by Martin Maenza
It was a cold night in late January, just about a half-hour before midnight. The only people out and about in Gotham City at this hour were the creatures of the night — the vermin who preyed upon the city and those who had sworn to protect it.
At the end of a darkened alleyway was the delivery dock for Englehart Electronics, a small but growing chain of audio and video equipment stores. A trio of men huddled around the large metal bay door, waiting.
“What’s taking so long?” one of the men asked impatiently.
“Give ‘im a second,” one of the others said. “He’s one of the best lock-picks around.”
“He better hurry!” said the third. “We ain’t got all night, you know.” After a few more moments, there was a click of the handle, and the bay door slid up. “About time!”
“Yeah, really,” said a voice from the alleyway. “I couldn’t tell if you guys would ever finish breakin’ and enterin’ or not. Hard to bust ya if haven’t actually done anything wrong, eh?”
The men all whirled around at the sound of the voice. They saw a cowled shadow move out of the alleyway first, followed by its owner, a man in a dark blue costume.
“We’ve been found out!” yelled the lock-pick. “Scatter!” He ducked back into the loading bay to slip out through the warehouse.
“Aw, don’t leave on my account,” said the costumed man as he stepped into the light. The costume was all dark blue, and the mask included a catlike face to it. “This Wildcat likes to party!” The man dived at the trio of thieves.
Wildcat moved forward quickly to the first guy. “You want some punch?” he said as he drove forward his left fist while pulling back his right. “Here, have two! They’re small!” The man crumbled to the ground.
One of the other guys leaped upon Wildcat’s back, wrapping his left arm around the man’s neck and his legs around his upper torso. “You’re a regular comedian, hero,” he said. “Let’s see you laugh this off.” He started to pound the costumed man with his free hand.
Wildcat pushed off the ground with his legs and fell backward. The thief on his back hit the ground hard, banging his head on the concrete. “Yeah,” said Wildcat as he broke free and started to rise. “That one knocked me right off’a my feet, I was laughin’ so hard.”
Suddenly, the hero heard the sound of a chain whizzing through the air. He ducked instinctively. “So, that’s how ya want to play it?” Wildcat said as he saw the chain go by. “Fine.”
The man swung the chain again. Wildcat dodged to the left and then nailed the man’s arm with a right jab. The chain broke free from the thief’s hand and clattered across the pavement.
Wildcat didn’t wait for the man to recover. He nailed him with a right punch to the chin, followed quickly with another from his left.
The large man shook off the two blows as anger filled his eyes. He charged forward with a growl. Wildcat lunged at him, driving his shoulder into the man’s stomach. Then the hero bent forward and, with a fluid motion, tossed the man over his back. The guy hit the ground face-first.
Wildcat took a quick assessment of the situation. “One, two, three,” he counted in his head. “Uh-oh! One’s missing.” He darted down the alleyway to where he saw a van parked on the street around the corner. If the fourth guy ran, it was possible he’d head for the quickest escape route. If he was fast enough, Wildcat figured he’d catch the man in time.
As he rounded the corner, the hero stopped dead in his tracks. There was the fourth thief getting his lights punched out by a costumed man in a long blue cape and cowl.
“Batman!” Wildcat exclaimed as he recognized the city’s protector.
Batman spun around on his blue-booted heel. “Wildcat?” he said, immediately registering the familiar costume. Though he was surprised to see the costume, he knew immediately that it was not his old friend Ted Grant under the costume. Besides the fact that a barrier still existed between the Earths that prohibited travel from Earth-Two to Earth-One, Batman could also tell that the man’s build was slightly smaller and that he carried himself differently than the old boxer. Also, while the costume looked very similar to that of the Earth-Two hero, it was not perfectly the same. Very few details slipped past the World’s Greatest Detective.
He took a step toward the newcomer. “That is, you wear Wildcat’s costume,” he said, “but you aren’t really Wildcat, are you?”
“I am Wildcat,” the young hero stated.
“I know Wildcat very well, and you, sir, are no Wildcat,” Batman said firmly. “That makes you a thief.”
Wildcat threw up his hands in front of him, palms open toward Batman. “Now wait a second!” he said defensively. “I may not be the one from a few years back, but I’m every bit the hero he was.”
Batman gave him a stern look.
“That is,” Wildcat said, “I meant ta say that I stand for what he stood for. Battlin’ injustice wherever it rears its head. I wear this costume out of respect. I didn’t mean ta steal anything.”
Batman watched him carefully. The young man appeared to be sincere. He was pursuing these thieves, after all. Besides, the Caped Crusader had been hearing rumors for a few weeks now about a man in a cat costume secretly busting up crimes in Gotham. Truth was, Batman had sort of been trailing the man lately as well, so he tended to believe the man’s word. Still, he wasn’t about to let this Wildcat know all that.
“So,” Batman finally said, “you’re doing this, then, out of some sense of tradition?”
“Yeah,” Wildcat said with a large smile. “Tradition.” That, and a sense of duty and a need for closure.
The mind of the man in the Wildcat costume raced back to events that happened almost eight years ago. It was the spring of 1979 in Gotham City; the winters’ chill was all but forgotten as the youth ran wild in the warming days.
On the second floor of a run-down tenement in one of the poorer sections of town, a woman worked into the night on some ironing that she did to help bring in some extra money. The radio was on low to keep her company as she worked. Sarah Barone, a brunette in her late forties, stopped to have a cigarette. The long days of work were taking their toll on her.
The radio station was one that played music from a bygone era. Tony Bennett came on. Sarah smiled. The song reminded her of her late Anthony, God rest his soul. She got lost in the music for a moment until a door being slammed down the little hallway jarred her back to reality.
Her dark-haired thirteen-year-old son emerged from the hallway and crossed the family room/kitchen area in a rush. “Leo!” Sarah said. “Where you goin’?”
“Out!” the young man said curtly.
Sarah glanced at the clock. “It’s after nine-thirty. You shouldn’t be goin’ out. It’s a school night.”
“Who cares?” Leo said. “I’m goin’ anyway.”
Sarah stubbed out the cigarette. “I don’t like who you been hangin’ out with,” she said. “Those boys are hoodlums — nothin’ but trouble. Why can’t you be like your cousin Francis?”
“‘Cause, Momma, he’s a wuss!”
Sarah slapped the teen across the face. “He’s in the seminary,” she announced, though Leo already knew that. “He’s gonna do good things for the community when he gets ordained.”
“Priest. Wuss. Same thing!” Leo grabbed his jacket off the hook behind the door. “I’m gone!” And with that, the teen walked out of the small apartment and slammed the door.
Sarah let out a deep sigh and looked at the picture of her late husband. Anthony Barone had been a handsome man who had died in a factory accident. “Oh, Anthony,” she addressed the picture. “What’m I gonna do with that boy?”
Leo Barone hopped down the three steps that led from the front door of the building to the street. He stopped under the street light, zipped up his jacket part of the way and lit a cigarette before continuing down the street. The cool menthol taste in his mouth felt good on the cool night.
As he walked through the neighborhood, he noted that the light was on over at the small corner market. He crossed the street at the corner just as the old man in his early sixties was taking some trash out to the Dumpster. “Hey, Mr. Staworski!” Leo called out to the man. “Shouldn’t you be home by now?”
The elder man squinted. “Leo, that you?” he asked in a thick Polish accent. “I left my glasses back on the counter.”
“Yeah, it’s me,” Leo said. He took the waste pail from the man. “Here, let me help.” He headed for the shop with the pail in one hand. He opened the door with the other and let the older man go inside first.
Mr. Staworski went to the counter and retrieved his glasses. “You a good boy, Leo. Why you out so late?”
Leo shrugged his shoulders. “I’m a teenager. We’re supposed to be restless, you know?”
“Bah,” the old man said. “You stay out of trouble, you hear?”
Leo didn’t say anything. He picked up a pack of gum and then fished some change out of his pocket. He put two quarters on the counter. “Be seeing you,” he said as he headed for the door.
Mr. Staworski reached for the money and realized that the boy left too much for the gum. “Leo, wait!” he called out. But the bell above the door rang as it closed. The boy was gone. The old man shook his head and placed the money in the drawer. “That boy.”
Leo hurried down the street, then took a turn down one of the back alleys. He slipped into an opening in the side of a boarded-up building and worked his way through the dusty entryway. Eventually he came upon a room that had some light. This was the hangout of his friends, a street gang that went by the name of the Cats’ Eyes.
“Yo, Leo!” called out Bobby Bertrelli. He and his twin brother Sal were a little older than Leo; they were sixteen. Also present were Vinnie Romano and Ricky Capri.
“We was worried about you,” Sal said. “Your momma givin’ you grief again?”
“You know me, Sal,” Leo said with a smile. “I just told her who was boss. I’m the man of the house; I do what I want.” The other two guys laughed. “So, where’s Joey?”
“Right here,” a voice came from the entryway. Joey Catigliano must have been just behind Leo. “Listen up, boys! We got something goin’ down that we need to take care of tonight.” The five gang members were all ears as they listened to their leader.
“What’s up?” asked Ricky.
“We got trouble,” said Joey Catigliano, who was the eldest present at age nineteen. “I been eyein’ Kowolski’s little group for a while now, making sure they wasn’t messin’ around in our business. Tina’s sister dates Kowolski, so I managed to get a little info out of Tina earlier tonight.”
Vinnie laughed. “Yeah, that Tina will give up just about anything.” Sal snickered as well.
“Shut up,” Joey said. “This ain’t about easy girls. This is about guys tryin’ to work our turf. We do the protection in this section of town. We don’t need no dumb Pollocks stickin’ their fingers in what’s ours!”
Bobby nodded in agreement. “So, what’re we gonna do, Joey?”
Joey pulled a gun from his pants’ waistband. “Tonight, we go teach those guys to stay out of our neighborhoods.” Most of the other guys nodded in agreement. Leo, the youngest of the group, wasn’t all that sure but was willing to go along with the group.
An hour later, near the corner of Haney and Brown, a number of young men hung out under the streetlight smoking cigarettes. They chatted amongst themselves about sports, girls, and other things, just killing time.
Then a voice called out to them from down the street. “Hey, Kowolski!” the person said.
The group stopped talking, and one of the guys looked up. “Who’s that?” he called out.
“How many Polish girls does it take to run a successful whorehouse?” the person called out. “One. Your mother!” The person then darted out.
Kowolski turned red. “Get him!” The group charged up the block after the cowardly jokester. “We’ll string that loudmouth up when we get him!”
The gang rounded the corner fast and ran smack dab into the Cats’ Eye gang. Joey Catigliano smiled, his gun drawn. “What’ya call four dead Pollocks?” Joey asked. “A good start!” He pointed his gun to fire.
Kowolski and his friends scattered. Joey fired one shot but only managed to wing a wall.
“Get ’em!” Joey cried as he took off after them. Ricky, Vinnie, Sal, and Bobby responded to the orders. Leo hesitated but then decided to stick by his friends.
The mad chase through the streets of Gotham was on. A few of Kowolski’s boys broke off. Joey gestured to the Bertrelli brothers and Vinnie Romano to pursue them. Joey’s eye was on the ringleader himself, and there was a bullet with his name on it.
Ricky was a faster runner and managed to pull down one of Kowolski’s boys. He began to pound on him hard with his fists.
Leo paused for a second to watch but then turned his head. It was one thing going around and acting all tough. It was another to actually inflict pain upon someone else. His first brush with inter-gang violence was leaving a bad taste in his mouth.
The thirteen-year-old continued down the street. Suddenly, he heard a shot ring out up ahead. Had Joey gotten Kowolski? Another shot was fired. He ran as fast as he could and rounded the corner. His face filled with shock by what he saw.
Lying on the sidewalk were two bodies bleeding. The first was Kowolski, not moving.
The other was an old man, one very familiar to Leo Barone. It was Mr. Staworski, the shopkeeper; his face was going pale as he clutched his chest where he was shot. “Nooo!” Leo cried as he ran to the man’s side. “Mr. Staworski, hold on!”
The old man strained. He could barely make a sound. Leo reached for his hand, and blood from the wound covered his palm.
Joey was busy wiping the gun with his shirt. He then put the weapon in Kowolski’s hand, closing the dead man’s fingers tightly around the weapon. “Time to go, Barone!” Joey said. He ran over to the boy and grabbed his shoulder. “C’mon, before anyone sees us!”
Leo pushed away Joey’s arm angrily. His eyes, full of tears and rage, stared at Joey’s face in disbelief.
“Fine!” Joey said. “Forget you! Just keep your mouth shut or else! Hear?” He took off just as the sound of sirens could be heard in the far distance.
Leo turned back to Mr. Staworski. The old man took a few more shallow breaths before expiring in the boy’s arms. Leo buried his head on the man’s chest for a moment, then gently laid the body down. He then took off into the night.
The news was all over the neighborhood by morning. Everyone was buzzing about the shootings last night. The small corner market remained closed. Many wondered what would happen to it with Mr. Staworski gone.
Sarah Barone was worried, too. Wondering how Leo would take the news, she went to his room to wake him in the morning as soon as she heard the story from Mrs. Kaleta, but the boy was not there. His bed was unmade, so she knew he must have come home at some point in the night but then left again. She wondered what was up with that boy.
Leo Barone had found he couldn’t sleep. The visions of the old man dying in his arms and the gun in Joey’s hands haunted him. He had gotten back up and walked the streets in the pre-dawn hours, filled with anger, sorrow, and remorse.
He found himself at the St. Matthew’s Church on Aparo Avenue. It was here he spent a good portion of the early morning. Leo prayed that this had all been just a bad dream, but deep down he knew that the nightmare was real.
He didn’t know what to do next. Leo was scared of what would happen if he told someone that Joey was involved. He feared for his mother’s safety and his own. He prayed for a sign, any sign, from God about what he should do next but got no answer.
Lost in his thoughts, Leo had spent a good portion of the day in that church pew. Finally, as the sun was about to set again, he decided maybe he should head home. No answers were coming to him here.
As he walked back home, a truck drove by a newsstand and dropped off a bundle of papers. Leo took a glance at the top and caught a headline of the evening edition of The Gotham Gazette. “Wildcat Busts Gangs,” it said. (*) Leo fished into his pocket for some change and bought a copy.
[(*) Editor’s note: This flashback takes place during the time when Wildcat of Earth-2 was living on Earth-1. See Wildcat: Lost Heroes.]
From that headline, he would draw some inspiration and courage.
Joey Catigliano had disappeared the day after the shooting. No one knew where he disappeared to, not the guys from the Cats’ Eyes nor the girls he had been dating. Still, Leo vowed he would find him and was determined that he’d avenge Mr. Staworski’s death somehow.