Author's Note: The central character is a supervillain-wannabe of my own creation. (His real name is Adam Torelli, although I never found a good place to mention that within the text below!) So don't feel bad when you don't recognize him. For reasons which escape even me, I ended up writing this one almost entirely in dialogue.
The New Supervillain on the Block
"Okay, pops, open up that cash register and give me all your money. Soon the world will learn to fear the name of Firebrand!"
"Really? Where is he?"
"This Firebrand guy you work for. Where is he? If I'm supposed to learn to be afraid of him, don't I need to see what he looks like?"
"Don't play dumb, pops. I am Firebrand!"
"You have got to be kidding me, son. Do you think wearing a leather jacket and a ski mask makes you look like some big bad scary supervillain?"
"What do you say now, old man?"
"Okay, okay, so you have a superpower that lets you set your head on fire. Very nice. I'm sure you're proud of yourself. Hey, if you wore a skull-mask underneath those flames, you might even look like one of those Ghost Rider fellows!"
"Thanks for the fashion tip. Now open up that cash register."
"On the other hand, you might want to fix that name."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Not much, except that a few other guys have already used it! Even if you get mentioned on TV, most people will think you're just one of the old-timers with a new look! Is that really what you want—to be someone else's stand-in?"
AROOOOO AROOOO AROOOO AROOOO
"What did you do, pops?"
"Nothing. That burning head of yours finally generated enough smoke to set off the fire alarm!"
"Oh, and the sprinklers! Anyway, the cops and the fire trucks will be here any minute!"
"And there he goes, high-tailing it out of here! I didn't realize he could set his whole body on fire, just like that Human Torch fellow!"
"Listen, cop, do you seriously expect me to be scared of your gun when I'm already surrounded by flame?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. How hot are those flames?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I don't think there's nearly enough ambient energy involved to evaporate a slug in the blink of an eye, so what difference does it make if you're on fire or not?"
"What difference does—are you kidding me?"
"Mister, you do realize that even if a bullet gets red-hot when it's a few inches away from you, the abrupt change in heat won't magically nullify the existing kinetic energy of the metallic mass which is already approaching your body at high speed?"
"Let me guess—you didn't pay much attention in high school physics? Okay, let me simplify it. If I shoot a regular bad guy, the bullet drills a hole through his flesh and possibly the occasional vital organ. Right?"
"Right . . ."
"So if I shoot you when you're surrounded by flame, the speeding bullet suddenly gets Very Hot—a fraction of a second before it still drills a hole through your flesh and possibly the occasional vital organ, same as it would to anybody else! Unless you're trying to tell me your skin is naturally impenetrable to begin with?"
"Um . . . I think you're bluffing."
"Mister, the only reason I haven't shot you yet is that you don't seem to have the ability to project fire far away from your body. So I don't feel too threatened when I'm standing about forty feet away from you. Now I'm giving you one last warning—douse the flames and put your hands against the wall and stand still until S.H.I.E.L.D. guys get here with their special power-dampening equipment, or else I'll have to shoot you since I don't dare move in to arm's reach to put handcuffs on you!"
"You admit you're afraid to come near me? Then you are bluffing! I'm out of here!"
"OWWWWWWW! My leg!"
"Warned you! It never occurred to you to test this at home before you commenced a life of crime, did it?"
"Unngghh . . . no, shooting at myself while I had my flames up just didn't seem necessary at the time."
"Yeah, well, experience is the best teacher. Now just stay slumped against that brick wall while I call this in. Otherwise I'll have to aim for the head next time."
"Hey! Who are you and what did you to that cop?"
"He will be all right, young man. Just a fast-acting tranquilizer dart. Compared to what he did to your leg, it is nothing. As for who I am . . . for the nonce, just call me the Good Samaritan."
"Huh? I thought the Good Samaritan helped the guy who'd been robbed—not the robber!"
"Ah. Actually paid attention in Sunday School once upon a time, did you? Funny how that is not reflected in your current behavior patterns."
"Did you knock out that cop just so you could insult me?"
"Not at all. I think we could do business together. If we can adjourn this discussion to a more private locale where New York's finest will not be breathing down our necks?"
"Uh . . . I don't think I can walk very far just now."
"That is quite all right. I can carry you to a waiting automobile. At least, if you'll be kind enough to completely switch off your fire?"
"I don't have much choice, do I?"
"There are always choices. If you prefer to stay where you are, waiting for S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to arrive with equipment to neutralize your powers for the long term, then I would not dream of interfering with your right to make such a fool of yourself."
"Like I said . . . not much of a choice. Okay, Good Samaritan, I'm dousing the flame."
"Thanks for digging out the bullet and stitching me up, pops. Are you a doctor?"
"Not exactly, although I have memorized every word of every medical textbook published in any of eight languages within the past twenty years. But that is only a hobby, in anticipation of occasional moments such as this; it was never my choice of profession."
"Uh . . . okay. So just what do you usually do to keep busy?"
"I practice the same occupation to which you aspire. I call myself The Thinker, but if your knowledge of such matters comes from sixty-second 'stories' on television newscasts, you may remember the more colorful sobriquet of 'The Mad Thinker.'"
"Oh, sure! I have heard of you! Brain like a supercomputer. Fought the Fantastic Four a buncha times. Last I heard, you were locked away. How'd you escape to this secret lair of yours?"
"The answer is simplicity itself: I didn't!"
"I am in a maximum-security cell right this minute. You are speaking to a remote-controlled lifelike robot proxy. If this unit is observed doing anything of which the law disapproves . . . tranquilizing a police officer, for instance . . . well, how are the authorities going to prove that's my fault when their own records will show I was already incarcerated at the time of the alleged crime, and probably sitting peacefully in front of a security camera at that exact moment?"
"Man, that is one sweet alibi!"
"Thank you. I've always been rather fond of it. 'Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage' . . . but if the authorities stubbornly insist upon ignoring the fundamental truth of Lovelace's poem in favor of believing that physical confinement actually restricts my activities in any meaningful fashion, then why should I exert myself to disillusion them? But enough about me for now. Young man, just what is it you want out of life?"
"I want to use my powers to get money, respect, and happiness. Pretty much in that order."
"All right, let us talk about the respect. You want people to say your name in awe, I suppose? Then we need to work on your name and image. Some 'villains,' such as Doctor Doom and Magneto, got it right on the first try. On the other hand, after all these years the man now known as The Trapster still has people mocking him with his earlier cognomen: Paste-Pot Pete! That's what happens when you don't plan ahead!"
"Ouch. I sure don't want to end up like that!"
"Now then, your powers seem pyrokinetic in nature. I take it that you wish this point to be clearly reflected in your alias, hence your use of 'Firebrand'?"
"Yeah. I didn't realize it had already been done."
"Five times before, by my tally, if we are just counting individuals. There was also a group of artificially-created man-shaped weapons, lacking sentience, which was collectively called 'the Firebrand Squadron' when it operated in the Second World War. None of the five more recent Firebrands have ever amounted to much of anything, though."
"I see, I see. So it's a name that carries the stink of 'loser' after so many failures to make the big time?"
"That is one possible interpretation of the data, yes."
"Mister Thinker, could you tell me some of the other names that have already been used by heroes and villains?"
"I take it you specifically mean those aliases which began with an explicit mention of Fire? Otherwise the full list could take several hours."
"Uh . . . yeah."
"Besides Firebrand, this robot's internal database includes references to one or more users of: Firearm, Fireball, Firebird, Firebolt, Firebomb, Firebringer, Firebug, Fire-Eater, Fire-Eyes, Firefall, Firefight, Firefist, Firefly, Firefox—"
"Hold the phone! Someone really named himself Firefox?"
"Two someones, actually—no apparent connection between them. Why do you ask?"
"Didn't they get sick and tired of being confused with a Clint Eastwood movie?"
"Possibly they did—but I don't have that data on file. Moving right along, I also have listings for Firefrost, Firehand, Firelord, Firemane, Firepower, Firestar, Firestrike with an I and Firestryke with a Y, Firewall, Fireworks . . . and that seems to be it! All right, my budding young villain, if you can think of anything starting with 'Fire' that I didn't just mention, then it seems to be waiting to be claimed as a nom du guerre which will come to mean whatever you make it mean!"
"Well, I'm a man and I can control fire—that makes me think of Fireman. No, don't say anything, Mister Thinker—I know it's no good. People would think my job was to put out the fires, instead of starting them!"
"Unless they were fans of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451—but I agree it is not right for you. Especially since you aren't terribly interested in focusing your efforts on censorship of other people's reading materials, so even the Bradbury connection would be tenuous."
"Uh . . . okay. What about . . . Firestorm?"
"Perhaps. Wait! It's been done in comic books. Fictional characters owned by the Warner media empire. I don't think you want to be accused of plagiarizing comics in a frantic effort to find a satisfactory alias. Hmm. Come to think of it . . . I find that that similar objections apply to Firehair and Firehawk and Fireheart and Fire Jade and Fire Lad and even just plain Fire!"
"Wait, wait. It sounds like most of those names came from somebody taking 'Fire' and then gluing on another noun at the end. Right?"
"You could put it that way."
"What about a verb? Maybe that's what I need to add at the end. Or a noun derived from a verb, or whatever it's called. Now you don't have to tell me that Stephen King already used 'Firestarter' for a novel—but what about 'Firewalker'?"
"Possible, possible. I find no record of it being used by any costumed adventurers in the past. Before you suggested that, I was about to suggest discarding 'Fire' in favor of some other term which is less common but conveys similar meaning. I believe no costumed 'hero' or 'villain' in modern times has ever used 'Blazer,' for instance.'"
"Blazer? Mister Thinker, do you really believe I want people asking me why I named myself after a jacket? Or maybe a Chevy SUV?"
"I see your point. Firewalker it is, then! Now let us see to designing your costume. I think we shall begin with a material I reverse-engineered from spectrographic analysis of an old X-Men uniform—a remarkably bulletproof material that feels scarcely heavier than ordinary street clothing. I presume you would not care to be easily shot down again?"
"That's a safe assumption—or presumption—or whatever it was you said. By the way, why are you doing all this for me? Because if you're hoping I'll help you take over the world, that's really out of my league."
"No, no, no. I had in mind something more suited to your current capabilities. There are certain items which I wish stolen so that this robot's pair of hands may work to combine them into something exquisite—but I do not wish it known that it was The Thinker, nor his mechanical facsimile, who stole those items! That would make it far too likely that certain advanced minds, such as those of Reed Richards or Victor Von Doom, might pay enough attention to the reports of the thefts to deduce my entire plan, and perhaps foil it ere it was properly launched."
"So I'm your new errand boy?"
"I would prefer to call it a temporary alliance for mutual convenience. You are welcome to all the money you can steal for yourself while wearing a bulletproof but highly decorative suit of my own design, so long as you make time for a few special missions on my behalf before we quietly part ways."
"And let me guess! If I . . . uh . . . neglect my obligations to my ally after I have the fancy suit you will provide, then . . . something bad happens? Such as my voiceprint and a picture of my face being sent anonymously to the police so they can more easily track me down? Or maybe something nasty gets injected into my drinking water when I think I'm safe and sound in a new hideout? Or the suit suddenly becomes non-bulletproof at the worst possible time?"
"Do we really need to dwell upon the messy details of such purely hypothetical worst-case scenarios?"
"Maybe not. Okay, let's talk about the color scheme for my new suit!"
"All right, pops! Gimme all your money!"
"Hey, aren't you the same young fellow who was in here last week?"
"Yes. Open the cash register."
"Nice costume! Cute helmet, too. Although if I were you, wearing what you're wearing now, I'd start exercising more to slim down that waistline in a hurry!"
"You're a fine one to talk."
"But I'm a lot older than you, and I don't run around in spandex, so who cares if I bulge in the wrong places?"
"About the money—"
"By the way, did you ever fix your name?"
"As a matter of fact, I settled on Firewalker."
"Interesting. I don't remember reading about any Firewalkers in the crime news before."
"That was the idea. Now about the money—"
"Help yourself to what's in the drawer, if it means so much to you. I'm certainly not planning to fight you for it."
(Rustle, rustle, rustle.)
"Hey! There's only about three hundred fifty dollars in here!"
"Sounds about right. Most of our regulars just swipe their cards through the reader nowadays."
"Come on, you must have more than this around."
"Well, there's the stuff that's been dropped in the safe over there. I can't open it—I'm just a flunky. And the safe weighs hundreds of pounds—are you strong enough to pick it up and run off with it?"
"No . . . and I don't think I can melt a hole in it, or not fast enough to be worth trying."
"Huh. Even supposing you could get that hot, are you sure melting the metal wouldn't make the currency inside go up in smoke before you could reach in and grab it? That would kinda defeat the purpose, eh?"
"Another good point . . ."
"Besides, kid, now that you've got a better name and a spiffy costume, shouldn't you be setting your sights a little higher? Knocking over convenience stores ain't the way to make a name for yourself. You think Ultron or Doctor Octopus got their reps that way?"
"What? Did Ultron ever really care about building a rep? Isn't he all about exterminating the human race so we won't annoy him any more?"
"Okay, bad example! But the larger point still stands. You want people to think you're scarier than the average stick-up artist, you need to set your sights higher. Banks . . . museums . . . prototypes of brilliant new gadgets from the big corporations . . . the sort of thing that says a guy's got power and ambition and chutzpah!"
"In other words, I shouldn't bother robbing your store?"
"Well, it's not really my store—I just work here—but yeah, that was the general idea. Besides, even if you want to start small and work your way up, why are you robbing this place when you could hit the tobacco shop across the street?"
"What's so special about the tobacco shop?"
"Everybody in this neighborhood knows it's just a front for a bookie. He's bound to have thirty or forty times as much cash sitting in the back room as you'd ever get from here!"
"Really? That's what I love about New York City, pops. Everybody is willing to sell their neighbors down the river! Here, you can keep your chicken feed! Sounds like I've got bigger fish to fry!"
"Mister Thinker, this is ridiculous. I've made over a hundred G's by robbing a few bookies—which is fun because they aren't likely to report the loss of money they legally never had in the first place!—and I've already pulled one of your special jobs as well, and all I get is one or two paragraphs at a time, buried in the middle of the Bugle?"
"Ah. This goes to the matter of 'respect' which you mentioned before?"
"Yeah! How am I going to impress any of the babes who hang out at the local Bar With No Name if they've never even heard of me before? You don't think I wanna become the kind of pathetic loser who pays women to spend time with him and pretend they enjoy it, do you?"
"I really hadn't worried about it. Your future social life will be no concern of mine."
"Okay, okay, I see your point. After all, I don't ask about your dealings with women, either! (If you ever have any.) But I would like to get some serious name-recognition working for me! Maybe tonight's job at Hammer Industries will trigger my television debut?"
"Oh, stop whining. Those are hardly even first-degree burns. You'll be fine in a few days! But there is one thing you can do for me. When reporters want to know all about me, be sure to tell them it's 'Firewalker' with no spaces or hyphens or other fancy stuff. Just one ten-letter word, okay?"
"Firewalker. All one word, no punctuation. Got it."
"By the way, does that security camera record in color, or does your employer scrimp and save with a black-and-white video?"
"Uh . . . I'm not sure. Not my job to watch the screens in the security center."
"Darn. Well, I can just hope it's full-color. Then the newspapers can use a frame for the front page, and maybe the TV guys will run some footage!"
"I don't believe it. They snubbed me! The local stations are all talking about this 'mysterious new masked menace with flame-based powers, Firefly!' instead. Nobody even mentions my daring raid on Hammer Industries? Who ever heard of this newest 'Firefly' chick before, anyway?"
"It is most peculiar. Your working name is actually original, whereas hers has been used by other second-stringers in the past. Your costume is much more expensive, which should suggest you go to greater pains to be a truly menacing and well-equipped supervillain. And, of course, you have several weeks' head start on her in pursuing the lifestyle of a costumed felon. And if we arbitrarily assume that the heat she generated in that footage is the best she can do, then I estimate that her maximum output is approximately 147.26439 degrees Fahrenheit less than yours, give or take 0.065 degrees."
"I'm not quite following your point, Mister Thinker . . ."
"I am wondering: Given all the advantages you seem to have over this newest 'Firefly,' why is she already getting so much more attention on local television than you are?"
"Just at a wild guess—perhaps the most important factor is that she fills out a spandex suit a heck of a lot better than I do?"
"That is not spandex you're wearing; it's an expensive bulletproof—"
"Missing the point! If it looks like spandex, then as far as the six o'clock news is concerned, it is spandex! And if she looks 'hotter' than me, then that means she is more newsworthy! You're probably the only person on Earth who would care which of us could literally generate more heat!"
"Ah. Perhaps you are right. I often have difficulty grasping the superficial nature of the general populace's interests. I should bear in mind what H.L. Mencken once observed: 'No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.'"
"Okay, Mister Thinker, here's the last item from your 'shopping list.' So . . . are we all square now?"
"Just let me examine that module. Ah yes, in pristine condition! The only other items I need now are the sort of things which anyone can buy without attracting comment. Thank you, Firewalker. Yes, you have paid in full for the suit. What you do with it from now on is entirely your affair."
"Good! I wanted that settled before I skip town."
"Going on vacation? Spending some of your money basking on a beach in the Caribbean, perhaps?"
"No, I'm not just leaving for a week or two—I'm giving up on this city entirely, Mister Thinker! I always used to hear people say that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere—but apparently the market is saturated with costumed bozos and bimbos all trying to steal the limelight from each other! They'll pull any cheap stunt for a few minutes in front of a TV camera! I'm tired of playing a role, trying to be something other than I am, surrounding myself with flames just to try to stand out from the herd, desperately combing through the newspapers to see if I get a few lines on my latest performance . . . it's all just too phony for me!"
"So what are you planning instead?"
"I'm headed for Hollywood to become a stuntman!"
"So you feel 'show biz' would be far different from the problems you have encountered here?"
"Or at least I think my talents will be in higher demand! Every time the script calls for the hero—or the villain, or the soldier in an army, or whatever, to catch on fire—there I'll be! Meanwhile, hanging around the sets between stunts gives me a chance to rub shoulders with all those curvaceous Sweet Young Things who are working as extras in the crowd scenes and dreaming of aceing the next screen test! Who knows where they might turn for comfort after they don't quite make it?"
"So you are actually planning to 'go straight'? A pity. Does this mean you're planning to become so stuffily respectable that you will give back all the money you stole in your endeavors to build a reputation as Firewalker?"
"Give it back? Are you kidding? Why would do I a stupid thing like that?"
"Ah. For a moment there, I was afraid I had badly misjudged you—but now I see I have not. My faith in human nature is restored! Well, young man, I wish you the best of luck in your new endeavors. But please keep this phone number handy."
"And it is?"
"A voice-mail account I maintain in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Just in case you ever want to talk about new business opportunities."
"Uh . . . thanks. Well, perhaps I'll be seeing you sometime! Ciao!"
"Case Notes: Firewalker.
"Given that the young fool got himself shot in his first attempt at robbery, I deemed it highly likely that he would be either dead or crippled for life within the next two years, having accomplished virtually nothing in his short span as a 'supervillain.' I detected a way to put his pyrokinetic abilities to good use for my current scheme, while also instigating a program to make him dissatisfied with his lot in life as just another obscure costumed buffoon in the Tri-State area.
"Utilizing subtle methods which he would not believe even if I felt the need to explain them to him, I raised the probability of his choosing to travel to Hollywood in the near future to approximately 91.5093 percent, even though he would swear—accurately enough—that I had never mentioned California in our conversations.
"He may succeed for a time as a stuntman specializing in fiery scenes—but even so, his current horde of ill-gotten gains will not permit him to live 'the good life' indefinitely. Sooner or later he will desire to supplement his income, and then he will recall the slip of paper I gave him, and we shall negotiate his compensation for other thefts which cannot easily be laid at my doorstep. There are many choice targets in California which could be useful in some of my contingency plans for the future if this current plan does not meet with complete success.
"Past experience suggests such headstrong individuals are far more malleable if they believe a continued association represents a cordial alliance made of their own free will, rather than some form of long-term servitude to an employer possessing a vastly superior intellect. I shall know where to find Firewalker again any time I actually need him, but it is unlikely that this will occur before he decides he needs me! Let him cherish the illusion that he is entirely in control of his own life . . ."