Six year old Charles snuggled on his father’s lap. It was Sunday evening, and the best part of the week. They were in his father’s study, the radio was on, and they were listening—ever so quietly—to The Shadow.
Mother was not to know. She was busy doing something else, content to let Father take care of Charles for an hour or so. Charles smiled up at his father and squirmed. His father smiled back. “Feisty tonight?” he asked, and rubbed Charles’ belly and then leaned down and blew loud noises against his skin. Charles erupted in laughter. He squirmed even more. “I’m too old for that!” he said, but he was still happy that Father would do it.
“Shh,” his father said, adjusting the knob on the radio. The orchestral music faded away and the well known dark organ music and maniacal laughter of The Shadow started to play. His father turned the knob down with a wink. “So your mother doesn’t hear,” he whispered and Charles nodded. Mother would have a fit.
“Again, Blue Coal Dealers present radio’s strangest adventurer, The Shadow. Mystery man who strikes terror into the very heart of sharpsters, law breakers and criminals. Today, Blue Coals brings you the Shadow’s latest adventure: The Silent Avenger.”
On his father’s lap, Charles leaned forward, straining to catch every word. His father’s strong arms kept him safely on his lap. Charles glanced up and his father stared down, and the look they shared meant everything, and Charles felt completely loved. “Remember not to tell your mother,” Father said, though his eyes were twinkling.
The episode was one of the best. Charles listened rapt as Joe was sent to the Death House to be executed, and then how the Shadow and Margot Lane tracked down Joe’s sharpshooter brother, Danny, as he brought about revenge on the judge and the jury (Charles wasn’t exactly sure what a jury was, but Joe said they were saps).
Charles clutched at his father’s fingers as the story continued. Even when things were really scary, his father was always there to keep him safe.
“Must be very flattering to inspire such awe and fear, Lamont.” Margot said.
Lamont replied, “It has its disadvantage, Margot. Unfortunately the mystery surrounding the Shadow inspires fear and terror in the innocent as well as the guilty. The unknown is so often associated with evil. There’s no help for it. The Shadow must remain The Shadow.”
Charles couldn’t help but be fascinated with the Shadow. He was incredible. He could cloud men’s minds, and be invisible. He could read the secret thoughts inside people’s heads.
Charles thought that when he grew up he wanted to be just like the Shadow, and put fear into the hearts of bad people. And just like the Shadow, sometimes Charles could hear whispers that were really on the inside of people’s heads. Not all the time. Just every once in a while when he tried really hard and people were thinking really loud. Maybe when he grew up, he could do it better.
His father would be so proud of him when Charles was fighting crime, just like the Shadow. Charles knew that he’d have to keep it a secret—Lamont Cranston didn’t tell anyone except Margot Lane that he was the Shadow. He had to stay safe. Charles would have to be safe too, and not tell anyone.
The episode grew even more exciting as Charles continued to listen. Danny, the sniper, was about to shoot the governor. There was a parade and Danny was hiding way up in a building.
The characteristic, frightening laugh of the Shadow came across the radio and Charles looked at his father. His father threw his head back and mimicked the laugh, but in a silly way and Charles couldn’t help but giggle. Then Father rubbed Charles’ head, mussing his hair. “See, Charles?” he said. “Just a funny laugh.”
“Danny. Danny Brecker. Listen to me,” the Shadow said in his deep, odd voice.
“What was that? Who said that? Who laughed like that?” Danny had one of those city accents, like down where Mother sometimes took Charles to see his grandparents.
“Don’t you recognize the Shadow, Danny?”
“But.-- Joe said, he said the hand grenade would fix you.”
“You see, Danny? Your brother was wrong. Put down that rifle, Danny Brecker.”
“How did you find me way up here? How did you know I was hiding up here among these steel girders? Just like I used to hide in the trees. In the war.”
“That doesn’t matter, Danny Brecker. All that matters is that you must not kill any more people.”
“But I got to. Just one more, Shadow. Just one more. The Governor. Down there in that car. I promised Joe.”
“No, Danny, you will never keep that promise. Put down that rifle. Put it down, Danny. Lay it down on that steel girder and crawl back to the cat walk.”
“Alright, alright. I’ll put it down. I’ll put it down. Where are you, Shadow? I still got another grenade.” Danny’s voice had taken on an edge of cunning. “Talk to me, Shadow. Say something so I can tell where you are.”
“Crawl back to the cat walk, Danny. Crawl back to the cat walk, I say.” The Shadow was trying to use his power, but Danny was too strong to obey.
“No, no, I won’t. I won’t. You can’t make me. Come here and get me if you want me, Shadow.”
“I don’t want to have to do that, Danny.”
“Don’t you come near me, Shadow. Don’t you touch me! If you do I’ll drop this hand grenade. I’ll throw it down there among all those people. I’ll kill dozens of them. There, I pulled the pin. I’ll throw it!”
Charles gasped in concern and his father wrapped his arms around him. “Don’t be scared, Charles. It’s just a story,” he whispered into Charles’ ear and Charles felt instantly better. “And the Shadow always wins.”
“Danny—Listen to me. Hold that hand grenade, Danny. Hold it tight. Danny Brecker. See your fingers tighten about it. Your mind obeys mine. Do you hear me, Danny? Danny, hold it. Don’t throw that hand grenade,” the Shadow commanded, using all his power to control.
“Hold it,” Danny repeated the Shadow’s command. His voice strained with the effort. “Hold it—tight. Don’t. Throw. It.”
“Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it, Danny.”
“Don’t drop it, Danny. Don’t drop it, Danny. Don’t drop it--” Danny echoed.
The sound of the explosion nearly made Charles jump out of his father’s lap. Only his father’s strong arms kept him in place, and safe.
His father hurriedly clicked off the radio. “Sharon—“
“You’ve been listening to that awful program again,” she said, eyes blazing. She looked pointedly at Charles. “You get your bottom to your bedroom, mister. Bedtime is in less than an hour, and tomorrow is a school day.”
His father gave him a swift hug and Charles could feel the thought forming between them—they would listen again next week, no matter what Mother wanted. As he scurried past her, she gave him a solid thump on the behind—nothing that hurt, but enough to remind him that he was in trouble and she wouldn’t forget it. “And don’t forget to brush your teeth,” she said, though less sternly.
Charles nodded and kept going. He paused outside in the hallway, concentrating. He could hear them speaking, if he listened closely, but he could also feel them thinking and moving about.
“Brian, why do you let him listen to that stuff? You know it’ll give him nightmares.”
His father chuckled. “A nightmare here and there isn’t all that terrible, Sharon. It builds character. Besides, he loves the show. He hangs on every word.”
“But it’s a show about criminals.”
“It’s a show about excitement. Little boys love adventure.”
“I suppose.” His mother wavered in her conviction.
Charles could feel that his father had taken his mother into a hug and his voice grew warm and kind. “Fathers are supposed to help their sons grow up big and strong. This is a part of that.”
“Mothers can’t help but be protective,” his mother answered, and Charles could tell from the returning lightness in the way she spoke that his parents had made up and were about to kiss. He stopped eavesdropping and hurried to his room. His mother would check on him, and he’d better have his teeth brushed.
Eleven year old Charles checked the clock. If he was going to do it, he had to start now.
Charles hurried down the hall until he found the maid that was supposed to keep an eye on him when his mother was gone. Charles was too old for nannies anymore. And his mother was out of the house.
Charles tried to ignore the tightness in his gut. His mother was out with Mr. Marko. After his father’s death…. Charles blinked back the sudden wetness in his eyes and tried to remember his plan. He squared his shoulders. After his father’s death, his mother had become a shadow of her former self. Crying constantly. Worried about Charles every moment of the day, needing to know where he was and what he was doing. Spending more and more time with Mr. Marko, and less and less with Charles. It was like living with her ghost rather than with his own mother.
Charles pushed those concerns aside. He would worry about Mr. Marko later. Charles didn’t like him, and he’d tried to explain it to his mother, but she wouldn’t listen.
“Alice?” Charles asked as soon as he spotted the maid.
“Yes?” Alice turned to smile at him. She’d always been very kind to Charles, and he hated to do this to her, but if his plan were to work, then he needed to be able to leave without anyone becoming worried. He couldn’t even imagine the trouble he’d be in if he were caught.
“I’m going to bed,” Charles told her, even though it wasn’t yet noon. He brought his fists up to his forehead to help him concentrate and forced the thoughts out at her. “You don’t have to check on me. I’m fine.” Breathing hard at the exertion, Charles waited.
Alice seemed paused in space, as if considering her thoughts. Finally she turned to him, somewhat glazed looking. “You have a nice nap, dear,” she said.
Aghast at what he’d done, Charles retreated quickly. He’d done it before on accident, when he’d been upset or really excited—caused others around him to think his own thoughts—but he’d never tried to do it on purpose. He also thought perhaps he’d pushed too hard. Alice had been stunned.
Still, he’d done it.
Excited, and hopeful in a way he hadn’t been since his father’s death, Charles pulled his boots and heavy winter coat on. It was cold outside and he had a long way to go.
Halfway on his walk toward the train station, Charles thought he might have to turn around. His face was cold from the bitter wind and even though the station was only five miles away, a distance Charles thought he should have been able to walk, he was growing tired.
A car pulled up the road beside him and he paused. He hoped it wasn’t someone he knew, to be caught this early in his escapade would have been truly unlucky. The man was a stranger, however, and he leaned over and rolled the window down just a little.
“Kid, you okay? You need a ride home?” It was an older looking man and Charles could feel his worry beating out of him. He had two grandsons at home, and the thought of them tramping up and down a cold road was inconceivable to him.
Satisfied that he would be safe, Charles put his hand on the car’s door handle. Remembering Alice, he pushed just a little. He brought one mittened hand to his forehead. “Take me to the train station. And then forget that you did.”
“Get in,” the man said, and reached over to help Charles open the door.
Charles sat in front of the heater and was glad of the ride. He looked at the man driving the car. It hadn’t even taken half the effort to do this as what he’d done with Alice.
The train ride into the city was uneventful. There were kids and adults all over the place and nobody was paying much attention to who went with whom. Charles had squired away enough savings for the train ride there, back, and for emergency rations, if he needed them. He also had two cookies in his pocket, not eaten from yesterday, which he’d saved. He hoped it would be enough to get him through his journey.
The city itself was enormous. People bustled all around him, and at first Charles thought he might be ill. Their thoughts were crowding in at him, as if they couldn’t wait to get out of the heads that created them.
Charles spent a moment to imagine a bubble—like the diver’s helmet he’d once seen. A helmet around his head, keeping out all the thoughts just like the diver’s helmet kept out the water, allowing him to breathe. After that it was just a matter of orienting himself to his surroundings, and making his way to the correct location.
It was growing late. The train ride had taken longer than he’d realized. Charles had to stop for directions a few times, and it meant actually speaking with people. He had tried to forage for the directions in their minds, but it was too difficult to find the correct ones.
Finally, finally! He was at the studio. It was a large building, with a square-jawed doorman, and Charles felt his spirits sink. To have come all this way, and to not be allowed in, would break him. Charles watched the door for a moment, a plan forming in his mind, and wondered if he dared.
He had come here to see the Shadow, after all, because the Shadow had the same powers that Charles did. Charles could see what lurked in the minds of others. He could make people do things, just like the Shadow. Perhaps Charles could also make himself invisible.
He would have to never let down his guard. Charles took a deep breath. He could do it.
Tentatively, he raised the imaginary diver’s helmet that had protected him from the onslaught of thoughts from the thousands of people all around him. “I’m invisible,” Charles whispered, projecting outward. “You don’t see me. No one sees me. I’m invisible.” He felt the crush of incoming thoughts get pushed back by his concentration. He repeated the words. “You don’t see me. No one sees me. I’m invisible.” He inched his way past the doorman, who didn’t even give a flicker of attention.
Inside the building, Charles found the directory that gave him what floor he desired. He rode up in the elevator, and no one looked at him, not even once.
Heart thumping in his chest, Charles exited from the elevator. This was it. He would find the Shadow here, and he would explain. The Shadow would help him. There would be so much to learn. To see, to do. Maybe Charles could even help the Shadow fight crime. They were the same. They had the same abilities.
Charles went through the heavy doors at the end of the hallway and into a large space. There were people scattered throughout, piles of odd looking things, and wires running everywhere. There were several areas with large black music stands and a tall, upright microphones.
“Five minutes, everyone,” said a man as he walked right past Charles.
“I’m invisible,” Charles repeated for good measure. The Shadow, of course, would see him, but nobody else would. Just as Charles would be able to see the Shadow.
The room buzzed into activity, a few people flipped through pages of paper on the music stands. One man in the background practiced making a phone ring and then ran an electric fan that had a piece of cardboard stuck inside it.
Charles was fascinated. When he was very little, he’d thought the stories were real, that they were taking place as he listened. He smiled—he’d been such a dumb little kid. But it also let him remember how he’d listened with his father in the study. They’d kept the sound down low so that mother wouldn’t hear, and they’d listened to everything. Charles ached, missing that time with his father. It was gone, forever gone. He wished he could have it back.
Of course, now he knew that the stories were pretend. Just actors playing roles. And people in the background making sound effects. His father had explained it all.
Except, not the Shadow. There was no way that he could be fake. Not and understand what his mental powers were. He had to be real.
The radio announcer said these were dramatizations of the Shadow’s real adventures. It made sense. Of course the radio program was acted out-but the real Shadow would be there to tell his tales of adventure. .
Charles had tried writing letters to him in the past, but he’d always burned them. He’d been too afraid. What if someone else opened the letter? What if they’d found out what Charles could do? Worse, what if the Shadow didn’t believe him?
So, the letters remained unsent. The Shadow had to remain a mystery. He went around under another identity, hiding his powers and abilities. So Charles would have to also hide. A letter wouldn’t do it—no--Charles would have to come to the city and see the Shadow face to face, to make him understand.
Charles looked around desperately. But where was he? None of these people were like him, like Charles. They were all ordinary. Just as everyone else Charles had ever met. All the same. Not like Charles at all.
“Places, people!” a man shouted, waving his arms.
In the background a woman began to play a small organ and the familiar twisted sound of the Shadow’s theme music came out.
Another man came up to the microphone, a water glass in his hand was held close to his mouth. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” he boomed. “The Shadow knows.” He gave the characteristic laugh of the Shadow and the organ trilled a chord.
The announcer stepped up to the microphone, and spoke into it, reading off the pages in his hand, “Once again the Mutual Broadcasting System brings you the thrilling adventures of the Shadow. The hard and relentless fight of one man against the forces of evil. These dramatizations are designed to demonstrate forcibly to old and young alike that crime does not pay.”
A hand motion came from another man and the people relaxed and began to speak easily to each other for a moment. Then, another hand signal, and they began to read from their scripts.
Where was the real Shadow? Charles cast about, looking at everyone in the room. He wasn’t here! Shadow? Shadow! Charles pushed his plea out into the room, into the building. Please, if you’re here, please show yourself! I’m here, Shadow. I’m here!
The actors paused and looked at one another, eyebrows going up, but they were professionals, and they continued with barely a hitch.
Charles watched from the side of the room, but no response came. He turned and twisted, making sure he could see everyone around him. But no one new came into the room. Perhaps the Shadow was nearby, but not here? Charles stretched out his mind, sensing each and every person on the floor, but they were just as ordinary as everyone else. He kept searching, going one floor up, and one floor down, until he had touched upon every person in the entire building, down to a quiet, resentful janitor hiding in the sub-basement.
Charles was anguished. The Shadow wasn’t here. He had missed his chance.
One of these people must know who the Shadow was. Charles threw himself into their memories, asking, asking, where is the Shadow. The answers came readily enough, and his world crumpled around him. He slumped against a wall, and slid down it into a heap, and hid his face behind his knees. He’d risked everything coming here. Pushed Alice, and that nice man in the car. He’d actually become invisible. He’d clouded men’s minds. And for what?
He started to sob.
His heart and soul wracked with emptiness, Charles poured out his grief. His father was dead, and now, his last hope, was all a lie. A sham. There was no Shadow. His hero, his mentor in the ways of the mind, had been entirely made-up. Pretend.
Charles was truly, truly alone. I will always be alone, he thought, and the devastation of that newly acquired knowledge brought a wave of fresh grief so acute that for a moment, Charles could only shudder. Then he heaved in a gasping breath of air and wept again.
“Does—does anyone hear a child crying?” whispered one of the actresses, during a momentary pause. “I hear a child crying.”
Charles gulped in deeply, trying to catch his breath, his throat so tight that it hurt terribly. He rubbed at his face, which was slick with tears, and he acknowledged the gaping, empty chasm that had opened to swallow him whole. “I’m invisible,” he said, teeth chattering. The trip to return home again seemed impossibly long. “I’m invisible,” Charles repeated. “You don’t see me. No one sees me.”
Then, slowly, he got to his feet and started on his way home, alone.