The Cripple

There was once a man—his mother had named him Richard, poor bastard—who from infancy onwards had managed to match and even succeed the expectations of his parents and peers. You see, from a very young age, he illustrated a most excellent aptitude in all things that could be possibly expected of a lad—and a little more. His academic marks were always magnificent, in absolutely all subjects, and he made effort to display perfect enthusiasm, perhaps even if the enthusiasm were itself completely fallacious. On top of this, he played several instruments, to professional adequacy, and he was also a most vigorous athlete, being more than a match for a typical, or even atypical, opponent in sports ranging all the way from American football to tennis. How his parents ever managed to find the time—that must have been a miracle, and speaking of his parents, they were quite naturally overjoyed, and overabundantly proud of their most excellent son, surely to exceed any of his peers, maintaining high expectations, as they felt it a disservice to him if he should not achieve as high as is imaginably possible.

No surprise, he was accepted into a most prestigious university, the only one to which he bothered applying, with complete tuition offered, though his family was certainly wealthy enough to pay his whole way through. At this prestigious university, he quite naturally bumped shoulders with other massive overachievers and those particularly well-connected among the wealthy and powerful. He was a rising star—a developing rags-to-riches story if rich-to-richer would instead suffice—despite coming from such absolutely mediocre breeding—who nevertheless made a most excellent candidate for a place among the elite of the elite among the governors of world finance, from there being a most ideal candidate for a convenient marriage to a debutante-daughter of another elitist elite of the financial elite.

Life was good, very good. Imagine the child of a mere surgeon rising to a position of world prominence, rubbing shoulders with the very small community that essentially runs the globe, even marrying into one such family, growing magnificently wealthy in the process. All of this actually happened, a one-in-a-million success story. And despite the weighty responsibilities of his adopted occupation, his home life was secure; his wife bore him several children, and they had all their arms and toes.

As he passed into his mid-thirties, it seemed that misfortune would never bruise his distinguished nose.

But then a strange thing happened. A pain formed in his right hand, a pain that with medication and treatment remained troublesome—but inconsistently, sometimes unimaginable agony, and other times entirely absent. This pain continued for years, eventually extending past the wrist, up the elbow, and then all the way to the shoulder. Despite the best efforts of a team of highly-compensated physicians—a menagerie of world-renowned specialists—the pain continued rampant, working its way finally to the spine, and then rapidly down the legs. It was at this point that poor Richard was nearly bed-ridden. At first, despite these pains, he had continued in his duties at his occupation and to his family most admirably, confiding in few his secret agony, but as the pain pressed on further, growing more serious and more adamant, he found himself initially useless in the use of a pen, and not long thereafter he was entirely unable to functionally motor his right arm whatsoever. So dedicated was he to his wife and children and his employer—never mention the expectations inculcated, his towering aura and social image—that he surreptitiously undertook evening classes to learn the difficult art of penmanship with his weaker hand. But of course this could never be enough. When the pain finally extended to its conclusion, he became useless, virtually unable to walk without boiling-over torrents of flame galloping up and down his melancholy arteries, as if his body an oven, the blood raging against the prison of the flesh. So it came that he was useless, little better than a burden. They tried to make do, but he did eventually lose his vaunted position among the elites, and not far thereafter among his family, his unsympathetic wife robbing him his virtually alienated children back to her parents, leaving him all alone, unattended, in a great house he would soon be unable to maintain, financially or physically.

He had virtually lived from the office, returning home merely to say hello to the wife, send the children his love, and rest for the prescribed eight hours before again returning to the office. It was a strange thing; it was his labor, his long hours at the office, that had provided the means for his house, his mansion in truth, and the abundant lifestyles of his wife and children, but the requirements of his occupation prevented him from taking any advantage of all his labor. And it was in this that he realized, as the weeks bore on into months, from a wife’s initial sycophant’s sympathy to her accusations of impotent worthlessness, he had never really been a part of his high halls, a stranger to his own hearth, and that he had only grown to be a part of his household as it crumbled now around him, his wounds preventing him leaving under his own power.

He didn’t truly have a plan; he didn’t consider liquidating his assets and attempting to make a living purely from his investments, which may have well been according to his power, though his lifestyle would by necessity become significantly less affluent. He didn’t give conscious thought—at least he avoided thinking about it—to how he would soon be bereft of his own domicile, that he couldn’t for long afford to pay for his home, and that it no longer served any purpose. Gods above! The size of the place! This he only realized when the rustling din of his shuffling footsteps filled the hollow halls, no gasp or whisper of children at delighted play, no voice of a chiding mother beckoning them sit still and relax. But he didn’t turn inward, reflecting, and ask himself “What the hell was I thinking? What would a single family do with all this excess space? How many libraries, how many studies, how many sitting rooms—and the list goes on—could a man possibly need? Was this all just to impress my wife? Was this all merely that she could impress her friends, impress her family—how great life turned out for her?” No, there was no room for such thoughts in his mind. And it was a strange thing, too, what should have provided epiphany. But no, even as he had lost everything, the labor of a lifetime filled only with perfection, a labor come entirely to naught, all for reasons beyond his control, he just somehow felt complicit in his own downfall; if he hadn’t done this or hadn’t done that, or if he could just endure harder, the pain would eventually evaporate, being carried out with the evening air.

But he made the mistake of so many men so assured in their manliness—what they call their capacity to provide, no matter the cost they may endure—for such men are not capable of living for themselves; their only goal is to live as did their father or their grandfather, having become so attached to a particularly romantic notion of the American dream, something that really existed only in the situational comedy of the Fifties. Work hard; make a decent pay; marry a big-breasted woman; have a gaggle of kids; keep working until you can’t; be so old by your retirement that you can’t truly enjoy it; hope the same for your sons. But what’s the point? If you only live so that you might live another day, that you might reproduce, that they might live as you have—what’s the point? Isn’t there some magnificent goal, some great hope, some inborn desire—beyond all this—noble purpose?

And most assuredly would his story have ended with a mother fussing about the bedside of her invalid son, all the while bemoaning her terrible—I mean her son’s terrible fate, but there came an unexpected knocking from the door that resonated throughout and shook the whole house from top to bottom. Richard shivered, hiding from the waxing light of an ascending morning under his wife’s aging comforter, a six-figure thread-count wedding-day present from her parents. Even so the terrible knocking returned, shaking the house again down to its foundations, but Richard remained determined and merely stirred upon overpriced and overdesigned reclining chair, one of his wife’s shopping inspirations, not that he ever worked up the wherewithal to complain. But the insistent rapping returned, clattering down vases and picture-frames from their pedestals and overhangs, coming to a pernicious clatter upon the floor. Finally the starlight ruminants whistled from his fuzzy eyes through the crack of the open window to join the sidereal sands of the sky. Irritated, outraged, he would have hurled himself from his uncomfortable place of rest and slash to ribbons the itinerant earth-shaker knocking the front door to splinters, but bound with long agony, blearily he succeeded only in launching himself from his chair—to crash straight, face-first, to the floor, as his legs gave out for the incendiary foot-falls beneath him. Grunting for the exertion, he cursed the god of the bible and the devil too, as he dragged himself in a state of near-panic to his nearby wheelchair, though he could manage it only slowly, each minute movement a symphony of shooting pains that ran the gamut. And the wheelchair itself, well that was another matter entirely. His doctor swore up and down that, there being no valid medical reason to justify his pains of the body, he similarly bore no need for a wheelchair, the pain being entirely psychosomatic, and from there he sent him to a therapist, which bore similar fruits. As such, in time, he came into possession of a wheelchair, both a blessing and an embarrassment, as it is even to those with perfectly medically justifiable reasons. Even as he seated himself, he knew it would take ages to make the long progress through the empty halls to wind up before the door, with the conclusion of this harrowing journey inevitably resulting in his arriving far too late, finding at the open door nothing but the scent of the autumn dew aloft on the breeze. But companions were rare, even if they should only be bill collectors, and Richard was never given, as so many other abandoned men are, to the misery that lies at only the bottom of the bottle; so he nevertheless took himself upon this arduous journey, his left wheel creaking ever so slightly, with each rotation upon the magnificent hard-wood floors that would most assuredly belong in some time to some other man.

So it was to his great surprise, and great confusion, when five minutes from the initial knocks that threatened to raze his familial domicile, he presented himself before the opening door, expecting only the strangely enjoyable smell of recent exhaust, that there appeared before his eyes a woman, and not a woman going door to door to hand out out magazines regarding the one hundred and forty-four thousand destined alone for heaven. Gods above, you should have seen her.

“Ms. Penny Other, at your service, sir.”

His only reply was a stunned, glazed expression evident in his eyes.

“Your mother, you remember you have a mother, right sir? Well yes, in any case, she was worried about you being in this big old house entirely on your own, and she hired me to look after you, for the foreseeable future at least, until that darling bitch of a wife of yours comes to her senses.”

There wasn’t the time or the wherewithal, not in his addled mind at least, to question his mother’s judgment or to chastise the woman for her outrageous treatment of a wife he presumably still loved implicitly, no no no no—not all. All he could manage, all his cracked lips were capable, in a breathy line just above a whisper was, “What… on earth… are you wearing?”

She, smiling wide as the night sky, looking down at once to her feet, clearly admiring her own appearance. Garbed in white and black, appointed entirely in frills, what she was wearing was nearly pornographic, a bedroom mockery of a chambermaid outfit, the cheap sort of things you might find sold by less reputable vendors that also specialize in other bedroom accessories, but you’d expect such things to be cheap, easily torn. And though the construction was clearly intended to appear simple, it was clear the quality construction and fine materials; the dress was clearly made by someone that cared about the product—odd when you consider such things are typically produced by sweat-shop laborers with bleeding hands, wondering why mindless westerners pay money for such things. This, her proud display, she summed up by striking an adorable pose, one foot raised nearly to her barely concealed left ass-cheek. And though the child-like manner in which she appreciated the attention was more than a little endearing, it certainly served little to convince poor Richard the validity of this woman’s story or the righteousness of her intentions. “At best,” he thought, “my witless mother has sent me a stripper. At worst—” But as he began to consider the myriad harms an intruder might intend, he suddenly realized his own inconsequence—and his own unanticipated freedom. He wouldn’t be a rich man for much longer; for a thief, he would make a poor mark, and even the things that remained were inconsequential; they might as well be some other man’s property; he certainly can’t take them with him, to whatever studio apartment most assuredly awaits such a broken man. After that, what sort of young woman is likely to get her kicks from murdering a sick man? It didn’t matter. Clearly. It doesn’t matter.

And Richard suffered a clear dearth of companions, no-one to talk to; he was lonely. So he naturally treated the unwanted and potentially dangerous intruder as would any sensible man, “Nice to meet you, Ms. Other. My my, it’s nice to know my mother still worries about me, wasting her days away in that terrible little mansion I bought for her in the Hamptons; so nice to know she cares despite all her worries.” He didn’t allow her a moment’s time to explain herself, interesting though it might have been. “In any case, Ms. Other, again, so very nice to meet you. Please come this way. I’m sure we can work out some arrangement. Did you plan merely to work during the day or do you require room and board as well? Don’t worry; there’s plenty of space to go around. Hell, if you like to run around naked, I can give you a whole floor to yourself.”

Perhaps she was delighted with this unanticipated trust, or perhaps she just enjoyed the company of a fool, or perhaps she perceived more than was readily apparent. In any case, it is known without vacillation that she entered the mansion beaming a bright smile, rocking her hips back and forth in such a ridiculously exaggerated gait that would make a runway model blush.

“So, Ms. Other,” he began.

“Oh please, Richard, you can call me Penny. All the other men do.”

“All the other—”

“Yes yes, titles are so last century, wouldn’t you agree?”

Now convinced that his mother had not in fact sent him a stripper, but actually a prostitute, he attempted to clear the air. “Now, Ms. Penny, I just want to be sure you and I are on the same page here; you must know that I am a happily—”

But his tongue dropped suddenly, and the words ceased to find form, as she bent herself over the dining room table, ostensibly to organize the abandoned stacks of bills and other miserable missives, and his pupils nearly blackened out the whole of his eyes as he couldn’t help but stare at her magnificently crafted ass made all the more obscene by a pair of see-through lace panties that were completely inadequate to the task of being undergarments. And before he had the time to redirect his gaze and feign ignorance—as would all gentlemen, quite naturally—her perceptive gaze caught him virtually red-handed as her lips twisted into a coy smile, staring back again, her posture unchanged.

“Happily what, Mr. Richard?”

Caught in the act in an unwilling and unwitting crime, as men so frequently are, he found himself lacking the words to explain himself, blubbering on in foolish apologies, but she didn’t even seem to mind. Far from it, in fact. She enjoyed his blustering confusion.

And so he was incapable of defending himself as she approached him slowly, deliberately, a wounded buck before an already-sated brown bear, content to the moment of its soon-coming easy meal. But when the moment had arrived of his inevitable downfall, his eyes clasped tightly shut he held forth in shoving motion almost comically, and when the moment had long passed, he dared to open his eyes and survey the bloodbath, finding nothing out of order, nothing out of sorts, just an outrageously dressed young woman enjoying what appeared a magnificently luxurious chocolate milk, from the scent of it, as she fiddled about through his stacks bearing only financial misery, a look of genuine concern readily apparent on her soft features.

Catching sight of his return to the world of the living, with a furrowed brow she was sifting through long opened and unanswered communications—bills mostly. It was a mixture of mercy and subtle contempt when she rejoined, “Buried, Richard? Crushed? Are you your flesh yourself or all you all of these, your bills, your invoices? Gods above! Did the doctors even do anything for you? They always just seem a little to keen to get your ass into the MRI, don’t they? They certainly do adore their expensive equipment.”

But this was a conversation that Richard had already weathered—badly—within, and he offered no response, wheeling himself opposite of her, and changed the subject. “Anyways, Ms. Penny, you could do me the favor of telling me what you’re here for.” Saying this he reflected inwardly thinking, “You could also do me the honor of explaining what lunatic dressed you.”

But she gave him a fright with her response. “What, you don’t like it?” she asked, nearly pressing her ample bosom to burst against the cherry-wood table with incredibly obvious mock obliviousness. “My sister made it for me. She has something of a talent for sewing, as you can probably tell. If I may say so, which I think it sensible to allow, her taste is similarly peerless. I mean, have you ever seen such elegant attire?”

“Oh no, I agree,” he responded with the frantic animation of sharing a telephone booth with a man wearing a straightjacket, “I’ve certainly never seen its peer.”

“Without a doubt!”

“In any case, Ms. Penny–”

“Please, sir, just ‘Penny.’”

“Yes, right—Penny—I’m sure you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me. In any case, I’m sure you can explain what this is all about. Look, if you’re here for my money of belongings, I can tell you right now that I’m flat broke. You can have the car, I guess, it’s just going to get liquidated in the divorce anyways—at least you might get some use out of it. And I can guarantee you, if you’ve come to kill me and take my head, that I won’t resist in the slightest, not that in my condition I’d be able to stop you. In fact, if that is your intention, I’d only ask that you’d give me a clean death, ideally straight through the heart; I’m not sure I could tolerate having my throat slit. You know it’s such a mess, and blades are so cold.”

“Oh no no no, nothing of the sort, I promise. As I said, faithless one, your mother sent me.”

“You should know I haven’t spoken to my mother in nearly half a year.”

“She’s probably just trying to mend broken bridges.”

“And I really doubt my mother would send me a stripper or… a prostitute? What are you exactly?”

With feigned outrage she rose from her place, threatening to hurl herself across the table and smother poor Richard to death under a mountain of breast meat. “Why why why, you you fiend! You blackguard! How outrageous, to treat a gentlewoman thusly! What kind of man are you?!”

“Married.”

“And how’s that working out for you?”

“You’re sure you’re not really here to shoot me in the chest and cut off my head?”

“Trust merely that I’m here, on your mother’s recommendation, to see to it that you don’t lose your head. You’ll just have to trust me. Besides, what have you got to lose?”

His gaze rose to heaven, and he breathed a deep, resigned sigh. “Fine… fine… you win. So, what do you want from me?”

She rose, and strode slowly around the table, careful to clumsily emphasize her physique with her unaccustomed, tottering gait, to about as much effect as one would expect, coming to a halt immediately before Richard, declaring simply, “Well, though it seems as if you’re lacking some attention, and this house could use a woman’s touch, but really—when was the last time you actually went out, had a breath of fresh air? Six months? The last time you laid eyes on your wife?”

“You presume that I give a shit.”

“You presume that you can stop me.”

To the tune of impotent curses, to be hurled down from the flashing firmament by the hand of an enraged god, she forced him—wheeled him really; it wasn’t actually that difficult—to and through the front door, into the blinding light of incandescent dawn. But he was suddenly rendered silent, sure he had begun to hallucinate; perhaps that he had hallucinated all of this—it was the only reasonable explanation—for instead of the expected overpriced automobile, which was actually on fire, a great plume of smoke black as Tartarus rising up the firmament, instead there was a surplus jeep in military colors, complete with a military chauffeur, in a uniform that he did not recognize, not that he was terribly well-acquainted with the subject. He at once did a double-take, his gaze scanning rapidly from his inflamed car to his coquette companion, who was utterly unconcerned. “Wha… wha what have you done to my car?”

“I thought you said you didn’t care what happened to it, that it wouldn’t be yours for long anyways?”

“But… but…”

“Oh come come now, dear Richard. It’s not all that bad. The fire department will be here before you know it. Give them something to do. You’re a responsible citizen, and you know they could use the practice.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

“Seems like you could use some new wheels, anyways. Speaking of, if you’ll forgive me, citizen, your chariot awaits.” In a single movement, and betraying no mortal weakness, she hefted him handily upon her shoulder and deposited him rudely in the rear of the jeep, the military chauffeur muttering something unintelligible through powerful liquor breath.

“Are you abducting me?” he gasped.

“Complain complain complain. No wonder your wife left you.”

“Excuse me?!”

“Hang on one second.” She began to collapse his wheelchair, but then a strange thing happened; she didn’t ask the chauffeur to open the trunk; she didn’t even walk towards the jeep. Instead, as if by birthright, the wheelchair alighted into the burning wreck and did not come again. It would be an understatement to say, for example, that “Richard’s jaw dropped,” though in fact it did, and would have proceeded neatly to the floor, and then all the way to the seventh floor of hell if it could. “Oh don’t worry Richard. We’ll get you some better wheels, as these clearly don’t suit you. Come on then, turn that frown upside down!”

Richard was catatonic.

“Aww, don’t worry dear. Momma will take care of you.” Vaulting into the shotgun seat, she roared to the driver in some tongue that approximated the language of devils, and the vehicle took off with a blast and was quickly speeding down the narrow pathways of the wealthier sorts of suburbs, which try their very hardest to approximate, without actually succeeding, rural life. And though there was ample opportunity to enjoy the frankly breath-taking sights and the crisp scent of nature’s breath itself—intermingled with the strangely satisfying gasp of the ancient, inefficient surplus engine—Richard did not enjoy it; you see, Richard was not capable of enjoying it, and it wasn’t the immediate threat of abduction, the very real abduction taking place that prevented him from this; for truly he had never enjoyed it. He’d never gasped the salty air of the ocean breeze through the windows of a fast automobile; he’d never slowed down enough to enjoy the views breathtaking from a little cottage on the mountainside. He’d missed all these little magical moments that make us alive. Instead he bought an expensive house in an expensive neighborhood, all of which was presumably intended to be enjoyable, more pleasurable than what could be had by those less financial gifted, but even these went without savor.

Terrified, he remained in the back seat a witness to an unintelligible conversation between driver and passenger, who seemed to know each other intimately, passing back and forth between each other a fifth of vodka and laughing like war buddies. Suddenly, the vehicle seemed genuinely appropriate.

Thinking himself to be found—well his disembodied torso that is, as his hands and head would most assuredly go missing—floating in some profoundly polluted river, probably coated in saran wrap and virtually green with pathogens, he wondered if anyone would show up to his funeral. Images of an unattended wake and naked undertakers tea-bagging his corpse flashed through his vision. For some reason, this was more amusing than distressful. But all this fond imagination was suddenly interrupted with slamming shut of a car door; peeking out through his fingers, he thought he saw the indomitable Ms. Other storming into a packed convenience store abutting a dilapidated fueling station. But she didn’t remain there for long, whatever the reason, with a muffled sound of what seemed the blast of a cannon, the convenience store quickly emptied, swarthy day-laborers that would otherwise have loitered mindlessly for hours fleeing for dear life. The sense of dread, as has often been said, was palpable, and Richard half expected a platoon-size kill team to erupt forth from the entrance, Ms. Other’s severed head neatly in hand, but the driver didn’t seem concerned, just now igniting a tall cigarette, silencing these horrific hopes at once. Sure enough, moments later, fuming Browning Automatic Rifle in hand and her bust stuffed with loose cash, Ms. Other strode forth, delighting in the screaming din of commoners.

“Doesn’t it bring you back, Miezko?”

“Who the fuck is Miezko?” Richard muttered inaudibly.

The chauffeur passed his cigarette to Ms. Other, who it gladly received, taking such an appreciative drag that would offend the mothers of young children world-wide. And he began slowly, with so thick an accent that Richard did not at first realize the language was English, “Back to a time when teenager could buy a thirty-caliber machine gun through the mail.”

“Yes, the good old days,” she promptly agreed.

“And kids these days. Cannot tell ass from hole in the ground. Run around shitting on hands.”

“Did you hear about our dear friend, Richard?”

“Nie nie nie, you never tell me anything.”

“Oh, well our good friend Richard here, his wife abandoned him; took the children with her.”

The driver turned about in his seat, examining Richard closely, one eye somehow larger than its sibling. “Ehh, it is no loss. Woman is mostly agony, sometimes loud in bed. Not worth the agony. You agree, Poena?”

She only laughed, tossing herself gingerly into the passenger’s seat. “Onward, Mieszko!”

And in a short time this mismatched trio appeared before a significantly more sedate scene, a cute little art gallery tangential to a novelty clothing store in a small suburban neighborhood approximating a hamlet. And sure enough, Penny entered the gallery, shooting wildly and with reckless disregard from the hip, and once again the these denizens, though significantly wealthier and more white collar in character, they screamed and wailed just as the plebs, the threat of immediate and lethal violence reducing all and everyone to the same pathetic, mewling masses of flesh. Good times. You’d have to ask yourself the wisdom of robbing an art gallery, seeing as it’s not exactly a cash business, and such stolen goods, thanks to their uniqueness, are not exactly easy to fence. But this apparently didn’t matter, as Penny shortly again emerged, a handful of paintings held under her free arm, which he carelessly tossed in the rear of the vehicle immediately beside Richard, a huge smile playing upon her face. Richard had suddenly and irrevocably been robbed of his power of speech, being capable of little but observing in abject horror the nightmare proceeding before him but being incapable of doing anything about it, not even fleeing the scene. Sure enough, in no time at all, he would be an accomplice, if he was not one already. And though this was a matter of some concern, he did increasingly wonder really “what did it matter?” At least he’d be fed in prison, and it’s not like his reputation mattered particularly much to anyone anymore.

“Hear those sirens, Mieszko?” she asked.

“Best not to listen; you’ll founder on the rocks.”

“Quite.”

“Onwards, madame?”

“I trust your discretion.”

The car surged with such sudden impetus that nearly cleaved Richard’s head from his shoulders, lurching this way and that under the auspices of its liquor-seething conductor, and Richard was already at his wits end. Nothing like this, not one thing—he didn’t even consider it a possibility—had occurred to him in his whole life. He had never even been joy-riding before, not even innocently, to the sullen blast of the Velvet Underground, much less hanging out the window, baseball bat clasped firmly, laying low mailbox after mailbox in the twilight hour. And now he was an unwilling witness to well-seasoned madness. Was this truly happening; could something like this actually happen; in the course of human history, has something as mad as this ever occurred? Perhaps he truly was hallucinating. The scraping slap of his head against the zooming pavement would certainly tell. And, as if reading his mind, or perhaps merely reading his features, Penny at once turned about in her seat, the barrel of her automatic leering just inches from Richard’s heart, and did her best to reassure the poor, broken man.

“Is something the matter Richard? You look pale.” Her eyes snapped up to the firmament, regarding the halo of the sun and again cheerily settled upon Richard. “Hmm, maybe you could just use a bit more sun. But, I don’t know…” Wide-smiled she pretended not to notice his discomfort as he entirely in vain attempted to lean out of the direction of the barrel, while the latter only limply tracked his progress. “Ahh, I’ve got it! Something to warm the blood!” She roared to the driver in palatable diacritical consonants, and with a nod the jeep veered wildly down an alley-way never intended for motor vehicles, just narrowly avoiding obliterating an off-duty line cook from the Chinese buffet who promptly hit the deck as the vehicle, on two wheels, passed over him.

Richard felt weak. The scenic visions and crisp scents had proven ineffective; Richard was as sick as ever, and he would have vomited then and there in the car, had not he been terrified of the succubus herself and her infernal wrath. But before rude regurgitation could even begin to seize up his gastro-intestinal tract, the car came to a gentle rest in an abandoned parking lot, immediately abutting a moderately-sized liquor store somewhat famed among the local community for its early opening hours and comparatively cheap prices—not to mention its operator known for listening to loud pornography behind the sales counter. But this evening its vaunted inventory and central place in the social fabric would do little to save itself from a smattering of misery, as Penny, blowing a kiss and a wink to Richard as he stared on in horror, strode inside, rocking her hips like a paint mixer. And sure enough, announced by cannon-blast, Ms. Other promptly returned with a bottle under each arm and an unnaturally broad grin.

And as the car again roared back to life and careened down the narrow passage-ways, Ms. Other had neatly transplanted herself to the back seat, or more specifically Richard’s aching lap, grinding herself intimately against his traitorously straining erection, as she pressed her bosom up close to his terrified countenance, daring him take just the slightest liberty, which, he nevertheless adamantly refused, inasmuch as catatonic fright constitutes protest.

“Come now, darling. This’ll put some color back into your cheeks.” She produced from nowhere a comically large funnel and rapidly undid the heart-searing spirits with her teeth, clearly experienced. She did precisely as you could have expected, emptying nearly half the bottle into his now suddenly hoarse and voiceless throat as she held closed his nostrils, fearing the fool would project the bottle’s contents to the four winds. Strangely, especially for a one-time member of the financial elite, Richard had never actually consumed liquor, not even during his senior year in high school or his time at university, not even when it would have been legal, much less “cool” to do so. And lacking this, he failed to develop any new vices. The fool didn’t even smoke, not even a cigar on a special occasion. So this sudden influx of spirited spirits was overpowering, and he quickly proved himself the most pathetic of light-weights, as his chest heaved to expel the undesired libations, but Penny was far and away too quick, too proficient in her craft, and she held him hard by the throat, roaring that he’d regret beyond regret if spurned the tiniest drop of the proffered gift. And sure enough, the gurgling, roiling stomach was conquered and forced into bondage, passing the spirits finally down into the lower digestive tract, and beyond its capacity for protest. It was quickly on top of him, but he wasn’t panicked; the numbness of lips and confusion of vision, he became instantly comfortable, rouge illuminating the deathly pallor of his sullen cheeks.

So mumbling to himself incoherently, he enjoyed the ride, as they continued their terrifying freebooting through the gentle ways of the village to the increasing crescendo of myriad and innumerable police cruisers, always just one step behind, until they came to the ultimate object of their quarry, the big one—enough to leave a real lasting impact, enough to make a statement—delightful to free spirits everywhere. He awoke suddenly with a peck on the cheek, his eyes just cracking open slightly to perceive a most interesting scene, the venerable Ms. Other posing before a bank—and not just any bank at that, a branch of the very same bank for which he had once been an executive, the very same bank owned by his own father-in-law, the source of his quickly dwindling wealth. And then a camera flashed, and Mieszko returned the item back to his satchel. Penny went directly to her work, a chorus of screams and automatic gunfire, as she roved this way and that between the alabaster pillars of the bank lobby, threatening its underpaid employees with a slow and unpleasant death via sepsis from a bullet through the belly, and alternatively a bullet through the balls of an over-tanned teller who had watched far too many movies. So with the completion of his public emasculation, Penny strode forth, incandescent in her restrained fury, hefting a great burlap sack over her shoulder marked only in in the word, in all capitals, “SWAG.”

And here their good fortune was seemingly reversed, surrounded by a veritable fleet of police cruisers that had blocked off the road, screaming obscenities towards the entrance as innumerable eyes stared down the irons of countless firearms, all trained on the motley trio, itching for a gory promotion, yearning to lap at the fruits of vicious slaughter; after all, such an occasion only comes rarely when a man may be in his rights according to the law to strike another man dead. And our trio weren’t exactly model citizens, garbed and outfitted outrageously, clearly with the intent of disturbing the peace and corrupting the witless youth. But before the venerable Ms. Other could bring her rifle to bear and lay low many a lawman, unblinkingly grinning ear-to-ear, a trio of high explosives were cast forth from the practiced hands of an old soldier, catching the saffron glint of the setting sun; lawmen, hurling themselves hither and thither, were helplessly buffeted under the thunderous applause, their ear-drums shattered, bleeding. Before they could return fire, before they could actualize their punishments, the motley trio were gone. The old surplus jeep that should have been rotting away in a dusty junkheap, as if in cartoon mockery of life, had climbed upon and over police cruiser after cruiser, and from there deftly hurtled down the now-abandoned side-streets. Even so, bruised more in their pride, the officers gave chase, three outrageous lives to squelch. To hell with caution. Damn the consequences.

An army of wind-warping lead, to the clatter of innumerable casings, ricocheted from pavement and brick facings through the broad window panes of shop-fronts and high-rise apartments, as the police pressed their assault. The venerable Ms. Other, concealed in the cover of the rear seat loaded another magazine and racked the slide, grinning maniacally.

“Really makes you feel alive, eh Richard?”

Richard was practically dislocating his every joint to flatten himself into the very bottom of the passenger’s seat, babbling incoherently for his mansioned mother, while Poena only laughed, and hoisted him again into the rear seat.

“Get your shit together, little man! How many times in life do you think you’ll have the opportunity to be shot at?! You might as well enjoy it!”

He blubbered away about being a good father and having a pair of kids while Penny returned fire to the satisfying blowout of a cruiser’s tires, to shortly veer, crashing violently into the storefront of an occupied hair salon. The military chauffeur, having magically snapped a Tommy-Gun from the thin air, at short intervals fired wildly to the rear, striking little of any worth, though he seemed to be enjoying himself, cackling along in his demon-speak. But this seemed increasingly insufficient in the face of the police response, and she grasped the Tommy-Gun from the driver’s hand and deposited it, hot to the touch and smoking from the barrel, directly into Richard’s lap, declaring simply, “If you want to live to see the dawn, you’d better show those police some marksmanship! Besides, when next do you think you’ll get to fire a weapon in anger against a law officer, much less a company thereof?! Might as well enjoy what few moments of life you’ve got left.”

These words fell quickly on deaf ears, but operating from some basic motor function, having reverted entirely to the reptile brain, he took up the submachine gun as if he had long understood its function, as if it were an old friend, and promptly adopted a good shooting posture at the rear of the vehicle, kneeling upon the uncomfortable cushions without apparent pain or discomfort. Training his firearm upon a front-running pursuit vehicle, he placed a trio of rounds directly through the grill of the car, which rattled through the engine block and set the engine alight. Veering this way and that, the cruiser slid clumsily to the side and then violently rolled forward, colliding in a billowing explosion among its own compatriots.

And so the evening went, the motley trio fending off a veritable horde of lawmen, until they had finally broken the pursuit altogether, and made their way happily home. There wasn’t much left of his car, merely smoldering now when that morning it’d been the hotseat for fire demons’ colloquium. As they parked, Richard wiped the sweat away from his windswept brow, and strode eagerly from the car to stretch his tired legs. It took him a moment to come to the full realization of all that had occurred; he stood dumbfounded several moments, as the realization slowly dawned upon his smoke-sullied features.

“How?”

“How do I remain so fit and with it?

“How did—”

“How do I smile so much and yet never develop aging lines?”

“…”

“Oh come on!”

“Stop it! Just one second! Just tell me! I beg of you, Ms. Other. I must know—I absolutely must know, beyond all others—how did you do this? What did you do? Honestly, I don’t understand.”

She didn’t like explaining herself, and the lines of irritation were evident across her otherwise immaculate countenance. “Look, Richard,” she began, with something approximating a toothy grin, “isn’t it enough that you’re happy? Isn’t that good enough? Why with the questions? After all, all I did was take you for a ride.”

“But how would—”

“Do you even remember the last time you did something for yourself and yourself alone, even something simple, even merely as a reward—a fine bottle of whiskey, a cigar, a manically overpowered sports car, maybe a good grope? Today, of all days, you were selfish. You took delight in something you shouldn’t have, did something for yourself, even it was merely to protect your life. It wasn’t easy either; you weren’t a willing participant. I had to paint the town red.”

“I was shot at! I even shot at the police! I could have been killed! And I might have left a few people dead back there!”

“Consider for a moment, my dear boy, the path of your whole life, it’s arc, if you will. You were an over-achiever. As you were an over-achiever, expectations for you rose, higher and higher. To maintain that respect, that reputation, you had to become more and more of an over-achiever; you had not only to maintain an impetus, but indeed accelerate it, and maintain this outrageous acceleration over the whole of your youth and well into your adulthood; truthfully, it’s just something unreasonable to expect of anyone. You’re not a god, Richard; and don’t pretend for a moment that you have the power to contend with such perfection; you will only burn from the inside out; it will go badly for you, as you’ve already seen, as you’ve already witnessed. We could talk about your lost child-hood, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. What’s more important is who you are. Are you the sum of your achievements, your deeds, your reputation, or are you merely your flesh? Or, adding some complexity, are you some combination of the above. Your answer to this will determine your relationship with the rest of the universe. Today, you sought merely to survive, and little aside. Isn’t it nice to be a little selfish? And unless you wish to return to the life of a worthless invalid, you will have to live, at least on some level, for yourself—and in that to live simply.”

“I’m not sure my doctor would agree with that diagnosis.”

“I wouldn’t trust the opinion of any fool that suggested that alcohol was bad for you,” she snapped in response.

“But, assuming that’s all the case—you’re correct and you’re telling the truth—why do this for me?”

“I don’t have to explain, but if you’re unlucky, it will become evidently clear.”

“I actually had another question.”

“I have a few moments, but I have to get moving quickly. Police and all that.”

“Did you pick that bank at random, or–”

“I was inspired. Your father in law’s going to be red in the face, especially when the security footage shows you to be an accomplice.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, if I were you, I wouldn’t stick around here for long. The police will be here in a few hours; three hours and forty-seven minutes to be precise. You’d think they’d be more efficient, but you must remember that this is the police we’re dealing with; they’re not exactly on topic.”

“What? What what what? What did you just–? You—you—you! It wasn’t enough that I was a cripple! Now I’m a damn criminal! I’ve just replaced one doom for another! What the hell have you done to me!”

“Well, decapitation is still on the table; I’ve been in the market for a new novelty chalice.”

“What kind of fucking plan is that?”

“So you do care what happens to you?”

He went silent, his stare unblinking and intense.

“Well, I don’t know; we could take you with us. You’d last a few weeks at least, that is until I get bored with you.”

“You can get me out of here?”

“Well, for the very short-run at least, but the requirements of my job take me all over the place.”

“What sort of requirements? What are you up to? I mean, what did you get out of this, besides swag, overpriced paintings, and boob cash?”

“I uplift and punish mortals.”

“I’m serious.”

“So was I.”