Wednesday, May 16, 2018

PROLOGUE: OLD HABITS DIE HARD




1991

THE OLD MAN CLUNG precariously to the side of the Kent Building. His fingers ached, sharp bursts of pain stabbing at each knuckle as he struggled to find purchase among the brick and mortar. He looked down through the night to the street below and gazed wearily at the traffic that passed beneath him. He sighed. Five floors up and he had two more to go. He’d been climbing for fifteen minutes now, three minutes per floor.

Not good enough.

Twenty years ago he could have climbed all seven stories in less than five minutes without breaking a sweat.

But now? Well, now his body didn’t quite work the way it used to.

He shook his head in disgust. He wasn’t here to dwell on what he couldn’t control or pine for the good old days. He had to keep his mind on the task at hand. Just get on with it already. So he groaned, blew out his thick, snowy mustache, and continued his ascent.

The wind chose at that moment to pick up and blow all around the old man. It whipped his cape about and, for just a moment, threatened to pull him away from the building. He swore under his breath and pulled himself closer to the bricks, hugging the wall as he sucked in great gulps of air, realizing that it was too late to rethink this plan. He could have easily taken the elevator, or even the stairs, but that was not his way. Besides, he’d look foolish in an elevator wearing a cape and mask.

His costume—dark gray with burgundy boots, gloves, and cape—favored functional over flashy. The mask was gray, covering his entire head but nose, mouth, and chin. A large strip of burgundy covered his eyes, flaring out at the sides and ending in points. The mask had been meant to emulate a fox, though he’d always felt he’d never quite made it work. But then, the costume was meant for the shadows, not the light of day. It was constructed to wrap the darkness around him and convince the lawless underbelly of society that he was more monster than man.

Fear had always been his most steadfast ally.

But to wear the costume as he stood idly in the safe confines of an elevator? It wasn’t dignified.

He was the Shadow Fox after all. He had a reputation to maintain.

Still, climbing a building at his age was tantamount to suicide. But he was British, and if there’s one thing the British are known for, it’s keeping the proverbial stiff upper lip in even the most dire of circumstances. Keep calm and carry on. And so he did just that.

When not climbing buildings and fighting crime as the Shadow Fox, he was Gerald Farnsworth III, millionaire recluse and tech magnate. He had come from rags and filth, found a comfortable life after the Second World War, but then in 1984 he had built and sold his first home computer, the Farnsworth One. Since then it had been nothing but up.

After all these years, and all his financial success, his world continued to be the night. But at sixty-six years old, a weariness had set in, like the entire history of the world rested upon his shoulders. Of course, there weren’t many other sixty-six year old men who could climb a tree, much less scale a seven story building. But still, Gerald was tired.

Both of his feet slipped on a damp patch of brick as he reached the sixth floor, and for a moment he dangled from a window ledge by his fingers. His arms shook from the strain and for the first time in a long time, he felt the icy grip of panic around his heart.

He couldn’t die here. Not like this.

This was not a death meant for the Shadow Fox.

Eventually his feet found the traction they’d sought and his panic abated.

Gerald embraced the wall like an old friend and took a moment to catch his breath. How had he come to this? This life? Hugging a wall sixty-or-so feet off the ground? Trembling like the old man his years have made him? The panic he’d felt moments before turned into disgust. This was not what his life was meant to be.

When Gerald had been sixteen years old, he had lied his way into the British Royal Army. It had been 1941, Britain had joined the war against Germany, and Gerald—ever the patriot—had wanted to do his part. Little did he know that six months later he would be part of an experimental program by the Crown to create soldiers whose abilities far exceeded those of the average Tommy.

Gerald was still haunted by the memory of that night in 1942. The night that changed his life forever.

Leftenant Smyth, the man who had recruited Gerald for Project Avalon, had come in the night to Gerald’s quarters. He can recall that memory quite clearly. He’d been bundled into a car and a hood had been placed over his head. A twenty minute drive later, when they had removed the hood, Gerald found himself in what he assumed at the time was a hospital room surrounded by lights. From there his memory grew hazy as it was in that room that they had sedated him.

He can recall waking some time later, though how long he had been out has forever remained a mystery. But when he woke, it was to the sound of thunder. Gerald can remember being led along a dark forest path as part of a procession, each one in line wearing dark robes. He remembers the rain that fell from the sky that night, soaking Gerald and his companions, lightning flashing all around. Between claps of thunder all he heard was the pounding of the rain and the sounds of their boots squelching in the mud.

There had been a clearing, he can picture that in his mind, a clearing with a stone altar in the center. And atop the altar, a stone cup. He had been made to stand at the altar and drink from the cup, all the while his robed companions, arranged in a circle around him, chanted in unison. The language had been unfamiliar to him. He’d later learned that it was Latin.

Everything had gone black after that. Though, anytime he thinks back on that night, on the cup, on the mysterious liquid within, he would invariable taste cinnamon.

He’d eventually come out of whatever funk, or spell, he’d been under and had found himself back in his quarters. He had been told later, as part of his training in Project Avalon, that he had imbibed a magical potion that was said to derive back from the days of Merlin.

Gerald had laughed over that, still does, but whatever had been in that stone cup, he had been given a wonderful and miraculous gift that night. Gerald had been empowered with exceptional strength, stamina, and agility. The potion, or whatever, had slowed the aging process considerably, which allowed him to climb buildings at the age of sixty-six.

Regardless of the way he felt or what he could do, those close to him still had their doubts. He was getting too old, they would say. He wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer; the crime fighting and the climbing about. Gerald was well aware of his limitations. He knew that the end was coming, he just wasn’t quite ready to accept it.

Personally, he figured he still had a good twenty years left in him before the job took his life, and frankly, even then he felt like it just wasn’t going to be enough. Crime never quits, it never retires, so why should he? He just needed something to push that twenty years out to thirty, forty, even fifty. It was power. He needed more power. He needed to keep fighting. The war was all that was important.

The war was all that mattered.

The Shadow Fox reached the top of the building, puffing and gulping, his breath whooshing in and out as he fought for a bit of air. The top of the building was a flat roof covered in gravel and tar. A wall about two feet tall ran along the edge of the roof. He flung a leg over the wall and strained as he pulled himself up and over, landing a little less than gracefully on the roof top. He used to be better at this.

As he lay panting among the dark gravel, he noticed for the first time a man floating in the air above him.

“Hello, Gerald,” the floating man said. He was dressed in a red bodysuit. His boots, gloves, cape, and belt were blue. And on his chest was a large golden letter M.

“Peter,” Gerald said.

“The city seems quiet,” Peter gazed out at Garrison. He seemed to watch everything in view, which for him—Gerald knew—was a few hundred miles.

“From up there maybe,” Gerald said, pulling himself to his feet.

“Up here?” Peter looked confused.

“Oh come now, Peter. Sometimes the legendary Captain Might has to come out of the sky once in a while if he wants to see what really goes on below him.”

A hurt looked crawled across Peter’s face. Gerald could almost feel bad for him.

Almost.

“The city is restless,” Gerald continued. “You’d feel it yourself if you’d ever deem to come down to my level.”

“Gerald,” Peter began, but Gerald just continued to talk right over him.

“Something’s up tonight. The Down Boys are planning something,” Gerald walked over to the wall at the edge of the roof. “I noticed a group of them gathering behind Ralph’s Pawn Shop on the way over.”

“We need to talk.” Peter tried to change the subject. Gerald hadn’t noticed.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Gerald continued. “You hit them high, I’ll hit them low. They’ll all be in prison by dawn.”

“You remember that night during the war,” Peter said, as if Gerald hadn’t spoken. “The night we made a visit to the boys in Bastogne?”

“What’re you on about?”

“We just wanted to raise their spirits, remember?” Peter continued to gaze into the distance.

“Of course I remember. Why are you bringing that up now?”

“There wasn’t much we could do for the boys.”

“You could have taken Bastogne by yourself.”

“True. God knows I wanted to. But by the time we’d arrived the men had already been there for nearly a week. They were dug in. Lieutenant Liberty told me to stay out of it.” Peter smiled at the memory. “She’d said that the boys had their pride. They’d lasted that long, they were going all the way.”

“I remember.”

“Of course,” Peter said. “The very next day, General Patton and his boys showed up and helped turn the tide.”

“What’s this all about, Peter? The Down Boys won’t just stand around all night.”

Peter floated down, his feet making contact with the roof.

“I’m tired, Gerald,” said Peter with a sigh, taking a seat on the wall.

“Tired?” Gerald said, joining friend. “You? The man with the power of a thousand bull elephants!?”

“We weren’t needed in Bastogne,” Peter said. He looked at the ground, kicking a few of the gravel pieces around. “And we aren’t needed here.”

“What’re you on about? Of course we’re needed here. The Down Boys—” but Peter cut him off.

“Someone else can look after the city for a change. Your protégé seems to have a good handle on things.”

“Walter!?” Gerald shot to his feet. “Are you barking!? That boy couldn’t handle an umbrella on a sunny afternoon!”

“You don’t give him enough credit. He’s perfectly capable of protecting the city without you and me.”

“What’s going on here, Peter? What are you trying to say?”

Peter was silent for a moment. He looked up from the gravel on the roof, looked Gerald in the eyes, then stood and turned to gaze out at the city again before speaking.

“I’m retiring.”

“Retiring?” Gerald laughed. “Captain Might is going to retire. You’re having me on.”

“I can’t do it anymore, Gerald. I’ve been fighting for over seventy years now. I’m done.”

“Done?”

“Done.”

“Are you completely mental?”

“This is no joke, Gerald. It’s over. I’m over. You may want to think about coming with me.”

“Coming with you?” Gerald laughed again.

“Come with me. Retire. You’re getting a little long in the tooth, old friend.”

“So you say,” Gerald said, anger rising in his voice.

“I do say. Tell me, how long did it take you to climb up here?”

“You sound like an old woman, you do.”

“How long did it take you to climb this building?”

“I got up here, I did! That’s all that matters!”

“Gerald,” Peter said, his voice calm and steady. “Your mind is still as sharp and brilliant as ever. But your body…”

Gerald returned to the wall at the edge of the roof, sat down, and placed his head in his hands.

“I don’t deserve this. To be treated like this,” he said quietly to himself.

“Gerald, please.”

“I’m the Shadow Fox.”

“Gerald. You’re my closest friend. We’re practically brothers. I can’t do this alone.”

“Brothers!?” Gerald shot to his feet, thrusting a finger into Peter’s chest. “You selfish bastard! You have the powers of a god! A GOD! You have responsibilities to this planet and you want to quit!”

“Gerald.” Peter put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“No!” Shadow Fox slapped the hand away. “How dare you?! How dare you walk away from this city?! These people?!”

“I need something more, Gerald.”

“More? What else could you possibly want?”

“I’ve met someone.”

“I should have known,” Gerald threw his hands into the air. “I should have known a woman was involved.”

“Gerald.”

“Who is she?”

“It’s not important who she is.”

“Is she a Mighty like you and I?”

“No, she’s a Normal.”

“And so, for her, you’re going to leave the good people of this city—the world—to fend for themselves?”

“Gerald, I love her. I’m ready to start a family. I want to start a family.”

“Then start a family. You don’t have to hang up the cape, Peter.”

“I think I do. You know the demands that this lifestyle puts on us. I can’t be away all the time. It’s not fair to her. I can’t put myself in danger like I do. I would have to be there for my family… for Cecilia.”

“So you’re just going to give it all up then,” Gerald had turned back to the city, his head down.

“Yes,” Peter said, his voice nearly a whisper. “I have to. I need to.” He let out a sigh. “It’s time, Gerald.”

Gerald stood silent, looking out at the city. Somewhere in the distance he heard the sounds of crime. Car alarms, police sirens, a scream, the high klaxon of a bank alarm… the city needed him.

Without warning, Gerald spun and slammed his fist into Peter’s face with such force that it would have punched through a car door.

It didn’t faze Peter, not in a physical sense.

“How can you be so selfish?” Shadow Fox screamed, spittle flying from his lips. “You have all this power, all this… this… might! And you chose to turn your back on it? I’d give anything for even a fraction of your power!”

Tears streamed from under Gerald’s mask. “Good Lord, Peter. If I had just a little of what you have, I could continue. I could do so much for this city. Just a little. That’s all I need,” his voice was almost pleading.

“I’m sorry Gerald,” Peter’s voice cracked with sorrow. “You aren’t ready for that kind of power.”

Gerald didn’t know what else to do, what else to say. All he could do was stare at his friend, his brother, as the two stood in silence. It didn’t last long, that moment of quiet, as the sound of sirens erupted from below. Garrison’s finest, doing their duty. Just as he should be doing.

“You can go to Hell, Peter Pembleton,” Gerald whispered, his voice cold and empty. “This city doesn’t need you.”

The Shadow Fox turned his back on Captain Might and retrieved a thin, black, rope-line from the belt at his back, beneath the cape. Attached to the line was a steel grappling hook, the size of a baby’s fist, its three sharpened barbed points folded inward. With a flick of his wrist, the barbed points snapped into place with an audible click and he began to spin the line in a tight circle before flinging it out into the night to connect with another building.

“I don’t need you,” the Shadow Fox said, his back to his friend. Then, without another word, he leapt from atop the Kent Building and swung out into the night.

Peter remained on the roof of the Kent Building for a full ten minutes. He stood stoic, weeping silently. He knew in his heart that he had done the right thing, and he hoped that one day Gerald would see it as well. Then maybe, just maybe, Gerald would be able to give Peter the only thing he would ever need.

Forgiveness.




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