| The applause, filtered softly through the thick curtain partition of the stage, was barely audible to Shipman as he emptied the bottle he was holding. He wasn't exactly sure what he was drinking, as the label had vanished throughout the course of the evening. But it was a thick, dark liquid that went down hard and tasted like cheap petrol, and that was all he ever looked for in his liquor.
Shipman slowly passed the bottle from one hand to the other, studying its curved translucency as he shifted the weight. The latest comedian to finish his routine climbed down the four shaky wooden steps that led to and from the stage. This one was a tall, rodent-like man whose greasy hair formed grotesque pigtail patterns as the sweat brought forth by the hot stage lights matted it against his forehead. He was the kind of comedian that Shipman loathed. An impersonator. He would not have been able to sit through the man's screeched and mumbled dialogue had he been sober. Even in his current condition, the only thing that had amused him was the man’s outfit; a loose, silky neon ensemble that just screamed for an open flame. To Shipman, an impersonator was nothing more than a comedian that couldn't tell a joke to save his life. Unforgivable at best.
Shipman continued to gaze at the now empty bottle, ignoring what passed for confusion in the backstage area of Doug's Depository. Doug's Depository was an attempt at an upper class comedy club that suffered from both its inconvenient location in a less-than-respectable part of the city, and its proprietor's lack of a real sense of humor. Under normal circumstances, Shipman wouldn't have even considered performing in such a travesty of a comedy club, but two aspects of the job had convinced him otherwise: the job paid in advance, and they didn't screen the material. The complimentary drinks were a pleasant surprise that he didn't frown upon either, as they would make it that much easier for him to prepare his performance.
The owner of the nightclub entered the backstage area through the kitchen entrance, pinning what was most likely a cheap sight gag to his tie. He was a short portly outline of a man, with a pale white complexion that made him appear as soft and weak as a soggy Saltine, thus adding to the ascetic obscenity of his presence. Shipman had purposely forgotten the man's name to prevent any discussions or relationships from occurring on a first name basis, but he found that the more he looked at him, the more he resembled the nightclub's namesake. All the more reason to avoid getting to know the man personally.
"You're on," the owner mumbled as he passed Shipman and scurried on-stage. Shipman stared intensely into the empty bottle, letting its very existence eat away at the reality surrounding him. He didn't bother to review his material. There was no need. Shipman had memorized anything he considered funny years ago, and his delivery had yet to change from the straightforward attitude that he had always used. Never bothering to prepare any set material before a show, his whole method was to base his act on the composition of the audience, catering it to the makeup and emotions of the people he performed to. The only preparation Shipman resorted to before a show was to drink himself into as much of a drunken stupor as was humanly possible. He felt that his performance was delivered more freely if he was not in complete control of his own faculties. Besides, when it came to discussing moral and political issues in a humorous and flippant manner, he found it easier to let the contents of the bottle do the thinking. Judging from the contents of tonight’s bottle, Shipman’s act was going to be a funny one indeed.
Shipman rose and approached stage left. His introduction could be heard, the usual string of unsuccessful attempts at humor by the announcer, followed by a cue for him to present himself as quickly as possible. While he waited, Shipman took time to take a personal inventory. His cheap black slacks were slightly crumpled, but passable at a distance. The sleeves of his white collared shirt were rolled up past his elbows, the left breast pocket holding five bottle caps of various shapes and sizes, trophies kept in testimony of the volume of alcohol consumed that evening. The shoes he wore, tailored to fit his abnormally wide feet, were as polished as they were going to get for this sort of crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, here is a man who needs no introduction... to my wife! Let's give a warm welcome to Shipman Mallard!"
The hot light from the poorly arranged stage lamps pressed down on Shipman as he walked out onto the stage, his coal black skin absorbing the heat like a hungry sponge. The flat black shade of his skin had always led people to mistake him for someone of African descent, but his color had more to do with his mother's heavy drug use than it did with racial heredity. He was technically Caucasian, his skin color a bizarre and unexplained aberration. Still, it was his only physical deformity that he made no attempt to hide from public view. It made him feel like an individual in a world full of people he couldn't care less about. It was what separated him from the audience.
By the time the welcoming applause had died down, Shipman had loosened his tie, raked his fingers through his short and tousled black hair, adjusted the ever-present dark sunglasses, and decided upon his line of attack. If he had been sober enough to contemplate the consequences of his chosen lineup of jokes, perhaps he would have softened his material somewhat. But then, that wouldn't be funny.
"Okay people,' Shipman barked at the microphone, "let's laugh!"
The remainder of the evening found Shipman hanging around backstage, much to the displeasure of the owner, who had tried unsuccessfully to get a refund of Shipman's payment on the grounds of the audience's reaction to his material. Shipman had obviously hit yet another audience with no sense of humor. By the time he had finished the first half of his routine, the audience had already begun to shout and throw things. He hadn't even finished the bulk of his material before he was forced offstage. After a series of high tempered arguments, Shipman and the owner came to an agreement. Shipman kept the money, but paid for the complimentary drinks and promised never to return to Doug's Depository. This sort of arrangement had been occurring with alarming frequency lately, enough so that Shipman was considering switching coasts for a change of scenery.
That night’s garbage was deposited in a side alley through the kitchen door nearly an hour after the nightclub’s 1:00 AM closing, met by only the stench filled silence of rusted, maggot ridden garbage cans. The garbage was followed a short while later by an exhausted Shipman, whose arrival into the alley was greeted by a group of menacingly armed teenagers whose very presence was enough to squelch any hopes he had entertained about avoiding trouble tonight.
The situation was clear. There were four impressively built male youths, and one rather attractive young lady. The two short ones with crew cuts were holding baseball bats, and the Hispanic with the ponytail was brandishing a large and dented pipe. The girl seemed to be unarmed. And then there was the big one. A full foot taller than the others, he had no weapons, nor did he look as if he needed one. There was a wild look in his eyes that practically dictated the cruel and painful plans he had in store.
Shipman had only his suit jacket draped over his left arm, a pen that he had swiped from behind the bar clutched loosely in his right hand. He was cornered in a dead end alley, and the kitchen door that had put him there only opened from the inside. He was sober enough to realize that if he played his cards right and approached the situation with some diplomacy, he might actually be able to exit without any serious trouble. But that wasn't his style. He slid the pen into his breast pocket, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and addressed the menacing gang in a way that was completely dangerous, totally inappropriate, and one hundred percent Shipman Mallard.
"Okay, which one of you punks wants an autograph?"
The big guy stepped into the dim light that shone from an overhead lamp, his chiseled features highlighted by the soft glow. Shipman wasn't impressed.
"You've got a major problem, buddy." The big guy spoke with a thick European accent. "My parents were at the club tonight celebrating their anniversary. You know, tryin' to entertain themselves. And they were havin' a nice time ‘til you came out and said stuff that upset them! Telling some cold handicap jokes! Jokes that hurt my mother bad! She was in tears when she got home!"
The emotional conviction could clearly be heard in the big guy’s voice as he choked out the words, his face turning crimson as tears welled up in his eyes. It was obvious to Shipman that this guy was extremely upset, and more than ready to take his aggression out on him. If Shipman was to say something along the lines of an apology, he just might be able to diffuse the situation.
"You mean that cripple with the bent legs was your mother?" It was close.
His reply was met with a backhanded slap that dropped him to his knees and sent his sunglasses shattering against the alley wall.
This changed everything. The bastard had violated his space. To Shipman, the dead end of the trash-ridden alley was his stage. The kitchen door was stage left, the distant street lamp his spotlight, motley crew his audience. The minute that the big guy had stepped up to Shipman, the instant that he had slapped him, he had transcended the sacred boundary between the entertainer and the entertained. The audience had revolted, the sanctity of the stage now violated. Tainted. The glasses were now off, and it was time to put the audience back in its place.
Shipman slowly stood and turned back towards his assailant. He had never quite understood how an ordinary pair of sunglasses was capable of disguising the facial deformities that had plagued him his entire life. Maybe it was the average person's subconscious willingness to dismiss such freakish peculiarities. Or perhaps it was an optical illusion created by the unusual contours of his face that totally obscured his bizarre features. Personally, Shipman didn't care. All he knew was that without his sunglasses, the unusual facial characteristics that had earned him his moniker were visible to all.
Upon seeing his face in its new light, the expressions of the punks turned from looks of anger and contempt to those of shock and disgust. Only the Hispanic's face registered an expression of fear, and he cried out in a startled voice.
"Madre de Dios! It's The Duck!"
It's always nice to be recognized. Especially when that recognition is followed by sheer terror.
"So the bitch cried!" Shipman sneered. "What's your beef? If she doesn't have a sense of humor, she can always roll her rickety ass back where it came from!"
The big guy drew back his arm to land another blow, most likely more powerful than the last. However, he was stopped short by an extra wide foot driving straight into his leg, shattering the kneecap and forcing the joint to bend at an impossible angle.
Shipman didn't look like much of a threat at first glance, so perhaps the high pitched screech that emanated from the big guy was more out of surprise than pain. Shipman didn't care either way. The scream itself was satisfaction enough.
The sight of their fearless leader crumbling into a heap while wailing uncontrollably didn't do much for the group's morale, and there was a moment of hesitation. In that split second of time, Shipman was ready for them.
If they weren't already shaken up by this unforeseen turn of events, then the dark joke and disturbingly evil laugh that came from Shipman was more than enough to completely unnerve them. It was his trademark laugh, the one he punctuated his jokes with. Three short bursts, hitting the air like rabbit punches. It wasn't a cheap gimmick, nor was it an effort to be different. It was the natural way in which he expressed his own amusement, something that came from deep within. And he liked it.
"Now tell me that wasn't a real knee slapper! Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Outraged, the group began to advance. Shipman grabbed the nearest garbage can and hurled it at the feet of the two bat wielding crew cuts, tripping them both up. The ponytail bent over to help them up, giving Shipman the opportunity to reach into the rubbish beside him for anything useable as a weapon. What he came up with was an empty ketchup bottle, slippery with filth and decaying pieces of leafy vegetable, and quickly flung it as hard as he could. The bottle hit the ponytail right in the face, shattering upon impact and sending him lurching backwards. The sounds of tinkling broken glass and clogged grunts of agony filled the alleyway.
Shipman was already coming at the two batboys with a brick by the time they had gotten to their feet. He swung it at the head of the first one, who quickly ducked to let it collide with the alley wall instead. The full force of the impact shot down Shipman’s arm, the numbing pain enveloping it up to the shoulder forcing his hand to loose its grip on the brick. The second bat boy took this chance to swing his bat at his head, and he reflexively blocked it with his other arm, shutting his eyes in anticipation of the blow. What broke was not Shipman's arm however, but the bat itself, the top half-splintering from the handle and bouncing off the wall behind him.
This angered him to no end. The fact that these goons hadn't even bothered to obtain the appropriate equipment with which to beat him bordered upon insult.
The pain in his arms distilled by his rage, Shipman drove his knee into that sacred, delicate spot on the second bat boy where all men are at their most vulnerable. It was a cheap, dirty, cowardly move, and it worked beautifully. The batboy dropped what was left of his bat, grabbing his groin with both hands while emitting a high pitched whine. Before the first bat boy could get around his friend to attack, Shipman had retrieved his brick and brought it straight up into the wounded one's jaw, collapsing it inward with a sickening crunch. This drove him backward into his partner, and they both fell to the ground in a tangled heap.
"How about that?" Shipman laughed. "A wicker bat, a glass jaw, and a pair of crystal balls! Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Shipman was so amused with himself that the sudden blow to his head caught him completely off guard. He staggered as a brilliant flash of pain swept through his skull, and a swift kick to his chest landed him on his back. His vision temporarily clouded and blurry, Shipman was barely able to identify his attacker as the ponytail he had dropped with the bottle, still clutching the lead pipe in a white-knuckled fist. His face was torn and mangled, his nose reduced to a flat red stain, the one eye still functioning properly filled with pure rage. It was obvious that he was running on pure adrenaline at this point, and Shipman knew that going one-on-one would get him nowhere fast.
The ponytail kicked out in an attempt to crack Shipman's head open like a walnut, but Shipman’s senses were flooding back rapidly, and he rolled out from under the attack. Not wasting any time, he grabbed the broken baseball bat lying beside him on the alley floor and thrust the splintered end deep into the ponytail's abdomen. The ponytail dropped to his knees in shock, the pipe clattering to the ground as he made a futile attempt to dislodge the bat from his bleeding stomach.
"I’ve got the bat if you've got the balls! Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Shipman's priorities adjusted instantly, and the lead pipe was in his hands as he rose to one knee to confront the remaining bat boy. Luckily, he was still tangled up with his wounded friend whose wild, agonized thrashing about had prevented him from attacking Shipman sooner. Shipman was still dizzy and winded from his blow to the head, and in no condition for hand-to-hand combat. So out of pure desperation, he threw the lead pipe at the batboy as hard as he could. To his amazement, the pipe sailed through the air with a hollow whistle and struck the last attacker square in the forehead, knocking him unconscious. He fell limp against the alley wall, a bloody D-shaped impression on his head where the dented pipe had hit him.
"Well," Shipman said wearily, "there's your autograph." He was too exhausted to laugh.
Shipman slowly lifted himself to his feet, using the brick alley wall for support. He wobbled slightly when he attempted to stand, the effects from the blow to his head still lingering. But for Shipman, being knocked senseless with a large blunt object was practically the equivalent to the level of hangovers he managed to achieve on a regular basis, and so he was able to erect himself without too much trouble. He turned towards the alley entrance to confront the girl that had remained in the shadows throughout the fight. Although he had expected to find her blocking his exit, he hadn't counted on her approaching him with a nasty looking straight razor, held in a way that looked frighteningly experienced.
"You God damned freak!" She screamed at him hysterically. "Look what you did to my brother!" She motioned towards the big guy with the broken knee. He had a glazed, far-away look that probably wasn't too comforting to a family member. Shipman's guess was that he had slipped into shock. The girl gritted her teeth as tears streamed down her cheeks.
"I'm gonna make... you... bleed!"
This was a delicate situation. The girl was alone, a victim of circumstance with no one to turn to, and Shipman knew how she felt. He had been there. As an abandoned child with freakish deformities, he had learned how it felt to face the world alone. The bill-like extension of his jaw that reduced his nose and chin to non-existent lumps, along with his unnaturally black skin, had successfully separated him from the rest of society. Taunted by other children, hated by his many guardians, and tormented by the horrified looks that he would receive from others, he had grown up feeling like a sideshow freak whose only purpose was to entertain the normal people that mocked and degraded him. But that was then. Sure, he was still there to be laughed at. But unlike his childhood days when he had no choice about his role as court jester, it was now his audience that was forced to sit there helplessly as he vented his own anger and contempt. Society had treated at him as a joke, and he was now returning the favor. Fate may have given him his start and supplied him with his original sight gag, but he was writing his own material now, and he would defend it with his life. It may be a cold, heartless, unfeeling humor he shared with the world, but that was all that it had left him with.
Shipman considered this as his eyes met those of the frightened and angry young woman before him. She had just witnessed the brutal beating of her brother and friends, and her only thoughts right now were most likely those of revenge. It was a touchy situation that, if handled with the warmth and understanding that it deserved, could be diffused. If Shipman could show her the sensitivity and compassion that he had been denied, further violence could most likely be averted.
However, Shipman couldn't think of anything funny to say, so he instead delivered a powerful kick to her stomach with both feet, the full force of it throwing her back towards the alley entrance. She was fast with her blade, and managed to slice Shipman's leg open even as his thick, heavy shoes connected with her abdomen. The attack left them both on the ground; the girl curled in a fetal position and coughing up blood, Shipman grinding his teeth as he grabbed the fresh wound on his calf.
After several minutes of uninterrupted silence, Shipman moved from where he lay, carefully forcing himself into a standing position. He grimaced as the strain on his leg caused the wound to throb painfully. Leaning against the wall, he felt cautiously at the bump on his and gazed up into the night sky at dark storm clouds obscuring the moonlight. A single drop of rain splashed against his temple, and he sighed with exhaustion as the first crash of thunder sounded in the distance.
His composure regained, Shipman limped over to where he had dropped his jacket during the fray. He held it up to the light of the overhead light. It was creased, wrinkled, and coated with filth on one side, but was fortunately free of blood stains. He shook it briskly and draped it over his shoulder as the rain began to fall, quickly building in intensity. Exit stage right.
As Shipman limped towards the street, he heard a soft moan come from the girl. Unable to resist, he turned and surveyed the damage that he had done. Twisted human forms, broken and bleeding, littered the alley along with the night club's weekly trash. Most of them were likely in need of some serious medical attention.
A pang of guilt gnawed momentarily at Shipman's soul. Yes, they were the enemy, a group of ruffians that had attempted to censor his act after the fact. But their cause had been noble in spirit, even if not by his standards. No matter how much he hated them at this point, he was almost sure that they didn't deserve to be left like this. He debated briefly over whether to call an ambulance.
"Nah. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Shipman turned and exited the alley, leaving his defeated rivals with only the rain to cleanse their wounds.
For most, such a brutal display of violence could only be tolerated if the injured party had been punished for some evil deed, or if the battle had been in the name of some worthy cause. But for The Duck there is no good and evil, and his motives are debatable at best. He is a modern knight, a crusader without a cause. He felt no guilt, for it was a battle well fought, despite the underlying motives. It was a victory, the glory of which he felt worthy of basking in as he made his way through the heavy downpour that silently filled the darkness of the city that was his audience.