For Your Reading (and Escapist) Pleasure…
Yesterday’s election, and the campaign leading up to it, generated a lot of stress. I offer this story as something I hope you’ll enjoy, and that might give you a moment or two free of the pressures of the ordeal we’ve all been through.
The pressure plate, as all pressure plates are wont to do, clicked when he stepped on it. The sound was almost imperceptible, like the half-centimeter give under his foot. It had been meant for someone of his weight or greater. No playing child would have set it off, but then no child would be playing at midnight on a rooftop overlooking the Haste Museum of Modern Art in Capital City.
No, this trap was meant for me.
Merlin, as Lemuel Lyttle was known when plying his avocation, froze. Less because to do anything else might cause the boobytrap he’d triggered to go off, then because he caught himself thinking incorrectly. The trap hadn’t been set for him specifically. He was a completely unknown quantity in Capital City. The Chartreuse Claw had set the trap, and neither he nor any of his known associates were clairvoyants.
Hidden beneath the hawk-beaked mask he wore, concealed within the dark brown, Robin-Hoodish hood, his expression changed only slightly. The line of his lips flattened grimly. His nostrils flared minutely. His pale green eyes tightened. A hundred different solutions to his immediate problem flashed through his mind, but he discarded each in turn. They became more outlandish and more desperate, each demanding more improbable combinations of the tools he had stashed in his work belt.
I am well and truly stuck.
“How acrobatic are you, son?”
A shiver raked his spine, not because of the voice, but because he’d not heard the speaker approach. Either the man had been completely silent or, worse yet, had been waiting and watching undetected. Merlin wasn’t certain which mortified him more, then realized either fell second behind being caught in the trap.
Merlin didn’t even turn his head. “Pretty good. If you were to come up on my right and extend your hand, I could press into a handstand. I’m not sure that would get us clear, though.”
“Nice idea, but I’m not sure I’m that good, son. How are you on a balance beam?”
“Good.” Relief flooded Merlin’s reply. “Real good.”
“Then we have a plan.” The silhouette of a man appeared off to Merlin’s right, holding a ten foot length of inch-wide angle-iron. “If you’ll just come up on your tip-toes, I’ll slide this beneath your heels. I’ll put some weight on either end and you should be able to walk off.”
The metal bar scraped along the roof and brushed beneath Merlin’s heels. It seemed as if it took forever to get into place. His calves began to burn. He knew that was more nerves than reality, so he fought panic. Panic will kill me.
“Okay, son, you can rest your heels. Got some bags of cement under this tarp here ought to do to weigh things down.” The voice remained deep, but added a kindly and even bemused tone. No hint of strain from carrying the cement sacks, either, though they had to run fifty pounds each. “There, I think you’re good.”
Merlin turned and walked along the angled edge. He resisted the urge to do something showy, like cartwheel off. Mostly because it wasn’t his style. The rest was because of his mortification at having been caught in the first place. That wasn’t something that merited celebration.
Merlin smiled, though that remained hidden under the mask, and extended his hand toward his savior’s silhouette. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
The man stepped from shadow, and though the light was not of the best quality, there was no mistaking his identity. The tawny-brown uniform featured a feline mask with whiskers and alert triangular ears. A dark-brown paw-print rode in the middle of his broad chest, and a utility belt made from a World War II era web-belt and canvas pouches circled his waist. The mask and cowl only covered the upper part of his face, leaving his grin on full display.
He shook Merlin’s hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Puma.”
“I-I know you are…” Merlin’s heart pounded. “I-I mean, of course you are. You’re Puma. You just saved me. You’re Puma.”
“Easy, son, I put the tights on one leg at a time, same as you do.” Puma pumped Merlin’s hand solemnly, bringing his left hand over to complete the grasp. “And you are?”
“Oh, geez, I’m nobody. I mean, I’m Merlin, that’s what I call myself.”
“You’re an Arcanist?”
“No, but you’re not the first to ask.” Merlin covered half his face with his left hand. “I’m named after the bird, not the magician. Probably a bad choice for a name, but I’ve always liked the bird so…”
“I understand, son.” Puma’s smile broadened warmly. “I chose my name for the same reason. Always liked mountain lions, but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Glad I didn’t pick Cougar because of the car they rolled out. Now, of course, there are those sneakers…”
“Yes, sir.” Merlin looked back at the pressure plate and the museum beyond as Puma released his hand. “You were up here waiting for the Chartreuse Claw’s men to hit the museum?”
“No, I actually got in touch with a heroine—she likes to be called a hero, now, I guess, too. Feminism, and she’s right. Gold Valkyrie. Claw upgraded his weaponry for his henchmen, and Val needs a good, high-profile collar. I’d shot Claw a note telling him to be good and leave the museum alone. That’s why he set that trap. Meant it for a cat and caught a bird.”
“A pigeon.” Merlin shook his head. “I should have thought.”
“What, that he’d boobytrap the most-likely spot for staking out the museum? Maybe.” Puma shrugged. “Fact is, he hid this one well, under tarpaper and poured tar. Came up through the ceiling in the loft below. That’s how he armed it, from there, too. I’d already switched it off. I was waiting for the guys to come take it out.”
Merlin’s head slumped forward. “So it wasn’t even armed?”
“Doesn’t mean it couldn’t have gone off.”
“And you just let me walk into it?”
“Truth is, son, family is visiting and we have a young granddaughter in the house, so I didn’t sleep much today.” Puma shook his head. “I’d not have let you walk into that trap, but I was resting my eyes. The click woke me. Thought it was the guys.”
“Couple of retired heroes. They clean up a lot. Lairs mostly, the occasional trap. The city has a fund they don’t talk about.” Puma glanced at the clockface glowing in the museum’s tower. “You drink coffee? I have something I have to do in a couple of hours, but we could get a cup and chat.”
“I’d be honored, sir.”
“You don’t need to sleep?”
“I’ve trained myself to get by on four hours a night.”
“And you don’t have grandkids…”
“No, sir.” Merlin smiled. “I just am one, but I’m pretty sure my grandfather doesn’t lose a wink thinking of me.”
Merlin followed Puma through the night with a bit more ease than he’d ever have expected. Capital City’s urban sprawl made prowling fairly easy. Merlin’s normal territory, Lyttleton, had an alley. One. A short one. Capital City had an endless labyrinth. Sure, the big city alleys had garbage piled here and winos sprawled there, but for undetected movement, they worked really well.
Where they had been blocked off, fire escapes and drainpipes offered access to rooftops. When their path deviated from a direct course to their destination, as Merlin later figured out, it was only so Puma could share vistas of the city at night. He’d pause long enough for Merlin to get a eyeful and then some; then he’d be off again.
They finally descended worn concrete steps in an alley and entered a basement establishment which clearly had been a speak-easy during Prohibition. A massive automaton raised a clawed hand to keep Merlin out, but Puma caught the robot’s wrist. “He’s with me. He’s good.”
Merlin smiled at the robot, whose glowing eyes went from red to a warm gold. “Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t mention it. We can get a seat over there, that booth.”
The bar hadn’t been redecorated much since Prohibition, save for adding a yellowed re-election poster for FDR and a couple more that encouraged buying war bonds. There was literally nothing in the decor, from furnishings to pictures, paintings and posters, to suggest heroes would congregate there. This despite the fact that even the bartender wore a domino mask, and everyone else donned a costume. The only concession to it being a hero headquarters was the way every booth was shadowed from the outside, but softly lit from within.
Merlin seated himself in a booth in the far corner while Puma pulled his cowl back and went to the bar. The booth was prime real estate, and given the crowd of folks in the establishment, it surprised Merlin that it was unoccupied. But then, as heroes nodded and waved at Puma as he returned with two steaming coffee mugs, Merlin realized that booth always remained empty when Puma wasn’t using it.
That surprised Merlin, but only for a second. There’s no one more deserving of such an honor.
Puma’s bare face bore redness from where the mask had pressed against flesh, but was otherwise unremarkable. The hero, who had begun his adventures fighting in Europe against the Nazis, had started the transition beyond middle age. He didn’t have the pallor of men desperately hungering for retirement, but his features no longer had the chiseled quality most folks would have ascribed to a hero. Whoever made a memorial statue of him would doubtless edge them up, matching legend to image.
Merlin pulled his hood back and peeled his mask off. “I guess this is okay, right. What?”
Puma shook his head. “You look younger than I expected.”
“I’ve been trained for a long time.” Merlin shrugged. “Since I could walk.”
“It’s not you, son.” The elder hero smiled. “You all look young to me. Makes me very happy, tell the truth. Gives me hope for the nation.”
Merlin frowned. “Do you mean because of the anti-war protests and the President’s resigning?”
“Those are just symptoms. Having been though a war, I can understand why folks are protesting against them. Some folks might see war as necessary, but there’s never been a war that isn’t cruel.” Puma sipped his coffee. “No, it’s the criminals get me down, sometimes. Their progression, you know. You look at how they move from Jesse James or John Dillinger and now we have folks like the Red Army Faction and Symbionese Liberation Army. Heck, the Irish Republican Army has just chugged right along, and we just got this Black September group. They’re the tip of the iceberg, and when villains like Sinisterion get involved, well, it’s a new world. A dangerous world.”
Merlin nodded. “You’re right, sir.” Merlin drank some coffee, and swallowed despite the brew’s bitter bite. “This is good.”
“You don’t lie well, son. This coffee would melt barnacles off a battleship’s hull. Will keep a man awake, though.” Puma grinned. “Not my intent to sound curmudgeonly, either. I do have hope. New folks like you are the reason. So, tell me, how did you happen to be up there, watching the museum?”
“Ah, well, sir, I’m in town on…” Merlin wanted to say business, but it would sound silly. “…on a field trip to the museum. A high school field trip. Our Art Department got awarded some sort of grant to study at the Haste. Once we got there I, ah, noticed some folks at the museum who didn’t seem to belong. I sketched a couple faces and they reminded me of some pictures I’d seen of Chartreuse Claw’s known associates…”
“You studied up on villains working Capital City before you came?”
“Well, not exactly.” Merlin frowned. “I spent this summer organizing files, projecting who would be most likely to come to my town and why. The Claw usually hits art museums. We don’t have one, but he’s been known to rob private collections. We do have some of those.” Like my aunt’s.
“And you just happened to remember what henchmen looked like?”
“I have kind of an ididic memory.”
“That’ll stand you in good stead.” Puma fished a well-thumbed notebook from a pouch. “I make notes.”
Merlin’s eyes widened. “You were there, at the museum. In disguise. I didn’t see you, but I saw that notebook.”
The older man flipped the notebook open to where a page had been torn out. “Slipped my note to Claw into one of his henchmen’s pocket. He never felt a thing.”
“Have to always keep them guessing. If they think you’re one step ahead of them, they’ll make plans so complicated that they can’t help but break down. For example, most of them figure that you’re going to be tough to kill. Bullet to the head would do it, but they make these elaborate, Rube Goldberg deathtraps that for want of a spring here or cog there, let you get free.”
“Yes. I mean, that makes sense.” Merlin blushed. “I haven’t had much experience with deathtraps. None, really.”
“Nothing to be embarrassed about, son. I wish I knew a lot less about them.” Puma laughed easily. “Deathtraps are the part of all this I like the least. Comes a point when you decide you’ve faced your last and you retire.”
“Is that what happened to ‘the guys?’”
“I’m not sure their careers ever got far enough for that to matter.” Puma toyed with his mug. “Mister Chromium and Asynchrony Lad. They have powers, but not terribly useful ones. The Lad can stop time for anything he holds between his hands, which makes him good for bomb disposal. Mister C can do weird things with any metal he touches, provided he’s touching chromium at the same time. They were out in the desert when the A-bombs were tested. Anyway, Mr. C has trouble getting balances right—needs an ingot to do anything useful, and those aren’t easy to haul around. The Lad likes things quiet, so in a fight he’s not much. But when it comes to dealing with bombs and explosives and traps, they’re aces.
“But, I think you are trying to get me to tell stories, when I want to hear about you, Merlin.”
“Not much to tell, sir.” Merlin grasped the mug in both gloved hands. “I don’t have powers, just a lot of training. I was, I guess, modeled on you. I mean, I’m no where near…”
“I consider it a compliment, son. A huge compliment.” Puma nodded. “Your parents must be proud.”
“I would hope so, sir. They died when I was young.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Got to say, I’m not surprised. I knew, really, which is why I said what I said.”
“I don’t understand.”
Puma pointed casually around the room. “Like as not, the majority of the folks here are orphans. Heroing isn’t easy. There’s not a parent worth the name who would wish this life on a child. Most would be horrified to see what we go through. Mine, God bless them, don’t know and won’t know. And I’d never ask a child of mine to do this.”
Merlin nodded. “I have a friend. He has powers. His parents don’t like the idea of his being a hero at all.”
“Tell him to go easy on them.” Puma shook his head. “I don’t have a child in the family business, but when I sent my son off to Southeast Asia, just about tore my heart out. Your friend’s parents will feel that every time he goes out.”
“I’ll tell him, sir.”
“I’m sure you will. You’re a good boy.” Puma smiled. “I mentioned I have something I have to do. Small job. Would you like to come along?”
Would I? Who do I have to kill? Merlin didn’t even attempt to hide his surprise, or the smile that quickly devoured it. “It would be an honor.”
“The honor will be all mine.” Puma finished his coffee. “I’ll let you throw the first punch and, if we’re lucky, that’ll be the last one, too.”
Merlin followed Puma through the somnambulant city. They remained off street level for the most part, moving from roof to roof. They only touched ground when an alley was too wide for them to make the leap. Aside from a few outraged cats and some stoned kids staring at the stars, no one noticed their passing.
Merlin was glad he wore a mask, because his grin wasn’t the sort of thing a superhero should have on his face. Here he was, moving through the Capital City night with Puma. It was like having Micky Mantle asking some no-name rookie to have a catch. Just watching Puma move so fluidly through the shadows contrasted so sharply with the nice man in the bar, that Merlin had a hard time reconciling the two of them being one person.
Will I ever be that confident?
There’d been a point in Merlin’s training when it stopped being a game and became something real. Instead of playing at cool things, he understood why he was being trained. At that point he realized how difficult it was to do what he was being trained to do—and yet Puma had been wearing the mask for almost thirty years. Merlin used his example to keep going when he wanted to quit. Every day his awe of Puma had grown.
And now, here he was, arm’s length from his role model, joining him in an adventure. He couldn’t wait to get back to Lyttleton to tell Grant all about it. Grant would understand. He is probably the only person who can.
Puma padded over to skylight and crouched. He waved Merlin forward, then pointed. Decades of cigarette smoke and city grime had deposited a yellowish stain on the glass. It distorted but couldn’t hide the four men in the warehouse space below, shifting big boxes full of cigarettes. They had plenty of room to store the boxes. Aside from a card table, some folding chairs, a side table with a hotplate, a janitorial sink, and rusting steel pillars, the storage area remained empty.
Three of the men didn’t look like much, but the fourth, a tall, powerfully-built redhead, clearly was running the operation. All four of them wore leather jackets with Bank Street Bombers spelled out on the back—which Merlin took as being very bold or very stupid and possibly both. They were working hard, but not industriously. Merlin figured it would take another couple of hours for them to get everything stowed away.
Puma pulled back and kept his voice low. “You think you can keep Winkin, Blinkin and Nod occupied?”
“What’s the plan?” Merlin jerked a thumb at the skylight. “Thirty foot drop to the floor and then… Did I say something wrong?”
Puma scrubbed a hand over his mouth. “You’d do a drop like that through broken glass?”
“I’ve been trained for a forty-five on concrete.” Merlin glanced down. “You saw something I didn’t down there.”
“I did.” Puma gave his shoulder a squeeze. “The loading dock side door is open. We’ll take the fire escape down, go in that way. Not as flashy as your idea, but what little cartilage I have left in my knees will appreciate it more.”
“Good point. Breaking an ankle is not a good way to start a fight.”
“Unless it belongs to one of them.”
They descended undetected and reached the loading dock easily. Merlin grabbed a push-broom and unscrewed the stick, giving him a staff roughly five feet long. Puma nodded and tugged at his glove cuffs. Like Merlin’s gloves, they had lead shot sewn in over the knuckles. That added heft that made it seem as if they were punching with bricks.
Puma yanked the door open and pointed directly at the redhead. “Surrender now, you and your friends, and this doesn’t have to end badly.”
The redhead dropped the box he’d been hauling and balled his fists. “You deal with the brownie, boys. Puma is all mine.”
Merlin wanted to protest that he wasn’t a brownie, but the trio of Bombers boiling at him forestalled his comment. The fight wasn’t like in the movies. There Bruce Lee would spin the staff slowly, pacing like an encircled tiger, then explode into his opponents, scattering them. The Bombers just came on like a wave, giving Merlin no time for theatrics.
He cut to his right, moving away from the center of their line. He struck with the stick fast and hard, three times. He lashed the nearest man knee, hip and face, spinning him back into his buddies. One of them went down in a tangle of limbs, but the other kept coming.
Merlin flipped the stick around, then leaped, using it as a pole vaulter would a pole. He caught the next Bomber with both feet in the chest. The man flew backward, hitting the edge of the card table. It went over and he landed hard on a metal folding chair, which groaned as it twisted out of shape.
The third man had regained his feet. He’d had martial arts training, or had watched Bruce Lee in the movies. He snapped a kick at Merlin’s head, but Merlin had seen it coming. He corkscrewed down beneath the flying foot and swept the man’s back leg with his own. The Bomber landed hard on his tailbone. His yelp descended into a painful groan, then he just stretched out on the floor.
Merlin rose, stared hard at all three Bombers to keep them down, then turned to watch Puma.
Puma and the redhead squared off. The hero surrendered six inches and forty pounds to his opponent. The redhead opened a few wild swings, which Puma slipped or ducked. Puma pulled his arms in close as the redhead settled down and rained a flurry of punches on him. Nearly as Merlin could see, Puma blocked all of them, save for a heavy left hand that caught the older man in the ribs.
The redhead paused after that punch. He’d thrown it before in countless fights. It had always been a winner. The disbelief on his face made that fact clear as day. Puma was tougher than anyone he’d gone toe-to-toe with before.
“Good one, son.” Puma nodded. “Done now.”
“I haven’t even started, old man.”
“Wasn’t a question, son.”
Faster than Merlin could follow, Puma delivered a quick combination to the redhead’s belly. He stepped into each punch, driving the man back. Each blow sounded like rumbling thunder. With each punch the redhead’s shoulders curled in a bit. By the third he’d dropped both hands to cover his stomach.
Puma’s fourth punch splashed the man’s nose all over the middle of his face. The redhead’s knees wobbled, then he just folded up in on himself. He hit the floor heavily, bounced a little, then lay on his side with his nose dripping blood.
Puma turned around toward the other Bombers. “Oh, good, Merlin, I see you didn’t have any trouble with them. You boys better remember his name. You’ll be hearing a lot of it in the future. Tell your friends.”
Merlin nodded toward Puma’s ribs. “You okay?”
“Epsom salts are my best friend.” Puma smiled. “You did good, son. Very impressive.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome.” The older man sighed. “And now for the grand finale.”
“Call the cops?”
“Not unless we have to.”
Puma picked up the folding chair, bent a leg back to a useful shape and set the chair down. He hauled the Bank Street Bombers’ leader into it, then dug an ammonia ampule from his belt and cracked it under the man’s bloody nose. The unconscious man started, his eyelids fluttering, then he snorted blood over his shirt front.
Puma produced a handkerchief from a pouch. “Here you go, son.”
The man stared at it, then spat at the floor. “Get that away from me. You get away from me.”
Puma’s fist closed around the folded square of white cotton. “I don’t believe we’ve met before, but I know who you are. Eric Henderson. Your parents are Don and Helen.”
Eric looked up, his eyes angry slits. “I don’t have a father.”
“That’s not true. I served with your father in Europe.”
“Bully for you, then. You saw more of him than I ever did.” The beaten man snarled. “You weren’t there in Korea.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“So, you let him die.”
The accusation hit hard, slumping Puma’s shoulders just a bit. “I was very sorry to hear about your father’s death. I sent your mother a note, telling her what a wonderful man she’d married.” Puma lifted his chin. “I said I hoped that you would be just as noble a man as he’d been.”
“You didn’t get your wish.” Eric spat bloody phlegm to the floor, hitting his own sneakers. “No one gets what they want.”
“Here’s what I know, son.”
“Don’t call me that. I ain’t your son.” The man shook his head. “I ain’t nobody’s son.”
“Is that what this is about, Eric? That your father died defending his country when you were eight?” Puma opened his left hand. “Your whole life spent acting out because your father died? You didn’t think you could be as good and noble as he was, so you spend every day of your life proving that you aren’t?”
“How tough is it to be good?” Puma pointed at Merlin. “See that young man over there? He lost both his father and mother when he was younger than you were when your father died. Every day he works at being good. It’s the right thing to do, and the right way to honor his parents. He could be like you, trapped in a dirty, damp store room shifting boxes of moldy coffin-nails, but he isn’t. He sits in a tower, working hard, to make something of himself. He works hard to keep the world safe, just like your father did.”
Eric sneered in Merlin’s direction. “Must be nice being teacher’s pet.”
Puma held a hand up to forestall any comment. “You’re just full of spite, aren’t you? I hope your boys here take note. They look up to you, Eric. You might not like it, but you’re responsible for them. You tell them this would be an easy score? You tell them that boosting cigarettes wouldn’t attract any notice? And you boys believed him? You believed a man who hates himself so much he’s doing everything to push people away and make them hate him?”
The thugs at Merlin’s feet looked around at each other, grumbled and shrugged. “We didn’t have nothing else to do.”
“And think of how much good you could have been doing?” Puma squatted, coming down to Eric’s eye level. “They’d have done anything you told them to do. You think you can’t do anything, but you can lead them. Being a leader, that’s a talent. You got that from your father. And don’t say you didn’t because it’s clear. You also got your left hand from him.”
Eric stared vacantly down at the red spittle on his sneakers. “Next birthday, I’ll be as old as he was when he died.”
“You don’t want to be joining him. It would break his heart. Your mother’s heart, too.” Puma rose slowly and held the handkerchief out to him. “And your sister, didn’t I just see she gave birth to a boy? Donald Eric Cooper? I don’t know his dad, but I know that a boy in this world could use an uncle. A strong uncle, one who’s learned lessons the boy doesn’t need to learn. Don’t you want to be that uncle, Eric? Wouldn’t that be better than being the uncle no one mentions, save when he’s getting out of jail?”
Eric sighed heavily. “It’s not that easy, man. You say ‘be good,’ like that’s all we have to do, but it ain’t.”
“Son, even the things that look easy aren’t easy.” Puma smiled. “You saw how easily Merlin there whipped your three friends? How hard do you train, Merlin? How many hours per day, how many years?”
Merlin wanted to keep his voice deep and forbidding, but sensed it wasn’t the time for that. He let himself sound like what he was: a seventeen year old kid. “Fighting, two hours a day four times a week, one hour every other day, for the past twelve years. At least, that’s what I remember.”
“And you go to school and do other things, right?”
Puma nodded. “Just ten hours of training will make you lots better at fighting than you are now, Eric. Ten hours of anything will make you loads better.”
“What if I train so I can kick your ass?”
“You can try. Chances are you won’t, since I have a head start on you.” Puma shrugged. “What I think you’re going to find is this—that being good is rewarding in and of itself. It may not be easy, but it’s not as hard as you think it is. Smile instead of frowning. Do something nice for folks, make them smile. If you ask yourself how can I make the next person’s day better, then do it, you’ll make your world better.”
“You didn’t make my world better, tonight.”
“We stopped you making someone else’s world worse.”
The smartest of the henchmen nodded. “He’s got a point there, Eric.”
“Shut up, Marty.”
Puma shook the handkerchief out and draped it over Eric’s knee. “Thing of it is this, son: I understand. Merlin here understands. That’s not going to be true of everyone. There’s other heroes who will bust you up badly, or send you to an institution where they rewire your brain. They won’t give you any options, but I will. I will let you walk away. I’ll report that we found the stolen cigarettes and that will be that. I’ll give you another chance. I’d take you at your word that you’ll be good.”
Eric blinked, then looked up. “You’d trust me?”
“I trusted your father. And I trust the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Eric picked up the white handkerchief and wiped blood from his nose. “What happens if I backslide?”
Puma rubbed a hand over his own ribs. “I’m not sure I’m wanting to take another of your punches, so I’ll likely just give Merlin a call, see if he fancies a visit to the city. But let me tell you this. These questions you’re asking, these objections you’re raising, they’re just something you want someone else to knock down for you. You want to change your life. You know it’s the right thing. For yourself, for your boys, for your nephew. Thing is, you knew my answer before I said it. Now you know why you asked, and why asking more questions is just wasting time.”
Eric looked down at the bloodstain, then nodded. He made to hand the handkerchief back to Puma.
Puma shook his head. “Keep it. I borrowed a thing or three from your father. Time for me to make that debt right. Go on, now. Be good.”
Eric stared at him for a moment, then turned and headed out. His crew trailed behind him, confused but relieved and even jocular. What Merlin had originally taken to be a group of unrepentant hardcases turned out to be a bunch of normal guys who just worked odd jobs.
Merlin waited for the sound of their footsteps to die. “Did you really know his father?”
“I did. All I said was true. It would kill his father to see Eric the way he is.” Puma sighed wearily. “He’s been a concern of mine, but nothing seemed to get through until tonight. That’s your doing. I think Eric thought no hero would be chasing after small-fry the likes of him. I have. You’re his future. Between that and his nephew, he didn’t have much choice.”
“Kind of like me.”
Puma smiled. “Meaning?”
“You told him I lost my parents when I was very young.”
“You told me, remember? And here you said you’d trained for a dozen years.” Puma winked at him. “That means you started when you were five or six. That’s younger than when Eric’s father died.”
“Yes, sir, that’s true.” Merlin glanced down at his hands. “But I didn’t mention any tower. You did, which means you know where I come from. You probably have figured out who I am. I’m also going to guess you somehow arranged for that grant that got my class here, so you could check me over. Am I right?”
“Your brain is a bit more dangerous than Eric’s left hook.”
“Why the deception, sir?” Merlin cocked his head. “With what you know, you could have gotten a message to me. We could have talked in Lyttleton or here.”
Puma smiled. “Let’s see if you can work that out, Merlin.”
The young man frowned behind his mask. If meeting in and of itself wasn’t the focus, what was? Testing him under combat conditions was part of it, but that could have been done anywhere, and covertly, too. It must have had to do with Eric…
Merlin nodded, then glanced up. “You wanted me to see Eric. You wanted me to see that mercy can be a useful tool?”
“That’s one part of it. Maybe the rest is too tough. Not that you’re not smart, but there’s some stuff not many folks know. Not even Eric.” Puma leaned on the chair Eric had vacated. “During the war I had a partner on a couple of adventures. He called himself Forest Fox. He started in the Ardennes, during the Battle of the Bulge. He did a lot, then got promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant. More responsibility, so he dropped the heroing.”
“That was Eric’s father?”
“Right.” Puma’s head bobbed for a moment. “Eric has his father’s build, his father’s fight. I always hoped that he’d turn out all right. That maybe I could tell him about his father’s secret. But if he’d known before tonight, he’d have just made himself into a villain. That’s the easy way, and he would have taken it.”
Merlin’s breath caught in his throat. In a heartbeat, a sense of betrayal washed over him. He forced it aside and glanced back at the doorway, then at Puma again. “You wanted me to see what it would be like if I took the easy way. You wanted to warn me off being a villain?”
“That’s certainly another big part of it. Most of it.” Puma, hand on his bruised ribs, shifted his shoulders stiffly. “And I wanted to see, were you to take the easy way, if I could stop you. Not sure I could now, and in another couple of years, not at all.”
Betrayal tried to come back on Merlin, but he held it off easily this time. It wasn’t the compliment that allowed him to do that. The realization that he’d studied his friend Grant to determine the same thing did the trick. Puma holds himself responsible for the actions of those he’s inspired. That’s not his burden, but his willingness to accept it is amazing.
“You’re never going to have to worry about me, sir.”
“I’d come to that conclusion, son, happily.” Puma smiled. “So let me leave you with one more thing to think about. Some folks—most folks—are worth saving; but a whole legion of them don’t have a solid grounding when it comes to gratitude.”
“I’m not sure I understand, sir.”
“You will.” The older man chuckled. “I’ve chased down purse snatchers and returned purses to women who want to know why I let the criminal break the strap on the purse. I’ve seen parents happy when I return a kidnapped child, then turn angry when they realize I’ve tracked some mud into the house; or I’m leaking blood on their carpet. I put it down to stress, but there are times I wonder why I do it.”
“What’s your answer?”
“Well, I figure that I can do somethings others can’t. Those things need doing. Therefore, it’s my responsibility to do them. People’s gratitude, or lack thereof, really doesn’t factor in.” Puma shrugged. “Might seem foolish, but that’s what I think and I’m a bit too old to go changing my ways now.”
“I hope you know I’m smiling behind this mask. Even in my town, we have folks like that. Not bad, just sometimes lacking perspective. But they bleed red like everyone else, so you have to save them.” Merlin opened his hands. “Maybe that’s the true burden of being a hero—having to save folks you might not want to.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Puma came around from behind the chair and draped an arm across Merlin’s shoulders. “I think, son, you’ll be good, very good.”
Merlin was happy he’d not removed his mask, because the flush of his cheeks would have lit the basement like neon. “I’ll do my best, sir. I’ll follow your example.”
“You humble me, son.” Puma smiled. “Now you should get back to your hotel. Dawn will be here soon enough.”
“I’m used to not sleeping, sir.”
“But I’m not.” Puma gave him a solid pat on the back. “How about this: next time you come to the city, we can see what the Chartreuse Claw is up to. Maybe we’ll see if we can’t get him to rethink his line of work.”
“I’d like that, sir, very much.”
“So would I, son, so would I.”
This story first appeared in the anthology Heroes. Merlin appears in a bunch of new stories set in the universe of In Hero Years… I’m Dead. Puma appears in those stories and in the novel. If you’ve not read that book, the image below (or the one above) will send you over to Amazon and the link to the Kindle version of the novel. It’s the Delux version of the book, by the way, which includes an 8,000 word essay about how the book got written—the Director’s Commentary on the book, if you will.
Thanks to Chantelle Osman of Sirens of Suspense for suggesting I share a story today.