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.

Issue 2

It ended up taking us about 3 months to get it our shit together to open our doors to the public, but a majority of the third month Wil and I spent doing online sales to help try and generate further startup revenue so that we could hit the ground running. All in all things were coming together perfectly, and it seemed like we could do nothing but succeed. We got our storefront and financing no problem, with the use of my home as collateral on the loan, that is. We set ourselves up with several wholesale distributors in a matter of hours. We thought it was way too easy, but just kinda went with it. Our store wasn’t the biggest we’d been in or around, but it was big enough to do what we needed and it had a basement that was dry, so we could use it for storage and a sort of ‘not in the storefront’ impromptu meeting space and a place to play the role playing games we all loved so much.

Surprisingly though, when we finally did open our doors it seemed like destiny or fate or what have you was on our side and business was good, really good. At least it was for the first month anyways. Around that time was when those douchebags across town opened their fucking big box comic and gaming superstore. ComicWorldMart, they called it, and all one word too. It was so goddamn obnoxious at how brilliantly fucking original these guys were. It had everything we had and more but in a bigger space and with longer hours and all at lower prices. This looked to be a pissing contest that we were doomed to lose from the start. It also occurred at what was a crucial point in our business development. We had a couple of options though, for the things we could do if we wanted to keep our doors open and even hope to try and compete.

First, we made the decision that to try and cut some of our in store costs we’d up our level of online selling since we were generating about half our money from this anyways. So if we upped what we were doing then we figured we could probably milk another five to ten percent out of it. This wasn’t much of a change as we’d been talking about doing this anyway. Turned out to be a lot easier than we thought it would be. All the same, it was the easiest thing we could think of to try and help weather the coming storm. It was just a matter of reallocating Stevie to our online sales department and making Ralphie our primary sales staff on the floor. Stevie didn’t mind at all, and Ralphie finally quit bitching about being treated like a dog.

The increased online sales really did help but it was clear when we started that it just wasn’t going to be enough. We were still having problems making ends meet and paying our loan payments, which month by month could only put us closer to getting in beyond our means and going under. It didn’t help that we were all running out of our personal savings fast. In the end all it did was buy us a couple of months breathing room.

So after that couple of months passed the decision was made to extend our store hours and we all also agreed to take a pay cut, which really did hurt because we all had pretty much taken a reduction in our incomes when the opening the store took place. Still though, it was a sacrifice we were all willing to make, in the hopes it would just be on a temporary basis and would just be until we got the business back off the ground. Just like our increased online sales, it did begin to help. But, once again, it was obviously not going to be nearly enough to make a big enough impact on our bottom line to prove effective. In the end this too bought us a couple months to try and formulate additional plans to “get by”. Except that by now we had all started to dig into our personal savings pretty hard to help keep things going, but even what little savings we’d all had were starting to run out, and we were running out of options, and fast.

As a last and somewhat desperate resort we just started slashing our prices to try and move some of, any of, our products off the shelves. This plan worked, just like all the others up to now, but by now we’d just fallen too far and spread ourselves too thin and we had bank loans that needed to be paid, and we were running short of coming up with enough money to keep getting new product.

We were finally making money for the store, which was a good thing, but on a personal level, all of us were becoming so financially fucked it was truly looking like a lost cause. We had finally plugged the hole we were losing money from, but weren’t making any at the same time. And so finally, despite all of our brilliant and best efforts we just ran out of options.

So where do you go when you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel? The answer of course is that you make some really questionable choices that seem like good or at least sensible ones at the time, but only succeed in making you and your friends look insane or incredibly stupid in the process.

So now it looked like it was time for me to call another of my big meetings. Since we all worked on Saturday’s, I told everyone that we were gonna be closing our doors an hour early so that we could have a meeting to discuss the ultimate fate of the store. I was met with some strange looks, mainly because we never closed early, if anything we closed late, but at this point I figured “Eh, what the fuck?”, and that if we were leaking money anyways that one hour wouldn’t fix our problems and couldn’t possibly hurt us in our wallets any more than we already were. With luck, I was hoping we’d be able to brainstorm something that could save us from the hole we’d fallen into.

“Alright guys, I think we all know how fucked we are. Things can’t stay like this any longer, or we’re all gonna go broke and lose the store and most of what we own. I don’t think I’m the only one of us who’s on the verge of losing his house as well. I’ve heard the rest of you talking about how tough things are at home. It’s now more than just a matter of store survival, but a matter of not bottoming out across the board. Anyone got any ideas?”

I figured there was no reason to pull my punches and so I opened with it all out on front street hoped that we could fix it. I still believed that together we couldn’t fail. Hell, even now after all that’s happened I still do. Everyone just kinda looked at me in a sort of deer in the headlights kinda way. Almost as though they didn’t quite understand the words I was speaking.
“Come on guys. You guys have nothing at all?”, I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.

“Whatever we do we need to do it soon, I’ve only got another couple of months before I lose my house.” It didn’t really surprise me that William responded first.

“What can we do that we haven’t already tried?” T always did try to be the voice of reasonable solutions.

“Can’t we take it more online? It seemed to help when we refocused that way before. Why can’t we do it again?” Ralphie asked this like it was a simple thing to do. Wil and Stevie just looked at each other in a kind of scared, frustrated way, and Wil spoke up.

“Not with what we currently have as far as inventory, space and staff levels go. We don’t have enough people to manage the level of online sales that would be necessary to keep things going and make a bigger profit, and take on that level of staff. We’d end up even more in the hole than we already are. Stevie and I are already busting our asses to do what we can, but dude we are only two guys and there is only so much we can do.” He said it so plainly I didn’t even bother to add that we just didn’t have the room to maintain the level of inventory that would be needed to do what Ralphie was suggesting we try.

“Oh, I guess I didn’t realize it was so hard to do it. Is there anything else I can do to help you guys?” It was clear he really just wanted to help, but he really was just perfect for working the sales floor.

“Ralphie, you are amazing on the floor. You have the perfect level of excitement over the things we sell that it helps to push product on the customers. Don’t get pissed man but you’re like a kid at Christmas every month when the new issues come in. I, for one, don’t think we can afford to move you away from directly working with the customers.” I had to just hope he’d understand. He just nodded and sat there quietly for a second.

“No, you’re right. It’s cool.”

“I’ve been running through the books looking for corners to cut, but I can’t find anything else we can do to squeeze any more money out of what we’re doing. Short of working for free, I can honestly say we are probably just straight up fucked on this.” T, ever the pragmatist, had to just ground us all in reality.

I fucking hated when he did that. It always felt like he was pissing on the dream, not that he was usually wrong.

“Well, there is one thing, but I don’t think you guys will like it.” Stevie had an idea which never happened. I had to have looked like I’d been hit by a prizefighter, and then I realized I wasn’t alone.
“Hey man, if you got something to offer then I’m pretty sure we’ll at least listen to what you have got to say.” I had to give him that level of encouragement sometimes, because he was a little skittish about being taken seriously. He almost wilted when all the eyes were on him. But he continued.

“Ok, so you guys know that guy Russ that comes in all the time?” Everybody just nodded at this. We all knew who he was talking about.

“Crazy Russ? Yeah, we know him, but I don’t see how he fits in this though.” I didn’t.

“Ok, well he says he’s got a line on a guy who is looking to unload some guns and stuff. Military grade or so he says. Maybe we could sell those and make the money we need. I mean, you guys are always going on and on about how you’re all such wicked criminal fucking geniuses, maybe you can find a way to make some money at it.” Stevie had a confidence I’d not seen him display before. He had been giving this some serious thought before he brought it up.

As a quick little aside here, he wasn’t wrong, we did like to play a game we might as well have called “If I was a criminal” wherein we would create these fantastical situations of our own supposed, more like fantasized badassery and how we would turn that into running some sort of a criminal empire.

“Ok, wait a second, what the fuck do we know about gun running? It is called gun running right?” William had a tendency towards paranoia sometimes, but he was right. What did we know about running guns?

“True, but how much worse can it get?” I had to admit Stevie piqued my interest and I wanted to see where this was going.

“I’m at least curious about this. We need to do something, and soon. Leah’s talking about taking the kids and going to her mother’s and I won’t lose my family. I just won’t.” Wil was clearly a little frightened by the thought of losing his wife, and I couldn’t blame him. Meryl had already gone to her sister’s a couple of days prior with our baby girl and I’d not said a thing.

“Mer already went to her sister’s. I just haven’t said anything to you guys. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get her back. I know that things have been rough for you boys too. You don’t even have to say anything.” I knew that although we were different people, we were still kinda the same. Or maybe we were just different aspects of the same person. The guys just looked at me and nodded.

“You guys can’t be seriously considering this?” T’s concern wasn’t entirely unfounded.

“You said when I first brought the idea of going into business together that it sounded kinda out there. Just think of this as an extension of that initial ‘out there’ idea. I will not lose my family.” I had made up my mind about things without even realizing it.

“You really might be crazy you know. If all of you guys are sure about this, then I guess I’m in.” T was always a team player and we were a fucked up family of sorts after all.

“So what do you say fellas? We gonna do this or what?” I saw no reason to fuck around with this conversation anymore.

“I’m in. I don’t wanna lose my girls.” I couldn’t believe that William was the first of those remaining to respond. I thought he’d be one of the last as always. It almost floored me when I heard him chime in. That seemed to be all it took for everyone else.

“If you’re sure dude, I’ll see what’s up.” I knew I could trust in Wil to just go with the flow.

“All right big man, back to you. You in?” No reason to mince my words. Stevie had what was looking to be a course of action we could at least explore.

Movies did glorify the kind of people we were apparently looking at becoming, and we were one man down from total agreement.

“Sure. Why the fuck not? I always knew we were a little fucked up but I can’t believe this would come from Stevie.” He did look a little dumbfounded at the whole thing. The prospect of running guns looked to confuse Ralphie, and if I’m being honest he wasn’t alone. We knew less about running guns than we did about running a successful business. And lately it looked like we really didn’t know much at all about that.

“Wait so we’re gun runners now? Nobody answered me. That is what it’s called right?” William could get so fucking freaked about shit sometimes.

“Yeah dude, I think that is what it’s called and yes I think that is what it’ll make us.” Wil was saying almost as though he was trying to convince himself as well.

“I really think it will.” Yeah, he was trying to convince himself. I’d kill if it meant Mer would bring the baby home, and know the rest of the guys would do the same. That’s just how we were. Loyalty to each other and the love of our families were about all there was outside the store.

“Stevie, since it was your idea, you talk to Russ and work out the meet with his guy. We need to be on this as soon as possible, so you got seven days to pull it together.” I figured he would like the opportunity to start pulling his keep anyways. He was gonna be sixteen in a couple of months anyways so this would give him a chance to start acting like a man.

“Sure, dude. Consider it done.” I knew it would be. He never, and I mean never, failed to do what he was told. It was like a damned illness.

And with that we started down the path to becoming gun runners. At the time we’d not yet met with a supplier and we didn’t have the first idea of how to unload guns and shit even when we did, but at the time those were just some details. We’d figure it out, we always did. At least that was what I thought at the time anyways. Amazing how far you can stretch your luck before it breaks like a taut rubber band. We were just too stupid to realize that at the time.

Issue 1

In the beginning there were six of us. There was Ralphie and his older brother William, Wil, and don’t get me started on how confusing it was to have a pair of Wills. Then there was Terry, Steve and me. My name is Jonah and this is our story. I wish I could say I don’t know how it all started but that would be a lie. I know exactly how it started because it was all my terrible idea. And, looking back on it I sometimes wonder how we ever expected to make it out alive. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. It started earlier than all the violence, and in a place really without merit, Ohio. North Central Ohio to be a bit more precise. It can be counted on both hands all the things of note that have come out of this part of the state and we certainly weren’t any exception, although since this is where we began that’s where this story, our story, has to.

We all had our own unique life situations in the beginning. I was working as a low-end IT guy for a Law Firm, and to say I fucking hated it stretched the concept of hate probably had something to do with being referred to as “that boy” by the senior partners. Wil did internet sales and dealt mainly in coins of dubious providence. Eventually that employer would be prosecuted for selling stolen goods. William worked making coloring books because he had an art degree. He did have a bit of a background in IT though from a prior job. Terry was in going into his third year of college on the way towards getting his law degree. Ralphie was working at a quarry involved to some degree with the production of drywall. And little Stevie (I call him little cause he was the youngest amongst us) was still finishing up getting homeschooled by his grandmother.

We were a odd bunch to be sure and at first glance it would be hard to figure out what in the hell we’d even have in common aside from that potential IT connection to the three of us who had that, but the IT connection was a pure coincidence. We all met at the one place where we all felt at home the comic shop. The comic shop was that magical, mystical place where we could go to escape the realities of our daily lives and fit in free of judgment. It was in a way our holy place. All were welcomed and everyone was treated fairly. So te comic shop was where we met and for a while it was how and why we stayed together. After enough years knowing each other it only seemed logical that one day we’d open our own shop. This now brings me to the unbelievably somewhat mostly true story of Pandora’s Box, and just how it came to be.

One day Wil and I were talking over a cigarette and I said quite simply, “Hey man, why don’t we open up a comic shop? I’ve always wanted to and I know you have too. You know we could easily manage the thing and I’m sure we could get the rest of the guys to work the place and collectively we have the minds for managing it.”

He said yes of course, but then it was rare of him to refuse me unless he knew it would get him in trouble with his wife. In that respect he was probably the most pussy-whipped of all of us, but he was still like a little brother to me even if we were only a little over a year apart in age.

His only question was, and it was a good one, was simply, “Ok, but what do we call it?”

We decided the best thing to do was get all the guys together and have a discussion on this topic. So after hours of deliberation on such random things as store layout and how we absolutely had to be the coolest comic shop on the planet (the only way Ralphie would go along with anything) we decided to call our store, our little piece of heaven “Pandora’s Box”. So we began to set our plan in motion since T (this is what we called Terry) was a business/pre-law major in college drew us up a fantastic business plan so we could secure our initial financing from the bank and get ourselves underway.

So a week later we convened a meeting of the six of us. We opted to include Stevie even though he wasn’t even 18. He was in some desperate need of direction and needed to do something that would get him out of the house and away from his computer. For someone who wasn’t yet legally an adult he had seen more in his life than most people could ever hope to. Wil and I tried to keep the others in the dark as to why we wanted to meet, we were dorks like that sometimes, and as it turned out we were successful. This would be the first of many sit downs we’d have at the local pizza place. We had agreed to meet up about 6pm, because Wil and I had something to discuss with the group. We went ahead and told everyone but Ralphie to show up around 5:30pm, because we knew he’d be late. He’d miss his own damn funeral if his attendance wasn’t mandatory. But 6pm came and went and we were all getting sick of waiting. It was like that a lot with him and we’d learned to just deal with it. So, at 6:30pm we went ahead and got started.

“I’m sure all of you are wondering what Wil and I wanted to throw around, so I’m not going to waste any time . . .”, and like a broke-ass clock Ralphie came into the pizza place and sat down. He was always doing shit like this, but he was also always there for a friend in need. And even if he was late, when he said he’d show he did. “… Hey asshole, thanks for showing up!”

“Fuck you man! I’m here aren’t I? What was so secret I had to drive an hour just to hear about it?”

“Well now that you finally decided to grace us with your presence we can get this show under way.” I was always being a dick like that when he showed up late. I knew how far I could push it without turning it into a real fight, and he was usually a pretty good sport about it.

“We want to open a comic and game shop.” Wil is always getting right to the point.

“And you wanted the rest of us here because?” In the beginning Williams was always questioning every decision and suggestion, but he was smart and loyal, both were qualities that I respected.

“We’d like to do it as a group. As a group we possess all the skills necessary to do this. William and Wil and pretty amazing with computers and Wil can spearhead the internet sales. Terry can handle almost all of the business, finance and legal bullshit. Stevie and Ralphie can handle the customers, track stock and work the floor.” And I just looked at the rest of them waiting for a response. Wil and I expected this.

“What the fuck? Work the floor? You don’t think I can handle anything more than that?” I could tell Ralphie was a little pissed about this, but I knew he only ever takes a little, very little really, convincing.

“Jonah and I talked about it and it seemed the most fitting for you. You and Stevie have a really weird knack of doing what you’re told and excelling at it. It just seemed to make you two the most appropriate for those tasks….” Wil with the logical save.

“…Plus we wanted to include everyone. Remember the pact we made when Jared died? But if you guys don’t want to be involved then we can always find people to do that stuff. I didn’t mean to waste your time…” I knew how to work my audience for this.

“Hey, I never said I didn’t want in. You know I’ll help you in any way I can. Will you guys actually be paying me or will it be slave labor as usual?” –Stevie was always so worried about shit. I guess he was just used to getting the calls that we were doing some project around our respective houses and we needed an unpaid assistant.

“Yes, we’ll be paying you. Ok, so I got a green light from the minor. Anyone else have an opinion one way or the other?” I saw no point in wasting time moving forward on this.

“Did we mention that we wanted to do this as partners and not with the rest of you as employees?” Wil mentioning the detail that I’d neglected to bring up.

“All of us? You guys sure about this?” Bless him, but William was always so freaked when it came to going in on anything together financially.

So I continued, “Yeah, we’re sure. As a group we believe we can’t fail. History has shown this time and again”

“T, any thoughts? You’ve been awful quiet through this whole thing.” Wil said and we are just sort of staring at him silently running things over in his head.

“Honestly, it sounds really out there, but I’d expect no less from Jonah. You can count me in, but you guys know I’ve still got school and I can’t just drop it.” And with that Terry just smiled.

Time to start laying out the finer points of the plan Wil and I had kind of worked out. “Dude, you know we got that shit planned for, or we wouldn’t even be having this talk. All the financial information would be forwarded to you nightly, and you would just need to come back on the weekends to straighten the books up. I’d be working the day to day and you would be working the assist.”

“What about you? What are will you going to be doing in all this?” William asked.

“I’ll be the day to day manager and help in whatever area it’s needed. If Wil has too much going on online, then I come in for the assist. We get a rush of customers; again, I come in for the assist. T needs help getting all the paperwork straight, once again I come in. I’ll do what needs to be done so that we can stay afloat. Is that good enough for you.” Sometimes I had to be a dick to William so that he’d accept something and let it. Otherwise we’d spend the whole night focused on just what I’d be doing for the business. He just nodded.

Time to button this conversation up, “So, any other questions, concerns or war stories?”

There was a moment of silence. That was weird for us, but it happened sometimes.

“Alright then if nobody has anything else, Ralphie you in or out?” Sometimes we’d have to push the issue with him.

“I still think its bullshit that you wanna treat me like a trained fucking dog.”

“So does that mean you’re in?”

“Yeah, I’m in.”

“Good boy, play your cards right and you’ll get a treat. And maybe if you don’t piss on the floor we’ll rub your belly.” Sometimes I’d really screw with him, but it got the group to laugh and got the response I was hoping for.

“Fuck you, dick.” Yep that was the response I expected from Ralphie.

“Love you too, man. So William, what do you say, are you in?” I could tell he was agonizing over this. He hated being financially tied to anyone. I don’t know how he’d stayed married for so long. It was clear that he was agonizing over this decision, because he just sat there and didn’t say anything.

“Ok, we’ll come back to you. T, what do you say? You in?” Wil would do this sometimes. He’d occasionally butt heads with William over stuff and he would just push on forward, while William would just sit there.

“As long as it doesn’t stop me from going to school, then I’m ok with it. It’ll look good on a resume anyways.” T was about the only one of us who would really be focused on the future. It’s not like it was a huge fault of the rest of us, but sometimes it happened.

“So William, I’m really gonna need your answer. I know you don’t like to take risks, hell we all do, but you know we all know this shit. We can do this man. But it won’t be the same without you, and you know it.” I knew just how to get him to go along with things sometimes. It was just a matter of goading him just enough, but not so much that it turns into a real fight.

“You guys are sure about this? This isn’t gonna be like all those other things we say we’re gonna do, but then just ignore and lose interest in, is it? If there’s money involved in this, then there need to be certainties.” William seemed eerily confident. I had to admit I was a little surprised at the direction he was coming from on this. I looked at Wil and we just kinda nodded at each other. Wil beat me to a response.

“Hell yeah, man, we’re sure. Jonah and I have kicking this around as a ‘pipe dream’ for a couple of years now, and we all seem to be at a place in our lives where it just makes sense to try something different and new. Do you really wanna spend the rest of your life doing what you do now? I know I don’t, and I know that Jonah doesn’t. We want something more from life and we wanna be able to do something we actually love to do. This is it for us. Fail or succeed it’ll sit on us. But, we wanted to include everyone. So, are you in or what, dude?” I have to admit that in that moment Wil had it down. We’d never talked about it like that, but damn if it didn’t just make perfect sense. I could tell Willam was still thinking about it, but even still he surprised me.

“And we would be equal partners? Equal partners with equal say?” It was like William’s response was a statement he’d already started in his head. I couldn’t do anything but smile.

“Yeah man, equal partners with equal say, but Stevie gets an equal share upon his 18th birthday, and that’s non-negotiable. He’s one of us; he’s just a little on the young side.” I was hoping that would be the end of it there, and we wouldn’t spend the rest of our time debating this, cause I was starting to get hungry. And as if reading my mind, a server finally showed up.

“Can I get you guys something to drink?” So we gave our drink orders to the guy and I looked at William. Before I could say anything else to him he’d made up his mind.

“Alright, I can agree to that. I’m in.”

With his agreement, events would ultimately get set in motion that would test all of our friendships, endanger our lives and those of our spouses and result in a lot of blood spilled, bullets fired and money earned. I fully recognize that last statement has no real place in the context of opening a comic and game, but we don’t do shit in half measures, and sometimes opportunities fall in your lap that you just can’t pass up. It didn’t matter in that moment though, because in that moment we were gonna be businessmen and we were going to be masters of our own futures. So we ate and talked and threw around all kinds of ideas for what we could do and sell and offer. After the meal we formulated a communication chain to keep everyone informed of all happenings and any dealings so that all would be in place for our projected store opening.

The Performance Evaluation

The loudspeaker in the office popped and hissed as it came to life. “Luc, please report to management.” He’d been working at getting management’s attention for some time now and was hoping that he’d finally get elevated back to his golden boy status. He hated what the company had turned into since upper management chose to start exploring “new and more exciting” projects. So he brushed off his trousers as he stood up from his work station and headed to the boss’s office in the back corner of the room.

“Uh, you wanted to see me.” He said meekly from the doorway.

Management sighed as he stood there and took off his glasses. “Come on in. Shut the door and have a seat.”

“Can I ask what this is about sir?”

Management smiled but it clearly looked forced. “Performance evaluation time again.”

“Oh, I’d completely forgotten.” Maybe this time he would get a chance to pitch something to upper management. It felt like it had been so long since he’d even gotten to see folks upstairs that he was worried they would forget about him.

“Luc, upper management has some concerns about your recent behavior.”

“How so sir?” At this upper management reached over to a pile of papers on his right and after a brief moment pulled out a manilla file folder that was somewhat thicker than all the others. Perhaps, that denoted a good thing. Management opened the folder up and looked over the notes contained within. It was too far away for Luc to even try to read, especially when he forgot his glasses at his desk.

“While you have an incredible attention to detail, it seems you lack focus on the big picture. This is particularly problematic when you reflect on the company’s main mission. Any deviation from the plan only sets the company back, and that simply cannot be allowed to continue.” Luc sighed, he knew where this was going. This would be the third straight review like it.

Management continued, “There is also the matter of the gambling in the cafeteria. If it had been an isolated incident, that would be one thing, but almost daily betting on anything and everything you can get your hands on is another matter entirely. Not to mention that the office supplies you tend to bet on are stolen from the store room. As such Employee Relations has asked me to give you this.”

He handed Luc a small card that was advertising help with tackling addiction. He quickly put it into his shirt pocket.

“Sir, I think if you’ll let me explain…” Luc started to explain that it wasn’t about gambling per se, it was really about inspiring the best in those he encountered and by wrapping it in a wager he disguised his true purpose.

“I don’t think that will be necessary. You need help and this was not the only concern upper management had.” Management clearly had an agenda.

“I’m sorry sir.”

“I’m sure that you are, my boy, I’d like to talk about some of your more recent R&D submissions. Before I do though I have to ask, are you doing drugs?” Management sat there clearly awaiting a response. Luc was not in the habit of lying so he told the truth.

“Sir, anything that I might be taking I do have a prescription for.” He thought his ideas were pretty impressive. Everyone loved casual Fridays and the company picnics.

“Be that as it may, and despite your typical attention to detail, you work has become sloppy as of late.”

“Sir, I think you may be misjudging things. I’m as devoted to the company as I’ve ever been.”

There was a silence that stretched on for what felt like a small eternity.

“Duck. Billed. Platypus.” Damn, as he thought on it he was well and truly wasted when he made that in an effort to really wow the people upstairs.

“Ok, so that was not some of my best work. But it only took me 315 tries to get all the pieces to stay together.” That explanation sounded better in his head.

He continued, “What I mean is I stuck with that endeavor until I’d achieved success. Seeing the project through was important to me.”

“At great expense to not just company man power in the hours wasted on developing it, but in the resources that can never be used to make something more functional. This is a pretty big set back to the company.”

“Sir, I think you are misunderstanding my intentions here.”

Management sighed heavily again, “No, son, everyone understands perfectly, or have you forgotten getting the new hires to protest at the company’s new direction? They had no idea what they were even protesting, only that you inspired them to do it.” Forgotten and blacked out, were pretty much the same in this context. He remembered the protest and some signs, but not much else.

Luc sat quietly and waited for whatever was going to come next. Protesting his innocence would not win him any favors at this point.

“So let me tell you what is going to happen now. First, you are going to get checked into a 30 day rehab facility. Completing this program will determine what happens, but regardless of the results of your rehabilitation, you are going to the satellite office. If you complete rehab, then you will be going there to run it as you see fit. If you fail, well in that case then you get to be a ‘guest’ there.”

The satellite office sucked. The furnace was broken such that it was always running and nobody ever tried to fix it. It was misery for anyone that worked in or around it. Going there was a true punishment. Luc hung his head, resigned to the fate that awaited him.

“May I at least collect my things?”

“Warren is already doing that.” Luc knew that if Warren knew the whole office would know. Warren was such a gossip like that.

There was a soft knocking at the door. Management told them to enter and it was company security.

“Please escort Luc to the transport waiting outside and ensure that he leaves with it. Luc, I am expecting a call from the facility upon your arrival.”

“Yes sir. I won’t disappoint sir.” He was already starting to have some ideas for how he would oversee the satellite office. Maybe he’d try some “new and exciting” ventures of his own. But first things first. He was going to have to get clean.

While he was able to get clean, whether he stayed clean mattered less. He was ultimately put in charge of the satellite office and one of the first things he did was pain the whole thing various shades of red. The place stank of paint for years, so maybe it was less about the color and more so he could huff the fumes.

No matter though, Luc, Lucifer had finally found a place of his own. A place to call home. And really, what could go wrong?

Part 44-47 “Midnight Run”

As the rain was coming down around us harder and harder we made our way to take shelter in what we took to be the officers quarters, even though the fightin had exploded a pretty big chunk of the building. I grabbed the whistle and clipboard from the bitch who caused us problems all that time ago in Dillard. It felt good to know he couldn’t trouble us any longer. As we entered and Shojin was conferring with the old man, I noticed that Gnoman was not with us, but I never really believed he’d be with us for the long haul. I knew he was just with us so long as our interests intersected. And harder and harder the rains fell. A search found nothing worthwhile except some stoves for warmth and as we were getting a fire started to ride out the storm in relative comfort a cry rang out.

“Help, help, I am being oppressed!”

It sounded like Gnoman was in trouble so I didn’t give it a second thought and head out the door in the direction the cry had come from. Across the small footbridge and around the quartermaster building. As we rounded the corner, Gnoman was on the ground and surrounded by four of the guards from the camp who likely came back in an attempt to get out worsening weather themselves.

We engaged with them and it was less than impressive because they were quite strong. The entire event hinged on Fayne firing the one magical arrow in her quiver that never seemed to have any effect at one of the guards with the end result being he was transformed into a falcon. Shojin promptly put it to sleep and threw it into the creek that was swiftly becoming a roaring rain fueled river. Eventually we were victorious and that was about when the small bridge we’d crossed got washed away. So we needed to find alternative shelter, but first The rest of us did a quick search of the quartermaster’s building and found Shojin’s boar hide cloak and some other bits and bobs.

While we were doing that, Shojin went back to the pen he’d been kept in and just threw himself down onto the floor. We were prepared to leave him there for the night but a survey of the sky gave me the thought that this was not going to just blow over and we needed to move, possibly to the tree stands that surrounded the camp. I forced Shojin to get up and move with us returning all of his gear that I was still carrying and before we could make our way to the tree stands we took a brief respite in the nearest building. And that was when we saw her.

A very pretty lady soaking wet and just slowly walking in the rain and it appeared that she was looking for something. As she got closer to where we were hidden it became clear that she wasn’t walking so much as floating just above the water, and something was just off with the whole look of her. Fayne tried to do something thought it wasn’t entirely clear what and the lady changed. Her entire look just changed to that of something withered and word and maybe a little dead and she looked like a right proper hag. And there was something, obscured by the gathering darkness and the intensifying rain, following behind her. Shojin threw another card out into the gathered water and it started to drift away but it was a brief distraction and we used that moment to run as fast and as far as we could.

Into the trees we ran putting more distance between us and them as we went. I chanced a look as we went and could not understand what the thing travelling with the lady was. It looked like one of the guards but also like Gnoman, but the both of them just sort of smashed together into one big, ugly, lumbering thing. And it looked like it could kill us with a minimum of effort. Yeah, definitely part Gnoman. So we ran, and we ran all through the night.

As the light of a new dawn broke so too did the storm and we found ourselves walking up what appeared to be an overgrown walkway or disused path. Somewhere along the way Shojin had acquired another falcon and he was, I don’t know, abusing it maybe. He had the poor thing by the neck just in front of his face and he was whispering some sort of gibberish at it and throwing it to go investigate much as I used my ravens. I couldn’t tell if nearly dying had driven him a little mad, it did when it happened to me, or if he was maybe changed more than I knew. I’d already seen him do some new magic and I’d given him my sword earlier in the evening when I returned his cloak to him.

Exhausted and soaking wet we rounded a bend and found ourselves before a small farmhouse. Shojin offered to scout with his new animal friend and again grabbed that poor bird by its neck shook it threw it into the door of the building after which he very proudly proclaimed that the door was closed. Had his near death experience was making him act stupid.

When we had finally made our way inside we discovered that the place was nice little country cottage and had only recently been lived in. The table was still set and the fireplace had only recently gone out and still had a hint of warmth to it. As we were searching in the vicinity of the table we noticed an overturned chair. Just beyond the chair was the body of what we could only imagine was the homes owner, complete with a hole in his chest where his heart should have been.

Z had a wicked grin as she crouched over the body and growled something out. The man opened milky eyes and began to stir and after a short while was upright again. Z gave him some instructions and told us he’d be watching the door. We were all so bone weary it sounded like a perfectly passable idea. We found some wood and stoked up the fire and made our way to loft above it. We all just crashed out at various places around the room and I took the middle of the big bed. Fayne and Ezrella curled up around me and we slept a much deserved sleep.

Until the undead homeowner woke Z up.

And we learned that there was perhaps another homeowner in the form of the lady that had been pursuing us and the thing that was travelling with her. As we all scrambled to get our gear, the monstrosity was pounding at the door frame trying to get at us. In the lady’s hand was a heart, which explained some things. We scrambled and struggled to deal with the lady and keep the big thing away from us, and eventually the lady got pushed over the edge of the balcony and she proceeded to just float there which added a complexity to the whole thing we’d not anticipated.

Gnoman focused his attention on the thing on the stairs which kept it off the rest of us, while well I don’t know what the others were doing. I was focused on the lady and eventually she fell to the floor below and didn’t move. Once she was dispatched the thing on the stairs just sort of fell apart into a pile of the parts that made it up.

Now my birds don’t eat but this was a big mess and I had an idea so I had them get to work on disposing of the remains while I made a breakfast for everyone. We found a magic bag on the lady and Shojin had the exuberance of a child as he was trying to figure out what was in it. I really wanted a quiet moment to talk with him and tell him how I felt and what he meant to me, but apparently that would have to wait. But it felt like for the first time since we started this journey, we were someplace safe and could finally just catch our breath for a bit.

Sequencing the Code

Nobody knew exactly where they came from or how they got here. Some said it was all part of God’s plan, others that it was the result of science gone wrong and ripping a hole in reality and still others claimed they were the first part of a coming invasion force. Not that the where or why mattered all that much. As they poured into our world, shadows given shape and depth they filled the sky. Filaments of an inky darkness that once the sky was filled blocked out the sun. Mostly they kept to the sky, except in a few locations around the world. Why they ventured down in these spots was never clear. Satellites couldn’t see through or around them, planes that attempted to pass through them were summarily destroyed and any who tried to approach on foot never returned. The planet was forcibly thrust into a perpetual age of twilight despite the continuing advance of scientific achievement.

Time passes and hope begins to fade as as the light across the world does.

Wake up.

The hellish wind is is howling over the rocks used to shield Tomoe from the elements of the prior evening. It seemed like perhaps the worst of the sandstorm had passed. She shook the dust off herself and her blades, Gisei and Gimu and collected her bedroll. Her left hand ached and she found herself rubbing around the “XIII” tattooed on the back of her hand. Time to get moving. She still had a duty and a purpose to fulfill.

She first made sure her long hair was tied back to keep her vision clear. Her alabaster skin had never known the sun. Her form hid her strength to any observer. Her muscles were like steel cables barely contained beneath her skin and her skill with the sword was such that she had yet to face a worthy rival.

With her swords in front of her, Tomoe knelt in the sand and took a moment, as she did most every morning, to reflect on the warrior code that she adhered to. There were seven tenets that she adhered to in all aspects or her life and they were as follows: Justice, Courage, Mercy, Respect, Honesty, Honor and Loyalty.

Justice is to act impartially and with integrity. Mercy are those acts performed out of a desire to end the suffering of others. Courage is the ability to do something in the face of one’s fears. Respect is having due regards for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others. Honesty means that one is free from deceit and untruthfulness. Honor represents an adherence to what is right or to a conventional standard of conduct. Loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance, and in Tomoe’s case that meant to her cause and the job at hand.

As she finished and was putting her blades in the sheathes on her back she made sure to thank them. At two feet in length, not including the hilts they were certainly not much on reach, but a certain death to any that entered her range. When she was done there was a hilt over each shoulder. They’d been with her for as long as she could remember. Her twins were made of a metal as dark as a moonless night and sharper than any blade had a right to be. Tomoe honestly couldn’t remember when or where she’d gotten the blades, but it didn’t matter, they were hers now and that was what mattered.

She collected her bedroll and checked her supplies one last time before heading out. It was going to be close, especially if she was not able to find food, which was running incredibly low. But no matter, she’d come too far. She couldn’t turn back. Her code would simply not allow it. The only way was forward, ever forward. So she started walking east towards “The Spire”.

The spire was one of the places where they could be found anywhere but above. She was supposed to find out why, learn as much as could be learned from first hand interaction and if possible deal a blow to the horde. There were a handful of such places around the world, or so she had been led to believe.

The land was empty save rocks and the husks of trees that used to make up what had once been the forest she was travelling through. What grasses remained were brown and crumbled like so many dead leaves as she forged her own path.

As she walked her mind began to wander a bit. She thought of her past and that was a blank that prompted unpleasant questions. She started to think about her dreams. Others might have some variety to their dreams but she only ever had the one dream and she often thought on what she thought was it’s obtuse nature and what it might mean. She was back home, perhaps, though it was a home she didn’t remember ever living in and was baking botamuchi in the kitchen for or maybe with her nanny. It was autumn and once again it was time to honor those who had come before. She always awakened as she was bringing the finished sweet to her mouth for the first bite. She’d only ever not quite had it in her dreams and had never even seen it in the waking world.

Ahead of her she saw some movement around one of the larger rocks, but was still too far away to properly tell what it was. She was faced with a choice, either go around or face it. Going around would add time to a journey that was already a potential failure due to lack of supplies. But, her Code would not allow her to deviate from her path. She would face this challenge with courage and her honor would not be blemished by anything resembling cowardice. If today was the day she was to meet the ancestors, she would welcome their embrace. And with the quiet sound of metal on leather her blades are in her hand as she approaches the rocks, ready to confront the darkness.

As she nears the rocks there is a low rumble as if from the earth itself. She slows her approach and is watching for movement within the shadows. They blend into darkness and it makes them all the more threatening when facing them in a confrontation. She stands motionless and just watches, listens and waits. The rumble again, this time not from within the ground but from just around the rock outcropping on her right. She doesn’t advance, just continues to observe, waiting for her suspicion to be confirmed and the thing to reveal itself or to strike. She finds herself almost wishing it would strike as that would make this easier. As if in answer to her silent request, the thing began to move towards her like a tentacle of darkness. An uncoiling, unbound shadow.

Her blade rings out as it slices through the air and the thing. The rumble is replaced by a terrible shrieking sound. This allows her to learn several things. First, they can be hurt. Second, if they can be hurt then she surmises they can be killed. Third, the sound is only marginally better than the smell of their insides no longer being inside, and the shrieking is nearly ear splitting. She needs to work fast in case there are others in the area. She has no idea how getting into a fight with more than one of them would go and she has no desire to find out if at all possible.

Emboldened by severing the things ‘appendage’, she moves closer trying to find its body if it even has one. Unsure of its location she makes a few tentative strikes into the shadows only to find her blade not connecting with anything. She closes her eyes and focuses on the shrieking. She might not be able to see it but it’s impossible to ignore its noise.

With her eyes closed she slows turns her head back and forth trying to pinpoint where it is. First right, then left and then right again. She cannot seem to pinpoint it until she hears a secondary sound. Heavy, rapid breathing somewhere under the shrieking. Just ahead and to the right. She strikes out with one blade tentatively and when the blade bites into the thing, she strikes quickly with the other. Hard strikes. Fast strikes. She continues until the shrieking stops and there is a thick inky ichor surrounding her and pieces of the thing lay at her feet.. Unfortunately the light is so poor she is unable to get much information on it other than it’s big. Perhaps ten to twelve feet for the main body plus another ten to fifteen feet for its appendages. It isn’t clear just how many of them the thing might have had but she is certain there more than a few, and she wasn’t wrong.

As she travelled and her supplies dwindled day by day, her concerns grew such that she was worried about  reaching her destination before she finally ran out of food or found some other option fit for consumption. She had encountered a rat as she was walking but something spooked it prior to her being able to catch it, which was unfortunate because she was quite hungry. This raised the hairs on her neck and set her spine to tingling due to the lack of frequency of game over her travels.

And so it was that she encountered more of the beasts, these things of shadow given life. And after several days of travel and random fighting and a quick test, she was unfortunately certain that these things, these others, were not fit for consumption despite her daily ever diminishing supplies. The hours of sickness that followed attempting, out of a growing desperation, to eat a piece of one taught her that lesson. Describing their “meats” flavor was giving the things too much credit. They tasted well beyond awful and after her first taste test, she knew that the only option was to burn them, although the smell was somehow worse than the taste and the taste made her vomit. As a fuel though….

The fire was still burning when she work up. She’d dreamed of pastries again.  Smelling sweet and purposeful but as always never knowing the taste. She didn’t know what to do. The fire wasn’t burning itself out the way it should have and she needed to get moving. She couldn’t afford to waste what little water she still had left. She tried throwing sand and dirt on it and while that did seem to force the flames to subside a bit it didn’t come anywhere near extinguishing them. Now that she had encountered one, she felt that the knowledge of their flammability might come in handy. Eventually she was forced to just leave the fire burning and walk, but before doing so collected some of the thing and put it into a container in her pack. As she was walking away it occurred to her that there wasn’t anything left to burn in the wasteland the world had become and she laughed about being beholden to the “old ways” and her code.

She adhered to her daily rituals in adherence of the code, her code and moved on.

By the time she had decided to set up camp for the evening, She could see the tip of the spire in the distance and when she surveyed the land around her she saw that the land was devoid of features. Though once the light was gone completely she could see behind her in the night, almost on the horizon what could only be her previous nights campfire.

They seem particularly susceptible to fire, interesting.

She woke with a start and thought she’d heard something. She stilled her breath and heard no noises come out of the night. It didn’t matter though, she was awake now. She had a small snack since she didn’t have enough food for more than that at this point.

Once again she observed her morning ritual and reverence of her code before moving on. And once again she was left with a fire that wouldn’t go out. She’d used a bit of the thing as fuel the night before. Unlike the previous night she paid attention this time. The smoke was thick and black and the whole affair smelled faintly of engines and oil.  How had she missed that the previous day? Maybe it was because day was a generous term in the everpresent gloom and twilight that encompassed a day in the life of anyone.

The spire was maybe half a day’s walk away, which worked out since her food was now gone. One way or another, today was the day she either resolved this or failed in her quest. Knowing that she could simply not afford the delay and after checking her blades and her bedroll she started walking once more.

Sure enough, by midday she’d made it close enough that she could see them swirling through the air into and around “The Spire”. All her walking had given her a plan. She drew one of her twins and cut her bedroll into strips. She wasn’t going to need it anymore anyways most likely. She rubbed the bits of the thing on the cloth and wrapped the end of her sword in it. She then lit her makeshift torch and worked her way forward. She wondered if they were afraid of fire. As it turned out they were not.

They should have been.

Between cuts from the sword that wasn’t the makeshift torch and impacts from the torch she had set the air in and around “The Spire” ablaze with a burning contingent of them. This tactic of cutting and burning didn’t work for long, but it worked for long enough. Eventually she was able to make her way inside. There was only one clear direction that she could move once inside. Up. Forward and up.

After what felt like hours but couldn’t possibly have been she found herself at the top of what seemed a lighthouse of a sort. She found herself in a final confrontation with them and eventually, finally they lay dead at her feet.  This is when she noticed it. The rift. The opening to where they came from. Whoever had bet on this as their origin would be wealthy once they knew the truth, but it didn’t matter. She’d not have time for that.

Prepare to begin final sequence. She could hear the words, but not see the speaker.

“What sequence?” Tomoe said confused. Where was the voice coming from.

This was supposed to be fixed. It’s not supposed to be able to hear us after last time. The voice sounded upset and Tomoe still could not place where it was coming from.

A new mechanical voice began could be heard now. Sequence restarting in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…

What was going on?

..2, 1. And then a light began to emanate from Tomoe’s body, growing in intensity. The dark forms of the others on the floor surrounding her seemed to be burned away by the light and as it pushed back the darkness, ever closer to the entry point they appeared to be using to get into this world those on the other side took pause and stopped trying to pass through the opening. As the light finally touched the portal it seemed like it was more than just an opening. The edges seemed to have some degree of substance to them. She lifted her blades and moved forward. When she was finally within reach of the portal she did a single slash with each and the blades appeared to be cutting the very opening itself in half. The halves began to close in on themselves.

Once closed, the light faded and Tomoe felt tired beyond her own belief. It was done. Maybe now that the world had been extricated from this threat to its very existence, the light might return and the twilight might end. She slowly sank to her knees and then finally collapsed onto the floor. As her eyes were closing she heard a voice call out again. Tear closed. Prepare to initialize fresh sequence.

Wake up.

The hellish wind is is howling over the rocks used to shield Tomoe from the elements of the prior evening. It seemed like perhaps the worst of the sandstorm had passed. She shook the dust off herself and her blades, Gisei and Gimu and collected her bedroll. Her left hand ached and she found herself rubbing around the “XIV” tattooed on the back of her hand. Time to get moving. She still had a duty and a purpose to fulfill.

Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men. … Even if you kill an enemy, if it is not based on what you have learned it is not the true Way. – Miyamoto Musashi

Ice’d Out

I had no idea what was gonna happen the night that Dutch called.

“Hey kid, get your crew together. I got another job for ya. It may be my way back into the old man’s good graces.”

Dutch always talked about how he’d gotten pushed out of the family but nobody seemed to know why. He had always promised me and my crew that if he ever found a way back he’d make sure we were taken care of. If Dutch thought that this would impress those who had shipped him off, his words, the take on this score would be pretty good.

“So what is it?”

“A beautiful bit o’ ice me boy. Call me when you get those two ready and we’ll meet up and get this done.”

At this point he hung up. I hadn’t heard anyone call diamonds “ice” anywhere outside of movies. It was also weird that Dutch was coming along but I couldn’t blame him for wanting to oversee things.

So I called up my brother Tommy and told him to get Fletcher and meet me at the dumpy little diner that Dutch did his business out of. Tommy was always game for whatever I steered his way. I always took it as a benefit of being his big brother.

Fletch, Fletcher Reed, could be just as useful when I could get him to shut his mouth. When he wasn’t working with or for me Fletch was usually running some kind of con, but I never asked about them because I never really wanted to know.

And ninety minutes later we were having a sit down with Dutch to discuss the details.

We were to break into a mansion and make our way to the vault. Once there we would acquire a statue that according to Dutch was “a priceless piece of antiquity” that he already had a buyer lined up for. We were to take nothing else and to only go where Dutch instructed us to while inside. Something about his way around the security within the place.

The job had to be completed by sunrise while the owner was out dealing with … something.

Dutch was never really clear what that was. We would receive our shares at the end of the job, once Dutch had verified that the buyer was happy. And with that we set off to make a bit of mischief.

Dutch gave directions as we went and finally had me park about half a mile from the target’s mansion, though I don’t know why. Even from the road you couldn’t see the building and I’d never have even known it was there on that hill were it not for Dutch, which was odd for a place as big as this one appeared to be in the darkness.

As we slowly made our way up the hill circling the mansion I couldn’t help being a little taken aback by the overall scope in both size and splendor. In the back near the almost invisible door we would end up using for entry was a small fenced in garden with what appeared in the moonlight some kind of fruit bearing trees.

I call the door nearly invisible because without Dutch we would never have known it was there. The closer we maneuvered towards our final prize the more apparent it became that Dutch knew more than he had let on. It also seemed strange, in light of that, why the rest of us were even there. Up to the point of entry, the three of us had done nothing but just be present. But I pushed those thoughts back as we finally made our way inside and thought only of my coming payday.

Two things became clear as we entered the place. First was the almost complete lack of light inside except for the little bit sneaking in through the curtains of whatever room we happened to be in. The second was the smell. It didn’t smell bad so much as it just smelled… old.

It reminded me of my grandma’s house. Moth balls and quiet age. I asked Dutch if he was sure this was the right place cause it didn’t seem like this place was lived in.  I could tell, even in the dark from the look that he gave me to just shut up and go with it, so I did.

At this Dutch started to slowly and deliberately leading us through the unlit hallways and darkened stairways until we finally stood before what had to be the door to the vault. I was thankful because I had gotten so turned around as we moved through the darkness that I could not have found my way out at that point if my life had depended on it.

It looked like one of those old timey bank vaults that you see in old movies. Unlike what you see in the movies though, there was something carved or engraved into the metal of the door. None of us could read what it said but English was the only language amongst us so there was no big shock there.

As we moved closer, the “letters” started to glow brighter and brighter shades of blue.  This was also when it felt like we were being watched by… something, but in the growing light it was clear we were the only ones here and none among us could see any kind of camera.

Dutch pulled this thing from his jacket pocket. It looked kinda like one of those dream catcher things only it was connected to a calculator. I asked him what it was cause it looked like a bunch of junk but he just shot me the wickedest, weirdest grin.

“It’s a key, kiddo.”

“It looks like junk Dutch.”

“I assure you it’s not. This may just be the only thing in all of creation that can get through these wards and break the seal on this door.”

While this was going on I could hear Tommy and Fletch talking softly, voicing the same concerns I’d silently had since we got here, but I tried to play it as cool as I could.

“So are these ward things the glowing blue letters?”

“Yeah kid, it’s those ‘glowing blue letters’.” But it sounded like he was talking down to me.

Now I’d never been anything but loyal to Dutch, but enough was enough. I grabbed Dutch by the arm and spun him around. I pinned him to the wall with my forearm to his throat.

“What aren’t you telling us? How do you know so much about this place and how do you just happen to have the key to this door and a way around all the security?”

Dutch pushed me away like I weighed nothing and chuckled.

“Alright kiddo, you want some answers? Fine, I’ll oblige. I know this place like the back of my hand because once upon a time I called this place home. I have this key because… well I’ve always had this key. When I was cast out I was permitted to take only what was on my person, and this key was it. I’ve just been waiting for the right time to make my move and come back.”

Somehow his attempts at clearing things up only ended up muddling them all the more. I had more questions now than when we started. Before I could even come up with a response Fletch started in.

“So what, like your family lives here or something?”

“Yeah, boy-o, something like that.”

Dutch saying it the same way and obviously on purpose just came off as offensive. I decided to just ask what I had been avoiding all along.

“Since you already have this key thing, and you already know your way around, why do you need us? Hell Dutch, you even said you had a buyer lined up already.”

He looked like he was deeply thinking about an answer and just shrugged.

“I don’t, at least not in any real sense.”

But before I could even voice a response to that he continued.

“Do you remember all of those times I promised I’d take care of the three of you if and when the time came? Well, this is that time.”

At this Tommy grabbed my shoulder, “What’s e’ talking talkin’ bout?”

“Dutch had always told me that if he found a way back in for himself we’d be a part of that. I guess I just thought that was nothin’ but talk.”

Dutch cleared his throat, “How’s about I just make good on my word.”

With that he pressed a few more buttons on his “key” and the blue lights on the door winked out one by one. As the last one went dark, there was a rumble as if from within the earth itself that I took as the vault door unlocking.

As the door slowly opened, on it’s own I might add, we got another round of that weird blue light only this time it was accompanied by a bone chilling cold. It made me wonder if this was a vault or a freezer. Not that it mattered with the end now in sight, so we all made our way inside.

The first thing I noticed as we crossed the threshold was just how empty it was. This made it feel so much bigger than it really was. The walls were made of some kind of metal and covered in those things that Dutch had called wards. They were the only source of light in here but there were so many of them that there was no trouble seeing the statue we’d come for.

The statue sat on some kind of raised platform in the middle of the room. Surrounding that and kind of set into the stone floor were these three rings. One looked to be copper, one silver and one gold. The statue though was breathtaking and I moved in to get a closer look.

It looked to be about a foot and a half tall and was almost perfectly clear. At first I thought it was in the shape of a man, but the closer I got the more I saw how wrong I was. It had wings which were kind of wrapped around its body and blended a bit with the hooded cloak I’d guess you’d call it. The hood covered a majority of the head so that you could only really make out the slightly pointed chin and the little bit of beard covering it.

I did make out two small black gems, flecks almost, made of onyx or something for the eyes. It felt like those eyes were looking deep inside of me, like inside my soul inside of me.

I saw what looked like bumps of some kind near the front of the hood but couldn’t really tell what those might be.

The thing that struck me as odd though were the legs. The appeared to be covered in fur and ended in feet like that of a goats or something.

Now as I was studying all of this I was compelled to touch it and noticed that in my focus on the statue, both Tommy and Fletch were doing the same damn thing. We all reached out and touched it at the same time and then it hit me.

“Dutch, when you’d said ice I’d assumed you meant diamonds, but this is just ice. What are we really doing here?”

“Let me show you.” He said as he moved in and gently picked up the statue.

As he cradled it in his arms he began to speak, well not so much speak as chant, but it was not in any language I could understand.

As dutch was chanting, just above the floor, there began to be a sort of shimmer in the air. At first it looked the way the air above a desert highway does on a hot summer day. Of course those “heat lines” don’t grow to the height of a man.

They also don’t separate once they do until there is a hole big enough for a man to go through.

As this thing grew in front of me, through it I could hear voices crying out, almost like they were in pain. It was starting to make my head throb as the “hole” in the air got bigger and the cries grew louder. I also felt a cold wind blowing through the hole as it grew.

I tried to get a look through the hole as it grew but the harder I looked the less sense it made. It was as if my mind was refusing to comprehend what I was seeing.

The pressure from the almost rhythmic throbbing was becoming too much and I sank to my knees clutching at my forehead. I saw as I sank down that Tommy and Fletch had done the same.

Dutch however was standing tall and seemed to be unaffected by all of this. I tried to cry out but couldn’t seem to get my mouth to make the words. Dutch just looked at me and smiled.

“Come forth my master and accept this trinity of sacrifices that you might walk free once more.” At this the voices crying out grew frantic but I thought I heard one voice above all the others that sounded almost…eager. I wish I could remember what it said.

It was becoming impossible to move, let alone think clearly and this is when Dutch pulled a small pistol from somewhere on his person. He then walked over and calmly shot Fletch square in the chest. The gunshot boomed and the sound echoed off the walls like a cannon. Before the gunshot had even faded the voices on the other side of the shimmer grew all the more frenzied and from the look in Dutch’s eyes it became clear if someone didn’t stop him then he would kill us all. Not surprisingly that is an incredibly motivating prospect.

However, despite this I found it incredibly difficult to move. That is, until I saw Dutch moving towards Tommy. I found myself filled with a rage at this betrayal. I was screaming as I got shakily to my feet. Dutch turned and his eyes met mine.

“No more Dutch.” And I launched myself at him.

After the way he had thrown me off of him earlier I didn’t think I could take him in anything even close to a fair fight, but I thought I could at least get the gun away. As I was closing the distance between us I heard the gun go off again and something whistled by my ear, which in turn felt like it was now on fire. I had my hands on the gun in the same instant it registered that I had been shot in the ear.

As I attempted to wrestle the gun free Dutch started to try and shake me off. God was he strong. If this went on for too long I knew I stood no chance of winning, let alone surviving.

I decided to try something that had been a tried and true tactic in a fight and I kneed Dutch square in the balls. The gun went off again as he loosened his grip enough for me to get it away from him. I pointed it at Dutch and began to back away.

Tommy cried out. I looked and saw that he had been gut shot. God… there was so much blood. With every twitch and spasm more blood poured out onto the floor.

“Tommy, hold on. We’ll get you out of here.” But it didn’t matter. He coughed one more time and lay still on the floor.

The frenzied screams through the shimmer grew completely incensed at this point and that voice called out once more.

“Complete the trinity and free me.”

I moved slowly towards Dutch who had now moved until he was right in front of the shimmer.

“Why?” I asked in disbelief of all that had happened.

He just smiled that wide Dutch smile.

“Nothing personal kiddo. You three were just a means to an end.”

“Means to an end? MEANS TO AN END! I have been nothing but loyal to you Dutch.” I was all but screaming this.

He just smiled again and shrugged and before I even knew what I was doing I was pulling the trigger and I kept pulling until long after the gun clicked on an empty chamber. Dutch’s front was littered with growing spots of red from all the impacts.

I walked over as he took a knee. I couldn’t understand why he was still alive at this point but I didn’t care. I grabbed Dutch by his suit coat and he feebly tried to fight me off, but the blood loss seemed to be taking some of the fight out of him.

“Damn you, Dutch.”

As he was going limp in my arms he smiled feebly and said, “Sorry kiddo, it was the only way.”

Dutch went still then and I just shoved his body through that shimmer in the air. The already wildly screaming voices on the other side grew in both volume and fury until it was more than I could take. I collapsed to the floor as the world went dark.

I woke up in a hospital room some time later and was immediately greeted by a detective.

He told me that I was found slumped over the wheel of my car covered in blood that was not my own and he wanted some answers.

I told him my story, all of it, and he made a few notes in a little pad and he made some phone calls to have it all checked out.

After what felt like hours, the detective returned. Dutch, Fletch and Tommy were all missing. The house on the hill that I had described could not be located, although they did find a small basket of fruit on a hill near where I had described the house.

Since there were no bodies or any other evidence of a crime I was not being charged with anything at that time. I was however told not to leave town in case there were other questions they wanted me to answer.

Some time after the detective left a doctor came to let me know that I was being held overnight for observation but barring something unforeseen I would be released the following morning.

I was so tired and confused at this point that I didn’t care. I’d eventually get out and start my search for answers. Sleep came easily.

I awoke in the early hours and saw that it was still dark. Someone had left flowers on the table by the bed. As I grabbed the card I saw that someone was standing in the doorway to my room. They had on a heavy winter coat with the hood pulled up. It hid all of the face, save the chin. They just stood there watching me in silence. Finally they raised a hand and pointed at the card I was holding. So I read it.

Just wanted to say thank you. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

As I raised my sleepy eyes back to the doorway the figure was gone. Receding down the hallway then I heard two things. The first was a soft, yet almost maniacal laughter. The second, was the sound of his footsteps. They sounded like hooves on the tile of the hospital hallway.

I found myself crying then as it began to hit me what I’d done. I’d completed the trinity, whatever that was, with the death of Dutch. What had I released upon the world?

I commit this tale to paper now solely so those who follow may understand why I left again. I had to find it. I had to try and make it right. And I needed to say I’m sorry. I had no idea what was going to happen that night when Dutch called.