Experiment #360

The Valiant Part 1

Hank flicked lumpy muffin mixture into tiny baking cups. He shoved the pan into the oven and turned his head toward the living room. Raising his voice to be heard over the TV, he shouted, “Turn that old cartoon off already. You’ve got to get going.”

“It’s almost over, Grandpa,” Jimmy called back.

Hank didn’t approve of Jimmy watching TV, and he liked Jimmy’s choice of programming even less. The Miscellaneous Adventures of The Valiant, based (loosely) on the true story of a hero who’d fought crime in their own city. The content of the show was all right. But Hank, who’d witnessed The Valiant’s heroics firsthand, remembered The Valiant as a hero who’d betrayed his heroic ideals. A hero who’d vanished when the city needed him most. Hank wanted a better legacy for his eight-year-old grandson.

“The bus is coming right now,” Hank said.

Jimmy ran and jumped at Hank with a karate chop and a mighty “Hi-ya!”

“Whoa, kiddo, you’re gonna take out your ol’ Grandpa.” He handed Jimmy his lunch.

“Crime doesn’t pay!” Jimmy yelled as he ran out the door to the bus. 

“Neither does being late,” Hank called after him from the doorway.

Jimmy ran down the front walk, jumped over a mud puddle, and landed on the lowest step of the bus entrance just after the last kid had cleared it.

“He’s got a lot of you in him, Dad,” Sarah, Jimmy’s mom, said as she came up next to Hank.

“That should worry you,” Hank said.

“Oh, come now.” She play-punched him in the arm, then took the arm and put it around her shoulders. “You’re not a bad guy.”

“I’m glad your mother’s not around to debate that.”

Sarah laughed, then looked at her watch. “Oops. Gotta go,” she said. She slipped under his arm and headed into the house. “I’ll be late tonight. I’ve got class.”

 “I’ll keep us out of trouble,” he said.

“You better.” She kissed him on the cheek as she passed him again on the way to her car.

Hank waved good-bye. He walked back into the house where he heard the TV still blasting The Valiant’s theme song. He stepped into the living room and picked up the remote. He clumsily turned off the on-demand cartoon and went back to what he called “regular” TV. As he stood there fiddling with the remote, a special report broke in. During excavations for a new shopping mall in the old warehouse district, construction workers found the decades-old remains of a body.

Hank took in a long breath. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed.

“My muffins!” he shouted and ran into the kitchen.

Experiment #361

The Valiant Part 2

The rain poured down as Jimmy’s bus pulled back onto the street after school. Hank headed for the end of the driveway with a wide umbrella, deflecting the slings and arrows of nature. He’d always had a knack for timing. Thirty seconds after he stopped at the end of the driveway, Jimmy’s bus arrived. Jimmy exploded out of the bus and babbled all the way to the front door.

While Hank started on supper, Jimmy banged around the house, chased the dog, screamed, yelled, and knocked over both lamps in the living room. Hank banished him upstairs to give himself (and the dog) some peace.

An hour later, with the casserole in the oven, Hank realized how quiet it had gotten.

He went upstairs. He looked in Jimmy’s room and Sarah’s room, but he couldn’t find Jimmy. Hank checked his own room and the bathroom, but Jimmy wasn’t there. He checked the laundry room and found the door to the attic ajar. Then he heard something: “Crime doesn’t pay, villain!”

Jimmy’s voice.

Hank’s heart skipped a beat. He threw open the door and charged up the stairs. “Jimmy, what are you doing?” Hank roared.

Jimmy wore a black and red costume five sizes too big with a large white V in the center. He pointed a gun-shaped gadget at his mom’s old dress mannequin. He froze when he heard his grandfather’s voice. The hand holding the gadget trembled.

“Put that grappling gun down,” Hank yelled.

Before Jimmy could comply, his trembling finger brushed the grappling gun’s trigger. A tri-pointed grappling hook flew one way; Jimmy flew the other. The grappling hook embedded itself in the mannequin’s midsection. Jimmy crashed into a pile of old suitcases. A long, thin steel cable connected Jimmy to the mannequin.

Hank yanked Jimmy to his feet and grabbed the grappling gun from his hands. “Take that ridiculous costume off,” Hank said. 

He examined the grappling gun and began rewinding the cable back into it.

Jimmy mumbled something Hank couldn’t hear.

“What?” Hank asked, his voice still sharp.

“It’s not ridiculous,” Jimmy whispered.

“What?” Hank asked again.

Jimmy balled his fists and shouted, “It’s not ridiculous!” He shook with anger and frustration. “The costume,” he said, “it’s not ridiculous.” Then he added in a whisper, “He’snot ridiculous.”

Hank looked at his grandson. His anger melted like a Popsicle on a barbecue. “I’m sorry,” he said. Hank had never yelled at Jimmy like that before. He’d scared himself as much as he’d scared Jimmy. Emotions and memories of a life he’d tried to forget surged through his mind.

Jimmy removed the costume, folded it, and put it back in the box where he’d found it. When Hank hadn’t moved or said anything in a long while, he ventured a question. “Where’d you get the costume?”

The words freed Hank from his prison of memories. His muscles relaxed and he breathed out a sigh. 

“That ratty old thing?” Hank asked, his lips twisting into a smile. “It…it doesn’t matter.”

“But it’s great,” Jimmy said. “Did you like The Valiant when you were younger?”

“You could say that,” Hank said. His voice creaked.

Jimmy looked at the costume. “Did you use it for Halloween?”

“No, no, I didn’t.”

Jimmy rubbed the cloth of the cape between his fingers. “So why do you have it?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me.”

“Let it go, Jimmy. Let an old man have his secrets.”

“What secrets?” Jimmy asked. “You always tell me to turn it off. You hate that show.”

Hank looked at the ground.

Jimmy looked from the grappling gun to the costume in the box next to him. He fingered the hand-sewn seams. He looked at his grandfather, then back at the costume.

Joy flashed across Jimmy’s face as he turned back to his grandfather. “You?” he asked. “Youwere the Valiant?”

Hank took a deep breath. He looked over at his grandson for a long moment, holding Jimmy’s gaze with his. Finally he turned back to the floor.

“No,” he said, “it wasn’t me. It was someone else entirely.”

Experiment #362

The Valiant Part 3

The next day it rained again. When Jimmy got off the bus at the end of the day, Hank did not meet him with an umbrella. All Jimmy found was a hastily scrawled note about staying with the neighbor till his mom came home.

Hank wandered down a city street a few miles away. For hours he’d walked block after block, in the cold, relentless rain, listening. Finally he heard it: a scream.

He stepped into an alley and tore off his raincoat. A white V stood out on his chest. A red cape flew out from behind him as a gust of wind picked it up. The grappling gun hung from a metal clip at his belt and when he pulled on the mask, he felt once more like the hero he had been so many years ago. With the confidence of a much younger man, he sprinted toward the scream. 

The Valiant rounded the corner and came upon a woman jabbering into a phone. Another woman rubbed her back and held an umbrella over her head.

“Which way did he go?” The Valiant asked. He no longer filled out the costume the way he once had. It drooped and wrinkled in odd places, much like his skin.

The woman with the umbrella raised an eyebrow. She pointed in front of her. A man lay on the ground, twitching. Two electrical leads spiraled their way from the man’s chest to a device in the upset woman’s hand. A moment later sirens sounded in the distance. 

Hank’s heart began to throb. He backed away, turned, and ran toward the alley. He lunged for the shadows, pulled his raincoat over his costume, and yanked off the mask.

He coughed and hacked. His heart beat through his chest. His knees buckled and he fell to the ground.

When the police arrived to help the mugging victim, one of them noticed an old man in a raincoat lying face down in the street.

Experiment #363

The Valiant Part 4

As soon as word leaked that the police had found a guy in a Valiant suit, the news media, well-wishers, and protesters swarmed. He could have been a crackpot in a costume (and probably was). But given his age, his location, and the old, hand-stitched costume he wore, the court of public opinion made its ruling: he was The Valiant.

A few officers who’d been on the force since The Valiant’s glory days made it their personal mission to help him get some peace and rest. He had helped them take down the Ganglia crime family and that real deed meant more to them than the vicious rumors that precipitated his fall from grace. They guarded his room day and night, and didn’t let anyone in besides hospital staff.

When Sarah and Jimmy came to see Hank, having seen the news reports and pictures on TV, The Valiant’s guards would not let them in until they showed proof they were kin.

Sarah and Jimmy sat down next to Hank’s hospital bed. 

“I’m sorry, Jimmy,” Hank said. He looked over at his daughter. She looked like a balloon about to burst. 

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Sarah asked.

“Why would I tell you? What good would it do? That life is long gone. No one wants to remember The Valiant anymore.”

“Hey!” Jimmy said.

“’Cept you, Jimmy.”

“Well, I just…I would have liked to know,” Sarah said.

“Why did you say it wasn’t you, Grandpa?” Jimmy asked.

“Even old men sometimes say things they shouldn’t.”

“Did Mom know?” Sarah asked.

“Eventually, yes,” Hank said. He remembered the look on his wife’s face when he’d told her about his alter ego. “I couldn’t bring myself to marry her without giving her a full picture.”

“Can you show me how to throw a bad guy up against a wall?” Jimmy asked, his disappointment turning suddenly to joy. “Or the stranglehold that knocks him out?”

“That only happened in the cartoon,” Hank said. “In real life the bad guys fought back a lot harder. Sometimes with lawyers.”

“Did she really have cancer?” Sarah asked. She sucked in her lips and raised her eyebrows. “Mom, I mean. Is that really how she died?”

With effort Hank swallowed. “Yes,” he said, “Your mom…had cancer.”

“And do we need to worry about radiation or gamma rays or anything?” Sarah asked.

Hank stifled a smile. “I wasn’t that kind of hero. My origin story’s pretty boring, just a blue-collar guy who wanted to help.”

“Wait,” Jimmy said. “Did you really kill that boy?”

“How did you know about that?” Sarah asked.

“The Internet.”

“Well,” Sarah said, “I’m not sure—”

“Let it be, Sarah,” Hank said. “He would have found out sooner or later.” Hank shifted in his chair. “Everybody does things they’re not proud of…” Hank broke off.

“Oh, my goodness, Dad, did you?” Sarah asked.

Experiment #364

The Valiant Part 5

“No, Sarah! Listen,” Hank said. “It didn’t happen the way Sparts said.”

“Well, how didit happen?”

Without warning, the door opened. A police officer, one a few decades younger than the guards, entered. He passed Sarah and Jimmy, stepped to the side of the bed, and took off his cap. Under his arm he held a stack of papers. “I’m real sorry about this,” he said. “Are you Mr. Henry Alexander Wipple?”

Hank blinked at him and forced down a lump in his throat. “Yes,” he said.

“Did you at one time go by the alias ‘The Valiant’?”

“What’s this about?” Hank asked. His voice had turned gruff and his body language defensive.

The police officer handed Hank the papers. Hank looked at them and then back at the officer. “What’s this?” Hank asked.

“I’ve always been a fan,” the officer said. “Your TV show made me want to be a cop.” He smiled, but then went solemn again. With regret in his voice he said, “You have been served.”

He nodded to Sarah and Jimmy and walked out the way he had come.

“What’s going on, Dad?” Sarah asked.

Hank looked at the papers. “…Probably trying to gather enough evidence…” he mumbled.

“Dad,” Sarah said. “What’s going on?”

Hank looked up. “Oh,” he said, “well, it seems Mayor Hess is suing me for 1.7 million dollars in…” His voice broke. “…in the wrongful death of his son. The body…the one on the news, the one in the old warehouse district…where they were building that shopping mall… They identified it as…as Bobby Hess.”

Hank closed his eyes and breathed out. “I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it.”

“Dad?” Sarah asked.

“You have to understand,” he said, “you have to understand…”

Sarah looked at her father. “Jimmy, I think it’s time for us to go,” she said, trying to pull him toward the door. “I don’t think we know this man.”

Before she could usher him out, Jimmy touched his grandfather’s arm. “Grandpa,” he said. “There’s still time. You can still be valiant.”

Experiment #366

The Valiant Part 7

Mr. Sturgess suppressed a sigh. “Please be more specific.”

“As I was trying to explain, I had kept my identity secret. I was worried some criminal or nut job would come after my wife, my family. I’d just helped put away the two youngest sons of the Ganglia family, and they were champing at the bit to find something they could use to get me.

“But since my identity was secret, when the merchandising company tried to pay me they had no way to give me the money. Anti-money-laundering laws, laws I, in my crusade against crime, helped get passed, forbade it. Checks, credit, and cash in that amount all required some form of ID.

“I set up a bank account for a shell company, then funneled it through another company before it came to us. I was careful, but I was way out of my league. I was a blue-collar guy who moved boxes around for a living. I was up against organized crime and a family with connections everywhere. These guys hide funds, have secret identities, and launder money every day of the week. It’s their stock and trade.

“They couldn’t touch me in a fistfight, couldn’t stop me from exposing their operations. Once they heard about the cartoon show, though, it was only a matter of time till they tracked me down. They found out who I was, where I lived, who I cared about… 

“One day I went to the bank to get some money for groceries, but the account was empty. Everything from the merchandising deal was gone, every last penny. I rushed home to find my house a wreck, furniture thrown everywhere, cabinets empty, and my wife, my eight-months-pregnant wife, was gone. 

“They left a note with a Polaroid and a lock of hair. Proof of life. If I didn’t bring them the boy, if I didn’t bring them Bobby Hess, they’d kill her.”

“Why wouldn’t these organized crime factions take Bobby themselves? Why force you when they had everything they needed?”

“Well…I’m not sure…”

“Organized crime generally has quite a few people at its disposal, so why force you to do their dirty work? They could kidnap Bobby at any time. If your story is true, they’d need a good reason to create a middleman.”

“I don’t think Bobby was the end game. If anything happened to Bobby, my career’d be in the toilet, much the way it turned out to be.”

“Assuming your story is true, why didn’t you go to the police?”

“I should have gone to the police, but I thought I wasthe police. I thought I could beat those crooks at their own game. I thought I could keep Bobby safe and save my wife.

“So I went to the schoolyard and picked Bobby up. I offered him a chance to fight crime. The other kids envied him as we walked out. The principal even wished us well. I took Bobby to…a safe house…No, that’s not true. I brought him with me, but left him in the car.

Experiment #367

The Valiant Part 8

“I called my contact, Sammy Sparts. He was a third-rate gangster and a first-rate drunk. He told me to meet him in an old warehouse south of the city. So I went.

“Sparts held a gun to my wife’s head. He seemed high, souped-up on some drug. But he didn’t have any men with him. It seemed odd, but I was too focused on my pregnant wife to worry about it.

“I tried to talk him down, but within minutes, a…thug showed up with Bobby. He must have found Bobby in the car and brought him in.

“I had no escape route, but I had one last ace up my sleeve. Before I’d gone in I’d called the police, gave them an anonymous tip. I figured I had a half hour before they showed up in droves, but it only took twenty minutes. As Sparts turned his attention to the sirens and lights, I pulled my grappling gun off my belt and shot him. I caught him in the chest, but I grazed my wife, Catherine.

“Sparts was winded, but not out. He must have had on some body armor or something, or he wouldn’t have lived. I picked my wife up and took her to safety.

“I thought the police would have the situation wrapped up, so I made certain she was okay before going back. It was selfish, but she was my wife. She was carrying our daughter. Just then the warehouse exploded. One big, honkin’ fireball. I guess Sparts’s superiors didn’t trust him to finish the job, or they never planned on letting him finish it, or maybe even Sparts did it himself as a plan B—I don’t know. Sparts must have gotten out since he talked to the papers, but I never saw him again.

“My wife and I left town, changed our names, and didn’t look back. If it weren’t for my daughter’s job at the University, I’d’ve stayed away.”

“That’s interesting,” Mr. Sturgess said. He stepped in front of the prosecutor’s desk, leaned back on it and folded his arms. “Are you certain that’s what happened?”

Hank didn’t answer.

“The man who brought Bobby,” Mr. Sturgess continued, “the ‘thug,’ I believe you called him. Did he hold Bobby the whole time?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“You see, Mr. Wipple, the funny thing is, only one body was found in that burned-out warehouse, Bobby’s body. And Bobby was holding a device I believe you recognize.”

Mr. Sturgess held up an evidence bag containing a rusted and partially melted grappling gun. 

“What is this, Mr. Wipple?”“Are you certain you want to go down this road?” Hank asked in a low tone. “Mr. Hess may not like what you find.”

Experiment #368

The Valiant Part 9

“Please answer the question,” Mr. Sturgess said and shook the bag for emphasis. 

“It looks to be my spare grappling gun,” Hank said quietly.

“How do you think it got there?”

Hank looked down.

“How, Mr. Wipple, did this get in Bobby’s hand? Did he take it from you? But you and I both know that didn’t happen. Why then, Mr. Wipple, was Bobby lying on the floor holding a grappling gun? Yourgrappling gun?”

Mr. Sturgess leaned forward onto his feet and stood to his full height. “Why, Mr. Wipple?”

Hank whispered an answer.

“Speak up, please, Mr. Wipple.”

“Because I gave it to him…”

“So you lied under oath?”

“I made the mistakes that night. I didn’t want Bobby to be remembered for his part in what happened, what he did. I wanted to give him some dignity.”

“Mr. Wipple, sitting on a boy’s death for thirty years is hardly dignity.”

Hank looked up at Mr. Sturgess, then turned his eyes back to the floor. He raked his thumb across his lips, then continued his story. “Like I said, I thought I could handle it. I thought I was good enough to protect him, save my wife, and stop Sparts. But he was a good kid; I wanted to help him feel like a part of the heroics. I figured if he held my spare for a few minutes in the car as my ‘backup,’ he’d have a great story to tell all the kids back at school. And since I left the safety on, I didn’t think he was in any danger.

“I never intended him to leave the car, but I was a kid once. I should have known he wouldn’t be able to wait, wouldn’t be able to sit in that car while all the action was happening just out of view. I should have known he was smart enough to undo the safety. I should have known he’d sneak in with the grappling gun on his own, no thug needed.

“As I was talking Sparts down, Bobby jumped from behind a box and shot the grappling gun. It caught Catherine right in the stomach…so much blood…”

Hank paused his story, forcing the tears back with all his might.

“Bobby wasn’t ready for the kickback,” Hank continued. “He slammed backwards into some crates, probably knocked him out. I took the opportunity and shot my own grappling gun at Sparts. With both he and Bobby lying on the ground, I picked up Catherine, I picked up my bleeding, pregnant wife, and got her out of there. And just like I said before, I made sure she was safe. Police were already arriving from my call. I had no idea the warehouse was rigged to explode. I wanted to go back for Bobby, but all I could think about was Catherine and Rachel, the little baby inside her.”

Sarah gasped. 

Experiment #369

The Valiant Part 10

“I never turned back to help him,” Hank continued. “I went straight ahead, praying only for Catherine and the baby. And the next thing I knew, the place exploded, just like I said…

“I took Catherine to the hospital. The baby, Rachel, she…she never had a chance. Catherine almost died too, her womb…ripped open like spaghetti. It was a miracle she bore Sarah a year later.”

Mr. Sturgess stood and though he faltered here and there, went ahead with his planned speech. “So let me…be sure I have this straight. You brought a child who idolized you to a meeting with members of the Ganglia crime family. Then you told him to wait in the car with a dangerous weapon. He then…he followed you into the meeting with a drug-crazed mobster with a tendency toward violence. He fired the weapon to save you. And…and you left him lying unconscious on the floor of a warehouse while you saved your wife…where he…where he continued to lie until the entire warehouse exploded? Does that sum it up?”

“Yes,” Hank said. “For the last thirty years, that’s the image I’ve seen every time I close my eyes.”

“No further questions, Your Honor.”

Hank didn’t mount any kind of defense. He walked to the defendant’s desk to retrieve a paper, then returned to the stand to read a prepared statement.

“Mr. Hess,” he said, “I cannot tell you how sorry I am for the loss of your son and my part in this tragedy. If I could offer you the money you asked for, I would gladly do it. But you and I both know it won’t bring him back. I am little more than a broken man, trying to help his daughter and grandson survive in a cruel and wicked world. A world that I could no more stop as a superhero than as a father and grandfather.

Hank looked up from his paper at Mr. Hess. “Whatever pain he may have caused me by his good intentions is immaterial. I failed to protect him, to bring him home safe to the father and mother who loved him. I failed to live out my namesake. I failed to be valiant.”

Hank looked down.

After a long pause he continued, “You may take what little I have, my money, the clothes on my back, even my dignity. They are yours. But you can never break me more than that callous decision to leave him did thirty years ago. Every day that I draw breath, it is a weight upon my shoulders, a debt I can never repay.”

The courtroom fell silent.

Mr. Hess rose from his chair, leaning heavily on the table.

He looked to the judge. “Your Honor,” he said, “may I approach the witness?”

The judge nodded.With the shaky movements caused by old age and the stroke, he shuffled toward the witness box. At the rail in front of Hank he stopped, placing his hand on it. He stared Hank square in the eye.

Experiment #370

The Valiant Part 11

Hank stared back.

“You took my boy from me,” Mr. Hess said. His voice quavered with emotion and with the effort the stroke forced him to put into every word. “And I want to see you burn in hell for it,” he said. He looked down at the floor for a long moment. He turned to look at Mr. Sturgess, at Sarah and Jimmy sitting behind the defendant’s desk, and at the judge before turning back to Hank. “But that’s not what Bobby would want. He loved you. He adored you. He’d say ‘Dad, look how this guy is helping you clean up this city. Look at how he helps people feel safe. Look at how he makes a difference. He’s like you, Dad, except with a cape.’

“Bobby was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. His capacity for finding the good in everyone was unparalleled, and he made his father proud.

“You violated his trust. Put him in situations he was ill equipped to handle or understand. You failed him. Your hubris cost us both our children. But as much as I’d like to nail you to the wall for it, I know Bobby would have taken a different tack. It’s for his memory that I do this, for his sake, not for you or even for your family, but for Bobby, my precious, precious boy.”

Mr. Hess turned to the judge. “Your Honor,” he said, “I’d like to withdraw my case.”

The judge frowned. “If that’s what you want,” he said. “If there’s no further absurdity, this court is adjourned.” He banged the gavel.

Mr. Hess shuffled out the door. Hank looked down at the railing in front of him. On the railing where Mr. Hess had rested his hand lay an old, beaten action figure with a scuffed V on its chest. Hank picked up the figure and stared at it, his hand trembling.

He clenched his fist then flung the figure at the ground. He stamped out into the hallway. “Stop,” he shouted at Mr. Hess.

“We are done, Mr. Wipple,” Mr. Hess said without turning toward him. “Go your way.”

“No,” Hank yelled.

People milling around the hallway gasped as Hank pulled out his grappling gun and pointed it at Mr. Hess. Two police officers among the crowd pulled out their weapons. “Stand down, Mr. Wipple,” one said loudly.

“No,” Hank said, ignoring the officer. “You can’t let me off. You can’t forgive. Bobby deserved more. Bobby deserved better.”

Mr. Hess turned to face Hank. “What good will this do, Mr. Wipple?”

“Stand down,” the police officer said again.

“How can you make his life so cheap?” Hank asked. “All he wanted to do was be a hero.” The grappling gun shook in Hank’s hand. “How can you just forgive me? I’ve lost too much for you to forgive me.”

“Mr. Wipple, how will this—” Mr. Hess began.

“Kick me. Punch me. Beat me,” Hank shouted. “Take my house. Take my life. Require something for the debt I owe. Take something, take anything, but don’t forgive… Anything but forgive.”

Mr. Hess looked at Hank. “You may have born the name, but you were never valiant.”

Hank smiled through wet eyes. “You’re right.” With shaking hands he turned the grappling gun on himself and pulled the trigger.