Thursday, January 28, 2016

Why I Write Pulp
a short essay
Steven W. Bentley

Back in the 1970's when I was growing up, you could go to any store, and they would have two things you just don't see anymore: the comic book rack, and a display of paperback originals.  I loved both of those things.  I miss them terribly.  I miss looking at covers with amazing and garish art (a design both had, by the way), and I miss being able to buy a novel for less than three dollars.

I read my first pulps because of this, with the Doc Savage reprints, the ones with the incredible Bama covers, and the ERB Mars books with the beautiful Whelan cover art.  To this day, I think the first three Barsoom books are some of the best action/romance/adventure I have ever read.  And my love of Doc Savage is pretty well-known among those who know me.

Once I went into the job market, I took a series of jobs that all required me to write, but I wasn't ever a "professional writer", as it was never my primary source of income.  During this time period, the publishing market changed, dramatically.  Those paperback originals began having much smaller print runs while the larger books, and the rise of the BESTSELLING AUTHOR became the goal of every publisher, while small presses were being gobbled up by the larger press, and, outside of the series romance industry, writers working in a specific genre seemed to be frowned on.  Even Stephen King has discussed how he struggled with the idea that he wasn't writing "real" fiction.

But, for me, there was a freedom in those little paperback originals that sold for $.95-$2.99 because they could be outlandish, wild, adventurish, sexy, sleazy, and smart all at the same time.  They weren't literature, but they were damned fine entertainment, a good way to spend the day with a book, and I never felt embarassed having one in my pocket.  Granted, I had a few of them taken away from me by teachers who felt that it was their job to censor what I read, but I had a mom who backed me up as they were often books she read, as well.  So, on top of everything else, they were sort of transgressive and forbidden, too.  I loved that aspect of them.

Now, today, things are changing.  The print medium isn't seeing a grand surge of readers, all but one of the big-box bookstores are gone, and the internet has opened the viability of self-publishing and actually finding an audience.  So, a couple of years ago, I set out to test those waters with a free, weekly-chaptered, pulp adventure novel, which was the reason for this blog.  Things happened and life moved around a bit, and the book just languished while people talked to me about expanding it, changing it, doing this and that and "Maybe" we'd be interested in it until I just kind of gave up on it.

Until now.
I'm currently doing a full-draft re-write of the novel, and have the next five books loosely plotted as well to self-publish through Amazon, and none of the books will be more than $2.99.  Why?  Because this is the era of the new pulp writer.  Action, horror, sleaze, fun books that are designed to get your heart racing, your imagination going and give you an entertaining read.  Books designed to be read on your phone or e-reader or computer screen, while you're laying in bed, riding the bus or the subway, on your lunch break or just whenever, that you can finish quickly, be satisfied and move on to the next one.  Pulp.  Pure, unadulterated pulp fiction.  For the entertainment of the masses.  You.  For your entertainment.  And mine.  Because I am setting out to write the books I would love to read.  Things that are as exciting and amazing and bizarre and...things a regular publishing house wouldn't touch today because it's just not the same thing everyone else is writing and selling.  I'm going to write a few shorts that are going to be free so you can see the style, but then I'm going to blow your minds with the kind of adventure and action, horror and menace, and wrap it all in a pulp package that just makes you feel the same excitement I feel when I'm writing it.

So...Why do I write pulp?
Because we need it.
You may not realize it, but we do.
We need pulp to get our imaginations going, our hopes up, and our hearts pounding again.
Even if you don't realize that you need pulp in your life, well, you do.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A couple of messages...

I've received several messages, mostly on Facebook, concerning this blog, and the pulp story it contains.  Those messages have made a huge decision for me.

Here are a few choice quotes from them...
"This isn't the kind of story I would normally read, but a friend posted it on his page. I decided to give it a try.  I'm hooked!  Please finish the story for me!"

"What is going to happen to Rose and the Black Mask?  I can't stand not knowing!"

"I think I'm falling in love with the Black Mask."

"You certainly know how to write a hook.  No ending, though? "


"The last chapter creeped me out.  When did the good guy get so dark?  I like rooting for him."

Are you going to finish it?"

I sent off a couple of letters today to the publishers, explaining that I have 1236 people who have visited the blog, that I feel they want to know what happens to these characters, and that I have decided to finish the story as it began.  Online.  For free.  At least a chapter a week, until it's over.

For the record, I want to say thanks to all of the people who messaged me.  Thanks to all of the people who have read it, so far.  Thanks for being patient.  Let's finish this thing, shall we?

-Steven W. Bentley

Friday, October 26, 2012

A note to my readers...

A few months ago, I was approached by a couple of different ebook publishers who wished to discuss printing NIGHT-TIME IN THE CITY in an electronic format.  However, I was asked to not publish the ending of the work (as it was perceived that doing so would hurt potential sales).  I agreed to this, at the time.

Though I have had much success with views, almost no one has subscribed to the work, and so it has been a bit back and forth about how marketable it actually would be.  While we continue to debate this, I am unable to continue publishing the work at this time, and have been spending my time writing screenplays, and working on my video business.

This does not mean that the work will go unfinished, though.  I have made a decision that, if we cannot get more subscribers to prove it's marketability, I will self-publish it, in it's entirety at a later date.

I hope you understand, and realize how much I have appreciated the number of people from all over the world who have taken the time to read up until this point, and hope you all will appreciate the effort that I have put out as well, in an attempt to entertain you.
Steven W. Bentley

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Chapter 13

     The Professor gave his orders to his lieutenants, dispensing them throughout the city in preparation for the coming day. It was obvious that there would be some resistance to their taking the city, and he was prepared for it. Or soon would be.
     His soldiers would fan out through the urban jungle, each group prepared to uphold the new rule by force, until the evil mastermind could put his entire plan into effect. Of course, inevitably, he would have to demonstrate again the awesome power he controlled, but he decided to wait until the worst of the chaos broke out. Those who tried to resist would be the next to melt away in the streets.
     Which would quiet any other dissenters. Through fear he would control the city. Terror would keep the populace in check, but it would also bring like-minded individuals to his side, like scum bubbling up to cover a still pond. The power would invite them, and the reward of that power. The ranks of his followers would fill.
     Once it was large enough, the state would fall easily, and the process would begin again.
     He had no fear of opposition. The incredible force he now controlled could as easily be turned on an army as on the citizens he would enslave.
     Within a few months, the entire country would be his.
     After all, who would dare oppose him?

     They stood on the rooftop, far from the site of carnage, listening to the sleeping city.
     “How?”, she asked quietly.
     He turned to her, motioning her to his side, and pointed down to the street below.
     Fifteen stories down, a car slowly trudged along, winding though the silent labyrinth of the city.
     “I have to leave you here”, he said. “Not for long, though. Make your way to the street. By the time you get there, I'll have what we need.”
     Before she could protest, he threw himself forward, off the side of the building, diving into the shadows.
     She watched him fall, twist, glide, descending towards the street below, and disappear into the night.
     Turning around she raced toward a rusty ladder that would lead to the fire escape.

     There were five of them in the car. One in the commanding red hood, four in the black hoods of the subordinates, all prepared to do their unholy part in taking the city. They carried with them the passion to control, to dominate, to see before them the subservient men and women of the city. They hungered for it, the control of others. They told one another that it would bring a peaceful order, that it was the way of the powerful to control those who needed a firm grasp to exist, but the reality was quite different. Inside their dark minds, twisted images of the power they would hold made them eager to drive on, to do their work.
     A heavy ker-thunk, as if an anvil had been dropped onto the roof of the car, crashing in the windows and plowing the metal roof down six inches caused the driver to swerve, nearly losing control. He managed to lay on the brakes preventing them from driving head-first into a streetlight.
     “What the hell was that?”, he asked, turning to his crimson-masked superior.
     The lieutenant shook his head, trying to open his door to investigate, but the damaged roof had buckled on his side, warping the frame so it couldn't be easily opened.
     “Get out”, he barked. “Find out what hit us.”
     The others reached for their respective handles, but stopped as the red mask was ripped from their leaders face, and he was pulled, screaming, through the shattered side window.
     They could see him being dragged quickly across the asphalt, into the darkness of an alley, but there was nothing there! It was as if the night itself had come alive!
     One of the soldiers got his door open, and nearly fell out of the car trying to get his machine gun up and ready, when his leaders scream suddenly cut off into silence.
     “What is it?”, cried the driver, unable to get his door open, as the others piled out into the street through the open door, fanning out, looking in all directions. Seeing nothing.
     The driver was watching as they moved cautiously toward the alleyway, guns ready, nerves on end. He was staring intently into the darkness when something appeared next to the first gunman, something dark and swift and horrid. Something that slammed into the gunman with such force that he was lifted off the street and thrown onto his back, a wheezing cry coming from his broken throat before he hit the ground with a thud and a death rattle.
     The second gunman brought his weapon around, finger already tightening on the trigger to trace a deadly volley into the night, but the thing was behind him, sweeping low, taking him at the knees so that he fell back, his fire spraying into the air and into the third gunman who twisted with the near-point-blank impact like a child's doll flung about by a playful dog. A loud crunch as the attacker kicked down into the gunman's face with such force that the thing seemed to step into his head and then kick out with a squelch that sprayed blood and bits onto the side of the car, through the window and across the drivers horrified face.
     Unconsciously, the driver floored the gas pedal, and the car careened forward into the light pole, shattering his nose against the steering wheel with the impact.
     He raised his head from the wheel, disoriented, when the thing reached through the window for him, wrapping leather-gloved hands like a vice around his neck and pulling him through the twisted window frame and out onto the street. The thing threw him onto the hard pavement, knocking the wind out of him, and then stood over him, a demon preparing judgment for another lost soul.
     Staring up, the driver saw the thing, all billowing, shapeless shadow, and cold, hard featureless head. The thing had no face, like the artists dummy that had terrified him as a child. It had almost no shape, but seemed to whisper in and out of existence, one second there, the next, almost not. The driver began to wail when the thing reached down for him again.

     The Black Mask brought the keening, terrified man up with disorienting force, driving him to a standing position that he couldn't maintain on his own.
     “Where were you going?”, he commanded.
     The driver shook his head, trying to raise his arm, and the Black Mask batted it aside with enough force that it snapped at the wrist.
     The driver screamed, and the Black Mask let him fall to the ground, where he crumbled like a marionette in a child's forgotten playroom.
     “I will break you, joint by joint until you answer me”, he whispered loud enough for the black-hooded killer to hear him.
     He reached for the man again, and the driver cowered away.
     “The East boroughs!”, he yelled, averting his eyes from the thing that was killing him.
     “Why? What are you doing there?”
     The driver looked up and then quickly away.
     “We have something in the put up...a transmitter in the trunk. We're to put them on the highest building. Please-don't-kill-me!”, he rushed out.
     The Black Mask reached down, laced his fingers around the man's throat, twisted the driver's head up to look into the nothingness of his face.
     “How many transmitters?”
     He could feel the drivers throat through his glove, swallowing, his Adam's apple moving spasticly with each word.
     “There are six! One for each area of the city!”, he croaked out.
     “Now. Where is the Professor?”
     The man could barely speak under the constriction of the hand around his throat, choking the life from him, choking the truth out of him.
     “I don't know! In the center! Somewhere in the middle of it all! Please-please...”
     But there was no pleasing the Black Mask, whose fingers were clutched so tightly now the driver could feel the crushing of his larynx in the vice. His vision was clouding, sparks of light flashing before his eyes as his oxygen deprived brain began shutting down systems it no longer had use for.
     With a snap of his wrist, the Black Mask let the dead man drop to the ground, and stood to his full height, moving towards the alley and this groups leader, unconscious amid the trash there.
     Maybe he would have more exact information.

     Rose finally hit the street, her legs aching from the climb, her hands covered in rust and beginning to blister. She pulled her pistol from her belt, ready to step into the street, when the Black Mask appeared before her.
     She jumped back, startled.
     “God, you scared me!”, she gasped.
     “I'm sorry. Are you ready to go?”, he asked, calmly.
     He turned, sweeping past her, back down the alley she had emerged from. She hastened to fall into step with him.
     “Where are we going?”, she called as he quickened the pace.
     From the street they were racing away from, there was a loud whumpf as the car caught fire, it's cargo of dead bodies burning along with the transmitter in the trunk. Rose stumbled , turning back, only seeing the reflection of the flames on the building behind her, not knowing what had happened. She turned back to him, forcing her legs to follow, to catch up.
     As they began to run, she could barely make out his words over her own breathing.
     “We're going to stop the Professor!”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chapter 12

     Rose looked down on the chaos that was the massive City Hall building across the street from them. The wind whipped at her hair and she shivered in the cold as far below the street swam with police and emergency personnel. The red and blue lights bounced between the buildings and made madness of the night.
     “How will we get over there?”, she asked, turning to her silent companion.
     He had said little on the mad journey across rooftops, and down the sides of buildings, racing across streets and alleyways, and back up into the night. He seemed, at times, able to fly, and others to be swinging from cables and webs that interlaced and connected the city. He often carried her, while they flew or fell or slid through the night, and then she was on her feet and running with him. It was unreal, and magical, and she was terrified at how the journey would end.
     But now, here they were surveying the insanity from afar.
     “We may not have to,” he said, gesturing down to the milling police below.
     From the front of City Hall, a great entourage of people came spilling, and Mayor Page was in the middle of it, carrying a bullhorn before him. It was obvious he was planning on informing the troops of the situation, and Rose wanted to be close enough to hear, not ten stories up from the news.
     The News.
     Reporters were milling around, many in their bedclothes, called by city editors and informants from their beds to get the scoop, to make the story, to find the ten point headline for the morning edition. Whatever was happening was hot, and she was, quite literally, in the thick of it.
     She stood, looking down on the street theater, watching it play out, behind the two foot high wall that separated her from a fall to her death, the wind whipping her hair.
     He knelt on the wall, his coat billowing out about him, staring intently down as if he could see it all perfectly.
     The Mayor came to a halt, held up his hands for attention.
     Rose leaned forward to see better.
     The Black Mask held his hand out to her, and she thought he was inviting her onto the ledge, until she noticed he held a small round object in his hand.
     The Mayor raised the bullhorn to his mouth, and began to speak.
     Words came out of the tiny disk in the gloved palm. She snatched it up and put it to her ear.
     It was like a thin seashell, and the sound of the ocean could be heard, but within the waves was a voice, Mayor Page's voice.
     “Gentleman, we have a dilemma on our hands this morning.”
     He looked at his watch, and returned to speaking.
     “Fifty minutes ago, I received a letter of ransom through the tube that states I am to relinquish control of the city government to an unknown party or else they will unleash the horror from the subway onto the public.
     “As you officers know, we've lost several men tonight while investigating two strange deaths in the train tunnels. Two squads of detectives, several members of the city coroners department, and many bystanders have died violently, but most horribly are the two that were being investigated.
     “Evidently, two men, one a known pick-pocket named Thomas Nelson, the other a scientist working at the University named Ted Sturgeon, both appear to have melted into liquid.”
     He paused, cleared his throat, and then returned the horn to his lips.
     “I am told it was quite horrible. We don't know how it was accomplished. We believe that the group who is currently threatening our fair city is responsible, though.
     “It is our duty to see to it that we maintain order, that we keep a clear head, and that we...”
     The clock in the city tower began to chime, deep, long bells that called the hour into the night.
     “We must not allow ourselves...”
     “ be brought to ground by...”
     “ any criminal force wishing...”
     “ ransom our freedom and...”
     The Mayor stopped speaking. He held the bullhorn to his lips, but he went rigid. His hands and body began to shiver.
     Rose pressed the shell harder to her ear.
     “Do you hear that?”, she whispered, listening to a hum that seemed to be growing in her ear. Her teeth clenched violently, and she stiffened along with everyone on the street below.
     The sound. It was vibrating through her body, and she could feel it all the way into her bones, thrumming and quivering.
     The Black Mask stiffened too, but propelled himself backward before he could pitch forward off the wall. He shut down his listening device and slapped the shell from Rose's hand just as her teeth began to chatter, and a small drop of blood began to form at the corner of her nose.
     He grabbed her, pulling her back across the rooftop, leading her as far away from the damning sound as he could get her, until they were behind a brick elevator tower where he collapsed with her in his arms, wrapping his coat around her, praying the sound couldn't pass through the barrier and destroy them both.
     Far below, in the city street, the gathered police officers, the Mayor, his chamber, nearly all of the emergency personnel of the city, quivered and shook and collapsed while their bones and tissues fragmented and liquified and melted into a violent splash of gore that turned the street and steps in front of City Hall into a river of blood that swept down the steps and towards the grates in the streets, washing uniforms and nightclothes away.
     One hundred and eighty-five men, twenty-three women, melted like candles in an invisible fire on the street. And then there were all those in the surrounding offices up to the 18th floor.  Liquified. In total, when all were counted,it would be nearly three hundred people.
     But on the top of the building across from City Hall, two survived.
     They huddled together, she shaking and with a headache so stunning she could barely focus her eyes. He softly rubbing her back, but feeling every strain of every muscle in his body, protected only by his armor and his skill. He staggered upright, dragging her with him.
     “Wait here,” he said while moving to the edge of the building again, but she wouldn't wait.
     She held his hand and he lead her to the edge.
     She tried not to scream when she looked down, but there was no stopping it.
     She tried not to notice the sprays of blood on the windows of the building across from her. Not to believe that all of the police officers and emergency personnel who had filled the street mere moments before were now blood-soaked rags sloughing through the street towards their ultimate end in the sewers beneath the city.
     She gagged, turning away from the edge of the building, coughing and crying and wiping the blood from her nose.
     It was a nightmare, she assured herself. None of it was real, not the headache that was even now beginning to subside, not the clenching of her stomach, not the whispered sound of his cloak flapping in the wind.
     He was stoic, rigid, silent.
     She turned to him, his back to her.
     She wailed into the night. She screamed again, just to get it out. She filled with horror and disbelief and rage.
     “How? How are we supposed to stop this? Who is going to help us? What the hell are we going to do now?” she screamed, railing at the night and his back.
     He didn't slump under the weight of it. He boar it as if the weight of the world was his to bear, and he did it with dignity, but when he turned to her, when that faceless, cold mask, with it's round emotionless gaze turned to her, she stepped back from him.
     If her rage was a fire, his was hell itself, and his voice was as hard and dry as the throat of the damned when he answered her.
     “We're going to stop them. And we're going to make them pay while we do it.”
     And with that, he swept her into his arms and leapt off the building, falling into the night like the avenging demon he might actually be.
     Falling and twisting and sailing among the buildings, he carried her across the city, away from the horror and into the darkness.
     The darkness. She was beginning to feel it all around her, like a fog thick enough to actually feel sliding across her face. This was the world, the real world that she had never known. That no one knew, and didn't want to know. This was the evil that twisted and molded the world silently, that drove men mad in their beds, and women to suicide in their kitchens. This was what made countries destroy whole races, and broke children while they were too young to understand what it was to be whole. This wasn't a criminal looking for a fast couple of dollars, or even the mastermind who commanded a legion of enforcers for money. This was evil, pure, hateful, power-mad and hungry for chaos to rule the streets, the hearts and the minds of the world.
     She felt his arm tighten around her waist as they twisted in the air again and he caught onto a wire, sliding along it another hundred yards and then dropping again to catch another. She felt him gather his strength and shift her to the other arm in mid drop to swing along the rocky edge of a building and fly out over a chasm only to spin in mid-leap while catching onto yet another cable, their momentum carrying them up into a flying leap that landed them onto another rooftop.
     Here he stopped. Here he released her from his arms.
     And here...
     Here she stayed, holding him, tightening her grip about him, suddenly understanding that the evil, the evil that was constantly stripping away at the world, twisting it for it's own purpose...
     That evil had twisted him, somehow. Twisted him into this shadow/monster/savior.
     She cried, all of the emotion of the night filling her with the realization that he wasn't immune, but had been through some horrid fiery hell, and had been forged into this.
     A weapon that was going to fight back against the evil.
     She cried.
     And he reached his arms around her.
     And held her.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chapter 11

     His voice was soothing as he gently relieved her of the weapon, taking it from her now-trembling hands. He looked at her, his mask impassive, and she wanted to tear it from his face, see his eyes, know what he was feeling. She wanted to be sick, to cry, to run away, anything but relive the last few moments when she had killed two men. She could tell herself it was self-defense. There was no denying they would have killed them all, but...she knew it was anger, violent retribution because they had hurt him.
     But he didn't seem hurt. He seemed, once more, in control. While she wavered on her feet, barely coping with what she had done.
     The Black Mask stepped to the man, turning him over gently.
     Rose gasped, stumbling backward, when she saw him, for he looked like a child, a boy of barely eighteen. He had been a gleeful murderer moments before, lobbing a grenade to kill them, firing on them with passion. Now he was a terrified, injured child, face gouged and bloody from his crawling escape, uselessly trying to stop the free flow of his lifeblood from exiting his body with each pounding of his heart.
     “Help won't arrive in time, boy. But I can make it less painful if you tell me who sent you,” the Black Mask whispered.
     The young man clutched at his long coat, wailing like a babe lost in the woods.
     Rose could see the boy growing more pale by the second, the strength falling from him as he gasped and cried.
     “Please,” she whispered, “make him stop.”
     She wanted to put her hands over her ears, so awful was the wailing of the boy.
     The Black Mask glanced at her, taking his eyes from the youth, who clutched at him again, and then passed out, soon to be dead in his arms.
     When the boy gasped out his last breath, the Black Mask laid him down gently and came to her. She backed away as he approached, suddenly afraid of this man who could so easily take a life, who felt no remorse for killing.
     He stopped, and his shoulders fell as she stared at him, the look of horror plain on her face.
     “You saved us, and it is hard on you, I know. To see the pain you've caused is never easy.” His voice was gentle with her, too, and she suddenly shivered, rubbing her hands on her arms.
     “I'll take you home, as soon as I make sure that Dr. Wilson is safe.”
     He brushed past her, moving to the stairwell that led down into the chaos of her battle. She watched him go, not following.   She waited in silence.
     From behind her, there was a cough, and a shuffle. Looking back, she saw the young man move, saw his eyes staring at her. His mouth was moving slowly.
     Without thinking, she raced to him, kneeling at his side to hear his words. She had to lean in close, her ear inches from his mouth.
     His hot breath tickled her like a lover as he breathed, then spoke again.
     “I should have shot you faster. Should have blasted you down instead of Harry.”
     The words shocked her.
     “I would have had a dozen dames like you crawling at my feet when the Professor takes over the city. It should be you dying, not me.”
     He had no remorse, she realized, even while dying, he was a monster.
     “Where is the Professor?” she asked, her voice hard.
     The boy coughed, and his breath was rancid on her face as he laughed.
     “No stupid dame is ever gonna stop him. He knows that you're tryin', but he's ready for you. He showed us that you're not equal, in his lab. That your kind is less than us. Biologically...inferior.”
     She remembered the horrors of the lab, those innocent women in pieces, in jars. She looked at the boy anew, saw what he was now.
     “I'm better than you. I defeated you. Remember this. When you get to Hell, remember who sent you.”
     His eyes widened at the vehemence in her voice, and then they fell to one side as his last breath rattled out of him, and he was still.
     Rose stood, looked into the night sky, at the mass of buildings around her. Thought of men like this in control, and shivered again. She had to stop them. Somehow, they had to be stopped.
     Turning to the still-smoldering stairwell, she walked down to the parlor.

     The Black Mask was bandaging Dr. Wilson, who sat in silence, his face contorted in pain, when Rose stepped into the room.
     “Is he okay?”, she asked.
     The Black Mask looked at her, saying nothing.
     Dr. Wilson turned slightly toward her, grimacing as he did.
     “I am alive, thanks to you, my dear.”
     He turned back to the Mask.
     “What is your next step, boy?” he asked.
     “When I'm done here, I'll take her home to safety, and then...”
     “I'm not going home,” she said, her voice solid.
     The Black Mask stood up, his full attention on her.
     “Listen, I understand...” he began.
     “I said I'm not going home,”she said, cutting him off.   “They're monsters. Maybe once they were men, but now, now they've chosen to follow evil, and have become evil themselves. I'm not going home until they're stopped, no matter what.”
     He turned from her to the scientist sitting on the couch, who was smiling just a bit.
     “Oh, I like her,” he said.
     The Black Mask shook his head, laying a hand on the doctors shoulder.
     “We have to get you to safety, Doctor. They may come back for you.”
     Rose shook her head.
     “They weren't here for him. They were after me. The Professor particularly views me as a threat.”
     Dr. Wilson arched an eyebrow.
     “Why would that be, my dear?”
     “Because I'm a woman,” she said, with a hint of anger in her voice.
     The old man turned to the Black Mask.
     “She certainly is,” he whispered.

     Rose considered taking one of the machine guns, but accepted a small automatic from the old scientist, instead. It would be easier to carry, and they needed haste this night.
     Afraid the building would be under observation from more of the Professors men, they made their way deeper into the building through a series of hidden stairwells and hallways until they came to the basement.
     In the back, beyond the boilers and machinery that made the building live, she followed the old man and the masked vigilante to a doorway hidden among the pipes. Further in, she found herself in a long corridor, moving quickly as if the hounds of Hell were baying at her heels, rushing into the darkness with the two men, all the while listening to the scientist consider the problem of the melted man.
     They spoke of various scientific methods by which a man could be disintegrated, all the while moving along tunnels and access passages through and beneath the city, never leaving the corridors that connected buildings. Sometimes they climbed down ladders, and sometimes crawled along ducts. They moved through a hidden warren that few suspected, and even fewer would believe.
     Finally, Dr. Wilson asked if they could stop to rest, and he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his brow as they sat in a dimly lit corridor somewhere beneath the sprawling urban jungle.
     “We're almost there” the Black Mask remarked, hardly winded.
     But Rose was panting, and there was a stitch in her side.
     The old man was sweating profusely, and his hands shook as he reached out to steady himself.
     “My boy, in all the years I've known you, I must say this is the first time I've not envied you your nightly adventures. It's a wonder you don't collapse each day.”
     Rose looked across at the shadowy figure. “Nightly? You do this every night?”
     His body language was embarrassed, and he turned away.
     The old man chuckled. “Don't let him fool you. He lives for this. There may be nights that are a bit less of an adventure, but this is his reason for living.”
     The Black Mask stood, offering a hand to the old man who groped for it in the air, and another to Rose, who took it willingly.
     “I didn't mean to pry. I just...”
     The Black Mask began to lead the scientist down the corridor to their destination, but his words drifted back to her.
     “Didn't know the city was so dangerous? Few do.”

     They found their way through a series of doors and up three short flights of stairs. Coming to a stop before a simple wooden door, Dr. Wilson stepped forward, felt for the handle while fishing a set of keys from his pocket.
     Upon unlocking the door, they entered a suite that was not quite so magical as the white parlor, but similarly decorated. It was a simple flat, all white except for the edges of the room and the furnishings.
     Looking down, Rose noticed a spattering of blood on the ground where the doctor had made his way to one of the chairs.
     “You're bleeding!” she exclaimed.
     “Oh, it's barely a scratch, hardly anything to worry about,” proclaimed the doctor between gasps for breath.
     “It's worse than that, Dr. Wilson. I should contact Clarke.”       The Black Mask made his way across the room to a small wireless set.
     “Oh, please. The good doctor is hardly ever in these days, gallivanting about with his friends. Just let me calm my heart, and I'll re-dress the wound myself.”
     The Black Mask shook his head.
     “In fact, why don't you call Wentworth? He'll send his man, the one that smells of curry, and they'll take care of it.”
     Nodding, the Black Mask dialed in on the wireless set, spoke a few words into the microphone, and then returned to their side.
     “We'll wait for him to arrive, and then be on our way.”
     The old man waved his hand in the air.
     “Where will we start?” asked Rose, looking at the growing pool of blood beside the doctors chair.
     Before the Black Mask could answer, the wireless receiver squelched. He went to it, listened intently, and then turned back to them.
     “We need to go now. To City Hall.”
     There was great urgency in his voice, and Rose stood.
     “What is it?”, Dr. Wilson asked, gravely.
     “The mayor. Reports say, he's been sent an ultimatum. If he doesn't turn control of the city over to the Professor within an hour, hundreds of people will be liquified.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

Chapter 10

     Rose recounted the events of the night with a reporters eye for detail, and without the embellishment of emotion. She glanced occasionally at the Black Mask, still as a statue, but couldn't tell if he noticed it through his armored mask. Once she was done, Dr. Wilson sat forward, his hands clasped together before him, and a rueful smile playing at his lips. He tossed a sidelong glance toward the masked man, and muttered, “My, that is quite the adventure, isn't it?”
     Rose felt herself blush, as if the old man had somehow read in her words what she hadn't said.
     “You said something early on, that I would like to pursue, dear. You said the city coroner mentioned the remains were...What was the word he used?”
     Rose answered instinctively, “Gritty.”
     The old man sat back, staring upward, resting his hands on the back of his head.
     “Interesting”, he commented.
     The Black Mask broke away from the wall, striding with that confident gait towards them.
     “Doctor, what would liquify a man?”, he questioned.
     “Oh, my”, said the old man, in contemplation, “there are a variety of methods I would say. Acid, obviously, though you said his clothes appeared to be untouched, so that would be unlikely. Perhaps it would help if we knew who the man was. And, you know, there was a second victim in the subway car. I have little proof, but I would bet they died of the same cause, and...I believe, at the same time.”
     This was the first Rose had heard of a second victim, and she put her hands in her lap to keep from reaching for a pen and pad which she didn't have.
     The Black Mask laughed, mirthlessly.
     “You've been listening in on the police band again, Doctor.”
     The old man, smiling beatifically, shrugged.
     “What would you have me do? I get bored.”
     Rose realized that she was hearing a common debate between them. That Doctor Wilson was a prisoner within his elegant home, somehow. That, perhaps, the Black Mask was his warden.
     “You could begin working again, Doctor.”
     The old man harrumphed, waving the suggestion away as if it were smoke in the air.
     “To what end, I ask? To see my work corrupted? No, again I tell you, I won't have it. I would rather that I were dead than that.”
     The Black Mask's shoulders slumped, and she realized he wasn't the warden, the man who kept Doctor Charles Wilson a prisoner. No, it was Doctor Wilson, himself, who had chosen to turn his back on the world, to disappear without a trace, to be dead as far as that world was concerned.
     “You've done great work, though.” The words were barely a whisper from the Black Mask, still not looking at the scientist.
     The genius stood up, placed a sympathetic hand on the shoulder of the warrior. His heart was, for one instant, upon his sleeve as he patted the shoulder.
     “You, my boy. You are the best work I have ever done. Though none may know of it, I know. And there is almost nothing more I would rather leave to this world.”
     Rose stood, averting her eyes from the moment, and, looking away, noticed the cigar box on the table. It was ordinary, a bit dirty, certainly out of it's surroundings. But most intriguingly, it was slowly moving across the table.
     The doctor turned to it, as did the Black Mask.
     “What...”, began Rose.
     The Black Mask swept past her as the old man moved towards the table.
     “It's an alarm”, he whispered. “Someone is on the roof.”
     Rose understood now how the old, blind scientist knew they had arrived. For hidden in an ordinary cigar box was a clever device that would vibrate tellingly, warning if anyone approached.   Doctor Wilson opened the box and a small screen illuminated within, a perfect negative of the roof. Again understanding flooded Rose. The images of three men, shadows on a white negative image, appeared on the screen, fanning out, and slowly moving towards the shack, Thompson machine guns at the ready.
     How had they found them, she wondered, as she felt the anticipation climbing in her chest. The Black Mask was walking into that pack of murderers, one man against three. Of course, she had seen him defeat more than that earlier this very night, but she also knew he was running only partially on his skills, and equally on luck. Frighteningly, she realized that eventually, when playing the odds, the house would win, and that would be the ace of spades, the card that fortune tellers had deemed the Death card.
     The old man heard her sharp, quick intake of breath, and reached out to take her hand in his own, just a moment of support.
     Rose heard the raising of the secret panel beneath the cot, knew that the Black Mask was making ready his attack before the men could find their way into the shack, possibly discovering the hidden panel, and the two refugees within. Two he had sworn to protect, for reasons only he could know. She held her breath in anticipation.
     On the small screen, she watched one of the men shoulder his weapon, and pull something like a baton from his coat. The others held their weapons steady on the shack, while this one held the device with both hands, made an odd gesture with one hand, and then, his arm drew back and he hurled the baton at the shack. The other two rapidly retreated.
     It was a bare moment, a blink in time, that Rose realized what was happening as the grenade twirled end over end through the night sky, shattering one of the small windows of the shack.
     She tried to scream as the explosion blasted the shack to splinters, hurling wood and glass into the night. And releasing a fireball down the hidden passageway, along with the limp body of the Black Mask.

     She pulled away from the old man, racing to him, trying to pull him from beneath the burning wreckage of the hidden door. He didn't move at all, and the fire upon him seemed not to cause him any more damage than had already been done. She beat at the flaming timbers, tossing them aside when she could, straining against their weight to extract him.
     She was coughing from the smoke that filled the passageway as the heat from the flames seared her eyes, making it that much more difficult to see her ill-fated rescue attempt. Frustration filled her with rage, which in turn filled her with strength enough to pull his motionless body from under the wreckage and away from the narrow stairwell. It was just as well, for as she backed into the white room, she could hear laughter from above, approaching.
     The old man was beside her, helping to pull the body of the inert hero into the room, when the first rounds from the machine guns ripped into the still-flaming wreckage on the stairs, sending splinters and shrapnel bounding about the hallway. He grunted and stumbled, but righted himself, continuing to aid her.
     She heard them descending slowly, and the rage that had filled her a moment ago seemed to double within her.
     When the first of the assassins stepped into the hallway, surveying the burning timbers, she snatched the pistol from it's holster at her back, sending three bullets as a greeting. The first one went wide, but startled the killer enough that the other two punched him into the flames where he screamed horrifically and thrashed maniacally before dying in the roaring fire in preparation for his eternity in Hell.
     Rose knelt down, making a smaller target of herself, aiming with both hands at the entrance to the white room. She knew she was exposed, but didn't want to risk moving to a hiding place lest one of the other assassins rounded the corner and found his way into the room. No, if she was going to die, it was going to be here, and while taking out the men who had killed her...
     The thought went incomplete as the next killer ducked his head around the corner and she fired at him, spasticly throwing away a single round, but chipping the door frame next to his head. He howled in pain as splinters leapt into his face, and he swung the barrel of the Thompson into the room, firing blindly.
     He was at the wrong angle to reach her, and the bullets tore through the velvet couch, and into the cigar box on the table.  She held her fire, waiting while he sprayed that corner of the room, trying to inch the barrel of the weapon around the corner without exposing himself.
     But eventually, he moved too far into the doorway, and Rose fired a shot that gouged a deep trough through the would-be killers throat, which emitted a fountainous spray of grue that bubbled as his breath fluttered up from his lungs while he fell.
     “Damn you!”, came a cry from the stairwell, and she could hear the final killer racing up the narrow stairwell, towards the safety of the roof.
     Without thinking, she raced after him, her pistol clutched in a vice-like grip, ready to kill him the moment she had the chance.
     Out the doorway and into the hell that was the hallway, facing into the stairwell, she realized, too late, her mistake as she saw the final assassin at the top of the stairs, his machine gun prepared to tear her to shreds where she stood.
     The killer fired a bit too high though, chipping no more than a foot over her head, and as he readjusted his fire towards her, the man she had shot through the throat clutched at her leg, bringing her down onto the stairs while his associate punched bullets into his prostrate fellow.
     Rose raised her gun, firing upwards at an odd angle, but putting her final bullet through the shoulder of the man who would have killed her, spinning him into a drunken pirouette. He lost control of the Thompson with the force of the twist, flinging it down the stairs where it bounced along, coming to a stop for less than a tenth of a second before she had it scooped up and was racing up the stairwell with the death bringer in both hands.
     Emerging onto the roof, she found her quarry wriggling along grotesquely, leaving a thick trail of blood on the tar and gravel of the roof like a slug in a garden. He howled and kicked, clutching at the destroyed shoulder with his good hand, his forward momentum made exclusively from his legs. His face was being ground into the gravel, and he was screaming incoherently when she raised the weapon to fire, to kill this worm who had tried to kill them all...
     She hesitated, her anger and adrenaline flushing out of her with each sensational howl from the wounded mans throat. Her stomach fluttered. Stumbling, she tried to keep the weapon raised, prepared to kill him the moment he was a threat again, but now...
     Now he was barely human in his pain, like a dog she had seen in her childhood, run over on the street but not yet dead, crawling to a safety that would never come.
     She was sickened. Horrified.
     A hand rested on her shoulder, and she nearly fired so startled was she, but the hand was now on the barrel of the weapon. A hand clad in thin black leather.