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?

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.