by Dan Swanson
Warden Welducci had known from the start that the new prisoner was going to be trouble. He should have gone straight into solitary, but the rules said that, as long as he behaved, he had to be treated just like all the other criminals. It didn’t matter what he’d done outside; in here, he was just another convict, and he was treated just like all the rest. Welducci mostly agreed with that sentiment, but this guy was a super-villain, for Pete’s sake. Yep, he was going to be nothing but trouble. Why did they send all the super-villains to the Federal Penitentiary of Maryland, anyway? Sooner or later, one of them was going to escape, and that black mark on his record would shoot his pensions all to hell. He hoped his transfer request would be approved soon.
In an observation room high above the prison dining room, protected by windows of bulletproof glass, he watched the convicts file in for dinner. He’d posted extra guards with special riot-control weapons tonight. Trouble often started at dinner, when several hundred sullen, angry, mostly violent men were forced into close proximity in a single dingy, smelly room and fed the same old, unappetizing prison food. Most of them were already spoiling for a fight, and the new prisoner was sure to generate resentment. The warden gave it fifteen minutes, maximum.
None of the convicts could fail to notice the new guy. While most of the prisoners shuffled along, hanging their heads or glaring sullen hatred at all around them, drab in their gray prison coveralls, the new man strode arrogantly into the room, straight and tall, with a haughty regal demeanor that was guaranteed to antagonize everyone else in the dining hall. The muttering started immediately.
His attire didn’t help matters any. While the rest of the prisoners were dressed in ill-fitting threadbare prison uniforms, he was wearing a magnificently tailored midnight blue tuxedo with tails, so dark it was almost black, a grandiose opera cape of the same color, and a blue-black top hat. Combined with his haughty demeanor, his aura of personal power, his immaculately trimmed black beard, and his frightening all-white eyes, the Wizard was a charismatic and almost awe-inspiring figure. And those prisoners around him resented it.
“Hey, screw!” one of them shouted at a guard. “Why’s the fop, there–” He pointed at the Wizard. “–get to dress like a phony stage magician?”
“Shut up and eat, or you won’t get nothin’!” the guard responded. He had been wondering the same thing.
“Yeah, like I care if I miss this slop!” the convict responded. The Wizard must have overheard, but he ignored that conversation and the muttering of the other convicts.
“As if we have a choice!” the warden snorted. “Every time we put him in a prison uniform, it somehow changes into that same damn costume.”
They had even tried forcing him to go nude, but within a couple of hours, he was magically clothed again. But the other convicts didn’t know that, and he couldn’t tell them, didn’t dare let them know that this prisoner was defying him. Let them think he was getting special treatment. That way, they would direct their anger at the Wizard, rather than wondering if they, too, could get away with defying the warden.
The Wizard picked a table and sat down with his tray. The warden winced. The Wizard had unerringly selected the table favored by the half-dozen meanest, toughest hard cases among the prisoners. It couldn’t be an accident. Was the man trying to start trouble? Probably.
There was a well-defined pecking order among the prisoners, and it was never violated with impunity. When it happened, there was always violent trouble. Rarely did a new bully boy reach the top of the prison food chain. Much more often the challenger ended up in the prison infirmary, crippled for life — or worse. It was too late for him to intervene. Besides, the Wizard had already started to grate on his nerves. The warden hoped the other convicts would take the Wizard down a notch, though he doubted it.
The Wizard ate alone, as nobody quite dared to join him at his newly selected table. This set off a chain reaction as the chief bully boys forced others away from their own tables, and those others, in turn, displaced still others. The muttering grew louder.
The final straw was probably the Wizard’s obvious appreciation of the slop the prisoners were served as food. He relished every bite, as if it were part of the finest repast served at the finest table among the rich and privileged, and he savored the warm, flat tap water as if it were the finest wine. Long ago, he had decided not to waste his time with anything less than the very finest foods, and he had crafted a permanent spell that worked on the food he ate. He saw, and ate, nothing but the finest, regardless of what was served him, as his innate magic transformed it before he consumed it. His appreciation for the food and drink was unfeigned. But the same spell kept the other inmates unaware of the transformation. The spell also neutralized any poisons or toxins that might have been laced in his food or drink, a useful side effect when one constantly dealt with the criminal element.
“Damn, if you like this slop so much, you can have mine,” came an angry shout from another table, and a plate of prison food flew through the air. It was virtually impossible to see who had thrown it, but the plate came from the direction of the table of the former head bullies. Someone apparently wanted to cause trouble between the old and new rulers of the dining room, and perhaps kill two birds with the same stone.
“Crap, that rips it all to shreds!” the warden yelled as he reached for the alarm. Clearly, even with all the precautions the prison authorities had taken, the Wizard still retained some of his power. This could be a slaughter.
The flying plate never reached its intended destination. It acted as if the air around it had thickened, slowing rapidly and spewing its contents across the men seated at the intervening table. Most of the flying food splattered directly into the face of Boss Neuertski, the current de facto king of the prison inmates.
At that same instant, the Wizard rose from his seat and spoke. The stunning power of his booming voice actually shook the solid cement walls. “I am the Wizard! The man who vanquished Superman!” (*) He was about to say more when chaos broke out.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Superman Takes a Wife,” Action Comics #484 (June, 1978).]
The man who threw the plate made a break for the closest of the three inmate exits. A bare instant later, most of the rest of the convicts also stampeded for the exits, yelling and screaming. They knew what would happen next. In the observation room, the warden tripped the alarm switch, and repurposed World War II air raid sirens blared painfully, even louder than the augmented voice of the Wizard. Tear gas began seeping through vents in the walls.
Under cover of the confusion, Boss Neuertski dispatched one of his lieutenants on a deadly mission. “Stones! Youse follow da ‘topper,’ dere,” he said, referring to the Wizard’s top hat, “and innerduce him to yer shiv!”
He could have Stonalli take out the plate thrower later, but the Wizard was an immediate threat to his power. This riot was a stroke of luck; in the frantic crowds around the exits, more inmates than just the Wizard would be injured or killed, and not a few of them with crude daggers similar to Stonalli’s. No one would be able to pin the Wizard’s death on him. And if Stones did get caught, he wouldn’t say anything.
Unnoticed by almost everyone, Boss Neuertski then approached one of the guards, who handed Neuertski his own gas mask and led him out of the chaos through the guard’s entrance. What was the use of having power if you didn’t use it for your own benefit? One of the other guards noticed, however, and he filed this incident in his mind for future reference. He then walked up to the Wizard, who had returned to his seat and was eating. The mage seemed unaffected by the gas or the chaos nearby.
“Not bad, Mr. Zard, for a guy wit’ no magic!” The guard’s voice was muffled by the gas mask, but his tone was pleasant. He was a very big man, and he moved with surprising grace. The Wizard was in a good mood, and he responded pleasantly.
“I may be without my magnificent Wand of Glastonbury, but the Wizard will never be totally without magic again,” said William Asmodeus Zard. “Would you care to join me for dinner…?” He peered at the guard’s uniform. “…Captain Strickland?”
The guard shuddered. “I don’t know how anyone can eat that crud. Mr. Zard, da rules say that anyone what starts a fight goes to solitary. Please come wit’ me.”
The Wizard was anything but displeased. But he shouldn’t appear eager. So he bluffed anger. “I had nothing to do with this fight, Strickland!”
“Save it, pal. You ain’t tellin’ me you choose dis table by mistake? Or dat plate dropped on da Boss by accident? I ain’t no fancy, overdressed big talker, but I been guarding cons for twenty-five years, and I know all da tricks.” There was a little anger in the guard’s voice as well. “Besides, big shot, it’s mostly for your own good. You may t’ink you’s hot stuff, but to the cons here, you’s just another stiff. In fact, one of ’em’s already lookin’ to stick a shiv in your back.”
“Stuff and nonsense, Captain. I retain more than enough magic to protect myself. On the matter of solitary, I demand a meeting with the wa–”
He never finished. Almost faster than the Wizard could perceive, the guard kicked his chair out from under him, grabbed him from behind in an arm bar, immobilizing both his arms, and swept a plastic spoon from the table, holding it to the Wizard’s throat with his free hand.
“Some of the boys here are almost as fast as I am,” Strickland said in a mild tone, as he released the stunned mage. “And deys’s not a nice guy like me. No matter how hard we look, sumna them got shivs, and dey’ll use ’em, too.”
The Wizard was more than a little shaken up. If this guard had meant to kill him, he would likely be dead now, regardless of the magic he retained. He struggled not to show his fear. “Thank you for a very graphic and convincing demonstration, Captain Strickland. As you suggest, solitary might be just the place. Please lead the way.”
“Since we’s such good friends now, why don’cha call me Stork like everyone else?” Strickland asked. “I need to cuff you — just for show, of course.” He did, and led the Wizard out the door that Neuertski and his pet guard had just used. Stonalli, who hadn’t dared approach the Wizard while Stork was nearby, plunged into one of the yelling, struggling mobs at an exit, taking out his frustration by cutting a half a dozen other inmates.
Solitary wasn’t very interesting, but then, it wasn’t designed to be. The cell was a simple steel box with extremely primitive furnishings all seemingly extruded from the floor or walls. Finger food arrived three times a day through a small hole, about large enough for a squirrel, on small paper plates with no utensils. The sink doubled as a bubbler, the toilet as the waste receptacle. He knew he was monitored by a large array of sensors, but he didn’t care. He was well pleased to be away from prison society. With no responsibilities and no distractions, this was a perfect opportunity for meditation, reflecting on his recent setbacks, and making plans for the future.
Captain Strickland had bragged about this escape-proof cell. “Dis here cell was designed by an expert on super-criminals. It held Doctor Doog and da Rival, and it will hold you, too. Count on it.” Doog and the Rival had both escaped from this prison in the past — which was why the new warden was so jumpy — but neither from solitary, and only with outside help. (*) So he would just have to be the first.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: Times Past, 1949: Vic Valor, Invincible, Chapter 12: Doctor Doog’s Plan and Showcase: Times Past, 1949: Lily DeLuna, Investigative Reporter, Chapter 11: The Scientist.]
Very early the next morning — shortly after midnight, though he didn’t have a clock — the Wizard awoke. There was someone or something in the cell with him. He held himself still as he listened intently. If it was a man, his breathing was inaudible. There was some kind of periodic high-pitched whine, barely audible; could it be the ventilator? He could detect no magic. How had anything gotten into this sealed cell?
The furnishings in solitary didn’t run to a light switch. The Wizard concentrated all his remaining magic on creating a light. A dimly glowing blue globe sprang into existence near the ceiling, revealing his visitor. Sitting on the rim of the toilet, staring at him intently, was a bat the size of a collie.