The Hundred Dollar Baby

The Black Spectre: Volume I (Buy Now!)

A Black Spectre Adventure

OSCAR TRAVERS grabbed another shot from the bar in his anvil-like fist and tossed it back like a glass of water.  His body was steeled from years of working on the docks, and now, thanks to a combination of whiskey and rage, his nerves were steeled as well.  He’d never beaten another human being to death before, but he was more than capable.  On this night, especially so.  His pride had been severely bruised, and he was smarting for revenge.

Feeling the alcohol work its way into his system, he glanced again out the window to the Orpheum Theater just down the street.  The doors would open soon to let the rich and influential step out among the masses for just a moment, then get in their expensive cars and ride back to their posh mansions in exclusive Lakeview Heights.

And Oscar Travers would be waiting.

Inside the Orpheum, the audience applauded as the curtains fell across the stage.  The sounds echoed through the small, but ornately-crafted theater.  Brent Gregor clapped, too, from his wheelchair in Box Five.  As much as he enjoyed the show, a musical farce about love and mistaken-identity, it only served to remind him that he was very much alone.  Of course, he had his faithful valet, Bernard Worthington, at his side – the only other living person who knew him as The Black Spectre.  But Brent longed for companionship of another kind, and those thoughts always led in the same direction. Vicky.

As the fates would have it, Victoria Rose, the headstrong, auburn-haired reporter for the Daily Crusader, actually sat far above him in the uppermost balcony.  With her was her boyfriend and co-worker at the Crusader, Denny Morris, who toiled daily in the newspaper’s archives.

They were celebrating the anniversary of their first date together and Denny had wanted to do something special.  He’d saved for many months and managed to pull a few strings to take her to the opening of a new show.  Though he wished he could have done a lot better than the “nosebleed section,” he was just glad to have a special night with her without having to encounter his chief rival for Vicky’s attention (aside from the newspaper) – Brent Gregor. Vicky was an angel, his angel.  And on this night, dressed in her beautiful soft-blue gown, she looked just like one.

As they got up to leave, Denny’s eyes quickly scanned the crowd below.  He was surprised by the number of famous faces: Mayor Eugene Barker, wealthy industrialist Julius Kennelly, prominent attorney Cecil Davenport IV, and others.  The curtains shielding the box seats kept him from seeing the one face he secretly hoped would not be there.

After much of the audience had left the theater, Worthington pushed Brent Gregor down to the lobby in his wheelchair.  Brent stared deeply at the gold-set fire-red opal that adorned his finger.  It was this ring that gave him the power of the Spirit Force – and the ability to walk as long as he used those powers to fight for justice in an unjust world as The Black Spectre.  It was this ring that both brought him closer to Vicky and kept them separate.  In order to tell her the truth about his feelings, he would have to tell her so much more.  Perhaps he would, in time, but that day was a long way off.

As Worthington wheeled him into the lobby, he spotted Denny and Vicky emerging from the staircase across the hall.  Brent’s face lit up at the sight of her, just as Denny’s dimmed at the sight of him.

“Brent!” Vicky called out.  “Look, there’s Brent!” she chirped happily as she tugged Denny by the hand and rushed over to greet him.  Denny smiled politely.  It was a common expression for him.

As the lobby bustled with men in tuxedos and women in fancy gowns, all chattering happily about their wonderful evening, no one paid any mind when Oscar Travers pushed his way quietly into the lushly decorated room.  Travers silently scanned the crowd, searching for one person in particular.  He couldn’t help but notice Brent Gregor, the only one in a wheelchair, talking to a beautiful redhead.  Only a man with that kind of money could get a woman to forget he was crippled, Travers thought.

Then his eyes landed on the man he’d come to see:  Cecil Davenport IV, the wealthy attorney and heir to the Davenport fortune.  Davenport had everything – handsome good looks, his beautiful wife, Julia, dutifully at his side like a trophy to be admired, and a modicum of fame and fortune.  But there was one thing Davenport had wanted that he couldn’t produce – an heir of his own.  No, that he had taken from someone else.  Taken from Oscar Travers.

Travers pushed his way quickly through the crowd and grabbed Davenport by the collar in a vice-like grip.  Before the stunned aristocrat even had time to react, Travers’ iron fist connected with Davenport’s glass jaw with the speed of a locomotive.  The rich man’s head jerked back from the fierce blow and he spat a mouthful of blood across his beautiful young wife’s gleaming white gown.

The crushing blow knocked Davenport straight to the floor.  The young Mrs. Davenport screamed at the sight.  In that split second, her concern was not only that her husband was loosing blood, but that she found it on her dress.

He was about to spill more.

With the speed of a man possessed, Travers quickly scooped Davenport off the floor and assailed him repeatedly in the face and gut.  Davenport was so dazed by the onslaught that he could only cough up more blood.  He was completely unable to come to his senses, much less retaliate.

The crowd quickly parted in shock and horror.  Men shouted and women screamed.  It was a brutal sight.  Vicky looked up at the melee with widened-eyes.  Brent quickly assessed the situation to see if he should act.  Denny just stood back in shock.

Travers hauled back to pummel Davenport to the floor once more, but an unseen force stayed his clenched fist.  His arm felt strangely numb.  In the instant of his fury, Travers thought it was someone behind him.  He didn’t have time to realize he was standing alone.  Brent gripped the handles of his wheelchair as he focused his concentration, thankful he could use the power of the Spirit Force without being noticed.

Travers could only shout in frustration, “You stole our baby!  We already paid!  That baby was ours!”

Two burly Ushers stormed quickly through the horrified crowd and grabbed Travers by the arms to hold him back.  Travers was momentarily stunned to find that there had previously been no one behind him.  He then struggled against their solid grasps and shouted, “You stole our baby!”

They quickly drug him out of the lobby and into the alley.  Denny only had a moment to look up at Vicky to see her follow right behind.  Her reporter’s instinct had kicked in as usual and she had no choice but to follow the story.  Literally.

Brent gave Denny an understanding nod, seeing him standing there alone, their special evening brought to a tragic and unexpected end.  Denny watched as Worthington wheeled Brent outside.  He then looked over at the men who helped Davenport to his feet as he coughed more blood into his handkerchief.  The women attended to Mrs. Davenport, as she cried in terrified confusion.

Worthington helped Brent into their dark, luxurious car, then settled himself into the driver’s seat.  “What do you suppose that was all about, Sir?”

Brent stared thoughtfully out the window, pondering Travers’ words as Worthington put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.  He had his suspicions.

“I’ve heard rumors of a baby-selling racket.  More like a baby auction,” Brent told him.  “Supposedly, there’s a doctor in town who helps ‘unfortunate’ girls, then sells the baby to the highest bidder.  I’m guessing that man was outbid by a wealthier buyer.”

“My heavens!” was Worthington’s response.  He could not believe the words.  “Every time I think that mankind has sunk to his lowest depths, he seeks to prove me wrong.”

Brent added that he’d looked into this before, but had only come up empty-handed.  “Whoever this doctor is, he does a very good job of covering his tracks.  But at least now there’s a trail.  And with more than one path.”

The Black Spectre, of course, wasted no time in following that trail.  Cecil Davenport may have been well-guarded at the hospital to which he was taken, but that didn’t keep him from having visitors.  Most especially, one visitor in particular.

Despite the doses of morphine and expert attention at Terminal City’s finest medical facility, Davenport did not rest well that night.  Nestled in his hospital bed, his face was heavily bandaged around his crown and his nearly-broken jaw.  Davenport was jostled awake by something uneasy and unexpected.  He struggled to open his eyes.  Through the drug-induced clouds of his mind, he saw Death standing over him.

Or something that looked very much like it.

Davenport let out a very loud gasp as his heart stopped momentarily.  A dark-gloved hand quickly covered his mouth.  Without time to think, Davenport’s hand shot out for the small hand-bell he used to call the nurse.  He shook it violently, but it made no sound.

He looked back at the dark figure before him.  Surely he was dead.

“Tell me,” said The Black Spectre in his deep, scratchy voice, “who is the doctor that sold you the baby?”

Davenport stumbled on his words as he attempted to speak.  “I – I don’t know.”

The Black Spectre leaned directly over Davenport’s face, so that all he could see was the gleaming white skull of his mask.  “Don’t lie to me!” demanded The Spectre.  “Do you really want to spend eternity in Hell?”

Davenport blinked through tear-filled eyes and answered, “No, Sir!  Please!  I swear!  I don’t know.  But I know the name of the hospital.  It’s Hollyvale Country Hospital.  That’s where they take all the unfortunates.”

Just at that moment, the door flung quickly open.  Davenport turned to look.  There, bathed in the light of the hallway, was a pale-blue angel.  Now that he had told the truth, he had purged his soul from the darkness of Death.  She was there to save him.  Or so he believed when he saw her.

Her reaction, however, was not so angelic.  “What are you doing here?” she demanded of the dark-cloaked figure.

“The same as you, I imagine,” answered The Spectre.

With a wave of his hand, the lights in the hallway went out behind her.  “Come with me,” was all he said as he whisked her out the door.

Davenport could only look up in confusion.  “Angel, come back!” he called out.

Though he only touched the fingers of her hand, Vicky felt herself being pulled down the dark hallway until they quickly came to a stop.  He moved around her in a sudden, fluid motion, then loomed over her, face to face.  She wasn’t so easily intimidated.

“Meet me at the Hollyvale Country Hospital,” was all he said, then disappeared into the shadows.  She blinked a few times, wondering if her eyes had played tricks on her.  She’d seen him do that many times before, but never up close.  She shook her head, completely unable to make sense of it.  But there was no time to ponder such puzzlements now.  Despite her disdain for The Spectre, she had the information she’d come to retrieve and, to her way of thinking, she wasn’t about to let this phantom character rattle her into letting go of it.  Even if he was the one who gave it to her.

Moments later, The Black Spectre ducked unseen into a long, black car tucked safely some distance away in the darkness of the night.  Worthington looked into the rear-view mirror to see the smiling face of Brent Gregor staring back at him.

“I trust you were successful, Sir?” Worthington asked.

“Certainly,” said Brent, giving him their next location, then added, “we’re meeting Vicky there.”

Worthington looked back at him curiously as they drove off.

#

SEVERAL long miles later, well outside of the city, The Black Spectre swooped in on the small country hospital.  It was a quaint little place, like a rather long home that had been extended in both directions.  Certainly the kind of place where unfortunate girls would feel as welcome as they could during their extended stay.

As he expected, The Spectre found Vicky at a back door, hunched down, working the lock in frustration with a hairpin.  “Allow me,” he said, startling her.  With another wave of his hand, the door unlocked and swung open.  “You knew I was coming.”

Vicky could only respond with an aggravated grunt as she brushed quickly past him to get inside first.

“Stay quiet,” she said, barreling into the hallway and having to suddenly stop short by the sound of her clacking heels on the slick, tile floor.  She let out another aggravated grunt as she stopped to take off her shoes.  The Spectre moved silently past her and she was forced to follow.

As they reached the office, The Spectre opened the locked door and led her to the filing cabinet.

“Can I at least do this part?” she asked in frustration.  “This is what I do.”

The Spectre stepped politely back, pointing her to the files.  She thrust her shoes into his gloved-hands as if he needed to do something useful.  She went to the first drawer and gave it a quick tug.  Of course, it was locked.

“Try it again,” he said, without moving a muscle.

As much as she hated to, and without even glancing in his direction, she gently pulled on the drawer again.  It came right open.

Still refusing to look at him, she went straight to work.  Like a highly-trained specialist, she whizzed quickly and quietly through the file drawers, pausing every moment or so to hold a folder up to the dim shafts of light that bore across the dark room from the street lights outside.

“I still don’t know if you’re a criminal or a savior,” she said, finally looking up and staring him down.

“I’m no criminal,” he replied matter-of-factly.

She only made a sound of disbelief before going back to the files.

After another few moments, she let out a slight sound of satisfaction. “Here. Girl’s name is Susan Harris.  Checked out two days ago. There’s some numbers and initials written at the bottom – I’m guessing they sold the baby to Davenport for $100 dollars. Travers had only paid fifty. Looks like she hasn’t given birth yet.”

“Who’s the doctor?” The Spectre asked.

She looked up at him as if to ask if he really thought she’d reveal such a vital piece of information.  As much as she wanted to withhold it, there was no way she could have kept it from him.  And if that wasn’t enough to really irk her, it was a name she didn’t recognize.

“Dr. Zachary Wellman,” she confessed.  “You know him?” she asked, both hoping that he did and irritated that he might.

In fact, The Spectre knew Dr. Wellman rather well indeed.  He lived in Lakeview Heights, a few blocks from the Gregor Mansion.  His home backed up against the long-empty Patterson house, which Brent and every other child that grew up in Lakeview Heights knew to be haunted.  And if that wasn’t enough, Dr. Wellman had attended to Brent and his mother that fateful Halloween night so many years ago.

Again, The Spectre told Vicky to meet him there.

#

AFTER the several-mile drive back into the city and on to Lakeview Heights, Worthington let The Spectre out near Dr. Wellman’s house before taking the car on to the mansion.  Vicky wasn’t far behind, though, and quickly rushed in through the open front door to find him waiting.

“Doesn’t seem to be anyone home,” he told her.

“Have you looked upstairs?” she asked, not waiting for him to answer.  She barreled quickly up the grand, circular staircase.  Since this was only the second home in Lakeview Heights (the first being Brent Gregor’s, of course) she’d been in, her mind was momentarily distracted by the thought of how much she’d have liked to see this home with the lights on.

They rushed into the study to find it dark and empty like the rest of the house.  As Vicky glanced over the papers on the desk and found the drawers locked, she could have sworn that she saw a flash of light in the house directly behind them.

“Isn’t that the old Patterson House?” she asked.  “The one that’s supposed to be haunted?”

“Yes,” answered The Spectre, knowing full well that it was.  For on the same fateful Halloween that had changed his life, he’d had his first brush with the otherworld.  Like all the kids in Lakeview Heights, he’d peered in through the front door while completing the neighborhood children’s rite of passage, and something – something ghostly, something frightening, something not from this world – had called out to him.

Vicky’s voice shook him from those terrible memories.  “If you were going to hide someone and you wanted to make sure she was never found, where would you hide her? A haunted house maybe?”

Before he could answer and even think to hesitate, Vicky was down the stairs and out the back door.  The Spectre caught up with her as she charged across the yard, finally stopping at the back porch to look up at the ornate, eerie edifice that had frightened so many and left scars on more than a few.

She turned quickly back to look at him, waiting impatiently for him to unlock the door.  For once, he actually hesitated.

“Oh, my goodness,” she exclaimed, “don’t tell me you’re afraid of this place?” Of course, he couldn’t answer.  And he especially couldn’t confess to the terror that his childhood memories of that night evoked.  He knew there was no backing down.  At least they weren’t going in the front door.

With a quick wave, the back door opened with a long and resounding creak.

“Great,” she said, “just like a horror movie.  Let’s just hope Bela Lugosi isn’t waiting inside.”

In a quick glide up to the porch, he stepped in front of the door and blocked her path.  “Please, allow me,” he said, now leading the way.

“About time,” she answered.  “Thought you’d feel right at home here.” She shook her head, puzzled, thinking to herself that maybe he was human after all.

The Spectre led her quietly in.  Even with his ghost-like movements, he couldn’t avoid the quiet creaks as he made his way across the floor of the empty room into which they’d entered.  Vicky did much worse, only this time she wasn’t about to take off her shoes.

As they went into the main hallway that led to the stairs, The Spectre found the unsettling prospect of staring out the front door himself, taking on the vantage point of whatever it was that had looked out at him.  He wondered if he would encounter that visage again now that he was deep within the house.  An eerie chill ran down his spine.

As if on cue, they heard a muffled scream from upstairs.  Vicky grabbed his arm and practically pulled herself under his cloak as she let out a gasp that left her breathless.  As anxious as he was at that moment, having her in his arms and the need to protect her supplanted the childhood fears that still lived within him.

“Think it’s a ghost?” she asked.

Before he could answer, they heard it again.  This time, he was reassured.

“Come on,” he replied, his voice strong and commanding once again.  He led her up the stairs, keeping her tight under his cape.  It felt good to move together as one.  But as much as he treasured this moment, he knew he would have to let her go when they reached the top.

At the end of the long black hall, they could barely see a thin bit of light creep under the last doorway.  Then they heard another scream.  This time, Vicky was sure, too.  It was no apparition.

The Spectre backed her to the wall, finally releasing her from the safety of his grasp.  “Stay here,” he whispered.  She nodded silently.

He floated over to the door and commanded it to open silently, and just barely at that.

“Push!” shouted Doctor Wellman as the poor young Susan Harris lay back on a bed with the doctor and an older nurse, waiting at her feet.  The Spectre immediately recognized her, too, as Mrs. Wellman. He’d heard rumors that the Wellman’s were having financial troubles.  Had it really come to this? Had he known, he could have easily helped.

Susan bit down on a rolled up rag as she screamed and gave it her all as Wellman had commanded.

The Spectre watched wide-eyed as Susan gave birth at that moment to a healthy baby girl and the room was filled with the cries of both mother and daughter.  Susan flopped back on the old, rumpled mattress in exhaustion as Mrs. Wellman dabbed her forehead with a wet cloth.

Handing the baby off to his wife, the doctor soon realized that they weren’t alone.  Surprisingly, he didn’t seem startled.  Perhaps he’d experienced ghosts in that house before.  Mrs. Wellman, however, had the complete opposite reaction.  She shreiked even louder than Susan had; though, to be fair, she didn’t have anything to bite on.

“It’s okay, Muriel,” Wellman reassured his wife.  “Attend to the baby.”

Wellman turned back to The Spectre.  “How did you find me?” he asked as Mrs. Wellman nervously bundled up the newborn. She was afraid to take her eyes off the dark visage as she placed the infant in a make-shift cradle.

The Spectre well knew the voice that came from the old man before him.  He knew its kind, reassuring tones.  It was weaker and softer now, but it was still that same voice that he had known so long ago.  He could only regret this moment.

“Just followed the clues, that’s all,” answered Vicky as she marched through the doorway and went straight up to Wellman.  Her voice wasn’t so kind.  After all, she hadn’t known the doctor before and could only judge him by what she saw then.

It was a near deadly distraction for both of them.  While The Spectre was lost in memories of both this place and the old doctor that stood slumped and exhausted before them, Mrs. Wellman quietly took a syringe from a nearby table.  She moved silently behind Vicky.

Then, in a motion surprisingly fast for an aging woman, one born of desperation more than strength, Mrs. Wellman went to plunge it straight into Vicky’s neck.

This was not the kindly woman that Brent had known as a child.

The needle had nearly pierced Vicky’s flesh when a black-gloved hand stopped her.  Only the hand hadn’t even touched her own.  Instead, it was several feet away, outstretched with fingers extended, tense and shaking from exertion.

Vicky screamed with a start as Mrs. Wellman struggled against the unseen, numbing force that had stopped her.  Another equally powerful and invisible force pulled Vicky quickly away, then sent the syringe flying from Mrs. Wellman’s hand to smash against the wall.  In that same instant, Vicky found herself once again in his arms.  This time, staring him face-to-face, she thought for a fleeting moment of wrapping herself completely in his cape.

“Well,” she finally said, struggling for the words.  “I guess you are a savior after all.”

As much as he wanted that moment to last for an eternity, and seeing in her eyes that Vicky was considering the same, The Spectre reluctantly let her go.  He secured the Wellmans, tying their hands with dark cord, then led Vicky back out into the hall.

“The police will be here soon,” he told her. And with that, he was gone.  Just like before.  Perhaps he wasn’t a man after all.  Vicky rushed over to the bed to look down on Susan Harris.  Despite all that had happened, she was smiling at the sight of her healthy baby girl next to her.

“Will they still take my baby?” Susan asked weakly.

“No, not now,” Vicky reassured her.  “Don’t worry.  You get to keep her now.”

“Oh,” said Susan, “looking away.  “But what about the money?”

#

A SHORT while later, the wealthy residents of the neighborhood poured from their front doors as flashing police lights filled the usually tranquil streets.  There was many a shriek and murmur from both children and adults alike when the black and white cars pulled up outside the old Patterson House.  Vicky rushed out to meet the grizzled and burly Detective Shayne as he moved cautiously towards the front door.  Then there was an audible sigh of relief when they all realized that she wasn’t a ghost, though one man in the crowd did notice that she looked like an angel.

That man was Denny.  He rushed over and clutched her by the hand, pulled her to him and, he presumed, to safety.  In that instant, she realized that just then she didn’t feel quite as safe as she had before, upstairs in the house that was haunted and wrapped in the cloak of a man she didn’t know.

“Thank goodness, you’re okay,” Denny exclaimed.  “What happened in this old place anyway?”

“It’s the baby-selling racket,” Vicky shouted, both to Denny and Detective Shayne.  “An old doctor and his wife, a young girl and her baby.  They’re right inside, upstairs.”

“You don’t say!” shouted Detective Shayne with a start before charging up the steps and directly inside.  The crowd gasped again at the sight of someone actually going into that old, frightening edifice.

“Talk to you tomorrow, Detective,” called Vicky, as she heard him clomping up the creaky old stairs.  Then she turned back to Denny and added, “Come on, let’s get out of here.  I need to get back to the office.”

Despite his desires to the contrary, Denny dutifully agreed.

When Detective Shayne reached the upstairs room, he found the Wellmans, Susan Harris, and the baby just as Vicky said.  But one additional detail immediately caught his attention – two strips of tape stretched across the window formed the shadow of a large “X” across the room.  Shayne could only nod knowingly.  This was the work of The Spectre, no doubt.

#

AS VICKY drove out of Lakeview Heights, she passed the Gregor Mansion.  There, in the upstairs window of his bedroom, was the familiar silhouette of Brent Gregor, ever-watching.

Leave a Reply