TAMPA — In the dark of night, the masked man soars across the Howard Frankland Bridge, his cape streaming behind his Batcycle.
"Batman!" people yell when he enters the Castle nightclub in Ybor City. He gives a fist-bump to the near-naked Senator, an Ybor veteran often seen in lingerie. He catches up with Peter Pan. And he poses for pictures with drunken women while showing off his retractable wings.
At least — that's usually the mission for the Caped Crusader. But last weekend, he was unmasked.
Tampa police arrested Walsh Ian Nichols, 21, for violating a state law that forbids wearing a mask on a public right of way, a statute written in the 1950s apparently aimed at the hooded Ku Klux Klan.
In recent history only one other person has been arrested in Tampa on that charge, but he was trespassing. The law isn't enforced often, said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. So don't worry about Halloween.
But Nichols had been warned.
A few weeks ago, an officer told him he couldn't wear his Batman mask in public, Davis said. That same officer caught him riding into Ybor Friday night, in full Bat-gear.
He was also in costume, but not wearing a mask, when police arrested him this summer on open container charges. Davis said police saw him drinking in an alley by the Castle with a woman too young to legally buy alcohol. Batman entered a misdemeanor intervention program.
You have to wonder, the police spokeswoman said, why someone would choose to conceal his face.
The Times called Walsh Nichols to find out. His voice mail answered at first, in a British accent that mimicked that of the real Batman's butler, Alfred.
"Master Walsh will be out late this evening," it said. "Please leave your name and phone number."
Nichols returned the call. When asked why he dresses as Batman, he replied, "I kind of keep that a secret."
He's a student at St. Petersburg College and works as a biomedical technician. He started dressing up two years ago when visiting St. Petersburg area bars. "I used to have a Batgirl," Nichols said. "We split up."
About a year ago, he started riding his scooter from Largo to Ybor, to hang out at the Castle. One day in December, he met Dane Giddens, who was celebrating his 21st birthday there. They became friends, and eventually, Giddens became his Robin.
Nichols said the police told him that if they saw his "little buddy" wearing a mask, he'd be arrested, too. But so far, the Boy Wonder has gone without capture.
Police also charged Nichols with driving without a valid motorcycle license, which Nichols says he'll contest. But he says he did nothing wrong when he wore his costume — especially since he uses it for his night job, as a promoter for another Ybor club.
Nichols paid his $500 bail and left the Orient Road Jail just after 4 a.m. Saturday.
The police kept his mask as evidence, but Nichols had a spare at home.
That night, Nichols donned one of his four Batsuits, and rode out once again.
Times staff writer Leigh Armstrong and researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.