After we left, part 3

After the last few days I thought that I was prepared for anything. But as I sit here in camp, exhausted from the events of the day I think I was wrong. This morning I was greeted by something I was entirely unprepared for.

As we were preparing to break camp this morning, it seemed strange that Gnoman had not gotten up when Shojin and I did. After checking, it became clear that he wasn’t breathing. That bothered me. I’ve seen Gnoman die before, well a Gnoman anyways, but not one that had travelled with me. I never expected Gnoman to go in his sleep. That seemed almost antithetical to who and what he was. Shojin and I spent most of the rest of the morning digging a shallow grave and finding enough rocks to cover it. We said a few words and as we were gathering our things to leave we heard a noise behind us, turning to find Gnoman.

Now it clearly couldn’t have been the one we’d been with. His dress was different and he had an almost feral quality to him. Like the rage was almost more than his form could contain. His greeting was like that of a madman, sharp and almost a scream.

But as Shojin and I are so wont to do, we just followed our routines that came to Gnoman and we were once again heading south.

We broke for lunch later than normal due to the delays of the morning, but we were hungry so it made sense. As we were about to start back on the road south, we were beset by a raiding party. They were too numerous to count, but the one thing that stood out was that they were all human men. They claimed the reason they were planning to rob us was that we weren’t. Anything we had acquired on our adventures were things we were not fit to own. “Our kind” didn’t deserve them. We weren’t pure enough.

New Gnoman… vehemently and violently disagreed with that assessment. He’d decapitated two before they even knew it was to be a fight and three more just after the fight began proper. After what felt like an hour fighting these racist garbage people I was so exhausted I didn’t think I could fight anyone else if my life depended on it.

Shojin looked like he’d been on the receiving end of a right proper ass whipping, but that was his normal post fight look after all. Gnoman was on his back propped up on one of the decapitated men. His breath had this raspy rattle sound to it and blood was pooling underneath him from some wound we couldn’t see. As we moved to try and help him he stopped us.

“It’s my time”, he said.

It was nearly time for dinner when we’d finished burying him. We may have only known him for part of a day but he died, even if unintentionally, protecting us. By and large, the Gnomans we have met seem to be good men deep down. We left the bandits in a pile by the side of the road. Let the critters feast. At least they would be good for something then.

We’d not made it maybe another hour down the road when we decided to break for dinner. We’d dug two graves and fought for our lives. It had been a pretty full day. As we were setting up what ended up being our camp for the night a person came walking up the hill beside the road. A slow leisurely sort of walk. The sun was at their back so we couldn’t see his face. All we could see as they approached was their somewhat loose clothing, and their hair being blown back over their shoulders in the breeze.

As they grew closer we could begin to hear the notes on the breeze of their playing a flute. It was catchy in its own way. They stopped playing long enough to wave when they were still a hundred or so yards off. So friendly, maybe?

It wasn’t until they were right on us that we were able to see the nearly ear to ear smile on the face of Gnoman. Happy, jovial and friendly. So not like any Gnoman we’ve known before. I was able to get him doing the Jenny thing so there is something to be said for that bit of consistency.

We told him of the day we’d had but left out the pair of Gnoman’s we’d encountered and travelled with. When we spoke of the battle in the afternoon, he got a sad look on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that it always saddened him to hear of things turning to conflict.

Violence should only ever be a last resort he said. Something to be used after all options for a peaceful resolution have passed. It seemed like there was more to this, but it looked painful so we didn’t press.

Before we could even suggest it he had asked if he could travel with us because we seemed “interesting”. We of course accepted.

After the events of the day, I’m left with lots of questions. Why is this one different? Why are the rest of them so filled with rage? Is this one filled with the same rage, but he’s trying to be something else? Would we be burying him tomorrow? I hoped not. This one was weird, but he seemed like our kind of weird.

A peaceful Gnoman? Nope, was totally not prepared for that.

After we left, part 2

Alright, so it’s now been a little over a week since we left our friends. I don’t cry all the time but I still call Shojin Jenny. Something weird happened on the road heading south today. I saw something off the side of the road in the thick brush and trees.

“Jenny, what is that over there in the trees?”
“Please stop calling me that.”
“Jen-nay please.”
“I think it’s no man.”
“Ok, but what do you think it is?”
“Pretty sure it’s no man.”
“Sure, but what could it be?”
“The psychotic, amnesiac, sometimes friend we run around with. Gnoman.”
“Oh yeah, that makes more sense. Cause it totally looked like a man and you kept saying it wasn’t a man, but it really was a man. And it’s like the most murdery, manly man we know.”

We were not surprised when he didn’t know who we were. He was as surprised as he usually was that we knew who he was. As usual, he didn’t have any pressing business elsewhere so it felt good to have him travelling with us. Well maybe not better so much as just safer. He knows how to wreck shit and he never seems happier than in the chaos of battle.

The best part though is that since he didn’t remember us I was able to get him calling Shojin Jenny as well. Shojin is so pissed at me now.

But the mission hasn’t changed. We still think we’re looking for a ruined temple somewhere in the Golden Wastes. At least we think it’s there. It’s the only desert we know of on this continent. We have no idea what we’re going to find there. The dreams aren’t clear on that front.

I didn’t tell Shojin this but I woke up with The Egg in my arms today. I’m a little worried it’s the egg making me hold it, but it might be the lady trying to tell me something. She can be vague like that. Sometimes all I want is a straight damn answer. Did we even do the right thing leaving them? I’m constantly asking myself that.

Shojin made an observation today that really got me thinking. In all the time it took us to travel to Highbreeze from that Inn in Hammerfall we were accosted, distracted, abducted, and pursued over hill and dale at nearly every turn but we’ve made better time and encountered no obstacles since it became just the two, now three of us.

We’ve stayed somewhat clear of the road itself while still trying to keep it in sight since what happened with the horse cart guy. It’s still eating at me and I think it will for some time. I’ve killed before, and it feels like often, but that man wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was just trying to stop some “thieves” and it doesn’t matter that I was just trying to scare him. I killed an unarmed man in the street.

If I make it through what comes ahead, I’ll have to answer for that. I need to answer for it. “Actions have consequences”, my father used to tell me. I don’t know that I ever understood that before I rode off looking like a pickle. But I pushed these thoughts back when they come up. The mission has to come first.

As we moved into the afternoon we saw a shadow start growing on the horizon to fill our entire view in both directions. At first we thought it was a storm moving in from the south, which was weird because storms never came from the south. It wasn’t until we were getting ready to set up camp that we realized it was a massive forest, and by the gods now Shojin won’t shut up about trees.

I wanted to be upset when Gnoman finally punched him on the chin, but the quiet that followed once he’d been knocked out was a welcome relief. Just in case I sent Huginn and Muninn off to get a closer look and report back and now I think the Lady is having some fun with me.

They showed me what they saw and it made no sense. It just simply wasn’t possible. Whatever the forest was it was not nearly as close at it appeared. It was just simply massive. We’d get a better look at things tomorrow and possibly the next day, but something was off about the whole thing.

Gnoman caught me checking on the egg before I bedded down for the night. He said that it looked valuable. I told him simply that beyond measure. It stirred a bit under my touch. I still wasn’t sure what would happen if it hatched, but I hoped that the lady would show me the path forward with it. Maybe it would be a path to redemption, but I’m not sure I deserve it. We’ve talked about it as we walked and Shojin said that everyone deserves a second chance.

But there are some wrongs that can’t be righted. The man was just doing his job. Dammit, I don’t even know his name. He’s just the man that wouldn’t move.

I was awakened by one of the birds just as I started to have a dream that I think came from the Lady. I was dreaming of mountains and the sea and a little island that looked sort of familiar, but somehow also foreign.

I found the following note in Munnin’s beak.


Focus Violet. Focus. The destination may be shrouded in mystery but you cannot lose sight of it. Not until you know just what is at stake. So suck it up and stop feeling sorry for yourself.

It was in my handwriting.

After we left, part 1

From the time we heard the door click behind us and Z asking what was going on until we stopped to have something that could pass for a meal I had trouble stopping myself from crying. I so badly wanted to say goodbye. It felt wrong not being able to say anything to my friends about the Journey Shojin and I would be undertaking, not that it mattered because between the two of us all we really had was a basic geographic direction and a vague idea of a building we were looking for. 

South.

Ancient Temple.

We trusted those guiding us would give us something more to go on as we neared our destination, but we knew it was going to be some time before we reached it on foot. We also replayed the prior days events. I felt really bad about killing the man who owned the cart place and when we were back this way I would try to find some way to make it right. 

It seems like whenever Shojin and I are at our best, we cock up the plan and people die. I don’t think this is what the Lady wants me to do and I doubt whatever it is that Shojin now sees would want that from him. We try to be good people. We really do. Chaos just seems to manifest when we are around. 

Also, Shojin is an ass. Once I was finally able to compose myself I thought of something that would help get me over missing my friends and was only at most a week out of the way from where we were going. Ok, maybe it would have been more like three weeks, but still. He was having none of it. 

I said, “Shojin, it will truly make me feel better.”

And he said, “No time, Payday.”

So I said, “Shojin, it will distract me from missing our friends.”

And he said, “I can appreciate that Payday but we don’t have time.”

So I said, “Shojin, it will only be a short detour.”

And he said, “Payday, I know you. It will be at least a month. We cannot afford that delay.”

So I said, “Shojin, look into your eyes,” (I put on his face) ,”and deny yourself.”

So he looked visibly disturbed and said, “Payday, that’s really creepy, please stop. What you are suggesting now is weird and not even something I’d be into.”

So I said, “Shojin, if you truly cared about my mental health we would do this.”

So he said, “Payday, you are acting like a child now. We do not have the time.”

So I stamped my foot like a proper lady and proceeded to cuss him up one side down the other and called him everything but a half-orc.

But he was right. We didn’t have the time. I would just have to hope that I lived long enough to make it back to Dillard so I could see Clever again someday. 

Shojin wasn’t just an ass but he was a dumbass. For some reason, and he did try to explain the logic as to why, above and beyond the pile of loot we’d come across he left a bunch of his personal stuff behind. Some made sense, like his cloak. The stuff he left in the bag with no instructions or notes for the girls on how to find it, not so much. 

The one thing I refused to leave was egg we’d found when searching for Shojin after he was taken. It was likely near priceless to the right collector, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave it in anyone’s care but my own. It feels deep down like my future and the egg are tied together, but maybe that is wishful thinking. It’s probably just the guilt I feel over destroying all the other probably corrupted ones. 

Damn, I cocked that up without Shojin even being there. I don’t think I’m very good at this whole adventurer thing. But I’m trying. Every day I’m trying. I want to be better. I need to be better. 

And with Shojin at my side maybe I can be. Maybe we can be, but I worry we don’t have enough time. 

Of course I don’t even know if the dragon inside is still alive or what I will do if it hatches, but we’ll figure it out. It’s what we do. Maybe another pet? Maybe we need it to stop what we both fear is coming.

Side note, Shojin hates it when I call him Jenny. So I will only call him that moving forward. At least it helps take my mind off of missing our friends. I think he knows that.

Issue 14

So I wish I could I say I actually looked at that “shopping list” that Stevie gave me, but I got so distracted with everything that was going on that it slipped my mind and apparently out of my pocket. I decided to just tell him to get whatever he felt he’d need and be done with it.

My more pressing concern was Ralphie and getting the gun parts we needed. Should I send him with money? Should we pay upon completion of the project? Would his machinist friend be able to do the job without asking questions? I could only get more and more paranoid about the inclusion of some random outsider in our business but we were on a timetable and didn’t have much choice at this point.

Over the next few days I was presented with some new complications. As I was getting ready to head into the shop the morning after we had our “big money” meeting, Mer came to me looking worried.

“What’s wrong babe?”

“We need to talk…” Oh god how I hated the conversations that started this way. The last one ended with her taking our daughter and leaving.

“Ok… I have some time before I need to leave. What’s up?”

“I know that things have been slow at the store and money’s tight but I can’t put this off any longer. We’re pregnant.” There are no words that appropriately describe the feelings I felt at this. It was a happy mix somewhere between abject terror, because I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing with the first one, let alone how to handle having two, and joy because I was having another baby with the woman I loved.

“I guess I should have told you then that we’ve been able to find a way to bring in more money. As of our next paychecks, all of us will be getting raises, so money shouldn’t be as big of an issue now if that’s the concern. Is that why you waited to tell me?” She just nodded demurely which was totally out of character for her. I hugged her tightly and as we released from the hug I put my hand on her stomach.

“How far along are we?” I remembered that the I, we, you, terminology seemed to matter like 1000% more to a pregnant woman.

“About 3 months.” Jesus, how could I have possibly missed this? I guess micro-managing an up and coming criminal organization takes its toll on one’s personal life.

“Was it just the money that you were worried about, hon?”

“Not entirely. I… we were hoping that you’d be able to be around more. We miss you and you’ve been working a lot. I know you need to in order to make the store a success, but we need you too. It’s hard when Bailee says she wants to see her daddy.”

I’d need to coordinate this with the boys, but the only way we could avoid suspicion would be if we became both better businessmen and better husbands/fathers. That would at least keep the wives from figuring things out or at least that was my hope anyway.

“Ok, since there’s going to be significantly more money coming in I’ll talk to the guys about working some sort of rotating days off for all of us. We all have families and we’ve all been working like madmen to get our shit together. I’ll have some idea of what a new work schedule looks like by the end of the week?”

“That should work. So what are you guys doing that’s making so much money?” Now I should have had something planned for this occasion, something pithy, something funny come, but instead I freaked out and said the first thing that came to mind.

“Running guns, assasination for hire and we’ve only recently gotten into bed with a pretty serious drug cartel.” I was apparently totally and completely functionally impaired.

She just laughed.

“Fine, if you are going to be an ass about it then don’t tell me. I need to finish getting ready for work anyway.” Being a sarcastic, smart ass finally had some semi-tangible payoff.

I went to work and over the next few days we set about coming up with a new schedule that would give us all another day off a week. Stevie would get another one on top of that so he could focus on the shit we needed him focused on. All throughout all of this Ralphie was either working on repairing the engine or working in the store waiting for parts to arrive before he could which was far really the only thing slowing the whole ordeal down. Everything was expected to be completed in a couple of days so they were more or less just normal days. Beyond that nothing special happened for most of the first week, but then came Thursday. It was about five or so when Ralphie poked his head into the office and interrupted me in counting the money for the 6th time on that day. I was counting it multiple times a day because I still couldn’t believe where we were and what we were doing.

“There’s some guys out front that want to see you.” Ralphie looked worried. Ralphie never looked worried.

“Ok, what do they want?”

“To ‘talk to the man in charge of operations’.” He was clearly quoting as this was more eloquent than what he could typically muster.

I got up and started to head out front. Ralphie caught my arm and stopped me.

“Take this with you, let me go first.” He handed me a gun. I immediately had, as a guy in a movie once said, a very bad feeling about this. Not that it mattered. I tucked the gun under my shirt put on my “game face” which I was wearing more and more and headed out front with Ralphie running point.

And the sight I was greeted with was so stereotypical and unoriginal as to be comical. Also, did every group of ne’er do wells send out groups of three to do their day to day work? On that point didn’t three of us just go to South America. Shit. Well, in this particular exchange I was greeted by three somewhat portly guys in dark suits and judging by their complexions I could only surmise they were Italian.

“Ralpie, clear the store please.” And he set to work with the task he’d been given.

“You da boss ‘ere?” The fattest of the three asked.

Fan-fucking-tastic! What in the shit was the mob doing here?

“Sure am. Something I can help you fellas with?” The only thought I had was that I couldn’t show these fucks any fear.

“Salvadore Barbiglia sends his regards and a request. It would seem that your endeavors are negatively impacting Mr. Barbiglia’s bottom line. He proposes three options by which this situation might be rectified.” This was not going to be good, but I needed to just let it play out.

“I’m listening. What exactly is Mr. Barbiglia suggesting?”

“Well, your first option is to let Mr. Barbiglia to become a silent partner in your activities and as a result give to him as a partner 50% of your net profits. Should that option not be to your liking, there is a second option. This one simply has you ceasing any and all of your operations. Ultimately though the choice is yours.”

“Alright, but that was only two choices.” And he just smiled a wicked grin at me as all three of the fat fucks pulled back their suit coats to show the guns they were packing.

“Option three is a permanent sort of retirement.”

I scratched at my chin. Ok, so straight to threats. I could work with that. Time to show these mob fucks what I thought of their “options”.

“Well, I think we’re all a little young yet for retirement. If you gentlemen would be so kind, I would appreciate your returning a simple message to Mr. Barbiglia for me. Tell him we’ll take option four.” I was going stream of consciousness and had no real idea where I was going with this. Sounded good though so I just went with it.

The talker looked puzzled.

“And what pre tell, is this option four?” And he started to reach for his gun, but what he hadn’t seen was that once Ralphie cleared the store, he had taken up a sentry position behind the two that weren’t speaking and he took the opportunity to put a gun to each of their heads.

“Thank you Ralphie.” I got a smile for the compliment.

“Well asshole, option four is that worthless fucksticks leave us the hell alone. You tell your boss that if he wants to talk to me about business he can do it face to fucking face and not to send random fat lackey number 4 in his stead. And I’ll use some concepts that you mobster pieces of shit should understand here. You tell your boss that accidents happen and that if I even hear about any of you thinking about crossing paths with anything associated with my business I will burn everything he has ever loved to the ground and before I’m done he will be begging me to release his spirit from this mortal coil just to be reunited with his loved ones. Now why don’t you nod your fat, fucking head one time to indicate to me you understand the words I just spoke to you, you tubby sack of shit.”

I got the single nod I was going for. His jaw was clenched up tighter than my butthole was in that moment which was maybe a good thing. Being as I was upset I am a little hazy on the exact sequence of events that happened after this. All I remember is that it started with the previously mentioned “sack of shit” reaching for his gun and ended with me sitting on his chest and hitting his dumb ass upside the head with it. I do remember snapping back to reality when Wil came out of the back.

“Jesus Christ, what the fuck is going on out here.”

I went to respond and found I was panting. Shit, did I lose time?

“Uh, just a little etiquette lesson with my new friend.” At that I smashed his nose with his own gun. “But no matter. These gentlemen were just leaving..

The bloody mess of a goombah I’m been pistol whipping gurgled some sort of reply and nodded an acknowledgement.

“Wil, since you are out here could you please relieve these gentlemen of their firearms? I would be ever so appreciative.”

He look at me like I was a fucking madman, and maybe he wasn’t far off, but he set about the task he’d been given. This allowed Ralphie to ease up a bit on the two he was covering and he offered me a hand to get back to my feet, which I was all too happy to accept.

I pointed the gun I’d been using like a hammer at the two angry and confused mobsters and Ralphie said, “Why don’t you two help your idiot friend up.”

That’s the kind of shit I myself would have said, and it made me smile a little.

“Ralphie, play nice.” And then I made sure as I said this next part to establish eye contact with each of the three in turn, “Remember what you have seen here today. Tell Mr. Barbiglia that our business is ours and unless he wants a war he’d do well to stay out of it. If I see any of the three of you anywhere near here again I will kill you. Am I clear?”

They were all so pissed but there was nothing they could do in the moment so they all just angrily nodded once. I knew there would probably be some repercussions for this later, but with how things had been handled I didn’t think it would be an all out war, which would be a nice thing to avoid if possible.

They just stood there staring at me. Right, I was in charge here. “Go! Get the fuck out of here!”

Mobsters are such huge pains in the dick.

Wil, who had been waiting for the chance to speak again finally did, “So I say again, what the fuck is going on out here?”

“Seems we’ve gotten onto the radar of a new friend. Find out everything you can about a Sal Barbiglia.”

“I don’t normally smash my friends in the face with a pistol.”

“No, no you don’t. Normally I don’t either. He wanted to fuck with our money. I didn’t want him to fuck with our money more.” And I just left it at that.

“Wait, I know that name. He came up in our search for people to do business with. He’s Chicago mob I think.”

“Ok, find me everything you can.” He walked off mumbling something to himself as he went. But he stopped in the doorway “What the hell am I supposed to do with these guns?”

“Just put them in the safe with the money for now.”

Which reminded me, “Big man, when did you start carrying?” It seemed a legitimate question since he had at least two plus the one he gave to me.

“When we get back from that meeting with the attorney. Figured better safe…” He was smarter than I gave him credit for.

“Well, I feel like I owe you one. Can you see about getting this cleaned up and getting the store opened back up?”

“Sure thing, I’m on it.”

I also put the Wills in charge of figuring out security solutions for the store. These ended up including the kinds of things they use at airports to check suitcases and people for guns and bombs and shit. Only in our case it was far more subtle so our normal clientele didn’t really notice.

And starting the day after we met those goombah fucks we all carried guns. Ralphie, well Ralphie just carried more of them.

Things Left Unsaid

WARNING!!!! THE BELOW CONTAINS SOME GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF REAL LIFE AND IT MIGHT TRIGGER SOME FOLKS. FOR THAT I DO APOLOGIZE, BUT IT IS TRUTH.

Ok, so I’m not entirely sure how to do this or where it goes so it may not end up making the most sense. First things first though. This is not a cry for help and I intend myself no self harm. I have just had some… realizations in the past couple of weeks and I have shit I need to say, so bear with me.

But to address that I have to address some things that have happened in the past. In my junior year of high school I got mono and it sucked. My private Catholic High School was unwilling to work with me (thought it was mainly just the Principal who happened to be a priest) and was threatening to not let me move on to senior year and I had to scramble to find some alternative to get the required classes needed to advance. This meant home-schooling and being this weird social outcast at another school that was willing to work with me for the chemistry class I couldn’t get home-schooled in. This led to my abandoning the Catholic church and organized religion completely.

Then my senior year I got stricken with some mystery illness that took months to diagnose. Those were some of the most terrifying times of my life. There were blood tests and scans and more blood tests and more scans and eventually a referral to a specialist who would ultimately diagnose me with Ulcerative Colitis. Since this diagnostic process I have had issues with needles. Like pass out if I watch issues.

Giving a name to my body’s nemesis was a relief and it brought me some measure of peace. However it has been a maintenance regimen of pills every day since then to keep it under control. I genuinely feel for the folks who have more severe cases. I’m told that at its worst mine was mild case, not that it made it any less terrifying for the boy who had been shitting blood every day at school and crying because he didn’t know why.

Now I graduated from the Catholic school I mentioned earlier. It wasn’t because I had a ton of friends there. Shit, I could count them on one hand. Still can. It was because I needed the win. A win against that asshole who said I’d never graduate from there. A win because my body tried to deny me a life. This was the biggest win of my life up to that point. I was 17.

Now Ulcerative Colitis has some identifying characteristics when the symptoms manifest. Usually it’s just having to shit frequently and for what it’s worth, my record was 28 times in a day. My asshole was exactly as raw as you think it would be after that sort of event.

As I go on I’m going to use the abbreviation UC for Ulcerative Colitis as this is a common abbreviation. UC can be somewhat insidious in what it does to your body over time and in the 24 years since my initial diagnosis there have been some… hiccups. All of the chartable ones have been in the last 14-15 years, not that all of the intervening time was clear of any issues. There was the whole appendectomy thing after all.

Then there was the first time I had kidney stones. My oldest child was an infant at this time. It was a Saturday night and I had no idea what was wrong, but I couldn’t stop trying to shit and it felt like a UC flare up. But I also felt like I was being stabbed in my left kidney, which was weird. The entire event was the most excruciating pain I had experienced up to that point in my life. I passed the stone on my own and missed being able to keep it for further study.

My oldest was two and my youngest daughter was only a few weeks old when I got the second set of stones. I’d come home from work for lunch because I wanted to be able to shit in peace. And that all too familiar pain in the kidney and feeling like I needed to shit. It hurt so much more than the first time, but still I felt like it was just a UC flare up. This time the stone was too big to pass on my own so the doctor had to go in surgically to break the fucker into passable pieces. He left 18 inches of surgical plastic in there as a temporary stent that was removed a week or so later. That was a source of weird discomfort in the mean time though.

I was also hospitalized for two nights that time. The first night was mandatory due to the surgery, which made sense since it kept getting bumped to later and later in the day such that I didn’t finally get wheeled into the OR until sometime after 7pm. They were willing to let me go home the 2nd day, but gave me the final say. Having a two year old who was not the most dextrous plowing into my crotch for hugs or trying to climb up into my lap was not something I really wanted so I took the 2nd night.

Since I was able to get stone fragments to the doctor, he was able to tell me that they were some sort of Calcium. This matters later.

As it stands now, and with the clarity of hindsight I think I might have passed another smaller stone on my own a few years after that, but I never sought treatment for it.

My oldest was 13 and my youngest was not quite 4 when I had my third diagnosed kidney stone. This time it was a Sunday. Once again, I’m fucking stupid and thought it was a UC flare up. It was only after hour two in the shower on all fours with what little hot water there was beating down on my back that I let my wife finally, after half a day, talk me into seeking medical attention. They did an MRI and some other shit I don’t remember thanks to the drugs. The nurse was like a server at Dick’s Last Resort though, which I found oddly comforting. They kept me for a couple hours, gave me some meds and filters to pee through at home so as to try and catch the stone and sent me on my way. And then, as if by some miracle, something like five hours later, fully enveloped in a vicodin fog, I passed that stone in the last piss before bed.

A few weeks later I had some blood work done. Nothing fancy, just the usual shit my doctor wants from me twice a year because now that I’m over 40 and with the medical issues I’ve had over the years there is just some shit he likes to keep an eye on.

The following week, I got to meet with the doctor. And this visit started to crack the foundations of my world. Apparently my left kidney may as well be a marble sack since it’s got a bunch of stones piled up in their going “when gonna be my time lord”. Also, since I have had the stones more than twice, it’s called a recurrent condition. It also puts me in this new and more fun at risk group for eventual renal failure. Cool, I’ll just put that on the shelf next to the increased risk for colorectal cancer.

My doctor also explained why I was getting the stones. The UC, being an immunodeficiency disorder, does some dumb shit to your intestines such that instead of processing this shit called Oxalate the way a normal body does, it takes some of it and kicks it back into the body which causes it to build up and then get filtered out by the kidneys creating kidney stones. This meant more dietary restrictions and limitations than what I was already dealing with due to just having UC.

This visit I also learned about the medical term “incidental diagnosis”. This is when they are looking for one thing and find something they weren’t looking for. In this case it was an umbilical hernia. It’s not fatal and shouldn’t have any impact on my daily life but it’s something to be aware of. It’s honestly the only diagnosis I’ve gotten that doesn’t sit at the forefront of my mind wondering if that is going to be the thing that takes me out.

Now, for lets say two to three years prior to that particular doctor visit I’ve been dealing with low iron anemia. This meant that I was cold all the time, even on hot summer days, and tired. Just bone weary, fucking tired. All the goddamn time.

About two months before that doctor visit I had stopped taking iron pills that I didn’t know I needed to continue taking. I should have talked to my doctor first and I didn’t. That’s on me. I’ve been back on them for about three weeks as of writing this.

Last week I went on a long planned vacation with the wife and all three kids. Nine hours in the car each way. We went to the base of the Smoky Mountains. I had one goal on this trip. Go up a mountain. It was all I’d wanted since I was able to get my wife talked into going there instead of some random ocean beach. I don’t know what I was expecting.

Three days into our trip we finally started up the mountain. Thankfully you can go most of the way in a car. The last mile or so was on foot. The hour it took to get to the top was fucking majestic. We stopped halfway up to take some pictures. I am not one to take selfies, but I took one and seeing myself there in frame, with my hair blowing in the breeze, I look happy. Well as happy as I can look in a picture at any rate.

The next bit is likely to sound fairy tale princess and I don’t care. The hike to the top of the mountain was fucking magical. The mist rolling down the hills in the distance. Moving through a rain cloud and into the higher clouds. Clouds that took the clear sunny day and reduced visibility to maybe a hundred feet and gave the whole thing a cold gloom.

Here’s the thing though. I didn’t care. There was this spire thing you can go up at the top of Clingman’s Dome that puts you up above the trees. Even starting out into white mist as far as could be seen in any direction it was a transformative experience and it’s sat with me since.

This is not to discount the rest of the trip, just to say that this moment was the moment I was seeking. I love my family and I loved this trip.

From about the midpoint of the trip until the present I’ve been that same old bone tired and worn the fuck down. I’ve been in pain from head to toe and joints that have never hurt now do. Again though, I don’t care. It was worth it. Because I saw something on that mountain. I’ll come back to it. Promise.

But, it does make me take stock of what’s important to me.

The friends I call brother. I’ve known them now longer than I haven’t and we’ve all of us been there for the good and the bad the others have gone through. In some instances as a shoulder to cry on and in others to make the darkest, most inappropriate jokes. Life just wouldn’t be the same without them.

My wife who happens to be my best friend. We’re so much the same but different. She isn’t my better half so much as she is just my other half. And I cannot fathom a life without her.

My kids. Man, my kids are all kinda awesome in their own ways. Whether it’s the girls and their attempt to work as foils for my shitty dad humor or the way that they strive to live their best lives so much so that they can get in their own ways. Or the boy. My mini me. My little buddy. He is awesome and funny and weird. But I love all three of them.

Now if you’ve made it here you might be a little concerned, because truth be told it does read a bit like a goodbye letter. It’s not. Because of what the mountain showed me.

I’m not dead yet. You haven’t fucking got me yet. I’ve still got some fight left in me.

I’ve got more shit that I want to do and goddamit I’m going to do everything in my power to do it. I’m going to make games, not because I want paid to make games but because I love it.

I’m going to take more trips with my family. I’m going to try and understand my oldest’s taste in women. I’m going to try and make sure the middle one grows up happy, or at least as happy as I can. I want to make sure that the little one doesn’t turn out to be a sex offender. I may end up putting more effort into the third thing than the first two, but there is a reason for that concern.

And more. So very much more. Mainly though I’m going to live. Probably not forever, but as close as I can get.

I think I’m going to climb another mountain. Because I really want to. I know it’s hard and I don’t fucking care. If it was easy everyone would be climbing mountains all damn day.

And I’m going to do it all with the people that I love around me. Ok, maybe not the mountain part. I might be on my own for that.

So if I look tired, I probably am. If I look a little down, I probably am. I’m told my resting bitch face is strong. I know that I have a lot going against me medically as I pack on the years and the pounds. But I’m not going to just give up.

And I won’t go through the rest of my life with anything left unsaid.

Issue 13

Fourteen hours and three layovers later we were back at the shop. The weirdest part of the trip was when we landed back in Ohio, because I could have sworn that we were followed out of the airport by a couple of guys in suits, but I couldn’t be sure so I didn’t say anything to the boys.

“You said you had a surprise for us when you called earlier, what is it?” I knew William would ask about it as soon as we walked in the door.

“Ralphie, please take the bag in the back and sit with it until the store is closed. Do not open it until we are all back there or unless I tell you to. Okay?” He nodded and off he went. I could trust him to all but sit on the bag until the aforementioned time.

“How was business while we were gone?” Good, let Wil worry about the day to day.

William was looking a little unhappy about the way the last minute had gone.

“Business was fine, but the customers have been asking questions about where you guys went.” Shit, I’d not even given consideration to what to tell the customers, but it didn’t matter because apparently Stevie covered.

“I told everyone that Meryl was in the hospital and that Ralphie and Wil were watching your kid. Everyone thought it was funny that it took both of them to handle the task, but everyone was more distracted by the part about her being sick to ask anything else.”

“Should work as a cover, we only have a handful of regulars anyways, so no worries there. Thanks for covering for me little man.” He just nodded and went back to whatever it was he was reading. From where I was standing, it looked to be some sort of chemistry.

“How goes the self education?”

“I’d like to talk with you a little later about that. I’ve got a list of things I’d like to pick up and there are a couple of things that I need to get made.”

“Sure, we’ll talk after the great unveiling.” I just headed into the back as the Wills started to talk about the trip. I made Wil promise me that he wouldn’t say anything about the money, so it came as no shock that William came back about two minutes behind me wanting to see it.

“You brought back seven hundred fifty thousand fucking dollars?” Was all he said on the subject, and he looked as shocked as we did. I did the only thing I could think to do.

“Thanks, asshole!” As I leaned forward to make sure it would carry to the front of the store. And as expected, I got a faint “sorry” as a reply.

“Ralphie, if you would be so kind to go ahead and show your brother the loot.” He dutifully opened the pack and started to stack the money on the crappy little table that we used for our shipping of internet orders. It only looked crappy cause of the pile of cash that now rested upon it.

As Ralphie kept pulling more and more money out of the bag, William’s jaw began to drop. It seemed like this pile of cash was designed to have that effect on us.

“And they just let you walk out with this? Wil said that there were questions asked that you didn’t answer.”

“Not didn’t, couldn’t. You guys never told me how you found out about Paolo and I wasn’t going to make something up to cover it. It’s weird, but I kinda get the impression that they might actually know how anyways, and that they were just looking for a confirmation from us. So, whatever you guys did to find out, just be more careful in the future alright?”

I didn’t know that Wil had come into the back and was behind me. “Oh yeah, so I hacked into a DEA database, that had Paolo’s name in a report, and from there I just focused on finding him. It really wasn’t all that hard.”

“Christ, man! Alright, what’s done is done, but quit hacking the government. I believe they call that cyber-terrorism now and that is some serious shit, though splitting moral hairs when we’re doing business with killers and drug dealers may not really be putting me on the moral high ground.” We both had a laugh at that.

“Regardless, don’t do it again.”

“Whatever you say, you’re the boss-man.” I loved every time he did that and he had to know that it would smooth out any ruffled feathers.

I headed off to the office. We had a shit ton of money and it wasn’t doing anything but collecting dust. We needed to find a way to make it work for us, but for that I needed T. Time to make a call. Of course I got his voice-mail. He was in class or some shit. Didn’t matter, I knew what to do.

“T, it’s me. I need you to come home tonight. There’s a problem with the books that needs your direct attention. Call me.” That should have been enough to get him to at least call. He knew most of what was going on, but I was pretty sure that in the twenty minutes we’d been in the store Wil hadn’t told him about the money.

That was when William finally asked what was just naturally becoming a growing concern of everyone, even if it hadn’t yet been voiced.

“So, now that we have all this money, what are we gonna do with it?”

“Simple. We wait. We’ll only be sitting on it as it is for a couple of days, but T should be here tonight and we’ll come up with a way to make the money work for us and also grow into something more. It would be stupid for us to just start pissing it away now. We need to be careful about what we do with it, and if we start spending now then that can attract unwanted attention to us and to the store and potentially to our operation. I’m just gonna have to ask that everyone be a little patient and have some faith.”

Clearly my bullshit stall tactic worked as he just went back to work on the newest issue of the comic. I spent an hour going over the previous couple days sales. They were depressing to the point of making me wonder why we even bothered to have a front for our business, but it had to be for the love of the product.

It took a couple of hours but T finally called me back.

“What’s up man?”

“You need to come help me with an accounting emergency tonight?”

“I thought you could handle that. Is there a problem?”

“Yes, and it requires immediate attention.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“It’s in regards to our intentions to expand our sales internationally.” And then a silence that must have gone on for a couple of seconds. I was the one who finally broke it.

“T?”

“Yeah man, I’m here.”

“When can I expect you?”

“Let me pack an overnight bag and I’ll be on my way.”

“Excellent, see you soon.” Though I knew that soon would be at least two hours as he was halfway across the state.

I went into the back of the shop to make sure that everyone was working and that the money was no longer dumped out on the table. As cool as it was to look at that huge pile of money, it was a potential liability leaving it lying around. Thankfully we had a small safe in the office and once all the other crap had been cleared out I was able to stuff all the cash into it.

I wanted to make sure that the boys knew that T was coming to town, because it was usually such an event that we’d all be able to get clearance from our wives to stay out a little later than normal to hang with him, and true to form this time was no different. God bless consistency.

That bit of news also really perked things up at the shop too, which was surprising since I didn’t think it could top out after the money got there.

Just as we were about to close, William called me into the back.

“Hey, we got a submission for a new issue. You’re going to want to take a look at this.” And he was right as it turned out, I did.

According to the submission, it was from our German clients and they were looking to take advantage of threat removal services, which was funny as I’d never fully committed us to doing it, only exploring the possibility. They included all the information to make the job come together initially.

“How soon can you be ready Stevie? It looks like it’s gonna be your time to shine.”

He had this look of what could only be described as innocence on his face. I thought for a moment that maybe he shouldn’t do this. What kind of person would he become?

“Yeah, that was something I wanted to talk to you about. While you guys were gone I came up with a list of things I thought might be useful and shouldn’t arouse suspicions at the airport. Once I have the stuff off this list I should be good to go.” And he handed me a folded up piece of paper. It looked well worn, like he’d been folding and unfolding it for the past month. Alright, so he’d put some thought into it.

I started to unfold it to see just what he was after, but as I was unfolding the paper a thought dawned on me, that being that we still needed to work out delivery to the Columbian’s in less than seven calendar days. I folded the paper back up and put it in my pocket. I’d have to look later.

“Wil, get a hold of that attorney douche-bag and work out delivery details. Then just make sure that all out internet orders are up to date.” He nodded confirmation and got to work.

Stevie looked a little disheartened that I wasn’t giving his list the attention he clearly felt it deserved.

“Stevie, I promise that I will look at this later, and if everything you’re after is easily attainable, then we can probably start getting it for you tomorrow. That cool?” I didn’t wait for a response which was kind of a dick thing to do but we are how God makes us. I headed back out front to talk to Ralphie about get the chopper operational.

“Hey big man, don’t bother coming in tomorrow. Pick up Stevie and go work on the heli. You’re going to have about five days to get it tip top. Take advantage of every minute. That means don’t be late. You cannot fuck this up for us, I need you to bring you’re ‘A’ game. Can you do that for me?”

“What, go big or go home? Sure man, I can do that. What does Stevie know about engine repair?”

“As far as I know nothing, but you can both consider it a part of his education, you never know when the skill will come in handy for him in the ‘field’. And besides, I can use him to keep track of how little you’re getting done.” I smiled that huge asshole smile I liked so much and just waited for it.

“Dick!” And there was the payoff.

“Any thoughts on who we can get to machine the firing pins for the weaponry?” I couldn’t say why I thought he would, but figured since I didn’t know that it couldn’t hurt.

“Maybe, let me make a couple of phone calls. I know a couple guys with small machine shops. One of them is bound to be able to do what we need. The only problem is that regardless of how this gets done, they may need to see the guns.” Shit I hadn’t thought of that. Come to think of it, why did Ralphie suddenly seem to be on top things?

“We’ll worry about that when we find someone who can do the job. Maybe we can dismount the guns and take them to the people doing the work. That would probably be safer all around than taking them to where we have all the stuff stashed. Start making your calls and let me know what’s up.” He just grabbed the phone and started punching in numbers. All I could do at that point was wonder how much it was going to cost us to get this job done.

A few hours later and T finally arrived. We were just prepping to shut the shop for the night and as usual we’d had next to no business for the day.

“Bout time you got here. If you knew why you were needed you’d have gotten here sooner.”

“Well I got a speeding ticket on the way or I’d have been here sooner. This had better be worth the two hundred it’s going to cost to fix the ticket.” I chuckled a little at that. I’d send the money to cover the ticket back with him.

“Can one of you go clean the safe out and bring the contents in here for me please?” Ralphie and the Wills just looked at each other, I assume to see who was going to move first.

“Jesus guys, don’t everyone jump to it. Wil, would you be so kind?” He just scurried off, probably thinking I’m mad, but just wanting to see my family. I’d spent the better part of the last four days in flight or in Columbia and I just wanted to sleep in my own bed for a change.

“Alright, so how’d the meet go?”

“Better than we’d hoped actually, the Columbians not only went for the offer…” At that Wil was just coming back into the room with armloads of money.

“…they paid us half up front, which was why I wanted to get you here. Now that we have three-quarters of a million dollars, what can we do with it? I worry that any abnormal spending will only attract unwanted attention. And as much as it pains me to say so, I think that we should pay taxes on it as well.”

There was much grumbling at this, but it was expected. Hopefully T would be on my side on this.

“No guys, he’s right. That’s how the government typically takes down drug dealers and gangsters. Criminals don’t pay their taxes. If we funnel the money carefully it will probably help you guys get it past your wives as well. Let me think for a second.” And for the first time I got to see T’s mind in action. I could almost hear the hamster on the wheel in his mind as he started to pace the room. And then he stopped and smiled.

“I’ve got it and it’s fucking brilliant!”

“Ok… so, um… care to share?” I was surprised that Stevie of all people was the one to express his impatience at this.

“Of course, we run it all through the business. The stores books can reflect any of the additional incomes as consultation fees, which we don’t have to have anything truly tangible to reflect. In doing so the company will pay taxes and if we funnel it right we can do whatever we want to do with the money. We can move some into interest bearing accounts and we can work some into retirement accounts but most importantly we can put some into payroll and start doing what we’ve wanted to do all along… get paid.” Alright, it was fucking brilliant. It sounded way to easy though.

“Oh my god, that’s amazingly simple. Why didn’t I think of that?” It did bother me that I missed the completely obvious solution, but I didn’t care. We had a plan now.

T and I spent about an hour working out the finer points before he took money to cover his ticket and we all headed home.

We agreed that the best way to start bringing more money home was to phase it in gradually over a period of a couple of months. It meant that we’d still be suffering on the home front financially, but that if we were all patient it would work itself out. We decided that in six pays we could be able to justify doubling our pays and in twelve we could justify quadrupling them.

This was a huge pay increase for us since it meant that in six weeks we’d have enough coming in to be able to actually pay all our bills and in twelve we’d have such excess money as to be able to adjust our lives for the better. Now, since we weren’t doing it all at once we’d be able to acclimate ourselves to our new financial situations over time.

Now all the while that we were doing this, the remainder of the money would be split and placed into interest bearing accounts, since the best thing we could do with any money that came in was to make it grow upon itself. We felt this would be the best way to do it since we had no idea when this ride was going to end and we wanted to be ready to retire at any time. We even set some small financial goals for ourselves, those being that we’d do everything we could to double what money was made every year we continued to sell. So if in sales and interest we were able to make five million this year, we’d do what we could to try and make ten the following year. Now a full hundred percent growth was probably aiming unrealistically high, but, like Brian had said earlier “go big or go home”.

Issue 12

“Jesus Christ guys! All you had to do was sit there for the fucking flight and now you’re both piss drunk. Come on, we can’t show up with you two like this. Let’s get you two assholes some coffee.” Wil just hung his head low, in obvious shame, but Ralphie looked like he was trying to come up with something intelligent to retort. After it looked like he was gonna stroke out for lack of the comment, I just started to walk off.

There had to be some place close to get coffee, it was fucking Columbia after all. Unenlightened me thought their chief exports were Coffee and Cocaine but it turns out that just because they ship it everywhere it doesn’t mean that everyone there drank it. I could only scratch my head over that. After about ten minutes of looking and having to use my half drunk interpreter to get directions we finally found someplace for them to get some coffee and get their shit correct.

It didn’t matter anyway since our ride wasn’t going to be there for us for at least two more hours. I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with the customer picking us up at the airport, but it was gonna be better than trying to get wherever we needed to get on our own and with my entourage in no shape to drive me.

So two hours and countless cups of coffee later I was able to trade in a couple half-drunk shit heads for a couple of wired and twitchy shitheads. I didn’t know which pair was worse, but at least they were a little more focused. I suggested that we all take a moment to freshen up and then go looking for our ride, to which they happily concurred especially since it gave them the chance to piss away some of what had to be the gallon of coffee they’d consumed.

“So who are we looking for?” Wil never had told me.

“They’ll have a sign that says Pandora’s Box. I thought that would be better than using any of our names.” He used the fucking store name. Crist we might as well put this in our fucking yellow pages ad.

“Jesus dude, the store name?” He could immediately tell that I wasn’t happy.

“Told you he’d be pissed about it.” Why Ralpie took this moment to play the ‘I told you so’ card was anyone’s guess, but it did prompt another question.

“You knew he did it and you didn’t feel inclined to tell me? What the fuck? It doesn’t matter now, let’s just do this and get it over with.” And we headed in silence to the swarthy looking gentleman holding the sign bearing our stores name.

“Hola senor, do you speak English?” I had to hope, especially since I had all but exhausted my knowledge of the Spanish language. I was a little too pissed at Wil to use him as the interpreter he was meant to be.

“Si, I do, a little bit.”

“Excellent, I’m Mr. H and these are my associates. I believe we have a meeting with your boss.” Seemed a reasonable enough thing and I could see no reason to add names to Ralphie and Wil. Plus, fuck them, I thought. Let these shitheads wonder.

“This way senor, I parked the car out front. My name is Raoul.” And he started to exit the airport terminal.

I wish I could say that I paid more attention than I did on the trip to the meeting, so I had to hope the boys would pick up the slack for me. I was more preoccupied in trying to get myself into character so that I’d be ready to make a deal with a drug lord. All I kept thinking is that it couldn’t really be like it was in the movies and the only movie that kept coming to mind was Scarface, and as I recall that didn’t end well. I’d also never done cocaine and had no interest in starting now.

So, we all of us settled into what seemed to me a very long car ride. The only thing that made up for it was that the trip was made in a Rolls Royce. This trip would also be the first and last time I’d get to ride in one. Not that it really mattered it was just a car after all, a really cool car, but a car nonetheless.

It was maybe a half hour or so ride from the airport. I kept playing in my head the possible scenarios for the coming deal. It all came back to one thing, that being that I’d have to improvise based on the personality of the guy I was dealing with, and that was a variable I hated but yet somehow excelled at. I’m weird that way.

I was, however, able to take some comfort in the knowledge that I’d been solely responsible for keeping things headed in a forward direction, but of course that was another aspect of this that just didn’t matter. We were all but in league with the devil now and we were about to get in even deeper.

I kind of smiled a little at another thought that reared itself. So many things had gone the stereotypical way I’d have expected to see on the silver screen. Would this Paolo be the drug lord I had constructed in my mind, a flashy white suit with a dress shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel with a shag carpet of chest hair showing that looked almost greasy in all of glory.

About the time I started to think about that Raoul broke my train of thought.

“Mr. H, we are here.” And I felt the car start to slow down.

Only then did it dawn on me that I could still see the airport from where we were. We seemed to be perched on the side of a mountain. This wasn’t good if we needed to get the shit out of here, but I knew I’d work something out. I always did. If I didn’t live by the seat of my pants, I’d probably quit living.

I could see now that this was quite the cartel compound, not that I had any frame of reference. It was gated and had what looked to be a guard tower on every corner of the 12 to 14 foot wall. It looked to be the kind of wall that served a double purpose and kept as much inside as it did out.

The car came to a stop and Raoul honked the car’s horn twice, which just like everything else about this car had an element of opulent class to it. The frivolity of it struck me as very cool, but the money conscious prick in me could only think that it was completely unnecessary.

The gate started to slowly pull open, and a small contingent of armed gentlemen emerged. Well, calling them armed isn’t quite accurate. They all had some serious hardware, easily of the grade that we were here to barter over. And in retrospect gentlemen may not necessarily be the most appropriate description either. More like a bunch of sweat soaked armed goons, not that I’d have called them anything but gentlemen to any of their faces, cause they really looked ready to do some damage. We would probably do well to stay on this Paolo’s good side. I made a mental note to not lose my cool here. That crazy act would probably only end up getting us killed, and a quick look at my boys confirmed that they were thinking the same thing.

So once the five or so armed dudes had the car surrounded they let it into what I can only describe as a courtyard. Once inside the gates were once again shut and locked and it was both an elaborate and noisy process.

Then there came a voice from some hidden speaker. It was perfect and unaccented English, which confused me quite a bit.

“Mr. H, if you and your associates could exit the car slowly and keep your hands visible it would be greatly appreciated.” I looked at the boys who both looked more than a little concerned, mainly because it was very clear that the only reason we still lived and would continue to during our stay here was because our host allowed it. I didn’t like having my fate in another man’s hands, but there was nothing I could do about it at the time.

I went ahead and started to get out of the car. It seemed to me that the guys would be better about things if I took a good solid lead on this. Surprisingly, despite my confusion over all of this, I was just not afraid of the situation we found ourselves in. Maybe it was because it wasn’t the first time I’d had a gun pointed at me. Maybe it was because I was starting to realize I had what some would call the ability to shut down my moral center.

The guys followed my lead, though a bit more hesitantly and in no time at all we were standing in a walled courtyard somewhere in Columbia with our hands on our heads while some fairly grabby guys came and gave us such a thorough frisking that I kinda felt that I was owed a dinner for the groping I’d endured. It seems that there was some level of satisfaction over the nothing that was found. Once Mr. Grabby nodded towards the shadows of the nearest building I heard the voice I heard a minute before in the car.

“You can put your hands down gentlemen. I’m sure that you can understand my employer’s need for the safety and security of his operation and men.” The way this guy talked told me that he was probably a lawyer, and I thought that we were preparing to deal with the devil here. What kind of soulless bastard did a lawyer have to be to represent a drug lord?

“I can indeed Mr.?” I was hoping to get a read on this guy from his responses, and it helped that he took that moment to step out of the shadows.

This guy looked even shadier than the guys with the guns which I couldn’t help but smile about. He looked to be all of five foot nothing with a bit of a pudgy bit around his midsection, and the kind of baldness one looks for in a monk. That sort of shiny on top but the sides and back haven’t yet given up the ghost. He also had some serious five o’clock shadow and wore his necktie loose. This was a look I’d grown familiar with having worked with attorneys in the past.

“Liebowitz. Fredrick Liebowitz, personal counselor to Paolo.” He was a proud jackoff, which was funny only because everything that was happening was so very clichéd that I had to wonder if it was all a dream.

“A pleasure Mr. Liebowitz, but you’ll forgive me if I want to go ahead and get down to business. My associates and I have had a long flight and we have another plane to catch in a few hours. If we could just go ahead and meet with Paolo, I’m sure that we could come rather quickly to some sort of mutually agreeable situation and be on our way.”

“While I can appreciate your perspective, Paolo is unable to meet with you, but he has entrusted me with the task.” Awesome we had been passed off onto some flunky.

“You wouldn’t by chance be an attorney by trade would you?” I had one idea that could work out in our favor. Every attorney I’d ever met had a huge ego, something to do with thwarting justice or manipulating the legal system or some shit so I thought that maybe I could massage this guy’s ego and grease the wheels.

I could immediately tell by the look on his face that I’d hit it on the head. “How’d you know?” And now I wasn’t upset about having to work with this guy. He had just given me the upper hand in this deal by allowing me to have what can only be described as ‘the element of surprise’.

“You remind me of an attorney I knew back home is all. Well then Mr. Liebowitz, if we are to deal, then perhaps you’d be amicable to getting down to business.” He just smiled and nodded.

“Certainly Mr. H. If you gentlemen will follow me, there is a place where we can talk out of the sun.”

Now it wasn’t till he spoke of the sun that I realized that it had to be 90 degrees with a subtropical humidity. I was so distracted I didn’t even realize that I was really starting to sweat, and as I look at the guys they looked on the verge of a good old fashioned heat stroke. God did build them a little “stocky” which made weather like this a little harder for them to take.

As he turned to lead us away, the armed thugs went back to whatever they were doing when we’d first showed up, which appeared to be screwing off. Since we weren’t armed they didn’t seem the least bit interested in us anymore, which I found odd, until I noticed that there were now extra guns in the guard towers and they were aimed in our direction.

So the attorney led us between the buildings of Paolo’s compound to what appeared to be the only building on the grounds that had air conditioning. Suddenly I thought that would be a pleasant change to the suddenly oppressive heat. It also appeared from the direction that we were approaching from that this building would be best suited as the nerve center for the compound. It seemed to be in the center of the compound and had by way of all the windows enhanced visibility in all directions to walls, and probably the guard towers from the top floor of the building which was from the looks of things the third story.

As we got closer I noticed that each corner of the building had a camera at approximately the height of each floor, which made six cameras to a side, all of them slowly oscillating back and forth at slightly different speeds, which was a nice touch. That would make it harder for someone to defeat the cameras as a security system. I’d remember that trick for the shop.

We were led into the building and into one of the first floor offices. It was clearly the attorney’s personal office. It had the standard bullshit you’d expect in an attorney’s office, the diplomas and fairly common “couple pieces of fine art” to show that the attorney had culture and was just arrogant enough to flaunt that he had money.

I had to remind myself that I couldn’t bring my own prejudices against attorneys into this deal. If I was gonna hate this guy, it’d be because he’d need to go to the trouble of earning it. He sat down behind his desk and motioned for us to sit. There were only two chairs so I could only hope that they boys would do the logical thing and Wil would sit while Ralphie played the whole stoic guardian thing up. I thanked God for the first time that day when they finally did something that didn’t feel like they’d been purposefully fucking up for my benefit.

“First let me start by asking how you gentlemen happened upon our organization. Paolo goes to great lengths to ensure his privacy, and the fact that you gentlemen were able to pierce through that veil of privacy is cause for a bit of concern in our organization.” I couldn’t even begin to answer him on this. I only wanted results, and never bothered to ask how the Wills got them. That could be bad if I didn’t play this right. I knew that I’d lose a bit of leverage in this if I even looked at Wil for some hint of an answer. I’d have to make it up as I went along.

“How we heard about your organization’s needs is quite simple really. We take no little pride in knowing just what our potential customers are going to need, sometimes before even they themselves do. My organization came upon a specific piece of merchandise that we thought would be perfect for Paolo’s transportation needs, but if there is some doubt as to our intent here, then my associates and I are more than happy to take this deal elsewhere.”

I knew that I needed to play a little rough on this, but not push too hard or I’d make him walk away from the deal. So to back up my point, I put my hands on the arm rests of the chair as though readying myself to stand.

“Well, there’s not necessarily a need to call it off. We will just have to take greater measures in enforcing our security in the future. Now I believe that the piece of merchandise you refer to is the helicopter, correct?”

“The one and only, Mr. Liebowitz. It’s a classic piece of American engineering with all the guns still intact. The only thing we don’t have for the guns at the moment is ammunition, but we are in the process of acquiring that as we speak, and would easily have it in time for Paolo to take receipt of the merchandise. We’re currently tuning up the engine and cleaning all the on-board armaments. Now, does that sound like something that Paolo would be interested in purchasing?”

He just sat there looking at me. It was like he was waiting for something. Just then a little phone on his desk rang. The attorney answered it. It was in that moment that I realized that there was a camera mounted in a corner of this office.

“Yes, sir… Certainly, sir… Yes, Paolo.”

And with that I knew who was on the other end of the camera. He didn’t have business to attend to elsewhere he was just too much of a chicken shit to meet us face to face because of this supposed security issue.

I felt my ears start to burn as the blood rushed there. I don’t know why it pissed me off the way it did, but it didn’t matter. These Columbians were jerking us around like every other piece of trash we’d been dealing with. I couldn’t help but wonder if we were any better than the scumbags we were prepping to deal with.

And then the attorney hung up the phone. I figured I’d play off my frustration with a grin.

“Well, Mr. Liebowitz. Does Paolo wish to do business with my organization or not?”

“It would seem Mr. H., that Paolo would be most interested in purchasing your wares. His only concern is the price.”

Knowing what I did about the situation, the chopper and what it was capable of, I knew that a reasonable price would be upwards of at least half a million dollars. With ammunition for the guns, I knew that we could get the price to jump a bit.

“Shall we say half a one point five mill in U.S. currency then?” I could tell from the look on his face that he was happy with that price. Inside I thought that I could have gone higher, but there is no changing the past.

“That’s a more than acceptable price Mr. H. Per Paolo’s instructions, payment shall be made in two parts, with the first part to be before and the second part after the delivery of the merchandise.” There had to be a catch. A glorified drug dealer had to have some sort of trick up his sleeve, but I could only wait to find out.

“That’s acceptable. When can we accept the first half of the payment?”

“Would you like to take it with you?” My jaw dropped and I momentarily let my guard down as I looked at the guys. They were clearly as shocked as I was. Quickly I tried to regain my composure.

“That’ll work. I trust you won’t mind if we double check the count.” And with that Liebowitz just chuckled.

“Paolo thought you might feel that way and a room is already being prepared for just such an endeavor. I trust it will be to your satisfaction. In the meantime may I offer you gentlemen a drink?” I looked at the guys and they looked like they needed a drink about as much as I needed huge breasts, which is to say not very much.

“We’ve had such a long trip so far that I think maybe some coffee might be a better way to go.”

“Certainly Mr. H., I’ll have it brought in directly. Feel free to wait in my office while I go check on the status of the ‘count room’.” He got up and slowly strode out of the room. Once he was gone Ralphie decided to break the silence.

“Are we walking out of here with a three quarters of a million dollars?”

Wil answered Captain Obvious’s question with a bit more contempt than I’d have expected.

“Yes, dumbass, now shut the fuck up. We’re being watched on that camera right over there on the wall.” I thought I was the only one to notice, but it was nice to see someone else did. It made me feel a little worried that it wasn’t Ralphie. If he couldn’t see something as simple as a camera on the wall, how could I expect him to protect me, but maybe I was just being unnecessarily critical of the situation and I would just need to give him some time to prove himself a little more.

“Just chill big man.” And then I put my finger in front of my mouth the way you would when you’re trying to quiet a small child.

He grumbled something under his breath and went back to just standing there with his arms across his chest in that way I prefer. Just then there was a soft knock on the door and a stunningly beautiful latino woman came in with a tray and three steaming cups of coffee. She said something softly in what I could only assume to be Spanish and then left as quickly and quietly as she’d come in.

After that we just sat in silence and when what seemed like an eternity had passed, Liebowitz came back. I was a little curious just what his game was and why we were being given $750,000 dollars on our way out the door, when we hadn’t provided any real answers to his questions as to how we had even heard about their organization, but who was I to argue. I mean even after costs and giving Russ and Tom their cuts, we would each be walking away with somewhere around one hundred thousand dollars. I think that was more than we had made collectively the previous year, or was at least very close.

“If you gentlemen will follow me again, an area where you can count the money has been made available. Feel free to bring your coffee and just let me know if you need anything else.”

“I could use a bathroom if it’s not too much trouble.” This seemed like a strangely inappropriate time for Wil to have bladder issues, but I did make the both of them drink so much coffee before we left the airport, that I guessed I could just let it go.

The attorney just laughed and pointed at a door we hadn’t yet passed, which Wil quickly ducked into as we went by.

“I can come back for him after I take you two to start counting your money if that’s alright?”

“That seems reasonable to me, Mr. Liebowitz.” Because it did and there was no reason to make any kind of issue out of Wil and his need to piss.

He led us even farther down the hall to what appeared to be another office, but one that saw much less use. The paint was peeling and it had the faintest musty smell to it. This looked to be where they did this kind of thing and only this kind of thing. On the table there was a backpack and a pile of money. Now when I say pile of money I should clarify that three quarters of a million dollars in “strapped” twenties and fifties is a large pile of money, so very much more money that any of the three of us had ever seen up to this point in fact.

Around the table were a handful of chairs, and I went ahead and sat down to get started on the counting. As I did so Liebowitz exited and I presumed headed off to get Wil. Turns out I was right and about a minute later he came back looking clearly more relieved and upon seeing the money, ever so slightly shocked. He was thinking the same things I had I’d have guessed, and would later find out to be true.

Once again I just had Ralphie stand there looking like a big dumb wall, and that was how I needed him, regardless of my feelings on the subject.

Once Wil was seated, then the count proper began, and much the way we did inventory back in the store, we began to break down the pile of money in such a way that we were able to have the count done in about a half an hour. We were just finishing getting the money packed up into the bag when Liebowitz came back. It figures that they’d have some cameras in here, and as I looked around the room, it turned out that they had more in here than we had noticed in the attorney’s office. There were three that I could see, and I suspected that there were probably more that we couldn’t.

“I trust that you found everything to be in order.”

“I did, and I do appreciate that Paolo saw fit to pay half up front. Now, there is one point that we never discussed. When would Paolo like to take receipt of the helicopter?”
“Paolo would like to have it in his possession the week after next, and the exact day can be worked out after you’ve returned home. He would also like to have it delivered to one of his holdings in Florida if it’s not too much trouble.”

Now, less than two weeks could be problematic on getting it ship-shape to be ready, and there would be the travel time to get it delivered to Florida as well, which would take at least two days or so for transit. But for what we were expecting to make on this deal I think we could play a little bit of the hurry-up offense to get things ready to go.

“That shouldn’t be a problem. You can provide the address for delivery when we work out the time of delivery. Now, Mr. Liebowitz, I trust that Raoul will be available to drive my associates and I back to the airport shortly. We would like to be back in time to catch a flight back as soon as possible. We have much to attend to back in the states.”

“I already took the liberty of letting him know and he’s waiting outside. I assumed you’d want to leave when you were done so I put him on standby. He’s ready to leave whenever you gentlemen are.”

I got up and threw the newly loaded pack to Ralphie to carry for me and then went over and shook Liebiwitz’s hand.

“I think we have the beginnings of a most mutually beneficial business relationship.”

He just smiled and nodded and led us out to the waiting Raoul in that tricked out Rolls again.

As we were piling into the car I noticed now that it felt like it had to be a hundred degrees and I was suddenly glad to be in the air conditioned car.

“Good to see you again so soon Mr. H. I’ll have you back at the airport in no time at all.” And true to his word we were back before I had even begun to wonder how long it would take to get there.

I thanked him for the ride and wished him well as the three of us piled out of the car and into the airport. It only took a few minutes to track down the next flight stateside, even if it did mean going a little out of the way. I was just going to be glad to be headed back home. I was never a huge fan of traveling and even with all the money involved in this trip was no different. I decided that I’d just have Ralphie keep track of the pack until we were back in the store, and knew that he wouldn’t let the pack out of his sight. He even went so far as to use it as a pillow on the flight back so that he could keep it close to him.

And that’s how we first got into business with the Columbians. It looked as though all the hard work was finally bringing everything together perfectly and we were soon to be rolling in the money. At least that was the plan. First we had to make it home.

Part 59-61 – A Crossroads

I am so sick of running. All we ever do is run from everything. After a couple hours it became clear that we weren’t being pursued and as the day came to a close but before the darkness overtook us, Fayne and Shojin went off into the woods to hunt something we could eat while Z, Ezrella and I set up a bit of a camp. 

Eventually they came back with a deer and Shojin looked like he got his ass kicked again. I would later find out that the ass kicking came from trees. Not like moving sentient trees or anything, but just regular trees. He is just straight up clumsy.

The night passed uneventfully although when it came time for our watch, Shojin and I exchanged the story of the dreams we’d had before our watch and that’s when it got weird. Aside from some minor trappings, it was essentially the same dream. All hot and sun and sand. It meant something. It had to. We kept it to ourselves because by the time we’d finished talking about it we found that our time on watch was coming to a close and it was nearing time to break camp and be on our way. 

Apparently we’d only needed to travel a little farther to see it. On the edge of our field of view there was what looked like a model town with such detail it was nothing but impressive from where we were. I wondered aloud how small the inhabitants must be. This was when it was pointed out that it was actually quite far away, and must, based on our direction and rate of travel be Highbreeze at last. 

Between where we were and where we were going there was a small village. Well more of a crossroads really that the road passed through. We got some strange looks when we came into town and then we did what we always do and somehow cock things up with a half baked plan. 

Shojin and I would pursue some means of speedy transport while the Elves just kind of meandered about the village. Somehow pursuing transport ended with us effectively horse thieves and meandering about the town ended with Z and Ezrella passed out in the tavern with Fayne throwing them back in the bar while the simple folk were pawing at the bear and calling it a pretty puppy. 

Due to the way we had worked on getting the horses and a wagon I couldn’t show my face in the tavern because there were people who would recognize me. I eventually found myself wearing the face of an elvish child between the kilted legs of the man attempting to pick up Fayne at the bar. I played like I was her kid and spooked the guy off. I let her know that we needed to run and that things had gone the way they do for us, nothing but pear shaped. 

She was not immediately on board with this, but time was a commodity we did not have in abundance so I went to find out what was up with the other two and finding them passed out worked enthusiastically to wake them up. For Ezrella I made something that stank appear in my hand and for Z I just smacked her across the face. Repeatedly. And once for good measure after she started to stir. Had to be sure after all.

I gave them the short version of our garbage horse thief plan and we were about to make our way out to what was apparently a Shojin waiting outside when he came crashing in and I saw them. Three random guys all emblazoned with the same random flaming eye symbol as the men who had taken Shojin and he was engaging them in solo combat. Time to try and save the day. 

After we dispatched the first two the third ran like a punk with Shojin and Fayne giving chase. They lost him in the alley that ran behind the building we were in and I found my way to the cart we were in the process of stealing. As everyone was finally, slowly making their way to the cart, the man who I can only surmise actually owned the horses and cart attempted to block our path. 

I tried to convince him that we had left money and that he could find the horses on the outskirts of Highbreeze proper, but wasn’t having any of that. When negotiating failed I tried to threaten him. How threatening is a child really? In my case, not that much. I cast a spell I was still figuring out just behind him at the ground, but I misjudged the distance. As we rode off I wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead, but I gave a quick prayer to my lady and asked for her to help him, if not to live, than to pass peacefully. He didn’t deserve what had happened to him. 

In my fear of being seen as a killer as we rode out of town, I slid into the look of the first thing that came to mind so I looked like me, but in a pickle costume as we rode out of town. That may not have been the most inconspicuous look we could have gone for, but it worked I guess.

We rode on for a bit and finally abandoned the wagon about two thirds the way to Highbreeze. We walked on and found ourselves outside an inn that also had a tavern. I just wanted a peaceful night not looking over our shoulders so I rented out the tavern for the night and all the rentable rooms for five days. I overpaid for everything but I didn’t care. We may not have earned it, but we definitely needed it. When it was finally time to turn in I asked Shojin to stay up for one more drink and one drink turned into a lot of drinks but it was then that we decided what had to be done. We left a bit of a care package in our room with a note (see below) and we gave the man working the tavern some more gold to ensure that it was all delivered.

I cried as the door to the inn shut behind us, but we had to do it. I just hoped that they wouldn’t hate us for running off in the night. We just couldn’t do the farewells and I knew deep down that we would meet again. Or at least I hoped we would. 

Fayne, 

So the Lady showed me something last night. Shojin saw the same things in his own dream. It has to mean something and we think it’s connected to the bond that we both share with our own mortality. We have something we need to check out. Something old and something likely very dangerous. I’m sorry we left without a proper goodbye and I hope you can forgive me. Just know that this is not the end. We will return but we need answers and it isn’t fair to make you help us literally chase our foolish half dead dreams. We need to do this on our own. We’ll send word to you when and if we can. Just keep following your path. I know there is greatness in you both and I don’t need the lady or her dreams to tell me that. This is going to sound hypocritical in the face of this letter, but there is strength in numbers. Stick together and you can overcome anything in your path. 

Despite her travels from across the world you know more of the world than Ezrella, Please look after her until we return. 

Tell that traitorous possessed bitch Z, if she continues down a path of blind devotion to a jealous god she will lose the only friends she has and die alone in a grave of her own digging. L cannot possibly want her clearly loyal servant to alienate the only people who have tried to help her on her journey. A dead servant is no use to a cause no matter how powerful she seems. Maybe remind her that standing alone on top of a pile of bodies is still standing alone. 

I leave you with a final thought, that there is a strength in friendship and that can help you  through even the darkest times and if our dreams are right then some dark and ugly times are coming for all of us.

So until we meet again… later bitches,

Payday

PS: Remember Loille, my mount deserves better.

Issue 11

Nope. We’re fucked.

“Tom told me to call. He thought you’d like to know that everything was delivered less than an hour ago to the drop point, and you’d be wise to get it all moved sooner than later. Apparently there was a problem, and the window you were supposed to have to move it has shrunk, and if you don’t move it in the next 2-3 hours it’s probably gonna be found. Good luck Jonah.” And then Russell just hung up on me

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. I was not happy about having the plan changed on me last minute like this, but we’d come too far to have it all fall apart now. I got the guys together and we worked it out in that way we do, all on the fucking fly.

“Alright boys, we have a minor problem. Well, many major problems really, but we need to start someplace. Something got fucked on Tommy’s end and we’re on a clock to get all the shit moved. So Ralphie, do you think you can drive a semi?” He just nodded. I hoped he wasn’t pulling my leg.

“Wills, I need you to start making calls and find us some self storage units, preferably with someplace big enough to store all the shit. Obscurity would be nice as well. See what you can make happen. I have faith in the both of you. If you have to, then pull Stevie off his ‘studies’ and get him to help. Call me on my cell when you have something. Ralphie, let’s go.”

“Already on it.” They said it in unison and it sounded fucking stupid, but I didn’t care.

From the looks of things we had less than 3 hours to make all this shit vanish or not only would this deal go south, but chances were good that we’d all done enough to get some serious prison time under that stupid fucking Patriot Act.

Now, what Russ had neglected to tell me was that not only were the goods delivered, but that the delivery guys were gonna be waiting with them. Fantastic, just fucking fantastic. I spent 45 minutes driving to have to talk to these shitheads. I didn’t have time or energy for this. But these two uniformed jackoffs apparently had other ideas.

“You Jonah?” Oh God, but I just wanted to smash his head with a fucking crowbar. I am not a violent man by nature, but I got the impression these two were going to be yet another delay we didn’t have time for.

“Yeah, but my understanding is that there is a time issue, so we need to get this shit out of here. Now, I’m sure that you and your girlfriend there are perfectly pleasant people, but Tom didn’t tell me shit about any delivery people so you’ll need to excuse us, we don’t really have anything to discuss. So, here’s what’s gonna happen GI Jackass, you are going to give me the keys right now. You will then turn around and walk away.” All I could do at that point was try and quell the pulsing blood in my ears. It made an almost deafening sound, but I was so sick of all the shitheads involved in this working my last fucking nerve.

Clearly GI Jackass wasn’t impressed with my pithy little comment. He made a move towards me. Now this might be a good time to mention that in this world there are people who are built for fighting and there are people like me. God, in her infinite wisdom saw fit to build me in such a way that I would be the one of the greatest recipients of ass-whippings. Now with that in mind, I have no idea how what happened next was even possible, but what I do know is that I waved Brian off as he started to move to intervene. I then lifted my foot and brought it down with a force and from a direction that to me seemed to defy the laws of physics and reality. It had the effect that I was subconsciously going for apparently, in that it seemed to break in some fashion GI Jackass’s knee. I can only guess as to the severity of that injury, but as he went down I brought my knee up into his nose. This would have been when the second fucktard started to move in on me.

“Stop him!” And Ralphie did just that. For being military these guys were clearly not any kind of top notch. Not sure what or how Ralphie came to stop number two, but while he did, I proceeded to kick Jackass in the ribs a couple of times to drive home the point.

“The keys to the truck motherfucker.” He produced them, as well as some blood, which he saw fit to cough up all over my shoe. I gave him a kick to the face and appeared to knock him out.

I then directed my attention to number two, who was on the ground but looked to be in far better shape than the Jackass.

“Now, I don’t know what the fuck you two thought was going to happen here, but if Tommy told you that you’d get paid, take it up with him. You two shitheads might want to hurry up and get out of here.” I tossed Ralphie the keys to the semi, and as I turned to head back to the car, it dawned on me that these two jokers might have tried to seriously damage my persons. Now, why it occurred to me in that terminology, I couldn’t tell you, but I made a decision to be an even bigger dick right then, and went back and gave number two a good old fashioned kick to the balls as before walking away.

I just smiled from what had to be ear to ear as I headed back to the car. I forgot how good it felt to get physical like that on occasion. There was just something about letting that caged animal that lived inside come out to play. But before any doors were shut Ralphie signaled that he had a question.

“Where to?” Which was a good question, but the guys hadn’t called yet. Time to improvise.

“Somewhere not here. Just follow me.” And we started off. I got my phone out. I thought for sure that they’d have called by now with something, even if it was bad news. So I called the shop to find out what the hell was going on.

“Pandora’s Box, this is Wil, how can I help you?”

“You can tell me where the fuck I’m going.”

“I was just about to call you. You sound out of breath. Problems?”

“Not really. We can talk about that when we get back. Now, where are we heading?”

Turns out that ironically, there were some storage units available out by the old airstrip we’d met the Russians at. That would be perfect since there wasn’t shit out there anymore since the old mill closed. We could count on some relative privacy to get the chopper fixed out there. Ralphie and I headed out there and I met with a man who clearly only came out to meet with me and seemed a little pissed about having to do that.

This would be fantastic, cause to me it said that he’d be staying out of our business. I gave him money to cover the first three months up front and he went on his way.

He did comment on the blood on my shoe though. I told him it was from a nosebleed, and he just chuckled and went on his way. I liked this guy. He just didn’t give a shit and that would be a pleasant change.

So we locked all our new goodies up and headed back to the shop. We did make a pit-stop so I could get some new shoes first, but all in all we had everything moved and we were back in the 3 hours we were given. Maybe, just maybe, things weren’t quite so fucked after all.

After I explained to the guys what had happened, I made a phone call to Russ. Tommy had some explaining to do and soon.

“Russ, you tell Tommy that I need to speak with him today, not tomorrow, not next week, today. I don’t appreciate that shit at the pick-up and he had better have some good fucking answers if he wants paid. You think you can remember all that. And you tell that fuck, that this is a face to face, I don’t care what kind of shit he’s gotten himself into.” And like clockwork I knew he’d have no idea what was going on. Let Tom explain what happened.

“Yeah, I can remember that. I’ll tell him.”

Why did I insist on face to face? I was too big a dick for even myself to be able to control sometimes. The only place I could think of that would be nice and secure would be at the store. It had several security issues, but I knew that I could rig up another one of the white-noise makers and have it make sure we weren’t listened in on.

Eventually the store would end up tricked out in a pretty hardcore security system, complete with some sort of x-ray technology that would allow us to essentially “see” guns on people as they came in the door, but that wouldn’t happen for some time and not until after what would later be referred to as “the incident”, but I’ll get to that. For the moment we had some prep-work to do prior to asshole Tommy’s arrival.

And time was a real factor now since Ralphie, Wil and I had a plane to catch that night. No matter though, as Russ called me back an hour before the store closed. This is the message as relayed by Ralphie.

“Tell Jonah he’ll get what he wants at closing time.” Couldn’t have been much more than that since the call lasted all of 3 or 4 seconds and the only thing Ralphie said was that he would.

So we had an hour of waiting, which wasn’t a horrible thing. In a way it made me glad I’d had cable installed in the store. At least until the news came on anyways. That was the point at which I saw something that almost made me shit myself.

Right there on the little screen in the shop was the evening news anchor talking about a military heist of millions in weapons. I started to get light-headed, cause this was supposed to be a little on the down-low as they say, and here it was, about to get national publicity. That couldn’t be good for business, I thought.

But as neurotic as that story started to make me it was no match for the follow-up. Authorities had the bodies of two men believed to be involved in the heist and were looking for a third. When they showed the pictures of the men whose bodies they had, my jaw just dropped. It was GI Jackass and his girlfriend. This was so fucked up. What I didn’t realize is that I’d begun chanting what would become my mantra and the guys had taken notice and were now just as upset as I was.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!”

“What’s the matter with him?” William would not be happy with the answer to that question.

“Those are the guys we threw down with.” Thanks Ralphie. Make it more real, why don’t you?

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!”

“There’s some guy outside.” Wil was apparently the only one not really concerned, at least not visibly. I had to compose myself.

“Goddamnit, he’s early. Ralphie, go tell Tommy to come on in. I’m gonna hit the pisser to get my game face on. Nobody talks to him before I get back.” I just stood there waiting for nods I knew would come, some slower than others, but they came all the same.

So, I started to play out the upcoming scenario in my head. There were some pros to Tommy killing those jokers, the biggest of which was that they were no longer an issue and would not be in any way possible potential interference from here on. The flipside of that was what scared me and that was that there would be something that could tie us to their deaths, and if that was the case, as much as it scared me, it pissed me off more. Anger, I thought I could work with. If Tom somehow brought this shit, his shit back to my door, then he’d burn for it and it sure as shit wouldn’t be in the chair. It looked like I’d found my game face. Good, time to be a hard ass, or at least pretend to be and try not to piss myself. I was starting to think that I should be up for a fucking Oscar as good as I’ve been making myself out to be some kind of hard nosed crime lord. I’d have to work on my acceptance speech later, for now though…

“What the fuck Tommy? First who were they, and second is going to come back to us?” No point in pleasantries.

“They were hired to be nothing more than delivery, but they decided that the deal I made with them just wasn’t good enough and so they wanted to renegotiate the terms of that deal. It was going to be hard for me to do so after that shit you did to them, so I had to tie up loose ends. There is nothing that will link it to you, and this doesn’t change any part of our deal.”

“It better not Tommy. I told you once what would happen if you tried to fuck me on this and I think you can see now that I am a man of my word. If I’d do that to them and they were just wasting my time, imagine what I’d do to someone who actually pisses me off, and all of this is starting to. If you cleaned it up, then we’re done here. You can get the fuck out now. Just remember not to make yourself a loose end. I’d hate to have to tie you up.” He stood there on the verge of saying something, but I didn’t care, time to step the charade up a little.

“Ralphie, help him find the door, he seems a little confused right now.” Ralphie grabbed him like a rag doll and started for the door, making sure to slam him into the wall and the door frame on the way. When he did finally make it to the door, He threw the door open and tossed Tommy out like a bag of trash, which as I look back on it was really all that disgruntled shitbag was.

And like a switch, I was back to meek and mild mannered Jonah. I could tell the guys were a little worried, but we’d deal with it in due time.

“Alright boys, get your shit together, we’ve got a plane to catch.” I just smiled. I was starting to like this badass character I portrayed. I began to wonder if it would eventually get me in shit.

After today I looked forward to the long flight. It would give me a chance to catch up on some much needed sleep. And so from before we even took off till the time we landed I did just that and slept like a fucking baby, which is to say in short stretches contorted into a position man wasn’t meant to sleep in.

Apparently Ralphie and Wil were just too nervous to sleep, which meant that they spent the trip drinking which made them super fun when we landed, a couple half-drunk, half hung-over Americans. We were going to be so popular.

Issue 10

The next day came and was quite possibly the most uneventful day I think we had ever had since we opened the store, which given our financial problems was saying something. It was all we could do for most of the day to just stay awake, so I had no real expectations for sales for the day, but as time slowly crawled ever onwards found myself getting a little nervous about the coming evening’s festivities. I was not looking forward to having to take William along with me. He would be nervous and that nervousness would be more than a little infectious.

But it had to be done, so as it started to get late I thought maybe he could find just enough courage to make it through in the midst of a couple of drinks. We lied to our wives telling them that we’d be working late doing an “after hours” inventory of everything in the store. They seemed to buy it, which made no sense, but they knew how much the store meant to us so it could just have been that they didn’t really mind. We were just a couple of harmless shits after all, it’s not like we were even capable of doing anything remotely dangerous or potentially exciting. At least that’s how Mer explained it to me later.

So, when we closed up for the day we went and had a couple of drinks and waited for the hour of the meet to start to roll around. About 11:15 we decided to head on out to the airstrip for this clandestine cloak and dagger bullshit.

My only current and nagging concern was the potential language barrier, because at the time I did not have a viable workaround. I was at least happy that the meet was happening so soon, because we were going to need to move product as close to as soon as we got it as possible. At the same time I was kept circling back to my disappointment that neither of us could speak nor even comprehend a word of Russian. I could only hope that it wouldn’t be a problem. What other choice did I have?

William and I arrived at a quarter till and decided to just sit and wait. We both spent our time waiting by chain smoking. Right at midnight though, a looking sweet black Mercedes slowly pulled up. I was certain that even if it weren’t dark out that I’d not have been able to see through the dark windows. I was curious how many guns were trained on us. I know that is how I would have played it. It seemed like the car just sat there forever before the door slowly opened and a couple of slickly dressed clearly European guys got out.

They had the sort of chiseled, blocky features one would have expected from a prototypical Russian gangster. As if to feed the image I’d built in my head even more, they all wore what looked like a 5 o’clock plus shadow, which made a little jealous since I couldn’t grow any discernible facial hair of my own. But all in all they looked like some seriously bad dudes.

The pair looked just like something out of some kind of spy movie, which kinda felt cool. I had to mentally check myself. I couldn’t nerd our about how cool the spy shit was. They looked at us and spoke in hushed tones for a minute before they said anything to us. Then there was a knock on the glass of the car, at which point the window slid down and apparently some sort of all clear was given at which the Russians seemed to relax a bit and address us.

“Which of you is de comic guy?” William raised his hand like he was back in grade school. I suddenly realized that he looked like he was gonna shit himself. Pressure was rarely if ever his friend.

“Excellent. Then that must make you Mister H. I’m told you have something you’d like to sell me.” That meant it was time for me to be me.

“I am and I do. First let me say thank you for meeting on such short notice. Second, I have what no one else does…” And he fucking cut me off.

“I can get guns anywhere Mister H. They are, how you say, a dime a dozen.”

“Well, I can assure you that even though our prices are higher than that we have the one thing you can’t get from just everyone, dedication. If we don’t have what you want, we’ll work to get it. That’s how we operate. Customer satisfaction is a top priority. Well… that and money.” The guy just chuckled and nodded.

“Ok, so tell me what it is you have then?”

“Well, as you’re aware we have guns, most any and all make and model of a type that the US government has been and is using to outfit its troops. And this is current or last generation gear, not some piece of shit surplus from World War II. In addition we have a selection of explosives, as well as a small assortment of rockets and the like. Now on top of this, we very shortly will be offering additional services of a threat removal nature should you require such things, and of course it would be very hands off on your end and very discrete on ours.” I just stood there for a moment waiting for all of it to sink in.

“And you will deliver these things to me?”

“To any location you want in the continental United States. We will not ship outside the country, as it lessens our risk of getting caught by the authorities.” He spit at his feet on that one. I may have struck a nerve. I’d have to remember that for later. Might just be useful.

“However, since we know that you then have to assume some of the risk on the transport side of things, this is reflected in our pricing.” He scratched at his stubble for a moment and then gave the affirmation I was hoping for.

“That sounds reasonable, though the way you talk is troubling. Some of the things you say, I once heard from a woman, a German woman. Our dealings did not end, how you say, amicably. Any chance you know her.” Huh, it was a small world after all.

“I think it would be a very poor business practice to discuss any of our other current or former clientele. I’m sure that you can appreciate that, and you can expect the same treatment in regards to your privacy as well.” Hopefully that would be evasive enough that he’d let it go, and confirmatory enough that he’d gotten what he’d wanted.

He just put his hand in the air in a sort of mock surrender. At least that’s what I took it to be.
“Fine, fine. How do we contact you?”

“Well that’s the thing. You don’t…” The puzzled look that crossed his face was truly priceless.

“Not directly anyways. William, if you please. Give them the packet.” In preparation for this, I’d had the guys collect all the pertinent contact information in regards to the web comic and collate it by relevance.

“This will explain all you need to know about contacting us. All I can ask is that you ensure the destruction of that packet of information after it’s been committed to someone’s memory. I trust that you’ll find that acceptable.” I was getting so much better at this on an almost daily, nay hourly basis that I was starting to scare myself. I started to wonder just when I’d know what I was capable of, cause right now it seemed as though the sky was the limit.

“I think that can be arranged. We’ll be in touch.” And he turned to leave.

“Wait, what do I call you?” I never did find out his name. He turned and smiled.

“You don’t Mister H. Like you, I prefer my anonymity, but if you must have a name you may call me Boris. That should be stereotypical enough for you Americans, yes?” I had to fight back a laugh when he said Boris, but sure whatever works. Looking at William I could tell he was having the same problem.

“Yeah, that’s fine by me. Have a nice night. Let’s go William.” And we did. Much like the last evening meet, that I’d gone to with Ralphie, we passed the time in total silence. I finally got William back to his car at around 1:30am and told him to drive safe.

And then we both headed home. Two down and one to go, and we were taking receipt in less than a week. Everything was going swimmingly, but I still had some nagging doubts. It all felt too easy. It couldn’t really be this easy, could it? It was late and I was tired. I’d worry about it in the morning if I was gonna worry about it at all.

So, now that everything was all but in place the only thing left to do was to wait for the goods. The time seemed to slow even more as the date of receipt approached, but we were able to get some minor issues hammered out in the meantime. We concocted such a bullshit story for the womenfolk to cover our trip to meet with the Cartel, but the only problem was that it was so bad that even we didn’t believe it, and if we weren’t gonna buy it then our wives shouldn’t either. They were all rather smart, though they married us so maybe we did have a chance.

William was able to focus and get the first issue of our webcomic up and online, which would ultimately give us a base from which to start from. I spent a majority of the week making sure that T was fully apprised of all the happenings at and around the store and ensuring that the books were in fine form, since he was supposed to be coming back from school soon and would, I was sure, want to make sure I hadn’t fucked them all to hell.

Other than that, there was nothing of merit that occurred during that week. Well, there was Stevie and his newfound and obsessive love of learning. He was like a wee little man possessed.
In seven short days he’d been able to teach himself, a conversational speaking capacity in Spanish, Russian and German. He was spending his free time, I would later discover, working with Ralphie on it as well. I don’t know how he had any free time when he was either working at the store or learning more shit, but if anyone can squeeze extra minutes out of a day it’s him. Regardless, one of them had the bright idea that if Ralphie was always going to be with me it would be to my benefit for him to know what was going on. I couldn’t argue with logic like that. It could ultimately end up saving my life.

And so that week passed and on that fateful Tuesday, we went from being a bunch of jackasses who talked a mean game, to a bunch of jackasses with a couple million in stolen military goodies. Things were finally coming together.