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Black Hole Son

RION

At eleven o’clock at night, Room 103’s door opened. Paul entered. He was alone and drunk. He had been at conferences all day with a hangover and little sleep, so no doubt he had been at the bar drinking away his tension.

“Memory? Are you fucking here?” he called to the darkness. There was no answer. “Wherr’ th’ fuck is that bitch,” he slurred as he fumbled for the light. Her bags were still here so she hadn’t skipped town. She’d left no notes, no messages. She just wasn’t in the room.

But he was too drunk to care at this point. But not so much that he didn’t check that the door was secure. No repeats of last night.

He balanced on one foot, and kicked off a shiny, leather shoe. He did the same with the other. He continued stripping as he stumbled into the bathroom and took a five-minute piss. He groaned and sniffed as he tried to undo his shirt buttons with one hand. After a few farts and spitting into the bowl, he staggered out.

Mumbling words like ‘bitch’, and ‘slut’, he flopped onto the bed and dug under the covers, and turned out the light, dousing the room back into pitch darkness. In no time, he was snoring violently, likely having some intense dreams fueled by the alcohol.

#

“Wakey, wakey.”

“What the fuck…” Paul mumbled. The desk light was on. It was two in the morning. Cruel, blue eyes were staring him in the face.

“Let’s get something straight here,” Rion said. “I am now in charge. I am in control. I have all the power, all the authority. And you are in charge of exactly zero.”

Paul started forward to strangle him, but his arms snapped him back to the bed. His wrists were tied up by ripped bed sheets that disappeared over the headboard. His legs were tied too.

Rion held up four untied ends that snaked under two chairs on either side of the bed, through which the ropes snaked under. Paul wasn’t just tied down, he was snared in some kind of a medieval torture device. Rion could control it by simply tugging. The pulley-like system aggravated the tension.

“Punk, I thought I took care of you,” Paul said.

Rion shook his head. “Don’t you realize what I am? I am the heir to the right hand of destruction. I am the anger, I am the rage, and I shall strike the wicked down with my vengeance, until all that is vile and indecent is swept from the land.” He yanked the ropes and Paul’s limbs stretched taut.

Paul groaned as his joints pulsed.

Rion loosened the cords. “I am your fucking nightmare.”

“Get this shit off me,” Paul demanded.

“Fuck you,” Rion said coldly and yanked again. Paul cried out. “You listen now, got it? You’re mine. You do what I say, and I say you listen.”

“If I had my gun here, I’d-“

“You don’t,” Rion said. “You don’t have anything, so shut it. Don’t make me shut it for you. You’re a fuck-up, Paul. You fuck up and then wonder why there are consequences for your actions.”

Paul opened his mouth to shout again, but Rion held up the ropes. Paul shut his mouth.

Rion said, “Now you listen. Listen good. You no longer know anyone named Memory. You-“

“What did you do to her? Did you-“

“Nothing,” Rion said. “You shouldn’t even be asking that question. That person no longer exists to you. You’ve never heard of anyone with that name. You’ve never been with that person, you don’t know that person. The concept of her does not exist.”

Rion paced away from the bed, hands clasped behind his back and staring up at the ceiling like a lecturer. He continued, “The last day of the convention is tomorrow. You only have one seminar in the morning, so following this… discussion, you will trade in your tickets for an earlier flight. With only one seat. You’re going to go back home, and never look back. You will check out of the hotel by phone.”

“The company paid for the tickets. I can’t trade them in.”

Rion whipped his head toward him. “I don’t care how you get out of here. Take a train, a plane, a bus, or start running. But you will not be within a fifty mile radius of her, or I will be within a one-inch radius of you. You will never see her again. You will never contact her again. You will never contact her family. You will make no attempts to have friends contact her. You will live your life as if she never existed. And most of all, you will never speak her name again.”

Rion paused to let all that sink in. He leaned in close. “Do we have an accord?”

Paul glared at him. “I’ve got friends, you know. Friends that can find you and chew your ass up. They’ll kill you, for the right price. And I’ve got lots of money. I can find you. I will find you. I will hunt you down like a dog.”

Rion smiled like a cat. “You can hunt me all you want. But you’ll never find me, because I’ll always be right behind you. And you’ll never even know I’m there.”

Paul laughed, “But you’ve got to untie me sometime. And when you do, I’m gonna break your ass.”

Rion walked over to the table. “Exhibit A.” He picked up a waterman pen in one hand and held the ropes in the other. “You like this pen, don’t you? Good ink flow, fine tip. It’s served you on many a signature, hasn’t it?”

“What are you talking about? Who are you? Johnnie Cochran?”

“You sign a lot of things with this. Like checks?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Checks like what? Food? Bills? The bank? Something called the Boros Corporation?

Paul’s jaw dropped wide enough to catch horseflies. “How the fuck can you know about that?

“Real estate companies? A guy named Alan Smithee? There sure were a lot of checks to him.”

Paul’s astonished silence said it all, until, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s right. Deny, deny, deny. They’ve got nothing unless you confess, right?”

“Seriously, how can you know about that? There’s nothing that could remotely lead you to-”

“What did I tell you? I’m your worst nightmare.”

Paul scoffed. “Whatever. That’s not evidence. I don’t know how you know, but all you’ve got is a pen. You can’t threaten me with that.”

“No, but I’m sure the bank has some of those checks. And I’m sure they could match the ink with that pen.”

It took only a half second, then Paul started convulsing like a tied animal. Rion snapped the ropes again to bring him back to focus.

Paul’s body stiffened. “Help! Help me!” he shouted. “There’s… there’s a psycho in here with a gun.

“Shut up!” Rion pulled so tight Paul could only grunt. He didn’t let go until he counted to thirty.

As Paul lay there gasping, Rion held up a letterhead. “Exhibit B,” Rion snapped. “This appears to be a… voucher, or a memo, or something. Says it’s to Mr. Reginald Warren of the Hillner Group. Not sure what they do, but there’s a big cross on the header, so it looks religious to me. Letter doesn’t say much that I understand–some contact information, something about a money market-“

“That was all legal,” Paul panted. “You can’t… you can’t do anything. That money-“

“Oh yes, I have no doubt that this was all legal. I didn’t see anything wrong with the letter. All you’ve done here is set up some money markets, donations, online accounts. It’s got a paper trail, I’m sure. Nope, nothing written here’s illegal.”

Paul sighed.

Rion said, “The coke residue, on the other hand, is not.”

Paul’s eyes opened wide.

“I don’t know what Mr. Warren looks like, so I’m not sure if he was the guy snorting up with you. I do know that he took quite a bit more than his fair share. I’d talk to him about that.”

“You… how… you… that was… that was five years ago.”

“Mmm, explains why you had better skin. Next time I’d use a mirror. More traditional.”

“This is impossible. You’re making all this up.”

“You know that I’m not.”

“There’s no way you can prove any of this. The police will never believe you.”

“I think I’ve just demonstrated how they will. Don’t you want to move onto the final exhibit?” Rion picked up a pack of cigarettes. “Now, this I didn’t quite understand. Who is Mistress Drago?”

Paul opened his eyes wide and dropped his jaw again.

“She’s a woman, and she seems to live far away from you. And the things you have her do-” he laughed, “I’m not sure if they’re illegal. And if they’re not, they should be. How can you even stand up after-“

“No way…” Paul gaped. “No way you could know about that. No way.”

“All those business trips to New York sure were convenient, weren’t they?”

“What the hell are you? Seriously. What… what are you?”

“You don’t need to know,” Rion answered.

“How? How could you know all this? You have to tell me.”

“I don’t have to tell you shit.” Rion gestured to the objects. “This is just the three best. There’s loads of stuff here that could put you in jail for years. Stuff that could put you on the streets.”

Paul paused, thinking. “What are you going to do? Drop the ropes and run? Just how are you planning to get away so I don’t wring your neck?”

Rion admitted he hadn’t thought about it. Maybe he could hold the ropes while Paul got his stuff. “With the way you’re tied, I’ll be out of the room before you can get to me.”

“You’re going to get caught. I’ll tell them it was you,” Paul said.

“What, some kid with no identity? I’m not on the grid. They can’t find me, they can’t touch me. Remember what I said? I will always be right behind you. Got it?”

Paul said nothing. Rion took his silence as consent.

“Now to reiterate. You will leave this hotel within one hour. You will take a taxi to the airport, and take the next flight home. You should have no trouble, with all the money you have. You will-“

Paul seized up, pulling his arms and legs together. The loose ends of the rigging slipped out of Rion’s hand and fell under the bed.

“Shit!” he uttered. Rion dove for the ropes, but they were dead center under the mattress.

The chairs legs rapped as Paul scrambled around to loosen himself. Rion couldn’t afford to get the rope–Paul was getting back on his feet and he was laying on the floor. He rolled out of the way and backed up against the window.

Paul ripped the shade off the desk lamp and held it up like a club. He got in-between Rion and the door and stared at him. Loose ropes trailed from his arms and legs.

Paul hefted the lamp. “All right, you little fucker. I’m going to finish what I started.”

Rion examined the little space around him. If he could get away, Paul would be doomed. But with all he’d just disclosed, there was no way Paul was letting him get away.

“If you’re so off the grid, no one’s going to miss you, right?” Paul said. “You got that, sucker?”

Rion glanced for something he could use as a weapon, but nothing was in reach. Fight or flight. Fight or flight. Rion couldn’t decide. There were no exits. But he’d already had a fight with him and lost.

In a fit of instinct, Rion rushed forward and tackled Paul in the stomach. The surprise worked, and they collapsed against the wall. Paul hammered the lampshade on Rion’s back, but being against the wall took away his leverage.

Rion struggled to get his arms free, fighting through Paul’s grip. Limbs flailed, elbows poked him, but he managed to get his hands on Paul’s head.

He couldn’t punch. He couldn’t kick. He couldn’t run. So he did the only thing he could.

He “focused” on Paul.

Paul grabbed his shoulders. “Get off me,” he yelled. Then his hands froze. “Get off- get out- get out- geeeeeaaaaah-” His face contorted like rubber. And he screamed. He screamed loud enough to wake the world.

Fire flashed through Rion’s head. It was like beating up someone from the inside. Rion clenched his teeth in a determined grin as he concentrated. The world flashed red.

Blood tricked from Paul’s nose. Then his ears. Then his eyes. Little rivulets of crimson drained into his mouth.

Rion was oblivious to this. All he could perceive was the raw emotion channeling out of his hands–all the hate, the rage, the frustration–amplifying his power like a loudspeaker.

Paul feebly raised his hand and dropped it. His body relaxed. Rion fell back, feeling like he had run ten miles.

Paul fell over like a piece of roadkill, curled and frozen. Blood covered his face. Breaths came out in shallow, rattling gasps.

Rion prodded him with his foot. “Hey,” he said. No answer.

Rion backed up, stumbling against the bed. He couldn’t leave him there. Memory would be back at some point. She couldn’t see this. She couldn’t be involved in this unclean task.

There was a phone on the nightstand. He grabbed it, and dialed 911.

“Hello. There’s a… there’s someone at the Super Motel. He’s hurt. Bring an ambulance. It’s in Room 103.” And he hung up.

No one was in the hallway when he crept back to his room.

This Aeris Life

aeris final fantasy 7 remake

This morning I was listening to This American Life Episode 679: Save the Girl. The introduction starts out as thus:

IRA GLASS: Of everything in pop culture, what can make a teenage boy cry? That’s a very specialized list, right? And we got to talking about this at our office because Lina Misitzis, one of the producers here, remembers how there was this one video game, a PlayStation game, that got her brother and his friends when they were kids.

And I thought, oh man, there can be only one game that they’re talking about — Final Fantasy VII. And that delights me because whenever old fuddy duddy podcasts like this talk about old games, it’s always with reverence. Because the people who grew up with these games are now making the content. They’re making the material. We’re out of the days where “Comic Books Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore” is a legit headline.

IRA GLASS: And what was it about this character that was so intense?
LINA MISITZIS: Well, OK. So I have no idea. To me, it made no sense. She’s like this one-dimensional girl. She’s a cartoon. At the time, it was a big deal that she was 3D. So she looked, I guess, believable,

Wait, what? They are talking about Aeris, right?

LINA MISITZIS: The official game description of her is literally, quote, “young, beautiful, and somewhat mysterious.”
IRA GLASS: Wait. Could we pause on the word, “somewhat”? That seems so weirdly insulting. Like, well, you’re just somewhat mysterious.
LINA MISITZIS: [LAUGHS] OK. Right. And in the game, she really does just two things. She stands next to people and calms them down. Like she’ll put her hand on someone’s chest in this meaningful way. She’s this reassuring presence, this healer. And then the other thing she does is she asks for help.
IRA GLASS: So that’s the two basic female functions, right?
LINA MISITZIS: It’s like fix and help. Fix and help.

Okay, now I’m pissed off.

I guess I was wrong about what I said before. The fuddy duddy podcasts STILL get it wrong, still manipulate facts to serve their point. It’s like coming up with the thesis first, then picking data that proves it. I didn’t think fake news was a real thing before, but now I’m less sure…

First of all, Aeris is about as far from a one-dimensional character as you can get. She is funny, light-hearted, kind, compassionate. If you had to call her anything, then yes, she’s the healer of the group (because all her limit breaks deal with protection and healing), but in terms of gameplay, she can be just as powerful as anyone because she can have the same materia (magic spells) that anyone can.

You can tell this was written by people who didn’t even read the wikipedia page for FFVII. Point the first, THIS is the game’s official description, as sourced from the Final Fantasy VII Instruction Manual.

Young, beautiful, and somewhat mysterious, Aeris met Cloud while selling Flowers on the streets of Midgar. She decided to join him soon after. Her unusual abilities enable her to use magic, but she seems more interested in the deepening love triangle between herself, Cloud and Tifa.

That doesn’t do her justice (and why is “Flowers” capitalized? Those crazy Japanese). Look the whole point of Aeris is that she’s not just another plucky young girl. She’s descended from Cetra, an ancient race that could control the lifeforce of the planet. And the reason everyone wants her is because she’s the last of her race, and she’s got to come to terms with her past. And she does this while still being a plucky young girl from bad circumstances. Yeah, you save her a lot, but it’s like saving a Wonder Woman who hasn’t developed her powers yet.

Need more proof? How about some of her choice quotes from the game:

Hey, that’s Cloud’s line! ‘…It’s too dangerous, I can’t get you involved…’ Blah blah blah.

“Don’t fight here! You’ll ruin the flowers!”

“I think they believe I have what it takes to be in SOLDIER!” (offering an explanation for being pursued by the Turks)

“A girl!! What do you mean by that!? You expect me to just sit by and listen, after hearing you say something like that!? Mom! I’m taking Cloud to Sector 7. I’ll be back in a while.”

“I want to know you. The real you.”

Aerith: “Just the same as him.”
Cloud: “The same as who?”
Aeris: “My first boyfriend.”
Cloud: “You were… serious?”
Aeris: “No. But I liked him for a while.”
(in fact, this first boyfriend is Zack, a man who looks just like Cloud except for black hair, and a key figure in Cloud’s false memories)

Marlene : “Guess what? Guess what? Aerith was asking me lots of questions. Like what kind of person Cloud is. I bet she likes you, Cloud!”
Cloud: “Let’s hope so.”

Aerith: “I’m…… alone….. I’m all alone now…”
Cloud: “But I’m….. we’re here for you, right?”
Aerith: “I know. I know, but… I am the only…. Cetra.”

Cloud: “Aerith declared that she’ll show me the way. But if I let her, it seems hard to tell who’s the bodyguard.

“I’ll be going now. I’ll come back when it’s all over.”
(these are her last words
)

sephiroth stabs aeris

And keep in mind, this is among all the other colorful characters — a cat on a puppet, a brooding vampire-thing, a perky ninja girl, a man with a gun for an arm, an ex-pilot who constantly swears. That’s just the good guys.

LINA MISITZIS: I mean, she has no personality.
IRA GLASS: Yeah.
LINA MISITZIS: There’s a bird in the game that’s called like a Chocobo, I think, that has more personality than Aeris does.

Does that look like she has no personality? No. She has a sense of humor, she’s not like the kidnapped princesses that Anita Sarkeesian‘s always railing about (although she does get kidnapped a few times, she’s also a playable character who succeeds the Bechdel test). In the game, I would describe her as motherly, in that she’s caring, kind, upbeat, and flirty. That she can behave that way from living in the slums is a miracle. And that’s why when she’s killed, it’s so devastating. She’s the heart of the team. She’s what they’re all fighting for.

Another reason is her presence with Tifa, who is the other romantic interest in the game. She looks like this…

Tifa Lockhart

So on first glance you might think, “Oh, Tifa’s the hot, liberated one and Aeris is the motherly one.” She’s the F in a game of FMK. (Yuffie is, of course, the K.) Aeris is the Betty, Tifa is the Veronica. Tifa is Ginger, Aeris is Mary Ann. Aeris is the Victorian in The Corpse Bride, Tifa is the lively-but-dead girl. Despite this, they actually spend time together (when they’re not fighting alongside Cloud).

LINA MISITZIS: And her death sends them to their actual mission– to save the world. She’s just a prop that gets them there. That’s her whole function in the game.
IRA GLASS: So basically, it’s like she’s this barely filled in character, and yet, just, that’s enough to work, to make people have all these feelings and to actually cry when she dies.
LINA MISITZIS: All she needs is to seem vulnerable and nice.

Yeah, if you’re going to be that semantic, everyone is a prop to get the game moving. Sephiroth is a prop to give them a villain to fight. Cid is a prop to get them a plane that let’s them explore more of the game’s territory. Calling someone in a story a “prop to get the plot moving” is asinine. Characters need motivation, and reducing her to an object is to ignore all the other character traits she has. If you want to talk about props, talk about Mario and Peach. Now that’s a thinly veiled plot mechanic.

But Aeris is not just the ball in the game between Sephiroth and Cloud. That’s what made Final Fantasy 7 such a gamechanger, because the graphics and the story were fleshed out enough that it became as dramatic as a movie. A movie you could be in.

I’d say if anyone is vulnerable in this game, it’s Cloud, the game’s protagonist. He spends a significant portion of the latter half in a wheelchair, having seizures, because his memories are attacking him.

Aeris is not a girl to be saved. She is an independent, fleshed-out character and I’m tired of old media men not doing their due diligence. Sure, just accept whatever reporters spoon feed you to make a good podcast. Stay ignorant of these things. It’s no skin off my nose. But Aeris may have something to say about it…

aeris stabs sephiroth final fantasy 7

Black Hole Son – Part 15

Black Hole Son

ASH

“Jeez, you sure know how to have a good time,” Squirrel said.

“Sorry about that,” Ash said for the fifth time. He leaned against the dirty white wall of the staircase. Both the alcohol and pavement had gone to his head, so he was a little woozy.

Squirrel fished for his apartment keys. “Don’t be sorry, man. That was awesome. I’ve never been kicked out of a strip club.”

“Technically, it was just me.”

“Yeah, but we were there with you. We were the rough riders. Don’t take shit from nobody.”

Ash rolled his eyes, but kept silent. Only Squirrel had offered to help him after the scuffle, to take him home. When he said he didn’t have a place in the city, Squirrel offered his apartment.

While Squirrel fiddled with the key–apparently having trouble fitting it through the lock–Ash rubbed his head. The thin walls rattled with a baby’s crying, animating his headache.

“Thanks for letting me stay here,” Ash said.

“Hey, no prob. Happy to help out a fellow knight. That’s what we do, man. Grr,” There was a snapping sound. “Ugh, finally.” Squirrel opened the door a crack, then turned back sheepishly. “Oh, it’s kind of a mess. Sorry.”

Expecting scattered clothes or a bunch of dirty dishes, Ash said, “Well, can’t be worse than an alley.”

The apartment was cold, like a house basement. No couches or coffee tables or lamps or carpet or even a poster. The garbage layering the floor kept the apartment from appearing empty–a rainbow of fast food wrappers, paper plates, wadded up towels, clothes, half-eaten candy bars with bits of chocolate clinging to the carpet, paper bags, cigarette packs, stains left to fester.

The only two real household elements in this mini-wasteland were a TV set on the floor, and a gray mattress in front of it that looked like it had been in a dumpster.

“This place is crap,” Ash said.

“Yeah, I know, but it’s cheap. It’s not like I’m Lionel Starkweather or anything. It’s got a separate bedroom and bathroom, though. And you don’t need heat if you find enough blankets.”

Find enough? How do you live like this?” He brushed the gray wall with his fingertips. They turned black.

“It’s okay. Better than living with my parents.”

“I’d hate to meet your parents,” Ash said. “I’ve seen better cardboard boxes.”

Squirrel giggled. “I’m lucky to have an apartment at all. I mean, housing’s at an all-time premium. You can barely find a place available. If you do, you have to have roommates to afford it. Hey.” He turned back to Ash. “We could be roommates. What do you think of that?”

“Uh…” Ash liked Squirrel, but had zero desire to live with him, and definitely not like this. “Give me some time. I’m still… exploring options.”

“Well, think about it. We could go to patrol together. Save money.”

“How are you affording this place now?”

“Well, I used to have a night job. But that… fell through. Do you want something to eat?” Squirrel said.

“Oh, god, yes,” Ash said.

Ash followed Squirrel into the kitchen, kicking aside garbage to make a path. There was a vicious burn scar on the wall above the oven. Two cabinet doors were opened, two were falling off their hinges. The rest were missing.

“Let’s see… we got some Coke,” he pulled out a two-liter bottle and set it on the counter. “And some Chinese food.” Over his shoulder, Ash saw that he had listed the entire contents of the fridge.

“That’s fine,” Ash said.

Squirrel gave him one of the two white cardboard boxes with forks sticking out. “Um, I hope you don’t mind it cold. The microwave doesn’t work. Or the oven. Or the stove.”

“Will it kill me?”

“I’ve been eating it for five days, so it should be okay. If it hasn’t gone bad so far, it won’t go bad now. Right?”

Ash chiseled into the cold, slimy vegetables with a plastic fork. Disgusting.

“Yeah, I’m planning to move out soon anyway. Once I save some money up,” Squirrel said.

“Uh-huh,” Ash said between bites. “And how long have you had this delusion?”

“What?”

“Dude, you’re never gonna get out of here unless you get a better job. A real job.”

“The White Knights is a real job.”

“Heh. No, look, I’m all for you being on the team, but I think they’re expecting you to already have a stable job before you join up. The money is just an incentive since you’re, quote-unquote, putting your life on the line.”

“But I love the White Knights. It gives me a chance to strike back, you know? You see all this crime on TV and the news, and you think, ‘Man, I wish I could be one of those guys who could go out there and save the world’. Right? To get back at all those people. Did you know that crime has done nothing but rise since 2000? And that in fifty years, one out of four people will have committed some kind of criminal offense?”

“Where’d you hear that from?”

“Ivan. So, that means people are getting worse, not better. That’s what we’re here for. It’s our destiny.”

“You read too many comic books.”

“No, I’m serious. I feel like the White Knights is what I was meant to do. It’s my responsibility to help others, to stop criminals. Like someone used to say, when life gives you lemons, chuck ’em right back and add some lemons of your own.”

Squirrel wasn’t the best decision-maker, but Ash understood where he was coming from. “Can’t disagree. Ivan would do good to listen to you.”

“No, I’m no leader. I’m no good on my own.” He gestured to the apartment.

“Then do something about it. Why put up with shit like ‘post up’ and the constant searches for a few dollars? You could earn more serving hamburgers instead of serving the public.”

“Well, I used to have a night job. But that… fell through.”

“Fell asleep on the job too much?”

“How did you know?”

“Dude, I can already see the bags under your eyes. This can’t be working for you. Why don’t you get a better day job?”

“Well, let’s see,” Squirrel said in an antagonistic tone. “I didn’t graduate high school, I’ve got no technical skills, I’ve got no money for school. What are you, my mom?”

Ash drew back. “Whoa, calm down. Didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Sorry, sorry. My fault. That reminds me.”

He put down his empty box and went into the bathroom. Ash glanced in and saw an assortment of orange bottles and foilpacked drugs stacked on the sink and toilet top.

Ash followed him in. “What’s all this?”

“Oh, these are Neurivex, they’re mood stabilizers,” he said, shaking the bottle in his hand. “This is Athelify for shyness, Droxinil for when I can’t sleep. Then fiber, vitamins, the typical stuff.”

“Jeez, you’re a walking chemistry lab.”

Squirrel smiled, “And this is the piece de resistance.” He yanked a container with a cool blue marketing logo. “Blindside. You’ve heard of it, right?”

“What’s it do?”

“It’s like a mind filter for bad memories. It recognizes when a long-term memory is forming, and removes the bad association with it.”

“And that works?”

“Works great. I use it all the time.”

“How do you afford all these?” Ash asked. “You have all these drugs, but can’t fill your fridge?”

“Ah,” Squirrel raised a finger. “I get them at a ‘special’ pharmacy.”

“You steal them?”

“No, no. I wouldn’t steal. That’s not a White Knight. Please,” Squirrel said. “It’s sort of a black market… thing. It’s cool. I use it all the time. Drugs are so expensive these days. Do you need anything? I’ve got plenty.”

“Do you have anything for a headache?” Ash said as he rubbed the back of his head.

“Light, medium, or hard?”

“Uh, medium. No, wait, hard.” Might as well get the best.

“Here you go.” Squirrel handed him a bottle. Ash took two pills out and swallowed. “That fall on the pavement must have been rough. Too bad you got kicked out before you could get your lap dance.”

“Yeah,” Ash said and smiled. He wouldn’t get rid of her memory any time soon.

“What was her name?”

“Ivy.”

“Yeah, she sure was sweet on you.” Squirrel elbowed him in the ribs. “What was she was saying to you in the corner there?”

“Oh.” Ash gave him a brief rundown–saving money for school, the ‘boyfriend’, asking when she got off work.

“Dude, she totally digs you,” Squirrel said. “You have to go back there. She said she wanted to see you.”

Ash shook his head. “That’s ridiculous. It was a business ploy, to get more money. That place is a fantasy. It’s where guys can go to not feel pressured to compete for someone’s affection. The girls don’t want to go out with any of them.”

“Nah-uh,” Squirrel said, “First of all, I’ve never seen a girl talk to someone so much before. Second, I ask strippers out all the time. They come up with excuses like ‘my boss won’t let me leave’, or ‘we’re not allowed to date customers’. I never had one say to come back tomorrow. She’s probably making sure you’re a good guy. You gotta go back. Maybe bring her a gift.”

“The only gift a stripper is interested in is money. Of which I have none. What should I do? Print some dollar bills?”

“Hey, that’s not a bad idea. It’s not like the girls check for counterfeiting.”

“I thought you said you were on the good side of the law.”

“No, no,” Squirrel said. “I would never do it. I don’t even own a computer. I just think it’s interesting. You’re definitely the idea man of the group.” Squirrel checked his watch. “Gee, it’s late. I’d better get to bed.”

Ash nodded, thinking the same thing.

Squirrel went into the bathroom. “Are you going to be okay on that mattress there? Do you need a blanket?”

“No, I’ll be able to stay warm,” he said, smiling.

Squirrel came out with a palmful of capsules. “There’s some sleeping pills in here if you need some,” he said as he tipped some back. “And the cold water works if you want something to drink.”

“Okay, good night.”

“Good night.” Squirrel closed the bedroom door, leaving Ash alone.

Ash went into the bathroom and took out a small handful of painkillers. His headaches seemed to keep showing up. Squirrel wouldn’t notice they were gone, there were so many. And if he used something like Blindside, why would he care?

Kicking aside cups and wrappers, he approached the mattress, looking for a stainless area to sleep on. He threw off his jumpsuit and sash in a corner.

He thought about watching some news, to see if anyone was looking for him, but he wasn’t interested. Too many other thoughts floated in his head–Ivy, the White Knights, Ivan, how to find and fight real crimes, Ivy, his powers, Ivy.

Despite all that had happened, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Strange how women worked like that. Her hair, her eyes, her smile, her natural smell that had permeated through the cloud of body odor and flowers.

Squirrel was right. He had to see her again. After their next patrol, he would have to walk there. Maybe he could be some sort of bodyguard for her, if she did have a stalker. Then they could spend all kinds of time together.

“God,” he said to himself, “Here I am, pyrokinetic, and I’m in puppy love.”

He idly grabbed a piece of garbage off the floor and sloughed off his frustration into setting it on fire, certain that neither the sprinklers or smoke alarm worked in this godforsaken building.

He could feel the heat, but his hand didn’t burn. Watching the flames soothed him, like tapping his fingers. It crumbled down to nothing, leaving a handful of soot in his palm. Maybe he was fireproof too.

He looked down at the pearl-sheened skin on his chest. Did he evolve some sort of fireproof skin? Were these gifts from his former life?

God, what the hell happened to me, he thought. He picked up another piece of trash and ignited it, just for practice. There was something about the act that gave him pleasure. The gluttonous snapping into flame. The bright yellow and red glow. It was art. It was natural. What else could he practice on?

Ash caught sight of his uniform, shiny nylon glistening in the moonlight.

It is a pleasure to burn, Ash thought.

Black Hole Son – Part 14

Black Hole Son

RION

At five o’clock in the afternoon, Rion emerged from his room. The conventioneers would be at the seminar or at dinner. It was the best chance he was going to get.

No one was there to see him creep to Room 103. The door flashed green when he inserted his stolen key. Jeez, didn’t they fix the door? Didn’t Paul tell anyone that someone broke into his room?

Still, he slid into the door and shut it quietly behind him.

He heard a woman gasp. Memory was sitting at the table.

“You,” she said.

This was unexpected, but not an obstacle. “Are you all right?” Rion asked.

“I should be asking you that,” she answered. “How did you? I mean, he-“

“I’m all right. It wasn’t as bad as it looked.”

“There… there was blood everywhere. I-” Her eyes welled up.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he raised his hand. “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”

“There’s no way you could heal that fast. You’re not… a ghost or something?”

Rion snickered. “No, I’m not a ghost.” Although that thought hadn’t occurred to him. What if he was an undead spirit sent to avenge people? “I’m just special, I guess.”

“How do you get in here?”

“I have a key. I don’t know why, but it still works in your door. But that’s not important.”

“You better get out of here. Paul… I don’t know when he’ll be back, but he-“

“Yeah, I know,” Rion said.

“He might try to kill you.”

Rion breathed deep. Those were the consequences, if he failed.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked as she stood up. “You should get out. You should-“

She put a hand to her stomach, as if it hurt.

Rion scowled. “That’s why,” he pointed out. Memory looked away and sat down. Rion said, “He never does it so it’s visible. He’s careful that way, isn’t he?”

Memory said nothing.

“Look, you’re right. It really is nothing to me. I’ve only spent a few moments with you. But I know you don’t deserve this. No one does. And the only reason is that you’ve gotten trapped. You need someone to help.”

“But you’re just a kid,” she said. “You don’t get anything from helping me. I can’t pay you. I’m not even worth saving.”

“That’s not true,” Rion said.

“But I don’t know what to do. I can’t- I can’t- I mean, I’ve tried, but he’s so-“

“I know,” Rion said. “That’s where I come in. Honestly, I don’t know why I’m doing this either. But it feels right, and I have to follow my feelings. I could leave this hotel right now, and never look back. But then,” he said, “I’d always have the memory.”

Memory smiled. That sweet, soft smile, framed by her soft, pink lips. It made Rion melt.

“You’re not gonna do anything… dangerous…” she said. “I mean, he deserves it, but I don’t want you-“

“Shhh,” he said, and put a finger to her lips. “No more questions. I have a plan. I have it covered. But… well, you’re not a part of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You need to get out of here. Do you have anywhere you can go?”

“Um, I’m not sure. I mean, I-“

“Just for tonight. Some other motel, maybe.”

“I don’t have any money though. He pays for everything.” Rion rolled his eyes. “And I don’t know the city. I wouldn’t know where to go-“

Rion sighed. He took the remaining money out of his pocket. “Here, take this.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Take it. Don’t pretend to refuse it to be polite, I don’t have time to argue. Just take it.”

Memory took the extended cash.

“Go outside and find a taxi. Tell him to take you to the other side of town. Go to the movies or a sports event. Somewhere a lot of people can see you. And get receipts for everything.”

“I need my stuff,” she said, “My toothbrush, my-“

“No time, and you don’t really need it. You’ll come back in the morning. All right?”

“Is… is he going to be here when I get back?”

“Don’t know,” Rion shrugged. “That depends on him.”

Memory looked like she was trying to think of a way out, but couldn’t find one. Rion knew that her instincts were telling her ‘yes’, but her fear was telling her ‘no’.

“Just trust me,” Rion said.

Memory nodded. She put the money in her pocket and left without another word. Rion sighed. He felt too much like Paul, using force and threats to get what he wanted. It was too easy to manipulate her like that.

He overviewed the room, looking for where the personal items were. They had brought a lot of stuff for a three-day weekend. He touched his pocket and felt the pill bottle. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need all of them.

Black Hole Son – Part 13

Black Hole Son

ASH

‘Walking the beat’ with Ivan took the rest of the patrol time. In that time, the only legitimate offense they stopped was a man who didn’t curb his Pomeranian. So far, being a White Knight was 99% walking around the beach and 1% being an obnoxious asshole.

The two of them stood in front of the ‘Beach Rules’ sign. At five o’clock, they saw Anfernee, Jamal, and Squirrel. Ivan turned to them with a sharp “POST UP!” They ran up and stood straight.

“Okay, gentleman. Briefings?” Ivan asked.

Each person reported on the significant events of their patrol. Anfernee had watched a potential fight between two beach bums. Jamal described how he helped an old lady carry some groceries to her car. And Squirrel told a story about a loud boom box as if he’d undergone a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Ash crossed his arms and tuned out. It was nothing more than patting themselves on the back, creating the illusion that they had accomplished something.

“All right, good work today,” Ivan said, “Meet at HQ same time tomorrow.”

Jamal, Anfernee, and Squirrel walked away. Ash held out his hand.

“What do you want? A tip?”

“No, my money. My pay. You said I could have it, if I performed well.”

“Mm… and you think you performed well?”

“Unless you think I should have helped more old ladies cross the street?”

Ivan paused. Ash didn’t plan on going anywhere without his pay, and hoped he wouldn’t have to provoke an argument.

But Ivan dug in his pocket and gave him a small sheaf of bills. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

“Thanks,” Ash said.

Ivan pointed at him. “No more advances, got it? You still got your uniform to pay for. This ain’t a bank.”

“I will pay this back,” Ash said.

“And you better show up tomorrow.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ash said as he counted the money. Fifty bucks for six hours of work. Not bad. At least now he had enough to call a cab, find a hospital, or at least buy a taco.

“Hey, Ash, you ready?” Squirrel called to him. He, Anfernee, and Jamal were heading back towards their car.

“For what?”

“For the surprise,” Squirrel whined. “For the new guy.”

“Go party, let loose, have a drink,” Jamal said.

Oh. The reward Squirrel had promised him. Ash didn’t feel like going anywhere right now. His legs felt wobbly, and he hadn’t had anything to eat except pills. Plus he was starting to get a headache. “I don’t know. I don’t really feel like it.”

“Come on, man. It’s your first day, you gotta come, man. You’re part of the team,” Squirrel pleaded.

“All right. But I’m kicking the crap out of you if this turns out to be a practical joke.”

“Yes!” Squirrel pumped his fist in the air. He ran up behind Ash pushing him down the street. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” They crowded into Anfernee’s blue Honda Civic that was parked behind a coffee shop.

“Where we going?” Ash asked as he shut the door.

“The Vortex. You’re gonna love it,” Anfernee said. He started the car and headed downtown.

After ten minutes, Squirrel pointed through the windshield. “Right there,” he said, bouncing up and down like a child waiting to see Santa.

Ash’s eyes popped. The Vortex was a building with a buzzing neon sign, and the letter ‘O’ vaguely shaped into a galaxy. “It’s a strip club?” Ash asked.

“You don’t have a problem with that do you?” Jamal asked.

“The place is awesome,” Squirrel said. “Man, it’s like no place you’ve been.” They parked in a back alley across the block.

A big, white bouncer with a ball bearing pierced into his bottom lip stood framed in the flashing vanity lights around the door.

“Evening, boys,” he said as they approached. “Looking to spend some money tonight?”

“Yessir,” Jamal said and opened up his wallet, taking out fifteen dollars. Anfernee and Squirrel did the same. Ash plucked out ten and a five from the money he’d just received and gave it to the bouncer who nodded him in.

Shit, fifteen dollars gone. He hadn’t known this was going to cost so much, or he never would have come. “Shouldn’t he have checked my I.D.?” Ash said to Squirrel.

“Nah,” he said, “As long as you got money to spend, no one cares.”

“But isn’t that illegal? I mean, I could be underage.” In fact, I think I am.

“That’s why this place is great,” Squirrel said.

The first thing that hit Ash was the pungent fog of smoke and perfume. Inside, dim, fluorescent light bulbs and mirrors were scattered everywhere. It looked like someone’s dressing room. The old men and salarymen that looked like serial killers sat in the back. The teenagers, the ones who understood this was fantasy, whooped and hollered in front.

A girl with dirty blond hair, holding her breasts in one arm, wiggled her hips in front of a brass pole. She had a cute face, but her skin was all leathery and pocked from over-tanning. In the background, music from a glam rock band screeched hisses in Ash’s ear.

“I’m gonna get us some drinks,” Jamal said. He tapped Ash on the shoulder and shouted, “Ash, what do you drink?”

“Liquids,” he said.

“Ha ha, funny,” he said. “Seriously.”

“Just get me what you’re getting,” Ash yelled. What was he supposed to respond with? He had no idea what he liked to drink.

Squirrel led them to a table in the middle of the room. The place was a dive, no matter how excited the others seemed.

The blond stripper wrapped her legs around the pole, turned upside-down, and slid to the ground. Her breasts hung below her neck like rubber balls in a sack. Once upright, she spun around again, and licked the pole seductively.

“Man, look at those bazoombas,” Anfernee said. “She could solve world hunger with those.”

Ash twisted his head. Maybe it was the day of staring at girls in bikinis, but she didn’t look like anything special. Her body shape was average, her face was average. There wasn’t anything unique or attractive about her.

A young black woman in a black bikini walked up to Ash. “Hey there, want a lap dance?”

Ash frowned, angered by her presumption. “No, thank you.” She walked away.

Anfernee leaned in, “Dude, this is your first time in a strip club? Right?”

“Yes,” Ash said. He would have to call a lot of things his ‘first time’ if he didn’t get his memory back.

“Just relax. The girls aren’t going to hurt you.”

“Yeah, I know.” He felt hot. The loud music, flashing lights, and aggressive employees were making him nervous, like a fight-or-flight response.

“Are you still thinking about work? About Ivan?”

“A little.”

“Man, don’t let him get to you,” Anfernee shouted. “He’s a blowhard. Don’t listen to him.”

Ash frowned. Even if Ivan was unreasonable and lacking ambition, that didn’t mean he should be disregarded. Granted, Ash would be running things differently if he was in charge, but he wasn’t.

Jamal came back holding four bottles. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Sunburn Ale. House special. It was five dollars.”

“What?” Ash asked.

“Five dollars, I said.” The other two were already giving him cash.

Dammit, more money down the drain. He resolved that this would be the last thing he spent money on that wasn’t relevant to his goal.

He took a sip of his five dollar drink. As it burned down his esophagus, his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t had any food all day. “Hey, do they have appetizers here?”

“Sure,” Squirrel said, “If you like deep fried grease and microwave pizza.”

“Best to stick to drinks, if you want your money’s worth,” Jamal said.

Anfernee took a big glug of his 20 oz. beer. “Ah, nothing like a cold drink after a long patrol.”

“Long patrol? We hardly did anything.”

“We got some exercise,” Anfernee laughed.

“Yeah, but don’t you guys want to stop some real crime?”

“What?” Jamal said, “We did plenty. I talked to a guy about putting up some cones for pedestrian traffic.”

“And there was that loud music I stopped,” Squirrel said.

“What about the wife-beaters? The pushers? The muggers? The deadbeat dads who beat their kids every night?”

Jamal flicked his hand. “Shit, let the cops handle that.”

“I thought we were supposed to be like the cops. We’re supposed to be their eyes and ears. Instead, we’re spending the day at the beach. We could be so much more. Do you guys even patrol at night?”

The other three looked confused and shook their heads. “I don’t think we have enough guys for that,” Squirrel said.

“See, that’s the other thing. How are we supposed to be a city security force with only five people? There’s more bullets in a gun than there are of us.”

A girl with bright blond hair and a gold bikini walked up to the table, “Any of you boys want a lap dance?”

No, thank you,” Ash said. She walked away, making a face.

“Dude, Ash, lighten up. There’s a chance something’ll happen tomorrow, right?” Squirrel said. “It’s a city patrol tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow is another day to set things right,” Jamal said like he was quoting something.

Ash took a sip. It had only been one day. Tomorrow he could show Ivan how he could make a difference, how he could stop the bad things from happening to good people.

“Yeah, tomorrow’s another day,” Ash said.

“Gentlemen, let’s get this guy relaxed.” Squirrel held up his beer. “Here’s to Ash’s first patrol.”

“To tomorrow,” Ash said and clinked glasses. He didn’t want to stop debating, but they seemed more interested in ogling girls. So he sat back and watched them catcall.

The crowd clapped. The girl on stage gathered her bikini remnants and held them to her chest, as if she had anything to hide anymore.

The song segued into ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’, and the DJ came over the loudspeaker. “Let’s give it up for Allison Chains, gentlemen. Show her you appreciate her.” Then he spoke deep into the microphone, “Candy, stage five, please. Candy, stage 5.” Then back to the auctioneer’s voice. “Don’t forget, businessman’s lunch every Monday through Thursday from noon to one. And every Tuesday night is Twofer Tuesdays. Now coming to the stage–she may be poison, but she promises to be nice to your skin. Ladies and gentlemen… Ivy.”

A woman strutted out from stage right with bobbed black hair and a black leather bikini. She was toned in all the right places, and eyes rimmed with dark eyeliner. Every part of her body was naturally pure and smooth. When Ash saw her, all thoughts of the White Knights fell away. Cat calls and hollers shrieked in the room, but Ash was oblivious.

“Holy shit,” Ash said.

Anfernee and Squirrel laughed. Jamal touched Ash’s chin. “Hey, Ash, let me pick up your jaw there.”

“What?” Ash said, stunned.

“Man, you really never have been to one of these places before.”

“No,” Ash turned back to the stage, watching Ivy slide her long legs up the thrust platform. “My experiences are… limited.”

Ivy danced smoothly, erotically. Gyrating her hips in time with the heavy metal music. A minute into the song, she reached for her bra strap and unbuckled it, facing away from the stage. She knew all the right times to hide, to prolong the experience, to enhance the allure. It was like he had been taken back to the times when women danced for kings, when seduction was an art.

A man in a white shirt and tie approached the stage, holding a rumpled dollar in his hand and a smug grin on his face. “Right here, baby,” he said.

She bent her ass toward him, letting him put the dollar in her g-string. He plucked the string away, placed the dollar, and flicked it back. She reacted with a smile, and kissed him on the cheek.

Ash turned red, and if there was enough light, his friends would have seen it. How dare they treat her like that? The one girl here who was real, who looked genuinely sexy instead of like some chunky whore.

Ash couldn’t tear away from her eyes. He tried to stare at her breasts, her butt, like everyone else, but her eyes were too hypnotic. The expressions on her face gave him more satisfaction and joy than any part of her body.

She finished her dance with a demonstration of how far she could spread her legs, then rolled onto her stomach. The DJ announced “How about that Ivy, huh? Show her you appreciate her, men. Candy, stage five. Candy, stage five. Don’t forget about our champagne room…” he drolled on.

“Hey, she was pretty good. Have we seen her before?” Jamal asked.

“I can’t remember anyone. They have different names every time,” Squirrel said. “What was she called?”

“Ivy,” Ash said, as if in a dream. “Do they ever come back again?”

“Oooh,” Squirrel said. “I think Ash is in love.” Ash’s ears turned pink as the others laughed.

“Man,” Anfernee said. “Never fall for a stripper. They have baggage like you wouldn’t believe.”

“What do you mean?” Ash said.

“They’re either on crack, or they got a deadbeat boyfriend, or a kid. Something like that.”

“No, this one’s different,” Ash said. “I can feel it.”

Anfernee laughed, “Yeah, I bet you do.”

Ash sipped his drink. The memory of those eyes made his fingers tingle. The alcohol was starting to go to his head with his empty stomach.

Another woman approached the table. Ash grunted and turned, ready to answer her question before she even asked it.

“Any of you boys want some company?”

It was Ivy.

Same luscious deep eyes. Same lithe body. Same earnest sexy smile that was friendly and seductive at the same time. And here she was, inches away.

“Uhhh…” Ash said.

“Right here!” Squirrel pointed at Ash. “This guy wants some. Right here.”

“Dude,” he whispered angrily. This was money he couldn’t afford to spend, no matter how much he wanted it.

“Don’t worry. It’s on me.” Squirrel shoved a twenty dollar bill at her. “He’s the newest member of our tribe.”

Ivy put her hands on his knees, leaning forward to show off her ample cleavage, “What’s your name?”

“Ash,” he said, trying to maintain eye contact.

“Ash, I’m Ivy. And to answer your first question, yes, they’re real.”

“Oh,” he said. “I had no doubt of that.” Everything about Ivy was genuine–that’s why he liked her. She was having fun, she was being who she was. Not like the other strippers, the ones off in la-la land.

“Well, come on, sugar,” she said as she pocketed the money. “Let’s get going.”

Ivy’s gentle palm touched his and dragged him away from his hooting friends. Ash was too high on heaven to resist.

She led him to a dark corner of the room and sat him down at a table. None of the others took the man to a different location, but maybe this was part of Ivy’s special way.

“Buy me a drink?” she asked.

There was a cocktail waitress standing there, ready to take her order. Quite the scam, but she was worth it. Besides he didn’t want to look cheap.

“A Sunburn Ale for me, and whatever the lady wants,” Ash said.

“Cosmotini,” she said and stood. “You ready?”

Ash bit his lip. He didn’t want his first encounter with her to be transactional and cold. This was a pinnacle of woman.

“You know what? To tell you the truth, I’m doing good right now. But how about you just sit with me, and…” She looked uninterested. “Tell you what, I’ll make it double.” He pulled out another twenty.

“You sure you want to waste your friend’s money like that?”

“With you, nothing’s a waste.” Ash smiled. He hoarded every smell, every touch, every image into his brain.

She smiled as she took the bill. “Looks like your buddies work for the fire department?” She touched him on the arm, bare skin to bare skin. He shivered.

Jeez, man, pull yourself together, he thought. Why are you nervous? You could set fire to the whole building if you wanted to.

Ash straightened up. “No, actually we’re a security detail for the city.”

“Ooh, that sounds exciting. You beat up anyone today?”

“What? Oh.” He was tempted to say how they weren’t like that, but didn’t want to bore her. The waitress came back with their drinks and Ash placed a ten on her tray. “Unfortunately, no. Though I did almost set a guy on fire.”

She choked on her drink. “W-what?”

“Uh, never mind.” Shit, this wasn’t going the way he wanted. Time to change direction. “How long have you been working here?”

“Well, like, a year. Off and on.”

“You got a boyfriend?” Ash immediately regretted saying it–too forward.

“Why? Are you offering?” She touched him on the shoulder again.

“I was just hoping you were as independent as I thought you were.”

“Oh, I am,” she said and took another sip. “I’m trying to get some scratch together for school. But it’s never enough, you know?”

“Yeah, I’m trying to get some money together myself.”

“I mean the pay’s good here, but you have to deal with some real creeps. Like my stalker.”

“Stalker?”

“Yeah, he comes in every once in a while, always asks me for a lap dance. He’s a sick shit–never keeps his hands down. Sometimes I see his car parked behind the club and I know he’s watching me. Yesterday I know he followed me home from work.”

“Really?” In Ash’s mind, he was hearing the hero’s call, and resisted the urge to say something starting with ‘This sounds like a job for…’.

The song ended and the DJ announced Diamond to the stage.

“Well, time’s up. I gotta get ready for the next number. It was nice talking to you, Ash.” She picked up her drink and stood.

Ash held out his hand. “Can I talk to you some time outside the club? Like after you get off? I mean, stop working?”

“Huh?” Ivy said.

Ash regathered his thoughts. “What time do you get done?” Ash looked around for a wall clock, but there was none. “Can I swing by afterwards? I’d like to talk to you some more.”

She smiled. God, he loved that smile. “Why don’t you come by tomorrow? I think I have a shift.”

Ash smiled and was about to respond when a boorish hulk of a man in a bad outfit stormed up. “Hey, Ivy, what are you doing? You don’t get paid to yap.”

“Christ, Mick,” Ivy said. “I’m in the middle of a fucking transaction here. You gotta interrupt me?”

He pointed at her. “Hey, don’t fuck with me. Cause if you fuck with me, you don’t come in here again. I’ll find a dozen girls just like you.”

“Fuck you,” she said getting into his face. “I’ll find a dozen strip joints, just like yours.” He pushed her back roughly.

Time to be a hero.

“That’s assault, asshole,” Ash said. It was only polite to let him know why he was about to get the crap kicked out of him.

“What? Kid-“

Ash spun up, kicking his chair out. The ‘surge’ moved through his arms, and he saw sparks light up his fingers. Ash shoved him forward.

The force propelled him ten feet away, crashing him into a stage speaker.

“Now that’s how you bust someone,” Ash said.

Two rough hands grabbed his arms and legs from behind. “Son of a bitch,” someone said, likely a bouncer. “You can’t play nice, you don’t get to stay.”

The surprise diffused his reactor core, and he let them carry him away. He managed to glance at Ivy before they carried him back out the foyer. She had a sympathetic look on her face that made his tumble on the concrete not seem so bad.

Black Hole Son – Part 12

Black Hole Son

RION

Rion stayed in Tuesday’s room for the rest of the night. He spent the time resting while Tuesday called her department, starting some missing person’s searches and asking about recently opened cases. She stayed connected to the station for an hour, sometimes switching between hotel phone and cell phone. Rion helped out by chiming in with the little information that he had.

When she was done, morning had broken and the business conference was well on its way. Tuesday escorted him back to his room.

“Do you need any food?” she said.

Rion thought about it, but didn’t want to look dependent. “No, thanks, I’m fine.”

“You sure you don’t need to go anywhere? I can still take you to a hospital or back to the station.”

“No, there’s still something here I have to do. Although, I have to ask, aren’t you forced to take me in? I’m an unaccompanied minor without any parents around.”

“Well, there’s a few reasons. For one thing, I can’t verify you’re a minor because you have no ID. It used to be the other way around–that I needed evidence you were an adult. You could be emancipated. And if I make the wrong call, that’s a lawsuit.”

“That sounds so backwards.”

“Like I said, the laws have changed a lot in the last twenty years. Especially laws regarding minors. Nowadays, they’re committing so many adult crimes the law is treating them like adults that can’t vote. And also, I’m not Child Protective Services, so I’m not even supposed to be taking you in unless I’m charging you with something. And lastly, I don’t really want to. Most homeless kids just end up back on the street.”

“God, it’s a wonder that they even let cops outdoors.”

“Tell me about it. It’s gotten to the point where there are ‘private security firms’. They can get certified and pay a fee, and they get limited law enforcement powers under the Security and Defense Act. They’re like cops that are only loyal to the company they work for.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I know. But that’s the point we’ve gotten to–as toothless as naked mole rats. So I can’t take you in anywhere unless you volunteer.” She arched her eyebrows hopefully.

Rion shook his head. “I can’t leave just yet. But I will as soon as I can.”

“What do you need to do that’s so important?”

Rion looked away and bit his lip.

“Mm-hm,” Tuesday smiled. “Kids today. So serious about everything.” She leaned in closer. “If you want my advice,” she shook her head. “Sorry, I sounded like my father there for a minute. What I mean is, stay out of this guy’s way. If you did anything this guy can press charges for, he’s going to do it.”

Rion nodded.

She sighed and put her hands on her hips. “I know you’re not telling me the whole story. I know it and you know it. But I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. Just don’t give this guy the satisfaction of nailing you to the wall.”

Rion read her loud and clear.

“Anyway, I’ve got to get going. There’s a lot of people I need to talk to. I think they’ve got a continental breakfast going. You might want to eat something.”

Rion nodded, said goodbye, and went back into his room.

He went into the bathroom and took his bandages off. The gauze was dry and scratchy and the medicinal creams had crusted on his skin. The trash can steadily filled up with dressing.

After cleaning his wounds, he looked relatively unscathed. His face was free of purple or puffing. Once he scrubbed the blood off, he looked fine. Was it the drugs or was it him?

Rion took another shower and lay down on his bed. He couldn’t lie to himself–he should be leaving with Tuesday right now. He should be having breakfast. He should be heading to a hospital or a doctor or a police station–anywhere but this hotel. But that wasn’t what he wanted, not in his heart. And he had to follow what he wanted.

But he had to figure out what went wrong last time. He put his arms behind his head and stared at the ceiling while he recessed into his mind.

Well, the obvious thing would be to check if the gun works. Or at least find out if it’s a real gun. Maybe next time he could confiscate a knife from the kitchen.

No, that wasn’t enough. The key to victory was being able to adapt. When the gun failed, he stood there like a mannequin and took a beating.

Paul had to be isolated, restrained. Take away his advantages and even the odds. Surprise him instead of being surprised.

But that still wasn’t enough. He had to ask himself, what was his ultimate goal?

His answer was to get Memory away from Paul. But if, by some miracle, she got away, she would have to cut off all ties to her family, and lose her identity, like he lost his. And even then, Paul would seek her out and find her. Paul always got what he wanted.

Taking Memory away wouldn’t solve the problem. He had to get Paul to leave her alone forever.

Would he have to kill him? The idea of plunging a knife into Paul’s gullet didn’t bother Rion. He could likely get away with it too. He was off the grid, without ID. On the other hand, better to have no identity than one of a fugitive.

The problem was that Paul wasn’t scared. He needed to be scared–so scared he would never think about Memory again. Scared enough that he would fear for his life if he even mentioned her. Too scared to ever seek her out. Otherwise Rion could never ensure her safety. Could he come up with anything that would do that?

Hell, he was psychic. Maybe Paul could find her, but he could find Paul a lot better. Paul needed to learn humility. He needed to know someone better than him was out there. Someone faster, someone smarter, someone dangling a knife over his ribcage, held up only by the whims of another.

He napped as his big idea formed into an actual plan.

Black Hole Son – Part 11

Black Hole Son

ASH

Ash traveled all night to the beach until exhaustion had pushed him to the point of agony.

At the beach, he found a ceramic restroom gazebo, and changed into his uniform. He looked like security at a gay health club.

He filled up on water to alleviate the hunger, then went back out. He fell asleep sitting up on a bench under the overhang of the gazebo.

He woke to a car horn beeping at pedestrians crossing the boardwalk. It was morning and people were laying out beach towels and walking the boardwalk, patronizing the trendy stores that catered to teens.

The rain had stopped, and no one had noticed or bothered him. Ash stood up, stretched his stiff joints and start walking. This was a good opportunity to scope out the environment he had been assigned to protect.

The heat and his tracksuit were making him sweat. He found a shady spot against a fence near the street and balled up his top and sash, leaving his white shirt on. He could wait for the rest of his team from here.

Between the girls in bikinis licking ice cream cones, guys playing volleyball, and the crashing surf, the beach looked crime-free. Everyone was behaving themselves. No one was disturbing the peace, unless you didn’t like the boom boxes blasting reggae and hip-hop.

What were they supposed to patrol for? No one had guns or drugs. He knew bad things must happen in this city. They just weren’t here. Maybe Ivan would know what to look for.

In the middle of the road, two white birds picked at a piece of gum stuck to the asphalt. Every time a car passed by, they would bop out of the way, hang out at the side of the road with a puzzled look, then bop back in.

Until a black minivan sped along. One bird perked its head up and fluttered to the shoulder. The other was face down in the goo. When it looked up, it was inches from the chrome bumper.

The bird fluttered up and collided with the grill of the van, rolled along the hood, and plopped into the center of the road. It sat there like a stuffed toy–no blood, no guts–as a few white feathers drifted in the wind.

The bird’s partner darted its head left and right. It looked like it was trying to dodge suspicion. ‘Did anyone see that?’ ‘Did anyone think it was me?” It did not go back into the street. Maybe it could smell the death of his friend, warning it away. Or maybe it had no idea what happened. Why was his friend sleeping in the road?

After a few minutes, it flew off down the beach. Ash muttered to himself, “Today’s lesson, kids–never get so engrossed in something that you don’t look up.”

After the sun was high in the sky, Ash saw three people in white gym suits and red bandoliers heading toward him–Squirrel, Anfernee, and Jamal–all with sunglasses on. Ivan was not with them.

“Yo, yo, yo, whaddup, dawg?” Squirrel danced around, then held up his hand, waiting for a high five.

Ash, still leaning against the fence with his arms crossed, looked them up and down.

“You do know only one of you gets to be Peter Pan, right?”

“Where’s your uniform?” Jamal said.

Ash held up the crumpled ball of clothes.

“Yer supposed to wear it when you’re on duty.”

“Are we on duty?” Ash said.

He looked at Anfernee, who shrugged. “Not till Ivan get’s here, I guess.”

“Then we’re good,” Ash said. “Where is he anyway? Isn’t he supposed to be leading us?”

“He drives separate. We all car pool,” Anfernee said. “Had to park way over there, by the music store.”

“Where’d you park?” Squirrel asked Ash.

“I took the bus.” You know, that magic bus that you have to push with your feet.

“Bus don’t come here,” Jamal said.

“It comes over there,” he waved vaguely down the street. “Walked the rest of the way.”

“Ahhhhh,” Squirrel said, “Saving the environment, trying to use the public T. Good man.”

“We usually meet at the HQ in the morning before a patrol,” Anfernee said. “Think Ivan forgot to tell you that.”

“You always spend a lot of time there?” Ash asked.

Jamal shrugged. “Beats my apartment. Less cockroaches.”

“How long have you been with the White Knights?”

“Me? A few months.”

“Me too,” Anfernee said.

Squirrel hesitated, his head askew. “Hmm, oh, six months,” he said. “Dude, I love beach duty. There’s a reason God invented sunglasses.”

“Are we supposed to wait until he gets here or start patrolling now?” Ash asked.

“Cool off, man,” said Jamal. “Don’t need to start working until we hafta. Sheeeyit.” He turned to Anfernee. “We got Squirrel and Squirrel Junior here.”

“My name’s Ash,” he said, scowling. “Let’s not make an issue of it.”

“Whoa, chill, kid. Didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Hey, enjoy the view,” Squirrel said. “I tell you, you need chilling. After this, got a surprise. Hoo boy,” he laughed like he had a secret. “It’ll be something. You’ll see.”

“Gentlemen,” Ivan’s booming voice came from behind Ash. “Post up!”

Anfernee, Jamal, and Squirrel trodded against the fence. Ivan approached them, hands clasped behind his back. “Good.” To Ash, he said, “‘Post up’ means line up in formation. Get your uniform on.”

Ash unfurled his top, put it on, and got in line.

“Assume search positions,” Ivan barked.

The other three spread their legs and held up their arms while Ivan patted them down. Ivan touched something jingly in Anfernee’s pocket and looked up. “Keys,” he said, and Ivan continued searching.

What the hell? Again with the manhandling, as if he had bought an Uzi in the middle of the night? But he bit down hard, and submitted to the groping. This job felt perfect for him, and he didn’t want to lose his chance.

“You guys, you know the drill,” Ivan said as he pulled out a plastic bag. “Diamond formation. Up and down this boardwalk, and then back through the beach. Got any questions?”

Ash did. A bunch. But first and foremost, “What are we doing?”

Ivan said, “We walk the beat, keep our eye out for the criminal element. Patrol ends at about five. Sound like a plan?”

“Am I going to get any training on this?”

“Don’t need training for handing out flyers.” Ivan pulled out a bundle of red paper from the bag.

“Huh? Flyers?” Ivan handed him a pile. “What’s this?”

Ash read the flyer. It requested members to patrol the streets and keep their neighborhoods clean, encouraged people to either join or make donations toward their cause, and implied that if they didn’t, they were apathetic cowards.

“Wait, I’m confused,” Ash said.

“Prick up your ears, Ash. I’m not in the habit of repeating myself. We’ll walk in diamond formation–that’s one in front, three in the middle, and one in back. We hand out these flyers to everyone, let them ask questions, talk to them, and let them know what we’re about. We’re letting them know the White Knights are here.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Ash throttled his stack of paper. “How the hell is handing out flyers going to defend the neighborhood?”

“Don’t get smart, Ash. I’ve been doing this longer than you have. I know what works. Let’s go.” He waved his arm. Ivan took the lead. Anfernee, Jamal, and Squirrel walked in a line in the middle, and Ash tailed in the back.

The diamond formation was ideal for handing out the flyers. No one could get by without having a red piece of paper shoved in their face. They could annoy everyone this way.

Boy, I can feel the crime stopping with each step, Ash thought.

For the few people who somehow got by the four in front of him, Ash put out his arm and offered them a flyer. Most took it to be polite. Some ignored him. Some tried to hand them back. He felt like a clown, part of a circus troupe.

At a stoplight, he looked back to see how people were reacting. A self-incriminating river of red flyers trailed after them. They weren’t informing people, they were irritating them. And littering–which was a crime, as far as he knew. After crossing the street, Ash found a recycle bin and dumped the rest of his pile.

The five of them walked to the end of the boardwalk, where the beach area started becoming the city again, then wrapped around the fence onto a paved walkway in the sand.

“How you doing, Ash?” Ivan called back.

“Just fine,” he responded.

Ivan turned around. “Where’s your flyers?”

“I gave them all away already.” To the garbage man.

“Oh. Good job.” Ivan continued pushing his half-depleted stack without another question.

For two more hours, Ash watched his companions hand out paper airplane material, then turn around and repeat the process. During this time, the worst crime Ash stopped was nudging away two yippy dogs with his foot.

When they came back to the point they started, Ivan commanded, “Halt.”

This was met with sighs of relief. Anfernee bent down and muttered, “Ohhhhh, my feet.”

“See what I said about good shoes?” Ivan said to Ash. Then to the group, “All right, take a fifteen minute break, then get to your respected positions, like I showed you on the map. Anfernee, take post 8, bravo line. Jamal, watch the alpha line. Squirrel, beach duty.”

“Yeeeeesir,” he said, all too pleased.

“I’m gonna be checking so make sure you’re there. Fifteen minutes. Or I’ll bust your ass. Move.”

Ash was about to find somewhere to sit when Ivan said, “Ash, you’re with me. I’ll give you the rundown on how this works.”

“Don’t I get a break?”

“Aw, you’re tough, you don’t need one. Right?”

“Apparently not.”

Ivan laughed. “Come on, got a lot of shit to cover. You’re a trainee, so you’d better get used to it. I’m even giving you the express package so you can get on the force quicker.”

Ash shrugged. What would he do with a break anyway? He had no money for food.

“So basically, we’re looking out for illegal behavior. What’s illegal behavior, you ask?” Ash didn’t, but Ivan continued, “You don’t have the laws and statutes of this city memorized, do ya? So listen. See this here?”

He pointed at a sign listing beach rules and regulations. Basic stuff like ‘always wear clothing’, ‘don’t go out too far’, and ‘listen to the lifeguards’. “Any violations of these rules equals a violation to us. You keep on watch for these.”

“What happens when we see something?”

“I’m getting to that. Other things are common sense. No drugs, no fighting, no inappropriate dress.”

“On a beach? How do you tell?”

Ivan looked pissed. “Stop… interrupting me. Now, when you’re enforcing these, keep in mind that we’re not cops. That works both ways for us. It means we’re not as restricted with what we can do, but at the same time we are. So don’t go bringing your handcuffs from home, trying to bust a perp. This ain’t the movies. Our first defense is our presence.”

“That’s great, but what do we do when our presence isn’t enough?”

“Hold on, son. That’s what I’m telling you. Jesus H. Christ, no patience in kids. The system works, all right? People don’t do shit when someone’s watching them. You’re not going to snatch a purse if you’ve got some five-year-old licking his lolly in front of you, right?”

Ash shrugged. “Okay.”

“So, say you see someone take out a joint. First ask the person to stop and destroy the joint. Those exact words. ‘Destroy the joint’. Got it?”

“Destroy the joint, got it.” Ash was expecting flash cards to come out.

“If that doesn’t work, ask again. ‘Destroy the joint’. Twice.” Ivan held up two fingers. “Got it?”

Ash said he did. “There’s more, right?”

“Sure. If that doesn’t work, pretend to call the police on your cell phone.”

“Won’t he know I’m not talking to someone?”

“Just pretend. Fake-dial the numbers.”

“But wouldn’t he be able to hear there’s no voice on the other line?”

“How many questions you want to ask, kid? You wanna be here all night?”

“Well, what should I say? I’m not an actor.”

“Usually, calling the police has the desired effect, no matter what you say. Just dial the phone and say your name. Say that you’ve got someone violating whatever ordinance. Have a pretend conversation. Mention things like ‘code blue’, to make them think you talk to the police on a regular basis. They should get scared once they think real cops might be coming.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” Ash asked, anticipating some kind of citizen’s arrest procedure.

“If it doesn’t work, ask them to destroy the joint again.”

Ash frowned. “If it didn’t work the first two times, and you’ve already ‘called the police’,” he made quote marks with his fingers, “What makes you think it’ll work the third? That’s like guessing the same thing in Pictionary over and over.”

“That’s the procedure. That’s how the White Knights operate. You don’t like it-“

“Why don’t you call the cops for real? Like you’re supposed to when you see someone smoking a joint?”

“Don’t bother. It’s a misdemeanor offense. Cops won’t arrest them.”

“But it’s a crime.”

“If they arrest the guy, it means an hour in jail for him, and two hours of paperwork for the cops. Believe me, this is the voice of experience.”

“Well, what if he’s not smoking a joint? What if he’s selling it? What if he’s beating someone in the head with a baseball bat? Do I ‘fake call’ the cops then?”

Ivan sighed. “Just do what you have to do.”

“With what? My sidearm? My taser? Tackle him?”

“You getting smart again, boy?”

“Nope, already there.”

Ivan pointed his sausage-like finger at him. “Ash, I can make this easy for you or difficult for you. Your choice.”

Ash gave him a smarmy look, but said nothing. He suddenly became aware of his body heat increasing degree by degree.

“If you expect to have a future here, watch your mouth. It runs.”

Ash took a deep breath to calm down. “All right, can we try a patrol now? A real one?”

“Sure.” They started walking down the beach. “You know, I admire your eagerness to help, but this is how I’ve run the White Knights since it started. It’s the procedure when dealing with the criminal element. When you’ve had a little time to see how it works, then you can start criticizing.”

“All right,” Ash said, then another question occurred to him. “What do I do if they attack me?”

“A good tactic is to scream real loud. That startles them, and gives you time to react.”

“What if they have a gun? Is there a plan for that?”

“If you’re alone, walk away slowly. You don’t need to get shot. We don’t need to be in the news that way.”

“Has that ever happened?” Ash asked. “Has anyone ever died in the line of duty?”

“Jeez, don’t be so morbid. That’s the fear talking. That’s the whole point of the White Knights, to stop fear. You can’t be Knight if you’re afraid of every little thing that could happen.”

“If that’s true, then why are we running away if someone pulls out a gun?”

“You take the risks when you wear the sash. You want to know the truth? I’ve been beaten with a baseball bat, shot twice, had three broken ribs. Yes, it’s a risk.” He stopped at the entry to the beach and faced Ash. “For right now, I’ll always pair you with someone. But I teach all the guys basic self-defense. So if I do this…” He reached out a beefy hand to shove Ash hard.

Ash sprang forward, grabbed Ivan’s forearm, and pushed it into his chest. He felt the heat surge rise, like a reactor core ready to burst. It flowed from his chest to his fingertips. But he managed to pull back before it ‘leaked’.

“Good. Nice and strong,” Ivan said. “Most people shrink back when I do that. You responded defensively, not aggressively. There’s even better ways of avoiding that that I can teach you. We’ll get into that next time.”

Ivan walked through the beach gate. Ash followed, trying to figure out what happened. He’d felt the fire coming, but stopped it. Which meant, with some practice, he could control it.

Maybe it would have been better if he’d let it go, to show Ivan what he was capable of. He didn’t need this training nonsense, this beach patrol. They’d have better luck finding crime at Disneyland.

Ivan surveyed the beach like a conquistador. “All right, we’re ready to try a patrol. Take your boots to it.”

They marched like tin soldiers in the sand. Every so often, Ivan pointed at something inconsequential–a screech that turned out to be a kid, a solitary curse word spoken too loud–he watched for a moment, then walked right by.

After ten minutes, Ivan said, “Ten o’clock. Alcoholic beverage in the open.”

A teen with a lean, muscular figure and long swim trunks leaned against a fence post with a can of MGD.

“Watch and learn, Ash,” Ivan said, and approached the teen. “Excuse me, sir. It’s illegal to have open cans of alcohol on this beach. I’m gonna have to ask you to throw it in the trash.”

The teen gave him a sidelong gaze–this wasn’t worth turning his head all the way. Then he crushed the empty can in his fist and tossed it at Ivan, who fumbled it against his chest. A splash of beer trickled onto his shirt.

The teen walked away as Ivan brushed the beer off the nylon tracksuit.

“You see that sometimes. Some people have a thing about defying adults, or ‘the man’. Same thing happens to the cops. Don’t get discouraged. We got him to stop drinking the beer–that’s the important thing.” Ash followed him to a plastic lined garbage barrel. “Believe me, the cops got it worse.”

“The cops have guns.”

“Well, we don’t. So we have to use what we’ve got.”

“Were you ever a cop?”

“No, never. I’m a regular joe like you. Just wanted to make a difference.”

“Then how’d you get into it?”

“I got the idea a year back. Someone had done something like this in New York, and I thought ‘that’s what this city needs’. But the city council turned it down, said it was too close to vigilantism. People on the Internet said they would come and help, but they didn’t. That’s when I said, ‘Ivan, no one’s going to help you. Quit whining, and just take your boots to it’.”

In the distance, Squirrel ran towards them, like a kid running for his mommy. “Ivan. Ivan… Got a problem… There’s two… two…” he struggled to catch his breath from running in the sand. “We got two people… loud music… above… how do I…”

Ivan rolled his eyes. “Aw, Jesus. Squirrel. Music is not a crime. There’s no noise regulations on the beach. Therefore, it’s not an enforceable law. Got it?”

“But I got a complaint… from someone, who said-“

“We don’t take requests. If there’s nothing on the rule board about loud music, there’s nothing to do. We’re not hired guns. Look at you, all gangly, all out of breath. Don’t come up to me like this. You’re a disgrace.”

Squirrel looked like a good puppy in front of Mr. Owner’s rolled-up newspaper.

“You’re a White Knight. Remember? Show some initiative,” Ivan said. “Now get back to your patrol area. I’ve got business with Ash here still. Hup, hup, hup.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Squirrel clicked his heels together in the sand and headed off.

Ivan said, “That Squirrel. Means well, but he’s a screwball. They’re all screwballs. Treat them like brothers, watch them like hawks. Got it?”

Ash nodded and the two headed back down the boardwalk.

Black Hole Son – Part 10

Black Hole Son

DAY 2

RION

Rion’s next recollection was staring at the back alley through a window, watching the rain fall.

He remembered fragments. Everything between losing consciousness and now had been marred by abject pain–head, arms, ribs, stomach, all nauseatingly raw and tender. Someone had picked him up, dragged him by the arm to this room.

Someone had bandaged him up, rubbed something on his wounds, fed him water. He didn’t remember waking or sitting down, but now he was here, in a hotel room washed in hazy blue coming from the window.

His savior came out of the bathroom. No wonder he’d been dragged. She was a tiny woman, barely above five feet tall, with feathered blond hair. She wore a blue police uniform, but Rion thought she looked too young to be a cop.

She held a steaming styrofoam cup. “How you feeling? Any pain?”

Rion shook his head. He became aware there was thick gauze wrapped around his head. It felt moist to the touch, hopefully not with blood. His torso and arm were wrapped the same way. But nothing felt bad–even his headache had disappeared.

“No, no pain at all.”

“Good. I must have given you enough Relaxin and Toverol to put you in detox.” She handed him the mug. “Think you can keep this down?”

Rion nodded.

“Good. Here, it’s decaf.”

Rion wrinkled his nose. It smelled good, but looked awful. He must never have had coffee before, even though he knew what it was. He took a sip, and nearly spit it out. “I guess I don’t like coffee,” he said as he sat it on the windowsill.

She smiled and sat down on the bed. “Really? It’s a cop’s best friend. Even more than her gun.”

“Guess I’m not a cop,” Rion shrugged. “Are you?”

“You couldn’t tell by the uniform?” she chirped.

“It’s dark.”

She smiled. “Sergeant Tuesday Huxley.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Tuesday. Last name, Huxley.”

Rion frowned. “Were your parents hippies too?”

She laughed. “No, I was named after an old song my dad liked. Really bad song. Sounds like yowling cats.”

Rion nodded and picked up the cup, not because he wanted a drink, but he felt uncomfortable without something in his hands.

“I didn’t catch your name, stranger,” she said as she kicked her legs back and forth.

“Rion,” he said as he returned to the window.

“Does ‘Rion’ have a last name?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? I suppose you don’t know why you got wailed on either?”

Rion glared at her. “Listen ‘Tuesday’. I’m having a hard day. I can’t remember the last time I slept. I’ve thrown up from a massive migraine. I spent half an hour in a dumpster. I have psychic powers, but no memory. I can talk to objects, but it gives me a splitting headache. And I have no money, no transportation, no one I can contact, and all I want to do is find someone who can help me, but everyone’s being a fucking jerk, and now I just got the shit beaten out of me so LAY OFF!”

Huxley scooted back, eyes alert.

Rion bowed his head. “Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to yell at you.”

Neither said anything, letting the silence diffuse the tension. Then she said, “Let’s start over. Hi, my name’s Tuesday.”

Rion sighed. “Hi, my name is Rion. I don’t know my last name because I have no memory of who I am. I woke up sitting on a park bench, and have spent the entire day trying to find someone who could help me.”

“Okay, good. Now we’re on the right track,” she said. “So if you don’t know your last name, how do you know your first name?”

“I don’t,” he shook his head. “I had to come up with something to call myself. It’s just a name I heard somewhere.”

“Fair enough.”

Rion tried another sip of coffee. “What are you doing here? Patrolling the hallway for saps who get the shit kicked out of them?”

She giggled. “No, actually, I’m… it’s complicated. I’m sort of security for the convention. I guess they got some pressure from the press on some insider trading scandal, and they wanted to show they were ‘taking the allegations seriously’. So they contracted some rent-a-cops to walk around and act tough.”

“Sounds like a bullshit job,” Rion said.

“Yep, exactly,” Tuesday said. “Us rookies drew straws. You’re lucky I got the night shift.”

Rion looked at his arm. “I appreciate you bandaging me up and everything, but why didn’t you take me to a hospital?”

“Well, you didn’t need a hospital.”

Rion’s jaw dropped. “What? B-but I had, my ribs… everything hurt. I blacked out.”

“It always feels worse than it is. Plus I gave you enough painkillers to make a terminal cancer patient tip-toe through the tulips.”

There was an open medkit resting on the nightstand with pill bottles and tubes strewn about. Rion wiggled his arm. No pain. He was sure his arm had been broken at some point.

“I heal fast, I guess,” Rion mumbled. “Wonder if that’s related.”

“Related to what?”

“My psychic powers. My memory loss. I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out what it all means. When I woke up, all I had was a bag beside me, with a gun. I don’t think it was even a real gun.” And Rion cursed himself for ever thinking it was. It never looked like a real gun, why would he think it would be one? “And a bottle of pills, and a fuzzy pink sweater.”

Tuesday furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”

“Yeah, you can see why I’m confused. No ID or phone numbers or anything.”

“What kind of pills are they? Did they come in a bottle?”

“No label. There were red and yellow capsules. And I have no idea what they are, but I think they’re for my headaches.”

“What headaches? Is this related to the ‘psychic powers’?”

Rion rubbed his temple, thinking of how to explain. “It’s like… object memory. I can see what… a thing remembers… about itself. It’s like a little vision.” Tuesday still looked confused. “Like, I can touch a doorknob, and I can see where the key is.”

“Okay,” she said. “And this happens with everything you touch?”

“Sometimes. I tried it on my remote, and nothing happened. But I tried it on a book, and I could see someone picking it up at the store.”

“Here,” she arched back on the bed and grabbed a paperback from the nightstand. “Try it on this.”

Rion read the title–The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, nothing he expected a cop to be reading. But he sighed and sensed the book.

After a few seconds of trying, nothing happened. Maybe the book had nothing to remember, or it had nothing Rion wanted from it. “I’m not getting anything.” He handed it back to her. “It doesn’t always work. Plus it gives me a headache.”

Tuesday took it back. “You know, we had a psychic come into the office one time. To help on a case. We were trying to find a missing person. No leads whatsoever, so someone called him in. He wasn’t one of these swamis with the turban and the crystals. He was actually a nice guy, very professional. A week later, someone called in that they found her body in a dumpster. Then we got a bill from him for five thousand dollars. For services rendered.” She paused. “So forgive me if I’m a little skeptical.”

Rion nodded. He knew the truth for himself, so it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. He wasn’t trying to gain anything.

Tuesday said, “So were your psychic powers related to you lying in the hall, beaten and bruised? Did you charge them for services rendered?”

Rion shook his head. “No, not really.”

He told her the whole story of Memory and Paul, but left out the part about breaking into their room. Instead he said that he knocked on the door and confronted him without the gun. Tempers flared and Paul attacked him when Rion threatened to attack.

“Yeah, probably not a good idea to interrupt people at two in the morning. Not that it warranted a walloping. Some people are real assholes.”

“Can you do anything about it?” Rion asked. “Can you arrest him?”

“No, not enough evidence.”

“What? But he beat me up. I can tell you who did it.”

“I know, but I didn’t see him beat you up. I found you when you were lying in the hallway alone. So I can’t verify that it was this guy, even if you were laying out in front of his room. That’s circumstantial evidence.”

“What kind of evidence do you need?”

“If he used only his fists and feet, there won’t be traces on your body. I need a third party who witnessed it, and I mean a really neutral third party. And that’s hard, because the hotel’s full of this guy’s friends. And the hotel staff are profiting from his stay, so they’re out. So that leaves no one to vouch for you.”

“What do you mean? He’s the one who beat me up, I can verify it.”

“You could have some sort of vendetta against him. You could have beaten yourself up and then laid outside his door.”

“That’s bullshit.” Rion stood up with his fists clenched.

“Hey, whoa, whoa, take it easy. I’m not saying that’s what I think. I’m saying that’s what the system’s gonna say. Believe me, I’d change it if I could. I wish I could help you, I really do. But there’s nothing the law can do about it.”

Rion looked down at the floor and slammed the heel of his fist into the wall.

Tuesday said, “Plus, if you don’t have a driver’s license or social security number, or anything like that you couldn’t even get into the computer system to make a complaint. In fact, they might detain you.”

Rion sat down again. “So, what? That’s it? You can’t do anything?”

“Sorry,” she said. “I really wish we could do something, but it would all be for naught. This kind of shit happens all the time. It’s all the legal loopholes that were made because of people lying. I’ve seen people lie on their best friends to get some money out of them. So instead of dealing with the liars, they raise the bar of evidence higher so that no one can accuse anyone.”

“So then how do the cops arrest anyone?”

“You need some really hard evidence, and that’s hard to get for the small stuff. So it slips through the cracks.”

“So should I take the law into my own hands then?” Rion said, half-serious. He was expecting a firm no. Instead, Tuesday looked out at the rain.

“I don’t know. Every law that gets passed these days has got something in it for the business sector. Twenty years ago feels like the wild west now. But every week there’s a news report about police corruption, or brutality, and they keep taking our powers away. Like if you’re undercover, you can’t participate in any illegal activity or they’ll consider you a criminal. So for some people, that’s the only solution. And I can understand,” she sighed, “I don’t agree with it. But I understand.”

Rion didn’t want to take the law into his own hands either. But he also expected the law to be there when he was in trouble, not to throw up its hands and say ‘well, what can ya do’.

Rion faced the window. “Seems like there’s no place to turn to anymore.”

“Yeah, I guess you pretty vulnerable right now.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, if you want, I can take you back to the station. Maybe we can put out an announcement or something.”

Rion grinned. This was what he was searching for. Someone to believe in him. Someone with the power to lend a hand.

But then he thought of Memory, and his elation was squelched. His leaving would mean her staying. With Paul. Boorish, violent, arrogant, son-of-a-bitch Paul. Paul who could beat up a kid and get away with it Paul would never let her leave, until it suited his needs. And that would destroy her.

Rion shook his head. “No. Thank you, but… I have to stay here.”

“You sure? I bet we could find something if we put your stuff in the lab.”

Rion thought. The gun was destroyed. The pills he needed. But the sweater… “If I give you something, could you take it in and analyze it?”

Tuesday bit her lip. “Well, I think so, but unless you come in and I register you as a case, I can’t work on it officially. I’ll have to pull some favors.”

“Please,” Rion said, “I can’t leave… yet.”

Tuesday eyed him. “You promise you won’t do anything stupid?”

Rion nodded.

“All right, how about this. When I get back to the office, I’ll do some sleuthing. Check out Missing Persons. If someone’s looking for you, it’s bound to ping me. And I’ll call your room if I find anything.”

“I’d like that,” Rion said.

He didn’t know else to say. This was such a dismal place: rooms that looked into brick walls and back alleys, key cards that let anyone in, people that looked the other way for a price, the clientele that would rather spit on you than look at you. And here was a single spark.

“Thank you,” Rion said. “You’re the first person that’s offered to help me. You can’t even imagine… what this means.”

“You’re right.” She stood up and put a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”

“It’s not even the lack of memory that’s screwing me up. It’s the loneliness.” He swallowed, afraid he might cry again. “I have no one out there. No one to turn to. No friends or enemies or anyone in between. No one knows who I am.”

“Well, you got someone on your side now.” Tuesday stroked his hair once.

Rion nuzzled into her and breathed out as he watched the rain fall.

Black Hole Son – Part 9

Black Hole Son

RION

The sewage stink trailing after him felt like a waving flag. He headed back to his room without any detour, and took a long shower.

After an hour, he had reduced the bar of soap to an ungraspable sliver, and drained the shampoo bottle. He also used the shower to wash his clothes and dried them over the towel bar.

He couldn’t carry out his plan naked, so he spent the time watching TV. Sleep threatened to overtake him–his eyelids kept dropping involuntarily–but he had to press on. The emotional impulse to help felt more important than finding his identity. Perhaps it had something to do with his former life–it might lead him to breaking open his brain like a piggy bank, so he had to follow it.

At two in the morning, Rion redressed. His clothes were wrinkled like corduroy, but dry enough to wear. He grabbed his gun that he had set out before and left.

At first he held it up to his chest like a police officer. Then he realized that a passing hotel employee wouldn’t appreciate that, and tucked it behind his back. The hallways were dead silent–all the conventioneers had gone to sleep for the night.

He skulked up to Room 103 and leaned into the door. No sounds. Everyone asleep. Good, everything was like he had expected.

He stuck the card in. It made a beep too loud for Rion’s tastes and flashed green. He pulled down the handle as gently as he could, and opened the door enough to slide his body through.

He shut it. It made a loud click as it locked. Rion froze.

There was a rustle. A man groaned.

Rion looked for a place to hide. He dashed into the bathroom, and closed the door almost all the way. The room light came on.

“What was that?” said Memory.

“I dunno,” Paul said, slurring his words.

“I think it was the door.”

“Better fucking not be one of the guys with a prank.” A pause. “Christ, it’s two in the morning.”

Some sheets crunched together. Paul was getting out of bed. Rion pulled out his pistol and gripped it until his knuckles turned white.

Through the crack, Rion saw Paul, in nothing but pin-striped boxers, walk up to the room door.

“Hello?” He peeked through the peephole.

Rion curled his fingers on the pistol grip over and over.

“Don’t see anyone,” he muttered and walked back into the bedroom. Rion pulled open the door and stepped out.

“Stop,” Rion said coldly. He pointed his gun at Paul’s back.

Paul whipped around, saw Rion and the gun, but didn’t react.

“What th’?” He was too groggy to understand the situation. He stepped back and held up his arms.

“Stop. Stop moving,” Rion said.

Paul stopped. “You… what’s-yer-name… Rion. What the hell is this?”

“This is over. No more of this. You stay away from Memory.”

“What?” He squinted, confused.

“I want you to get out of here. Right now.”

Paul paused. “What are you doing, kid?”

“I’m serious,” Rion said, anger creeping in his voice. He gestured to the open suitcase on a chair. “Start putting your clothes on and get out.”

“Seriously, what are you doing? What are you trying to do?” Paul stepped backward.

“Stop moving!” Rion said. “I don’t want to shoot you.”

“You don’t want to do this, kid. Just turn around and walk out.”

“No.”

Paul cocked his head. “What, do you expect me to walk out? Then what? You run away together? What are you trying to achieve here?”

Memory said, “Baby, I swear I had nothing to do with this.” She clutched the sheets around her.

“I know,” Paul nodded. “Even you could come up with a better plan than this.”

“Shut up!” Rion said. “Quit treating her like that. She doesn’t deserve that.”

“Why do you even care?” Paul took another step back. He was halfway across the room now. He must have been planning something. Maybe getting a baseball bat, or his own gun.

“I said stop moving. I mean it. I will shoot you.”

Paul took another small step. Even with a gun in his face, he still did whatever he wanted.

“Stop it!”

Paul wasn’t listening to his threats. He thought Rion was bluffing. It was time to prove him wrong.

Rion lowered the barrel’s angle. “I’ll shoot you in the leg.”

“If you fire one shot, it’ll wake up everyone. You’ll never get out of here.”

Rion’s eyes widened. He didn’t think of that. He didn’t know if the gun would be loud. If someone woke up, they’d alert security, and he’d be arrested.

But it would take time for someone to wake up, phone the concierge, phone the police, and for the police to get here. More time than Rion needed. Paul was again trying to manipulate the situation his way. There would be no more of that.

Rion straightened out his arm and fired.

The gun clicked, sounding like a light switch flipping. Nothing happened. He fired again and again. All it did was make a noise like a snapping glass rod.

Rion looked up like a scared cat. Paul was already rushing at him.

Paul shoved Rion to the floor. He skidded on the carpet, scraping his back, and dropped the gun. Paul grabbed him by his collar and picked up the gun.

Paul held Rion against the wall by his neck and shoved the gun in his face. “What the fuck is this? Trying to hold me up with a plastic ray gun?” He smashed it against the wall. It fell apart like a poorly constructed children’s toy.

“No!” Rion shouted. The best clue to his identity, a piece of his past, was destroyed.

Paul tossed the remnants away, as Rion clawed at him.

“Two in the goddamn morning,” Paul muttered and backhanded Rion. He felt a surge of raw energy, like a light flash. Blood pooled in his mouth.

“Paul! Stop,” Memory shouted, still in bed.

“Shut up. This little fucker broke into our room at two in the morning, while I’ve got a fucking hangover. Even after bothering me before.” He hit Rion again with an open-handed slap.

Another adrenaline surge of power, like a shot of coffee. He felt bruises and tears swelling. In desperation, Rion clutched onto the hand holding his shirt and bit into the knuckles.

Paul cried out. “You little shit.”

With a smooth motion, Paul threw him aside. Rion ricocheted off the door and collapsed. Then a fire exploded in his ribs. Then his head. Then his arm. Something cracked. Then his gut. Over and over again. He heard some feminine pleas, some masculine grunting, but nothing made the explosions stop.

Then there was a pause. The door opened, slamming a sharp corner into Rion’s thigh. Paul kicked him again. Without the door at his back, Rion rolled into the hall, landing face up.

Through a swelling eye, Rion looked up. There was a foot swinging toward his head.

Then Rion lost consciousness.