“Get your behind in here.” I hold open the door and wait, like a polecat eyeing down its dinner. I make sure to leave no room for argument. “Now,” I say, and Gill finally gets the hint. He don’t look none too happy about it, but he marches into the backroom of Friday’s Bar all the same. We’re both drenched from the rain, but the only difference is that he’s dressed in some ridiculous getup, with black paint ringing his eyes and a cape of feathers. I think he looks more raccoon than bird, but there ain’t much using in telling him that.
“What the hell were you thinking, boy?” I turn on the lights and slam the door shut to keep the rain out, feeling like a drowned river rat, and none to happy for it either.
“I was being true to myself.” There was a summer’s heat to his voice. It had been the first thing he had said since I picked him up at the police station. “And I would have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for that star spangled bastard.” He slammed his fist down, powerfully, on the kitchen island.
“You had best watch your tone, boy.” I put a sharp finger in his chest and for a moment there was fear in his eye. He needs to learn a little fear if he’s going to go around dressed like a giant bird. “Patriot Missile could have skewered your innards from five-hundred paces. That red, white, and blue Robin Hood is the best damn shot from here to the Mississippi.”
“He humiliated me, and defeated my minions in combat.” Gill throws his cape back like he’s making some grand gesture of villainy, but the poor soaked fool just looks as awkward as a sow in a prom dress.
“The way I heard it from the boys in blue, he bought a pretzel and put it on his arrow. Then he went and shot it out into the harbor. Your little birdies followed it like a dinner bell.” My hands found my hips and I gave him my best stare. My shirt was wet and I was showing off more of my assets than I normally cared to, but for the moment I didn’t give a lick. If Gill wasn’t going to listen to JJ and stop all of his super-villain nonsense than I would just have to beat it out of him the good old fashioned way.
“Those cops. They thought it was all such a joke. They couldn’t even stop laughing long enough to take my fingerprints.” Normally Gill would be struck near dumb by the sight of me in a wet t-shirt, but something was different, tonight. He seemed to barely notice or even care, instead being all worked over his little escapade. “I’ll show them. I’ll show them all. Then I’ll be the one laughing.” Suddenly, it was my turn to lose my composure. His maniacal laughter was almost convincing, at least it would have been if he didn’t start hacking up a coughing fit about midway through.
“Sugah, you had best count your lucky stars the police found it so damn amusing. It’s the reason they released you into my custody and dropped the charges of villainous menacing in the 3rd degree. You could have found yourself in super-max for the next six months, and I promise you that the men in there wouldn’t find your little eagle costume as amusing.”
“It’s a seagull. I’m the Seaguller.” The boy started sneezing up a storm.
“Really?” I say. “Why didn’t you pick something more menacing… like maybe a hawk… or even a sparrow.”
“I am the Seaguller, master of all seagulls,” he said in-between sneezes. “Everyone will soon fear the name.”
“Well, if I was you, I had best start learning to fear me. Do you know what its like trying to find a sitter at three in the morning. You were just lucky Ms. Parsons across the way was able to watch Owen, so I could come down and bail your sorry hide out of jail.” The boy at least had the decency to look muddled about the whole damn thing, but I weren’t done with my anger. “And another thing, JJ, ain’t going to be none too happy, either, when he hears about all this foolery of yours. I can guarantee you that.”
“You don’t get it. JJ doesn’t get it. You’re both so old. You have no idea what its like to be me,” he railed.
“I’m not…” It was a silly old thing but suddenly I felt painfully aware that I was standing there looking drenched without a lick of makeup on. I caught sight of my own reflection in one of the steel cabinets, its scratched shiny finish showed every wrinkle and crease. My eyes had bags so big I could have used them to pick up groceries. “Gill, darling,” the fire gone from my voice. “We’re only worried about you, that’s all.”
“Well don’t. This is what I want. This is what I want to be.” His own fire had died and as he talked his shuffled his feat like my Little Buford Heck, the first kid I ever danced with. “I don’t care if you tell JJ. I… I don’t care if he fires me.”
I tipped his chin up till he was looking me in the eyes. “Sugah, you need to tell JJ.”
He swallows hard like a man facing the hangman. “He’s going to be real mad at me.”
“Gill, darling, I’m real mad at you. JJ, is going to be damn near furious, but that don’t change what you have to do. A real man takes responsibility for his actions.” I let go of his chin and leave him looking like my Owen when I tell he needs to eat his greens.
I notice my hands, they’re wrinkled from the rain and they’re a pain in my joints like a dull fire when I bend them. They’re the hands of an old woman, a sow past her prime. When did I get old? Where did all the time go? I look again at Gil and the boy seems so young. How long ago had it been since I was his age?
The boy lets out another hacking cough and my own aches are momentarily forgotten, I put my hand to his forehead only to discover he’s burning up worse than one of my Sunday pot roasts. “Sugah, you ain’t looking so good. I think we’d best get you home.”
I lead him out the door and back into the pounding rain of the night. “What about JJ?” he asks as I put my coat around him.
“You ain’t getting out of bed tomorrow, you hear? You’ll just have to face the music on Thursday. I’ll tell him you were feeling under the weather.” Before I hit the lights I give one last look at my reflection, and part of me wonders who the old woman is that’s staring back at me.
The rest of my night was not really what you might call restful. After all the commotion with Gill my sleep was hardly steady. So, come morning I weren’t in no mood for one of JJ’s moods.
“What do you mean under the weather?” says JJ leaning against the bar top looking as surly as ever.
“That boy was sicker than all tarnation. I told him to stay home.” I fumble with my apron strings, but with my fingers aching something awful I can barely get them knotted.
“I guess we’ll have to make do,” says JJ. “He’ll just have to clean out that ice machine next week.” Then, the man does something I rarely see him do, he hesitates. At last he picks up a rolled up newspaper and hands it to me, as if it were a coiled water snake. “Did you see the news?”
I snatch the paper from JJ’s paw, and unroll it carefully, unsure of what I will find. Maybe Gill’s little run-in with Patriot Missile made the headlines, but what I discover is not exactly what I was anticipating. “This ain’t me,” I hear myself say.
In big bold letters the paper reads, Southern Bedlam Strikes. So I keep reading, The villainess known as Southern Bedlam killed four men last night. Police linked the dead men to the Scorpio Drug Cartel, but authorities are not amused at the latest murder spree attributed to the famous assassin…
“You are looking more tired today, than usual. Late night?” There is no malice in his voice. Just feline curiosity.
“Owen was being fussy all night,” I lie. “JJ, this ain’t me, not no-more.” I slam the paper down and I notice that Friar Freeze and The Robber Ducky look up from their conversation. I give them a stare, like Lucifer himself, and suddenly they both find better things to busy themselves with. “I swear I put that life behind me a long time ago.”
“I know.” As crusty as my boss can sometimes be, he has a way of making even two words seem more precious than all the diamonds in the Carolinas. “It’s not you, but someone out there is using your old moniker, and I don’t want you going out there to do something stupid.”
“Stupid?” I say with enough fire to flash fry a catfish.
“Now, Georgia. You know what I mean. Running around like this is a young person’s game and you’re too…”
“Too what? I’m too what, JJ? Old?” I take a step toward him, the newspaper rolled dup in my hand.
“…too, smart for that,” he says holding his ground. “Everyone in this bar has or had a villainous handle, or a codename, or whatever. Some of us hate our names, and some of us were given them, but whatever the case it’s a very personal thing. It’s how we present ourselves to the world. If someone is out there using yours without permission… Well I know how that might drive someone to do something stu… unnecessary.” JJ eases himself off the countertop with a groan. “Just promise you won’t go out and try to find this person, whoever they are.”
As my boss limps away to talk with some customers down at the other end of the bar, I straighten my hair. In all the commotion some of it had come lose from the ponytail and a I smooth it back I can’t help but notice the gray strands that I come away with.
I did my best to go about my usual business, serving drinks but something seemed off. Usually, I found myself dodging lecherous hands, claws, or whatever, but for some reason none of the usual trash even gave me a second glance. It was a Wednesday, one of our lighter days. After all, the Cerberus Super-Max don’t out-process prisoners till Thursday. Still, that’s not to say there wasn’t enough death stares and death rays to keep a girl busy, but other than that no one seemed to take much notice of me. My afternoon I could not recall one inappropriate comment or one person’s hand I had to bust for trying to squeeze the eggs, if you know what I mean. This is not to say that I enjoyed those things, but they were always there, like fur on a dog. I suppose I had never considered the possibility that they wouldn’t be around one day.
By happy hour -half price drinks are always a problem- I was forced to remove my first client of the night.
“You had best get before I get angry.” I stare down Malus Maximus, his little helmet dented where my steel-toed high-heels connected with his head.
“How dare you speak to me in such a manner. I shall return with my legion at my back, and then…”He draws his little sword, but I’m faster. I usually am. I strike again, right square in his arrogant Roman eye.
“Darling I don’t care if you have one or one-thousand men, you hear? You ain’t got no right to call a lady that word, not in my presence. Now, if you ever want to come back to this here bar, you had best learn some manners, or did they not have those back where you came from?” I wipe my hands on my apron, if only to mask the ache in my joints. “I swear, you Italian men are all the same.”
Then I hear it, a low signing whistle and something inside me reacts, like a snake striking at a threat. My apron is still in my hands so I rip it clean off and use it like a rag to bat aside the incoming weapon. A five-pointed throwing star throwing star clatters to the pavement, sounding like a steel dinner plate hitting the floor. I have more time with the next two. I dodge to the side, while grabbing discarded weapon and throw it before I am even full on my feet. The weight feels good in my hand, the heft of old memories long left behind.
It flies, straight, like a hawk diving for a field mouse, but my shadowy opponent was ready. With one swift movement she goes and plucks it out of the air, as if it were nothing. Then she steps forward and it’s like looking in a mirror, well a mirror that is twenty years younger.
“Mighty impressive,” she says. It ain’t my old costume she’s wearing, but close enough all the same. Mine was all tight black leather and plunging neck lines, where as I can tell the girl before me is not quite as endowed as I was at her age, but no less striking. Her uniform is less revealing, a red leather jumpsuit closed up to her neck. Two dark blue bandoliers criss-cross her chest, each holding six or seven of them throwing stars. Black leather straps accent the costume, and holding a series of small weapons, daggers, darts, and even a stylized sai. She looks as dangerous as she does beautiful. A black balaclava masks her face, but her long red hair falls across both shoulders looking more like silk.
“Did you ever wonder why there are so many redheads in our line of work?” I say as I stand back up, feeling a bit too aware of the brown straw that is currently held back by a common rubber band at the back of my head.
Then I notice Malus Maximus. The Roman general sits transfixed by what he just witnessed, one hand still holding the swollen eye where I struck him. “Didn’t I tell you to get?” I say and that’s all the excuse the man needs. He disappears out the alleyway as if his very tunic were on fire.
“Well, don’t you just have a way with men?” says the girl as she walks toward me.
“It’s a gift, darling. I am sure you have had to drive off more than a few suitors in your day.” I make my voice all sugar and spice. “I mean look at you, aren’t you just pretty as a picture.”
“Oh, I could never be as stunning as you. I mean even at your age you have managed to keep your skin looking so pearly white.” She smiles under her mask. Even through the black cloth I can see that smug little mouth turning up at her words.
“Well, moisturizing is key, honey, but I’m sure you know that by now, what with all those health classes they give you in high school. You must have all the boys wanting to ask you to prom. I mean, being so flexible and all.” Then it was my turn to smile.
“Oh, I do alright, don’t you know, but I’m sure it was nothing compared to you back in the day, what with all your tremendous… advantages. Even now you still have such wonderful resources at your disposal. You’ll have to tell me what kind of elastic support you use, because it is doing wonders. It’s just a cruel fact of life that with age we all lose a bit of our perk.” I watch her hand reach into one of the pouches on her belt. For most, the gesture would have seemed as natural as a growing grass, but I haven’t lost as much of my step as she might think.
“Aren’t you just the sweetest little thing for noticing. Now, honey, whatever can I do for you? Maybe some tips on wardrobe?”
That signaled the end of the conversation. “I’m sure I’ll get along quite all right on my own,” she said and threw the smoke pellets hard to the pavement. A mighty cloud of thick grey smoke filled the alleyway like a Tennessee rain storm, but I was ready.
I tied my apron around my mouth to keep from choking even as I dodged two more throwing stars. I didn’t see them so much as hear them coming. Then she was on me. The girl was as light as she was fast, but strong too. That fancy sai stopped mere inches from my throat, before I could get her off me again. When I turned to find her, she was gone, like a ghost in swamp mist.
“I’ll admit it, darling, you got some skill,” I say to the smoke, “that don’t give you no right to be wearing that getup and calling yourself Southern Bedlam, though. That ain’t your name to use, you hear?”
I duck the roundhouse right before it connects, and I block the follow up punch that I knew was coming. “Why?” says the unseen voice of the storm. “It ain’t like you’re getting anymore use out of it? You’re out of the game, content to live your life kicking out bar flies and playing house. What right do you have to it, anymore, darling?”
I use the voice to track where she is. Speaking like that was a damn rookie mistake for an assassin. “You’re young so you don’t get it yet, but you can’t go around taking people’s identities unless you have permission. That’s just not how things are done.” I lunge like a bobcat, claws out, but what I find is nothing but more smoke and empty pavement. I realize my mistake, but too late.
Her first kick drives me to my knees. Thank the Lord she didn’t aim for the head and knock me senseless, another rookie mistake. So, I recover quick enough to catch her downward strike and I use that momentum to throw her to the ground, but she don’t stay down for long. In one swift spin she kicks out knocking me down as well. I’m usually faster, but not this time. Then she’s on me again, like yellow on corn, her sai back in hand.
“You betrayed everything you stood for,” said the girl. “It is my sworn duty to end your treachery once and for all.”
“Who in the name of all tarnation told you that load of horse manure?” I flip around and kick her off. When I find my feet again I notice that I’m bleeding like a leaky pale, but I ignore it. My lip is cracked and so are my nails, and one of those two things just makes me madder than all hell.
“Master Cletus,” says the girl and she throws two more stars from her bandolier.
I duck them and kick forward connecting with her chest, but she catches the follow up and this time uses my momentum to throw me against the brick wall of the nearby building. “I should have known that old coot was still alive.” The impact dislocates my shoulder, but I don’t scream out. If my old master was the one who taught her how to fight than I damn well know what to expect next.
So, I reverse her hold and kick again with my high heels. The girl’s knee crumples and she falls to the ground in a heap. It’s a move I learned on the streets not in some damn dojo. “You listen to me girl, that old man is crazier than a dog in heat. He’s still convinced that the South Will Rise Again. You had best forget him and quick, just like I did, because his one man war will only lead you to ruin, you hear?”
“You betrayed the cause.” The girl takes one of her knives and swings for my leg, but I was expecting that and her attack meets only my kick. I feel something give and the blade goes skittering away as the smoke begins to clear the alley.
“I never believed in Cletus’ war. The first moment I could, I left him flat on his behind and went solo. Take it from me, honey, there is a lot more money in freelance work than in dying for some long lost cause.” With the smoke clearing and the fight all but over I reach down and yank her balaclava away and then I stop.
“Annah?” I say as I look into the face of my own niece, Savannah Atlanta. “Your pa told me that you were in college. What the hell are you doing here, dressed like that, girl?”
“Pa, don’t know nothing about this.” At least the girl has the decency to look ashamed. “Master Cletus found me and trained me. I don’t belong in no fancy school. This is what I want to do. This is who I am. I wanted to be like you, Auntie Gee.”
“Oh, sugah, bless your little heart, but why would you want to be like me?”
“Your beautiful, your powerful and independent, and nobody tells you what to do.”
“Then why in the name of all that’s holy were you trying to kill me?”
“Master Cletus said it was my final test. I’m sorry. I really am.”
My anger dies like a sunflower in wintertime.” I pull myself up and sit myself down next to her. “Oh, don’t you fret about it. You ain’t the first person who ever wanted to kill me, but, honey this ain’t you.”
“Yes, it is,” she says crossing her arms. “Being Southern Bedlam is exciting. Nothing I learned in college ever taught me what I wanted to be. This is what I want, Auntie Gee. Can’t you understand that?
I see myself when I look into her eyes, an impressionable young thing who can’t stand to be tied down to nobody or nothing. It had been so long since I had been that girl, maybe I had forgot what it felt like. It was like being in love for the first time, but without none of the uncertainty or heartache. Villainy is like fire, it burns hot and bright, and it draws you in, but until you get properly burned by it, ain’t no one going to get you to listen to reason.
“Lord, help me,” I say and let out a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. “Listen, honey, If you’re going to be Southern Bedlam, I got a few conditions.” I put my arm around my kin.
“You’re not going to tell pa, are you?” She looks up at me and I see a baby girl who I bounced on my knee when I was not much older than her, nor dressed that much differently.
“You’re going to tell him, but when you’re good and ready. Second, you’re done with Master Cletus. That old bigot can’t do anything to touch you, not no more, not as long as you’re living under my roof.” I stand up and help Annah to her feet.
“That’s my last condition. You’re going to come live with me and Owen, at least till you find your own place here in Titan City. I want you around so I can keep an eye on you. You’re still young and new to all this. Maybe I can give you a few pointers from time to time, and help you avoid some of the mistakes I did.”
“Oh, thank you, Auntie Gee. Thank you.” Then the girl lunges for me and I almost let my old instincts kick in but I stop myself. She wraps me in a great big hug and I wince a little as my dislocated arm pops back into place.
“Also,” I say when she lets go. “I’ve decided you can keep the name. It suits you.”
“Thanks,” she says as we limp toward the door of Friday’s together, “but I was thinking about what you said. You’re right, that name is yours. So, maybe something new. What do you think of Bedlam?”
“I like it.” I open the door. “C’mon, let’s get patched up, and I’ll introduce you to my boss. He’s a good man.” I hold the door open as Annah goes in ahead of me, but I stop when I hear running.
I turn and out of the last dregs of smoke comes Gill. He’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, his seagull costume nowhere in sight. “Miss Atlanta,” he calls. “Miss Atlanta, I’m feeling better, and I wanted to say thank you for bailing me out last night.”
“Gill, you’re welcome, and how many times do I have to tell you to call me Georgia?” I can hear the jukebox playing some mournful tune inside the bar.
“Sorry,” he says. “Also, I’m here to tell JJ, like you said. I didn’t want to wait till tomorrow. I want to get it over with. After he fires me I’ll clean out my stuff and you’ll never have to see me again.” Gill starts to walk into the bar, but I stop him.
“Wait,” I say and let go of the open door. “Now listen here, because I’m only going to say this once. I realized I have no right to tell you how you should live your life. If you want to go around dressed as a giant seagull… or whatever, well who am I to make you do otherwise, and who is JJ? I know I told you that you need to tell him about what happened, and as much as I still believe that, it should be your decision. I won’t tell him, I swear. This is between you and him, and between you and yourself.
“You need to figure out what makes you happy and understand that whatever path you choose will have consequences, but I can’t make that choice for you. And, that is all I have to say on the matter, except that whatever path you choose I promise I’ll be there for you, as best I can.” Without words the boy hugs me and for the second time in so many minutes I have to worry about my injuries.
“Thank you. Thank you,” says Gill before suddenly realizing what he were doing. He jumps back like a cat from a hot roof and looks as embarrassed as anyone could be. “Are you bleeding?”
“It’s a long tale,” but before I can say more the door behind me pops back open.
“Auntie Gee,” says Annah, coming back out into the alleyway. “Are you coming inside?”
At the sight of her, I did not think it possible, but Gill turns an even dark shade of red. His mouth opens and closes like a catfish caught on a fishing line, and I smile to myself. “Gill Laridae, this is my niece, Savannah Atlanta.”
“Hi,” he squeaks.
“Annah, this is Gill. He’s also trying to be a villain.” I whisper the last part in a conspiratorial tone and immediately my niece perks up at the sight of the boy.
“Really?” she says and takes him by the arm back into the bar. “What’s your name? What kind of fighting styles do you know?” “What…” I don’t hear the rest as the door swings close behind them. For the first time that day I smile like a mother fox and realize maybe there are some benefits to getting older. After all, we all can’t stay young forever.