delivery kid stood in front of me in the pastel hallway of my four-story walk-up on the edge of the Easter Village. His hands juggled a grease-stained bag. My own arms juggled a week's worth of junk mail. I shoved an official-looking paper toward the kid. “This is bollocks.”
The kid shrugged.
I waved the paper under his nose. “The union thinks I need a vacation. That I'm suffering from some kind of post-villainous-related stress.” My eyes bulged and spit flew from my lips. “What kind of crap is that?”
“Whatever,” the delivery kid said. His spiked green hair and facial piercings gave him a clownish appeal. The aroma of red curry noodles from Villainous Van's Corner Bistro wafted in the air between us.
“What are they thinking?” I shook my head, counted to ten, and ran a hand through my already rumpled black hair. “Mandatory mental health leave? Are they afraid I'll go postal or something?” This made little sense since I didn't even work at the post office. “Come on. I've suffered greater defeats and managed to pull through.”
“Listen, Mac,” the teen said to me. My name wasn't Mac, or anything that resembled Mac. Some people called me RJ, at least to my face.
“The total's ten bucks,” the kid said. “Either pay me or I'll feed your dinner to the rats.” The kid motioned from my dinner to the furry creatures dressed in tiny felt hats that roamed my darkened hallway like a demented version of
Dancing with the Villains
rejects. I rolled my eyes, muttered something about kids today, and dug into my jeans for some cash.
“Don't forget my tip,” the kid added.
I'll give the little shit a tip. I smashed two fives into his palm and snatched the bag from his hand. My boot kicked the door closed with a loud bang. The kid yelped, sending me into a fit of villainous laughter.
A few seconds later, the kid said, “Thanks, mister.”
He sounded happy, which made me unhappy.
Yanking a wad of bills from my pocket, a wad considerably smaller than it had been a minute ago, I pulled open the door and watched the teen practically tap-dance down the hallway, a hundred-dollar bill clutched in his hands.
My crisp hundred-dollar bill.
“Darn it,” I yelled, booting the door closed again. “I can't take much more.” I'd been out of work, suspended without pay, for six days. Six long days. Six days of fluffy bunnies and happy thoughts. All due to one little slipup and the union's subsequent curse. The worst part was, now, no matter what I did, it turned out ... good ... nice.
Take yesterday, for example. I'm walking down the avenue, minding my own business, when a little old lady calls out, “Son, would you mind helping me carry this package? It's a basket of cookies for my granddaughter. She's five... .”
On and on she went.
Rather than telling her to shut up and snatching her cookie basket, I found myself lugging twenty pounds of pastries four blocks up Avenue XYZ while exchanging recipes with the demented old dame.
What kind of villain does that?
I hated being nice, even more than I hated helping people. And I hated that more than curds and whey. But the union had voted, and I would remain cursed, forced to be nice to any idiot around, until they deemed me mentally stable enough for bad-guy duty.
Feeling sorry for myself and hungry to boot, I stalked across my living room and dropped down in my favorite chair.
My favorite chair screamed in response.
“Whaâ?” I jumped up and flicked on my lamp.
A redhead in tight black leather glared at me from my seat. Her vivid emerald eyes sparkled with anger, and just a hint of something else. Something not very nice, but infinitely more interesting than a basket of cookies.
“Don't you look before you sit?” The redhead's lips curved into a frown, which only added to her beauty. She looked like sin, the dirty kind with plenty of sweat and saliva. Long copper hair curled down her shoulders, clinging to the outline of her C-cup breasts. The rest of her body was smoking with long, toned limbs and lots of pale skin.
“Who the heck are you?” I pointed the greasy bag in her direction. Before I could stop her, she snatched it from my fingers. I watched in amazement as the interloper dove into my curry noodles with the gusto of Goldilocks during a bout of bulimia.
“Hey.” I stabbed my hand in her direction. “That's my dinner.” I would've snatched the carton back, but I was afraid of losing a finger.
After a few minutes of gluttony, she paused to glance my way. “Sorry, but I'm starving. I haven't eaten since five.”
I glanced at my watch and frowned. “That was like forty-five minutes ago.”
“Really?” She cocked her head to the side, showing off the pale skin of her throat. “It feels like an hour at least.”
“While I'd love to chat more about the relativity of time, I'd prefer you tell me exactly who you are and how you got into my apartment.” With each word, my voice grew louder and my tone grew more dangerous. While I might have lost my villainous powers, I could still make one little redhead cry.
“Do you have any soda?” She smiled up at me. “Maybe a Diet Pepsi? All that MSG makes me thirsty.”
With an eye roll I started for the kitchen, pausing to berate my treacherous legs for obeying her command. But I couldn't help it.
I did whatever anyone asked, my own will completely ignored, as long as the requestor's intent was pure. Twenty-eight years of bad luck guaranteed any request made by a knockout redhead in black leather was as pure as Sleeping Beauty. Damn it.
Reluctantly, I opened my refrigerator and popped open the last can of mead. A rush of bubbles rose to the surface, foaming over the can and dribbling down my fingers. I sucked the foamy goodness from my thumb and grinned. The mead would have to appease my uninvited dinner thief. I returned from the kitchen, sat down on the edge of my coffee table, and handed her the can.
She glanced at my saliva-soaked fingers and then at the can. “Thanks,” she said after taking a long drink. Tilting her head, she studied me for a moment. Her eyes examined every inch, from my scuffed boots to the top of my hair. “You're not what I expected.”
“Oh, and what exactly did you expect?”
“Someone a bit shorter.” She frowned. “What are you? Six foot?”
“What do you weigh? Sixteen stone?”
Again, I nodded.
She shook her head. “Puny.”
“Heyâ” Six foot, two hundred pounds was not puny, not by a long shot. Moreover, I was as fit as Hey Diddle Diddle's fiddle. In my line of work, it paid to be, with all that running from angry mobs with pitchforks and such.
“No offense.” Her lips lifted into a smirk. “Maybe you could bulk up for the job? Eat more.”
Rage flashed through my bloodstream like a boiling cauldron. “Eat more?” I strangled out, my eyes burning into my nearly empty carton of curry noodles and back at the redhead with a dollop of curry on her upper lip. What I should've said was, “Job? What job?” But I didn't. I blamed my dropping blood sugar for the mistake.
The redhead grinned, lifting the nearly empty carton my way. “Oh, was this your dinner? There's an egg roll left.” As she said those words, her eyes locked onto the greasy cabbage roll, as if debating eating it.
I grabbed the egg roll, crammed it in my mouth, and spewed leafy green strands at her as I repeated my earlier question. “Who the heck are you? And why are you here?”
“My name's Asia.” She paused, her eyes boring into mine. Don't say it, my brain begged, but just like a woman, she said it anyway. “I need your help.”