Zebra Games
by Scott Bennie


"So that’s where it fucking stands," I say, not really realizing that I’ve gone on for twenty minutes without taking a breath (let alone given Steve a chance to speak). "I’m separated from my powers, I’ve got a kid, and the bitch – the criminal bitch – wants to bleed me fucking dry…"

"I can’t believe you didn’t press assault charges against her." Steve quickly interjects. “She shot you!”

"…and make sure I never see him again."

"I know…" Steve agrees.

"It would have been easy to use my powers to get around Gunny Gal and see my kid anytime I want, but now… Y’know, Steve, maybe you’ve got the right idea being gay." Yep. Steve’s out of the closet, an event that happened back when we were in high school; doing that as a student in Bible Belt Nebraska makes him one of the bravest people I know. Even if he’s a fucking coward about everything else.

"It wasn’t exactly an idea…" Steve says, tensing on the reins of his horse.

I’m back home in Milford. It’s an early summer day, the sun is fucking burning us, and Steve and I, naked from the waist up except for a pair of white cowboy hats, are enjoying the hot wind on our bared chests while we check some of the fallow acreage on the west side. We’re on horseback, a regular pair of fucking Marlboro men without the cancer sticks. Steve used to be a skinny little snot-nosed punk, who (though it’s painful for both of us to remember it) played the role of "designated victim" for me more times than I can count when we were back in grade school – lunch money was the least of his worries when I was in a bad mood.. Now he’s looking like a man, and a certifiable Charles Atlas, fucking Skeletor ass-kicking He-man at that; I’ll bet he’s added forty pounds of muscle in the last year alone. When I arrived at the farm and walked in the kitchen door and saw him seated at the kitchen table, with his broad back facing toward me, I thought he was dad until he turned around and looked at me. Now that’s scary.

"Yeah I know," I tell him. "But trust me, there are days when I think that when you contrast the risk of AIDS with the problems of raising a family…"

"Uh… Tommy… You do realize that we can have families too?"

"Of course I have to deal with my special problems. My whole life is a Jerry Springer special – played out in prime time. My girlfriend loves a fucking British musician, the mother of my child is a third generation supervillainess, one of my cousins is a brain-damaged maniac who loves to blow things up, and another one’s a gay horseman who’s addicted to ‘roids…"

"Tommy, I don’ttouch that crap," Steve insists.

What a dorky response. I couldn’t even piss him off enough to say the word "shit". Oh fuck it. Steve took me horseback riding to calm me down, but I was really hoping that I could piss him off and maybe we could square off. Yeah, it’s my asshole side rearing its ugly head again, but ever since I lost my powers I’ve had a hard on for a good scrap, and sad to say, Steve’s about the only one here who can give me one. These days Steve has got a lot harder edge to him, but he still tends to back away from provocation, especially from me. Mind you, it wasn’t that long since I was shot twice, so maybe he’s worried I’m "delicate". If that’s how he feels, I really will beat the fucking shit out of him.

"Everything will be okay." Steve reassures me, bringing his horse to a sudden stop. It takes five paces, and a bit of circling to get my horse to steady down. We’re in the graveyard of tractors, a couple of acres of fallow land where we dump our heavy machinery when it becomes as useless as Halcyon’s brain cells. When Buck and I were kids – before Buck’s accident – this used to be a cool place to crawl around, set fires, and blow up shit. The ground’s pretty treacherous here, and it’s not a particularly good place to take a horse, so Steve dismounts. Colorado, Steve’s favorite horse (a beautiful if gaudy black and white palomino) almost seems to have a telepathic bond with him; he waits without needing to hear his command. I have to give three commands before Lucifer comes to a halt, and even then I think he wants to bite me. Stupid fucking horse.

I look back at the anima - it stares evilly back at me. Lately, it’s felt like a lot of eyes are on me, almost constantly. Maybe it’s just nerves – no powers and every goddamn supervillain on the planet out to put my pretty Nebraska ass in the ground pretty much ensures that every day’s got a really good chance at royally sucking.

“This place must’ve lain fallow for… how long?” Steve wondered.

"I haven’t been here in years," I admit, looking around at the rusted metal that’s barely managing to stick up over the tall grass. It’s a nice windy day, a hot wind coming up from the south. The wind rustling through the grass makes it sound like it’s being used as a pilgrimage for rattlesnakes. I love that sound.

"We used to say this part of your farm was haunted," Steve remembers.

"And it turned out to be Mr. Green, posing as the tractor ghost, trying to get us to sell the farm." I quip. "And just because we had the dumb-ass Great Dane put down, he thought we wouldn’t be able to solve the fucking mystery." Though given how strong that feeling of being watched is getting, who’s to say it the joint isn’t haunted?

Steve snaps off a big dandelion and blows the seeds around. Pretty fuckers. "Speaking of mysteries, what about your powers? You said they weren’t exactly lost?"

"Yeah," I reply, remembering what Michael and the Protectorate both told me. "It’s like there’s a psychic wall between me and my powers. Weirdass thing: magic, psionics, the whole sucky side of the spandex set. You should be thankful you’re just a human being."

"You get to hang out with Avatar…"

"Yeah, that’s a genuine thrill." I snap sarcastically, though Avatar iscool. Back in grade school, Steve practically worshipped the guy – he even had the lunch pail. I’ll bet he probably thought of him when he was jerking off in the parking lot back at grade school. "Fuck, I could use a beer."

"Sorry. You want me to go to the ranch and get some?" Steve asks.

"Stop trying to be my bitch," I smile back, dismounting while I look for a patch of ground that’s clear of metal where a couple of big strong rowdy mother fuckers can wrestle without impaling themselves on rusty machinery.

"Sorry Tommy." Steve says. "It’s hard to know what to say to you what right now that won’t piss you off."

I smile. "Steve, I want to be pissed off right now. I like being pissed off. Almost as much as I like to pin the asses of people who piss me off…" I smile and I lunge at Steve, tackle him, and pin him to the ground. He doesn’t even struggle. "Oh man, c’mon! Give me a match, you wimp!" Steve shakes his head. "Jesus Christ. What’s the point of ‘roiding yourself if you ain’t gonna use it?"

"I don’t ‘roid and I didn’t ask you out here to rassle." Steve insists. "Tommy, we need to talk. There’s something important you need to know. Something reallyimportant."

Steve’s less neurotic these days than he used to be, so maybe I’d better listen. Maybe. I roll off him. "More important than wrestling?" Steve nods. "This had better be good, or I’ll beat the shit out of you." I mutter, punching him in the chest for good measure. It’s a stupid adolescent thing, I know, but being around Steve (or any of my old high school buds) makes me feel like I’m fifteen again.

Steve slowly gets up and wipes the grass off his back. "That itches," he says, forgetting to use the words "shit" or "fucking". Steve’s like that. "It’s a long story."

"Long’s relative," I say, though Steve has a habit of boring me even when he keeps his bullshit short.

"You remember all that happened the last time I came to L.A. and you set me up on a night out with the Zebra?" Steve asks.

I nod. "You mean the monster? The Carnefactor?" I say. "I thought you told me all about that."

"I left a lot out," Steve admits, "and I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry. I really need to clear the air with you about what happened.”

"Fine," I sigh. "But if you start boring me, a shitkicking will commence."

Steve pauses for a moment to consider the threat, then begins his story. "It wasn’t long after the whole Ireland mess," Steve begins. "You were out of town hunting down clues to the Priest’s identity…”

“Don’t remind me!” I snap. That led to revelations that I wish had stayed buried.

“You’d paid for me to come to Los Angeles and check out UCLA’s campus, to see if I’d be interested in applying for school there, and you’d left me and Adam with the keys to the beach house. But elsewhere, there were other forces at work that would soon impact all our lives…"

I sigh. "You sound like a fucking narrator, dude. Just tell the goddamn story."

*****

Another day in Purgatory Prime, the place where everybody knows your name… and your life story, and most of what’s in your soul, even those parts that you deny yourself. An Arctic Fortress of Fortitude and the house of a hundred psychopaths, trapped in cages of titanium steel beams and high density force fields, guarded by hardened soldiers who have more armament in their Levis than you’d find in your average tank column. It was not a pleasant place to live. The inmates called it the House of a Thousand Grudges, or the Shithole, or Hell, depending on whatever type of poetry lurked in their gristled souls.

Ezra Jones called it the Afterbleed, because this was the place you were sent to after the superheroes reduced you to a bloody, unconscious pulp. He thought it was a very clever name, and cleverness was a source of pride to him. Ezra had been imprisoned (or trapped, depending on your point of view) in his Afterbleed for eleven years. Years ago, he had resigned himself to dying in his cell, and he did not fear death, even though he knew in his bones that the afterlife would not treat him with kindness. As Ezra entered the eighty-third year of his long, tumultuous life, he knew there was a very good chance it’d be his last. At least he had lasted into the next millennium - that was a victory to be savored.

Ezra was bound within a seal of enchanted silver, which lined his cell. Inside the circle, his spells were sovereign, but they couldn’t extend beyond the barrier. It made his life comfortable, even though he was as powerless as a mouse. But eventually one day, even in a place as quiet and uneventful as Purgatory, something happens.

That “something” was a door without a frame opening in the middle of his cell, out of which popped a man in an orange jumpsuit, which seriously clashed with his stylized white hair.

"Oh dear. I hadn’t intended…" the Porter said, shaking his head. "You’ll have to forgive me, sir. I’m known as the Porter…"

"Ezra Jones," the sorcerer answered, stroking a beard that was almost as old as his eighty-years. "You do realize the guards will be in here any moment to drag you away?"

"It would appear so," the Porter sighed. "Alas, I couldn’t open a portal that extends beyond Purgatory. And I had such plans for today…"

Portals. Ezra Jones drank in the implications of that word, it was a heady brew. He could make portals beyond the silver… "You wouldn’t terribly mind opening a portal for me beyond the wards that restrain my spells, would you?" Ezra Jones asked through a wolfish smile.

"Well, since you asked so politely," the Porter answered, forming a portal. Ezra Jones placed his hands into the portal and spoke a spell in Arabic – the language of elementals and summoners.

"Will it set us free?" the Porter asked, a little anxiously.

"Free?" the old North Carolinian wondered, raising both eyebrows. "Why would you ever want that? It’s very comfortable in here. No, I simply have some unfinished business I’d like to take care of before I croak."

"I used to think revenge was petty," the Porter sighed, wishing he had his pipe in hand and was wearing a pair of comfortable slippers. "But lately I have become more sympathetic to its virtues."

"Ha! You mean you got caught!" Jones managed an ear-to-ear grin for the first time in years. It hurt his facial muscles, but otherwise it felt good.

The Porter sighed, acknowledging his failure, and formed the portal that would allow Ezra Jones to cast a spell beyond the walls. "So who do you intend to get revenge on? The Protectorate? The Bronzeman?” he asked.

"No!" Ezra exclaimed after he finished his incantation. "My lawyer!"

*****

West Hollywood. Not the quietest place in the world, which made it a good place to blend in and avoid notice. Which is normally a very easy to do in that place – it’s arguably the most distracted place in the Western Hemisphere north of New Orleans -  and even two big men (whom some would label “muscleheaded lunks”) – could meet in private there and enjoy a night on the town.

"It’s raining," Adam Foster noted as he emerged from under the awning. "Man, I hate that."

The taxi came to a stop and Steve Doerksen stopped to argue with the driver over the fare. "You’re rich! You don’t need money!" the woman shouted in a heavy Latino accent as she grabbed the $20, slammed the door in the rangy Nebraskan’s face, and hit the accelerator. The tire squeal was the middle finger in the language of cabbies (or at least the most disreputable ones).

"Hey!" Doerksen yelled as he watched the taxi drive away. "What do you think this is, New York?"

"Hullo! You must be Steve," Adam said, approaching the newcomer, striding through puddles. The newcomer was wearing a white T-shirt and a denim jacket, and he looked a lot like Omega – a softer face, longer, wavier blond hair, a bit of a beatific smile – he was sure this had to be Steve. Mind you, he was sure about the previous three people that he had encountered was Steve too, and they turned out to be named Fred, Greg, and Mohammed.

"I didn’t think it rained in this place," Steve remarked. The rain was pouring so hard it was hard to hear anything except the sound of the raindrops bouncing off the pavement.

"Pineapple express." Adam replied. "Happens a lot this time of the year."

"I never liked pineapples, except on pizzas," Steve replied, fully aware of the meaninglessness of his words – it was casual conversation, the feeling out process, conducted as the sky broke. "I like the shirt."

He’s focusing on physical detail, Adam thought, secretly pleased that any misgivings he had that he wouldn’t have sex tonight had just been put to rest. In truth the shirt (much like Zebra’s superhuman costume) was about as garish as an undershirt can get and still be sold on Rodeo Drive: white with black zebra stripes, worn so tight that its wearer needed to be a superhuman just to keep his blood circulating. Adam didn’t realize that Steve Doerksen already understood one of life’s sadder truths: West Hollywood was a place where tolerating stupidity was even more important than tolerating someone’s sexual preference.

"You want to go to a club?" Adam asked.

"I need to eat!" Steve exclaimed. "They were serving the tiniest sandwiches in human history on the flight out…" Steve said, shouting so he could be overheard over a passing truck – which doused them both with water. Adam angrily grabbed a pebble and was about to fling it at a rear tire, but Steve grabbed his hand. "What are you doing?"

"The asshole did that deliberately," Adam snapped.

"Let’s just grab some coffee, okay?" Steve tried to soften his disposition with a smile, and he nudged him toward a diner. Adam relaxed immediately, but not before noting – with approval – the firmness of the farmboy’s grip.

The two men sat themselves at opposite ends of a booth by a cafe window, spreading themselves wide so their frames could be comfortable, and watched the rain come down in buckets. A waitress, a slightly overweight career gal in her mid-30s with her red hair bundled in a bun, ignoring customers who had entered minutes earlier, walked over and took the order. Steve smiled – although he was gay, he still appreciated that unisexual beauty that could be found in someone’s admiring green eyes.

"Bud for me," Adam said.

"Ice tea, please." Steve said with a smile.

"This might not be the right weather for it," the waitress noted.

"Thanks, but it’s still a little warm by my reckoning," Steve answered, peeling off the denim jacket. He could feel Adam’s eyes inspecting him even more intensely than the waitress’s. He glanced back to admire his companion’s muscular frame and told himself he’d been paid worse compliments.

"Are you a model?" The waitress asked him. "You look like you should be."

Steve imagined that people said that a lot in Hollywood, and while very few who saw him in the flesh would argue with the opinion, the young man was enough of a late bloomer that the remark made him blush – he didn’t think of himself as catwalk material. "I’m just here visiting family," the Nebraskan explained, brushing aside a curl of corn-blond hair. "And thanks for the compliment, though I really couldn’t dress the way they make those guys dress."

"Or undress." Adam added, holding his tongue about how he wouldn’t mind if Steve did that. For some reason, he felt the sexual tension with this newcomer even more strongly than he did with his cousin. The waitress smiled, and made a beeline for the counter to fill their order, and returned thirty seconds later. They still hadn’t decided on their meal.

“You ever do any modeling, Adam?” Steve asked.

“Nah. I can’t stand those crappy ads.”

"I agree. Except for that one ad, you know the one with all the tough guys in leather cowboy outfits, the ‘our models can beat up your models’ ad?" Steve smiled.

"I’ve seen it," the Zebra nodded.

"Man, did I ever laugh my guts the first time I saw it." Steve replied. "I never knew these West Coast guys had my kind of a sense of humor."

"Well, it was probably designed by someone from New York,” Adam answered, trying to remember if he’d seen it during his brief stay as one of Mike Muscleman’s trainers (a condition of his parole, which Omega had helped arrange). “So what do you do… for a living?" Adam asked, nervously tapping on the table.

Steve smiled, broke open a package of sugar, and carefully mixed it into his ice tea. "I’m working on the farm - Tommy’s dad’s farm - while I figure out where I want to go with my life. I do about six hours of manual labor per day, followed by four hours of managerial work. I’ve recently started handling the books."

"So what do you do for fun?"

Steve swallowed hard, less unnerved by the question than by the fact that someone was actually asking him a personal question. "I work out for about an hour a day, plus me and Mr. Champion get together and alternate between wrestling, boxing, and judo, plus some moves he learned while he was in the marines that aren’t legal in any civilized sport. And every weekend I go into Lincoln and get together with friends for some fun." Adam understood what he meant by this – the Nebraskan was handsome enough that even some straights would find it hard to say no to him. "I also like horseback riding and hunting, and I’ve got my learner’s license – flying that is. Oh, and Tommy recently bought me a used Cessna so I can fly out to Colorado once a month and spend some time spelunking and mountain climbing." Steve took a deep breath. He hoped this wasn’t too much detail. "So what do you do for fun, Adam?"

The Zebra’s face turned beet-red. "I watch television and spend a lot of time on the Internet," he admitted.

"Oh! That’s cool. I can’t bring myself to do that. Whenever I see or read something about Tommy, I tend to get a little… defensive." Steve admitted.

"How defensive?" Adam leaned forward, adding to the psychological weight of the question.

"Like ‘throwing my shoe through a television’ defensive?" Steve admitted. Adam smiled, but his companion didn’t.

"That’s pretty damn defensive." The Zebra shook his head. "So you’ve got a hopeless crush on Omega…"

Now it was Steve’s turn to blush. "No way." Steve said. "That’d be too sick. Tommy and I are too much like brothers… even if we’re second cousins."

"You sure look a lot alike!" Adam noted.

"That’s a genetic fluke." Steve explained. "Voracious genetics, or at least that’s what some geneticist told Tommy. The Champion family genes are a lot more dominant when they should be, so everyone ends up looking like Aryan wunderkids, almost (but not quite) carbon copies of each other. And I get under Tommy’s skin for reasons that make absolutely no sense unless it’s a subconscious sibling rivalry, and even though I annoy the heck out of him, Tommy’s still incredibly protective of me, when he’s not persecuting me. So it’s almost a brother thing."

*****

"So you get together with the Zebra and all you do is talk about me behind my back?" I ask, giving Steve a slightly playful shove to let him know I’m not too pissed at him.

Steve nods. "You were what we had in common. What else are we going to talk about?"

"Well..." I smile. "You two should have just called a cab and headed straight back to my place. Screw the foreplay."

Steve gives what might rank among the world’s loudest sighs. "I know you set me up with one of the most impressive physical specimens in Los Angeles – Ben Browder excepted – but not everyone likes to do the horizontal handshake on the first date."

I sometimes wonder how much of Steve’s character is composed of false modesty, real modesty, cowardice, and just plain stupidity. "Man!" I counter with a moan. "Life’s so fucking short, Steve!"

"Says you." Steve replied, and he looks at me like a puppy pining for his master. "I plan to be in this for the long haul. Life isn’t too short – people’s patience and attention spans, on the other hand, they’retoo short.

"Oooo, an argument!" I say, my attention aroused. Doerksen enjoys a good confrontation about as much as I like hearing a supervillain whine about how badly his or her life sucks.

Steve shakes his head. "Just let me finish the story, okay? And then however you want to fight – I don’t care if you want to strip naked, blindfold each other and hurl rabid weasels at each other, we’ll do it."

*****

"That sounds familiar…" Adam muttered. "Especially the persecuting part."

"Tommy doesn’t much like criminals." Steve replied, eyes narrowing, his hackles raised. "And yes, he goes a little overboard at times."

"Little?" Adam winced. "You call stripping people naked and tattooing their buttocks a little overboard?"

"I’ve been there." Steve replied, a little cryptically. "But if he makes a rapist cry, I’ll donate money so the city can give him a parade."

"Spoken like someone who knows squat about the supervillain community," Adam replied, slamming his fist on the table as an unconscious reflex. "I’m telling you, I’ve been there, and Omega’s just asking for it. It’s one thing to beat a guy like a piece of raw meat, but it’s another thing to be treated like shit. And enjoy treating people like shit."

"Some people deserve it." Steve Doerksen suddenly felt less in touch with his inherent Mennonite pacifism than he had in a long time.

"I’m not saying they don’t!" the Zebra exclaimed. "But Tommy’s been asking for some big time retribution. One day, some minor league bad guy is going to wake up, ask himself ‘why am I taking this shit?’, and he’s going to do something drastic. A lot of people are gonna get hurt. Just you wait."

“Well, he’s helped a lot of people…" Steve insisted.

"Which means absolute zilch to your average costumed felon."

"…including me!" Steve ignored the objection, but didn’t dare mention some of his experiences from the time before he and Tommy were friends.

"He needs to be put in his place before something really bad happens to him," Adam said. Steve, wondering if his date was drunk, leaned over to sniff his breath. Adam leaned over too. "You know, we could do it."

"What?" Steve Doerksen wondered aloud.

"You and me. We could say – have you made up to look a little more like your cousin, then we could have our pictures taken together, and we could, y’know, sell them for big bucks to someone…"

"What?" Steve said in a shocked stupor.

"We’d get at least fifty grand." Adam smiled. "Man, this is a great plan!" Steve’s eyes narrowed. “The best one I’ve had in months. What’d you say?”

Steve Doerksen’s face was as hard as stone. "Let’s talk about this outside," he finally replied.

"Sure!" Adam replied, not quite realizing what impact his words had on his guest. The two men rose from the booth – Steve surreptitiously slipped a ten dollar bill on the table to cover the tab – and led the former supervillain into a small back alley. The deluge continued, threatening to drown everything in sight. When they reached the mid-point of the alley, Steve Doerksen turned around to face him, took a step back, and raised his fists.

Adam Foster smiled. "You gotta be joking."

"Nope."

"Dude!" Adam replied, and he made a bicep and pointed to it. "This is superhuman strength. I could poke through your rib cage with my pinky…"

Steve’s eyes would have burned a hole through him if they could. "Tommy may be his own worst enemy, but I saw him get blown to pieces in Ireland, and the world bloody well owes him. Even if I didn’t love my cousin – and I do - there’s no way I’d ever pull the kind of crap you’re proposing on him."

"It was just an idea," Adam replied, suddenly feeling defensive. “You could always say no.”

"He cut you a break – a world-class break that kept you from freezing your butt in Purgatory - and this is how you thank him?" Steve inhaled sharply.

“What’s your problem?” Adam wondered. “If you think the idea sucks, you could always…”

"Let’s do it." Steve growled.

Adam Foster shook his head and wondered. There was something ridiculous about his opponent; he had the conviction of an overly enthusiastic high school senior who was too busy wallowing in earnest passion to realize that how badly he was outmatched, but even so, this was a chance for Adam to get a little surrogate revenge against the Champion family for the many times had Omega pummeled him… He had left his coat in the restaurant, so he pulled up his shirt sleeves and got into a fighting stance. "Last chance to back down?" Adam said.

"Going, going, gone," Steve said.

“How about taking this to a gym?”

“Nope. Now.”

"You’re cute when you’re –ommph!"

Steve immediately connected with a hard left jab to the bridge of the Zebra’s nose, and followed it with a right to his jaw. It hit Adam hard enough to sting.

"Oh… quick hands… ow!"

Back in Milford, Steve Doerksen’s fighting skills were not highly valued, but once again he was something of a late bloomer - he had trained hard over the course of the last year, and now he was ready for a fight. He bobbed and weaved as best he could in the rain and the confined space of the alley. Meanwhile his opponent, who was an inch taller and had fifteen pounds on Steve’s muscular frame, quickly came to the realization that his opponent wasn’t joking – and was hitting him a lot harder than he expected.

"Quit it!" Adam said. "Stop it!"

Steve caught him with a punch to the gut and an uppercut that crossed Adam’s eyes. The former villain took a wild swing, missed, and took a hard punch to the ribs. He took a step back, just in time to get nailed by a roundhouse that sent him on his ass. He was more surprised than hurt.

"I give! I apologize, okay?" Adam snapped. "Sweet baby Jesus, lay off!"

Steve would have let his opponent get back to his feet regardless of what he had said – his manners were almost archaic. Adam responded with an evil smile – and Steve instantly knew what was coming and allowed it to happen anyway. Adam got up, yanked the arm, stepped behind him, then clamped on a full nelson and applied the pressure. Steve grunted.

"Who’s the quitter now?" Adam smirked as he applied enough pressure to ensure his opponent didn’t escape the hold. "Huh?" he chided, not sure whether to be happy or friendly. "C’mon Stevedore…”

That playful nickname may have been the most inventive thing the Zebra had come up with in years, unfortunately that’s when Steve Doerksen felt a sharp pain enter his back, and heard a scream in his ear. Then there were several sounds: the rasp of hot breath, claws scratching on pavement, and the rattling sound of something half-organic and half-metallic retracting back into its sheath. The monster’s spear had penetrated a quarter of an inch into Steve Doerksen’s back. After going all the way through the Zebra. Adam Foster let go of the hold and fell to one knee, clutching his wound, while Steve turned around and gazed at the attacker.

*****

"Adam’s tougher than I thought," I note with a smile; I figured an impalement would probably kill him. "Though it’s a pity you didn’t get a chance to see if you could break the hold."

"Sorry," Steve replies. "We called off the wrestling match on account of ‘needing to fight for our lives."

"Your priorities suck," I answer, and Steve’s scowl almost makes me laugh my ass off. "Go ahead, keep yammering. I’m still awake."

***** 

"My God," Adam Foster rasped, seeing the blood begin to soak through his ripped shirt. "What the f--"

It – or he, for it resembled a man and not a woman – was as tall as two men, impressive in breadth as well as height. Its stink was more like the smell of twenty men – if those men had been trapped in a confined space for months at a time. Its hide resembled a spider web that had been pressed over the folds of an old, grey-scarred elephant, which would have made (if human) for a physique of impressive size and definition. Metallic armored plates covered its arms, chest and crotch, punctured with holes that allowed its horns – and it had many – to safely protrude so that it seemed in places like it was covered in an armor constructed out of from dead roses. A burning pentagram smoldered on its chest. Its face, best described as demonic, was twisted, half in pain, half in contempt, and its lips curled up often enough that it was easy to see its teeth, yellow and sharp, bared like a mad wolf, but much larger. Its ears were pointed, but not grotesquely so, and the baldness of its head seemed natural too, though its bared forehead, a mask of jutting bone, was covered in what best resembled ruined cadaver skin. But these physical features – impressive though they might be - were the least of the terrors of the Carnefactor. Any Hollywood special effects shop worth its salt could produce such an abomination. But there was something about it - a naturally horrific quality - that no human being could convincingly fake.

It was neither size nor skin nor fang that benighted those who looked upon the Carnefactor – it was the eyes. It features were impossible to describe, for whenever anyone looked into them, they ceased to care about the physical world. This wasn’t "terror", or the clichés of some overgrown children’s melodrama come alive. Rather the eyes were portals to an earlier time, a psychological time, when man’s psyche, unburdened by civic and social concerns, cared only for the hunt. Those who look into the Carnefactor are stripped naked, and their lives are thrown into the crucible of their fundamental nature to determine the answer to one question: which imperative of the jungle do they hold most dear: are they predator or prey?

Steve Doerksen looked into the creature’s eyes and buckled. It hurt to even draw breath, for his body had become as tense and erect as a sexual dream, though that impulse was no longer important. His fists, held without quivering, were as tight as stone, and his arms and shoulders were straining under an invisible force that gripped him so tightly that it felt like the tendons of his neck were about to snap at any moment.

But the Carnefactor also halted, and for a moment its senses worked against its purpose. It was sent to hunt, to rend, to taste blood, and to hold its prey in its claws until it felt it stop writhing – and then it might bite off the Zebra’s head if it were in the right mood. But now it felt a rival in the hunt - an unexpected rival – and the anticipation was magnified within him.

It was very rare for anyone to pass such a severe test of Fight or Flight.

Like something born out of a pulp serial, the determination on Steve Doerksen’s face suddenly lost its child-like quality. He straightened himself in the face of the monster, and waited the moment for the final adrenaline rush that would ring a proverbial bell and begin a hopeless struggle.

"Not him!” the Carnefactor snarled. “The asshole lawyer, not him!" it snapped in a decidedly Carolinian accent.

"Jones?" Foster blurted, struggling to his feet. He recognized the sound of his voice.

"Stay down!" Steve shouted, and he punched the Carnefactor in the lower ribs. There was a surprising cracking sound, and the Carnefactor ignored the next two punches that connected squarely with its hip, and back-handed him into a parked truck, making a two inch dent in the steel siding.

Steve slowly got up, saw the monster on the edge of his vision, snarled, and began to tear his shirt. But before he could take two steps, someone grabbed him and began to sprint, with Steve dangling in one arm. It was the Zebra. Doerksen took a chance, shifted his balance slightly, bounced his foot off the ground to keep Adam from toppling, and climbed into a fireman’s carry position atop his shoulders.

“But that claw went right through –”

Adam grunted. “I’ll be fine as long as I keep moving. You need a hospital?” he shouted.

“The thing’s probably tracking us!” Steve shouted. “Find some place deserted. Let’s make sure we don’t lead into a place where someone else gets put in danger.”

“Let’s go back to my place.” Adam said, completely oblivious to Doerksen’s advice.

*****

“What the hell happened to my place?” Adam Foster asked, seeing the destroyed apartment building. Once this had been a clutch of sixty studio apartments, cluttered together in a small community space around a central courtyard (a Gayrose Place, one tenant called it) – now it was six or seven large piles of debris, from which large columns of smoke issued while firemen watched the blaze ebb and police dogs searched the ruins for survivors. “My stuff!” Adam shouted. Steve squinted in disapproval – shouldn’t he be concerned about his neighbors? “I had all my stuff in there! How am I going to replace it?”

“Was it insured?” Steve asked.

“Yeah. But how am I going to replace it?” Adam sighed.

Steve, having dismounted, rubbed his left arm, which Adam had been grabbing rather tightly during the ride, and rotated his shoulder. He touched along the bloody wound in Adam’s back. “It’s almost healed.”

“Yeah, when I use my powers, like when I was running, my healing factor goes through the roof.” Adam said. “Though man, does it ever make me hungry. Horny too.” He smiled, grabbed the wet T-shirt on Steve’s chest, and tugged at playfully. “You know, I did save your life back there.”

“But what about your stuff?” Steve said, desperately hoping to distract him.

“Oh shit, my stuff! Damn that!” Adam responded as expected. “What the hell happened here?”

Steve left Adam to vent, keeping half an eye on the route they’d traveled. Isn’t it obvious that the monster happened? He remembered looking into the face of the beast - from the size of that nose, he’d bet the creature was a tracker. If that were the case, he’d bet that it probably started his path of destruction close by, and found an alternate route to the diner, tracing Adam’s (fairly musky) scent. He picked a small emergency phone off his belt buckle, and began making calls – a message for Tommy, a message for Michael Carleton, and finally a message to the Emergency Metaprotection Hotline. As Omega’s cousin, he was a probable target for supervillain abduction, and thus he’d been given a priority slot along with Tommy’s mom, dad, and his cousin Buck.

“This is Steve Doerksen, I’m somewhere in West Hollywood and this is an emergency. I’m being chased by some sort of twelve foot tall demony-looking thing. Please contact Blur or the Protectorate. ASAP.” Adam was in the middle of a pointless argument with a police officer, when Steve grabbed him by the arm and began to drag him.

“Hey!”

“You mentioned someone named ‘Jones’” Steve barked. “Who the hell is he?”

Adam was surprised to see the boyish look completely vanish from his companion’s face. “Ezra Jones. A sorcerer. The guy who gave me my powers.”

“And he’s killing you because you turned good?”

“I did?” Adam wondered.

“So why is he after you?” Steve shouted.

“He just hates my guts. He blames me for losing his case and getting him stuck in Purgatory for the last twelve years. Plus I keep sending him anti-smoking literature in prison, and I think it pisses him off, even though it’s only for his own good. Man, I never met such a human chimney.”

“I’ll bet it’s tracking us.” Steve said, looking behind him. “And its senses are probably magical, so it’ll keep after you until you reach the end of the earth. Maybe if we could get you up to the Protectorate Satellite…”

“That’d be cool!”

“I wish I knew what we were fighting.” Steve wondered. “But the only sorcerer I know isn’t answering his phone.”

“I know a place where we could go to hide.” Adam said, and he bent over. “Go ahead, and mount me.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “C’mon guy, let’s keep it out of the gutter.”

“In West Hollywood, gutters are mountains compared to some of the stuff I’ve seen,” Adam remarked.

“If you keep it up, I’ll start thinking like we’re a live action version of that cartoon on Saturday Night Live skit. Y’know, Gary and what’s his name.” But he climbed onto Adam’s back.

“I’ll keep you safe,” Adam promised. “Your cousin would kill me if I didn’t!”

But I don’t want to hide, I want to fight. Steve Doerksen thought – immediately wondering why he felt that way, since he’d never directly sought out trouble in his entire life.

 

*****

The Carnefactor had left a broad trail of destruction between the apartment and the back alley where Steve and Adam had first encountered him. It was easy to follow – marked by a trail and ambulances and squad cars - and a lot of people who were openly wondering what had happened to Omega.

“He’s in Boston, but I left messages,” Steve told one hysterical woman, when they’d briefly stopped to investigate. Somehow, the statement managed to calm her down. The woman thanked him profusely, and Steve turned to talk to the cops while Adam put his muscles to good use carting stretchers quickly and steadily into ambulances. As the situation worsened, Steve seemed more and more in charge. Somehow, the fact that he was Omega’s distant cousin (and looked like a natural leader) made people defer to him.

“Mr. Doerksen, there’s a costumed figure, down.” A police sergeant named Jeff Hendricks (whom Omega knew as “Officer Surly”) pointed out an athletic, dark-haired man in a scanty leather costume, lying face down on the ground, trails of blood smeared over the area. He was still twitching, and paramedics gently moved him onto his back.

"Who is this guy?" Steve asked, giving him a quick inspection. One wound ran down the left side of his face, making it a crimson half-mask, while another wound sliced his ribs like a butcher’s cleaver against a tough slab of meat. Steve had no taste for the sight of blood, but he bit down on his well-worn lip and fought to stay calm. This was ugly. "Still alive, but he’s in shock, whoever he is."

"It’s the Brigand," Adam answered. "He’s one of many low-powered metas came to Hollywood after your cousin hit it big, hoping to follow in his footsteps. He’s also a good lay."

“Can you do something?” a paramedic asked Steve.

Steve nodded, took off his shirt, and wrapped his hands in it to avoid making direct contact with the man’s blood. His cousin may be immune to disease, but AIDS was a very real possibility to him. "I don’t have gloves," he explained, applying pressure to the wound. "We’ll get you to a doctor."

“Uh… we were thinking more in terms of healing powers,” the paramedic told the Nebraskan.

Steve suddenly felt mortally embarrassed. Just because I’m in the bloodline… “Sorry,” he blushed. “The best I can offer is my Red Cross training.” He turned back to the Brigand.

The wannabee hero moaned and rolled slightly, Steve tried to hold him still. “Wow.” he moaned, looking up at Steve’s face. Steve blushed, but ignored the embarrassment. Inspecting the Brigand’s fingers for cuts and finding none, he grabbed his left hand and held it for support.

“Don’t move,” he said. “Don’t panic. There’s a lot of people on your side, and you’re going to be helped..”

“Don’t let them unmask…” the Brigand stated, lifting himself slightly, and then he spotted a policeman bagging his domino mask for evidence. “Shit…” he said weakly.

"The police really hate these low-rent vigilantes," Adam continued the exposition as though the Brigand wasn’t regaining consciousness. "This guy’s the so-called protector of West Hollywood. Unlike the previous last five costumed protectors of West Hollywood, this one actually has powers that go beyond looking like a bad boy in leather for the S&M set."

“Yuck.” Steve said.

“No, ‘yuck’ was Colonel Kink.” Adam shuddered.

The Brigand was in no condition to contribute to the conversation. "Don’t have insurance," he finally told Steve.

"You should have thought that before you put on the costume." Adam’s off-hand remark drew a disapproving glance from his Nebraskan companion.

Steve nodded at the Brigand. "I’ll take care of it,” he said.

“How?” the Brigand winced, feeling the pain worsen. Steve’s hand was hurting from the pressure he exerted, but the Nebraskan kept the pain from his face.

“Answer me one question. Where do plants come from?" Steve asked.

"What?" the Brigand wince and moaned, losing concentration. Steve squeezed back to keep him alert.

"Close enough. You’re hired," the Nebraskan informed him, digging into his wallet with his free hand and pulling out a business card. "You’re now Champion Farms’ West Coast advisor, with full medical coverage. And if our carrier won’t cover your full expenses, we’ll apply to FEMA."

"FEMA?" Adam wondered.

"When a supervillain causes more than twenty-five million dollars in damage during an attack, there’s a pool of federal money that comes available, and though they don’t like to give it out to pay for medical expenses, you can apply for it." Steve turned to Adam. "I handle medical insurance for our employees, and given that we’re paying obscene insurance premiums because we’re probable supervillain targets, we’ve had to learn every trick in the book to keep the farm from going under."

"You mean… I have a job in Nebraska?" The Brigand wondered.

“Yeah. Nebraska,” Steve said, so intent on the fallen meta that he didn’t notice the paramedics scattering behind them…

*****

“By the way,” I snap. “Thanks a lot for hiring this asshole. You do realize that he spent the next three months after this fiasco telling people that he worked for Omega, and basically using my name on the L.A. party circuit to bleed people fucking dry all that time I was stuck in the Zero Prison?”

“Yeah.” Steve says. “He also tried to embezzle funds from the farm, but once we threatened to sue him and charge him with fraud, he stopped pretty quick.”

“He sounded real impressed by you, Stevie.” I add.

Steve refuses to directly address the observation. “I found the whole ‘Look, it’s Omega’s Cousin bit’ just way too surreal.” Steve replies. We’d walked over to an abandoned tractor, and for no reason whatsoever, Steve had taken a piece of wood and was scraping the layers of rust off the tractor. One of those silly, mildly destructive impulses, I guess.

“You should’ve called yourself ‘Omicron’,” I suggest a remark that received a vacant response, rather than the “fuck you” it deserved.

“And if I had, you’d be angry as all hell that I’d tried to pose as your sidekick.” Steve sighs. “Tommy, how the hell do I win with you?”

“Well, first you gotta step on the mat.” I smile, knocking the wood out of his hand. Steve sighs again, and walked away from the tractors and back into the open fields. I followed, letting him resume the story.

*****

"It’s… behind you." The Brigand rasped. Both Steve and Adam had heard the shots as they were fired, but the monster came on them too quickly, almost a bolt out of the blue. Adam yelped and jumped into a corner. Steve went into an immediate combat stance as once again the blood pounded so loudly in his ears that it hurt. He threw a high kick that caught the Carnefactor in its stomach. It growled, and the feral sound reverberated in his ears, a cross between fingernails on a blackboard and a bullhorn. He brushed Steve aside again, this time only lightly – it was tired from the chase – and advanced on its prey. Officer Surly advanced, his weapon drawn, and when he looked into the Carnefactor’s eyes, he snarled animalistically, emptied the clip into the monster, and when the rounds bounced he charged it with a modified taser that was designed to neutralize a moderately powered supervillain.

“Get him outta the way!” another LAPD officer, known affectionately to Omega as “Officer Shithead” shouted at Doerksen. The creature had already torn apart one SWAT team, and a squad of heavy riflemen had arrived to finish the job. Steve breathed hard – the fight or flight impulse was impossible to ignore. He reached for the taser that Hendricks had dropped – when suddenly the cops suddenly looked skyward.

“Look! It’s him!” One of them shouted, and suddenly the few policemen who had managed to avoid either bolting or going berserk pointed into the sky, noting the descending figure that landed several meters away from the Carnefactor. He landed, hands on his hips, energy beginning to crackle from his fingertips, and he stared directly into the Carnefactor’s face.

“Leave this to the professionals!” the newcomer declared. Then suddenly, as soon as he got a good look at the monster, his knees buckled, and Steve could smell his bowels involuntarily emptying from ten meters away. “Holy shit!” Halcyon exclaimed, and he flew away in the direction of the Pacific Ocean and didn’t look back.

“Where the fuck is Omega!” Officer “Shithead”, who normally never used anything that remotely resembled bad language, couldn’t help but curse at this situation. But Omega was elsewhere, in Boston, trying to find a way to stop an archvillain, leaving another dangerous situation for people less capable of handling it.

*****

“Officer Bob Shithead actually used the word ‘fuck’? And I wasn’t there?” I interrupt Steve yet again. “Man, if only you knew how funny that is.”

“But Halcyon ran away.”

“Of course he did,” I respond. “He’s a piece of Grade A chicken shit, Steve, ever since the day we first met, he’s done nothing but shit on me. Now keep going…”

*****

"Marty!" the Zebra said. "Hey, Marty, open up!"

“Where?” After the second time the Carnefactor had hit him, the world became lost to Steve Doerksen. Minutes had passed since the Nebraskan had blacked out (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he redded out in a berserk rage) and he had no idea where Adam had taken him. Lord knows where the Zebra had taken him – probably some gated community in the Hollywood Hills (known to some of Adam’s acquaintances as “the swish Alps”).

“Marty, dammit, this is an emergency!”

There was the sound of a bolt unlocking, and Steve Doerksen expected to see the apartment door open, but instead there was a grinding sound, and a hatchway in the floor opened, revealing a hidden spiral staircase. Adam led the way, and the Nebraskan followed, though the sight intimidated him. There were about thirty broad steps that wound under the apartment into a hidden sub-level. The first thing that Steve noticed when he entered the chamber was a giant pistol (which fortunately was not pointed at them). This was only one exhibit in a room full of trophy cases jammed with superhero paraphernalia: the Pocket Rocket’s small but powerful portable jet engine; Dr. Hypnotica’s (broken) hypno-gun; Bypass’s (also broken) battlearmor (which allowed him to shrink to the size of a silicon molecule); a life-sized poster photo of the Bronzeman fighting Black Casket Jack (one of the most physically impressive supervillains of the 1970s, except for the ridiculous “70s rock star” hair) with the inscription: "Hey, you big goomba, when’s the goddamn rematch? – Jackie".

“There’s some pretty cool stuff here,” the Zebra said, oblivious to Steve’s saucer-shaped eyes.

“Yeah…” Steve said, taking a heavy breath.

At the rear of the complex, standing next to a large metallic costume that looked like something Flash Gordon might have worn if he was enamored with battle armor, was a man in his late 50s, with pepper-grey hair, a wrinkled face, but remarkably strong for his age. His straight, unbent posture reminded Steve of Omega’s dad.

"Martin Lebaron, at your service, Omega," the man said in a flat California accent. “Glad to finally meet you.”

"Uh… I’m not Omega." The man, surprised, looked hard at the Zebra, as if he’d been betrayed. Steve got the impression that he wouldn’t have been allowed to enter if the man had known he wasn’t a member of the superhero club.

*****

“Wait a fucking minute!” I exclaim, almost tempted to hit Steve. “I’ve wanted to meet the Bronzeman since my first week in L.A. How come the goddamn Zebra hasn’t introduced me to him?”

“He was sworn to secrecy, except in emergencies. Adam’s a flake, but he keeps his word.”

“Goddammit!” I snapped. “How many emergencies have I had where I could have fucking used his help?”

“Could you save the outrage until after I finish the story?”

“No.” I smile, then I allow him to continue.

###

"This is Omega’s cousin." Adam explained. "Steve, this is the guy who bashed my brains in. The world-famous and fabulous Martin Labaron, better known as the Bronzeman."

Labaron nodded and took the handshake without flinching. "I’m surprised that your cousin hasn’t tracked me down, Steve…?"

"Doerksen, sir,” Steve replied. “If you’d ever fought the Priest, he probably would have.”

“Nasty piece of work, the Priest,” the Bronzeman was making conversation – everyone knew the Priest was bad news, there was no need to talk about it. “What brings you here?”

Steve swallowed hard. “We need a sanctuary. There’s a magical beast chasing us, and we need time to figure out how to fight it. It was summoned by a sorcerer named Jones…”

“Ah, old Ezra!” The Bronzeman said. “I haven’t thought of him in years. I’m surprised all the coffin-nails he’s smoked hasn’t sent him to the great chimney-stack down below a long time ago.”

“That’s what I keep telling him!” Adam exclaimed.

“The creature’s twelve feet tall, and looking into its eyes prompts a fight or flight impulse,” Steve explained. “Other than that, we have no idea what it is. Tommy’s out of town and…"

"How do you know it’s magical?" The Bronzeman asked.

"I’m assuming that a creature with a burning pentagram on its chest is magical." Steve replied. "Though I suppose some clever villain could put one on do it as a distraction."

"Oooo!" The Zebra said. "Maybe it’s not a pentagram, but a pentagon. It’s like an army defense project run amok!"

"God Adam, I’d say you were dumber than a post, but that’d be an insult to posts!" the Bronzeman shook his head, though he was smiling. Steve couldn’t help but suppress a chuckle himself. "Just why the hell would an army project want to hunt you down?"

“Maybe it realizes I didn’t register for selective service?” Adam’s reply was uncertain.

“Sir, we need to find a way to shield Adam from a mystical tracker,” Steve quickly interjected – no sense in wasting time, especially when it could minutes for the Zebra to get to the point. “We also need to find a way to cover our tracks so he won’t arrive on your doorstep.”

The Bronzeman frowned. “I’ve got a sensory deprivation tub that’s magically screened. We’ll stick Adam in there for now. And if it tracks people by smell, then I should go out and do something to obscure your trail. I have the chemicals.” He turned to Steve. “I also have a library with some mystic tomes in it, if you care to put your time to use.”

Steve nodded. “They’re not the sort of books that you read and go insane, are they? I get enough of that with my schoolwork.”

The Bronzeman led Steve Doerksen into a large library, which was crammed full of additional trophies, if one can call pictures of having one’s ass handed to them by Metron Zephyr, Omni-Man, Ultra-Ramesses the Invincible (a superpowered Luchadore wrestler with an ancient Egyptian motif), and Avatar (the latter which was a classic “misunderstanding”). “Tommy had his butt kicked by him too,” Steve noted.

“Omega did a lot better against the “Big A” than I did,” the Bronzeman admitted. “And I fought him after Pantheon had stolen half the power of the god Marduk from him– essentially putting him at half strength – and I still took the worst beating of my career. No, this isn’t a trophy room; I call this ‘the hall of sanity’. Every time I get the urge to put on the suit – this is where I come to get a reality check.”

“Well, if watching yourself get beaten up by someone who looks like an MST3K reject won’t do it…” Steve said, pointing at the Ultra-Ramesses photo.

“Oh. That one. Well, he did infect me with mutant African sleeping sickness first.” the Bronzeman explained.

“Of course he did,” Steve responded, as he reached for a huge tome entitled Librum Demonicus. He picked it up, breathed a huge sigh, and opened the book.

*****

CARNES FACTORUM

“Harrowed by soldiers and secret societies of warriors, the Lords of the Damned labored in the outlands of Chaos, seeking to mold the fabric of the unreachable into an armor of terror. They girded six demons of scourging, and empowered them with the Fires of the Pit, into which the substance of Chaos that had not been dammed from the world flowed…

The Carnes Factorum are peerless hunters. When brought into the world, no quarry cam evade them, no armor withstand their spears. Their gaze can bring upon two reactions, marks of the most primal state within the human heart: attack or flee.

The greatest enchantment of the Carnes Factorum is an insidious one. No weapon forged, not even the mightiest of heaven’s fires, will harm the Carnes Factorum if brought against them by one who wages war, or anyone who takes payment to safeguard the innocent. But when the innocent themselves take arms against these monsters, even though they possess the might of demonkind, they are capable of falling to the hand of mortal Man.

*****

“That’s it,” Steve identified, and pointed at the picture. “That’s the beast. Even including the burning pentagram on its chest.” He sniffed at the air. “And am I imagining things, or is the page giving off a slight sulfur smell?”

“Son of a bitch,” the Bronzeman said. “How’d you find it so fast?”

“Oh, just dumb luck,” Steve replied. “But if this book’s to be believed, if the US military were to drop a nuke on this thing, the enchantment would protect it. Hell, even Tommy might not be able to hurt it – technically, Nike pays him for getting good press, and he gets good press by protecting the innocent.”

“Let me make a few calls to the LAPD and find out how the creature’s doing and where it’s current position is,” Labaron said. “Pry open the tank and chat for a bit with Adam. I want to see how effective Dr. Mordro’s Sensation Cabinet has been at hiding Adam from the Carne-factora’s senses.”

Steve nodded. “By the way, what’s the deal between you and Adam?” he asked. “He blames you for the brain damage, and yet you seem pretty friendly…”

“Adam was loopy to start,” Labaron replied. “But I know when someone’s rotten, and when someone’s just… off… and Adam is more ‘off’ than ‘rotten’. I dunno. I’ve just got a soft spot for the big lug. Plus she’s one of the few metas I can bring home that the wife actually likes. So what’s your connection with him?

“Oh, Tommy just asked him to show me around town when I was visiting.” He could read the question on the former superhero’s face. “We haven’t really gotten along that well.”

“Well, give him a chance.” Labaron said. “First impressions rarely tell the whole story. You know, I didn’t think much of your cousin at first, but aside from all the good he’s done Los Angeles, I’m rather impressed that he helped get Adam out of that pit he’d dug for himself.”

“You know any other supervillains with hearts of gold?”

“A few.” The former hero admitted. “After awhile, the lines blur and you don’t think of them as ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ anymore, you think of them as,  say, ‘silent and shameless’ or ‘tough guy and whiner’ or (especially) ‘killer and non-killer’. That’s the one that got to me. How many ‘heroes’ in the early 90s got their rocks off doing the whole ‘I can kill people and it’s legal’ bullshit. Hell, just look at the body count that Lioness and the Outsider amassed, and they’re the respected ones. It’s disgraceful.” He took a deep breath and looked hard at Steve. “I’m getting carried away, aren’t I?”

Steve nodded. “A supervillainess murdered one of my best friends. I don’t really have many good thoughts about them.”

“That’s another distinction. ‘Sane, insane’,” the Bronzeman noted. “You know, it’s amazing how quickly you pick up a graduate level knowledge of abnormal psychology once you put on the tights.”

The conversation was starting to get very uncomfortable for Steve Doerksen, and he wasn’t sure why. Perhaps because he hadn’t expected to be reminded of Orchid; in a way, he hated her far more intensely than his cousin did. At least Tommy had a chance to see her vulnerable side. Steve’s natural response to the injustices of the universe was more frustration than anger, and that’s a harder way to live; frustration keeps bottled emotions up inside until they explode. The athletic Nebraskan let out a half-sigh, half-hiss, like a frustrated snake. “I’ll check on Adam,” he finally said.

Steve stepped into the trophy room and opened up the cabinet, which opened like a French door over Adam’s upper torso. He was still inside, and quickly moved his hands up to a neutral position – Steve could guess at what he was doing. “Hi,” he said, desperately hoping that the Zebra would avoid saying: “I was thinking of you.”

“Hi.” Foster replied, a little hesitant and embarrassed. “You ever been in a sensory deprivation tank?”

“Can’t say that I have.” Steve replied. “Prairie nights come close some times, except for the damn crickets.”

“It’s dark and quiet. I could even hear my heart beat!” The Zebra sounded both off-put and excited by the experience. “Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“What’s your problem with me?” Steve shook his head and slumped in a sitting position against the casket. “Most guys like you, well they like to jump me. But you’ve kept yourself at arm’s length. And when you look at me…”

“Don’t mind me. I’m just being a jerk,” Steve admitted. “When you suggested messing with Tommy’s reputation…”

Adam lifted himself half out of the casket so he could look down at the Nebraskan. “That really bugged you? You actually thought I’d go through with it?”

Steve glanced upward. “You sounded serious. You didn’t sound like you were trying to yank my chain.”

“Wow.” Adam replied. “Nobody ever takes any of my ideas seriously. Even my lawyer doesn’t take me seriously.”

“Great.” Steve moaned. “You’re the one who’s never taken seriously, I’m the one who always takes things too seriously. What a pair we make.”

“I wouldn’t mind that,” Adam replied. “Being a pair, that is.” Steve rolled his eyes. “Oh come on, I think we have a lot to offer each other. We’re both pretty damn hot.”

“I’m not in the market for a relationship right now, Adam.” Steve replied – he never liked to talk about sex, he just liked to do it. “I’m involved with two guys back in Lincoln, and juggling them is more than I can handle. Then there’s my farm duties, and my studies  - and being a close relative of a superhero can be pretty time consuming on its own – and lately…”

“Steve,” Adam smiled. “I pretty much suck at everything. I don’t like to admit it, but as a lawyer, and a supervillain, and now as a reformed supervillain, I completely blow chunks. When the villain attacks…”

“It’s a demon,” Steve interjected.

“…demon attacks, my instinct is to run away.” The Zebra’s admission was resigned, with only a hint of dejection. “The one thing I’m good at, though, is relaxing. I’m a very relaxed person. I’m almost a Buddhist in terms of relaxing. And I can tell when someone needs to relax, and I know how to help them. Wanna meditate?”

Steve smiled. “That’s about the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard. You really are pathetic.” And he began to laugh.

“I made you laugh, didn’t I?” Adam smiled.

“You did. And I needed it,” Steve admitted. “Unfortunately this is about the worst time possible to relax. That demon’s gonna tear apart the city looking for you. And the police – hell, even the army – won’t be able to do a thing about it.”

Adam crawled out of the coffin and stood over him. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of taking it on?”

“When I looked into its eyes, I felt something.” Steve admitted. “I’m not Tommy – I don’t live for the fight. Sex is Tommy’s idea of good foreplay for a wrestling match; I look at things from a very different perspective. But when I looked into that thing’s face, I felt something… I can’t really describe it. Calling it a fight instinct doesn’t do it justice. The one thing I know is that it’s got to get me – and you – and I’ve got to kill it, and the distance between us doesn’t make a lick of difference.”

*****

“You never told me this,” I say, frowning. “Why’ve you been holding out on me, Stevereno? You know, you were fucking crazy for taking on a major villain, but that sort of crazy shit I can enjoy.”

Steve sighs. “For Pete’s sake, Tommy! Get over the sound of your damned voice and let me tell this stupid story!”

*****

“This is a stupid plan,” Adam said, adjusting himself in the car seat. They’d left the Bronzeman’s house twenty minutes earlier, and headed south on I-5 – toward one of the more sparcely populated areas of the Los Angeles basin. “Just stupid.”

“The freeway’s has been cleared all the way to Griffith’s Park,” Steve was driving the Bronzeman’s SUV (after promising to replace it after it had been destroyed) down I-5. He had been forced to repeat the plan so many times that it was beginning to irritate him. “The Carne-factora demon chases us. I send the car on a collision course...”

“I think it’s called Carnefactor.” Adam interjected. “At least I remember getting a letter from Ezra which said that he hoped a Carnefactor would eat me.”

“You got a letter from Ezra with information about the Carnefactor?” Steve wondered. “Why didn’t you say so?”

“It didn’t seem very important.” Adam explained. “After all, the man’s a proven liar.”

“How can a letter from the guy responsible for this whole mess…” Steve said and he sighed. “Okay, I won’t get excited… I won’t get excited…”

“You sound awfully excited to me,” Adam remarked. “Mind you, you can get excited around me anytime… ow! Don’t hit me!”

“Sorry,” Steve apologized, smiling. “My hand slipped. Besides, you got powers, I don’t.”

“You sure hit hard for someone without powers,” the Zebra stated. “And what have you got against me?”

“For pity’s sake, I like you, okay? I just want to stay focused on the task at hand.” Steve replied. “We’ll save the date until after we take out the Carnefactor.”

“Is it really moral to kill a demon?” Adam wondered, after a few seconds of silence.

“Given that he impaled you – and nicked me – I’m willing to leave the question to a higher power."

“If it’s not immoral to kill a demon, would taking it onto a church ground kill it?”

“Plenty of immoral people go to Church,” Steve noted, fighting rising frustration. He was beginning to understand – quickly - why no one took the Zebra’s ideas very seriously.

“But are those immoral people also demons?” Adam mused. Steve just sighed. Adam paused for a minute, then suddenly grabbed Steve. “I think I see a church. Pull over, quick!”

“Adam, can’t you stick to a plan?”

“That’s kinda boring, isn’t it?”

“It’s better to be bored than dead!” Steve answered. “We wait until the Carnefactor’s on the road with us in the cordoned section, we floor the van, I bail using this flying harness, then you follow and cushion yourself with your natural toughness. The SUV hits the Carnefactor, then I use all these 1980s era supervillain contraptions that Lebaron lent me (and you suck up your fear with those WWII-era “Courage Pills” he gave you) and together we take him down.”

“This is a stupid plan,” the Zebra said. “This is a very stupid plan. And who pays for the car after we trash it?”

“Tommy does.”

“Cool!”

For some reason, Steve noted to himself, he was doing an awful lot of sighing today.

Steve maintained contact with the local police, while Adam repeatedly tried to start conversations on topics that held absolutely no interest to his companion. The cops were keeping a careful eye on the Carnefactor via police helicopter – he was proceeding southwest from Hollywood, making leaps of about thirty yards each down the freeways in pursuit of his quarry. Once they’d gotten to the wooded area off I-5, they began to slow down.

“I hope it doesn’t bother all the creatures in the zoo,” Adam wondered about the Los Angeles Zoo, which was adjacent to the Park. “You ever been to a zoo, Steve?”

“Nope.” Steve replied, a little irritated.

“Oh my God,” Adam replied. “You don’t suppose it’ll start going after the zebras in the park? It wants me, I’m the Zebra, it might get confused.”

“Adam?”

“Yes?”

“If you shut up – and we both survive – I’ll have sex with you tonight, okay?” Adam sat back, pursing his lips together tightly, but with a boyish smile on his face. Steve frowned, but only slightly. “Good. Now let’s show this demon how America… uh… handles uninvited guests.”

“That’s not very good bravado, you know,” Adam said.

“I’m not Tommy.” Steve replied. “Let’s just hope the demon’s doesn’t take its sweet time in coming.”

Slowing down to about 20 mph (almost as slow as the Carnefactor’s running speed), Steve maintained radio contact over a headset with the California Highway Patrol and the LAPD. “He’s about three miles away, still on the freeway – no subtlety there – and definitely tracking us. The Highway Patrol estimates we should make contact in about five minutes.”

“Hmm… California Highway Patrol,” Adam mused. “Who’d you like better Ponch or John?”

“What?”

“Ponch or John?” Adam repeated. “Who’d you like?”

“Neither. I hated that show. It was horrible. Now shut up and let me check all this discarded vilain gear that the Bronzeman lent me… The pain gun of Dr. Caglio… Cagliotti.. Cag… man, what a stupid name…”

“Dr. Cagliostro,” Adam corrected. “We heard that name a lot in the early 80s. He won the title ‘busiest supervillain in America’ for a few years.”

“Check. Metron Zephyr’s back-up flight pack, check…”

“Pocket Rocket’s looked cooler,” Adam said.

“…the Naga’s neural inhibitor…”

“The Naga. Brrr…” Adam said. “I worked for her once. Her stare went right through you…”

“That must have been because she had hypnotic vision,” Steve remarked. Adam nodded as though that prospect didn’t occur to him. “Dr. Op-Tech’s fly-sense grenades…” That was a truly bizarre weapon; for several minutes, anyone caught in the explosion would have their visual senses transformed into the fractured vision of a fly, and their hearing would be transformed so they could only hear sounds well above normal human hearing range. How do they do that? “Check. Barricade’s force field and super-strength belt...”

“Man!” Adam exclaimed. “Marty’s better than Acme!”

“Check. I think I’m all set to go,” Steve said. “And Mr. Courageous’s courage pills should make it easier for you to go one on one with it.”

“If they still work. I’m not sure I can rely on sixty year old pharmaceuticals,” Adam remarked. “And what’s this ‘one-on-one’ shit? I thought it was ‘two-on-one’?”

“Adam,” Steve replied, “it’s just a figure of speech, okay?”

“Oh.” Steve slowed down the car, cautiously checking his rear view mirror. “Steve?”

“Yes?”

“When this is over, would you like to go to a spa?”

“What?”

“A spa,” Adam explained. “A place to get relaxed and pampered.”

“I know what a spa is.” Steve muttered. “Do I look like an overstressed housewife to you?”

Adam fell silent – for about ten seconds. “Steve?”

“What!”

“Are you a top or a bottom guy?”

Steve slammed on the breaks and nearly sent Adam through the windshield. “Adam! We’re about to be killed by a frelling monster and all you can think about is my crotch?”

“Your body’s great too. And your face, and your eyes, and your…” Steve brushed aside his hand before he could try something intimate.

“What’s wrong with you, man?” the Nebraskan wondered.

“Uh… I think the courage pill’s kicked in.” Adam answered. “I’m not very much in control of my brain right now.”

“Oh.” Steve said and he looked at him. “I didn’t think that would happen.” He’s saying all the things which people would normally be too scared to say – and who knows what that would be for someone like the Zebra?

“Y’know, if Mr. Courageous had the right marketing consultant, we could have had a combination of Paxil and Viagra on the market sixty years ago.”

“Maybe the government should set up an employment councilor for some of these mad genius types.” Steve said. “By the way, if I’d taken a courage pill, I’d probably be on top of you so completely that we’d make the Carnefactor’s job a piece of cake.”

“Thanks.” Adam said. “I was beginning to wonder…”

“Geez Adam, I have both hormones and eyes,” Steve sniffed. “Though you know what they say about courage and stupidity,” he added, smiling.

“No,” Adam replied. “What do they say?”

“Damn  ! Where the hell did that come from!” Steve shouted, and he put the pedal to the floor. There was a stench of burning rubber, and after five seconds, the Zebra realized what Steve was talking about.

Steve quickly took the SUV to a three way stop, where (ignoring the traffic signal) he used the extra room to make a U-Turn. Unfortunately, the SUV was an extraordinarily sluggish vehicle, and as he made the turn, it began to heavily bank. Steve swerved the vehicle to compensate, and instead of capsizing, the big vehicle lost control, plowed through a stop sign, and hit a fence that was surrounding a tire store. Steve hit the breaks, and the SUV came to a stop without doing too much damage to the shop. Adam, who had removed his safety belt so he could quickly abandon the car,  involuntarily went flying from his seat, and his head made a heavy crack in the windshield.

“Adam?” Steve said, and then the sight of the Carnefactor in the rear view mirror. He activated the strength belt, connected with a palm strike on the drivers’ side door that took it off in one piece, grabbed his partner, and exited the vehicle. His hard was beating so madly, it didn’t quite register that he was flying.

“Nuts!” Steve shouted, realizing that Tommy would have used something stronger. If the van catches on fire, around all those tires… “Adam?” he questioned, doing his best to fly out of the Carnefactor’s range. “Adam?”

“My head…”

“Hang on man, you may have a concussion,” Steve said. “Let me find us some open space.” Putting the flight-suit (of the three jetpacks that the Bronzeman had acquired, this one was said to be the easiest to operate) into transport mode, Steve landed in a big, empty field not far from the foot of Griffith Mountain. Had he been a native Southern Californian, the emptiness of the I-5, about a half-mile away, would have been eerie.

The Carnefactor advanced, leaving a trail of sulfur and fear in its wake. Its could sense its prey clearly now, and he was wounded. It could also sense his protector, and that one seemed to grow more powerful and determined by the second, ever since they had locked gazes. And although the geas demanded that he kill the Zebra, the demon within the Carnefactor wanted to kill the young would-be hero far more than his cowardly companion. And there he was…

Thirty feet off the ground, Steve had the flight suit in “reaction mode”, designed to best mimic natural human body motion while maintaining a constant altitude. He raised the pain pistol and fired it into the Carnefactor. Again. Again. And again.

None of the blasts had the slightest effect on the demon. Like a pulp hero adjusting his ray gun, Steve tried to twist the “pain switch” to maximum and discovered he was already firing it on its most powerful setting.

He fired again. Nothing happened.

“So brave to fire at me from a distance,” the demon croaked – its own voice, not Ezra’s. “Come closer, pretty one,” he taunted.

When the Carnefactor reached a distance of ten feet away from him, Steve realized that the pain pistol was useless. “Of course it’s not working. It’s used to frelling Hell, and the torments of the damned,” he snapped. “What could a tinker-toy version’s of pain possibly do to that?” Then Steve threw the pistol at it; the weapon caught it squarely between the eyes, nearly stunning it.

“Okay, let’s try something  else.” Steve said. He disabled the flying suit’s reaction mode, and switched it to manually piloting. Under better circumstances, the young Nebraskan could really get used to flying one of these. He dove onto the Carnefactor, and detonated the fly-sense grenade. Suddenly the Carnefactor discovered that its senses were extremely muddled. Steve dove down, clamped the neural inhibitor on his forehead, and began hitting the demon in the chest and the head as hard as he could with his fists.

“Die, you son of a bitch!” he snarled, feeling the aggression within him surge once again when he got into close proximity. He switched the flight suit back into reaction mode, hovered eight feet off the ground, and landed one haymaker on the befuddled creature’s temple, which made a grisly sound, bone on bone, that thundered over the countryside like a gunshot. A second haymaker landed. A third. A fourth.

The Carnefactor, though rocked by these sudden, unexpectedly powerful attacks, managed to dislodge the inhibitor its the skull and shook itself out of its stupor. A grazing blow from its great arm struck Doerksen and bounced him several meters away, but he flew back and caught the monster with a sharp blow to the throat. Then it occurred to him that the burning pentagram in its chest might mark the Carnefactor’s weakest spot or a power point, so he aimed a punch squarely at the center of its chest. Unfortunately, the Carnefactor caught the punch as it was being thrown and now encased Steve’s hand with its huge claw. It bent its head down, huge jaws opened, eager to bite off the Nebraskan’s head. But Steve still resisted, and so it received a fist in the snout for its trouble. Annoyed, the Carnefactor cracked the whip with its prey, lifted the young Doerksen high above the ground, and then slammed him three times on the asphalt. Steve fell limp. Again the Carnefactor bent over to bite him, but Steve, playing possum, suddenly kicked his legs up, wrapped them around its neck, and began to squeeze its throat like a mad thing.

The Carnefactor panicked, let go of its prey and unsheathed its wrist spur. Steve adjusted the suit’s flight controls to quickly gain altitude, and despite the weight, the ungainly pair began to rise above the ground – thirty feet, fifty feet, eighty feet…

The Carnefactor plunged its spur into Steve’s side. Its impact was sufficient to penetrate  Barricade’s force field – though only barely, as the wound was little more than a scratch – but still Steve Doerksen suddenly felt something sharp enter his side. Gritting his teeth, he blocked a second attempt by the monster to impale him, then tried to twist his body and land a solid blow on the pentagram. All that accomplish was to burn his hand in hellfire. Steve, yelping painfully, released his hold on the Carnefactor, and both monster and man abruptly plummeted to the ground. The Nebraskan staggered to his feet and discovered the Carnefactor already looming over him. He swallowed hard.

The Carnefactor backhanded him, sending him flying with a crack about eighty meters down the road, where he landed near an abandoned truck.

“Nuts,” Steve said, heart pounding. He struggled to his feet again; he wanted not to lose this fight more than anything in the world. But he was rubbery legged, and stumbled flat on his face almost as soon as got to his feet.

The Carnefactor was finally pleased by what it saw. Like a giant holding a dainty piece of meat,it picked the prone Doerksen off the ground, pulled him close enough to growl at in triumph, then backhanded him once again. Steve landed sixty meters away. He couldn’t get lift himself off his hands and knees. He coughed a lump of blood.

The Carnefactor slowly advanced, as Steve Doerksen still tried to regain his footing, and after a half-successful attempt, abruptly fell backwards and rolled to his back. The Carnefactor loomed over him, its wrist spike raised and extended to maximum length. Now comes the gutting stroke. It held the Nebraskan’s defiant gaze in his eyes and concentrated.

“You’re not breaking me,” Steve rasped. No one’s ever breaking me again, he vowed. “So you back off and count yourself lucky.”

The Carnefactor was not used to someone meeting its power with raw force of will. It staggered back one step, steeled itself, then launched its spear at the prone Nebraskan, trying to penetrate his faltering force field and impale him square in the chest. But the strike missed the mark. The contest of wills slowed down the demon just enough for Doerksen to get something of a third wind. He rolled to one knee, and hit the spear, which was now lodged in the ground, with a palm strike. The appendage broke off the demon’s body and rolled onto the ground like a heavy iron rod. Doerksen performed a somersault, grabbed the weapon in one swoop, and launched it into the pentagram in the monster’s chest.

The spear was consumed in hellfire and turned to ash before it could even touch the beast’s infernal flesh. The demon smiled, and the spear reformed in its sheath and sprung again.

“Okay, I guess the pentagram isn’t its weak spot after all.” Steve remarked, wondering how, even after he’d regained his strength, he was going to beat that thing. “Dumb.”

The young Nebraskan took a few cautious steps back, caught his breath and continued walking backward, allowing the demon to come to him. The strength belt probably boosted his healing factor – he didn’t feel that bad now, and was reasonably calm, so it wasn’t just adrenaline keeping him from shock. He also didn’t feel like coughing blood anymore.

The Carnefactor leapt in front of him, spear poised to thrust into his neck. Steve dodged the blow, used the monster’s arm as an impromptu ramp, employed the jetpack as a booster, climbed up the monster’s body and kicked him in the face, then somersaulted back to the ground and immediately returned to a combat stance. Again, Steve locked his gaze with the Carnefactor and attempted to beat the monster with sheer willpower. Talk about a graveyard stare. They held each other’s eye for about ten seconds.

“Omega could beat me, but not you,” the demon croaked.

So the thing reads minds? Steve almost shrugged. “Yeah, Tommy could. And so can I,” he said, cracking his knuckles. “Unless you want to run back to Hollywood like a little sub-demon. There’s a latte with your name on it somewhere.”

Now where’d that remark come from?

The Carnefactor roared and advanced. Steve leapt into the air, activated the jet pack again, wove past the incoming spear and tagged the monster with a haymaker to the jaw. The creature staggered a step backwards, and Steve pressed the attack, always maintaining eye contact. That seemed to double the intensity of his blows, and each blow was harder than the last.

Then the Carnefactor, in a desperation move, leapt into his opponent with the bulk of its body. Steve, unprepared for a body block from something that was twice his height and ten times his mass, felt like he’d just had a headlong collision with a Buick. Doerksen fell to his back, rolled once, then tried to use the momentum from the impact to somersault away from the Carnefactor’s follow-up attack. The Carnefactor missed him, but only barely – and it snatched the jet pack and ripped it from his back. Steve Doerksen was now grounded.

The Carnefactor pressed its advantage. Another back-handed blow sent Steve flying thirty meters, and Steve staggered to his feet and tried to wince past the pain. The Carnefactor smiled, sensing that it was only seconds away from the kill – and that’s when it heard the sound of an oncoming car, coming straight at it. It was the Bronzeman’s SUV, complete with a crumpled fender, and Adam Foster was in the driver’s seat. The Zebra was sticking his head out the window, and if Steve could have seen his pupils, he’d have marveled that such levels of dilation were possible. “I’ve taken a whole box of courage pills and I feel great!” Adam shouted. He had pulled the SUV out of the tire shop (good thing it didn’t roll over) and was now making a direct run at the Carnefactor.

“Adam! Get outta there!” Steve shouted. A war whoop was the Zebra’s only response, then the sickening crunch of metal on demon.

It wasn’t the impact that slew the Carnefactor; it was the defiance; the one creature whom he’d been summoned to kill was, perhaps ironically, the person who was best suited to slay it. The SUV bounced off the creature, fell on its side, and made a trail of sparks and smoke as it slid along the road, past the demon’s pulped remains.

“Adam!” Steve shouted, and he bolted to the wreckage and scanned it. Adam had tried to exit the vehicle at the last second, and had ended up getting pinned under it. He thanked Barricade for the strength harness as he hoisted the SUV overhead.

“Uh Steve…” Adam said, looking at him in wonder.

“A guy could get used to this,” Steve said, and he threw the SUV into a vacant lot. It burst into flames.

“Uh, Steve?” Adam wondered, and he pointed to his bare mid-section.

“Oh!” Steve said, realizing that he was shirtless – and harness-less. “Damn. Where’d that come from?”

*****

To illustrate the point further, Doerksen walks over to one of the wrecked tractors, grabs it with both hands, uproots it, and does a military press with it.

“Son of a bitch,” I say. I’m not the only fucktard in this generation of our family with serious superpowers.

“The strength belt had come loose when he tore off the jetpack, and I didn’t realize it until after I threw the truck,” Steve tells me. He shrugs, does a two-handed standing throw with the tractor, and the wreck goes flying fifty feet, where it falls apart in a clatter that spooks the horses for a bit. Neither one of us speaks for close to a minute. We just look at each other. “And that was it,” Steve concluded the story. “When the SUV hit him, the Carnefactor blew up good.”

“Sometimes they do that,” I reply.

“And not only was the Carnefactor trashed and Los Angeles saved…”

“Not to mention the Zebra’s hairy ass,” I add.

“…I found out that I had powers.” He pauses for a minute. “Told you I wasn’t doing ‘roids.”

“Fuck you,” I snap. “So have you been tested? Find out just how good you are?”

“No.” Steve replies. “I don’t know who I’d trust to test me. The fewer people who know, the better. Right?”

I nod. “So you saved Adam.”

“We were both better than we ought to have been. I had a paramedic check me out – and I guess I healed up quick, because they told me there was nothing wrong with me. Adam ran around for a few minutes, and then he was good too…”

“Then the two of you went back to my apartment and did the victory dance?”

“Tommy!” Steve objects. “I’d never do that in someone else’s home without permission!”

“Bet you’re not man enough to do it on a car hood either,” I smirk.

“Do you have to do that?” You can always tell when Steve’s irritated when he uses that tone. “You know how they always tell people who like to show affection in public to ‘get a room’. That’s what we did: I rented a room: a good one, at a decent hotel. Things were going great: a little jazz, a little wine, we started taking off our clothes… then Adam had the bright idea (seeing that I now had powers) of discovering which one of us could take the other guy in a fight, so he sucker-punched me.”

“Adam always does come up with the worst ideas at the worst possible moment. What the hell do you expect from someone who names himself after a fucking zebra?”

“I wish I could argue with that,” Steve replied. “After the third punch, I’d had enough, so I started trading blows with him. After about fifteen seconds of beating the crap out of each other, I stunned him with an uppercut, wrestled him down, pinned him to the ground, and hit him in the face twice. The second punch broke his nose, and that ended the fight. He bled like a stuck pig, so we cleaned up, dressed, and he left without saying a thing, Unfortunately I lost the room deposit.”

“Sorry about forcing him on you.”

“Don’t be. He can be an annoying prick, but I kinda like him. And I don’t blame him for starting the fight; we were both coming down on serious testosterone overload: me from confronting the Carnefactor, Adam from swallowing ‘courage pills’. I would have backed away if I’d been more in control…”

“Well, you’re probably right.” I admit, trying to make him feel a little better about it. “You’d exposed yourself to some pretty serious mojo. Magic’s not trivial, it takes its toll.” I smile. “Still, I bet you were on a major high when it was over.”

Steve paused for a second. “A guy can get addicted to it,” he admits. The way he’s looking at me is practically an accusation.

“It isan addiction,” I said, mock tapping my arm like a heroin addict.

Steve winces. “We’re disgusting,” he says.

“Steve, you’re a fucking boy scout with a pink triangle merit badge,” I retort. “So where do you stand with Adam now?”

“I promised him we’d try again next time I was in Los Angeles. He seemed apologetic enough. Hopefully, we’ll be in a better mood. I made sure he got credit for taking out the Carnefactor – that increased his stock with the local media and made his efforts to reform seem a little more credible. We talk on the phone about once a month.” Steve sighs. “And that brings me to what I wanted to talk about. Now don’t get mad at me….”

“You fucking asshole, I’ll kill you!” I shout.

Even Steve has to laugh at that one. My hands reach out to mock grab him, and he pushes me away. “Tommy, right now you’re vulnerable. You’ve got a lot of enemies, and any one of them could strike you at any time. They’ve already tried to take you down as a group.”

“Please don’t…”

“Afraid so.” Steve said. “I’m offering to put on a costume and a mask, move to Los Angeles, and serve as your back-up. Not a sidekick, mind you – backup.”

“No fucking way,” I tell him as shake my head. “First of all… well there’s no first. It’s just a no fucking way.” I poke him in the chest for emphasis. “Steve, you idiot, you’ve got no training. You’re more of a distraction than a help to me – face it dude, I love you like a brother (sometimes) but you’ve always gotten under my skin, even when you don’t mean to. Why do you think we fought so much when we were kids?”

“I thought you were just a bully who was egged on by a grandfather determined to keep an old ugly, family feud alive after he croaked.” Steve responds .Nail, meet head.

“And you’d just be a distraction to me. And you’ve got no training..”

“I’ve been training with your dad – and with Buck, if you can call trying to keep him calm during his psychotic episodes ‘training’.”

“That ain’t the same,” I tell him. “You don’t know what your powers do, Stevie. You don’t know how they stack up against what’s out there. I know you ain’t a coward – but I always figured you for a guy with more brains than guts.”

“So this is just another ‘don’t put on the mask’ speech.”

“Hey! It’s your choice.” Shit, I hate it when people accuse meof being a moralizer. “If you feel the costume in your balls, go for it. You made it sound like it might be. You’ve been close enough to me to what the pros and cons are...”

“I do.”

“But it still needs to be said – it’s not a hobby, it’s a fucking profession. And it is a profession, despite what guys like Maestro may think.”

“Your girlfriend Sarah doesn’t seem that interested in it either.”

My eyes narrow. “She’s had some bad shit in her past. Cut her some slack.”

“Definitely,” Steve said,

“All I’m saying is, dude: don’t run into this business half-cocked. Make sure you’ve got a hard-on first.”

“Tommy!” Steve objects.

“Hey! I always wondered what “half-cocked” meant.”

“I think it’s a gun reference.” Steve interjects.

“And that’s not phallic?” I reply. I love embarrassing him. It’s so fucking easy to do, but I still love it. “Now what do you know about your powers?”

“I can get real strong – I’ve lifted a combine,”

“The John Deere 9650?” Steve nods. “That’s fourteen tons. How long did you hold it?”

“I was too busy telling myself it was a dream to put a stopwatch to it,” Steve replies. “But I need both an adrenaline rush and a lot of concentration to get stronger than normal. I’ve got decent tolerance to injury, and… I dunno, I’ve noticed things come to me a little easier – I always know the time, make lucky guesses about exact change, know who’s on the other end of a phone line when it rings, open books to the page I need… is being lucky a power?”

“Definitely,” I reply. “You try to fly?”

“I climbed a tree and jumped a few months ago.” Steve tells me. “All I did was confirm the tolerance to injury. Also, when I use my powers, it tends to calm me down and make me think more clearly. And people tend to notice me more, and like me more – I guess I get more charismatic. People listen to me and do what I say.” He smiles and cracks a rare joke. “Except maybe you.”

“You’re stepping on my lines, you little putrid piece of…” I smile back. “Just for that, I think I’m gonna kick your ass. You up for best two out of three?”

“Sure.” Steve nods, and he gets into a wrestler’s stance (a little taller, a little more confident than what he used in high school) and we lock up, butt heads, chests, and pretty much every other body part. We actually went well beyond the “best two out of three”, trading holds and pins for about an hour. He doesn’t use his super-strength, but he doesn’t have to – we’re far more evenly matched than we used to be back in high school. And while this was the first time the asshole has ever pinned my shoulders to the ground, I gotta admit it’s the most fun I’ve had in months, so much fun that I’ve forgotten almost completely about superpowers, child custody, villains with grudges, tomorrow, or any of the other bullshit in my life.

The guy’s got mojo now. Steve Dorkson, of all people. What a strange fucking world we live in.


 

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