[Fiction/Nostalgia] Calvin and Hobbes tribute: Calvin alter ego clash


One of my earliest memories of wanting to be a creative writer (or, indeed, of wanting to do anything creative whatsoever) comes from long afternoons spent reading and re-reading the fantastic Calvin and Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson. Although the comic strip had stopped running by the time I was starting to sink my teeth into it, I, together with my two sisters, owned a staggering number of anthologies packed with row after row of little squares featuring the erudite Calvin and his erstwhile stuffed tiger, Hobbes. While there are a few other brilliant comics I remember fondly from my childhood – Foxtrot, the Simpsons comics, and those one-panel wonders known as The Far Side – there are none which had so big an impact on me as that dynamic duo. I am convinced that without the well-phrased (if petulant and self-centered) utterances of that spiky-haired kid, my vocabulary would never have developed at quite so precocious a pace.

Although the strips were filled with an enormous variety of repeating themes and features from Calvinball (where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter, to paraphrase Drew Carey on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) to long walks in the woods rich with existential reverie, there was one that ignited my creative juices more than any other. Calvin, endowed with an imagination so vast that “overactive” doesn’t even begin to describe it, was constantly embodying a wild range of personas, including dinosaurs, tidal waves, and even a safe, during the transmogrification ray saga. However, three characters in particular were recurrent and well-defined: the intrepid intergalactic explorer Spaceman Spiff; the hard-bitten, tough-talking private eye Tracer Bullet; and the indomitable caped crusader Stupendous Man. Much to my disappointment, these characters never featured in the same storyline, hampered perhaps by the nature of the medium or by the impossibility of Calvin acting out all three roles simultaneously. Consequently, as a kid, I always wondered what it would be like if these three titans of literature somehow clashed in one climactic storyline.

I imagine it would go a little something like this.


Vigilantes.

Hah! Some two-bit thug hides their ugly mug behind a strip of cloth, throws on an impractical cape and suddenly they’re above the law. Sliding under the radar as they wring corruption from orifices that corrupt cops don’t care to wipe. At least, that’s what they tell themselves while they’re gallivanting around, beating on small-time crooks who’ve swiped old granny’s handbag and sending them to the emergency room with a splintered skull.

Thing is, it ain’t right. You can’t just lay into someone with your daddy’s nine-iron for stealing a purse, even if they did knock granny down and graze her knee. There’s due process, you have the right to remain silent and everything you say can and will be yadda da yadda da yadda. My point being, when a vigilante catches a criminal and leaves them broken on the ground, they’re not administering justice. So stay at home, kids. Leave that kind of thing to the cops.

Me? Nah, I’m no flatfoot. I’m just a snoop, a private investigator with a capital I. The name’s Bullet, Tracer Bullet, and I never travel alone. Allow me to introduce you to my two friends, slug number one and slug number two. Number one travels in a hip flask and number two in a .44 Magnum I keep inside my coat pocket, right next to my heart. Sure, they’re not too talkative, but company’s company, and those long nights out can sure get lonely. Hey, hey, I ain’t complaining, though. Those long and lonely nights make for some stories, let me tell you. For example.

There I was, picking around at the scene of the crime, stepping round police tape strung up like christmas lights and avoiding the forensics teams with their big flashbulb cameras. Usually, the cops won’t let a dirty common Dick like me within a hundred yards of their precious cordon, and generally that suits both of us just fine. On a night like this I’d rather be at home anyway, drowning my sorrows in cheap and nasty bourbon, but this one was something special that the regular wage-collecting joes had called me in on. Part of a series.

See, the cops are busy people. They got a million and two things to deal with without having to worry about every piddling bit of crime takes place in this scummy city. Vigilantism, in particular, is something they don’t relish stamping down on. No matter their official stance on the subject that taking the law into your own hands is wrong and et cetera, the cops don’t really dislike those brazen madmen. No, the costumed creeps make their job easier, see? Every crook battered into submission is one less crook they’ve got to arrest themselves, and if a handful of innocent civilians are harmed along the way, well… nobody ever said the system was perfect.

So they contract the vigilante jobs out to poor schmoes like yours truly, average hard-working detectives who’ve got a sliver of competence and a belly full of liquor. We rub our bleary eyes against the case, figure out what sticks, and maybe catch a break and solve it. In all honesty, the cops aren’t too fussed if we close the case or not. At least this way they’ve got a bone to throw the ravening pack of journalists eager for the latest on the Man in the Mask or General Justice.

“Investigations are ongoing,” they can say, straight-faced and deadpan. “We are employing every means at our disposal to apprehend this dangerous individual.”

So there I was, the cops’ “every means” consultant Tracer Bullet on the case. The victim had been found the same as the others, a gibbering mess in some seedy alleyway downtown where he’d been engaged in petty crime: drugs, maybe, or thievery. All glassy-eyed and drooling he was, muttering nonsense beneath his breath while he rocked back and forth. Another real bang-up job by the mysterious Stupendous Man, whoever he might be. Some freak in a cape with an extreme sense of social justice, no doubt, if his calling card was any clue. A little gilt “S” in a plastic sleeve, studded with diamonds, dropped carelessly as you please beside all the victims. The diamonds weren’t fakes, either; a real classy touch, and one that suggested our would-be do-gooder had expensive tastes and a pocketbook to match.

A loaded vigilante. Great. Mind you, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before; Mama’s little boy, saddled with a life of luxury and the double-edged sword of too much cash and nothing to do decides on a career of amateur crime-fighting. A real sob story, but not as uncommon as you’d think. Unfortunately for me and the city’s PD, the wealthy ones were the hardest to catch, because they had the moolah for fancy cars and snazzy equipment. What a headache. Anyway.

I stood there for a while as they bundled the gently ranting victim into a padded wagon and carted him off to the madhouse, staring hard at the damp ground like its grimy sheen held the answers I sought, but there was nothing. Nada. A heavy curtain of rain had swept the city clean on this miserable night, and whatever secrets the filthy alleyway might have held had long since disappeared down the overflowing storm drains. The only clue was the Stupendous Man’s calling card, its plastic sheath spattered with beads of moisture where it lay in my open palm.

Now, you might wonder what such a priceless trinket was doing in the possession of the hired help, but me and the chief, we had an accord. When it came to vigilantism, he knew there was none better than one mister T Bullet, PI, and so I was given a bit more leeway than those other schmucks, what you might call operational agency in the parlance. The regulars still treated me like dirt, but boy did I relish the looks on their faces when they were forced to hand over valuable police evidence to a bumbling civilian like myself. Plus, there were so many of these gilt ego trips piled up at the station by now that the cops had started swapping them like baseball cards. Our stupendous friend had been busy, and make no mistake.

Around me, the forensics guys were packing up their stuff, chatting casually to each other about the upcoming holidays, exchanging horror stories of christmas repasts haunted by their grubby in-laws and the neighbour’s mangy cats. I glanced over as they began to move off in a cheerful crowd, mood not at all dampened by the surrounding squalor or the crazy who’d been there a second ago. I suppose when you work in forensics and spend your time lifting blood stains off the carpet, it takes a lot to faze you. One brave soul, perhaps a bit muzzy with an excess of holiday cheer, even threw a “happy christmas” to me over his shoulder. I didn’t respond, instead pulling the brim of my fedora down against the meandering drizzle that continued to fall and clenching my fist around the plastic packet in my hand.

As they walked off, I could hear the forensics teasing their friend for his mistake as their voices trailed off into the murk.

“You’re crazy, man!”

“What’re you thinking? That’s Tracer Bullet, man. I heard he killed a guy once.”

“Killed a guy? Nah, listen, there’s this rumor floating around…”

And then I was alone at the scene, with nothing but the dim illumination of a pathetic lamp for company, a pointless fixture installed in a misguided attempt to cut down crime.

Let me explain something. I’m no humbug, not really, not on the same level as the greats like Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch. I’m more apathetic towards public holidays than anything else. My living is basically made off the back of that old “crime never sleeps” chestnut, and if crime doesn’t see fit to observe public holidays, then you can bet that I’m exempt, too. I don’t begrudge other people their celebrations or their joy, all the best to them, but just leave me out of it. I’ve got a job to do.

A job which wasn’t going too well. The Stupendous Man was proving to be a slippery adversary; he’d struck again and again with me none the wiser about his identity, his MO, anything. Apart from the victims he drove insane through some unknown means, there were never any witnesses around and no one had caught so much as a glimpse of the man, no matter the response time. If this were a comic strip, I’d swear that he could fly and shoot mind-scrambling hypno beams from his eyes. Here in the real world, though, things were never that easy, and I was flummoxed, plain and simple. I decided to go get a drink to mull things over.

Emerging from the alleyway, I was assaulted by the sounds of raucous shouts and cries from several nearby houses. The big Calvinball grand final – of course. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten it was taking place tonight, what with the exciting semifinals that had more than lived up to the one and only rule at the heart of the game, namely that the game can never be played the same way twice. The semifinals had featured everything from time-fracture wickets to a mysterious ‘shadow penalty zone’ that neither team had been able to find, much less discover how to send a player to it. It had culminated in a brilliant play by Team Calvin where they had imposed a last-second scoring zone of their own right on top of their opponents’, instituting a simultaneous four times score multiplier for the holder of the yellow flag. The final result of Q to 12 in their favor had made them a firm favorite for this year’s cup.

Not in the mood to hurry my pace, despite the fact that I knew the speakeasy I was headed for would be screening the finals, I passed beneath brightly lit windows from which issued a cacophony of curses, bellows and strident exhortations.

“No, not that tree! The secret base is at the next one along!”

“What’s she doing? What’s she doing? That’s a ninth-level gambit, she’s only reached the fourth checkpoint!”

“Are you blind? Did you miss the part where they declared that patch lava?!”

A crackerjack final, by the sound of it, but I wasn’t too concerned that I was out here on the darkened streets rather than in the warm and light. Calvinball was a complex, labyrinthine sport that had no clear endpoint; games generally ran until the referees decided that they’d had enough nonsense for one day, or until a game-ending rule was implemented. However, since the players were never sure whether the score was in their favor or not and game-ending rules were complicated by necessity, the finals were sure to continue for a good while yet.

Doubts assuaged, I trudged along the cracked sidewalks of the city, hands thrust deep into my pockets with my head inclined against the ceaseless drizzle. Though my fedora kept the worst of the rain off, I could feel the damp take hold in my pant legs and begin to creep its way slowly up through the porous fabric. The erratic beat of the rain matched the staccato thump of thoughts careening through my mind, pounding out a bass tattoo on the inside of my skull. And at the centre of the notional maelstrom, the Stupendous Man.

There was just too much that didn’t add up about this Stupendous fellow. I’d had tough cases, sure: the Hung Jury, for example, a particularly nasty brute with a taste for the traditional who loved lynching criminals the good ol’ fashioned way; the Queen of Hearts, who emulated her fictional namesake’s predilection for beheadings with a rusty sawblade; the enigmatic Dr. Perhaps. A collection of real puzzlers, but don’t get the wrong idea. I’m no nostalgic has-been, reliving the glory days with tales from my Rogues’ Gallery. I’m a practical man, and sentiment slides off me like water from a duck. Quack, quack.

But there was something about the Stupendous Man that left me uneasy and aching for the comforting simplicity of those other cases. The other vigilantes, they’d made mistakes, slipped up here and there, left clues. Shown vulnerabilities, to err is human and all that philosophical claptrap. Not once in a string of incidents that was growing comically long had the Stupendous Man made even one slip-up that might help us track him down and deliver justice unto him, as the judges were so fond of banging on about. It just wasn’t right, what he did to his victims. Not that I was overly concerned for the wellbeing of the criminals, but you’ve got to wonder how a guy leaves a trail of broken minds behind him a mile long and lives with himself.

Sunk in a fugue as I was, I didn’t notice the figures lurking in the shadowy underside of a set of moldering emergency stairs until a glistening four-foot-long tentacle whipped out of the darkness and dragged me under quick as you please. I knew better than to cry for help in this sadistic city, and besides, the slimy appendage was squeezing my lungs tighter than a piano accordion and I couldn’t spare the breath. I tried to struggle, but my arms were pinned to my side and my assailant’s saucer-sized suckers wouldn’t even let me wriggle. Fireworks blossomed before eyes threatening to pop under the pressure, until over the roar swelling to fill my ears I could just hear some murmured words, an uttered command.

Whatever it was, the thing’s death-grip loosened slightly in response, just enough to let me suck some air into my tortured lungs, groggy with oxygen deprivation. My vision slowly returned, and the blurry figure before me resolved itself into a hideous spike-covered creature with a featureless black band where its eyes should be. Wait, no – I shook my head and my vision sharpened, revealing the spikes to be merely slicked-up points of hair and the black band some sort of protective goggles that completely obscured the stranger’s eyes. Now that my own had stopped rattling around like dice in a cup, I could see that he was clad in what looked like a futuristic space suit, something out of Star Trek, gaudy insignia and all. Glancing to my left, I hoped the horrifying squelchy nightmare that was gripping me in one puckered pseudopod would similarly turn out to be something from the realm of sanity, but no dice. It was every bit as mind-numbingly awful as I’d imagined, and I turned away in revulsion rather than look at its slavering, mucous-slick maw.

“Attention, alarmed agent! Cease shivering and tell your title to Spaceman Spiff, interplanetary explorer extraordinaire!” I tried to voice some sarcastic reply, but the tentacle-monster was still crushing me too hard to allow for anything but shallow, painful gasps. My lack of response seemed to cause the outlandishly-dressed character some consternation.

“Zounds!” exclaimed the human (or at least humanoid) being. “Spaceman Spiff surveys the stranger for traces of trauma!” As he spoke, he awkwardly looked me up and down, as if inspecting me for injury but unfamiliar with basic human anatomy. A fitful wheeze issued from my crumpled trachea as I nodded down at my immobilized body, frantically trying to convey the problem to my clearly delusional abductor. Whether it was the gesture or my feeble croaking, the space nutter seemed to figure it out, for his face lit up like a christmas tree and he rasped a few words in some harsh, foreign language that I couldn’t understand, causing the tentacle-beast to suddenly release me. My legs, numb from the abuse done to my circulation system, were completely unable to support me and I went sprawling face-first into the dirty pavement.

Levering myself up onto an elbow, I raised my head to berate the idiot, who was grinning down at me as madly as if he was some kid who’d just received a breakfast-coupon propellor beanie in the mail.

“Look, buddy,” I growled, the menace in my voice somewhat undercut by the faint whistling that accompanied it, “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but you can’t just get your weird alien monster-thing to grab random passers-by and squeeze them half to death. In this city we call that assault, alright? Do you get what I’m saying here, buddy?” My tirade seemed to have little to no effect on the stranger, because he continued to beam down at me. I was beginning to suspect he wasn’t all there, and it was making me a bit spooked. With my spare arm I patted as nonchalantly as I could at my coat pocket and was relieved to find my .44 was still there, next to my heart. Having a loaded pocket-piece in easy reach is a reassurance like none other.

“Spaceman Spiff valiantly ventures his question to the grounded gentleman, again! Narrate your name to the excellent explorer!” I merely stared incredulously back at him. Who was this guy? Listening to him speak was like listening to some amateur actor deliver a poorly-drafted monologue, all melodrama and with the emphasis in the wrong places. And why did he keep speaking of himself in the third person? I half-expected him to paste on a handlebar mustache and start twirling it villainously. I decided to play ball with the goon; alright, I admit it, I was curious. That, and his tentacle monster looked like it was getting antsy, and I had no desire to be on the receiving end of another bone-mashing hug from the planet Plootarg.

“I’m Bullet. Tracer Bullet, private eye. What do you want? And what’s the matter with your friend there?” I asked, jerking my head towards the fiend. “Hasn’t he heard of asking nicely?”

“Ah, a dauntless detective!” he crowed, ignoring my query entirely. “Cracking the critical case of the sneaky Stupendous Man, the famously feared fugitive!” I nearly did a double-take.

“The who?” I asked, dumbly, unsure if I’d heard him correctly. Spiff, or whatever the spiky-haired guy called himself, nodded.

“The sinister space stalker, Stupendous Man, has broken free from Blorthon Five! Seeking safety, he entered Earth’s vicinity, vanishing from the valiant vanquisher’s vision like vapor!” As he spoke, Spiff gestured animatedly with his hands. And I mean animatedly – Spiff was all over the place: pointing up into the sky, curling his hand into a fist, clutching at his forehead, all in the space of a few seconds. I hadn’t seen posturing this exaggerated since nabbing The Actor a few years back. Now there was a fellow who was animated when he spoke. Animated like a cheap comic strip, that is.

“Alright. So you’re saying that this Stupendous Man is a, what, some kind of space criminal? And he’s escaped here to Earth, and you want my help to re-arrest him.” I slowly stood up, keeping a wary eye on the bug-eyed tentacle thing in case it reacted to me moving, but it didn’t seem to care a whole lot now that Spiff had told it whatever he’d told it. It just sat there, sort of bubbling away and emitting soft, unpleasant popping noises. I shuddered and did my best to ignore the pulsating mass as I brushed some of the matted-on dirt off my coat, instead fixing my gaze on Spiff, who was still nodding along like a bobblehead in an earthquake.

“What I don’t get here is whadda ya need me for? I mean, heck, I’m good at what I do, but you’re some sort of space whiz with a rocketship. Why not just zap him with your laser cannon or whatever, knock him out? All I got is a little peashooter to whatever slick hardware you must have in your space arsenal.” Peashooter may seem a little bit insulting when describing a Magnum, the most powerful production handgun in the world, but, hey, it didn’t shoot lasers. Spiff’s expression shifted to something approaching troubled, though it was hard to tell with the oversized goggles obscuring his eyes.

“Spaceman Spiff has tirelessly tracked the truly treacherous trespasser, but he is unable to undertake the arrest alone! Stupendous Man’s stupendous will stupefies solitary opponents, outright!” Stupendous will, huh? Could explain the mind-scrambling, if I accepted the word of this flamboyant and frankly ridiculous individual. Then again, I didn’t have any other leads; I was deep in the woods without so much as a flashlight. What could it hurt to go along with his plan?

A whole lot, as I was to find out.

“Right. So your plan is we confront him together, and then you stun him with your high-tech phaser doodad?”

“Affirmative!” Spiff replied, though there was something shifty about his demeanor. Most people would say it was nothing, but noticing thing’s my job; unfortunately, the darned goggles rather impaired my ability to read his face. Nonetheless, suspicion hardened in my gut like an undigested olive pit.

“The plucky plan is this: in two Earth hours, in the blackened building blocks away, the Stupendous Man will confront a cowardly criminal committing a callous crime. Stalwart Spiff and the brave, bold Bullet will wait and watch, tripping the trap at the opportune time, and lo the cosmic criminal will be caught!” That was it? It sounded simple enough, but something about the whole situation stank like rotten eggs. If it was that easy to nab the Stupendous Man, why was the entire city PD having such a hard time bringing down the book? And if Spaceman Spiff knew exactly where and when the vigilante (or space vigilante, I suppose) was going to strike, why didn’t he just bring along a couple of his space cop buddies, rather than pulling in some clueless Earthling?

Before I could ask, Spiff executed some abrupt arm-motion that I guessed was the equivalent of a salute, fiddled with something on his utility belt, and disappeared. Just like that! I blinked, looking around, but his tentacled friend had vanished, too. I whistled, long and low. Neat trick, that. Imagine what I could do with one of those! For starters, I could steal cookies from the jar and nobody would be the wiser – the perfect tool. I glanced around, making sure that no trace of Spiff or his pet remained, then squared my shoulders and headed off into the night, massaging my smarting ribs. The blackened building Spiff referred to could be none other than the old box warehouse that had burned down some years back, so that’s where I was going.

You might be thinking that I was taking this whole thing rather well. Aliens, spacemen, escaped convicts from outer space; surely I was a bit more spooked than I’m letting on. Not really; you see, in my line of work you come across a lot of odd things, and I’d built up a staggering immunity to the strange and extraordinary. Besides, I wasn’t yet fully convinced that I wasn’t passed out in a bar somewhere and imagining the whole thing – it wouldn’t be the first time I’d experienced a vivid bourbon-fuelled adventure and woken up sweating. Still, I was pretty sure that tentacle monster was a new (and not entirely welcome) addition to my headspace. Plus, something about the spaceman’s face had struck me as eerily familiar, but I couldn’t think what he reminded me of. I was sure it would come to me, sooner or later.

My dreams of a drinking spree at the bar abandoned, I sighed and trudged back to the sidewalk. The seat of my pants were completely soaked through from my undignified landing on the watery slush that coated the ground, courtesy of Spiff’s tentacled friend. I grimaced at the thought of how far away a change of clothes was, but banished it with the mysteries piling up around me. With two hours to go to the rendezvous at the burnt-out box warehouse, I could spare some time for introspection, and I got into some serious pondering as I strolled down the sidewalks.

Preoccupied as I was, I was still dimly aware of my surroundings, alert as always for any sign of danger. Snow had fallen the previous day, and a collection of snowmen decorated the tiny rectangles of lawn in front of the various houses and apartment blocks I was passing. However, I noticed that the snowmen had a bizarre art nouveau aesthetic to them, and not just because the light drizzle had softened the snow, causing the figures to slump in unnatural ways. The original snowmen themselves possessed strangely absurd designs: here, a group of snowmen clutched at their throats, bent into poses of agonizing pain, as if they’d just ingested poison; there, a snowman stared thoughtfully at a snowball nestled in one fragile stick-hand, as if contemplating snowman evolution; across the road, a horde of miniature snowmen fled in terror from a ravening, monstrous one that towered above them. Whoever had made these certainly had some imagination. It sure added flavor to the street, at least.

My stride slackened as I neared my destination, and I drew to a halt across the road from the burnt-out husk of the box warehouse. I checked my watch: an hour to go until the showdown. I wondered if I were being foolish not calling in the police to handle this – it was their job, after all, and the spaceman hadn’t said anything about them either way. I’d just assumed, foolishly perhaps, that this was a straight two-man operation and calling in outside help would only complicate the matter.

I frowned. I wasn’t sure why I thought this. Had Spiff used some kind of mind-altering device on me? But then I shook my head, dispelling the notion. I just didn’t like involving the police. Never had. I’m the guy they come to, not the other way round, and I aimed to keep it that way. Running to the district’s finest with all my little problems would do nothing for my reputation of getting results. It occurred to me that an escaped space criminal with superpowers wasn’t what most would call a “little” problem, but how would I even explain it? I barely understood what was going on myself. No, better to keep mum.

With that settled, I turned my mind to the job at hand. I pulled out my handgun, surreptitiously checking up and down the road, but the area was deserted. It was hard to believe that Stupendous Man was going to be here in under an hour, but I figured that even if Spiff had been jerking my chain all I’d have lost was some dignity, on the quiet. I eyeballed the joint, stuffing my piece back into its easy-to-reach cloth holster, but the building was empty, dark and silent. Glass from long-exploded windows still littered the ground, and the whole place looked about ready to collapse like a cheap cardboard cut-out. A perfect haunt for the city’s ambassadors of scum and villainy, then.

It didn’t look like the enigmatic Spiff had arrived yet, but then with his invisibility gadget he could be standing not two yards away and I’d never know. The thought fair gave me the heebie-jeebies, and suddenly I felt the same sense of unease from earlier wash over me. Spaceman Spiff hadn’t specified where he wanted me to wait, and my instincts instructed me to sneak into the gutted building ahead of time on the sly, maybe snoop around a bit and find a good hiding place from which to observe the upcoming promised fireworks.

The apprehension mounted as I approached the warehouse, and I fought down an uncharacteristic urge to flee, to leave behind this place and find a nice well-lit street packed with noise and festive spirit. It was a novel feeling; my instructor back when I’d tried to join the force had failed me because he claimed I didn’t have the intelligence to retreat from a dangerous situation and call for backup, and therefore was a danger to myself and others. Weird, then, that I should experience this feeling now – something funny was going on here.

I hesitated momentarily at the big double doors to the warehouse that looked capable of a god-almighty screech should I dare disturb their slumber, but fortunately they’d sagged on their hinges enough for me to slip through the gap. Some might call me foolhardy, wandering into an unstable, unsecured building wherein could be waiting any number of goons with roscoes drawing a bead on my heart, but let my epitaph say that Tracer Bullet died bravely in the line of duty. Yeah, right. And maybe they were handing out posthumous medals for pointless stupidity and reckless drinking, too.

I pulled out my handgun again as I entered, thumb on the hammer and finger curled around the trigger. Call it a comfort thing. Inside, though, there was no movement, save for years of dust that puffed up in choking clouds from beneath my feet, disturbed by my passing. I tugged a handkerchief from my pocket and tied it across my mouth and nose like an old late-night TV bandit, lest I betray myself with an involuntary sneeze. As I padded softly through the darkened warehouse, saved from pitch-blackness only by feeble moonlight struggling in through empty windows high above, I nearly stumbled over the charred remains of an old conveyor belt. The impact dislodged something small and metal from atop the ruined belt, and I froze, heart (and shin) pounding as the clang of its impact rang through the cavernous interior, to be quickly soaked up by the interminable darkness. Looks like my stealth plan was off the table.

Luckily for me and my insurance premiums, the warehouse did indeed seem to be entirely deserted, because the clamor of my foolishness didn’t trigger any sudden flurries of motion or cries of alarm. I stood still, my breathing shallow and ragged, battling an erratic twitch in my trigger finger brought on by the adrenaline rush and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the musty gloom. When the wall of darkness had softened into a fuzzy grey haze, I bent down and picked up the small object I’d knocked to the floor. As soon as I touched it, I knew what it was, and my brain kicked into overdrive as I held it up, confirming what I feared.

There, glittering gently in the pale moonlight, was a small, gilt, diamond-encrusted “S”. Stupendous Man’s calling card. But what was it doing here already, in this burnt-out, abandoned warehouse, when the vigilante was supposed to be arriving here in less than an hour? Had he been here before? If so, why? Questions flooded my mind, pooling into inscrutable puddles that uselessly mirrored my thoughts back and forth in an endless stream. One thing was for certain, though: Spaceman Spiff had known something about this whole mess that he wasn’t telling me, and I intended to find out what that was. Somewhere in this warehouse there must be another clue, and I was running out of time to find it, with the scheduled showdown drawing inexorably closer.

I strode forth into the gloom, sweeping the darkness for something, anything that might help me figure out what was going on. Rusted, scorched containers loomed up out of the murk like monsters out from under the bed, and ash-coated debris coated the floor, crunching beneath my stride, careless now that I’d abandoned stealth. My heart sank as I realized that trying to find clues in this enveloping darkness was like looking for a white rabbit in a snowfield; the very same containers and bulky equipment that would provide ample cover had I intended to follow the spaceman’s plan now confounded my frantic search. It was hopeless: I’d been hoodwinked by Spiff like some fresh-faced chump. I slumped against a nearby container to consider my options, then frowned. Was this container vibrating?

I recoiled in surprise, placing one palm flat against the side of the corrugated iron. A distinct, rhythmic thrumming travelled up through my outstretched hand, setting my whole body aquiver. There was certainly something strange about a vibrating container in this long-dead warehouse, and with time running desperately short I wasn’t about to cut and run now. I circled around the container until I found the opening. It wasn’t secured like all the others I’d encountered; there, on the ground below the doors, lay a broken padlock, covered with a thick layer of dust. That was encouraging – if it had had time to gather that much dust, then this container had been broken into quite some time ago. I could feel the secret I’d been searching for lay on the other side, and, careful not to disturb the lonely chain that dangled from one of the handles, I pulled open the door of the container with a faint squeak.

The inside was dark, and my hopes plummeted for a second until I realized that the humming was louder in here, seemingly emanating from every wall. The source had to be in here, somewhere, but the container was as empty of contents as a cheap pulp fiction. I stood still for a moment and focused; the vibrations seemed to be stronger underneath my feet. I got down on my hands and knees, dignity forgotten, feeling blindly across the floor of the container for irregularities.

There! I hit paydirt as my hand swept across a patch that was free from the thick carpet of dust that covered every other square inch of the interior. Tracing the outline, I discovered a thin crack that ran around three sides of the square-shaped region, and on the fourth side, hinges that were no more than the barest bumps on the otherwise smooth floor and which, in ordinary circumstances, I would likely never have noticed. Things were certainly heating up now – I’d bet my old ailing mother that this trapdoor wasn’t part of the container’s original blueprints. But who had built it, and why? Only one way to find out.

Adrenaline pumping once more, I fished out my office key and wiggled it into the thin crack, jimmying open the thin trapdoor to reveal a dark pit stretching down and a blast of air far warmer than that inside the chilly, uninsulated warehouse. A stainless steel ladder, riveted firmly to the side of the shaft, led down into the dark, and peering down into the hole, I detected a slight gradation of the darkness, a gradual lightening far below. An image of the tentacled horror from earlier in the night flashed involuntarily through my mind, conjured up by my ironclad suspicion that the ominous spaceman didn’t want me delving too deeply into this scrambled mess without him. I set my jaw, refusing to be cowed. Something was clearly down there that had no business in my city, and I’d be darned if I’d allow unsavory memories of Spaceman Spiff’s terrifying alien pet dissuade me from figuring this whole thing out – Tracer Bullet has been called many things, but a patsy ain’t one.

Into the darkness. Despite my efforts to the contrary, the ringing of my shoes upon the steel rungs was deafening in the confined space, and my labored breathing as I descended was magnified a thousandfold, pounding uncomfortably in my ears. The light slowly increased as I got deeper and deeper, until I could actually see my white-knuckled, sweat-slick hands before me clinging to the rungs of the ladder. I shot a glance back up the shaft – I’d left the trapdoor open above me, preferring the comforting idea of a certain escape route to the unprofessionalism of leaving a trail – but there was nothing up there but impenetrable darkness.

Soon, I could see the bottom of the shaft beneath me, and down below the light was as bright as the lamp in my living room. I paused in my descent, struck by the red color of the ground. Was that carpet? With only a little distance left to go, I drew out my handgun, clutching it in one hand, and braced my other arm around the ladder, releasing my grip and attempting to slide down. I winced as my ill-considered maneuver resulted in my arm being wrenched violently to the side, and I landed in an awkward heap on the floor, rather than the action-ready pose I’d planned.

Fortunately, the luxurious padded carpet absorbed the graceless thud of my impact and I recovered quickly, springing up into a crouch, handgun ready, but the room was empty. Empty of people, that is. It was otherwise stuffed with tasteful furnishings and elegant, understated fixtures that screamed affluence and ludicrous piles of wealth. Whoever had outfitted this underground lair had money to burn, and it didn’t take an ace detective to guess who. Our sinister vigilante had to be close, judging by the gilt “S” insignias stacked carelessly around the room like magazines.

I stood up, making my way cautiously to an arch-shaped doorway on the far side of the room. I needn’t have bothered being so careful – the carpet muffled my footsteps so dramatically that a seven-ton elephant falling sideways in here probably wouldn’t have made much more than the barest tremor. Speaking of tremors, the vibration from earlier (which had been curiously diminished in the shaft) had returned with a vengeance, and a pervasive humming permeated the enclosure, setting my teeth rattling to their roots. I peeked around the corner of the archway.

In the room beyond, furnished in a similarly opulent fashion, there stood a huge bank of television monitors cycling through images of the city, a massive hidden surveillance network right out of a sci-fi flick. The vibrations seemed to be issuing from a cluttered array of gleaming, metallic equipment stacked up against the wall beside them. More importantly, though, in front of the surveillance monitors there was an oversized plush swivel chair, and it was occupied.

My fingers tightened on the grip of my handgun. This was it. The Stupendous Man sat before me, and it was time for this convoluted case to come to a close. Heedful of Spiff’s warning that the renegade’s “stupendous will stupefies solitary opponents”, I thumbed back the trigger and trained my gun on where the figure’s chest would be if he swiveled the chair around. Not the head; I knew from experience how small a target a man’s head was.

“Turn around slowly, Mr. Stupendous. Do not stand up – I have a Magnum aimed right at your chest and all the expensive leather in the world won’t stop my bullet.” The figure in the chair chuckled, a somewhat discomfiting response given the circumstances.

“Is something funny? Turn around!” I commanded, beginning to regret my boldness. If Spiff had told it true, the vigilante had eluded the space police; odds were, he wasn’t too scared of some tough-talking wiseguy from Earth, even if he did have a powerful gun aimed right at him. The figure in the chair turned slowly around, hands raised almost mockingly above his head, and I did a double-take. It was just some ordinary kid with stupidly-spiked hair – surely this couldn’t be the mighty feared criminal Stupendous Man! I nearly lowered my gun in bafflement, but, ridiculous as I felt threatening a kid with a roscoe, I knew appearances could be deceiving. The kid smiled, a little patronizingly.

“Alright, alright, I surrender, mister detective man, sir. Just don’t shoot me!” he pleaded, in mock terror.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” I demanded, keeping my voice hard.

“I could ask the same of you,” rejoined the kid, archly. “Hey, okay, don’t go getting over-excited. My name’s Calvin. You might have heard of me.” I nearly laughed in surprise.

“Pull the other one, kid. Calvin’s a renowned businessman, not some six year old punk kid.”

“Oh? And tell me, have you ever seen this Calvin in person? If I remember correctly, he’s somewhat of a recluse.” The kid began to reach into his pocket, but I waved my gun warningly.

“Hey, hey, no sudden moves. Keep your hands in the air!” The kid just sighed, reached into his pocket slowly and deliberately, and withdrew what looked like a flat piece of cardboard. He flicked the card at me, and then raised his hand with an exaggerated motion back into the air.

“What’s this?” I asked, staring suspiciously at the card at my feet.

“Just read it,” he responded, in a bored tone of voice. I crouched down and grabbed it with one hand, keeping my gun steady on the kid with the other. I held up the card and gave it the eyeball. Beneath a print of the kid’s face with an enormous grin were the words:

Calvin

Mild-mannered millionaire

Unappreciated genius

“This doesn’t prove anything,” I protested, pocketing it. The kid no longer appeared amused, instead seeming increasingly indifferent to the whole situation.

“Look, I could buy and sell you, old man, but let’s put all that aside for the moment and return to the realm of relevance. Surely you have some more important questions you could be asking.” With this he deliberately lowered his arms, folding them defiantly in front of him. The kid’s superior attitude rankled me, but, loath as I was to admit it, he was right. There were more pressing matters at hand than who the kid claimed to be.

“Fine, pal, back to basics. What are you doing down here?” The kid leaned back with a smug grin.

“Call me an enthusiast, mister…?”

“Bullet. Tracer Bullet.”

“Mr. Bullet. I suppose you could say that I’m the Stupendous Man’s biggest fan. You see, I’ve reached that wonderful stage of unbelievable wealth where my dollar bills go out and multiply of their own accord, quite without any interference or input from myself. Consequently, I’ve found the need to invent various hobbies for myself, ways to pass the time and engage my enormous brain while my many bank accounts mature. The latest of these, detective, is, quite simply, devoteeism.” I stared at the kid. I guess megalomania starts young.

“Devoteeism, Mr. Bullet. I have become an avid follower and admirer of the mysterious individual known only as the Stupendous Man. I have read the stories, observed the criminals he has brought to justice, and conducted independent investigations using my own rather substantial resources. As a result – and I assure you, I really do mean to boast here, my good detective – I know more about the Stupendous Man than anybody else alive. Including,” here he waved negligently at the lavish surroundings, “the location of his secret subterranean base of operations.” Boy, this kid was rubbing me the wrong way. I could feel my hackles rising.

“Let’s say you are the expert you claim to be. Where is the Stupendous Man now, and what exactly were you planning to do when he returns and finds you playing with his stuff?” The kid just smirked.

“Oh, out, I expect. Probably giving it to some ne’er-do-well in an alleyway somewhere.” Here his face adopted a crafty look. “But isn’t that your job, detective? Why, I’m just a helpless civilian, with no jurisdiction whatsoever! Then again – and correct me if I’m wrong – so are you. Now, where does that leave us, Mr. Bullet, I wonder?” My finger tightened in distaste; so help me, I was going to shoot the sarcastic little brat.

“Now look here, Calvin, I -” My response was interrupted by a sudden beeping noise from the panel behind the kid, as a few lights began blinking red. The kid swiveled around, obviously unfazed by the gun I was still aiming at him.

“How delightful!” he exclaimed, gleefully. “We have company coming down to join our little party.” I could feel panic begin to take hold at the prospect of having to confront the Stupendous Man now, without the element of surprise. Events were quickly spiralling out of my control and I couldn’t see a way to wrest them back on track. I wrenched my body around, aiming desperately through the archway at the stainless steel ladder, various unrealistic plans racing through my head. If I fired a disabling shot the moment he came into view, hit him in the arm or the leg, then perhaps he’d be unable to use his mind-scrambling powers and I could cuff him without resistance. Or perhaps –

“Not from there, Mr. Bullet,” the kid called, without turning around. “From the elevator.” I craned my neck over my shoulder as the kid replaced all the various monitors’ feeds with a single image using a few deft keystrokes. It took me a moment to comprehend what I was seeing, but when I did, my knees went weak; the picture, evidently from somewhere else in the same facility based upon the decor, was of Spaceman Spiff, and he didn’t look like he’d dropped in for milk and cookies. He was clutching some sort of exotic-looking rifle with a bubbling green liquid coursing through a number of external tubes, and his previously jovial face had hardened into a scowl so sharp it could fell a tree.

Oh, and he’d brought his pet.

“It’s Spaceman Spiff!” I exclaimed. “We’ve got to get the heck out of here. Quick, kid, do you know of an escape route from this bunker?” I didn’t relish the thought of a laborious climb up a perfectly vertical shaft while an enraged spaceman fired who-knew-what manner of terrifying space rifle up at me. I’d be a sitting duck.

“Escape route?” echoed the kid, absently. I glanced at him sharply, but he didn’t seem to be gripped by the same sense of urgency that I was. “Now why would you want to go and do a thing like that?” Something seemed to suddenly change and the kid swiveled back to face me, a strange expression on his face.

“Besides, it’s too late for that. He’ll be here momentarily. Best of luck, my good fellow!” he said, springing from his chair and brushing past me into the room I’d entered from. “I have the utmost confidence in you.”

“Now just hold on a darn -” But whatever objection I was going to raise was cut off in a strangled gurgle as Spaceman Spiff strode into the room, rifle at the ready and tentacle monster in tow. Thoughts of Calvin banished from my mind, I lowered my handgun, trying to appear as unthreatening as possible.

“Uh, greetings, Spiff! I was wondering when you’d…”

“Dispense with the delicacies, detective!” he proclaimed. “Surrender the Stupendous Man or suffer!” Gone was the friendly, well-meaning bumbler from before, replaced by this steely customer. I kept a wary eye on the tentacle monster; it seemed docile enough for now, but one command from Spiff and I knew it’d wrap me up faster than a christmas present, except there wouldn’t be much of me left to open on christmas morning. I decided to put on my hardboiled detective schtick, since I’d never been too good at the meek and apologetic routine.

“Hey, buddy, I don’t know where you get off but the Stupendous Man ain’t here, see? What’s the big idea, storming in here and messing me around? I thought we were on the same side, partner.”

“Negative! Scans suggest that the Stupendous Man still occupies this occluded outpost! Reveal the renegade to the distinguished discoverer, directly!”

“Look, I told you he isn’t here, and -” Spiff uttered a harsh word in the same alien language he’d used before and I just had time to curse inwardly before a tentacled limb sent me crashing into the pile of equipment beside the surveillance bank. When metal meets flesh, metal usually wins, and you better believe it hurt. The world was set spinning like an out-of-control carousel; stars exploded in maddening constellations before my eyes. I could sense more than see Spiff stride over to tower above me. I scrabbled weakly around on the floor for my fallen gun but the seething spaceman placed a restraining foot firmly upon my questing arm. Self-preservation kicked in and I stopped struggling when I felt the cool kiss of his rifle’s barrel upon my forehead.

“Spaceman Spiff asks again, agent – where is the wanted wrongdoer?” My eyes came back into focus on his big leering mug inches from mine and I decided that I preferred him when he was animated and awkward. Maybe it was the oxygen deprivation taking control, but I wasn’t feeling in a particularly cooperative mood.

“On the bloody moon, pal,” I quipped with desperate bravado. The spaceman’s scowl intensified and I was sure that behind the goggles his eyes probably weren’t crinkling up in amusement. I stared right at him, past the barrel pressed into my forehead, convinced that this was the end of the line for old Tracer Bullet. Spiff seemed inclined to agree, but a deep voice from behind him stayed my execution.

“Halt, fiend!” it cried. Spiff whirled around, bringing his rifle to bear on this new threat.

“Zark! Stupendous Man!” he exclaimed.

“One and the same,” came the voice, and now that Spiff had moved aside I could see the dread vigilante himself, framed in the archway. I blinked. Stupendous Man, the caped crusader, the masked marauder, the vile vigilante who had eluded the city’s PD and myself for months on end… was Calvin in a cape and mask. It barely qualified as a disguise – he hadn’t even bothered to change out of the striped red shirt he’d been wearing earlier before pulling on the crimson outfit. His costume was about as effective at obscuring his true identity as Clark Kent’s glasses. Nonetheless, I wasn’t complaining; the swaggering little egomaniac had just saved my bacon.

“Drop that rifle, spacefiend, or I shall be forced to scramble your wits with my stupendous will!”

“Not this time, troublemaker! Surrender, for Spaceman Spiff’s enviable eyewear insulates him entirely from your miserable manipulations!” Stupendous Man appeared undaunted.

“Even so, I will not submit to your tyrannical ‘justice’, spacefiend! Beware, for I possess powers that you could only dream about! Do not presume to test me.” As riveting as the unfolding drama was, I decided it might be high time to make myself scarce while the two antagonists’ attention was elsewhere. I grabbed my Magnum from where it lay, and then slowly inched my way towards the door Spiff had entered from, trying not to attract any notice. I soon encountered a sticky problem, however; the tentacle monster, while no longer actively hostile towards me, was totally obstructing my intended exit, its squishy body having molded itself to the door’s contours.

“C’mon,” I muttered. “Move it, ya slimeball.” The thing made some nauseating popping and squishing sounds in response, but didn’t shift. Behind me, the showdown continued. I could swear the hostility was heating up the room; the situation seemed to have escalated while I was distracted.

“Then do your worst!” Stupendous Man bellowed, spreading his arms wide in invitation. Spiff obliged by discharging his alien rifle right into Stupendous Man’s chest; to my amazement, the resultant blast of green energy ricocheted off the vigilante’s stomach, burning a dripping green hole in the wall. The Stupendous Man began to walk toward the spaceman, bunching his small hands into fists. Spiff fired at the advancing figure several more times with much the same result, and I had to duck as a rebounding rifle blast nearly melted my head off my shoulders.

“Ha! Is that all you’ve got?” guffawed the Stupendous Man. “Your pitiful energy blasts can’t hurt me – you may have captured me once, but you won’t catch me again!” Spaceman Spiff chucked the energy rifle aside with a grunt and drew out a small cube from a pouch on his utility belt. For some reason, this little cube seemed to terrify the Stupendous Man and his expression of supreme confidence faltered, replaced by a sudden look of fear.

“Wait, no! It can’t be – how could you…?” Now it was Spiff’s turn to advance menacingly on the cowering Stupendous Man, who started to retreat towards the bank of monitors, never taking his eyes off the harmless-looking cube for a second.

“Following your flight, fugitive, the erudite explorer requested that renowned researchers fabricate an anti-frap field with which to dampen your devious dynamism! Your pitiful powers lack the puissance necessary to negate it!” I have to admit, I was lost – as near as I could figure, the spaceman had some kind of fancy box that rendered the Stupendous Man helpless. He certainly looked it, backed up against the monitors.

Now, normally, I’d be as happy as Larry to let Spiff apprehend the blighter I’d been hounding after for months and part ways with a clap on the back and the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. Only, I had this sneaking suspicion that once he’d settled his accounts with Stupendous Man, Spiff would remember my perceived non-cooperation and finish what he’d started.

So I did something crazy. Hey, what can I say? A guy’s always got to look out for number one; Stupendous Man may be an arrogant bleeder, but he was my only chance of overcoming the sadistic space dork and his powerful pet.

With an inarticulate yell, I charged at Spiff, bowling him over and sending the cube tumbling across the carpet. Sometimes simple plans are the best ones. I could see the confusion in Stupendous Man’s eyes, but he jumped into action when Spiff yelled out a muffled command in that harsh alien language and the tentacle monster came to the defense of its fallen master.

Say what you will about Stupendous Man; the guy’s a real human dynamo. The monster must’ve come at him flailing seven or eight of those horrible nightmarish sucker-arms, but the Stupendous Man blurred into motion, dodging its clumsy blows and getting in close to its puckered body. I missed what happened next as Spaceman Spiff tensed underneath me, trying to drag himself over to the fumbled cube, but I wasn’t having any of it. I just pinned him to the ground using a favorite wrestling move of mine that I’d learned at the academy. Works like a charm – Spiff struggled furiously, but to no avail. Eventually he went limp as a wet noodle and turned his head, gasping for breath. I noted with satisfaction that his goggles had slipped.

“Ah, ah, ah,” I scolded. “Naughty, naughty.”

“Treacherous turncoat!” the spread-eagled spaceman cursed over the loud slapping noises and grunts from the nearby battle. “Aiding the arrogant aggressor in achieving his grievous goals!”

“Pal, the only aggressor here is you. I don’t take too kindly to people waving rifles in my face, so clam it.” The helpless Spiff hurled some more accusations and an obscenity or two at me, but I’d ceased paying attention because the sounds of Stupendous Man’s scuffle with the beast had all of a sudden died down. I looked up to find the Stupendous Man wiping his hands on his shirt with the tentacle monster trussed up like a christmas present beneath him. He’d even tied a festive bow above its head using its own gangly limbs. With the tentacle monster subdued, I rose without warning and scampered over to the fallen cube, scooping it up and plunging it into my pocket. I figured it would be a pretty powerful bargaining chip.

Spaceman Spiff tried to rise, but Stupendous Man was there in a flash, hoisting him up into the air by his collar. The defeated spaceman gagged, trying frantically to slide his protective goggles back up over his eyes, but couldn’t quite manage it.

“Farewell, my old adversary. Welcome to oblivion!” the Stupendous Man growled, grim satisfaction scrawled across his face.

“Let him go, Stupendous Man,” I said. The dread vigilante turned his head, regarding me as if I were an ant who’d wandered onto his picnic blanket.

“Stay out of it, Bullet. Go home. I suppose I owe you that much for your assistance, but don’t try my patience!” he snapped, then turned back to Spiff, hungrily. I refused to let it go.

“Hey! I said put him down, pal.” The Stupendous Man froze, then relinquished his grip on Spiff, who slumped to the soft, carpeted floor in a heap. He didn’t get up.

“I don’t think you heard me, Bullet. I said go home,” he repeated, a note of menace creeping in. I stood my ground beneath that frighteningly intense stare, clutching at the cube in my pocket like a lucky talisman. The Stupendous Man’s eyes narrowed.

“Do you understand? I’m giving you the chance to just walk away from all of this.”

“And I’m giving you the chance to leave Spiff alone and clear out of the city, before things get ugly.” The Stupendous Man let out a short, sharp burst of contemptuous laughter.

“Ugly? You’ve got some nerve, Bullet. You seriously think someone like you can face someone like me? You’re out of your tiny mind. I’m going to rip you apart,” he spat, cracking his knuckles in a most cartoonish fashion.

“Ah, ah, ah,” I cautioned. “Not so fast. See what I’ve got here.” I produced the tiny cube from my pocket, and I saw his expression falter as he shot a look at the now-empty spot where the cube had landed.

“That’s right, Mr. Stupendous. I’ve got Spiff’s little magic box, the one that seems to scare you more than a pocket full of dynamite. So let’s get some things straight here. One, you will not touch the spaceman, nor will you scramble his brains. Two, you’re finished in this city. You understand? If I hear anything, I repeat, anything about a Stupendous Man, or brain scrambling – I’ll track you down, and I’ll bring along this tiny wonder.” I could see the conflicting emotions roiling across Calvin’s face, but he was beaten and he knew it. No way could he fake his way out of this one, not after his display earlier.

“Fine, Bullet, you win this round,” he conceded, in disgust. He stalked out of the room, but his pride wouldn’t let him leave without a parting threat. “You haven’t heard the last of this, though! I’ll be back, and you’d better watch out!” I exhaled sharply and stood there for a little while after he left, hardly able to believe it was over, but Stupendous Man didn’t come back. I couldn’t believe that had worked.

A loud moan reminded me of the presence of Spaceman Spiff. One more item of business to attend to, then. I slid the cube back into my pocket with slightly trembling hands, then crossed to his quivering body and kicked him, none too gently, in the ribs.

“You, spaceman, get up.” The mound stirred and Spiff stared up at me, his uncovered eyes full of hatred. “I assume from your expression that you heard my little exchange with the Stupendous Man. Well, the same goes for you. Get the heck out and never come back, you hear?” The spaceman opened his mouth as if to protest, but I shut him up by dropping his rifle on the floor beside him. His eyes widened in surprise.

“I saved your hide back there, so what say we let bygones be bygones, huh? Now scram.” Wordlessly, the spaceman lifted himself off the ground, shot a resigned look at his trussed-up pet, then tapped his utility belt and disappeared, just like that, taking his monster with him. Well, what do you know.

It was only later, walking down the shadowed sidewalks of this scummy city I call home, shoulders hunched against the cold as I headed to a two-bit bar to catch the end of the Calvinball grand final, that I realized who Spaceman Spiff’s face had reminded me of. It was the same face that I’d seen on the Stupendous Man, and it was the same face I saw every time I cut myself shaving in the mirror. Stranger things have happened, true, but not many.

The name’s Bullet, Tracer Bullet, and I never travel alone. I’ve got a .44 Magnum in the pocket nearest to my heart and a small cube from outer space that can stop a superhero cold. I’m a private investigator with a capital I, and I don’t do what I do for the money or recognition, or, hell, out of any sense of social justice. Please don’t mistake me for some flower-toting idealist. But sometimes, there’s a case that needs solving and no one’s suited for the job, and that’s when they come calling and knocking at my door.

They call me Bullet, and sometimes a score, well, it just needs to be settled.

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