“Come on, the next show starts in five minutes!” a young man of slight build called from the doorway. “Get that guy ready!”
“I’m trying, I’m trying!” a middle-aged man with a pot belly complained. “It’s not easy dressing one of these drunken bums! They squirm around worse’n my kid when I’m tryin’ to put church clothes on ‘im!” The potbellied man was trying to put an expensive-looking business suit on a man who was obviously very, very drunk. He was clean-shaven, but the redness of his cheeks attested to a very recent shave. His hair was washed and combed as well. He staggered and swayed as his attendant forced his arms into a gray pinstripe jacket.
“Wanna drink,” he muttered. “Promised me a drink.”
“You’ll get it, old man,” Pot-Belly grumbled. “Gotta look nice for your drink.”
“Sure,” the drunk said, smiling. “Gotta look nice.”
Two sets of eyes watched the scene as they peered around the corner of a stack of crates, eyes that watched intently through the slits of masks. “What the heck is going on here?” Wildcat whispered.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” the archer whispered back. “The little guy said ‘next show’? Oh, man, I sure hope this isn’t what I think it is!”
“What, some kind of gladiator-type thing?” Wildcat whispered back.
“Something like that,” Green Arrow hissed. “Quiet! Something’s happening.”
Pot-Belly had successfully dressed the drunken man, right down to an expensive-looking wristwatch (most likely a cheap knockoff, Green Arrow thought). He then pushed the well-dressed drunk through the door that the other man had called through. Green Arrow and Wildcat hurried out through the back way they had crept through, doubling around to find an entrance into the other room. They approached silently, cautiously, and then their mouths gaped open.
“The next event on tonight’s card,” a voice intoned over a loudspeaker system, “will be our good friend Charley Halstead. Charley, come forward.”
From the rows of men standing along the walls of the room, an average-looking man in his late thirties stepped up into the empty space in the center of the room. He was of medium height and medium build, and had undistinguished features; he was the kind who could lose himself in a crowd easily.
“Charley,” the voice on the loudspeaker said, “remind us who it is that you hate so much… that you want to kill him with your bare hands.”
“My boss,” Charley said. “John O’Connor, my supervisor at the firm. Always passing me over for promotion, and always with some lame excuse or another! Fifteen years I’ve worked at that company, and what do I have to show for it? Three mortgages and a twelve-year-old car, that’s what!”
“And you want to take your frustrations out on John O’Connor, the man who keeps you from getting what’s rightfully yours?” the voice prompted.
“Yeah!” Charley shouted, balling up his fists.
The chant was taken up by the spectators, shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
“Well, here he is, Charley,” the voice said. “Show him how you feel!”
The well-dressed drunk was thrust out into the empty space. Of course this wasn’t John O’Connor, but dressed up in what looked like an expensive suit and watch, perhaps intended to look like a suit and watch the real O’Connor wore frequently, Charley was able to pretend that it was. The drunk staggered uncertainly in Charley’s direction, hopeful of getting his promised drink. Charley grinned savagely, hooked his right arm back, and threw a punch that connected with the drunken man’s chin. Reeling, the drunk went down.
“It’s showtime,” Wildcat growled, charging forward from the darkness.
“You said it,” Green Arrow agreed, right behind his new friend.
But both heroes stopped dead when all the spectators produced handguns and aimed them at the heroes. The sound of three-dozen hammers being drawn back filled the room. For a tense, silent moment, nothing happened.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” the voice said over the speaker. “As you see, we’ve been expecting you.”
Green Arrow silently cursed.
“Mr. Harvey,” the electronic voice boomed, “remove the gentleman’s bow and arrows.”
Green Arrow fought to keep the surprise from his face as he recognized Ken Harvey, a middle-aged rewrite man from the Daily Star, step forward from the crowd. Harvey had been a rewrite man for twenty years; in his cups he had been known to complain about his position, blaming editors and publishers for failing to recognize his talent. Grinning, he took Green Arrow’s weapons from him and stepped back into the throng of spectators.
“Well, gentlemen,” the voice of the master spoke, “I take it you’ve figured out just what goes on in our little exclusive club?”
“Pretty much,” Wildcat growled. “You’re a bunch ‘a sickos who get their jollies beatin’ up defenseless drunks!”
“Drunks dressed up as people you hate,” Green Arrow amended.
“Quite right,” the master said. “We take the jetsam of society, those who wouldn’t be missed, and work out our frustrations against those whom we hate! Think about it, Arrow, Wildcat. Everyone has someone they hate enough to kill. But here, in Star City’s exclusive Hammer of Hate, our members get the chance to do it! Not just once, but as many times as they wish!”
“This has been going on for two years?” Green Arrow asked.
“About that long,” the master agreed. “It would have continued, had not one of my organization slipped up and left the costume on the corpse of the bum we selected last week, and had that bum not turned out to be a once-renowned professional athlete.” A sigh echoed through the speakers. “Fortunes of war, I suppose.”
“So who killed Jack LeMarra?” Wildcat demanded. “I want to see ‘im!”
The master chuckled. “Certainly. Mr. Fox, would you step forward, please?” A beefy man with tattooed forearms and a missing front tooth shambled to the front of the crowd.
“So you’re the man who killed Green Arrow,” the genuine article said.
“Lots of times,” Fox agreed.
“What’s your beef with me?” Green Arrow asked.
“My wife divorced me three years ago,” Fox said. “I only get to see my son every other weekend. And does he idolize his old man, like a boy of twelve’s supposed ta? No! All he talks about is you! Got your pictures all over his room, your damned toy archery kits, everything! My son looks up to a blasted fairy in green tights, not me!”
Green Arrow declined to comment.
“But tonight,” the master said, “Mr. Fox gets to watch the real Green Arrow die, as well as his feline friend! You should have realized that, if I have a man in my organization clever enough to falsify a company credit card from his own firm, and to set up a computer virus when that card number was searched in the database, he would also be clever enough to set up an automatic signal that alerted us when the card number was searched!”
“Can’t think of everything,” Wildcat snarled.
“No, I suppose you can’t,” the master’s voice said. “But I just thought of something!”
“What’s that, Charlie?” Green Arrow asked, looking around for the source of the voice.
“For our entertainment tonight, the two of you will fight each other, until one of you drops!”
The crowd loved that idea; chants of “Yeah!” and “Make ’em kill each other!” went up immediately.
“Nice thought, Don King,” Green Arrow sneered. “And what makes you think we’re gonna fight each other?”
“Because,” the voice said smoothly, “the winner of your fight will be executed, while the loser will be set free.” Green Arrow’s eyes narrowed at the master’s ingenuity. “So, gentlemen, touch gloves and come out fighting.”
Green Arrow turned to his new friend, and found Wildcat’s eyes narrowed grimly. “You heard the man, Arrow,” Wildcat rumbled. “Put up yer dukes.”
Soon, Green Arrow and Wildcat were circling each other, looking for an opening. All around them, the bloodthirsty spectators watched in anticipation. “Guy could be lying, you know,” Green Arrow said casually, “about lettin’ the loser go.”
“Probably,” Wildcat acknowledged.
“I mean, we know too much about his setup now to be allowed loose.”
“Is a point,” Wildcat said.
“But we’re still gonna do this.” It wasn’t a question.
“Always the off-chance he’s tellin’ the truth,” Wildcat pointed out.
“Suppose so,” Green Arrow agreed. And with that he threw his first punch. It came out of nowhere, swift and sudden as a striking cobra. Wildcat barely dodged it; the blow glanced off his shoulder rather than smashing into his jaw. The street-fighting hero took the advantage then, ramming his elbow into Green Arrow’s side. The archer winced, but did not go down. From that point on it was a whirlwind of swinging limbs, a cacophony of flesh striking flesh. Both men were trained fighters; one had experience on his side, the other, youthful energy. Just when one seemed to be winning, the other would rally. After ten minutes, blood was streaming from Wildcat’s nose, as well as from Green Arrow’s split lower lip, and both men were still on their feet.
“Quite a show I have given you, haven’t I, my friends?” the master’s voice boomed from the loudspeakers. Cheers and whoops were the reply.
Wildcat danced from one foot to the other, looking for an opening. Green Arrow suddenly lunged forward, grabbing his opponent in a fierce grapple. The archer’s scowling face was inches from Wildcat’s; the younger hero could feel the hot wind of Green Arrow’s panting breath. The archer muttered one word through his clenched teeth. Wildcat blinked, then summoned up his strength and pushed Green Arrow away from him. The archer was momentarily unbalanced; Wildcat pressed the advantage and dropped to the floor, swinging his legs and kicking Green Arrow’s feet out from under him. Green Arrow went down awkwardly, his right shoulder banging hard against the floor. Wildcat snarled and leaped at the prone hero. Green Arrow quickly drew up his legs, and Wildcat’s stomach collided with the archer’s knees, knocking the wind from him.
“Twenty on the archer,” Harvey, still holding the bow and quiver, said to Fox.
“No way!” Fox spat. “I’ll cover that; the cat-guy’s gonna maul him!”
On and on the battle went. It was obvious that Green Arrow was tiring faster than Wildcat. Finally, the black-suited hero got in a left cross to Green Arrow’s jaw; the archer’s head snapped around with a wet cracking sound, and he collapsed to the floor in a crumpled heap. Wildcat stood over him, panting for breath, looking down at his fallen friend.
“Congratulations, Wildcat,” the master’s voice said. “You have won the fight.”
“Yippee for me,” Wildcat scowled.
Grudgingly, Harvey passed two ten dollar bills to a grinning Fox.
“To the victor, the spoils,” the master announced. “A quick and easy death. Gentlemen?” Again, the sound of three dozen pistol hammers cocking back. Wildcat’s eyes narrowed, but he did not flinch.
“On my command,” the master said. “One… two…”
Wildcat, brave as he was, was new to the super-hero life. He had not faced death a hundred times, as more experienced heroes had. Thus he could be forgiven if he flinched slightly when the banging noises started.
The noises did not come from the guns aimed at his heart, but from Green Arrow’s quiver, still held by the strap in the hand of Ken Harvey. The disgruntled journalist leaped backward and dropped the quiver like a poisonous snake, as smoke and flames and tiny explosions belched forth from it. The rest of the spectators started in fear and confusion as the tiny room began to fill with thick, choking smoke.
“Good work, kid,” Green Arrow muttered, rising to his feet.
“You planned this?” Wildcat asked. “Guess that’s why you said to stall!”
“You bet,” Green Arrow said. “Think you can mop up these morons by yourself, while I fetch their leader?”
A wide grin split Wildcat’s face. “Just watch me.”
Green Arrow allowed himself a small smile, then bolted through the door and to the fire stairs. He knew there was only one place where the mysterious master could have watched the proceedings in his makeshift arena, and broadcast his voice to it: the hotel security office. Green Arrow’s body ached furiously from the beating Wildcat had given him; every nerve ending screamed in protest as he pumped his legs harder and harder, forcing himself up the stairs. The master would have seen what had happened, would be trying to make his getaway. And Green Arrow was without his bow and arrows.
As the Emerald Archer burst from the fire stairway, he saw a small, slight form running from the security office. The archer’s hawk-like eyes scanned the lobby, searching for a weapon, and lit on a crystal ashtray lying on a small table next to a plush sofa in the waiting area. Green Arrow’s mighty arm grasped the tray, lifted it, and flung it in one fluid motion. His arm cried out in pain, but his throw was true; the tray struck the fleeing man in the back of the neck, and he went down in an unconscious heap.
Green Arrow raced across the lobby to where the mysterious master lay. He had to secure his prisoner and return to the arena to help Wildcat. He had no time to waste. When he saw the man’s face, however, he couldn’t help but take a few seconds for an exclamation of surprise.
“‘Cat!” Green Arrow cried, bursting through the door. “Are you–?”
Wildcat stood in the center of the room, unconscious bodies on the floor all around him, massaging his knuckles. He turned casually in Green Arrow’s direction. “I tried to save you a couple,” he said, “but you took too long.”
“Sorry about that,” Green Arrow said. “Wouldn’t have done to net the little fish and let the big one get away.”
“You get him?” Wildcat asked.
“Sure,” Green Arrow said. “He’s tied up in the lobby. The cops will be surprised when they show up to get him, though. His name’s Willy; he’s the janitor at police headquarters. Been moppin’ their floors, what, thirty years now, I think.”
“Plenty of time to work up enough of a mad at the big shots to want to work it out like this,” Wildcat said. “So how’d you pull that trick with the arrows, anyway?”
“I wasn’t as dumb as Willy thought,” Green Arrow said. “I figured he might have rigged some way to be alerted when we tried to access that credit card number. So when we got here, I set a timer on my fireworks arrow to go off in one hour. I figured, if we were captured, they’d take my arrows away.”
“I wondered what you were doin’, playin’ with the arrows like that, when we got here,” Wildcat said. He looked down at the still form of Fox, the man who had beaten Jack LeMarra to death.
“We did good tonight, kid,” Green Arrow said. “Brought the bad guys to justice. That’s what we do.”
“Wish you’d quit callin’ me kid,” Wildcat said, not taking his eyes from Fox.
“OK, then, Wildcat,” Green Arrow said with a chuckle. “You’ve earned the name.”
“Glad you think so,” Wildcat said mirthlessly. “Makes it official, don’t it?”
“Don’t crack wise… Wildcat,” Green Arrow said. After a pause, he added, “Feels kind of hollow, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it does,” Wildcat said. “I mean, we brought Jack’s killer in — a lot of killers, of a lot of poor guys whose only crime was bein’ forgotten by society. But so what? They still died, and just so a bunch of emasculated sickos could feel like real men for half an hour. Nothing we do can change that.”
“We can’t change the past, Wildcat,” Green Arrow said. “I’ve got friends who’ve tried. But everything we do, every day, all of us, changes the future. Tonight, you and me changed a lot of futures by putting this sick circus out of business. We can feel good about that.”
Wildcat looked at Green Arrow, and smiled slightly.
“What was the name of that restaurant again?” Wildcat asked.
“What restaurant?” Green Arrow asked.
“The one with the receipt, where you wrote down the credit card number.”
“Oh, yeah! Charlie’s Chili Pot.”
“Best around, next to mine, of course.”
“They open now?”
“Think so,” Green Arrow said. “Got a dress code, though.”
“We’re wearin’ shirts and shoes, ain’t we?”