Robert R. McCammon's "Night Calls the Green Falcon" (Part 03/10)

Night Calls the Green Falcon
by Robert R. McCammon

A Red Matchbook

His robe snagged on a jagged edge of metal. The cloth ripped, almost tore off him, and for three awful seconds he was dangling five floors over the alley, but then he reached upward and his fingers closed around the railing.

The Fliptop Killer was already scrambling down the fire escape. The woman—Mrs. Sargenza, bless her soul—was still screaming, and now somebody else was hollering from another window and the Fliptop Killer clambered down to the alley with the speed and power of a born survivor.

Cray pulled himself up, his legs kicking and his shoulder muscles standing out in rigid relief. He collapsed onto his knees when he'd made it to the landing's safety. He thought he might have to throw up enchiladas, and his stomach heaved, but mercifully there was no explosion. Blood was in his mouth, and his front teeth felt loose. He stood up, black motes buzzing before his eyes. Looked over the edge, gripping hard to the railing.

The Fliptop Killer was gone, back to the shadows.

"Call the police," he said, but he didn't know if Mrs. Sargenza had heard him, though she disappeared from her window and slammed it shut. He was trembling down to his gnarly toes, and after another moment he climbed back into the room where the corpse was.

Cray felt her wrist for a pulse. It seemed the sensible thing to do. But there was no pulse, and Julie's eyes did not move. In the depths of the wound he could see the white bone of her spine. How many times had the killer slashed, and what was it inside him that gave him such a maniacal strength? "Wake up," Cray said. He pulled at her arm. "Come on Julie. Wake up."

"Oh Jesus!" Mr. Myers from across the hall stood in the doorway. His hand went to his mouth, and he made a retching sound and staggered back to his apartment. Other people were peering in. Cray said, "Julie needs a doctor," though he knew she was dead and all a doctor could do was pull the bloodied sheet over her face. He still had her hand, and he was stroking it. Her fingers were closed around something; it worked loose and fell into Cray's palm.

Cray looked at it. A red matchbook. The words "GRINDERSWITCH BAR" printed on its side, and an address just off Hollywood and Vine, three blocks over.

He opened the red matchbook. Two matches were missing. One of them had been used to light the Fliptop Killer's cigarette, out in the hallway. The Fliptop Killer had been to the Grinderswitch, a place Cray had walked past but never entered.

"Cops are on their way!" Mr. Gomez said, coming into the room. His wife stood at the door, her face smeared with blue anti-aging cream. "What happened here, Flint?"

Cray started to speak, but found no words. Others were entering the room, and suddenly the place with its reek of blood and spent passions was too tight for him; he had a feeling of suffocation, and a scream flailed behind his teeth. He walked past Mr. Gomez, out the door, and into his own apartment. And there he stood at the window, the brutal neon pulse flashing in his face and a red matchbook clenched in his hand.

The police would come and ask their questions. An ambulance without a siren would come and take Julie's corpse away, to a cold vault. Her picture would be in the Times tomorrow, and the headline would identify her as the Fliptop Killer's ninth victim. Her claim to fame, he thought, and he almost wept.

I saw him, he realized. I saw the Fliptop. I had a hold of that bastard.

And there in his hand was the matchbook Julie had given him. The bartender at the Grinderswitch might know the Fliptop. It was a vital clue, Cray thought, and if he gave it up to the police it might be lost in shufflings of paper, envelopes, and plastic bags that went into what they called their evidence storage. The police didn't care about Julie Saufley, and they hardly cared about the other street victims either. No, Julie was another statistic—a "crazy," the cops would say. The Fliptop Killer loved to kill "Crazies."

Julie had given him a clue. Had, perhaps, fought to keep it with her dying breath. And now what was he going to do with it?

He knew, without fully knowing. It was a thing of instincts, just as his long-ago gymnastic training, track-and-field, and boxing championships were things of instinct. Inner things that, once learned and believed in, could never be fully lost.

He opened the closet door.

A musty, mothball smell rolled out. And there it was, on its wooden hanger, amid the cheap shirts and trousers of an old dreamer.

It had once ben emerald green, but time had faded it to more of a dusky olive. Bleach stains had mottled the flowing green cape, and Cray had forgotten how that had happened. Still, he'd been a good caretaker: various rips had been patched over, the only really noticeable mar a poorly stitched tear across the left leg. The cowl, with its swept-back, crisply winglike folds on either side of the head and its slits for the eyes, was in almost perfect condition. The green boots were there on the floor, both badly scuffed, and the green gloves were up on the shelf.

His Green Falcon costume had aged, just like its owner. The studio had let him keep it after he had come out of the sanitorium in 1954. By then serials were dying anyway, and of what use was a green suit with a long cape and wings on the sides of its cowl? In the real world, there was no room for Green Falcons.

He touched the material. It was lighter than it appeared, and it made a secret—and dangerous—whispering noise. The Green Falcon had made mincemeat out of a gallery of villains, roughnecks, and killers every Saturday afternoon in the cathedrals of light and shadow across North America. Why, then, could the Green Falcon not track down the Fliptop Killer?

Because the Green Falcon is dead, Cray told himself. Forget it. Close the door. Step back. Leave it to the police.

But he didn't close the door, nor did he step back. because he knew, deep at his center, that the Green Falcon was not dead. Only sleeping, and yearning to awaken.

He was losing his mind. He knew that clearly enough, as if somebody had thrown ice water in his face and slapped him too. But he reached into the closet, and he brought the costume out.

The siren of a police car was approaching. Cray Flint began to pull the costume over his pajamas. His body had thinned, not thickened, with age; the green tights were loose, and though his legs were knotty with muscles, they looked skinny and ill-nourished. His shoulders and chest still filled out the tunic portion of the costume, though, but his thin, wiry arms had lost the bulky muscularity of their youth. He got the costume zipped up, worked his feet into the scuffed boots, then put on the cape and laced it in place. The dust of a thousand moth wings shimmered gold against the green. He lifted the gloves off the shelf but discovered the moths had enjoyed an orgy in them and they were riddled with holes. The gloves would have to stay behind. His heart was beating very hard now. He took the cowl off its hanger. The police car's siren was nearing the building. Cray ran his fingers over the cowl, which still gleemed with a little iridescence, as it had in the old days.

I shouldn't do this, he told himself. I'm going crazy again, and I'm nothing but an Indiana boy who used to be an actor...

I shouldn't...

He slipped the cowl over his head and drew the drawstring tight. And now he saw the world through cautious slits, the air coming to his nostrils through small holes and smelling of mothballs and...yes, and something else. Something indefinable: the brassy oder of a young man's sweat, the sultry heat of daredevilry, maybe the blood of a split lip incurred in a fight scene with an overeager stunt man. Those aromas and more. His stomach tightened under the green skin. "Walk tall and think tall," he remembered a director telling him. His shoulders pulled back. How many times had he donned this costume and gone into battle against hoodlums, thugs, and murderers? How many times had he stared Death in the face through these slits, and walked tall into the maelstrom?

I'm Creighton Flint, he thought. And then he looked at the faded poster that promised a world of thrills and saw STARRING CREIGHTON FLINT, "THE GREEN FALCON."

The one and only.

The police car's siren stopped.

It was time to go if he was going.

The Green Falcon held the matchbook up before his eye slits. The Grinderswitch was a short walk away. If the Fliptop Killer had been there tonight, someone might remember.

He knew he was one stride away from the loony bin, and if he went through that door dressed like this there was no turning back. But if the Green Falcon couldn't track down the Fliptop, nobody could.

It was worth a try wasn't it?

He took a deep breath, and then the one stride followed. He walked out into the hallway, and the residents gathered around Julie Saufley's saw him and every one of them recoiled as if they'd just seen a man from Mars. He didn't hesitate; he went past them to the elevator. The little numerals above the door were on the upward march. The policemen were coming up, he realized. It would not be wise to let them see the Green Falcon.

"Hey!" Mr. Gomez shouted. "Hey, who the hell are you?"

"He must be nuts!" Mrs. LaPresta said, and her husband—in a rare moment—agreed.

But Cray was already heading towards the door marked STAIRS. The cape pinched his neck, and the mask was stuffy; he didn't remember the costume being so uncomfortable. But he pulled open the door and started quickly down the stairway, the matchbook clenched in his hand and the smell of Julie's blood up his nostrils.

He was puffing by the time he reached the ground floor. But he crossed the cramped little lobby, went out the revolving door and onto Hollywood Boulevard, where the lights and the noise reminded him of a three-ring circus. But he knew full well that shadows lay at the fringes of those lights, and in those shadows it was dangerous to tread. He started walking west, toward Vine street. A couple of kids zipped past him on skateboards, and one of them gave a fierce tug at his cape that almost strangled him. Horns were honking as cars passed, and ladies of the night waved and jiggled their wares from the street corner. A punk with his hair in long red spikes peered into Cray's eyeholes and sneered, "Are you for real, man?" The Green Falcon kept going, a man with a mission. A black prostitute jabbed her colleague in the ribs, and both of them hooted and made obscene noises as he passed. Here came a group of Hare Krishnas, banging tambourines and chanting, and even their blank eyes widened as they saw him coming. But the Green Falcon, dodging drunks and leather clad hustlers, left them all in the flap of his cape.

And then there was the Grinderswitch Bar, jammed between a porno theater and a wig shop. Its blinking neon sign was bright scarlet, and out in front of the place were six big Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Cray paused, fear fluttering around in the pit of his stomach. The Grinderswitch was a place of shadows; he could tell that right off. There was a meanness even in the neon's buzz. Go home, he told himself. Forget this. Just go home and—

Do what? Vegetate? Sit in a lousy chair, look at clippings, and reflect on how lucky you are to have a job sweeping the floor at a Burger King?

No. He was wearing the armour of the Green Falcon now, and why should he fear? But still he paused. To go into that place would be like walking into a lion's den after rolling around in fresh meat. Who was Julie Saufley, anyway? His friend, yes, but she was dead now, and what did it matter? Go home. Put the costume back on its hanger and forget it. He looked at the door, and knew that beyond it the monsters waited. Go home. Just go home.

Go to Chapter 4: One-Eyed Skulls

Copyright © 1988 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story first appeared in the anthology Silver Scream, edited by David J. Schow and published by Dark Harvest in 1988. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2019 Robert McCammon Last updated 22-APR-2019 12:31:13.09 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha