Monday, December 15, 2008

JSA: The Novel, Part 2

The sad, sad story of my poor never-(yet)-published Justice Society of America novel JSA: Ragnarok is related here. Here's another excerpt, set in the days right after Germany surrendered, a charming little chapter that follows superheroes Ted (Wildcat) Grant and Queen (Wonder Woman) Hippolyta on a night out on the town, JSA-style:

JSA: Ragnarok
© DC Comics

Chapter 11/ May 1945

Hippolyta still wasn’t quite sure how she was supposed to behave.

Back home, on the island of Themyscira with her Amazon sisters, her role was well-defined by both tradition and heritage. She was the queen and that was all there was to it. Forms of address, access to her person, acceptable comportment, all were taken care of for her. The structure was a blessing, considering her tendency towards passions that could be a considerable disadvantage to the fulfillment of her royal duties.

Those passions unchecked were always the cause of misery for her and the Amazons.

Although they had also been responsible for the best thing that had ever happened to her and her people as well: Her daughter, Diana, who grew to become the champion Wonder Woman. She had turned her passion to raising her daughter and so it seemed only natural that when Diana’s life was threatened, Hippolyta did what was necessary to save her, putting another Amazon in Diana’s place to die. Yet shortly thereafter, in spite of her efforts, Diana’s life was lost anyway. In penance for her sins, the gods demanded Hippolyta take up the heroic mantle of her fallen daughter. After traveling back to the days of the conflagration in Man’s World called World War II in pursuit of a foe, Hippolyta chose to serve out her sentence there, alongside the JSA.

And then there was Ted Grant.

Hippolyta could not deny it. Another of her passions was handsome, strong and powerful men. Heracles had been the first, and look what that had wrought! Conquered and bound, the warrior women of Themyscira, who had seen their fair share of slaughter on battlefields across their lands, had been humiliated and accepted banishment from mortality and from the world.

Of course, Ted was no Machiavellian godling on a quest to impress his father Zeus, king of the gods, with his cunning. Ted was a man. A noble and kind man, but underneath it all, just a big, sweet...lug?

“Lug?” she said. “Is that the word?”

“I dunno. You talking about a wrench or me? ‘Cause if it’s me, I ain’t no lug.” Ted Grant sat up straight and proud, pointing at himself with a thumb and beaming a brilliant smile at her. “I’m a palooka.”

“A palooka.” Hippolyta nodded in approval. Heracles hadn’t been a palooka, she decided. If Ted was a palooka, a palooka had to be sweet. Heracles had been...ferocious, a mountain of a man with enormous appetites and small honor.

“We’re here, babe,” he said. With an effortless spin of the wheel, Ted maneuvered the sleek black roadster to a flawless stop at the curb. He had cut his headlights halfway up the block.

Hippolyta took in their surroundings. The street was deserted, storefronts dark and gated for the night. Maybe a third of the streetlights worked. They got broken so regularly, the city finally just stopped repairing them. Abandoned cars were everywhere, great shadowy and menacing heaps, stripped of anything of value and left to rot here, in a piece of Gotham City that seemed to have embraced something dark and entirely unpleasant.

“That’s the little joint I was telling you about,” Ted said. There was no need to point. The only sign of life was the candy store, midway up the block. It splashed a patch of light the color of old snow across the cracked sidewalk. A green Breyers ice cream sign hung at an angle over the glass front, the counter open to the sidewalk. A newsstand rack piled with newspapers stood just outside the door.

“Can’t say much for the ambiance,” Hippolyta said. “Shall I bring any accessories?”

Ted shrugged. “Don’t think you’re really gonna need ‘em,” he said. He reached into the backseat and felt around until his fingers closed around the hilt of Hippolyta’s short sword. “But what the hell. Bring the damned thing anyway. I do love the looks on their faces when you come at them with the sword.”

Wonder Woman opened the car door and took the sword from Wildcat’s hand. “For you, dear Ted,” she said. “Shall I take the front door?”

# # #

Everybody called the place Sid’s but no one could tell you who Sid had been. No one particularly cared, either. Not even the gray men and women who worked at Sid’s, selling cigarettes, racing forms, newspapers, chewing gum, and, for customers particularly in the know, some reefer, some horse, and, if you had the price, a lot of guns.

Hippolyta had pointed out that any one of those items alone would be reason enough to shut down this establishment and volunteered to join Ted in doing just that.

She decided to go in making as much threatening noise as possible. That was often enough to paralyze the average felon, especially one who wasn’t expecting trouble. She imaged what it must be like for them, seeing a woman who looked as she did, dressed as she was in a not immodest red, white and blue costume, sword in hand, deflecting bullets off her silver bracelets, charging at them bellowing Amazon war cries. As Ted said, the looks on their faces were worth the trouble of bringing the sword.

Wonder Woman announced her arrival at Sid’s by heaving the wooden newsstand that stood outside its door through the storefront.

The sound of shattering glass and splintering wood seemed to wake the place up.

Behind the counter that cut down the center of the cramped space, a mug in a fedora with an apron over his shirtsleeves pressed against the wall. His eyes were wide with terror and he had not yet gone for a weapon.

Neither had the pair who had been occupying the last of the three small booths in the rear of the store. What Ted would call “professional muscle.” What she called mercenaries, soldiers who hired themselves out to the highest bidder. The newsstand had landed between the first two booths, but the muscle goons were already going for their guns, trying to scramble around the obstruction for a shot at her.

“You—stay put!” she warned Fedora as she ran past him, the sword up in her hand.

With a savage cry, Wonder Woman’s sword cleaved the weathered wood of the newsstand. That stopped the muscle for a moment, long enough for her to leap over the booth and knock the closest one cold. By the time the other one remembered it would prove useful to have a weapon in hand, the tip of a finely crafted Amazon short sword was pointed at his throat.

“Who’s back there?” she asked the muscle, whose eyes had doubled in size, pointing with her chin at the doorway at the rear of the store.

Slowly and carefully the muscle shrugged.

“Loyalty to your employer?” Wonder Woman said, surprised to find any honor among these thieves. “I’m impressed.” Then she slammed her fist across his chin, sending him slumping across his two companions.

Wonder Woman turned to Fedora. He still hadn’t moved. She pointed at him with the sword. “You!”

“Ye-yes ma’am?” he stammered.

“Who is back there?”

He shrugged and spoke quickly, “A guy, says his name’s Lou, ain’t never seen him other than when he comes in to work the back room there, but I don’t know nothin’, okay? I just work the counter, selling smokes and gum, see? Back room’s none’a my business. I ain’t even packin’.” He pulled off his apron, spreading his arms and pivoting like a ballerina to show her he wasn’t armed.

Wonder Woman nodded sharply, then turned her back on him. He was a non-combatant, no longer worth her attention. “Go,” she said. He went.

The door at the rear of the store opened. Wildcat stepped through it, an unconscious heap in a cheap suit dangling from the end of one of his fists. He glanced around approvingly at the destruction left behind by Wonder Woman’s entrance. “Nice,” he said. “Anyway, backroom’s packed with hot goods, from guns to drugs, plus a nice pile of cash. This one’s named Lou, but he’s just hired help manning the contraband concession.”

“Then we’ve hit a...dead end?”

Wildcat grinned, “We hit the mother lode, doll! Lou wasn’t alone back there. He had a pal visiting him on other business.”

“Which is...?”

Wildcat let his unconscious burden slump to the floor and, still grinning, beckoned his star-spangled partner into the back room. She followed.

The area behind the candy store was easily twice as large, with every spare inch filled with stacks of wooden packing crates. A wobbly card table and two folding chairs sat by the door under a single bulb dangling by a frayed wire from the ceiling.

Also dangling from the ceiling, suspended by one foot attached to a hoist used to move the heavy crates, was a second man. He was in his mid-thirties, with receding hair, and a narrow, stern face.

“Wonder Woman, meet Herr X,” Wildcat said by way of introduction.

Herr?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah. When I popped in through the back door, this one here started spouting off in German. I didn’t catch all of it, but apparently, my mother and father were never married but that doesn’t really matter, I guess, because I’m pretty much just a pig anyway. He also pulled a Luger on me, but that didn’t hurt near as much as the name calling.”

“So this is a front for a Nazi set-up?” She stepped up to the man hanging by his ankle, looking into his upside down eyes. “Is that it?” she asked in flawless German. “The master race is selling drugs and firearms to America’s children?”

“I have nothing to say,” the man answered in heavily accented English through clenched teeth.

Wildcat crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame. “Gosh, he’s got nothing to say. What’re we gonna do?”

Wonder Woman unhooked the glowing golden lasso that hung at her side. “Perhaps I can convince him to talk.”

“I have nothing to say to...” the man said fiercely, then stopped speaking as Wonder Woman looped the golden rope around him.

“Just relax,” she told him. “You can fight my lasso of truth but you won’t win. Its touch compels you to speak the truth.”

Muscles twitched in the German’s face.

“What is your name?” Wonder Woman said.

“St-Steiner,” he stuttered, his voice squeezing through a throat clenched tight.

“Hermann Steiner.”

“Hermann,” Wonder Woman said. “How long have the Germans been running this operation?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head convulsively. “Not ours.”

“Then what is your connection to it?”

“Operation Ragnarok.” The words tumbled from his mouth against his will.

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