The Fall of Admiral Victory, by Jason Beck
Bowman hadn’t checked his cell phone since he left Erie for San Diego, despite the layover in Chicago when he had three good hours to do so. He’d sat on the molded seats of the airport terminal and later on the plane itself while he plotted the night’s events, once he landed and situated himself in the hotel adjacent to the apartment complex. Bowman knew the complex well: the natives sublet their homes to the cosplayers who shell out three months rent for a five day stay. Bowman had once preferred that arrangement, until Comic-Con 2009, when a bear-like woman dressed as the Ice Queen had slipped a roofie into his rum and coke during an after party he’d hosted in his apartment. Though he woke fully clothed the next day, Bowman was haunted by a suspicion that he’d been at least fondled by the Ice Queen and one or more of the Seven Dwarves who had also been in attendance. For peace of mind, he chalked it up to a casualty of merriment and inexperience—a narrow escape from the villains, never to be repeated. Each year thereafter, Bowman had hailed an airport taxi upon arrival—as he did now, with a smile—directing the driver to bypass the newbies unpacking trunks in the apartment complex lot while he continued on to the nearby Wellsprings Hotel.
That he hadn’t checked his cell phone was standard practice for Bowman-in-the-summer, as his fellow teachers referred to his absentee behavior, but to his ex-wife, it had always been incomprehensible. Had he bothered to check, he would have noted seven voicemails: two messages from the ex-wife complaining about child support payments, a message from his neighbor/dog sitter with questions about his Lab’s eating habits, an adorable message from his daughter regarding a soccer game, the clinical instructions from his divorce lawyer pertaining to a future hearing, a drunk confession of love and a sober confession of lust from the English teacher and Chemistry teacher, respectively, who he’d been seeing intermittently back home. But Bowman leant no consideration to listening to the messages, and at once set about his hotel suite with the single minded determination of a superhero.
First night was for extravagance. When Bowman emerged from the suite, he was Admiral Victory in neoprene tights and a rippled chest plate of pectorals and abdominal muscles, blue and yellow streaked face paint, pearl colored contact lenses, and a jagged crown he had fashioned from papier-mâché several months ago. The lanterns spaced between the rooms along the hallway flickered as he aligned with the light. Admiral Victory, and therefore Bowman, was known for his ocular prowess through telepathy—according to the hero’s reclusive creator, Admiral Victory’s stream of consciousness traveled faster than the speed at which light particles could reach his retinas, enabling the superhero to maintain 20/20 vision in the material world while simultaneously traversing the electromagnetic wavelengths through physical boundaries, like running up the down escalator of space-time, only much more epic than that. Behind the wall, Bowman saw a fat shirtless man watching a movie from the bed in room 109, a decently dressed Batman and Robin duo tongue kissing in 112, and in 119 he saw the backside of a long haired person looking out the peep hole at him, Admiral Victory, striding on into the lobby.
He posed for a picture in the cul-de-sac outside on the sidewalk, scribbled a signature on a girl’s autograph book before her tourist parents ushered her away. Bowman surveyed the other superheroes mingling in the twilight, flashed a comicspeak hand gesture to a group of three across the way, but they waved as if to say, “Hello,” in human language, and Bowman knew that they did not know. Several attempts passed before he received the proper response—thumb posted into open palm while extended fingers wiggled—and Bowman was invited to their car.
“How’s this work?” Bowman asked. He couldn’t find the lever—most two door hatchbacks have a lever to fold the seat forward, but Bowman was stumped.
A mermaid in a seashell bikini sat in the back. Kicking her tailfin into the seat, it sprang to the dash. Bowman ducked and maneuvered to protect his cape as he tumbled into the narrow backseat beside the Mermaid.
Dynamo from The Running Man drove, while Tarzan drummed his knees from the seat in front of Bowman.
“Admiral Victory,” Dynamo said, “I really dig it, man.”
“Leadership by way of sacrifice,” Bowman quoted from the Creed, and two punctuated claps sounded from the other three, in unison, clap clap, ending with mutual laughter from deep inside the joke.
“I can’t wear contacts like that,” the Mermaid said. “I wear contact lenses already, is why.”
Bowman wanted to tell her that these shaded lenses she gazed upon were $1,200 a piece, specially ordered, as he too was a near sighted schmuck at other junctures throughout the year. He did not say that, however, and instead allowed Admiral Victory to pluck and twirl a lock of the Mermaid’s seaweed curled hair. He said, “Animation has long been the stilt of the cinematic industry.”
Blushed, she toyed with the fringe of Admiral Victory’s silken cape sprawled on the upholstery between them.
Dynamo circled the apartment complex for an acceptable parking space. Dozens congregated on sidewalks and outdoor rotundas, some standing on roofs of four story buildings. Tarzan lowered the window, howled at pedestrians. Bowman thought, Attend but do not host, his pleasure expanding in rivulets across multiple levels.
Inching closer, in the semi-privacy of the backseat, the Mermaid spoke to Bowman: “Once I make my own movie, all these people will be coming to see me.”
Bowman made a face, and she punched his thigh. “What—you don’t believe me? Why not me?”
“I believe,” Bowman lied, cheerfully.
“You better. I left my camera back at the room, because you never know with those maniacs.” The Mermaid motioned generally to the gathering outside the car, and Bowman nodded an understanding. She said, “If you’re nice to me, maybe I’ll let you in it.” Then, announcing to the driver up front: “Park here. Vamps and Zombies are always holding. How do you sign ‘weed’ in comicspeak?”
Bowman demonstrated—an intake of breath while kneading knuckles over the lungs. The Mermaid licked her lips, touched her index finger onto Bowman’s inner wrist, like sensually checking his pulse, and Bowman’s loins awoke. He’d prepared for this by wearing two pair of tight briefs under his form fitting stockings, but even so, Admiral Victory needed a moment to compose himself before emerging from the vehicle and entering the celebration.
The intertwined apartment gatherings ranged from dry board games flavored with New Age spiritual references, to illicit drug use in bathrooms and walk in closets, everywhere colorful costumes and merriment. In one such walk in closet, Bowman indulged in both a plump joint of cannabis and unprotected intercourse with the Mermaid. “Oh, Admiral, my Admiral,” she moaned, her head rattling the coat hangers as he bounced her against the wall.
Afterward, adjusting their costumes in the half-lit closet, they struggled to look at each other, each knowing the purpose for their encounter had been fulfilled, but not knowing how to separate without emotion. Admiral Victory—the Saturday morning spin-off, anyway—was known for his departing words of wisdom at the end of each episode, and Bowman, himself a Philosophy minor back in his time at Pitt, would ordinarily be prepared with such a resonant statement, but the cannabis had been potent. He tugged at his tights, wet in the crotch. Unable to break free from the self reflexive awareness of his own discomfort, he wordlessly pushed open the closet door.
Tarzan sat perched on the arm of a couch, watching like a gargoyle as they exited into the smoke-hazed room. A chorus of can tops popped from the dozen people. Bowman made for the table of liquor, aiming to balance the speedy paranoia with an inhibitor. He filled two cups with clear rum, turned to offer a cup to the Mermaid, but saw only her tailfin scooting out the door to disappear into the throng in the courtyard, never to be seen again. Bowman exhaled, relieved—he was a fool to expect anything less from the wonderful Mermaid. Bowman proceeded to drink both cups, his super powers returning incrementally with each sip, emboldened into contentious discussions with strangers on the inescapable flaws within film adaptations. Then, without rhyme or reason, it came to him: “Our paths are equally rugged and beautiful, yet separate,” Admiral Victory says into the wind, before the distraught beauty boards the train for Kalamazoo, “As we fulfill our separate destinies, this brief moment when our paths overlapped will prove an endless well of inspiration.”
Near midnight, Bowman found Dynamo in a Frisbee triangle with a spot-on Lizard Man and Mark Twain. The glow-in-the dark disk zipped to Lizard Man, who alligator-clawed it from the air, flicked a high arc toward Admiral Victory. Bowman leapt to catch it, regaining his feet near Mark Twain.
“Fire hall shenanigans ‘round about an hour,” Mark Twain invited, as if he and Bowman were familiar.
The throng in the courtyard had thinned to intimate clusters as the night entered the new phase. The Frisbee circle retracted until the four were themselves an intimate cluster.
“Your kindness is appreciated,” Bowman said, referring to the party invitation. “But perhaps I should retire to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures.”
Dynamo flicked his smart phone screen, waist high. “I’m stoked for the movie premiere,” he said. “What time should I get there to beat the lines?”
“You’re already too late,” Lizard Man said.
Bowman agreed. He had planned on attending the premiere for most of the year, since he had learned that the creator would be emerging from a hermit’s existence to showcase the next and final installment of the Admiral Victory saga. The excitement, initially intense, had been tainted by controversy upon learning that the creator planned to forgo the traditional graphic novel medium and instead take the story directly to cinema. To hardcore purists like Bowman, the move was wholly unbelievable, as stunning as a kick to the groin. Bowman—painfully struggling to grade 65 AP term papers on Of Mice and Men while bitterly battling the psychological attacks from his soon-to-be ex-wife—had spent the winter bingeing on Admiral Victory gossip on internet talk-portals and online discussion boards. By the time his ex-wife and teary eyed daughter moved across Erie, Bowman had assembled multiple spreadsheets of the rumor possibilities, all of which suggested a major event at tomorrow’s hugely anticipated premiere.
Basking in the summer lamplight as Admiral Victory, Bowman felt obligated to reveal a piece of inside information: “I hear the creator herself will be present at the premiere, ending her twenty year hiatus.”
Mark Twain toyed with the fringe of his thick gray mustache, pulling a corncob pipe from hip pocket. “A chance to see a sell-out in the flesh.”
Lizard Man flicked his tongue, which was severed into two independently functioning muscles. Each wheeled like serpents of agreement.
Behind Bowman, urgent sirens splashed on the apartment faces and wailed toward unseen tragedies.
“What’ll it be, Admiral Victory?” Dynamo said, “You coming along tonight?”
“What I’m debating now,” he said, turning to the group, “is the value of maximizing the current moment versus the virtues of future planning.”
Striking a wooden match, Mark Twain puffed on the corncob. “In times of indecision, one must recall the wisdom of our forefathers. If I may paraphrase the winning spirit of every generation: either shit, or get off the pot.”
Bowman passed through residential row homes while walking back to the hotel. He traced light streams into the few windows still illuminated—a teenager eating breakfast cereal, a woman in a kimono snoring in the television glow—no crimes for Admiral Victory to combat, and Bowman thought of his daughter. Surely she was sleeping back in Erie, perhaps dreaming of her first day of Kindergarten, three weeks in the future. He imagined the wedge between them driven deeper as his ex-wife laced her sweet parental inspirations with poisoned barbs: “See how easy that was,” his daughter will hear upon returning from her first day of school. “Do you see now that crying for your daddy doesn’t help? Because you don’t need him. We don’t need him.” How the succubus would chip away at his daughter’s adoration, until one day he was sure he’d hear his ex-wife’s venom coming from his daughter’s tongue: “I tried to ignore it, dad, but I just can’t anymore. You’re a worthless piece of shit. Mom was right all along.”
Bowman plucked snacks from the convenience store display, neither he nor the cashier feigning interest through the transaction. He stood on the corner, munching sadly on a bar of Hershey’s. What truly concerned him were those venomous barbs, how volley upon volley would be launched at his character during the custody hearing. The depth of his ex-wife’s ferocity frightened Bowman. Over the eight years of marriage, Bowman knew of two day care workers, three waiters, a mechanic, even the a Salvation Army bell ringer, who’d been fired based on her steroidal complaints to their respective supervisors. She’d once petitioned for signatures to have a group home of special needs people evicted from the neighborhood, claiming that the strange noises and oversized wheel chair vans brought down property values. And it had brought her joy, like she’d done it simply for sport. And now the stakes were astronomical, their child entangled—a pickup truck blared the horn at Admiral Victory, swerving loudly to escape vehicular homicide as Bowman marched across the intersection, too lost in thought to check for traffic. Back in the spring semester, panic attacks had crippled Bowman at the thought of testifying at the custody hearing, and his lawyer, a stocky former wrestler with cauliflower ear, demanded he pull himself together and see a shrink. To Bowman’s surprise, no medications were prescribed; instead the psychiatrist suggested a delay in the proceedings, telling Bowman to take a vacation to allow the underlying rage and fear to dissipate. He hadn’t considered this—requesting a delay—but he’d immediately marveled at the brilliance. After phoning his lawyer to make the request, the looming depression parted and the impending sense of doom lifted, instantaneous relief like anesthetic ointment on a throbbing burn. Ah, salvaged time: he’d revive his confidence by tapping into super-powers during the week of freedom at his beloved comic convention, the delay creating a victory on multiple fronts. His relief was such that he did not wait for his lawyer’s update on the delay request before he began preparations, shredding the newspaper needed for Admiral Victory’s crown, the same crown which he removed now upon return to the quiet, air conditioned hotel suite.
Later, propped up in bed, Bowman couldn’t shut off his brain. He’d called his cell phone to life, that was the problem. Four new messages had arrived while he’d been out, bringing the total of unheard messages to 11. Like food coloring in a clear bucket, reality clouded his fantasy retreat—the salvaged time dripped through his cupped hands and the magic slowly swallowed by the future. Bowman cringed, from the pain of it. He didn’t torture himself further by checking the ID to see who’d called—instead, he threw the phone in the direction of the dinette and opened his laptop, wading aimlessly through web articles, talk portals, and commentary boards. In the discussion thread following an article on a mall shooting, he discovered a particularly nasty internet Troll spouting horror to incite responses. Any kid could see that, he thought, angered. Someone should teach this guy a lesson.
Admiral Victory cracked his knuckles, rolled his neck, and took to the keyboard to slaughter the Troll.
Next morning, refreshed by the sunrise, he trekked to the convention center on foot, though he was far from alone. The main drag, closed to automotive traffic, became a giant walkway swarming with thousands of cosplayers and street clothed spectators. Today, Bowman chose his attire for the symbolism: vintage Admiral Victory, via Issue One of the original graphic novel. Purple wig and crown of barbed wire, holding the light speed blaster—in early Admiral Victory, the creator imagined the hero manipulating light in a form of reverse engineering, decoding the molecular imprints on the light particles to decipher the origins, as opposed to following the light to obtain it first hand—the blaster held on display across his rippled pectorals.
Beside Bowman in the parade was a pale skinned sexy paranormal teen, who strode beside her friend, also dressed as the same sexy paranormal but with braids. One said, “Who’s he supposed to be?”
“Like, there are so many old characters here.”
Bowman overheard, tilted his tiger striped face. “While I respect your decision to embark on this lifestyle,” he said, “your ignorance of contextual significance baffles me.”
Pow! What a direct, indisputable bull’s eye. What better way to communicate his reservations on the straight-to-movie release than by attending in Admiral Victory’s debut ensemble? Bowman bubbled with happiness, smiling as he tuned in for the response. He heard: “Eww! Was he talking to us?”
The paranormals clutched each other and drifted away in the crowd, and Bowman tried instead to communicate with the man to his right, the Incredible Hulk. Using comicspeak, Bowman tapped his ear lobe with an index finger and directed his thumb ahead. Hulk used a fist to clarify the disturbance, Bowman seeing now the pack of petitioners raising picket signs. Hulk growled, clapped oversized green fists. Then, in his nasal, plebian voice, the man dressed as Hulk said, “They’re protesting sex crimes and sexism in the industry.”
“Indeed. Good timing, I suppose. Did you hear about last night? Some girl apparently got abducted. Or raped, I think. I saw it on Fox.”
Bowman had not heard, avoided cable news media on principle. But he was aware of such things, the sexism and objectification of women in the comic book culture—Wonder Woman’s cleavage and Cat Woman’s ass apparently too much for less socialized fanatics. As he approached the protestors, their purple t-shirts and pink signage smacked of a painful reality, a pain akin to his unreturned phone calls, but the worry was short lived and shed from his mind as he hurried along with the thick pack into the convention center.
By his calculations, he would need just about an hour to get from here, the lobby of welcome kiosks, to there, the west end banquet hall where the Admiral Victory trailer premier would be featured. The entirety of the coliseum formatted like a well lit music festival: the big ticket draws situated at the far poles of the layout, with the smaller, less known displays arranged concentrically through the center. Everywhere people, some hardcore like Bowman, some pedestrians in weekend loafers sampling a new experience. Bumping elbows was normal and unnoticed, part of the noisy excitement. A pony-tailed woman stopped him, commented on his cape’s stitch work; a man dressed as Kim Jong Un shook his hand, posed for a picture with him; people pointed and waved to Admiral Victory—similar, he imagined, to how they admired the authors at the kiosks who signed copies of whatever new project was being promoted by that particular publisher, each hoping against hope at becoming the next viral franchise. Bowman browsed on through the convention, sneering at such semi-discovered publications, fully aware of his status as a snob and a disciple to the greats. Pausing in front of one such display, a pierced man passed out free copies of a chapbook. Bowman flipped through the pages, scowling at the watercolors and captions—a half assed reorganization of old pieces, afraid to disturb the parameters of genre. Admiral Victory tossed the sample back onto the table, puffed out his chest, and engaged a hypnotic brain wave. Invisible oscillations passed through the pierced wannabe to coax his gaze onto the immaculate garb covering Bowman’s body. The hypnosis bent the pierced wannabe into self-comparisons with the imposing figure, quickly shrinking into self doubt at the unexpected presence of the legendary Admiral Victory.
The line at the west end filed into the high ceilinged banquet hall, cool and floor-lit like a movie theatre, the smell of butter popcorn and gummy candy detectable even from outside. Getting closer, excitement fluttered, forgetting the negativity regarding the creator’s chosen medium and simply yearning for new Admiral Victory. At last, the entryway! Ticket scanned by a barcode reader, he eyed a seat center-right when his path was obstructed, quite suddenly, by two police officers. Both were bald headed and large, uniforms melded to their bodies like nightclub bouncers.
“Antoine Bowman?” they asked.
A clashing of impulses: “Admiral Victory is the name,” one urged, while the other muttered, “Yes, sir?”
The urges negated and he stood dumbly, the crowd continuing the flow to either side of him like water around a bolder in the stream.
Bowman was asked/commanded to follow into auditorium, churning with pre-show banter. Down the aisle to the gate in the steel stage barrier, up three steps to the backstage area. He wondered, Could this be? Had someone of prominence noticed his passion and attention to detail, gifting Bowman a VIP pass?
Flanked by the officers, Bowman caught a glimpse of event coordinators with clipboards, dictating instructions to trim members of the A.V. crew; an actor he recognized, cast as Admiral Victory’s mortal cousin, sipped coffee, removed from the backstage planning, indifferent—but the officer placed a hand between Bowman’s shoulder blades, hurrying him toward the industrial size EXIT sign, the shock of mid-day sun temporarily blinding Bowman as he stepped into the driveway behind the stage. When his vision calibrated with the atmosphere, he saw the flashing sirens atop the waiting patrol car.
Half dressed—he was asked to remove his head garments, cape, pectoral smock—he sat in the interview room in a sleeveless undershirt, his blonde hair matted with cooling sweat, minorly distracted by the birth mark on the officer’s chin, like a chocolate chip on an otherwise hairless face.
The officer laid a photograph on the table. “Did you see her last night?”
Bowman shook his head. “Everyone was in costumes. I don’t think so.”
Another picture of another young woman.
“No,” Bowman buried his clasped hands between his knees, cold.
The officer sipped from a steaming cup, presenting a picture of a man. “You see this guy hanging around the apartment complex?”
Tarzan… Bowman looked at a picture of Tarzan. “He was there. I got a ride with him.”
The officer showed no reaction to the information, as if he knew the answers already. He said, “How’d that transpire?”
“What does it matter?”
The officer straightened his gold badge, which in fact did not need straightening. He said, “I just want to know, is all.”
“I met him outside my hotel, and he gave me a ride. Actually his friend drove. I saw him at the party for a few minutes, and then he left.”
“That’s right. Who’d he leave with?”
Bowman held his breath—how soon that brief moment shared in time returns unannounced!
“The Mermaid,” Bowman gulped. “He left with the Mermaid.”
“So, Tarzan left with the Mermaid.” The officer frowned, perhaps to mask his laughter, or maybe in disgust at the kinky world he must now decipher—Bowman couldn’t deduce which. The officer said. “This Mermaid, did anyone seem,” he touched the birth mark and considered his phraseology, “particularly interested in her?”
Goose bumps ruffled Bowman’s arm hair as he realized. “Good God! Was she the girl who got abducted?”
The officer raised an eyebrow; Bowman inferred a confirmation, creating a chasm of quiet.
Leaning elbows onto the table, the officer squinted at Bowman. “Tell me this,” he said. “The Mermaid—did you fuck her?”
Bowman phoned his divorce lawyer from the hotel room.
“Jesus, Ant,” the lawyer said. “I left you four messages about the hearing. What’s going on?”
Breaking his stare with the wall mirror, Bowman searched his mind.
The lawyer said, “I tried to get the delay, but no dice. Your wife is a fucking banshee.”
“Ex-wife,” Bowman corrected.
“Yeah, well, I did the best I could. You got one weekend a month, unsupervised. Child support will now be garnished from your paycheck. I’m sorry, Ant, but it’s hard to justify joint custody when the father is not present. Where the hell were you?”
Still shocked by the morning’s sudden change in trajectory, the new layer of reality expanded through Bowman’s brain silent as invisible fumes. Too much to even consider, his loss and colossal failures. After a silent, emotionless reverie, he sat on the bed, where the suitcase lay open. He plucked out a wig, pink with green cheetah spots like Admiral Victory in the Wormhole series. He said, “Listen, I’ve called you for advice, mainly. I’ve been targeted unjustly. I’m not guilty, I assure you.”
“Tell me more.”
“Allegations float in my general vicinity.” Bowman’s heart gained pace and power with the utterance. “I haven’t been charged, but I believe that a woman I met has gone missing. I’ve been asked not to leave San Diego, which I assume carries a label of ‘person of interest’. Please advise.”
The lawyer referred Bowman to a colleague in the city who specialized in criminal defense, and Bowman soon had an appointment scheduled for two days hence. The scheduling clerk had spoke with prompt confidence, which satisfied Bowman. “No big deal,” she had said. “Just lay low, don’t say another word, and write down as much as you can remember from that night, while it’s still fresh.”
At the round dinette by the sliding balcony doors, Bowman attempted to recreate the evening in prose, but found his memory in pieces. Who chose the closet? Where were the Mermaid’s zippers, buttons? What was said after? The ensuing silence in the closet morphed, sprouting doubts, and he now wondered if she had indeed spoken but his mind was too warped by the cannabis to hear. Had she walked directly to Tarzan, while Bowman poured the drinks? The memory bent to reveal details from impossible angles: were there tears in her eyes in response to Bowman’s behavior? Had she pleaded with Tarzan to whisk her far away from the monster as fast as possible? Was it possible that Bowman was in fact guilty of some crime?
The pink and green cheetah wig helped conjure the mood of the night. He shimmied on the tights and leaned close to the mirror to situate the pearl contact lenses. The Mermaid had certainly loved these, swooned over them. She enjoyed the face paint, carefully streaked, which he now applied anew with clean sponges. Then he was Admiral Victory, sturdy hands on hips; Admiral Victory circa Season 3, when his powers were compromised by the magnetic field influx brought on by the Dark Comets. Another question arose: had the Mermaid, after her departure, wandered aimlessly until she encountered an imposter Admiral Victory, who then became the actual perpetrator of the despicable crime? Tarzan was undoubtedly involved, perhaps jealous and framing Bowman for the romantic fling in the closet.
He navigated online social platforms, blowing up the profiles of Dynamo, Mark Twain, and Lizard Man. All were potential information caches, at the very least confirmers of his alibi. When he received the first response, he withdrew the requested amount of cash from the ATM, and set off at a fast clip toward the convention center.
With the exception of the picket protestors, who had vanished from the curb near the entrance, the convention center hummed with movement outside and in. Admiral Victory pin-balled along the perimeter track and caught sight of Lizard Man, standing from his seat beside a neon soda machine, setting his hot dog on the folding chair like a placeholder.
Lizard Man said, “I’d love to hear your thoughts on that speech!”
Bowman stared at the pointed teeth of Lizard Man’s grin. Something of importance had happened, and Bowman’s face, though painted, conveyed only confusion.
Lizard Man said, “After a 20 year hiatus, the creator comes out and says she’s proud of her new project, thankful to fans, blah blah blah. Fucking lame.”
The creator’s first public appearance and Bowman had missed it. Until yesterday, he may have thrown an angry tantrum, become violent at the missed opportunity, but now the pending injustice dwarfed his past foolishness. He scratched behind his ear to flatten the wig’s elastic, saying, “Well, Admiral Victory will perceiver. Any word around here about the missing girl?”
Lizard Man took his turn at confusion.
“Apparently a girl was abducted, or some such thing?” Bowman played it in a manner he considered nonchalant.
“Dynamo may have mentioned it,” Lizard Man said, digging through a satchel. He removed an ID card dangling from a lanyard. “He’s backstage right now.”
Bowman passed a wad of twenty dollar bills. Lizard Man put the cash in a hidden pocket between his scales, and Admiral Victory accepted the VIP access card.
The bodybuilder guarding the restricted access areas needed some convincing—apparently Lizard Man resembled a hillbilly in ordinary life—but eventually accepted the identification without ordering Admiral Victory’s face paint removed. Beyond the gate in the maze of corridors, Bowman noticed at once the absence of cosplayers. Instead he saw designer attire, more than one bow tied wait staff darting politely through swinging doors. Bowman walked to a dead end, retraced his steps, located an elevator, and ascended beside a tan skinned, black goateed man of an indeterminate age.
Bowman breathed deep, realigning with Admiral Victory by reciting the Creed—when the world alights with anarchy: virtue be the northern star and courage makes the cape—following the growing scent of lobster steam and cocoa fondue to the sprawling reception room.
Heads turned at the sight of Admiral Victory; the string quartet lost their tempo, the music skipping a beat. None of the guests were seated, all with crisp posture, cocktail drinks on squares of napkin, Hollywood body types at peace with Hollywood bank rollers. Bowman lingered near the entrance, taking it in. Then, formally and submissively, he tucked his arms to his sides, bent at the waist, and greeted the room by bowing a full, respectful ninety degrees. Forcing his chin skyward, he entered the gala and dared someone to stop him.
Dynamo stood out, thankfully, his ballooned biceps exposed and his eyes glassed from drink. Mark Twain raised a champagne flute like a beacon as Admiral Victory migrated, now standing beside Dynamo and rubbing elbows with Twain. An older woman he didn’t recognize stood in their midst, wearing denim and cowboy boots.
“Well, well,” Dynamo said, overly jovial.
Mark Twain was caught in the same mood, sporting a genuine smile, “A pleasant surprise. By any means necessary,” he nodded at Bowman’s access lanyard dangling over Admiral Victory’s chest.
Dynamo said to the woman, “Might I introduce a friend of ours? I’m sure you, of all people, are no stranger to Admiral Victory.”
They laughed, star struck, and Bowman’s jaw unhinged with the realization: his hand extended and joined with the hand of Admiral Victory’s creator.
“I’d say meticulous is an appropriate description,” she said, looking his outfit up and down.
Bowman thought of a horse whisperer living on a ranch in Montana, gray streaks in her reddish hair, no jewelry apart from feathered dream catcher earrings. A cold sore budded on her unglossed bottom lip. He almost didn’t believe it and he stared at her while she stared back—one, two, three seconds without blinking. Nonsensical vowels jumbled his mind, puttered from his mouth, as if a spell were being cast by the creator’s turquoise colored eyes. Three, four seconds of unbroken eye contact before Bowman felt the strangeness, before he became wise to the foul play: the creator was clever, her hypnosis seamless, using the eye contact to engage him in thought-hijacking. Five, six unbroken seconds before Bowman resisted, harnessing his own astral powers, recreating a showdown between Admiral Victory and Barren von Doom from the defunct postmodern series.
Dynamo said, “Now this guy,”—tapping Bowman on the back—“he’s a true fan, right? I mean, look at him.”
“Oh, I’m looking,” she said, nostril twitching from an odor, something toxic.
Bowman picked up the scent, too, but liked it—it made him strong, artificially so, as if reacting with otherwise dormant fumes in his brain to create a new, strength-granting element. Eight, nine seconds of direct eye contact. The creator! How incredibly different, the vision and the thing itself! Ten, nine, eight… She was simply a human being, obviously and impossibly, diminished further by the artificial power humming along his spine. He pitied her, in a way. She was but a human, outgrown by her own creation. Bowman’s proof: terrible injustices unfolded at this very moment, the stare-down serving only to waste Admiral Victory’s precious time.
Five, four, three—Bowman broke the stare, for the greater good. Focused on her cold sore, he offered congratulations on the new movie. “Although, I must admit,” he added, “I was hoping for another story in print.”
Mark Twain and Dynamo gasped.
She said, “I was hoping to meet Lizard Man this evening.” She turned to the others. “Isn’t that what you had told me?”
Dynamo inflated for a retort, “This man is more worthy, trust me. He’s just flustered from all the excitement.”
The creator softened into a playful laugh, ha-ha, but Bowman didn’t buy it. He detected a shift as she set her jaw and pieced together the truth: a stranger with a counterfeit pass and a clear obsession had infiltrated her private chambers. Bowman tried to radiate any aura other than that of a stalker, but the effort created a paradox which only increased the undesired vibrations.
She maintained a pleasant demeanor and said, “Excuse me, just for a second,” and rolled through the gala toward the fondue fountain.
Dynamo said, “What are the chances? She’s like a fox.”
“Reclusive and elusive,” Mark Twain agreed.
Near the entrance, the creator spoke with two tall, suited men. Bowman shrank, like a spring compressing. He perspired, trembling slightly, the situation hurtling in a direction out of his control. He blurted, “Have you seen Tarzan? I need to find him soon.”
“Check the hotel suite. He was there when I left, acting strange.”
Bowman filed the room number to memory, deemed that Dynamo was not involved in the foul play, unaware of the transpiring danger.
The suited men, with the creator whispering the way, approached through the thin crowd. Bowman moved opposite, plodding the inconspicuous steps of an innocent schmuck. The men pursued, equally slow, no doubt about their target. Bowman’s pulse rose, his feet quickened to keep pace…now power-walking, long strides, looking over his shoulder…now colliding with a waiter hoisting a round tray, drinks splashing into waterfalls of ice and gin…now high octave gasps of sudden commotion. No ability to hold back now—he abandoned all pretension and ran, faster than his muscles allowed, running as fast as Admiral Victory, the superhero’s cape fluttering in his wake as he plowed through the door leading to the back stairwell.
Adrenaline, immediacy; he moved with conviction, always in the present: Admiral Victory trusts his instincts. He floats down entire flights, ignoring the hand rail. His hypersensitive hearing detects footfalls of the pursuers. Voices into shoulder radios and the inevitable echoes boom through the cool concrete stair tower. Pausing on a landing, he follows the light stream through the steel door, detects the carpeting connecting corporate offices, riding the wavelengths deeper around corners to an alternate escape route. Admiral Victory zips through the quiet office, locates the third floor fire escape, steps out through the window, and slides down a drainage pipe like a firefighter during an alarm, landing lightly on the street below.
He activates invisibility, circa Season 9 of the Japanese television series, throwing his cape around his face to evade detection on his journey to the hotel. The rear delivery dock is open, no delivery truck backed up to the gaping square. Admiral Victory hops up onto the receiving dock, action-rolling to his feet, blurs past large wheeled bins and pallets of hotel supplies. Taking the ground floor elevator, he watches stoically as the numbers rise, at last reaching the den of his rival.
The door is locked; he knocks. “We don’t want any,” a male voice says from inside. He knocks again, invisible through the peep hole. Footsteps approach and the latch releases—Admiral Victory bursts headstrong, growling, bull-rushing into the suite as Tarzan retreats. The Mermaid, wearing only the sea shell bra, is engaged in a solo sexual act on a chaise lounge. A digital camera perched on a tripod is aimed in her direction. She shrieks, dropping the ribbed toy at the sight of Admiral Victory, and reaches for a blanket to cover her nudity. The blinking red icon continues, recording in progress. He wonders, what’s the meaning of this? Could it be more sinister than he had imagined, the captive forced into sexual acts on camera? Tarzan has recovered slightly from the initial shock. “What the hell? You fucked up our movie—“
Admiral Victory deals with the threat directly: right jab, left hook, ka-pow! Tarzan crumbles into a heap. The Mermaid, on her feet and huddling against the far wall, howls at an obscene decibel—behind the wall, a housekeeper wearing rubber gloves hears the cries, runs for help—and Admiral Victory moves to comfort the Mermaid. He’s ambushed instead: the Mermaid lunges, her sharpened claws flailing at his face. A captive does not always react rationally, Admiral Victory imagines the wise voiceover inform the audience as he bobs, weaves, and dodges the scratches like an impromptu dance around the hotel suite, until at last he hears:
“Get your hands in the air!”
Commands are shouted, service weapons drawn. The Mermaid ceases her assault, instantly, and reverts to bawling and stomping. One officer aims an electric blaster at Admiral Victory, while the other officer—a man with a chocolate chip birth mark on his chin—catches the Mermaid as she falls into his arms. “He just busted in on us!” the Mermaid cries, “He’s a maniac!”
The officer whips a bed spread from the mattress, cocoons it around the Mermaid. He scans the toppled furniture and Tarzan’s sprawled body, bending at the waist to see into the adjacent sitting room. The officer thrusts a menacing index at the camera and tripod. “I knew it,” he says.
The Mermaid smears mascara across her cheek, sniffling. “Oh! Please don’t tell mom!”
“Unreal, Beverly. After everything we did for you?”
The officer crosses the room, lifts Tarzan by the shirt collar to see his face, bloodied about the mouth from Admiral Victory’s assault. The officer says, “With this piece of trash, none the less. I knew it, I knew it. My sister is a porn whore.”
Sweat pearls, colored by melting face paint, bead at the nape of Admiral Victory’s neck. Some people need to be taught a lesson. He says, “Your words lack wisdom,” the room hushes, “There’s no virtue in insulting the victim.”
“Shut your mouth, or I’ll drop you.”
“The crisis here is averted, as you can see. Remember: a tormented psyche often dements righteous intentions.” He means it as a compliment, but the officer fails to see it that way. Admiral Victory adds, “Now, as my work here is done, I must bid you good day.”
Admiral Victory lowers his hands, stepping forward to perform a farewell bow—the Taser strikes, viper-like—a sudden punch to the chest, the barbed weapon piercing his pectoral plate, biting into flesh. Lightning forks through bone marrow; universes condense then explode from the electric rivulets, and Admiral Victory falls.
The mug shot—disheveled, defeated, face smeared with uneven paint, left cheek drooping from the stroke-like symptoms induced by the Taser, blood shot eyes fixed ahead as if engaging the viewer with the hypnotic brain wave—was published by the local newspaper, but quickly spread through social media. Emails with the picture were soon forwarded in chain mails between all manner of office departments; an online fundraiser contest went viral, “Funniest meme to pitiful A.V. mug shot”, which raised money for adolescent mental health screenings; television morning shows featured Bowman’s picture to balance the dismal current events with a bit of comic relief; his principals, co-workers, and family across the country shook their heads and filled his voicemail box.
His lawyer walked him out of the courthouse a week after the incident, once Bowman had posted his bond. Bowman’s suitcase waited on the curb beside the taxi cab. The cab driver popped the trunk, extended the handle on the rolling luggage.
“I want that with me,” Bowman motioned to the backseat of the cab.
“You can call this man, once you get back to Erie,” the lawyer handed Bowman a business card. “He’s a pro at negotiating with the teacher’s union. No promises; you know keeping your job is a long shot.”
His plea deal—guilty of unlawful entry and simple assault—carried community service, which was transferred to his home municipality. He had no way of paying for another attorney; Bowman’s savings were pitifully drained.
The lawyer saw him off, waving like a ship leaving dock. Bowman watched the rush hour morning commute of the city—lingering fliers on light posts advertising Comic-Con were now streaked with graffiti, life had resumed as usual.
Bowman finally woke his cell phone. Holding the receiver inches from his ear, as if the ringing caused discomfort, he waited while the line connected to his ex-wife.
“Hello,” Bowman said when she answered.
She had a knack for establishing parameters, letting him know the mood up front, something he once admired and now found infuriating.
“I’m coming back to Erie,” he said.
“Okay. I care why?”
“I understand my visitation is next weekend. I’d like to coordinate the exchange.”
Her laughter: shrill, villainous. He squeezed the rubber handle on the luggage like a stress ball. She said, “Have you lost your mind? No way. You will never see my daughter, not with everything that’s out there.”
Out there. Bowman knew of the leaked mug shot image, imagined it was something of a local talking point, but the magnitude of reality as yet evaded him.
“You have no choice,” he said. “It’s a court order, unless you want to be charged with kidnapping.”
“Ha! We all know how you react to imagined kidnappings!”
He closed his eyes, a direct hit to his gut. He had erred on the side of heroism, trying to rescue the Mermaid, and what an err it was. Oh, the well of inspiration from that moment of overlap! Shame and humiliation spouting from a reservoir of pleasure! Oh, how strange are these new and unexpected destinies!
Bowman traced the zipper track on the luggage and caught the cab driver grinning at him in the rearview.
“Fine,” his ex-wife laughed. “I’ve got plans for the weekend, anyway.”
Bowman couldn’t resist: “What kind of plans?”
“I’m going to New York, for the circuit.” She let this percolate. “You know, the Today Show, Dr. Phil, the circuit.”
“What the hell for?”
“To tell our story. My story, really: what it’s like to be married to someone like you. What did you always say? One man’s hell is another man’s treasure? I have to cash in while your pathetic behavior is still a hot topic.”
Bowman clenched his teeth as the cab pulled to a stoplight. Business persons crisscrossed with coffee cups and briefcases, interconnected normality. He said, “I plan on having a loving relationship with my daughter, regardless of your thoughts. Now, let me talk to her.”
Over the line, he heard his daughter summoned, his ex-wife’s muffled instructions.
Her voice thicker, more harmonic than he remembered. He’d expected her to sound like a three year old, the way she’d perpetually be in his mind, but she had grown so fast.
She added, “When are you coming to see me?”
A torturous silence, Bowman lost for words. He glanced right, left, up and around the car’s interior, until he noticed the zipper on the luggage, which was undone, which had opened as if by magic. As if the powers inside were too great to keep contained. He drew forth the silken cape, laid it flat across the suitcase. With the proper pair of tailoring sheers, perhaps a handful of those adhesive crystal gemstones, the fabric could be refashioned into a stellar costume for his daughter.
With an intake of breath, he said, “Hello, sweetheart. I’m on my way.”
Jason Beck was raised in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania. A 2007 graduate of West Chester University, he’s currently employed—as so many former English majors/aspiring writers tend to be—in the Human Services field, helping people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues. When not wrestling with one of his ongoing writing projects, he’s running wild with his nieces and nephews, teaching the Irish terrier and Mastiff self determination, and neglecting the lawn mower and renegade hedges in his back yard. He lives with his wife near Allentown, PA, and will soon finish a novel featuring Antoine Bowman, the star of The Fall of Admiral Victory.
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