How do you get to Carnegie Hall from here? Practice, practice, practice. How do you get to New Orleans from here? Practice. Practice drinking.
The Big Easy, as drunken frat boys have been known to call it, has been one of the great cities of this country for a long time. It has also been so well-trafficked that it’s had quite a few superheroes and villains in its days as well. A bit of magic, too. While magical practitioners have generally preferred a certain amount of secrecy in order to avoid minor inconveniences like torture, pressing, hanging, guillotining, drowning, and the occasional burning. That amount of paranoia is less-justified these days, unless you live in one of the theocracies in the Middle East, some parts of Africa, and Papua New Guinea. There has been no word yet on if Mamma New Guinea’s mad at Papua.
Anyway, Louisiana’s kinda rural and swampy, making it a good place in general for people to set up their huts. There’s been a rumor going around that Baba Yaga bought some property there to spend her winters. As the biggest city in the state, and a pretty old city on the continent, New Orleans attracted a lot of magical attention.
Later, that attracted Faustus.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of Faustus. I just don’t know what their deal is,” Sam said over some Chinese buffet food. Hot wings and a salad at this point. We had stopped in some Podunk town at a place simply called China Buffet. All of us were tired of fast food; even I grew weary of McGang Bangs after enough of them in a row. Over here, that’s the term for when you stick one of their dollar chicken sandwiches inside of one of their dollar double cheeseburgers and act like you’re eating real food. Well, with New Orleans and Newark about 1,300 miles apart, which is more than two days driving without stopping for food, sleep, or peeing, our little trip involved a lot of fast food to slow us down. So since we were had to take our time and wanted slightly better food, we settled on something different: Chinese food. Pizza, macaroni and cheese, sweet and sour chicken, and hibachi. I’ve always enjoyed that authentic Chinese buffet experience.
“They’re Hephaestus, but they deal in magic and have a different name,” answered Max as he ate what appeared to be a slice of egg roll pizza with a side of noodles and raw steak. He, Holly, and Sam were all smooshed into the opposite side of our booth. Inconvenient seating arrangements, but that’s just how they preferred to do things.
Holly was busy working over some General Tso’s chicken and steamed rice. “Are they partners with Hephaestus, or like a different branch?”
“Different limb,” Max said. He pulled a piece of broccoli out of his jacket and set it on an egg roll that had slid off the piece of pizza he had gotten done eating.
I didn’t remember them setting out broccoli on any of the buffets. We also hadn’t stopped near a grocery store since Newark.
Sam corrected Max. “Different branch. It branched off.”
We figured out that was going to be one hell of a long trip, from New Jersey to Louisiana, but it gave us some time together on the road. Just the four of us, squashed into a travel trailer. It would have been more bearable if Holly and Sam weren’t still iffy about me. Holly has been better in general, but I’ve caught Sam watching me. Early in the morning, when we’re all turning in, I saw her staring. I glimpsed a glare from her from the side any time we’ve shared the same set of seats. Even during all this, she eyed me over and even through her hot wings, depending on how far along she was eating them.
So here’s what I figured. “Speaking of branches and branching off and people who may or may not decide to split our little party…Max, you know, you don’t have to come with me. I know y’all recently had a pretty good reason to fear for your lives because of me.”
Holly snorted, but then she grabbed a napkin. “Just one?” she asked, then tried to blow her nose from a snort gone wrong.
“One-ish. At least one. One is one of the numbers in the sequence. But seriously, you have goals of your own, right? Things you wanted to do? Jobs you wanted to pull? Places to go, people to kill?”
Max scratched his chin. “I suppose there are things I could do instead.” He turned to Sam. “Was I in the middle of anything before coming over here?”
Sam took a moment to think it over, “You decided to visit because our schedule was clear for awhile, but you said something about taking over Iron Chef America when were all done. No, you were laying out options. It was either Iron Chef America if we wanted to do that, or we could take over ice cream factory and add a mind control drug to it.”
“There was something else you wanted me to keep an eye on,” said Holly. Weird how they switched into business mode like that. The women changed their stances and tones. It was a subtle shift toward professionalism. Well, it’s not like he kept them around as eye candy, after all. “I just remembered. There was a hero who lucked onto a few of our dealers. You wanted me to see if it was a trend or not while we were away. I lost my notes with my last phone, but let me check my emails. Silver Stinger, that was it. Looks like he got Mark C. and Raoul last month. They were the guys who dealt at colleges.”
“See?” I asked. “You’ve got things to do. I didn’t remember you having some huge drug empire, but it sounds like you have examples to make.”
Max pulled a strand of unruly hair from out of his face and shrugged. “It’s not a big empire or a big deal. The dealers are independent. I provide part of their supply, and I don’t need that much money anyway. It’s not like we’re staying in really good hotels this whole trip. Besides, I think I know why you’re really asking about all this.”
“I have no ulterior motives whatsoever in anything I do. In unrelated news, I may have to go to the bathroom for a long while in the next few seconds, depending in no way whatsoever on what you’re about to say.”
“You’re worried about me.”
“Darn wandering bladder. Y’all might want to look into that, by the way. It’s like restless bowel syndrome, but wetter.” I went to stand up and found I was lifting my booth seat along with me. If I’d had my armor on, I could have lifted it, but instead I fell back on my ass.
Holly and Max grinned.
“A little payback?” I queried.
Max nodded. “Not my idea. It works out.”
“If it weren’t for the fact that it was used on me, I would very much approve of gluing someone to their seat in an all you can eat buffet.”
“While I have you here, why not answer my question?”
“What question? You asked a question?”
“I asked at least two.”
Max reached into his jacket and pulled out a little sprayer. He jiggled it toward me. “Are you going to make me use this?”
Holly and Sam were loving this. Holly had a smile on her face to rival Max’s. With Sam, it was more of a happy, malevolent twinkle in her eye. That, or she was going to be a father soon and I was going to have to lecture the child about having done something prior to that moment.
“No, technically I’m not making you do anything. I’m just being difficult. You’re the one in complete control of your body and mind while using that thing.”
Max spritzed me in the face. I tried to cover up, but it didn’t do any more good than any other time I ever saw him use this truth shit on someone. Almost instantly, I felt an intense desire to talk without thinking about what I said.
“I feel an intense desire to talk without thinking about what I’m saying,” I said. “You know, a common piece of advice I hear for politicians is that they should answer the question they wish they had been asked, rather than the one they were asked. That’ll probably help me a lot in all this, don’t you think?”
“Nope,” Sam said with a shake of her head.
“Well why don’t you watch me obsessively just to make sure? I swear, you keep this up, I’m thinking you’re gonna drill a glory hole in the shower stall.”
“He sounds like his normal self again,” Sam said.
“Yeah, but don’t abuse it. Remember, he’s still Gecko, which means he can probably weaponize truth.”
“Before you finish talking, I think it’d be a good idea to go ahead and get started here. See, it would work out if I kept talking about unpleasant things. Now, at times I wonder if I’m going to be typecast as the ‘ass man’ as if it was some sort of negative thing. I use it so much as an ideal orifice for combat. It’s not my fault the military never authorized rectal Kevlar. I just find that the human ass is like a never-ending fount of good times. Makes you feel like you weigh less, useful for a buttload of descriptive terms, and a great weight to hide or carry things that catches people off guard. In fact, I started working on a checklist one day of things I should try to fit up there. Now, a pineapple, I find, tickles once you get over the initial and continuing discomfort. I don’t recommend anything chocolate, though. You know, like Milk Duds. And contrary to something I saw in a movie, toothbrushes aren’t as good at keeping the colon clean as you’d think. Plus, they acquire this really bad aftertaste-“
Holly jumped across the table to put her hands over my mouth, but I kept going. I could hear them talking, but, as I was trying to explain to them, if I just kept talking until this stuff wore off, they’d never get to ask me anything.
“…which is, after all, why y’all did this to me in the first place.” I continued once Holly removed her hands. “Now, there was this one time when I tried to go and find the t-bone cut of meat on a human. Boy, was that ever a fun adventure into the human anatomy.”
Sam hauled off and knocked me upside the head with the napkin dispenser.
“Why did you want to know if I had other things I needed to do, Gecko?”
“I really wish you hadn’t done this to me, but I bet this is even more payback, right?”
Sam held up the napkin dispenser threateningly.
“Well, so far I had to help you get away from that Long guy back in Kingscrow when he caught you. Then I had to break you out of prison when Forcelight caught you. Then you visited and got nabbed by Amplitude. I might hurt Holly and Sam again if I need to, and that would probably drive you away with harsher feelings toward me. The heroes hid Leah from me with her probable cooperation. Then Hephaestus liquidated Carl, turned Gastrolord, and we’re heading down South to break Moai out of wherever he’s being held. Oh, and the other member of our little trio, Good Doctor, is still in prison and even informing on me to the heroes. You know, it occurs to me that it’s fairly dangerous to be friendly toward me.”
It was my turn to glare at Sam, and Holly too, as I finished up, but I couldn’t help adding, “And it’s dangerous for anyone to know enough about how I tick that they could potentially manipulate me with this information.”
Max took out another sprayer, then held up his index finger. “One last question then. Let’s lay this out on the table. If you had to let me die or kill me to accomplish your goal, would your feelings toward me make you sacrifice your goal for my sake?”
Max sprayed me with the other sprayer. Things calmed down in my brain, at least as much as they ever did. “I didn’t think so. So I’m staying with you.” He turned to his assistants. “Do you two want to leave the group?”
“The fact that your life isn’t more important to me doesn’t matter?”
“It matters. I think it’s a bonus. As long as everyone knows you don’t care enough about my life to save it, who would ever use me as a hostage against you? I’m also safer around you than back in Kingscrow if Hephaestus decides to come after me.”
“But wait,” Holly broke in, “we didn’t blow up the last place because you were worried about your henchman’s life.”
I took a long, long sip of my soda to alleviate some of the recent drymouth from all the talking, “Getting Carl back alive was the goal, not a secondary objective. That’s no longer an issue. He’s dead, and Moai’s not technically alive in any sort of fragile sense. Faustus is going to learn just how much a difference that makes in how I handle things.”
“Somebody’s staying on target this time around,” Max commented.
“We can talk about that back in the car,” I said.
Max rolled his eyes and motioned to the rest of the restaurant where everyone else was either slumped over something or had fallen on the floor. “They’re not going to wake up until I spread the antidote.”
“The past is one thing, Maxy-poo, but I don’t want my devious little plan thwarted because we chose to eat at the one Chinese restaurant in Mississippi owned by a Hephaestus front company or something.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re paranoid?” Holly asked.
I lunged over the table enough to grab her blouse near the collar and pull her face close to mine. “No,” I whispered, staring her in the eyes. “But I want to know who thinks I’m paranoid. How much do they know about me?”
I let her go and settled back down onto the seat I was stuck to, acting like nothing had happened. Max chuckled to himself, and Sam reached around Holly to smack him on the shoulder.
“Alright, children,” she said to the rest of us, “Let’s get back on the road. Somebody see if they can make Gecko’s ass less sticky.”
“Taint nothin’ but a thing,” Holly said.
Don’t worry, I got back at them. While I was back in the trailer working on the F-bomb, I used my link to the car to make them wish they’d pranked me a little less.
The next time we stopped to let Sam use the bathroom, Max and Holly opened up the door to find me humming “What Is Love?” and bopping my head along to it.
I thought it was hilarious, but then I’m the one who kept it playing again and again over the car stereo for the two hours or so since we left the restaurant.