Monday, February 5, 2018

It’s the Little Things that Make the Difference

A rainy Sunday in a dark city. One of those dives where the old-timer who owns it lets the whole underworld come in to drink and deal, but prohibits crime on the premises. An ex-boxer sits at the bar with an ex-cop, sucking down the cheap hooch while they talk about the time the fight was fixed and the gun was dropped. A pickled head sits in a jar atop the upright piano, playing holographic chess with a holographic green child, but the cat’s lashing tail keeps blurring the pieces. A private eye with a cybernetic eye slinks between the tables, showing glossy pictures of a young rich girl who’s been beaten half to death, but no one’s willing to say they know anything or anyone.

The waitress was a gorgon with a peg-leg and an attitude, chewing bubble-gum that smelled like old cigarettes and scratching at a ragged vein just inside her left nostril. Like she did every week, she served us coffee in the corner booth, where we sat talking about cash, blood, love, and the meaning of life.

There we were inside the repetitive innuendo of the endless place, of the bar that time had forgot, at the end of the world and the corner of the dimension and the last street out of the town that never was. There we were, watching the sin and the scum, the tired hookers picking themselves up and the broken bouncers winding themselves down.

Velberius, the Terror of the Northern Night, head shaved down to the seam where steel meets skin. He’s never been caught blinking, it took a car to leave that dent in his chin, and he isn’t smirking at you—he was born that way. Biceps the size of volleyballs. The cranial ridge of a neanderthal. The bent nose of someone who doesn’t mind getting hit anymore. Always available for intimidation, surprisingly cheap, and he visits his mother in prison once a year, so you know he’s got a good heart.

His mother was with the group that took over the Gorgiogne Embassy in Hanselberg about thirty years ago. She’d used to work as a lounge singer back when Velberius had been born, to make ends meet, but her real passion was Hanselan liberation. When the Blind Moth Street Army of the Hansel Nationalists found her and her new baby sleeping in a condemned library they used to organize strikebreaking attacks, it was a marriage made in heaven.

Two weeks later, she’d been to revolutionary schools all across the continent. Two years later, she was leading her own cell in Hanselberg itself. She seduced the Gorgiognan security field manager over a month-long courtship, convinced him to let the wall down for a forbidden tryst one night, and brought in a dozen heavily-armed friends. They beheaded the Ambassador, impaled his husband on the flagpole, and held off the police for a four-day siege that culminated in the burning of the entire foreign district. Velberius grew up in a Gorgiognan Cultural School, learning to hate while he learned not to hate. They put twenty pounds of structural support in him, like they did with all the other living forklifts who built those cheap luxury high rises along the Fleurigne River. His mother seduced her way out of prison twice before they finally sutured her womanhood into inaccessibility and injected her face with liquid age. He was twenty-five before he finally met her again, and twenty-eight when he fled to Krolepest to escape murder charges for those eleven prison guards.

There we were with our coffee and vodka, looking for the big score, like any other week. Azrakous, the cloud of nanobots, who makes his home floating inside a yellow balloon with a happy face on it. They made Mistoids like him illegal, after the one that floated into the Cruzian President’s body and took control of it, causing untold cultural damage with the whole break-dancing incident, not to mention the international fiasco he started when he declared war on the continent of Antarctica over the objections of all other members of the Reformed Earth Government. Once they forced the poor bastard out of office and put him through some medical scans, they found the cloud that had done it. Zap-zap, over with two shocks. Still, the President never recovered his approval ratings. And Antarctica hasn’t been the same since. Cruzia, either.

Even among the Mistoids, Azrakous is well-regarded as both fiendish and fiendishly creative. He doesn’t take jobs anymore, consumes raw materials from street trash to survive, and woe to the person who accidentally brushes against the smiley-face balloon inside which he lives. Once every so often he splurges and takes over the downtown news network, causing little mistakes that are mental delicacies to appreciate. Nothing big, like drawing genitals on the weather screen or possessing the cute new anchor-lady and having her undress herself, oh no. Small stuff, smart stuff, that it takes a real intellectual to notice. Stuff that won’t get him figured out and caught; stuff that could conceivably be a mistake, so that they don’t track him down and wipe out the last great mind of his race. Like last time, he possessed the sports announcer and made him say, “Annual foosball championship,” three or four times, instead of, “annual football championship,” then have an argument with another announcer about how he hadn’t said it that way. And then Azrakous leaves really quick, fading out into the floor, and no one but us ever knows he was even there. You gotta appreciate stuff like that, if you want to stay alive in a world this heartless. Over the years, it’s the little things that make the difference.

There we were in the rattle of glasses and the jingling from the player piano, looking for the big score, like every other week. Dr. Squid can’t get seen outdoors these days, even in this part of this city. With the purple suckers on the sides of his neck, the grafted monocle on one of his overlarge eyes, and the floppy white tentacles for arms, it’s not easy to miss him, even at night. Not since what happened with the death ray, when his picture spent a few solid days in a row being projected from every television in the world.

The Doctor is the oldest of us. The most traditional. Predisposed to maniacal laughs and grandiose delusions that never go quite right for him, but that do great things for the rest of the world, weeding out the weak and turning the strong into rich villains or honored heroes. He offers a public service, really. No sooner has he extorted a few trillion credits from some burning Australian republic than he’s spent it all on his next scheme. He might steal a luxury resort or a Caribbean island, slice of paradise all to himself, but then he shifts it into another plane of existence and turns it into a base of operations for his plan to blow up the Moon, or whatever it is this year.

Some people still say crime doesn’t pay, but they forgot the meaning of that saying. Sure, a thug who robs some lady’s purse and gets shot—there, crime doesn’t pay. For the one who gets away, it pays. For some fat businessman who embezzles funds, gets caught, and loses his nice house in the hills—no, that crime doesn’t pay. The same businessman who gets away, becomes Province Speaker, and retires to a life of hookers and malfeasance—for that guy, crime pays.

No, the real meaning of the saying that crime doesn’t pay is that good crime doesn’t pay off even when it goes right. I mean good crime, pure crime, crime for crime’s sake. Nothing motivated by money, pleasure, revenge, or insanity. The true criminal, the old-fashioned mastermind, the, the—dare I say—the genius, like Dr. Squid, is one who masters the very forces that make the universe progress. Crime to force people to better themselves. Crime to push the possibilities of imagination. Crime that forces the people in Paris, Albion, Los Angeles, Neo Tokyo, to deal with things they’d never face otherwise, like an army of giant mechanical wasps, a telekinetic scythe-child from the end of eternity, or the Line Dancing Plague: all the Doctor’s handiwork. Crime brings us together, man and woman, adult and child, humanity and planet as one, in a way we’d never realize without men like Dr. Squid.

She’s a harsh mistress, true crime. There’s never any rest. Never any giving up. Never any consideration of practical goals. Amateur criminals give up once they’ve funded their pension. Once they’ve got a place to stay, some good food, a reputation of intimidation, any of that. Professional criminals stay in the game because they need it. They need the money, need the thrill, need the quest that drives them, so they can hide the sickness in their soul, or make some point no one cares about. Masters, though—those who love the work—do it for the work alone, driven by a higher passion. Like what Azrakous does, fooling with public figures, but without even the element of humor as a payoff. The Doctor’s a servant of humanity, or maybe of forces even greater than us. We all respect him for that. Up close, Velberius could punch the Squid’s pulpy purple squid-brain out in a second, pull him apart bodily, or work him over in a dozen different ways. Azrakous could possess him and make him drink acid. But the Squid has this presence, this aura, that makes everyone else in this line of work realize how shitty, how subservient, they are by comparison. We’d all die for him if we had to, the way so many other faceless minions have over the years. The cops just don’t understand what they’re trying to shoot at.

There we were with the bruisers, the schemers, and the luckless dreamers. The sullen smugglers having a last drink before risking it all on a midnight barge heist, and the bright-eyed young ballplayers steadying their nerves before asking that one special hooker to give up the life, to run away with them into a land of imaginary shelter that can seem so real when you’re still nineteen. Drunks who’d had their fill of trying to see life as something better, and who just wanted to feel like they still belonged by getting loaded where the underworld teemed. Private detectives who were only two gunshots and one missing fingernail away from the break that was going to get them out of the business for good. God, I miss them, those rainy Sundays, in that crowded, dusty, lonely dive, in that dark city.

There we were among it all, like every other week. Miss B. Kitty, B for Bloody, with her pink nose ring and clawed gloves. Hers was the usual story: abused, abandoned, abused some more, then fallen into the arms of the one good man in the city, who’d led her on for a couple weeks before betraying her to his friends to pay off a debt he’d run up before ditching his second wife. Miss Kitty wore a neon pink costume, white garters over her stunning leggings, daring you to look so she could rip your eyes out. Like every tenth person who came in here, she’d trained herself in the mystical arts in lands far below the surface of the Earth, brutalizing her body under the reserved attentions of ancient masters until it had room left for neither an ounce of fat nor mercy.

There was only one way for her quest to end, of course: dangling Senator Quale over the edge of the Hoffenheimer Building by his own tie, threatening to let him drop if he didn’t turn the new hyperball stadium into the shelter for starving orphans that the funds had been supposed to fund in the first place. Naturally, she had to let him fall when he told her she was in over her head, but that only opened up a new set of problems. It turned out Quale hadn’t been behind the misappropriation of orphanage funds, oh no. He’d been a small fish, a fall guy, a pocket gibbon, a patsy, a servant of dark forces unknown. Quale’s sniveling aide told her that she didn’t have what it took to challenge these people. No one did.

Undaunted, Miss Kitty fought her way through level after reeking level. She clawed lines down the face of the philanthropist who ran the corrupt charity that cared more about comfortable hyperball skyboxes than about the orphans receiving edible gruel. She tossed several city financial inspectors into vats of acid at the old chemical plant, she dismembered the mutant lion chained outside the freemasons’ vault of secrets, and she left a succession of three police chiefs unable to father children.

Finally, at the end of her quest, she discovered that the source of the problem was her heroine, her ideal, and, to her significantly greater embarrassment, the inspiration for the first iteration of her costume. The long-dead Madeleine Mystonia, patroness of truth, justice, and the theater, had in fact never perished, but instead been preserved in a cryonic slab that served as a boardroom table for one of the most venal businesses then known to our community. Reanimated scarcely seven years after her falsified funeral, Mystonia had then become, in fact, the arch-linchpin of dozens of acts of civic vulgarity. It turned out that she had never been the unstained prosecutor, the rebellious professor, nor the kindly matron philanthropist in the lacy white suit. No, it was all an act, for she was actually as dirty as the rest of us. Dirtier, even, for she had faked not only her lingering illness and death, but the entire benevolent career that had preceded it, during which she had punished many glorified patsies and protected many private masterminds.

This revelation came as a great blow to our Miss Kitty. All of the renowned Madeleine Tomes, Volumes I through XIV, and even the critically heralded though relatively unknown Mystonian Reflections—which had been published as “incomplete” and “posthumous” and “her finest, most spiritually uplifting work”—had previously sat, in cumbersome and expensive printed form, on the upturned moving box that had served as Miss Kitty’s coffee table. These epic philosophical works had guided her adolescent survival and the crusade of her twenties. Now, they were revealed to be ghostwritten, their moral charge merely pablumatic allusions to a glory never meant to be realized.

Where a thousand other avaricious acts had only hardened her resolve to dispense with the city’s criminal element, discovering the depths of her childhood heroine’s deliberate depravity turned her firmly about. She had begun as a vigilante, bordering on criminality in the ultimate service of justice, and ended up as a criminal, bordering on vigilantism in the ultimate service of crime.

Dropping the formerly-resurrected Ms. Madeleine Mystonia from a hijacked weather balloon during a lightning storm had been the hardest thing Miss Kitty had ever done. Shredding her modest, lacy white costume into ribbons, and replacing it with a snug, highly revealing bladed outfit with touches of bondage, had been the wisest thing Miss Kitty had ever done. Now, instead of another hapless vigilante doomed to the fading memories of appreciative pensioners, she’s sitting at a table with muscle like Velberius and brains like Dr. Squid. It’s a lot better to get the idealism out of your system sooner than later.

God, I miss them, those rainy Sundays, in that damp, bustling, reeking bar, in that dark city. Days like those, you felt you could do anything. I’d been suggesting hijacking one of those mobile aquarium buses that they take around to underprivileged schools for teaching science, mutating all the sharks and octopuses and shit in there into living bombs, and holding the convention center hostage during the big baking convention that weekend. Velberius was up for it, and of course the Doctor was fine with it, since he always goes for anything with the possibility of cutting open animals and sewing them back together in ways that make them glow. Azrakous was against the idea, not on principle, but since he didn’t think United Delicacies would be willing to pay much for the release of their six top chefs. Miss Kitty, Miss B. Kitty, was doing that thing she did where she sneered at everyone’s input without admitting whether or not she thought the brainstorm was letting out any good ideas. Every so often, she’d stretch her claws in this real sexy way, and across the table, Velberius would toss his shoulders and inspect his biceps. Those two always had this major sexual tension going on that none of the rest of us were ever part of. They never actually got it out of their system, though, not even years later. At least, I don’t think so.

Azrakous pointed out there’d be a lot of security around for the thing. Armed guards are never usually a problem, excepting that on this particular weekend, it seemed that the police had called in backup from outside for the convention, after all the killings at the croissant expo a few months ago. Not just normal backup, but serious backup. Azrakous had heard rumors that Club JH would be on retainer for the entire weekend. That changed everything for Miss Kitty, who had a different sexual tension issue, sort of a triangle thing, going on between her and this guy on Club JH who could use mind-control on the weak-minded, and was also a pretty good gymnast and zero-g kickboxer to boot. I forget his name, something with a “C.” Anyway, with her on our side, we won Azrakous over. He agreed to possess one of the ticketing supervisors to get us templates of full-access passes for counterfeiting purposes, while Dr. Squid, who’d been blackmailing this pastry chef on the south side, could provide us with uniforms and sample carts to get us in the doors. It was agreed upon that Velberius would drive the aquarium truck to the back of the convention center near afternoon on the second day, and I’d use my connections at the chemical plant to acquire the raw materials Squid would need to make all the sharks go off at the right time.

There was this moment, this one beautiful moment, after we’d pulled it all off, that I really got a sense of myself. My true self, and the true meaning of life. I don’t know if it was actually true, now to look back on it, since maybe it was the heat of the moment, or something, but you never can tell, afterwards. It was beautiful to me, and at the time, it felt like I really knew who I was in this world.

Picture this: the city’s night skyline, searchlights and copters everywhere, and huge, glowing green smoke columns gushing out the top of the convention center. All downtown smells like fresh-baked cake, seawater and smoke, hundreds of people are huddling in little gray blankets, and Velberius is driving this aquarium truck through police barricades. I was in the back, in the aquarium section, shooting down the Club JH stealth fighter with this handheld guided missile thing that Dr. Squid had invented a few days ago. Miss Kitty was still back at the convention center executive offices, having a really long private martial-arts duel with that boyish guy from Club JH, and Azrakous had been trapped in a magnetic net that the cops used to imprison Mistoids, awaiting his processing and trial. The Doctor, of course, was sitting calmly in the cab next to Velberius, calling the big guy an idiot whenever he hit a bump, or whenever one of the cops’ assault vehicles slowed us down.

Explosions, engines, and shouting all around. I’d just shot down the Club JH stealth fighter, finally, after like three or four missiles had missed and hit apartment buildings on either side of Second Avenue, and I was sort of wiping my forehead and wondering if Squid still had the suitcase with the money. I hadn’t even thought about it for the past hour, the whole reason we were there in the first place. And then I realized I didn’t care whether he had it or not. He could’ve dropped the money back at the center, and I wouldn’t have minded one bit.

That’s when I knew I’d become a better person. So many people, they’re concerned about money; image; prestige; all that sort of selfish stuff that doesn’t really matter. When I realized that all I cared about was being out there with my friends, doing something in a group, being part of something bigger than myself, that’s when I knew I’d finally grown as an individual. I might never be as strong or as family-oriented as Velberius, as physical as Miss Bloody Kitty, as funny and unorthodox as Azrakous, or as pure, as committed, as Dr. Squid. But I truly understood myself. Years, decades later, I could sit in that same dive bar on a rainy Sunday, talking things over with my friends, and know that I’d always be happy. I’d found my center by focusing on the small, everyday pleasures of life.