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.

Part 56-58 “A home of sorts…”

So as we were sitting down to breakfast Shojin finally stopped being an ass and screwing around with his stupid new bag long enough try and start something with Z. There was food thrown and threats and some spells. It was the usual sort of family crap we would get up to. I enjoyed it more than words can properly express. Except for the fact that Shojin just didn’t seem to care about anything other than being stuffed up to his shoulder into that bag. I got fed up with all the crap by the end of the meal and decided to just walk around the property. If this was going to be our new home, even for a little while, I wanted to have a solid lay of the land. Plus, it only seemed fair that since I made the food someone else could clean up the dishes and stuff.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped outside was that Gnoman was gone. It wasn’t all that surprising. This had been the longest he’d traveled with us and I was really just waiting to see how long it took before we lost him again. I hope he is able to find peace. It seems like all he knows is death.

I wasn’t paying the closest of attention to things as I walked from random feature to random feature on this farm. From the well near the house or the stream still overflowing from all of the recent rain and the pond in the middle of the property to the barn and the high weeds along the forested edge of the property. Well, stream, pond. Well, stream, pond. There was something not right about all of that but it just wasn’t coming into focus. Just seemed like a lot of water.

I decided to make my way across the stream, which for me might as well have been a river since it came up to my waist. It was fast moving and cold, which kinda felt good. I thought I might get swept away, and thought that would be a ridiculous way to meet my end. But then I got to the other side and thought about jumping in, floating away and hoping for the best.

I was just wandering around messing around with a stupid little spell I’m always casting, just trying to test the limits of what I can get it to do and I’d made a hollow metal cylinder that fit in my hand. Curious about how it would hold up, I dropped it to the ground and kicked it. It gave a very satisfying hollow, sound and that’s when I saw them at the edge of the trees, roughly a dozen deer. Well sort of some kind of monster deer. Just big and gross looking. I bet Shojin would eat them raw. As I saw them, they saw me. Awesome.

As some of them moved across the open ground in an attempt to confront me, I made a simple bell like thing to try and distract them away, which did not work. Good to know for future encounters. The stream was too deep for me to easily ford and I was essentially surrounded by either locked outbuildings on this farm or forest I was unfamiliar with. Good thing I’m small.

I achieved a tactically stealthy position in some tall grass and just hoped I was downwind from them, hoping that would help me avoid an unnecessary encounter by myself in the yard. As it happened, I was not downwind so I didn’t have much of a choice.

Eventually Fayne heard the commotion and between the two of us, with some timely intervention from Shojin we dispatched the beasts. Shojin looked like he’d been rolled down and I’d come to find out that there was some sort of basement structure consisting of a tunnel that led to the dry well and stairs leading into the dining room of the home. What weird shit were these people into?

Shojin now had some crazy dream about setting up a smoker and I was well and truly pissed because he didn’t seem to understand anything that I was going through or that his friends had gone through quite a lot to find and recover him safely. We did that right and we don’t do much right.

I followed him down into the underground tunnels and as he was trying to explain his grand plans for a smoker for the meat I tried to punch him in the crotch. I was so mad that my emotions made me miss, but I finally had his undivided attention.

I unloaded on him about what it meant to lose him and my growth while he was gone and what it finally meant to find him again. I get it, dying or at the very least coming so close that there isn’t much of a difference changes you. But I needed to get him to understand and he just wasn’t. So I slipped into his face the way I’ve done so many times now and explained to him that the face he was seeing was the reason I was angry and why I saved those half orcs, and why we slayed that dragon, because dammit we slayed a dragon and why we tracked his lanky ass through hill and glade for days just hoping to get him back. I told him that I love him like a brother and I’ll stand with him until the end, but he has to give me something to work with. And then I gave him a hug and I wasn’t really paying attention to which one of my birds decided to be a jerk and say there were too many feels.

My issue resolved, we decided to explore the cavern and see what we could see. Eventually we came to a corner and just past it was a doorway. We couldn’t get any closer due to the dog guarding the doorway. It was big and ferocious and smoke slowly rolled from its between the teeth in its massive mouth.

Shojin made a noise in the path behind me and the dog charged us and it was around that time that another lady like the one we’d fought earlier in the day came through doorway. Maybe they were sisters? By the gods, but we were so ineffective and the lady and her dog kicked the ever loving hell out of us and that is factoring in that at some Z and Fayne ended up down there trying to help. Ezrella was doing dishes or some crap. She’s just so precious some times.

Eventually it came time to make a judgment call that we were not going to survive if we continued this battle, so I ran. I yelled for everyone to follow me and as I ran through the dining room of the house I set the bookshelves on fire yelled for others to do the same. The hope was that the fire would help deter them from following us.

Whether it was that or something else, we were not pursued as we ran from the burning house. As we ran off into the afternoon sun as we’ve run off so many times before all I could think was that at least it wasn’t raining. That had to be something.

Issue 9

“Since we have that all taken care of why don’t you two go ahead and finish getting things set up with the Russians and the Columbians. That would make this spectacular day.” I knew the guys were still gonna be pissy about the whole Stevie the killer thing but we still had work to do. These guns weren’t gonna sell themselves and we only had a couple days until we had them in had so we needed to get our shit together.

So while they got to work on that I had Ralphie and Stevie get started on opening up for the day and I sat down to do the bookkeeping for all of the previous day’s sales. It was an hour or so of silence before Wil finally had something to report.

“Hey man, just wanted to let you know that we’ve made contact with a Cartel. A meeting is in place for the day after we get everything. They’ll want to see pictures of anything we’ll have to offer. And it turns out you were right. They are also keen to buy the heli. They seem to think that it will make a beautiful middle finger to wag at the dumb americans or some shit. I know spanish but couldn’t understand everything.”

“Cool. Get us three round trip tickets to Columbia then. How’s it going on the Russian front?” One and a half down and one to go. I could work the Columbians, no problems there, but not being able to even try to deal with Russians was frustrating.

“We can’t hammer down a means of contact just yet, but we will have it today.” A wry little smile. There was something that he wasn’t telling me.

I played along, “How can you be so sure?”

“We were able to get a line on some low-level hanger-on and we’re trying to use him to set up a meeting with someone of importance. We expect to have that worked out today today. I had wanted to surprise you with it.”

“Well, sorry to spoil the surprise. Good work.” And he turned to walk away.

“So uh… are we cool?” It would make things so much easier if there was no hostility amongst the lot of us. He stopped and turned back around.

“I don’t have to like it, but yeah we’re cool. It’s the same with William and Ralphie, if you were curious.”

“Let me know when you have news on the Russians. This afternoon we can start working on a cover story for the trip next week. It’s gonna have to be pretty good to make it work.” Once again he turned to leave. This time I didn’t stop him. No need now. Everything was more or less on track. Just the way we needed to be.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that we were neglecting the one thing that we should most definitely not be neglectful of, that being our web-comic. It was Time to check in with William and see what was up with it.

“William, I keep forgetting to ask you, how’s the comic coming?” He just pulled out his notepad and opened it. He had a bunch of sketches of all of us.

“Look’s amazing as usual man.”

“The art’s not the problem, the story is. I’m having trouble with the first issue.” He seemed genuinely concerned by this.

“Just use the truth man. It’s so fucking far-fetched and unbelievable that nobody will ever buy it as anything more than a story. Just leave some of the details out, like our trips and whatnot. See what you can come up with. Make it your top priority after the Russians are tracked down.”

“Sure thing. That gives me some ideas. I’ll work on it when I can today.”

“I also wanted to make sure that you and Wil are shown a proper level of appreciation for all the work you’ve both put into tracking the individuals in these organizations down. It’s ultimately going to make the difference between us making money, and us sitting on millions of dollars in guns and shit.” I should have known that Wil would be listening to the exchange.

“We know, dude. We know.”

“God, you guys should just fuck already.” Nothing ever beats Ralphie being a douche-bag. His comment earned him the much lauded and laughed at, and with all three of us in unison mind you.

“Fuck you Ralphie.”

“If you’re back here, there had better be a damn good reason for it. What the fuck do you want?” William and Ralphie were so mean to each other it was hard sometimes to put it together that they were brothers and not hated enemies.

“Fuck you too, asshole, I just wanted to see if anyone wanted to go in on a pizza with me.”

We all just looked at each other and nodded.

“Sure thing Big Man, and the store will pay.” He was clearly pleased with this and he just kinda lumbered off to make it happen. Not sure what that said about us a group that he no longer had to ask what any of us wanted on it/them.

“Alright back to work fellas. We need to get some actual results today. I want this third buy either in place or on the hook by the time we take receipt of the guns. So if you would be so kind…” As I turned to head back to the office I realized there was one last thing to cover.

“If it’s a waiting game right now then work on sales and the web comic. There are two of you back here after all.”

“Blah, blah, blah, we’re on it. Christ, if I wanted to listen to this much nagging I’d just go home.” God how I loved when I could get Wil to be bitchy.

I just chuckled and went back to the office to finish up the paperwork. I hated to spend all day in there. I’d rather be on the floor mingling with the customers. I felt comfortable there. Lately I was feeling comfortable with a lot of things, like being a gunrunner and wetwork, I think they call it wetwork, coordinator, so I wondered again about just what I was becoming.

About an hour later I was finishing up the accounting in the office when the pizza finally showed. Ralphie came back to let me know and just as we were heading back out front to eat the phone rang. I saw him look at the rest of the group for approval to answer and as he clearly expected got none.

“Don’t you fucking touch the phone, dumbass.”

“William, be nice to your brother.” Since Fletcher’s death it seemed to be Wil to always be playing the peacemaker.

“Shouldn’t one of you get the phone? You guys are the ones who were working this out with the Russians in the first place.” So William went ahead and answered it.

I’m not sure how it played out completely as I only had his side of the conversation to go off of, and he was so nervous he could only remember the specifics of who and when to contact people.

“Hel…hello. … yeah, this is the one who does the web comic. Um… only face to face? … Yes, I understand … tomorrow at midnight … Yeah, got it. … He’ll be there.” He hung up the phone and it looked like he was going to pass out.

“Well?” The peacemaker sounded a little impatient, but I could understand it given the circumstances.

“The meet is tomorrow night at midnight at the abandoned airstrip north of town. Jonah can bring one person with him. Any more than that and the meet is off. Since I’m the one who initiated contact they insisted that the plus one was me.” Shit, William was not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, but he lacked the imposing presence of his little brother.

“Fine by me. It’s only a negotiation anyways. It’s nothing to get freaked about. Can we have some pizza now?” And I walked over, sat down and started eating. If they didn’t see me freaking out they wouldn’t either.

“Looks like it’s all coming together now, huh?” Ralphie coming through with the simple question wasn’t ever a shock.

“It does at that big fella. It does at that.”

Outwardly I was calm and cool. I had to be. I was a leader and a wheeler and dealer. Inside though it felt like my heart was going to explode, or that I might just throw up all the pizza I was eating. Either way, it certainly didn’t feel very pleasant.

The rest of the day thankfully passed by uneventfully and I was able to spend a majority of it in the office plotting how things would be progressing. I also took the opportunity to give T a call and let him know that everything was falling into place.

We had a decent days sales to top it all off at that. It was making things more interesting now that we were finally making enough money to at least be breaking even on shit. Better to break even than to lose money every day. But were things really looking up for us? I could only wonder.

Issue 8

Once Greta and the fat and skinny Germans had left I decided that it was time for some sort of celebration. We were finally on track to getting paid and the way it was all coming together it was for something that we may actually be pretty good at. I couldn’t help but wonder just how much we could increase our profits by “threat removal”, so I resolved to discuss this with Stevie for reasons that will become readily clear.

“So Stevie, you need a ride home tonight?” I knew I could do that without arousing any suspicions since he needed a ride home pretty much all the time.

“Sure, man. Thanks.”

I got everyone into the back room, “Alright boys, time for a celebration. We have a buyer. Guess that means we need to really be on top of shit when we finally have the guns in hand. Wil, I want a face to face with the Cartel and the Russians in the next two weeks. We’ll fucking go to Colombia if we need to. You and the “Big Man” will accompany me. You’re the only one who can speak conversational Spanish. Stevie is going to be spending tomorrow finding me some way to learn to speak Russian. I’m thinking podcast downloads but I don’t really know, but it should be relatively simple and I’m sure it can be made to happen. We’ll worry about cover stories for our trip as the time for it gets closer. Alright then, any questions?” I frightened myself a little at how I could formulate a plan like this on the fly.
“Just one, what are Stevie and I gonna do when the three of you are traveling around the world?” William had a point, but I’d already considered it.

“You two will run the store of course. Someone has to maintain our web sales in the meantime at least until we get our arms dealing feet wet. Yes, I realize what I just said. Also, we aren’t all traveling the world. Wil’s only coming with me for the Spanish portions of my trip. Ralphie is coming with me as far as I need to go in the guise of personal protection. I hope it’s not Russia, cause all I can think we’ll find there is that it would be damn cold and full of vodka and potato soup.”

I thought about that for a moment.

“Is that too many stereotypes?”

“Only if our contacts name ends up being Boris.” Ralphie, could be funny when he wanted to, and we all had a little laugh at that.

“Alright, looks like we have a buyer and a plan. That’s a start and I think we’ve all of us earned the right to call it a little early today. Anyone wanna go get a drink?” I knew they’d jump at it, but only after the addendum.

“And it’s on me guys. And then I’ll take you home Stevie. Does that sound good enough for you guys?” Nothing but nods.

So we went and had a drink, and as all things go one turned into three and when it was all said and done we’d effectively cancelled out the little bit we’d gained by closing early. Oh well, such is life. I called Mer to let her know I’d be running Stevie home and off we went.

“There was something I wanted to talk to you about. That German bitch was running her mouth about how they would pay a premium for some sort of hired assassin services, should we provide that. Now the rest of us have our familial obligations and whatnot to attend to here, but you don’t. You’ve expressed to me in the past a desire to travel and see the world, so I thought that maybe…” I just let it trail off there. He wasn’t stupid and he knew what I was saying to him.

“If you want me to, I will.” He’d have made an awesome soldier if he’d been so inclined.

“You aren’t doing it for me man. Not directly anyway. You’d be doing it for you. Since you’d be the one to run point and almost all you would be doing would be done solo, how bout you get 60% of the payment, plus reasonable expenses, on those ‘assignments’? That way it’s worth your time. We can make sure that you have all the tools you need at your disposal. I think that a study of human anatomy, chemistry, engineering and physics as well as some firearms and martial arts training might be of benefit to you. You should also look for anything else that might up your overall area of knowledge.” He simply nodded.
“That sounds good. I’ll start looking online for the things I might need tonight.”

“And you should also learn to speak as many languages as possible. If you wanna take a couple of days to get started on this and not come into the shop, that’s cool too. You’ll still get paid. I also think that for the time being we should keep this between us.” I wasn’t sure that the guys would understand or approve. I could tell he wasn’t super cool with that.

“Alright, if you say so man.” He hated to keep secrets from the rest of the guys.

That was about the time we pulled up to Stevie’s place. This was gonna be a problem and I knew it. He loathed secrets, which would end up being an issue when it came to stealthy assassinations in foreign lands.

“Alright, be there bright and early tomorrow and we can tell them together. Maybe they will have some idea of how to get you prepped for this too. Just know that if you change your mind and don’t want to go down this road that’s cool too. Ultimately, since it’s your ass out there running around in whatever godforsaken land your target happens to be in, it’s your choice and yours alone.” I had to hope that was enough to alleviate his feelings on the subject.

“Ok man, I’ll be there.” And he got out of my car and went inside.

I couldn’t help but think that I’d just made a huge mistake. If I had a dollar for all the fuck-ups I’d made over the years, I’d probably be one of the richest son of a bitches ever to walk the earth. Stevie was a good guy and he wanted to get rich like the rest of us. I already knew the decision he’d made. He’d kill for money, and he’d do it until he couldn’t do it anymore. He had the drive, motivation and questionably shady ethics to do it.

So I went home and caught hell for smelling like smoke and booze. Meryl hated it when I drank. It always brought back the less than stellar memories of what a horrible bastard I was when I got shit-faced. It earned me the luxury of sleeping on the couch.

The next day came and I rolled into the shop a little later than normal, which is saying something since I was always fashionably late getting in. I knew the guys would get it opened and whatnot before I showed up. What I didn’t know was that Stevie would get there before me and tell them without me. What I did realize until that moment was just how tired I was of showing up only to find the rest of them yelling like a bunch of caged animals fighting over a scrap of food. Right at that moment it was Wil making his feelings known.

“I don’t care what the justification is, that’s not what we discussed and I say no. Who the fuck does he think he is to ask you to do this?” I toyed with hanging back to hear what else he had to say on the matter, but I knew it would only breed a little bit of hard feelings and that was something that we just couldn’t afford to have in our happy little circle right now.

“I’m the guy who makes the financial decisions for 90% of what we do is who I am. And you’re right I did ask him, with ask being the key and operative term. I also made it clear to him that he was under no obligation to do it. I was merely suggesting it as an option to him, and judging by what’s going on here he made his choice.”

“You’re right. I’ve thought about it and I want to do this. I don’t have the obligations you guys have and I want to retire young. I don’t care for school. I want to be able to do what I want with my life and financial independence is the way for me to achieve that. My grandmother isn’t gonna always be there to take care of me, and I’m getting old enough now that I shouldn’t be constantly coming to you guys whenever I need something. Plus, the money won’t hurt the rest of you will it? All of you have bills to pay and kids to feed. I’m just building my nest egg, but you guys have families to support. You’ve all helped me for so long now that it’s just time for me to repay the favor.” He’d given it far more thought than I’d anticipated.

“Alright guys, now you’ve heard his piece, can you let it go? You don’t have to like it, but at least respect that he made the choice on his own and for his own reasons?” –The three of them, William, Wil and Ralphie, all just looked on a little shocked and a whole lot pissed and they didn’t say or do anything in response.

“Alright Stevie, what do you need?” And we began to plan out what he’d need.

We worked out the beginnings of how we could justify his almost constant travel and how we could get him any needed supplies wherever he should happen to go in the world. We also decided on a method of contact when he would be “in the field”.

We also were in agreement that from this point forward none of our clients would know who in our organization would be the one to do their jobs, and also that Stevie would effectively be a ghost from that point on in respects to our clients. They’d neither hear from or of him nor would they see him. We were also in agreement that we should never know who the target was to be. It was to be just a way for us to compartmentalize it all. He thought that all of that was a great idea, and he had already compiled a list of innocuous supplies and training materials that he felt would be of benefit to him.

As for the specifics of what we’d worked out they are as follows: First, that when Stevie was in the field, he is on his own. There would be an emergency voice mail set up that we were to contact in under the most serious of circumstances, and that he would check it once daily, if able.

Secondly, he would take as little or as much time as he needed to complete the job, as long as it was feasible to do so. No need to rush into it when you could plan it out and get it right.

Thirdly, upon completion of a job, he would send us a postcard to let us know that the job was done, but would only put onto the postcard “Wish you were here”. We were in agreement that he shouldn’t send from where he completed the job, so he should send form quite literally anywhere else.

Finally, it was decided that he should also take a little r and r time after every job, at least a week if possible, to just kick back and relax wherever he so chose to go.

That is how Stevie got his start on becoming the greatest assassin the world has never known and I became a monster for getting a kid to kill people for money and think that it was actually his choice. I’ve never forgiven myself for that.

Issue 7

I’d already put it together in my head. The main phone for the store was out in front. Ralphie had been out in front. I now knew why Wil and Ralphie were fighting too. I could only imagine what Ralphie had said to these people. I threw up a little in my mouth at that. I only hoped that we would find a way to salvage this.

“Stevie, go out front and tell Ralphie to come back here. Then make sure all the customers pay and shut the shop down. I know it’s early, but please just do it.” He nodded and scurried off. He was just so good at following instructions. That would prove to be a huge advantage in the coming months.

As Stevie was on his way out, I returned my attention to The Wills.

“Did one of you at least try and intervene, or did he completely fuck us?” they both just looked at each other, apparently unaware that I’d put it together on my own.

“We got it kinda fixed, but they want to talk to the person who makes the decisions in matters of ‘importance and finance n’ such’ and we all agreed that was you homey.” How could I argue with that logic.

“How do I contact them?” Seemed such a simple thing.

“You don’t. They’re coming here after we shut down for the night.” Ok, so this was a local group. I suddenly wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Dealing with a group, terrorist or otherwise in some far off foreign land was one thing, but shitting where we ate was another thing all together. But what choice did we have in the end.

“Fine, but let’s try and at least be ready. In the meantime I have some questions. First, how were sales both in the store and online today? Second, did you boys get contact information for the Russians and the Columbians, or are they coming here too?” I had to chuckle a little inside at this.

At the same time though, how could I be so calm when faced with our new would be business partners. All the gangsters, killers and what I would eventually find out weren’t just Germans, but were more of the fourth reich Nazi variety.

“As for sales, online was enough that it’ll cover the stores expenses finally. We aren’t losing money daily anymore which is a start I would think.” Wil did it all matter of fact. Guess he was expecting this sort of thing. I was just so predictable back in the beginning.

“And we got the contact info too. We were just waiting for you before we moved forward on anything.” William was then and has been since so very, very prudent.

“Alright, just remember that sales are gonna be a big thing for us for the next little while. Now, in regards to the Russians and Colombians, I trust you two can set up some sort of meet and greet. I don’t want them here though. I’ll go to them, and as much as it pains me, I’ll be taking Ralphie with me. Just do what you can and get something set up.” It suddenly dawned on me that Ralphie and Stevie still hadn’t come into the back. I was gonna have to once again go see just what the hell that giant fool was doing out front.

Ralphie and Stevie were just sitting there talking when I came out from the back. What I didn’t notice was that we still had some people in the store, or at least not right away. There were three people in the store now. They consisted of a fat man, a not so fat man and a woman. All wore the same style of grey suit, though I couldn’t help but think that it looked a whole lot better on the woman than on either of her companions. Once again, I just wasn’t quick enough on the draw mentally for this to click. It took the fat man speaking to have it all make sense.

“You must be the one they call Jonah?” It was the thickest German accent I think I had ever and with any luck will ever hear in my life. I could barely understand what he said, but at the same time knew just who he was.

“That would be me, but you can call me Mr. H. My friends call me Jonah and last I checked I don’t even know you, and in that you’ll have to forgive me for not knowing who you are. Stevie, why don’t you go in the back and make some coffee?” Phrased like a question, but anything but, Stevie just headed off to make the coffee.

“You may call me Hans, and if the boy could stay, that would really be better.” To which Stevie stopped and just stared at me. I could tell he was expecting me to say or do something to give him confirmation one way or the other on just what to do here.

“Well Hans, while I sincerely hope that we can have a business relationship, the boy works for me and not you and I told him to go in the back. He’s not the one who makes the decisions that are going to need to be made here, I am. Now if you want to talk business, then he goes and you and I can sit down and talk some business. If not, then you can feel free to let yourself out. Just remember we didn’t come to you, you came to us. Are we going to do some business here or what?” I had to just let the question hang in the air for a moment, before I looked at Stevie and gave him a simple nod, at which he went into the back and I sat down.

The German’s sort of huddled together and conversed quietly, not that it would have mattered, since it was all done in German. None in our group could speak the language. I made a mental note that one of us would need to learn at least some conversational skills in the native tongues of whomever we wound up dealing with. It seemed to me that it would give us a leg up firstly, and less chance of getting fucked with second. It’s harder to screw someone by speaking a different language when they can understand you.

After a minute or so of Ralphie and I just looking at each other, he took my cue and finally just did as he’d been instructed to do in our previous encounter, he just stood there rather stoically with his arms crossed in front of him. To a stranger it had to have the appearance of something remotely intimidating. Finally the woman spoke.

“We will do business then, but you will address me only as these two serve the same function as your man there I think. Protection is for protection and a leader is for thinking.” The complete and utter lack of an accent made me wonder how she was connected in this, but I didn’t care. I just smiled and offered her a seat at the table.

I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that a week before at the very same table, a group of grown men were pretending to be wizards and elves thwarting a world controlling syndicate in a very heated role playing game session and now tonight we were getting ready to work what would be one of the biggest deals we’d known to that point in our lives.

“Certainly, miss…?” They knew who I was and it seemed only fair.

“You may call me… Greta. Yes that will do nicely I think.” She just smiled at me. Ok fake names worked for me. I’d have Wil figure it out with a still from the shops security cameras.

“Alright then… Greta,” I smiled to let her know that I could tell that the name she gave was bullshit and continued. “I think we need to set up a few simple ground rules before we continue. If you find my terms acceptable then we should be able to have a both fruitful and long business relationship.” I let it hang until she simply nodded.

“And they would be?”

“First, that after you and your muscle leave here you don’t come back here, ever. That point is the ultimate deal-breaker. There are frequently children here, and whatever my associates and I should choose to do with our lives should in no way put them in any potential danger. Agreed?” She nodded.

“That seems reasonable, but how shall we initiate contact when we have needs?”

“That’s would be my second point. Contact will be initiated only through our website and in a code that we provide you with. I’ll make sure you have that code to take with you when you leave.” I motioned for Ralphie to lean down, whispered to him to go fetch Wil for me. He nodded and walked off. The Germans started to look a little concerned.

“He’s getting one of my tech people. They’re the ones who are making the website contact possible and I want to explain to him directly what I need him to do. So, does that sound amenable?”

“That sounds acceptable, but I do have a question for you? Do you only provide military merchandise, or do you provide other things?” I couldn’t tell if she was baiting me into something. I tried to make it as though I was playing coy when in truth I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Such as?”

“One of our past business partners also provided for our occasional need of specific threat removal.” Did she just use some fancy wordsmithing for assassination?

I had to force myself to not look shocked when she said it. That would only succeed in making us as an organization look poorly equipped to handle ourselves.

Thankfully before I could answer Wil was at my side. I could tell by the look on his face that he had heard the question and he was just as horrified as I was. The only difference is that I kept a straight face on the point, and he wore a look of surprise. I got to him quickly in the hopes that the Germans wouldn’t notice.

I pulled him aside and told him to go into the back and come up with something with William fast. They had about ten minutes to get a working code system set up. It didn’t need to be perfect and we could modify it later if need be. He expressed some concern over what he’d heard and I told him I would take care of things. I then sent him on his way and sat back at the table.

“To answer your question, at this time that is not a service that we provide, but we have been discussing expansion into new markets, so perhaps something can be arranged. If the price is right of course.” I think I just committed us to killing people. I wondered, albeit briefly, who was I turning into that I could just disregard human life so quickly.

“That’s a fair answer, but you should be aware that we are willing to pay a premium for threat removal. Let’s talk hardware shall we? In our area of operation we are always in need of guns. Have to arm the soldiers in a war and all that.” She’d been at this for a while, since that sounded almost like something that she’d had to say more than once before.

“Alright then, why don’t you just tell me what you need and I’ll supply you as best I can. If I don’t have it I’ll see what I can do to get it, and if I can’t get it then it probably can’t be gotten. Other than that it’s really just a matter of cost, time and delivery.” Figured I needed to blow a little smoke on this one, since it wasn’t much only about one step removed from a job interview. Well that plus us not actually having any actual inventory to speak of. But that was just a detail.

She rattled off the following so fast that I almost had to ask her to repeat herself.

“Assault rifles, small arms and explosives would be our typical needs, though on occasion we have need for the odd sniper rifle and the occasional rocket propelled grenade. Are these things you can obtain for us?”

“Yes and no. We can do everything but the RPG’s. The best we can do there is rocket propelled rockets. I hope that’s acceptable.” I knew it would be. Why buy shit when you could get the cream of the crop. I’d nearly forgotten one last point of negotiation.

“There is one more minor point. We will not ship anything outside the country. It lessens our exposure and consequently our prices. We will however ship anywhere within the continental United States.”

She just smiled, nodded and stuck out her hand. It looked as though we had our first client.

Issue 6

So the next day came and everyone was early for a change, which was a bit on the weird side of things. It was weird because I was the last one there and the rest were chatting like a bunch of excited schoolgirls. It was weirder still when I walked in. Everyone stopped whatever it was that they were talking about and just looked at me.

“You threatened to rip his arms off? What the fuck dude?” Wil surprised me. I could see why he might be upset, but I was the one working the deal so he really needed to trust my judgment.

“I needed to get my point across. Ralphie, I thought we covered this last night. Before anyone takes this any farther, I want to make it perfectly clear that I was there to work this deal while most of you were not. I fully understood the implications of what I was doing, but I wasn’t going to let us get screwed by Crazy Russ and his asshole friend. Everything that I did I did for our bottom line, which has bottomed out if I’m not mistaken. How could I have possibly made things any worse than they already are?” I knew that would have the result I going for, a dead silence.

“No need to get pissed off brother. I know you’re looking out for us, but don’t you think you might have gone a little too far?” We threw around calling each other brother like a bunch of old wrestlers.

“How about hoping that I went far enough. Okay guys, enough of this ass grabbing, let’s get the store opened. This place can’t run itself.” Though with business as in the toilet as it was having the business run itself might not be a worst idea.

“Sure dude, but can we talk more about this later?” I couldn’t tell if Wil had a genuine interest or if he was trying to help get the others to back off of their questions. Either way was fine with me.

“Sure thing man, we can talk later.” Though I wasn’t sure what more there was to discuss. I may have fucked up and only time would tell how badly.

Everyone just went about their morning routines, and got the place ready to open up, and we actually opened on time for a change. After the previous night and the conversation that had taken place this morning, I knew it was going to be a long two days and an even longer week, but we’d deal with it. It’s what we do.

After the guys had gotten the store ready to open and The Wills and Stevie had gotten settled into their stations, I figured it was time to see what they’d done in regards to finding us someone to sell to.

“Ok guys, have you made any progress on finding someone to buy this shit and a way to communicate with them?”

William spoke up, “Ok, so we had a couple of ideas we were throwing around, but we wanted to run them past you.”

They like to do this shit because they could brainstorm like it was nobody’s business they just had some problems staying on task.

“Alright lay ‘em on me.”

“The best idea we had was to do something through our website. Of course it would be encoded and encrypted in some fashion.” Wil was laying this part out, which told me it was his idea.

“What exactly would we be doing?”

“We were thinking of an online comic. We could use it to outline what we’re doing and as a way of communication with our buyers. We could also use an online submission form to get additional strip suggestions from our buyers. This would help to reduce any real, physical contact and if we monetized the comic it could help us bring in some real money.” William spoke on this part so it was clearly his baby. I liked where they had taken things, but they had missed a valuable point.

“That’s fine once we have buyers, but have you guys found any potential ones for us now?” Don’t misunderstand, they were geniuses when they applied themselves, but sometimes they could be frustrating.

“Uh, no. Not as such. We did find a couple leads we need to follow up on, but we don’t yet have any names.” Coming from anyone but Will that would have started one hell of a fight, but I knew he knew better than to bullshit me on matters of money.

“Well you need to have something by the end of today? There are three of you back here, so you should still be able to do some selling online.” I didn’t wait for a response. I just turned around and headed out to the floor. Ralphie had been left alone for far too long already.

“Alright Big Man, what are you up to all by yourself out here?” I was not nearly ready for the response I got. Sometimes he was like a child, and that made the fact that he was older than me all the more frightening. As I came out of the back room, I could hear what he was up to.

“..is so the greatest superhero!” He was fighting with a customer again.

“Ralphie, stop fighting with the customers.” It happened about once a day, that someone who’s comic ideology differed from his. He would then express his dislike in a most angry ape kind of way. His reaction was exactly what I’d expected him to do. He just grunted.

“Fine, dick. You’re the boss.” He was right. I was the boss.

“You need to play nice with the customers, and we can’t keep having this discussion. I get that you have strong feelings on the subject of which superhero’s cock would taste the best, but you need to not run around sharing that shit with the customers.” I figured I could get away with this since the customer in question happened to be one of our regulars, so he was used to seeing this type of behavior.

My statement also had the desired effect of running Ralphie off for the time being. Jimmy just laughed and continued to look for those comics he liked to pick up.

“And how is Jimmy today?” I knew with an almost certainty that he’d offer up some completely random story and I liked that he made me laugh.

“Just out looking for another job.” He was a habitual job hopper, but as it turned out in the end he just needed to find the right work to do, but I’ll get to that later.

“What happened to the farm thing you were talking about last week?” It was quite possibly one of the funniest things I’d ever heard anyone talk about doing as a profession, but I couldn’t remember the exact terminology he used when he first told me about it.

“Oh, the manual masturbation of farm animals for the purposes of artificial insemination? Well, it turns out that you need training and it’s a highly competitive field.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought that there was some stiff competition in the field of jerking an animal off.

“Sorry to hear that man. Any other prospects?” I knew it would be something good, or at least I hoped it would be. Right now I just needed the distraction from the matters at hand. So I just shot the shit with Jimmie for a while.

Finally he paid for the few comics he was going to get, and that was the funny thing, for someone who was almost always looking for their next job he always seemed to have money and he started to leave.

“Hey Jimmy, tell Eli we have that shit he ordered. I call his number and always get his voice mail.” To which he just nodded and left. I hated what was coming now, but it had to be done.

“Ralphie, get your ass out here. I’m going out for a while. Wills, you’re in charge while I’m out.” The non-asshole thing to do would have been to wait for a response of some sort, but that’s just not who I am.

I came back to the shop a few hours later to find Ralphie and Wil fighting in the front room with customers watching the whole show. It was amazing that shit would happen whenever I’d leave them to run things on their own. I often think that if I was gone for more than a couple of hours they’d end up having a knife fight in the parking lot to settle their disputes or the shop would end up on fire. It did help that they were so engrossed in what they were doing that they didn’t even see me come in.

“Both of you shut the hell up now! I don’t care what you’re fighting about! Wil in the back and Ralphie help these people! Don’t argue, just do it!” Both started to grumble at me some shit about who the hell did I think I was, and I almost answered that I’m the only one who seems to give a shit about the image we portray to the customer, and that reminded me.

“Alright folks, for having to witness this display of insanity, you are the luck recipients of 30 percent off whatever you choose to buy right now. Ralphie, make it so. I’m gonna go see what they’re not doing in the back.” If that’s what greeted me, I was sure that the back would be nothing but bad news. I headed back anyways. The news sure as shit wasn’t going to be coming to me.

“Ok guys, let me have some good news.” And I held my breath a little expecting the worst and knowing that it was the best they could do. The Wills just looked at each other trying to decide who was gonna go first. This piqued my interest. It ended up being Stevie who spoke.

“How do you feel about Colombian Drug Cartels and Russians gangsters?” God bless them. They came through.

“Oh, my.” Was all I could manage to spit out at, but it didn’t seem to matter as The Wills had finally figured out who was gonna be the one to give me the skinny. I couldn’t tell if Wil was happy or not to be the one to talk. He still looked pissed about what went down in the front not 10 minutes prior.

“So like right after you left I found a weblog on the darkweb I guess you’d call it for mercenaries and shit and through that I was able to find out that there is a certain group of Russian mobsters, ex-KGB mainly who have some interest in acquiring American military grade weapons. Some bullshit about pissing on the capitalist Americans with their own guns. William on the other hand found the information on the Columbians. They’re also after weapons, but they are looking for a way to transport their cocaine more easily, which means that they might just be the perfect candidates for purchasing that huey we’re getting. There was also the thing with the Chicago mafia but they just seemed like douches.” Maybe he could see the ear to ear smile, cause this is where he got bothered, and waved it off.

“Don’t get too happy there homey. We got call while you were out.” We got call’s here all the time.

“I fail to see how that is an issue. The phone rings here most of the day. We are a business after all.” Now it was William working to clarify what had just clicked in my head. Three potential buyers, but they’d only told me about two.

“Yeah, but that’s the thing. The call was from the Chicago assholes. we didn’t find the Chicago assholes in our dark web searching, they found us.” That was all he said. He didn’t need to say any more.

Issue 5

We arrived at Crazy Russ’s place at 8:10 which was a testament both to my commitment to this deal and to my driving skills. I was forced to drive it like I stole it, but I wasn’t gonna be late. Too many people were counting on the way tonight played out. I was still flying high from the way dinner had worked out for me, and was a little worried that it might cloud my judgment. I had Ralphie knock on the door. I looked at him as he did so and made sure he understood what I needed from him.

“Dude, please don’t open your fucking mouth here. I need you for intimidation factor first and foremost and you’ll be far less threatening if you talk.” He just nodded. I know he hated it when we made him do this tough guy song and dance but it was sometimes necessary to make the right first impression.

Russ’s place didn’t look like much from the outside. It looked like a house that was converted to some apartments and Russ just happened to live on the first floor. I was checking the view of the neighborhood, to see if anything looked fishy, when he finally answered the door.

“Hey guys, come on in.” He shut the door behind us and we all had a seat in his living room. There was already someone in the room, a guy maybe in his mid to late 50s. He didn’t get up as we came into the room, though he did look our way.

“Ralphie, my box please.” He did as I asked and didn’t say a word.

“Guy’s I’m just gonna need a minute to check out the room. I Hope you don’t mind.” I didn’t bother waiting to hear if they did mind since I really didn’t care. Stealing from the federal government, well military really, had to be a felony on the scale we were looking at, and reselling those goods to potential enemies of the United States was probably treasonous on a good day.

“What the hell is that?” Russ sounded a little worried as my little box hummed slightly as I moved around the room sweeping for signals. This is when the old guy finally said something.

“Shut up Russ. He’s sweeping for ‘bugs’. He’s a smart guy this one. I’m impressed boy, did you make that thing yourself?” He didn’t sound impressed. It sounded like just a hollow platitude, but whatever.

“Yeah, I made it. It’s got a secondary function as well. It’ll throw out a sort of white noise field big enough to cover the area we’re currently in. Just in case there’s something I missed in the room sweep.” Whether he was genuinely impressed or not I knew by now that Ralphie was, and his opinion was the only one in the room that mattered on the subject. Of course the guys were all used to me making all kinds of weird little gadgets to do shit. It was one one of my hobbies and was almost like meditation of a sort for me. Focusing on the task was just relaxing and the world just sort of fell away when I was doing it.

I heard him softly say cool, but then it was like he caught himself and he had shut up before he had even finished the word. The old guy just kinda laughed at that.

“I have no reason to bug the room, and this isn’t a setup, but I can respect your preparedness. Whenever you’re ready to get down to it, you just let me know.” He seemed to soften up a bit and actually sounded sincere in that statement. Looks like my paranoia had actually helped us out in this.

I continued to move around the room. I checked out the lamps, the entertainment center, and anything else that was plugged in, looking for a signal out of the ordinary. I moved on and did a quick trace of the ceiling fixture, and once I was satisfied I sat down, and put the device on the coffee table. I pushed a combination of the buttons on the face and it started to hum, but this time in a different tone than before. I was hoping it worked, cause I’d never gotten the chance to test either function. I’d made this kinda stuff before though, so in theory it should be golden.

“Alright, I’m satisfied it’s clear. We can start.” I wasn’t really satisfied at all since I couldn’t test it, but confidence was an issue here so I couldn’t waver.

“So you’re interested in buying what I’m selling, is that right?” This guy had a strange way of talking but whatever, I should be able to keep with him.

“We wouldn’t be here otherwise. Russ here says you’ve got a shit-ton of guns and a helicopter you’re looking to move.” I figured that I’d made this dude wait long enough when I was scanning the room. No reason to do that now, so I just got to the point.

“You guys are interested in that old thing? You got some balls kid, I’ll give you that. And yeah, I’ve got more guns than you could know what to do with.” He just crossed his arms across his chest and sat back with a smug ass look on his face.

“Before we go any further, what are you guys looking to get out of this?” I wanted to get this one point out of the way, but in my mind it was the most important currently.

“We just want to get our fair share, is all.” Russ at least knew what he wanted, and I couldn’t argue with that. Tom decided to clarify this now.

“We want equal shares. A third for you guys, a third for me and a third for Russell here.” WEll motherfucker. This asshole was out of his fucking mind. There was no fucking way we could go for that. Ralphie just looked at me a little on the slack-jawed side. Even he knew it was a shitty deal.

“No fucking way. I appreciate what you’ve done putting this together Russ, but there is next to no physical risk to your involvement. No way in hell do you get a third. And Tom, no way are you getting a third. You wanna get back at the ‘man’ for fuckin’ you that’s fine and all, but you need to realize that we’re the ones who have to deal with finding a buyer, and we’re also the ones who have to worry about getting this shit out of the country. You just have to worry about selling your story to your bosses. No, you don’t get more than a third total for the two of you. You guys can work it out from there.” I looked at Ralphie and he just nodded. I started to stand up to leave.

“You know what guys I think maybe we’re just done here. You guys clearly don’t want to deal on this, and I guess I misunderstood that you were working against the clock there Tommy.” I wasn’t gonna be pushed by some washed up, disgruntled, douchebag security guard. “Come on big man, we’re leaving.”

I’d grabbed my device off the table and had my hand on the door knob when I heard the old man call out after a sigh.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa kid. No need for that. You drive a hard bargain, but I think we can still deal on this.” The guy sounded a little flustered. Perfect. I always did have a way of negotiating like a motherfucker.

I started to open the door before responding.

“No, I don’t think we have anything to talk about. I told you what you guys would get. You’ll get that and not a penny more. If we’re the ones doing all the hard work, then we’re the ones getting the lion’s share of the prize. This is non-negotiable. If you don’t like it you can find someone else to do business with. It’s as simple as that. Do we have a deal, or are you gonna have to find someone else to do business with?” I didn’t bother to turn around for his response. I had to at least pretend that I was some kind of badass dude.

“Damn kid, you drive a bargain like a freight train through a whore. Looks like I don’t have much of a choice. You’ve got a deal. Here’s where you really get to earn your share. The timetable’s been bumped. I don’t have three months to do this deal. I’ve gotten word that I’m getting moved at the end of the month, so you guys need to empty the place before then.”

Holy shit, it was the 18th already and this guy was getting moved on the 31st. how the fuck were we supposed to pull this plan together in 12 days and not the 90 we’d expected. There were so many variables in this that I thought I might pass out where I stood. There was so much to get together in not nearly enough time. And then I heard the words coming out of my mouth almost as if on instinct.

“Fine, then I assume you have some kind of plan to clean this place of your out? We’ll handle storage of everything once it’s out, but getting it out can rest on you. You get word to me in two days time when you plan to have all this stuff out and you guys can get 40 percent. I’ll need one week to secure some sort of storage for all this shit as well. Exactly how much stuff are we talking about?” I figured that if they were willing to work for it then they could get twenty percent total. We were still doing most of the work.

“Sure kid. That’s all you had to say. I’ve already got a plan in place. After all this shit is out though, you’ll have no way to reach me. I’ll be dropping off the grid for a while. I’ll get in touch when I want to get my money. This’ll teach them to fuck me over and put me on fuckin’ guard duty.” Sure, just let the old guy ramble all he wants. We get paid all the same, and now we have even less work to deal with on our end. Things were starting to look up for us.

“Whatever, old man. I don’t give two shits about what you do. What I do know is that if you even think about fuckin’ us on this I’ll make you wish we’d never met.” The old man just laughed at that.

“Sure kid.” He was fucking mocking me. This piece of shit was fucking mocking me.

“No, Tommy, I don’t think you get it. No place on earth will be safe for you to go. I will find you and I will hurt you. And if you laugh at me again, I will be bitch slapping that smile off your smug fucking face.” Ralphie started to move towards the old man, who just threw up his hands in submissive gesture.

“Ok, ok. No need for it to get physical.” Ralphie just stood there. He didn’t look at me he just stood there, waiting for the word to either fuck this shit-head up or sit back down.

“If you can keep you fucking manners then I don’t think we have a problem, but I assure you that he can just as easily rip your arms off and beat you with them without thinking twice about it as not.” Ralphie just crossed his arms smiling. I thought it was a bullshit statement, but I wondered if he would?

“Fine I’ll have Russell here come see you in two days time. He’ll have the specifics for you on the exact time I’ll need to have this shit dealt with. He’ll also have the location where I’ll be stashing this shit as well. It should be safe there for about 36 hours once I’ve gotten it out, but the quicker you move it all into your lock-up the better.” This sounded far more reasonable than what we’d initially discussed.

“Sounds good Tommy. Ralphie we’re leaving.” I got up and moved for the door. I knew at worst that Ralphie was about three steps behind me. That would work, and give the image I’d wanted to show.

As Ralphie was shutting the door behind me I went ahead and shouted back for Tom’s sake.

“Two days Tommy. Don’t be late.” We drove back to my house in silence. When Ralphie got out and moved to his car he finally spoke.

“Hey man, what the fuck was that back there? Was that really necessary? It seemed like you almost took things too far there.” And he was right of course. I usually did take things a little too far, except in those rare occasions when I took things way too fucking far.

“That was just me working a deal. If that guy thought that he could push us around and dictate the way this whole thing was going down, then we’d be fucked all along. Now, at worst he’ll view us as equals in this. As for being necessary, it was, especially if we want to get paid on this whole deal. You know I like to ride the razors edge on shit like this.” I hoped that sounded as cool out loud as it did in my head.

“But we’ve never been in shit like this before. We sell comic books, not fucking guns and helicopters. What the fuck is that ‘razor’s edge’ shit about? You ride the edge too long you’re gonna get cut, asshole, and if we’re involved we get cut too.” Ok, so sometimes Ralphie had this grasp of a situation that was just completely astute and so on as to be completely out of character for him.

“I’d never go out of my way to do anything that would open any of us to unnecessary harm. I have to hope that you know that I’m only doing what I think is best for all of us. We need this. You know that we need this. I know even when things were good at the store money was tight for you. I can’t even imagine how it is now.” Hopefully appealing to his sense of familial preservation would get him to let this go.

“As long as you’re sure you’ve got this under control. That Jonah back there didn’t seem all that in control.” I thought he’d put up more of a fight. He just started laughing. “And what was that shit about ripping his arms off?”

“Oh, you liked that? Just something I came up with on the spot. Was it too over the top?”

“It was funny, I’ll give it that, but damn I don’t think over the top begins to cover it.” And he headed to his car to go on home.

As he was shutting his car door I asked, because I was a little curious.

“You could have done it thought right?” He just smiled and drove home.

Issue 4

The next day came and I decided to go ahead and do my own shopping. It wasn’t like Wil was my bitch or anything like that. Plus, I knew what I needed which made it easier. After I called to let the guys know I had some shopping to do, I remembered that in my semi-drunken stupor, I had the idea that maybe we could use the internet as a tool to coordinate some of our efforts. I wasn’t yet sure how, but I could easily put The Wills to work on coming up with something. They were good at tech solutions like that, so it seemed right up their alleys.

After going to three different stores I was able to find all the parts necessary to create the signal jammer I had in mind, so I headed on in to the store, so I could start putting all the pieces together. I didn’t want waste any time getting ready for this upcoming meeting, so that I’d be good to go when the call finally came in that everything was a go. But as I was soon to learn nothing goes as planned and sometimes you just gotta roll with the punches.

“Bout fucking time you showed up?” And with a big stupid grin it was clear that Ralphie though he was both clever and funny. He was a real smart ass sometimes. It happened so rarely that I sometimes just let him win one. In my now full blown hangover this was not one of those times.

“Guys, how late was he today?” The Wills laughed at that question and almost in unison responded.

“Fifty-five minutes”

“Now did he call to say he was running late?” Now I already knew the answer, but as it was part of the show, I did not spare anyone of the show.

“Fine asshole, forget about it.” And with that Ralphie let it go. I started to head to the basement to begin my work.

“If you guys need me, I’ll be in the basement working on something. Let me know if any calls come in for me.” I didn’t even wait for a reply, I just headed downstairs.

I knew what I was working on would take me a better part of the day and the sooner I got started, the sooner I’d be done. Plus I thought I remembered a bottle of Tylenol down there somewhere and my head was pounding.

I’d been working for all of five minutes, when Wil came down.

“Hey, man. Got a second?” He wanted something. He only had that kind of tact when he wanted something, but he was like my little brother and that was always at the front of my mind. I still didn’t lift my head from my work area.

“Not really, but go ahead. I wanna get this done today.”

“Uh, ok. So, are you sure about this dude? I mean are we getting in over our heads here?” I stopped what I was working on to deal with this. I expected it from William, not Wil.

“You were appointed to do this weren’t you?” I knew he would only do this if the others had concerns. He chuckled.

“Yeah, Williams’s freaking a little, and when I let Stevie and T know what was up they were a little concerned and had some questions?”

“Ok, I hope you let them know that it was all under control, and we’re going to be doing it or we go under.” I was not in the mood for this conversation. If they started with small complaints and concerns, then by the time they all had the opportunity to talk, it would only grow until they had all decided to back out. “You guys just need to be patient and have a little faith. I’ve got the beginnings of a plan. I do have some things you guys can do to help though. If nothing else it’ll keep you busy and distracted for the time being.”

“Anything you need, man. You should know that I’m down with whatever, but I’m worried about William and the young ones. Ralphie has nothing but confidence in whatever happens. He always believes in your plans.” Ok, that was reasonable. I wasn’t completely sure how to go about addressing his or any of their concerns.
“Ok, here’s the thing, I’m a little worried too, but really what choice to we have. We’re all on the verge of losing our families, our homes, our cars and the store. We just don’t have a ton of options here and we’ve tried to do everything by the book up to now. We just keep falling farther and farther behind. Look at it like this, we’ll be pulling down some much needed money on this and we’ll just we are only doing this to we get our shit straightened out.” When I said it, I really did believe it.

“Ok man, I’ll relay that. So what do you need me to do?” Loyal as always. I knew he’d follow me into hell if I led him there. I’d spent years building that trust.

“Ok, get William and divert some of your online time into researching military conflicts and their participants around the world. We need to start looking for buyers now. I also want you guys to start brainstorming for a way to communicate with buyers about new orders. Look for groups that are focused on hating someone else. Also, look at the Russian mob, maybe therer is some money there. Hell they have nukes don’t they?” I didn’t wait for a response before I continued. “I was also thinking maybe we could sell that helicopter to a drug cartel. Maybe it would help them to slip over the borders a little easier. Don’t look at me like that. Money is money and if that’s the case, then we could probably get a mint for it.” With that I lowered my head and went back to work. I heard him start to head back upstairs.

“I’ll get William and get to work. I’ll have something for you by the end of the day”
“Do whatever it is you need to do to cover your tracks online.” I wasn’t paranoid, but I saw no reason not to be careful. I yelled after him, “You talked to Stevie, right? Where the hell is he? Is he coming in today?”

“Yeah, he’s waiting on his grandma to give him a ride again.” The little shit couldn’t afford to get his driver’s license, so he was always in need of rides to get places. It was something we’d all just come to accept. I didn’t bother to yell anything else. I’d just talk to Stevie when he finally showed up.

By now it was about two in the afternoon, and I’d made some significant progress getting my little “thing” put together. As I was putting it together, I was starting to come up with some ideas for hardwiring the shop to make it “bug” proof. I was thinking about making the basement into a safe room of sorts. Make a larger signal jamming device and add in some larger transmission scanning technology. That way we’d always have a place where at least we could talk in peace.

Anything else we’d need I could make and would work to make as small as possible. Hell, the device I was making now, was about as big as a large cell phone, and was a relatively simple device to operate. Two buttons for scanning and a “signal meter” for when it detected anything transmitting, and another two buttons for the signal jamming portion of the device.

To be fair, it really wasn’t jamming anything, but was actually broadcasting “white noise” intended to drown out any potential receptors. I was effectively employing the techniques I’d learned in school in reverse. Instead of working to reduce the noise in signal receptors, I was working to amplify and add to it. It was like a mini broadcaster that sort of “spammed” the spectrum of broadcast frequencies.

I finally got my little project finished around 4 or so and right around that time it was like a miraculous convergence of celestial bodies. No sooner had I finished, than Stevie finally showed up. He was only about 5 hours late, but whatever. And almost as soon as he’d shown up, but before I could even talk to him both about the previous night’s meeting and his incredible tardiness, Crazy Russ showed up.

“Hey Stevie when I get done here we need to talk about getting you a better way to work.” He just nodded at me, and hung his head a little.

“Alright Russ, why don’t you come on into the backroom, the new issues are in and I’ll let you take a look before anyone else.” Funny, I was just trying to be clever but that statement stuck, as we started using the term ‘the new issues are in’ when we were getting ready for something. Russ, didn’t say anything, he just followed me into the basement.

“Ok, I got you a meeting with Tom. It’s set for tonight at my place, at 8. He’ll hang out till 8:30, and if you guys don’t show he’s gone and there won’t be another meeting. He says that this is a one time only deal.”

“Alright Russ, we’ll be there. I’ve been thinking though and we never discussed what you guys were looking for as far as your cuts are concerned. I have no problem with giving you guys pieces of the action, but don’t expect big ones, cause it looks like we’re doing most of the work.” I wasn’t gonna let these guys take a huge cut when it looked like we’d be handling the dangerous part.

“We can just talk about that tonight. Tom told me that he’s not going to have as much time as he thought to do this. He didn’t go into specifics, so I don’t have more on it than that.” I didn’t like the way that sounded, but there was nothing I could do. I’d just have to work it out with Tom.

“We’ll be there by 8:15, and I’ll bring the comics.” Russ seemed to take that comment for what it was worth and left. That gave me less than 4 hours to talk to the guys and make sure that everything was in order with my little gadget.

Plenty of time I thought, but that was before Meryl called me and wanted to “talk about things”.

I couldn’t very well blow her off when she was the single biggest reason that I was doing what I was doing. So, when she called and wanted to talk about things I just decided that I’d go ahead and leave early for the day. I left The Wills in charge. Together they were of one mind. It was creepy sometimes. Ralphie and I had agreed to meet at my place at 6:30, I knew he wouldn’t be there until well after 7, but that was fine and that’s what I was planning for. So
I grabbed my gadget and off I went. I had agreed to meet with Meryl so that we could discuss the possibility of her coming home and so that I could see my daughter, Bailee. It had been almost a month since they’d moved out and I never knew how much I missed them until they were gone from me.

We had agreed to meet at the restaurant we’d had our first date in. It was her choice though, so it did give me some hope for things. When I showed up, she was already there waiting for me. I kinda felt bad for making her wait a little bit, but the future of everyone and everything related to Pandora’s Box relied on the meeting that was a just a few hours away.

I went in and sat down and we talked. We talked about how I wanted her to come home, and how she wanted to. We tried to work out some conditions for her return. She wasn’t really excited about returning, mainly because of the near borderline poverty situation my dream had driven us to. When it was all said and done she had agreed to come home, and I had agreed to make things right. She wasn’t going to live in the poor house and I couldn’t blame her and she gave me a couple more months to work things out.

Her agreeing to return home really made it hard since I had that meeting with Crazy Russ and Tom the gun guy, but I didn’t have much choice and I was going to be cutting it close too. As I was pulling out of the parking lot I realized that I’d forgotten to bring the comics that were the crux of my plan, so I had to swing by the shop and pick some up, which put me late getting back to my place.

I finally got back to my place at close to 7:45 and Ralphie was waiting. It didn’t surprise me at all. I was late even by the standards established by Fletcher. Fletcher was a communal friend that had died not long before the shop was opened. He was habitually late to things but on an absolutely mythical scale. This would have been one of his arrival times.

“Bout time you showed up. I was about to go handle things on my own. Fletcher would have been here earlier than you.” I fucking knew he’d do that.

“Yeah, well I’m here now and we’ve got someplace to be. Let’s go. We can talk in the car.” So he got into the car and we were off. I had to drive because nobody who had their faculties about them would in any kind of reality allow Ralphie to drive. Every trip was like driving in a stolen race car with the driver in a perpetual state of ‘road rage’.

“So what did you want to talk to me about?” It was nice to see him being serious for a change.

“Ok, so you know I was in the basement all day right. Look behind the seat there and grab that thing that looks like a big ass control.” Which he did.

“So what is it? It has to be important if you spent all day working on getting it together, but what does it do?” I loved it when I could create that kind of curiosity and mystery when talking with the guys. It was almost a necessity for me sometimes. It was just one of my life’s little pleasures.

“You need to see it to understand it and you’ll see when we get there.”

Issue 3

We’d made the decision to run guns to try and save our asses, and believe me I understand just how ridiculous it sounds, but you have to understand how desperate we were. All of us who had wives and kids were slated to lose our families in the very near future, Stevie’s life lacked any real direction, so the store was pretty much all he had, and T just plain hated to fail at anything.

When reflected on in that light it really makes a warped kind of perfect sense that we would end up doing this. Maybe it was destiny after all that the store performed the way it did. It was decided that Stevie would work it out for us to have a meet with ‘Crazy Russ’ within the next few days. Until then we just carried on, bided our time, and worked the store as normal.

When the time finally came for our meeting T couldn’t be in attendance due to a prior school commitment and Stevie was sick, so it was just the Ralphie, The Wills and I in attendance. I thought that it was shitty that Stevie wasn’t going to be there, since he had done all the legwork after all in scheduling the meet up, but time was a commodity we couldn’t afford waste. So, that fateful Tuesday night, after closing we met in the basement with man called ‘Crazy Russ’.

Russ was a special kind of guy. He was pretty out there on his best days, which we suspected was a side effect from both the years of some pretty heavy drug use, and the short stint of a couple of years he spent in prison. Apparently his time spent with both had been some real quality growth time for Russ and helped him to get all the connections and training one would need to become fully immersed into the criminal subculture of America. God bless the American legal system. The major downside to the way Russ turned out was an increased level paranoia and the occasional balls crazy flashback. But, you know, other than that Russ was cool.

“Ok, so Stevie tells me you guys are having some money problems and I’m sorry to hear Meryl left.” He didn’t was time and he always seemed like a genuinely nice guy, but Stevie had told him more than he needed to know about our situations.

“Yeah, he’d be here but I guess he’s not feeling well today. And thanks’ for the concern. The hope is that our business venture will get us all back to good and make life just a little bit smoother. So tell me about this guy you know with stuff to sell.” I didn’t waste time either.

Ralphie had been told in advance that he was not to speak during this meeting if the conversation and was just to stand there quietly with his arms across his chest. It was the kind of job he was built for. The Wills and I had reached an agreement that I would take the lead on working this deal, and they would offer the assist if it looked like I was overlooking something.

“Sure man. My guys name is Tom. At least that’s what he says anyways. When I was inside I kind of saved his little brother’s ass so the family feels they owe me.” I cut in on him here. He wasn’t getting to the point and I hated that. I still do, but have learned a bit of patience.

“Wow, this is all fascinating stuff but did you come here to tell me your life story or are we going to do some business? Cause if that’s the case I’m just going home and you guys can lock up when you’re done here.” It felt like he was just jerking our chains. I knew it’d piss my guys off cause they hated when I got sarcastic like this, but they knew I had the situation under control. At least I was hoping that’s what they thought.

“Damn man, you really are an asshole, you know? I thought you’d wanna know how I knew this guy, but I guess not. Anyway, this guy Tom works in an old military warehouse. Government agencies like put all this shit they just don’t want anymore. It’s either broken or outdated. Well, anyways, Tom’s always telling me how he’s the only one that works the night shift and that a lot of the stuff they got is in real cherry shape. The best part is that apparently whoever’s shit it is doesn’t give a damn about what they have in there.” I liked the sound of what he was selling but needed to know some more. I could tell that The Wills had some interest too, but I just tried to play it cool.

“Why come to us though? Why not cash in yourself?” I figured I’d just set the hook and see what kind of bite I could get.I will try and avoid fishing metaphors in the future. Sorry about that.

“Well, the thing is that selling this shit would be great and all but I’m still on paper, so I can’t just leave the state let alone the country to try and move this stuff.” He seemed genuine in this, so I didn’t push it. I just asked the question that I knew the others were thinking.

“So what kinds of shit exactly are we talking about here?” Seemed like it was a simple enough question.

“Guns, explosives, and a huey are the things I know of for sure. The guns are military grade assault rifles. The explosives range from simple grenades to mines, to some sort of plastic explosive. There are other things held in this place, but Tom never told me what those are.” Russ seemed to know his shit. If he knew this much then it seemed to me that there was something he wasn’t saying, but we didn’t have all the time in the world to work this deal out.

The Wills apparently got tired of the amount of time I was taking here to work this deal.

“A question then. What kind of government agency just leaves that kind of shit lying around, and that poorly guarded?” I wasn’t all that surprised when William asked this since I was just getting ready to, and he was way more cautious than me. What did surprise me though was Wil’s follow up.

“How does this Tom guy fit in? Would we just be walking out with this stuff? Does he just want some sort of cut out of the sale? Are we just buying all this shit from him?” Russ chuckled a little at this.

“Ok, so it’s a multi-departmental facility, right. Used to be just the Army, but recently they’ve been moving all this Navy and Marine shit into the place the past few months, and I guess there are talks of changing the way the facility is managed. Some things have come up missing in the past. Tom just wants to have one more big payday before they force him into a reassignment. He figures that he’s got about two to three months before he’s moved to some other post and he knows that if he gets hurt defending the place, it’ll take the heat off of him. So yeah, he wants a cut, and you’d be buying from him and just walking out with your goods. If you worked it out beforehand you could probably empty the place in a night. I have no idea what you could do with all the stuff you took though. I just know it’s worth some serious cash.” This was starting to sound way too easy, but our backs were against the wall.

“Hey guys, what’s a huey?” I should have known that Ralphie was incapable of staying quiet the whole time, but he was asking a legitimately good question. He got a dirty look from me all the same.

“Some kind of Vietnam era helicopter. I don’t know if it’s still operational or not, but it does have all the original weapons, minus the firing pins for the machine guns of course. It’s got some kind of engine problem, that’s why it’s just parked in there, but Tom thinks it should be fixable.” Now it was sounding really out there, but what the hell.

“Ok, now I’m not saying no, but how the fuck are we supposed to sell this stuff? It’s not like you can just go into the local pawnshop to unload a warehouse full of of military firearms. And what in the hell are we supposed to do with a helicopter, take it to the local used car lot and see how much they’ll give us in trade? This is insane guys.” William was freaking out, but it struck me as justified. It looked like he might also be spooking Russ a little bit.

“Will, why don’t you and William go outside and have a smoke.” I just needed some breathing room and a minute to think. As they were leaving I leaned in to William.

“Dude, you need to chill the fuck out. If you have a better idea to make money I’m all ears, but time is passing us by and I want my wife back. So, go smoke. Just trust me that I got this under control.” He nodded once and he and went outside with Wil.

I turned my attention back to Russ.

“I’m sorry about him, he just gets excited like that sometimes. So what kind of time-table are we looking at? Can this Tom guy give us additional information prior to us liberating all the merchandise from his facility?” Knowing how fast they smoked I figured William would be gone about five to ten minutes with Wil, depending on how his nerves played into the speed he smoked, so I was on a clock to get this all worked out before they got back.

“Like I said, no more than 90 days, but it could get bumped and be sooner than that. I don’t know what additional information you could want, but I’m sure Tom can give you more. Do you want to meet with him to discuss this, so you can get all your questions answered firsthand?” I hadn’t even given thought to meeting with this guy. We couldn’t afford to have him in the store, and we certainly couldn’t be seen publicly with him. So it begged the question of where to meet with this guy. At the time I didn’t have the answer. God bless Ralphie and his inability to listen. Sometimes it was like he was a savant.

“You say this guy Tom is a friend of yours right? Well why don’t you have him at your house, and Jonah and I can just happen to stop by when he’s there to drop off your month’s comic pulls. And if we should happen to stay and talk for a bit…” He really was a fucking genius sometimes. Then as if to counter that glimmer of genius I heard him rip a big, juicy fart. All I could do was just shake my head, while Russ laughed.

“That could work. I’ll set it up. How soon you wanna meet him?”

“Set it up for the next time he’s off work. When you call to let us know when the meet is set for you talk to me and no one else. If I’m not in, then do not leave a message. If you want to tell me in person then you can stop in talk about it, but again, if I’m not here you’ll either have to come back or call back. I don’t want any kind of paper trail on this and would prefer we don’t discuss it on the phone. Does that work for you?” I had to hope that he would pick up on the non-optional nature of what I’d just said. Of course, now that I thought about it, we hadn’t discussed what any of these other players were wanting as far as a cut went, but we had some time to work that out.

“Yeah, that works for me. I’ll have something for you probably tomorrow.” With that he stood up and extended his hand to shake mine.

“To a long and fruitful business partnership.” With that we shook on the dealings we’d done.

When The Wills came back I had Ralphie fill them in on what they’d missed. They were a little pissed about being excluded from the meet with Tom the supplier, but they understood. I let Wil know that he and I were gonna need to create some electronic goodies for this trip. I wasn’t gonna show up unprepared. I was sometimes as careful as I was impulsive and if this was any kind of set-up I’d know it.

“I’m gonna need to you to go to an electronics store and pick some things up for me. I’ll give you a list tomorrow.” He just nodded.

“Ok, guys, now since we aren’t going to have much of a time-table to get all this straightened out, I’m gonna need you guys to help me out on this, I just don’t know exactly what I need from you just yet.” Again I just got nods.

It looked like it was all coming together nicely. I went ahead and told the guys to go home and we closed up for the night. I was already figuring out just what I was going to need from the local electronics store. I’d need the pieces and parts to make myself a little signal jammer. Nothing too fancy but it would need to cause electronic disturbance in about a ten to fifteen foot diameter. Just enough to block out whatever room we’d be talking in. I was also figuring out just what I’d need to make myself a signal scanner to check that same sized space for recording devices. I’d like to house them within the same unit and keep it as simple as possible. I’d sort of learned how to do this in college, when I was taking some electrical engineering courses. The professor was this conspiracy theory nut and his lectures just really connected. The skills I learned were certainly coming in handy. Once I got home I quickly jotted down what I’d need and jotted down a little circuit diagram of what I’d be building before I went to bed. Nothing else I could do until I heard from Crazy Russ anyways.


Not that it mattered all that much, since we really just needed to do something cause I was really getting tired of coming home to an empty house. I missed my wife and I missed my baby and as I thought about how that was really depressing so I made myself a very strong drink and instead of going to bed I turned on the television and slumped down on the couch with a bottle of rum and started drinking pretty hard. It was I don’t know, two or three in the morning before I finally drifted off into a drunken sleep, but who needs sleep anyways?

A Demon by the Tail

Author’s note: This piece and others like it are a little non-traditional in that they may at times shift perspective with pieces of the stories being told by one of the two main characters. The Chapter titles indicate who is doing the narration for that section.

It will either be Theo.

Or it will be Kogg.

~~An Introduction to the world

Think you know the world? Think again. Magick (yeah, I spelled it that way) is not only real, but all around you all the time. The trick lies in knowing how to see it for what it is and for those who practice the craft (I’m not being precious, this is how they refer to it) to tap into it. As magickal energy is naturally occurring, it is affected by the elements, but this is something that is only going to matter for those able to tap into it.

In addition to the reality that is the existence of magick, angels and demons walk the world of man. In the current age both sides are on recruitment drives in preparation for the big dust up both sides know is inevitable. In general, regardless the side they work for they’re dicks.

Angels have the luxury of looking like everyday people even though they are no more human than pinocchio, a comparison they hate by the way. Just another of Gods toys, cast aside.

Demons, on the other hand, were people once, but a little death and some time in the pit darkens a soul. The young, the weak and the punished (more punished than others at any rate) look like the stuff of nightmares. The older, stronger demons can alter their forms to look much as they did in their former lives. Unlike the angels, that past time as a mortal human gives demons a bit of an edge.

That said, destiny is a bitch and the fates are whores. Sometimes good people suffer and evil wins and sometimes a hero can come from nowhere and nothing. Sometimes what was once hated is loved and what was once loved reviled.

And every once in a while, it pays to go all in.

~~Introduction to the demon

In 14th century Europe there was a highwayman. He robbed and raped and killed until finally being hunted down and killed like the piece of shit that he was by the law enforcers of the time. He was no widespread terror like Attila the Hun, nor was he anywhere near the prolific killer like Ted Bundy. He was just a bad guy. There is no argument on that, but he ended up being a bit of a joke when he finally ended up in hell.

He figured that since he had gone to hell that he was a right badass and deserved to be treated as such and made a demon of the highest order. He was told by those in positions of power that if his name was still spoken of in fearful hushed whispers in 50 years then he would have his request granted.

In the interim though he was made to spend those years suffering in damnations turmoil. When the time came to evaluate this man’s “legendary” status it became known that not a single person still spoke his name, fearful or otherwise. It was as though the passage of time had just forgotten him. The powers that be in hell were so amused that they decided that he should too and when they were done the only beings in the entirety of creation who knew his name were God and the devil nobody has spoke with God since biblical times. Adding insult to this injury, the powers that be made this now nameless man into an imp, a demon of the lowest possible order.

Fast forward half a millennia and that same little nothing demon is now the head of that same lowest order of demons. He still can’t remember his own name though. That doesn’t matter to him. He has a new name. A name he’s made for himself. He is Kogg. The theory here is that we are all naught but cogs in the grand design. He can be a clever shit sometimes.

There was something to be said for his rise to that position of authority, or maybe it was just his methods. Since he’d been reduced to such a low place, in both stature and station, he found the one place he could have the most impact. In the dreams of sleeping mortals. More specifically, in the torment wrought through the torment of sleeping mortals within their dreams. Kogg found that if you were persistent enough and pushed someone hard enough and long enough then those he was tormenting could be driven to commit suicide, thereby fast tracking their arrival in the pit.

This all came to an end in the mid 1990s when a junkie piece of shit named Jimmie decided it was a good idea to summon a demon and bind it to serve him until the end of his days. Later it became known that this was done in a misguided attempt to prolong his life, but moron that he was, he fucked the whole thing up, got a demon who had no real “juice” in the waking world and ended up having a nearly fatal cardiac event that wound up taking years off his life and causing his hair to prematurely gray at 30.

This would prove to be both a blessing and a curse for Kogg. A curse in that it would be keeping his from his work. A blessing because his current target was not only impervious to his torments, but word had come down from the boss himself that this one was to be swayed at any and all cost away from God. It had even gotten to the point that Kogg was branching out and tormenting those close to and important to the target. All this succeeded in doing was getting the target’s wife to leave him, his best friend’s already tenuous grasp on reality to finally slip away and eventually to get the targets lover to kill herself. Somehow, after enduring all of this the target still maintained a level of general ambivalence to Kogg’s efforts. Additionally, each subsequent victim seemed only to reinforce the targets determination to the point that Kogg could no longer even invade his dreams.

So since pressure was mounting on Kogg from all sides to succeed, this binding seemed like it would be a much needed and very welcome respite. This was especially true given the penalty for failing the boss was do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars, one way trip to Tartarus.

Quick aside here. Tartarus is essentially the hell of hell. On a good day life in the pit is a miserable experience at best. Tartarus however is the big empty. Just nothing, nothing and whole shitload of more nothing. It’s also reserved for those who ended up failing the boss. And a lot of shitty pop stars. Not sure why all the pop stars. It’s generally assumed that if you end up there that you earned it. Further, anyone who goes there does not, cannot return.

Several idiocy filled years later Kogg was still bound to James “Jimmy” Graham. In all that time Kogg bore witness to a man who was so fearful of death that we was doing anything and everything he could to avoid it and cheat his fate. In the end all Jimmy got for his troubles was being trapped in a body that had aged 50 years beyond its actual age. The really sad part here was that the body was his.

And then, things got weirder, if such a thing was possible.

Jimmy had taken to gambling with the local power players in an attempt to find some means to stave off his end. Now, in this context, power players doesn’t mean politicians or the rich, although there were certainly some who happened to be either or both. No, in this context, power players was in reference to those some some greater than fledgling degree of magickal aptitude or to those with tokens and talismans that provided the same.

There was only ever one person of any real note though. One Mr. Thelonius Gardon Reed. Theo to his friends. The only problem was that Theo was Kogg’s target. At the time Theo had no knowledge of this.

Now as it happened on a particular night and in a particular game, Jimmy was losing. It had, like so many other failed times before all come down to a single hand of poker. The difference this time though was that for the first time ever Jimmy had a pretty good hand.

Jimmy pushed what few chips he had remaining to the middle of the table very quietly and added, “All in.”

This was met with much laughter and much earned derision from those at the table. Theo was the only one who spoke up.

“James, buddy, it’s not enough.” Theo was the only one who still called him James.

The pot for this hand had grown beyond cash and to the inclusion of a handful of minor, yet still nearly priceless, artifacts. Someone, it doesn’t matter who had suggested that.

“If the hand is that good, put up the imp.” Someone chimed in.

This was a common reference to Kogg by those who knew him or knew of him. Jimmy looked at the hand he had been dealt and at the pot and thought that his luck had finally turned around.

“Done. Kogg will stay bound to me but his services until the end of my days are wagered.”

All around the table agreed, some a little too eagerly, but Theo reluctantly. Then came that all too painful moment of truth when those hands were revealed and from that day forward I have been with Theo. Sidekick, roommate and partner all rolled into one.

Now initially Theo tried to give me back but nobody would hear of it and I figured at first that it would be a great way to gather intel for the future when I could finally get free and start up all my torments anew.

As we were leaving, Jimmy pulled Theo aside to offer some insight into my care, as though I were some sort of pet. In Jimmy’s defense he could barely care for himself on a good day so I generally wound up taking care of my own needs.

“Theo, he’s good for simple tasks. He doesn’t talk and he doesn’t seem to get hungry or thirsty. I’ve just gotten him a large dog bed and he seems to be happy with that. Just throw one in a corner and he should be fine.”

Jimmy looked almost sad to see me go, but inside I was happy to be free from that moron.

Theo nodded once, offered a quick thanks and took me to my new home. I feel obligated here to ask but is it written in a PI manual somewhere that every PI must live in their office? Further must that dwelling/office be Grade A pieces of shit? I mean really. Jimmy lived on skid row in a fucking flop house for christ’s sake but compared to Theo, Jimmy lived like a damn king.

I was given my own little space for a bed and after getting situated Theo just stared at me for what felt like the longest time.

“Now I believe that everything happens for a reason and this is why I permitted this… arrangement. I know what you are and what you’ve done. I also know that you are both more and less that you appear to be. I also know that you can damn well talk. Get some sleep, if you do in fact sleep. We are going to have a long talk in the morning.” And with that he turned to leave.

Jimmy’s belief that I couldn’t speak wasn’t entirely accurate. I chose not to speak completely out of spite. That Theo knew things about me left me stunned like I’d been kicked in the teeth.

This is a good time to point out that my voice is somewhat unique in that it has all of the melodious qualities of someone gargling with a mouthful of glass.

I cleared my throat to say something snarky, but after so long spent as a self imposed mute decided against it. It had been a long day so I just lay down in my dog bed (they are super comfy), and went to sleep. Yes, demons do sleep, just not in the traditional sense. It’s more like a regenerative hibernation.

And so, six hours later, I awoke physically refreshed and yet somehow dreading the conversation to come. If Theo knew as much as he claimed then I would have some questions of my own. First among them being why wasn’t I dead although I had some ideas on that front.

I just lay there in my dog bed (go fuck yourself, they are awesome), waiting. I knew it was only a matter of time until the boss downstairs found where I was and the order would come to start my work again. There was a light knocking at the door frame to my room. Did I neglect to mention that Theo gave me my own shitty little room in his shitty little home?

“It’s time for our talk.”

By the time I had reached the doorway he was gone. I’ll give him credit here. For a human he moves quietly. I was left to find my own way to what laughably passed as a kitchen. Somehow a mini fridge with a microwave on top lacked the gusto in what most would call a kitchen. The booze spread around the room seemed enticing enough though. Theo just sat there staring at me looking like he’d slept in his clothes, or more accurately as I would come to find out over the years what he passed out in.

“Six years, ten months, twenty one days.” Was the first thing I had said in as long.

Theo looked confused.

“That’s how long it’s been since Jimmy bound me to him. In all that time I have not spoken a single word. How do you know me?”

He just nodded and smiled, but the smile quickly faded.

“They talked.” That was all he needed to say. I understood. He continued anyways.

“Lauren talked when she left me. Described you perfectly. Told me how you tormented her with her failures. Hell, you are likely the final straw in what was already a doomed marriage.”

I just sat there quietly and listened. Not that there was anything I could say to have changed the past, and at that time I wouldn’t have wanted to.

“Santo told me all about you when he got out of the mental hospital. You messed him up bad. He told me the same things as Lauren, but he was able to fill in some gaps.”

I knew what was coming now and I was more than a little afraid.

“And then there was Remy. You broke her, you little shit. You did it just to get at me. She never told me it was you. The suicide saw to that. She never hurt anyone. Her only fault apparently, was in loving me.”

As he neared the end of that I could tell he was having a hard time not breaking down. Still I just sat there and let him set the pace for whatever was happening here.

“So I need to know. Why me? How is it that I matter that much?”

And I began,

“Thelonius Gardon Reed. Born August 17, 1972. Names after your great, great grandfather who was a prominent gambler in New Orleans circa the late 1800s. Much as he was a ladies man, so too are you. The same can be said for your magickal aptitudes.

You have certain gifts though that he did and not as a result of your brief touch with deach during your first winter. Incidentally, that was the event that put you on everyone’s radar.”

I paused to let all that sink in.

“On everyone’s radar?”

“Yeah. Upstairs. Downstairs. Everyone’s radar. From that moment on, both sides watched and waited to see what you would do. It was pretty damned boring until you were… what… was it 17?”

He was off guard. This could end up being fun.

“I don’t understand. What happened at 17?” But as soon as he said this the recognition crossed his face and he knew just what significant event occurred at that time.

“My crisis of faith?”

“Exactly, although we prefer falling out with God. You were so young and so angry. This was the point at which both sides took a more active hand in your shaping. Before you even ask, I can tell from the look on your face you want to know why. It’s simple kid. You got power and lots of it. Both sides want you and the side you end up supporting stands to gain quite a bit. The end times are coming Theo and they are coming soon.”

A quick note here about the powers Theo had:

First, he had a magical aptitude that may or may not have been tied to his having briefly died during his infancy. Speculation was that this touch with death was what gave him his ability to “read” people. He loved to read people when gambling and it wasn’t technically a cheat. He was also known to have varying degrees of prophetic dreams.

Second, he had access to numerous artifacts that only seemed to amplify his already existing natural talents.

Third, due to his preexisting innate abilities both heaven and hell wanted him on their side when the end times finally arrived.

And now back to our story, already in progress.

“Oh, and here is a fun fact for you. We’ve met before. During that dark period you don’t like talking about and when your powers were just starting to manifest we spoke. It was on a night you were very, very high. It was the last night you got high actually, which is a shame cause I preferred you that way. That night you gazed into the abyss.”

Another flash of recognition showed in that moment.

“In a lot of ways I have you to thank. You fucked it up good enough that I got a decent power boost. We became linked in a way because it was that event that got me assigned to you. That’s why Theo. You fucked up, plain and simple. Out of respect for your abilities I decided that night not to come at you directly but instead through those around you. You were powerful yes, but untrained.”

“So it has always been about just breaking me?”

“Exactly. You were brash. You flaunted your skills. The boss thought taking you down a peg was the key to turning you. Better still, what better way to break someone than through those he loves? You got to just sit back and watch while they were falling apart around you.”

“But why me? Why am I so damned important?”

“Because you walk the line boy. Your neutrality makes you a target. You use the tools of the light and the dark and you do so just to get from point A to point B and not because of any deep seated beliefs. Power is just power to you and it’s pissing folks off.

Let me ask you something Theo. Have you ever wondered why your ‘sight’ gets better when you get sick?”

“Never really gave it much thought.”

“You are like a child. All power comes from somewhere, yours ebbs and flows based on your proximity to death. Every illness, cut, scrape and those glorious cigarettes you love so much all help root you in the mortal and bring you, even if by inches, closer to death.”

“So why tell me all this? It can’t possibly help you. Seems to me that spilling the beans would end up working against you.”

And the truth is as I was talking to him I’d thought that very thing and I did have some reasons for oversharing. Some of them were even realistic.

“I’m screwed regardless. I’ve not been able to turn you so I’m not long for this or any world. However, if I am going to Tartarus, I will not go quietly and I’ll tell you everything. Plus, you know… the big guy may forgive me and let me in topside.

Plus, I’m tired Theo.Tired of the bullshit. Tired of driving people crazy because I’m told to. Tired of being the boss’s little bitch. Another set of eyes working to cover up the lie.”

“The ‘lie’”?

“Oh Theo, this is the big one. All those fire and brimstone bullshit preachers, while an entertaining lot, have certain key points of the bigger picture wrong. While the workings of the boss may be everywhere, he is not and cannot be. He doesn’t have that kind of power, Only big G does. In theory it would be possible for the boss to have been granted this kind of power, but he wasn’t. The boss was just an angel way back before the fall. Don’t get me wrong, angels have power, real power, but it ain’t limitless. So the devil can only be in one place at a time.”

Theo looked lost.

“Let me simplify this for you. It’s all smoke and mirrors and the people like you who can turn the tide.”

We sat there in silence for what felt like forever, but was likely my nerves stretching time out. Finally, Theo pulled his pack of smokes off the table. He just sat there holding it in his hand looking at it. Finally he just shrugged and lit one up, holding the pack out to me in silent offer before tossing it back on the table after I shook my head no.

“So the stories are true then, the ones about demons once being human?”

I nodded. Has sat and quietly and smoked his cigarette down to the filter.

“Alright, you know so much about me and I know so little about you. Tell me about who you were.”

And with that I told him my story and left nothing out and I never did ask him, though curious, why he didn’t end me.

That is how I came to be Thelonius Gardon Reed’s roommate and erstwhile sidekick, but it was only the beginning.

~~Theo’s Take

So that didn’t go at all how I planned. I’d expected some answers, just not those answers. It did help to get things into the proper perspective.

I still had more questions but they could wait. I’d come into this with the goal of ending the little imp. The only thing that held me back, was the fear of what it would do to Jimmy. We weren’t close by any means, but I couldn’t let him die as collateral damage in my quest for vengeance.

I was also left with a feeling that our fates were somehow tied together and that I would be seeing this, whatever the hell this was, to the end.

At the same time I was pissed that I was being viewed as some sort of pawn in a cosmic game of chess. I would be nobody’s pawn and my choices would be my own, but if something was coming I would likely be forced to choose a side.

I had a very bad feeling about how this was going to play out. For now though I needed to finish up my work on my current trainwreck of a case.

I hate cheating spouse cases. It always gets weird and nobody ends up happy, regardless of the outcome, but times are lean and I can’t just gamble my financial woes away. The family has done that for generations and it always felt like a squandering of our gifts.

Not that I wouldn’t gamble, mind you, just that I would also try and do as much honest work as I could.

I also needed to deal with my winnings from the night before. The cash portion of the winnings was nothing I had to waste time on. That would easily help reduce the mound of growing debt. Those magickal bits though were another matter entirely. I’d need to figure out what to keep and what to sell. This meant also spending time trying to figure out what had real magick in it and what was just glamoured up to look legit. The only thing aside from Kogg worth keeping from the previous night was the address book. The rest would likely bring in a couple hundred or so.

It was not just any address book. It was Bacon’s Black Book, or at least that’s what it was called. Nobody knew if Kevin Bacon actually ever owned it. It got its name from the old “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon” game wherein anyone in entertainment could be connected back to Kevin Bacon in 6 steps or less. The Black Book though goes a step farther because as long as you know the true name of the person you want to get in touch with, the number or some other means of contact are contained therein. There’s a story that goes around about someone once drunk dialing God. The story concludes with a little bit of divine wrath teaching a valuable lesson.

So I just dropped all the new goodies into my sack and settled in to smoke for a bit and ponder all the recent developments. I wasn’t sure where this journey was heading but I was sure was going to be a hell of a trip. It was a Tuesday after all.

~~6 Months Later

Have I mentioned I’m a horrible roommate? No? Well I am. Time away from Jimmy gave me the chance to feed my appetites. Unfortunately for Theo my appetites included copious amounts of cheap beer and even more copious amounts of even cheaper porn.

This led to a certain amount of friction with Theo. Apparently a blind drunk masterbating demon is not what he considers acceptable. The friggin’ prude. But aside from this, Theo and I settled into a decent routine and I talked him into getting a real apartment. I had also been proving myself useful on some of Theo’s cases.

Being the size of a small child allowed me to get places he couldn’t. My years, no, centuries of experience in the pit screwing with people’s heads gave me deeper insight into the darkest parts of the human condition.

Theo returned home that November morning after a night of work that didn’t require my particular set of skills which worked out and I’d stayed home all night engaging in an all night marathon of self loving debauchery. I’d passed out exhausted and spent next to a mountain of tissues.

“Dammit Kogg, this has to stop.”

“I fail to see the problem here Theo.”

“You didn’t have to do it in the middle of the living room. You have a TV in your room. Why can’t you do it there?”

“But the TV out here is so much bigger and a bigger TV means bigger titties and Theo have you ever seen a literal ocean of cum? This TV allows that.”

He was already walking off before I could finish my statement. He was raising his voice as he walked away.

“No more Kogg! I mean it! In your room or not at all!”

“Don’t be such a bitch Theo.”

He storms back into the living room and glares at me.

“I’m going to go get something to eat. Seems a better choice than wringing your goddamn neck, you repugnant little imp.”

He slammed the door so hard on his way out that the room shook. I stumbled off to my room and dropped into my doggy bed. A little downtime was exactly what I needed. As I was drifting off to sleep I thought I heard Theo coming back. That was fast.

~~Missing

That filthy repugnant little shit was constantly doing nonsense to try my patience. It’s amazing that he hasn’t figured out that the current “case” I’m working and don’t need his help with are really dates. It’s not like I can bring a woman home. How do I spin the knee-high demon? “Oh this is my roommate. He’s an 800 year old demon. Don’t worry though, he doesn’t usually bite, unless you are one of the neighborhood cats and you don’t appear to be.” No woman in her right mind would be accepting of that. Of course, the ladies most interested weren’t ladies in the strictest sense of the word and the concept of a “right mind” would be comically lost on them.

I return to the apartment about an hour after my outburst. I’ve had time to cool off, eat and reflect on things. As I round the corner to our apartment, I immediately notice that the door is about halfway open. As hard as I shut it I know it was closed when I left and Kogg knows better than to leave it open. The last time he left the door open the elderly couple from down the hall got a peek at him. It took me months to convince them it was my cousin’s kid and he had a very rare skin condition. The only thing that helped then was that both of the Pliskin’s were about as blind as Mr. Magoo. After that we had reached a sort of understanding about the state the door needed to remain in.

I slowed my pace and at the same time drew my gun from it’s shoulder holster. The only way to describe how it feels to hold it would be to call it electric, or maybe like that foot half asleep tingling sensation. It was a sort of “danger sense”. This was because the gun belonged to one Sgt. York from way back in the Great War.

The story goes that the Sergeant, then a Corporal was forced into a situation that had his men guarding prisoners and just he on his own left to deal with a machine gun emplacement. Now he began this with a rifle but after exhausting it’s ammo he was forced to use his pistol, because he was short on options and that pistol saw him successfully deal with six Germans charging him with bayonets and and a machine gunner who had failed to hit him both with the machine gun and with his own small arm. This quickly prompted the machine gunners surrender. And I don’t know about all that but as a result they say that’s where the gun got its mojo. Whether that story is true or if the gun was even his I can’t speak to. All I know is the damn thing works and has saved my hide more times than I can count.

As I crept slowly towards the door I was saying “Shit something is wrong here.” I caught a whiff of some familiar smell but couldn’t quite place it. It was triggering one of those scent memories, but I was so amped up on other things that I didn’t take time to ponder what it meant. As I stood there outside my door I worked to still myself. My breath. My Heart. My nerves.

Gently I pushed the door open and it hit my like a ton of bricks. Lavender. The smell I’d caught was lavender. This realization brought back a flood of memories. Mostly happy memories but it was all brought to a screeching halt by the tragedy that ended it, but I pushed all of that aside as I made my way into the room.

Not a single thing appeared out of place. From the mail piled up on the coffee table to the little shits pile of disgusting masturbation aids. The smell of lavender only grew as I moved through the room.

The feeling from the gun seemed to be subsiding so I surmised that whatever had gone on here was likely done. I started to head slowly down the hallway to the bedrooms. I stood outside Kogg’s door and listened for a moment. Nothing but that smell greeted my senses I searched. By now the gun was effectively inert for all practical purposes.

Slowly, so very slowly, I opened the door to find that the room was empty. On his doggie bed in the corner was an envelope. The palest of purples, almost lilac with an equally delicate scripting on it. It was addressed simply “Theo”. I’d seen what it looked like when Kogg wrote and it was anything but delicate. Plus, I knew we didn’t have any sort of stationary like this. Without even opening the envelope, I knew this was going to end badly.

I holster my gun, pick up the envelope and head back out to the kitchen. It was only 10am but I found myself in need of a drink. After pouring myself a double of bourbon (an old friend once said “it’s a jazz drink”) I settled onto the couch, where I did a more thorough examination of the envelope.

The lavender fragrance seemed to be coming from the envelope. It was not even properly sealed, whether by its own moisten and stick glue or any sort of sticker one might have used to hold it closed. The flap wasn’t even tucked into the envelope.
I pulled the card out and it had a single word on it in the same delicate writing as the envelope.

Toujours

Shit. Shit. Shit. It finally clicked. The lavender and the delicate handwriting. Remy. My Remy. That was the smell of the soap she used. It also explained the french on the card as it’s what she would say to me in bed every night before we went to sleep.

I would tell her that I loved her. She would give me the same response every single time.
“Toujour, ma chere.” Always, my love.

This was shaping up to be a dreadful day. Kogg was gone. Taken, I suspected, by whoever left me the note. And on top of that the note had every indication of being from my ex-girlfriend, but she was only an ex because she was dead. I downed the bourbon in one fluid movement. It burnt in all the right ways on the way down and began to formulate a plan. Time for a trip to The Scorpion’s Lair.

~~An Interlude

Screwed just about described my current situation. I’d been stuffed into a cage that would have worked better for a dog, and it felt like one of my wings was broken. Seemed like there was some powerful juju at work on the cage too because I was weak as shit and touching the door made my hands smoke. Oh yeah, and it hurt like nothing I’d ever felt before.

There was something else. A feeling that can only be described as a disconnect. Like a piece of me had been shut off.

“Hello, is anyone there?”

No answer.

“I’m sure this has just been a big misunderstanding. If you would just come open the door here I’ll be on my way. No need for anyone to get hurt.”

There was a rustling noise coming closer to the cage. As it does, so does the unmistakable stench of death. The voice when it came was gravelly and rough.

“Not only is their reason enough for someone to get hurt, there is every reason for someone to die. You will shut your goddamn mouth, now, or I will cut your tongue out. Don’t worry though, our guests will be here in due time.”

The voice paused for moment and continued.

“Theo… will be here soon.”

And with that, our conversation such as it was, was done. The figure moved away from the cage and that was when things really began to suck. It felt like the cage was pulsing with energy and with each pulse my body was wracked with an almost indescribable pain. It was like a great weight was smashing me while at the same time some other force was pulling the very fabric of me apart.

I was left with no real choice but to curl up in a ball and suffer. Suffer and hope that Theo would get his ass there in time.

~~Into the Scorpions Lair

As far as bars went Los Escorpiones wasn’t much, but it was a frequently necessary stop. The trick was always in getting through the door. It was around noon that I approached the blood red double doors and as usual there were a couple of young up and coming thugs working the door who clearly could not identify me by sight. Santo has a twisted idea of initiation for his new guys.

“Hola blanco, jew don’t belong here mang.” One of them offered.

I didn’t really have time for the games today so I skipped ahead a little in the way these conversations tended to go.

“Alright fellas, now normally I would be all for the witty banter, but right now I am kinda in a hurry and for that I am truly sorry.”

“Jew don’ need to be sorry mang. Jew just need to be gon’.”

Doing the math in my head it looked to be four paces between me and them and they looked to thankfully be within arms reach of one another so with a little bit of luck I could pull this off.

I clicked my tongue the way you might if trying to get a dog’s attention. Before they even had a chance to register what was happening I was already moving. After two steps, I just launched myself at the pair of thugs, but right before the launch I meowed.

Allow me to segue for a second here and explain something about myself. For me, magic is entirely of the mind. If I can just fully visualize what it is I want to do or have happen, then the words I use just sort of gel it in reality. Now in this situation I had decided that my jump would be more of a catlike pounce. That change would sufficiently alter the physical force of the coming strikes.

Magick may be entirely mystickal but there is still a bit of science on the back end. That shit should totally be on a bumper sticker.

So back to the situation at hand, I am now moving with supernatural catlike speed and grace when I take to the air. These morons, well they might not be morons, but I didn’t have time to become their newest bestie to find that out, were standing close enough that I could reach them both without having to stretch.

I palm both of their confused faces at the same instant I swing my legs into the doors and am compressing them to absorb some of the force of my momentum as I slam both of their heads back and into the wall. Then it’s as simple as springing back from the door in a backflip and landing on my feet at the same time the door men happen to be hitting the ground.

I quickly run my fingers through my hair, a nervous tic sometimes, before heading inside.
I may have mentioned this already, but Los Escorpiones is a special kind of dump.It is so dim inside that I wonder if I might not see better with my eyes closed. I don’t get to wonder about this for too long though because no sooner have I made it into the bar proper that I hear that oh so familiar voice call out ot me from somewhere in the darkness.

“Hola Theo.” Though it always sounded like Tee…Oh. “What was it this time?”

“The cat thing. Please stop putting guys on the door who don’t know me.”

I hone in on the sound of his laughing in the darkness and make my way to the back of the bar. By the time I make it to his table, Santo has stopped laughing.

Juan Escaldanzo Santiago has been a friend for all of my adult life. He’s all of five feet tall and about 150 pounds soaking wet, but somehow he manages to run Escorpiones, which is more than just a bar, it’s also a pretty heavy weight mundane gang. Like everyone else in my life he had the misfortune of being targeted by Kogg in his attempts to get at me. Now, this did break him for a time, during which he was institutionalized, but since he was a little bit crazy to begin with he bounced back pretty quickly. He loathes Kogg for everything he’s done, and I respect that, but since he has been my partner on some jobs over the years and he knows me about as well as I know myself, he was my only choice for help on this.

Incidentally, Santo is spanish for saint, and knowing him as well as I do I still don’t get the joke. Unless he’s being serious, which is a frighteningly real possibility.

“You know I put them there as a test. I am curious to see if any of the fools in the Red and Black can match Mr. Theo the magic man. Plus it shouldn’t be an issue since you don’t come around no more.”

“Santo, you told me I was no longer welcome as long as Kogg was with me.”

He shrugged.

“And you’re not. But since I don’t see him, come, sit, have a drink with me.”
I slid into the booth with him and he yelled for someone to bring me a drink. I pulled the mystery card out of my coat pocket and slid it across the table.

“I’m here because I need some help.”

He read the card, then flipped it over and over. Finally he held it to his nose. I saw a flicker of recognition flash in his eyes, but his expression remained unchanged.

“Remy?”

“Or someone who wants me to think that.”

“Where did you find it?”

I knew that if I told him the truth he would most likely refuse to help. I also knew that if I didn’t he’d pick up on it. Fucking empaths.

“I found it in my apartment. Whoever left it did so with a purpose. I think they are trying to draw me out and get me to do something stupid.”

“Since you came alone does that mean you already have that little puta imp working leads?”

Time to tell the rest.

“I found the card on his bed and he was gone.”

He just shook his head.

“How do you know he didn’t leave it there?”

“He knows better than to pull something like this. At best I would kick his ass out. Worst case scenario…”

“You’d end him, the way you should have six months ago.”

I sidestep the bitterness.

“Santo, focus. It’s not about him. Someone is sending me a message. Someone is using him to get at me.”

“And he has never been used to get at you in the past? Come on Theo, you know better than this.”

And in truth the symbolism wasn’t lost on me, but I refused to accept his involvement in this. I had no choice but to see this through to the end.

“Oh, I get it, I do, but I gave him my word that if I could help him get out of the pit I would. I know all the wrong he’s done. Hell, he knows all the wrong he’s done. We are both of us working on righting some of his wrongs.”

He sighs and chuckles.

“Alright, alright, you don’t need to be a whiny bitch. I will help you, but only so you don’t have to break giving your word. You and that goddamned code of yours”

I smiled at that.

“An intelligent being is only as good as their capacity to keep their word.”

“Yeah, yeah. Mark of evolution. Blah, fucking, blah. I said I’d help. Don’t talk me into changing my mind.”

“Okay man. Thank you.”

“Got any leads beside the card?”

“At this point no.”

And then it hit me. If someone really was trying to call me out they would have known I’d come to Santo.Especially if they knew enough to snatch Kogg and leave reference to Remy. All of us are linked through Kogg and what he did. If this was to get all of us together for some reason, there was still one person unaccounted for.

“Shit!”

“What homey, you think of something?”

It clicked and we said it in unison.

“Lauren.”

Lauren never liked the magickal side of my life. When her nightmares started it didn’t take us long to figure out that they were somehow related to me. I helped her to master her dreams and that was when Kogg amped it up. Now I don’t know the full extent of what he said or did, but I do know that whatever it was destroyed our already failing marriage. We had married young and had never had enough money to survive. I did and still do refuse to use my gifts to win at cards. She felt that this somehow meant that I didn’t care about her or us, which just wasn’t true, but you try telling her that. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did before she finally kicked my ass out.

We used to keep in some measure of touch and she was there for me as a friend when Remy died and I needed help through that dark time. Now that I am working with Kogg, her general indifference to me has turned to an utter contempt.

Now the sign outside my office and my add in the yellow pages may label me as a Private Investigator. Lauren only ever calls me a Professional Idiot. Of course that only happens when she is actually talking to me. After she got remarried five months ago, she stopped talking to me all together and severed whatever tenuous ties remained.

Seeing no way around it, I pulled out my cell phone and just stared at it.

“She’s gonna be so pissed”

“Theo, no matter how pissed she is, you know it’s gonna be worse if you don’t call and something happens to her.”

I sighed and started dialing. I didn’t know who was screwing with me, but when I found who it was someone would suffer. Of course I had a sinking feeling that someone would end up being me.

~~Old Flames

“Whatever you are into I want no part of Theo! Come get your fucking package and leave me the hell alone!”

Oh good, someone had gotten to her.

“Lauren, I don’t know what’s going on but I didn’t ask for it and I damn sure wouldn’t knowingly include you. Now you said something about a package?”

“Yeah, somebody left a box addressed to you on the porch. I put it in the garage because it smelled awful.”

“Smelled awful?”

“It smells like sulphur and shit.”

“Ok, I’m on my way. Stay inside and lock your doors. Someone is trying to get to me through those who are or were close to me.”

“So it’s your little buddy then?” The comment dripping with sarcasm.

“No. Near as I can tell he was taken at the start of all this.”

“Good, the little bastard deserves it.” And with that she hung up.

For a minute I just stood there holding my phone.

“She okay man?”

“You couldn’t hear her yelling?”

He just smiled at that.

“So super pissed that someone left you a smelly box?”

“It would appear that way. No need for ‘smelly box’ jokes. I’m already there.”

Santo just chuckled.

“And it smells like sulphur and shit.”

“Dios mio, homey. Demons? Who did you piss off?”

“You got me man. Who haven’t I pissed off?”

Santo chuckles softly again, gets up, and starts moving towards the door.

“True homey. Very, very true.”

I start moving to catch up with him so that we can get this show on the road.

“Santo, you mind driving? I thought I might use the trip to work a source.”

It occurred to me that if people didn’t know what was going on, maybe spirits would have some useful knowledge, though to be fair I typically only dealt with one very specific spiritual source.

“That tree hugger bitch?”

Why did I surround myself entirely with beings incapable of getting along? That likely says something about me I would have to explore later.

“She’s a fey Santo, and yes I was going to try and see if Mags knew anything useful here.”

He scoffs and starts digging for his keys.

“Fine, whatever man, but you owe me for this.”

I decided that this was when I would call in a very old marker. This was sure to be found less than amusing.

“Maybe we could just call it even for that thing with the succubus?”

He stopped walking and turned to face me, with more than a little rage on his face.

“You’re a real asshole, Theo. You know that? You swore you would never bring that up.”

“Okay, okay. Forget I mentioned it. I will owe you one.”

A Succubus is a female vampire-like creature that feeds on sexual energy. There was a time once when Santo went and got himself stuck as the food supply for one. However reality differs from the movies and most vampires don’t sparkle, nor are they all built like pro athletes and porn stars.

The succubus that was victimizing Santo was big. Big like a school bus is big sitting next to a Pinto big. If she weighed in at less than 400 pounds then I’m the pope and I ain’t the fucking pope. As such he hated it when I brought it up.

“Homey, you know I will always owe you for that. You saved my life. I wasn’t going to hold this over you or nothin’.”

“Aw Santo, is this where we hug?”

He let out a sigh and just started walking away.

“You can be such a dick.”

I smiled.

“With a little help from my friends.”

“Can we just go please? You are making me start to regret this.”

And so go we did. It was all of two minutes of driving into the trip when I started my meditative process. Yeah, I know it sounds like some hippy, new age bullshit, but there is no other way to describe it. I needed to be calm and centered to reach out to Mags. Everybody has their own method to reach that little zen place. For some it’s just focusing on nothing. I used to run with a junkie who would build flowers one petal at a time and then take them apart the same way, one petal at a time. But for me, I built numbers. I one time saw these tests for color blindness where the test was made up of all these little colored dots.I build mine and they look like that. It doesn’t matter how hard I try though the numbers are always these really cheerful pastel colors, and also just shades of pink. I’ve stopped thinking about what that might mean.

By the time I had made to 13 I’d gotten my breathing under control and was just about where I needed to be. Between 20 and 21 the nothingness surrounding the numbers just sort of started to run like melted wax and as it ran the nothing was replaced with a small grove of trees.

This was Mags place as far as I knew and only because she kept insisting on it over the years, this was a real place somewhere in the world, though she refused to tell me where. I’d stumbled onto Mags one night when at an especially low point in life and an especially high time on some devilishly wicked peyote. This would have been during my Hunter S. Thompson phase.

I’m not 100% certain what she actually looks like and I attribute this to her fey nature.Fey are a kind of faery. I am however certain of how she appears to me though. The great temptress, she stands all of five foot nothing and is thin as a wisp. Her hair shines like spun gold and flows in ringlets to about halfway down her back. The light in this place always flatters her and her skin is always sun-touched to the point just before being tanned and is marred by not even a single imperfection. She has eyes like a perfectly clear sky. And thankfully, she has finally started to cover herself a little. Likely for my benefit and for which I am thankful.
If she were human she’d likely be deemed a bit top-heavy. I however think she is a true beauty but she likes to remind me that what I see of her is “naught but an illusion”.

All the same she still wants me to find her in the flesh.

As usual, she’s trying to force me to find her. I’ve been wandering around Mag’s grove for a few minutes and all the while catching fragments of her giggles and laughter in the trees all around me. I’m growing more impatient the more time I spend searching and finally I just stop.

“Dammit, Mags!. I don’t have time for this shit today. Just show yourself already.”

There is a rustling as of wind in the trees behind me, but there is never wind in this place and when I turn around she’s just there. Smiling up at me in that mischievous way of hers. She giggles and stamps her foot on the ground in mock anger.

“Aw, Theo, you’re no fun.”

“Sorry Mags, no time for games today. I’m hoping for a little information.”
She places her hand lightly on my chest and leans in close. Her voice drops to little more than a whisper.

“And what makes you think I’d know anything about your little imp disappearing?”

“Well, prior to that nothing. But you always seem to know a little something that can help steer my down the right path. What will it take to get what I’m after?”

She just starts clapping her hands with genuine enthusiasm.

“Ah, sweet boy. Nothing unfair at least. I would be happy to trade what I know for say…a kiss.”

“A single kiss? Nothing more?”

She purrs a little and moves both hands onto my chest.

“It seems like you might be pressed for time and while I would love to drag this out and make you suffer a bit you’ve made me wait this long I think I can wait a little more for a little more. So yes, Theo, just a kiss. But not like you would kiss your sister or your grandma. I want one kiss with a little bit of passion to it.”

I was chuckling a little which made it hard to say, “Now there’s the Mags I know.”

She playfully smacked my chest, but being a full on supernatural being it still kinda stung a bit. At the same time she stamps her foot again and starts to pout.

“You don’t need to be a meanie Theo.”

I had to be careful here not to really piss her off. Mags was always a little… temperamental. She was elemental by nature, but to the absolute extreme. Fiery hot one minute to icey cold the next. That sort of thing. All in all pretty batshit which put her totally in line with the types of ladies I spent any real amounts of time with.

“Aw, never to you darling. You should know that by now. If the price is a kiss, then it’s a price I can happily pay.”

She blushed a bit at that and slid her hands up and to the back of my neck where I could feel her interlacing her fingers. Then a couple of things happened all at once. She slid her body in so close that she was pressed in against me while at the same time she was pulling me in to her to pay her previously demanded price.

In that moment I began to wonder, would it be so bad with Mags? She seemed to care about me for me, shitty baggage and all and had been trying in various ways to seduce me or pique my interest since we had met.

But no sooner had I thought that than our lips met. She smelled like sunshine and tasted just as sweet. Of course I didn’t have an opportunity to really reflect on that because no sooner had I noticed that and she had her legs wrapped around my waist. She squeezed them enough to force me to gasp and when I gasped she forced her tongue into my mouth. She then proceeded to grind her might as well have been naked body against mine while making noises that were part giggle, part purr.

After the initial shock of the situation passed I let myself go in the moment. When we finally parted, breathless and a little hurt, she gave me another of her sunshine smiles.

“Sorry about that Theo. Didn’t know if I would ever get another chance.”

“With enthusiasm like that I could certainly be persuaded to come back for more. Alas though, my dear, I must be on my way. As I have kept my end of the deal…”

And I just left it hanging there.

“I shall in turn keep mine. I do hope you mean it about coming back though.”

She dismounted me and took a few tentative steps back.

“I don’t know how but it is her Theo, and she has him.”

Remy was back? This hit like a truck.I was at the funeral and was there when they covered the casket with all that dirt.

“I think someone else brought her back but I can’t be sure. MY sources don’t have any kind of an answer on that.”

She paused and shifted to a look of concern.

“I know you’ll go after her Theo, but she is not the girl you loved. Something inside her is broken now. Twisted.”

I was a little mad about the game Mags played over the information, but at the same kind could sort of understand.

“I will Mags, and thanks.”

I turned to start my way back to the real world. Without breaking stride I offered her a glimmer of hope for whatever future we might have.

“I’ll see you soon.”

“You better, dear boy.”

The farther I moved from her the closer I moved to the waking world. Mags grove eventually went from clearly defined to vaguely surrealistic to eventually just smears of color. And then I was… awake.

~~Dick in a Box

“How far out are we Santo?”

“We’ve been here for the better part of an hour homey. I parked the car to wait for you to bring your happy ass back to the real world homes.”

I always hate that time flows a bit differently on my “trips” to Mags place.

“Shit man. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be gone so long.”

“Did you at least get something useful from that nutty bitch?”

“Don’t talk about her like that please. And yes, I think I did.” I paused not so much for emphasis as in trepidation. “Remy’s back and it seems like she may have been brought back by someone but Mags didn’t know who or why.”

Santo just shook his head.

“Shit homey. I’m sorry. I know how hard it was for you when she died. I’m with you till the end on this brother.”

“Thanks Santo, that means a lot.”

“So did Mags try and fuck you again?”

“And there it is. We were having a genuine moment too.”

And we both just laughed. It felt good.

“Alright Santo, let’s get this done.”

“She’s been watching us from the house since we pulled up.”

Great, that would be sure to piss her off even more.

“No helping that now. The longer this waits, the worse it will be.”

So we made our way towards Lauren’s door. We weren’t even there when the door flew open and there stood my ex-wife, and surprise surprise she looked super pissed.

“What the hell, Theo? You tell me to stay inside because it isn’t safe and you find the time for a fucking nap?”

She was baiting me. She knew damn well what I was doing. Though that fact might explain a bit of the anger. She was more than a little jealous of the relationship I had with Mags. Always had been.

“It isn’t safe for you and you should stay locked down tight until this is over. I’m sorry you got pulled into whatever this is. You have to know that I would not do something to upset your life.”

She seemed to consider this for a second, and Santo and I as well.

“I see you are still hanging around with shit sucking bottom feeders.”

“Lauren, that is completely unnecessary.”

She just smiled.

“I was talking to Santo.”

And she went over and gave Santo a warm embrace. He just snickered.

“It’s good to see you Santo.”

“You too girl. Everything good?”

“Yes. Thank you again for last year.”

I would later find out that there had been some poltergeist activity in the home not long after Lauren moved in. Determined not to ask me for help she did the next best thing and went to Santo.They had kept in touch off and on since then.

“The garage is back through the kitchen. Get whatever is in the box and go.”
Santo went ahead and spoke up at this.

“I remember where the garage is. Thanks Lauren.”

And he started leading me through the house towards the garage. Lauren didn’t follow. We were just about through the doorway into the garage when I heard Lauren call from the house.

“Be careful Theo.”

Once the door had closed the smell was almost overwhelming. Shit and sulphur and blood. Definitely demon. From the size of the box it could be my little demon.

“You know she doesn’t hate you homes. It was just as hard on her the way it ended.”

I just nodded and pointed at the box.

“Let’s get that out in the open before we open it.If it smells this bad in a sealed box I hate to even imagine what the smell will be like once it’s opened.”

He nodded his agreement at which point we both started gagging. We went out through the garage door and worked our way down the driveway towards Santo’s car.

I kneeled down in the grass next to the car and got out my knife. You are probably expecting some great description of the knife here. It was just a pretty standard swiss army knife. They are quite useful. Anyways, I slid the blade carefully along the tape sealing the top, suddenly realizing that if this was a bomb I was fucked. Though as the package was left here regardless of what the addressing said, same handwriting as the card by the way, Lauren was likely expected to open it.

Taking it one step further, if she was the intended recipient then it was likely just intended to screw with her.

As I slowly opened the lid to the box I briefly had my own “What’s in the box?” moment.
The contents didn’t immediately make sense, but then it clicked.

Contained within the box was a teddy bear. But not just any old bear, this bear for some reason had a pair of small leathery looking black wings sewn on. Pinned to the bear was a card with the same flowing script. It read simply, “Regards”.

My mind picked this moment to fully comprehend what I was looking at in the box. Small. Black. Leathery. Wings.

“Shit Santo.”

He’d gone around the car while I was opening the box.

“What is it man?”

“Kogg.”

“In the box? Shit man, I’m sorry. I know you cared for the little shit homey.”

“No, not all of him. Just his wings.”

I held up the box and tipped it so Santo could see the contents.

“That’s messed up man.”

“What’s more messed up is that this bear, the more I look at it looks more and more like the one I gave Remy for her birthday.”

“So Remy did this?”

“I don’t know man. I just don’t know.”

“So then where do we go from here?”

“My place. I need to pick up a few things.”

I was pissed and confused. Pissed that someone could do that to Kogg. Confused that at this point all indications were that everything today was being orchestrated by Remy and this was nothing like the Remy that I had known and loved.

I started to fold the lid of the box down to keep the bear thing inside it.

“You ain’t brining that thing in my car man.”

“It’ll be in the trunk.”

“No man. I’m not gonna have to fumigate my ride again from helping you with another one of your fucking jobs.”

“Come on Santo, it’s a short trip back to my place.”

“No Theo. Not going to happen.”

So I tucked the box under my arm and started walking down the street.

“What are you doing homes?”

“Walking. You said no to hauling this back to my place. I’m not leaving this here. That means walking. Thanks for the help and the ride here. I’ll call you later.”

It wasn’t that far of a walk, but I knew Santo. Moreover, I knew how to play Santo.

“You are straight loco, homey.”

Santo got in his car and started it up. He turned around in Lauren’s driveway and started down the road in my direction. As he got next to me he slowed to my pace.

“Are you seriously going to walk back?”

“Yes, Santo. Have we even met?

He slammed the palm of his hand on the steering wheel.

“Dammit T-eo.”

I ignored this and just kept on walking (I can be a child over some things). We had gone another fifty feet or so when I heard an audible clicking as Santo popped his trunk.

“Just get in dammit. You are paying to detail my ride when this is done homey.”

I said nothing but placed the box in his trunk and went around to get in. I gave Santo my sweetest smile.

“You sir, are a real saint.”

“Shut up.”

And off we went back to my place. To see this through I was going to need a few special items. I was also going to need to figure out where in the hell Kogg was stashed, but thanks to the bloody mess in the box that should prove quite easy.

~~ Lost and Found

Scrying for something or someone is like magical GPS centered on your target. The trick is that it requires a bit of blood to make it work.

Once back at my place I gathered up the supplies I needed to track Kogg’s whereabouts and got started. I was going to go very old school on this. The implements I used consisted of an amethyst crystal in a small copper wire harness on the end a silver chain. I’d been using it for years and it was one of my favorite tools. I’d made it back when I was just getting my start and I was pretty sentimental about it.

I also made sure to grab my bag o’ tricks. Really it was just a messenger bag filled with odds and ends that could go into a quick spell. It also left me with room to grab one of great grandpa’s old poker decks. It didn’t have any power per se, but I always felt better just having it along. Luck was strange like that.

Before leaving I took a moment to check my messages. While it was mostly the usual pissy bill collectors, there was one call that stood out.

“Theo, hey it’s Paulie. Jimmy’s brother. We met that one time when you were helping Jimmy try to get clean. He said to call you if anything should happen to him. Theo…”

The silence drug on so long I began to think he just forgot to hang up. The sad reality was that he had started to cry and was trying to conceal it.

“Jimmy’s dead Theo. It happened sometime this morning. He was screaming about his back being torn apart and he died not long after.”

He left a number to call back if I could help at all. Poor, stupid Jimmy. He wasn’t slated for much in this cruel world, but he damn sure deserved better than that. Yet another thing to add to the revenge queue. I could do that much for Jimmy. He wasn’t a bad guy, just dumb.

After the message ends I just stand there for a minute in silence. I would likely have just kept standing there had Santo not broken the silence.

“That’s some messed up shit homey, no argument there, but we need to get moving.”

“I know. I just hope Kogg’s ok.”

Nothing more was said after that. I put the bag over my shoulder, rubbed the crystal in the blood in the box and headed for the door. I cracked my neck prior to opening the door and stepped out. What was I missing?

“Alright Santo, let’s go finish this.”

Whatever the hell this was anyways.

Out in the parking lot I throw my bag into Santo’s car. Before climbing in myself I wrapped the crystals chain around my hand twice to ensure that I’d keep hold of it and began to work on the scrying.

In my mind, I began to build the spell like and old fashioned fox hunt with the crystal acting like a bloodhound. I built the spell nice and strong with the hound so eager it was frothing at the mouth to get loose. I worked the hound in my head up so much that I wrapped the chain around my hand one more time for good measure.

Before I let my emotions power the spell beyond my ability to control it I released it all at once into the crystal.

“Seek.”

And then the chain pulled so taut in my hand I thought it might snap under the strain. The upside though was that it was pointing to where this end game would be playing out.

I whispered, “I’m coming buddy.” But of course I knew that was more for me than anything else.

“Santo, get the car started. We have miles to go before we sleep.”

“Alright homey. Get in.”

With that we were off. I’d put just a bit too much power into the spell and more than once had to use both hands to keep from losing circulation in the hand the chain was wrapped around.

It was slow goings at first as we worked just to maintain a proper bearing, what with this chained crystal playing compass to Kogg’s north pole. I chuckled at that thought. When I finally got him back I’d need to tell him about it. The little egotistical shit would think it funny as hell.

Shit. Hell. Dammit. Being unbound from Jimmy, Kogg would be called back to his old ways. I pushed that thought aside. We would just have to deal with that when the time came. It would certainly be a test of his unbound resolve.

After about 20 minutes, we were moving through a part of town that I knew all too well. I’d travelled it every day. I called up the spell again in my head as I now realized it would not be necessary. I knew exactly where we were going.

“Rest, boy.”

Santo stopped the car.

“What’s up man?”

“I figured out where he is. Where he has been the whole time.”

Santo looked at me waiting for the reveal to get us back under way.

“Ok. Where to bossman?”

“Go to my office. I don’t know why it didn’t click sooner. The whole damn day has been about screwing with me. It only makes sense that Kogg would be there.”

“Shit, homey. Whoever this is must really hate you.”

“I know. The biggest questions have yet to be answered though. Why? Why me? Why today? Why like this?”

I’m big on understanding the why of things.

Wait. Today. What was it about today? And like that the spell was forming in my head. Elephants are said to have great memory so in my head I was constructing an elephantine memory.

“Peanuts.”

And like that I remembered. I remembered everything. Every detail from every event from my conception to the present, some of which was always a little gross to remember, to the present. Oh God, I didn’t think this spell through. It takes me a moment to regain my focus and it takes deep breathing exercise to calm my mind.

So today is the 4th of November. I began quickly skimming November 4ths starting with the most recent and working my way backwards. At the eight year mark, with an almost painful jolt it all clicked into place.

November 4th was the day that Remy and I had gone on our first date. It began with being fixed up by some friends and we hadn’t met face to face prior to the date. She was wearing this blue sweater that was like the deepest blues of a summer sky and her hair was shifting lightly in the breeze. It ended with a talk that ran all through the night about damn near everything. A talk we had… at my office. She looked then as she did in all my memories, beautiful and happy.
It still broke my heart to think of her and what had happened.

I started getting flooded with memories of our entire relationship with an amazing clarity and detail focused on the end. All the memories came with a flood of bottled up emotions. It was quickly becoming too much to handle and I was starting to feel my sanity slip into that old despair until finally I broke down into uncontrollable sobbing. It took me a minute but I finally found the words to end my spell and laughed.

“The great egress.”

It was an old PT Barnum thing. As a joke, or maybe not, the story goes that as the end of one of his sideshows PT Barnum had a sign up saying “The Great Egress” and an arrow pointed at a curtained doorway. The greatest part of the story is what the ignorant masses found once through the doorway. After passing through the portal those folks who’d come for the show found themselves standing outside the sideshow. Egress, you see, comes from latin and means exit.
When I finally regained myself, Santo has a death-grip on my shoulder and is shaking the ever loving shit out of me all while calling my name.

“Theo! Theo! Can you hear me homey?”

I grunt because it’s all I can muster in my emotionally exhausted state.

“What the hell was that man?”

I was still half-heartedly chuckling about the PT Barnum thing so it took me a second to respond.

“A bad idea that provided a moment of mind breaking clarity.”

“Another one of your ‘Spells Gone Wild’, eh? Hope it was worth it homes. Someday you are gonna kill yourself doing that shit ya know.”

“Maybe, but in this case I figured out why today specifically is so important. Remy and I had our first date on this day 8 years ago. It ended at my office where we talked until dawn. It was on that date that I figured out that I loved her.”

“Damn man. So do you really think it was her doing all this shit today?”

“Instead of sitting here talking about it, why don’t we go find out? Aren’t you a little curious how this ends?”

He just shrugged.

“You’re the Jefe.”

And once more we were off, this time at a speed that was more than a little concerning. Even still it took us another 10 minutes to get to my office from where we were in the city. I took that time to check the supplies in my bag and ensure that my gun was loaded and ready. All of this preparation in the end tends to be unnecessary due to my overly prepared nature.
With everything checked and double checked I took a moment to center myself not that it mattered. As the car came to a stop all my careful prep work flew out the window as my nerves took hold. It was more than a little surreal just sitting there in the parking lot and looking at my office door. All the blinds and curtains were drawn on all the visible windows and as such I just couldn’t see shit inside.

“Looks shut up tight, homes.”

“Yeah, that’s not how I left it yesterday.”

“So how do you want to play this man?”

“Let’s try cautious and close to the vest.”

He raises an eyebrow at that.

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

“Nothing, man. We’re just going to walk right in the front door.”

“You’re serious?”

“Why not? If whoever is behind all of this wanted to do something directly to me they had all day to do so and after all that’s happened I think it’s pretty clear they could have.”
By now it had been dark for about an hour. I took my first tentative step towards the door.
After that I was moving pretty much on auto-pilot closer and closer to the door. After what felt like eons of creeping enhancement I was standing at the door with my hand on the handle.

Dammit but this was harder than it needed to be. I’d faced down a bunch of freaky shit over the years and at times been so close to death I could have touched the reaper’s robes and commented on her perfume. Why was going into my own damn office so hard? This wasn’t some foray into the unknown. I knew every inch of that office. The fear I was feeling was something more than just a fear of the unknown. It was a fear that behind that door lay the answer I’d been seeking all day and it was something or someone I knew all too well.

With my hand still on the doorknob I eased my gun out of it’s shoulder holster. As expected, it tingled again in my grip. With that little bit of security in my hand I began to slowly turn the knob.

~~ Happy (Re)unions?

As I am slowly easing the door open three things become clear. First, there is a light on inside and it appears to be coming from the direction of my office. Second, I smelled the same distinctive lavender fragrance from my apartment this morning. Third, I’d completely forgotten about Santo and as turned out he was right on my heels.

The door was about eight inches open when I heard a noise from the office interior. Somewhere near my desk at a guess. A voice called out from inside.

“Theo, quit screwing around and come in already.”

I almost collapsed. It couldn’t be her. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want it to be but rather that I needed it to be. Santo and I just looked at each other and mouthed Remy at the same time.

“And bring Santo. I think we all have some catching up to do.”

With that I let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding and open the door the rest of the way. My mind still reeling as I try to wrap my head around what, after the day’s events, should not have been shocking and yet still somehow was. I’m struggling as I try to tune my senses to warn of any potential traps. This was such a bad idea.

I gave up on that exercise in futility and finally walked into my office. Sitting there with her feet propped up on my desk in a sweater the same shade of blue as our first date all those years ago was the last woman I’d ever truly loved.

“Remy?”

“Hey baby. Miss me?”

“How are you back?”

“The how doesn’t matter. Not now anyways.”

“But you died in my arms. I buried you.”

What I didn’t tell her was that the whole ordeal very nearly broke me.

“And now I’m back. Before you even get weird and start any of your usual weird shit I’m not a zombie or a ghoul or anything like that. Just back.”

Ok, if it wasn’t her, it was a pretty convincing performance. It/she, knew all the points I’d have thought to cover.

“How long?”

“Long enough.”

There was a bit of venom in that and before she said anything else it was pretty clear that she was getting angrier. All the old signs were there right down to the tremble in her hands.

“How could you Theo?”

I had a guess but wasn’t entirely certain what this was referring to and so I just stood there quietly. This was seemed to be feeding into her growing anger.

“Answer me! How… could… You?”

Still not entirely certain I responded in kind.

“How could I what?”

“Work with that thing? Befriend that thing? Live with that thing? After everything it did. To you. To me. To countless people over countless years. How could you?”
Every word was laced with venom to the point that when she finished she was almost biting at each word as it left her mouth. She also taken her feet down off of my desk and her hands were almost white she had her fists clenched so tightly. Her face had gone a shade of red, almost purple I’d not thought humanly possible.

I told her the truth.

“Redemption and second chances.”

She’d told me enough to confirm all my suspicions, which was both disappointing and sad.

“So you did clip his wings. Is he still alive?”

She smiled at that. My Remy would not, could not take pleasure in harming another living being, no matter what they had done. She was so full of forgiveness. It was a part of what had made me love her. She had a gentle soul and from that I’d learned how to be what I thought was a better man. Especially after her death. I’d continued to try as a way to honor her memory.

Santo picked this moment to chime in.

“Can I say something here?”

Her rage hadn’t subsided at all and she all but spat her response at him.

“No! You keep your mouth shut. You weren’t even supposed to be here today.”

Santo put his hands up in a gesture of surrender. He’d drawn his gun at some point and this action drew her attention.

“Do you two honestly think that the guns are necessary here?”

I look at her and in all seriousness replied.

“You tell me. You broke into my apartment. You abducted and maimed Kogg. You sent that package to my ex-wife with that horrible whatever it was supposed to be. So you tell me Remy. Do we need the guns?”

It seemed like my own anger was rising up to meet hers. That was sure to work out well.

“Did you know that you killed Jimmy today, with that shit you did to Kogg?”

She was completely unfazed by this news.

“That,” and she paused as if looking for the right words, “was the byproduct of misinformation. I was told that Kogg was bound to you.”

And then she just smile and that smile told me everything I’d needed to know without even asking, before she even said it.

“It was supposed to be you love. You were supposed to die so that you could be reborn. Then we could be together once more.”

I was as confused as I was shocked. I was also starting to think that not only was this not my Remy but that who or whatever this was had more than a touch of madness.
Santo apparently had the same though because he leaned in close and I barely heard him whisper.

“No offense homes, but she is loco.”

I almost forgot myself and gave a nod at that.

“No secrets now boys.”

I noticed at this point that she had something clutched in her hand. It was roughly the size and shape of a pill bottle but appeared to be made of some kind of metal and instead of a lid, continuing my pill bottle comparison, there was a button of some sort on the top. I figure she got it out in the half second I was distracted with Santo, but I guess she could maybe have been holding it the whole time.

“So, Theo, today is a wash which is unfortunate. I’d hoped we could be back together in time for the holidays. No matter though. Next time, we’ll get it right.”

At which point she stood up. I was starting to get a very bad feeling about this.

She gives me what only now looked like a sad smile.

“Toujour, ma chere.”

Shit, shit, shit. It’s a bomb. It all makes sense now. The thing she’s holding is a detonator of some sort. I barely have time to shout to get down as I’m diving back through the doorway with a confused Santo hot on my heels and ultimately landing on top of me. It was… underwhelming isn’t the right word, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. I don’t hear the deafening boom I’d been anticipating. It sounded more like the sound of a broom hitting a rug hanging on a clothesline and that noise pulsed 3 or 4 times followed by a blinding blue-green light. And then, nothing. I lift my head from the floor to find it throbbing.

I push Santo off of me and peek into my office. My mind has some trouble comprehending the lack of damage to the room and lack of anything around the point of detonation. Remy and everything in about an eight foot sphere centered on that device she was holding are just gone. This includes about half of my desk. There’s a small crater in the floor about a foot deep and a hole in the wall behind my desk as well. I’m momentarily glad she wasn’t taller because it looked like it might rain and the last thing I needed was a hole in the roof.

So maybe I was wrong. It was not a bomb or not exactly a bomb. The edges of everything touched by whatever the hell it was are smooth to the touch and show no signs of fire or explosives. There is also the faint smell of ozone in the room. I don’t know shit about tech or high technology so I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ll have to get someone in here to take a look at this and see if they can make any sense out of it.

Until I can know for certain I’ll just have to assume Remy is alive, or whatever she is now that looks like alive. I’m just standing there wondering what she meant by “next time we’ll get it right”, and the implications scared me. Were she and I the we or was she referring to herself and someone else? All I knew was that if this was any indication finding out was going to suck a lot.

I hear a muffled sound coming from in the back of the office and realize my hearing is currently shit. I hope it’s only temporary. I head in the direction I think the noise is coming from and almost fall down. Fantastic, my balance is entirely fucked up too. So now I’m crawling towards the noise. I look back to see Santo is in about the same shape, but at least he’s upright and moving around a bit.

I cannot hear him when out he mouths out, “Go get the little shit, homes.” I nod back as a quick thank you and he flips me off.

I start moving back towards where I was now certain Kogg was being kept. It was slow goings, but by the time I’d made it to the doorway of his old room it was starting to feel like I might be able to stand up again. My hearing was still garbage though and everything just sounded like the volume had been turned almost all the way down.

It was so dark in the room that I couldn’t see anything beyond the doorway. I reached around for the light switch and tried it. Nothing. I reached into my bag and pulled out one of those snap and shake chemical glow sticks.

It inspired a quick moment of nostalgia for trick or treating as a kid and I smiled at that, but I pushed that aside. I had shit to do. I’d learned the usefulness of them over the years and always tried to have a few on hand. I bent the stick until I felt the inner barrier break and gave it a good shake.

The stick flared up with a sickly green luminescence and illuminated the room well enough to see the cage in the middle of the floor. I slid the glow stick across the floor. The cage was shaking violently which I took as a good sign.

I moved slowly as I approached the cage and when I was finally all but on top of it I took a moment to study it. My hearing was starting to return enough that I began to make out Kogg’s ravings.

“…goddammit Theo! Get me out of this thing!”

“Quiet. I’ll get you out but I don’t want to kill you in the process. Just be still and let me think.”

“Hurry. Please.”

Kogg never said please. As I studied the cage in the weak light I saw that it was nothing more than a large dog cage. Of course the sides, top and presumably bottom were covered in runes that I suspected were to keep him locked up tight. The door was a fairly standard wire mesh with a couple wires running off to a pretty impressive battery array in the corner. I moved over and took a look at the power source.

There was a power indicator on the top that was not on. Much like the light switch my first thought was that it was fried. Going back to the cage I got into my bag and got out my old swiss army knife. I cut the wires going to the door to be on the safe side and touched the door. There was no jolt so I figured it was probably pretty safe at this point. It took me a minute to figure the hasp of the cage out, but once I did the door slowly swung open on it’s own.

As soon as the door was opened, and I mean quite literally the instant it began to open Kogg was pushing his way slowly through.

The little shit was all kinds of a bloody mess, and demon blood is a bitch to get cleaned up. One of his eyes was swollen shut and the source of the blood covering his body looked to be the stumps on his back. His right foot had the vague appearance of raw meat one might find at a butcher’s shop.

Once clear of the cage he looked up at me with his one open eye.

“Thank you.”

Nothing more was needed. I nodded.

“Sorry it took me so long to get here.”

He just hung his head low.

“You’re sorry for something that was all my fault. I brought this on myself and we both know that. She may be back and she may be bat shit, balls out crazy but she was right about one thing boss. I do deserve to be punished for the things I’ve done.”

I looked down at him in utter disbelief. He’s never been one to not acknowledge his past, but never like this. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him.

“Not like this. You’ve been working with me for six months now and trying to atone for your past. What she did to you has nothing to do with karmic retribution and what happened here was horrifically unnecessary.”

“She wasn’t working alone. She made a bunch of calls to someone today. From the sound of the calls she answers to someone.”

“Didn’t happen to get a name did you?”

He spits a wad of blood on the floor.

“If it was said, I didn’t catch it what with spending my day trying to not fucking die.”

“Oh goody, the bastardo is still alive and kicking.” Santo says from the doorway.

I don’t pay him any attention.

“Not now, Santo.”

“Theo, there’s something wrong with him.”

“It’s just Santo being Santo. Don’t worry about it.”

“No dumbass, look at him. There is definitely something wrong.”

When I did look I saw a growing red spot on his stomach that was slowly growing larger.

“Shit.”

I drop to my knees and lift his shirt up to get a look at the wound. There is already a bandage in place there that is now soaked with blood. I slowly peel back the edge to get a look at the wound and find that some previously placed stitches have ripped. The opening looks ragged enough that I second guess trying to sew him up again, but with no real alternatives at this point I dig through my bag and get a needle and some thread out. I get my lighter out of my coat pocket and heat the needle until it’s glowing red. I pour some whiskey out of a bottle within arms reach on the thread in the hopes it will sterilize it and set about stitching him up.

Twenty minutes later, Santo is stitched up and moved to the couch in the corner of the room. I’d found some paper towels and duct tape in the office that should work as a pretty shit substitute gauze pad of a sort. I know this raises the question of why I would do any of this myself and the answer was twofold.

The first part was simple. Years of experience with cuts, scrapes, critter bites, and the occasional stab have given me a skill set such that I knew what I was doing. The second reason was that Santo ran a gang and knowing Santo this was likely related to that. If I took him to get proper medical attention questions would get asked and it would potentially get reported to the police and I had no desire to get asked a bunch of questions I’d have no intention of answering.

“Thanks homes. I guess I owe you another one dammit.” He tries to chuckle weakly then winces in obvious pain.

“Just rest and be glad I still have this old couch back here.”

I leave him and go back to finish my talk with Kogg. He is just sitting on the floor by my desk nursing his wounds.

“You gonna be ok?”

“I think so. Now that I’m out of that damn cage the bleeding has already stopped.”

“I’ve… uh… got your wings. I don’t know anything about demon anatomy. Can they be reattached?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. It’s not like I could even fly.”

“Uh… ok then. Did you hear that Jimmy’s dead?”

He hangs his head again.

“I didn’t need to be told. I felt it when it happened. The binding on me just snapped like a rubber band pulled too tight.”

“I think it’s just a matter of time until you get the call to continue your work.”

“Probably.”

“I may have an idea about that.”

Before he has a chance to respond I continued, “I meant it when I said I’d help you. As I recall I gave you my word. I’m happy to continue that arrangement.”

He looks shocked, but maybe he just has gas. Reading emotions on a three foot tall demon is impossible at the best of times.

“But, know this, if you wish to continue this you will not be bound to me or anyone. You’ll be free and clear to make your own choices. Again though, it’s all up to you.”

“And how exactly will you get my old Boss to go for this?”

“Let me worry about that. What do you say?”

He shrugged, or shivered. I need to talk to him about demon body language.

“Ok, I’m in.”

“Then go in the back and get some rest. I’ll take care of getting you freed up to do as you please.”

He shrugged. Yeah that was a shrug.Or a burp.

“Ok, Theo. Whatever you say.”

He starts to slowly hobble his way into the back room. He pauses in the doorway.

“I’d tell you not to do anything stupid, but why bother. It’s what you’re good at.”

We both have a laugh at that.

“Yeah, yeah asshole. Love you too.”

He turns and looks at me intently with his one good eye again.

“Seriously Theo, thank you for everything.”

He turns and is gone before I can reply. Now comes what in retrospect was the really stupid part of this newly formed plan.

~~ Scratch(ing) that old itch

I fished around in my bag again for Bacon’s Black Book. With a little luck I could get this done purely by phone. However I know how my luck tends to go and it felt like all my luck for the day had just run out.

Having never before had to use the book I wasn’t completely sold on its ability to do what was claimed. Holding the book flat with the palm of one hand front and the other on the back I work on clearing my mind of anything but the thing I wanted to contact.
After about thirty seconds of this I open the book, check the number and use my cell phone to make the call. It rang exactly thirteen times before finally being answered.The voice on the other ends was booming and aggressive. It reminded me of a professional wrestler from the ‘80s doing one of those trash talking promos.

“Who presumes to contact me?”

“I do. I’ll keep it quick. The demon Kogg no longer works for you. He is now free to do as he pleases. In this case that means working for me. Additionally, you have twenty-four hours to provide his true human name.”

The voice on the other end laughs and laughs at this. The sound of the laughing was painful and bears some semblance to what I imagine a harpy running its claws down a chalkboard while gargling broken glass might sound.

“Who do you think you are to make demands of me? Heaven wept at my fall.”

“Thelonius Gordon Reed and you can spare me the theatrics.”

There was silence for a second. And the voice softened.

“Ah, Theo. I had hoped to talk to you eventually. As I stand to gain nothing from what you propose, I’m sorry but it will have to be a hard pass.”

“I expected as much. In five minutes I will be summoning and killing one of your demonic legion. I’ll do it again every five minutes for as long as it’s necessary to make my point.”

“Do you expect me to cave to the threat of a mortal?”

“I fully expect your cooperation. I’ll be at my office when you are ready and able to talk without over-inflating your ego.”

And with that I hung up on Lucifer. I wa probably out of my mind, but I’d given my word.
Time started to tick by and nothing. At the three minute mark, I started to build the spell in my head for the when the first demon arrived. I’d guessed that Lucifer would send one or more demons before I could fully summon anything so I was working on envisioning a weapon and the skills I’d need to wield it, as a smile crept across my face.

Historically a Macuahuitl (yeah,I don’t know how to pronounce it either) was a weapon used by certain pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures.They were typically three to four feet in length and about three inches thick. Think cricket bat, but with a groove running the whole way around and shards of obsidian wedged into the groove, creating a sort of “pseudo-blade”. It was certainly pretty frightening looking. Old stories told of how if you were strong enough it would decapitate a horse. I was hoping it would have the same effect on demons.

At the four minute mark, two demons wink into being in the room in front of me. They looked like carbon copies of one another that had been shit on, set on fire and then sent out to play. It was as though Lucifer only had the one broken demon mold for hench-demons. They both look physically imposing in a snap your neck by looking hard at you sort of way.

It’s not until they speak that it hits me that the looks do not belay the brains. When they speak, they speak in perfect unison.

“What make you think you make demands of dark lord santa?”

I really wish that santa part was an embellishment. I really do. It took all of my efforts not to laugh and lose the spell I was building and which I triggered with the following.

“I am an Aztec warrior baby.”

I crack a smile as into my open hand appears a glowing ethereal Macuahuitl with an edge lined in inky blackness. Before these prime specimens, and I use that term incredibly loosely, have a chance to even react I grasp my weapon in a solid two-handed grip and swing it like a baseball bat but with the edge parallel the ground. Due to the reach granted by it and the proximity of the tweedle twins to one another I was able to lop off both of their heads in one smooth movement. The dropped to the floor like a couple of marionettes with their strings suddenly cut.

“Next.”

There is a movement in the shadows of the corner of the room.

“Cute, but I think that’s quite enough Theo.”
And out of the shadows steps an old man, who looked a lot like the old actor Burgess Meredith.

“Fan of the twilight zone?”

He smiles.

“Ready to deal?”

“Can you put away whatever that thing is?”

And in a puff of pink smoke it’s gone.

“I’d give anything for a legion of warriors like you.”

“But today we’re not talking about me. Today we’re talking about Kogg’s freedom.”

“And that is something that I cannot simply give away.”

The way he said that seemed purposeful.

“But there is a circumstance under which you are willing to grant his release?”

“There are two actually. I’d gladly trade him for a marker on your soul, but I don’t see you going for that today.”

He pauses and stares at me as if waiting for an answer.

“Not going to happen. What’s the other way?”

“A wager.”

“I don’t play the fiddle.”

He laughs at this and it seems genuine.

“It can be anything really. A hand of poker perhaps. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d played cards with a Theo Reed.”

“So it’s true then. I’d always heard the stories about the old man but it was so long ago nobody knew for certain if it was all just bullshit or if he won.”

“It’s true we played.”

“Did he win?”

He just smiled again and waved off the question.

“The wagers themselves are confidential to the parties of the wager.”

“Fair enough. I’ll play you a hand of poker.”

We sit down at the somehow properly oriented remains of my desk. I dig out the old family deck and start to shuffle it. For the first time the deck feels almost alive in my hands. Almost like its charged up by the gravity of what is about to happen. I start trying to use my talents to read him but instead am greeting by the feeling inside my skull by being hit in the face with a brick.

I almost drop the cards.

“You can’t read me Theo. Think of it as a loophole built into that little trick.”
Shit.

“So that means…”

“It does, but can history repeat?”

We were about to find out.

“Do you have a poker preference?”

He just laughs again.

“Your game, your choice.”

“Well, I hate Texas Hold ‘em, so let’s just go with five card draw.”

“You’ll probably be insulted by this but you are very much like him you know?”

I just smiled and started dealing.

“You know, I have heard that before and there was a time I would have been insulted to hear it.”

“And now?”

“You clearly don’t know me well enough to make that call.”

We both picked up our hands and studied them.

6 of Clubs, 7 of Hearts, 9 of Spades, 10 of Spades, Ace of Clubs. So, not much currently. Ace high with the possibility of a straight off the draw.I decided to go for the straight.
Lucifer looks briefly at his hand and sets it down. While I can’t “read” him, I get the feeling that he is just sort of going through the motions which seems strange. So I speak up.

“Something wrong?”

“Not at all boy. I’ll take 5 new cards if you please.”

This makes no sense to me, but what the hell, so I give him five fresh cards.I get one myself and end up with the 8 of hearts getting the straight I’d been looking for.

“Well boy, what ya got?”

I lay my hand down fanning the cards so he can see them.

“Ten high straight.”
He nods thoughtfully.

“Not bad Theo. Not bad at all.”

He lays his own cards down in the same manner I did. I try to keep my jaw from dropping at the sight of his Full House, Kings over Queens.

“Off a cold draw of five cards.”

He shrugs and smiles sheepishly.

“Well, it did used to be my deck after all.”

He fucking cheated.

“You fallen piece of shit. You cheated.”

He gave a look of feigned innocence.

“Not a cheat Theo. I suggested poker. You picked the deck and what type of poker we would be playing. It’s not my fault that the deck has a… loophole.”

“There are a lot of god damn loopholes.”

He starts getting up to leave.

“You can send Kogg in the morning. It’ll give you time for goodbyes.”

“That’s it?”

“We played. You lost. What more is there?”

I started yelling at myself internally to just shut up but it didn’t matter as the words just started coming out of my mouth. Plus, I did give my word.

“One more hand.”

“Why? I’ve already won. There is no reason for me to play again”

“What if I can make it interesting?

He stood motionless for what felt like forever before speaking again.

“How so?”

“My soul as the ante.”

And with that he sat back down.

“Same game as before?”

“Sure, but let me get a different deck. You’re not fucking me over with that trick again.”

He shrugs at that.

“It never dawned on you that there was something different about that deck? Not everyone wants a fiddle made of gold.”

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re kind of a dick?”

He chuckles at that and then responds at something just above a whisper.

“Do not piss me off boy. That is an unfortunate precedent to set if you lose. An eternity of torment at my hand.”

I go to the little safe that miraculously survived unharmed under what remained of my desk. I had an idea. To keep the devil preoccupied I simply said, “If you win.”

“Getting one of your little trinkets Theo?”

“Not exactly. Just a really old deck that has some sentimental and monetary value.

“For a hairless ape Theo, you are something of an enigma. You have all those… things that are worth a tidy sum yet you continue to live like,” and he waves an arm around the room, “this.”

“Actually, this is where I work. My home is much nicer.”

He did have a point though I had a reason.

“Some of these things are dangerous. Coupled with the fact that nearly all of them are useful in one way or another, it just seems that the world or at least my little corner of it is a little safer with me keeping that stuff in my possession and out there on the streets.”

“How utterly altruistic of you Theo.”

The comment drips with sarcasm.

Not that it mattered as during that exchange I got out the deck and started to shuffle. I was suddenly very happy that I could see the doorway into the room.

I dealt us both a fresh hand of five cards. I didn’t bother looking at mine, and Lucifer looked a little puzzled by that move.

“Awfully confident there Theo.”

“Something like that.What ya got?” Mirroring his response from the last hand just to be an asshole.

He had two pair, Kings over 5’s.

“Not bad if you aren’t cheating.”

“Yet somehow I get the feeling it isn’t going to be enough.”

I just smiled.

“How much do you know about the old west.”

“I made the odd deal here and there, but I know that it is something of a passion of yours. I’m sure that my knowledge is somewhat lacking when compared to yours. Why do you ask?”

And with that I revealed my hand. A pair of black Aces and a pair of black 8’s. The devil leaned in closer to inspect the cards.

“Are those by chance flecks of blood on the card?”

“Why yes, yes they are. Are you familiar with Wild Bill Hickock?”

His face turned an almost purple color.

“The Dead Man’s Hand. You little shit.”

Wild Bill Hickock was a famous cowboy, lawman, gunslinger and sometimes gambler. He always insisted on sitting so that he had a clear view of the door. Well, almost always. There was one somewhat infamous instance when he was forced to sit with his back to the door. He was subsequently shot in the back while holding two pair, Aces and Eights.

I started picking up both decks and without even looking at him said, “You can see yourself out.”

“We’re not done here.”

“Ah, but we are you see. I won. You lost. Kogg is free. My soul is mine. So again, you can get the fuck out.”

“He’ll be mine again soon enough boy, I’m not worried.”

And with that he rose and started to move towards the door. About halfway there he paused and without even turning around said, “Let him know that the other imps are missing their leader.”

I just sate starting at his back.

“Excuse me?”

“You didn’t think he was the only one did you? You stupid, stupid monkey. There are over six billion of you stupid apes on this rock. He can’t possibly mess with everyone all on his own.”
The thought had honestly never occurred to me.

“And the past is the past. He doesn’t do it now. Why tell me anyways?”

“Just think of it as a parting gift.”

“Gee, thanks. A real parting gift would be telling me his real name.”

There was a brief stillness while he considered this.

“Sure. Why not? The demon Kogg’s human name was Konrad Jorgen.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t bother. This isn’t over.”

“Well it is for today. Thanks for stopping by.”

And just like that he was gone. I sat there for a minute and let the events of the day just sort of sink in while I packed the decks away.

Finally I looked once more around the darkening room.

“You can come out now Kogg.”

He slowly limped into the room. I could hear him sniffling or was it an asthma attack. Maybe he’d been crying.

“How long have you been watching?”

“I saw it all boss.”

“And?”

“I’m sorry I never told you about leading the imps.”

“Anything else?”

“Thanks, but that doesn’t seem like it properly expresses my gratitude.”

I thought about it for a second. I could have busted his balls for hours about this but it had been such a long day so I decided to just let it go for now.

“Go get some sleep Konrad. Finding redemption is likely to be an exhausting journey.”

“Sure thing boss, but one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Konrad is who I was. Kogg is who I am. Just because I know who I was doesn’t change who I am now.”

“All right then. Good night Kogg.”

He just wandered away after that without a word and I found myself alone at my desk and thinking about a quote from Elbert Hubbard.

A friend is someone who knows all about you and loves you just the same.

I turned the light off, leaned back in my chair and put my feet up on my desk and feeling as though I’d earned it, fell asleep.