by Dan Swanson
Grant Gardner moved to a window in his office and watched Bonnie Marlowe Drake until she got into a cab, then left the shop via the front door and locked it on his way out. He quickly headed home.
When he walked into the house, his roommate Ernie was cutting stories out of newspapers. He was creating a Captain Democracy scrapbook. There weren’t many news stories in it yet, but there was a very well done painting of Captain Democracy on the cover. Bonnie would have recognized that painting.
“Well, well, Captain Democracy… I was just visited by a private investigator who is looking for you! Any ideas why? She said the police want to ask you some more questions about the bank robbery.”
“What’s buzzin’, cousin? Beats me, man, but it’s nothin’ to have a cow about! Hey, cast an eyeball on the news scene! I’m radioactive, Big Daddy, like I’m the most!”
“Drop the crap, Ernie, and speak English! Why is a P.I. on your tail?”
“Why, chill out, daddy-o! Don’t be a cube, rube!” He saw the anger on Grant’s face. “Hey, I really don’t know. All I did was help bust up a bank robbery. Didn’t do anything wrong. Who’s the P.I., anyway?”
“Bonnie Marlowe of DMT.”
“DMT? Like, crazy, man, pure Ivy League!” Once again, anger clouded the face of the older man. “Really, Grant — after it was over, the police asked me some questions, and then I talked with Red Rocket, and then we all split. Nothin’ to get flipped about.” He looked puzzled. “But why would she come to you, anyway?”
“She recognized your costume. I told you about her before, although I knew her before she was a P.I. Years ago, she bought one of my paintings because she looks just like Miss Victory. She remembered some of my other paintings, too. Nice to be remembered — but I still can’t figure why a private eye got involved. Unless they think you’re somehow involved with that Wizzo character.” He stroked his chin and tilted his head. “Hmm, maybe she’s somehow connected with Red Rocket.” His mood changed again. “I’m going out to the gym for a workout.”
Ernie sat up straight. “Hey! I thought we were sparring tonight?”
“Changed my mind. I need some tough competition tonight, and I think I’ll find it at the gym.”
“Geez, Grant, you still mad ’cause I went out on my first case before you told me I was ready? I did OK. Give me a break!” Ernie’s voice was somewhat whiny.
“Ernie, Wizzo could have killed you, and there was nothing you could have done about it — nothing! That’s hardly ‘OK.’ You weren’t ready, you aren’t ready, and you are never going to be ready. I’m tired of wasting my time. We’ve been training together for three years, and you’ve never landed a punch that I didn’t let you–” He wasn’t finished, but Ernie jumped up, yelling.
“You skinny old fart! If I hadn’t taken it easy on you back then, I’d’a busted you in half. I ain’t never hit you, ’cause I ain’t never tried!” The hip slang had vanished, burned away in Ernie’s anger.
Grant had turned his back and started to leave the room, but now he turned around again. “And that’s exactly why you will never be ready to be Captain Democracy. You ‘ain’t never tried.'” His voice had turned sickly sweet, as he repeated Ernie’s words again in a mocking tone.
“You’re right about one thing, you ain’t never tried — nothin’. You think it’s enough to lounge around and look good? You’ve got the build of Mr. America, hell, the body of a Greek god, and all you’re ever going to be is a pin-up boy. Captain Democracy? It’s more like Mr. December.”
Ernie jumped to his feet and stepped forward, bumping into Grant with his chest and pushing him backward. “You betcha I got the body of a Greek god, and it never bothered you before, did it? What put a bug up your butt? If you weren’t such a skinny runt, I’d break you in half right now and laugh.”
“Always got an excuse, don’t you? You’re afraid you’ll hurt me? Well, I’m not. C’mon, tough guy!” Grant slapped Ernie across the face. When Ernie turned his head, Grant slapped him again with the other hand.
Then he turned and walked out of the room, and headed down toward the workout room in the basement. He put on his sweats and started to limber up. A few minutes later he looked up, and there was Ernie in his workout gear.
“One last chance, big talker.” Ernie was determined to get the last word. “We take this down to the gym where there will be somebody to call the sawbones to save your sorry butt when I’m through thrashing you!” Ernie was shaking with anger and barely restraining himself.
“I’m sure you don’t want to be embarrassed, Ernie. Or, should I say, Captain Democracy? Here is fine. Tell you what, let’s make it really interesting.” He opened a cupboard and pulled out two round shields. One was the shield Captain Democracy had used the other day. The other was identical in every way but the insignia on it. Grant threw Ernie’s shield at him, hard.
Ernie’s hands snapped up, and he managed to grab the shield before it smashed him in the face. He was a little surprised at how close it had come to hitting him. But he’d had just about enough. He held his shield in front of him and charged like a bull. Grant moved aside and tripped him. Ernie used his shield to break his fall, and rolled to his feet, his back to his opponent. Grant’s shield hit him in the back of the knees, and he collapsed to the floor. He had thought he had been mad before — now he was steaming.
Rolling over cautiously, Ernie got to his feet, this time never letting Grant out of his sight. Grant was without his shield now, and Ernie was beyond worrying about hurting him. But he wasn’t going to do the charge like a bull trick again. This time he advanced slowly across the room, shield in front, alert for any other sneaky tricks the old man might try.
Grant feinted with his left, then his right, then his left again. Ernie moved his shield to block each punch, and each time he moved, the shield was pulled a little farther out of line. Grant then slammed a right into Ernie’s chin before Ernie could cover. It wasn’t a terribly damaging blow, but Ernie was absolutely stunned that this frail old man could hit him so hard.
Of course, Grant was only thirty-six years old, but to Ernie at twenty-four he seemed almost ancient. And, of course, Grant was no longer frail; his three years of martial arts workouts with Ernie had transformed him. He would never be a muscle-man, but he would never be frail again, either.
Grant had spent many long hours trying to teach Ernie how to use his shield in hand-to-hand combat, but Ernie had long ago become bored. He went through the drills and learned the motions. He thought he was getting pretty good, but he soon found that he couldn’t attack Grant successfully.
If he tried to use the shield to batter his opponent, he wasn’t fast enough, and when he tried to punch with the other hand, the shield kept messing up his balance. And throughout the whole frustrating sequence, Grant kept tagging him — never enough to really hurt, but always a solid blow. And now, Grant was hitting only a few spots, and hitting them over and over again, and those spots were becoming very painful.
Finally, Ernie threw away the shield. He knew how to fight, damn it. He had been fighting all his life. But it wasn’t enough. He was far stronger than Grant, and faster, too. And that wasn’t enough, either. The two men traded punches for several minutes, and Ernie landed a few, but only a few. Even though he was slower, Grant always seemed to be in the right position to lean aside, or deflect a punch just enough so it wasn’t damaging when it landed, and no matter what Ernie did to defend himself, Grant seemed to be able to anticipate the slightest openings, and land some kind of blow.
Ernie eventually went through the entire repertoire that Grant had taught him over the years. And Grant had learned from the best. He could close his eyes and observe some of the greatest fighters humanity had ever produced — not only watch them in action, but watch them train, study their regimens, even see what they ate and drank. Grant didn’t have the physique of one of his patriotic heroes, but he knew as much about hand-to-hand combat as any one of them.
Eventually, Ernie’s youth and Grant’s reluctance to actually hurt his young protégé started to tell, and Ernie was able to slip past Grant’s tiring defense and land a solid one-two punch. It wasn’t the devastating combination Ernie wanted, because even as exhausted as he was, Grant was able to roll backward with the punches, and instead of being knocked down, he turned his fall into a backward roll. He slowly climbed back to his feet again, a good distance away from his opponent. He kept his guard up, but made no effort to advance and re-engage.
Ernie took the opportunity to catch his own breath. He looked at Grant, who was so exhausted he could just barely stay on his feet, and laughed. “Well, big daddy, did you get the workout you were looking for?” Grant smiled and lowered his fists. Ernie was still talking. “Anyway, how the hell did you do that? I’m stronger than you are, and faster than you are. Yet I barely ever touched you.”
Grant chuckled internally. If that’s what Ernie believed, Grant wouldn’t enlighten him. He was almost as surprised as the younger man, though. They had never really both gone all out like this. Grant’s feelings were sort of chaotic — he had expected to be able to beat Ernie easily, and was a little disappointed in himself that he hadn’t, but he also recognized that only an exceptional fighter could have stood up to the enraged Ernie as he had.
Certainly the Grant Gardner of only two years ago would never have survived. He still didn’t believe Ernie was ready to face a real threat as Captain Democracy, but some of the heroes he had observed had started with less ability and training and survived. (Of course, many who were better trained and had greater powers had died, but that was an occupational hazard.) He decided he wouldn’t stand in Ernie’s way any longer.
As for Ernie, he was actually starting to have his doubts for the first time. How could this frail old man have handled him like that? Ernie rarely looked deeply into other people, but he was starting to realize that surface appearances might be deceiving, and just maybe Grant might know what he was talking about when he insisted that Ernie wasn’t quite ready yet.
Grant was pleased at Ernie’s question. “Do you really want to know? Are you willing to listen when I tell you? Like I said earlier, I don’t want to waste my time any more on a student who refuses to learn.”
When Ernie didn’t explode, Grant thought that perhaps he might finally be getting through. “I’m sorry, Grant. Ever since you told me I’m a super-hero in that other world, I thought it would be easy.”
Grant spoke sternly, and Ernie could hear anger underlying his words. “Dammit, Ernie! I never said you were a super-hero! In that world, during World War II, there appears to be a close analogue of you, and that analogue is a kid sidekick!”
“OK, then, my analogue, the other Ernest E. Earnest — he wears a costume, right? And he fights the Axis alongside this General Glory fella, right? A kid fighting and beating adults?” Grant nodded to each of these. “Well, if that Ernie at thirteen can fight in World War II, I can fight bad guys at twenty-four!” Grant nodded again, this time reluctantly.
But Ernie wasn’t done yet. “But maybe not yet. I’m starting to realize you’re right — I’m not ready yet. Thanks for beating some sense into me!” Both men smiled. Grant was relieved that Ernie had figured it out and didn’t seem to be angry any longer. In fact, he was eager to learn.
“So, daddy-o, clue me in! What’s your secret? How is it that I can’t even hit you?”
Grant pulled up a wooden kitchen chair, spun it around, and sat down with his elbows rested on the top of the back. “Your moves give you away. You know a lot of moves, punches, blocks, throws, and kicks, but I taught you all of them. And I taught you combinations, too. Well, you use the same combinations over and over again. So I always know what’s coming next! You have to learn to put together your own combinations, and never be predictable.”
Reaching out, Grant snatched Ernie’s shield from the floor and tossed it across the room. “I want you to dive headlong, recover your shield, pop up into a back-flip with your shield protecting your backside as if I was going to shoot at you, and then kick the practice dummy in the head with a left-footed snap-kick.”
Ernie paused for just a second to try to visualize what he was going to have to do. Grant would have none of it. “No thinking! In combat, you don’t have time to think. Do it now!”
Diving for the shield, Ernie picked it up and sprang to his feet. “Ouch!” he yelled as Grant shot him in the butt, twice, with a BB-pistol. When Ernie didn’t move again, Grant shot him again.
“Back flip, now!” To punctuate his command, he shot again. This time, though, Ernie had moved his shield into the correct position, and he managed to do the back-flip without getting shot again. He landed and awkwardly launched a snap-kick, but he was off-balance. Even though he did manage to kick the dummy in the chest, he fell to the floor, and Grant shot him twice more.
“You’re dead, my young friend!”
“Hey, that’s not fair! You knew I would have trouble putting those moves together! You picked them so they would be impossible!”
“Yes,” Grant sighed. “That’s exactly why I picked them! Toss your shield back over there!” He pointed with one hand and threw the BB-pistol to Ernie with the other. “Your turn to shoot me. Same sequence! Go!”
Grant dived headlong across the room, picked up the shield, and rolled so the shield was between himself and the pistol. Ernie took a couple of shots, but the BBs only bounced off the shield. Grant did a back-flip over the path of Ernie’s shots, landed in perfect balance, and just about knocked the dummy’s head off with his kick. “What’s the difference between what you did and what I did?”
Ernie wasn’t stupid. He closed his eyes and visualized the sequence again and tried to compare it with what he had actually done. “Umm, you’re slower?” He sounded puzzled, because Grant was slower. “You saying I need to move slower?” He was incredulous.
“I hope you’re joking! Nope, what else?” Once again, Ernie reviewed his actions. He hadn’t rolled to pick up the shield, and when he did recover it, he had still been moving the wrong way. Then he had to stop and think about what to do next.
“You always come out of one move in the right position for the next move!” Ernie was proud of himself, but Grant only shook his head.
“That’s close. But still not right. Think again — someday your life is going to depend on this!”
Ernie thought really hard. Grant had known before he started moving, just what moves he was going to do. So he should plan them out in advance? That couldn’t be right; Grant had already told him that you couldn’t always take time to plan things in combat. So you never really knew what move would need to come next, and… “Aha! When you come out of any particular move, you make sure you are in position for the next move, whatever it might be!”
“Yes, indeedy!” Grant said, very pleased. “Tell you what, let’s try another drill, OK?” Ernie nodded, and Grant smiled at a perceived irony. Only a little while earlier, Ernie had been bitching about drills; now he was looking forward to one.
“OK, here’s what you do. I’m going to tell you various moves, and you are going to do them in the sequence I give them to you. The hitch is, I’m not going to tell you what comes next until it is too late for you to prepare for it. I’ll start easy, and then move on to more difficult. And, if I see you preparing in advance for an anticipated move, I’ll change the move. Ready?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Go!”
Grant deliberately made this session difficult. Whenever he saw that Ernie was off-balance, he forced him to try something that depended on balance. If he was moving right too fast to stop, the next move required him to move left. Several times Ernie threatened to quit, because a particular sequence was impossible. Grant would hop off the chair and casually go through that exact sequence, then put Ernie to work again.
Ernie seemed to be progressing slightly — every once in a while he would make it through a series with speed and grace so stunning that it took Grant’s breath away. But then his grace would vanish, and Grant could see that he was thinking about every move before he made it, and how he could come out of this move so that he would be ready for whatever Grant shouted at him next? Ernie was improving through brute force, which wasn’t what Grant wanted. Ernie’s body knew how to do all these things, but his mind was standing in the way. Grant needed to get him to concentrate on something else and let his muscle memory take over.
“OK, Ernie, take five. One more fifteen-minute session, and we’re through for the night.” During that time he rejected several plans, and finally settled on one. When the drill resumed, Grant laid out the new rules.
“This time, you’re going to be doing two things at once. I want you to recite the Gettysburg Address while you continue the drill.”
“Are you crazy? I barely know it well enough to say it when I’m not worrying about something else. Nobody could do that!”
Once again Grant left his chair. “Sooner or later, you are just going to have to start trusting yourself, kid. Here, you call out the moves for a while.” He stepped onto the mat. “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers…”
Ernie started calling out the most difficult moves, punches, blocks, and rolls that he could think of in a random order. Grant moved smoothly through each, while continuing to recite the Gettysburg address just as smoothly. Ernie had him jumping, rolling, diving on the floor, vaulting, kicking, punching, and doing back-flips — totaling about fifty separate moves in the length of time it took him to recite the Gettysburg Address.
“…government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth!” Grant leaped to his feet, pulled off his imaginary Musketeer’s hat, and made a sweeping bow. Ernie was forced to applaud.
“Now remind yourself what you’ve been telling yourself all night — if I can do it, you can do it!” Ernie was astonished, but Grant was smiling.
Ernie jumped up, clipped his heels together, saluted, and started reciting. Seconds later, he was off-balance and fell to the floor. Rather than get back up, he just lay there and pounded the floor with one fist. But he didn’t say anything.
“You’re not concentrating on the speech, Ern! Last drill of the night, one more time. This time, sing America the Beautiful. Don’t think about what I tell you, just let your mind follow the song, and your body will do the rest.”
“Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies…” Ernie had a pretty good voice and projected well. He really had a lot of charisma when he wasn’t whining. He really loved singing this song, which was why Grant had chosen it.
“‘C’mon, Ernie, really belt it out!” he said loudly, then joined in.
“For purple mountain majesty, above the fruited plane!” Ernie was really into it the song now.
Ernie was rolling before he hit the ground, still singing.
“Handspring to your feet! Snap-kick to the head! Shield attack!”
As Ernie was beginning to throw his shield at the dummy, Grant pulled out the BB-pistol. Ernie smoothly altered his motion, and the shield spun through the air, knocking the gun from Grant’s hand without touching him. It bounced off the wall and was back in Ernie’s hand before Grant could say anything else.
Ernie stopped, stunned. All he could say was “Wow!”
Grant started laughing at his protege. “‘Wow’ is right! You never thought you had it in you, did you, kid?”
“That was the mostest, daddy-o! Let’s try it again!”
“Nope. You may not realize it, but it’s past midnight, and we both have to work tomorrow. Hot showers, we take turns on the massage table, and then hit the hay!”
Ernie realized that they had a lot to talk about, but he could see that Grant was exhausted. He suddenly realized that he was, too. Well, it could wait until tomorrow, then.