by Pierre Anton Taylor
Wayne’s curiosity got the best of him when the man named Joseph Kerr had requested a word with him. He had approached the open Town Car door with the human pylon standing next to it with cautious determination. The man in the back seat was wearing a camel hair top coat, a somber Homberg of darker caramel and a pair of round lens dark glasses, the kind that blind men are often depicted wearing. His nose was thin with a slight bulb at the end and the lines around his mouth were those of someone who laughed a lot.
Joe Kerr, in fact, wanted more than just a word and suggested that they sit down and have a talk about business. He was a businessman and Wayne Bruce was a businessman. They had a lot in common. Kerr suggested his office a few blocks away in the warehouse that housed his novelty distribution center.
Wayne remembered it as the space occupied by a machine and metal shop when he frequented the area as a youngster, a large square brick building with high windows and wide doors. Ripley had thrown him a worried look when he had accepted Kerr’s invitation. He’d handed Bion the keys to his Fury and told him he would pick it up back at the Battery Works before climbing in next to the man with long narrow fingers wrapped around the head of an ornate cane depicting a grimacing gargoyle.
Now he was being given a tour of the large space occupied by the ranks of shelves and bins, crates bulging with synthetic dayglo colored plastic shapes representing the merest abstract anthropomorphic configurations. The rows and rows of girly magazines and video tapes in a caged lockup on the one side and the off brand candy and snack aisle on the other. Anything advertised in the back of men’s magazines or the back covers of super hero comic books came from places like Kerr’s warehouse. The magic trick manuals or water babies or itching powder, poo-poo cushions, hand buzzers, glowing yo-yos, and skunk oil. As they approached the lighted enclosure of Kerr’s office, he stopped and held up an object from one of the racks and held it up to show Wayne.
“I got a whole warehouse of plastic junk. Want to know what outsells just about everything in this warehouse?” Kerr waited as if he were expecting Wayne to know the answer. “With the exception of the X rated smut, that’s in a class of its own.” He held up an object in a cloth bag with draw strings at the top. “This!” He squeezed the bag and the sound of a diabolical obnoxious laughter was emitted by the mechanism inside. “The Laugh Bag!” he said triumphally, virtually mimicking the laughter of the gadget. “The best seller by all. I’ll bet there’s a Laugh Bag in every village, every town, every city all over the world. It’s the Kilroy Was Here of the novelties!” When Wayne did not tumble to the reference, Kerr smirked and extended his arm to usher him into his office.
“Can I offer you a drink?” Kerr indicated the cadenza displaying the square cut glass decanters.
Wayne politely declined with a shake of his head. Even if he did drink he wouldn’t likely imbibe until later in the day, unwind after a long day of activity. This was in no way the kind of wake he’d imagined for old Rick Richards, the candy man.
Kerr poured his own few fingers and indicated the creased leather couch fronted by a glass topped low oval table. Kerr took his seat in a large leather chair that engulfed him like a giant hand behind the wide sturdy desk with multiple telephones strategically placed across the top indicating that he didn’t use a secretary. From this position he had a full peripheral view of his surroundings. Mounted on the wall behind him was a large brass disc at whose center was the gargoyle represented in silver on the head of his cane. It was also safe to assume that one of the large rings on his long slender hands depicted the same mocking contortion of derisive laughing.
Wayne was curious. He wasn’t in the least intimidated by Kerr’s grandiose theatrics and lack of couth, his repulsive undisguised greed. The associates, the driver and the bodyguard, had stayed outside the office but in plain view beyond the door to Kerr’s office. He was a hoodlum, boss of his cover operation from which he controlled the less than legal schemes and enterprises. Nothing happened in the East Central district without his say so. And Wayne had not asked him for permission.
Robin had done a deep dive on him, looking into his finances, his police record, his business associates, past and present. To begin with, JKR, the drayage firm whose bid had been accepted by Bruce Enterprise for the toxic cleanup of the old battery site was owned in partnership by Joseph Kerr and Riddler Corp. Robin had yet to track down who owned that offshore account.
Kerr had a criminal record as a younger man for extortion and GBH but had flown under the radar for the last couple of decades. Robin seemed to think that his low profile was due to the fact that he was being groomed for leadership in the organization and had protection at least politically. He’d been associated with some known mobsters in the East and had recently setup shop one state over before expanding into the East Central district with his novelty distribution center which appeared to be his only legitimate enterprise on this side of the state line.
There were accusations of fraud and bribery, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, none of which were ever charged and taken to court. He had set himself up as the boss of his territory of rundown tenements and abandoned business and was buying up property cheap and bringing in other investors from the East. He had allies on the city council who wanted to raze the entire area and offer it to developers cheap for generous kickbacks.
Wayne had already scuttled the plans to demolish the old battery works. A lot of money was at stake, and he had just stepped on their toes.
Kerr held the narrow metal cylinder up accusingly. “This was found in an apartment not far from here. The scene of an altercation in which a young neighborhood man was severely injured and may never walk again.”
Kerr looked up from his drink with a satisfied smile. “I only met your old man a couple of times, but I could tell that he was a real straight shooter. He didn’t waste no time on formalities. And I’m gonna assume you’re the same way. So lemme tell you why I think we should work together. You’re a business man and I’m a business man and we occupy the same turf, if you get my drift. No reason we can’t work things out.
“I think you got a good idea there with the antique car museum on the old battery factory property. This area needs some culture. And it would revitalize this side of town decimated so long by street crime.” He made a grimace that was meant to be sad but was only halfhearted. “Property values are gonna sky rocket, and that benefits a lot of investors.” He paused to look at his hands and the drink in one. “I understand the city council still has to vote on the go ahead of your proposal. I don’t think there’ll be any problem, do you?”
Wayne regarded the thin man in the fashionable pinstriped suit wearing a wicked smirk with thin disdain. “I’ve been assured that the votes in favor are there. Everything is above board. And the project will be approved.”
“Aren’t there some members of the council who are skeptical, maybe even hostile, about your proposed museum art gallery community center park? They believe it is a waste of valuable commercial space. That your plan is an ill-advised joke, a rich kid’s folly, an unneeded extravagance.”
“I’ve read the criticism in the paper. As Bruce Enterprise has made me sole custodian of this corporate asset, I can do with it as I please.”
“What if I told you I could guarantee that you could get a unanimous vote for the memorial to your father?”
“I don’t need a unanimous approval, just a majority.”
Kerr formed a pained grin. “One of the arguments against your plan is that this district is a high crime area and visitors will be put in harm’s way if they venture to your park and museum.”
“There’s crime because people need jobs to survive, not robbing candy stores. I plan to create jobs.”
“Not if there’s an upsurge of crime in the district. There have been sightings of some kind of masked vigilante character harassing and attacking people in the neighborhood. All of these factors could conceivably swing the vote the other way is all I’m saying.”
“I’m quite aware of that. You apparently believe that you have a solution .”
Kerr cackled, eyes narrowed on Wayne with a particular venomous glint. “You might say that. My idea is that we form a partnership. I help you get the votes for the memorial to the old man and you help me clean up on the real estate. Everybody’s happy, they get what they want.” He gave a smug grin. “You see, there’ll always be a need for real estate just like in this world of gadgets there’ll always be a need for batteries.” He gestured expansively to his warehouse. “Energy and property will always have a future!”
“With due respect, Mr. Kerr, you and I don’t appreciate the value of money in the same fashion. You amass money to gain power over others, enslave them with your filthy lucre. I use my inherited millions to defuse power, to lessen the impact of the exploitation of resources, animal, mineral, or vegetable. That is the difference.”
“You’re just as hard headed as your old man, and a bleeding heart do-gooder to boot!” Kerr exploded.
Wayne fixed his gaze on the narrow framed man vibrating with anger, the direct opposite of mirth. “He must have told you to pack sand as well.”
Kerr reached inside his suit coat and held out a slender metallic object. “Ever see one of these before?”
Wayne shrugged. “A pen? Although it appears too large to be practical.”
Kerr pointed one end at him and a blinding bright light ignited at the tip.
Wayne blocked the light from his eyes with his hand. “A penlight, that’s nothing new.”
“This one is special. Beside the intensity of the light. See when I twist the end, the whole flashlight becomes a strobe. And when I give it another turn, the light beam is red, and then when I give it a final twist the strobe is also red. Trippy as the youngsters say. I’ve seen a lot of penlight gadgets in my business but I’ve never seen one quite like this.”
“Where did you get it,” Wayne asked certain that he knew.
“Someone gave it to me. Right away I wanted to order a case of them for my inventory. Only one problem with that. They’re not for sale because nobody makes them!” Kerr grinned mischievously like something was tickling him up his sleeve. “I had one of my more technically adept guys, former safe cracker, take it apart. There’s a serial number inside the battery casing that incidentally holds two triple A high capacity Bruce Batteries, and the guy says they’re rechargeable. That must be something brand new because I never heard of such tiny batteries being rechargeable. It took some digging but we traced the serial numbers to the manufacturer. Their records showed that this lot of casings was sold to Bruce Advanced Technological Systems.”
“I’m not surprised. The BATS Lab is always engineering new and innovative battery gear. The rechargeable batteries is something else the Lab is working on. Right now they’re trying to work out a glitch that causes the batteries to catch fire if they’re left activated for too long.”
Kerr glanced down to the penlight in his hand and quickly turned it off.
“This is probably a prototype of some kind,” Wayne explained. “Where did you say you found it, again?”
Kerr held the narrow metal cylinder up accusingly. “This was found in an apartment not far from here. The scene of an altercation in which a young neighborhood man was severely injured and may never walk again. He and his friends were in the apartment when they were attacked by a masked man. The young man who sustained the injury was thrown from the second story to the street below. The masked man left this device behind so whoever it is has some connection to your BATS Lab, I would guess, to be in possession of this one of a kind item. Don’t you agree?” Kerr’s grin was diabolical in its glee.
“Not necessarily. The Lab produces hundreds of prototype and when they think they have something with commercial viability they send it out to consumer protection organizations for testing and review. When the testing is done, the devices are returned with comments by the individuals who tested them. This one was not returned, apparently.” Wayne’s calm smile seemed to enrage Kerr.
“What if I turned this thing over to the cops and told them that it belonged to Bruce Labs? They could probably lift fingerprints off it.”
Wayne shrugged. “The cylinder is knurled, I doubt that they can retrieve prints from it.”
Kerr’s brow clouded. “The city council would be interested in the fact that the masked vigilante is using a prototype Bruce Enterprise device and that maybe he is an employee of Bruce Advanced Technology Services.”
Wayne pursed his lips to keep from laughing. “That would be quite a stretch. I think your friends on the council would expect more from you in the way of incriminating evidence. And while we’re at it, I would like to thank you for recovering Bruce Enterprise property.” Wayne stood up and held out his hand. “I can take charge of the prototype and return it to its proper section at the Lab. There might even be a reward. I’ll give my secretary your particulars. ”
Kerr reacted by pulling his hand away then thought better of it, handing the penlight to Wayne.
“Right now I think our talk, businessman to businessman, is over, and I hope that we have come to a mutual agreement not to have to do so again.” Wayne stepped to the office door and turned the handle.
“One thing I can tell you, Bruce, is that you’re not going to get the votes for the project,” Kerr called after him. “You can take that to the bank!”
Wayne turned his most blasé face to the narrow man. “If at first I don’t succeed I will try, try again. Besides I have lawyers! Any adverse finding by the city council with end up on appeal and in court.”
“Problem with lawyers, “ Kerr screeched after him as he exited the office and past the two men guarding the door, “they’re not bullet proof!”