Parking his faithful Indian motorcycle against a curb full of puddles dancing beneath a sky full of rain, Ted ‘Wildcat’ Grant looked down with a muttering grunt as he watched a drowning condom becoming lodged in the rusted grate of a street gutter, carried away like the discarded newborn Moses along the flowing Nile of the evening’s recent rain to the sewer below.
Ted Grant wasn’t the type of man to believe in omens, but the drowning prophylactic suddenly reminded him of the old man he was about to meet; a washed-up and broken shield that had already served its purpose in the superhero world, a forgotten man who’d been unceremoniously ground away by the unforgiving millstone called time.
A man steeped in accusation.
Fifty years ago, William Higgins had been a second-generation superhero named ‘The Shield’, a young man wearing the stars and stripes of a more patriotic America, a man who’d been a founding member of one of the first superhero teams ever created…
A group of brightly clad vigilantes dubbed the Mighty Crusaders.
The Mighty Crusaders weren’t quite as old as the Justice Society of America (which Ted Grant had been a chartered member of thanks to his magically altered life span), but the Crusaders been pretty damned close. Wildcat recalled the Mighty Crusaders battling the B-horror-movie villains of a forgotten era…
Monstrosities like Baron Gestapo, the Brain Emperor, and Zarro: Master of Zombies.
Back in the good old days when everyone knew who the bad guys were. Back when you could save the world with nothing more than the courage to stand up and fight for what was right and your fists - without worrying about civil lawsuits and a criminal’s rights.
But unlike the JSA who’d soon laid the foundation for the Justice League, Ted knew that the Mighty Crusaders were all but forgotten now, its membership having all met tragic ends, three of them in a farmhouse only a thirty-minute drive outside of town.
All except William Higgins.
Who’d burned that farmhouse to the ground.
Bill had originally faced a second-degree murder charge for Fly-Girl, a young woman who’d also been a member of the Crusaders, a charge Higgins had walked away from after successfully claiming self-defense. But the irreparable damage to his career had already been done.
The Shield announced his formal retirement as a superhero shortly after the verdict had been rendered.
It wasn’t really a surprise. There’d been five dead bodies found on that farm when the authorities investigated, and three of them had belonged to Mighty Crusaders... At least that’s what the dental records showed.
Only Bill Higgins and God knew what had actually happened on that farm that terrible Halloween night. And Bill had disappeared from the public eye shortly after the trial, disappearing into Battery Park.
Like a spent condom being tossed away in an alleyway.
Yeah, this was Battery Park.
That rotten part of town where the cops had the good sense to leave it alone and just let it die. A part of the city which had steadily become a festering pile of stinking human tragedy that some real estate developer would eventually flatten and shovel dirt on top of, just like the mourners at an addict’s funeral.
Yeah, it would happen sooner or later.
Just how Ted Grant would likely throw a shovelful of dirt onto the lid of Bill Higgins’ coffin when the old codger kicked off, finally reuniting him with the rest of his forgotten team to face whatever justice he deserved from those once brightly-clad superheroes who now held all their club meetings six feet underground…
The Fly, Fly-Girl, The Jaguar, The Black Hood, The Comet…
All just names on graying tombstones spread out across cemeteries dotting the north-eastern states now.
All of them except William Higgins that was.
The man who’d walked away.
And old Bill was still refusing to let go, clinging to the present while the world was trying to flush him down the great toilet of history after wiping its ass with his tarnished reputation. The rest of his companions once called the Mighty Crusaders had been spared of that pathetic fate thanks to their premature deaths (perhaps at his hands), but the whisperings of old Bill was now the stuff of yellowing comic book pages…
Probably the same shade of jaundice as the old man’s liver.
The Devil’s wine is the balm of a guilty conscience.
Christ, this really was a rotten part of town. It certainly made a man believe the worst. The decayed center of a rotten Battery Park where even a knucklehead like Ted had the good sense to move his gym elsewhere, or else face the caustic rot of a place like this that could eat away at a man’s soul.
But here he was, back in his old stomping grounds, performing the Justice League’s dirty work…
Ready to listen to one final confession.
Visiting old bastards like Bill Higgins when they said they needed to get something off their chest was something a reserve member should do according to Superman. And then the Man of Steel had then subtly reminded the former boxing champion that this would count towards the volunteer hours which the League required of its reserve members…
The ones who still drew a Justice League pension anyways.
Ted had been paying those dues with his fists for over fifty years now and he didn’t need some alien socialist to lecture him about serving his goddamned community. Besides, those volunteer hours were all just a pain-in-the-ass PR exercise for the older League members and everyone damned well knew it…
Get out and smile for the cameras!
But that extra three grand a month came in pretty handy for a man who had to rely on the unsteady income of a ramshackle gym and a fading reputation. A man still paying off the crippling debt of putting his goddaughter through college.
So the cranky Wildcat had kept his growling to a minimum and called Bill Higgins.
And then it had started to rain, which had made Ted almost forget it was Halloween, the anniversary of that burning farmhouse where three forgotten superheroes had met their tragic ends, four if you counted The Shield.
Was she still alive when you burned the place down, Bill?
Thoughts like that made Ted even more hesitant about driving here and walking into a seedy bar called the Twisted Unicorn where William Higgins was now waiting.
From past experiences, Wildcat knew the line between superhero and supervillain was razor thin, with too many of the old-timers wanting to go out with a bang, lost in the memories of a past where they still mattered.
Maybe take another superhero down before they kicked off.
Trick or Treat…
Bill had said on the phone earlier that he’d wanted to make a confession. He didn’t have much time left and there was a secret he’d kept for fifty long years now. No details, just a request to meet with another superhero who could listen to his story.
Sure, I’ll listen…
But just what are you looking to get off your chest tonight, Bill Higgins? Was the Fly-Girl murder from fifty years ago not self-defense? Did you kill her in cold blood? Maybe she was playing the field and you and the Fly had a little falling out over whose bed she should share.
Or maybe it wasn’t Fly-Girl...
Couldn’t help but notice from your file that you’ve never been married, Mr. Higgins. So maybe your tastes ran more towards the male members and she didn’t like you hitting on her boyfriend all the time. Maybe she finally did something about it. Maybe you couldn’t handle her tarnishing your all-American image and maybe you stopped her the only way you knew how…
Or maybe you didn’t…
Taking a deep breath, the rain-drenched hero readied himself as he pushed open the tavern’s thick door while the barely visible new moon shimmered behind ominous grey clouds to disappear behind northern skyscrapers in a better section of town.
Christ, even the moon didn’t want to be seen in this part of town.
To his surprise, Ted found the bar practically empty.
Only one bartender and one customer...
Like the single aging male patron currently seated at one of her old wooden tables, the scene laid out before Ted painted the Twisted Unicorn as the last of a dying breed; the last of the city’s worm-eaten taverns on the east side whose sole purpose for the past century had been getting working men drunk.
The Unicorn was a place for hardened men to hide from a world set against them, the darkened corners of its knee-braced ceiling joists still echoing the drunken laughter of five generations of gaunt-faced ghosts, working-class stiffs still haunting the night after having filled themselves with enough liquid spirits to once again face the drudgery of another backbreaking day.
No wonder Bill Higgins wanted to meet here.
On a graying wooden chair that was probably older than he was, the retired superhero known as The Shield had been getting a head start on the evening, taking a pause from his whiskey long enough to glance over at the massive Ted Grant standing at the entryway while the rain beaded off his black riding jacket like a dreary London umbrella, finally raising his glass of amber spirits by way of a greeting and then grinning like the family dog who gets to watch the cat taking a bath.
“Left the Halloween costume at home tonight, huh?”
“I’m a little too old to be trick or treating.”
Before he took his chair, Ted couldn’t help but notice the old man behind the bar checking the electrical outlet to see if the lifeless TV screen above the bar was plugged in, finally scratching his bald head and then pressing the power button three or four times before giving up.
Before Ted could ask, a pleased Bill Higgins held up a large circular gadget the size of a grapefruit, making Ted tense with shock as his fists prepared to act.
Bill Higgins only laughed dryly.
“Don’t worry… It’s an electromagnetic pulse disruptor… The kind which takes out electronics in a twenty yard radius… I had to make sure this conversation goes no further than your big cauliflower ears, Mr. Grant.”
On a hunch, Ted pulled out his cell phone…
Killed by EMP.
The big man sat down reluctantly and took a deep breath before taking a long swig of the freshly cracked bottle of foreign beer the crazy old man had previously ordered for him.
He needed it after that last stunt.
“You owe me four hundred dollars… And that pulse disruptor is illegal, by the way.”
“So was being a vigilante.”
“I think you’ve exceeded the statute of limitations on that particular charge, Bill… Fuck, where did you even get something like that?”
“Mail order from Russia… This way I know our conversation is private.”
Ted glared at the thinning redhead with contempt.
“Do you think I’m actually wearing a wire?!”
“Don’t know, don’t care… Anymore.”
Bill Higgins straightened out his arthritic fingers, swiping at imaginary flies buzzing around his yellowing scalp and then grimaced before continuing.
“This is a story I’m only going to tell you, Mr. Grant... You’re the priest behind my confessional window tonight... Just you and me and a ghost story… And what better night of the year?”
“Why don’t you just tell a priest?”
“Because I want to be judged by my peers… You’re my judge tonight, Wildcat… Thank God they didn’t send the Specter, eh?”
The old man cackled dryly again before taking another swig of liquid yellow fire until an irate Ted narrowed his heavy eyes, watching Higgins continue to wave around arthritic fingers in the air to ward off imaginary flies.
“Look, I’m a boxing coach, not a priest… I can’t absolve you of any crimes… I’m more likely to haul you in for them.”
“Sure, sure… I know who you are… But you don’t know who I am… What I had to do… So let’s just call this a dying man’s final confession and then you’ll be on your way.”
Using a paper napkin to wipe the rain water from his eyes, Ted looked at the gaunt redhead with a softened glance, remembering how his own father had passed away from cancer thirty years ago. It didn’t take much imagination to see how closely the emaciated face of the man now seated across from him resembled his father’s before he’d passed away from that horrible disease.
“More or less… I guess you could call it brain cancer.”
Fists that had once defended freedom now scratched aching fingers across thinning red hair before bringing the still-fired remnants of his sixth double glass of whiskey to tightened lips, with the seventy-five-year-old Bill Higgins coughing slightly before placing the empty glass back on the table.
The old hero then eyed the six-foot-five-inch Wildcat, his muscle-bound drinking partner before casting his blue-eyed gaze down to the table until the shuffling barkeep delivered another glass of golden fire-water.
Bill Higgins cast a solemn gaze at the fading light through the neon light of a ‘Closed’ sign now lighting in the window before continuing.
“I’m going to give you the events as they happened… Something I’ve been trying to forget for the past fifty years… Everyone thinks I killed her, but I didn’t… Mind you, I would’ve if I’d known back then what I know now… But I didn’t.”
“Then who did?”
“We’ll get to that… Do you believe in ghosts?”
As soon as he’d spoken, the former boxer had the sudden feeling that the older man was attempting to expose a raw nerve, the stale air in the darkening tavern growing a chill as the obviously upset Bill Higgins rubbed his mottled forehead with a nervous hand.
“You believe in all kinds of shit in this business.”
In a moment of profound silence, the sunken blue eyes of a heretic stared coldly back at the boxer until the massive Wildcat shifted in his wooden chair uncomfortably while William Higgins’ voice shifted into the flatter tones of a man condemned.
“I’m being haunted by ghosts… The ghosts of flies.”
The former boxer suddenly had a revelation.
“Is that why you keep swatting at the air?”
“I must seem mad to you… Sure, the flies are all in my mind… A mirror can tell me that much… But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist... I’m an old man swatting at the ghosts of flies.”
“I’m pretty sure flies can’t have ghosts.”
“But the flies who were once Fly People have ghosts… Trust me on that one… Do you remember Tommy Troy?”
“Never heard of him… Who’s Tommy Troy?”
“A thirteen-year-old boy once showed me what this world’s about… At least I like to think he did… It’s all just a constant buzzing now.”
Ted Grant felt his abdominals tighten uncomfortably, tasting the beer lace with the bile suddenly creeping up his throat. The old man had said he’d wanted to make one final confession…
“Bill, did you do something to a thirteen-year-old boy? Is that what you wanted to tell me about?”
The older man leaned forward with an upturned gaze barely carried by his scrawny neck when Ted suspected this might be the last story Bill Higgins ever told. The story about the real reason why he’d retired from the business and given up being The Shield for good.
Like a man who was partaking in whiskey instead of his last meal on Death’s Row, the old man took a deep breath and made his peace with a troubled world before he began the last story he’d ever tell.
“I’m no diddler… Not a queer neither… Just a guy… I think that maybe good guys like you and me are just the straight men for the jokes told by the buzzing of flies.”
Bill once again swatted at the table next to his drink, brushing away bothersome insects that weren’t really there until Wildcat had had enough.
“Maybe you should lay off the whiskey, Bill… I think it’s reacting with your cancer drugs… Making you hallucinate.”
The dying man only coughed wetly before taking another drink in defiance of that unsolicited advice.
“I’m not taking any drugs… I’m just trying to pickle the crawling little bastards inside my brain… Long enough to tell you about what happened on that farm anyways… It pisses ‘em off.”
Ted Grant sighed and then took another drink of his green-bottled beer while wondering if he were in the presence of a madman.
“Tell me then.”
“You see, the question isn’t really what happened on that farm, Mr. Grant… The real question is why I’m being haunted by flies... Why they hate me so much… I didn’t just burn down a farmhouse… I stopped their invasion into our world... That's why they hate me.”