illustration

The tangy scent of oregano, garlic and olives lingered heavily in the Flinches’ kitchen. Janice Flinch's lasagna was a favorite with her family. Her husband Ed never had any trouble putting away several helpings. Their pretty blonde sixt een-year-old daughter Barbara would always put off any diet she wa s on in honor of the occasion. Now Norman, their gangly fourteen-year-o ld son, usually scarfed down as much as he could. Tonight however he was eating very little.

"Is something wrong, honey?" Janice asked him.

"No, Mom," he muttered through his milk glass.

"You're not eating very much."

Norman set his glass down. "Oh. See, I’m going out on patrol tonight and I don't want to be too stuffed. I may have to. . .” He sprang from his chair and landed on the floor in a menacing pose. “...You know, move quickly."

"Ah yes, Skunk-Guy," Ed acknowledged with a grin. "You don't weighed down

"Right!" Norman stated. “Only I prefer to be called the Stinking Stalker.”

"You're going out again tonight?" Janice asked. "You've been out every night for the past three weeks."

"Well yeah, Mom. That's the idea. I’m patrolling the city looking for trouble. Well, not ex actly looking for trouble," Norman corrected. "But. . . yeah I am, not to get into it, but so I can stop it. You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do," she said stiffly.

"In the past three weeks I’ve stopped vandals from toilet papering a house, and a group of taggers from writing graffiti all over some office building downtown."

"What about that Girl Scout troupe that attacked you?" Barbara chimed in.

"Yes, well..." Norman looked over at his sister with contempt.

"That was an honest mistake. I came up out of the woods while they were sitting around a campfire. I was wearing my Stinking Stalker costume and it scared them so they jumped me. It was pretty ugly there for a few moments, but we all had a good laugh over it afterwards."

Barbara snickered.

"Don't forget I actually stopped a mugger from fleeing the scene of the crime," Norman pointed out.

"By throwing yourself in front of the thief," Janice said disapprovingly.

"I didn't do that part on purpose, " Norman explained. "I tripped over that seeing eye dog. I tripped over the dog and the crook tripped over me. It was all very simple."

"So you say." Janice’s tone was stern.

"And remember I'm the one who used my stink power to rescue Barbara from that jewel thief."

"Which is the only reason I agreed to this whole absurd thing," Janice announced.

"I hope they throw the book at that creep," Barbara declared, brushing a strand of her long blonde hair over her shoulder. "I still wake up at night shaking because of what he did."

"You’re still waking up at night?" Janice reached over and put her hand on her daughter’s arm.

"It's not as bad as it was," Barbara assured her. "But still, being held at fork point is not something you easily get over."

"I'm just glad that your brother got there before something worse happened," Ed said. "The trial starts next month. Are you going to testify?" Ed asked her.

Barbara nodded. "Yeah."

"I am very proud of you both," their dad said. "It takes courage to stand up in the face of evil and demand justice."

"You've been reading my comic books again, haven't you, Pop?" Norman said with a knowing grin.

Ed felt his face blush. He looked over at his wife who glared at him.

"Just a couple," he admitted, "I just skimmed through them. . . I didn't really read them exactly."

Janice shook her head and returned to buttering her bread. Ed took another bite of lasagna. The lull in the conversation gave Norman the opening he was looking for.

"Pop?" he asked cautiously. "Wendell and I were talking the other day and we think that The Stinking Stalker could use a base of operation."

"What about your bedroom?" Ed suggested. "If you ever get around to cleaning it up, you might find plenty of space for a command center."

Though his reasoning was sound, the idea did not sit well with his son.

"I'm going to need something quite a bit bigger," Norman explained. "Wendell figured out that if you dig a hole in the side yard, fifteen feet by thirteen feet and a bout twelve feet deep, then jack hammer through the side of the basement we can build a secret skunk- cave."

Ed looked at his son stupidly.

"Like that's going to happen," Barbara snapped.

"It could," Norman said without looking at her. "Dad’s just thinking about it."

"Do you actually think he's going to demolish the side yard and blast through the foundation of the house?"

Norman turned to her and was about to protest when she interrupted him.

"You have a lot of good ideas, Norman, but you stretch them way out of reality until they become ridiculous."

Her words were so sincere that it caught him off-guard; she made him think for a moment. No, she couldn't be right; what would she know about this kind of stuff?

Their mother piped in with her suggestion. "If you cleaned up the storage room under the basement stairs you could set up a card table."

"Card table?!" Norman boomed. "Look, you guys, the Dragon Master has a secret lair in the tip of the Chrysler building in New York City. Captain Cosmo has an orbiting space station high above the earth."

"Lizard-Man doesn't have one."

Everyone at the table turned at the sound of Ed's voice. He had finally found the right words. "Neither does Electro Magma Man. And the Whispering Shadow has to change clothes in a phone booth."

Norman relented with a sigh.

Ed looked over at his wife and winked. "See, there are advantages to skimming through comic books."

Norman took a last bite of his salad and pushed his chair away from the table.

"Where are you going?" his father asked.

"Getting ready to go out."

"Tonight is your night to load the dishwasher," Janice reminded him.

"But. . . "Norman protested.

"But nothing," Ed interrupted. "It’s part of the agreement. You can go out afterwards."

"Okay," Norman mumbled as he picked up his dishes and headed toward the kitchen. Just as he was about to disappear around the doorway his dad called to him. He st opped and turned to face his father.

"With all that construction going on it would be very hard to keep that place a secret," Ed explained simply.

"Yeah," Norman groaned. "I guess we'd better come up with something else."

Ed gave his son a parental nod, and Norman went on into the kitchen.

***

After kitchen duty Norman wasted no time getting up to his room to put on his Stinking Stalker suit. Norman’s bedroom was carpeted with all of his clothes folded in neat stacks. There was a path of bare floor that led from the door to the bed and the closet. This was done so that his enormous collection of comic books could be kept safe and secure in his dresser drawers. His closet was occupied by an old antique library card catalog. This was the filing system by which he cataloged and cross-referenced his comics. The only garment that he had hangi ng in his closet was his Stinking Stalker suit. It was neatly draped on a hanger that hooked on a peg behind the card catalog.

He slid on the black tights for his legs then worked his way into the tight-fitting body suit. It was white with holes for his legs to push through. The collar, shoulders and long sleeves of the garment were black. There was an insignia of a skunk head wrapped in its own tail emblazoned on the chest. He poppe d on his white boots and long white gloves, then slid on the pull over mask. It was a black mask with a white stripe that came to a point at the end of his nose. Two large netted white eyelets allowed him to see out while no one else could see in. He wrapped himself in the white plumi ng cape with its high pointy collar.

Inspecting himself in the mirror on his dresser, he struck a few heroic poses.

“None can face the awesome power of the Stinking Stalker,” he proclaimed.

He spun around to watch his cape billow out and stumbled over his tennis shoes that he had carele ssly tossed on the floor. He landed with a loud thud across a pile of shirts.

"You okay up there?" his father shouted up the stairs.

"I'm fine!" Norman answered back at the top of his voice.

Norman climbed stiffly to his feet. He limped over to the door and down the stairs. The Stinking Stalker was ready to prowl.

He stepped out into the kitchen where Barbara was talking on the phone.

“. . .she said she thought the peach would be a good color but the peach satin was so expensive. It’s really the hardest material to work with. . .”

She didn’t even look up at her costumed brother when he came into the room.

He walked over to the back door and peered out cautiously. Satisfied that the coast was clear he reached over and turned the kitchen light off.

“Hey!” his sister protested.

“I’m trying to talk here.”

“You don’t need the light to talk,” he insisted.

“What’s the big idea?”

“I don’t want anyone to see me come out this door,” he whispered so that whoever she had on the other end of the phone would not hear him. “I don’t want to give away my secret identity.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, brother.”

“Give me a few minutes to clear the back yard before you turn it back on.”

“Just go,” she ordered.

He stepped out into the night toward his quest.