Continued from last week.
I arrive in front of the Daily Planet building some three hours later. I walked. I know, I should have probably taken a bus or a cab, but I don’t know this town (never even heard of it) and I don’t want to run short of funds before that bum Axel’s 48 hours are up. I didn’t know where else to go. I don’t recognize any landmarks. But big cities seem to have a strange kind of affection for their newspapers. I don’t get it really. I mean, who even BUYS them anymore? Not counting the one I just bought for fifty cents. That was for research – I had no idea where I was, and frankly I still don’t have a good grasp of things. I was in New York, about to embark on a career of daring and dastardly deeds that would culminate with my becoming the undisputed Kingpin of Crime. What with Wilson Fisk in jail and my handy if still untested power suit at my disposal, who could stop me? Apparently, a homeless bum named Axel who lives in a box and does horrible things to recent New York transplants. Because here I am in Metropolis, a city I’ve never heard of, about to enter the offices of the Daily Planet, a major newspaper I’ve also never heard of. I should get my head examined, but that costs money and that damn bum took my money sock. And when I…I…damn this broad’s got some legs…
“Excuse me, Mr. Gawkingatmylegs, you’re blocking the door and I have to be at Star Labs in 20 minutes.”
“Hmm…wha? Oh, sorry, my bad. Allow me.” Man, I gotta stop staring at the leggy brunettes. That’s gonna get me in trouble one of these days.
“Gee, thanks, my hero. You coming, Clark?”
I turn to leave my embarrassment at the door, trying desperately not to stare at any of this chick’s other fabulous body parts despite my baser male instincts, and losing that battle worse than my fight with Axel. But just as I manage to completely peel my gaze off of her, I find myself staring into the broad chest of what I have to assume is the paper’s pro football beat writer. This guy looks like the greatest linebacker of all time. He makes Ray Lewis look like a punter from the practice squad. He’s a Create-A-Player from Madden ’07 on the XBOX360 come to life. And he’s actually wearing a press hat. One of those old fedora style chapeaus, if he had a press card tucked in the headband he’d look like a reporter from the 1920s.
“Sorry Lois, just trying to catch the chatter on the police band, you know, in case there’s a traffic jam.”
“R-i-g-h-t. A traffic jam. You crack me up, Smallville.” And she kissed him! Right on the street, this high-class doll kissed this farm-raised, fedora-wearing, bespectacled slab of beef just after the door closed. And here I am leering like a pervert. I’m so gonna kick that bum’s ass when I get the chance. I find the information desk easily enough. Sitting there with her hands neatly folded is a frumpy, unremarkable girl who appears to be older than she probably is. What’s with women like that? Why at 24 to 28 years of age do some women go out of their way to try and look mature and all librarian-like? When they get just past age 30 they freak out, start wearing tube tops for miniskirts, and start going to prisons for conjugal visit days. So here I stand, dissecting the uselessness of her life, and she’s staring right through me like I’m not even there. I wave my hand to snap her out of it. Nothing. I bring it a little closer, still nothing. I’m practically wiping her freckled nose and she still doesn’t acknowledge me. And I thought New Yorkers were rude.
“Hey Doll, you sent Kent?” queried a newshound who just exudes “slick” – slick hair, slick suit, slick TV reporter voice. And of course, Doll Face here immediately acknowledges him!
“Oh my! Mr. Ryder,”
“I told you kid, you can call me Jack.”
“Oh, oh, oh, OK, Mr. Jack, I didn’t see you come in, there was some skuzzy guy blocking the door a moment ago.”
Skuzzy?!? Hey you stupid future whore, I’m standing RIGHT HERE!
“Yeah, don’t sweat it, babe. So…Kent? You seen him?”
“Yes, he and Miss Lane just left, you just barely missed them.”
“Hey, I gotta run, they’ll need me on the set in 10 minutes, but when you see him, tell Kent to get in touch. I have to go to Gotham to cover the Lexcorp/Waynetech Nano-computer roll out, and I figured he might want to tag along, see how a real newsman works. Pass that on, will ya? Thanks Doll.”
“Y-y-y-you bet I will Mr. Ryder, I mean, Jack.” And with that, she waved liked a prairie girl seeing her fella off on the train to the big city. This place is sooo retarded!
I wave at her unblinking gaze again, then I do the Curly taunt from the Three Stooges, and then I get ready to keep up foreign relations, you know, giver her the bird? Bt just as I start to raise the finger, I feel a coldness seep into my body. Like all the warmth in the foyer just fell away. It only lasted a moment, but I fond my body so chilled, no, that’s not right, I was terrified, and I could barely move. I immediately forgot to flip this dingy broad off and slowly turned to face the presence I felt behind me. And if I was terrified to the point of being petrified just a moment ago, I now felt the flee or fight impulse using my heart to pound out the Morse Code for F-L-E-E. Behind me stood a man who would have looked out of place to anyone who could see him, but apparently he was as invisible to the Daily Planet foot traffic as I was. He had a dark, wide brimmed hat that obscured the eyes on his older, weathered face. Despite not seeing his eyes, I get the immediate impression that he has seen a lot in his long life, the kinds of things maybe nobody should ever have to see. He wore a dark suit, handsomely pressed, and a cloak, which is why I felt like everybody was staring at us. I mean, who wears a cloak with a natty suit like that? Especially in summer? And when he calmly intoned, “She can neither see nor hear you, my friend,” my blood nearly froze. There wasn’t any warmth in his voice. There was a gravely accent of sorts, but nothing I could place. It was…yeah, that’s it! He sounds like Vincent Price, with maybe a hint of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars! And Vincent Price still scares the piss out of me, despite his being dead for several years now. I asked him who he was, despite every impulse in my body screaming, “NonononoNO! Christ on a Popsicle stick, don’t start a freaking conversation with this guy!”
“A stranger, not unlike yourself, hmm?” Now I was the one who felt like I was riding a Popsicle stick. His voice wasn’t fierce or aggressive, but my blood ran cold nonetheless. I think Vincent Price’s dry skull just smiled, wherever it’s buried…IF it’s buried. “Come along, we will discuss matters in a less congested environment,” said the spooky guy in the cloak, his words forming a command, a suggestion and a friendly invitation at the same time. He motioned towards the door and even though it was only a span of less than twenty steps from the Doll Face’s desk to the doors of the Daily Planet, each tortured step seemed to put me twice as far away. By the time my hand touched the brass door handle, I felt like I had walked from Parts Unknown to Dublin, Ireland, by walking west across the Bering Strait. That’s a LONG walk, and I could feel my back seizing up because every joint was rigidly locked in terror – I never once dared to turn and look at the cloaked ghoul; whatever he was p to behind me I didn’t want to know.
Now you’d think after all the other crap I’ve been through today I wouldn’t have been surprised when I exited the building to find myself standing outside the Gotham Gazette in a steady, bone-chilling drizzle. I also shouldn’t have been surprised to see the creepy bastard already outside, waiting for me. But I was surprised nonetheless, on both cases. “I trust you’ve read Charles Dickens? Specifically, his Christmas Carol?” my sinister guide probed. “Men call me the Phantom Stranger. Think of me as your Ghost of Christmases Past and Present.”
“What do women call you?” I asked, regretting it immediately. “Ya know what, never mind. Where are we, what happened to the sun, and who’s playing the last ghost in the book?”
The Phantom Stranger looked at me closely for a few moments. I couldn’t see his eyes – I wouldn’t have made eye contact even if I could – but I felt like they were boring a hole straight through my brainpan. He smiled slightly and began to walk down the street as he answered, “We are in Gotham City.”
“New York?” I butted in. “This doesn’t look like any part of New York I’ve seen, what is this, the Village?”
He wheeled and regarded me for just an instant, but it became instantly clear that I shut the Hell up and pay attention. I am really beginning to think starting a career in supervillainy in New York was a absolutely huge mistake. “You remind me of Constantine. You are both a bit of a paradox – quick-witted dimwits. No, we are not in New York. Gotham City is it’s own place, with it’s own flavor, a dark, bitter and melancholy taste that is slow to escape the palette. As for what happened to the sun it was eaten by an entity from another galaxy until Hal Jordan re-ignited it and began his march towards absolution. And since your future does not exist here, you will not be visited by and shades in ebon cloaks.”
I wanted to remind him of his own dark cape but thought better of it. See? Maybe I’m not as dimwitted as you think, tall, dark and gruesome. Not only that, I completely figured out, on my own, just now, that wherever the Hell I’m at, I’m not anywhere close to the New York that is home to Axel the Bum and my money sock. Crap, he’s still talking…
“…It’s a causality effect. What happens in Gotham happens in Metropolis, and in Keystone City, and Opal City, and San Francisco. Unlike your world, which is given to chaos, this plane of existence cleaves to order. Certainly, there are agents of both Order and Chaos on all worlds. All dimensions are fluid, but some are more akin to gentle streams and others to thundering rapids. Yours, my erstwhile evil-doer, is the latter.”
“Pretend for a sec that I have any idea what you’re talking about, Stranger. What does any of this have to do with ME?”
“I suspect, in the grand scheme of things, all of this has very little to do with you. After all, you have an item of power in your possession that you plan to use to bring fortune and glory for yourself and yet you have no idea what it does, if anything. For all you know it could be the inner lining of a scuba suit. So I do not expect you to be of any great consequence. Certainly not in this world, and as likely not in your own.”
THAT’S IT! “SCREW YOU, ASSHAT!” I scream at him, giving him a full two finger salute. “I have been pushed around all damn day. A bum throws me into a box and express mails me to someplace I’ve never heard of, where I suddenly become invisible to everyone but you, the Ghost of Highbrow Insults! You can stick that noise, chief! I’m outta here!” And with that I turn on my heel and march defiantly down the alley to my right. The Phantom Stranger doesn’t say a word and doesn’t attempt to stop me. I guess I showed him. I take no more than three steps into the deeper shadows of the alley and suddenly crash into a brick wall. Wait, that’s not brick, it’s like…what’s that stuff they put in bulletproof vests? Kevlar? Yeah, but what’s it doing blocking an alley? As I stand there, moth agape, pondering this obstacle, the drizzle turns into a downpour and the sky lets loose. A ridiculously melodramatic arc of lightning shoots across the alley, illuminated a cape and cowl that startles me so much it makes the Phantom Stranger as comforting as Jimmy Stewart at Christmas. And then it spoke.
“Are you insane? You do NOT give the finger to the Phantom Stranger. Is that understood?” Again with the lightning, and again my bowels struggle against my clenched sphincter. It has no eyes, but the mouth of a man on the face of a bat. “Don’t make me ask again.’
“Y-y-y-ys,” I stammer, never quite getting it out, so I nod my head vigorously and try to rationalize it not as fear but as chills from being out in the rain. Oh, who am I kidding? I think I just leaked a little.
“Out, now,” the Bat commanded, and I shuffle like Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman back to the street, where the Phantom Stranger hasn’t budged. “I picked up a stray. One of yours, Stranger?”
“Yes and no, Batman. I was giving him a brief tour of your city, and explaining how things work here in Gotham and beyond. For every action, there is a reaction, in the most basic way. But I don’t claim him. He is not of our dimension.”
“You know I don’t care much for magic. When and how is he getting back?”
“Do you remember Axel Asher? From that business with that other dimension’s heroes? I believe he sent him here. So I believe we are to simply return him to sender, by parcel post.”
“The sooner the better.”
“I’ve got 48 hours,” I offer, and immediately want to take back. I’m soaked to the bone, practically doubled over and shivering and the two of them say nothing, they just stare. Another brilliant flash of lightning, another glimpse into four empty white eye sockets.
The Batman turns, fires a grapple from a small handheld launcher, and streaks off like his namesake into the downpour. The Phantom Stranger turns and hooks a gloved finger, beckoning me to follow. I’m learning not to argue. We walk two blocks, he as quiet as the grave, me chattering away as the shivers threaten to shatter my teeth. He stops in front of a tenement building in dire need of maintenance. The Stranger ascends the short flight of stairs and waits expectantly at the top. I trip up the stairs and look the other way, glancing at the corner street signs just long enough to mark the intersection of Kane and Finger before opening the door and allowing the Phantom Stranger to enter first. I follow him down a short hall and down stairs to the basement. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was the brownstone in Metropolis. Same number of washers and dryers, same layout…oh…my…God…is that the box over in the corner? I quickly reach the corner, open the box, and gasp audibly. There’s the duffle bag. There’s a bit of the suit sticking out where I hadn’t completely zipped it up. I turn to the Phantom Stranger, my questions evident in the expression on my face. “Time does not always pass as you might think where I am involved. Your 48 hours are up. Please step into the box.”
“But I don’t understand, I mean, this isn’t my Earth, I get that, but what was I supposed to get out of this? What’s it all mean?” Holy crap, I didn’t even realize I was actually getting in the box while I was talking. I get the sensation of rapid descent before I even squat don into the box, loosing my balance and feeling like I’m about to lose my lunch, I reach out and catch the Phantom Stranger’s arm.
“What are you…?” And we were gone from his world.
When the falling feeling stopped, I felt an involuntary need to squat as if I’d just landed from jumping off something high. The Stranger looked like he was going to do something extremely painful to me for a moment. And then we both looked around the room. This wasn’t the loading dock where Axel was enjoying my money sock. This was unearthly. There was no architectural style I could describe it with. And everything about it felt HUGE. The Stranger spoke up at last, “How odd. I would have fully expected to find us standing before Dr. Strange. I certainly would not have thought we’d end up here.”
“Where is here?” I wondered, climbing out of the box. There appeared to be light coming in from an opening further down the convex wall before us. I stride over and stop dead in my tracks. I’m looking out at Earth. And beyond the window is a gray-white landscape dotted with craters of all sizes. I. Am. On. The. Freaking. Moon.
To be concluded…