"Move aside!" Muscleman snarled, pushing the bystanders aside to take on five masked robbers. Those criminals, their heads covered by ski masks and wearing flak jackets, turned their machine guns on him. Bullets bounced off his steel black uniform, as he shot two red beams from his eyes to melt their weapons. The men screamed as the metal turned liquid and dripped onto their hands, legs, and feet, and they dropped what remained of the sludge. Muscleman then picked one victim after the other and tossed them to the side, as his face turned into a sneer at their helplessness.
A sixth robber, also with a ski mask and flak jackets, snuckbehind Muscleman,and hit the superhero with a crowbar, only to feel the crowbar bounce off his hands. A shining, golden rope descended on the criminal, as Babe Wonder, clad in her trademark skin-tight red uniform with black stars, descended.
"Freeze, creep!" the super heroine shouted, and, with the power of her lasso, her victim instantly became frigid. She struck his face, and he collapsed.
"Good work, my woman," Muscleman said, as he brushed his shiny black hair back. "You are a credit to your aunt."
"Thank you," Babe Wonder replied, as she tightened her lasso on her prisoner.
The street had become a shambles. Several cars were overturned and burning, with the acrid smell of burning gasoline in the air, and, in isolated pockets, people watched. The police now arrived, in several cars with flashing red lights. A black truck also pulled up to disgorge men in helmets, vests and rifles, who quickly took control of the situation. The two superheros, with their work done, flew off.
Hal looked around to see that the curio shop was miraculously untouched. Someone had left a message for him to go there, where something would be waiting for him, and, even though Hal thought it would be a prank, he decided to oblige, though he certainly hadn’t expected to come across that fight. He entered the store to see wooden shelves filled with dusty books, old tables with tiffany lamps, bronze cups, chipped porcelain pots, muskets, scabbards, and, at the far corner, a large grandfather clock with a pendulum slowly swinging inside. He was never into antiques, but he realized with a wry smile that these objects were as faded as his clothing.
"Can I help you?" The shopkeeper’s blue hat was carefully pulled over to hide his eyes, and his matching blue cape had a high upturned collar, with a gold chain tied across his neck to keep the cape in place.
"Uh, yes," Hal replied, "I am looking for something ..."
"I have just the thing for you," the shopkeeper replied, taking out a small, glowing green object. "And, since it's a nice day outside, there's no charge."
Hal was going to say that it wasn't a nice day, then suddenly realized that, in this store, the turmoil outside was non-existant - no sound of gunfire, no smell of burning gasoline, no sirens. He decided to test the shopkeeper.
"I don't think I want it," he said.
"Trust me, you do," The shopkeeper put the ring in his hand.
The shopkeeper smiled, "Because it's magic."
Hal turned the ring over. Somehow, it felt right, so he put it in his left middle finger, and saw it adjust its size and width to fit comfortably, even as it sent waves of soothing energy through his finger to the rest of his body. He suddenly realized it had real magic – something that could hurt even Muscleman.
He looked at his host. "Why me?"
"Because you can be without fear, and you have the intelligence to be a super hero.”
"Why don’t you take it?"
“Because I don’t need to.”
Hal sensed that this individual really didn’t need a ring to protect himself, but he didn’t press the point.
"I know you are afraid, but everyone is, even the super heros without fear are afraid," the shopkeeper continued.
“Isn’t that a contradiction?”
"Not at all. If someone is truly without fear, he would be dysfunctional. The essence of being without fear is to conquer it, so you can bravely go about your task. That is what life is all about.”
That made sense, so Hal asked, "What do you want me to do?"
“Be a super hero.”
“I can’t answer that – no one can. You will just have to find out for yourself. But don’t worry, because I will be here when you need me.”
"What's your name?" Hal asked.
"I have a nickname, which I ask everyone to use."
"What is it?"
"The Phantom Stranger."