She sat on a bench, looking at the busts set behind the fountain. Four men, each masked, looked out with sightless eyes. She knew them each by name, and since her father had started preparing her for this meeting, she even knew their real names.
“How ya doin’, kid?”
Charly Lane turned to see her father’s friend, Ted Grant, standing behind her. “All right,” she said quietly, turning back toward the statues. “They… they really died doing this, didn’t they?”
Ted sat down next to her. “Yeah, kid, they did. Green Arrow and the Crimson Avenger, they weren’t really members of the JSA, but they worked with us back in the war. G.A., he died during the Crisis a few years ago. And the Crimson, well, he decided that it was better to go out saving his city than to waste away in a hospital.”
“I remember when Batman died, but what about Mister Terrific?”
“Well, he was murdered, like Batman was, by a nut-job who was just out to kill for the joy of killing.” Seeing her expression, he continued. “Yeah, Charly, there’s people like that out there. Most of your crooks, they’re out there for money, or a few of them for the fame. But a few get it inta their heads to just start killing. And a guy in a flashy costume makes an attractive target.”
“You mean, it’s, like, deliberate?”
“Kinda. Most of us who do this, we’re doing it to protect others. And if we can save the life of some ordinary Joe or Jane Doe by attracting the attention of some loony with a fancy gun, well, let’s just say it’s a part of the job.”
For the next two minutes, Charly sat looking at her hands. When she looked up, her parents were standing near the busts. “I’d be one of those targets, wouldn’t I?” Her father nodded, a grim look on his face. “That’s one of the reasons for the masks, isn’t it? So you can get away from being a target?” Another nod.
“I won’t try to kid you, Charly,” said Ted. “It’s a dangerous business, nearly as bad as being in the military during wartime. I fell into it because I was framed, and I stuck with it after I got the mooks what framed me. Felt like I could do something positive with it.”
“I was a frustrated rookie cop, and donned a mask to bring in crooks that the Police Department couldn’t touch,” added Chuck Lane. “Broke more than a few laws in the process.”
“If you could make that decision again, would you still do it?” asked Charly.
“Damn right I would,” answered Ted.
“In an instant,” said Chuck.
“I never had to make that choice, dear.” Melanie brushed her black hair out of her eyes. “Costumed mystery-men were pretty much an East Coast thing when I was growing up, and it never occurred to me or anyone that I knew to try it. Out in Milwaukee, our heroes were in the police and fire departments, the doctors and nurses in the hospitals, the soldiers fighting in Korea and Vietnam. If you wanted to serve your fellow man, that’s the path you took.”
“That’s why you became a nurse?” asked Charly. Her mother simply nodded.
“It’s also why she served in the Army Medical Corps over in ‘Nam. And why she went down to Mississippi a week after we got married, to help out after Hurricane Camille.” Chuck reached out and took his wife’s hand in his own. “It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her.”
“Eww, you guys,” said Charly. She turned toward Ted. “So, when do we start? Do I start coming down here every day to train, or what?”
“Actually, seeing as school’s out for the year, I’ve got something else in mind.” Ted grinned. “You ever been to Florida?”
A month later, Charly Lane pulled herself out of a swimming pool under the sunshine of a Florida afternoon. She ran a hand back through her hair as she walked over to a chair and grabbed a towel. As she toweled off, three teenaged boys walked out of the adjacent house.
“Hooo, yeah, look at that. Pretty, pretty young thing,” said one of the boys, a grin on his face.
“Watch your mouth, Mickey. You feel like climbin’ that damn rope again?” said the tallest of the three.
The third boy, the smallest of the three, snickered. “Yeah, like he ever made it to the top of the rope, anyway.”
Charly tossed the towel over her shoulder. “Don’t worry. The rope is for strength training, and you guys are plenty strong.” Seeing Mickey start to relax, she continued. “I’ll have you on the balance beam for a half-hour, though.”
For five weeks, Charly had been training at the converted mansion in Sarasota, Florida. She was also an instructor; Ted and Irina Grant had a dozen street kids from Sarasota living at the house for the summer, trying to straighten them out. At first, she’d thought they were there, like herself, to learn the ins and outs of costumed crime-fighting. She realized quickly, however, that they knew nothing about Grant’s identity as Wildcat. Instead, they were there thanks to Father St. Charles, an inner-city priest who was working with the Grants to help these kids get further in life than their parents had.
Her job, when she wasn’t lifting weights, running five miles cross-country, or swimming fifty laps in the pool, was to teach dance and gymnastics for the other kids at the house. Some of the others had special talents that they were teaching to their peers as well. Jorge Martinez, the taller of the three standing before her, was a natural mechanic and had worked with his father in the elder Martinez’s gas station until a hurricane left the boy parentless and homeless two years earlier. Now he spent a few hours each day teaching his peers how to repair cars, motorcycles, and lawnmowers in the estate’s garages. Miguel Romero, better known as Mickey to his friends, had learned to cook as a child in order to help his mother keep food on the table for his younger brothers and sisters. Now he was leading a group cooking meals for the elderly of St. Mark’s Parish.
“You and that damn beam, girl. Must be nice to be a skinny little thing. Try standing on that thing when you’ve got a little fat on your bod.” Charly turned to see Paul Jeffers walking out of the house.
“Then maybe you should start paying attention to my mother’s advice about what you eat,” replied Charly.
“You nuts? Give up my hot dogs and meatsa-meatsa pizzas?” He pulled off his T-shirt, leaving him in a pair of baggy swim trunks. “So, you guys hittin’ the water, or what?” he said, running toward the pool and jumping in.
“Have fun, guys. I’ve got to get back to the weight room,” said Charly, grabbing up her towel again and walking inside.
That evening, Charly stood at a workbench in the basement, staring at a dismantled tangle of wires, spools, and gears. As she tried to fit a spool on the spindle attached to a large gear, a coiled spring in the spool sprung loose and bounced to the floor. With a muttered curse, she put the assembly down and knelt on the floor to look under the workbench.
“That’s gotta be the best view around this place.”
Charly’s head shot up at the sound of the voice, smacking the underside of the workbench. She heard footsteps running over to her and felt strong hands grab her arm and guide her out from under the table. Getting shakily to her feet, she found it was Jorge who had caused her to hit her head. Now he was stammering out one apology after another as he tried to help her.
“I’m OK, really. Just caught me by surprise.” Charly rubbed at the spot on her head where a noticeable lump was forming. “No broken skin, but probably gonna hurt like the dickens tomorrow.”
“The dickens? What the heck is a dickens?” asked Jorge with a smile. He looked down at the jumbled components on the workbench. “And what the hell is this supposed to be?”
“Let’s see. Heavy-duty spring here, looks like a trigger mechanism. A small motor like I’ve never seen, hooked up to the gears and spool. Looks like some kind of handheld spear-gun that reels in the fish for you.” He looked up. “Do I win the prize?”
“Only if you can make it work. You’re good with this kind of stuff. Want to give it a shot?”
“One condition — you tell me what it’s for.”
Charly considered for a moment, turning away from the older boy. “Look, this is kind of a big secret, so if I tell you, you’ve got to promise not to tell the others, OK?”
Jorge grinned as he tinkered with the spring assembly. “So long as it won’t get anyone hurt, I’ll keep your secrets.”
“The only one that’s going to get hurt over this one is myself.” Charly reached into a box and pulled out something that looked like half of a pistol. “That was attached to this; it’s called a wirepoon pistol. You ever heard of the Sandman?”
“You mean the old guy from the JSA, wears an old-style suit and gas mask?”
“That’s the one. This once belonged to him. I’m adapting it to use for myself.”
“Get outta here! How’d you get something that belonged to a big-time super-hero?”
Charly considered for a few seconds, trying to decide which secrets were hers to tell, and which were not. “You know my Dad was a cop, right? In New York?”
“Oh, I see. It’s nice to have connections, ain’t it?” Jorge fitted the spring assembly to the motor, locking it in place with a clip that was fastened to the motor for that purpose. “So, what are you going to do with it? You gonna be Sandman’s sidekick?”
“No, not exactly. I’ve got a name of my own to use — the Jester.”
“Ain’t that a clown?”
“Kind of. But it was also the name of a hero a long time ago, and I want to carry on his tradition.”
“Sounds a little crazy to me, chicka, but–” There was a click as he snapped a spool of wire onto the motor. “Hey, I think I’ve got it.”
“Cool. Now, attach it to this pipe, and attach this to the wire.” Jorge did as she asked him, taking what looked like a doll head and fastening the wire to a loop inside the head. She took the completed object in her hand.
“Hey, that kinda looks like that cosmic stick that Starman uses.”
“It’s a scepter.” She held it, turning so that the head was pointed toward a pipe running along the wall. She then pressed a button on the pipe, and the head shot across the room. The jaws opened up, then clamped around the pipe. “Got it on the first try. Now…” Charly pressed a second button, and she was pulled across the room as the wire retracted. “Yes!”
“Like one of those — what do they call ’em? — grappling hooks, right?”
“Right.” Charly placed the scepter back in the box. “A lot easier than the boomerang things that Batman used.”
“I guess. So, what are you doing here? Your dad fix you up with Mr. Grant to teach you how to fight?”
“To get me into shape, too. You remember how skinny I was when I got here, don’t you? If I’m going to fight drug dealers and such, I’ve got to be stronger.”
“So that’s why you spend so much time in the weight room.” Jorge gathered up the extra parts and put them in the box with the remains of the old wirepoon pistol. “I’m guessing you don’t want any of the other guys to know about this, right?”
“That probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” agreed Charly. “Now, we better get upstairs.”
They started walking toward the stairs. “Hey, what about my prize? I got your gizmo to work, so where’s my prize?”
Charly crooked a finger at him, beckoning him to lean over so she could whisper in his ear. But instead of whispering, she kissed him quickly on the cheek, then made a dash for the stairs.
Jorge stayed behind, running a hand down his cheek. “That’s a hell of a lot better prize than I expected!”