A Dark and Stormy Night
Dahlia Messensinger rubbed her tired eyes, then pulled her unfinished paper from the typewriter and laid it neatly on her desk, ready to be resumed on Monday. Then she rose from her chair in the secretary's pool. She grabbed her coat, aware that the darkness glowering outside the windows was from more than just the hour. It was only six o'clock, after all. She merged gratefully with the stream of secretaries and fellow temps -- like her -- as they headed for the hall and the elevator beyond.
The girls babbled happily with each other, but Dahlia was largely ignored. She supposed she didn't mind...not too much. Admittedly, she wasn't sure what she would chat about with the other women even if they did try to include her in their discussions. She had no idea of the latest hat fashions, she hadn't a boyfriend to brag or complain about, and she hadn't seen a movie since that Bogart picture a few months back, the one where he ran the cafe. Morocco, it was called. Something like that.
Dahlia's extracurricular activities were somewhat different from her co-workers, and a part of her rather regretted that. Another part, though, loved it, and loved the strange life she led. It was that latter part of her psyche that worried her.
You see, Dahlia Messensinger wasn't like a lot of people.
She stopped two paces from the elevator, the freckle-faced operator staring at her wide-eyed, expectant. She'd forgotten her purse. She waved him on, then turned back toward the office, but not before she'd caught the slightly disappointed look in his eyes. He was no more than sixteen and she was pretty sure he had a crush on her.
To be that young again, she mused. Then a frowned creased her brow. She was only in her twenties, but she felt old. Sometimes. Ever since her father died penniless a couple of years before, it had been tough looking after herself and her mother. Maybe that's why she liked being more than just a girl in the secretary pool. It was her escape.
She re-entered the big dark room, the rows of dusks filing away from her like troops waiting to be called to the war in Europe. Without turning on the light, she made her way to her desk.
She stopped, a rustling sound teasing her ears.
Instantly every muscle on her shapely, but well-honed, figure tensed. Her knees bent slightly, subconsciously adopting a ready stance. She looked around the dark room. Nothing moved. All was still. Something rustled again. Her eyes shot toward the door to the office of Mr. Bartholomew Mortimer, her immediate superior here at the Silver and Gold Insurance Company. But his office was still swathed in darkness.
Someone was there, and didn't want to be discovered. Who? she wondered. A thief? What was there to steal in an office? A thief must know there would be little money on the premises. Instantly her mind wondered if it might be an Axis spy, but again, she couldn't imagine what would be of interest to enemy agents in an insurance office.
Shrugging effortlessly out of her coat, she kicked off her shoes. Then she hesitated. Her cerulean working dress was hardly appropriate for a struggle, but she had left her costume at home. She hadn't really expected to need it at work, after all.
After a moment of hesitation, she stripped out of her dress until she was clothed only in her underwear. Then she grabbed up a hankerchief and tied it over the lower half of her face, her mane of black hair spilling wild about her beautiful features. Moving soundlessly on the balls of her bare feet, she slipped over to the door leading to the manager's office.
Suddenly the door knob rattled and she leapt back, but in the darkness misjudged and collided with a desk. The desk scraped noisily on the hardwood and her feet rose momentarily up in the air.
The door flung open and instantly Dahlia concentrated, her form shivered for a moment, then she vanished into the shadow beneath her, once more becoming her namesake...The Silhouette.
A barrel-chested, middle-aged man stood in the doorway, dressed incongruously, for a burglar, in a tweed suit. He stared into the darkness, as if looking to discern the source of the noise he had heard. Seeing nothing, his attention was easily diverted and he started toward the hall.
Behind him, unobserved, the Silhouette rose up from her own shadow and once more took shape. She frowned as she watched him leave. The man she had recognized as Bartholomew Mortimer -- the man whose office it was. She almost felt foolish, standing barely clad, ready for danger, when it was just her boss.
Why had he been rifling through his own office without a light on? As if not wanting to be observed? And why, when he must have heard her collide with the desk, had he dismissed the noise so easily?
Coming to a decision, the Silhouette started after him.
* * *
Billy Walker, the elevator operator, held the door open for the stony-faced man. "Looks like a storm's brewing, eh, Mr. Mortimer?" he said casually.
Mortimer grunted non-committally.
Billy looked the older man over, noting his tweed suit and a file folder tucked under one arm. "Uh, don't you have a coat or something, Mr. Mortimer? I mean, it really looks like rain, sir."
Mortimer regarded him coldly. "Ground floor, please."
"Uh, yes, sir." He tapped his pillbox cap and started to close the door. For a moment, Billy could've sworn he saw a shadow slip in between the doors, a shadow cast by nothing. Then the shadow merged with the shadow beneath Mortimer's feet and he was no longer sure he had seen anything. Deciding his eyes had played tricks on him, Billy started the elevator down, idly wishing it was that gorgeous black-haired secretary he was escorting in his mechanical chariot, rather than frumpy old Mr. Mortimer.
* * *
Outside, the streets were the colour of black tar, glistening as torrents of rain cascaded down, sending leaves and old newspapers swirling along the gutters like miniature Noah's arks. Bartholomew Mortimer strode unheeding through the downpour, even as it plastered his thinning hair about his head and added extra pounds to his jacket.
The Silhouette, once more a 3-dimensional shape, splashed bare foot after him, glad that the rain meant no one was about to see her prowling the streets in her unmentionables. She made a mental note that she would figure out a way to bring her costume with her, wherever she was. She was wet and miserable, and more than a little embarrassed by her apparel.
She stopped, hugging the brick wall of a building on the corner. Mortimer had stopped before a long black Roll's Royce parked along the curb and he was leaning into the open rear door. A big man stood by the driver's door. He looked one part chauffeur, two parts enforcer, she figured. She squinted her eyes against the tumbling rain as Mortimer stiffly handed the file to someone unseen in the blackhole of the car. Unconsciously she leaned out from the wall, trying to glimpse the occupant.
"Hey!" shouted the driver. "There's a girl out here -- watching."
"Mortimer," purred a voice from inside the car, "take care of the problem."
"Yes, sir," said Mortimer, and he turned heavily toward the Silhouette even as the driver slipped back into the car and the engine coughed to life.
The Silhouette stepped away from her unfeeling brick shelter, staring helplessly as the car slipped away, tires splashing through the wet. Even if she reverted to her silhouette and slipped effortlessly beneath Mortimer's feet, the car was already turning onto the next block. Regarding her boss, she could easily have escaped him, again, using her unusual talents. But then what? she wondered. Go to the police? After all, this was an instance -- a rare one -- when she could go to the authorities without any danger of exposing her secret identity. After all, Dahlia Messensinger had had a perfect right to be where she was, when she was.
But there was more going on than met the eye. Mortimer was acting very odd for a man caught stealing from the company. And odd was the Silhouette's specialty.
Adopting a fighting stance, she said, "Give it up, Mr. Mortimer -- uh, Mortimer," she corrected herself. Mister Mortimer sounded too formal, and was likely to betray her identity.
Mortimer did not respond, but lunged at her, clumsily. She easily ducked beneath his arms, and jabbed him with her knuckles twice in the side, sending him careening into the wall. Mortimer was out of shape and clumsy. That begged the question, why had the man in the car sent Mortimer instead of his driver, who appeared the more dangerous fighter?
She was not sure she liked the answer that was forming in her mind.
Wheezing like an angry moose, Mortimer came at her again. This time she caught his out-stretched hand and threw her hip into his groin, pulling on his arm as she did. He sailed over her to land heavily with a splash in a big puddle. Instantly she was straddling his chest and balling her fists about his collar.
"Who was in the car? What did you give him?"
Mortimer's eyes were wide, but despite the dark night, his pupils were like pinpricks. He started burbling incoherently between wet lips.
The Silhouette stared, her fears confirmed far beyond her imaginings. Mortimer hadn't been sent to stop her, he had been sent merely to delay her. The mysterious man in the car had not been concerned about whether Mortimer would triumph, because it was clear Mortimer would not be telling anyone anything for a long time.
* * *
It was five minutes to ten, Friday evening. The storm had been raging for almost four hours, as if the heavens themselves were trying to wash clean this weary, war torn world. But the sin was too deep, the injustice too ingrained. Nature raged in vain.
The man in the soaked trench coat settled soundlessly onto the gantry, then hastily pulled the window closed that he had jimmied open, sealing it before too much rain leaked in to announce his unheralded intrusion. That done, he moved more like a phantom than flesh and blood, gliding to the railing to peer down at the warehouse floor below. His features were completely covered by an eerily convincing mask that mimicked the head of a common house fly, giving the Man-Fly a suitably unsettling, even grotesque, impression.
For the moment, though, he was more interested in generating no impression at all.
Below milled a handful of local racketeers, summoned to this out of the way meeting on this Godforsaken night for reasons the enigmatic scourge of the underworld hoped to uncover momentarily.
A snitch had informed him of rumblings through the underworld grapevine, hinting at a get-together, but whether a council of war, whether the streets were about to erupt into mob turf wars, the snitch did not know. A few hours of undercover work, shifting disguises as easily as shoes, had the Man-Fly as a bartender in a sleazy, downtown bar, a cabby cruising the lakeshore, and a few other choice identities, but at the end of it, all he was able to procure was this address.
The who and why were still a mystery.
Apparently even to the men waiting impatiently below, each armed to the teeth, and none with fewer than two bodyguards each.
"Hey, Lou, what's the hold up? What's going on here?" asked one mobster.
Lou Piper, who the Man-Fly recognized from his files, shrugged. "Why ask me? I figgered it was youse that got us here, eh?"
"Me? Why would I want ta be looking at youse pug-ugly mugs for?" His laugh was strained. "On the level: you didn't call this meeting?"
The rest of the assorted racketeers and strong arm men looked around at each other, bewildered.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, do not tax your mental faculties unduely. I'm sure they're already strained by the effort it takes to chew tobacco and maintain your equlibrium simultaneously. It was I who solicited this meeting."
The figure concealed in the rafters peered at the far end of the warehouse where shapes could just be distinguished in the unlit darkness. But only just. Three, maybe four people were there, but he could not see them clearly.
"And who the Hell are you?" demanded one of the mobsters.
"In a very short time, I will be the king of this city's underworld. That's no idle boast, I assure you. You will all call me master before too long."
Quietly, the unseen evesdropper moved down the catwalk, hoping to get closer and catch a glimpse of this, obviously his true quarry.
"Hah!" snorted Lou Piper. "He's making like he thinks he's funny. Like Abbott and Costello -- only without, uh, y'know, the skinny guy, the straight man. You want we should bust your head for getting us out on a night like this for such a lame duck gag? Or maybe just crack a few knee caps?"
"I sympathize with your skepticism, gentlemen, but I'm in earnest. Deadly earnest. Tell them my friend -- convey to them the veracity of my sincerity."
One of the figures in the darkness stepped forward into the light, dressed in jodhpurs, a loose white shirt, a mask, and a hand-crafted scarf about his neck. The Man-Fly above inhaled sharply.
The figure standing at the right hand of the mysterious would-be kingpin of crime was none other than the "Spirit of Decency" himself, the Man-Fly's one-time ally...Mr. Amazing.
Next: What's going on? Has "The Spirit of Decency" become the "Spirit of Decadence", or does he have a plan, and how do the rest of our heroes fit in? And who's the man in the shadows? Plus: more on the Silhouette's homicidal boss.
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