Chapter Four: Facing the Baron

Iron-gray hair and goatee; a jutting nose; a white cloak that covered his back and included sleeves for his arms, but was never designed to cover the front of his body; I could see the more modern blue suit he wore beneath the white overgarment. One hand rested lightly on the ornate head of an old-fashioned walking stick. Baron Winters stood in the doorway, head cocked slightly as he studied me while I carefully rose to my feet—was reasonably certain the leopard would not attack now that the master of the house was here to make the big decisions about an intruder.

"This," the Baron said deliberately, "should teach me the risks of watching Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train on cable. One might think I'd know better at my age, even if it had been forty years since I last viewed it. The next thing I know, here you are, under my roof without so much as giving me an hour's advance notice so I could tidy up a bit!" His steely eyes were fixed on mine as he waited for my explanation.

I had to make a decision, and it had to be swift. I could either tell the Baron the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth . . . or I could attempt to bluff my way out of here without admitting I was only a shadow of my former self where matters preternatural were concerned. The very worst thing I could do would be to take more than a second to decide how to speak; the Baron would smell such indecision, and sense the weakness behind it, as surely as a shark smells a single drop of blood.

There were some mystics I would certainly trust with such information if I desperately needed aid . . . but the Baron was not numbered among those select few. There were others I could never trust with anything . . . and to do him justice, I didn't consider the Baron to have firmly staked out a position for himself on that list either. The ambiguity of the man's nature put him somewhere in the middle.

Ah well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. "Hello, Winters. I need some help."

His eyes narrowed. "Shouldn't you wrap it up in the usual mumbo-jumbo, Stranger?" His voice shifted to an exaggeratedly ominous tone. "'Greetings, Winters—the game is afoot! You have a rare opportunity to tilt the karmic scales in the proper direction if you choose wisely'?" His voice reverted to a calmer, slightly mocking tone. "Some such rigmarole to make it sound as if you are doing me a favor by offering to let me participate in your weighty affairs—instead of asking for a favor, even if you are?"

I allowed my lips to form a fleeting smile. "Greetings, Winters. The game is afoot. You have a rare opportunity to tilt the karmic scales in the proper direction if you choose wisely." I shrugged theatrically. "Do you feel better, now that I have dressed it up properly?"

The Baron suddenly raised his stick as if it were a rapier and pointed it at my chest. "Suddenly I question whether you are the Phantom Stranger at all. Since when does he use a conventional traveling spell—Portnoy's Penultimate Portal, if I have not forgotten the flavor of its lingering aura from my old lessons—to enter a man's home? Since when does he need a properly prepared pentacle to receive him? And since when does he start out a conversation by plainly asking me for help? We've never had that close a relationship!"

I did not hear the leopard say (or growl) a single thing, but the Baron suddenly snapped, "Enough, Merlin! So he smells like the Phantom Stranger! What of it? Noses may be deceived as surely as eyes often are!" He paused, then added peevishly, "No, offhand I don't recall the last time that your nose was thus deceived, but what does that prove?"

"If I could get a word in, Baron," I interjected, "then I could explain some of what baffles you. After an odd attack from a sorceress and her confederate, I have lost some of my usual abilities and lore, and had to resort to Portnoy's, a spell I think I had never actually performed ere today, to carry me out of confinement." (The presence of Merlin had something to do with my decision to be frank—I doubted he would just sit back on his haunches and let the Baron attempt to kill or enthrall me without provocation.)

"Ah?" The Baron looked at me in frank speculation. "Then just how much aid do you require, Stranger? You recall, I trust, that in this era I am bound to remain within the walls of this manse? But I still have contacts hither and yon, and perhaps I could rally a new Night Force to assist with any necessary legwork in finding your vexatious sorceress." He raised his eyebrows significantly. "For proper compensation, of course."

I paused. I had not known just where the spell would take me; hence, I had no detailed agenda for what to do next. "I should hate to put you to so much trouble, Baron, but if you could simply arrange transport for me to wherever Kent and Inza Nelson currently have their abode. . . ."

"Of course Doctor Fate would be your first choice for succor. Ah, well, my offer will remain open for awhile if you should discover a need for mortal field agents. Now, if we can merely settle—" He broke off suddenly.

There was a light step in the hall, and a young woman's voice came through the doorway. "Baron? I finally got all the documents from the thirteenth box computer-indexed . . .but as to shelving the transcripts of the Akashic Recordings, do you want them clumped together under 'A for Akashic,' or shelved according to the names of individual authors?"

"Keep them all together under 'A,' Miss Jones," the Baron said at his most urbane as a young lady with a pale face framed by brown ringlets came into view. "But first, pray let me present you to an old . . . acquaintance . . . who dropped in out of thin air, as it were. Phantom Stranger, this is Miss Alice Jones, who is working wonders in organizing my messy collection of dusty records of past investigations and other matters of interest into something resembling a proper library. Miss Jones, this mysterious gentleman styles himself the Phantom Stranger . . . or just plain Stranger for short. As hard as it may be to believe, he is even older than my humble self!"

"Aren't we all much older than we look?" she asked absently as she stepped daintily forward to face me. "How do you do, sir."

I bowed slightly. "I am well enough, Miss Jones. And yourself?" I normally have little time for small talk, but I suspected the Baron would prove obdurate if I failed to cooperate with his formal introductions.

"Very well, thank you. The Baron is actually a considerable improvement over my previous employer in some ways." (Under other circumstances I would have already known the identity and nature of her previous employer, but as was, I had to be content with mentally filing that statement away for later study.)

"Kind of you to say so, Miss Jones," the Baron interjected. "But we really shouldn't keep you from your duties for too long, especially when the Stranger and I were about to negotiate a reasonable fee for my time and trouble in transporting him directly to a certain neighborhood in the Big Apple, saving him all that fuss of purchasing a ticket on an airplane and then hiring a cab to drive through that awful traffic. . . ." He gently grasped her right arm and began to turn her around to face the hall.

Miss Jones began to say, "But don't you just snap your fingers and open a door—"

The Baron hastily shushed her, steering her out of the room in the process. "Laymen," he said to me in a confiding tone, shaking his head ruefully as he firmly closed and locked the door behind her. "No comprehension of these matters and the hidden toll they take upon a humble practitioner."

"Undoubtedly," I said in my dryest tone. "But just what do you think a rapid transit to another city is worth? I can simply walk the distance in the manner of our earliest ancestors if it seems preferable to satisfying some outrageous demand." (That presupposed that he would simply let me leave his Georgetown house without extracting some sort of toll from me, but I saw no need to acknowledge that he probably had the upper hand at the moment if it came to violence.)

"A mere bagatelle," he said in a wheedling tone. "A promise for the future, as it were. Just pledge that after your normal resources are at your disposal again, you will answer one question for me, upon demand."

Even if I possessed a bank account, I would not believe in giving anyone a blank check. I said sternly, "There are some matters that are really none of your business, Winters. I have a counteroffer. When I have my full knowledge again, I will either answer your first question, or else I will tell you to try again. And perhaps again, and again, and a hundred times again, if need be. The debt will not be discharged until you have asked a question and I have answered it in full."

"Agreed!" he said heartily, and I realized, tardily, that he had never expected me to embrace his first offer. "Now follow me down the corridor, and we shall find a portal to cut the next leg of your journey down to a matter of a minute's walk . . . or thereabouts."

Author's Note: Baron Winters is a fairly obscure character in the DCU; I wouldn't be surprised if many of my readers can't place him at all. His principal appearances have been in the two short-lived "Night Force" titles, both written by Marv Wolfman; one for 14 issues in the 1980s, one for 12 issues in the 1990s. As far as I know, he's never appeared in any movies or television episodes, not even in a bit part, so his name is not exactly a household word.

In 1983, in "Nightforce #14," he offered Miss Alice Jones a job as his secretary. She has never been seen or heard from since that time. I merely assume that at the time of DC's continuity of 1993 (which, from her point of view, would have been considerably less than "ten years" after she was hired), she was still working for the Baron at Wintergate Manor.