Helltown – Chapter One

Helltown by Denny O'NeilCharles Victor Szasz, who was not yet either Vic Sage or The Question, couldn’t find his way back home.

He felt like an idiot.

True, he hadn’t seen Hub City in almost ten years—in fact, he hadn’t even been to this part of the country for that long—and hadn’t bothered to stock up on maps or discuss his trip with someone who might know the local geography, but what the hell? . . . he knew the place was somewhere southeast of St. Louis, somewhere north of Cairo, on a river called the Ohatchapee, and there had to be road signs and such, no? How hard could it be to find a town of over forty thousand people in a limited area?

He hoped to be settled in a motel room by dinnertime, but felt no need to hurry. From St. Louis, how long would he have to drive? Couple-three hours? Something like that. So he decided to play tourist for just a little while. St. Louis was the first real city he’d ever seen and he had an urge to revisit it after all these years.

A little preliminary to the main event . . .

He parked his battered 1988 Ford station wagon at a lot near the riverfront, at the edge of Laclede’s Landing, and walked south, with the cityscape to his right and the Mississippi to his left. It was the first Saturday in September, and hot, and small groups of families and tourists were wandering around downtown St. Louis. Some were just sauntering beneath the trees of the riverfront park, enjoying the day, while others moved quickly, obviously bound for a destination.

Charles Victor Szasz paused and looked up at the arch, gleaming in the noonday sun.

World’s largest croquet wicket . . .

But impressive, he had to give it that. Hundreds of feet tall, completely sheathed in stainless steel—worth whatever it cost, which was probably plenty. He wondered if small-plane pilots still flew through it. He remembered reading a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that someone left at the orphanage about one flyer who had dared the deed when he was . . . what? Eleven, maybe. The local authorities, according to the story, had been quite perturbed. Young Charles Victor Szasz had rooted for the pilot then, and he would now, too.

He bought a hot dog and a can of orange soda from a guy with a cart and sat on a bench while he ate, watching people pass, paying particular attention to females in shorts. A tall woman, slender, mid-twenties, long chestnut hair, glanced at him and immediately turned way. He didn’t blame her. He knew what she saw: hair that needed cutting, an unshaven face, sweat-stained flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, twill work pants, shabby cowboy boots he’d found abandoned on the Galveston docks. A homeless guy, the woman probably thought. She wasn’t far wrong: Charles Victor Szasz had seventy-eight bucks in small bills stuffed into his hip pockets, the Ford, a duffel bag stuffed with dirty clothes, and not another thing in the world.

To hell with the snooty bitch . . .

He stood, started toward where he’d stashed the Ford. A block from the parking lot, at the top of a narrow street that ended at the cobblestoned embankment, he paused and gazed across the Mississippi, which glistened in the sun and looked like molten metal, to St. Louis’s smaller, grittier twin, East St. Louis. It had acquired a gambling boat since he’d last seen it.

Couldn’t hurt, he thought, resuming his walk.

Forty minutes later, he had left St. Louis and was driving toward where he thought Hub City had to be. Two hours later, he was peering through the windshield, trying desperately to recognize a landmark, any landmark, and failing.

Could it all have changed in just ten years? Or have I taken one punch to the head too many?

Four hours later, on a dirt road between corn fields, he saw a man sitting on a fence, playing a guitar. A very old man, Charles Victor Szasz saw as he got out of his Ford: tufts of white hair sprouting at odd intervals from a shiny brown scalp, the face below a maze of wrinkles, shirtless, dressed in faded farmer’s overalls. Playing and singing what the musically undereducated Charles Victor Szasz was pretty sure was the blues.

I had me two women, one short and one tall;

Yeah, I had me two women, one short and one tall;

Now they both found another and I got no one at all . . .

“’S’cuse me,” Charles Victor Szasz called.

The bony fingers stilled on the guitar strings and the old man looked up from under bushy white eyebrows.

“He’p yeh?” he said in a voice that was hoarser than his singing voice. He had an accent, but Charles Victor Szasz couldn’t identify it. Deep South, surely. But where, exactly? Alabama? New Orleans?

“I wonder if you can point me toward Hub City.”

The old man shook his head, slowly and mournfully. “Don’t think yeh want to go there.”

“I’m afraid I do.”

“Ever been there?”

“I think I was born there.”

Now the old man nodded. “That’s all right, then. Yeh only think yeh know where yeh was born, yeh got to find out. I can understand that.”

The old man pointed, spoke some highway numbers, and described a barn with silo attached that marked a necessary left turn.

“Get that far,” he concluded, “just follow your nose. It’ll take you straight to Hub City.”

Charles Victor Szasz said a thank you and the old man returned to his music.

Sheer misery, sheer misery, come walkin’ with me . . .

As Charles Victor Szasz was turning onto a narrow, winding strip of blacktop, something beneath the hood of the Ford began to thunk.

This cannot be good . . .

But maybe the engine would remain functional until he reached Hub City and maybe his seventy-eight dollars would pay for repairs and maybe he would win the lottery and move to Hollywood and marry Jessica Alba.

He switched on the radio. Neither the air conditioner nor the heater worked, the windshield wipers were unreliable, and two of the windows would not roll down, but the radio worked perfectly. That was good. He enjoyed sampling local disc jockeys as he went from job to job. But there didn’t seem to be any local disc jockeys to sample. He got several St. Louis stations clearly, and one from Columbia, but nothing from Hub City or any of the surrounding towns. Finally, at the extreme left side of the dial, he located what he was searching for.

“. . . station KWLM,” a midwestern voice was blurting, “serving the greater Hub City area. That’s what it says, folks. ‘Greater Hub City.’ What they call an ‘oxymoron.’ Like jumbo shrimp. Anyway, we’ve got a record cued up so we might as well play it . . .” The music started: A woman was singing, pleasantly, about how she doesn’t know why she didn’t come.

The sun was low in the western sky. Ahead, to his left, he saw a silo and the blackened remains of a barn that had obviously recently burned. As the old man had instructed, he turned left. “Just follow your nose,” the old man had said, and suddenly Charles Victor Szasz understood what he meant. He sniffed, and fought the urge to gag. The air was foul and was getting fouler with every turn of his vehicle’s wheels. He passed the remains of the barn and, rounding a curve, saw the gleam of water and knew it must be the Ohatchapee, a Mississippi tributary that was more creek than river except during the spring floods, when it could wash over its banks and inundate the surrounding area, causing a lot of problems for residents. Ohatchapee, Charles Victor Szasz remembered, was an American Indian word. He didn’t know which tribe originated it, but he recalled that it meant “beautiful waters.”

The stink was rising from the beautiful waters.

The air was full of haze and the sun’s last rays, filtered through it, were a pale yellow, and the foliage of the trees that lined the road was stunted and sickly. Charles Victor Szasz felt as though he’d wandered into some kind of science fiction existence, another planet or dimension. Then the sun vanished below the treeline and suddenly the road was dark. He switched on the Ford’s headlights and discovered that only one of them worked, dimly. The engine continued to thunk.

So the big question is, will this crate last till I get to where I’m going?

Well, if not, no big loss. The wagon had been driven hard for nearly 170,000 miles and was obviously close to that big used-car lot in the sky. If necessary, Charles Victor Szasz could throw his duffel bag over his shoulder and hoof it the rest of the way to Hub City. And then what?

The smell had gotten worse. It made his eyes water and seemed to clog his nostrils. For a moment he thought that, somehow, it had affected his vision, too, because he saw a red haze ahead and that had to be an illusion, didn’t it?

But it wasn’t. White pinpoints of light twinkled in the redness, which glared from the open roofs of the buildings, and, as he came closer, he saw funnels spewing gouts of black smoke into the sky. The road ran between two industrial sites, great dark blocks silhouetted against the even darker horizon, surrounded by high chain-link fences topped with rolls of barbed wire. Heavy machinery filled the night with screeches and muted explosions that became deafening as the Ford approached.

If this isn’t the gate to Hell, it’s a damn fine facsimile . . .

There was an asphalt parking lot on the far side of the buildings, beyond the fence, lit only by a single mercury vapor lamp high on a pole. It was crammed with cars and small trucks, hundreds of them. As Charles Victor Szasz drove past it, a large, dark pickup pulled from the lot and began to follow him, keeping about fifty yards to his rear.

The road took a few turns and then opened out into Hub City’s main thoroughfare. The stench in the air was less here, barely noticeable. The city government obviously didn’t waste much money on nonessentials like lighting; there were only two lampposts per block, and about half of them were broken. But there were other sources of illumination in the form of fires licking from the tops of barrels, which cast garish, dancing shadows on the nearby buildings. Many of those buildings seemed to be deserted, their windows and doors boarded or bricked over.

It’s a lot grimmer than I remembered . . .

There seemed to be no motels or hotels or even rooming houses on this main drag. Maybe on the other end?

The dark pickup kept its distance as Charles Victor Szasz drove out of Hub City and onto a narrow country road. Finally, in the distance, he saw neon letters: OTE. Almost certainly an abbreviated version of MOTEL.

The structure behind the damaged sign was small, as motels go, with fewer than a dozen doors in the long strip of building behind a square office with a large, cracked picture window. Inside, a stout man in a Hawaiian print shirt was hunched in a chair, peering at a tiny black-and-white television screen propped on the desk in front of him.

Charles Victor Szasz parked and went into the office. The stout man looked up, smiled, stood, and went to a counter that was just inside the door.

His voice brimmed with joviality: “Can I welcome you to one of our fine accommodations, sir?”

“I’d like a room for the night, yes,” Charles Victor Szasz said. “A cheap one.”

“One price fits all here. We like to think we treat every one of the Lord’s creatures the same.”

“That’s a good policy.”

“We like to b’lieve it is,” the stout man replied, pushing a white registration card and a ballpoint pen across the counter. “Yessir, we do. If you’ll just fill this out—”


“Will you be with us long?”

“Just tonight.”

“Passing through, hey?”

“Something like that.”

“Well now, I welcome you and wish you a happy and blessed good evening.”

“Thanks. Back at you.”

The stout man lifted the now-completed registration card to within an inch of his eyes. “I don’t b’lieve I can make out your last name. Smith?”

“Szasz. S-Z-A-S-Z.”

The stout man’s smile drooped. He dropped the card onto the countertop and peered at his customer. “And what kinda name would that be, exactly?”

“I’m not sure.”

The nuns never told me and I never bothered to find out . . .

“Wouldn’t be Jewish, would it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“And just how is it that you don’t know if you’re Jewish or not?”

“You’ll have to take my word for it, I guess.”

“How do I know you’re not lying?”

Charles Victor Szasz felt his muscles tighten and the familiar, happy surge of adrenaline. It would be a source of deep satisfaction to knock this blimp onto his flaccid ass. But accommodations seemed to be few and far between around Hub City, and fatigue was beginning to be a factor. A man, even a very tough man, can only go so long without sleep, and sleeping in the car gets old fast. He quelled the surge.

“I was raised Catholic. At St. Prisca’s Orphanage.”

The stout man was not mollified. “St. Prisca’s burned down eight years ago. Closed about a year before that.”

“I left ten years ago. Went to college and then took a construction job out west.” A pause, and then: “The sisters named me after a priest who said Mass there. A Father Damien Szasz.”

The stout man peered at the ceiling. “I do seem to remember a Cat’lic preacher called something foreign like that. Dead now.”

“Do I get a room or not?”

“Cost you eighteen dollars.”

“I guess that’s not for the presidential suite.”

The stout man looked blank. He accepted the money he was offered and counted it carefully—three fives and three ones—and said, “Guess you’re not Jewish, anyway. We got a policy against Jews.”

“They’re not the Lord’s creatures?”

“They killed the Lord!”

Again, the adrenaline surge and, again, he quelled it.

He accepted a numbered key from the stout man and went outside. No need to move his station wagon; the room he’d been assigned was next to the office.

The light spilling from the cracked window shone dully on a black SUV, parked across the road, lights out, engine running.

Probably not the welcome wagon . . .

Charles Victor Szasz got his duffel bag from the station wagon. He found the door to his room unlocked. Inside was pretty much what he expected, a tiny chamber with a narrow bed, a rickety nightstand, a bathroom with a commode and curtainless stand-up shower, and nothing else. Compared to this, the Bates Motel was the Waldorf.

Copyright © 2006 by DC Comics

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