"Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us.' - Samuel Smiles
THE SHADOWMEN IN:
October 31st 1940
It's a long way up, but I've still got some breath left in me.
The sky's getting dark, a depressing backdrop to an otherwise perfect little picture here on the New Jersey shoreline. The wind's strong and warm, threatening to knock my hat clean off, so I place my hand steady on my head and start to move towards my destination, a tiny apartment building just across an empty street. People call me the Ghoul, there's a hint of irony to it that I won't go into now, I call myself an idiot. Probably came out of my way to Jersey for nothing, and right now that punk kid I paid twenty bucks for the tip is laughing his ass off as he enjoys the couple packs of cigarettes he spent it on.
It's Halloween, but nobody seems to feel like celebrating it. Over in Europe the war rages on with no end in sight, brother killing brother over matters they know nothing about. While here in America we grit our teeth and shake our heads and just pretend like there's nothing we can do to help while our friends and allies are getting slaughtered.
Standing behind the shelter of the building, safe for the moment, I pat my coat down, ruffled by the wind and take a gander at the mile long ladder I'm supposed to be climbing up in order to continue my case. It's a rickety old thing, one looking like it's about to collapse, and while I may be brave enough to fight muggers, rapists and religious nut jobs, there's no way I'm climbing up that thing.
"It's a long way up." Someone says, making me jump out of my skin with a fright that would have ended me if I were just a little bit overweight. I look to my right, where the voice came from, and see a woman leaning out her window, smoking a cigarette that highlights the tired look on her face. She smiles at me before taking a puff of the thing, breathing out smoke like a fiery dragon from King Arthur.
"Evening, ma'am." I say, moving towards the window to make the conversation easier over the howling of the wind. "How are you?"
She lowers the cigarette, giving me a good long look before replying. Eventually she ignores my question, giving me a sly smile that's broken a dozen men's hearts in years past.
"You're that Ghoul, fella, ain'tcha? Wanna smoke?"
"I am. And no thank you."
The woman takes another smoke, the fire at the end illuminating the wall behind us and bringing forward a piece of graffiti on the wall that simply states "Kilroy was here'. I give it a quick glance and make a mental note to investigate further.
"Patsy." She says before coughing heavily from the smoke, throat gargling in a disgusting manner and making me thankful that I'm smart enough to never touch a cigarette. "Y'know, people don't really know what to make of you guys. All you fellas popping up this year. The super weirdos."
A smile spreads across my face, one that she can't see, but senses all the same and returns with a grin of her own. This woman was probably beautiful at one point, but the years haven't been kind. A thin scar runs across her chin, grey eyes are shown through smoke that have seen too much, and I understand the cynicism that escapes her mouth, even if she doesn't say it.
"I know. Patsy, have you heard... or seen anything odd, recently?"
There's a look of surprise in her face, one that tells me all I need.
"Other than you? A couple of guys went upstairs about thirty minutes ago. Didn't recognise them."
Nodding politely, I move back towards the ladder, a sense of urgency replacing the common sense I had just a few minutes ago. For a second I look back to Patsy who's watching me sadly as I grip the ladder.
"Thanks for the help, Patsy." I tell her. "Look after yourself. And... ah, maybe call the police if I don't come back down in a reasonable amount of time?"
"Will do." She says, stubbing the cigarette and tossing it aside. "Maybe I'll see you again?"
It's a dangerous climb, I probably should have taken the stairs, in fact, halfway up the ladder, the winds begin to pick up and send my hat flying off into the distance like it's aware of the troubles sure to come and content in leaving me behind. Eventually I get to the roof, and find, like always, I'm late, but not too late. The roof's empty except for me and a sniper rifle, a Memento for the misdeeds that have been committed here. Pulling up my goggles for clear sight, I pop an eye to the rifle's scope, I catch sight of its target, a window across the street that's decorated by a couple of bullet holes and blood.
God I wish I could fly.
"I'd put the rifle down if I were you."
Something happens. The wind stops howling, and is instead replaced by a bubbling heat that must surely be from the face of the sun itself. My head turns from the rifle, hand reaching for the empty revolver hidden snug under my jacket, but before it can even get close, an iron hand grasps me tightly by the wrist and I find myself looking into the face of the most powerful man on Earth.
"It makes sense to use your hands one more time before I break them."
They call the man, Icarus, largely due to the fiery wings sprouting from his back bearing a similarity to the Greek myth about the man with the same name. He is the reason I started fighting crime to begin with, and this is honestly not how I wanted to meet him for the first time. I saw him in action once, when he saved New York from a crashing blimp with his bare hands, and since that day I've heard tales of his heroism and kindness to all he encounters. There's none of that in this man's eyes as he begins to squeeze the bone in my hand with unimaginable strength.
"DON'T!" I yell as the pain begins to set in, red hot like a knife twisting through flesh. Something changes in Icarus' eyes and I think he realises just what he's doing. Instead of crushing my wrist to dust, he simply twists me down to the ground, anger still burning in his eyes that is the scariest thing I have ever seen in my life.
"'Don't'?" He quotes almost mockingly as he hovers above me with his gently flapping angel wings. "Don't what? Kill you? Kill you like you just killed one of your brothers?!" As he gets angrier, the temperature rises, becoming almost an inferno that blisters my skin. "Lord! I don't understand you people."
No idea what that's about.
"Calm... calm down." I say, trying to sound calm in the face of potential death. "Just calm down." Icarus grits his teeth as I continue to speak. He truly wants to crush me and I'd better choose my next words very carefully if I want to spend the rest of my life free of a wheelchair. "Whoever died. I didn't kill them! I'm... I'm the Ghoul!"
The name's familiar, I can tell from the look of surprise on Icarus' face, and I feel a sense of pride that somehow this godly being is familiar with my name. Realising his mistake, he reaches down and helps me off the ground, steel hands turning to rubber as he picks me up and puts me on my feet. It's almost comical how quickly he switches from wanting to kill me to being the polite gentleman I've heard so much about, and also slightly concerning.
"I'm so sorry!" He says, quickly brushing my white coat clean of dust, a sharp contrast to the red, black and gold that makes up his own uniform. He even notices my goggles lying on the floor and passes them over, letting me put them back over my eyes. "I'm sorry." Icarus says again. "Are you alright?"
I shake my wrist slightly, loosening it up and ignoring the aching pain that's been left behind.
"I'm fine." I tell Icarus, taking a couple of steps back as we seem to size each other up, I'm unnerved and surprised by the man's attitude, something I make sure to let him know. "You need to check on your anger issues."
"Yes. I... I'm sorry." He repeats, shame filling his completely unmasked face that I've been very curious about. Icarus is quite the looker, clean shaven with brown hair pushed smoothly to point up towards the sky, his eyes, no longer burning with anger, are a light blue. "I know the person that died, and I... overreacted."
"The victim?" I ask, genuinely surprised. I didn't think Icarus spent time with anyone. "Who was he?"
The hero glances sadly towards the window across the street. "Detective Mike Peters." He explains. "Mike was investigating the-"
"The Crime Cult." I finish, and suddenly everything begins to click together and make sense like a jigsaw puzzle. "I was doing the same." And for some reason I feel a shiver go down my spine.
I'd been hired recently by the owner of New York's Natural History Museum on a case. There'd been a break in recently, someone had stolen a collection of amulets kept on display, and the police were getting nowhere. Not the normal sort of case I'd work, but the burgalers had murdered a security guard with a family of two, and someone had to avenge him.
"Do you have any idea where they are?" Icarus asks, intrigued by my work and coming to the same conclusions.
"No. And it could take awhile to find out."
The hero nods, understanding for the moment and already thinking at a million miles an hour.
"Let's see what I can find." He floats over to the sniper rifle, completely silent in his movements. No wonder I didn't hear him come up behind me earlier. The man glares intensely at the rifle for a moment, his eyes flash bright orange and all I do is watch, completely entranced. Finally he looks back at me, eyes still orange as he begins to speak.
"I have a heat trail." Icarus states, expecting me to understand whatever it is he's talking about.
He offers out his hand towards me and waits patiently for a couple of seconds before realising I don't know what he's doing.
"Are you coming?" Icarus asks.
"Am I? You seem to have things well in hand."
The hero smiles and floats towards me. A thought crosses my mind, we must look pretty stupid, two grown men wearing costumes on a rooftop where anyone can see, especially with Icarus' fire wings drawing everyone's attention.
"It's your case." Icarus says before gripping me firmly by the wrist again and taking off into the sky, pulling me steadily along. "We may as well solve it together."
Soaring above the streets, hovering in the air without any sort of device is without a doubt the most amazing experience of my life. I look at the streets below and see Patsy from before staring up at us, an amazed look on her face. I look at the guy leading the way and I begin to feel very jealous, this is something that I could do every single day for the rest of my life, but will have to make the most of for now.
A couple of minutes go by, Icarus is saying something to me, but the wind's blasting my face and I can't hear a thing. Eventually we touch down atop a seedy looking bar and for a second my legs turn to jelly and I almost crumble to the ground.
"Is... is this the place?" I ask, trying to get straight to business and moving to Icarus' side as he peers in through the skylight overlooking the proceedings below. He doesn't need to answer, I see the robes and the guns and the psychos and know that this is definitely the home of the Cult we're after.
"Looks like it. Do you know that man?" Icarus asks, pointing towards a man in the corner, twirling a switchblade between his fingers like it's a pencil. "I followed his heat trail." I remember him from a couple of months ago, caught him trying to stab his wife in public before I broke his jaw, that won't have healed anytime soon.
"Gene Mason." I answer, eyes fixed on the lunatic as I realise how deep this Cult runs. "He's supposed to be in prison, he's a hitman for hire and-" The cultist drops his blade, and as his arms move I catch sight of the strange amulet around his neck, one of the ones that I'm seeking. "Well, well, well."
The two of us look silently at the other and nod, the same thoughts of justice and heroism passing through our minds. Something's going on here and it's up to us to stop it. We're about to smash down through the room when the bar door opens and a man that I know far too well steps inside, my mind slips, and Icarus notices my hesitation.
"Do you know him?" He asks, already knowing the answer.
"That's Father Cross."
And suddenly, that small drop through the window feels like a very long way down.
NEXT WEEK: The Mighty Icarus