- for Walter Gibson and Lester Dent -
The scene's a bar. It always starts in a bar. It's the atmosphere. You've got to have the right atmosphere, you know? A bar's the perfect place. Not just any bar, not an ordinary bar. You've got to have archetypes. A bar with cigarette smoke and shadowy characters slunk away in booths, a bartender with an eye for sleaze and rumour, a couple of tarts in a corner waiting for customers, free flow of drinks. Come on up sailor, and name your poison. First drink's on the house.
You see that guy over there? He's a foreign agent waiting for his contact. You can tell, can't you? That shifty look in his eyes, the hook he has in place of a right hand, that scar on his cheek. The refugee from a beefcake magazine sitting just behind him has got to be his personal bodyguard. Got the looks for it too; big, strong, and probably as smart as a cement mixer.
Or that one, playing with the knife. Mercenary. Do anything for a price, even slit his own mother's throat for a suitable amount of gold. Or that one, with the monocle. Neo-Nazi, what else? And the bartender's name, of course, is Sam. All bartenders are named Sam. You've got to have a sense of tradition.
This is where it's happening. This is where it's at. You don't get losers moaning about their love lives. You get plots to dominate the world, by Nazis, Illuminati, or masterminds who go by names like the Crimson Claw or Baron Hans von Ironfist. You get tales of floating island fortresses, of hidden treasures, Inca, Mayan, Egyptian, in Central America, or the jungles of Java, or elsewhere, treasures valued beyond measure, that will confer ultimate power, or both. You get crazy scientists who talk about colliding planets, trips to Mars and Venus, alien invasions that must be stopped, death rays and underwater cities.
Few places like these today, with the right kind of atmosphere. You've got to have the right atmosphere, you know? Or have I said that already? Anyway, you're here. How you got here you don't know, and it's better not to ask too many questions, if you know what I mean. Just go with the story, kid. Go with what's melodramatically appropriate.
Come on in. He's waiting for you.
He's sitting at the bar, the half bottle of whiskey in one hand and a half-empty glass in another. His breath smells like a brewery and he hasn't shaved for weeks. Ratty clothes, an old flight jacket that probably dates back to before World War II, with a layer of dirt on them that's at least a few months old. He's big, though, isn't he? Large broad shoulders, tanned skin, muscular for an old guy. Looks, oh, fifty at the very most. But go on - ask him. He might surprise you.
You push your way towards him, bumping into a foppish-looking man dressed in a tuxedo who gives you a dirty look before he shuffles off, a bulky, newspaper-wrapped package under his arm. Another breezes by, this one a tall, thin man wrapped in a black cloak and wide brimmed hat with a glowing ruby ring on one finger. Faces from the past, half familiar, striking old chords of memory.
You sit down next to him, and order a glass of bourbon. On the rocks. He doesn't even look at you. What's with him? you ask Sam. Been like that all week, Sam says, don't do much but drink himself into a coma and stare all day. Used to be real big in the old days, I hear. A real go-getter.
Really? you shake your head. Doesn't look like much now. Hey, Old Timer, you nudge him, what did you do last time? He turns to look at you, and his eyes are grey - steel grey, the type of eyes that they say gleam with strength and intelligence, the real thing, the ones that never age.
Did a lot of things, he replies, his voice low and rumbling, like distant thunder. Like what? you ask, staring him straight back in the eye. What's your name anyway?
Name? he smiles, white teeth, suddenly gleaming pure even though there's barely enough light in the bar.
I used to be Buck Savage.
Buck dodges the bullets, whiz whiz whiz and jumps through the window, swinging on a flag-post onto the nearest fire escape. The dark-jacketed men pop their faces out the window along with their Lugers and start blasting away. Buck flashes them his patented smile before he scuttles away down to the street.
The two on the ground waiting for him he dispatches with a few kicks, a minimum of fuss. A third he disarms with a quick flick of his whip. He emerges from the alley, the Eye of Irem still in his pocket.
There he goes! the thugs from the office finally reach the ground floor. Cars roar all around them as Buck leaps over bonnets, smiling all the way. The last thing they see is Buck disappearing into the distant buildings, their guns useless.
Buck's theme plays in the wings. A celestial orchestra smiles on our hero.
Scene cut. Eye of Irem scatters across table to the Police Commissioner. The crusty old Irishman takes a cigar out of his mouth and grunts his gratefulness. Buck smiles, his heroic profile silhouetted against the window as the music prepares to draw to a close.
Ricky rushes in, all flustered and goggle-eyed, even behind his thick lenses. Buck, Buck! he says, grabbing him by the shoulders, Baron von Ironfist issued a challenge for you to meet him in single combat! He's got Betty, and if you won't meet him there's no telling what that fiend will do to her!
Buck's smile disappears, replaced by an expression of determined fury. Tell me where! he bellows in a manly baritone, pulling Ricky along with him as he exits, the music reaches its triumphant crescendo.
The music was always there, Buck says, lifting the glass to the light but never really drinking from it. It was easier back then, with the music. You could tell what was coming. When the bad guys showed up, there was the sinister music - daah daah daah dum daah dum - huge organs, real Gothic, slow drum beats. Up the tempo for suspense - dum da da dum da da dummm - slow, heady, violins and crap when the beautiful girl waltzes through the door in soft focus - daaaaah dee daaaaah - it made everything whole. You knew that in the end, my music would play, and that would be it. No more crazies shooting at you, no more jumping from building to building, or tree to tree, or whatever else was available. Fadeout. The End. Or To Be Continued.
Who am I? I'm Buck Savage. The Man of Iron! Adventurer! Scientist! Archaeologist! Linguist! Detective! Soldier of Fortune! Spaceman! I've plowed my way through the jungles of Central America, of the Amazon, of distant Venus. I've fought madmen in dirigibles, in submarine tunnels, in floating cities among the cloudy peaks of Mars. I've foiled Neo-Nazi plans of domination, bank robbers using death rays, mad scientists with robots. I've saved women from death traps, escaped from even more. Rescued villages from tyrannosaurs come to life, hunted pterodactyls at the center of the Earth, faced and killed the furry Sleetha of Olympus Mons. Saved the World, the whole bloody Universe at least three times.
Who am I? I'm a goddamn hero, that's who I am.
The world flickered back then, but at least it was bright. And black and white. The men in black hats, and the heroes in white. The pureness of motives, of their evil. It was refreshing to meet a villain who truly loved his work. And all of them did. The Purple Cowl. The Bombardier. Lucius Lightray. And the Baron.
The Baron Hans von Ironfist.
Buck sighs at this point, and puts down the glass, turning it so it catches whatever light is available and glints a bit. He scratches at his beard, and leans back, patting his bulging belly with a well-tanned hand.
The one guy that kept coming back again and again, he continues, no matter how many times I put him away. I fought him from before the war up till I shot Hitler in the bunker during the final push in '45, and after that, when he got it in his head to establish the Fourth Reich every few months or so.
Even thought I killed him a few times. But I suppose he thought the same about me. Buck laughs, haltingly. I suppose I enjoyed it, kind of. Worthy opponents, and all that. It was all a game, you understand what I'm saying? All a gorgeous game. He'd show up, do something nasty. I'd try to stop him. He'd capture me, stick me in a few situations. I'd get out, and we'd have a tussle, and I'd stick him in jail. Or he'd escape at the last minute, Curses Foiled Again. It's like none of us took it seriously. We did it for twenty-five years.
That's a long time.
Then the music went away.
The tank trundles closer, its main gun trained on Buck. The Baron, in another tank to the rear, chops the air with his hand. There's a roar of flame, and the wall above Buck is reduced to powder. Buck rolls on the ground, as more rounds blast against the spaces which he occupied just moments before. Then from the rooftop comes the chatter of machine gun fire, slicing through the air! Bullets dash their way into the ground, missing Buck's head and body by inches. Buck draws a knife from his boot and throws it upward in one smooth motion.
The sniper falls to the ground with a thud from storeys up, the knife buried in his chest to the hilt. Buck retrieves a grenade from the sniper's webbing and leaps across, dodging another tank round, popping the grenade into the barrel of the main gun. There is a sudden dull explosion, the tank shakes, and is still. Buck grins.
Then turns to the real problem.
You'll never get away with it, Baron!
Buck shouts after the last retreating tank, Betty's lithe full figure strapped to its front, Ironfist cackling maniacally in glee. The masked thugs descend all around Buck, hemming him in. Buck cracks his whip. Two thugs go down, welts around their faces. The fists start flying. Buck punches! Buck kicks! And somewhere in the soundtrack a bugle blows heroically.
Within minutes, the thugs lie in a broken heap around Buck's feet. He brushes his hat off, and whistles. A white stallion gallops by, and Buck leaps on its back, riding off after the Baron, and his captive.
People don't believe nowadays. Dreams no longer exist in black and white. They look at the world and they see shades of grey. They see Watergate, they see Iran-Contra. They see corruption and pollution. They see the ozone layer and the extinction of species. Ozone layer - we didn't worry about the damn ozone layer back then. Space flight? I was in space when Gagarin and Armstrong were still swimming around in their father's scrotum. They think I'm nuts when I tell them the things I've seen, the things I've done.
I've seen spaceships collide at three times the speed of light, shattering into a million fragments over the deserts of Mars. I've seen madmen that make Sadaam and Gadaffi look like pre-school squabblers. I've flown on jetpacks over the Andes - learnt telepathy from the Dalai Lama, entered the dreamtime. The world was so much clearer then, so much bigger. People were so much bigger.
He slams a fist onto the table.
I was so much bigger.
He laughs, almost hysterically this time. Tears begin to flow down his face as he puts the glass down and begins to shake violently, his deep voice breaking.
Where are the gunfights at the OK Corall, the space-battles around the asteroids? Where are the swordfights, the cliff hangers? Where are the laughs of Republic serial villains, the screams and shouts of beautiful women strapped down to deadly machines? Why is the world so small now? Why is it so silent?
Where is the music? he looks at you with a pleading in his eyes, his strong arms on your shoulders, Will someone for God's sake please just tell me where the music went?
Betty is tied down to the conveyor belt, her huge breasts straining against the fabric of her half-torn dress. Ironfist laughs, dressed in full military regalia, shiny buttons, medals - the works - brandishing a gleaming chrome blade as demoniacal music plays in the background.
There's a crash! The window explodes in a shower of broken glass! It's BUCK SAVAGE *YEAH!* swinging in on a rope! He lands, ducking as Ironfist swings the steel in a deadly arc above Buck's head. The music switches tempo. Buck grabs a sword from the nearby wall. Clashing of metal against metal. Betty continues her struggling as the belt edges ever closer to the whirring buzz-saw blades.
Thrust! Parry! Thrust! Parry!
Buck! Help! cries Betty.
Buck pushes the Baron back with superb swordsmanship, learnt in the deserts of the Middle East. A deft twist of the sword, and the Baron's weapon flies across the room. Buck lowers his own blade and knocks the Baron down with a left hook. He turns to the belt, the buzz-saw nearing Betty's blonde, tousled locks.
Just as he is about to reach the switch, the Baron jumps Buck from behind. They struggle, desperately, the music keeping time with the blows and the tussling. The Baron forces Buck's head down, towards the deadly steel blade.
Buck! Look out! shouts Betty.
Buck Savage tosses the Baron over his head in a move taught to him by the Secret Masters of Baritsu, flinging him against the wall. The Baron slumps down, out for the count.
The music goes positively bonkers.
The spray of blood and brains splashes against Buck's face, as does Betty's final, half-strangled scream.
The music, like a broken-down calliope, trundles to a halt.
That's when it stopped being a game.
Buck's eyes are still fixed on that distant point in space/time. The bottle is still half-empty, as is the glass. He shakes his head.
Always did cut it too close, he sighs, Poor Bets. She was almost forty-five around that time, had to use falsies to keep her bust line from sagging and wore enough make-up to suffocate a moose, but Hell... she was a good gal. Good sport. Twenty-five years of being a captive of every two-bit crook who wanted to get to me. She sure got off on it.
I just watched, after that. With the blood dripping down my face and clotting up my eyelids, I watched her body being sliced up inch by inch, the blade growing ruddier and ruddier. I just stared. I couldn't do anything, say anything.
When the Baron woke up, rubbing his jaw, we just looked at each other. He shook his head, mumbled an apology, and patted me on the back. I walked out. He didn't stop me. I didn't care anymore. After that I retired. So did he.
Twenty-five years is a long time.
But it ended anyway.
So much for heroes. Have you seen the heroes kids have today? Even in the comic books? Batman, even Superman - they were never like that. Then all of a sudden one's a psychopath now and one's a yuppie. And you know what they call that? Realism.
Then what do you call what I've lived through? What do you call what happened to me? In my day, we had the Shadow, G-8 and his Flying Aces, the Spider, Copperhead. Now we have Turtles.
Turtles. Christ Almighty.
They find it funny. They find it ludicrous. When I stopped Doctor Skull from boiling half the Atlantic, when I retrieved the fallen Idol of Samarkand, they laugh. They think it's all make believe, it's all part of a past. They've forgotten.
They're laughing at my life.
And they won't stop.
He sniffs, and blows his nose. Sam looks at you knowingly, and shakes his head, sighing. The ice in your glass has melted by now. You haven't touched your bourbon. He hasn't touched his whiskey. You start wondering how long he's been toying with that half-empty bottle, or even if the whiskey is real, or just image.
I wish Betty was here, he chokes. She'd understand. I wish people would learn to love their heroes again, and not try to tear them down. I wish people were innocent again.
Where's the wonder? Where's the glory? It's been so quiet for so long. So long.
The lights are going out. All over. No more cowboys. No more popcorn in matinees. No more next-weeks and to-be-continueds. And I can't stop it. Buck Savage can't stop it. Not anymore.
He gets up. He raises himself to his feet and begins shuffling toward a corner, where a shrivelled old man sits in a wheelchair. The old man wears the dark glasses of the blind, and the uniform of an old soldier. He smiles as he hears Buck's approach, and he reaches up to pat Buck's shoulder warmly.
Buck pushes Hans out the door. They move slowly, like an old film slowed down to half speed, like the final scene of the Wild Bunch, except this time there's no blood. Or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fading away like ghosts at the end of The Story Of Irene and Vernon Castle. Against the daylight outside the bar they look faded, browned out, almost transparent.
And then they are gone. The bar goes about its business around them, except there is a bit more tension this time. The customers look at each other warily, knowing that their days are numbered as well, that they are anachronisms living on borrowed time. Ghosts suspended in celluloid and newsprint, whom no one notices, and everyone forgets.
You order another drink.
Somewhere, someone is playing "Taps".
this story first appeared, in edited form, in Tesseract.
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