This is the first short story I ever sold. It originally appeared in 1991, in Newer York, an anthology of SF stories about New York City, edited by Lawrence Watt-Evans.
(A New York Romance)
He’s gone now. They’re both gone. But if you’ve lived in New York for over five years, you remember when the commercials began, and you remember the effect they had. If you moved to New York during that time—and there are a lot of you, too many—the commercials probably had something to do with it. I’m the guy who came up with them.
It all started in a bar. Or, no, it was a few days before that: a hot, humid afternoon, and the air-conditioning was out. We were supposed to be spitballing ideas, but we were just lounging around the big conference table, watching TV, trying not to move around much, and generally crabbing about everything. I work for the Mayor’s Commission on Tourism; we do TV spots, print ads, and assorted other stuff, all aimed at getting out-of-staters to come spend their vacation cash here. This was around the time the “I ♥ New York” campaign (Fred’s idea) was running out of steam, and we were supposed to have an enhancement or a replacement at least in proposal stage by Monday. We were pretty dry. Sarah suggested getting Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing on loan for the Bronx Zoo and featuring them, but that was it for the last half-hour, and nobody even bothered to point out it was a lame idea.
The mayor was on TV, smiling his impenetrable smile and talking about this thing at Lincoln Center and how important it was. You might not remember Lincoln Center, it was one of her first major targets. Anyway, the mayor was going on and on, and the crowd was visibly wilting, I don’t know how anybody can listen to that stuff when the air is warmer and moister than blood, and Fred suggested, “Okay, here we go: We trade Hizzoner for Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing and make them mayor. An image change. And a better class of employer.”
“Nah,” Jeremy said. “You know pandas. They’re so cute they’d end up mayor for life, and eight years down the road we’d have the same damn problem.”
Then the mayor drowned in a frzhatsssh of static, and when the screen cleared, he wasn’t there anymore. Instead, it was Demonica. Electric eyebrows, purple beehive, the works. She glared out into the room.
“O-kay!” said Fred. “Leona Helmsley’s evil twin!” He settled back in his chair and grinned, raising his Orangina to her.
“You stupid, worthless, drooling pigs!” Her voice was like a buzzsaw. I always assumed it was electronically enhanced, until I met her in person. “You unutterably ignorant mouth-breathers! You’re all just wasting space on this planet. I could reduce you all to dust—to protoplasm!—and it wouldn’t make a single ounce of difference to the world.” She paused, sneered, and adjusted her goggles.
“And you know, I just might. It’d be fun. It’d be fresh. It’d be what you deserve. I’ve got a sweet little protobomb stashed under your miserable island, and when it goes off, it’ll trigger the earthquake fault that runs down the East Coast.” She laughed, like the gear chain coming off a bicycle. “Does that spell it out in simple enough terms for you? Can you say earthquake? Disaster? Can you say death and mayhem beyond human comprehension? Aw, I knew you could.
“But you can save yourselves,” she continued, hitching at her leather jumpsuit. She didn’t shave her underarms, and what do you know, that was purple too. “You have that opportunity. You can save your worthless, repugnant lives, and I’ll tell you how. You know who I want. You know where that no-good gob of phlegm who calls himself Mister Right is cowering. Deliver him to me. Deliver him to me by midnight tomorrow, or I promise you, New York, you won’t live to see . . .”
She was working herself up into an astonishingly frenetic state, but before she could finish her threat, there was a double flash of static: frzhatsssh, frzhatsssh. Between them we caught a glimpse of the mayor blowing on his microphone and looking aggrieved, and then the image of Mister Right filled the screen. Even as early as that, his charisma hit like a physical blow. He stood ramrod straight. His jaw was firm, his eyes were piercing blue, and his blond hair cascaded over his crimson helm.
Sarah pounded the table and whistled. “Hoo hoo, big guy, take it off! Take it all off!”
You have to understand, this was years before Demonica melted the UN. This was before she created those werewolf things that ate Donald Trump. We didn’t know how smart—and how deadly—she was, we just thought she was a nut. She hadn’t even done much pre-empting of broadcast TV at that point—this was one of the first times. Up till then, she’d mostly just broken in on cable, Channel J and like that. It was just this goofy thing, like Al Sharpton. It was fun to watch.
Mister Right leaned forward on the screen, and his stern, forceful voice filled the air. “The people of New York have nothing to fear from you, Demonica. Truth, justice, and decency will always triumph over your kind of perverted sideshow. Name the place. Name the time. I’ll be there—and you’ll get taken away in a body bag.” His smile was grim, a man who meant business.
Frzhatsssh. Mayor. Frzhatsssh. Demonica. “Four o’clock tomorrow, jerk. Tompkins Square Park. Bring your . . . atomic rod.”
Frzhatsssh. Mayor. “As I was saying . . .”
Frzhatsssh. Mister Right. “I’ll be there, you frigid bitch. Count on it. You’re going down—and you’re going down hard!”
There was an extended frzhatsssh, but instead of the mayor, what we got when it faded was Yogi Bear extolling the virtues of children’s vitamins in Spanish.
“I got it,” I said. “It’d be perfect. We get them to do an I ♥ New York spot. Mister Right and Demonica, the new fun couple. Better than Garner and Hartley for Polaroid. Better than David and Maddie, may they rest in peace.”
“Better than Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, c’mon. What says New York better for you? Two panda bears eating eucalyptus leaves, or two emotionally-constipated psychotics with heavy weaponry trying to kill each other?”
“The man has a point,” said Jeremy.
Fred turned the TV off. “Yeah, Marty, when they check in at Bellevue to pick up their mail, you can take ’em to the Russian Tea Room for blinis and sign ’em up. Any other brilliant ideas? Monday’s coming fast.”
And that was it. At five o’clock we split up, headed for home (I caught an early train, for once), and we forgot the whole thing. Tompkins Square Park didn’t survive the next afternoon, of course. But even then, people were starting to get used to that sort of thing.
• • •
That Thursday night I was in the city late. I had to go to that Lincoln Center thing, and it lasted for hours. By the time I could get home and to sleep it’d be time to get up and head in again. So the city was putting me up at the Hyatt. Actually, the time that matters, I was around the corner from the Hyatt, at a bar on Lexington Avenue, griping to anyone who’d listen. That meant mostly the bartender.
I mean, what would you expect? Here I’d been working for the city—the city itself, mind you—for almost two years, and I couldn’t find an apartment. I spent my days sucking people in to New York by whatever means possible, and I had an hour commute. From Connecticut.
There had to be a very special mathematics governing my job and a team of accountants to supervise it. They monitored my performance carefully, and once I got X number of out-of-staters moved to the city permanently, they’d give me a raise so I could look in a new price range. Of course, that was the price range that had just been completely closed off by the new people snapping up the available apartments. So I kept looking, kept commuting, and my next raise would come just when all the places it made affordable were taken. It was a plot, it had to be.
Anyway, I was explaining this to the bartender (who lived on St. Mark’s Place, rent-controlled) when I saw him, tucked away in a back booth. I wasn’t sure it was him, mind you, I’d only ever seen him on TV and I never thought he was that short. But I got a good look when I went to the men’s room, and it was him all right. No mistaking that jawline.
He was drinking boilermakers. I got one and a fourth Scotch for me (those things at Lincoln Center take it out of you) and carried them over. “Mister Right?”
He looked up, a little bleary-eyed. He’d clearly been drinking for a while. With an effort, he focused on the fresh drink. “Did I . . . ?”
“It’s on me.” I put the drinks down, spilling a little, and slid into the booth. “I wanted to tell you, you were impressive yesterday. You took care of Demonica and kept fatalities and property damage to a minimum. Nice work.”
“Huh. She’ll be back.” His voice was bitter, and he didn’t have the commanding presence he’d had before. Of course, he wasn’t in his outfit. He was wearing jeans and an ordinary dress shirt, and that might have had something to do with it. Or maybe it was the slurred speech and the defensive slump to his shoulders. “Goddamn castrating bitch. Teleported away, but set it up so it looked like she died. That way she can pop up alive and laugh and make me look like a jackass again.”
“Demonica’s still alive?”
“Always.” He knocked back the shot and reached for the beer. “She runs rings around me. I look like King Super Genius with the force field and the atomic cannon and all, but it’s her show from top to bottom. She knows the equipment inside out. Me, I’m still doping out basic functions.”
“What do you mean, basic functions?” I had a little trouble with the words “basic functions,” but I forced them out. The whole conversation was starting to seem a little surreal.
“Well, whaddya think? She built it all, you know.”
“You’re kidding.” I’d assumed Mister Right built the gadgets that let him fly and stuff himself, but no. He told me the whole story. He and Demonica met in college—he was a computer-science geek; she was the filthy-rich shining star of the physics department—and dated for a while. He ran out of money about the time she vaporized several teaching assistants and they asked her to leave, so she hired him as a lab assistant and started doing her own research over in Brooklyn. The area wasn’t zoned for atomic research, but she didn’t care. He told me she said laws were there to keep stupid people from having any fun. Anyway, he hated working for her. She was demanding, a real top-decibel perfectionist, and the boss/employee thing screwed up the relationship. They stopped sleeping together and the job was hell, but she never paid him much so he couldn’t get a stake together to quit and go for something else.
Eventually he got fed up. He stole a truck, filled it up with stuff from the lab, and left. The plan was to sell the stuff and see if he could get a job, but it didn’t work out right. She came after him in this stealth chopper she’d whipped up, and started shooting at him. He figured out the controls on the Rebound Ray and bounced her halfway through the New Jersey Palisades. You remember it from the movie, I’m sure. They got the facts wrong, of course—they used what I told them—but it sure made a nice explosion.
Anyway, that’s how it all started. They got into the good/evil thing as a sex game back in college, and eventually it—I guess “evolved” is the right word—into this whole elaborate fantasy. He never did know why she kept playing along after they split up. I think there’s something about that kind of couple-specific ritual that makes it hard to stop. Either you both stop at the same time, or you don’t stop at all. The best part about the whole thing, or at least the part I always liked best, was that the poor schmuck didn’t even have a secret identity. His name was Wright. Benjamin Wright. We just heard it on TV and assumed it was a code name.
Her name was Monica, of course. Demonica was what he called her when they got out the whips and the jelly, and the name made a comeback in the early cable days.
He finished up his story and belched plaintively. “And now I’m almost out of plutonium,” he said. “I don’t have any money to buy more. I don’t even know where to find it. A week, ten days max, and all my stuff won’t work anymore. Then I’m dead meat.” He started drawing circles in the beer on the table.
“Um,” I said, not really sure where I was heading, but unwilling to let the moment pass. “What would you say if I said I might be able to get you some plutonium?”
He looked up at me and wiped a drop of beer off his lip. He straightened up and squared his shoulders, going from pathetic drunk to commanding presence in about a second flat. His eyes were blue and bottomless and deadly, but when he spoke, he killed the whole image. “Who . . . who are you, anyway?”
• • •
We shot the first commercial a week later. That was when he got the earpieces, the ones with the antennae on them. They didn’t do anything, but it helped make him look high-tech.
We had no budget to speak of, so it wasn’t like the commercials everyone remembers today. No special effects, no John Williams theme, no action. Just Ben and the American flag. It was a nice piece. He launched into his speech and the camera just loved him. Inside of five words, he owned anyone watching. Just owned them.
What he said didn’t matter. It was about justice and safety and freedom, and his guarantee that New York would never fall victim to the encroaching evil Demonica represented, or some such garbage. I’ve got a copy of it around here, but it just wasn’t important. All that was important was that sincerity. It radiated out from him, like he was the sun. A nice piece.
Not long after that, the sidewalk vendors started selling the T-shirts. We had to close ’em down, of course, we had exclusive licensing rights. But we were never able to keep up with the demand, not from the start. It seemed like everyone had a Mister Right T-shirt—or a button, a baseball cap, puffy stickers. About a month after the campaign started, I saw a man on Park Avenue, maybe seventy years old. He had a tweed cap, wool trousers with suspenders, Oxfords, and a walking stick. And a Mister Right T-shirt—the hot-pink one where he’s flipping Demonica the bird. That’s when I knew it had gone way beyond a fad.
Demonica got really pissy once the commercials started. They had to list her on a separate scale to see what the murder rate would look like under normal circumstances, and it wasn’t long before she outdid all other crime in the metropolitan area combined. Still, the ads worked. They worked like crazy. When her side of the murder stats officially doubled everyone else put together, the mayor called me into his office.
“Tourism’s at an all-time high, Martin, and it’s still accelerating.” He beamed at me, and I wondered if I should recommend a good orthodontist. “Better than V-J Day. Better than the World’s Fair. It’s wonderful.”
“Even with the JAL plane blowing up yesterday? That was a pretty ugly mess.”
“Pfah!” He waved it away. “They were on their way home, they’d had a great vacation. Besides, isn’t that what the big guy’s for? To keep us safe from things like that?”
“He didn’t stop that one.”
“So? So how much worse would it be if he wasn’t here at all?” I didn’t have an answer. I’d wondered. “Don’t be such a Gloomy Gus, Martin. Mister Right souvenirs are selling like there’s no tomorrow, and they tell me some knock-off just showed up in LA, calling himself Joe Orange. Atlanta’s got something in the works, too, and God knows who’s next. Magazines and newspapers are sending reporters to cover the story full-time. Even Pravda’s got a guy on the way. And I just got invited to the White House—to the White House!—to talk about special agent status for the big guy. You’ve done a great thing, Martin. Have a cigar.”
A raise came along with the cigar, and I started apartment-hunting again.
I couldn’t figure it. New Yorkers were being turned to stone, mutated into big things with tentacles, hurled into orbit and burned up in re-entry, evaporated—all this by the dozen, by the busload. You’d figure there’d be a vacant apartment somewhere nice. But no. The whole world was flooding in to gawk around and get a snapshot of the Big Apple’s Sterling Defender of Liberty—and a lot of them must have liked it here, because they moved in in droves. It was harder to find places even to look at than it was before. It was harder to get on waiting lists.
What can you do?
• • •
On the other hand, I did find a way around the cosmic accountants who were keeping my salary in the no-available-apartments range. When we cut the deal, I arranged to be listed on the contracts as Ben’s agent, and that gave me a cut of everything he made out of it. He did the commercials for free, of course—it was a public service—but all those shirts, dolls, posters, and junk really added up. Most weeks my check from the licensing people was bigger than my paycheck.
That put me in a new class for apartment-hunting, and once we got the merchandise moving good, I managed to find the first place in years that was affordable and didn’t outright suck. It was a two-bedroom on the Upper West Side with high ceilings, wood floors, good light, four closets and plenty of electrical outlets. And there was more: the building had a doorman. There was a washer/dryer room in the basement. And the apartment had a balcony. A balcony!
It was a pretty stiff deposit—two and a half months—but it was worth it. I was the first guy to see it, and there were three couples scheduled that evening. So I wrote the check and I signed the form and shook hands with the guy. It was mine, all mine.
I was leaving, heading home to make moving arrangements, smile on face, spring in step, all that, when it happened. I heard a high-pitched whistling and smelled ionized air. There was a dull thump behind me. I turned around and there was a hole in the second and third floors of the building. As I watched, the awning stretched out tight and taut, then started to tear. The doorman bolted.
The base of the building slowly separated from the sidewalk and shrank backward, like a kid stepping into a cold pool. There was a groaning sound. The part of the building above the hole swayed.
People started to boil out of the lobby, but most of them didn’t make it. The groan became a roar, the sway became a shiver, and like a cross between a deflating balloon and an avalanche, kwadathaddathaboom, the building collapsed, spilling bricks, glass, plaster, furniture, and bodies all over West Eighty-eighth Street.
I didn’t know what had happened, not right away. All I knew was my new river-view apartment, my new balcony, both bedrooms, everything, was all Down Here instead of Up There where it belonged.
I stood there, looking at the wreckage, willing it not to have happened, until, shkvmp, a shattered bathtub and an overturned bookcase shifted, and he climbed out.
“Ben. Aw, Ben, you dumb shit,” I said.
He saw me. “Marty! What a surprise!” Then he got a good look at my face and looked around. “This—this wasn’t the place, was it, Marty? The apartment?”
“Well, gee, Marty, I’m sorry. If I’d known I’d have, I don’t know, tried to land somewhere else or something.” He brushed some plaster dust off his cape. “Uh, Marty, I’ve got to go. She’s up there at the George Washington Bridge, and it’s rush hour. You know how it is.”
I watched him gather himself for launch. “Ben?”
“You—you wouldn’t need a sidekick, would you?”
“Well, I don’t know. You’re a little old, but we could maybe swing something. Why?”
“Where do you live?”
“Oh,” he said, realizing. “Rumson, New Jersey. It’s an hour commute, even in the Fusion-Copter. Sorry.”
“Well, it was an idea, anyway.” I turned to go.
“Hey, Marty, cheer up. Maybe you can get your deposit back.” He sprang, and a split second later was airborne and gone.
Yeah, right. The only way you get your deposit back in New York is to skip out on the last month’s rent. I headed back toward Grand Central and Connecticut, walking slow. At least I didn’t have to drive out of the city. One bridge or tunnel gets tied up, and the others all turn into sheer hell.
• • •
One thing you should understand: there was only Demonica, only ever her. The others were all made up, all actors we hired, their powers cobbled together out of Ben’s extra stuff or whipped up by the guys at ILM. The Battery Boys, ShBoom, the Sewer Alligator, Mr. Wrong, GEN-11 (Sarah’s idea, and kind of tasteless, actually: a techno-genii—hence the name—supposedly created from the reanimated body of a rape victim and seeking vengeance on preppies), the Culture Vultures. All fakes. By the end, we’d even created some for other cities. The Hunchback of UCLA, the Tar Heel, Longhorn—those were ours.
The thing was, Demonica kept winning. Oh, it looked like Ben won a lot, but that was just her being perverse. She faked her own death—publicly, mind you—sixty-seven times, and never repeated a gag once. And every time she did, she was letting Ben know he couldn’t touch her. Like the time she turned Columbus Circle into a crater and got “electrocuted” by a falling power cable. Ben got a medal for saving the city, but he knew the truth: she said she was going to wreck Columbus Circle, she did it, and she got away. She was every bit as smart as she thought she was, I’ll give her that. But at the same time, she never did her best to kill him, either, never caught him in a death trap she didn’t know he could escape.
Still, to keep people from catching on, we had to cook up our own bad guys. That way, Ben had someone he could beat, and beat every time. By then, our budget was huge, and we could really go to town with the special effects. We made sure we got enough footage to use in the ads—that was still the only reason for the whole project—and tried to make sure nobody important got hurt. It worked out well, for the most part. Occasionally one of them went bad for real, but Ben handled those as well as he did the staged battles. And the time ShBoom wanted to “reform” and be Mister Right’s partner, and we had to arrange for him to sacrifice himself to save the city. But that’s another story.
• • •
Looking back on it, I think putting Ben on steroids was a mistake. It made him bigger, and it did wonders for his upper-body development, but he probably could have gotten by on his natural brawn. I don’t know for sure it was the drugs, though. It might have been the constant adulation, the groupies, the TV coverage, the money, whatever. But he was losing touch with reality.
This was around the time he was hanging with Diane Brill and Tama Janowitz. All that’s in the Ultra Violet diaries, so I won’t rehash it here. But one night, when I was in the office late, he came in through the door—I mean, literally through the door.
There were chunks of wood and splinters everywhere, and what was left fell all over Jeremy’s desk, burying all the work he’d been doing on the Rainbow Coalition thing for Ben to do at the Koch Memorial the next week. A couple of cinderblocks came out of the wall, too, and we found the doorknob out on the fire escape the next day. I waited for it all to settle, and he waited too, breathing kind of snarly and staring at me.
“What’s up, Ben?”
“How could you do it, Marty? I thought you were part of the cause, the crusade. I thought you were fighting for the same principles. I thought we were a team.”
I motioned for him to lower his voice. He was in stentorian mode and could be heard for blocks. “What are you talking about?”
“You. You and Demonica!”
” ‘Oh, that?’ Is that all you have to say? How could you betray me like that?” He picked up my desk and threw it through the window. I hoped nobody was walking by below. “My best friend and my worst enemy!”
“Easy, Ben. It’s not what you think.”
“And what is it? Do you deny that you’ve consorted with the Mistress of Evil? That you—my closest confidant, the keeper of all my secrets—have actually been sleeping with Demonica?” He was starting to breathe heavy again and I didn’t like the way his mood was headed.
“Ben, sit down.” He glowered at me and clenched his fists, but he sat. “If you promise not to destroy any more city property, I’ll tell you what happened. Do we have a deal?”
He made a face, but he nodded.
“Okay. First off, I only slept with her once, and it was months ago. And it was nothing, really.” He clutched the arms of the chair, and they started to bend. “Look, I could tell you she took control of my brain, right? And I had no choice, right? But I’m not, I’m being honest with you. Settle down.
“You know I’ve been in touch with her. She demanded a cut from the Demonica action figures in return for promising hands-off on Gracie Mansion. So every six weeks or so we arrange to courier her a cashier’s check.” He was relaxing now, bored. Business details always put him to sleep. “So one time I carried the check myself, because there was something I wanted to talk to her about.
“You remember that time it looked like she got run over by the 6 train, only it turned out she had a whole lab-headquarters deal set up in an unfinished subway tunnel, and she just ducked into it? I always thought it was kind of lucky it was so close when you threw the train at her, and I finally asked her. It turns out she has a bunch of them, scattered around the city.
“So I wanted to see if she’d be willing to sublet. She must hardly ever use them, so they’re standing empty all the time. Some of ’em are in really prime locations, and you know, with the right kind of decor . . .”
He nodded. He still felt bad about the balcony building.
“But she didn’t go for it. She was nice about it, but she said she never knew when she might need to activate one of them, and I’d get evicted with no notice to speak of. She didn’t want to have to do that. Besides, I have a cat.
“And that was it; I gave her the check and we were done. But it was dinnertime and we were both hungry, so we grabbed a pizza and a bottle of wine, and, well, you know how it is. She was wearing that black Spandex outfit with the garters—you know, the one with the skull on the crotch—and we were all alone in this tunnel, and there was all this funky machinery, and the wine—”
“Yeah, Marty, I know.” His voice was normal again. “She’s always real horny after a couple of drinks. And she’s pretty aggressive.”
“Tell me about it.”
“But, Marty, it can’t happen again. It’s a lonely crusade I’m on, this war against the evils that would destroy us. I’ve got to be able to trust the men around me. And you know how devious she is. She’ll stop at nothing, and if she ever learned the secrets I’ve confided in you . . .” His eyes were glittering, his jaw tight and locked.
“Uh, look, Ben, maybe you need a break. You’ve been pretty busy lately, haven’t had much time out of the suit. It couldn’t hurt to go back to being just Ben Wright for a few days.” I thought for a second. “How about coming out to Greenwich this weekend? We could catch a movie, maybe go sailing. I can fix us up with a couple of nice girls, you’ll like them.” A little harmless detox. A reality check.
He stood up and flexed. I always hated that. Looked down at me. “Evil never takes a vacation, Marty. You know that.” And he flipped me a salute—a salute, for Pete’s sake—as he shot off through the broken window.
I don’t know. I think he was starting to believe he really was Mister Right.
The next time Demonica called to arrange for her check, I asked her how he found out. She said she told him. I ask you. The most brilliant woman in the world, sure, but screwed up beyond belief, right?
• • •
I found this luxury condo near Central Park. I couldn’t afford it, and I knew it. But I could almost afford it, and it had been so long since I’d seen anything I was even close to, it was hard to walk away. So I was up late going over figures. I had projections from the licensing guys (weighted to reflect three new bad guys I didn’t know if we could get on line in time), I had papers from the bank estimating what kind of mortgage I could swing, I had my returns for the past five years. And no matter how I punched it in, it added up to no condo.
The phone rang. It was him.
“I did it, Marty.” His voice was hollow; I almost didn’t recognize it. I hadn’t heard him sound like that since the bar, way back at the beginning. “I did it.”
“Ben, what do you mean? Did what?”
“She’s dead, Marty. She’s really dead this time. I’ve got the body with me.”
I had a horrifying mental picture. “You’re . . . not at a public phone, are you?”
“No, no. I’m at home. And she’s here. She’s dead.”
“Yeah, dead. I got it. How did it happen?”
“She called me out again. You know how she does that—whenever she’s finished some new gizmo she’ll break into the TV channels and challenge me. I have to have the TV monitored all the time, I never know when she’s going to break into Nightline or Robin Byrd or what. One time I missed Wake Up America, and—”
“Uh-huh. She called you out. Then what?”
“Well, it was Central Park this time. And as soon as I get there, she shorts out all my stuff. I land, she steps out from behind a tree with this doohickey, and zap, none of my stuff works. And it’s heavy. It weighs over 250 pounds and there’s no power to keep it up, it’s just dragging me down, you—”
“She starts undressing.”
“She strips. She’s pulling off her clothes, and I’m almost falling over, the damn stuff is so heavy, and she’s coming toward me, and she’s got this weird grin on her face, and I don’t know what she’s going to do, I don’t know what she’s going to do! So I shot her.”
“You shot her?”
“I didn’t know what she was going to do! Ever since the first time, when I didn’t know if the hardware was going to work for five minutes straight, I carried a .45 automatic, just in case. Security, you know.”
“So you shot her.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. For some crazy reason I thought of that sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the astronaut’s tumbling over and over and all of the colors are coming at you. It was that kind of silence.
“She told me she loved me, Marty.” Silence again. “Marty?”
“She was naked, and there was blood all over the place, and I was holding her, and she said she loved me, and—and—and . . . What am I going to do now, Marty? What am I going to do?”
I couldn’t see any way around it. “I don’t know, Ben. I don’t know how exactly to put this, and I don’t want to seem cold, but, well, I think we’re going to have to find a new campaign.”
“No more Mister Right?”
“Well, there’s no more Demonica, Ben. And I don’t see how we can justify sending out professional criminals to terrorize New York just so you can fight them. There isn’t any more threat.”
“You did it before.” His voice was low, terrified.
“That was different. That was just to juice things up in between Demonica’s attacks. This would be fabricating the whole thing from scratch.” I didn’t tell him the truth; I’d be happy to send the Vultures after him, or the Battery Boys, but we wouldn’t be able to keep it going. His equipment had been breaking down recently, and we didn’t know how to fix it. I never told him Demonica had been coming in to work on the stuff, to patch it together, that she’d been the one that had kept it going as long as it had. Better to stop now than to let it deteriorate and have to tell him why we couldn’t fix it any more.
“But—but . . . What am I going to do? You’ve got to tell me, Marty. You’ve got to!”
“Oh come on, Ben. You’ve had a good run. You made plenty of money and you had your time in the spotlight. It’s not like you’re out on the street. You own your own home and you’ve got plenty of capital. Buy a restaurant. Take a trip. Go back to school. The world is your oyster, pal, and you’re on vacation. Savor it.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake! Wake up and smell the coffee, Ben. It’s over. Real life is back. Cope, already.” I hung up, then took the receiver off the hook in case he called back.
I reached for my Rolodex; this was important. Once the news broke—and it would break; no use hiding it—it’d be the biggest nine-day wonder this town ever saw. But the story would fade. King faded. Lennon faded. Everything fades but Chappaquiddick.
So I had to move fast. The first guy I wanted to talk to worked for Newsweek, the second for the Times, and after that there were a few other good possibilities. Once this story faded, there’d be a lot of reporters leaving town. If I acted now, while I was the only guy who knew, maybe I could get the inside line on a decent place to live.
• • •
I ended up in a roomy walk-through near Gramercy Park, and I’ve been there almost a year now. We came up with a new campaign—the one with the fish—and we pretty much put the old stuff behind us, like we always do. I hadn’t realized how much everything changed until I heard about him committing suicide in Miami or somewhere, and it got me thinking about it again. It was pretty wild, I guess, looking at it in retrospect.
But, damn, this used to be a fun town, didn’t it?
© 1991, 2009 Kurt Busiek