I’d just worked the handcuffs loose when my phone started vibrating in my pocket. Even hanging by my ankles above impending doom, I knew I’d be in real shit if I didn’t pick up. I made a sort of cup out of my hand and pressed the phone to my ear. “This is Devilish urgently speaking.”
“Devilish. It’s me. Are you free to talk?”
I glanced up, or rather down, into the flame-rimmed iris over which I’d been suspended by my ankles. Through a shimmering of superheated spacetime, the stratified circles of Hell were bared like flayed muscle. The radioactive unlight of hellfire brought tears to my eyes, and not for the first time I wished I’d packed a thing of Visine. I always think I won’t need it, and I always do. “Very briefly,” I said.
“You were supposed to report in yesterday,” K.K. continued, audibly irate. “I hear chanting. Are you still working on the Alchemist Affair?”
I was, and things were starting to get real un-groovy, by my professional estimation. The man in question stood outside the chalk pentagram that kept the wound between dimensions from hemorrhaging into our reality. Each word in his black tome was written in the blood of a virgin sacrifice, and with every utterance that wriggled many-legged from his lips, his portal punched deeper into the damned-digesting guts of Gehenna, towards the entity the Alchemist sought to unleash. When at last it slouched into the world, suffice to say the general grooviness of Southern Germany would tank like stock in VHS.
Things were going well enough for the Alchemist that he could pause his recitation to shake his fist at me and crow, “Call for all the help you like, Devilish Calliope! Nothing can stop me now!” His coterie of disciples and colleagues and groupies cackled unctuously from the wings. I recognized a couple of famous novelists, two Nobel laureates, and an Olympic curler—all nude, as a matter of course. It was the latter who’d caught me snooping through the castle’s dungeons and brained me with a corn broom. I could see how she’d won gold.
“Yeah well,” I grumbled, “you know how it goes. One minute you’re doing so and so, and the next it’s all crazy, and then whatever happens. Bing bang boom. It’s a whole thing.”
“A whole thing.”
I was sure I had a better answer somewhere, but right then my skull was too packed with blood to fit long thoughts. “Yes ma’am.”
I detected screams in the static of her pause. Necromagnetic interference from the pit below. “Be that as it may, I have another thing I’m sure you’ll find even more whole. A Condition: Critical, to be precise.”
“You know,” I heard the Alchemist mutter to an adjunct goon, “I didn’t want to say it, but this is just slaughtering the mood.”
A Condition: Critical. Now that was interesting. This thing with the Alchemist was a Condition: Convenient for comparison, which meant that it was not literally or figuratively the end of the world. A couple million dead, tops. I was only here because I wasn’t busy with something else. “No shit,” I said.
“Finish up there and come into the office. We’ve got a ticking clock situation.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay.”
“I said come into the office,” she snapped, and hung up.
“Finally,” the Alchemist groused. “Do you text during movies too?”
“I’m done,” I said, and hucked my phone at his head.
It was a good hit, got him right in the eye. The Alchemist yelped like a cartoon dog, stumbled over his curly-toed slippers and across the pentagonal firewall between realities, which instantly reduced him to a shrieking skeleton. In MESSIARC, we called that a bank shot. Things got out of hand fast. Stygian flames raced along the Alchemist’s bones, and his goons went up like oily rags as the chamber became an inferno. Suspended a hundred feet in the air, I was spared for the moment, but with heat’s propensity to rise, that moment wouldn’t last. I lunged one way and then the other, setting myself to swinging like a pendulum. At the height of my arc, the rope around my ankles snapped off its hook and hurled me face-first through a window. Fortunately for me this had gone down in an old Bohemian palace; something more OSHA-compliant and I’d have been screwed. Unfortunately for me, on the other side of the window was a hundred-foot drop to a cobblestone courtyard. My teeth broke my fall, and I wound up a flattened Coke-can full of broken glass.
“Ow,” I said, and also, “fuck.”
But the immortality clause in my contract wouldn’t let me die without a better excuse, and so I had to sit there and twiddle my metaphorical thumbs while my pulverized bones figured themselves out. There was a time I’d have been glad to be alive. I remembered that waterslide rush of improbable survival, how it jumpstarted my senses and made the world feel new again. But when you felt that day after day, you got numb to it. Started to dread the figurative plunge and welcome the towel-off afterwards.
I’d saved the world this time, I’d have to do it again tomorrow, and I’d probably get screwed on overtime, though honestly that was on me. I’d signed up for the forces of Infinite Good, not Infinite Benefits. No, these days all I looked forward to was a motel shower and a nap afterwards. One had to make do with the many small ends of things.
“This is possibly the direst assignment of your career,” K.K. said. “Do you mind if I swear for emphasis?”
Her six arms made anxious gestures. All three of her faces spoke in tandem. “You can’t afford to fuck this up.”
Back in the day, Kalamkari Kannon had been one of MESSIARC’s best operatives, fighting for harmony across this iteration of Earth under deific guise, until the Higher-Ups promoted her into administration, where her prodigious skills were mostly useless. Her days were now spent making sure jerks like me did our jobs worse than she ever had. I did that better than anyone.
“Well, now I feel like I have to,” I said.
I watched a universal truth drift blithely past her window, harassed by a shoal of profound revelations. K.K’s office floated in a lower layer of Nirvana, a state of existence reachable only from a degree of enlightenment. Monks of all faiths spent decades in chaste meditation to forget their flesh. I’d gotten here through an unholy concoction of Angel Dust, peyote, and Psilocybe azurescens that I called the Conference Call, and which could make cockroaches see god. My body was currently comatose in a Motel 6 south of Reno. I admired my astral self in the back of K.K.’s laptop. Still looking sharp, I had to say.
“So, what’s it this time?” I asked. “Moon vampires? Nazi ghosts? Permutations thereof?”
“You wish it were those common things,” K.K. scoffed. “Vercingetorix Smooth has resurfaced.”
I froze mid-ogle, an ambushed Narcissus. “Shit. When?”
“This morning. At eleven hundred hours, the—”
“He’s gone over to MEGAVILE,” I cut in. “Hasn’t he?”
“It appears so.”
My throat got tight and my neck got itchy, the way they do when you swallow too much at once, or see a bear coming at you with a loose brick in hand. You live as long as I have, you find the body only has so many responses for discomfiting things. “Great,” I managed. “Groovy.”
I’d known, from the day he’d run off, that Smooth would turn up again eventually. The guy had been on the front lines longer than anyone, K.K. included. He wouldn’t go get himself killed off-screen like some side character. The question had been which side would claim him. In the eternal dodgeball game between multiversal good and multiversal evil, nobody didn’t get picked. I’d hoped, futilely I suppose, that he’d find his way back to MESSIARC. He still owed me for bagels.
“What did he do?”
K.K. tapped a button and her projector flickered on. “This is need-to-know information. I wish you did not need to know, but God help us, you do. At eleven-hundred hours this morning, MESSIARC’s Department of Inadvisable Science was attacked by the transuniversal terrorist unit called the Wild Hunt—a known branch of MEGAVILE. They were led by Vercingetorix Smooth.”
She tapped another button, and a grainy surveillance still appeared. A squadron of motorcycles hauled fiery ass across the ginger sands of Mars, leaving a concrete fortress shattered in their rear-view mirrors. These weren’t your slippery-sleek Kawasaki ninjamobiles. These were burly, chrome-bellied choppers, and there was no mistaking the figure who rode at their head, looking like a devil on wheels in his shiny new leather duds.
Good to see you, bud.
“We lost six operatives repelling their assault,” K.K. went on, “and we could not prevent Smooth from absconding with a prototypical kaleidoquantumly correlated thermonuclear device.”
I frowned at that, momentarily perplexed. “A kaleidoquantum… Oh god, no. Really? We made a Voodoo Nuke?”
K.K. sighed for about a minute straight. Three mouths, three times the lung capacity. “The Department of Inadvisable Science exists to preemptively innovate and isolate dangerous technologies. If we don’t invent it, MEGAVILE will.”
I took off my glasses and hung them from my collar. I did not need corrective lenses to see the looming mountain of irony. “You might say that was… inadvisable.”
Two hands massaged K.K.’s temples while another worked a stress ball. The rest looked about ready to throttle me. “These decisions are not mine to make,” she replied stiffly. “Anyway. The present danger cannot be overstated. If activated, the device will detonate every nuclear weapon within ten billion iterations of this universe. The death-toll will be incalculable. Misery and disorder will proliferate on an unprecedented scale. While the frontline of this conflict is ever in flux, the Higher-Ups have deemed this eventuality an unacceptable concession to MEGAVILE. Given your history with Operative Smooth, they believe that you are uniquely qualified to locate him and retrieve the device.”
As the arbiter of all things groovy and not, I had to admit that an apocalypse to the zillionth power was decidedly ungroovy. “Who’s to say he still has it?” I asked.
“If he’d handed it off to MEGAVILE, they’d have used it without hesitation. He’s holding on to it for reasons unknown and disconcerting.” Three of her eyes drilled into me like they could torture out a hidden answer. The other three looked very tired. “Do you know where to find him?”
Did I know where to find a universe-hopping biker assassin? It wasn’t like he’d been sending me postcards from balmy Bora Bora. But him keeping the Voodoo Nuke? That got my mind a-whirring. Vercingetorix Smooth had a reason for everything. What I knew, perhaps better than anyone, was that it was never the reason you suspected. “Not a clue,” I said. “But give me a deadline to run up against and I’m sure I’ll panic into something.”
“The deadline is whenever your ex-partner decides to use the damned thing,” K.K. replied. “You’ll know when you reach it.”
Thirty-two hours hence, I was cruising up the I-90 towards the heart of Chicago. The city rose ahead of me like a large urban conglomeration. To my right, Lake Michigan was a big blue thing. The come-down from enlightenment had pretty much depleted my capacity for abstraction.
Initially, I’d had no idea where to start looking for Smooth. K.K. hadn’t been a whole heaping of help either. Agents were being mobilized across all realities, what with the transuniversal threat. Given the emergency, I figured I’d be given a crack team of my Earth’s best operatives to work with, but one apocalypse did not put others on hold.
“Busy day?” I’d asked, to which she’d swiveled her monitor to show me a werewolf eating the president.
But I’d remembered that the Wild Hunt had been active for centuries before Smooth took over. They’d made plenty of appearances from this Earth, pillaging, slaughtering, and recruiting from among its most brutal souls. A dip into my pool of snitches had given me a lead on a possible Wild Hunt rider operating out of the Windy City, and that had led me here, to the curb outside the old Biograph Theater, secret lair of one Professor Marcus Marchpane, mad scientist extraordinaire.
I found my way into the theater’s secret basement without difficulty, fiddling with every doodad in the prop closet until a trapdoor opened beneath a box of wigs. I breezed impatiently through the various traps therein, the gases and the lasers. I didn’t have time to indulge the mad professor’s nonsense. I’d been through this routine a hundred times. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been surprised. Or made an impact, for that matter. The covert struggle between multiversal good and evil was trapped in perpetual stalemate. MESSIARC championing order, liberty, good vibes, and taxes filed on time, with MEGAVILE harbinging everything opposite: chaos, fascism, ska, and indiscriminate genocide. We’d win one battle, MEGAVILE the next. We’d stop an eruption, they’d shoot a duke. For every score, a counter-score, kicking the end further down the road. So it went, and so it would go, one side one-upping the other ad infinitum.
At least with TV you could turn the reruns off.
The lab under the trapdoor was crammed with your standard mad science shit. A tesla coil that spat lightning randomly. A thing that went splort in a tube. I subdued the proprietor with a masterfully executed Krav Maga Sleeper Hold, which is what I call an ether-soaked rag, then laid the professor down on a pile of loose brains. It wasn’t him I had questions for.
Death doesn’t give warnings, but sometimes it steps on a twig. As I straightened up, the tell-tale crackle of negatronic particles ionizing reached my ear. I ducked, watched a ray of acidic light melt a hole in the cinderblock wall, and spun to see a blocky, 50’s style robot charging another shot in its cannon-barreled forearm. On a well-oiled reflex, I swept a mirrored platter of medical tools off the gurney and threw it up like a shield before me; the killing beam struck it and rebounded, piercing the robot’s steel chassis and carving it neatly in half across its knob-studded torso.
I knew better than to think that it was harmless in two pieces. I strode over and crumpled its gun barrel beneath my heel. “Three times is not the charm,” I said, unhooking a spray bottle from my belt and taking aim at the robot’s exposed wires and gears. “This here is water and bleach, my claptrapitous amigo. It’s how I buy answers.”
“Fuck you, pig,” the robot shot back in a crackly speak-and-spell growl.
In response I gave it a two-second blast to the guts, eliciting a howl of autotuned pain. “That’s for wasting two seconds,” I said, with more of a snarl than I’d intended. “I know you’re with the Wild Hunt. Tell me how to find Vercingetorix Smooth and you’ll leave here without sounding like a broken VCR. Good deal?”
The robot’s lightbulbs dimmed in suspicion. “Why do you want to know?”
I tightened my finger on the spray bottle’s trigger.
“Alright, alright,” the robot relented. “Here’s the deal. I got dumptrucked in that Mars thing, so I figured I’d take the weekend for repairs. Smooth said he and the boys would pick me up Wednesday night. We’re supposed to rendezvous at this bar on the Texas border called the Baño del Diablo. There’s a leyline convergence there, makes for a real smooth ride getting in and out of this dimension. If you’re looking to ambush him, go nuts, but if I were you, I’d write a will first.”
“There. Was that so hard?” I turned for the door and as I did, something sharp kissed me on the earlobe. I looked at myself in the platter, and damned if there wasn’t a feathered dart dangling off it like a hippy’s earring. “Motherfuck!” I swore, rounding on the robot. I stomped down on its free hand until I snapped off its wrist. “I am in no mood, okay? Why does it always have to come to this? Why can’t you MEGAVILE assholes just give me a fucking break for once?”
Despite its damage, the robot laughed, a sound like a staticky transmission cutting in and out. “Oh man, I know you. You’re Devilish Calliope. You’re just like Smooth said you’d be. You used to be cool. Now you’re a dick.”
“I’m not a dick,” I began, but having just literally kicked a guy while he was down, I didn’t have much of a follow-up. My anger went swirling down the drain, depositing a scum of tired shame on the toilet bowl of my soul. What was I getting worked up for anyway? I was basically unkillable; a poisoned dart would only make me puke and trip balls. The me that Smooth knew would have made a weekend out of that.
“Whatever,” I muttered. “How does he know?” The last time I’d seen Smooth, there had been enough Beatles to solve a bridge and torch problem.
The robot shrugged its stumps. “Because you didn’t quit like he did.”
The last time I’d seen Vercingetorix Smooth, the year was 1974. What a time to have an immortal immune system. The Bee Gees were staying alive, Patty Hearst was making new friends, and Madagascar became the first country to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. A landmark year across the board. Pants could be more than one color, your hair could wear its hair down, and life was good. But like Richard Nixon’s sterling political career, all amazing things had to end.
Smooth and I had just clambered from the steaming debris of a Martian voidcruiser, whose prow had plowed a miles-long trench across New Mexico. I remember being drenched in liquified alien viscera and smelling like the locker room at Area 51, my once unimpeachable perm now gore-slicked and as impeachable as the president. We parked our coccyges on an aetherodynamic spoiler so that we could air-dry in the twilight, decompress, and watch the shadows stretch out long and blue across the desert.
“I’ve got a question,” said Smooth.
“Is it why did you press the red button and not the green one?”
“No,” he laughed, because he knew I did screwy shit to keep things interesting. “What does your life look like? Like, if you had to pick a physical thing, what would it be?”
That was a very 70’s sort of question, very in vogue in the dynasty of horoscopes and LSD. A decade later, and the only answer you’d get would be a big pile of cocaine. As out of hand as the Mars assignment had gotten, I was already looking forward to the next. The build-up, the big plunge, the heart-stopping velocity towards the splashy mess at the bottom. Hell yeah. “A waterpark,” I finally decided. “Where there’re new slides all the time.”
“That’s funny. When I look at my life, I see a shelf full of books.”
“Like your shelf, or a bookstore?”
“Irrelevant to the metaphor. My life is all these books in a series. The Far-Out Case Files of Vercingetorix Smooth. They look like a wild romp at first, and maybe the first one is, but not the first ten. You keep reading until you realize they’re all the same beneath the cover, just with the names and places changed up like Mad Libs. The same ups and downs, the same stale tropes. And there’re sixty-five million more to go. Would you want to keep reading? I don’t know why I would.”
I didn’t know then, but that New Mexican twilight was a Rorschach blot. I recall that I’d seen the faintest seam of color on the horizon. The promise of a crisp morning and a fresh escapade. I would only realize later, over a sack of untouched bagels, that Smooth hadn’t seen anything.
“The hero’s journey is meant to be a circle,” he murmured. “All I see ahead is a straight line.”
“I think it’s hard to think happy thoughts when you’re covered in proof of life on Mars.”
“I say sleep on it,” I said, which, in hindsight, is the most awful thing you can say to a conflicted friend. I could have offered to hold some of what he was carrying. I could have cracked a joke and laughed his trouble away. Instead, I’d told him to take it to a bed, where it would grow sour beneath the sheets, like a body in the throes of addiction. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” Deal with it yourself in a darkened room where you won’t bother anybody. I’m sure you’ll be alright.
“Yeah probably.” Smooth stood, teetering on the space-fin from another world. “Do me a huge. Tell K.K. I’m taking a personal day. I think I’ve earned it. I’ll be back in on Wednesday. See you then, yeah?”
I remember being confident, as he sauntered off, that I would see him that Wednesday. I’d bring a bag of bagels to share, one with each kind of topping, because the Everything Bagel was still years from being obvious. And when he wasn’t there that morning, I remember being pissed, more than anything, that I’d blown five bucks to watch bread go stale. It wasn’t fair.
Things should have to say goodbye when they leave you.
The bar the robot had mentioned was a crumb of Vegas out there on the desert. Some enterprising scumbag had taken an old barn and slathered it in neon, put a couple of shitty picnic tables out front, a sign by the highway. I stumbled inside beneath a neon devil on a neon toilet, through a swamp fog of up-chucked beer and bad marijuana. Speakers on an empty stage were blaring White Rabbit, number one on my Top Ten songs to slowly fade away to. An enticing prospect, but I’d have to settle for getting sloppy. I groped my way to a barstool and collapsed, grateful for a seat that didn’t kick me awake with every pothole.
“Howdy, stranger. What do they call you?”
I looked up. The girl behind the counter was maybe twenty, with a tattoo of a rose on her bicep, a week’s worth of luggage under each eye, and a bruise on her jaw. Her smile had no business being kind, but it was anyway. “Devilish Calliope,” I said. “You?”
“Mona. What kind of name is that? Greek?”
“It’s a code name,” I shrugged. “I’m sort of a secret agent.”
“Nice to meet you, mister secret agent.” That warm smile again. She seemed to mean it. What a welcome thing to find out here in nowhere. “How do you like your martinis?”
“In my belly.”
I took whatever she gave me without looking and threw it at my tonsils. Mona looked concerned at this. “That there’s money in the bank and I’m still worried. Want to share your woes, stranger?”
“Who says I got woes?”
Mona shrugged. “Wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”
I actually could argue, having wound up in worse places under happier circumstances—more than one birthday of mine had ended in a volcano—but she was right that I wouldn’t pick this place over Seaworld.
I handed over my empty glass. Whatever it was hit my brain a second later and punched a hole through it. “Do people come in here and spill crazy personal shit on you a lot?”
“It’s pretty much my whole job,” she said.
She’d been warned. “Better than my job,” I muttered. “I didn’t put it together until I got down here, but this marriage has soured. I mean really, the kids are gone, and we’re in separate beds. The thing is, they tell you that this is the most important thing you’ll ever do, right? And yeah, I’m out there saving the world every day. But it never stays saved. For every bad guy I put away, there’s three more on the waitlist for his doom castle. It’s ridiculous.”
I was surprised by the heat in my throat. This was more than I’d felt dangling over the Alchemist’s hellhole. More than I’d felt in a long while. Maybe I needed a therapist. That or a larger tab. “Come on now, get it all out,” Mona said. She poured me another anonymous drink, and I gave the one in my guts a friend.
“A co-worker once said this life was like reading the same story over and over again,” I continued. “I didn’t listen then, but he was right. And it gets old. Every go-through, every day you save, you lose a little crumb of enthusiasm, and when you run out, all that’s left is a big asshole. That’s me. Hi.”
“Hi,” Mona replied, unsure whether to laugh or frown.
I sighed, and smeared the sweat on my brow into my hair. “It feels… it feels like a race between finally doing something halfway consequential and just giving up. At this point, I don’t know which one I’m rooting for.”
“If you don’t mind me saying,” Mona said, “that sounds better than doing something that definitely doesn’t matter.” She was polishing a highball without looking at it. A dozen more were lined up along the countertop. I blinked, and saw the bar through her eyes. It went much further than I knew, snaking years into the past and decades into her future.
“Been working here long?” I asked.
She smirked. “You know any other shitty desert bars hiring?”
I had to admire a lady who could push a lot of hurt down with a cheek muscle. “Listen,” I said. “I was serious about the whole secret agent thing. I’ve got bad guys showing up any minute, and it’s going to be a whole thing. Do yourself a favor and clear out while you can.”
Mona shrugged, like this was every day for her. “Thank you kindly, but I got rent to pay. I don’t get to be scared of much. You and your pals just pay for anything you break, ‘kay?”
I was about to elaborate when life interrupted like the asshole it was. Every head not face-down in vomit turned as the stealthiest storm I’d ever heard cleared its throat. Lightning flogged the Earth in a dozen places, and the thunder that followed sounded like unmuffled engines. Headlights knifed through the mazarine twilight. One by one, a squadron of motorcycles skidded to a stop in a barricade outside the bar and let off a procession of monstrosities. Octofiends from Planet Zed; vampire honnies with gold-capped fangs; extradimensional entities of such weird physics that my eyes could perceive only their spurs and bandannas. Their collective rap sheet would have killed a rainforest. The Wild Hunt, ride or die.
They sauntered in, silent as pallbearers, and stood aside to let barflies take wing. The glass in Mona’s hands shattered on the floor as their leader filled the doorway and crouched to squeeze inside. At full height his snout clipped the rafters; his feet stamped three-clawed craters in the floor. Mona sucked in a breath, as if she’d never seen a forty-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex in a biker jacket stomp into a bar.
Like I said, the guy had been on the job longer than anyone.
“Hi, Smooth,” I said.
“Hi, D,” said Vercingetorix Smooth. “Happy Wednesday.”
My old partner settled his sixteen scalebound tons down beside me at the bar, his massive skull casting me in shadow, his tail curling around my stool. A telescoping robotic claw dropped a crinkled ten on the counter. To her credit, Mona had bravely stayed put, and began to fill a mug.
“You look like you need an adrenalin shot,” Smooth remarked.
“You look extinct,” I replied. “You knew I’d be here.”
“No other reason to gank a Voodoo Nuke. Other than the obvious one, I mean.” He snapped a prosthetic finger, and a betentacled crony placed a locked briefcase on the counter between us. “I wanted to see you again,” he said. “It’s not easy to hang out, the way things are. I thought, ‘those assholes must be running ‘ol Devilish ragged. I’d better touch base.’ But how, I wondered, to get him alone without everyone freaking out?”
I glanced casually at the innocuous case, and beat down the urge to run screaming from it. “The Voodoo Nuke. I called it that too.”
Smooth had no lips, but I’d learned to tell when he was smiling. “I bet you did.”
“I can’t let you leave with that thing,” I said.
“That sucks,” he replied. “Normally you could have it, but the boss is on my ass about this one. I’m afraid I’ve got to be inflexible. How about you put it out of your mind? Let the inevitable come to pass. Tell me how you’re getting on.”
I swiveled my stool to look him in the eye. I picked the left one, it being the only one I could see. “This is what I’ll tell you. I’ve got a company card, you’ve got the spoils of a thousand worlds. We’re at a bar, and we’ve both come a long way. We’ll drink for it. I win, you hand it over, and go back to revving your engines in quiet neighborhoods like the villain you are.”
“We’ll drink for it,” Smooth echoed bemusedly. “What do I get if I win?”
“If you win, you get me.”
Smooth lapsed into a silence that bordered on theatrical. I waited without a doubt he’d go for it. Not because he craved another servant of evil, no. Because he missed me. I knew that because I was his friend, and I wanted the same thing.
I missed my buddy.
Smooth affixed a slit pupil on Mona, and downed his mug in one pull, letting the suds dribble between his fangs. Hops comingled with gut-fermenting carrion, became something even I wouldn’t huff.
“Line ‘em up.”
Mona looked at him, then me. “Are you really the good guy?”
“The goodest here,” I said in full honesty.
“And that box is dangerous.”
I pinched an invisible grain of rice. “Little bit.”
She nodded at the ground and set her jaw. “Alright. Hoo boy.”
Smooth had a crossroads devil who could whip up a magically binding contract. Neither of us would be wiggling out. With everything signed in blood, the drinking commenced. Mona poured shots and we downed what we were given. Vodka, gin, other pellucid poisons. My kidneys had survived tours of Australia, Russia, and Arizona U, but Smooth was a gigantic dinosaur, so who could know the odds? It was cordial, at first, drinking as we caught up on the last few decades. He didn’t seem to mind me foiling MEGAVILE’s plots, and I guiltily enjoyed hearing about the interesting people he’d been eating. We could have gone on into the morning. But it was only a matter of time before we found that unavoidable question at the bottom of a glass. Best to rip the band-aid off.
“Why did you quit?” I asked.
Smooth handed Mona his latest empty and took a refill. “It’s like I said in the desert.” He’d barely begun to slur his words. Meanwhile I felt like the barn had left port, and the seas were getting choppy. “The danger, the adventure, the intrigue—it lost its edge. I ran out of new things to see. Reasons to keep going. And you know what? It never got results. Nothing changed. Nothing got better. At least not for long. Eventually I had to ask myself: what’s the point of playing a game you can’t win?”
“Like you can win over at MEGAVILE either,” I snorted.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said, and my heart, which had been chugging along just fine, lurched down a dark sideroad.
“Here’s the truth that MESSIARC will never tell you. Nobody can really win this thing. Not me, not you. They hold evil up like something we can all stop if we hold hands and sing We Are The World, but it’s not. Evil, it turns out, is not an outcome. It is a process. Its goal isn’t to stamp out good forever. No. All it wants is to be. To exist, perpetually in flux, waxing and waning. Letting hope flourish just to be crushed, ad infinitum. Think about it. A slasher must hide between murders so everyone can hope he’s gone. A tyranny must fall so that it can rise under a new flag and conquer again, just as a forest burns and grows anew. If evil actually won, if every last scrap of happiness were gouged out of every universe, it would be left with nothing to do.”
The clap of his glass on the countertop went through my booze-bruised brain like a shockwave. “Evil doesn’t want a knock-out,” he said. “Evil wants to exist. And it always will, because evil is what good must inevitably become.” Smooth sent another shot nonchalantly down the hatch. I’d almost forgotten the one in my own hand.
“Don’t believe me?” Smooth replied to my silence. “Hello, I’m the proof. Epochs on the job and still I fell. Lucifer did it for less, and sooner. The best of intentions still break down, when the going gets rough, when the going never ends. Systems corrupt. Wills erode. Agents defect. It’s not about choosing to do bad; that’s hard. It’s about admitting how pointless it is to be good, which is easy. It’s leaning into the wind that’s blowing and letting it take you where you’re already bound to go. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it pushing. Sooner or later, the decay of decency claims all.”
He turned to baste me in a cloud of yeasty gizzard-stink, as revolting as it was painfully nostalgic. “The end that you’re holding out for isn’t coming. Tumbling forever between saved and unsaved, the world is a tossed coin that cannot fall. There is no win-condition for you, only the monotony, the score and the counter-score. And I’ll tell you what, my friend: if our team can’t lose, well, that’s enough like winning for me.”
He protracted a claw and gently clapped my shoulder. “Come on, man. Join me already. This Wild Hunt thing? Fuck it. Out that door is a multiverse of other shit to do. We’ll kick around infinity and do whatever, just you and me, and it’ll feel good, because that’s what evil is. Freedom from hope, freedom from giving a shit. Throw this thing, and we can drink to celebrate your liberation instead.”
I stared at the droplets of vodka trickling down the inside of my glass, bitter liquor fast becoming sticky dregs to be washed out and replaced.
Was Smooth right? Hell if I knew for sure. But like all forked-tongued lawyers, he spoke himself a good case. Everything, in my experience, only got worse. Even the immortal decayed. Just look at me: I used to be a priest. He didn’t need to tell me that every bit of good I’d ever done was doomed to be undone. I knew what Eve felt when she saw that sweet apple hanging there. The serpent had been surplus. Something so simple sold itself. For her, potassium. For me, a release.
From hope. From care.
Maybe it didn’t matter whether he was right. If some final triumph over evil was coming, it was too far in the future even for an immortal to see. However long my life was, it was all I could worry about. No matter what, I’d be spinning in circles until something killed me; I didn’t have to be spinning alone. Yeah, I’d have to learn how to ride a motorcycle and commit unspeakable atrocities, but both those things would become second-nature in time. The game would never let me go, no, but at least—
At least I could play with a friend.
Swaying, I groped at the counter. One more drink. This one to numb the choice.
I sipped the next shot through my teeth. I froze as the taste struck my tongue.
My eyes searched for Mona’s, and she looked pointedly elsewhere.
I thought. And then I grinned.
“You almost had me,” I said. “But I know something you don’t.”
Smooth’s scaly brow crinkled. “I can’t understand you. You’re slurring.”
Yeah I was, so never mind. I slugged the shot down and waved for another.
Smooth and I went back and forth, shot for shot, in silence now, his play made and answered. I stared him down, teetering only slightly, as his eyelids began to droop, his tail slashing herky-jerkily across the floor. Seeing me remain impossibly upright seemed to galvanize him. He began to drink faster, as if to prove he could. His side of the bar quickly grew cluttered with glass. I drank and waited. The night crunched down on us, a shrinking prison.
Shot number thirty-two hovered between Smooth’s jaws. The Wild Hunt held its collective breath. Behind the bar, Mona edged away. A dollop dropped onto his tongue. Then two. Finally he dropped the glass down his throat and swallowed it whole. Gave his teeth a mocking lick.
“Give me another,” he triumphantly declared.
And then his mass tilted sideways and crushed me flat.
The Wild Hunt took off not long after. I wasn’t sure how they’d got Smooth out; the place was empty when I finished regenerating apart from Mona, who’d presumably watched it happen with the same expression of fascinated horror. They’d left the suitcase on the un-crushed half of the counter, as per the unbreakable deal.
“I won’t be able to sleep without seeing that,” Mona said.
“Try feeling it.” The transformation from pancake to man had wrung the liquor out of me. “That was a real dangerous thing you did. Hell if it didn’t work though.” She’d had a final shot lined up for me. I drank it now, needing the fluids. Pure, unfiltered water, straight from the tap.
“You looked like you needed it.” Mona shrugged like it was nothing. Even so, she wore that wide-eyed, shellshocked expression you get from your first blast of weird. No, it would not wear off in time. It was pretty much her face now.
“Yeah, kinda,” I admitted. “You got a pen?”
She did, and I took a minute to scratch out a number on a gently-used napkin. “Hold on to this. It’s for a lady named K.K. If she doesn’t pick up the first time, leave her fifty messages.”
Mona frowned, but took it anyway. “I don’t get it.”
“You saved the world today,” I replied. “You looked death in the face while you cheated it. That’s a solid resume, supposing you’re looking to make a career change. If you do call, tell her Devilish sent you.” Not that it would be a sterling reference.
She nodded, and put the napkin in her pocket. “Sure,” she said. I couldn’t tell what she meant by that, but I knew what I’d bet if I had to.
I stepped outside with the briefcase to find that someone had slashed the tires on my Matador, lowering its value not one cent. I put the Voodoo Nuke under the seat and sat on the hood to make a call. The Wild Hunt had taken the storm with them; the stars winked overhead like a million proud uncles.
“Operative Calliope.” K.K. sounded her usual, harried self. “What is it? What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I got the thing.”
“I got it,” I said again, gently. “I met Smooth, got the bomb, sent him packing. It’s alright now. You don’t have to worry. Everything is groovy. Take a rest.”
Silence on the other end, but I could hear her unclenching, breathing out, for the first time all day. Maybe for the first time all year.
“Thank you, D,” she sighed. “I’m glad to hear that. And I will.”
I smiled for no one’s benefit. “Hey, so what’s next? Where do you need me now?”
But she didn’t need me anywhere, it turned out. The stars had aligned. For at least this effervescent moment, the world was out of crises.
My next call was for a tow. Afterwards, I stretched out against my windshield, closed my eyes, and felt the Earth glide through space, a ship on calm seas. I wished I could have told Smooth what I’d realized in the bar. Twice now I’d stayed silent when I shouldn’t have. Evil is what good must inevitably become. He was spot-on there. But what I’d figured out was that, emergent from unlikely places, unexpected faces, good sprang from nowhere at all. For every me that lost faith on the slog towards nowhere, there was a Mona. When you framed it like that, good was infinite too.
Maybe I’d mention it when next he came around. I doubted this’d be the last time. The night could not stay quiet forever. The universe was too in love with disarray; it would never be finally alright. But Smooth’s logic had been compelling. If evil’s continuance was its objective, then it held that any dent in that continuity was a victory. There could be no great ending to things, but if I busted my ass for it, I might find a little conclusion here and there, like this one, the twilit calm between the end of one book and the cover of another, in which the world felt safe to do something beautiful like simply chill, and that felt enough like winning to me.
Fleeting, but not nothing, the many small ends of things.