The Masked Marvel

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           The Duke was disappointed to find the warehouse empty, except for a boxing ring that had been set up in the middle, illuminated by a ceiling light. He went to the ring and climbed up under the ropes, then bounced around a little trying a couple jabs, but boxing had never been his style, brawling was, both on screen and off. Ah, the good old days. It had been a long time since he'd been in a regular dust-up, so long ago that he couldn't remember when it had been. Probably with a bunch of his buddies, during a long night of drinking. One guy would shove or take a poke at another just for the fun of it, not out of any real animosity, and the next thing you knew the fists were flying. He'd been in some pretty good battles as well as he could remember, since he'd always been at least three sheets to the wind when they occurred. All just part of being a man, as far as the Duke was concerned. Drinking, smoking, whoring, fighting, what the hell was the point of being a member of the male sex if you didn't get to do those things once in awhile, or even more frequently?

           He leaned on the ropes and tried to see into the darkness beyond the ring. Maybe someone was hiding in the shadows, maybe not. For some reason Drinkwine's qualified comment that everything was fixed came back to him. Sure, he knew that the guys with the money and power like the studio heads called the shots most of the time while the ordinary Joe was screwed, which was why the movie-going public identified with him so much because of the illusion he created in his roles that he was the sole lord and master of his own destiny, beholden to no one, playing decent, humble salt-of-the-earth cowpokes, soldiers, and football coaches, more exotic parts like that of a Mongol warrior king being a mere aberration, but was that what Drinkwine had meant? He had a sneaking feeling that Drinkwine had been referring to something far larger, only confirming the Duke's suspicion that Drinkwine had to be some kind of Communist, whether or not he worked for the American embassy as he claimed.

           A bell rang and the Duke spun around. Behind him stood a man in a tuxedo, holding a microphone. "La-deeees and gentlemen," the man intoned, extending a hand towards the Duke. "In this cor-naaah, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, at six-foot-four, two hundred and fifty fighting pounds, in the tan safari jacket, brown pants and boots, straight from the golden hills of California, the Hollywood Kid himself, John, the Duke, Wayne!"

           The announcer paused. Not feeling particularly threatened, the Duke waited for this farce to play itself out.

           There was a scurrying sound and a large, muscular man with curly, platinum blonde hair, wearing red tights with a velvet robe wrapped around his shoulders, emerged from underneath the ring apron and nimbly climbed into the ring. He had brought a comb and a hand mirror along with him and began assiduously combing his locks.

           "We are honored tonight to have as our referee," the announcer began, "all the way from America, fabled land of opportunity and home of the brave, a distinguished grappler who needs no introduction, the one and only, ever beautiful, Gorgeous George!"

           Gorgeous George began dancing around the ring, arms outthrust as he drank in the cheers of an imaginary audience that would have been booing him and making catcalls if it had really existed. The Duke just shook his head and watched. This couldn't be for real, though on the other hand, what was? Being a movie star making a movie on a desert location? That was pretty strange too, if you thought about it. Maybe everything was strange these days, a subversive Commie thought that the Duke tried to immediately banish from his consciousness.

           Gorgeous George came over and gave him a bone-crushing handshake. "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Wayne. I wonder where your opponent is; he's late. Maybe he's lost, I had a devil of a time finding this place myself. But don't worry, he'll be here. I hear the guy's a real animal, used to be his wrestling moniker, in fact, Gus 'the Animal' Stone. He knows who's supposed to win, though, so don't worry. You just have to make it look good."

           "I see," the Duke said, trying to work the feeling back into his hand. "Well, I'd love to meet this fellow, but I've got to run. I've got to be up early tomorrow, so if you could just point the way back to town or even give me a ride, I'd appreciate it."

           "I'd be most happy to do that, Mr. Wayne, after the match," said Gorgeous. "I know you're a big star and have all kinds of business to attend to, but I'm afraid that will have to wait until---ah, here's your opponent now."

           Gorgeous's last comment was unnecessary, because the warehouse door had been thrown open with a loud bang, followed by the entrance of the largest knuckle-scraping piece of beef the Duke had ever seen, accompanied by the opposite extreme of a midget in a white suit, who also wore a pair of thick glasses. The giant wore black tights that completely enveloped his entire body including his head, with only two small holes for eyes and one for his nose and mouth. The midget entered the ring by rolling under the bottom rope and popping to his feet, while the giant just stepped over the top one and stood in front of the Duke.

           "So solly we ah late," the midget apologized in an atrociously bad Japanese accent, through two buck teeth which were also fake, pulling back the corners of his eyes with his fingers. "I am the Pofessah. It was not easy finding this place."

           "The Professor, huh?" responded Gorgeous. "Professor of what, being short?"

           "Velly funny," replied the Professor, keeping the corners of his eyes pulled back, squinting through the prop of his thick coke bottle glasses. "We shall see who has the last laugh."

           "Won't be you, shorty."

           "Don't bet on it," the Professor hissed.

           "Representing the forces of negation," bellowed the announcer, startling the Duke who had forgotten that he was there, "a being of infinite mystery who knows no fear, a fan of all that is hidden, a devotee of the incomprehensible, master of the arcane, the pitiless, merciless---Masked Marvel!"

           Gorgeous George hocked a big looey on the canvas near the Marvel's feet. The Duke could not help looking into the wrestler's eyes, which were twin dead black marbles, focused on nothing.

           "I thought honolable lefolee was supposed to be impashul," the Professor commented.

           "How would you like to be stepped on like a bug?" Gorgeous roared, bending so he was momentarily nose to nose with the Professor. "All right, let's get this show on the road. I'm sure you both know the rules because there aren't any. May the best man win, if that's what's supposed to happen. No biting or gouging, unless you can't help it. Good luck, if there is any such thing."

           Gorgeous clapped his hands and stepped back. The Professor scuttled out of the ring, joining the announcer. The Marvel remained motionless. In fact, the only one moving was Gorgeous, circling around in a crouch as if a fight might break out at any moment.

           "Get him in a headlock," Gorgeous advised the Duke. "That'll get his attention, wring his neck!"

           The Duke had had enough of this foolishness. "I'll see you boys." He made a move to leave the ring, but the Marvel moved suddenly, blocking his way. Unfazed, the Duke regarded the Marvel with an expression of practiced equanimity, a look that had always served him in the movies and sometimes off-screen as well to defuse situations of this nature, when for one reason or another some bonehead wanted to pick a fight with him.

           "Look, buster," the Duke said calmly, "as far as I'm concerned, the two of us have no quarrel. So if you would step aside, I would appreciate it." Otherwise, I'll just have to walk right through you no matter how big you are, the Duke wanted to add but held his tongue diplomatically.

           The Marvel responded by not responding, staring over the Duke's head as if the Duke wasn't there. The Duke took this as a good sign and attempted to walk around the Marvel once more and was met for his troubles with a forearm smash to the chest that almost knocked him off his feet.

           "That tears it!" the Duke yelled, as if he was saying a line of dialogue from a movie, perhaps one as bad as the Legend of the Lost though that hadn't been proven yet, and launched a haymaker at the Marvel which missed and then he was the one in a headlock, courtesy of the Marvel.

           "You're doing great, Mr. Wayne," encouraged Gorgeous George, darting in front of him. "Keep it up! All right, you brute, leggo of that hold, it's illegal. You've got to three. One, two!"

           The Duke flailed helplessly trying to make the Marvel let go, then suddenly was taken down to the canvas landing on his back, getting his wind knocked out in the bargain. The Marvel smothered him, grabbing a leg, and the Duke found himself eyeball to eyeball with the referee.

           "Don't be afraid to fight dirty, Mr. Wayne," Gorgeous suggested. "A man's got to do what he's got to do, especially in combat with this sob. Give him the ol' thumb in the eye, unless you like getting the crap beat out of you."

           The Duke didn't have to be told twice and tried to poke the Marvel in the eye, but missed, barely scraping the Marvel's cheek. The Masked Marvel, however, suddenly let go of him and jumped up as if he had been mortally wounded, clutching his head with both arms and staggering around the ring as if blinded. One of the rules that the Duke lived by was to never back down from a fight, it was something his father had taught him and he believed in it with all his heart and soul, but he had also heard that there were exceptions to every rule and this seemed like a good time to make one to his father's commandment. He began crawling for the ropes and had almost made it when he was grabbed by the seat of his pants and unceremoniously hauled back in like a sack of potatoes, the Marvel, now miraculously recovered, picking him up and throwing him back in the middle of the ring. The Marvel pointed a finger at him and began making sounds. "Uh, uh uhh uh, uh uh uh uhhhh!"

           "He's saying you can run, but you can't hide," translated Gorgeous, standing beside the Duke. "I'm not sure this fight is fixed anymore. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes. You might really have to fight."

           Just as Gorgeous finished saying this, a great crowd burst into the warehouse, many of them carrying their own folding chairs. "'Bout time they got here," commented Gorgeous. "I mean, what's a wrestling match without an audience? It's like a dry hump. What can you expect from a bunch of amateurs, though. Watch out!"

           The Masked Marvel ran across the ring and grabbed the Duke in a bear hug, lifting him off his feet. The Duke tried to grab the Marvel back the same way, and the two men stumbled around the ring. The Duke knew the Marvel was carrying him in more ways than one, that the much bigger man could do anything he wanted with him, and he looked into the Marvel's eyes but there was still nothing there, no sign of life. The Marvel increased the pressure on the Duke's ribs until it became impossible to breathe.

           "I give," the Duke gasped. "Let go!"

           To the Duke's grateful surprise, the Marvel did let go of him, then ran away across the ring. The Duke wondered if the fight was over, then the Marvel bounced off the ropes and came running back at him. No, the Duke wanted to say, but before he could the Marvel crashed into him with a flying body slam, knocking him to the canvas.

           The Duke just laid there, listening to the crowd go crazy. Who the hell were they, extras? He supposed everybody was just an extra in the end, even him, the great John Wayne, a thought which normally did not cross his mind, but so far this had not been a normal night. Looking up at ceiling, the Duke decided he would be the one to throw the fight and no matter what would just lay there and refuse to participate in these shenanigans anymore, whatever the consequences to his reputation. Surely, no one could blame him.

           "Better roll, Duke, or yer gonna get squashed!" cried Gorgeous George. The Duke wondered what the wrestler was talking about, then realized that the Marvel had climbed up on the ring post behind him and was preparing to jump. The Duke rolled without thinking and the Marvel landed on the spot where the Duke had been with a mighty crash that shook the entire ring, the Marvel then flopping over as if he had knocked himself senseless, lying on his back helplessly, arms and legs spasmodically twitching.

           "The mask!" roared Gorgeous George. "Take off his mask!"

           "Take off the mask! Take off the mask!" the crowd began chanting. The Duke was in no mood to comply, but he was always loathe to disappoint an audience and besides, he was curious to see what this monster looked like himself. He bent down and peeled back the Marvel's head covering, which he discovered was not attached to the rest of the outfit, only to find a white skeleton mask underneath. The Duke peeled that covering back too and was rewarded with the discovery of a mask of hideously exaggerated, caricaturish Negroid features, complete with big white lips and eyes that had gone out with Al Jolson. Discouraged but not daunted, the Duke proceeded to take that mask off as the crowd screamed, only to freeze when he found himself confronted with a replica of his own face. The Duke barely had time to register the sight when he received a sharp crack on the back of his head that pitched him forward over the Marvel's supine and still motionless body.

           "Sneak attack!" squealed the Professor in his atrociously bad Japanese accent, standing over the Duke waving a stout cane he had appropriated from somewhere. "My specialty! Long live the Empeloll!"

           "That's not kosher, you nip bastard!" roared Gorgeous, starting to chase the Professor around the ring. "You're going to get yours now!"

           Somehow the Duke pushed himself off the Marvel's body and managed to make it to the ropes, still groggy from the crack the Professor had given him. A couple audience members entered the ring and Gorgeous kicked one in the groin while grabbing the other in a headlock.

           "Git while the gittin's good!" cried Gorgeous. "Me and the Professor can handle these apes. Beat it!"

           The Duke rolled under the ropes and headed for the exit. No one tried to stop him, though he was pummeled along the way by the over-excited, unruly crowd, and had to fight his way through a surge of people still trying to get in. At the door, the Duke looked back and saw the Marvel, once more masked as he had been, standing in the middle of the ring, holding men over his head and throwing them back into the crowd as if they were sacrifices to some savage god. The Duke shook his head at the bedlam, as chaotic as any barroom brawl he'd ever filmed or actually been in, then fled into the desert night hoping to find something that made sense.

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