Chapter 48

Bill looked on with horrible disbelief. The smell of sulfur flavored with burning flesh and hair dissolved along with the inky, flame-licked smoke. At the center of the pentagram, the demon stretched his leather wings first, followed by clawed hands. Glowing eyes carefully examined the room it had entered. The corners of its mouth drew upwards spreading a grim mockery of a smile, and then it spoke, "Well, it's not bad, but there's lots and lots of work to do. First we've simply got to do something about these colors. Beige is just so out."

"Is that supposed to happen?" Lou asked. "I thought that there'd be more curses of unfathomable discourse or at least some evil cackling."

"And this couch! Tacky, tacky, tacky."

Bill raised an unsure finger. "Uhm, excuse me... but some of us were wondering..."

The demon looked surprised then quickly extended his hand and smiled with possibly too many teeth. "Dear, where are my manners. I'm Fred. And you would be?"

Bill looked at the claw suspiciously, then carefully accepted it and shook the creatures hand. "Zelbaug, Bill Zelbaug. This here's Lou Siefer. Fred, is that short for anything particularly evil?"

"No." Fred replied matter of factly, "So, what's the deal with the cute little fez things?"

Bill removed the item in question and examined it. It was red, festooned with a leather tassel and featured a black pitchfork on the front. "This? Oh, we're Shriners."

"Shriners?" the demon said with more than a hint of disbelief? "You mean like riding around in little cars and helping kids?"

"Well, more like kicking kids," Lou corrected, "but you're right about the little cars. We got a great deal on a bunch of those."

"Plus chicks dig 'em." Another voice offered helpfully.

"All that is well and good, BAD I mean bad" Bill spoke up, trying to regain control of the situation, and not wanting to give this demon too much information. "But what about you?"

"Moi?" Fred replied, "Oh well, here's my card, and here's some examples of my work." Fred split the temporal realm and withdrew an artist's portfolio. His talons expertly unzipped the case and he began laying out a series of photographs and cloth samples.

Bill read the card, "Interiors by Fred. Designer of the Damned"

"Damned Finest!" Fred said with a chipper tone. "In fact, I hate to brag, but I'm responsible for most of the netherworld's more memorable aspects. Here's a picture of Nezertoth's Palace. He wanted just white hot stone, but I got him to really spruce things up with a walkway of living flesh bordered by some nice obsidian spikes. In fact, I even got a job for 'The Big Guy'. Let me tell you, that guy has absolutely horrid taste. It's just ice, ice, ice. Well, that and tortured souls of the infernal, but mostly it's ice. Now, I know I like it brisk myself, but near absolute zero every single day is just dull, dull, dull!"

"Number eighty-nine? Eighty Nine?" The nurse called out as she loosened some earwax with the duller end of the pencil she held.

One of the multitude seated in the clinic's waiting room struggled to push himself away from the wall he had been leaning against, then slowly hobbled behind the nurse. As he departed it was more obvious why he had problems walking. None of the wounded thugs that filled the room even so much as smiled at the brightly colored object still vibrating, since at least half of them were jealous that he'd gotten off with such an easy injury.

Fast Phil, the previously freelance auto parts salvager, looked at his ticket number and groaned. He'd been sitting there for an hour and it looked like he'd be there at least another two. "Is it just me or have things gotten way out of hand?" he asked no one in particular.

Julio "The Mark", his hands wrapped up in some sort of soft gauzy pink fabric that had so far proven far more durable than any of the fire department's arsenal of cutters, simply replied, "No, it's not you."

"I mean, yeah, I know that there's some sort of spandex wearin' goofball that's decided to set up camp here..."

"Oh, that would be the Graybrown.." Julio looked confused, "or Gay Pound, or.." He paused, "aw heck, whoever it is that dude Puppyboy used to hang with."

"So like what happened to that dude anyway?" Fast Phil asked.

"Dunno. Haven't seen him around for a while. Sure have seen his buddy though."

"Tell me about it. The guy's a raving psycho."

"It's as if a guy can't make a living anymore, you know?"

A new arrival entered through the sliding doors. He hopped to the front desk where he attempted to provide his name and pertinent information to the nurse at the counter. Unfortunately the teal wrap he was currently engulfed made his speech completely indecipherable. The nurse simply pulled a number from the ticket dispenser and slapped it to the newcomer's forehead.

The newcomer finally made a sound that was understandable to the rest of the room. "ow." He hopped over to the main waiting area mumbling curses with each landing.

"ow, shffp, ow shffp"

He tried to find a place to sit down, or even lean against, failed, and simply fell over onto the floor.

"You know what really bugs me, man?" Phil told his erstwhile companion. "I turned down the opportunity to be a henchman because I didn't want to deal with the whole death and dismemberment part."

Julio smirked, "Should have gone wit' it."

"Tell me about it. At least they get a dental plan."

Becky Sue paused before she opened the door. The same guy was sitting there, or more accurately sleeping there. The pointed felt horns on his helmet drooped from the morning rain and he draped himself with his now dingy cape to fend off the cold winter air. He'd been there every day for nearly two weeks now and was a kindly enough cowboy. Always giving a nice smile and a wave, not like the other bums on the road. She slid her hand into her pocket and pulled out a bill, carefully tucking it into the bum's pocket.

Just because a cowboy's too proud t'ask for help ain't no reason not t' offer some anyway.

She reached the top of the stairs just in time to be nearly flattened by the burst of sound emanating from the Audiotron 3000.

Chris was pounding on the panel with one of the instruction binders trying desperately to shut off the contraption. Becky Sue covered both ears as well as she could and made a dash toward the device before the windows gave out. She moved a slider down several inches and the screaming car deals offered by Smilin' Jack no longer menaced the suburbs more than normal.

The two stood trying to clear the ringing in their ears before realizing that the steady thumping vibrations were coming from below them.

"Sorry Annie!" Becky Sue yelled at the floor.

Chris continued to mutter curses, occasionally spiked by slapping the binder at the huge speakers.
"Other than sterilizing the pigeons, y'all mind telling me what the heck you were doin'?" Becky Sue griped.

Chris slid one of the volume controls up a notch. The speakers steadily droned "Message Box Full. Message Box Full" with a thick Japanese accent, accompanied by a pleasant jingly techno beat. The end result was beyond annoying and Becky Sue grimaced properly.

"It was doing that for five hours before I figured out what control was the volume for it." Chris grumbled.

"Well, look, it's durn simple. All y'all have to do is press this here button, select option 9 from the menu, turn this dail over t'here, enter Alt-Ctrl-X-5, slide this to position four, Just like is says here, then select Tools, System, Disks, Mailboxes, Reports, Mailboxes, Personal, go to the Preferences tab, select English, click on Ok twice and hit this little Dog picture to play. Crimany any dad-burned idiot could'a figured that one out."

Chris' jaw hung open as a synthesized female voice stated "Playing-a Message-su" and the collected news reports began to play back. Becky Sue plopped onto the futon and began flipping through a magazine.

About the only buttons that Chris did know how to use were the ones for rewind, forward, pause and resume. As the messages played out, there was a slow trend taking shape. Reports went from talking about usual topics, then talking about the drop in crime rate. Chris smiled as those played out.

When the reports started talking about the hospitals filling up with "victims of blind vigilante justice", Becky Sue started flipping the pages in a far more annoyed fashion.

Chris continued to smile however, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back as the angry comments continued from the accused, the families and the commentators.

He stopped smiling when Becky Sue whacked the back of his head with her magazine. "Dammit Chris!" She yelled without a hint of her normal Texas twang. "You're supposed to be a good guy! That means stopping the crime and saving the day, not maiming every jaywalker you come up against! Crepes on a Pony!" She dropped back down onto the sofa and held on to her head. Her leg started bouncing.

"Wow", Chris said still in mild shock from the outburst. "You really did hang around JB too long."

Becky Sue stared at Chris with a look of complete disbelief. The twang returned "You really are dumber than a lifetime supply of horse apples, ain't you? Oh, Shut Up, JB! If he couldn't figure out y'all were here when y'all had me futz the doo-dads, then 'e's got less brains than an armadillo two weeks after the wagon-train went through!"

Chris' eyes went wide.

"Well, I see we don't need to buy any horse apples anytime soon." JB exerted.

"Look, I'm just doing my job.", Chris snapped back, "Would you rather I let the rapists, murders and felons just wander around killing and destroying?"

"I'd much rather people didn't start using you to scare their kids into behaving. Being a good guy means stopping the crime, but being in contr.." JB/Becky Sue stopped and looked away. "Perfect, just perfect!" she snapped angrily, turned and sprinted down the stairs toward the front door.

Chris sat down, suddenly realizing that his brother was alive, sort of. The announcer spoke of the "Grayhound Menace that strikes without mercy". He thought about what he'd done, and his shoulders slumped. He was about to turn it off when he heard the report and knew why Becky Sue had run off.

He picked his hat up off the floor and jogged down the back stairs.

The back door swung open and Chris came face to face with a reoccurring nightmare.

"What do you think you are doing?" The heavy set woman from the Division of Superheroes stood hands firmly on hips, still holding the clipboard and looking much like she had over a year ago, her lilting Caribbean accent only driving the point of her annoyance further into Chris' head. "I leave you alone for a year and you turn into Mister Executioner?"

"Oh, not you too." Chris moaned.

"Yes you had better believe me too!" The woman shouted, "and don't go rolling your eyes at me mister. I know you've t'ink you've gone t'rou some bad times and need to take it out on someone, but you better be prepared for t' consequences."

"Like the unrelenting guilt of putting felons out of commission?"

The woman shot Chris a withering stare. "Rogues fight according to t'eir own rules." She poked a hard finger into Chris' chest. Even behind the armor, it hurt. "Don't say I didn't warn you." She walked past Chris. He tried to turn to continue the conversation but the armor hadn't reliquified yet. She must have hit harder than he thought. By the time the though had crossed his mind he was able to turn and see he was alone in the alley once again.

At the counter, the older guy seated next to him gave a low whistle. "That there is a beautiful Merc. How many times have you rolled the odometer?"

"None." The Detective replied as he continued to make lazy circles in his coffee. "It's been in storage."

"Well, sure is a beaut. Although you're about three weeks early for the car show."

"I'm not here for the show, I'm just looking for a.. new job and was merely sizing up the locale."

The stranger raised an eyebrow, "You deal cards?"

"No," the Detective stated annoyed by the gabby nature of the counter. "I'm a special investigator."

"Ah, well, certainly are a lot of those here in Reno." the man smiled. Unaware of the amount of salt he happened to be rubbing into the Detective's current wound.

"So I've noticed"

"Still," the man said, effecting a more sagely manner as he scratched beneath his baseball cap. "I think I know what you're going through."

"Oh really." The Detective stated flatly, not really caring.

"Yep." The man said with a sigh, and then leaned closer, "You see, I used to be in the protection racket meself. No, no the legitimate one that seems to require funny long-johns. Used to be known as 'Flashpaper' seeing how I've got this talent for making paper and fabric explode. I'd charge up a wadded up ball of cloth and toss it at the bad guys and BOOM!"

"you don't say", the Detective said in a tone that dropped the temperature by four degrees.

"Yep, It was a kick for a while, but eventually I just got old. Still, I managed to wrangle a few good book deals. Enough for me to get that RV out there. Came out here a few years ago to try my hand in the Casinos."


"Went pretty well, too." The man beamed, "made me some right good cash at it too." His expression dropped, "well, 'til I got that royal flush and the cards exploded." He frowned at his coffee for a few enjoyable heartbeats of silence. Then he slipped a hand back beneath his cap and scratched. "I suppose that's probably the reason they don't let metas into the casino anymore."

The Detective groaned as yet another opportunity rocketed out of his reach.

The man suddenly became very serious. "But that's when I found me some religion."

Myron let his head slowly descend to the counter top.

"You see my friend, I can't begin to describe what kind of joy has entered my soul once I found my path and let Odin into my life. You ok buddy?"

Myron stopped slowly beating his head against the counter. "I'm fine."

"Though I kinda wish I'd found my way using a religion that didn't involve quite so much sacrifice. You have any idea how hard it is to find a virgin goat around here?"

The waitress finally arrived with the Detective's meal. He looked at it in a combination of eagerness and disappointment. The eagerness was from the fact that he hadn't eaten since yesterday. The disappointment was because he now had no excuse to run from his countermate.

"Still, there are a few things I've learned from following a pantheon of mostly unpronounceable deities, and the most important thing is that if you go it alone, you wind up stuck under some big tree with Iggy's dredel with a bunch of angry Bothans." He paused, "Ain't those the guys from Star Wars? From the way that the picture book showed them, they were really big."

The older man thought about pausing, then thought better of it. Myron tried to drown him out by chewing on the louder parts of his hamburger.

"Well, anyway, when those guys actually stuck together, that's when things really worked. They were a team and things went alright when they acted like one. Really makes me wish I'd stuck with my old team instead of striking out on my own, I suppose I might have..."

A woman, that could only be described as.. aarrwaarrrgghahhhwww straightened her leather bodice as she walked out of the bathrooms. Her long, braided blonde hair swung down and brushed the top of her steel rimmed boots. She brushed a few bits of dust from her taut skirt, as she spoke something in what Myron presumed was Swedish.

"And that would be the other thing I've learned. Ancient daughters of Valhalla really dig guys who are into Nordic Mythology."

Myron swallowed, slowly.

"Ya, know Lovisa, I really wish you wouldn't wear that outfit when we're traveling."

"Flash, you know that the evil in men's hearts can strike at any hour.", the valkyre said calmly as she towered above her husband.

He flipped a few dollars onto the counter and slid off his stool. "I know, I know, it's just that, sometimes I get tired of being asked where 'Hooters' is."

Lovisa struck a defensive stance that only served to remove any further oxygen from the male portion of the diner. "Owls? Does Hel send her tidings!?"

Flashpaper simply sighed heavily and slipped his arm up under hers. "C'mon darling. Let's get back on the road again." He paused at the door. "Hey, buddy", he called back to Myron, "remember what I said. 'Sometimes being a team is better than being alone'."

And with that, the two departed.

It was still a good three minutes after the RV was lost from sight that anyone in the diner moved again.

"Bob Honey?" Avie called back, "What are you doing?"

Bob quickly put away the polished chrome helmet and black cape that he planned on wearing on graduation day. "Nothing. I was just looking at something."

"Oh, Bob, you're still not bothered by what that stupid Dean said, are you?"

"No", Bob lied. Avey didn't buy it either.

"Bob, look, I know it's been a dream of yours, but you're doing great. In fact didn't you just get a huge bonus for the last ad campaign?"

"The one for Altroids, The Curiously Strong Suppository? Yeah. I suppose." Bob shrugged. Being in marketing was almost as good, and he could use all of the skills he had learned, but there was still something missing.

Avie put her hand under Bob's chin and turned his head to look at him. "You know, Bob, you've never told me why you wanted to be a chaos advocate."

"Well," Bob began, "it's more keeping up the family traditions more than anything. Mom was a lobbyist and Dad sold used cars. So, it's always been something our family has done. We'd get together on weekends and play Risk, bake cookies and plot how to overthrow the PTA."

"Yes, I know. But why do you want to do it?"

Bob sat and thought. In all honesty, he wasn't really sure himself. There were hundreds of reasons he despised the current system, with vigilante 'heroes' riding roughshod over whomever they disagreed with and a kangaroo justice system that required strict evidence, except where 'heroes' were concerned. In that case, criminals received harsh sentences with only a sarcastic note pinned to them. Most never met or had the opportunity to cross-examine their 'captors'.

But even that was because of research he'd done after deciding to become a super villain.

Heck, he was even the one instrumental in setting up the DeVry institute, even though he did his best to ensure that most of the staff remained unaware of that fact.

Bob had never met his grandfather, and his father had never spoken of him. The family simply kept the old truck out in the garage, their silent recognition that the man even existed. Bob had begun tinkering on the truck when he turned 18 and had pretty much inherited it solely because no one else wanted it or could stand getting rid of it. Still, for all the discomfort everyone else in his family may have had toward the truck, Bob loved it, and he always seemed to get his best ideas after spending some time in it.

"I'm not really sure. I guess I probably just need to think things over. If you don't mind, I'm going to go out to the garage for a while."

"No. But if your going to start playing with that damn rolling deathtrap of yours, can you make sure you wash your hands before you come back in the house?"

"Not a problem. I was just going to try seeing if I could get the radio working again anyway." He gave Avey a kiss and headed toward the garage, figuring a good bit of tinkering might be just the distraction he'd be looking for.

Fred? The demon's name is 'Fred'?

What got Becky Sue's attention, and
will Chris go rogue?

Why the heck isn't there
any artwork for Lovis?

Tune in next time for:

Evil Herbs
Devil of a Thyme

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