The Trapster stood in the mouth of an alley in Chicago, waiting and watching.
The day hadn't started well. Hell, the week hadn't started well. After saying goodbye to the Answer and Madam Macabre, he'd taken the flight back to Chicago. Getting his weapons and equipment through airport security hadn't been a problem - he had long experience at evading airport metal detectors...but everything after that was a problem. The traffic from O'Hare was a screaming, honking nightmare; it had been some years since Pete had been to Chicago, and the highways and roads had gotten a lot worse in that time. It had taken him almost two hours to get from O'Hare to Hyde Park - two hours! The taxi ride had cost...he didn't want to think about that. It might have been alright, if the cabbie hadn't smelled so bad and had stopped smoking those nasty cheroots.
Then he discovered that his hidey-hole didn't have quite so much stuff in it as he'd remembered. Like most of the older generation of super-criminals, Pete was used to leaving little stashes of equipment and money and false i.ds around the country. Things were different these days, where it seemed like most any villain had the computer knowledge to whip up money in seconds, and didn't have to take precautions, or didn't care about it. Back in the old days...Pete sighed to himself. He hated sounding like an old fart, like one of those old guys who always talked about how much better it was Way Back When. Two stints in the Vault ago he'd briefly shared a cell with some guy who'd used to be "the Doctor," back in the Forties and Fifties. Pete had never heard of him; apparently he was serving a long jail term, and hadn't seen the light of day in years. The Doctor spent most of his time talking about how, "in the old days," the heroes had been more heroic and the villains more villainous, but not as evil, and how everyone had had more respect for each other (Pete usually tuned him out at about that point). Pete didn't want to sound like him.
Pete did think that, just maybe, the Doctor had a point. These days the criminals didn't seem to think anything of murder, and it was all "muties" this and "flatscans" that. Back in the Sixties, when it had been folks like him and the Stilt Man and Mister Doll, things had been different. Yeah, sure, they all had attempted to commit murder at one point, but that was part of the game, and the heroes understood it. Pete had gone up against Spider-Man and the Human Torch and Captain America, but no one had ever taken it personally, and they'd never tried to kill him back. These days, though, someone like Wolverine would just go crazy and gut him as soon as look at him.....
He was doing it again, he knew. It was the day and the week that was putting him in such a foul mood. He'd rented a motel in Hyde Park - nothing fancy - it was the sort of place that parents visiting from out-of-town stayed in while they were seeing their sons and daughters at the University. That had taken a good chunk of his available cash, and so the first thing he'd done is go find his cache; he'd left it here back in 93, after he and Electro had knocked over that bank in St. Louis. They'd been in plain-clothes for that one, and had done it at night, and none of the heroes had ever found out about it; they'd driven up 55 to Chicago and hopped a flight back to the Rotten Apple.
Except that, as Pete had discovered, he'd put a lot less cash in the duffel bags than he remembered. He had maybe $2000, and that wasn't going to last long. Which meant that Pete had to scare together some quick operating capital.
Pete didn't want to go back to crime so quickly, but he felt like he didn't have much choice. He'd put false i.d. in the duffel bag, and that's what he was using now, but he'd hardly be able to get any kind of decent job with that - they all wanted to check your resume and hear from your references, and Pete couldn't fake those. And he certainly wasn't gonna flip burgers for minimum wage.
Pete was in an alleyway near Wood and 56th, watching Central Community Hospital. Something most people didn't know was that hospitals had their own shares of money; they weren't banks, but some hospitals' vaults held lots of stuff. And on payroll day, with all those checks waiting to be cashed...well, it took a little more doing to turn a profit than with just banks, but if you knew the right people - and Pete did - you could live quite well. Pete knew a dealer in Detroit who'd give him 60 cents on the dollar for what he stole from a hospital. Between checks and cash and the more valuable drugs, that would average out quite nicely.
The week hadn't gotten really bad for Pete, though, until today. After picking up his cash and equipment he'd spent a couple of days buying tools and supplies and updating his weapons; what he had left over from the trip to Vietnam wouldn't last him very long, and the stuff he'd left in his cache was four years out of date, now.
That had eaten up a fair chunk of his spare cash. Then he'd gone out looking for a good place to hit; getting a rental car had taken more of his money. He'd finally decided to hit a hospital - security was rarely that much of a problem, if you went in at the right time - and had started looking for a good target. He'd gone to Chicago Public Library and gotten them to print him a list of good, big hospitals.
He'd finally settled on Central Community Hospital, for a couple of reasons. It was in the neighborhood he grew up in, so he'd know the streets and alleys; it had been 20 years since he'd spent any time here, but you never really forget the streets you ran in your childhood. Because it was in the part of Hyde Park he'd grown up in, he knew that it'd have decent-but-not-huge security; hospitals in the bad sections of town had okay valuables, but much tougher security. Hospitals in the good parts of town - up in Lisle and those out in the suburbs - had better payrolls and a greater variety of drugs, but also had much better security. It was the hospitals in the middle, like Central Community, that were the best targets for this sort of heist.
All well and good. But today he'd driven over to the Metra train station nearest the hospital and dumped the car in the lot, and walked over to the hospital to start inspecting its entrances...and that's when his week had gotten really bad.
When Pete had grown up in this part of Hyde Park, it had been called "Little Cracow" by everyone, because it was one of the Polish sections of town - the biggest on the South Side, in fact. It was a working-class neighborhood, where nobody had too much money but everyone got along, because everyone knew everyone else and everyone helped out everyone else. Many of the families were refugees from the war, and had made it over here with nothing, and had to work hard to save even a little money. Oh, there'd been trouble, back then - kids formed street gangs - even Pete had been in one - but the gangs hadn't been like the drug-crazed, Uzi-packing punks out there today. Just a bunch of kids with too much testosterone and too little brains palling around. And everyone knew about some of the old men in Little Cracow...nobody talked much about it, but they'd been on the wrong side in the war. But Little Cracow had been filled with families, and everyone worked to make something of themselves; lots of people left, but lots came back, too, and helped make the neighborhood a better place.
Now what had been Little Warsaw had turned into something else entirely. Something else much worse. The block between the alley Pete stood in and Central Community Hospital had been a park - Kosciusko Park - when Pete had been growing up; there'd been swingsets and a baseball field and a few trees on the edges of the park. Now...most the trees were stunted and gnarled and looked dead, and the grass was overgrown. It was almost 10 pm, and although the scene was lit only by the distant lights of the city - in this part of Chicago the streetlights were long since shot out, and the city rarely if ever replaced them - Pete was using a pair of I-r/u-v night-sight goggles, ones that the Wizard had made for him once, a long time ago, and he could see everything. The park was full of people, gathered around what had been the swingsets and seesaws for the kids to play on; they were lit by the fire burning in a trash barrel. All the people were smoking and shooting up. The ground - what Pete could see of it - was covered with broken glass. Behind him, in the alley, garbage covered the ground almost knee-deep, and lying on top of the garbage and halfway buried beneath the garbage were a number of bodies - Pete couldn't tell whether they were dead or just unconscious. On the street sat the stripped, burned-out hulks of cars, many covered with rust. The buildings on both sides of the street were little more than empty shells, with every window broken open and missing glass, and with every building's facade crumbling. Pete could see bloated white rats crawling from sewer grates and open manholes and scuttling down the street and into and out of buildings. Over everything lay the stench of raw sewage. Lying on the sidewalk was the body of a man; Pete couldn't tell whether he was alive or dead, but the shreds of his clothes were covered with a variety of substances, and he hadn't moved in the four hours that Pete had stood, watching. Not far from him a man walked out of an alleyway, fumbling at his zipper; he was followed by a woman, who tried with shaking hands to button up her faded yellow dress.
Pete watched the hospital and waited; he was waiting for three a.m. to roll around, when the hospital's staff would be at their groggiest - including their security - and when the evening's rush of accident victims would have calmed down. He stood, and crouched, and watched for hours. Watched as carloads of gangbangers zoomed down Wood, their shouts and whoops echoing off the sides of the buildings lining the street and the bass from their car stereos vibrating in Pete's bones. Watched as the woman in the yellow dress peddled her wares, then ran to the park to buy more crack. Watched as teenagers and children ran into the park and bought whatever drugs they could afford.
At 3 a.m. Pete began making his way towards the hospital.
He crossed 56th and tried not to think about what his boots were splashing through. He walked down the block, trying to ignore the broken vials and used condoms and empty syringes littering the sidewalk. He ducked into the alleyway that stretched from 56th to 55th, where the hospital was. He tried to ignore the three small children in the alley, huddling under a battered cardboard box, tried to ignore their shaking, and the running sores and needle tracks on their arms. He couldn't ignore the woman, though, when she stepped out from beside the box and stood in front of him, and he stopped, his hand flashing for his gun.
She said, in a quivering and cracking voice, "He-hey m-mister, you wanna...uh...y'wanna date?" The stench of her unwashed body hit him, and he recoiled slightly and said, "No. No, thank you."
She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to stop her shaking, and said, "Uh...how ah-about wuh-one of th-th-the kids? Th-they're eager, yuh-y'know." Pete felt his flesh crawl and couldn't help looking at the three children; they saw him looking at them and flinched.
Pete drew his gun and pointed it at the face of the woman. In a low voice, his teeth gritted, he said, "No. Go." She shrank away from the gun, falling on her knees and scrabbling backwards, whimpering, "No...please, mister..."
Pete took two steps down the alley, and then paused in mid-step. His expression changed from anger to puzzlement to outrage. He whirled around and said, in a louder voice than he'd intended, "Julia?" Her head jerked around and she shot him a panicked look, and then she bolted from the alley. He started after her, then stopped.
Julia Wycznewski had been one of the most popular girls in Jaroslav High School, when Pete had been there. Julia and her friends had been on the cheerleader squad; they'd been pretty and popular, and every guy Pete had known had wanted to date them. Pete hadn't, of course - he'd never been that popular, and in fact Julia had never said much to him. He'd lost track of her when he'd gone off to college; he thought he'd heard that she got married to one of the football team at Purdue. He wouldn't have recognized her now - she used to have such beautiful blonde hair, and the...thing...that had just approached him had dirty, clotted, shapeless hair, and was losing it in places - except for the way she said "eager," which had been one of her favorite words, back in the Fifties - she'd used it the way most kids said "cool."
Pete stared at the mouth of the alley for about thirty seconds, and then looked at the kids in the cardboard box. He sighed heavily, then turned and kept walking down the alley, shaking his head.
Near the end of the alley he tripped over something and fell face-first into the filth of the alley. He got to his feet, cursing, and then looked at what he'd tripped over. It was a body. Something about the body struck a chord in his memory, and he stood, looking at it closely, for almost a minute.
It finally dawned on him who the body was: Mayor Dmowski. Pete's jaw dropped. When Pete was growing up, his mom had always sworn that Mayor Dmowski was the best man in Chicago; Pete's dad had left when Pete was only a kid, and his mom had been left to raise him all by herself. And she wouldn't have been able to do it without Mayor Dmowski's help.
John Dmowski hadn't really been the Mayor of Chicago - but he had been the Mayor of Little Cracow. He'd owned eight butcher shops in Chicago, and a lot of real estate, and was one of the five richest men in Chicago. Back in the Fifties he'd been the most powerful man in Little Cracow; when you wanted something done, you went to him. He'd had a lot of pull in City Hall, back then, and if you needed sidewalks or streetlights or sewer mains repaired, you went to Mayor Dmowski, and a couple of days later they'd be repaired. If the police weren't helping you, you could go to Mayor D, and he'd take care of it. And if you needed money...you went to him. (The first time Pete had seen The Godfather, he'd been reminded of Mayor Dmowski, except that Mayor D was much kinder to his subjects)
Everyone borrowed from Dmowski - he was practically the only one with any real money. And he never charged that much interest - Pete had known several loan sharks, and in retrospect he was surprised at just how little interest Mayor D had charged - and he was never that pushy about demanding that his loans be paid back. And he'd always been very generous with food; there were a lot of families who'd only been able to pay their bills because they knew they could rely on Dmowski's Meats to deliver something to help them get through that week, or to drop off some cod or whitefish on Friday.
Pete squatted and brushed away the rotting canvas covering Dmowski. Dmowski's flesh was purpled over, and there was an empty syringe not far from his right hand. Pete looked at the syringe, and at Dmowski's body, for a long moment, then sighed heavily, slowly shaking his head, and stood up. He resumed trudging towards the hospital.
Pete slowly circled the hospital. When he came to the loading bay, he checked the street in both directions, drew his gun and lock-pick tools, then sprinted across the street and began running toward to the door to the bay. He reached the ramp to the door but stopped as he noticed something, lying beside the base of the ramp. He looked back and forth, from the wrapped-up bundle to the door and back again, until he finally put his tools back in his pocket and went to look at the bundle.
Pete uncovered the bundle, and looked at it for almost a minute. He finally wrapped it up and sighed. He stood up, massaging his forehead. He looked at the door to the loading bay, and then at his gun, and then at the bundle, and then at the door again. A look of intense misery crossed his face, and he slowly walked away from the hospital.
He found himself wandering into the park, in the middle of the only thriving trees, a stand of pines some yards away from the swingsets and the other people in the park. Pete looked up at the stars overheard; although the light pollution from the city dimmed most of them, some of the brighter stars were still visible. He said, in a low voice, "What do you want from me, Lord? What am I supposed to do? I can't...I mean...this is bad, I know, but...I can't...how am I supposed to live? I..." He sighed heavily. After several seconds, he looked down and muttered, "You're probably not even there, anyhow."
He sat underneath a pine and rested his head against the tree, looking at his glue-gun. He rubbed smudge off the barrel, and whispered to himself, "Easy to pick up...hard to put down..." He sighed once more, this time with an air of finality about it, and slowly stood up. His face had an expression of misery on it as he walked towards the people in the park. When he reached them he was ignored; the attention of the people in the park was on a trio of figures, one of whom was waving a handful of glass vials at the crowd and keeping up a line of patter: "Come on, gotcher hots here, folks, gotcher rocks, break'em and getcher high," and two large, muscular men guarding him.
Pete said, in a loud voice, "Don't do that." Everyone ignored him, and the man hawking the drugs shot a smirk in his direction and kept chattering, "Rocks, reds, horse and ice, nickels, dimes, and quarters." The two bodyguards flexed their muscles, crossed their arms, and glared in his direction.
In one smooth motion Pete drew his gun and fired at the trio, covering them in paste. The bodyguards started to reach for their guns, but in two seconds the paste had hardened, and they were immobilized. Pete said, "I said: Don't."
This story happens immediately following Strange Tales #22.
The Doctor was a real Golden Age villain - he fought the Fiery Mask.