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King of Battle: “Masks”

King of Battle: “Masks.”
© Paul Hair, 2017.
Movies and television series based on comic book properties are still doing well. But it’s a different story for the actual comic book industry. Many comic book readers are dissatisfied with it. Some even believe the comic book industry is self-destructing, with its writers, artists, editors, and managers doing all they can to hasten that destruction. I see an opportunity for new creators in all this. And as a way to show what I mean, I’ve written a short prose story called, King of Battle: “Masks.”

There appear to be many problems with the comic book industry. [I no longer read comic books but I read and watch reviews of them and the comic book industry (see the below video), and I read comments made on social media by comic book creators.] One of the problems seems to be that its writers no longer have an ability to write relevant stories. And that’s pretty astonishing. Each new day brings about more subjects and issues that can easily form the basis of interesting stories (comic book or otherwise).



As a demonstration of what I mean, I have written a short prose story that addresses the issues of privacy and anonymity in the modern world (particularly since privacy and anonymity have become a major issues for online behavior). My story also shows that the solution to the willful self-destruction of the comic book industry is for people to start creating their own stories and universes. Let the comic book industry (or at least its dominant companies) go extinct.

Here now is, King of Battle: “Masks.”

*****

King of Battle: “Masks”
By Paul Hair

King of Battle: “Masks.”
© Paul Hair, 2017.
“If Artillery hadn’t reached them in time, they would’ve died,” Amber said.

“And everyone is happy about that. But why does he wear a mask and think he’s above the law?” Kayla asked.

“Actually, that’s why everyone isn’t happy about him rescuing them,” Amber replied. “This woman is specifically saying his saving their lives doesn’t make up for the fact that he’s a vigilante.”

“That does seem a bit ungrateful, doesn’t it?” Kayla said, looking at Amber from the entrance to the cubicle.

“You wouldn’t hear me complaining,” Amber said. “I guess I’m going to ask her about that when we talk.” She grabbed her black purse by the strap. “If anyone calls for me just send them to voice mail and don’t forward them to my cell,” she told Kayla.

Kayla looked at her. “Sure,” she said. Then she turned and marched back to the secretary’s desk, her heels striking a bit louder than normal on the bluish-gray, loop pile carpet.

Amber bit her lip. She stood up and glanced forwards towards the new girl—she forgot her name already—who had gotten the associate acquisitions editor position. Kayla had applied for that position too.

She slung her purse over her shoulder and then walked out of her cubicle. She took the stairs, walking one flight down to the ground level, and went into the lobby where the receptionist’s desk was. Then she exited the building into the private parking lot behind Panoply Publishing.

Amber was soon in her mint green Ford Focus and leaving Harrisburg by way of the Market Street Bridge. She had the window down and her sunglasses on. Her brown, shoulder-blade length hair whipped everywhere.

Wormleysburg was on the other side of the Susquehanna River, and Amber was headed to a restaurant there that was close to where the bridge connected to the banks of the west shore.

The parking lot connected to the restaurant was already full when she arrived, so she parked in the annex across the road. Cheryl Roher was there waiting for her. The two of them crossed Front Street together and, surprisingly enough, were almost instantly seated.

The small talk was short, terse, and then Cheryl got to the point. “So you make a lot of money from your superhero series about Artillery,” Cheryl said, sitting quite straight in her chair. The waitress had served them water and bread but she hadn’t touched either of them.

“The company earns money from it,” Amber replied. The series of young adult novels was called The Obliteration Diaries. “And it’s not about Artillery. It’s just about a superhero in Harrisburg.”

“But it never would’ve existed if Artillery hadn’t shown up, would’ve it?”

Amber slowly tore a chunk off a piece of bread. “I don’t know about that. Superheroes are very popular right now.”

“The main character is called, ‘Fragmentation.’”

“That’s right.”

Cheryl scoffed. “So that means that Panoply is raking in money by glorifying anarchy,” she said.

“We’re not glorifying anarchy,” Amber said, uncrossing her legs and setting both heeled feet flat on the ground. “We’re producing a series of novels designed to entertain teens. Nobody had any problems with superheroes before; I can’t see how anybody could blame us for what we’re doing now.”

“Superheroes weren’t real before Artillery,” Cheryl said.

Amber guessed Cheryl was 30, maybe a year or two younger or older. Dirty blond hair with highlights; cut so that it just touched the bottom of her neck. She was pretty, but she was just at that age where you couldn’t really mistake her for being a college student or “kid” any longer.

“Artillery isn’t a superhero,” Amber replied.

“You know what I mean. Doesn’t it bother you at all what your company is doing? Doesn’t it bother you with what you are doing? You’ve met him a few times, and you use that to promote your line of ‘completely fictional’ books,” Cheryl said.

Amber set the bread down on her plate. “I don’t get it. He just saved your life. Why are you doing this?”

Cheryl stared at her. Amber noticed her jaw was clenched tightly and her eyes set tightly on her.

“My brother, Brad, was on 18th Street, between State Street and Market,” Cheryl said, her hands resting on her lap. “He was walking home from buying groceries at a small, corner store. Some idiotic, low-level drug deal had happened on 16th Street earlier in the evening. Or it had been in the process of happening. Artillery had decided he was going to be a hero and he interrupted it.” She paused and looked at the waters of the river through the big windows on the east side of the restaurant. She swallowed and then stared at Amber again.

“He got a few of them apparently,” she said. “The others ran away. They ended up on 18th Street later. They were angry—angry that Artillery had cost them money. So they made up their minds that they were going to take out that anger, and make up that lost money at the same time. Brad was the first person they saw. They got ‘paid’ when they robbed his lifeless body of his debit card and $29 in cash.” She looked down and then back at Amber once more.

“If it hadn’t been for Artillery—if he would’ve done what every law-abiding citizen does by letting the cops do their job—my brother would still be alive,” she said. “So, yeah, he ‘saved’ my life. But that doesn’t make up for him killing Brad. And I don’t know about you, but I think that gives me a reason to be doing what I’m doing.”

Amber couldn’t look at her any longer. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. “I didn’t know.”

She may have heard about it when it had happened—the murder, at least. She couldn’t know for sure. Regardless, it must have never risen to a level above a mention on the evening newscasts or on the local news websites. And that was surprising. Any connection between Artillery and something bad—no matter how thin—normally was exploited by the media for all the outrage they could generate over it.

“Apparently you don’t know a lot of things,” Cheryl said, placing her hands on the wooden tabletop. “How old are you anyway? Are you even out of college?”

“Yes,” Amber said, still not looking her in the eye.

“So I’ll ask you again, does what you are doing bother you at all?”

“The Obliteration Diaries aren’t about Artillery,” Amber said.

Cheryl shook her head. “Pathetic. You know, I used to think Concerned Citizens for Responsible Publishing was a bunch of fools for protesting Panoply. But now they look like geniuses. Maybe they aren’t even doing enough. After all, I never saw them go after you personally.” She got up from the table, her chair wobbling for a moment. She took the napkin that had been on her lap and threw it down on the chair as she left.

Amber stayed behind. Soon their waitress came back to her. “We’re still going to have to charge you for seating you,” she said, her notepad in one hand and pen in the other one.

Amber decided she’d stay there and eat. She had a salad.

*****

Amber went back to work after lunch and had a fitful rest of the day. And her day didn’t get better when she went home for the evening. Despite being low on the totem pole, she had the authority to pull the plug on The Obliteration Diaries. Or at least Emily Drake, the editor in chief of Panoply Publishing, highly valued her opinion about the series.

There had even been some recent discussion about the future of it. Did they want to end it now so they didn’t water down the brand? Or did they want to keep going? It was profitable but Panoply was doing well; it had other series going too. Management didn’t want to give up on something popular, but at the same time it knew that most series needed an ending eventually.

Cheryl’s story about her brother kept going through Amber’s mind. No matter how much she told herself The Obliteration Diaries weren’t exploiting the real-life Artillery (or making it seem as if vigilantism was a good thing) the voice in her head told her she was a horrible person.

Yet she wasn’t going to recommend that they cancel the series. She couldn’t.

Amber lived in an apartment on Front Street in Harrisburg in what was known as Governors’ Row. The historic building was gorgeous—renovated and modernized in the past five years while maintaining the most appealing parts of the century-and-a-half structure. It had a panoramic view of the river and City Island, and it was in the most prestigious block of the most prestigious street in the city. She loved it. But her rent was outrageous.

Add on top of that over $50,000 of student loans, her monthly car payment, and all her utilities, and Amber had a lot of debt and monthly bills. Worse yet, she just went on a spending spree with her credit card, buying a bunch of new outfits, accessories, and other unnecessary things.

She wasn’t delinquent on anything yet, but she was living paycheck to paycheck. Panoply paid her a lot of money for being fresh out of college. But she needed every penny of it. If The Obliteration Diaries went away, she would lose the commission it still paid her for discovering the author and series. And that was one quarter of her salary right now.

Amber’s socked feet scuffed across the hardwood floor to the kitchen. She wore a pink shirt with a dancing kitty on it along with a pair of old, gray sweatpants.

She set her mostly full tea cup on the black countertop next to the matte silver refrigerator. She reached for the sugar jar and put two teaspoons into the cup, stirring it afterwards. Then there was a buzz at the intercom.

She dragged her feet to the door and answered it. “I have a delivery for Amber Little. It’s a note,” a man said.

“All right. I’ll be down to get it,” Amber said.

She slipped on a pair of sneakers and went out the door of her second floor apartment. It took her about 30 seconds to walk down the short hallway, go downstairs, and get to the entrance on the ground floor. 

“Some woman told me to give this to you,” a clean-shaven man in his early twenties said as he handed her the note. He sported a polo shirt and light-colored pants. Maybe he was a college student from one of the city schools. Amber had no idea who he was, but it didn’t bother her. This wasn’t the first time a stranger had come to her door.

“Hope she paid you better than the last guy,” Amber told him as she took the note.

He shrugged. “I have no idea. But it was the easiest twenty bucks I ever made.”

She thanked him and they said goodbye.

She closed and went back upstairs.

The woman who gave the young man the note was not the originator of it. And perhaps the person who gave it to her was not either. Using a series of couriers was one of his normal ways of contacting her.

“Meet me at the Walnut Street Bridge at 9:00,” the note read. It bore his distinctive signature: Artillery.

*****

Artillery really did want them to meet at 9:00. But “Walnut Street Bridge” did not mean the Walnut Street Bridge. Instead, it meant uptown at an old school, parts of which were abandoned.

Amber was on time, wearing the darkest blouse she had available along with a pair of jeans and the same sneakers she had worn to the door to meet the delivery boy. The school was uptown, and surrounded mostly by homes. But there weren’t many lights. She hit the lock button on her key fob twice after she got out of her car. And she had a foot-long, heavy, black flashlight in her left hand. Still, she wasn’t that afraid.

Artillery arrived, as normal, just after she did. She guessed he always was there ahead of her but only descended from wherever he was when he saw her. Somehow his feet made less noise when they hit the ground than hers did when she walked.

She bit her lower lip. She had always guessed he was about 6’ 2”. Maybe 220 pounds. He was dressed in black and his face was covered with the thin helmet he always wore. Or perhaps it was a mask with some armor in it. She had never figured that out. Somehow he could see out of it at night even with its black visor. Then there were the canons lining his forearms.

The canons looked trapezoidal, running from where his wrists met his hands to his elbows. No one knew if they were organic or manmade; attached to his body or entirely separate mechanical units. But they were the weapons from which his name derived. When he used them, he fired energy (or an energy and projectile combination—again, no one really knew) from the openings close to his fists, with the backblast violently exiting with flames and smoke from the openings nearest to his elbows.

“You’re paying the price again for knowing me,” Artillery said in his mechanized voice.

She looked at him, both hands holding the flashlight now.

“I’ve read the news,” he told her.

“It’s because Panoply is publishing The Obliteration Diaries,” Amber said. “They’re saying the stories are based on you, even though that’s not the case.”

She’d read the news since coming home from work too. Cheryl Roher had gone to the media. Local and national websites were starting to run with her story about how her brother had died as the result of Artillery disrupting the drug deal. And almost every one of them was questioning if Panoply bore guilt for “romanticizing” a vigilante.

“Right,” Artillery said.

He stood very still. She gently rocked on her left shoe on the crumbling blacktop.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked him.

“Why didn’t you ever bring it up?”

“When was even the last time we spoke? Six months ago, maybe?” Amber said, rolling her shoulders and holding her hands out to the side, keeping the flashlight in her left hand. “And did anyone ever link that murder to you before today? Did the news ever say they murdered her brother because you disrupted their drug deal?”

Artillery turned away and walked to a rusted out garbage dumpster that was full of holes and missing both its lids. “Not that I’m aware of,” he said, placing his covered hands on the top edge.

Amber stepped closer to him. She was close enough that she could smell the synthetic smell from his clothing and gear. “Did you know?” she asked, leaning her head back to look at his face even as he still didn’t look at her. “Did you know someone died because of you?”

Nothing from Artillery and then, “Yes.”

Amber gritted her teeth. Her eyes began watering but the urge to cry quickly passed “I looked it up. That happened over a year ago. So again, how could you not tell me?”

“It was inevitable that something bad would happen. And they’ll happen again. You should’ve known that,” Artillery said.

“How dare you.”

Artillery turned to face her, his heavy black boots grinding over the gritty stones beneath him. “The first time anyone saw me was when I stopped those people trying to murder everyone at the market on Broad Street,” he said.

“I know. I was there,” she said, turning her back to him.

“That’s right,” Artillery said. “Was I wrong for doing that?”

“Of course not. Anyone is allowed to stop murder.”

“So did I do anything wrong that day?” Artillery asked.

“No! Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with stopping murder,” Amber said, doing an about face so she could glare at him again. “But being a vigilante,” she added while putting the index finger of her right hand into his chest, “that’s different. That is wrong.”

Artillery looked down at her finger even as she pulled it away right after touching him. Then he looked back at her eyes. “But I became a vigilante that day,” he said. “I wore this.” He tapped the mask.

“Wearing a mask doesn’t make you a vigilante,” Amber said, her arms now crossed across her chest as she tapped her right hip with the flashlight.

“No, it doesn’t. But I didn’t stick around afterwards,” Artillery said. “The moment I left and never allowed the authorities to interview me or know who I was, I became a vigilante. I stepped outside the law.”

“That’s different.”

“No, it’s not,” Artillery said. “And I knew it. I knew it before I left that day, because I knew it before I put on this disguise and decided to do things my way.”

He took a step forward and she felt him brush against her. Now she was almost looking straight up.

“So why don’t you take on the mask and turn yourself in. They show leniency to drug dealers and murderers,” Amber said. “They should show leniency to you.”

Artillery laughed. “Yes, they should. But if they would do that for me, I’d never become a vigilante in the first place. The system no longer works,” he said, looking down into her eyes. “So I’m not surrendering.”

Amber’s balance faltered and she took one step backwards. Then she turned and walked away from him. “Every criminal says that.”

“True. But most of them are wrong. I’m not.”

She whipped her head around, her long hair following her, and she shot him a hard look. “That’s arrogant. Maybe I’ve misjudged you all along.”

He walked towards her. She turned her body fully towards him and retreated a few more steps. “Everyone wears masks, Amber,” he said. He kept approaching and she kept withdrawing until her back hit the old brick of the decaying building. “The organization that is always denouncing Panoply. Do you know who truly runs the group?”

“Concerned Citizens for Responsible Publishing? It was started by locals who hate us because we publish books that don’t cater to their ideology,” Amber said.

“It’s more than that. Do some research and find out where they get their money,” Artillery said.

Amber rolled her eyes. “Do you really expect me to believe there’s some conspiracy involving a local activist group?”

“It’s more than a local activist group. Like I said, everyone wears masks.”

“So a sinister cabal runs CCRP?”

“The authorities around here wear masks too,” Artillery continued. “Some of them want to find me because they’re dedicated to their jobs. But a lot of them are just cowards who know I’m doing what they’re too afraid to do. And they hide their cowardice by making a show of how they’re ‘standing up’ to me; how they’ll get me. They know full well they have nothing to fear from me . . . unlike the actual menaces to society.”

“Now you’re really being full of yourself,” Amber said. “And back off.” She put both of her hands on his chest, with her left one still curled around the flashlight. She pushed him as hard as she could. She felt twinges in her wrists even as she had no effect on him. He stepped away from her anyway.

“Amber, you’ve never denounced me even when the media have pressured others to do so,” Artillery said. “I truly appreciate that. I’m sorry for any hardship.”

“So what’s the ‘but’?”

“No ‘buts.’ I only hope you stay the course . . . even if things become worse than they are.”

She folded her arms again and set her jaw. “Don’t expect me to come running from now on when you summon me.”

Artillery nodded his head. And then he floated into the sky.

*****

Amber called Cheryl Roher the first thing the next day and told her she had continued thinking about what she had told her yesterday. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m still not going to recommend that Panoply stop publishing The Obliteration Diaries. I feel terrible about what happened to your brother. But our series has nothing to do with Artillery.”

“Well, you’ll be hearing more from me very soon,” Cheryl told her. She ended the call without waiting for a response.

Amber tried putting it out of her mind and started conducting a preliminary review of the first draft of the latest novel in the series. A little after one o’clock Kayla came to her cubicle.

“Go to CNC and look at the video they’re livestreaming,” she said, referring to the Capitol News Company, one of the biggest cable news TV stations and websites in the Harrisburg area.

Amber made a few clicks on her desktop computer and pulled up the stream on her large, flat-screen monitor. Cheryl was outside the CCRP headquarters, giving a speech into a field of microphones stuffed onto a podium that could barely contain them. “So I am proud to join Concerned Citizens for Responsible Publishing and their selfless efforts to hold Panoply Publishing accountable, along with anyone else who celebrates lawlessness and division. Together, our love will conquer all. We will not let hate win!”

“Oh, great,” Amber moaned as she clicked the video off. “Has Emily seen this yet?”

“I don’t know,” Kayla said. “I’m going to go tell her about it but I wanted you to know first.”

“Okay. Thanks,” Amber said.

Kayla walked away and down the aisle toward the editor in chief’s office. So far Emily had shown no signs that the CCRP objections to The Obliteration Diaries would affect her decision-making process about the future of the series. Or her decision-making process about Amber’s future. But Amber wasn’t sure how long that would last; how long it could last. Everyone has their limits.

She went back to reviewing the manuscript. She took longer to get through some pages than she should have. But on other pages she skimmed over them so fast she didn’t even comprehend what she was reading. Sometimes she went back over those pages and other times she didn’t. Every now and then she typed in a few notes.

Kayla left Emily’s office after spending less than a minute in it. Amber watched her go straight back to her secretary’s desk. It was just as well.

Finally Amber got into a rhythm. And then she made it through the rest of the manuscript without interruption. She looked at the clock on her computer. It was four. She looked back at the manuscript. Then she threw herself against the backrest of her five-legged office chair, her arms on the armrest.

She sat like that for a few seconds, pushing back and forth with her feet on individual legs of the chair, causing her to swivel back and forth. Finally, she sat upright, minimized the manuscript and pulled up her browser.

Amber had no desire to look into CCRP—for now. She didn’t want to think about it. But if Artillery was right about there being more to CCRP than appeared, then maybe there was more to Cheryl Roher.

She spent the next half hour looking into Cheryl’s background. She didn’t find much about her—nothing out of the ordinary except for some mentions a little over a year ago when her brother was murdered. Two of those stories mentioned how Artillery had broken up the thugs’ drug-dealing attempt earlier in the evening. But none of Cheryl’ quotes to the media at the time mentioned anything negative about Artillery.

Amber was getting ready to quit searching when she came across Cheryl’s maiden name. She did more searches based on that. That’s how she found the document.

The document was over 12 years old, and it was buried in the archives on the East Pennsboro Township website.

East Pennsboro was a small municipality across the river from Harrisburg. The archived document was part of the minutes of monthly township meetings. One of the pages mentioned that the supervisors authorized two minors to meet community service sentencing obligations by cleaning and maintaining a township park. Those two minors were teenagers Cheryl and Brad Franks.

Amber looked through the rest of the minutes. At one point, an East Pennsboro resident voiced objections to that decision, noting that the Franks “had already gotten off easy for what they did” and that it made no sense to put the two “dangerous” teens into local parks to work off their sentence. A little bit later, Amber learned what the teenagers had done.

Cheryl and Brad had gone on a robbery spree after getting high on drugs. It culminated with them driving their parents’ car into a house that sat within a few feet of the road. They had destroyed a good portion of the bottom corner of the house. A child’s bedroom had been in that section of the home.

Miraculously, the child hadn’t been in his bed at that moment at night. He had gotten up to go to the bathroom. No one had been injured.

But a lot of people had been angry that the only punishment the two teens had gotten was community service and an obligation to pay for the damages.

Amber saved the document. There were 30 minutes left in her work day, and she was going to start to get ready to leave. Emily had already left. So had Kayla. Amber couldn’t see the entire floor but she wouldn’t be surprised if she was the last one there. There were probably a few people downstairs, though. On a whim, she decided to check the news one last time.

She avoided the sensational news—the big stuff the national media highlighted—because she knew whatever it was it likely was wrong. A lot of what she perused was local. One story in particular caught her eye.

Amber clicked open the article and accompanying video from a Carlisle-based news site regarding a local family whose son was just killed in Yemen. He was a Marine and had been fighting in battles and a place many Americans probably didn’t even know existed.

Ian Bowman had grown up just outside of Harrisburg and had attended Central Dauphin High School. He had played football and baseball. His parents said he hadn’t been that interested in school and for most of his childhood hadn’t known what he wanted to do with his life. A former teacher recalled him as being someone who had never caused trouble. Quotes from former classmates and friends described him as reliable and happy.

The article and video said he had made the decision to join the U.S. Marine Corps halfway through his senior year in high school. Apparently that had surprised his parents and those who had known him. After he had graduated, none of the classmates interviewed for the reporting said they had had heard much from him. His parents, relatives, and some of his closest friends from his childhood were the only people from his old life that he had kept in his circle.

But Ian had made new friends in the Marines. He had earned respect too. He had become an outstanding warfighter.

He had only been enlisted in the Marines for four years, but going to Yemen had been his second deployment. The article and video didn’t provide any significant details on his last battle. It only mentioned that it had been “fierce.” Enemy forces killed Ian while his squad was attacking them.

“He loved the Marines,” Sarah Bowman, his mother, said through tears in the video. Her pale husband sat beside her with his arm around her. “Ian believed he had found his calling in life. He talked with us before he deployed about how he believed everyone has a destined vocation, and that he had found his.” She stifled some sobs. “And we’re so proud of him. We miss him so much. But he didn’t just die doing what he loved; he died with honor.”

Amber rarely read comments. She didn’t find them useful and the atrocious spelling and grammar irritated her. But she made an exception today. They were all sympathetic. And then she read one from someone with the handle, fidelis_pa: “‘He died with honor.’ – His mother is right. He didn’t wear a mask, and he wasn’t a vigilante. He fought against evil and he did it lawfully. Rest in peace, brother!”

Amber stopped after that. She closed everything on her computer and started shutting it down. While she waited for it to turn off, she stuffed lip gloss, tissues, a bottle of half-empty water, and vitamins into her purse. The power light on the computer blinked off. She got out of her chair, buttoned her jacket, smoothed down her tight little skirt, slung her purse over her shoulder, and headed for the exit.

She heard her phone buzz in her purse, and she dug it out as she exchanged the fluorescent light of the building for the natural light of the Pennsylvania afternoon. She checked the text message she had just received. It was from Kayla.

“Artillery sighting in Reading,” Kayla wrote.

Amber’s thumbs flew over the phone, her head down and barely aware of where she was walking in the private parking lot. “Confirmed or not?”

“Not. Police want him 2 contact them. Can u believe they still put out statements like that? 😁”

“No!” Amber texted back.

After all, Artillery did what he wanted. He wore a mask and he didn’t answer to anyone.

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