The Return of Captain Conquer
by Mel Gilden
CHAPTER ONE—THE HOUSE WITH TWO FRONT DOORS
Well, this could be interesting, Watson Congruent thought hopefully. He stood behind the counter of the Captain Conquer PX, one hand resting on the cash register, watching the man at the other side of the room read the big cardboard sign that dangled on wires from the ceiling.
The man was not only Watson's sole customer, but he was also decked out in a really impressive Captain Conquer uniform. He wore a leather flight cap with goggles that he could pull down. A thin microphone reached on a wire arm from one ear hole and hung stiffly before his lips. His short khaki jacket had a Captain Conquer emblem on one shoulder and a Chocolatron emblem on the other. Medals covered his chest. Watson wondered what in the world he could have done to earn them. The man wore khaki pants that flared at the hips, but were skin tight as they went beneath his tall black boots.
The sign the man was looking at featured a big glass of chocolate milk and a squat bottle filled with brown granules. The sign said in big futuristic letters:
IT'S ATOM POWDERED!
"Wow," the man had said when he'd first entered the store. "We certainly don't have anything like this in Chicago." A nut, Watson thought. Certifiable. Just like all the other people who come into the Captain Conquer PX. If it weren't for guys like him, Watson thought, I would have gone crazy from boredom long ago.
Suddenly, from the back room came a loud screechy noise like that which might be made by a dying dinosaur. The man in the Captain Conquer suit looked around, then asked Watson, "What was that?"
Politely, Watson said, "That's my father."
"Your father?" the man exclaimed.
"Well, not actually my father himself, but his experiment. My father, the owner of this store, is trying to build a motivator like the one Captain Conquer used to power his stratoship, the Great Auk."
The man in the Captain Conquer suit looked at Watson suspiciously, as if trying to decide if what he had said was some kind of joke. "You're kidding," the man said.
"I'm afraid not."
Watson nodded. Here was a man dressed as a TV hero who hadn't made a new show in twenty years telling Watson that something was strange. If you asked Watson, that was strange. Watson held up a sheet of paper and said, "Would you like to sign my father's petition demanding Harve Fishbein make a Captain Conquer feature film?"
"I certainly would," the man said, and strode across the wooden floor to the counter. While he signed his name, he said, "I wonder what happened to Fishbein after he made the last of the Conquer TV episodes."
"I couldn't say. Nobody even knows what happened to Webb Washington, the man who used to play Captain Conquer. Not even his agent, Alvin Algae, knows."
"Then who will you give the petition to?"
"We'll give it to Alvin Algae. He says he knows where Fishbein is, but he won't tell anybody. Can we help you with anything today?"
The man nodded and leaned across the counter as if he were telling Watson a secret. He said, "I'm looking for a genuine metal-tone styrene plastic Captain Conquer Signet Ring."
"Those rings are pretty rare. Chocolatron hasn't offered them as a premium since the show went off the air."
"I know. It's amazing how little respect people have for something they could get for five Chocolatron inner seals."
"We had one last week, but somebody bought it."
"How much was it?" The man braced himself.
"One hundred fifty dollars."The man nodded and bit his lip.
Watson said, "We have replicas, and of course a lot of other stuff." He looked around at the Conquer PX. On the walls were posters of the Captain about to climb into the Great Auk, or talking to his sidekick, Chuckles. In bins under the posters were Conquer insignias and rank marks from all the seasons the show was on the air. A wire stand held fan publications and photocopies of new Captain Conquer stories written by enthusiasts who came into the PX all the time. In a big barrel in the center of the room were small pink plastic brains, like those the Captain found in the "Micro-Brains from the Penguin Star" episode. There were also model kits, coloring books, uniforms, and tape cassettes.
Watson thought all of this hero worship was pretty silly. He never would have taken a job in a place like this if the owner hadn't been his father.
"I dunno," the man said. "I really had my heart set on a genuine ring."
"Sorry." The man strolled around the shop for a few more minutes, his boots making a clumping sound every time he put a foot down. At last he bought a pink micro-brain. Watson was glad to see him go.
Mr. Johnson, the mailman, came in pretty soon. He was a nice old geezer, and Watson liked him. Mr. Johnson put down a stack of envelopes and said, "My granddaughter, Julia, has gone nutso over this Captain Conquer guy. She made me promise to buy her a poster of him and the Great Auk."
"How old is Julia?"
"Just turned twelve."
"Yeah, well, she's young yet."
Mr. Johnson chuckled. "Aren't you a fan?"
"Naw. My father is the fan in the family."
"Me neither. I used to watch Captain Conquer when it was first on. I never understood what all the shouting was about."
Watson got Mr. Johnson a rolled poster. He put it on the counter between them and said, "I tell you, Mr. Johnson, I'd believe in the Captain myself, if I could. Nothing exciting ever happens to me. I eat regularly. I have a warm place to sleep. I'm going crazy from being so secure. Sometimes I think I'll run away from home and pick peaches or something out in California."
"I don't think the Captain would recommend—" Mr. Johnson's words were suddenly cut off by a loud hammering noise coming from outside. The noise went on and on. Mr. Johnson and Watson looked at each other knowingly and shook their heads. Mr. Johnson paid for the poster, and Watson followed him to the door of the shop.
They stood there in the doorway watching a man from the Charlieville Department of Transportation pounding through the street asphalt with a jackhammer. A man sitting in the cab of a small steam shovel was watching him. Other men, leaning on shovels and rakes covered with tar, watched him too.
When the man stopped running his jackhammer for a moment, Watson said, "This sort of thing has been going on since I can remember. You'd think that after a while they'd get it right."
"Get what right?" said Mr. Johnson.
"Whatever they have to change under the street."
"Uh-oh," said Mr. Johnson as he gestured with his chin at a big black car driving up. "Here they come."
"They" was the Charlieville Planning Commission. A chauffeur dressed all in black, from his cap to his shiny boots, leaped out and opened the car door. It seemed to be a long time before the members of the Planning Commission emerged from the car.
They came out stiffly, one at a time. Each member of the Commission moved very slowly, as if he were older than anything. Each one stood at attention watching the roadwork and completely ignoring the difficulty the next Commissioner had getting out of the car.
Soon all five of them stood there in a row, like some kind of military unit. Each of them wore a black suit and a gleaming white shirt. On each head was a big slouch hat that flopped down around each set of ears. Each of them wore big impenetrable dark glasses. They folded their arms and watched the man with the jackhammer line up his next cut.
"I wonder why the Planning Commissioners always come out to watch the construction personally," said Watson.
"Don't trust anybody, I guess," said Mr. Johnson. "Maybe not even each other. Which is only one of the things that makes 'em look like the kind of bad guys that Captain Conquer might tangle with."
The Commissioners looked that way to Watson too. And oddly enough, if there was anything in the world to make him wish that Captain Conquer really existed, it was these five sinister men.
They had decided what the design of the city should be, what changes could and should be made. They seemed to be all-powerful, even when they made strange decisions, such as that a power pole should go in the middle of Mrs. Ferguson's back yard. The pole had been planted, wires had been strung, despite Mrs. Ferguson's logical protest that there was a perfectly good power pole already in use just fifteen feet away in the alley.
The jackhammer started again, so Watson just nodded. He waved at Mr. Johnson as he continued on his rounds. Watson went back inside the store.
Watson walked around the store, straightening things, sorting things back into their proper bins. It was his thirteenth birthday, and he suspected that his father would throw him a little party when that day's episode of Captain Conquer was over. There would be cake and ice cream and probably a present or two. Boring. Boring. Boring.
Watson stopped and looked into the display case that held some of the Captain Conquer toys his father had made from clothespins and cardboard and paper clips and string when Mr. Congruent was a kid. The cellophane tape was yellow and cracked, like a snake's shed skin, and the cardboard was discolored in spots. Mr. Congruent had never outgrown his interest. He was still a fan.
Watson shook his head. If Mom were there, she would never have let Dad indulge himself that way. Maybe Watson shouldn't either? No. As strange as this Captain Conquer stuff was, working with it made his father happy. And he wasn't really hurting anybody.
The dying dinosaur noise began again. It competed with the jackhammer noise from outside. If Watson was inclined to get headaches, this two-part musical invention for motivator and jackhammer would certainly give him one. Watson stood behind the counter with one hand on the cash register.
Suddenly, both noises stopped at once. In the silence, Watson heard somebody knocking energetically on the door, but not the door to the shop.
The Captain Conquer PX was located in the house where Watson and his father lived. There were two doors at the front of the house— one for their living quarters and one for the store. Big signs pointed out the store. Most people were not confused. The fact that the wrong door was being knocked on tipped Watson off as to who was doing the knocking.
Watson walked to the door of the shop and looked out. There, knocking with increasing anger on the door to their private living quarters, was a short man puffing on the stub of a cigar. He wore a coat and pants of conflicting plaids, and a bow tie that looked like an Amazonian butterfly. He stopped knocking for a moment to push his black-rimmed glasses up on his nose.
"In here, Mr. Algae," Watson called.
Alvin Algae looked at Watson in surprise, then strutted to the shop door, waggling his finger at him. "I don't know how you expect to do any business if you keep your front door locked."
"That's the door to our private living quarters. This is the door to the store." Watson attempted to speak patiently, though he had told Alvin Algae, Webb Washington's agent, which door was which many times.
Alvin Algae bustled past Watson as the street noise started again. It was soon joined by the sound of Mr. Congruent's experiment in the back room. Alvin Algae stood in the middle of the shop tapping his foot, looking around as if he'd just bought the place and was thinking of turning it into a parking lot. "Can't you stop that noise?" Alvin Algae shouted.
"I'm not making it," Watson shouted back, trying to be troublesome without being impolite.
Alvin Algae walked nervously around the room, picking up things, then putting them down without looking at them. He stopped under the Chocolatron sign and said, "Did you get any signatures?"
"Let me see." He held out his hand and waited.
Watson picked up the petition and walked across the floor to hand it to Alvin Algae. Algae took it and glared at it as if it were an enemy. "Only fifteen," he said angrily.
"Some people don't want to sign because nobody knows where Webb Washington is and they can't imagine anybody else playing Captain Conquer."
"I'll find him when the time comes. I told you that." "A lot of people think that if you could find him, you'd have done it by now."
"Excuses!" Alvin Algae cried. The jackhammer stopped, leaving the odd cry of Mr. Congruent's experiment hanging in the air like a torn scarf. "Excuses," Alvin Algae said a little more quietly. "I want to talk to your father."
"Sure," said Watson, and then called out, "Hey, Dad. Somebody wants to see you."
"Heck of a way to treat your father," Alvin Algae said.
"We understand each other."
Soon the noise coming from the back room stopped, and seconds later Mr. Congruent pushed the dull green curtain aside and entered the shop.
Watson's father was a small man with a small protruding tummy that made him look as if he'd swallowed a basketball. He had short sandy hair that stuck out every which way from the top of his head. But his face was pleasant, and usually wore a smile. He put out his hand to Alvin Algae and said, "Nice to see you again, Alvin."
"I wish that I could say the same, Sherlock. Your son tells me that you've collected only fifteen signatures since I was here last."
"Then I'm sure it's true. Watson wouldn't lie."
"I'm sure he wouldn't, but that's not the point. The point is that more signatures will be needed to convince Harve Fishbein to make the movie."
"It's difficult to get signatures when nobody knows where either Fishbein or Webb Washington is. Perhaps the man with forty pounds of brains in his nose could be of help. If you'd like to come with me to the retirement party that Channel Fourteen is throwing for him on Monday, you can ask him. When he's no longer working for the TV station he should have plenty of time."
"Ha," said Alvin Algae. "Forty pounds of brains, indeed. Money will get you through times of no brains better than brains will get you through times of no money."
"You ought to know," Sherlock Congruent said. "You're the one with the money. Would you like to stay to see today's Captain Conquer episode? It'll be on in a few minutes and we have a TV set right in the back room."
Alvin Algae curled his lip and said, "I never watch that stuff. It's enough that I had to keep track of Webb Washington's business without having to watch him act." He carefully creased the petition and put it into his pocket. He shook his fist at Sherlock Congruent and said, "Captain Conquer will return, with or without your help."
When Alvin Algae was gone, Mr. Congruent said, "Somehow, you know, I think he's right."
"What makes you think so?" said Watson.
"I've had some interest shown in my motivator. But I don't want to talk about that now. Today's Captain Conquer episode is about to begin."