Desolation Island by Terry Lloyd Vinson

EXTRACT FOR
Desolation Island

(Terry Lloyd Vinson)


CHAPTER ONE

Desolation Outlaw

The shot glasses smacked the oak bar at precisely the same moment, the retort of which echoed like a shotgun blast within the deafening silence of the otherwise deserted structure.
“Nothin’ like a Southern Comfort burn to ignite the soul, am I right, partner?” the larger of the two men asked, his grotesquely oversized hand cupping the shot glass like a child’s marble, its contents completely hidden within his massive palm.
The smaller man grinned through a dark crimson cowl, his meticulously toned physique perfectly defined through maroon-shaded tights.
“I’m not the elbow bender I was in our day, Force. Whoops…sorry, I mean, Desolation Outlaw. I’m gonna have a hard time calling you anything but Force, Benjamin. Force of habit, you might say,” he replied with a sly grin, reaching up to push the cowl from his face.
Bending forward, the larger man studied the other for a moment while leaning onto forearms as large as a normal man’s thighs.
“Ya don’t look too worse for wear, Condor. We’ve both added a few wrinkles, not to mention scars, over the past…. damn, how long has it been, Ray?”
“At least four years, Ben,” the Crimson Condor replied, “Haven’t laid eyes on your ugly mug since Baton Rouge back in two-thousand…one…or maybe two.”
“Baton Rouge. Got’cha…,” he agreed with a nod, reaching over to refill their shot glasses to the brim’s edge,” …helluva brawl, as I recall. Lost a tooth to Slayer’s left hook. Damn thing is probably still lodged in his knuckle. You broke an arm that day, didn’t ya? Or was it a leg?”
“Right arm just below the elbow. Tried to glide beneath Stingray’s electro-cane and never saw The Brute coming. Big bastard straight-armed me right through the wall of that bank building. I had migraines for six months afterwards. Closest I ever came to permanent retirement, Force…uh… Ben.” Both men paused, then traded winks before downing the shots in twin blurs of frenzied motion. Again, the room filled with the thumping echo of glass against oak.
“I remember droppin’ ya off at Doc Wilkes office that evenin’, Ray. Grumpy old bastard. The government was payin’ him quite a wad to bandage up hero-types. Never could figure out his rabid Doberman personality.”
Wiping his mouth with a gloved hand, the Crimson Condor then laughed aloud, glaring at the mostly empty whiskey bottle as if it were a crystal ball.
“He was an ornery SOB, all right. I’ll say this, he was an equal-opportunity jackass. Treated everybody like crap, from what I saw. Ben, you’ll never guess who I spent some rehab time with at Doc Wilkes’ place.”
Shrugging his massive shoulders through a snug-fitting black muscle
T-shirt, Ben then pushed away from the bar and stood, various popping noises filling the air as he stretched his colossal frame.
“Old Flag-Face himself, Captain A. The Red Skull’s cronies had messed him up pretty good. Cracked ribs, concussion; the works.”
Now standing behind the waist-high bar, Ben pulled a fresh bottle of Jim Beam Gold from a dust-coated cardboard box and blew a wad of cobwebs free from the cap.
“Hoo-boy, spendin’ time with true royalty there, Ray. Livin’ legend material. So what was Mister Patriot like up close an’ personal? Real ego-maniacal a-hole, I’ll bet…”
“Believe it not, Ben, the man was as down to earth as you could imagine. At least, for a guy who’s done and seen the things he has through the years. Quiet and reserved, but a real professional in every sense. Least, that’s the impression I got.”
Ben broke the seal and proceeded to pour two more shots.
“Cap’s old school, Ray, like us. He’s waded into hell and back a few dozen times, no doubt. Only brush with hero greatness I had was a year or two ‘fore I hooked up with the Revenge Squad.”
As before, they each slammed down the shot and displayed similar grimaces.
“Who was that, Ben?”
“Met up with the West Coast Avengers in Phoenix. I was trailin’ The Lost Souls gang for the CIA at the time, searchin’ for stolen payroll money and a kidnapped heiress. Ran into Hawkeye, Vision and the Scarlet Witch smack dab on Main Street, brawling with some radioactive mutie with a head the size of a Mack truck. Got in a few decent swings ‘fore he dumped a nearby building on top of our heads. Vision saved our ass with some kinda force-field. Weird dude, that one. Not exactly what you’d call a conversationalist. Ol’ Hawkeye was a real hoot, though, and the Witch was drop-dead fine. I’ve rarely seen spandex stretched over anything so tantalizin’, ‘cept maybe for Marvella a’course.”
The Condor laughed heartily as Ben poured them still another refill.
“Hey, I’d heard you and Leah, um, Marvella were an item a few years back. What’s up with that, Benji? Never thought of you as the ‘steady girl’ kinda guy, not unless you’ve transformed dramatically since our days of running together.”
Ben scanned the Jim Beam label as he replied, although his mind’s eye was instantly transported to a faraway place and time.
“Ah, Leah. Have to admit, I miss that little Asian firecracker. Special woman, Ray. Not exactly painful on the eyes, either.” We grew pretty close after that nightmare in Oklahoma. Spent a few months lyin’ low in the Bahamas. Hell, we even tried reformin’ the Revenge Squad, but found very few takers. Word is that she…Marvella, retired from the business a short time back. Doin’ fashion design in Fresno, last I heard. Lately, I’ve severely regretted not joinin’ her within the ranks of inactive superhero for hire.”
Condor studied his old friend closely, mildly surprised at the genuine emotion on display from a man who rarely allowed a crack in his grim, business-like demeanor. As freelance partners taking assignments from both the CIA and FBI, they had shared many a battle and countless brews, but rarely a secret pertaining to each other’s personal lives.
“That was the…when most of the Squad was…wiped out, right? I recall you never said much about it, other than being set-up by the team leader.” Groaning in disgust, Ben took a quick sip from the bottle.
“Oh yeah. Richard Masters. Ass wipe went by the name Four-Star. Sold us out for a backhanded payoff from the former governor of Texas. Some good people died that day, man. Solid warriors and trusted teammates. One of ‘em, Johnny Reb, was half owner of this dive when it was still takin’ in a profit. Gave me a key and said to contact his Uncle Walt if I ever needed a place to lay low. Found out that Walt passed away a few months back, but still owned the deed. Place is in litigation hell as we speak. I was just glad they hadn’t cleared out all the booze. You hungry, Ray? I’ve mostly been livin’ off rameon noodles and Snickers bars the past few weeks, but I do have some Hot Pockets and cold Coors stashed away. Got some semi-fresh jerky that’ll put hair on your chest…or at least yer tongue.”
Condor waived him off, gently patting his taunt midsection with one gloved hand.
“No thanks, Ben. Had a bite a few hours back. It’s getting harder than ever to maintain the washboard abs of my youth. How long you been stashed away in here, anyhow?”
Pouring himself another shot, Ben strolled back around to the front of the bar and took a large chew of beef jerky.
“Couple of weeks. I had been toolin’ around Charlotte at a campsite a few miles outta town, but even in civvies I felt like somebody was constantly tailin’ me. Just my imagination playin’ games more ‘n likely, but it was too big of a risk to take. When yer faced with a half-million-dollar bounty, there ain’t no shortage of clowns willin’ to risk a severe beatin’ to bring ya in. Spent a week in Birmingham, then a few days in Biloxi fore coolin’ my heels here. What brings you to the Big Easy, Condor?”
“Tracking quarry, what else?” Condor replied with a shrug.
Ben instantly ceased chewing and cocked a decidedly bushy eyebrow. “Somebody other than yours truly, I hope.”
Folding his arms tightly across the monogrammed ‘CC’ adorning his chest, Condor stared into the tiled ceiling and frowned in deep thought. “Weeeelllll, of course somebody else, Ben,” he smiled, “almost embarrassing to mention, actually. Corporate embezzler skipped bail in Hot’ anta and the company President hired me to sniff him out. Supposedly the little geek is guarded by a trio of goons that label themselves ‘Ninjas’.”
Quickly concealing the grin covering his face with one huge palm, Ben muttered through splayed fingers.
“Don’t sweat it, Ray. A check’s a check these days, right?” he asked, suppressing a guffaw, “Ninjas, huh? Preppy with unlimited finances rarely goes cheap on protection. Hell, he might have Inspector Gadget or Captain Caveman on the payroll by now.”
Both men broke into hysterics almost simultaneously, slowing only when their lungs had emptied of oxygen and their tear ducts had ran dry.
“It is pathetic, old buddy, there is no doubt,” the Condor finally managed, wiping his eyes with a napkin.
“Hey, the big boys only want the marquee names these days. Major leaguers like the Avengers, X-men and Fantastic Four have the rep and clout. Guys like us were always considered second-tier, man. Damn shame. I never backed down from a scrap regardless of the pay they offered.”
“I hear you, Ben. They’ve been slowly fazing us out for years. I’m taking assignments these days I would’ve laughed at back in the 90’s, you know?”
“Same here, my man. Just might’a taken my last one, though. At least, as far as the government’s concerned. To the stuffed shirts, I’m nothin’ but an out of touch dinosaur gone to seed. Fifteen years of dedicated ass-kickin’, and I’m labeled a homicidal fugitive in the single blink of an eye. Ray, it just ain’t right.”
Condor removed his gloves only after checking the retractable claws built into each, then began massaging the palms of his hands as Ben reached over and poured each of them a fresh refill.
“If you’re trying to get me wasted, Ben, your task is better than half complete,” he said, merely sipping this time around.
“What did happen between you and Rap-Master XXX, anyhow? I may be prejudice, you and I being former partners and all, but I never could buy into any of the horse manure his camp’s been spreading to the media.”
Ben gulped down the shot and grimaced only slightly, then quickly poured himself another and smiled as Ray waived off the same.
“Getting smoother with every swallow, Ray. Lemme know if ya change your mind. Got at least half a dozen fifths stashed away, and at least that many pints, but I loathe drinkin’ alone.”
Leaning back as he re-fitted his gloves, Condor feigned shock.
“Sure, Benji. Three more shots of that stuff and you’ll be hauling me out of here in a wheelbarrow. Those legs of yours are as hollow as ever, pal. You still own that ‘little black book’ of super-hero groupies? Man, I recall you used to stash that thing away like it was the Holy Grail.”
“Man, you’re talkin’ ‘bout decades long removed. Most of those chicks are housewives these days, doin’ the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ bit. Now, what were you askin’ me before?”
“Rap-Master XXX and the reason we’re presently hunkered down inside a closed bar like cornered rats. You do know they raised the bounty to an even mil, Ben.”
“The hell you say!” he replied, his eyes widened dramatically. “Little ol’ me rates a cool million? Second string superhero from a small town in North Carolina? Guess I had to go ultra bad to hit the big time, huh Ray?”
“NAACP stepped in to back the AASHS. Political pressure, Ben, backed with truckloads of cash. They want your Caucasian rump hung from the highest podium, old buddy.”
Shrugging his bulky shoulders, Ben’s demeanor and tone remained surprisingly calm. Knowing his old running mate as he did, Condor had expected nothing less than a volcanic rage.
“Yeah, I had a feeling the African-American Super-Hero Society would call on a higher power to ensure I end up planted feet up in the nearest bone yard. Ya think they’d at least perform a token investigation on the gutter trash they represent. Rap-Master XXX wasn’t worth the skin off my knuckles, Ray. You ever run into any of the Hip-Hop Militia?”
Condor nodded to indicate he hadn’t, then quickly raised a gloved finger to contradict “Shared a conference room at S. H. E. I. L. D with Princess Ebony once. We were never formally introduced though. That’s about it. Aren’t they mostly centered around Detroit, Cleveland, and Chi-town?”
“Started out East Coast and Mid-West, I think, but are pretty much nationwide these days. Rap Master and his hood thugs were the southeastern reps. Scuttlebutt is they’ve got teams on both coasts and in Miami these days.”
Ben paused, eyeing his former partner curiously.
“Ya mean they never offered you a… membership, Ray?”
Groaning in dismay, Condor folded his arms across his chest in mock defiance.
“Benji, are you mental? I’m part Cherokee Indian as well as black, remember? The HH boys don’t take kindly to half-breeds. Besides, my rep as one of the government’s ‘token’ blacks for hire in the hero trade is well documented.
“White Dogs’, they call us. Your old teammate in the R Squad, Dark Claw, was referred to as such.”
Once again, Ben’s eyes grew instantly distant, his lips pursed tightly. “Helluva warrior, ol’ Claw. Surprisingly, it never really bothered me that he was a tad bit ‘light in the loafers’, if ya catch my drift….” This time, it was Condor’s eyes that widened.
“Dark Claw was gay? Never heard that one through the vine.”
“Wiser to stay in the closet those days, at least for us hero-types, anyhow. Almost makes ya laugh, don’t it? Dime a dozen now. I hear the Gay Bolt is next in line for a Hollywood franchise. Pretty boy in pink tights with matchin’ earrings to boot with a five film deal probably worth a few hundred mil. Fag groupies shadow ‘im like flies on a fresh pile of steamin’ crap, I understand. Seriously cracks me up
‘til I ponder on it further, then I always wanna start bawlin’ my eyes out at the warped universe we inhabit, Raymond. Sure makes hidin’ from society an easy task, I tell ya.”
Condor laughed lightly, nodding in agreement as his former partner poured himself still another refill of tinted firewater.
“You caught a glimpse of the newest West Coast Defender, Benji?”
“Oh cripes, yes. That Silver Fairy freak, you mean?” Ben replied, frowning in pure disgust, as if detecting a particularly reeking odor through wildly flaring nostrils, ‘The Defenders actually granted that wimpy lookin’ butt-pumper membership? Snooty Som’ Bitches turned me down three separate times. Government must’ve assigned ‘em a queer quota, ya think?”
“Possibly. Anyhow, didn’t mean to change the subject. I know how you are about homo-. .” Condor began, cut off abruptly by the bellowing rant he had known was inevitable as soon as the subject had been breached.
“Half the gals donnin’ tights these days are lezzies, anyhow. Ran into one last fall while workin’ the Pentagon Security circuit callin’ herself ‘BullDyke-Devil’. Woman had more facial hair than yours truly. Owned a mug that could crack titanium and an ass shaped like a deflated medicine ball. You hear ‘bout that sicko rapist outta Washington state that was callin’ herself ‘Strap-on?’ Rumor has it she had ol’ Spidey KO’d and bent over a crate with his tights pulled down around his ankles before The Avengers showed up to rescue ‘im. Man, it ain’t bad enough we’re forced to face down rampagin’ muties, power mad lunatics or extraterrestrial baddies. The 21st Century has sure added some seriously scary categories to the
‘Super Villain’ ledger, pal.”
“Um, Benji…”
“Man, I understand this business lends itself to freaks, but these days ya seriously don’t know who the baddies are without a name tag. What’s with that ‘Mystic’ Shrimp? Looks like a walkin’ stick in spandex…saw his weak ass on a
Cola commercial a few weeks back…”
“Man’s website, Mystic Realm. com, supposedly gets a few thousand hits a day, Ben. Mostly teens and young...”
“…looks like a girl scout could wipe up the floor with his bony ass. What was his main power again? Altering airspace? What the hell does that mean exactly? Can he fart and then transport the stink across a room?”
Condor raised a finger and extracted a shiny, metallic talon, then waived it back and forth like a parent scolding a young child.
“Earth to Desolation Outlaw, come in, Benjamin…”
“Oh…uh…sorry, Ray. Y’know how I get. Once I click into ‘rant’ mode, its damn near impossible to find the ‘off’ switch,” Ben groaned, lowering his head in mock shame.
Along the back wall, hung between an ancient Budweiser ad and a faded photo of Mike Ditka in his coaching days with the Saints, a ‘Jack Daniels’ wall clock chimed in weakly, announcing the ten PM hour with a series of muffled rings more suited for a palm-held cellular phone.
Displaying a wide, toothy smile, Condor reached over the bar and gently pushed a full shot glass closer to the other man.
“You are consistently consistent, Benji. The one constant in an otherwise topsy-turvy Universe. Time hasn’t altered you a single iota.”
After downing the shot in a blur, Ben wiped his mouth with a tree-trunk sized forearm and then eye-balled his former partner suspiciously.
“You just insult me, Ray?”
“Jeez, Ben…am I going to have to wait for the book or movie version?” Raising his mammoth hands in defense, Ben paused to inhale deeply. “Ain’t too complicated, Ray. I had tracked Shaker Jake and the Cocaine Cowboys to an abandoned sports complex just outside Tulsa. Been trailin’ those slippery jackasses for a month and through five states, and you know the legwork involved ain’t exactly my strong suit. Jake had been runnin’ a crank/crack empire through the Southeast for years, usin’ the Coke Cowboys for transport. Lean, mean crew of roughnecks, Ray, with firepower to spare. ATF had originally hired Power Man for the job, but he called ‘em at the last minute and cancelled. I gotta tell ya, partner, it was one helluva paycheck those boys were offerin’. Best I’ve seen in years; transportation, meals, per diem, the works. Course, I knew it was far from bein’ gravy. Shaker and the Coke Boys were suspected in at least two dozen homicides in the past year, and were well rep’ed as bein’ the textbook definition of ruthless. Still, they were just common thugs after all, and we’re used to dealin’ with a more lethal species of villain. Man, I snatched up that contract before the ink had dried.”
“I remember hearing a few years back Shaker Jake McKay was the main distributor in the South and Midwest. Rumor was that he was raking in a few hundred million annually. Supposedly had a two-thousand-acre ranch in Mexico and a fifty-room mansion in Puerto Rico,” Condor interjected, now leaning back with his highly polished boots propped atop the bar.
“Those were just the confirmed hideaways. He also had a seventy-room castle in Spain and several villas in the Bahamas. Ran prostitution in South America for a sideline, as well as an ‘Assassin for Hire’ business that was thrivin’ in Eastern Europe. Ol’ Jake was a true renaissance man, all right. Closest thing to a rattler in human form you’ll ever run across.”
“What was he doing in Oklahoma? Warehousing?”
“Bingo,” Ben answered with a wink, creating a mock gun with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, then pulling the ‘trigger’ several times in Condor’s direction.
“Had rented a thirty-thousand square foot warehouse buildin’ and proceeded to pack it to overflowing’. Som’ bitch had enough smack, crank, and weed stuffed away to OD the entire west coast. DDA estimated the street value at over fourteen billion. That’s with a ‘b’, not an ‘m’. Heard it took two days of constantly runnin’ forklifts to move it all outta there. Said it was like clearin’ out a friggin’ Super Wal-Mart. ‘Course, I didn’t get a chance to witness any of this firsthand, bein’ the fugitive psycho that I am.”
“Double homicide can taint one’s reputation, Benji, and you weren’t exactly known as a choir boy to begin with,” Condor interrupted with a sly smile.
Crossing his grotesquely pumped arms across his chest, Ben winced as if stung by the sad truth of his former partner’s words.
“Yeah, I’ll admit I cultivated the image of loose cannon in my younger days. An extra edge is always helpful, especially when you’re just startin’ out in the business, you know that, Ray. That said, I ain’t never shattered a rib or jawbone that didn’t deserve it, and I sure as hell didn’t terminate anyone without ample justification. Rap Master Shit heel and his grille-toothed clones crashed my bust in an obvious attempt to collect the reward. Triple XXX all but admitted he’d tracked me to Shaker’s warehouse with a crap-munchin’ grin drawn onto his ugly mug. What pissed me off the worst was his crackerjack timin’. They didn’t even jump into the fray ‘til I had already taken out most of Jake’s hired muscle. I’d already caught an M-16 slug in the shoulder and grenade shrapnel in both ass cheeks. Chicken shit jackasses thought I was just gonna step back, bleedin’ like a stuck hog and let ‘em take both the credit and the cash? Benjamin Thomason’s mama didn’t raise no chumps, Ray. Least, none I ever knew about.”
“So the Rap Master was just blatantly jumping your claim or… was he under contract as well?” Condor asked, squinting past Ben momentarily to check the wall clock.
“Claimed the CIA had hired ‘em six months earlier to nail Shaker J. I asked the dumb-shit if he’d arrived in Tulsa via Amsterdam, i. e. what the hell had taken so long. That’s about the time his steroid-puffed goons jumped me from every friggin’ direction. At the time, I had Shaker in a headlock and had pretty much heard him cry ‘uncle’ in three or four different tongues. In between absorbin’ shots to the back, face, and groin from those damn stinger-canes, I saw XXX reach down real casual-like and cut Jake’s throat from lobe to lobe, all the while performin’ some kinda rap lyric like he was bein’ shown on MTV close-circuit. Took me a few well-aimed jabs and sidekicks to break free, but by then my back-up generator had spewed forth quite a load of adrenaline. I hit Rap master XXX one time, Ray…once. A single right hook to the upper portion of his afro. And even that punch had ricocheted off one of the goon’s shoulders before it landed.”
Sighing heavily, Ben began vigorously rubbing the knuckles of his left hand, his eyes growing increasingly distant.
“Still, not bein’ in the best of moods, what with the gunshot wounds and the bleedin’ and all, I’m sure I didn’t exactly pull my punch as I normally do when dealin’ with cupcakes like XXX. Needless to say, I was still wearin’ the majority of his noggin’ on my fist when I pulled back. Cracked his skull like a damned eggshell. His body ended up on top of a pile of jagged pallet wood ‘bout twenty feet from impact. Looked like somebody had nailed ‘im there like a crucifixion. Next thing I know, CIA Storm Troopers raid the place like fire ants on a friggin’ banana peel, and I’m bein’ accused of excessive force for Shaker’s death and flat out murder for the Rapmaster, the gist of which his goons are claimin’ as I was bein’ hauled off for questionin’. Once I caught wind of the trumped-up charges, I hauled ass. Needless to say, without the fed’s permission. No doubt they’ve added assault of federal officers to the previous list of charges. Least I did remember to pull my punches on ‘em. Been coolin’ my heels ever since.”
Condor stood from the barstool and stretched his arms high into the air, setting off a series of low, popping noises.
“What’s the plan? You can’t hide out forever, my man. Sooner than later, you’re going to run out of booze, edible grub, and worst of all, toilet paper. Who’s your contact with the feds? Surely they would at least listen to your side.”
Nodding vehemently, Ben quickly waived him off.
“Been there, done that. Contacted my assignment rep as soon as I got into Birmingham and settled into a suitable safe haven. Within five minutes of makin’ the call, I found myself surrounded by a Swat Team decked out for urban warfare. Don’t think they were there to shoot the breeze or compromise in any form or fashion, Ray. My gunshot wounds had just begun to heal and be damned if I didn’t catch another slug in my right thigh. They weren’t shootin’ to wound, ol’ buddy, that much I do know for certain. Lucky I got out with my leathery hide intact. If not for my fast-healin’ metabolism, I’d be a walkin’ advertisement for gangrene.”
Strolling stiffly from behind the bar, Ben then pulled up a chair from a nearby table and sat down with a loud, exasperated huff.
“Bottom line seems pretty clear. NAACP and AASHA needed a scapegoat and I filled the boots perfectly. Triple X’s goons would collect the reward, pass on a portion to the NAACP boys and I’d take the fall for all the mayhem. The fact their perpetrator is a second-tier mercenary for hire with a penchant for rampagin’, not to mention a white man from the Deep South, probably had ‘em droolin’ with anticipation, ya think?”
Condor walked around to the opposite end of the table, taking another quick peek at the hanging clock before pulling out a chair and straddling it.
“You never were much on conspiracies, Benji. Don’t tell me you’re buying into the ‘Dino Spandex Sweep’ theory that’s been making the rounds the past year or so.”
Wearing a deep scowl, Ben lowered his head, rubbing his hands slowly through his gray-tinted crew cut.
“Truth be told, Ray, I hadn’t given it much thought. Now that ya mention it though, the ‘Dinosaur Spandex Sweep’ theory does explain why us old-timers have been droppin’ like flies the past few years. If the government did set out to purposely rid the world of us older generation of hero-types, it ain’t like the younger generation would shed nary a tear. It’s a ‘flavor of the month’ world, Raymond, and I ain’t even rated a taste in years. Ol’ Rap-Master turd-breath was part of the new wave ‘hip-hop’ breed that’s all the rage these days, along with powder-puff pansies like Mystic with his thousand-dollar haircut, silk cape and gold-plated trading cards bein’ auctioned off to the highest bidder on E-Bay. Bet my old Crispy Cream Cereal trading card ain’t worth a friggin’ dime on today’s market, ya think?”
Reaching back to pull forward and then re-secure his mask, Condor grinned while adjusting the tight-fitting cowl.

Desolation Island by Terry Lloyd Vinson

EXTRACT FOR
Desolation Island

(Terry Lloyd Vinson)


CHAPTER ONE

Desolation Outlaw

The shot glasses smacked the oak bar at precisely the same moment, the retort of which echoed like a shotgun blast within the deafening silence of the otherwise deserted structure.
“Nothin’ like a Southern Comfort burn to ignite the soul, am I right, partner?” the larger of the two men asked, his grotesquely oversized hand cupping the shot glass like a child’s marble, its contents completely hidden within his massive palm.
The smaller man grinned through a dark crimson cowl, his meticulously toned physique perfectly defined through maroon-shaded tights.
“I’m not the elbow bender I was in our day, Force. Whoops…sorry, I mean, Desolation Outlaw. I’m gonna have a hard time calling you anything but Force, Benjamin. Force of habit, you might say,” he replied with a sly grin, reaching up to push the cowl from his face.
Bending forward, the larger man studied the other for a moment while leaning onto forearms as large as a normal man’s thighs.
“Ya don’t look too worse for wear, Condor. We’ve both added a few wrinkles, not to mention scars, over the past…. damn, how long has it been, Ray?”
“At least four years, Ben,” the Crimson Condor replied, “Haven’t laid eyes on your ugly mug since Baton Rouge back in two-thousand…one…or maybe two.”
“Baton Rouge. Got’cha…,” he agreed with a nod, reaching over to refill their shot glasses to the brim’s edge,” …helluva brawl, as I recall. Lost a tooth to Slayer’s left hook. Damn thing is probably still lodged in his knuckle. You broke an arm that day, didn’t ya? Or was it a leg?”
“Right arm just below the elbow. Tried to glide beneath Stingray’s electro-cane and never saw The Brute coming. Big bastard straight-armed me right through the wall of that bank building. I had migraines for six months afterwards. Closest I ever came to permanent retirement, Force…uh… Ben.” Both men paused, then traded winks before downing the shots in twin blurs of frenzied motion. Again, the room filled with the thumping echo of glass against oak.
“I remember droppin’ ya off at Doc Wilkes office that evenin’, Ray. Grumpy old bastard. The government was payin’ him quite a wad to bandage up hero-types. Never could figure out his rabid Doberman personality.”
Wiping his mouth with a gloved hand, the Crimson Condor then laughed aloud, glaring at the mostly empty whiskey bottle as if it were a crystal ball.
“He was an ornery SOB, all right. I’ll say this, he was an equal-opportunity jackass. Treated everybody like crap, from what I saw. Ben, you’ll never guess who I spent some rehab time with at Doc Wilkes’ place.”
Shrugging his massive shoulders through a snug-fitting black muscle
T-shirt, Ben then pushed away from the bar and stood, various popping noises filling the air as he stretched his colossal frame.
“Old Flag-Face himself, Captain A. The Red Skull’s cronies had messed him up pretty good. Cracked ribs, concussion; the works.”
Now standing behind the waist-high bar, Ben pulled a fresh bottle of Jim Beam Gold from a dust-coated cardboard box and blew a wad of cobwebs free from the cap.
“Hoo-boy, spendin’ time with true royalty there, Ray. Livin’ legend material. So what was Mister Patriot like up close an’ personal? Real ego-maniacal a-hole, I’ll bet…”
“Believe it not, Ben, the man was as down to earth as you could imagine. At least, for a guy who’s done and seen the things he has through the years. Quiet and reserved, but a real professional in every sense. Least, that’s the impression I got.”
Ben broke the seal and proceeded to pour two more shots.
“Cap’s old school, Ray, like us. He’s waded into hell and back a few dozen times, no doubt. Only brush with hero greatness I had was a year or two ‘fore I hooked up with the Revenge Squad.”
As before, they each slammed down the shot and displayed similar grimaces.
“Who was that, Ben?”
“Met up with the West Coast Avengers in Phoenix. I was trailin’ The Lost Souls gang for the CIA at the time, searchin’ for stolen payroll money and a kidnapped heiress. Ran into Hawkeye, Vision and the Scarlet Witch smack dab on Main Street, brawling with some radioactive mutie with a head the size of a Mack truck. Got in a few decent swings ‘fore he dumped a nearby building on top of our heads. Vision saved our ass with some kinda force-field. Weird dude, that one. Not exactly what you’d call a conversationalist. Ol’ Hawkeye was a real hoot, though, and the Witch was drop-dead fine. I’ve rarely seen spandex stretched over anything so tantalizin’, ‘cept maybe for Marvella a’course.”
The Condor laughed heartily as Ben poured them still another refill.
“Hey, I’d heard you and Leah, um, Marvella were an item a few years back. What’s up with that, Benji? Never thought of you as the ‘steady girl’ kinda guy, not unless you’ve transformed dramatically since our days of running together.”
Ben scanned the Jim Beam label as he replied, although his mind’s eye was instantly transported to a faraway place and time.
“Ah, Leah. Have to admit, I miss that little Asian firecracker. Special woman, Ray. Not exactly painful on the eyes, either.” We grew pretty close after that nightmare in Oklahoma. Spent a few months lyin’ low in the Bahamas. Hell, we even tried reformin’ the Revenge Squad, but found very few takers. Word is that she…Marvella, retired from the business a short time back. Doin’ fashion design in Fresno, last I heard. Lately, I’ve severely regretted not joinin’ her within the ranks of inactive superhero for hire.”
Condor studied his old friend closely, mildly surprised at the genuine emotion on display from a man who rarely allowed a crack in his grim, business-like demeanor. As freelance partners taking assignments from both the CIA and FBI, they had shared many a battle and countless brews, but rarely a secret pertaining to each other’s personal lives.
“That was the…when most of the Squad was…wiped out, right? I recall you never said much about it, other than being set-up by the team leader.” Groaning in disgust, Ben took a quick sip from the bottle.
“Oh yeah. Richard Masters. Ass wipe went by the name Four-Star. Sold us out for a backhanded payoff from the former governor of Texas. Some good people died that day, man. Solid warriors and trusted teammates. One of ‘em, Johnny Reb, was half owner of this dive when it was still takin’ in a profit. Gave me a key and said to contact his Uncle Walt if I ever needed a place to lay low. Found out that Walt passed away a few months back, but still owned the deed. Place is in litigation hell as we speak. I was just glad they hadn’t cleared out all the booze. You hungry, Ray? I’ve mostly been livin’ off rameon noodles and Snickers bars the past few weeks, but I do have some Hot Pockets and cold Coors stashed away. Got some semi-fresh jerky that’ll put hair on your chest…or at least yer tongue.”
Condor waived him off, gently patting his taunt midsection with one gloved hand.
“No thanks, Ben. Had a bite a few hours back. It’s getting harder than ever to maintain the washboard abs of my youth. How long you been stashed away in here, anyhow?”
Pouring himself another shot, Ben strolled back around to the front of the bar and took a large chew of beef jerky.
“Couple of weeks. I had been toolin’ around Charlotte at a campsite a few miles outta town, but even in civvies I felt like somebody was constantly tailin’ me. Just my imagination playin’ games more ‘n likely, but it was too big of a risk to take. When yer faced with a half-million-dollar bounty, there ain’t no shortage of clowns willin’ to risk a severe beatin’ to bring ya in. Spent a week in Birmingham, then a few days in Biloxi fore coolin’ my heels here. What brings you to the Big Easy, Condor?”
“Tracking quarry, what else?” Condor replied with a shrug.
Ben instantly ceased chewing and cocked a decidedly bushy eyebrow. “Somebody other than yours truly, I hope.”
Folding his arms tightly across the monogrammed ‘CC’ adorning his chest, Condor stared into the tiled ceiling and frowned in deep thought. “Weeeelllll, of course somebody else, Ben,” he smiled, “almost embarrassing to mention, actually. Corporate embezzler skipped bail in Hot’ anta and the company President hired me to sniff him out. Supposedly the little geek is guarded by a trio of goons that label themselves ‘Ninjas’.”
Quickly concealing the grin covering his face with one huge palm, Ben muttered through splayed fingers.
“Don’t sweat it, Ray. A check’s a check these days, right?” he asked, suppressing a guffaw, “Ninjas, huh? Preppy with unlimited finances rarely goes cheap on protection. Hell, he might have Inspector Gadget or Captain Caveman on the payroll by now.”
Both men broke into hysterics almost simultaneously, slowing only when their lungs had emptied of oxygen and their tear ducts had ran dry.
“It is pathetic, old buddy, there is no doubt,” the Condor finally managed, wiping his eyes with a napkin.
“Hey, the big boys only want the marquee names these days. Major leaguers like the Avengers, X-men and Fantastic Four have the rep and clout. Guys like us were always considered second-tier, man. Damn shame. I never backed down from a scrap regardless of the pay they offered.”
“I hear you, Ben. They’ve been slowly fazing us out for years. I’m taking assignments these days I would’ve laughed at back in the 90’s, you know?”
“Same here, my man. Just might’a taken my last one, though. At least, as far as the government’s concerned. To the stuffed shirts, I’m nothin’ but an out of touch dinosaur gone to seed. Fifteen years of dedicated ass-kickin’, and I’m labeled a homicidal fugitive in the single blink of an eye. Ray, it just ain’t right.”
Condor removed his gloves only after checking the retractable claws built into each, then began massaging the palms of his hands as Ben reached over and poured each of them a fresh refill.
“If you’re trying to get me wasted, Ben, your task is better than half complete,” he said, merely sipping this time around.
“What did happen between you and Rap-Master XXX, anyhow? I may be prejudice, you and I being former partners and all, but I never could buy into any of the horse manure his camp’s been spreading to the media.”
Ben gulped down the shot and grimaced only slightly, then quickly poured himself another and smiled as Ray waived off the same.
“Getting smoother with every swallow, Ray. Lemme know if ya change your mind. Got at least half a dozen fifths stashed away, and at least that many pints, but I loathe drinkin’ alone.”
Leaning back as he re-fitted his gloves, Condor feigned shock.
“Sure, Benji. Three more shots of that stuff and you’ll be hauling me out of here in a wheelbarrow. Those legs of yours are as hollow as ever, pal. You still own that ‘little black book’ of super-hero groupies? Man, I recall you used to stash that thing away like it was the Holy Grail.”
“Man, you’re talkin’ ‘bout decades long removed. Most of those chicks are housewives these days, doin’ the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ bit. Now, what were you askin’ me before?”
“Rap-Master XXX and the reason we’re presently hunkered down inside a closed bar like cornered rats. You do know they raised the bounty to an even mil, Ben.”
“The hell you say!” he replied, his eyes widened dramatically. “Little ol’ me rates a cool million? Second string superhero from a small town in North Carolina? Guess I had to go ultra bad to hit the big time, huh Ray?”
“NAACP stepped in to back the AASHS. Political pressure, Ben, backed with truckloads of cash. They want your Caucasian rump hung from the highest podium, old buddy.”
Shrugging his bulky shoulders, Ben’s demeanor and tone remained surprisingly calm. Knowing his old running mate as he did, Condor had expected nothing less than a volcanic rage.
“Yeah, I had a feeling the African-American Super-Hero Society would call on a higher power to ensure I end up planted feet up in the nearest bone yard. Ya think they’d at least perform a token investigation on the gutter trash they represent. Rap-Master XXX wasn’t worth the skin off my knuckles, Ray. You ever run into any of the Hip-Hop Militia?”
Condor nodded to indicate he hadn’t, then quickly raised a gloved finger to contradict “Shared a conference room at S. H. E. I. L. D with Princess Ebony once. We were never formally introduced though. That’s about it. Aren’t they mostly centered around Detroit, Cleveland, and Chi-town?”
“Started out East Coast and Mid-West, I think, but are pretty much nationwide these days. Rap Master and his hood thugs were the southeastern reps. Scuttlebutt is they’ve got teams on both coasts and in Miami these days.”
Ben paused, eyeing his former partner curiously.
“Ya mean they never offered you a… membership, Ray?”
Groaning in dismay, Condor folded his arms across his chest in mock defiance.
“Benji, are you mental? I’m part Cherokee Indian as well as black, remember? The HH boys don’t take kindly to half-breeds. Besides, my rep as one of the government’s ‘token’ blacks for hire in the hero trade is well documented.
“White Dogs’, they call us. Your old teammate in the R Squad, Dark Claw, was referred to as such.”
Once again, Ben’s eyes grew instantly distant, his lips pursed tightly. “Helluva warrior, ol’ Claw. Surprisingly, it never really bothered me that he was a tad bit ‘light in the loafers’, if ya catch my drift….” This time, it was Condor’s eyes that widened.
“Dark Claw was gay? Never heard that one through the vine.”
“Wiser to stay in the closet those days, at least for us hero-types, anyhow. Almost makes ya laugh, don’t it? Dime a dozen now. I hear the Gay Bolt is next in line for a Hollywood franchise. Pretty boy in pink tights with matchin’ earrings to boot with a five film deal probably worth a few hundred mil. Fag groupies shadow ‘im like flies on a fresh pile of steamin’ crap, I understand. Seriously cracks me up
‘til I ponder on it further, then I always wanna start bawlin’ my eyes out at the warped universe we inhabit, Raymond. Sure makes hidin’ from society an easy task, I tell ya.”
Condor laughed lightly, nodding in agreement as his former partner poured himself still another refill of tinted firewater.
“You caught a glimpse of the newest West Coast Defender, Benji?”
“Oh cripes, yes. That Silver Fairy freak, you mean?” Ben replied, frowning in pure disgust, as if detecting a particularly reeking odor through wildly flaring nostrils, ‘The Defenders actually granted that wimpy lookin’ butt-pumper membership? Snooty Som’ Bitches turned me down three separate times. Government must’ve assigned ‘em a queer quota, ya think?”
“Possibly. Anyhow, didn’t mean to change the subject. I know how you are about homo-. .” Condor began, cut off abruptly by the bellowing rant he had known was inevitable as soon as the subject had been breached.
“Half the gals donnin’ tights these days are lezzies, anyhow. Ran into one last fall while workin’ the Pentagon Security circuit callin’ herself ‘BullDyke-Devil’. Woman had more facial hair than yours truly. Owned a mug that could crack titanium and an ass shaped like a deflated medicine ball. You hear ‘bout that sicko rapist outta Washington state that was callin’ herself ‘Strap-on?’ Rumor has it she had ol’ Spidey KO’d and bent over a crate with his tights pulled down around his ankles before The Avengers showed up to rescue ‘im. Man, it ain’t bad enough we’re forced to face down rampagin’ muties, power mad lunatics or extraterrestrial baddies. The 21st Century has sure added some seriously scary categories to the
‘Super Villain’ ledger, pal.”
“Um, Benji…”
“Man, I understand this business lends itself to freaks, but these days ya seriously don’t know who the baddies are without a name tag. What’s with that ‘Mystic’ Shrimp? Looks like a walkin’ stick in spandex…saw his weak ass on a
Cola commercial a few weeks back…”
“Man’s website, Mystic Realm. com, supposedly gets a few thousand hits a day, Ben. Mostly teens and young...”
“…looks like a girl scout could wipe up the floor with his bony ass. What was his main power again? Altering airspace? What the hell does that mean exactly? Can he fart and then transport the stink across a room?”
Condor raised a finger and extracted a shiny, metallic talon, then waived it back and forth like a parent scolding a young child.
“Earth to Desolation Outlaw, come in, Benjamin…”
“Oh…uh…sorry, Ray. Y’know how I get. Once I click into ‘rant’ mode, its damn near impossible to find the ‘off’ switch,” Ben groaned, lowering his head in mock shame.
Along the back wall, hung between an ancient Budweiser ad and a faded photo of Mike Ditka in his coaching days with the Saints, a ‘Jack Daniels’ wall clock chimed in weakly, announcing the ten PM hour with a series of muffled rings more suited for a palm-held cellular phone.
Displaying a wide, toothy smile, Condor reached over the bar and gently pushed a full shot glass closer to the other man.
“You are consistently consistent, Benji. The one constant in an otherwise topsy-turvy Universe. Time hasn’t altered you a single iota.”
After downing the shot in a blur, Ben wiped his mouth with a tree-trunk sized forearm and then eye-balled his former partner suspiciously.
“You just insult me, Ray?”
“Jeez, Ben…am I going to have to wait for the book or movie version?” Raising his mammoth hands in defense, Ben paused to inhale deeply. “Ain’t too complicated, Ray. I had tracked Shaker Jake and the Cocaine Cowboys to an abandoned sports complex just outside Tulsa. Been trailin’ those slippery jackasses for a month and through five states, and you know the legwork involved ain’t exactly my strong suit. Jake had been runnin’ a crank/crack empire through the Southeast for years, usin’ the Coke Cowboys for transport. Lean, mean crew of roughnecks, Ray, with firepower to spare. ATF had originally hired Power Man for the job, but he called ‘em at the last minute and cancelled. I gotta tell ya, partner, it was one helluva paycheck those boys were offerin’. Best I’ve seen in years; transportation, meals, per diem, the works. Course, I knew it was far from bein’ gravy. Shaker and the Coke Boys were suspected in at least two dozen homicides in the past year, and were well rep’ed as bein’ the textbook definition of ruthless. Still, they were just common thugs after all, and we’re used to dealin’ with a more lethal species of villain. Man, I snatched up that contract before the ink had dried.”
“I remember hearing a few years back Shaker Jake McKay was the main distributor in the South and Midwest. Rumor was that he was raking in a few hundred million annually. Supposedly had a two-thousand-acre ranch in Mexico and a fifty-room mansion in Puerto Rico,” Condor interjected, now leaning back with his highly polished boots propped atop the bar.
“Those were just the confirmed hideaways. He also had a seventy-room castle in Spain and several villas in the Bahamas. Ran prostitution in South America for a sideline, as well as an ‘Assassin for Hire’ business that was thrivin’ in Eastern Europe. Ol’ Jake was a true renaissance man, all right. Closest thing to a rattler in human form you’ll ever run across.”
“What was he doing in Oklahoma? Warehousing?”
“Bingo,” Ben answered with a wink, creating a mock gun with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, then pulling the ‘trigger’ several times in Condor’s direction.
“Had rented a thirty-thousand square foot warehouse buildin’ and proceeded to pack it to overflowing’. Som’ bitch had enough smack, crank, and weed stuffed away to OD the entire west coast. DDA estimated the street value at over fourteen billion. That’s with a ‘b’, not an ‘m’. Heard it took two days of constantly runnin’ forklifts to move it all outta there. Said it was like clearin’ out a friggin’ Super Wal-Mart. ‘Course, I didn’t get a chance to witness any of this firsthand, bein’ the fugitive psycho that I am.”
“Double homicide can taint one’s reputation, Benji, and you weren’t exactly known as a choir boy to begin with,” Condor interrupted with a sly smile.
Crossing his grotesquely pumped arms across his chest, Ben winced as if stung by the sad truth of his former partner’s words.
“Yeah, I’ll admit I cultivated the image of loose cannon in my younger days. An extra edge is always helpful, especially when you’re just startin’ out in the business, you know that, Ray. That said, I ain’t never shattered a rib or jawbone that didn’t deserve it, and I sure as hell didn’t terminate anyone without ample justification. Rap Master Shit heel and his grille-toothed clones crashed my bust in an obvious attempt to collect the reward. Triple XXX all but admitted he’d tracked me to Shaker’s warehouse with a crap-munchin’ grin drawn onto his ugly mug. What pissed me off the worst was his crackerjack timin’. They didn’t even jump into the fray ‘til I had already taken out most of Jake’s hired muscle. I’d already caught an M-16 slug in the shoulder and grenade shrapnel in both ass cheeks. Chicken shit jackasses thought I was just gonna step back, bleedin’ like a stuck hog and let ‘em take both the credit and the cash? Benjamin Thomason’s mama didn’t raise no chumps, Ray. Least, none I ever knew about.”
“So the Rap Master was just blatantly jumping your claim or… was he under contract as well?” Condor asked, squinting past Ben momentarily to check the wall clock.
“Claimed the CIA had hired ‘em six months earlier to nail Shaker J. I asked the dumb-shit if he’d arrived in Tulsa via Amsterdam, i. e. what the hell had taken so long. That’s about the time his steroid-puffed goons jumped me from every friggin’ direction. At the time, I had Shaker in a headlock and had pretty much heard him cry ‘uncle’ in three or four different tongues. In between absorbin’ shots to the back, face, and groin from those damn stinger-canes, I saw XXX reach down real casual-like and cut Jake’s throat from lobe to lobe, all the while performin’ some kinda rap lyric like he was bein’ shown on MTV close-circuit. Took me a few well-aimed jabs and sidekicks to break free, but by then my back-up generator had spewed forth quite a load of adrenaline. I hit Rap master XXX one time, Ray…once. A single right hook to the upper portion of his afro. And even that punch had ricocheted off one of the goon’s shoulders before it landed.”
Sighing heavily, Ben began vigorously rubbing the knuckles of his left hand, his eyes growing increasingly distant.
“Still, not bein’ in the best of moods, what with the gunshot wounds and the bleedin’ and all, I’m sure I didn’t exactly pull my punch as I normally do when dealin’ with cupcakes like XXX. Needless to say, I was still wearin’ the majority of his noggin’ on my fist when I pulled back. Cracked his skull like a damned eggshell. His body ended up on top of a pile of jagged pallet wood ‘bout twenty feet from impact. Looked like somebody had nailed ‘im there like a crucifixion. Next thing I know, CIA Storm Troopers raid the place like fire ants on a friggin’ banana peel, and I’m bein’ accused of excessive force for Shaker’s death and flat out murder for the Rapmaster, the gist of which his goons are claimin’ as I was bein’ hauled off for questionin’. Once I caught wind of the trumped-up charges, I hauled ass. Needless to say, without the fed’s permission. No doubt they’ve added assault of federal officers to the previous list of charges. Least I did remember to pull my punches on ‘em. Been coolin’ my heels ever since.”
Condor stood from the barstool and stretched his arms high into the air, setting off a series of low, popping noises.
“What’s the plan? You can’t hide out forever, my man. Sooner than later, you’re going to run out of booze, edible grub, and worst of all, toilet paper. Who’s your contact with the feds? Surely they would at least listen to your side.”
Nodding vehemently, Ben quickly waived him off.
“Been there, done that. Contacted my assignment rep as soon as I got into Birmingham and settled into a suitable safe haven. Within five minutes of makin’ the call, I found myself surrounded by a Swat Team decked out for urban warfare. Don’t think they were there to shoot the breeze or compromise in any form or fashion, Ray. My gunshot wounds had just begun to heal and be damned if I didn’t catch another slug in my right thigh. They weren’t shootin’ to wound, ol’ buddy, that much I do know for certain. Lucky I got out with my leathery hide intact. If not for my fast-healin’ metabolism, I’d be a walkin’ advertisement for gangrene.”
Strolling stiffly from behind the bar, Ben then pulled up a chair from a nearby table and sat down with a loud, exasperated huff.
“Bottom line seems pretty clear. NAACP and AASHA needed a scapegoat and I filled the boots perfectly. Triple X’s goons would collect the reward, pass on a portion to the NAACP boys and I’d take the fall for all the mayhem. The fact their perpetrator is a second-tier mercenary for hire with a penchant for rampagin’, not to mention a white man from the Deep South, probably had ‘em droolin’ with anticipation, ya think?”
Condor walked around to the opposite end of the table, taking another quick peek at the hanging clock before pulling out a chair and straddling it.
“You never were much on conspiracies, Benji. Don’t tell me you’re buying into the ‘Dino Spandex Sweep’ theory that’s been making the rounds the past year or so.”
Wearing a deep scowl, Ben lowered his head, rubbing his hands slowly through his gray-tinted crew cut.
“Truth be told, Ray, I hadn’t given it much thought. Now that ya mention it though, the ‘Dinosaur Spandex Sweep’ theory does explain why us old-timers have been droppin’ like flies the past few years. If the government did set out to purposely rid the world of us older generation of hero-types, it ain’t like the younger generation would shed nary a tear. It’s a ‘flavor of the month’ world, Raymond, and I ain’t even rated a taste in years. Ol’ Rap-Master turd-breath was part of the new wave ‘hip-hop’ breed that’s all the rage these days, along with powder-puff pansies like Mystic with his thousand-dollar haircut, silk cape and gold-plated trading cards bein’ auctioned off to the highest bidder on E-Bay. Bet my old Crispy Cream Cereal trading card ain’t worth a friggin’ dime on today’s market, ya think?”
Reaching back to pull forward and then re-secure his mask, Condor grinned while adjusting the tight-fitting cowl.

EXTRACT FOR
Desolation Island

(Terry Lloyd Vinson)


CHAPTER ONE

Desolation Outlaw

The shot glasses smacked the oak bar at precisely the same moment, the retort of which echoed like a shotgun blast within the deafening silence of the otherwise deserted structure.
“Nothin’ like a Southern Comfort burn to ignite the soul, am I right, partner?” the larger of the two men asked, his grotesquely oversized hand cupping the shot glass like a child’s marble, its contents completely hidden within his massive palm.
The smaller man grinned through a dark crimson cowl, his meticulously toned physique perfectly defined through maroon-shaded tights.
“I’m not the elbow bender I was in our day, Force. Whoops…sorry, I mean, Desolation Outlaw. I’m gonna have a hard time calling you anything but Force, Benjamin. Force of habit, you might say,” he replied with a sly grin, reaching up to push the cowl from his face.
Bending forward, the larger man studied the other for a moment while leaning onto forearms as large as a normal man’s thighs.
“Ya don’t look too worse for wear, Condor. We’ve both added a few wrinkles, not to mention scars, over the past…. damn, how long has it been, Ray?”
“At least four years, Ben,” the Crimson Condor replied, “Haven’t laid eyes on your ugly mug since Baton Rouge back in two-thousand…one…or maybe two.”
“Baton Rouge. Got’cha…,” he agreed with a nod, reaching over to refill their shot glasses to the brim’s edge,” …helluva brawl, as I recall. Lost a tooth to Slayer’s left hook. Damn thing is probably still lodged in his knuckle. You broke an arm that day, didn’t ya? Or was it a leg?”
“Right arm just below the elbow. Tried to glide beneath Stingray’s electro-cane and never saw The Brute coming. Big bastard straight-armed me right through the wall of that bank building. I had migraines for six months afterwards. Closest I ever came to permanent retirement, Force…uh… Ben.” Both men paused, then traded winks before downing the shots in twin blurs of frenzied motion. Again, the room filled with the thumping echo of glass against oak.
“I remember droppin’ ya off at Doc Wilkes office that evenin’, Ray. Grumpy old bastard. The government was payin’ him quite a wad to bandage up hero-types. Never could figure out his rabid Doberman personality.”
Wiping his mouth with a gloved hand, the Crimson Condor then laughed aloud, glaring at the mostly empty whiskey bottle as if it were a crystal ball.
“He was an ornery SOB, all right. I’ll say this, he was an equal-opportunity jackass. Treated everybody like crap, from what I saw. Ben, you’ll never guess who I spent some rehab time with at Doc Wilkes’ place.”
Shrugging his massive shoulders through a snug-fitting black muscle
T-shirt, Ben then pushed away from the bar and stood, various popping noises filling the air as he stretched his colossal frame.
“Old Flag-Face himself, Captain A. The Red Skull’s cronies had messed him up pretty good. Cracked ribs, concussion; the works.”
Now standing behind the waist-high bar, Ben pulled a fresh bottle of Jim Beam Gold from a dust-coated cardboard box and blew a wad of cobwebs free from the cap.
“Hoo-boy, spendin’ time with true royalty there, Ray. Livin’ legend material. So what was Mister Patriot like up close an’ personal? Real ego-maniacal a-hole, I’ll bet…”
“Believe it not, Ben, the man was as down to earth as you could imagine. At least, for a guy who’s done and seen the things he has through the years. Quiet and reserved, but a real professional in every sense. Least, that’s the impression I got.”
Ben broke the seal and proceeded to pour two more shots.
“Cap’s old school, Ray, like us. He’s waded into hell and back a few dozen times, no doubt. Only brush with hero greatness I had was a year or two ‘fore I hooked up with the Revenge Squad.”
As before, they each slammed down the shot and displayed similar grimaces.
“Who was that, Ben?”
“Met up with the West Coast Avengers in Phoenix. I was trailin’ The Lost Souls gang for the CIA at the time, searchin’ for stolen payroll money and a kidnapped heiress. Ran into Hawkeye, Vision and the Scarlet Witch smack dab on Main Street, brawling with some radioactive mutie with a head the size of a Mack truck. Got in a few decent swings ‘fore he dumped a nearby building on top of our heads. Vision saved our ass with some kinda force-field. Weird dude, that one. Not exactly what you’d call a conversationalist. Ol’ Hawkeye was a real hoot, though, and the Witch was drop-dead fine. I’ve rarely seen spandex stretched over anything so tantalizin’, ‘cept maybe for Marvella a’course.”
The Condor laughed heartily as Ben poured them still another refill.
“Hey, I’d heard you and Leah, um, Marvella were an item a few years back. What’s up with that, Benji? Never thought of you as the ‘steady girl’ kinda guy, not unless you’ve transformed dramatically since our days of running together.”
Ben scanned the Jim Beam label as he replied, although his mind’s eye was instantly transported to a faraway place and time.
“Ah, Leah. Have to admit, I miss that little Asian firecracker. Special woman, Ray. Not exactly painful on the eyes, either.” We grew pretty close after that nightmare in Oklahoma. Spent a few months lyin’ low in the Bahamas. Hell, we even tried reformin’ the Revenge Squad, but found very few takers. Word is that she…Marvella, retired from the business a short time back. Doin’ fashion design in Fresno, last I heard. Lately, I’ve severely regretted not joinin’ her within the ranks of inactive superhero for hire.”
Condor studied his old friend closely, mildly surprised at the genuine emotion on display from a man who rarely allowed a crack in his grim, business-like demeanor. As freelance partners taking assignments from both the CIA and FBI, they had shared many a battle and countless brews, but rarely a secret pertaining to each other’s personal lives.
“That was the…when most of the Squad was…wiped out, right? I recall you never said much about it, other than being set-up by the team leader.” Groaning in disgust, Ben took a quick sip from the bottle.
“Oh yeah. Richard Masters. Ass wipe went by the name Four-Star. Sold us out for a backhanded payoff from the former governor of Texas. Some good people died that day, man. Solid warriors and trusted teammates. One of ‘em, Johnny Reb, was half owner of this dive when it was still takin’ in a profit. Gave me a key and said to contact his Uncle Walt if I ever needed a place to lay low. Found out that Walt passed away a few months back, but still owned the deed. Place is in litigation hell as we speak. I was just glad they hadn’t cleared out all the booze. You hungry, Ray? I’ve mostly been livin’ off rameon noodles and Snickers bars the past few weeks, but I do have some Hot Pockets and cold Coors stashed away. Got some semi-fresh jerky that’ll put hair on your chest…or at least yer tongue.”
Condor waived him off, gently patting his taunt midsection with one gloved hand.
“No thanks, Ben. Had a bite a few hours back. It’s getting harder than ever to maintain the washboard abs of my youth. How long you been stashed away in here, anyhow?”
Pouring himself another shot, Ben strolled back around to the front of the bar and took a large chew of beef jerky.
“Couple of weeks. I had been toolin’ around Charlotte at a campsite a few miles outta town, but even in civvies I felt like somebody was constantly tailin’ me. Just my imagination playin’ games more ‘n likely, but it was too big of a risk to take. When yer faced with a half-million-dollar bounty, there ain’t no shortage of clowns willin’ to risk a severe beatin’ to bring ya in. Spent a week in Birmingham, then a few days in Biloxi fore coolin’ my heels here. What brings you to the Big Easy, Condor?”
“Tracking quarry, what else?” Condor replied with a shrug.
Ben instantly ceased chewing and cocked a decidedly bushy eyebrow. “Somebody other than yours truly, I hope.”
Folding his arms tightly across the monogrammed ‘CC’ adorning his chest, Condor stared into the tiled ceiling and frowned in deep thought. “Weeeelllll, of course somebody else, Ben,” he smiled, “almost embarrassing to mention, actually. Corporate embezzler skipped bail in Hot’ anta and the company President hired me to sniff him out. Supposedly the little geek is guarded by a trio of goons that label themselves ‘Ninjas’.”
Quickly concealing the grin covering his face with one huge palm, Ben muttered through splayed fingers.
“Don’t sweat it, Ray. A check’s a check these days, right?” he asked, suppressing a guffaw, “Ninjas, huh? Preppy with unlimited finances rarely goes cheap on protection. Hell, he might have Inspector Gadget or Captain Caveman on the payroll by now.”
Both men broke into hysterics almost simultaneously, slowing only when their lungs had emptied of oxygen and their tear ducts had ran dry.
“It is pathetic, old buddy, there is no doubt,” the Condor finally managed, wiping his eyes with a napkin.
“Hey, the big boys only want the marquee names these days. Major leaguers like the Avengers, X-men and Fantastic Four have the rep and clout. Guys like us were always considered second-tier, man. Damn shame. I never backed down from a scrap regardless of the pay they offered.”
“I hear you, Ben. They’ve been slowly fazing us out for years. I’m taking assignments these days I would’ve laughed at back in the 90’s, you know?”
“Same here, my man. Just might’a taken my last one, though. At least, as far as the government’s concerned. To the stuffed shirts, I’m nothin’ but an out of touch dinosaur gone to seed. Fifteen years of dedicated ass-kickin’, and I’m labeled a homicidal fugitive in the single blink of an eye. Ray, it just ain’t right.”
Condor removed his gloves only after checking the retractable claws built into each, then began massaging the palms of his hands as Ben reached over and poured each of them a fresh refill.
“If you’re trying to get me wasted, Ben, your task is better than half complete,” he said, merely sipping this time around.
“What did happen between you and Rap-Master XXX, anyhow? I may be prejudice, you and I being former partners and all, but I never could buy into any of the horse manure his camp’s been spreading to the media.”
Ben gulped down the shot and grimaced only slightly, then quickly poured himself another and smiled as Ray waived off the same.
“Getting smoother with every swallow, Ray. Lemme know if ya change your mind. Got at least half a dozen fifths stashed away, and at least that many pints, but I loathe drinkin’ alone.”
Leaning back as he re-fitted his gloves, Condor feigned shock.
“Sure, Benji. Three more shots of that stuff and you’ll be hauling me out of here in a wheelbarrow. Those legs of yours are as hollow as ever, pal. You still own that ‘little black book’ of super-hero groupies? Man, I recall you used to stash that thing away like it was the Holy Grail.”
“Man, you’re talkin’ ‘bout decades long removed. Most of those chicks are housewives these days, doin’ the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ bit. Now, what were you askin’ me before?”
“Rap-Master XXX and the reason we’re presently hunkered down inside a closed bar like cornered rats. You do know they raised the bounty to an even mil, Ben.”
“The hell you say!” he replied, his eyes widened dramatically. “Little ol’ me rates a cool million? Second string superhero from a small town in North Carolina? Guess I had to go ultra bad to hit the big time, huh Ray?”
“NAACP stepped in to back the AASHS. Political pressure, Ben, backed with truckloads of cash. They want your Caucasian rump hung from the highest podium, old buddy.”
Shrugging his bulky shoulders, Ben’s demeanor and tone remained surprisingly calm. Knowing his old running mate as he did, Condor had expected nothing less than a volcanic rage.
“Yeah, I had a feeling the African-American Super-Hero Society would call on a higher power to ensure I end up planted feet up in the nearest bone yard. Ya think they’d at least perform a token investigation on the gutter trash they represent. Rap-Master XXX wasn’t worth the skin off my knuckles, Ray. You ever run into any of the Hip-Hop Militia?”
Condor nodded to indicate he hadn’t, then quickly raised a gloved finger to contradict “Shared a conference room at S. H. E. I. L. D with Princess Ebony once. We were never formally introduced though. That’s about it. Aren’t they mostly centered around Detroit, Cleveland, and Chi-town?”
“Started out East Coast and Mid-West, I think, but are pretty much nationwide these days. Rap Master and his hood thugs were the southeastern reps. Scuttlebutt is they’ve got teams on both coasts and in Miami these days.”
Ben paused, eyeing his former partner curiously.
“Ya mean they never offered you a… membership, Ray?”
Groaning in dismay, Condor folded his arms across his chest in mock defiance.
“Benji, are you mental? I’m part Cherokee Indian as well as black, remember? The HH boys don’t take kindly to half-breeds. Besides, my rep as one of the government’s ‘token’ blacks for hire in the hero trade is well documented.
“White Dogs’, they call us. Your old teammate in the R Squad, Dark Claw, was referred to as such.”
Once again, Ben’s eyes grew instantly distant, his lips pursed tightly. “Helluva warrior, ol’ Claw. Surprisingly, it never really bothered me that he was a tad bit ‘light in the loafers’, if ya catch my drift….” This time, it was Condor’s eyes that widened.
“Dark Claw was gay? Never heard that one through the vine.”
“Wiser to stay in the closet those days, at least for us hero-types, anyhow. Almost makes ya laugh, don’t it? Dime a dozen now. I hear the Gay Bolt is next in line for a Hollywood franchise. Pretty boy in pink tights with matchin’ earrings to boot with a five film deal probably worth a few hundred mil. Fag groupies shadow ‘im like flies on a fresh pile of steamin’ crap, I understand. Seriously cracks me up
‘til I ponder on it further, then I always wanna start bawlin’ my eyes out at the warped universe we inhabit, Raymond. Sure makes hidin’ from society an easy task, I tell ya.”
Condor laughed lightly, nodding in agreement as his former partner poured himself still another refill of tinted firewater.
“You caught a glimpse of the newest West Coast Defender, Benji?”
“Oh cripes, yes. That Silver Fairy freak, you mean?” Ben replied, frowning in pure disgust, as if detecting a particularly reeking odor through wildly flaring nostrils, ‘The Defenders actually granted that wimpy lookin’ butt-pumper membership? Snooty Som’ Bitches turned me down three separate times. Government must’ve assigned ‘em a queer quota, ya think?”
“Possibly. Anyhow, didn’t mean to change the subject. I know how you are about homo-. .” Condor began, cut off abruptly by the bellowing rant he had known was inevitable as soon as the subject had been breached.
“Half the gals donnin’ tights these days are lezzies, anyhow. Ran into one last fall while workin’ the Pentagon Security circuit callin’ herself ‘BullDyke-Devil’. Woman had more facial hair than yours truly. Owned a mug that could crack titanium and an ass shaped like a deflated medicine ball. You hear ‘bout that sicko rapist outta Washington state that was callin’ herself ‘Strap-on?’ Rumor has it she had ol’ Spidey KO’d and bent over a crate with his tights pulled down around his ankles before The Avengers showed up to rescue ‘im. Man, it ain’t bad enough we’re forced to face down rampagin’ muties, power mad lunatics or extraterrestrial baddies. The 21st Century has sure added some seriously scary categories to the
‘Super Villain’ ledger, pal.”
“Um, Benji…”
“Man, I understand this business lends itself to freaks, but these days ya seriously don’t know who the baddies are without a name tag. What’s with that ‘Mystic’ Shrimp? Looks like a walkin’ stick in spandex…saw his weak ass on a
Cola commercial a few weeks back…”
“Man’s website, Mystic Realm. com, supposedly gets a few thousand hits a day, Ben. Mostly teens and young...”
“…looks like a girl scout could wipe up the floor with his bony ass. What was his main power again? Altering airspace? What the hell does that mean exactly? Can he fart and then transport the stink across a room?”
Condor raised a finger and extracted a shiny, metallic talon, then waived it back and forth like a parent scolding a young child.
“Earth to Desolation Outlaw, come in, Benjamin…”
“Oh…uh…sorry, Ray. Y’know how I get. Once I click into ‘rant’ mode, its damn near impossible to find the ‘off’ switch,” Ben groaned, lowering his head in mock shame.
Along the back wall, hung between an ancient Budweiser ad and a faded photo of Mike Ditka in his coaching days with the Saints, a ‘Jack Daniels’ wall clock chimed in weakly, announcing the ten PM hour with a series of muffled rings more suited for a palm-held cellular phone.
Displaying a wide, toothy smile, Condor reached over the bar and gently pushed a full shot glass closer to the other man.
“You are consistently consistent, Benji. The one constant in an otherwise topsy-turvy Universe. Time hasn’t altered you a single iota.”
After downing the shot in a blur, Ben wiped his mouth with a tree-trunk sized forearm and then eye-balled his former partner suspiciously.
“You just insult me, Ray?”
“Jeez, Ben…am I going to have to wait for the book or movie version?” Raising his mammoth hands in defense, Ben paused to inhale deeply. “Ain’t too complicated, Ray. I had tracked Shaker Jake and the Cocaine Cowboys to an abandoned sports complex just outside Tulsa. Been trailin’ those slippery jackasses for a month and through five states, and you know the legwork involved ain’t exactly my strong suit. Jake had been runnin’ a crank/crack empire through the Southeast for years, usin’ the Coke Cowboys for transport. Lean, mean crew of roughnecks, Ray, with firepower to spare. ATF had originally hired Power Man for the job, but he called ‘em at the last minute and cancelled. I gotta tell ya, partner, it was one helluva paycheck those boys were offerin’. Best I’ve seen in years; transportation, meals, per diem, the works. Course, I knew it was far from bein’ gravy. Shaker and the Coke Boys were suspected in at least two dozen homicides in the past year, and were well rep’ed as bein’ the textbook definition of ruthless. Still, they were just common thugs after all, and we’re used to dealin’ with a more lethal species of villain. Man, I snatched up that contract before the ink had dried.”
“I remember hearing a few years back Shaker Jake McKay was the main distributor in the South and Midwest. Rumor was that he was raking in a few hundred million annually. Supposedly had a two-thousand-acre ranch in Mexico and a fifty-room mansion in Puerto Rico,” Condor interjected, now leaning back with his highly polished boots propped atop the bar.
“Those were just the confirmed hideaways. He also had a seventy-room castle in Spain and several villas in the Bahamas. Ran prostitution in South America for a sideline, as well as an ‘Assassin for Hire’ business that was thrivin’ in Eastern Europe. Ol’ Jake was a true renaissance man, all right. Closest thing to a rattler in human form you’ll ever run across.”
“What was he doing in Oklahoma? Warehousing?”
“Bingo,” Ben answered with a wink, creating a mock gun with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, then pulling the ‘trigger’ several times in Condor’s direction.
“Had rented a thirty-thousand square foot warehouse buildin’ and proceeded to pack it to overflowing’. Som’ bitch had enough smack, crank, and weed stuffed away to OD the entire west coast. DDA estimated the street value at over fourteen billion. That’s with a ‘b’, not an ‘m’. Heard it took two days of constantly runnin’ forklifts to move it all outta there. Said it was like clearin’ out a friggin’ Super Wal-Mart. ‘Course, I didn’t get a chance to witness any of this firsthand, bein’ the fugitive psycho that I am.”
“Double homicide can taint one’s reputation, Benji, and you weren’t exactly known as a choir boy to begin with,” Condor interrupted with a sly smile.
Crossing his grotesquely pumped arms across his chest, Ben winced as if stung by the sad truth of his former partner’s words.
“Yeah, I’ll admit I cultivated the image of loose cannon in my younger days. An extra edge is always helpful, especially when you’re just startin’ out in the business, you know that, Ray. That said, I ain’t never shattered a rib or jawbone that didn’t deserve it, and I sure as hell didn’t terminate anyone without ample justification. Rap Master Shit heel and his grille-toothed clones crashed my bust in an obvious attempt to collect the reward. Triple XXX all but admitted he’d tracked me to Shaker’s warehouse with a crap-munchin’ grin drawn onto his ugly mug. What pissed me off the worst was his crackerjack timin’. They didn’t even jump into the fray ‘til I had already taken out most of Jake’s hired muscle. I’d already caught an M-16 slug in the shoulder and grenade shrapnel in both ass cheeks. Chicken shit jackasses thought I was just gonna step back, bleedin’ like a stuck hog and let ‘em take both the credit and the cash? Benjamin Thomason’s mama didn’t raise no chumps, Ray. Least, none I ever knew about.”
“So the Rap Master was just blatantly jumping your claim or… was he under contract as well?” Condor asked, squinting past Ben momentarily to check the wall clock.
“Claimed the CIA had hired ‘em six months earlier to nail Shaker J. I asked the dumb-shit if he’d arrived in Tulsa via Amsterdam, i. e. what the hell had taken so long. That’s about the time his steroid-puffed goons jumped me from every friggin’ direction. At the time, I had Shaker in a headlock and had pretty much heard him cry ‘uncle’ in three or four different tongues. In between absorbin’ shots to the back, face, and groin from those damn stinger-canes, I saw XXX reach down real casual-like and cut Jake’s throat from lobe to lobe, all the while performin’ some kinda rap lyric like he was bein’ shown on MTV close-circuit. Took me a few well-aimed jabs and sidekicks to break free, but by then my back-up generator had spewed forth quite a load of adrenaline. I hit Rap master XXX one time, Ray…once. A single right hook to the upper portion of his afro. And even that punch had ricocheted off one of the goon’s shoulders before it landed.”
Sighing heavily, Ben began vigorously rubbing the knuckles of his left hand, his eyes growing increasingly distant.
“Still, not bein’ in the best of moods, what with the gunshot wounds and the bleedin’ and all, I’m sure I didn’t exactly pull my punch as I normally do when dealin’ with cupcakes like XXX. Needless to say, I was still wearin’ the majority of his noggin’ on my fist when I pulled back. Cracked his skull like a damned eggshell. His body ended up on top of a pile of jagged pallet wood ‘bout twenty feet from impact. Looked like somebody had nailed ‘im there like a crucifixion. Next thing I know, CIA Storm Troopers raid the place like fire ants on a friggin’ banana peel, and I’m bein’ accused of excessive force for Shaker’s death and flat out murder for the Rapmaster, the gist of which his goons are claimin’ as I was bein’ hauled off for questionin’. Once I caught wind of the trumped-up charges, I hauled ass. Needless to say, without the fed’s permission. No doubt they’ve added assault of federal officers to the previous list of charges. Least I did remember to pull my punches on ‘em. Been coolin’ my heels ever since.”
Condor stood from the barstool and stretched his arms high into the air, setting off a series of low, popping noises.
“What’s the plan? You can’t hide out forever, my man. Sooner than later, you’re going to run out of booze, edible grub, and worst of all, toilet paper. Who’s your contact with the feds? Surely they would at least listen to your side.”
Nodding vehemently, Ben quickly waived him off.
“Been there, done that. Contacted my assignment rep as soon as I got into Birmingham and settled into a suitable safe haven. Within five minutes of makin’ the call, I found myself surrounded by a Swat Team decked out for urban warfare. Don’t think they were there to shoot the breeze or compromise in any form or fashion, Ray. My gunshot wounds had just begun to heal and be damned if I didn’t catch another slug in my right thigh. They weren’t shootin’ to wound, ol’ buddy, that much I do know for certain. Lucky I got out with my leathery hide intact. If not for my fast-healin’ metabolism, I’d be a walkin’ advertisement for gangrene.”
Strolling stiffly from behind the bar, Ben then pulled up a chair from a nearby table and sat down with a loud, exasperated huff.
“Bottom line seems pretty clear. NAACP and AASHA needed a scapegoat and I filled the boots perfectly. Triple X’s goons would collect the reward, pass on a portion to the NAACP boys and I’d take the fall for all the mayhem. The fact their perpetrator is a second-tier mercenary for hire with a penchant for rampagin’, not to mention a white man from the Deep South, probably had ‘em droolin’ with anticipation, ya think?”
Condor walked around to the opposite end of the table, taking another quick peek at the hanging clock before pulling out a chair and straddling it.
“You never were much on conspiracies, Benji. Don’t tell me you’re buying into the ‘Dino Spandex Sweep’ theory that’s been making the rounds the past year or so.”
Wearing a deep scowl, Ben lowered his head, rubbing his hands slowly through his gray-tinted crew cut.
“Truth be told, Ray, I hadn’t given it much thought. Now that ya mention it though, the ‘Dinosaur Spandex Sweep’ theory does explain why us old-timers have been droppin’ like flies the past few years. If the government did set out to purposely rid the world of us older generation of hero-types, it ain’t like the younger generation would shed nary a tear. It’s a ‘flavor of the month’ world, Raymond, and I ain’t even rated a taste in years. Ol’ Rap-Master turd-breath was part of the new wave ‘hip-hop’ breed that’s all the rage these days, along with powder-puff pansies like Mystic with his thousand-dollar haircut, silk cape and gold-plated trading cards bein’ auctioned off to the highest bidder on E-Bay. Bet my old Crispy Cream Cereal trading card ain’t worth a friggin’ dime on today’s market, ya think?”
Reaching back to pull forward and then re-secure his mask, Condor grinned while adjusting the tight-fitting cowl.