She ran until her lungs were on fire, the sound of gunplay long-dead behind her, and no sound of pursuit at her back. She ran until she stumbled in the darkness, falling to her knees, gasping for breath. Unsure of where she was, or which direction to go.
Was it real? Had she really been saved by a shadow? Had men really been murdered before her very eyes? It was too awful to be a dream, even a nightmare, and the burning in her lungs was not her imagination. It was real, and she was filled with terror.
She stood. Took a deep breath, and continued on her way, reliving the horror in her mind.
The cop guarding the stairwell, surely dead now. MacDonnell coming up to get her. Had she seen him fall as she was falling? Billy, poor, sweet, kind Billy, his life snuffed out horribly, his flailing lifeless body all that had saved her. No. Not all. There was the dark figure, in the long coat. The man (if it was a man) who had somehow hidden her from their sight.
Had he perished, too? In a hail of bullets brought on by her own shock and surprise at the terrible image of half of Billy Fische's head on the tracks? It was too much to take in and she came to a halt. She turned back into the darkness of the tunnel, took two steps towards where she had begun, stopped again. If she went back, would the killers be waiting for her? Would she find all of her friends dead? Would the mysterious stranger be dead on the tracks, invisible to her somehow? She didn't go back. Instead, she continued down the tunnel.
Ten blocks she walked until she rounded a corner, and saw the dim light of the next platform ahead. Her heart nearly burst in her chest, filling her with hope. That dingy, gray-green glow like a ray of sunshine through a cathedral's stained-glass window on Sunday morning, calling her towards salvation. She began to run towards the light, her aching legs and burning lungs forgotten.
“Please!”, she called out, “Help me!”
There was the sound of shuffling feet on the platform, and two men in dark suits leaned their heads out, searching for the sound.
“I'm here!”, she cried, waving her arms.
One of the men leaned further out, as she came into the light thrown from platform.
“You sure are, Miss.”
And he raised his Thompson to cut her down.
From the darkness of the tunnel behind her, two shots rang out at the same instant, blasting hot lead into the gunman's head, and into the kneecap of his companion. Blood sprayed as the would-be assassin hurled backward, and his companion twisted forward and fell screaming onto the tracks.
Out of the shadows, the mysterious stranger rushed forward, his guns drawn.
In the dim light she could see him. He was entirely in black, a double-breasted shirt covering his chest, black slacks over black boots. The hands which so deftly controlled the weapons were in gloves of such fine leather as to be truly skin-tight. The great coat that he wore billowed about him, the wide-brimmed hat keeping his face in shadow, but it was the helmet-like mask under the hat that startled her so. It was as if a single piece of armor covered his face except for two round pieces that hid his eyes. The glass was dark, and for an instant there seemed to be a bit of greenish glow behind them. His voice came from tiny holes in the mask.
“Are you alright?”, he whispered, touching her shoulder lightly, staring into her face.
She nodded, as he moved past her to the writhing, fallen man.
His voice was collected as he stood over the killer. “Many men have died tonight, two of them under quite mysterious circumstances. I suspect you know enough about that to set me on my course. Will you speak willingly?”
The fallen man, cringing away from him, gritted his teeth against the pain.
“Everyone knows the Mask don't let criminals live! Everyone knows that!”, he wailed miserably.
The Black Mask, for that was what the underworld called the mystery man, pulled the killer up to stare into the hollowness of his face.
“You don't need to die here. For killing those good officers of the law, you'll fry in the electric chair, but only after a trial, and a bit in prison. A few more years to live and breathe. If you talk now.”
The wounded man shook his head, tears running down his face. Tears of pain, of shame, of terror.
“You don't understand! He can kill me anywhere! He'll melt me away once he finds it. He'll melt everyone who stands in his way! Or betrays him!”
The Black Mask shook the poor wretch.
“Who? And what is he looking for?”
“The Professor, that's who! The Professor!”
With that, the fool pushed himself backwards, tearing away from the Black Mask as if to run with all of his might, his shattered knee giving under his weight, succeeding only in hurling himself down onto the third rail where he fried as if in the electric chair.
The Black Mask hung his head, frustration filling him. There was evil afoot this night, a madman on a quest for some unknown menace that liquified men, and he had lost this chance to find him. He had to learn what the killer was searching for.
“Would you have let him go?”, the voice was trembling, the question deadly serious.
He looked at her, saw this beautiful pale creature for the first time, really. There was horror in her eyes, and she held her body stiffly, as if the wrong answer would send her racing away into the darkness.
She stepped away from him, as he stepped towards her. He stopped.
“Yes. His fate would have been as I stated. He would have lived a few more years.”
Her voice shook as she asked, “Are you going to kill me?”
He couldn't help himself. He laughed.
“You aren't a criminal, are you?” There was still mirth in his deep voice.
“No. I'm a reporter. My name is Rose Peirce. I'm the crime reporter for the Times.”
He nodded, holding out a hand to her. She didn't take it.
“You have less to fear from me than I have from you, Miss Peirce.” His voice was genuine, but she had known con-men who could out act all of Hollywood. “Come along, Miss. If I had wanted you dead, I never would have rescued you.”
The logic of that was unavoidable. She took his hand.
He lifted her up onto the platform, staying between her and the man sprawled lifeless on the ground.
Stopping, Rose turned to her mysterious savior.
“You said that two men died mysteriously tonight. How did the other go?” She was coming back into her own, the quest for answers overriding her fears.
“The same as the first, evidently. On the train, in front of witnesses, he melted away into so much liquid. Another precinct was trying to head the train off, when you arrived at the station.”
She took two more steps forward, stopped and looked at him.
“How do you do it? How do you become invisible?”
His laugh was deep, and mysterious. “Magic, Miss Peirce. Obviously.”
That got her ire up, and she scowled at him.
“That's ridiculous. Magic doesn't exist.”
He stood perfectly still, the coat wrapping around him, and he faded into the night.
“When need be, Miss Peirce, I don't exist, either.”
He stepped forward and was suddenly visible, and at her side.
“No one is going to believe this one when I turn it in”, she whispered to herself, and he spun on her.
“Because you aren't going to turn it in, my dear. As you say, no one will believe it, and more importantly, to tell what has happened this night is to invite all of the criminal brotherhood in this vast city down upon me and my crusade. As well as the police, who would perhaps frown upon my methods, though they reap the reward of my vigilance.” His voice was low, earnest, and there was the hint of danger in his tone.
“So, you admit that you're a criminal...”
“As long as there are evils unimaginable, that no court or police could understand, I will be a criminal. When there is no reason for me, I will return to my normal life, a mere legend to scare young troublemakers from committing a crime, afraid the Black Mask will descend upon them from the night to devour them whole. Until then...”
She watched him closely. This shadow of a man, who seemed barely human, sighed quite humanely, as if the burden he carried was perhaps too great for himself, for any man. In that instant, she pitied him, and his awful crusade.
“Where will you go now?” The question slipped from her lips like smoke, a bare whisper.
He turned his featureless gaze upon her, and she could feel his eyes boring into her.
“My dear Miss Peirce, I'm going wherever you go.”
She was startled by his answer, surprised at the matter of fact tone.
“But...why?”, she stammered.
He laughed again, mirthlessly.
“Isn't it obvious, Miss Peirce? The villains seem to be fixated on one thing at the moment.”
He paused to see if she understood. When she shook her head, his voice was the voice of doom.
“Why, to see you dead, Miss Peirce.”