An excerpt in celebration of International Bat Appreciation Day

white bat

While Orlok the Arctic Snow Bat is pure fiction, white bats and flying foxes do exist.

Like a Phoenix

Suddenly, a handful of bruisers from the Fourth Brigade charged up the West 10th Street entrance hauling ladders and lugging hoses over their broad shoulders. Wielding their hefty axes like medieval warriors, the grim-faced volunteers burst through the door leading to the Infant Incubators.

“The reunion will have to wait,” Dr. Couney announced. “Zip, come with me. Let’s see if we can help. Madame Recht, get the youngsters to safety!”

The doctor and Zip scampered off in the direction of the bells and whistles. Yellows, golds, and reds twinkled and glittered as firefighters battled the blaze with hose and bucket. Louise ushered Johnny and the girl to the relative safety of Surf Avenue where the sirens were now a constant clamor.

But over the din of the sirens and the roar of the flames, Louise thought she heard panicked screams coming from a building two hundred yards east of Hell Gate. The redheaded girl heard it too and bolted toward the source.

“Piper, no!” Louise shouted.

But the girl disregarded her.

Louise and Johnny pursued her to a semi-circular Grecian style building that stood between the east and west promenades. Statues of several life-sized lions stood prominently atop the building’s vaulted entrance. At its sides were sculptures of two trumpeting elephants.

“That’s the Wild Animal Arena,” Louise panted as she reached Piper’s side. There was another shriek from within.

“Someone’s in there!” Johnny shouted.

“We have to save them!” Piper replied.

The walls of the building had already begun to blister and Louise could feel the heat scalding her skin. But she, Piper, and Johnny continued to push closer. When they reached the entrance, they noticed a chain had been wrapped around the door handles, fastened together with a padlock.

The redhead fumbled through her tattered pockets. Louise saw a look of relief spread across her face as she withdrew a strange-looking pocket knife. Pulling out one of its implements, the girl grabbed the metal lock and yelped. Louise could almost hear her skin sizzle as the searing metal made contact.

“Piper, let me see that!” Louise said, her nurse’s instincts kicking in.

“There’s no time!” the girl replied, tearing off a piece of her tattered blouse and binding her hand with it. Grabbing the padlock with her shielded hand, Piper fidgeted with the lock mechanism. Louise was astonished when the chain suddenly fell to the ground with a heavy thud.

“Let’s go!” Piper called, exploding through the ornate doors.

When they reached the interior, Louise saw that all chaos had broken loose. Cages were lined up against the back of the arena. The wall had been painted to look like a Roman amphitheater where hungry lions had fed on helpless Christians. Inside their pens the big cats had smelled the caustic smoke and were pacing nervously.

The red-haired girl ran to a cage that housed two lions. The animals leaped at the bars as she frantically worked the lock to free them. Louise grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her away.

“Piper, no! It’s too dangerous! You have no idea how to control these animals once they’re out!”

“I can’t just let them burn to death!” she said, her green eyes pleading through a watery film.

Another cry of panic erupted from the adjacent side of the building. Louise and Piper dashed across the arena as Johnny struggled to keep up. Another row of cages stood against the wall. Peering into the cage, Louise gasped in fright as a gaggle of squawking cockatoos fluttered against the bars.

Étonné!” she screamed, putting her hand to her chest.

The girl giggled at her. “My aunt has a bunch of them. They sound so human, don’t they?”

Louise nodded, trying to catch her breath. “I think it’s safe to let them out. They won’t pose a threat.”

The girl unlocked the cage and threw open the door. Louise and Piper covered their heads as the birds flitted out in a colorful frenzy.

Johnny inspected his shoulder.

“What’s your definition of threat?” he grumbled as a fresh wad of white dripped down his lapel.

Louise suppressed a grin and could tell that Piper was doing the same. But when they approached the next cage, the girl’s face went blank.

“Piper, what’s wrong?” Louise asked.

white bat comic art

An early illustration of Orlok by Piper Houdini cover artist John Kissee.

“I don’t believe it!” she said, gazing between the bars.

Hanging upside down on a wooden perch was an animal that Louise had never seen before. It looked like a silver fox with demon wings. Piper hastily opened the locked and reached into the cage.

“Be careful!” Louise warned. “You don’t know what that thing is!”

“I know exactly what it is,” the girl replied. The animal’s clawed feet embraced her hand tenderly as she wrested it from its prison. “The one I know is much older.”

Suddenly a door on the back wall smashed open. A man in his late fifties wearing a safari helmet and khaki clothes leaped into the arena. He was holding a shotgun in one hand and a whip in the other.

“What in bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” the man demanded, leveling his weapon at the red-haired girl. The creature fluttered its wings nervously.

Louise stepped defensively between Piper and the man with the shotgun.

“Colonel Ferari, put your gun down this instant! This young lady is only trying to help get your animals to safety.”

Colonel Ferari studied the three intruders. It took him a moment to recognize Louise, but as soon as he saw Johnny the tension in his body visibly softened.

Lowering his weapon, he looked at Piper and said, “I had no time to get my keys. You can open the cages without them?”

Piper nodded.

“Then maybe this won’t be a mission of mercy after all,” Colonel Ferari announced. He took several quick strides toward the Coliseum mural and rested his shotgun against one of the big cat cages.

Louise watched in fascination as the colonel silently directed Piper to unlock the exhibition cages one by one. He attempted to soothe each of the frightened beasts by herding them into the main arena. As Piper freed each animal from its enclosure, Colonel Ferari paraded them around the steel-rimmed oval like it was just another training session.

Most of them cooperated. With a crack of the whip, lions, cougars, leopards, bears, ponies, and gazelles followed the firm yet reassuring commands of their master. The colonel loaded as many of the beasts as possible into their traveling cages so they could be wheeled out of the arena. Louise and Piper helped him haul nine of the big cats to safety.

Then an overhead light flickered and went out.

“Oh, no. Not this again,” the redhead said from somewhere in the dark.

Against the rear wall, Louise could make out the dim outline of Colonel Ferari trying to save more of his felines with only the swiftly encroaching flames for illumination.

Suddenly there was a hailstorm of sparks. One of the great cats roared. The others, panicked by the outburst, reacted in kind. Louise could hear an unremitting clicking noise as the girl continued to fiddle with the locks.

“Piper, there’s nothing more you can do! It’s too dark for you to…”

Her words were cut off by the colonel’s anguished scream:

“Sultan, no!”

But it was too late. The fur of a frightened lion had been ignited by drifting embers. Louise could only see the big cat’s mane, which looked like a ring of fire, and its tail, which showered sparks like a live electrical wire. She stood frozen to the spot as the fiery ring started racing toward her.

The next thing Louise knew, she was lying flat on the hard floor as the blazing animal soared several inches above her. To prevent the lion from striking her, someone had thrown her to the floor.

“Are you all right?” It was Piper’s voice. She was on the floor beside Louise with her arms wrapped around her.

“How could you see that I…?” Louise began to ask.

There was a loud thud as the lion sprang through the back door. Sultan roared in anguish as it rushed onto the boardwalk.

The big cat startled a man who looked as though he was about to come inside. He had round, wire-framed glasses and a mustache that looked like two thick caterpillars crawling on each side of his upper lip. And like Colonel Ferari, he too was carrying a shotgun.

The man got to one knee and took aim at the fleeing animal. Piper scampered away from Louise and launched herself through the doorway. The head nurse tried to shout a warning, but the girl was too quick. She barreled into the man at the same time as he pulled the trigger, knocking him over and causing the shot to go astray.

The girl jumped to her feet and shoved a finger in the man’s face.

“You can’t go around shooting helpless animals! Who the heck do you think you are?”

“Mr. Gumpertz! I’m so sorry!” Louise exclaimed as she rushed through the door. Johnny cantered after her on his hands, followed by an exhausted Colonel Ferari, who was towing the last of the wheeled cages out of the blazing arena.

The man with the gun stood up, brushed off his suit, and addressed the red-haired girl with clear agitation in his voice.

“Name’s Sam Gumpertz. I’m responsible for this part of the boardwalk and the safety of everyone on it.” He eyed her suspiciously. “Who might you be?”

“I’m Piper Weiss.”

The girl choked on the name, as though she were going to say something else.

“Feisty young bird, Sam. But she’s got a good heart,” Colonel Ferari said. “Helped me corral most of the animals. The profitable ones anyway.”

The redhead folded her arms across her chest. She clearly took offense at his implication that she had valued the life of any animal over another.

Mr. Gumpertz considered her for a moment. “Well, Piper Weiss. While I appreciate your concern for these creatures, I can’t have a dangerous, wounded carnivore running loose. Bad for business.”

He nodded to Colonel Ferari. “Joe, come with me. We’ve got a job to do.”

Piper seized the colonel’s ash-stained jacket.

“Sultan only wants to go someplace where he can be by himself so he can lick his wounds,” she pleaded.

“This is Coney Island, kid,” Gumpertz said, cocking his firearm. “Better chance of finding a three-legged ballerina than a place to be alone.” Without looking back, he and the colonel walked off in pursuit of the flaming lion.

“The three-legged ballerina quit last year,” Johnny mumbled.

Suddenly there was a spectacular crash. The trio turned to see the walls of the Wild Animal Arena give way as the ceiling collapsed.

“No!” shouted Piper.

Louise had to use all her strength to restrain her from running back inside. The girl might have succeeded in breaking away had a solitary creature not emerged from the blazing ruins.

The silver bat glided across the heated winds and flapped to a midair pause in front of the redhead. Piper held out her arm and the bat instinctively grasped it, flopping to a hanging position from her tattered sleeve.

“You’re safe,” the girl sighed with a smile. She pet the creature on its fuzzy snout as it preened the soot from its snow-white fur.

A shot rang out in the night, followed by another. And another. Louise and Piper flinched at the sound of each blast and then looked at each other. They both knew that Sultan was dead.

“It had to be done,” said Johnny.

Because she was a nurse, Louise would always wonder if there might have been a way the big cat could have been saved.

An hour later, the fire brigade finally brought the Coney Island blaze under control. Colonel Ferari returned to his arena and scattered sawdust over its smoking remains. Some of the vendors had opened their concession stands to hand out free refreshments to the firefighters. Louise, Johnny, and Piper were taking turns feeding popcorn to the silver bat when the fire battalion chief approached them.

“You’re one lucky girl, Red” he said to Piper. “I hear the Half-Boy pulled your keester out of Hell Gate before you got roasted.”

The girl looked at Johnny and smiled.

“Mind telling me what you were doing in there?” the chief demanded.

With an ardent wobble, Johnny inserted himself between Piper and the fireman.

“I don’t appreciate your implication, Chief,” he said, inflating his chest.

“Calm down, son,” the chief replied. “I have to follow up on every lead, that’s all.”

“I didn’t set the fire!” Piper declared. The white bat flapped uncomfortably at her frustration.

“She’s telling the truth! It wasn’t her!” Johnny exclaimed. “It was some doll dressed like Theda Bara. She dropped these!” The Half-Boy held up a book of matches.

“Is that so?” the chief said, snatching the matches out of his grasp and inspecting them. “Fire started on the roof. Mind telling me how this Theda Bara lookalike got up that high?”

Johnny and Piper looked at each other in dubious complicity. The silence became so painful that Louise intervened on their behalf. “No disrespect, Chief—but mind telling me how our friend here would have gotten up that high?” she asked, nodding to Piper.

The chief narrowed his eyes at Louise. Then he looked at the matches.

“Not the kind of joint I’d expect to find someone like you, Red,” he said, tossing the matches to the freckled girl.

Piper turned the matchbook over in her hands. Louise peered at it over her shoulder and could read the words “Adonis Social Club” handsomely printed between two American flags.

The chief turned away. “No lives were lost here. At least no human lives,” he said, walking away from the charred remains. “We’ll chalk it up to electrical failure.”

He called his company back to their vehicles and then shouted, “Coffee’s on me, boys.”

The brigade packed up their equipment and returned to their horse-drawn steamers and motorized fire engines. Watching them depart, Louise leaned over to Piper and said, “Coney Island is no stranger to fire. Like a phoenix, a greater and finer place always rises from its ashes.”

The sun was rising over the Atlantic, casting an eerie gloom on the smoldering embers. Just outside the ruins, Sam Gumpertz had rigged a makeshift tent. The events of the evening were taking their toll on Louise and she was longing for bed. But she couldn’t walk away without learning what Mr. Gumpertz was up to.

Above the tent, in crudely written letters, the showman hung a sign proclaiming, “A Congress of Curiosities: the Dreamland Circus Sideshow.” Outside the makeshift shelter, displayed in traditional country fair style, were canvasses heralding the attractions within, including the World’s Most Beautiful Fat Lady and the Living Skeleton.

In mute solidarity, Johnny climbed onto the upended box that would serve as his dais until proper staging could be constructed. Zip the What-Is-It also offered his support by ascending to his assigned platform.

Louise understood what Mr. Gumpertz was doing. When the season officially began, crowds would come from all over to see the freaks and barrage them with questions about their heroic deeds during the Hellfire at Hell Gate.

Admission—10 cents.

Admission to the burning ruins—15 cents.

Mr. Gumpertz approached the girl with the white-furred bat. “That’s my latest acquisition you got there. Arctic snow bat—rarest animal in the world,” he said to Piper. “Bought it off of Admiral Byrd who got in on his recent trip to the North Pole.”

“I’m going to name him Orlok,” she said, letting the bat steal another flake of popcorn from her fingers.

“I suppose you earned the right,” Mr. Gumpertz conceded with a nod. “You know, they say the snow bat is the only species in existence that was here before Genesis. The last living relative of the dragon.”

Louise narrowed her eyes at him. Sam Gumpertz was a ballyhoo artist, considered by some to be the greatest sideshow talker of all time. And ballyhoo artists were notorious story-tellers.

With the sun rising behind him, the showman popped a top hat onto his head and peered down at the redhead.

“Where are your parents, kid?” he asked.

“Not alive,” Piper answered. She sounded a bit defensive and Louise wondered if the girl were being entirely truthful.

“Orphan, huh?” Mr. Gumpertz said.

He looked at the girl with awkward intensity, scanning her up and down. Then he lit his stogie and blew a steady stream of smoke into the night.

“So, you want a job?”

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