One of my favorite story drivers, bar none, is The Big Change.
The Big Change is exactly what it sounds like. Something happens to change the world, change society, change the way things have always been done, and then everyone has to deal with it. Theftworld and Trigger Man both deal with the same Big Change despite being set several hundred years apart — stardrive technology, always limited to third stage transitions, could now do fifth which makes new travel routes possible — and there is a third (sadly lost) story that dealt with that change a third time: this time from the point of view of economics.
The Home Front is on one level a homage to the pulp heroes I love. On another, it’s a homage to the golden age of superhero comic books. But on a third it’s a Big Change setting. The common theme is twofold: World War II hits, and actual super powered beings appear in its wake, making the unpowered Mystery Man obsolete. (As, indeed, he was in ‘our’ history too. In fact, the superheroic version of the Mystery Man himself was a bridge between the age of the pulp hero like the Shadow and Superman or the Sub-Mariner. Even the more prominent of the bridge characters like Batman had to embrace the superheroic side of his personality to endure.)
As people have noticed, a lot of Big Change stories are melancholy or even downright depressing. That’s because not everyone makes it through the Big Change equally, and there’s always at least some nostalgia or wistfulness.
This is not a wistful story today. And while it deals with the heart of the Big Change for the Mystery Men — embodied by their withdrawal from their urban battlefields and the reformation into the traveling Liberty Brigade show, drumming up support for war bonds and scrap metal drives — it also deals with the Big Change that America underwent in the war. It’s by far the ugliest of the Home Front stories, and it deals with mature themes.
This one was bought by Greg at Mythic Heroes as well, and was privileged to have been given the magazine’s cover (a dramatic cover piece I dearly wish I had an electronic copy of). Unfortunately, while the issue was solicited through Diamond, it hit the end of the Mythic Heroes ride during the Comics bust, and the issue never saw the comics shops or the newsstands. I actually shopped the story around to the magazines afterward, but mostly got form letters back (and a very nice letter from Gordon Van Gelder, the then new editor at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that explained that he couldn’t use the piece, but expressing what seemed like sincere regret over the demise of Mythic Heroes.)
I hope you like it. And I promise the last story — scheduled for next Thursday, as it’s a multiple part serial instead of a short story — is nowhere near as depressing.
But then, it hardly could be.
Content Warning: This story depicts a historical period. As part of that depiction, racist and jingoist language is used that is appropriate to the era’s verisimilitude. Its usage here is not intended to condone, either then or now.
I was born in 1925, in the Silver Spire district of Megapolis, in America. Both my parents were immigrants, but I am an American citizen.
Never forget this. If this story is going to say anything at all, it has to say it from that perspective. I am an American. I am a citizen. I was born under the aegis of the Constitution. I am not a foreigner.
Who cares anyway? Why does it matter?
I promised Jan I’d tell the story. I promised her I wouldn’t let Solitaire and Diamond be forgotten in these oh so modern days. So I have to write this, because I’ll never have another chance to. But I can’t tell her story. And as much as I wish I could, I can’t tell my story from the point of view of her optimism. Her hope. Her dreams. I live in a reality that’s too damn cold for me to lie about it. Not now.
My name is Ellen Nakimota. My parents emigrated from Kyoto, Japan in 1912. My father was a tailor. On December seventh, nineteen forty-one, I was sixteen years old.
They had been good years. I was a typical teenager in the forties, if something of a square. I listened to the radio with my younger brother, Ben, for example. I liked “Shadow” and “The Inner Sanctum” and “Gunsmoke,” and I used to listen to “The Lux Radio Theatre” – live from Hollywood, with a popular movie adapted and abridged with the original actors supplying the voices each week! And I read Astounding magazine and Thrilling Stories and all the rest. And Mondays at seven thirty, I’d listen to RKO’s “Adventure Hour”, featuring two cases ‘based on their real life exploits, just as they actually occurred.’ That was my favorite. One was usually about the Golden Swashbuckler, the other about the Sleuth. Those stories were different. They were real.
Today I know that the stories were produced without the approval of the Swashbuckler or the Sleuth. Since they were both vigilantes and mystery men, they couldn’t very well sue over they use of their names. In later years I asked Nick why they didn’t try to stop people from using their names to make money.
He kind of sniffed and looked at me. “Dimmy,” he said – that was my nickname in the Liberty Brigade, born of the ‘wit’ of Six Gun Sam – “I thought about shutting them down, sure. But Hell, I was too big a fan. They made my life better than it was.”
I’m getting ahead of my story, though.
I remember cheering once, when I was thirteen. The Golden Swashbuckler had just single-handedly collared Midnight Molly’s gang and cuffed Molly herself. It was too exciting and I screamed. My mother ran in to silence me, but before I calmed down there was a knock at the door.
I should mention we lived in a three bedroom apartment. It was pretty nice – Dad made a good living. We had a Jap-hating Super who was barely civil and let repairs go undone for weeks, sometimes, but the Landlord actually lived in the penthouse on the top of the building, and she was nice. Her name was Janice Taylor.
And Janice Taylor was standing outside the door when my Mother opened it. She was an heiress, and pretty young. In her twenties, maybe. And she was pretty and blond and very intimidating.
“I heard a noise,” she said. “Is everything all right?”
My mother was a little flustered, and didn’t speak English very well. Add to that an ingrained politeness – both my parents were always unfailingly polite with outsiders – and you can understand her consternation. But she managed to make it clear that her ungrateful daughter had made a ruckus and would be punished severely, and that she was sorry to have bothered such an important person.
“No bother,” Miss Taylor said, and bold as brass walked up to me and squatted down. “Why did you scream?” she asked.
I told her about the Golden Swashbuckler. Miss Taylor smiled. “It sounds exciting,” she said. “I like to listen to the Adventure Hour too.”
“You do?” I asked. My parents only listened to music and the news, on the radio.
“Mm-hm,” she said, and looked me over. “Mrs. Nakimota,” she said, “I’ve been looking for someone to help clean up and organize my home. Do you think it would be all right if – what’s your name?”
“Ellen,” I half-whispered.
“Ellen were to do that? I can pay her three dollars a week.”
Three dollars a week wasn’t a lot, but it was something – and more than I got for an allowance. My mother agreed and I went to work for Miss Taylor. Weirdly enough, I discovered that Miss Taylor had even more pulp magazines than my mother and I did, as well as a good library and a top of the line RCA radio. She sponsored me in gymnastics classes, too.
At the time I didn’t think anything of it. Now I have to guess Miss Taylor – Jan – had been planning for her career in advance. I do know she studied the Golden Swashbuckler and the Sleuth like a hawk.
But whatever her plans, a war changed them.
I was listening to something or other on the radio when the bulletin came on. I’m not sure what it was. The bulletin was too big for me to remember details. Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. Our fleets were decimated. It was a sneak attack. A cowardly attack. I was furious.
My father wasn’t. He had a different look on his face. It wasn’t rage. I think it was shame. Maybe fear.
Look, Jap-baiting had gone on for a long time. It was a fact of life at school. I was used to it. First off, I looked and sounded different than the white kids – I and my brother were the only Japanese in the neighborhood, so I didn’t end up in a Negro school. But I wasn’t popular and I don’t think Ben was, either. But I mostly screened it out. I mean, sure, James Auckland called me Yellow Kid or Slantie or stuff like that, but my friends liked me and besides, it was the only game in town. I was different and I had to put up with that. I didn’t see anything wrong with it.
So I had no way of understanding my father’s fear. Understanding that the war would change my life forever.
The next day, we listened to President Roosevelt. The next few days I barely remember. It was a whirlwind of activity. People were always running through the streets and shouting something or other. If I could have, I would have volunteered. I was as angry as everyone else. The dirty Japanese had attacked my country! Remember that – they attacked us. There’s such a difference between that and ‘we attacked you.’ I’ve never been to Japan – not even to Kyoto where my father had been a boy.
But things changed. Almost overnight, things changed. People at school got ruder – started calling me Jap more and more. My friends stopped being so friendly. My teachers never seemed to stop looking at me. My father’s business suffered. As a result, the rent was late and the Super shut off our heat. Miss Taylor had him turn it back on – she at least didn’t change.
It was mid-December when they came for us.
It was late at night, and the police hammered on our door with a nightstick. My father answered and invited them in. They didn’t sit down.
“We’re here to escort you to the Megapolis East Port Authority,” their leader, a Sergeant Anthony, said. “There you will be placed on a train for Los Angeles. From there you will be directed to your temporary living quarters.”
“I no understand,” my father said in his broken English. “I no young. I no able to join army.”
One of the officers laughed – an ugly laugh. “Hear that, Joe,” he said. “Nip here wants to join the army.”
“Shut up. Mister Nakkimojo, you’re being detained by Federal Order. You’re being sent to a Detention Center.”
My father understood – I’m sure of it – but he still said, “Jail? I no do anything.”
“You bombed Pearl Harbor,” the officer who had laughed spat.
“I a tailor. I make you pants, maybe? I no drop bombs.”
“Mister Nakkimojo,” Anthony said, emotionless, “this is a security issue. We’re at war. Maybe you didn’t do anything and maybe you did. Either way we have to keep an eye on you people. Don’t worry, you’ll be treated fairly.”
I found out later they were supposed to give us twelve hours. They gave us maybe twenty minutes. Any longer, and they threatened to get violent. If we resisted, we were spies. Period. We went. I went. An American Citizen, born in Megapolis who had never even shoplifted, was gathered up by the police and herded off into a camp.
We were piled into a large room where they usually stored shipping, just off the Port Authority. Lots of others were with us; Japanese, Chinese – anyone who had yellow skin and slants to their eyes were piled into that room to wait for the train. I was sitting with the rest of my family, trying to stay near what luggage we were able to grab and looking around at the rest of the scared people, when five police officers and a couple of soldiers made their way through the crowd. They were surrounding someone – a V.I.P., it seemed.
The V.I.P. grabbed the shoulder of one of the soldiers and pointed at our family. With a start, I realized it was Miss Taylor.
They started coming for us. My mother started to cry – I think she thought Miss Taylor had come to get us in even more trouble. Maybe claim we robbed her or something. But no, when they got close, it became clear they were coming for me.
“This is her?” one of the policemen asked.
“Oh yes,” Miss Taylor said, looking dazzling and somewhat vacuous. “I’ve had the most horrible time training her to be my maid, and I simply refuse to let that training go to waste. I mean, I think of the hours I spent-”
A maid. That was all I was to her. A maid and a domestic. I thought she had liked me. I missed most of the rest of the conversation, until I heard the soldier say “well, I doubt she’s a spy. Come on, girl – you speak English?”
“Fluently,” I muttered under my breath.
“Come on then-”
My father raised his hand. “Excuse – but my daughter, she stays-”
“Shut up,” a policeman said, and raised his stick.
“Oh don’t you dare hit Mister Nakimota!” Miss Tailor said. “He’s been just darling. Now Mister Nakimota, I promise you I’ll see Ellen behaves. It is all right with you, isn’t it?”
My father met Miss Taylor’s eyes, and I guess he saw something there. Something to trust. He nodded, and I walked away. I looked back. My mother was crying, Ben was huddled next to our luggage… but my father was watching me, and he looked relieved.
It was the last time I ever saw him. He had a heart attack in the camp, and wasn’t brought to a hospital before he had already died.
I rode in Miss Taylor’s limousine, watching the Port Authority recede slowly. I felt – I don’t know. Bitter. Miserable. My world had been destroyed, and now my last friend had stripped me of the last of my dignity.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get your whole family out,” Miss Taylor said quietly. There was no trace of the Rich White Bitch Heiress who had come for me.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You didn’t invest anything in them.”
“Ellen-” she started to say.
“Don’t you mean ‘girl?’ Or does Honorable Mistress intend to honor me with such famil-”
“Ellen,” she snapped. “Listen to me-”
“Why should I? Huh? If I don’t, are you going to put me on a train and send me to-”
“Ellen,” she said, very quietly. She wasn’t angry. Sad, maybe. “I had to sell the authorities a bill of goods or they wouldn’t let me get you out of there. If I hurt you – if I slandered you too much by the way I did it, I’m sorry and I hope you’ll let me make it up to you.”
I stared at her, and then I burst into tears. All my fear and frustration just let itself out. Miss Taylor gathered me into her arms and let me cry myself out.
We got to the building, and Miss Taylor brought me up to my old apartment. When we got there, she let us in with her passkey. “Let’s get this cleaned up and organized,” she said, looking at the mess.
We did, and it helped. In a way, Miss Taylor was validating my family. Validating our existence. The government had turned us upside down, but Miss Taylor was helping me get our things in order, if nothing else. When we were finished, she asked me if I wanted to stay there or in the Penthouse with her.
I went with her. I decided to only move home when my family did. If they did.
The next morning, over breakfast, Miss Taylor showed me a newspaper headline.
“Mysterious Spycracker cracks Jerry Ring in Knight City,” I read out loud. There was a blurred photo of a man in grey. “A mystery man? Like the Sleuth and the Judge?”
Miss Taylor nodded. “And they aren’t the only ones. This war’s breeding Mystery Men.”
“Huh. That’s exciting.”
“Yes…. Ellen… what do you want to do?”
I must have looked confused. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you must know that people are going to… well, be mean to you. I can’t send you back to your school, even if I accept responsibility for you. They’d take you but you’d hate every second of it. I doubt you can get a job. I’ll happily let you be my maid if that’s what you want, and you can stay here as long as you like – rent free, even if you don’t do a lick of work. I’ll require you to study, but that’s all.”
“Well… if you’ll let me stay, I’ll be your maid, if that’s what you want. Or whatever. I don’t know. They can’t really keep my family in camps for very long, can they?”
Miss Taylor looked off, out the window. “They certainly can,” she said. “In California, they’ve fairly demanded it. They say the native Japanese population represent a threat. They’re afraid of sabotage – of Log Angeles or San Francisco being bombed.”
“But – but we haven’t done anything wrong! They’re acting-” she bit her tongue.
“Just like the Nazis? There are some who believe that, yes. Believe it because you’re right. But don’t expect to hear from too many of them. People are scared, and they aren’t being rational.”
I didn’t say anything. In fear and anger, just the night before, I had lashed out at the one person who had been nice to me.
“Ellen, do you still feel that we have to win this war?”
“Well sure,” I said. “We have to win! If the Nazis and Japs win, they’ll-” I stopped, suddenly. I was going to say ‘they’ll stamp out freedom,’ but my own country had done that already.
“Think about it,” she said. “Do you still think we have to win this war? Do you still think it’s important that you do something to help?” She was looking at me in a funny way.
“Yes,” I said, finally.
“I’m an American.”
She smiled slightly. “Then maybe I have an idea on what we can do.”
After five or six months, we debuted. Solitaire and Diamond, they called us. She was Solitaire, the adult. She wore a bathing suit, more or less, with tight trousers covering her legs – indecently tight. It was a chorus girl’s outfit, kind of. But she wore boots with it, not heels. I remember some Mystery ‘Men’ wore heels, but they didn’t last long. Tried their hand and then left, it seems. I don’t think any of them died. And me? I wore a full bodysuit in blue and yellow, with a full face mask and lenses, and black hair spilling out the back. Jan had suggested it – she knew there were a lot of people that would react the wrong way to an oriental Mystery Man.
It was 1952 before it occurred to me that a woman named ‘Solitaire’ had a sidekick. Her symbol was a solitaire diamond, of course. That was our shtick.
Our first case we cracked a German cell that tried to blow up Megapolis Dam – it was a Hydroelectric plant and would have crippled Megapolis’s industries. We had outfought them – Jan had drilled me in some nasty commando fighting. I don’t know where she learned it. That plus we had our little specialty jewels. Green ones that gave off a blinding flash. Red ones with tear gas. Blue ones that exploded – maybe a blasting cap’s worth. Things like that. It got a big splash – both because we did save the day and because, well, we were women.
Actually, we got more press because we were women.
That started the best part of my life. Not the part I enjoyed the most – those sixteen years by the radio were the years I enjoyed the most. But anything good that came of my life came from those months when I fought World War II the only way they’d let me. It didn’t matter if I were yellow under my clothes. The old ladies I saved from thugs were glad I was there. The spies who wanted to sabotage our war efforts learned to hate me. The racketeers who tried to grip our city in fear learned to fear me. That’s a legacy most people never get. The solid knowledge that they have made a difference.
Right now, that’s the only thing I have left. The only thing I can point to and say “I mattered.”
It was a dizzingly exciting time. I really did work as Jan’s maid, being careful to call her ‘Miss Taylor’ and even wearing a domestic’s uniform whenever people were around us. I went to the store for her too – a lot of the time I faked not speaking English to ignore the jeers and slurs. A lot of people with German last names seemed to whether the war without too much discomfort, but an oriental was a spy and subhuman – guilty until proven innocent, and they owned the judge.
But it wasn’t that hard to get used to it. I never went out except on errands or in uniform. I had never been an outdoorsy type anyway – hours in Jan’s library suited me just fine. Between that, doing for Jan, training and patrolling, I had a pretty full time. And studying. Jan got herself approved as a tutor and she kept on me to study. I had my High School diploma when I was seventeen. She told me that when the war was over, she’d subsidize me going to college if I wanted. Maybe I could be a schoolteacher or a librarian, she said.
I didn’t think about it much.
We kept up the good fight in Megapolis into late 1944. It was a pretty good setup. I’ve heard that a lot of mystery men had to keep on the run from the police while they were independent, but not us. Commissioner Grey liked us. He was sweet on Jan in her civilian identity, which let her find out about cases just as soon as the police did. He was sweet on Solitaire too, of course. Jan used that – she played him like a fish. She told me once she really did like him, but that she’d never have sought him out if he weren’t Commissioner of Police. I guess she was telling the truth – after she hung up her mask, she never really saw him again.
But it was late 1944 when things changed. There were a lot of us by then – all over the country. Every big city had their own Mystery Men. Maybe it was a matter of time before we all grouped up. I mean, when the Judge travelled from Washington D.C. to Megapolis on Siegfried’s trail, naturally we ran into him during the case. And when we had to fly to Lakeshore City to plug up Leo “Dusty” Street’s flood of dirty money into the Megapolis underworld, Nick – the Sleuth – was right in the thick of things. So when the newspapers were screaming about Spycracker and Torpedo stopping Johann Muntz from sabotaging a secret American project, and President Roosevelt invited Mystery Men from all over the country to take Amnesty and meet him at the White House… well, it didn’t really come as a surprise. That step out of vigilantism into legitimacy seemed natural.
President Roosevelt was absolutely charming. We met in the East Room, with the President sitting in a wicker-backed wheelchair and smoking lazily. He knew a surprising amount about our adventures – and more in detail than a single briefing would have told him. He had the Judge near him – a home town boy, I guess – and the rest of us sprawled out, sipping coffee and eating little sandwiches. It was exciting for a lot of reasons. The Golden Swashbuckler was there – looking better than I imagined. So was the Sleuth and Spycracker and Torpedo and the All American Lad….
Torpedo was young – maybe a little younger than I was. He wasn’t the youngest – Jackknife was only eleven. But he sat next to me and struck up a clumsy conversation. After a few seconds, I realized he was attracted to me. It was strange… I hadn’t ever really spent time with boys in uniform, and no one was attracted to a dirty Jap when I was in civvies. But all of a sudden – I had a peer and if he didn’t know what my face looked like, he knew what that tight suit didn’t hide and he liked it.
So I was blushing and flustered when President Roosevelt brought up the real reason we were there.
“So tell me,” he said finally, “have any of you thought about expanding your reach?”
There was a murmur in the room. “What do you mean, sir?” Spycracker asked. He was sort of our leader – even the Golden Swashbuckler seemed to take direction from him.
“I mean, you’re all doing a fine job protecting our shores – and letting both our services and our… special operatives take the battle to the enemy abroad. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that organization and teamwork can lick any problem, big or small.
“That’s what I’m proposing. Teamwork. Look at you all. You’re all crack fighters. Why, I imagine most of you could take on soldiers and win. So maybe you should consider using that together – as a team.”
“Shoot, that ain’t a bad ideer,” Six Gun Sam said.
“We could unite into a legion – a force for justice!” the Golden Swashbuckler said, rising. “A veritable Society!”
“Mmm… not a force for justice, and not a society,” Spycracker said. People naturally quieted when he spoke. “This is a war, not a tiff. If we’re going to join forces, it should be as a military unit. A brigade for the home front. And we should remember what we’re fighting for.”
“Yeah – to beat them lousy Jerrys back to Berlin,” the All American Lad said.
“No,” Spycracker said, cutting his hand through the air sharply. “Not to beat the Germans or the Japanese. We have to beat the Axis – it’s deadly important. But that’s not why we’re fighting.
“We’re fighting for freedom. For liberty. We’re fighting for the right to decide who our leaders are. The right to decide for ourselves. The right to walk down the street in safety. The right, in some cases, for people to live at all.”
“Hm,” Solitaire said. “A Liberty Brigade. I like that idea.”
“So do I,” President Roosevelt said. “It’s a symbol – it’ll give our boys at home and abroad hope!”
People got excited then, and everyone started talking at once. Spycracker, the Golden Swashbuckler, Solitaire and the President seemed to take charge and started hammering out ideas.
“I guess we’re gonna see a lot of each other,” Torpedo said.
“I guess so,” I replied.
It took a month or two, but pretty soon we were travelling across the country. It was wild… glamorous. Before, the mystery men had been, well, mysterious. But now we were celebrities, with flashing cameras and adoring fans. We gave them what they wanted – we had three different stage shows, designed to show off the talents of the Brigadiers to the crowd. I was in the second show – the so-called kid’s show. We played matinees – it was me, and the All American Lad, Jackknife and Torpedo. The Lad did some trick-shooting, Jackknife threw daggers at me and juggled them – catching two of them by the tips of his fingernails- and Torpedo and I did some gymnastics. We had some adults with us, of course – the Sleuth was kind of our ringleader. He’d rally the crowd in his tough-guy talk – the kids loved that Chicago style – and we’d all push for the kids to take their nickels and dimes and buy bonds with them, or collect peach pits to make gas masks. The rest of the adults would do a couple of night shows, then the next day we’d collect our stuff up, pile into the train and off we went. We travelled in uniform, which was lucky since I’d have had trouble getting on the train in the first place – even as Jan’s maid.
But in our hotels most everyone relaxed and changed. If people thought it was funny that I didn’t ever join them, they didn’t say anything. Since I was the only girl – though I was eighteen even at the beginning of the tour and turned nineteen during it – they said nothing.
With two exceptions. The first was Torpedo. We got to know each other pretty well – which made sense. We were partners in the gymnastics act, so we had to practice. And I’ll admit, it was fun rolling around on a mat with a handsome, sweaty boy who could make me laugh. No one accused Ronnie of being the brightest pug, but he really enjoyed life and it was infectious. He kept after me, though. “C’mon, Dimmy – I just want a chance to look in those beautiful eyes. C’mon – you’ve gotta have a name. No mother looks at a baby girl and says ‘I think I’ll call her Diamond!'”
I rebuffed him, though it wasn’t easy. Especially since I was pretty sweet on him. More than once, after a show, we’d sneak off and I’d fold my mask up like I did when I ate in public, and we’d exercise our mouths a little. But I didn’t – I couldn’t – take off my mask. I was afraid. Afraid that he’d look at my face and not see me.
And as for the other…. Well, it was mid ’44, and we were in Philadelphia. I was sitting on the roof of our Hotel – climbing was part of the job, and it was a cool, breezy night – and just enjoying myself.
“So, what’s a nice Japanese girl like you doin’ on a fleabag roof like this?”
I levitated three feet in surprise and another in fear. Twisting into a crouch and clutching a smoke-jewel, I found myself facing down the trenchcoated Sleuth. “What do you mean?” I demanded.
He laughed. “Sister, y’don’t get to be a gumshoe if y’don’t use your eyes. And I’ve done some looking, and I’ve seen a few things. Like the fact that you never even take off your gloves. And your hair’s real pretty, but it’s the right texture and thickness. And the times you slip the bottom of your mask up, you can see your mouth – not so much that people’re jiggering, unless they know what to look for.
“So you’re hiding – and not scars either. So what else could it be?”
“I – I’m not a spy,” I said, shaking. “I never-”
“Hey hey hey,” he said, calming me. “C’mon. You must be Nisi – an American who happens to have Jap parents or grandparents. Your accent’s the wrong sort to mean you learned English as a second language, and ‘sides, you’re too American a teenager. So don’t worry – I’ve known you long enough to know you’re a square kid.”
He walked up to me. “So what’s your name, anyway?”
I pulled off my mask. The wind felt strange… liberating. “Ellen,” I said.
He pulled his Fedora back and slipped the scarf off his face. “I’m called Nick, by people who know me,” he said.
Nick and I became friends. That was nice, because Jan didn’t have a lot of time for sidekicks. Not only was she a featured speaker in one of the adult shows, but she had several of the mystery men sniffing after her at all hours. She loved to play the vamp, but usually ‘Janice Taylor’ had to be Miss Snooty, as part of her cover. A chance to let her hair down meant Jan could go to town.
For those of you who remember the rumors, they’re wrong. Solitaire and Spycracker were never more than professional associates. Jan went to his wedding, but that was the closest the two of them ever got. I think it bugged her that he didn’t go after her. No, the real torrid romance had to be Jan and Robert Richards. Jan told me the nickname ‘Minuteman’ was both rotten and a lie to boot.
So it was nice to have someone to talk to. To explain my fears to, and relax around. Someone who didn’t care what color my skin was or whether I had a fold in the corner of my eye.
Maybe… maybe if Nick had been around the night I got the letter from my mother, everything would have been different.
Jan had her mail forwarded. Naturally, anything that was ‘care of’ her was forwarded too. So one night, just before she ran out the door, she tossed me a letter. “See you, Kid!” she yelled to me, “and don’t wait up. Mmm, I’m going to cut a rug tonight!”
“Good night!” I called after her, and opened the letter.
A few minutes later, I let it fall to the floor. I couldn’t get the image of my father watching me leave the train station out of my head. I couldn’t seem to forget his eyes, even as mine were burning with tears.
I pulled my mask on and ran down the hall, until I reached Nick’s room. I hammered on his door, but there wasn’t any answer.
“Hey, Dimmy, what’s shaking?” Ronnie asked, taking my shoulder. He had come up behind me.
“Leave me alone,” I sobbed, pulling away from him.
“Hey,” he said, concerned. “What is it? You okay?”
“I… I-” I burst into tears again. They covered the lenses of my mask, blinding me. I fell against him and he held me, whispering. Somehow, he got me out of the hall and into his room. Of course, Spycracker was out at a show the same way Solitaire was.
“What is it?” he asked.
“My father’s dead,” I managed to say.
“Oh… oh Jeez. Jeez… oh Dimmy, c’mere….”
I went. He held me and rocked me for a while.
After a long time, I kissed him, through the mask. I pulled it up and kissed him again, and he kissed me back. I wanted that, right then. I needed something to fill the void – the pit that had taken root in my stomach. In my heart. We kissed for a long time, before I reached over and switched off the lamp… and then slowly pulled my mask off, letting the darkness hide me.
I didn’t have to pull anything else off. Ronnie was happy to do it for me.
I must have fallen asleep. I’m not really sure. I must have been relaxed enough to fall asleep in his arms. I can’t really say.
I snapped awake, jerking up. “What-” I started.
Ronnie was standing by the bathroom door, looking at me.
Looking at me. The overhead lamp was burning.
Looking at me. I started to shake. “Ronnie…” I said, my voice wavering in the room.
“You’re a Jap,” he stuttered, pointing at me. Accusing me as though he wanted me to deny it. “You’re a Jesus Christ freaking Jap!!”
“What the Hell are you doin’ here? Jeez Louise, I slept with you! Jesus Christ-”
“Ronnie!” I sobbed. “I’m still-”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up! Oh Jesus… Oh Jesus….”
“Ronnie, please-” I stumbled to him.
“Shut up!” He brought the back of his hand across my face, and I stumbled back, salt in my mouth. “You goddam Jap! What are you doing here? Is it ‘Crack? Are you trying to kill him? What does Tojo have you here for-”
“Ronnie!” The voice was cold, and harsh.
He spun. “Thank God! ‘Crack, it’s Dimmy – I mean Diamond! She’s a damn-”
“Get out,” Spycracker said, his hands clenched into fists. He wasn’t in uniform, but he looked every inch the vigilante.
“Don’t let her go,” Ronnie said. “Jeez, ‘Crack-”
“Get out!!” he roared, grabbing Ronnie and pulling him away from me. He shoved him toward the door. “Get out before I do something we both regret!”
“But-” Ronnie turned and fled. Spycracker turned to me. I was cowering, blood dripping off my lip.
“Are you… all right?” he asked.
The words broke my paralysis. I grabbed my uniform and ran for the open door, not bothering to dress. “Diamond!” he shouted after me, but by then I was stumbling down the hall, to my own room. To safety. I got the key out of my uniform’s pocket, got in, and double bolted the door.
And then I slumped down, sliding down the outside edge of the doorway. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t have any more tears. I just sat there, blood on my face, blood on my thigh, and stared across the room.
It was over. Diamond was dead. In the end, the girl inside the costume was just a dirty Jap. I couldn’t bear to ever wear that mask again. To this day I never have. When Jan got home I asked her to send me back to Megapolis. She asked, but I didn’t explain. And she didn’t press.
I never saw Ronnie again. Two years ago, I got a letter from him – kind of rambling, asking how I was, asking if I could forgive him. I didn’t answer it. Let Torpedo find his own comfort.
Jan didn’t come back with me, and I didn’t ask her to. She loved being Solitaire. She loved a life where she could be free and exciting. So I left her to it. I went back to her apartment and cooked for myself and, well, did a lot of nothing. I read sometimes, but not often. Mostly I smoked and listened to the radio. I never listened to adventure stories, though.
I started throwing up in January of 1945. It didn’t take me long to figure out why. I felt very cold, and very very alone. Jan was still with the Brigade, of course. She wrote to me, and told me they had lots of adventures and that everyone missed me. Spycracker wrote to me too, apologizing. I never heard from Nick. I couldn’t tell any of them about what had happened. What good would it do?
So what could I do? My family was locked away. My father was dead. My surrogate mother was playing dress up. My last friend obviously didn’t approve.
Of course I didn’t tell Ronnie. That wouldn’t serve any purpose at all. At best I could have used it against him, but I like to think I’m better than that.
I felt… cold. Up against a wall. So I gathered a few things and I went out for a long walk, until I came to a small brick building just outside of South Spire, where I was born. You hear rumors. Rumors about places you can get illegal things done.
They didn’t do it right. I bled a lot, almost to death, and I would never be able to have children. Well, maybe I would never deserve to.
I lay there in that bed for three weeks. I didn’t write to anyone. I didn’t want to see anyone. They weren’t bad to me, but they weren’t good to me, either. I was still a Jap, even that late in the war, and they didn’t like me at all.
One night I opened my eyes, even though it was the middle of the night, and he was standing there.
“Sister,” he said quietly, “you do get yourself into some situations, don’t you?”
“Nick,” I said weakly.
He crouched next to me. “You could have said something,” he said.
“Like ‘help.’ Or ‘oh God, Nick.’ Y’know, I make it a policy not to make my friends go through Hell alone. You just make it hard to share it.”
I cried a little, then, and we talked. Later that week he brought me to Lakeshore City. I didn’t want to live in Solitaire’s apartment any more.
And that’s it. That’s the end of my story.
Nick was always nice to me. He always watched out for me. I expect him any day now – he has this sense of when I’m not able to cope. He helped me get set up, and found me a job of sorts.
My family went back to Megapolis. I took the train out to see them a couple of times, but over time I’ve lost touch with them. I don’t have anything to say – and going back there meant going back to Jan’s building. Her apartment.
And that means remembering, and I don’t want to do that.
Jan and I wrote a lot, though. She liked me a lot, and always tried to get me to go to college. Like that would have helped. I learned my lesson, you see. People can love you if they don’t know who you are, and some people can care no matter who you are, but in the end, you’re alone and you have to be strong.
I was never that strong.