Questionable Matters

Posted: June 1, 2013 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
Tags: , , ,

“Are you high, stupid or both?” Wallace asked the man across from him through the steam rising from the coffee cup perched just at the edge of his mouth. “You want to rob The Un-Secret Lair or the Caped Cuisiner? Places that transhuman heroes go to eat.”

“Why not?” Billy shot back. “The prices there are outrageous. Anyone in there has to have a bunch of money on them.”

“I think most of the customers pay with plastic, Billy.”

“Whatever. Point is, the place is busy, I bet lots of people at least are carrying cash for tips, and this is about volume. Plus, no one ever robs cafés and coffee shops and restaurants. They’ll never expect it.”

Wallace stared hard for a moment at his friend, and wondered once again—as he did about twice every month—why he was friends with him. “Billy, please tell me you are not getting your ideas about the best crimes to commit from Pulp Fiction.

“What? I don’t get it,” Billy said, pursing his lips and shrugging.

Pulp Fiction. The movie. That’s how it starts. A boyfriend and girlfriend having a talk just like this in a breakfast joint. And they try to rob the place. And then at the end of the movie we see how it turned out, and what happened is the dude and his lady almost get themselves killed by two mobsters in the place, including the illustrious Jules Winfield with his ‘Bad Mother Fucker’ wallet.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Billy, we saw that movie when it first came out,” Wallace said. “Kind of a hard movie to forget, even if we were both 12 at the time.”

“I was baked. I don’t remember shit about that movie.”

“Well, apparently the coffee shop caper bit stuck in your head,” Wallace retorted. “Except for the part where it went bad. Shit, I don’t know what’s worse: That you can’t remember a classic scene like that in a classic motherfucking movie or the fact you’ve never watched it since then.”

“Well, life ain’t a movie, bro,” Billy said. “This will work.”

“I’ve got 100 billion reasons to not want to do something like this.”

Billy slapped the table hard. “Jesus! Man, do you have to exaggerate like that? You gotta feel all special. You couldn’t list 100 reasons, much less 100 billion.”

“I don’t need to list ‘em or name ‘em, Billy-boy. That’s the number of neurons in the human brain, and every single one of them tells me this is a bad idea,” Wallace said. “That’s the kind of knowledge reading grants you, my man. I know how many cells are in the brain. And the fact that none of them in your head are raising red flags about this idea of yours scares me.”

“Give me one good reason other than an apparently very forgettable scene in a movie,” Billy challenged him.

“Just one? Easy. The place would be filled with transhumans.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Those places are mostly filled with a lot of fanboys, fangirls, wannabes and doubles—plus plain ole normally dressed folks,” Billy said. “And any real transhumans probably won’t raise a stink trying to foil the robbery, because they’re in a place like that so that they blend in and people don’t know who they really are. If Greenguard suddenly steps up, and the real Freak-Easy is sitting right next to him, he risks getting hit from behind…”

“Freak-Easy works New York City; he hardly comes over to this side of the  Long Island Sound,” Wallace pointed out.

“And a trans crook isn’t gonna worry about giving up a wallet because it’s chump change and he won’t want to risk outing himself as the real deal in front of a hero that might be there,” Billy said, ignoring him. “It’s like the Cold War—mutually assured destruction. See that there? You aren’t the only one who’s done some reading, Wallace.”

“Sketchy reasoning, man.”

“Wallace, we knock over a liquor store or bank…”

“I’m not all that keen on knocking over anything these days…” Wallace began.

“You owe me…”

“I don’t see how you see that…”

“Anyway, Wallace, when a person robs a liquor store, they gotta worry that the till won’t have much money and it’s a big, fat wasted effort and maybe the guy behind the counter is the owner instead of some low-wage fuckface, and then maybe you get a shotgun blast. Or you rob a bank and get a little wad of cash with a  dye-bomb in it plus you end up on the FBI’s shit list because it’s a federal crime. A restaurant means a lot of people with wallets and jewelry and shit. Plus whatever’s in the cash register.”

“See? Again. You’re using the same reasoning as in Pulp Fiction.” Wallace noted.

“I’m telling you I don’t remember shit about that shit movie. This is all my own brain working.”

“Or not working,” Wallace groused, sipping at his coffee and glad that the coffee shop they were in right now had almost no other customers to tempt his friend, given how excited Billy was about his “epiphany.”

* * *

Query walked into the Caped Cuisiner, almost immediately picking out three people conveniently clustered at or near the counter whom he was pretty certain were the real thing as far as being transhuman heroes or vigilantes. He knew their habits, patterns and mannerisms well enough, and had spent enough time in here in his Milo Phillips identity or some disguise, to pick them out. Once he got closer, his enhanced senses were able to confirm them by scent.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Query said generally, so as not to focus his attention only on the real transhumans in costume, in case they wanted to stay anonymous. “I thought I’d stop by and share some information that just came my way: Amateur Knight is out and about tonight.”

“Shiiiiiiit,” groaned Brickhouse quietly. “I am not in a mood to bail that geek out. I heard Hardcase Brickhousealmost got killed rescuing that loser a few weeks ago.”

“He did not almost get killed. He did not even almost get injured,” Query corrected him.

“Still, I am not feeling the idea of playing nursemaid to a guy who gets himself into trouble just so he can meet folks like us,” Brickhouse retorted. There were grunts of assent from the two other real transhuman white hats nearby.

“In all fairness…” Query began, then noticed a man at the end of the counter pull the bottom of his red demonic skull mask over his mouth and chin, hastily toss down a fifty for what was clearly a tab of a lot less than that—the food and drink unfinished at that—and hurriedly stand up. Query knew the secret identity of the real Speed Demon but had never had a chance to scent-mark him, so he couldn’t be sure this was the real guy. Still, no paid body-double would be this eager to move along with Query in the room. He had no interest in busting a colorful criminal whose most notorious crimes were grand theft auto, but…

Query stepped over and stopped the costumed man with a  firm grip on one bicep. “The dark green Mercedes—it’s mine. It had better goddamn well still be there when I leave,” Query hissed, and then released the man.

“As I was saying,” Query said, returning to where Brickhouse was, “Amateur Knight is a nuisance, but as idiotic and reckless as he is, he means well and thinks he’s helping. Yes, he’s trying to get to meet a lot of us, but he really thinks he’s a sidekick to every hero.”Wreck Lass

Nearby, Wreck Lass cleared her throat. “Well-meaning or not, he puts himself in danger and then one of us has to bail him out or feel guilty that he goes to an ER for some stitches—or worse—if we don’t. And he could get one of us hurt. Least he could do is get some real armor instead of a Spandex silver suit that looks vaguely like a suit of armor.”

“You’re not going to get any argument out of me,” Query said. “I’m just giving y’all a heads-up in case you care. Like it or not, when you decided you wanted to patrol the mean streets in tights, you kinda signed on to deal with annoying shit, too. But it’s your choices,” he said, signaling a waitress so he could order a sandwich and fries to go.

* * *

“See?” Billy said. “There is no way that’s the real Query over there.”

“There are four people no one in this town is ballsy enough to dress up as,” Wallace said. “Janus, Tooth Fairy and Odium on the black hat side, and Query on the white hat side. Look, I hoped you’d get this crazy idea out of your head after a few days. Only reason I’m here while you case the joint is to remind you why you don’t want to plan—much less pull—a job like this.”

“C’mon! Look, it’s all roleplay over there. That Speed Demon who just left isn’t real and the fake Query knows it. They’re acting out a scene. A fake Query wouldn’t put his hand on someone who might be the real thing and the real Query wouldn’t let a crook just walk. And look at how this ‘Query’ is chatting up with those other fakers. Query’s a damned loner. He wouldn’t be having some stupid convo with a bunch of transhumans.”

“Billy, I don’t think you’ve worked out all the possible angles and scenarios,” Wallace countered. “I’m just saying you came here to case…”

We came…”

You  came here to case the joint and I came to provide input, and on the first visit here, we have more than one probable real honest-to-God transhuman white hat in the place.”

“Let’s say you’re right, which you aren’t. Even so, look, there’s a Dog Pound or Hellhound over there, so again, no white hat is just going to jump up and make themselves a target to deal with a small-time heist…”

“See? You can’t even figure out if that guy is Dog Pound or Hellhound. Even I can tell he’s neither because it’s just a cheesy furry dog mask and both the villains wear leather masks. He ain’t no one, but that Query is real. Don’t think about coming back here to…:”

“I won’t,” Billy said, sliding a gun across the table to Wallace and standing up to pull his own from out the waistband beneath his sweatshirt. “No need to come back since the job’s going down now when it’s perfect timing…”

Then Billy was standing, gun upraised as he shouted, “This is a robbery! Be calm and cooperate and don’t none of you motherfuckers move or pull any shit or we’ll execute every last motherfucking one of you!”

* * *

Nobody moved, but four people in costume were tensed and poised. One of them though, clad all in black with only a red question mark to adorn his mask, signaled to them with one hand to stand down.

Firmly and calmly, so that everyone could hear, Query said, “I’ve got this.”

Query-3Billy looked over at him with an expression of murder in his eyes that Wallace had seen him adopt all too often, even though he’d never actually killed anyone. He didn’t think Query—and he was certain it was the real man behind that mask—was fazed at all.

“You’ve got this, ‘Query’,” Billy taunted. “Do you, now?”

“No, he doesn’t,” came a voice with an angry growl and a little waver. “I’ve goddamn well got this.”

Bill turned his head slightly to see a gun pointed at him. Query stopped his slow approach. Wallace cleared his throat.

“Put your gun down and give yourself up to the nice Query,” Wallace said. “Or I will put a hole in your shoulder. Remember, though, I’m a lousy shot and your chest is really close to your shoulder.”

“Wallace? Man, what are you doing? We’re a team!”

“We ain’t no team here,” Wallace said. “I told you time and again I’m not going to jail and I’m not pushing my luck anymore. I told you I was only coming here with you to show you why this was a bad idea. I didn’t want you to toss me a gun when you lost your mind and started badly misquoting a scene from a great movie you claim you don’t remember. Now, though, I have a gun, you have the attention of at least one very real transhuman, and this shit is all about to end right now.”

“You won’t shoot me,” Billy said. “Just point your gun at the fake Query and let’s get on with…”

“I will sooner shoot you than let that very real Query fuck me up,” Wallace said. “And this job is over. It never shoulda started.”

Billy’s lip quivered. “Wallace? Man…”

“Don’t make me revoke your New Judah privileges permanently, Billy,” Wallace said. “I ain’t never hurt anyone before, and I don’t wanna start with you to make sure no one else gets hurt. Also I don’t think it’s worth it being your friend anymore.”

* * *

In a quiet booth, Query looked at Wallace in silence, then folded his gloved fingers together on the table in front of him.

“My fries will be ready soon, and I have things I ought to be doing,” Query said softly and steadily. “The only thing left to figure out is whether I slap a zip tie around your wrists, too, and sit you next to your buddy to wait for the New Judah police to arrive.”

“I was not down for this heist,” Wallace said. “I didn’t even know he was going to actually improv the whole thing and toss me a gun.”

“Nonetheless, I’m willing to bet this isn’t the first time you’ve held a gun and not the first time you and Billy there have been together when a robbery went down.”

“Whatever might be in my past, I’d like to leave it there. You let Speed Demon walk just now.”

Query glanced out the window and into the street. “Speed Demon left my car alone; you and your friend tried to relieve me and a lot of other people of their wallets.”

“My friend. Former friend, I might add, after this stunt. Not me.”

“I bet I could do a lot of digging and figure out what crimes you committed in the past,” Query said. “I bet the statute of limitations has run out on hardly any of them.”

“Why, man? Why would you do that?” Wallace asked, hating the whine he could hear in his undertone.

“Because I have an idea,” Query said, looking for a moment at the guy in the cheap dog mask off in the distance and then toward the register. “Oh, look! My food is ready and bagged up. So, Wallace, are you coming with me, or would you rather go with Billy and the cops in another couple minutes?”

“Guess I’m riding with you.”

“Great. We have to make a stop along the way.”

“Along the way to where? What stop?” Wallace asked, a nervous flutter in his stomach.

“Wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise,” Query answered. “By the way, what’s your inseam? And do you know your chest size by any chance?”

* * *

The woman ran her fingers through the black and green feathers of the mantle draped across her Coldravenshoulder and over her chest and upper back, then regarded him through the holes of her domino mask.

“Seriously? This is the favor you’re going to call in?” she sneered.

“Favor number one of two,” Query corrected her. “C’mon—it might even be fun. I need you because your face and costume aren’t plastered all over the media.”

Coldraven looked over at the man Query had with him, wrinkled her nose and tried to suppress a laugh. “And who’s this?”

“A guy earning a ‘Get out of jail free’ card,” Query said. “I’ll fill you in along the way.”

* * *

“Psssst!”

Amateur Knight spun around at the sound, a heavy mace in one hand and a growl issuing from his throat. “Stand down, evild…”

“Relax,” said Query. “Or, rather, refocus. I need your help. There’s someone new and green on the scene about to get killed and you happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

* * *

Amateur Knight pressed onward as Query fell back to cover him, whispering that there was an ambush team behind them.

It’s up to me, Amateur Knight thought. I can handle this.

He rounded the corner and was met with the sight of the lithe, athletic female villain in mask and feathers Query had told him about and whom he’d never seen or heard of before. And hopelessly outclassed against her was…a…a…

Who the hell is this and what is wrong with him?

“Surrender, villainess!” cried a man with a buccaneer-style mustache and goatee, brandishing a Swashbuckler Houndrapier and wearing—Amateur Knight could hardly believe the ludicrous sight—a dog suit covering everything but his face. “Lay down your arms and surrender to Swashbuckler Hound!”

Amateur Knight rushed in, knowing that while he lacked finesse at times, he had Brute powers to help shield him from serious harm in a lot of fights—and the woman fighting this newbie, he realized, was fast and agile. “Get clear, uh, Hound!” he shouted. “This is no place for you. Let me handle…”

“Look out!” shouted the man in the dog suit, lunging toward Amateur Knight, “She’s gonna…”

Swashbuckler Hound tripped and fell into Amateur Knight, stumbled past him and crashed into a wall. Before Amateur Knight could right himself, he saw the woman fling something and felt a soft, firm impact against his legs. Then dampness and stretching and gripping. He stumbled and fell himself as he realized a tangler had been thrown at him, completely tying up his legs.

Suddenly, the woman was over him, and a gun was trained right between his eyes. “Good night forever, Amateur Knight,” she snarled, and pulled the trigger.

He wasn’t sure if his ears registered the laugh first or his chest the sudden impact against his costume as the gun shifted position. But he knew both preceded him looking down to see a neon-green stain across the front of his torso.

“You’re right, that was fun,” she called out. “But I’m still mad at you.”

Amateur Knight struggled to turn his body and see who was approaching from behind. Query, with the silly-looking dog-suited amateur right next to him.

Amateur… the prone young man thought.

“Amateur Knight, I’m going to need you to focus on your memory of that bumbling fool drawing you into a dangerous situation and then messing up your approach and almost getting you killed,” Query said. “I need you to remember that foreverAmateur Knight. Do you know why?”

“Ummmm. Because…uhhh?”

“You’re taking too long,” Query said, cutting him off. “It’s because that’s how every other hero and vigilante in the city sees you, man. And this is the kind of thing we’ve been afraid of happening ever since you started making these forays out at night several months ago.”

“Oh. Uh….”

“No need to thank me or apologize—after all, you gave yourself the name Amateur Knight, so you know you have rough edges, and you’ve clearly been hoping for a mentor. I’ve just mentored you. I’ve brought clarity and understanding to your world,” Query said as he sliced at the tangler strands with a Bowie knife to release the young man. “We do understand each other, right?”

Query couldn’t see the embarrassed flush beneath the mask, but the change in posture told him everything he needed to know, even if it took a bit of time for Amateur Knight to get the words out.

“You want me off the streets, don’t you?” he finally said.

“Amateur Knight,” Query said, “you have at least one thing going for you that my little creation Swashbuckler Hound doesn’t, and that’s actual transhuman powers. But yeah, I need you off the street.”

“I just wanted…”

“Shhhhh,” Query said. “No more words. I want you off the street. I don’t think even this lesson will be able to keep you off them, though, so I’m going to have to insist you be patient while I find someone with enough patience themselves to train you. I don’t want a ‘thank you’ and I don’t want you getting your hopes up. I just want you out of that costume and out of everyone’s hair until you hear otherwise from me.”

“Do I really look as stupid as that guy did?” Amateur Knight whined, looking toward the dog-costumed man, who was pulling off the fake mustache and goatee now.

Query looked from one to the other and back again.

“No, ‘Knight, you don’t look that stupid,” Query answered. “But in comparison, you look as stupid to us experienced folks in the field as he did to you.”

“Yeah, I’ll wait to hear back from you I think,” Amateur Knight said.

* * *

“So, we cool?” Wallace asked Query as he struggled out of the stifling costume.

“We’re a long way from cool,” Query answered, “but I appreciate you cooperation and you have a clean slate with me now. Don’t squander it.”

“I get to keep my New Judah privileges?”

“Yes, Wallace, you get to stay in the city,” Query said. “This isn’t a movie, after all.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s