Sometimes, even superheroes need to call 911.
Superman lay face down in the alley next to a Dumpster, a circle of dried blood staining his red cape. Detective Harbison gazed down at the body and decided that regular bullets could take down the Man of Steel just as well as kryptonite.
“Poor Markie!” The Latina standing beside him dug her plump fingers into her skirt pocket and pulled out a tissue. “He’s a good customer. He says, ‘Imelda makes the best coffee in town.’ Markie comes in my diner when he takes a break from work.” The alley where they stood was just behind the tiny restaurant.
“His work?” If Harbison wasn’t investigating a murder, he’d make jokes about what sort of work a man clad in blue tights and red briefs might do.
“Si, over there.” She gestured toward Hollywood Boulevard. “He’s very good with the children. They love him.” Imelda wiped her eyes with the tissue. “This neighborhood is so bad. Last week a thief steal money from my diner, now this. The police, they do nothing to make it safe.”
Imelda went on to say she found Markie early that morning as she opened her shop for breakfast. The night before, when she tossed the day’s trash into the Dumpster, the alley was empty of bodies. Then she burst out crying and the interview was over.
The street had no nightclubs and the stores closed early after the tourist trade eased off, so the uniforms would have a tough time finding witnesses. Harbison didn’t like the escalation of crime along this street. The past week the local shops had suffered a rash of break-ins. The burglar left no fingerprints and the grainy videotapes from cheap surveillance cameras only showed a figure dressed in black clothes and a dark hood. Maybe Superman had caught the burglar in the act and the thief overpowered him.
In the stifling August heat, Harbison walked west along Hollywood Boulevard, the most famous tourist trap of L.A. The detective felt sorry for the mob of sweating tourists who spent their savings and hard-earned vacation time in search of glamour and celebrities. What they found in Hollywood were seedy apartment buildings, tattoo parlors, tacky souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. In an effort to squeeze every nickel from the hapless visitors, even the McDonald’s had pay toilets. And the stars were either shooting films in Canada or residing behind gated driveways in the more well-heeled sections of town.
Harbison ignored the loud-mouthed street hustlers selling maps of the stars’ homes or handing out free tickets to sitcom screenings. He stopped in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where he figured Markie worked. The concrete patio embedded with the hand- and footprints of movie stars was a prime location where tourists, hungry for any kind of Hollywood fantasy, had their pictures taken with costumed performers.
Today, a quartet of icons was working. The Hulk made a muscle for some youngsters. A Michael Jackson impersonator, sporting a rhinestone glove, moonwalked while a couple recorded him with a camcorder. Two nubile 20-something women, both attired in tight T-shirts and short shorts, posed on either side of Darth Vader as a third friend snapped a photo. Vader had his arms around the women’s waists, pinching and rubbing. Harbison couldn’t see Vader’s face beneath the helmet, but he reckoned the man was leering.
Spider-man was unoccupied at the moment so Harbison tapped the man’s shoulder from behind. Spidey spun around and crouched in a defensive pose, arms out at his side.
“Excuse me, Mr. Spider-man.” Harbison couldn’t believe he was talking to a cartoon character. Police academy had not prepared him for this.
“Stop in the name of the law!” The webbed hood muffled the man’s voice. “Are you the Green Goblin?”
“No, I am the law.” Harbison palmed his badge and discreetly showed it to the webslinger as not to alarm the passers-by. He leaned close to where his figured Spidy’s ears would be under the hood and spoke softly. “Detective Harbison, LAPD.”
Spidey’s head jerked up in what the detective assumed was a gesture of astonishment. He hated that mask. Part of his work involved reading reactions and expressions, and he couldn’t do that with the man’s face covered. “I’m conducting an investigation. Can we go somewhere private and talk?”
Spider-man nodded, motioned for Harbison to follow and led him two blocks away to a store that sold postcards with photos of L.A. smog and imitation Academy Awards made of cheap plastic covered with gold foil. Despite the shabby decor, at least the store had a working air conditioner, much to Harbison’s relief. The men entered a storage room in the back where Spider-man snapped on a wall switch and closed the door behind them. Harbison’s hand moved toward the gun in the shoulder holster beneath his linen jacket. Was this an ambush?
But Spidey only sank into a frayed lawn chair in a corner. “It’s my brother’s shop. I come in here to eat lunch and change clothes. I don’t ride the bus dressed like this. Can I get you something to drink?” The web slinger removed a cold can of Coke from a small refrigerator.
“No thanks, I’m good.”
Spidey’s chair was the only one in the room and Harbison preferred not to sit on the large cardboard boxes that filled the room. The wall crawler pulled off the hood and wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand. He popped open the can and drank. The man had droopy eyelids, a crooked nose, warts and bushy eyebrows. Hardly the distinguished face of a superhero.
“What’s your name? I can’t call you Spider-man.”
“Let me introduce myself.” He unzipped the black vinyl pouch attached to a thin belt. The man removed a card laminated in plastic and handed it to Harbison. The photo ID was for Victor Lieberman of Canoga Park, a street performer registered with the city of Santa Monica.
“The card lets me work at the Third Street Promenade. I split my time between Hollywood and there. At night I hire out for private parties. Those Spider-man movies with Tobey Maguire were the best thing for my business.”
“Do you have to register to work in Hollywood?”
“No, and that’s a shame. That means any creep can put on a Halloween costume and rip off the guests. And they do, too. They overcharge for tips. They’re obnoxious to get attention. They give the rest of us a bad name. Me, I take my work seriously. I’m the face of Hollywood. I give the guests good memories. I don’t want them bad mouthing L.A. ‘cause some idiot in a mask jerked them around.”
“Do you know the man who played Superman? Markham Bennington?”
“Markie? Sure, everybody knows Markie.”
“Did he rip off the tourists?”
“No way. He’s one of the best. Takes real skill to handle the guests, especially when they’re hot and tired. Even the cranks walk away from Supes with a smile. Why do you ask? Is he in some kind of trouble? Did someone lodge a complaint?”
“He’s dead. Murdered last night.”
Victor dropped his Coke can. “Markie? Dead? I can’t believe that. Not Markie. How?”
“Someone shot him in an alley. Did Mr. Bennington get along with the other performers? Did he step on anyone’s turf?”
“No, Markie isn’t . . . wasn’t territorial. Shared the sidewalk with everyone. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
“What can you tell me about the other performers?”
“Nothing. I don’t know names, just their characters. I only see them in costume. And I don’t let anyone see me without the mask.” He held up the hood. “I love people. I do. I’d be a knockout as a retail clerk or wait staff. But what manager would hire a guy with a puss like this?” Victor laughed. “When I put on the mask, I’m not the kid who got teased and kicked around ‘cause his face made people puke. I’m Spider-man. People respect me. Tell me where I can find a better job than that.” Victor picked up the soda can and tossed it into a blue recycling bin and then used a rag to mop up the spilled drink. “Unless you have more questions, I gotta go. I don’t earn any money sitting in here.”
Harbison thanked Victor for his time. Before he returned Victor’s ID card he jotted down the address and phone number in a memo book. Spider-man masked himself and headed for the store’s unisex restroom while Harbison brought the Michael Jackson impersonator to the storage room for questioning.
On the street the man resembled the famed singer so much, right down to the high-pitched voice, that Harbison expected the performer to jump on a table and start singing “Billie Jean.” Instead, in the privacy of the storage room, the performer pulled off his glove, scratched his scalp, and shattered the illusion by speaking in a gravely baritone.
“I’m Tim Bukowlski. Grew up on the streets in South Central and now I work on the streets in Hollywood. Worked for a while as a session singer, made decent money, but that wasn’t for me. Now I’m my own boss and do the music I like. I’m not just an anonymous voice in the background. So what can I do for you, detective?” Harbison told him about Markie’s death. “Damn! What kind of louse would want to hurt Superman?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Did Mr. Bennington ever fight with a tourist?”
“Hell, no. Some of the tourists get demanding, you know, wanted Markie to do stupid stuff for them, but hey, nobody’s gonna kill a guy over that.”
“What about the store owners along the street?”
“They couldn’t live without us. We make the tourists happy, and happy people spend money. I’ve seen lots of Supermen but Markie, he was the boss. Didn’t have to pad out his suit like some of them do.”
“Did the other performers have a grudge against Markie? Maybe he made more tips than they did?”
Tim shrugged. “Who knows? These actors, they come and go. The young kids think it’s an easy job, work a couple of days and quit. Or they’re hired for a commercial, they’re gone. Most of them don’t stick around long enough to work up a grudge.”
“What about two on the street now? The Hulk and Darth Vader? Do you know them?”
“Hulk, yeah, he’s been around a year or so. He’s all right. The other guy, he’s new. Don’t know him at all. He doesn’t talk to anyone. Showed up a week ago, I think.”
A week ago—that’s when the burglaries started along Hollywood Boulevard.
Tim continued. “Come to think of it, last night when we got off work, Markie left with Darth Vader. The helmet dude was in our faces all day, yelling at the tourists, pushing people around. Markie said he wanted buy the guy a cup of coffee and talk to him, get the nutcase to straighten out before he started throwing punches. Fights ruin everybody’s business.”
So Vader might have been the last person who saw Markie alive. And Markie probably took Vader to Imelda’s Diner for that cup of joe. But Vader wouldn’t kill Markie for scolding him—would he?
Outside in the heat and the blinding sunlight, Harbison returned to the Chinese Theater where Darth Vader was trying to drum up business by waving his light saber, although he seemed to scare people more than entice them. Harbison figured that with the helmet on, nobody could identify him. The gloved hands left no fingerprints. What a perfect disguise for a criminal.
Harbison showed his badge. “Excuse me, sir, LAPD.”
Vader swung the saber hard at the cop. Harbison raised his hand to deflect the wand and screamed as the weapon smashed into his arm.
The prop must have had an iron pipe inside it.
The detective assumed the saber was only a cheap plastic toy from a department store, but this guy meant business. Vader lashed out again and Harbison ducked. The deadly saber cleared his head by inches. Vader turned and ran.
Harbison reached for the gun under his jacket—using his left hand because his shooting arm was injured—but stopped. He couldn’t risk a stray bullet striking a bystander. He cradled the broken arm against his chest and, blinking back tears of pain, pursued the suspect. He shouted for someone to stop Vader, but the tourists only stood and gawked as if the chase was merely a promotion for a new action film.
Even with the heavy costume and limited vision of the helmet, Vader easily threaded his way through the crowd. Harbison followed, his shoes slapping down hard on the Walk of Fame stars embedded in the sidewalk. He bumped the pedestrians aside with his shoulder, ignoring their curses. He felt dizzy and forced himself to keep moving. If the pain in his arm didn’t stop him, the heat would.
A traffic light turned red, a walk light signaled “go,” and Vader dashed into the crosswalk. Harbison knew he’d never reach the crossing before Vader was safely on other side. But at the intersection the driver of an SUV, having waited impatiently for the oncoming traffic to clear, made a left turn on the red light. The SUV’s front bumper knocked Vader to the pavement.
The driver pulled over, stopped and got out of the vehicle. He was more interested in the negligible damage to his bumper than in the health of the accident victim. Harbison caught up and, in between gasps of air as he tried to catch his breath, ordered the bystanders to move Vader onto the sidewalk, out of the traffic. Juggling his cell phone with one hand, he called for an ambulance and backup. Then the cop knelt beside Vader and pulled off the helmet. The man was unconscious but alive. At least Harbison was safe from another whack with the lead pipe.
Children clustered around, staring first at the defrocked Vader and then at Harbison. The detective smiled. “You see, kids, this is what happens when you go over to the Dark Side.”
At the hospital, the uniformed cops removed the guy’s gloves and ran his prints. The department had a warrant out for the man, Ed Tasser, on suspicion of burglary for some mom-and-pop stores in the San Fernando Valley. With the Darth Vader disguise, he easily hid from the cops in plain sight. Markie probably learned the thief’s identity over the cup of coffee and that’s why Tasser silenced him.
A doctor set Harbison’s broken arm in a cast. “How did you hurt yourself, detective?”
“I was chasing Darth Vader along the Walk of Fame. Last night he murdered Superman.”
The doctor smiled and nodded as if that statement made complete sense.
Harbison shook his head and muttered, “Only in Hollywood.”
Sally Carpenter is native Hoosier now living in Moorpark, Calif. She has a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University. Her short story, “Dark Nights at the Deluxe Drive-in,” is in the newly-released anthology, Last Exit to Murder. Her book, The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper, was a finalist for the Eureka! Award for best first mystery novel. She’s worked as an actress, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio and is now employed at a community newspaper. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and she also has a black belt in tae kwon do.
“Faster Than a Speeding Bullet” was first published in Kings River Life, February 19, 2011.