That's when the cop car rolled down the street.

He couldn't believe it. What were the odds that one of the town's meager police force would show up right here, right now? Instinctively, he dropped to the ground and covered himself with his cape, hoping, pleading, to blend into the foliage. The squad car cruised by without stopping. He sprinted back to his friend's house, not bothering to look back. He'd only been gone twenty minutes and had nearly been caught. Still, he was exhilarated that he'd actually patrolled — and made it back in one piece.

And look on the bright side, he told himself. Things could only get better from here.

He soon discovered he wasn't the only crime fighter, unbelievable as that seemed. The tip-off was Mr. Silent.

Several months after his first patrol, with several additional excursions under his belt, he came across a MySpace page for a man who patrolled Indianapolis armed with a cane, a gentleman's suit and a silver mask. He excitedly sent Mr. Silent a message, letting him know that he, too, was a crime fighter. He received a response from a different superhero, a New York City-area avenger named Tothian. There are lots of us, Tothian explained, and encouraged him to join their ranks in the Heroes Network — a sort of United Nations for superheroes.

But first he'd need a new name. "Mothman" had lost its mystique when he'd realized it was similar to the name of a 2002 thriller starring Richard Gere. So he thought back to his alter ego's origins, the night he silently scaled the wall of that little girl's house. The answer was obvious: He was the Wall Creeper.

The Heroes Network embraced the Wall Creeper with open arms. Founded by Tothian in early 2007, the membership-only online forum covered everything from battle tactics to investigation tips, and boasted dozens of members from all over the country and beyond — people like Slapjack in Maine, Nostrum in New Orleans, Lionheart in England and the not-so-subtly named Superhero in Florida. From the Wall Creeper's perspective, a few were clearly dressing in tights for attention or to live out some fantasy.

But many were like himself, people sick of the world's depravity and apathy who'd decided to take matters into their own hands. Their outfits symbolized a pledge to justice. "Some would say the costumes are to inspire people to do good, to show people that there are people like us out there," says the Wall Creeper. "This line of work isn't just a job or career; it's a piece of your life. It defines you, and it comes out in the pride you take in your costume." Most of these costumed avengers know they have no real powers other than those provided by their training or equipment (though a few believe they have metaphysical abilities, including Master Legend, who says he can flip over a car and run at supersonic speeds without losing his breath). But that hasn't stopped them from facing down evil on their own. They have no interest in joining structured operations like police forces or even the Guardian Angels. They live by their own rules.

"Justice is not the law," Master Legend says, his declarative sentences seeming to come out in word bubbles. "Laws are written by men. Justice is written into our souls, our spirit, from the day we are born."

No one knows for sure who was the first to heed this call for justice and strap on a mask. Some heroes have been around since the 1990s — folks like Mr. Silent, as well as Terrifica, a woman who dons a Valkyrie bra and defends ladies in New York City, and Superbarrio Gómez, a Mexico City resident who campaigns against corruption wearing a red and yellow wrestler's mask. Then there's Master Legend, who claims to have been taking down criminals with his "No Mercy Punch" since 1983. But even before him, there was the Human Fly, a costumed Canadian who in the 1970s rode on top of a DC-8 airliner and used a rocket-powered motorcycle to jump 27 buses at a Gloria Gaynor concert. He had a Marvel comic book named after him.

Lately, though, conversions to the superhero cause have reached a fever pitch, with the Heroes Network swelling to more than 300 members. So far, the Colorado contingent remains relatively small. There's Tigris, who crusaded for animal justice for a while in Colorado Springs; Ten, who sports a blood-red mask and a mean pair of nunchucks; and a shadowy figure who answers to the name Nightwatch. None of them could be reached for this story. But Colorado's superhero population may grow, especially with new crime-fighting associations such as the Signal Light Foundation and Superheroes Anonymous taking hold.

The recent upswing could be a response to real-world perils that seem straight out of a mega-villain's plan for world domination, things like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the bird flu and the USA PATRIOT Act. Or maybe it's thanks to the Internet, with websites like the Heroes Network inspiring costumed crime fighters the world over to come out of the closet. Or maybe, as the Wall Creeper believes, it's because few people look up to the military or elected officials or the police anymore. The only heroes left, it seems, are the mythical ones whose visages soar across movie screens and whose four-color exploits still embellish endless childhoods.

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