“Uuuhhh. What happened?” Arnie sat up all slow, rubbing his chin a little and looking around.
I had been trying to think of a good lie to explain why he was waking up in the Drunk Tank instead of being out on the streets fighting crime, but I hadn’t been able to come up with anything good, and had finally given up because The Simpsons was coming on.
“I saved the day again,” I told him. “Just like usual.”
“Really? The last thing I remember is you punching me in the face.”
“No, man. I was punching the guy behind you. He hit you with a pipe right before I was able to knock him out.”
“How come my face hurts, then, and not my head?”
This lying stuff was turning out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. “All right, dude, I hit you in the face. It was a pretty good one, too—I’ve never knocked anyone out, before.”
“Why were you punching me in the first place?”
“Because I didn’t want to fill the inside of the Portmobile up with knock-out gas.”
“Yeah, I can see why that would be a bad idea—that’s some really potent stuff. But what my real question is, I guess, is why was there any reason for knocking-out of any kind?”
“The true answer lies in the quest for knowledge, young grasshopper. Seek not the answer, but the wisdom.”
“You knocked me out so you could run away.” He sounded pretty pissed off about it, but so what? I would rather have Arnie mad at me than be dead.
“See? Wasn’t that a fun journey?”
“Man, we’re never going to get a rep as super heroes if you’re always running away from our enemies.”
“I don’t care about having a rep, you jackass—I care about having a heartbeat. And if we had hung around there much longer, I wouldn’t have had that option. Which is more important, Arnie? Being alive or having a reputation?”
“We’re all gonna die, anyways, we might as well go out with a bang.”
“See, this is why it’s a bad idea for you to try thinking. You’re beyond reason, man, that’s why I have to knock your ass out instead of trying to logically talk you into things.”
“It was a dirty trick, man.”
“Of course it was.” I finished off my Hot Pocket and tossed the trash into the industrial-size barrel that was almost over-flowing with other garbage.
“What time is it? You couldn’t have knocked me out for like five hours.”
“It’s a little past one in the morning. At one point, you started waking up, so I pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car, and tossed in one of your knockout gas pellets. It kept you out for pretty much the rest of the night. It was a quite night, anyways—you didn’t miss much.”
“I missed out on an epic battle between us and the evil forces that have teamed against us.”
“You missed out on getting your ass fried or electrocuted. That’s all that would have happened if we had hung around, dude.”
“We made it to the Portmobile, man! The Portmobile is how we always defeat our enemies.”
“Arnie, our enemies are usually lousy punks who can be gathered up into a goofy net that shoots out of your car. Jimmy used to be one of those lousy punks that could be easily defeated, but he’s not anymore. Did you see those suits they were wearing?”
“Yeah, dude, those suits were solid. And they were packing some major fire power, too. We may need to make some adjustments on the Portmobile.”
“What we need to do is figure out who the hell is financing them and have the financer locked up. You don’t give that weapons like that to lunatics like that—it’s just silly. It shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out where they got that stuff made, right? I mean, there aren’t many people running around making comic book weapons, right?”
“Seems like it would be easy, doesn’t it?” That was Mandy.
“Where the hell were you when we needed you?” I asked her.
“I was watching, but there wasn’t anything I could do—you guys were out of the Portmobile. Plus, what the hell kind of advice could I have offered, anyways? Maybe something like, ‘Quit screaming like little girls—you’re making asses out of yourselves on the world wide web.’ Or maybe, ‘Duck.’ When I realized that you weren’t going to make it back to the car any time soon, I started looking around to see if I could find where their new costumes were made. I have about two dozen sites where they know just about everything, and I started asking around.”
“And?” I asked her.
“Nothin’. Nobody has heard anything about these weapons or the costumes. On the plus side, I drummed up some new business for your web site. When these guys heard about what was going on, they had to check it out for themselves.”
“Fantastic,” I said, wishing I could get as much sarcasm into that word as I wanted. I like making money from the website, I really do. But sometimes, when you’ve got crazed lunatics zapping electricity at you, and shooting at you with little flameballs and things, the money just doesn’t have the impact on you that it might have otherwise. Don’t get me wrong—I really like money, and I’m glad that I’m getting some sort of compensation from living this particular hell. But it just doesn’t seem as wonderful as it once did.
“I DID find out a few curious facts, though.”
“Do tell,” I said. I looked to make sure Arnie was paying attention, I don’t know why. He wasn’t though—he was totally lost in thought. And by “lost in thought,” I mean he was playing with the turtle. “Are you paying attention to any of this?” I asked him.
“Did we ever name this little guy? I think we should name him Night Rider.”
“We aren’t naming the turtle Night Rider—that’s the microwave’s name.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
“Now pay attention.”
“Are you two finished?” Mandy asked.
“I am. I don’t know about Arnie, though. He’s still over there playing with the turtle.”
“Eight days ago, there was a large anonymous cash contribution to the Twisted Oak Mental Health Clinic upstate—the place where they locked up our favorite pyromaniac. Three days later, Jimmy gets released. I really doubt it’s a coincidence.”
“Revolving doors of justice,” Arnie muttered. “Our society needs to take a closer look at this problem and take the much-needed steps to solve it.”
“What?” I asked him.
“Huh? Nothing. I was just telling the turtle a bedtime story. So then Larry Flint came in, the rims of his wheelchair like sparkling stars of freedom in a murky undertow of-“
I decided it was better to ignore the rest of the bedtime story. I wonder if it’s possible to emotionally scar a turtle.
“So he got out. Any way to find out who laid out the dough?”
“None, man, and I’ve been trying. Here’s another interesting little tidbit: there’s a hit out on you two.”
“Yeah, man. Not a weird thing like the time Jimmy put out his weird little make-believe contract on you, either.”
“It didn’t feel so make-believe when you were looking at about twenty gun barrels that were all bearing down on you,” I said. My life is practically in constant risk, and no one acknowledges that it’s serious. It’s a catch 22, really. If I don’t die, people don’t take the fact that my life was at risk seriously. If I actually die, they finally realize that it was pretty serious stuff, but I’m not around to rub it in their faces that I was right this whole time.
“Yeah, yeah, poor Howie. ‘I almost died,’ ‘They were trying to kill me.’ Let it go, man. And, yes, Jimmy’s contract was a joke, man. This one, this is serious business. Was, anyways. What happened was, someone accepted the contract, both parties agreed on the deal, and then suddenly the Judge shows up with Jimmy. The client is pissed off, man. It looks like the Judge was the one that accepted the contract, but she was just supposed to knock on your door and then ice you, is what it looks like. Instead, she used this money to deck out her and Jimmy. That last part is just a theory, though, since nobody knows about the costumes they were wearing. What it all boils down to is that you’re actually pretty lucky.”
“An actual professional could have accepted. If that had happened, you would already be dead.”
I hate the off-hand way that Mandy talks about my life and the possible ways it could end. This is one of the many problems that the internet has created in today’s world. People meet each other, fall in love, and even have a weird sort of sex—all without seeing each other as real people. It’s like it’s all a big video game, and it desensitizes us completely. Generally, I would totally support this kind of behavior. I mean, come one, man—sex without the hassle of procreation? I don’t think it gets any better than that.
But I don’t like people being glib about MY life.
She had a point, though—if any serious contract killer had decided to take up the offer, I would have already breathed my last cynical breath.
“What the hell do the cops do in this city?” I asked. “I mean, if some regular guy gets death threats or has a contract out on him, aren’t there cops that come in and take care of it? Why aren’t they here helping me?”
“Because you’re a pain in the ass, man. Most people, if they get a contract put on them, it’s like a once in a lifetime deal—with you, it’s like every few weeks.”
“This is bullshit, man, it really is.”
“Look, it’s not even out there anymore, okay? The Judge and Jimmy Flicks have taken care of that. They’re your main problem right now, and I think you should try focusing.”
“Where are the cops on this deal, man? I mean, even if they’re tired of saving my ass, shouldn’t they be worried about those two lunatics? They could hurt people besides me.”
“There are some rumors that it’s all part of a big publicity stunt. It’s nothing official, but a lot of the cops think that you’re doing this to get attention.”
“You’re kidding me! Why the hell would I do that? That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”
“Okay, try to think like a normal person for a second, okay? I know it’s difficult, but just work with me for a second. Which is more ridiculous: that a known trouble-maker and his RICH drunken friend would stage a battle between themselves and ‘super-villains’ to capture the public eye and boost profit on their website? Or that there really are people out there who would invest thousands of dollars to make costumes and come after you as real super-villains?”
“Holy shit, you’re right.”
“So we’re on our own with these crazies.”
“Did you hear that, Montgomery Horatio?” Arnie cried. He was holding the turtle in the palm of his hand. “On our own! Just the way we like it.”
“Who is Montgomery Horatio?” Mandy asked.
“It’s our turtle,” Arnie told her. “I gave him a butler’s name, sort of like how Bruce Wayne has Alfred. He’s a real member of the team now, just like he’s always wanted!” Montgomery Horatio peed all over Arnie’s hand.
“I feel the same way about being part of this team,” I said.
“Hell of a butler you got yourself, there, Arnie,” Mandy said.
“He’s just excited,” Arnie said, and put the turtle back into the aquarium. He washed his hands and then held up a bottle of champagne. “I think it’s time to celebrate!”
I grabbed the bottle out of his hands, drank it down in eight quick swallows, and handed it back to him. “Consider it celebrated. I’m going to bed.” I shoved him into the stairwell, ignoring his protests, and then went to bed.
I dreamed that night that I was working in a hamburger joint—I don’t know which one, just some generic burger joint where you don’t feel comfortable sitting down at the table or thinking too hard about what else is in your burger besides beef. I was trying to punch in, but every time I touched the time clock, it shocked me with static electricity. I finally just ended up writing the time on my timecard, and tying the grease-stained apron around my waist. I stepped up to the grill, where there were already burgers cooking, and when I looked down, I saw that they were all wearing little Portly Boy suits.
I tried to tell the waitress that something was wrong with the burgers, but she just kept smiling and humming the theme song from the Smurfs. I ran to the back door, and was trying to pull it open, but there was some old lady holding it shut and telling me that it was only to be used in an emergency.
That was when I woke up, all sweaty and pissed off, hating old women more than ever. And my subconscious. I hate my subconscious, I really do. It’s like an evil old grandfather that thinks it’s funny to jump out of the closet and scare the shit out of you, or laughs when you get spanked on Christmas morning. I never had a grandfather like that, but Arnie did, and it seemed to mess him up pretty good.
I wasn’t sure if there was any importance to my dream, or if it was just my brain screwing with me again. In either case, it was four in the morning, Arnie had finally gone to bed, and I was still tired.
I went back to sleep and didn’t have any more nightmares. When you’re me, the nightmares usually wait until you’re fully awake, so you can really appreciate them. And they call themselves life.