Red Rocket & Tom Atomic: 1956: Right and Magic, Chapter 5: Who Is that Masked Man?

by Dan Swanson

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Bonnie Drake had been sure that finding this picture would jar her memory, but so far nothing. She closed the trunk and took the painting, comic-book, and little Jack back upstairs. She and Todd had a wall of fame where they kept their favorite family pictures, and she added this painting to that wall of fame. She wondered how long it would be until Todd noticed.

She remembered that the mystery artist had told her he never signed his work, but he always managed to put his initials and the date of the painting somewhere in the picture. The burning tank had a serial number painted on the side, GG 1247. Ah, yes, it was Grant something or other. Yes, that ought to make it much easier.

The next step of her investigation led her to the Yellow Pages. Sure, it might save her a lot of legwork to let “her fingers do the walking.” She searched through various categories such as Artists, Art Schools, and Art Studios, and found four that looked as if they would be worth investigating.

American Dreamer Art Gallery and Featuring the Fantastic! seemed to be art boutiques. All-American Art was a consignment store for local artists. The Gerard School of Illustration was operated by G. Gerard, proprietor.

She wasn’t sure of her mystery artist’s last name, but Gerard didn’t ring any bells for her. She decided to visit the one farthest away first, and then the closer ones, saving the Gerard School for last.

None was within easy baby-stroller distance, and she didn’t want to lug Jack in a series of cabs. She sighed; she really wasn’t looking forward to the next few minutes, but she needed a babysitter. So she gritted her teeth and called her mother.

“Hi, Ma! It’s Bonnie!”

“Well, it’s about time you called! I hardly get to talk to you anymore, you running around town investigating murders and stuff.”

Bonnie responded patiently, she had heard it all before. “Ma, I call you at least once every day!”

Ma wasn’t fazed in the least. “And when are you going to come by again? Your father and I miss you, you know!”

Bonnie dropped by once or twice a week, but she really didn’t want to get involved in this conversation again. “Ma, I need you to watch Jack for a while. I’ll be over in twenty minutes, if you’re not busy.”

Ma wasn’t really listening; she was just getting started. “And another thing! All my friends who are grandmothers get to see their grandkids all the time, but I might die before I… What did you say?”

“Ma, I need to do some shopping, and I don’t want to take Jack along. Can you watch him for a few hours?”

“What an ungrateful child you are! Is that all your father and I are good for, instant babysitters? Why, the least you could do is call and ask us first!”

Bonnie was exasperated. “Ma, that’s what I’m doing right now. But since you’re busy, never mind. I’ll drop him off with Mrs. Stevens. Thanks, anyway.”

“Don’t you dare leave little Jack in the hands of a stranger. We would be happy to watch him for you! You be here in twenty minutes, young lady!”

Bonnie sighed. She loved her mother, but she wished she would get a hobby or something and get rid of a little of her negative energy. She got Jack ready, and had dropped him off within twenty minutes. She hurried out the door before her mother could start on her again, and caught a cab.

During the ride in the taxicab, Bonnie made a private bet with herself — she was sure she would find her mystery-man at The American Dreamer. After all, the name described him perfectly, right?

She would have lost that bet. The American Dreamer was a fairly large store with lots of very expensive paintings, most of which looked like anything but art to Bonnie. Why would anyone want to buy a white canvas, criss-crossed with absolutely straight lines of random colors, random widths and lengths, and random directions? Or a similar one by the same “artist” with curved lines instead of straight? And that one over there looked like the floor around Jack’s high chair after dinner. She looked at the price and was stunned.

The American Dream, indeed. Sell schlock at incredible prices and get rich on the ignorance of other people. Maybe she was in the wrong line of work. She had planned to talk to the manager, but after seeing the works on display, she decided she didn’t need to.

Featuring the Fantastic! was a small store with a lot of very esoteric art, and other strange things as well: a sculpture of a mermaid, a painting of a winged unicorn, a dragon skeleton made of ceramic bones that looked absolutely real, a small, brass oil-burning lamp shaped like a cream pitcher. The store also sold books on magic, ancient grimoires, vellum scrolls, and “magical” implements and tools, such as magic wands and vials of things like bat wing powder and dried frog toes.

The proprietor, Mindy, was a very short, attractive woman with waist-length brown hair and huge eyes, wearing a golden ankh on a pendant chain. She seemed perfectly normal to Bonnie, except when she offered to teach Bonnie to walk through walls.

On the off chance of picking up a clue, Bonnie asked Mindy if she knew anything about Wizzo the Wizard.

“Sorry, miss. I’m of the Old Religion — a witch, you understand — he’s a warlock, and I don’t deal with his kind. Like to give all witches a bad name, though. Hope they catch him and lock him up for a good long time, I do!”

Well, all she had left was All-American Art. She almost didn’t go in, since the paintings displayed in the window were all of ordinary topics, with no fantasy landscapes or patriotic super-heroes. But she had come this far, and Todd and Tomas would laugh at her if she gave up now and later found out this was the place.

A bell jingled as she walked through the door, and a tall, thin blond man came out of the back room. Yes! she thought triumphantly. Found him! And at the same time his name came back to her: Grant Gardner.

He looked somewhat different than he had six years ago. As he approached, Bonnie puzzled over what it was. Before she could figure it out, he recognized her and greeted her.

“Miss Victory! Bonnie Marlowe, what a pleasure!”

“Why, thank you Mr. Gardner! It’s Bonnie Drake these days, though. How sweet of you to remember.”

“Not at all, not at all. In all my years of painting, I’ve never met anyone who looked so like someone in one of my paintings! I’ll remember you, my dear, forever!”

His voice and his manner helped Bonnie realize what was different about him. The first time they had met, he was thin and frail, appearing as if a strong wind would break him in half. And he had been quiet and shy, bitter about the world, and very insecure. The Grant Gardner of today was still thin, but he was wiry rather than frail, and looked to have put on weight, perhaps ten pounds. It wasn’t a lot, but it seemed to be all muscle, at least enough to be noticeable. He still couldn’t have weighed one-hundred and twenty-five pounds, but he was no longer a walking skeleton.

The biggest difference, though, was in his manner. Grant Gardner now had a firmer voice, seemed happy, and exuded self-confidence. This man had charisma. So why was he selling his paintings from a small shop? She looked around again, and changed her mind — he was selling other artists’ paintings. None of these paintings matched his style.

She mentioned it to him. “These don’t look like your work.”

“No, indeedy. You remember my work, eh? Fantasy and super-soldiers… well, neither sold very well. I was barely making enough to eat and buy art supplies by selling paintings to the science fiction magazines, and once in a while someone like yourself. Too slow to be a reg’lar comic-book artist, too.

“I got tired of being hungry all the time, so I tried painting other subjects. Didn’t work — I don’t ken why, but I can only paint those things that live in my head. I couldn’t paint a picture of you, no matter how much I wanted to — and in fact, once I met you, I couldn’t paint any more pictures of Miss Victory, either. Somehow knowing you stopped her from coming back. Too bad; she was one’a my favorites!

“So I looked for some other line of work. Turns out I’m a pretty good salesman, and a’fore long I was sellin’ their art for all my friends. Not much in the way of commissions, but I’m doin’ right better’n I used to. And I still have a little time for my own work. Come take a look!” He took her hand and eagerly pulled her into the back room of the store.

Here indeed was his own work, and to Bonnie, at least, it was breathtaking — a futuristic city-scape from a planet with a red sun and two moons in the sky, a domed city under a sea being attacked by men with blue skin and scales, a man in red and yellow flying above another futuristic city, some kind of airplane or rocket with swept-back wings being launched into the night sky.

And there were heroes, too. He seemed to have moved on from super-patriots and gone on to heroes with wings. She saw Hawkmen and Hawkwomen, Angels of both sexes, several different kinds of Eagles, a Bluejay, a Falcon, and a Raven, among others. They were done with his usual beautifully realistic style.

“It’s a shame,” she said, “that more people don’t appreciate this kind of work. I wish I was rich enough to buy them all!”

He smiled at that. “I wish you were, too, Miss Victory.”

When he’d given her details about the various winged heroes, he changed the subject.

“Well, Miss Victory, what can I do for you today? You’re not here to buy a painting, or I don’t know my heroines — and I do!”

She blushed. “Mr. Gardner — Grant…” She changed directions when he started to protest. “…did you ever do a painting of a hero called Captain Democracy?

“Why, indeedy I did! I remember him well. Barnaby J. Buchanan’s his name. Carries himself an indestructible shield, has superior strength, agility, and stamina. Got his powers from an ‘accidental’ transfusion of blood from a gorilla. At least, that was the cover story, though if you ask me, it’s hard to believe anyone would be gullible enough to believe it, eh? It was just another government cover story for yet another secret government super-soldier project.” He looked at her curiously. “Why are you asking about Captain Democracy? I sold his painting long ago.”

Bonnie pulled out the photos of Captain Democracy. “Is this him?”

“Well, I’ll be darned! Yup, that’s him exactly! Where’d you get that picture?”

“Well, I’m a private investigator, and he showed up at a crime scene yesterday.” Bonnie was suddenly a little nervous. “The homicide team was taking pictures and got a few of this man.”

Now it was Gardner’s turn to look a little nervous. “So, you tellin’ me that this here Captain Democracy committed a crime?”

“Oh, no, sir! In fact, according to eyewitnesses, he tried to apprehend the criminals, and came close to being killed. In fact, two of the criminals died, and the third one, somebody named Wizzo, got away.”

“Captain Democracy killed a villain? Must be a phony, then. The real Cap’n D. never kills!” Bonnie was surprised at how angry Gardner was becoming.

“No, no, Wizzo actually killed his own partners. Could have killed the Captain, too, but let him live as a ‘warning’ to other super-heroes.”

“So, if this here Captain Democracy didn’t do anything wrong, why are you looking for him? How did you get involved in the case, anyway?”

This was what had made Bonnie nervous earlier. She had suddenly realized that there was no visible connection between her and the Wizzo case. She had to be careful; she didn’t want to give away Todd’s secret.

“My husband is also a private eye, and a good friend of one of the detectives in homicide. The detective asked us to see if we could find him so he could ask some more questions — all off the record, of course.”

“Off the record? Sounds like you and this detective fella think Captain Democracy is guilty of something!” His voice was no longer friendly. “Well, I can’t help you. I don’t remember who I sold the Captain Democracy painting to years ago. Sure looks like somebody used it for a model for that costume, but I got no idea who, and it ain’t my business.” He looked at his watch. “Say, Miss Victory, it’s been great talking with you, but I’ve got a doctor’s appointment in fifteen minutes. Can you flip over the open sign in the door on your way out?”

He ushered Bonnie out of the back room and guided her toward the door. She was surprised at how strong he was. “Thanks for your time, Grant. Give me a call if you think of anything?” And she turned and handed him her business card. He stuffed it in his pocket and shook her hand.

“Sure, Bonnie Victory! Good to see you! Have a nice day! Goodbye! Gotta run!” And he was headed back into the back room. Bewildered, Bonnie turned the open sign around and shut the door behind her. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing.

She headed back to her mother’s, thinking that when Todd got home, she had an interesting story to tell. She hoped he could make more of her day’s events than she could.

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