After we left, part 6

It’s been a couple of days since I was able to write in this. I need to make a couple quick observations should this work serve others at some point in the future. The desert that feels like it is going to fry you like cheap meat at the local tavern through the day is downright bone chilling at night. And with a general lack of fuel for a campfire it has forced us to stay closer together than the three of us are comfortable with when we make camp for the night. It keeps us warmer than if we didn’t though so nobody really complains. There was a weird conversation about it on the first night and it was just not a thing after that. It’s just what we do.

Gnoman talks in his sleep. Different accents, voices and languages. I’m confident that one night he was speaking something demonic, but not speaking those languages myself I can only guess. I don’t question it or even say anything. I just accept it. He’s Gnoman, just like all the others that are Gnoman. His hair smells like burnt meat and honey. It makes me miss home.
Another thing we don’t talk about is our dependence on the worgs for survival. They patrol/hunt every night. We get their scraps. It’s not enough for us to live on forever, but it’s better than nothing. It’s usually mangled enough that we can’t tell what it was in life and they refuse to tell us. Which is a whole other thing. Apparently if you aren’t strong enough for them to fear you or respect you, they call you food. It’s a joke to them. They constantly insult us for not being dangerous predators. They also talk constantly to each other as though we aren’t there. Every once in awhile Gnoman will laugh at something they say, but when asked what was funny and he explains it doesn’t make sense to Shojin and I.

I was able to get them to call Shojin Jenny so maybe they aren’t that bad. The smell is though. They smell like a wet whorehouse filled with warm fresh shit. It is not a smell I’m getting used to and I fear the day that I do. I attribute most of this to their returning to camp covered in gore nightly from their hunts. They rarely eat in front of us but when they do there is no mistaking that they are wild beasts. It’s both awe inspiring and utterly disgusting. Tearing flesh from… something. Eagerly licking their lips of whatever blood and other juices is left there. I look forward to never having to watch them again.

The best thing I can say about that trio is that they are fiercely loyal. To each other at least. They regard us only slightly better than they do humans which they view as something, according to them, so beneath them that they are only food should nothing else be available. This is apparently the highest insult amongst their kind.

The only thing that lets us know we’re heading in the right direction are the sunrise and sunset. We know we’re heading due south. Every night I pray to the lady and hope that she shows me something, anything that lets me know that we are heading in the right direction but so far if I am having any dreams I don’t remember them when I wake. Shojin has been dreaming about his mom most nights. I think it’s sweet and I’ve tried to talk to him about it but it’s something he’s not really wanting to talk about. I can tell it makes him sad but I don’t press.

Every night when we make camp, Gnoman does something he calls Caw Ta’s. He moves his body like he would in a fight but much slower. It’s all very deliberate and beautiful to watch. He said it helps him keep centered and “stay in tune with me”. I have no idea what that even means, but on the third night of this I asked if he would teach me. The lack of a real scrap was getting me a little squirrely and so I figured I could use the opportunity to stay on task. I talked Shojin into it as well and it felt good for the three of us to do this together.

All in all, it feels like the solitude of the desert is bringing us together.

After we left, part 5

No sooner had we shut the door than there came a scratching upon it. And growls. So initially we decided to just move some of the rubble in front of the massive double doors with the thought being that it should hold until morning at least. And it appeared to. Nothing attempted to force entry into the outside.

There were some noises though from deeper into what we suspected was a tomb. So, you know, cool. I sent one of the birds to check for a source to the noise deeper inside, but there was no light so they couldn’t find anything of note, other than a tunnel that was collapsed, so there wasn’t a whole lot of investigating that could be done deep inside this place which was fine because we didn’t have much time for any sort of a respite before there came a series of three sharp raps on the doors to the outside. Initially we ignored it and nothing came of it.

The darker recesses of the room we were in, upon further inspection were littered with remains. Bodies of various sizes and in various states of decay. Mostly humanoid, but some, the fresher ones had arms that appeared to end in blades.

The knocking on the door again. This time accompanied by a muffled voice none of us could make out. Gnoman moved closer to the door to try and get a better vantage should the voice speak again.

Then came the howling as if from a pack of wolves. Again though, muffled by the doors.

Eventually though, our waiting was rewarded. The voice called out again. It worked out that Gnoman was at the door, he was the only one who could translate what was said.

Apparently a goblin warchief called Bloodtusk was informing us that we were in his territory and our choices were to pay a usage fee for travelling in this part of his domain, or face his wrath.

Being not in the mood for a fight, Jenny and I agreed that we should try and find a nonviolent solution. So negotiations ensued. I heard both Gnoman and a chorus of voices on the outside erupt into laughter at one point so I assumed that everything was going well. When asked what was so funny, Gnoman said it didn’t translate well into the common tongue from Goblin and proceeded to say something about the blood of the innocent and bathing in a puddle of piss. Yeah, I didn’t get it.

When it was all said and done, Gnoman had gotten us mounts for the next fortnight as well as assurances that we would be left unaccosted for the duration of our time in the warchief’s domain.

Completion of the deal did require opening the door though, and this… war band… was a sight to behold.

There were a dozen or so goblins of various sizes and it was clear who the leader was. The goblin in front with the bloody tusk emblazoned upon his leather armor. He stood fully a head shorter than any of the others in his group. Respect for the small.

It turned out that mount was a somewhat loose term and that we would be riding on Worgs. Jenny had a slight frame and I’m not big so we got fairly standard looking ones. Gnoman’s though, was a thing of nightmares, and thing is an accurate descriptor for the trundling and massive beast that seemed to peel itself away from the darkness. It growled from somewhere deep inside it’s chest, and spoke because apparently Worgs can speak.

“Sleep, food. We leave at first light.” The other two laughed at this.

Blood tusk and his group stayed for the remainder of the night and they weren’t so bad once you got to talking with them. Jenny loved his group’s cooking, but it looked like people stew so I politely declined. They did give us a few days worth of food when they finally departed though.

And in the morning we set out south once more, but not until after what felt like hours of watching Gnoman slowly sweep his arms though the air collecting the ambient moisture into canteens for us all, mounts included. He said he’d do this as needed on our journey, for which I was thankful. We’d never bothered to stock up for any kind of actual duration on this journey through the desert. Crap.

After we left, part 4

I woke up in a strange place today. Strange in that I don’t remember getting to where we currently are. The forest is nowhere on any horizon. Gnoman and Shojin seemed pleased that I was finally awake. I came to find out that Shojin had woken up a day prior. The last week is mostly a blurred blank. I can remember bits and pieces of what happened but I had to rely on Shojin and Gnoman to fill in the blanks. So a lot of this is going to be based on what they told me and for some of it I just have to hope they weren’t screwing with me.

The day after my last entry we began towards the forest as we had for the days prior, but as we got closer a few things became clear, the land under and around the forest was barren of any greenery which would make sense if there was no light hitting the ground I guess. At our closest point to the tree a couple things became clear.

There was some kind of weird fruit on the ground that looked safe enough but when I tried to eat one Gnoman moved faster than should have been possible to smack it out of my hand. He didn’t know why we shouldn’t eat it, only that something inside him said it wasn’t safe. I’ve traveled with one Gnoman or another for a while now so I had no reason not to trust him. It looked pretty yum though. I slipped a few into my pack for… further study.

Beyond all that though something was wrong. Wrong with the forest. Wrong with the ground. And soon enough, wrong with me.

The forest wasn’t a forest as much as it first appeared, but was apparently just a single tree, gnarled and so much bigger than simply massive would even begin to describe. It made no sense how a single tree could get this big, but there is so much in this world that I do not understand I just accepted it for what it was.

The ground around the tree looked dry at first glance but it was something more. It was almost blighted in how it looked. Almost as if poisoned by something. It was also so littered with white sticks that it was hard to even see the ground around the base of the canopy. But it was clear that there were no sticks underneath it. As we continued closer it became clear that it wasn’t sticks but rather bones of varying sizes. The most prominent among them looked like some kind of humanoid with a skull that looked very much like a bull, only they were my size. And that was all we saw in both directions around the tree as far as we could see.

At this point we stopped moving closer to the tree. I guess as we’d been advancing Shojin was concerned about my behavior because I just started carrying on full conversations with both my birds and the Raven Queen.

As we started to make our way around the tree now, and I am only guessing at this point, our proximity to whatever malevolence is housed within it and I collapsed as we were making our way towards the seashore to circle around this monolithic tree.

I vaguely remember seeing a boat on the horizon I think. Small and swift as it glided across the waves.

After I was out I guess they initially tried to wake me and when that didn’t work they took turns carrying me. Gnoman seemed to know what needed to happen for us to survive and it appeared that the longer he was near the tree his strength was almost bolstered. That plan worked for a solid day before Shojin started getting weird. He spent most of the day talking to his mom and someone named Michael. It made me sad to hear about that because I wasn’t there for him when he could have used me. He’d never talked about a Michael before. Must have been from his time before we met.

Gnoman seems to be no stranger to loss, though it’s losses he doesn’t talk about, or can’t maybe, but it’s made him kind of wise. He was at least able to keep Shojin going in the right direction and he carried me. As they were making camp on the fourth day is when everything went sideways. Shojin was becoming more and more agitated as the evening wore on and as they were eating he threw his food down and charged toward the tree screaming some incomprehensible gibberish. Gnoman had to tackle him knock him out and tied him up to not have to go through that again. He had some pretty nasty rope burns on his wrists.

Gnoman could have just left us at this point. We were both useless for anything but taking up space at that point. But he didn’t, and I’m grateful for his compassion and tenacity here. He was able to fashion a stretcher of sorts and for a quiet day he drug us behind him.

After being out for all of the fifth day, Shojin started to come back to consciousness but was still out of it a bit at first. With the tree finally somewhat behind them and distance increasing his senses slowly returned throughout the sixth day. And so tree at their back and the southern desert Gnoman ahead of them they pressed on, again taking turns carrying me.

On the sixth night, they heard howls carrying on the cold desert wind but nothing came of it, at least not that night.

They continued travelling south as scrubby grassland gave way to sand. So much sand. And still they travelled on, which was honestly stupid. I was the only one who had any idea where we were heading and I was not conscious at that point. I guess they were just hoping that I’d wake up.

As they worked their way south they came across something in the sand. The sand had a crust of what they believed to be blood in the shape of a tusk. It was easily eight or nine feet long. Having no idea what it was or meant, they just kept moving.

As dusk started to roll in I started to rouse and that brings us back to the present. I don’t remember any of what was happening in the world around me while I was out but I did have a crazy dream. It was probably just a fever dream, but it marks the third time I have dreamt of dinosaurs. But this time the great lizard had a rider. A newborn baby with light projecting from his eyes. I don’t tell the boys about any of this.

And the man. Always the man. Why wouldn’t he just move.

As we took shelter from the night winds behind a large hill we saw something shimmer in the darkness. It looked like gold. After a little digging we found that it was a giant door. It took us several hours to clear enough sand to be able to get either of what were massive doors open. They were so worn by time and windswept sand that it was impossible to see what was carved on their doors but it was probably quite beautiful in its time. I can’t shake the notion that I have seen this place before, but I know I’ve never been here before.

There are howls on the wind which the boys say are the same as the past last night. Prevailing theory is that something is stalking us. We decided to take refuge in whatever this place until at least morning. But I mean hey, if we’re here already, might as well look around.

After we left, part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s my time”, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After we left, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found the following note in Munnin’s beak.


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

It was in my handwriting.

After we left, part 1

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

South.

Ancient Temple.

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

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

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

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

And he said, “No time, Payday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issue 14

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

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

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

“What’s wrong babe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She just laughed.

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

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

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

“Ok, what do they want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Option three is a permanent sort of retirement.”

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

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

The talker looked puzzled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobsters are such huge pains in the dick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure thing, I’m on it.”

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

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

Things Left Unsaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issue 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How goes the self education?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Regardless, don’t do it again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s up man?”

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

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

“Yes, and it requires immediate attention.”

“So what’s the problem?”

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

“T?”

“Yeah man, I’m here.”

“When can I expect you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dick!” And there was the payoff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright, so how’d the meet go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issue 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Si, I do, a little bit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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