by Martin Maenza
Mal Duncan stepped out from the back office and took in the atmosphere. Another Friday night at Gabriel’s Horn was in full swing; D.J. Twist had gotten the crowd on its feet and dancing. The owner of the club made his way to the bar, smiling at some of the ladies and high-fiving a few of the guys who had become regulars.
Finally, the black man was able to reach the bar. “Another packed house,” he said loud enough for his voice to be heard over the thumping music. “Got to love it when business is good, right, honey?”
A young black woman in a purple blouse and tan skirt turned from talking to Bobby the bartender. “What did you say, Mal?” Karen Duncan asked her husband.
“I said everyone looks like they’re having a good time.”
Karen leaned closer so she could speak to him without shouting. “Not everyone is.” She gestured with her thumb to the long-haired blond man at the end of bar; Charley Parker was staring into his beer mug as he swirled the remaining liquid around.
“I’m on it,” Mal said. He worked his way down until reaching the empty stool next to the young man. “Yo, Charley! Why so glum, chum?”
The young man looked up from his beer. “Oh, hey, Mal,” he replied with less enthusiasm than usual. He started to stare back at his beer.
Mal snatched the mug from his hand and placed it on the bar. “Hey, no sad faces in my crib! Tell your old buddy all about it.”
Charley let out a sigh and started to explain. “I’m just a bit bummed tonight, is all, you know? I called Gar, and he was totally, like, noncommittal on coming to hang with us. And then he told me Lilith is doing the incommunicado thing, so I didn’t even get a chance to, like, ask anything.” He sighed again and paused. “Then there’s Betty.”
“What did Betty say?” Mal asked.
“She didn’t say anything,” Charley said. “I mean, I didn’t get to talk with her, either. I tried her parents’ place, but her mom is like, ‘Betty took off out of the country for a while.’ She’s doing, like, the tennis thing in England or somewhere.” Charley took his mug back. “She did give me Betty’s electronic mail address, told me to like drop her a note there, ’cause that’s probably the fastest way to reach her. I had to find a computer at the university to send it. It’s been, like, five hours, but so far nada, no reply, you know?” He finished off the rest of the beer. “That’s why I’m so totally bumming tonight.”
Mal looked away for a second, then back. “Chin up, my friend,” Mal told him. “I think your evening has just started to look up a bit.” He firmly grabbed Charley’s shoulders and spun him around on the stool, pointing him directly toward the front door.
There was Hank Hall, escorting not one but two lovely young ladies. One was tall with brown hair and was dressed in light top and a miniskirt; the other had short blond hair and was wearing a flowered dress. Charley’s eyes lit up like a tree on Christmas morning. “Renee! Dawn! What are you doing here?” he exclaimed as the trio arrived at the bar.
“Guess who I ran into out front?” Hank said.
Renee Lasaille leaned in close to him. “We thought we’d check this place out. You talked up the club so much at lunch today.”
“Yeah, you must have brainwashed them or something, Charley,” Hank added.
“So, should we dance, or what?” Dawn asked.
Just outside and around the corner in an alleyway, the well-dressed, red-haired man brushed his hand slowly against one of the brick walls. “Yes,” he hissed to himself. “He’s been here all right.” He breathed deeply, taking in that which only he could detect. “Very recently, in fact.”
Suddenly, a number of shadows extended from the alley’s entrance and caught the man’s attention. He whirled around to see a number of large street punks approaching him.
“Check the fancy suit,” one of them said as he pulled a chain from his coat.
“I bet he’s got plenty of cash,” said another. The others vocally agreed.
The man with the red hair smiled. “Gentlemen, I’d be more than happy to give you money willingly,” he stated, “but how’d you like to have some fun as well?”
The guys began to laugh, but one shushed them, obviously the leader. “We’re listening,” he said with a smile.
About fifteen minutes later, inside Gabriel’s Horn, Bobby got Mal’s attention. “Boss, looks like we got some trouble out front!”
“I’m on it,” Mal said as he make a beeline for the door.
At the edge of the dance floor, Hank noticed Mal leaving rather hurriedly. “I better see if I can help, too,” he said. “Excuse me, Dawn.” He took his leave of the lovely young woman. Her eyes narrowed as he headed for the door.
“What the hell is going on out here?!” Mal exclaimed as he burst out the front door, Hank Hall right on his heels. Five large street punks had been pestering the patrons as they left the club. When Reggie the large black bouncer came out to drive them off, they began to gang up on him.
“Buzz off, or you’ll get some, too!” one of the punks warned.
Before Mal could say another word, Hank pushed past him. “Five on one isn’t fair odds,” he stated. “Maybe you’d like to try me!” The brown-haired young man took a swing at the first punk, nailing him squarely on the jaw.
A second guy pulled out a chain, whipping it around over his head as he charged the brave challenger. Hank faked left, then spun around to the right, ducking under the deadly chain at the last second. He swept his right leg out and tripped up his attacker, sending the guy face first into the concrete sidewalk. “I learned that move in football training,” Hank said. “Works great on big dumb linemen, too!”
Another of the punks tried to get behind the spitfire youth, but the sneak attack was cut short by a one-two combo from Mal Duncan. As the youth crumbled to the ground, Mal helped his hurt employee to his feet. “Boss, where did you learn moves like that?” Reggie asked.
“Back in the day, I used to defend my sister from street gangs in Harlem,” Mal explained as he helped Reggie to the door. “Get yourself inside, Reg, and have Karen call the police.”
When Mal turned back around, he quickly realized that the two remaining punks and Hank weren’t in immediate sight. “Where did they go?”
The two large guys shoved Hank Hall down the darkened alleyway. He lost his footing and tumbled into a trash can. Before he could rise to his feet, the two men darted back out the alley and down the street, away from the club. “Damn right, you better run!” he called. He started to get up when he noticed he wasn’t alone in the alley. A figure slowly moved in the shadows. “Oh, we got ourselves a chicken here, do we?”
The figure in the dark let out a laugh. “I believe the saying goes, ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’ Well, it’s wrong. I am a believer that names can do so much more, that names contain power. Wouldn’t you agree, young man?”
“Who are you?” Hank asked firmly, taking a defensive stance.
“I go by many titles,” the man explained as he began to step from the shadows, “but my true name is Kestrel.” The shadows appeared to swirl about him, changing his clothes into that of a purple costume with black trim and cape. Hank’s eyes widened as he realized the costume had a strong resemblance to his own. “And I am betting I know your true name, too.”
Kestrel stepped fully out of the shadows. “Is it Hawk?”
Hank Hall suddenly felt a familiar tingling, one he’d known for years. In an instant, he changed form and was now dressed in his white and red costume. “How the–? I don’t know how you did this — no one can change me by saying my name except me!” Hawk’s fists clenched in anger. “No matter what, you’re gonna be awful sorry you did!”
He lunged at Kestrel. The man wickedly smiled and tossed the hero aside with incredible strength. “Finally!” Kestrel exclaimed. “A chance to test you in battle. I’ve waited so long for this moment. I shall savor it like a fine wine.”
Hawk wound back his fist. “Savor this, wacko!” He let fly a haymaker punch, knocking Kestrel down the alleyway toward the street. The hero then grasped his hand. “Ow, that actually hurt!”
Kestrel licked his lips in anticipation and rose to his feet. “Strength. Power. Rage. You’re everything the masters promised, Hawk. This is going to be fun after all.” The man leaped to the entranceway of the alley. “Think you have what it takes to go a few rounds with me?”
Hawk stopped nursing his sore hand and spat, “Easily, you loudmouth!” The hero then lunged toward his foe.
Kestrel sprang backward, flipped through the air, and landed on a parked car. His feet dented the hood as he landed. “You’ll have to try harder than that. Maybe the Lords were wrong about you, after all.” The hero lunged for him again, but Kestrel once more eluded his grab by back-flipping off the car. Hawk landed on the hood with a loud thud.
“Sloppy — no style at all,” Kestrel mocked as he moved to the car’s side, bent his knees, and placed both hands on the frame. With a little effort, he was able to stand; the car tipped up on its side. “Perhaps killing you would make more sense.” He gave the vehicle another push, and it toppled over onto the sidewalk with Hawk’s leg pinned underneath.
Kestrel strode around to where he could see Hawk struggling to get free. “You are a stubborn one, Hawk. I’m sure that is one of the reasons they chose you. Serving both houses taints you, makes you weak.” Hawk lashed out at him with his free arm, falling short of the prize. “There is still time to save you, Hawk. Join me and my masters.”
The hero twisted over on his back, placing both hands on the upturned car, and pushed with all his might. “I don’t need — uggghh — anyone!” He was able raise the car, but he had to struggle to keep it in the air while at the same time freeing his leg.
Kestrel smiled and leaped up onto the car with all his might. It slammed back down onto Hawk, pinning him once. “Wrong answer, Hawk. Either you can join me, or I can kill you.” He leaped down and raised his clawed hand, about to strike at Hawk’s head. “The choice is yours.” He waited for a moment, but Hawk said nothing.
“Fine. Your silence means you die!” Kestrel stated as he plunged his claws forward. Two white-gloved hands grabbed his moving wrist and tossed him to the side. The villain flipped and landed on his feet, ready for action.
Standing between Kestrel and his prey was the blue-and-white-costumed Dove. “Don’t you lay another hand on him,” she said.