The police precinct was crawling with the usual kind of cockroaches. A cat-burglar was demanding his phone call. A pair of rapists in matching hoodies snickered to each other in front of the stone-faced cop who was booking them. A couple of hookers who’d stabbed their john were busy taunting the short-haired, butch rookie cop sitting across a desk from them. The new officer just took the abuse – you gave the perps any kind of grief in here, you were just as likely to face an internal tribunal in front of some stone-faced bureaucrats who had no clue what cops went through every day dealing with these parasites.
Sitting in the corner, there was a sixteen-year old glue-sniffing firebug who was too young to be charged with murder. His victims weren’t too young to burn to death in their old tenement apartment. That’s what Detective Nick Knowles thought to himself as he watched the little bastard just sitting there with his stupid smile plastered on his acne-pockmarked face.
The gray-haired Detective swallowed the rest of the Tums he had in his pocket. At least there was a temporary fix to the pain he got in his gut from just looking at these scumbags. He wanted badly to take a drag on a cigarette, but those days were long gone; there was a strict no-smoking policy at the precinct since five years back and the way it was enforced, you would have thought smokers were worse than the slimy bastards who came in here in handcuffs.
Into this den of iniquity walked a tall, blonde man whose Nordic perfection could have given Hitler goosebumps. Jim Gunn looked like a million bucks in his trucker hat, faded jeans, Doc Marten boots and coffee-stained workday T-shirt that Knowles knew was a kind of disguise – even though Gunn had long since given up on any attempt at anonymity. Gunn was still uncomfortably handsome, with the toned physique of an Olympic athlete – big arms and calloused hands that could crush a street lamp as easily as they could hold a puppy. Back in the day, Knowles had personally witnessed Gunn chuck a two-ton truck to the other side of the street with his bare hands – which was bad news for the green, four-armed mutant bank robber on the receiving end.
Despite his effort at blending in, the blonde man stood out in this place of crack-addicted losers and mostly deskbound cops. He couldn’t help it. The man just had a presence. The junkies and the perps shut up and looked down when they saw him. Cops that saw him come in mostly stared and smiled wistfully. Some waved. A few started humming the tune to the old radio show, “The Green Guardian”, an over-the-top effort to dramatize the adventures of the real-life hero who’d walked among them. The popular man waved back with the ready grin that made those who saw it crave his attention all the more.
Goddamnit, Knowles thought. It was affecting him, too. He was practically vibrating.
Knowles had known this face – the bottom half, anyway, the part that hadn’t been hidden by the green rubber mask – for two decades. No… it was actually closer to three decades, now. Time was passing quicker now for Knowles, who was approaching retirement. In contrast, Gunn looked like he was still in his twenties, or maybe his early thirties at most. If it was possible, he was actually getting younger – which was entirely possible. You never knew with this guy. Knowles popped another Tums as Gunn finally saw him and started heading towards the older man’s office.
“Nick, it’s been a long time,” Gunn said with that movie-star voice of his. “How’s Nadine and the kids?”
“Nadine and I split two years ago,” Knowles said. “I’m sleeping on the couch in this office half the time and my kids don’t talk to me except on Christmas. Other than that, things are just fine around here. You get a good look around on your way in? A real zoo today. Like usual.”
Gunn’s smile faded. “I’m sorry about your family, Nick,” he said. “I didn’t know.” His face lost its usual assurance that could have commanded men into battle on D-Day. A wrinkle of genuine concern draped over one eyebrow.
“That’s life,” Knowles said. “The lives of ordinary people. Ah hell. Let’s start over. Pretend I didn’t just say any of that stuff before. Just come into my office. You want some coffee or something?”
The usually self-assured man looked a bit off his game – and Nick was secretly glad for that. If this was going to work, he had to put the man out of his comfort zone.
Gunn declined the coffee, which was just as well, since it usually tasted like turpentine.
“You mentioned on the phone you had something for me,” Gunn said.
“That’s right,” Knowles said. “We’ve been going through the old evidence lockup from old cases where the District Attorney has given us the green light to chuck out some of the junk. You remember this?” He opened up his cabinet and took out a red sphere-pointed pistol that looked a lot closer to a kid’s toy water-gun than a real weapon, placing it on the desk between them.
Gunn frowned. “Doctor Mindbender’s ray gun. I should remember. I had it pointed at me enough times.”
Knowles nodded. “Yeah, I know. Look, we don’t need to hold on to it anymore. The Chief was thinking, maybe send it to the Smithsonian or something, but I thought you might want it. For old times, sake. Don’t worry, we took out the uranium batteries.”
Gunn looked at the ray gun for a minute. Knowles read the reaction on his face – he could tell it was stirring memories. Gunn finally shook his head. “I don’t want it. You guys should just destroy it. If it ends up in a museum, someone could steal it and maybe reverse-engineer Mindbender’s technology. Just put it in an incinerator.”
Knowles nodded. “Whatever you want, Jim. I get you. No problem. ” He rarely called the man by his first name. It seemed strange, somehow. So different from what folks used to call him: the Capital City Crusader. The Green Avenger. The man in the green mask. The hero. ‘Jim’ just seemed wrong to say.
But then, that wasn’t his real name, Knowles knew. There was no Jim Gunn – at least, no Jim Gunn who looked like this before fifteen years ago. Not at the address where he was living on Columbia Street or any previous address. Now he made little effort to hide his comings and goings.
“That’s what you called me in for?” Gunn asked. “I appreciate the call, but…”
“Well, not just that, Jim,” Knowles said. “I’ve been looking into these old cases. I’ve been trying to figure out what really went down the night Dr. Mindbender was killed.”
“You know,” Gunn said. “You were there.”
Knowles shrugged, offering an overly friendly smile to put Gunn at ease, knowing it would probably have the reverse effect. “Not really,” Knowles said. “You know my partner and I busted into his secret lab probably just a minute after it all went down. You were the one who saved the day. You saved the whole city – probably the whole world. If he’d had a chance to use his giant-sized mind control ray on the city, well, you just know he’d be running the world now – what would be left of it after he got through with his crazy experiments. You saved us all. No one loses any sleep that you killed him.”
Gunn didn’t say anything for a minute. He just stared at Knowles in a way that made the Detective feel like God himself was sizing him up. Gunn broke his perfect posture for a minute, hunched a bit lower in his chair and looked right into Gunn’s eyes. “I didn’t kill Mindbender,” Gunn said. “He shot himself with his own death ray when I grabbed him. It was an accident. You know that.”
Knowles stared back. “I’m sorry but that’s not possible,” he said. “We know that now. Our friends at the crime lab confirmed it six months ago. They were able to run some tests that we didn’t know how to do fifteen years ago. All of Mindbender’s weapons were specifically calibrated so they couldn’t fire at him. Something about the DNA coding. The crime lab techs could give you the details.”
“The tests were wrong, then,” Gunn said. “If his weapons were designed like that, then he’d still be alive.”
“Funny thing those tech guys found out about this ray gun he had on him that day,” Knowles continued, ignoring Gunn’s interjection. “It’s targeting system was modulated to work in reverse, which made him vulnerable. That seemed like a pretty big mistake for the world’s most infamous scientist to make, don’t you think? Then I checked over my old report with what you told me at the scene. I compared that with your actual movements. An eyewitness saw you heading towards Mindbender’s headquarters an hour earlier than you said. You would have had plenty of time to get to Mindbender’s lab and confront him. When he wouldn’t surrender, you shot him with his own ray gun, which you had adapted so that it could only fire at him.”
“Nick, I thought we were friends. What are you trying to do to me?”
“We are friends,” Knowles said. “I’m still proud as all hell just to know you like I do, Jim. “You’re a hero. Maybe the biggest hero in the whole damned world. And I’m your best friend. At least I was. And I just wish…”
“What?” Gunn asked. “What do you want from me?”
“Just a little truth,” Knowles said. “Like for instance, your real name, Walt Cogswell, son of Lucille and Stephen Cogswell. Of course you know that your father was Dr. Mindbender – a former U.S. defense contractor whose bio-warfare products were ultimately deemed too nasty even for the Pentagon. You knew about what he was up to right from the beginning. That’s because you were one of his first experiments.”
Gunn – or Cogswell, whatever he called himself when no one was around, just sat there in that stained leather chair in front of Knowles’ desk, staring. For the first time the Detective had ever seen, the man seemed unsure of what he would do next. “How did you find out?”
Knowles got up from his chair and started pacing, sipping on his bitter paint-remover coffee. “Old fashioned police work,” he said. “We don’t all have brains that can formulate a dozen ways to stop a master criminal from carrying out his schemes, before breakfast. But us regular folks get by. I started looking at your father’s career, before he ever switched over to wearing that cape with the skull on it. I had a hunch he’d tried something before he ever turned pro.
“I was right. Back in ’86, tenants in an apartment building on Clancy Street died from some kind of neuro-toxin that was never identified. Fourteen people just choked to death as their lungs filled up with blood. Lucille died that day – but you lived. You were just twelve years old. When emergency services finally gets into the building, they find you holding your mother and you won’t let go. It took three firemen in gas masks, all working all together just to pull you apart. They took you away from there. You’d never see your mother again – they had to cremate the body, along with all the rest of the victims. Your father went underground. You were alone…”
Cogswell stared at his feet. “So now you know.”
“Not everything,” Knowles said. “You fought Dr. Mindbender and his mutant henchmen at least a dozen times. Every time, you’d pull a citizen’s arrest and bring him over to us. And every time, someone one our side would mess up and he’d be back out on the street, working his next racket. We all must seem like real fuck-ups to you. I can understand why you wanted to just end the cycle. But why then? Why that time?”
The world’s most powerful man wasn’t looking very powerful at the moment, but he’d recovered at least enough of his own will to look Knowles back in the eye. “All those years, I thought the Clancy Street murders were an accident,” he said. “I was convinced my father had never meant to kill those people. That he didn’t mean to kill my mother. I thought that when it happened, her death sent him over the edge. I didn’t think he was evil when it all started. He just… needed help.
“All those years I fought him, I thought he could be saved,” Cogswell continued. “I thought if I could just say the right thing, I could turn things around. He had a brilliant mind. Some said he was the smartest man in the world. If his inventions could be used to help humanity instead of control them, we could save this world. Humanity has so many problems… but in the end, I knew he would never come back.”
“He told you,” Knowles said. “In the lab, when you confronted him that last time.”
He nodded. “Mother wasn’t an innocent bystander,” Cogswell said. “She was my father’s target. Everyone else was collateral damage. When I was a kid, I remember they would argue. She wanted him to give up his work. Do something… something else. Anything else. But he wouldn’t change. And in the end, he killed her.”
“Your father was a murderer, Walt,” Knowles said, switching over to calling the man by his true identity. “You aren’t.”
Cogswell’s eyes narrowed. “But isn’t that why you called me in here? To arrest me for my father’s murder?”
Knowles shook his head and sat down on his desk, placing a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “After Dr. Mindbender died, you gave up all this hero stuff,” the cop said. “People figured it was because you thought your job was done. The biggest bad guy out there was gone and there was no one left for a hero of your caliber to fight. You could leave regular criminals to the regular cops. But I knew it was something else. You lost your way.”
“I killed him,” Cogswell said. “I killed my own father.”
Knowles took his hand off the man and started pacing again. “That’s true. But I think it was always going to be that way. Maybe he wanted it to happen. Maybe that’s the real reason he made you into what you are.
“I didn’t call you in here to arrest you. Not like any prison could hold you if you ever decided to leave. I called you here because the world still needs you. Don’t waste your life living in the shadows. We need you now. I want you to come back. It’s time.”
Cogswell stood up. He looked over past the chaos of the precinct towards the exit door. “I’ve got to go, Nick. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go.”
“Fine,” Knowles said. “I can’t stop you. But think about what I said. Just think about it.”
The hero smiled for the first time since he’d arrived in the Detective’s office. “I will,” he said, shaking hands with the policeman. “I really will. And I’ll be in touch. I’ll… let you know.”
Cogswell walked out through the freak show of criminality and back on to the street. He looked back at the police station, then up at the glimmering skyline of this metropolis that he called home. It was beautiful.
His smile grew. He almost felt like laughing out loud. For the first time ever, he started humming the old tune to the Green Guardian radio show.
ASSIGNMENT: SUPERHERO & POLICE PROCEDURAL
Superheroes are the gods and demigods of our culture. In comic books, they try to save the world. But I’m more interested in how their mere existence would change the world. The interesting part is not how they wreck secret labs or whole city blocks, but how they disrupt regular folks’ notion that human beings are on top.
– Jonathon Narvey