“Fealty” by Stoney M. Setzer

fe•al•ty noun \?f?(-?)l-t?\ pl. fe•al•ties. 1 a : the fidelity of a vassal or feudal tenant to his lord. b : the obligation of such fidelity. 2: intense fidelity.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me, which wouldn’t surprise me at your age,” Scott Archer spoke loudly into the phone. “I’m out of the sidekick business now. I’ve retired.”

“You can’t just retire!” Puman cried. “Where is your fealty? Evil doesn’t retire, so you can’t!”

“But I already did, ten years ago, remember?”

“I thought that was just a leave of absence.”

Scott couldn’t help chuckling. The aging superhero was like a father to him – OK, maybe more like a crazy uncle – which was the only reason he still kept in touch with him. Still, his fervor overrode common sense, which was why Scott had hung up his Fang uniform in the first place. “A decade long leave of absence? Look, since then, I’ve graduated college, gotten married…”

“…And divorced.”

“…And gotten a great job with the paper.”

“Yes, but as a sports editor! Since when does covering sports have anything to do with your past as a crime fighter?”

“Try watching the teams I have to cover. The way they play is absolutely criminal.”

“Enough with the jokes!”

“But I thought you wanted me to act like a sidekick again! Aren’t sidekicks supposed to joke? Besides, what about Claw? Isn’t she still around?”

“She can’t handle anything like this! One of our old foes is back at it, and if I don’t have your help, I might be a goner this time!”

That stopped Scott cold. Puman had always been melodramatic about his superhero duties, taking the seriousness of his job to the utmost extreme. Every villain was a threat; every crime was a black-hearted sin against humanity itself. When he had eschewed his “normal” identity altogether – staying in his Puman garb at all times, even for such mundane tasks as grocery shopping – and expected Scott to do likewise, that had been the final straw.

With that said, it would have been easy to dismiss Puman’s words as typical hyperbole. However, they were marked by something that Scott had never heard in his voice before – legitimate fear.

“OK, Jeff – sorry, Puman – who is it? Dr. Dread? Quizzler? Hotshot?”

“No, not them.”

“Is it Napoleon Pratt, then? Or Backbreaker?”

Puman sighed. “No, Scott. It’s…Fish-Face.”

“What?” Scott laughed in spite of himself. “Are you kidding?”

“No, I’m not. I think Fish-Face means to take me out this time.”

“Oh, come on! He’s like, what, the fifty-ninth most dangerous villain we ever faced? I’d be more afraid of Alan Coleman than Fish-Face, and Coleman was just a free-lance henchman!”

“Scott, I’m serious. Can’t you help me?”

“Look, I know you’re getting older, but I have no doubt you can handle him, even if he hires Coleman to help him. Now I’ve got to be in to work early tomorrow. Talk to you later.”

“Scott! Remember your oath! Where is your fealty?”

Fealty. There it was once more, that archaic-sounding word that Puman always bandied about when talking about loyalty and duty. “Nowadays, my fealty lies in keeping my deadlines met and my bills paid. Good night, Puman. Keep in touch.” Without another word, he terminated the call, turned off his cell phone, and placed it back on the nightstand beside his bed.

He needs my help, with Fish-Face, no less. Yeah, right.

***

In the eight years Scott had spent on the Herald, he could not remember ever finding such a somber air in his workplace. True, he had started a couple of years after 9/11, and he imagined that day must have felt similarly gloomy. Today, however, he could think of no reason for the almost tangible pall in the air. Everyone wore long faces and looked at the floor, not even grunting in acknowledgement of his arrival.

What did I miss? His car stereo hadn’t worked properly for months now, and he hadn’t had time to check the news on the internet before coming to work this morning. However, with everyone seemingly so dour, the cause must have been something that was common knowledge to everyone else. That meant he had to be careful whom he asked for fear of making himself look like an idiot.

Scott spotted his friend Mike by the coffee pot, dejectedly pouring himself a cup of java. If there was anyone he could ask without feeling stupid, Mike was the man. He crossed the room and caught his colleague by the arm. “Hey, what’s going on around here?” he whispered. “Why is everyone acting so weird?”

“Haven’t you heard?” Mike’s face and voice showed surprise, but he was discreet enough to keep his voice low. “Puman’s dead.”

Scott felt as if his friend had just stabbed him in the gut. “Say what?”

“Yeah, the police found him at 3:00 AM. He was on the corner of Fifth and Sycamore, and get this: He was drowned.”

“Drowned? But that intersection’s nowhere near the river! Are you sure?”

“Positive. The police think that whoever did him in must have drowned him somewhere else and moved the body – put him where someone would be sure to find him. Sick, sick people.”

Scott shook his head, trying to get a grip on a world that was spinning out of control. He thought of all the near-misses, all of the brushes with death that Puman had survived. Some of them were spectacles of some villains’ creativity, such as Hotshot’s gigantic microwave oven or Napoleon Pratt’s flying guillotines. Death by drowning seemed mundane and almost obscene in comparison.

“Are they sure it’s Puman? Not some guy in an imitation puma suit?”

“That sidekick of his – Claw, I think they call her – already identified the body. She says Fish-Face did it. All those villains he’s put away, and he finally gets done in by him, of all people! Can you believe it?”

“No.” He was telling the truth, and I didn’t believe him. What if I’d gotten off my butt and helped him? Would he still be here?

“Personally, I’d love to know where his old sidekick got off to. Fang, or whatever his name was. Seems like he ought to step up – assuming he ain’t dead himself, of course. He’s been off the scene for so long now…”

“Hey, Mike?”

“Yeah?”

“Tell Mr. Fleming I had to leave. I’m…I’m sick.”

***

“Who is this?” the raspy female voice on the other end of the line demanded. Claw hadn’t changed a bit. She still sounded every bit the irascible, no-nonsense type that Scott remembered, even though they hadn’t spoken since he had left his Fang alter-ego behind.

“Claw, it’s me, Fang.”

There was a dramatic pause, followed by mirthless chuckling. “Well, well, the prodigal son himself! To what do I owe the displeasure?”

“I heard.”

“Really? No kidding? You and everybody else in America! How could you not hear that Puman is…is…” Claw choked up in midstream, a rare display for her.

“So it’s true, then. This isn’t some kind of a ruse.”

“A ruse?” The implication snapped Claw back to normalcy. “Why would we fake Puman’s death? When have we ever…”

“Please. I can name off a half dozen times we did that to lull whichever villain we happened to be fighting at the time into a false sense of security.”

Another pause. “Touché. But when did we ever go to the media with it?”

“Never,” Scott admitted.

“Trust me, he’s dead. So why are you so interested now, anyway? You didn’t seem too interested when he called you last night, begging for help!”

“Look, can we not do this over the phone? Isn’t there somewhere I can meet you?”

“Fine. You remember where Alternate Hideout Three is?”

“Rural?” Scott asked, using the codename instead of the address. Even after all this time, he still knew better than to go into specifics. Anyone could be listening, after all.

“Yeah. Meet me there in an hour.”

***

During his tenure with Puman, Scott had seen the hero use five different “alternate” hideouts. All of them, of course, were connected by an intricate network of underground tunnels. Even before he had hung up his sidekick mantle, Scott had quit trying to figure out how Puman had ever managed that, how he had procured five different hideouts in the first place, or why he would have even wanted to. It seemed easier to simply take it at face value, to know that the facilities existed and to not overanalyze that fact.

Alternate Hideout Three consisted of an abandoned barn situated on an equally forsaken piece of farmland a half-hour’s drive out of town. Scott had often tried to imagine this place as a functioning, perhaps even thriving, farm at some point in the past, but the image would never come. This placed seemed as if it had been desolate since the dawn of Creation itself. Today was no exception. As Scott climbed out of his Nissan, he felt as if he might just as well have been meeting Claw at a cemetery.

The smell of stale air assaulted Scott’s nostrils as he slipped through the bard door, closing it behind him. Puman had only used this place sporadically during Scott’s time as Fang, and he couldn’t imagine that it had been visited any more frequently in his absence. Why did he even fool with so many hideouts? Yeah, it helped keep any potential pursuers off the scent of anything, but still…

“Well, you’ve changed,” Claw’s distinctive voice came from a blackened corner of the barn. As she stepped out of the shadows, it became evident that she could have said the same thing of herself. Despite her uniform, Scott could tell that she had probably packed on a good twenty pounds since he’d seen her last. Most tellingly, her once-strong gait now featured an undeniable limp, and she leaning on a cane. She’s been hurt, badly, and maybe not all that recently, either.

“So now you see why Puman didn’t want me helping him out with Fish-Face,” she remarked, as if reading his mind. “I’ve got two years till I hit thirty, but I’m closer to needing a wheelchair than you can guess. By all rights, I should have hung up my uniform just like you did when I got hurt. Thing is, though, some of us understand the concept of fealty.”

“How long ago? Who?”

“It was two years ago, by Backbreaker, not that any of that really matters right this minute. Fish-Face is the one we have to worry about now.”

“So how did he suddenly get so dangerous? He used to be such a joke!”

“He was, until he broke into one of Dr. Dread’s old laboratories. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what he got into, but it…mutated him somehow.”

“Mutated? What do mean by…?”

His question was interrupted by the crash of the barn door being flung open. Daylight poured into the barn, backlighting a strange figure standing in the doorway. Although this kept Scott from seeing who the newcomer was, the look of terror on Claw’s face told him all he needed to know. “Fish-Face!” she gasped.

“So you are still alive,” Fish-Face said in a weird voice, one that was intelligible yet somehow didn’t sound quite human. “I’ll fix that!”

Claw swore loudly. “Quick! Take cover!”

Old habits took hold, and Scott found himself ducking behind an ancient tractor before he knew it. He looked up at Fish-Face and found that he could see him slightly better from this angle. The name fit the villain more than ever. Whatever mutation he had endured left him with the actual head of a fish, rather than human facial features that just happened to bear a comic resemblance to an aquatic creature. Most disturbing were the dead, unblinking eyes. Scott remembered reading somewhere that fish didn’t have eyelids, and he found himself wondering if that were now the case with Puman’s killer.

Fish-Face’s cheeks inflated, and then a high-pressure, high-volume stream of water shot forth from his mouth. Suddenly everything fell into place. If that hit someone – say Puman, for instance – directly in the face, it wouldn’t take long at all for the victim to take in enough water to drown. Even standing at the corner of Fifth and Sycamore downtown, he thought grimly.

No wonder Puman had become so terrified of Fish-Face. Before, he had been little more than a glorified burglar, one whose obsession with all things aquatic led to his undoing every time they faced off. He was a full-fledged monster now, one with a brand-new, lethal superpower. Scott thought back to all of his derisive comments he had made over the phone to Puman and wished that he could take them all back. More than that, he wished he hadn’t been too self-absorbed to listen to his old friend.

“Don’t let him get you in the face!” Claw directed. “That’s how he got Puman!”

“Worry about yourself,” Fish-Face chortled. “You’ve got bigger fish to fry than him – and so do I! I’m taking out heroes first and civilians second!”

He unleashed another stream of water toward the direction from which Claw’s voice had come. Scott knew only too well what was happening here. Fish-Face had already fried the biggest proverbial fish of all by sending Puman into the hereafter. Now he had managed to track Claw here and meant to do the same thing to her. Of course, Scott himself would certainly follow by virtue of being a witness…

Wait a minute! He called me a civilian. He doesn’t know who I am – or rather, who I used to be. There’s got to be some way I can use that!

Peering over the tractor, Scott saw that Fish-Face’s back was completely turned to him as he continued to randomly shoot water toward the loft in hopes of hitting a target. The killer was thoroughly preoccupied, his attention completely focused on tracking down Claw. Time was of the essence. In Claw’s condition, a speedy retreat wasn’t going to be an option, and chances were that fighting back directly wouldn’t be, either. As for hiding, she could only do that for so long.

Careful not to make a sound, Scott crept out from behind his place of shelter. He wanted to locate Claw himself, but he gave it up after a minute. If he couldn’t spot her right away, then Claw had apparently found a suitable shelter, and besides, he couldn’t afford to let himself get distracted. If he didn’t make good on this one opportunity, he probably wouldn’t get another.

Desperately looking around for a weapon, he found a rusty pitchfork. It wasn’t his ideal weapon; however, it was handy. If he thinks I’m just an ordinary civilian, then that means he won’t expect me to do much besides hiding or trying to escape. He’s going to take that for granted, won’t expect me to take action against him…

Scott grasped the pitchfork, knowing that the ideal strategy would be to launch it, javelin-style, at Fish-Face’s back so that he could keep his distance. However, he also knew only too well that he was far out of practice. Years of merely writing about athletes instead of practicing his own skills certainly would have eroded his arm strength and aim. No, if he were to have any hope at all, he could have to charge and hope that he didn’t get drowned for his trouble.

As he ran forward, thoughts of his murdered ally flooded his mind. Rage bubbled up within him like a geyser, and it was all he could do to keep himself from unleashing a savage battle cry that would have announced his approach. Scott lunged, brought his arm forward, and thrust the points of the pitchfork into Fish-Face’s back. Despite the tool’s rust and disuse, the tines plunged through his clothing, into his flesh…

Between Fish-Face’s pain and his already-distorted voice, his anguished howl was nothing short of blood-curdling. Scott felt squeamish for a split second, but he forced himself to push it aside. He had come too far to jeopardize things by hesitating now. Protecting Claw – and avenging Puman – took precedence over all else. The time had come. Outwardly he was still Scott, but inwardly he let himself become Fang once more.

Fish-Face spun around, angry but still reeling in pain. Scott swung at his grotesque face with his right hand, even as he kicked Fish-Face’s legs out from under him. He then threw his full weight on the villain, driving him to the ground as he continued to rain punches down on his head. There was a loud thud as they hit the ground, and it took Scott a moment to realize that his foe’s head had hit a cinder block.

Fish-Face appeared to be unconscious, but Scott was unwilling to take anything for granted. He rolled the freak over onto his stomach and dug his knee into his back, pinning him face-down on the floor. Finally, he pulled his cell-phone out of his pocket and dialed 911. “Send the police to the old farm on Gainer Road. I have Fish-Face in the barn.”

No sooner than he had hung up, he heard Claw’s voice from the loft. “Are you crazy? Why did you tell the cops where we were? This place is supposed to be a secret, remember? What about fealty to keeping the secrets of…?”

“Look! I probably just saved your life, and you’re complaining? Besides, it’s not like there’s going to be much use for this place now that…” Scott let his voice trail off, not wanting to voice the thought. Not wanting to even think it.

There was a long pause. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Claw said at last. “Thanks.”

***

Scott stood at the Puman Memorial at sunset, looking up at the bronze statue. It seemed surreal that his old friend should have been dead for three months now. He still felt like it had only happened yesterday.

Fish-Face had also died, thanks to an infection in the pitchfork wound. Rumor had it that he could have recovered but had simply lost the will to live. Scott didn’t know which was worse, that Puman should have been killed by such an ignominious foe, or that the killer himself should have met such a pitiful end.

He hadn’t heard from Claw since that day at the barn, and he doubt he ever would again. Puman had been the only thing that held them together. Now that he was gone, there was no common ground between them anymore.

Scott looked at the item in his hand. Until now, he didn’t know why he had held onto it all these years; he certainly had never planned to use it again. Only now did he realize the sentimental value it carried for him. Ironically, it seemed to him that today was the proper time to let it go at last.

Quietly, reverently, he knelt down and placed his old Fang uniform at the foot of the statue. Scott stood and looked at it for a moment. Yes, this seemed right somehow. There was only one thing left to say now.

“Good-bye, old friend.”


.

About the Author

Stoney M. Setzer lives south of Atlanta, GA, with his beautiful wife and three wonderful children. As a fiction writer, he strives to create suspenseful stories with spiritual themes. His works have been featured in such publications as Residential Aliens, www.microhorror.com, and Christian Sci-Fi Journal, as well as a number of anthologies. Recently, he has also published an anthology of his own work entitled Zero Hour, which is available on Amazon. He is employed as a middle school special education teacher.