From the author: Rob is the best friend -- the only friend, really -- of Astounding Man. The only one who knows the superhero's secret identity. What's a secret like that worth -- to the media, or to super villains? And Rob has plenty of ideas of things he could do with that kind of money.
"Rob, just listen to me for a sec. I'm not talking about anything that's actually immoral. Nobody gets hurt." Weldon Brown pushed the hair back from his forehead -- he was actually sweating! -- and calmed himself. Slowed down. He glanced around the office again to make sure no one else was in earshot, that the rest of the World Timesstaff were all busy with their own work.
"Just consider, for one moment, the possibilities for easy, easy cash. You don't want to do TV commercials? That's fine. There are other things. You could so some skywriting, you know, ads for some fast-food franchise. Or just wear a logo -- doesn't have to be a big one -- on your cape. Who wouldn't pay a ton of money to have their logo on Astounding Man's cape?"
Rob Rupert leaned back in his chair and looked up at Weldon, sitting on the edge of his desk. Weldon rather enjoyed it when Rob had to look up at him.
"I can't do it, Weldon. It would violate the public trust."
"Public trust! Public trust? There hasn't been any public trust since Vietnam, Rob! You're a hero -- well, OK, a superhero -- but come on. All those guys that admire you still figure you've got something going on, something that you get out of it, too. Doing a couple ads, that would just allay their fears. Putting it all on the table. Showing that your agenda isn't a hidden one. And if I was your agent, I could handle all of the details."
"I have no hidden --"
"Sure, Rob, I know that. But no one else would believe it. So, in this case, a little white lie -- a little 'I brush my teeth with GelWhite' -- would actually be reassuringto people."
"I don't need to brush my teeth, Weldon. You know that."
Weldon threw up his hands. "That was just an example! Jeez!"
"Come on, now, Weldon. You've known me since we were kids. You have to know that the kind of thing you're suggesting just isn't me."
"Yeah, I know." Weldon scowled, looking at the worn carpet. "Heck, you're not even you. You're a part you play."
"Sorry, Weldon. I know you've got those car payments to think about. Although, really, why you chose such an expensive car--"
"Never mind. Just a passing thought, that's all. I guess I'd better get back to my computer, crop those pictures I took of you last night to put you in the best light."
Rob leaned over his desk and play-punched Weldon's arm. "You didn't take any pictures of melast night, Weldon – that was Astounding Man!" He grinned.
"Yeah, right. See you."
On his way back to his desk Weldon passed the copy room. Mandy was in there.
She was bent down, putting fresh paper into the copier. Bent way down.
She looked up and tossed blonde tresses out of her eyes. "Oh, hi, uh, Sheldon?"
Weldon moved on. How many times had he struck up conversations with her? She still couldn't remember his name. A photographer; who was that to an executive secretary? Especially one that looked like she did. You can bet that she would notice him if he were Astounding Man's agent, though. And she wouldn't be the only one, either.
The bad guys always seemed to have incredible babes around. The Eel kept a well-stocked harem, Baron de Baucht had those triplets, The Fang – well he was gay, so that didn't count. But Astounding Man responded to all the dewy adoration and offers, subtle and not-so-subtle, with a gallant wave or a handshake.
Man, if Weldon had money, real money, and fame.
Or notoriety. Yeah. But, anyway, a lot of money.
"So how much are we talking about here, exactly?"
Weldon pressed his free hand to his right ear. They didn't make those enclosed phone booths anymore, and the sounds of the busses and trucks and cabs roaring by scant feet away made it hard to hear. But everyone had caller ID these days, so he couldn't call from his apartment or with his cell.
"My editor says that if it’s the real deal, he can authorize fifty thousand dollars. The true identity of Astounding Man would be quite a scoop, to say the least. We could only pay, of course, after we've verified your story."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. It's the real deal, believe me. Fifty thousand, huh? I don't know." Bad enough selling out to a tabloid. Even worse that the tabloid was a competitor to the Times. Then again, if he made a bundle he wouldn't be working there anymore. He'd hire Mandy away and start some kind of new business.
"Well, if it is true that you are a friend of Astounding Man, of course we would be interested in getting your stories. There would be additional compensation for that. Later, perhaps a book deal. That could be in the works."
"Yeah, that sounds pretty good."
Thumping rap music from a long, low, black sedan drowned out the reply. "Sorry, can you repeat that?"
"I was suggesting we meet, to sign an agreement."
"Oh, yeah, great. Uh, how about Tuesday evening? We could—"
A large hand pressed his shoulder.
"Weldon! There you are. Thank heavens!" Rob already had his tie loosened. "The Countess of Doom is threatening to evaporate the world's oceans -- but I promised little Bobby that I would take him to the park! He had his heart set on seeing the puppet show there this afternoon. I need you to step in, old friend!"
"Uh, I'll have to call you back," Weldon said, hanging up. "OK, big guy. Where am I supposed to pick up Bobby?" Oh, how Weldon hated these babysitting assignments. When he was rich enough, he would buy that park and pave over the whole damned thing.
Surprisingly, the outing with little Bobby was actually enjoyable. Who would have thought that a puppet show could be so funny? Still, there was the principle of the thing. You just don't ask someone to babysit at the last minute.
Especially without supplying the popcorn money.
"The oceans are still there, I guess."
Weldon put down the magazine and accepted the root beer.
"Yes – but it was a close call." Rob sat on the couch next to him. "Fortunately, the Countess is given to boasting, which gave me just enough time to free myself from her supersteel cage. She'll be spending quite a long time at the Maximum Security Facility for the Criminally Insane in Provo."
"None of those guys seem to spend much time in prison."
"Yes, that's true. The system is imperfect – but it's the only system we have."
"Well, you could, you know. Kill them, when you catch them. Call it resisting arrest, or an escape attempt."
"Weldon – lie?" Rob's mouth dropped.
"Ha, ha! Gotcha!" Jeez, how could he know a guy for nearly twenty years, and still forget just how goody-goody he was?
Rob smiled. "Oh, Weldon! I knew you couldn't be serious!"
"Hey, if I may speak to Astounding Man for a sec?"
Rob's voice deepened, his posture straightened. "Of course, old friend."
"Just how did you hear about the COD's plot?"
"Please, Weldon. She hates being called the COD."
"All right, all right, the Countess of Doom. How did you find out? What, did she call you?"
"No, no, nothing like that," Rob chuckled. "Nowadays we use email."
"Email?" Rob couldn't be joking. "Really?"
"Yes. In the old days, when a supervillain wanted to get my attention, they would usually just kidnap someone – often, coincidentally, someone close to Rob Rupert!"
Weldon rubbed his neck. "Yeah. Tell me about it."
"And then issue an invitation to Astounding Man through the media generated by this kidnapping. Some time ago, however, we all came to the consensus that it would be easier on everyone if we cut out the attention-grabbing step. We all exchanged email addresses."
"You all did?"
"That's right. Take a look!" Rob fished under the coffee table, and brought out a little alphabetized address book with daisies on the cover. He handed it to Weldon.
Weldon flipped through it. "Jeez, you're right! Everyone's in here --- Antibody, the Baron de Baucht, Buzzkill, Dick Cheney, The Countess of Doom, The Eel, Evil Incarnate, The Fang, Pandaface, Middle-Man, Mom, Nerdster, Revenger, Uncommonly Cold… this is unbelievable!"
Weldon looked up at Rob. "Hey, I was wondering. Of all of these supervillains, at least among all of those not now in jail, which one is the richest?"
"The Eel, unquestionably. He's worth uncounted billions. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I was just thinking about the connections between evil and great wealth."
The heck with the tabloid. Fifty thousand, a book deal? The Eel had billions. How much would he pay to learn the secret identity of his nemesis? How much could Weldon ask for? He could have it put into some offshore bank, on an island nation somewhere, like Bahama or Hawaii. He'd have to research the details.
So much money.
Sure, revealing Astounding Man's true identity to the evildoers of the world would put Weldon himself in more danger. That he was Rob Rupert's best friend was no secret, and anyone looking for leverage over the superhero would think to kidnap Weldon. He might be tortured, killed, or worse.
So much money!
Weldon sweated and tapped away on his computer. One hundred million dollars: that's how much The Eel had offered him. All he had to do was send the reply, and he'd be rich, so rich, and Mandy would haveto take note of him. All the Mandys would. And cars, and a pool, and a high-def TV screen, three times clearer than reality and the size of a wall. It was all he could do to keep from actually drooling.
There was a gentle tap at the glass door that opened onto his tiny balcony.
That could be only one person. Weldon minimized the email, and went to open the door.
"Hello, Weldon. Nice night for a flight, so I thought I would come over. Uh, may I come in?"
"Oh!" Weldon stepped back so Rob could get past him. "Sorry. Yeah, sure, uh, come right in."
"Want a beer – or, sorry, a soda? I think I have some grape juice."
"No, thank you. I just wanted – well, here." Rob held out a small box wrapped in blue foil, tied with a ribbon.
Weldon took it. "What's this, Rob?"
"I realized that I never thanked your for taking care of little Bobby when I had to take care of The Countess. This is just a little thank-you present."
"Wow!" Weldon tore open the paper, and opened the box. He pulled out a fist-sized chunk of dirty crystal. "Uh, a rock? Some kind of paperweight?"
Rob smiled as he sat down on the sofa. "Not just any rock, my friend. Although it would look much more impressive had it been polished, I know. That rock was formed in the enormous heat and pressure at the core of the planet Jupiter. It's a diamond. I went out there this morning."
"Well, hey! That's fantastic! Thanks a lot, Rob!" Weldon sat next to Rob and put the enormous diamond on his coffee table. "And just for babysitting!"
"Well, not just for taking care of little Bobby, Weldon." Rob ran a hand through his perfect hair. "The thing is – well, I may not be expressing this well, but I just wanted to let you know – well, that I appreciate you. It's been lonely, carrying this secret for so long. And you're the only who knows who I am, the only one I can talk to, to trust. Your friendship means a lot to me. I guess, deep down, I don't know if I can really cut it as a normal person; I can retreat into my Astounding Man persona any time I feel threatened. I don't mean physically. I just… See? I can't explain it very well. I just want to say, thanks, Weldon. Thanks."
Weldon's eyes actually teared up. "Jeez. Well, thanks, Rob. I got to tell you, it's been an honor, having your trust. I've always kind of hoped that your noble nature would rub off on me. So, thanks, man. I mean, you're welcome."
Rob smiled. "Great. Say, have you had dinner? How about I fly us to Paris, or New York, or London, wherever – for something special?"
"That sounds great, Rob. Uh, I'll meet you out on the balcony in a second. I just want to get this email off before we go."
The diamond was great, sure. But why hadn't Astounding Man polished it? Twenty seconds of high-speed buffing it against his cape, that would do it. And anyway it would look even nicer sitting next to a huge pile of cash.
The noble nature hadn't rubbed off after all.
This story originally appeared in Infective Ink.