With Violet Light, Part IV

With Violet Light, Part IV

Oct 29

Okay, folks—this is the last part of our saga. The end!

But is it…(dun dun DUN)…THE END?! As in, the ultimate fate of these characters? The period on their unwieldy, reference-laden sentence?!

The answer is simple: I don’t know. This does feel a bit like a natural stopping place, but sometimes random things (like the phrase “male Star Sapphire”) make me think of other random things and then it leads to writing words down and suddenly I’m asking Paul if he can draw Julie in a Green Lantern outfit.

So. We’ll see. Enjoy the final installment of this little story, and please come back next Friday— I’ll have a special behind-the-scenes extra to share!

Sarah Kuhn

**

“There is something…sort of funny about all this.”

Layla and I are sitting on the Comics Bee’s slightly grotty carpet, propped up against the counter, my head leaning on her shoulder for support. All the other customers have long fled. Braidbeard and Evan are having a hushed-but-spirited debate about Ghost World over in the indie corner, a soft chorus of passionate whispers and the occasional “actually…” wafting through the shop.

“Oh?” I snuffle pathetically into a crumpled tissue. “Why don’t you enlighten me?”

She smiles at me, zen-like. “Well. Tonight we learned you and Jack have yet another thing in common: really bad gaydar.”

“Oh, shut up,” I say, but there’s no heat behind it.

“Just teasing,” she says. She squeezes my shoulder. “He’ll come back.”

“Maybe,” I say, frowning into space. “He turned his phone off, so I have no idea where he is. I’ve just…never seen him blow up like that.”

Layla nods and we sit there for a second in contemplative silence. My eyes zero in on a Witchblade poster plastered to the wall above us. There’s something almost soothing about scrutinizing the ridiculous, anatomically impossible lines of her form, something that turns my brain off and keeps me from thinking. I trace my gaze over her mostly-naked ass.

“Listen…Jules.” Layla’s voice cuts through my borderline pervy thoughts. “I know our matchmaking plan didn’t exactly work out like we thought it would, but I gotta say: it was really fun hanging out with you? Like, in a girly way? Maybe we could do it more often?”

“Eh?” I sit up straight and shoot her a puzzled look. “We do hang out. Like, all the time.”

“I know, but I mean…just us. Without the boys. And maybe we could do girly stuff, like, um…get our nails done? Get cocktails…”

“…with little umbrellas in them?” I finish, cocking a bemused eyebrow. “You really do want us to be like Sex and the City, don’t you?”

She nods eagerly. “I think we could pull it off. And I get a little sick of all the comics-and-action-movies talk.”

I laugh. “Okay,” I say. “You are, honestly, the first real girlfriend I’ve had. And I couldn’t ask for a better one.”

“Hold that thought,” she murmurs, her eyes fixating on something over my shoulder. I turn, following her gaze to the Comics Bee entrance. And there’s Jack, looking exhausted, sheepish, and just a little bit lost.

He crosses over to us, and I stand, trying to prepare what I want to say to him. But before I can open my mouth, Layla’s positioned herself in front of me, hands on her hips.

“Listen, you,” she says, jabbing her pointy index finger into Jack’s chest. “Jules is my girl and I’m not gonna let anyone stomp all over her. So you better be ready to explain yourself, or I’ll…I’ll kick you. In a not nice place! Cause that’s what girlfriends do for each other!!”

Jack holds up his hands in surrender, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I have a really good apology prepared,” he says. “Awards-worthy.”

“Well…okay.” Layla steps to the side, still frowning at him, then turns and lays a hand on my arm. “How was that?!” she asks anxiously. “Super Charlotte-y?”

“More like Samantha,” I say, patting her hand. “Beautifully done. A-plus.”

Yes!” she exclaims, pumping her fist in the air as she trots off toward the indie section.

Jack stuffs his hands in his pockets, his gaze shifting from side to side and finally meeting mine. “So. I overreacted.”

I cock an eyebrow and look at him expectantly. “Uh-huh…?”

“What I said, the way I acted, that was…incredibly dumb. Almost He-Man grunty, in an energy drink-chugging, Maxim-reading kind of way. I’m an idiot.”

I reach over and gently tug one of his hands out of his pocket, threading my fingers through his. “Lucky for you, you’re a cute idiot.”

He gapes at me. “You’re gonna forgive me just like that?”

I shrug. “Usually it’s me flying off the handle and acting like a demented wildebeest. I guess you’re allowed a turn?” I squeeze his hand. “And I’m sorry, too. Bringing you here and ignoring you like that was really shitty.” I bite my lip, trying to put the words together. “I just got so…preoccupied. Trying to help Layla. And Braidbeard, even. But you have to know: you could never be an afterthought. Not to me. You’re, like…the opposite of that.”

He regards me thoughtfully, then takes my other hand and pulls me close. “I love you,” he says, those blue eyes piercing right through me. “You know that, right?”

Tears prick my eyes and I nod quickly, not trusting myself to speak.

“I…can’t do this long distance thing anymore,” he says slowly, reaching down to brush my hair off my face. “I, um, hate it. Like, really hate it. A lot.”

“Me, too! A lot!” I squawk. “But I didn’t want to freak out on you by saying…that. I was trying to act, you know, like a normal person.”

He shakes his head at me, exasperated. “Since when have you ever done anything like a normal person?”

I give him a look.

“Sorry, that came out wrong.” He exhales slowly. “When I saw you with Evan, my brain sort of…spiraled. I realized he’s someone you could hang out with every day, just because you share a city. You could get comics every Wednesday and fall asleep together every night and…and…do all the little things. Like grocery shopping. And laundry.”

I frown. “Those are little things,” I say. “Kind of stupid little things.”

“Stupid little things I want to do with you,” he says.

I stop breathing for a minute, my heart crumbling like a three-day-old cookie. I realize, suddenly, that I want to do laundry with him, too. Desperately. If someone handed me a basket of dirty clothes right now, I would sort the shit out of the lights and darks.

“Let’s move in together,” I blurt out.

He opens his mouth, closes it. And gives me a somewhat peevish look. “That was supposed to be my line,” he says. “Are you ever gonna let me do anything like a real manly man?”

“Probably not.” I give him a tentative smile. “Can you, um…live with that? So to speak?”

His gentle hands cup my face, his eyes taking in every inch of me. He’s the only person I know who looks at me so intently, so earnestly. Always seeing me for what I really am.

“Hell yes,” he says softly.

I throw my arms around his neck, drawing him closer, our bodies fitting together like they always do.

“Oh, hey,” he says, pulling back and rummaging around in his pocket. “This was supposed to be for you.” He pulls out the ridiculously pink Star Sapphire ring.

“Me?” I laugh, holding out my hand. “Since when?”

He tries fitting it on each of my fingers, but the plastic loop is way too big—designed for more fanboyish hands. He finally slips it onto my thumb.

“Perfect,” he says, bringing my fingertips to his lips. “And I really think you ascended to Star Sapphireness just now. By proposing the whole ‘moving in together’ thing.”

“But you had the same idea!” I protest.

“Doesn’t matter. Come on, say it: ‘for hearts long lost and full of fright, for those alone in blackest night—’”

I shut him up with a kiss. It’s probably a Star Sapphire-y thing to do, but damn—it sure is effective.

**

“Wow, that’s really pink.” I narrow my eyes suspiciously at the perky concoction Layla’s set in front of me. We’re sitting in a too-loud bar, wearing too-short dresses, trying for something resembling a conversation over all the noise.

“It’s a cosmo,” she admonishes, gleefully piling tiny umbrellas in the glass. “It’s supposed to be pink!”

“Yikes.” I snatch the fruity thing away from her before she can attack it with yet another umbrella.

“Here’s to us!” she cries, clinking her glass against mine. “I’m having sex again and you’re on the verge of cohabitation!”

We both take healthy guzzles.

“Speaking of,” I say, as the vile pink stuff burns my throat, “we finally made a decision: I’m moving to L.A. And I need you to help me figure out how to break it to the guys.”

She freezes for a moment, frothy glass halfway to her lips, and her eyes get very bright. “You…you’re telling me first?” she asks, her voice tremulous.

“Well…yeah.” I give her a little half-smile. “I was also thinking you could help me drive everything down—you know, road trip-style. Like Sex and the City-type girlfriends do? Or so I hear?”

“Oh, Jules!” She throws her arms around me, splashing alcohol all over my stupid dress in the process. I hug her back, trying to ignore the sticky feeling of the flimsy fabric clinging to me.

“Hey, I have to show you something.” I whip out my iPhone and tap the Facebook icon. “Check out Braidbeard’s new avatar,” I say, gesturing to the screen.

“Ohmygosh!” she exclaims. “What an adorable shot of him and Evan!”

“Mmm,” I agree. “And it’s the first documented instance of B using a photo—rather than a comic book image—as his icon.”

She smiles at me: a sweet Layla smile, full of optimism and fucking sunflowers. “Was I right or what?” she beams. “Love for all: anti-social misanthropes included.”

I twirl a tiny umbrella through my fingers. “You said it, Charlotte.”

Retcon Punch, Episode 04: Strategery

Retcon Punch, Episode 04: Strategery

Oct 27

New to Retcon Punch? Start at the beginning.

What the fuck did I do?

I wake up in my recliner way too late, and feel like garbage–not physically, but mentally, like someone took a shit in my head.

“I’ll think about it.”

I’ll think about it?!

What the fuck I was thinking when I tentatively agreed to participate in a fucking heist at my job with a total stranger?

Let me tell you what I was thinking. When I was in fourth grade, I love love LOVED my teacher, Ms. Mendelbaum. She had big poofy red hair and wore lots of pencil skirts. I actually wrote her a letter when June came around–I told her very seriously that I loved her, and I always would, and I hoped that someday we could meet again, when we were older. I enclosed a picture of myself, and she moved to Cincinatti that summer, with her husband.

You will think me a fool, but I tell you true: Every relationship with a woman I’ve had is just a pale echo of Ms. Mendelbaum.

Agreeing to help commit a felony, however, is beyond the pale. I’ve sat through Vonda Shepard concerts, and I’ve purchased maxipads, and I’ve even read The Bridges of Madison County, all for the love of a girl…but I’ve never broken the law.

And I don’t even know this girl, so it’s not that quite yet; I know she dates assholes and I’m pretty sure I’m not one. I do know, however, that I’ve had fucking credit debt looming over my skull since I was nineteen years old, and to be free of it forever without taking a handout from my parents or declaring fucking bankruptcy…I think I’d steal a dickwad’s comic book to pull that off.

This is all swirling in my head as I arrive at Superb to open for the day; there’s a note on the door, and as soon as I’ve read it, I swipe it off and stuff it crumpled into my pocket.

It says, “Ercoles, 9 p.m. tonight. –V”

So much of the commercial space down by the ocean has been taken over by mainstream yuppified touristy bars and restaurants, barely a step above Applebee’s. Joints like Ercoles that have served mostly locals since the 1960’s are a rarity.

I like it because the rum and cokes are strong, and because there is next to zero chance of running into a client from the shop. With televisions perpetually tuned to any kind of conceivable sporting event and weekend nights full of trashy twentysomethings in clothes their mothers would not approve, it’s not a geek hangout.

Tonight, I order a Miller Lite and grab the first booth I see; it’s 9:30 before Veronica shows. The black jeans remain, topped off by a vintage Boy Scout uniform shirt; her hair’s up in a ponytail. She spots me, grabs a beer of her own at the bar on the way in. She sits down across from me and gives me a warm smile, like we’re old pals and she’s meeting me for drinks to tell me all about her crummy boyfriend. At least I have no doubt that her boyfriend is indeed crummy.

“Does Sid know you’re here?”

“He’s in Anaheim at some shithole, seeing a band.”

“That’s what he does.”

“Don’t I know it.”

We drink in unison, almost as though we’re relieved neither of us has to follow up on that classic bon mot. It’s like a very small and shitty Algonquin round table.

“So like I said,” she says. “I owe my ex-boyfriend twenty thousand dollars.”

“He can’t give you a payment plan for old time’s sake?”

“He froze the vig for old time’s sake. That’s the best I could do.”

“And what, he’s going to break your legs if you don’t pay him back?”

“Eventually. His patience is wearing thin. I can tell.”

“That’s a bullshit story,” I spit. “You expect me to believe that you’re in debt to some thug you used to date, and if you don’t get him paid he’ll rough you up, like some low-rent Sopranos parody?”

“Believe it or not. I’m telling you. I can’t control what you do with the information.”

“I should tell Sid about your little visit to the shop last night.”

“You won’t.”

Pause. “Yeah, I won’t,” I say.

She’s done with her beer, and the waitress brings her a second without her asking. I wonder if she’s a regular.

“So, did you think about it?” she says.

“I suppose I did.”

“And?”

“I’m just–I’m having a hard time getting my head around it.”

“You said it yourself–it’s easy. I have a buyer lined up for these comics, the Fantastic Four and the Batman. He’s going to pay me $60,000 for the pair. We split that, and I still have enough to pay off Hector and maybe buy a shitty used car so that I don’t have to rely on the fucking Sidster to get me around South Bay. You can do…whatever it is that people like you do with a lot of money, I have no idea. But I’m serious, and this is real. This could get scary and ugly if I don’t take care of it, and I think quietly stealing a few comic books from a piece of shit former Rude Boy who spraypaints his bald spot–“

“I fucking KNEW it. It never looked real.”

“Sorry to shatter the illusion,” she smirks.

“Why are you with that asshole? No offense, I don’t really know you, and I’m not sure I care, but I just have to know.”

“He has a massive–“

“Stop. No need. I knew that too.”

“You think I’m too good for him?” She puts on an expression of mock sexy that reads as real sexy to me. It’s been a while, and I’m surprised at how hard it hits, how lonely I am.

“I know you’re too good for him.” I blush into the bottle.

“He’s tried, you know. Telling me my ass looks fat in jeans, ogling skinny fake boob bitches at the beach, that sort of thing.”

“And yet, you stay.”

“Well, there’s his…you know, and then once I decided to pull this caper, it made sense to stay close, to read the situation and gather as much info as I could. Why are YOU still around, anyway?”

“Me? That’s a big question.”

“We have time.”

I contemplate telling her about that mild warm glow that comes deep in Wednesday evening when I’m working customers, rattling off wisecracks about ROM Spaceknight and Gorilla Grodd, but I’m not quite there yet.

What I actually think about, in the tiny span between her words and mine, is why I haven’t bothered leaving. Ennui, I guess? Getting stuck in a moment, in a place, in a job and a mildly addictive hobby that only provides redeeming moments deep in the dark black of a long night spent alone with an ever-growing pile of STUFF. Bad reasons, but reasons.

Then I remember this one time when Sid happened to be in the shop, pretending to rack some new trade paperback stock, and a very recognizable geek filmmaker walked in, alone and undefended. I knew who he was instantly, and so did Sid; I greeted him with my usual, “Welcome, let me know if you need anything,” and Sid POUNCED. This guy was submerged for at least fifteen minutes in this bizarre mix of fanboy worship, pathetic salesmanship, and mock-humble recitation of Sid’s slight resume of pop culture success.

Which was sad, sure, until it got mean, and he started talking about how he opened the shop to meet “cool geek chicks with low self-esteem” and hired “losers like this flabby asswipe” (meaning ME) to keep it running. I turned red and left the room; I saw the filmmaker guy turning red too, but unfortunately he could not escape as easily, and it was at least another ten minutes before Sid slammed open the door of the back room and started bragging and berating me at the same time.

“Where the FUCK were you dude? You know I can’t work the cash register. What the FUCK am I paying you for? That guy was awesome and he was totally into a collabo.”

(Sid called “collaboration” a “collabo.” That goes on his douchebag list, for sure.)

“You’re a worthless piece of shit and I should fire you right now,” Sid finished up. “Good thing you’re so pathetic no one else would hire you and I’m a decent guy.”

Suddenly, leaving seems like the best idea I never had before. Back at the bar, I finish peeling the label off my beer bottle.

“I’m due for a job change,” I say. We spend the next few hours plotting our crime.

Next Week: Stuff

3AM, Banshee, Part 2

3AM, Banshee, Part 2

Oct 25

[In September 2008, Jeff Stolarcyk participated in a professional paranormal investigation. He survived, and this is his unvarnished account of the incident. A version of this essay appears in Grok #3 – Nameless Horror.]

There are at least two major groups of ‘ghost hunters’ in Northeastern Pennsylvania; Joe’s group is the one I’m most familiar with. As I helped the crew – team leader Joe and his investigatorsTony and Jeff – set up their equipment, I took the opportunity to talk shop with them, camcorder in hand.  They run down what each of the cameras, recorders and meters does, what bells and whistles each has, and how each piece of gear is used in documenting or disproving a haunting.  All of the equipment they use comes out of their own pockets, and they don’t charge clients for investigations or canvas for donations.  Even after an hour with them, it’s clear that they’re not doing this to make money, get famous, or sign a TV deal.  During one of our conversations, Joe even admits that he suffers a lot of teasing from his coworkers.  “But later, I’ll be alone with them in the break room, and those same people will be asking me for advice or asking about something they saw or heard,” he says with a smirk.

The group is amicable and frank, joking with me about the super-serious youths on A&E’s collegiate reality series Paranormal State. “We are now entering Dead Time,” Jeff jokes in allusion to the show. They talk about conducting an investigation with TAPS, the ghost hunters on SyFy’s aptly named Ghost Hunters; Joe doesn’t divulge any details out of respect for the other team, but he does remark that there are concessions made for the television audience. Over Cokes in the barroom (none of us are imbibing alcohol), we talk about their recent investigations at Fort Mifflin near Philadelphia and at Andy Gavin’s, another Irish pub in Scranton. Earlier in the week, Joe emailed me a collection of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena – phantom voices on digital recordings) from Gavin’s, the most striking of which is a husky, Irish-brogued voice that seems to be counting, though it’s far from crystal clear sound. The voice is warm and jocular, and according to anecdotal evidence from the Gavin’s owner, the speaker is a former employee – an unlikely proposition, considering the man in question is dead.

Joe became involved with paranormal research after a personal experience that he couldn’t explain. Like me, though, Tony and Jeff are simply lifelong horror buffs out to satisfy their curiosity about the paranormal.  The team is passionate about its work, but it’s also rational, and Joe reminds me several times that their primary goal is to debunk as much of a reported haunting as possible. Far from being crackpots or wild goose chasers, the investigators are methodical and skeptical. Maybe more importantly, they are each normal guys with day jobs and families doing this to learn something about the nature of the world.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t had personal experiences, though. On a recent investigation at Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, Tony was accosted by an unfriendly entity. ‘Entity’ is the term they use for ‘ghost’. “We’re not certain what they are,” Tony tells me as we check camera batteries and set up equipment. “They could be ghosts, or elementals, or maybe even something demonic. We don’t know.” But Tony, like the others on the team, and like the home and business owners that invite the group to investigate claims of supernatural activity, believes that something is out there.

We have recording equipment on each of the Banshee’s floors – the main dining area on the ground floor, the private party room on the second floor where many report seeing an apparition of a small girl, the attic which is mostly used for storage, and the basement – where the majority of experiences befall the Banshee’s employees. “Whatever is upstairs here is not malicious,” the waitress who pushed for the paranormal investigation tells us, “but the thing in the basement is.” She tells us that she’s been shoved by the basement entity and has a distinct feeling of being watched whenever she’s in the room. It was a feeling I had minutes earlier when I was shadowing Tony and Jeff. I held my tongue.

In addition to the little girl in the white dress, there is also a man in a black suit and hat. He’s been spotted on the stairwells to the second floor and basement, and according to one story, a young boy was found wandering in the basement, claiming “the man in the black hat” beckoned him to follow. In the boy’s version of events, the man in the black hat was carrying a rope. What nobody knows about these apparitions is how they are related to each other, to the presence in the basement, or to the history of the structure they haunt.

The building where the Banshee stands now was not always a pub. Prior to its current life, the building was a department store, and its identity before that is something of a mystery to me. The waitresses claim that, during an epidemic at the turn of the century – TB, flu, yellow fever, depending on who you talk to – the basement of the Banshee was used to store corpses from a nearby hospital. At the time of the investigation, no evidence had been uncovered that this ever actually happened, but the story has managed to become a potent part of the pub’s lore among the employees.

Once all the patrons had cleared out for the night, the investigation team and I got started. I went to the second floor with Joe and Tony. Jeff took the basement by himself.

When Joe told me we were going to try to use a Ouija board, I was almost ecstatic. Almost. Pop culture has set us against the things since, well, forever. I also knew from the Witchboard movies that sometimes what comes through the board is worse than a ghost, but I also told myself to keep an open mind.

The Ouija isn’t a standard part of a ghost hunter’s arsenal; Joe’s brought it along to see what will happen. He attempted the same experiment at a prior investigation and got surprisingly active results. Aside from a few tics, bumps and jumps, the board’s planchette stays silent and immobile after nearly an hour of questioning. If the Banshee is haunted, its spirits did not want to communicate with us.

In the quiet dark, we asked questions without expecting answers and trained our cameras on the blackness, searching for electronic proof. Earlier in the night, one of the team remarked that ghost hunting was incredibly boring except for the short bursts in which interesting things happened, and it was so true that the act of waiting became painful.

That’s when Jeff, clearly spooked, asked for extra help in the basement.

Trailing behind Tony, we dropped our hands off of the planchette, snatched up our flashlights and hustled from the 2nd floor through the barroom and down into the basement. I half expected something to grab me as I rushed out of the stairwell; nothing did. Jeff was safe, though he had been rattled pretty badly by the sound of a breaking bottle.  Using our lights to scan the room, we couldn’t find any trace of the broken bottle until we found two employees still hanging around, one of whom had dropped a bottle while taking out the night’s trash.  Our first scare of the night had been debunked.

That brings up back to three AM in the basement.  After our first sweep of the basement, we found an inexplicable EMF hot spot in the middle of the basement’s front room.  We also discovered that all of the cameras and recorders set up in that room were now either dead or nearly out of power, despite everything being fully charged before we started only a few hours ago.  My own handheld recorder was behaving erratically, but still had full power.  We started questioning and monitoring the responses we’d get on the meters.  I’m not going to say we were communicating with something, but I will say the timing of the spikes and beeps on the meter were definitely intriguing.

After a cursory walk through the rest of the building, the entire team gathered in the basement to try another EVP session.  It’s three AM, and the temperature in the basement is dropping rapidly. It’s gone from 65 degrees down to 52 over a period of thirty minutes. To my right, Joe asks, “Are you a male entity?” No answer.

“Make the device go off twice for yes,” he instructs we-don’t-know-who, motioning to the meter placed on the floor two meters away from any of the four of us. Within thirty seconds, one beep sounds in the silence, followed after a pause by another. Two lights.

“Are there other entities in this room with you?” we had already asked it. Beep Beep. Two lights.

“Is there an evil entity in this room?” Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep; no delay at all. All the lights are bright and steady.

Using this schema, we confirmed that the male entity’s name began with the letter Q, and that he had a daughter who was here with him.  In the best of circumstances, thorough research can corroborate these details, but the consistent problem of  this investigation has been a lack of reliable history to refer to. Perhaps with a few hours of library time we might be able to nail down a more accurate history of the premises or look deeper into what could be a clue or erratic behavior caused by an unshielded line.

My initial instinct about the investigation is to say that whatever has happened in The Banshee to the waitresses is most likely the result of them scaring each other with ghost stories.  But what happened in the basement isn’t easily explainable.  Was it all a fluke?  Possibly.  We didn’t see any apparitions, didn’t hear any voices, and didn’t experience any poltergeist activity; the Ouija planchette did not move on its own.  Though none of the events that earmark a movie haunting manifested themselves, there’s still research to be done on the hours of film, audio and photographs that were taken during the investigation to be combed through and they could likely contain spectral images or EVP, and analyzing that data takes longer than a commercial break.  As always, reality is never as glamorous as reality TV, but it can be just as rewarding.  Accordingly, the trio of investigators confess to a certain boyish glee whenever they can find a piece of evidence they can’t explain away, bringing them one step closer to finding out what really is out there.

With Violet Light, Part III

With Violet Light, Part III

Oct 22

Thank you for returning for the penultimate episode of our little tale. You should totally go read Parts I and II if you haven’t already.

A couple notes…

1. A lot of folks assume Julie’s geek sacred cows are mine as well. And…okay, sometimes they are. Maybe a lot of the time. But let the record show that I am, in fact, a raging Pryde/Wisdom fangirl.

2. I have never played Starcraft, but there was a good month of my life where I had to listen to my husband and one of my best friends talk about it INCESSANTLY. So. Certain conversations may have sort of occurred in real life.

Sarah Kuhn

**

“Oh, thank God.” Evan sweeps me into a panic-tinged hug before I’m all the way through the Comics Bee door. “You guys made it!” he exclaims, his voice pitched just a little too loud. His straight, white teeth arrange themselves into a rictus-like imitation of a smile.

“Um, Evan,” I mutter. “Are you…have you been…is there alcohol here?” I scan the shop, which is stuffed to the gills with various permutations of pierced-and-dyed San Franciscans, many of whom seem to be having discussions about what is and is not “organic.”

“No, no…ugh. I wish.” His face collapses and he shoots a dagger-ful glare across the room, where Jill appears to be lecturing customers on line etiquette. “Lady Hydra is in fine fucking form tonight,” he hisses into my ear. “I’m just hoping your geek super-heartthrob can save me from her evil clutches.”

“Consider us your reinforcements,” I say, giving his arm a little squeeze.

“What’re you nerds whispering about?” brays a nasal voice.

“Sorry, Braidbeard,” I say, raising my voice over the din of the indie murmur. I gesture to the motley crew that’s assembled behind me. “Evan, this is my friend Braidbeard and my boyfriend Jack—and you already know Layla. Guys, this is Evan—he works here.”

Evan’s gaze flicks over all of them in turn. “A pleasure,” he says. “Any friends of Julie’s are…well, pleasant acquaintances of mine.”

“Quite a crowd you’ve got here,” says Jack, slipping an arm around my waist, eyes warily sweeping over the room.

“Yeah…of the lame variety,” sneers Braidbeard, his scraggly, plaited facial hair swaying back and forth as he scans the shop. “Julie said you guys were hosting some kind of Doctor Who trivia contest—classic Who only, none of that Russell T. Davies-engineered soap opera crap. As reigning champion of the TARDIS Online Trivia Madness-a-thon, it’s my duty to attend those kinds of events. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening here.” He glowers at me, eyes thinning to tiny slits behind his clunky glasses.

“Reigning champ…wait, you’re Baker4Evar82?” Evan shoots Braidbeard a look of unabashed admiration. “I’m K9isMyCopilot on the boards,” he says. “I almost beat you in the last quarterfinal.”

“Ahhhh—I remember.” Braidbeard nods, crossing his arms over his chest and trying a little too hard to play it cool. “Frakkin’ Sarah Jane questions always trip me up.”

“What are they talking about?!” Layla whispers, her eyes widening to dinner plate size. “I…this…we’re wasting time! We need to get Braidbeard to Jill!” I sigh, giving her what I hope is a soothing back-pat.

“Um, anyway,” I interject, before everyone gets swept into an hours-long Companion debate, “I’m sorry, B—I must’ve gotten the dates mixed up.”

“Riiiiiiiight,” says Evan, playing along. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t hang out for a bit. Personally, I’d love it if y’all stayed. No booze, but we have snacks—well, sort of.” He gestures to a card table festooned with a single bowl of wan-looking tortilla chips.

“Ooooh, look at that, B—they have your favorite chips,” coos Layla.

His brow furrows. “Chile-Lime Fritos?”

“Your, um, second favorite.” She beams, plastering a slightly manic grin across her face. “Let’s go get some?”

“Well, okay,” he says, allowing her to drag him over to the table. “But they better be unsalted.”

“I’ll see if I can maneuver Jill over to the snacks—and then I’ll work my conversational magic,” says Evan. He gives me a conspiratorial wink. “Catch you later.”

“God.” I exhale slowly. “Who knew this match-making stuff was so fucking nerve-wracking?”

“It’s nice to meet another one of your friends,” Jack says, not really hearing me. “Evan seems very…friendly.” He drops his arm from my waist, his gaze drifting over the shop, all traces of energy slowly draining from his face. I’m suddenly aware of how noisy the place is, how crammed with sweat and humanity and general chaos.

“Hey.” I reach up and cup his face, stroking my thumb gently down his cheek. “You okay?”

He looks down at me blankly, eyes still unreadable, like he’s wrapped up in his own little thought bubble. “Um.” His gaze shifts back and forth. “I guess…it’s just kind of loud in here. And this…really isn’t how I was hoping to spend tonight?”

I wince as a vintage-swathed pixie girl dashes past, screaming “TEMPERTON INNA HOUSE!” a little too close to my ear. Re-focusing on Jack, I tilt up and brush my lips against his. “I’ll make it up to you later,” I murmur against his mouth.

“Okay,” he says as I pull back, the word coming out in a vaguely robotic-sounding monotone.

I raise an eyebrow. “You know I meant sex, right? Like, lots of sex?”

“I…sorry.” His gaze seems to clear and one side of his mouth quirks into a lopsided grin. “Let the record show that I am for that. Very for that, in fact.”

I squeeze his hand. “Let’s go look at the back issue bins. This place has an awesome selection of ’90s era Excalibur…the Warren Ellis stuff? Maybe Evan will give us a discount.”

“Okay,” he says, allowing me to lead him toward the back of the store. I cast a sidelong glance at him. His eyes have gone a little blank again, like he can’t seem to focus on anything in particular.

Well. I really will make this up to him later. Possibly with the aid of that Black Queen-esque leather corset I found on eBay.

“Here we go,” I say, reaching our destination and tapping a finger against the “E” bin. “Have at it.”

As he starts to paw through, I scan the room for Braidbeard, finally locating his pasty form by the snack table. Evan’s chattering at him animatedly. Jill stands between them, lips pressed together, the usual superior-than-thou expression plastered on her face. Layla’s off to the side, looking like she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself.

“Ugh, that looks…not so promising,” I mutter, frowning at the weirder-than-weird tableau.

“I better go talk to Evan,” I say, patting Jack on the arm.

I scoot through the hipster crowd, shuffle my way around a muscleman with a Katchoo tattoo dancing across his bicep, and finally land in front of the snack table.

“—but I still think the Zerg are, by far, the most awesome,” Evan’s saying. “They have the Defiler. You can’t beat that.”

“I guess,” says Braidbeard. “I mean, if you want to play in the most suped-up, unoriginal way possible. I’m a Terran man myself.”

Terran?” Evan hoots. “So pedestrian. You’re a human every day of your oh-so-mundane life. Why not spice things up a little with an amazingly gross insectoid-alien…thing?”

“You’re both stuck in the past,” says Jill, rolling her eyes. “Who plays Starcraft anymore?”

“Only everyone,” snorts Braidbeard. “It’s the dominant national sport in Korea.”

“Um, Evan,” I interject, laying a hand on his arm. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Suuuuuuure,” he says, cocking an eyebrow as I drag him away.

“What’s going on?” I demand, once we’re away from Braidbeard’s prying ears. “You’re supposed to be facilitating a love connection, not getting B all worked up over old-ass videogames.”

“We’re getting there,” he says. “I—”

“Baby, check this out.” Jack pushes through the crush of people, waving a packet of back issues. “They’ve got the entire Pryde and Wisdom miniseries for a mere dollar.”

“That’s great,” I respond mechanically, still frowning. “Evan—”

“Seriously: just chill.” Evan rubs my shoulder soothingly. “I can handle this.”

“I—okay,” I concede, as he crowd-surfs his way back to the snack table.

I turn to Jack. “A dollar, eh?”

He looks at me quizzically, his expression a little foggy. The noise in the store crescendos and I realize it must be really getting to him.

I slip my arm around his waist and lean into his shoulder. “Maybe,” I say affectionately, “that’s cause the only person who wants it is you.”

He snaps out of it, his eyes refocusing. “Whatever. There’s some seriously sexy stuff in here.” He grins, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

“And that’s the problem,” I say, happy to see him looking a little more animated. “Kitty Pryde is how old?”

“Old enough.” He brushes his lips against my temple. “Why don’t I buy this and we’ll continue this conversation somewhere more pri—”

“Goddammit.” I pull away from him, my eyes latching onto the snack area …where Jill is wandering off, shaking her head in disgust. Braidbeard and Evan are so locked in heated debate, they don’t even notice.

“What is Evan doing?!” I growl. “This is so not what we discussed!”

“Julie—”

“Hold on,” I mutter, stomping my way back over to Evan. This time I grab his arm and drag him to the side with no preamble. “Now you’ve driven Jill away completely?” I hiss. “How is this helping? You’re totally…cock-blocking.”

He raises an eyebrow. “I’m cock-blocking?”

“Yes! You! Who else is there?!” I say, my voice taking on a deranged sort of cadence.

“Hmm.” He studies me for a moment. “I really think you need to just wait and see how this plays out.”

“What does that even mean?! I—”

I cut myself off, vaguely aware of my name being called from across the room. I whip my head around and see Jack standing by the register, gesturing excitedly to something on the countertop. I give him a little wave, then turn back to Evan.

“Look,” I growl. “I realize Braidbeard’s not the easiest person to…like, but if anyone’s gonna hit it off with him, it’s gonna be Jill. And you promised to help with that!”

“Okay.” He holds his hands up, placating. “I’m sorry if what’s happening doesn’t appear to be…productive. But you need to trust me. I got this.”

I let out a frustrated exhale and flap my hands at the snack area. “Just…get Jill back.”

I elbow my way through the crowd and land by the back issue bins, nearly running into Jack in the process.

“Hey,” he says mildly. “Did you see me by the counter? I was trying to show you something.”

“Right…yes,” I say, glaring in Evan’s direction. “I couldn’t tell what it was from over there.”

He brandishes a tiny, Barbie-pink piece of plastic. “Um, Star Sapphire ring? I thought it was perfect—”

“Oh, nice, it’ll look adorable on you,” I say absently, craning my neck in an attempt to find Braidbeard in the crowd.

He frowns. “Actually, I got it for—”

“Gah…what the fuck?” I growl, my gaze locking on the snack area, which is suddenly deserted. No Braidbeard. No Jill or Evan. “Where did they go now?”

Before I can continue that line of thought, a blonde tornado whirls out of the crowd and lands in front of us. “Would you mind telling me what, exactly, you were thinking?” Jill growls, her ponytail sticking straight out from her skull—it’s gone from insolent to seriously pissed off.

“Wha-huh?” I sputter.

“You’ve thrown my store into utter chaos,” she sneers, shooting me a glare that would easily reduce Doctor Doom to a sniveling wuss. “I run a tight ship here, lady. And tonight, it’s just me and Evan and neither of us can afford to be distracted.”

I’m vaguely conscious of Jack slipping a protective arm around my shoulders. “I don’t understand,” I say, my brow furrowing. “What are you—”

“Julie.” Layla sidles up next to Jill, her wild eyes projecting a strange mix of anxiety and glee. Jill modifies her bitch-glare to encompass both of us. “Um…” Layla twists her hands together. “You need to…”

“Take care of the problem,” hisses Jill. “Or I will ban you from this shop for life. And I will be forced to unfriend you on Facebook.”

“At least then I won’t have to hear about it every time you want to make a fucking grilled cheese sandwich in CafeWorld!” I yell as she tornadoes her way out of view.

“Damn,” I say, shaking my head. “Even Braidbeard deserves better.”

Jack rubs my back. “Sorry your master plan tanked. But I’m thinking this means we can go now?”

“No!” Layla’s hand shoots out, latching onto my arm. “Julie, you need to see something. Now. Evan is…just come with me.”

“Gah, fine,” I say, allowing her to drag me away. “I’ll be right back!” I call over my shoulder.

I allow Layla to steer me over to the indie section, a wild woman on a mission. As we push through the last mini-crush of people, my eyes settle on Braidbeard, who’s scrutinizing a particular page in Ghost World as Evan looks on.

“See, this is just dumb,” he smirks. “Why do we spend umpteen million pages on this chick’s search for a frakking bondage mask? Who cares about that shit?”

“Millions of readers, judging by how many times it’s gone back to press,” Evan says evenly. “And that story is about more than just, you know, a bondage mask. We’re watching someone try to define herself through superficial means.”

“Oh, God,” I breathe. “This is what Jill was talking about: Braidbeard’s fucking trapped Evan.”

Layla puts a hand on my arm. “Just watch.”

“Huh.” Braidbeard squints at the page. “I guess I can sort of see that. She’s an outcast like the X-Men or whatever.”

My jaw drops so far, I swear I feel it scrape the floor.

“Right.” Evan nods approvingly. “And who hasn’t felt that way at some point?”

Braidbeard looks up from the page and regards Evan seriously. “Maybe you could, like, explain more of this dumb book to me later. I mean, if I decide to buy it.”

Evan raises an eyebrow, a half-smile playing over his lips. “You are so buying it. And I’ll only explain it to you if you admit that the Defiler is the most awesome thing ever invented.” He holds out a hand. “Deal?”

I wait for Braidbeard—who I’ve never known to welcome any kind of human touch whatsoever—to recoil. Instead, he shuts Ghost World and takes Evan’s hand. And maybe holds onto it a teeny bit longer than is strictly necessary. “Deal.”

I honestly didn’t think it was possible for my jaw to drop farther.

“Hey, guys,” Layla says, as I unsuccessfully attempt to shut my gaping mouth.

“Damn, I was wondering where you losers wandered off to,” snits Braidbeard. “Can we go yet or what? This party blows. Well, mostly,” he quickly amends, casting a sidelong glance at Evan.

“Oh, shit,” says Evan, panic dawning in his eyes. “How long have we been standing here? Jill’s probably looking for me…” He hurries off.

“So?” Braidbeard demands. “Go? Now?”

“Are you…are you GAY?” I splutter.

He shrugs, tucking Ghost World under his arm. “What of it?”

“I…you…when did you become GAY?” I squeak.

“Um, Jules.” Layla glances over at an androgynous-looking couple in matching “Veganism is Beautiful” t-shirts shooting disapproving looks our way. “You might want to keep it down.”

Braidbeard makes a big-ass show of examining his nails. “Unlike you,” he says, “I like to keep certain things private.”

“What do you mean ‘unlike me’? And…and…what do you mean ‘private’?”

He hugs Ghost World to his chest, the ultimate indie-kid shield. “I mean,” he says, giving each word maximum enunciation, “that I am known for certain things. For, like, possessing kick-ass taste when it comes to shit like DC’s various crossover disasters. And for being generally awesome—like Batman. Everything else is on the Bruce Wayne side, which means it’s my frakking business and no one else’s.”

My forehead crinkles. “I don’t get it.”

“Of course you don’t,” he says patronizingly. “Your only concern these days is ramming your tongue down Jack’s throat in as many public places as possible.” He shudders, making exaggerated gagging noises.

Hot fury flushes my entire body. “Excuse me, what the fuck—”

“Wait, wait—whoa.” Layla places a gentle hand on each of our shoulders. “I think I get what’s going on here. Let me translate from Geekanese to…normal person language.” Her gaze slides from me to Braidbeard and then back again.

“Julie,” she says, her voice taking on the soothing cadence of a diplomat trying to broker world peace, “Braidbeard is about as comfortable expressing himself sexually as you were pre-Jack. Which is to say…not very. Or not at all. I think you can understand that, yes?” I open my mouth to protest, but she shakes her head firmly. “And Braidbeard: if you can learn anything from Julie’s example, it should be that you can love someone freely and without reservation and still maintain your essential, um…geek…crankiness. Er, uniqueness. Whatever you want to call it.”

We stand there in silence for a protracted moment, Layla’s words echoing and re-arranging themselves in my brain. Braidbeard hugs Ghost World a little tighter, and gives a non-committal sort of shrug. But when he meets my eyes, there’s a flicker of understanding.

I feel myself starting to nod. “I guess that…makes sense. Sort of.”

Layla beams and pulls us both closer, squeezing the breath out of me with her bizarre strength. “It takes a very special person to bring you…unique types out of your shells,” she trills. “And Evan seems soooo sweet!”

“He thinks Tennant is the best Doctor,” sniffs Braidbeard. “But no one’s perfect.”

**

Despite Braidbeard’s pleas, we end up staying for a good while longer and Layla and I spend a few giggly moments debating how we’re going to relate the entire tale of our not-exactly-successful-matchmaking to Mitch. I keep scanning the crowd for Jack, but he appears to have disappeared permanently into the back issue bin jungle.

As the party begins to dwindle, Layla wanders over to Terry Temperton’s table, having decided to get her newly-purchased copy of Angst Sundae signed. I lean against a shelf of Marvel trades, trying to process the evening.

“Not exactly the night I was expecting to have,” says Evan, sidling up next to me. “I should thank you for that, probably.”

I smile wearily. “I don’t think so. My scheming skills are more Wile E. Coyote than Sydney Bristow. And I guess I was actually cock-blocking you?”

“You’re way good at it,” he says with a chuckle. “Cock-blocker extraordinaire.”

I roll my eyes. “I’ll put that on my resume.”

He smiles dreamily. “I can’t believe I have a date with Baker4Evar82.”

“I can’t either, especially since you’re so…well, nice?” I raise an eyebrow.

“No judgment, missy,” he says, poking me in the arm. “Doctor Who trivia is way sexier than it sounds on paper. And we all have our types.”

“Yes,” I say. I notice Jack heading our way and a dorky smile overtakes my face. “I guess we do.”

“Hopefully I’ll be seeing you on more non-Wednesdays,” says Evan. He gives me an impulsive hug and peck on the cheek. “Especially if my date goes, you know…well.”

“Guh,” I shudder as he saunters off, still not quite willing to picture Braidbeard in any sort of remotely sexual situation.

“Hey, you,” I say, as Jack approaches. “You’ll never believe—”

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” he says softly. Too softly. I scrutinize his face and realize he looks like a bomb ready to go off. His hands clench and unclench, like he’s barely keeping himself together. The vicious hurt radiating from his eyes cuts into me, precise and sharp and awful.

“Baby,” I say gently. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain, I hazily realize that’s the first time I’ve ever called him that. “What’s wro—”

“What’s going on with you and…and…him?” he says abruptly.

“…who?”

Him.” He waves an arm in the direction of the register, where Evan is ringing up the last few customers.

“’Him’ as in Evan?” I look at Jack incredulously. “Are you asking what I think you’re asking? Because if so, we need to back the fuck up.”

He rakes a hand through his hair, causing it to stick up in a wild parody of his usual casually-mussed coif. “You’ve spent the entire night chasing after him. And he’s not exactly resisting.”

“Whoa.” I cross my arms over my chest. “I can pretty much assure you that he’s not interested in—”

“You’re my girlfriend,” he growls. “I know when some other dude is trying to—”

“Where is this fucking possessive Alpha Male act coming from?!” I say. “Are you gonna turn into a wolf now?”

“Don’t—don’t joke about this.” He shakes his head vehemently. “I know this long distance thing sucks, but that doesn’t mean you have to treat me like an afterthought.”

“I…what?!” Waves of frustration crash into me, and I feel my hands balling themselves into tight little knots. “How can you say that? I love having you here. I—”

“Right, that’s why you keep telling me I shouldn’t feel obligated to visit. That’s why you suggested we spend our only night together hanging out at some random party so you can flirt with some equally random guy.” His voice cracks on the last word and I realize his eyes are bright with angry tears.

“That’s not fair,” I say, my voice trembling dangerously. “And that wasn’t flirting. For fuck’s sake, Jack—Evan’s gay.”

He deflates, his arms dropping to his sides. “You know what,” he says flatly. “It doesn’t matter. That’s not even the point.”

“Then what is?!” I ask. “Please. Let’s just talk—”

“No.” He shakes his head slowly, his anger giving way to dull hurt. “I’m done trying to get your attention. Why don’t you go talk to Evan.” With that, he turns on his heel and storms out of the store.

As I stand there with my jaw once again scraping the floor, Layla rushes to my side. “Did I just see Jack make an…uncharacteristically dramatic exit?” she says, brows knitting together. “What’s going on?”

“You tell me,” I say, right before bursting into tears.

Read Part IV

Retcon Punch, Episode 03: Baby’s In Black

Retcon Punch, Episode 03: Baby’s In Black

Oct 20

New to Retcon Punch? Start at the beginning.

We close at 8 on Wednesdays, but it’s inevitably 8:30 before we get the last customer out the door. Fortunately, it’s the more sane and hospitable customers who tend to show up late in the day, as they are the ones who have day jobs and can’t run out at 11 a.m. in the middle of the week to buy funnybooks. So there’s almost a small glow between Tara and I as the weekly Day Of New Comics comes to a close; even though I still have a bit of back issue inventory to process before I can go home, I’m not in the worst mood. I shut off the lights in the front and work by the dim glow of a TV playing a VHS tape of some old Captain America cartoons.

A few minutes after Tara heads home, the phone rings.

“Mr. Eisenhower?”

“Speaking.”

“This is Visa calling.”

FUCK. How did they get my work number? Why didn’t I check caller ID?

“Hi, Visa.”

“Um…hi.” The lame joke throws her off her game, but just for a second. “Mr. Eisenhower, we’re showing that your current payment is overdue by a few days. I just wanted to make sure everything is okay?”

Retcon Punch, by Matt Springer - A Thrilling Tale of Sex, Betrayal and Comics

Yeah, everything’s okay, except that I’m absolutely penniless right now. That’ll happen when you regularly deduct hundreds of dollars from your own paycheck to purchase comic books, toys, and DVDs.

In fact, as Visa is telling me about their convenient payment plans, I’m looking at the stack of twenty or so comics I’ve squirreled into a pile next to the register over the course of the day. My face is flushing red as I remember that I still have to buy a plane ticket for my mom’s birthday next month, and pay the plumber for that emergency visit he made three weeks ago, and get caught up on my student loans.

“Mr. Eisenhower, I can process a payment for you right now if you like.”

“Uh&KRRRK&you’re breaking up&KRRIRRRK&I’m on&KKKRR&tunnel&KRIRIRRIK&tomorrow&”

I hang up the phone, amazed that trick still works. At least, it works to end phone calls with Visa people; it does absolutely nothing for my credit rating. In fact, I’m pretty sure it makes things worse.

As the phone hits the receiver, I hear a banging on the back door. Not a “Hey, let me in” type banging. More of a “Hey, let me jimmy this crowbar into the doorjamb here so I can pry this fucker open” banging. I know this from watching too many episodes of The Rockford Files.

The banging intensifies as I quietly flip off the TV. I crouch like a cat burglar in a cartoon, and I walk slowly toward the closed door into the back room. A louder bang indicates that the mystery invader has made their way through the store’s back entrance. Beneath the shut door appears the sickly yellow glow of the back room’s ancient fluorescent lights.

I make the dumbest of many dumb choices presented to me by my dimwit brain; I slowly creak the door open.

Then the loose doorknob snaps off in my hand, and the door is splayed open, and I teeter on my legs, almost falling on my ass. Standing before me is Sid’s latest fling, a black hoodie ineffectually laced tight around her chin. She looks like she’s going to bolt, but she doesn’t; she sits down in the nearest folding chair.

“Fuck me,” she says.

A few moments pass.

“I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next here,” I admit.

“Do you have any alcohol?”

“I keep beer in the minifridge.”

“I’ll take two.”

I twist the caps off two Miller Lites and set them on the table. She theatrically winces as she looks at the label, then she shotguns the first one. Twenty seconds easy, if that. The second one she nurses.

“Do…do you need a key? I can ask Sid to…”

“Dude, where do you park?”

“Park…my car?”

“I didn’t see anyone in the lot. Lights looked out. I thought I was clear.”

“On Wednesdays, I park across the street. It gets busy.”

“I saw. You were hopping today.”

“Yeah.”

“You put up a fake comic for the one I took.”

“Uh—yeah. Yeah.”

“So you caught me. What are you going to do?”

This is unusual.

This whole time, she’s been sitting in essentially the same position, slurping beer in an uncomfortably loud way, breathing heavily from the exertion of beating the door down. Her legs are akimbo, if that’s the right word; she’s leaning back and alternately staring at the ceiling and staring at me.

“What should I do? Tattle on my boss’ girlfriend?”

“I guess not.”

I take the seat across from her; I push aside a small stack of old Wizard magazines so I can put my elbow down and rest my head on my hand.

“Sid’s an asshole, isn’t he,” she says.

“He’s my boss, so…”

“He’s an asshole. I know it. I’m gonna take care of that, but first…”

Now she sits up and puts her head down on her arms onto the table, like a kid in school taking a nap on her desk. She looks up at me. Her eyes are brown.

“I owe my ex-boyfriend twenty thousand dollars.”

“Wow. Well, he’s your ex, but I’m sure you can work something out, right?”

“He’s a loan shark. He’ll break me.”

“Oh.”

“I’ve got a buyer for this shit; I just need the Batman thing in the safe.”

“Batman thing?”

“Sid says he has some old Batman comic in that safe over there.”

I’ve worked at Superb Comics for ten years; I’ve spent more time in this place than most of the cockroaches. I’ve never heard about an “old Batman comic” in the safe…

…except that one time a couple years back, when I was working late to prep for Free Comic Book Day, and Sid came over on his way to a show, and he was drunk, and he started bragging about all the cool old shit he bought with his dumb pop ska money, and how he had “one special thing, brah, for a rainy day. I keep the Caped Crusader in the safe.” He had repeated that last line about fifteen hundred times before he left.

The safe in question had been in the building for at least thirty years. The old guy who owned the nail salon next door said there used to be a credit union in the space. It’s not a great safe, one of those old monstrous things.

“What were you going to use to get into the safe tonight?” I ask. “Your charm and good looks?”

She does this cockeyed grin for a second and in spite of myself my guts get a little melty. But just a little. She’s Sid’s girlfriend, so she’s lame enough to date Sid, and she just broke into my place of business to ostensibly pry open a safe with a crow bar and a black hoodie. I quickly freeze my guts up again.

“I was hoping to scope it out.”

“Wait, how did you get in here to steal the Fantastic Four comic if you needed a crowbar to get the door open tonight?”

“That weird mom lady forgot to lock the door yesterday, dude.”

Fucking Tara.

“I think you’re going to need a blowtorch to get through that thing, and probably a few hours in the clear, so someone decent to work lookout…”

“Wow, you’re kinda good at this. I suck at it. I just got caught.”

“I’ve seen too many heist flicks. This is easy.”

“You want in?”

My head starts racing; I’ve never been offered the opportunity to participate in a crime before. I’ve never even committed a crime before. Of course, I think about the almost-too-convenient call from Visa of a few moments ago, and realize that if we split the profits from a Fantastic Four 1 and a Batman 1, we could both handily pay off our debts and have a bit more left over for whatever. It might be months or years before Sid realized they were missing. I’d have to quit this place but I hate Sid anyway so that might not be such a bad idea?

She is giving me this look. It’s like evil bemusement. I don’t know how to describe it; I’m doing a shitty job.

“I’ll think about it.”

“I’m Veronica,” she says. She finishes her beer with one gulp.

Next week: Strategery!