by Martin Maenza
Mal Duncan finished blowing his trumpet to a round of applause. The African-American took a moment to catch his breath, then took a little bow and leaned into the microphone. “Let’s hear it for my good friend, guitarist Shaw McGraw,” he said to the audience as he gestured to a dark-haired young man sitting on the stool with his instrument. The patrons of Gabriel’s Horn applauded once more.
“Thank you,” said Shaw. “And thank you, too, Mal, for joining me on that last number.”
Mal gave his friend another bow, grabbed a towel from a nearby stool, and stepped down from the stage. Shaw, meanwhile, began another song. Mal started toward the bar, briefly pausing a few times to accept some praise from a few folks.
When he got to the bar, a young man with wavy dark hair handed the club owner a gin and tonic. “Thanks a lot, Bobby,” Mal said as the drink refreshed his parched throat. “You happen to see where my lovely wife got off to?”
Not looking up from the new drink he was mixing, the bartender said, “I think I saw her heading towards your office in back.”
“Thanks, man,” Mal replied. “I’ve got to go back there to put down my horn, anyway. I’ll see if I can scare her up.” With his drink in one hand and his instrument in the other, he made his way toward the back of the club.
“Karen?” Mal called out as he opened the door to the room in back. There was a desk, a couch, some file cabinets, and such, as well as a few cases of liquor that needed to go back in the store room. Everything he expected, but no wife. Mal laid his trumpet back in its case. “Weird.”
He approached the bookcase to put the instrument case back on the shelf, and that’s when he noticed something. The bookcase was slightly a jar and not fully back in its locked position. Hmmm, he thought. Mal went over to the office door and locked it. The last thing they needed was some of the staff or customers wandering in and then down the hidden stairway.
He then returned to the bookcase and gave it a slide. The wall-unit moved along its hidden track enough to reveal the walkway to the hidden chamber below the club. I wonder why Karen’s down in the Titans Lair. Mal figured there was only one way to find out, so he stepped into the recessed passageway and went down.
The lights from the lower room were enough to illuminate the metal stairs. He listened carefully and heard muffled voices coming from the computer room. One was that of his wife; the other was also rather familiar to him. Mal poked his head into the room to find Karen Duncan talking with a golden-skinned alien girl with short blonde hair. “There you are, Karen,” he said. “Weren’t enjoying the set, or was it my horn-playing in particular?”
“Oh, stop it, you,” the African-American woman in red said as she gave him a little squeeze. “You know I love how you play. Best lips around.” She turned to the alien girl who was dressed in a comfy pink sweater and a pair of jeans. “I was just getting Arisia, here, set up.”
“I didn’t mean to bother anyone,” the Green Lantern apologized. “I was just, like, sitting around with nothing to do for once on a Saturday night, so I figured maybe I could, like, use the time to catch up on the team history. It’s not like there was anything decent on TV.
“Besides,” Arisia continued, “since we’re heading east next month as a group, I thought reading up on the older adventures would like be helpful. That way I’d like feel at least like I knew something more about the New Titans group, you know?”
“That’s no problem at all,” Mal said, smiling. “In fact, that sounds like a great idea for you. Karen can show you how to bring up the files in the archives. All the old adventures are documented there.”
“That I can,” Karen said. She turned back to her husband. “Did you need me to do something, honey?”
“After you get Arisia set up,” Mal said, making his way back toward the steps, “we could use a hand getting ready for closing. I wanted to get Shaw his pay when he was finished with his last set.”
“I’ll be up in a minute,” Karen said. She reached over to the keyboard and punched up a program. “This is pretty easy to follow, Arisia. It’ll step you through whichever files you want.” The screen flashed a Titans logo followed by a menu system. “Happy reading.”
“Thanks, Karen,” Arisia said. “Wow, like, I didn’t realize running your own club was a lot of work. Here I thought it’d be totally cool, you know?”
“It can be a lot of fun,” Karen admitted. “But it is a lot of hard work, too. You’d think I would have remembered that before I agreed with Mal to do it again.”
“You guys ran a club before?” Arisia asked.
“Sure did,” Karen nodded. “The first Gabriel’s Horn back in New York. You’ll read all about it in the files.”
“Awesome,” Arisia said.
“Tell you what,” Karen said as she headed toward the stairs. “If you’re still here when we finish with closing and such, maybe I can convince Mal to tell you the story of our last days at the old disco. I don’t think that adventure ever made it into the archives.”
“For sure,” Arisia said. And she set about the task of reading the older adventures of the Teen Titans.
The teenage girl kept busy for the next couple of hours, thrilling to the exploits of Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, and Speedy. She found it interesting to learn about the Mad Mod’s past and came to appreciate the man more once she realized how far he’d come in turning his life around. She also enjoyed reading about how Loren Jupiter had helped the teen heroes out after they felt responsible for the death of Dr. Arthur Swenson. That was when they met Mal Duncan and Lilith Clay.
By the time Arisia had gotten up to the point where the Bumblebee and the Harlequin — also known as the Joker’s Daughter — had joined the team, Mal and Karen appeared in the computer room once more.
“A little bee buzzed in my ear and said you wanted to hear a story,” Mal said with a smile as he pulled up a chair.
Arisia perked up her ears in anticipation. As riveting at the text on the computer had been, she was always partial to hearing stories told aloud.
The place was Farmingdale, one of many small communities situated on Long Island and about twenty five miles east of New York City. The time was October of 1982, almost seven months after the Teen Titans had disbanded for the second time in their short career as a team.
The others had gone off to pursue their interests. Dick Grayson was back at Hudson University in New Carthage, working on his college degree. Duela Dent was seen active around there as well. Donna Troy, with her roommate Sharon, had moved out to San Francisco for a time and was completing her studies in photography. Wally West, after his graduation from high school in Blue Valley, was giving college a try-out in the Midwest. Garth had returned back to Atlantis, given his health problems earlier that year. Roy Harper hadn’t dropped back in for a while now. The last time was when Great Frog played a gig at the club earlier that year.
That left Mal Duncan and Karen Beecher minding the business that the Titans had set up a year or so prior. While they had started out doing fine, things were getting a bit rougher to juggle with just the two of them. One afternoon, as they were stocking the bar, they discussed just that.
“Mal, baby, did you get Kyle or Sally on the phone?” Karen asked.
“Kyle’s laid up from a motorcycle accident,” Mal said. “I left a message with Sally’s roommate. I’m hoping she’ll call back any minute.”
“Me, too,” Karen said. “Ever since I went back to school, the workload’s been a killer. I really need to study tonight for my physics mid-term.”
Mal leaned over and gave his girlfriend a kiss. “You leave whenever you have to, honey,” he said. “Between the two of us, you’re the one with big career aspirations. ‘Sides, given the way the crowds have been of late, I think we can handle things on a skeleton staff.”
“OK, baby,” Karen said, reaching for her purse. “If you’re sure it’s no problem.”
Mal shooed her along. “No problem at all,” he said with a smile. “Go study, and ace that sucker tomorrow, hear?” Karen nodded and left out the front door.
His smile faded. “Don’t know how long I can keep this front up,” he said to himself. “With all her stuff at school, Karen don’t need me bringing her down with bad news.” Mal grabbed a small book from behind the bar and flipped it open. There, in black and white, the numbers showed the slowly increasing debt that the Gabriel’s Horn club was incurring.
Disgusted, Mal closed the book and slipped it back in its place. “I don’t want to call Dick to see about getting a loan. I know he’d get me one faster than Wally could take out a whole army of villains. Truth is, I need to see this through on my own terms! For once, Mal’s not gonna be the screw-up Titan.”
Mal was his own worst critic. For years, he always felt he had to try to prove himself, first to Mr. Jupiter and later to his own friends on the team. Unlike Donna, Wally, and Garth, he didn’t have any super-powers. Of course, that had never stopped Dick and Roy, but they were both trained by two of the best in the business. How could the former partners of Batman and Green Arrow be anything less than fantastic? All Mal had was his fists and his determination. For a while last year, he did have a magical ram’s horn which, when he blew it, would allow him to even the odds in any fight. Sadly, that horn had turned up missing a few months after he acquired it, once more forcing Mal to rely on other means to being a super-hero. Even then, it was with borrowed equipment. He wasn’t standing on his own.
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small box. Opening it, Mal stared at the small diamond ring inside. “No, if I’m gonna ask Karen to marry me, I have to be able to take care of her myself.”
He put the ring back in his pocket, then he grabbed a towel that hung at the one end of the bar. Mal started to wipe down the bar. It’d only be a few hours until opening time. He hoped that tonight would be different than things had been lately, that there would be a huge turnout to see the band. If not, there was no telling what might happen to the club and his dreams.
The band showed up to perform, but sadly the crowd was not as big as Mal would have liked. Sure, there were about fifty or so that came out to party that night, most of whom were big fans of the Slyvers for a number of years. But it had been over five years since the band had hits with Disco Fever, Love Line, and Hot School Dance. They performed their sets, got paid, and hustled off quickly while the D.J. played on until closing.
As Mal watched the lights bounce off the disco ball, he looked at the lighted dance floor and sighed. About a half-dozen regular remained to close the place. He even let most of the bar staff go early, too.
I gotta admit, Mal thought to himself, disco’s on its way out, and with it this club. Kids today are into the new wave and punk sounds. They’d rather go into the city to places like Geebee Ceebee’s and such. He turned his back to the dance floor and started to cap off the bottles of liquor behind the bar. Maybe it’s time to just give up this business.
With his back still turned, the twenty-year-old young man noticed someone suddenly rush onto the dance floor. “What the–?” Mal said to himself. What struck him odd was that the man wore a dark leather jacket with a ski mask over his face.
Mal whirled around quickly, planted his two hands on the surface of the bar, and vaulted over it with ease. “Hey, man!” he shouted. “What you up to?”
The man in the ski mask laughed as he thrust his hands straight into the air. “I’m here to burn down the house!” he snarled. And with that, twin jets of flame launched from his hands to set the ceiling ablaze. The few patrons and staff still there began to scream and make for the exits.
The man in the mask laughed again and tossed flaming balls at their heels, setting more of the place afire. “Burn, baby, burn,” he said. “I’m giving you a disco inferno, Duncan!”
Mal darted for the fire extinguisher mounted on the wall. He hoped he’d be able to put out some of the flames with the chemicals, or at least enough so that he could get to the arsonist responsible.
The man stood amidst the flames and laughed, the fire dancing about him. “You messed up my plans once before, boy,” he said. “So it’s only fitting I come ’round and mess with yours.”
“Yeah?” said Mal as he got closer, ignoring his own personal safety as he cut a path through the flames. “We’ll just see about that!” When he got close enough to the center, Mal dropped the canister and dived for the man.
The guy thrust out one arm to block the attack. “No way, Duncan!” he said. “This time, you’re the one going down for good!” His free hand started to glow red. With an evil grin on his face, the man starting to bring his hand down toward Mal, palm opened. “Let me brand you with my mark before you die, hero!”
Mal lunged forward and tried to gouge at the man’s face. Instead, all he got was a handful of fabric. At the same time, he swung up his right foot and slammed it in the man’s unguarded chest.
“Hey!” the man exclaimed, pulling back.
The mask pulled off his head, and Mal stared at the face of the man with dark, wavy hair and thick eyebrows. It was a face Mal had seen before, not too long ago. “You!” the African-American male said with surprise.
The guy tried to bring his flaming hand down, but Mal rolled backward out of reach. The fist started the floor afire. “You’ll never get out of here alive, Duncan!” he vowed. He shot a few more fireballs in random directions, having lost his target amidst the rising flames and gathering smoke.
He coughed a few times, and then he made his way toward the exit he’d left clear for himself.
Mal had rolled back toward the bar. Man, I don’t believe it! he thought to himself. Of all the people to attack the Horn, I never would have figured we’d see him again! But I can’t go after him yet! Gotta take care of this fire first!
Once behind the bar, Mal pulled the phone down to the floor where he could breathe easier. He quickly dialed the operator. “Yeah, this is an emergency!” he said into the handset. “Got us a major fire here at the Gabriel’s Horn discotheque, number 47 Brown Street near Blaisdell! Send help fast!”
Mal hung up the phone, took a cloth from behind the bar, and wet it in the sink. He then placed the wet cloth over his mouth and crawled along the floor toward the front exit. He remained down low to avoid inhaling too much smoke.
Just as he was about to reach the exit, he heard a loud crash. The center ceiling beam above the dance floor collapsed, sending a major portion of the roof crashing down into the fire. Great, Mal thought as he rushed out the door. This fire’s gonna put us out of business permanently.
It wasn’t too long before the Fire Department arrived to handle the blaze.
Mal had used the pay phone just down the block to call Karen as well, and she quickly came down to be with him. “Baby, are you hurt?” she asked.
“Only my pride, Karen,” he replied. He watched the fire as it slowly dwindled.
“Well, the lair below should be fine,” Karen said. “The others made sure it’d remain protected, if nothing else than to keep it a secret.”
“Yeah, true,” Mal said. “Still, this ain’t the first time we’ve been attacked here. Remember when the Flamespasher Twins attacked us back in the summer? This is the second time the Horn‘s been attacked by our foes, using it as a connection to me. Maybe it’s better if the place is burned to the ground!”
“Baby, don’t say that,” Karen said.
“Why not?” Mal countered. “If we’ve lost everything — the bar, the sound systems, the dance floor — it’ll be too costly to rebuild. We can’t afford that!” She didn’t know what to say to him. “Besides, we’ve got something else to do first! We’ve got to go after the man who did this!”