“I just started thinking about my father and what he told me. When we were leaving, he made me promise to be the man on our trip and to look after my mother. But I was just standing there, taking it like a little baby. The Pimpernel wouldn’t stand still for that. So that’s when I shouted, ‘You leave her alone!’ And I let go of my Mom and I just started hitting him as hard as I could! And I kicked him, too. I just wish I was bigger. ‘Cause he just shouted ‘Get off me kid!’ and he just took his hand with the gun and threw me down on the sidewalk. I looked up and all I could see was that gun pointing straight at me.”
The room went colder still. The Black Spectre listened silently, plagued by the memories of that fateful Halloween night so many years ago. No child should ever have had to endure what he did that night, and yet he was standing there listening to just such an event. It made his blood boil even more.
“That’s when my mother screamed at him. She jumped on him, too, and really let him have it. He was trying to fight her off, but she wasn’t going to let go. That’s when I heard the gun go off.”
Vicky was silent. She felt the air suddenly race out of her lungs.
Ricky welled up again. Try as he might, he was unable to hold back the sobs. Vicky reached over and clutched him tightly. She felt so soft and comforting. And very warm against the growing cold that permeated the room.
After a few moments, he was finally able to continue though tear-soaked sobs. “Then I looked down and she was just laying there on the sidewalk. There was blood. All over her new blue dress. I called out to her, but she didn’t answer. I bent down and I shook her, but she didn’t move. I didn’t know what to do. Then I remembered what she told me earlier, that if anything happens, I should just run as fast as I can and find a policeman. So that’s what I did. I don’t know if they chased me or not. I just ran as fast as I could. Just like she told me. But I don’t know if I ran fast enough.”
Ricky broke down again and Vicky held him as tightly as she could. It would be a little while, she knew, before she could tell the police what she had learned, but it was no matter. The police were not going to find Karpis and Big Fitz. She felt the chill breeze leave the room just as quietly as it had come.
The Black Spectre would find them soon enough. There would be hell to pay on this night.
Of that she was more than certain.
GOLDIE TIBBETS stumbled out of the Elbow Room and buttoned up her coat as best she could against the chilly night air. She’d seen her best days several years ago and no amount of make-up or hair bleach would convince the world otherwise. Still, with the right amount of gin she could easily convince herself.
She’d always thought that if she’d been able to find the right man, her life would have been better. But due to poor choices or just plain old bad luck, she’d attached herself to “another winner,” and now he was on the run from the police. Again. That had been the reason for the few extra drinks that night. Had she known what she was about to face, she’d have downed a few more.
Goldie made her way down the cold, barren sidewalk toward her apartment building just a few blocks away. If she could just make it up the stairs, she thought, she’d be good for the night. Home free.
After just a few more steps, she felt her lower body go numb with a sort of tingling feeling all over, like a foot going to sleep. Only this was much more than a foot. Feeling herself topple over, she grabbed for a nearby window sill to break her fall. It was at that moment she realized she wasn’t going to hit the ground. In fact, it was just the opposite. The ground was getting farther away.
Goldie let out an alcohol-gurgled scream as she was lifted by an unseen force and rose up into the air towards the roof an old brick tenement building. She clawed for the walls and windows, hoping to grip anything to stop her ascension, but it was no use. She clutched her stomach tightly, fearing the worst.
She felt her high-heeled shoes dangle from her feet and curled her toes upwards to keep them from falling off. But terror-fueled curiosity got the best of her and when she looked down, her shoes slipped right off and dropped to the sidewalk below. Worse still, the heel of one snapped off as it struck the pavement below. They were her only pair.
Finally, she came to a stop just above the roofline, still hovering over the sidewalk below, which was three-stories down. She looked out over the neighboring rooftop and saw a dark-cloaked figure drift towards her. The only thing that shown in the darkness was the gleaming white skull of his mask. She’d read enough stories in the Crusader to know that this was The Black Spectre.
And she knew exactly what he wanted.
“Please! Don’t drop me!” she cried.
“Where are Fred Karpis and Big Fitz?” he shouted.
She reached out to grab him, more afraid of falling than what he might do to her. But he waved his hand and she drifted further over the street.
“Please!” she begged. “I’ll tell you everything! Just don’t drop me! Please?”
The Spectre waved his hand again and she drifted back over the rooftop, but still left in mid-air.
“It was an accident!” she told him. “They didn’t mean to shoot her! It was all an accident!”
The Spectre angrily waved his hand again and she floated back towards the ledge.
“Stop! Please!” she cried out. “Please! They’re holed up at the Morgantown Hotel, over by the river. Sixth floor. I swear!”
The Spectre brushed his open hand swiftly and Goldie dropped to the gravel roof with a thud. She felt the sharp rocks dig into her palms and stocking-covered feet. She immediately checked to see if she was bleeding. She was.
“Please! Don’t hurt Freddie!” she pleaded again. “It was an accident. It was all an accident! I swear to you!”
The Spectre stepped over to another ledge that dropped down into the neighboring alley. In a moment, he was gone.
VICKY sat in a large, comfortable chair across from where Ricky was curled up on the king-sized bed in the Crusader’s regular suite at the Sherman Hotel. It had been such a long and eventful night. With the lights out and only the soft hum of the street far below, she hoped that he would be able to get some sleep. Her newfound motherly instincts were in still full force and would not abate any time soon.
The paper kept at tab at the Sherman just in case they ever needed to squire away an exclusive. It wasn’t the best hotel in town, but it was nice enough, and had certainly come in handy on more than one occasion. She’d visited it many times before, but this is the first time she’d ever spent the night there. And it was certainly the first time they’d ever used it to host a child.
All she could do was sit there and stare at his small form huddled up in the sheets, dwarfed by the massive bed. She could hear him whimper softly and let out an occasional sniffle, trying hard to be the man his father had wanted him to and not let her hear. She’d done her best to make him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
Frank Matson, her perpetually disheveled editor, and his wife, Betty, had gotten Ricky’s things from the other hotel. Ricky didn’t want to go back there and she could fully understand why. As usual, Frank was dying for the details on this exclusive, but this time he was willing to wait as long necessary. Frank had kids of his own. And that trumped all of his usual instincts.
As Vicky sat there in the dark, watching over Ricky, she heard his small voice whisper in the dark. She couldn’t quite make out what he was saying until she crept closer and heard him repeat it. It was something to give him strength and courage, she immediately thought. She hoped it would do just that.
“We seek him here, we seek him there! Those Frenchies seek him everywhere…” He recited the entire verse over and over, always careful to bowdlerize the two words his mother didn’t want him to say.
FRED KARPIS paced nervously across the threadbare rug in the sixth floor room of the Morgantown Hotel. It had been a rotten night and the last thing he’d wanted was for it to get any worse. With each anxious step between the door and the bed, he played the details over and over in his mind, wondering how everything had gone so terribly wrong. He hadn’t meant to plug the dame. It was an accident. He’d only pulled the gun to scare her. He’d forgotten it was even loaded. But he was sure no one else would see it that way. It was her fault anyway. She should have just given up the ring and he’d have just let her and the kid go.
Big Fitz just stared quietly out the window, peering through the thin slats of the wooden blinds. The street was clear save for a few parked cars and the occasional taxi that drove by. So far, there’d been no sign of a police car, but the night was only half over.
“See anything?” Fred asked for the hundredth time.
“Nah, still clear,” Big Fitz mumbled.
“Good,” Fred stammered, his nerves getting the best of him. “We just gotta figure a way to get outa town. Lay low for a while till the heat dies down, that’s all.”
The room grew suddenly cold. Like the temperature had dropped a full thirty degrees.
“You feel that?” Fred asked, his voice shaking.
Crash! The door burst from its hinges as if a hurricane ripped through the building. The men ducked from the splintered pieces of door frame that littered the room.
Fred looked up to see The Black Spectre barge in like a forceful banshee looking for blood. Fred Karpis barely got his gun from his shoulder holster when three shots rang out from The Spectre’s twin .45s and his chest exploded in a shower of crimson.
Big Fitz dove screaming for the window, crashing through the blinds in a desperate attempt to reach the fire escape outside.
It was no use. An unseen, numbing force grabbed him by the legs. It jerked him back into the room then dragged him backwards across the floor. Big Fitz dug his fingernails down into the hardwoods, but there was no slowing his fate. The Spectre grabbed him up by the collar and lifted him straight off the ground.
Big Fitz quickly found himself staring into the gleaming skull mask of what looked like Death himself. All he could do was beg for his life.
“Please! Don’t kill me!” he pleaded, nearly in tears. “I didn’t do it! It was all him!”
The Spectre glowered at Big Fitz for just a second longer, then hurled him out the window with more force than any man or beast could ever muster. Big Fitz crashed through the panes and plummeted flailing down to the street below in a shower of glass. He felt the crack of several bones break and the wind forced from his body as he struck the cold, hard pavement. All he could do was gasp for breath until minutes later he when was finally able to scream in agony.
AFTER a four-hour bus ride, two pots of coffee, and a nap at the police station, Jonas Bartholomew was reasonably sober enough to collect his son from the Sherman Hotel late the next morning. Frank and Detective Shayne led Mr. Bartholomew quietly upstairs via the elevator. Understandably, the man never said a word. He’d become a widower only a few hours before and, sadly, didn’t make it to the hospital in time to say good-bye to his wife. It was only in this moment that he realized just how much he’d loved her.
He finally spoke up when they reached the hotel room door. “You mind if I wait to tell the boy after we get home? I think it might be easier on him that way.”
Det. Shayne nodded a mumbled agreement. He didn’t envy the man in the least and, deep down, was somewhat relieved that the responsibility wouldn’t fall on his shoulders.
Frank knocked quietly on the door. Vicky had taken Ricky out for breakfast earlier, but he was sure that they were back by this point. He waited a few impatient moments until Vicky let them in.
Ricky looked up quickly from the chair by the window. His young face lit up at the sight of his father. Ricky rushed straight over and hugged him tightly around the waist. At first, Jonas Bartholomew didn’t know how to react. He’d never shown much affection towards his son, having always felt that it was the wife’s place. But he was a lone parent now and Ricky wasn’t about to let go. Finally, he pried Ricky’s arms loose, then knelt down and pulled the boy into his own large, strong arms.
IT WAS late in the afternoon before Vicky was finally able to drive over to the Morgantown Hotel and witness the crime scene there for herself. Despite her exclusive access to the sole young witness, the story had been a bust. The other papers had managed to pick up enough details and each ran it on the front page of their morning editions. The Crusader had their front page headline, too, but with hardly any more detail than their competition. That would come in the next day’s paper, but by then it would be old news.
After looking at the sidewalk, still stained with patches of blood and covered in shattered glass from where Big Fitz had been hurled from the top floor window, Vicky climbed the stairs to the sixth floor room above.
She immediately saw the blood-tinged chalk outline where Fred Karpis had been found on the floor. Behind it were blood spatters on the bed and wall. It had been a quick and violent death. But even more frightening was the giant “X” that had been ripped into the plaster walls, so deep that it exposed the inner boards like gouged-out bone. She’d never seen such fury before. Such anger and otherworldly power. Clearly, The Black Spectre had been out for revenge of the worst kind.
The only words that came to mind were the verse that poor young Ricky had repeated over and over as he had valiantly tried to comfort himself to sleep the night before.
“Is he in Heaven or is he in Hell? That damned elusive Pimpernel.”