by Martin Maenza
“Hurry it up, Johnny!” called out a young black man dressed in dark pants and a short-sleeved dark T-shirt. His arms were holding the front end of a rather large wooden crate.
“I’m movin’ as fast as I can, Cal!” said a white young man around the same age and dressed similarly. “This is heavier than I thought! My fingers keep slippin’.” He was holding the backside of the crate as the two moved through a darkened alleyway.
“Just hold on! We’re almost there.”
“Can’t we rest it just for a sec’nd?”
“Yeah, why don’tcha just rest it for a sec’nd?” a firm voice called from the shadows as a figure stepped out of the darkness. “And why don’tcha put that down nice and easy-like while you’re at it, too.”
Both men turned to see a masked black man with an Afro dressed in a dark blue costume with yellow jagged trim. “Black Lightning!” Cal exclaimed with surprise.
Johnny felt the heavy crate shift suddenly. “Cal, don’t!” But it was too late. Cal released his end of the box, and the crate fell to the ground, one end catching the toes of Johnny’s left foot. “O-o-o-o-o-ow! O-o-o-o-ow! Damn it! O-o-ow!”
Seeing the one young man start to run, Black Lightning said, “Don’t go leavin’ the party just yet! You’ll miss the fun!” He cocked back his arm and let fly a bolt of energy. When he first started out, the hero needed a special belt to generate the bolts of energy he wielded. Now, somehow, he was able to do so with his own body. The bioelectric blast hit the running youth and struck him down. The hero knew these were just normal guys, so he controlled the level of what he threw. Cal was fine but a bit stunned.
Black Lightning moved to where Johnny was trying to move the crate off his foot. The pain, however, was blinding. “Allow me!” the hero said. With a firm shove, he pushed the crate aside easily enough and freed the pinned foot.
Johnny, still in pain, tried to take a swing at the black man. Black Lightning dodged with ease, having been a trained Olympic athlete, and returned a punch with greater accuracy. The young white man went falling to the ground. “Boy, try to help, and this’s the thanks I get!” the hero said as he surveyed the two fallen thieves.
“Not everyone wants your kinda help, my brother,” said a voice from the end of the alley. Black Lightning turned at hearing the familiar voice. A short black man dressed in sharp suit with a wide brim hat approached.
“Two-Bits! You keepin’ your nose clean?” the hero asked.
“You know me,” the newcomer said, a gold tooth reflecting in the light as he smiled. He approached the crate, trying to make out the writing. “What the boys after tonight?”
Black Lightning joined him. “Looks like they hit up the electronics store on Isabella. It’s an air-conditioner, I think. One of those larger window units.”
“AC, huh?” Two-Bits Tanner said. “Can’t say I blame ’em. It’s been gettin’ mighty hot lately.”
“Agreed,” Black Lightning said. “Say, mind keepin’ an eye on this while I haul these two down for a visit with Inspector Henderson?”
“Sure enough, brother,” the man said.
Black Lightning nodded and rounded up the two fallen thieves.
It helped having someone he could turn to in his war against crime in the inner city. Like his old friend Peter Gambi, Two-Bits Tanner had been a great aid to fighting that war. Help like this was something that Jefferson Pierce thanked God for often in his prayers.
Still, he knew he had to keep his working relationship with Two-Bits a secret. Having an informant who could move about the streets freely was a benefit. Besides, the hero did not want what happened to Peter to happen to the short black man. One of his friends had already lost his life because Jefferson was now Black Lightning. (*) He did not want to lose any more.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Conscience of the Killer,” Black Lightning #7 (March, 1978).]
The next afternoon, as a cross-country bus moved over the bridge of the Metropolis waterfront, one of the passengers, a bald man in a white shirt and gray slacks, was lost in his own thought.
My recent bout with the Flash went totally up in flames, he thought to himself. However, sifting through the ashes, there were a few gains from the whole situation. He ticked them off silently on his fingers. First, with the help of that shrink Doctor Synett, I was able to overcome my hidden fear of anything to do with cold. (*) With that barrier gone, I feel like a new man.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Heat Wave Plays it Cool,” The Flash #266 (October, 1978) and “Heat Wave’s Blaze of Glory,” The Flash #267 (November, 1978).]
Second, and equally as important, I was able to unmask the scarlet speedster and got a good look at his mug! Though I don’t have any hot leads yet on who that blond guy really is, I definitely have something to start with. Sooner or later, I’ll be able to put a name to the face, and then the days of the Flash are truly numbered! Mick Rory couldn’t help but smile at that thought.
The bus driver raised his head to look back into the bus via the large mirror. “Hey, buddy,” the driver called out. “You sure this is where you want to get off? Not many folks who come in from out of town want to get dropped off here.”
Mick Rory noted the surroundings outside the window. The buildings were quite a bit older and run down. This was one of the more squalid sections of the great metropolitan city. “Yeah, this is it,” he said, grabbing his green duffel-bag and slinging it over his shoulder.
“OK,” the driver said, turning the wheel and pulling the big vehicle over to the curb. “You want to get out at Suicide Slum, it ain’t none of my business!” He put the bus in park and hit the lever to engage the doors.
The two metal sheets parted, letting in the smell of exhaust and gritty air roll into the bus, and Mick Rory hopped down the three steps and onto the curb. As he moved away, the doors closed behind him with a creak, the vehicle shifted into drive, and the bus rumbled as it started off again.
Mick glanced around as the sun was starting to set in the west. The place was as bad as he’d heard. For the last few days of July, the heat was on the rise, which didn’t bother the man in the slightest. However, the garbage that overflowed in nearby cans was starting to turn in the heat. Windows were wide open in many of the brick buildings, most built so long ago that they hadn’t been fitted with modern cooling conveniences. Sounds of blaring televisions and radios or arguing occupants rolled out into the street, adding to the cacophony of the inner city.
Just by looking around, he could tell this was one of the poorer neighborhoods in Metropolis. There were a few cars parked on the sides of the road, most of which had seen better days. Some of them appeared to have been vandalized a few times over.
There were some folks, mostly black in skin color, sitting on stoops or up on the fire escapes, fanning themselves as they try to stay cool. Their clothing looked older and worn. In that category, Mick was able to blend in. After he escaped from prison, he had to make do with what he could steal from a secondhand store. Still, he kept moving to keep from drawing too much attention.
He pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and read the address again. He glanced at the street sign on the corner, looked both ways and then decided to turn right. “Now, where could this be?” he muttered to himself.
“You lost, mistah?” a wee voice called out to him. Mick turned to see a young black child about age eight sitting on the curb to his left.
“No,” the man said. He then considered, glanced around, and turned back to the boy. “Well, maybe a little. You know where a tailor shop is around here?”
The boy smiled. “Sure. Got a quarter?”
Mick considered. Obviously the kid was shaking him down, looking to make a little money in exchange. He dug into the pocket of his pants and pulled out a coin. “Yeah, I’ve got a quarter.” He held his hand out open for the child to see.
The boy snatched at it, but Mick was quicker and closed his hand. “First, where’s the shop?”
The boy pointed. “Up that way, couple blocks,” he explained. “Across from the high school. Can’t miss it.”
Mick nodded and tossed the coin to the kid. He then continued on his way.
Eventually, the bald man located number 108, but the little shop with the word tailor stenciled on the front window was dark. Mick tried the door handle, but he encountered the resistance of the locked door. Hmmm, he must knock off early, he thought as he peered in the glass.
“Can I help you?” a female’s voice asked. It came from an attractive black woman dressed in a light yellow blouse and brown skirt.
Mick turned around slowly, realizing he needed to play it cool. “Uh, I was looking for the tailor,” he said. “Is he closed for the day?”
“Sorry,” the woman said with a bit of sadness in his voice, “but Peter Gambi was killed earlier this year.”
Mick Rory was surprised. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that,” he said.
“Did you know him?” she asked.
“He was, uh, recommended to me,” Mick said, coming up with a lie that sounded reasonable. “I never met him, though.” He noticed that the black woman seemed curious. “I take it you knew him, this Gambi fellow?”
The woman said, “I didn’t, but my ex-husband did. They were very good friends.”
“I’m sorry,” Mick offered. “But if the shop’s closed, I guess I’ll be looking elsewhere.” Mick then started off down the street. The black woman waited a bit, then turned and headed off toward home.
After a few blocks, Mick doubled back around to one of the side alleys. The shop had a hidden entrance in back. This wasn’t what I expected, he thought to himself, but I guess I can improvise. He started to pick the lock in the dim light of dusk.
When I’d left Central City to work out my new plan, I knew I’d need a new costume. I couldn’t turn to Paul Gambi; he had taken off on vacation to Italy. Waiting for him to get back wasn’t an option. If I’d have stuck around, the Flash would have rounded me back up in no time.
Still, I remembered that Paul had once mentioned a relative of his that was also a tailor. He said this Peter Gambi lived in Metropolis. I figured maybe I’d look this man up and convince him to whip me up a spare suit. The lock finally gave, and the knob turned freely. Mick Rory slipped inside the darkened back room and closed the door, locking it behind him.
He found a light switch and flicked it on to get his bearings. He was in a darkened store room in back of the shop. There were still things on the shelves, such as materials and sewing supplies. “This might take me a bit longer than I’d hoped, but I think I can at least make use of what’s here,” he said to himself.
About a week later, as August began, the last bell at Garfield High rang. “People, don’t forget to finish reading Act Three this weekend,” said a black man dressed in a light blue shirt and navy slacks, standing at the front of the room. The students were gathering their books and heading for the door; a few gave him nods to indicate that his words were heard.
One of the last students to leave the room was Reggie Porter. The teacher stepped into the aisle between the row of desks as the young man was making his way to the front of the room. “Reggie, can I see you for a second?”
The young man said with some urgency in his voice, “I really gotta go, Mr. Pierce!”
“It’ll just take a moment,” Jefferson Pierce said, grabbing a sheet from his desk. He handed it to the student. Reggie didn’t have to tally up the red marks to know it wasn’t good news. “That’s your quiz from yesterday. Have you been keeping up with the reading assignments?”
The young man kind of looked away. “Well…” He could see his teacher was waiting. “It’s this writing, you know. It’s hard to understand.”
Pierce nodded. “I know Shakespeare takes a bit more concentration, but I think you would enjoy it if you gave it a fair shot. Othello has always been a favorite of mine.”
“I don’t know why I gotta know this junk, anyway,” Reggie said. “It ain’t gonna help me get a job.”
“You should worry about school first and work later on. You need to focus more, Reggie,” Pierce explained. “You’re a sharp kid. You can get this stuff. If you had just applied yourself more during the regular year, you wouldn’t even need to be here in summer school.”
The boy shoved the paper in his pocket. “Whatever,” Reggie said in a dismissive way as he moved past the teacher. “I’m just killin’ time ’til I’m sixteen, anyway.”
Jefferson Pierce frowned. “What happens then, Reggie? Planning on dropping out?” The teacher got no reply. “You won’t get a decent job if you don’t have your diploma.” But Jefferson’s words were falling on deaf ears, as the student was already out the door.
Jeff shook his head. He started to gather his stuff when he felt the sweat on his brow forming. Grabbing a hankie from his pant’s pocket, he wiped the moisture away.
“Hot enough for you?” a female voice called from the doorway.
Turning, Jeff saw an attractive black woman standing there. “What’s it got to be? Ninety-five, ninety-eight?”
“Try one-oh-one,” Lynn Stewart said.
“One-oh-one!” Jefferson exclaimed. “That’s crazy! How can we expect the kids to stay alert and listen when it’s this hot in here?”
“One of the joys of summer school,” she said. “At least we’re done for the day. Care to buy your ex-wife a soda down at Gert’s?”
Jefferson nodded. “Sounds good to me,” he said, putting the last of his papers into his leather satchel and slinging the strap over his shoulder. He was pleased to see that the two of them had been getting along better in recent months. When he had first returned to the school to teach last fall, he had avoided Lynn like the plague. Now, it seemed like old times between the two, as if they were both rediscovering the good traits about one another that brought them together in the first place.