Episode 9

Ethel’s Used Books Emporium, old downtown area of Gargle City

Dirt Man and Sam stood outside the aging brick façade of Ethel’s Used Book Emporium, looking up at the smiling grandmotherly face of Ethel painted on the sign.

“Maybe it’s just me,” said Dirt Man, “but this doesn’t look like the hideout of what was once the most feared gang in Gargle City.”

“Trust me,” said Sam. “My sources are the best.” This was true; although it was not widely known, the high school rumor mill of which Sam was a part was one of the most effective intelligence-gathering entities in the city, as long as the person gathering intelligence knew how to pick the facts from the dross of high school hormone-induced drama. The only network more effective was Sill’s legion of informants, most of whom were high school graduates from Sam’s school district.

“Well then,” said Dirt Man, straightening his DirtSuit™. “I guess we should find out what these Black Panthers are made of.”

Sam adjusted his mask, golden lenses glinting. His first action, and he was ready.

Dirt Man opened the door, and they entered the Emporium. The small bells attached to the door’s inside handle tinkled.

The large white man behind the cash register looked up at the noise. He was definitely not Ethel. The tattoo of a panther on his upper arm curled and undulated as he set down the book he had been reading.

“Can I help you?” asked the man.

Sam glanced around the room, and noticed that the only other person who appeared to be there was another tough-looking white man pushing a cart of books down amongst the shelves, re-shelving books. He wasn’t Ethel, either.

“Everyone freeze!” said Dirt Man loudly in a tone completely unsuitable for the quiet ambience of a used book store. “I’m the super hero Dirt Man, and if anyone makes a wrong move I’ll blow you to kingdom come.” The man behind the till’s eyebrows lowered menacingly, and the person shelving books stopped with “Babes of Babylon” partly on the shelf and looked at Dirt Man and Sam with confusion. Dirt Man mentally kicked himself. Here he’d gone and mentally rehearsed his opening words, guaranteed by the Happy Hero(ine)™ Correspondence Course to strike fear into the hearts of any villainous scum within thirty feet, and he’d flubbed it. He knew he shouldn’t have watched a badly scripted action movie before going on the job.

Sam felt like it was about time that he made his own presence felt. “You Black Panthers had better watch out,” he said. “Dirt Man isn’t the only one here who means business. I’m his sidekick, Ecology Youth!”

Suddenly the atmosphere wasn’t anywhere near as threatening as it had been a moment before. “Ecology Youth?” said the man behind the register with incredulity.

“It’s a perfectly respectable name,” said Ecology Youth.

“Well yeah, but…Ecology Youth?” said the man. “Couldn’t you come up with something at least mildly threatening? I thought the dirty guy said he was a super hero. You two are not going to exactly strike fear in your enemies with names like Dirt Man and Ecology Youth.”

“I resent that,” said Dirt Man. “We tried damn hard to come up with that name. You realize that all the cool sounding names have been taken? Earth Boy, Mr. Planet, everything.”

“Hey!” said Ecology Youth. “Ecology Youth is cool!”

“Sure it is,” said the man. “If you’re hanging out with a bunch of nerdy tree-huggers. Wake up and smell reality, kid.”

“Screw talking to them,” said Ecology Youth, glaring at the two Black Panthers. “Let’s just beat hell out of them. Won’t be robbing anyone then.”

“Wait just a minute,” said Dirt Man, eyeing the muscles underlying the panther tattoo. “We won’t get any information if they’re unconscious.”

“You punk,” said the man behind the till. “You couldn’t knock out a gnat.”

“Well,” said Dirt Man uncomfortably. “Let’s not get into that, alright?”

The unfortunate truth was that in actuality Dirt Man could not knock out a gnat. He couldn’t even stun it for the short time necessary to find some Kleenex and end its annoyingly gnatty life once and for all. He wasn’t sure why this was, but while he could whale on flies, smash mosquitoes, and otherwise wreak havoc amongst creepy crawly things of all sorts, he could not harm gnats. When he was in Sunday school his teacher had told them that this merely proved that God existed and had a sense of humor. Dirt Man was rather more inclined to believe that it meant he was, in some dark secret place in his soul, a pacifist.

Dirt Man had heard of logic, but the whole idea seemed a bit suspect to him.

“You must have the brains of a gnat to be insulting Gargle City’s greatest super hero,” said Ecology Youth.

“Would you stop provoking the suspect?” said Dirt Man. “I really would prefer answers to gratuitous violence.”

“I haven’t seen a nice bit of violence in a long time,” said the man by the register, walking around it into the open. “Don’t hold yourselves back on account of me.” The other Black Panther picked up “Thorns of the Rose” (“Another Epic of Passion! by Karen Stadman” proclaimed the cover), and stalked down the aisle, smacking the volume into his palm.

Dirt Man sighed. “Well, if that’s how you want it, then. Let’s at least take this outside so Ethel doesn’t wander in and get hurt.”

The Black Panthers stopped mid-stalk and exchanged glances. “You seriously don’t know?” said the first. “What kind of a super hero are you, if you didn’t even case your target?”

“Eh?” said Dirt Man.

“Ethel doesn’t exist,” said the Panther. “She’s just there so that we can sell stuff. You ever heard of a used bookstore that did well that wasn’t run by an elderly aunt?”

“Come to think, I haven’t,” said Dirt Man. He’d known there was something wrong about walking into a bookstore and being confronted with two bulky gang members instead of a friendly gray-haired book matron, but he’d been concentrating so hard on remembering what he wanted to say that it had failed to really register.

“Who cares,” said Ecology Youth. “These thieves have it coming, and I’d rather get it done with right here and now.”

“Just hold on a minute,” said the Panther, holding up a hand to his friend, who had been hefting “Thorns of the Rose” even more menacingly. “Why do you two keep calling us thieves? As gratifying as it would be to beat you both into a bloody pulp, I’d hate to bring myself back to the law’s attention for a stupid misunderstanding.”

“I’m looking at you,” said Dirt Man, “so you’re already got the eye of the law on you.”

The Panther looked at Dirt Man for a minute, and thanks to years of dealing with megalomaniacal super villains was able to keep a straight face. “Don’t flatter yourself,” he said.

“We have it on good authority that the Black Panthers are behind the recent string of robberies in Gargle City,” said Ecology Youth.

“Reliable?” said the Panther. “You idiots. The Black Panthers have been disbanded for years.”

“Then what are you two doing here,” said Dirt Man.

“I run Ethel’s Used Books Emporium and attend community college at night,” said the Panther. Pointing to the man wielding “Thorns of the Rose” he said, “He works for me because he got laid off from his construction job and I tend to give old friends a hand when I can.”

Ecology Youth stared hard at the Panther. “I think he’s serious.” He turned toward Dirt Man, lenses glinting. “Dirt Man, I don’t think the Black Panthers are behind the robberies.”

“What makes you so sure?” said Dirt Man. “They may just be lying to throw us off their trail.”

“If this man is who I think he is, then he would never do that,” said Ecology Youth. “The leader of the Black Panthers was legendary for never hiding any of his activities from anyone, even the cops. I have it on very good authority.”

“That would be me,” said the owner of Ethel’s Used Books Emporium. “And you damned well better believe that I’ve kept myself clean.”

“Well, shoot,” said Ecology Youth. “The Black Panthers were our only lead.”

“I’d like to have a word with whoever gave you that lead,” said the former Panther ominously. “I don’t appreciate people tossing dirt at me.”

“Lucky you didn’t try to fight me, then,” said Dirt Man.

“Shut up,” said the man with “Thorns of the Rose.” He’d been feeling left out of the conversation and wanted to contribute, but thanks to an unfortunate head injury that occurred once while he was shelving Westerns, he wasn’t quite as agile when it came to interjections as he once was. Dirt Man glared at him.

“I guess we’ll just be heading out, then,” said Ecology Youth dejectedly. He’d been hoping for some action, and it looked like this was a complete bust.

“Thanks for visiting,” said the former Panther, turning back toward the cash register. “Please come again.”

“What kind of a gang member are you?” asked Dirt Man with contempt. “This is the most pathetic outfit I’ve ever seen. You used to lead the most feared gang in Gargle City, and now you run a used bookstore posing as a nonexistent woman named Ethel and attending community college? I can’t believe this. It has to be the most pathetic story I’ve ever heard. If you were using this place as some sort of front, that would be one thing, but you really are scared of getting nailed again. You’re the worst coward I’ve met since coming to this town.” Dirt Man was working himself into a fine rage. As a new super hero in town he had been hoping to test his mettle on some truly dastardly villains and all he’d gotten so far was a couple of muggers and the lamest gang members on the face of the planet.

The former leader of the Black Panthers turned back from the register, and his eyes were about as warm as a glacier in winter. “Get out,” he said. “No one calls Edward Houle a coward. I entered Correth’s holding tank with nothing but a plastic knife. I defied the Front Man for three years, and then killed the person who killed him. I faced prison, death, and worse more times than I can count. I took the Black Panthers through Hell and back again, and when three quarters of us were lying in pieces on the Sella warehouse floor I dragged the survivors out through the back alley, not knowing whether or not the Reaper would return. And I own this store, so get out.”

Dirt Man sneered slightly. “So sell your romance novels,” he said, glancing deprecatingly at “Thorns of the Rose.” Turning on his heel, he headed out the door, Ecology Youth close behind. The bells on the door tinkled quietly.

The man with the romance novel watched Dirt Man stalk off down the street with Ecology Youth hurrying along behind, then turned to Houle. “He’s right, you know,” he said. Looking down at “Thorns of the Rose,” he gritted his teeth and tore the book in half. He held up two halves of the book. Houle looked at him sharply. “I’m not good at shelving, but I was good at breaking.”

Houle’s face was stone. “Throw that away,” he said. “And then watch the register. I have some phone calls to make.”

One response to “Episode 9”

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  1. bob says:

    hahahahahahhahahahhha stupid story

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