by Starsky Hutch 76
The flock of blackbirds circled through the neighborhood on the edge of town, cawing as they scoured the area for dead flesh. One bird disengaged from the flock and headed for the front porch of one of the houses. As it swooped under the cover of the porch, it began to lose shape and re-form itself into that of a man wearing a large, weather-beaten cowboy hat and a poncho.
Bill and Martha Grump were sitting in the den of their boarding house when they heard the pounding at the door. They were both engrossed in their program and didn’t notice the knocking at first. Bill gave an irritated look over his shoulder as the knocking continued. “Did you place an ad?” he asked his wife.
“Why would I?” she said.
“Then who could that be?” he said, rising from his chair.
“I don’t know,” Martha said, gesturing to the TV set, “but you’d better get rid of them if you don’t want to miss the good part.”
“Why am I the one who has to deal with these people?” he sulked, walking toward the door. “We should just dump the stuff so we can use the room again. It’s not like anyone’s going to come back to claim it.”
“Paid up is paid up,” his wife said. “I don’t steal from the dead! And some of that is probably worth a lot of money! Remember, the lawyer said if no one comes to claim it, it’d eventually belong to us fair and square. And since he was sort of famous…”
Martha was interrupted by yet an even louder pounding at the door. Flustered, Bill jerked the door open and was about to let the person on the other side have it when what he saw stopped him dead in his tracks.
The eyes staring at him had a cold, deathly look in them. The face was grizzled and leathery, as if the owner had spent hours on end under the sun. The wind carried the smell of gunpowder. That wasn’t the most chilling thing about the man standing on his front porch, though. What made Bill Grump’s blood run cold was that outside of the dirty hair that ran past his shoulders, he was the spitting image of the late Toby Manning — Terra-Man.
The grizzled-looking man stared at him coldly. “You folks hard a’ hearin’?”
“N-no,” Bill grump stammered.
“I came tuh collect my brother’s things. You gonna ask me in, or are yuh just gonna stand there catching flies?”
“Oh… uh… sure,” Bill said, opening the door and stepping out of the way. The shadowy figure entered with the clinking of spurs. Bill remarked internally that he looked even more authentic than Terra-Man did, if that were possible. It was as if a figure from the Old West really had stepped into his home. Martha had jumped up out of her chair in alarm at the sight of him. He didn’t seem to notice. She gave her husband both a frightened and outraged look as he headed for the hallway in the direction of their former tenant’s room.
“So where’d mah brother set up camp at?” the cowboy asked.
“Right this way, mister… uh…” Bill said, leading the way.
“Manning. Toby Manning,” he said.
“But your… uh… your brother’s name was Toby,” Bill said.
“Our paw weren’t what yuh’d call full o’ imagination,” the cowboy answered.
Bill laughed nervously, unsure of what to make of it. He sure didn’t seem like a brother. More like the original, albeit a little more weathered and world-weary. When they got to the doorway of the late Terra-Man’s room, he pointed inside to a trunk sitting against the wall and said, “We put all his belongings in there.”
The cowboy strolled inside the room, his spurs clicking as he walked across the hardwood floor. He knelt beside the trunk and opened it. The first things he came across were things most people probably didn’t suspect Toby Manning had owned: blue jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes. These were, of course, so he could pass among normal people when not active as Terra-Man. He had no use for these, so he set them aside.
The next thing he came across were pictures of his father, both the old-timey daguerreotypes as well as futuristic photographs he’d obviously taken by traveling through time. A pang of sadness passed through him as he pondered how much this Toby Manning’s father had looked like his own. This universe’s Jess Manning had been slain by an alien criminal. A demon had slain his universe’s version of his father. He set the pictures on the pile of clothing and continued.
Finally, he came across what he was looking for — the guns. Not the atomic pistols of Terra-Man — those were useless to him. What he wanted were the original guns of the famed outlaw Jess Manning. These had inspired fear all across the west. Like all old weapons, there was powerful mojo there — mojo he could put to work for him.
“Th-those look really old,” Bill Grump said, “like antiques.”
“They are,” the cowboy said. “They were my paw’s.”
Martha Grump looked at her husband and hissed, “Do something! Those are worth a lot of money!”
“I — I don’t know who you’re thinking you’re fooling, fella. Terra-Man didn’t have any brothers.”
“You callin’ me a liar?” the cowboy said, standing up.
“N… n… then show me some I.D.”
“Do ah look like I have a driver’s license?”
“Then I can’t let you take those guns,” Bill gulped.
“You reckon to stop me?” the cowboy said. He turned around and was greeted by the clicking of a shotgun being cocked. Bill Grump was looking at him through the aim sight of the shotgun his wife had provided. “So you reckon to draw on me fer ’em?” the gunslinger said, smiling.
“N-no!” Bill exclaimed. “Throw your weapons on the bed there!”
“Sure. That oughtta make it fair ’nuff.” He tossed his guns on the bed and said, “Now where were we?” He worked his fingers into the gun-shapes children used when playing Cowboys and Indians and held both hands at his sides. “Now when I say draw, yuh draw, OK?”
Bill Grump looked away from the aim sight to stare at him as if he were crazy. “What?”
“Ready… aim… draw!” He lifted both hands up, doing a bang-bang motion. The sound of two gunshots filled the air, accompanied by Martha Grump’s screaming. Bill Grump was slammed against the wall as he was shot twice in the gut. The cowboy lifted up a smoking fingertip and blew on it.
The gunslinger walked over and began to fill a pair of saddlebags he found with all the belongings from the chest. “Didn’t have tuh make me kill yuh, you know,” he said, shoving a handful into one of the flaps. “That weren’t what I came for.”
“Y-you really are Terra-Man,” Bill gasped, grabbing his bleeding stomach. “He’s supposed to be dead.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice League of America: Fear the Future.]
“He is,” the cowboy said, looking over his shoulder. “I ain’t that Toby Manning. I just used his handle fer a little while, ’cause he already had a rep here. (*) Round mah parts, ah’m known as Tex — Tex Arcana.” He stepped over Bill’s legs and walked into the hallway. When Martha Grump saw him, she began screaming again.
Tex Arcana tipped the brim of his large hat toward her. “Ma’am.” The front door opened as he walked toward it, and he stepped out onto the front porch and then out onto the sidewalk.
Martha raced to the window to make sure he was gone before she called 9-1-1. A gasp escaped from her as he disappeared to be replaced by tumbleweed that was carried off with the breeze.
Steve Lombard sat with his hands clasped nervously as he waited outside Morgan Edge’s office. He hadn’t expected to get called back this quickly. He figured it would take Morgan at least a little while to come to a decision.
“Mr. Edge will see you now,” the receptionist said. Steve walked toward the office door like a condemned man walking the last mile.
“Have a seat, Steve,” Morgan Edge said matter-of-factly as Steve entered the office.
Steve sat down in the chair across from Morgan Edge. “Yeah, boss?”
Morgan leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. “Yes, I am your boss. Aren’t I, Lombard? Whether I like it or not.”
“Not like I had a choice,” Steve muttered.
“So, I’ve got the Bible bangers flooding my mailbox and answering machine to complain about you, but if I fire you, you’ll sue me for discrimination. That’s basically it in a nutshell, am I right?”
Steve gave no answer. He just looked down at his hands. “I don’t know about the first part, but I have a right to work.”
“And it has to be for me?” Morgan Edge said, throwing up his hands. “Jesus Christ, Steve, you have plenty of money. Why do you want to work, anyway?”
“So do you,” Steve retorted. “I don’t see you trying to retire.”
“Be that as it may,” Morgan sighed, “I can’t put you back in the sports anchor position.”
“What?!” Steve exclaimed. “But you just said–”
“I said I couldn’t fire you. That doesn’t mean I have to leave you in the same position,” Morgan said.
“If you think I can leave you where you were, you’re out of your mind, Lombard. You don’t fit the image anymore.” Morgan Edge shrugged.
“Ah, so this is a macho thing, is it?” Steve said. “OK, elbows on the table.” He stuck his arm on the desk, prepared to arm-wrestle for the position.
“Sorry. I don’t feel like holding hands,” Morgan Edge said. “Seriously, this isn’t a case of me thinking all gay men are sissies. Alexander the Great was a homosexual, and I don’t think anyone would call him one.”
“He was?” Steve said, surprised.
“Yes, he was,” Morgan Edge said. “But that’s not going to make any difference to the armchair quarterbacks who were living vicariously through you. Since they aren’t going to want to do that anymore, putting you on would be a ratings disaster.”
“So where does that leave me?” Steve frowned.
“Well, the ladies still like you, even though it’s come out that you no longer like the ladies. Hell, they may even like you more now. You’re less threatening.”
“So I’ve got a new project in mind for you, something I think you’re gonna like. Take a look at this promo piece I’ve had the marketing people work up.” He reached behind his desk and pulled up a presentation board bearing a poster. “GBS’ newest news magazine program, Hollywood Tonight with Steve Lombard and Lola Barnett!”
Steve Lombard’s eyes grew wide. “I’ll do it.”
Marty Blank was on his rounds at the Metropolis Museum of History when he caught sight of something he considered suspicious. A solitary figure stood in front of the glass case in the Old West pavilion.
He eyed the person from the back, staring at the long hair and worn-looking poncho. “Dirty hippie.” If there was anything Marty hated, it was hippies. It was unnecessary roughness with a hippie over fifteen years ago that had gotten him knocked off the force and into a series of low-paying and spirit-crushing security jobs. His animosity for them had always been in the back of his mind, never mind that it was his behavior that had put a youth in the hospital and cost him his career.
“Hey, scumbag! Get back behind the rope!” Marty called out.
“Scumbag? Now that don’t sound none too hospitable,” the hippie said in a voice filled with western twang.
Dirty, uneducated hippie can’t even use good English, Marty thought. His hand moved toward the tear gas on his belt. “No, it ain’t,” Marty said. “‘Cause we don’t want your kind here!”
“And what kind would that be?” the hippie replied. As Marty got closer, he saw that he was holding a large cowboy hat in his hand. Instead of the sandals or earth-shoes he had expected to see, he wore cowboy boots with spurs.
“I-I–” Marty stammered.
“Y’know, I don’t reckon I like your tone. I don’t reckon I likes it a’ tall,” When the man turned around, it was obvious this was no peace-loving hippie. In fact, one look in his eyes told Marty that he would just as soon kill him as look at him.
The cowboy gave Marty a sneer and spit what looked like a wad of chewing tobacco onto his black, patent leather shoe. Outrage moved through Marty, and his nerve came flooding back. He reached for the billy club on his belt and launched himself forward. “Why, you–”
Marty fell flat on his face as he felt his ankle twist painfully, held in place on the floor. He looked back and saw that the tiny wad had grown to a huge mass, enveloping his whole foot and leg up to mid-calf. It continued to grow, moving up his body. A scream escaped from him, and he reached down, grabbing his leg. The mass captured his hands as well, moving up his arms.
“What the hell?” Marty cried. “Get this stuff offa me!”
The cowboy simply gave a derisive snort as he looked down at the security guard. By now, both arms and legs were completely enveloped and most of his torso. The mass began to move up toward his head.
Tex Arcana turned his attention toward the display case. He removed one of his pistols from its holster, grabbed it by the barrel, and smashed the glass of the display case. The air was filled with the ringing of the burglar alarm. He reached in and grabbed the old leather duster coat and boots that had once belonged to the outlaw Jess Manning.
He looked down at the nearly completely enveloped security guard. Nothing remained in sight but his terror-filled eyes. He held up the duster and said, “This here was my paw’s. The penny dreadfuls used ta say he looked like the angel o’ death hisself when he’d throw back the flaps ta reveal his six-shooters. And something like that’s gotta have a heap a’ mojo to it. My paw’d want me ta have it. Y’oughtta know better’n come between a man and what’s rightly his.” He wagged a chiding finger at the dying man. “Never… never get in between a man and his kin-folk.”
As the substance moved into Marty’s nose and throat, choking the life out of him, Tex Arcana stepped over him, walking toward the exit. “That’s a lesson I aim ta’ teach the Justice League for getting mah brother kilt… starting with Superman.”
Gerta Gim-Ze, or Greta Gimsey as she was now known on Earth, was sitting in the park with the other nannies and mothers as the children played. The mothers whose children were to young to run about rocked the strollers back and forth to coax the babies to sleep.
“She’s such a beautiful child,” one of the mothers remarked on Jasma. “She could be a child model.”
“Yes, she is,” Gerta said proudly.
“What nationality is she?” another mother asked.
“Ah… American and Vietnamese, I believe,” Gerta said.
Suddenly, a Trans-Am came around the corner with heavy bass blaring forth from its speakers. All the babies woke up and began wailing at the top of their lungs. A scruffy-looking teenage boy got out of the car and walked up to a group of his equally seedy-looking friends, leaving the stereo blaring. He looked back over his shoulder at the mothers with an amused sneer.
“That kid is no good,” one of the mothers said to Gerta. “We’ve asked him not to play his music so loud. Now he does it out of spite.”
The elderly Kryptonian lowered her glasses and focused her heat-vision. The beams went through the windshield once and blew out one speaker, then again and blew out the next.
The teenagers raced over and looked at the damaged windshield and speakers. The teenager looked up into the air and shook his fist. “I know it was you, you super-fascist! You owe me for a windshield and two speakers!”
The group of mothers broke into applause, much to his irritation. Gerta smiled to herself in satisfaction.