“You catch the finale of The Baritones last night?” Ed asks, up-ending a bag of chip crumbs into his mouth.
“Nah, I was at my kid’s recital,” I say with a shrug. I like Ed. Of all the guys here, I think he and I are the most on the same page. He’s a family man like me—he knows how hard it is to make ends meet, and how important it is that they do. The rest of these guys, though, they’re young and hungry. I watch them buzz around the warehouse like hummingbirds, waiting for the boss to arrive with the roster. Our theme, as it’s called in our line of work, is pretty simple as far as uniforms go; black tactical everything, like we’re a SWAT team. Balaclavas and everything. Keeps us looking threatening but bland. Can’t outdo the Boss’ flair, you know. Henching 101 no-no.
“Oh, that’s right! How’d it go?”
“Good, man, thanks. Tabitha knows her way around a violin, that’s for sure. Gets it from her mom.”
“Trish must’a been glad you made it.” Ed says, and pulls a pack of Mal Burro cigarettes from his vest pocket. He taps two out and holds them out at me. I take one and light it up. I pass my lighter and he puffs away like a dragon.
“Yes, indeed.” I wink, indicating that my wife’s appreciation was noted and cashed in for ‘good dad’ sexual favors.
I’m not proud, but a guy’s gotta do what he can in this life.
One of the other guys—a rookie—vomits. Nerves. Must be due to last night’s cock-up at the bank. The boss takes a loss very personal. I take a drag and let the smoke out in wisps. I remember my newbie days.
“Hey, Hank…” Ed says to me while eyeballing the kid.
“Think you can cover for me tomorrow night? Sue’s been on my ass about how I’m always working this gig, and how my hours are over the place. The kids’ll be at her folks’ and she’s been wanting to go to that new vegan joint downtown.”
“Yeah.. .I’d rather be punched in the taint by a Sasquatch, but you know the score. Maybe we eat out, then we eat out!” Ed laughs until a thin wheeze escapes his throat. He pulls his balaclava up, revealing his face. It always strikes me as funny how this Ward Cleaver-looking guy could be one of the dirtiest, violent men I’ve ever encountered. It’s those traits that have kept him on the job for so long. Boss after boss, the job’s essentially the same, but it’s the impression you make that sets you apart from the cannon fodder. Those guys get the shit jobs. They get dropped in acid vats after botching a caper. They get punched in the face by some dick in a cape so hard they’re never the same again. I’m like Ed—one of the old timers. He and I thought about starting our own business once—subcontracting henchmen for different jobs. Not a bad idea when you get down to it, but we’d needed seed money. And let me tell you, nine times outta ten, you’re lucky to make it home, let alone get a payday. There’s not a lot of honest work out there for guys like us. Hell, we even talked Union at one point, but we couldn’t organize a bake sale let alone something like that.
“Sure, man. I got you.” I say. Ed slaps me across the shoulder and sports a big ol’ grin.
“That’s great! I owe you!”
“Nah, us old timers have’ta look out for each other, right?” I see a clutch of young fellas eyeing us up. Every once in a while someone gets a hair up their butt and thinks they can move up the ranks by taking one of us out. Dumb shits. They don’t realize that there is no moving up. There’s the boss, then there’s us. Worker bees. Drones, or whatever they’re called. I think that’s ants. Anyway…
Three of these guys stroll up like they have kielbasa in their slacks instead of Vienna sausage, and Ed and I toss each other mock ‘uh-oh’ looks and chuckle. “Boys,” I nod. Ed just blows smoke their way.
“You two were around during the Moonbat thing, right?” One of the rookies folds his arms across his chest. He’s bold. That’s a double-edge sword in the Hench game. Bold’ll get you noticed, help you get jobs. It’ll also get you noticed, and either punched in the grill by a supe or take two in the dome by a paranoid boss.
“Yeah, that was us.” Ed shrugs with no reason to lie. “What about it?” The bold one looks to his buddies for reassurance. They look like a couple of dopes asking directions to the nearest porn shop.
“You… were the reason he became… what he became?”
“Well…” I hold my hands up to slow their roll, as the kids say (do they still say that?). “Doctor Zombie ordered the hit on the Detective’s family, but technically, yeah, we were the ones to carry it out. I held him down and Ed did the family.” My mouth goes dry as I speak. It’s not my proudest moment, you know—ripping someone’s life apart. I think of my own family and I get queasy.
I did it for them, I tell myself.
I did it all for them.
“Shit, man, I told you it was them!” The second goon claps his hands once. “You guys are fucking legends!” Without realizing, I’m on my feet and holding him off the ground by his shirt. My words are growls frothing between clenched teeth.
“You think it’s something to be proud of?” I give him a shake.
“Uh-buh-buh—” the kid’s eyes begin to bulge through his mask and he’s about ready to piss himself. Ed’s on his feet now too, his hands try to push my arm down to stop the guy from dangling. I’m a brute-class hench, though—he could put a tire swing on my arm and it wouldn’t budge. Ed is a classic stealth-class hench. He’s the guy who always seems to appear behind some supe with a wrench ready to clean his clock.
“Hank…” Ed says and sets his hand on my shoulder. I let the kid drop. He scrambles behind his two buddies like a freaked-out crab. For a moment, I’m back in that house, the detective pinned beneath me. He struggled and growled and yelped like a wolf in a bear trap. Ed and I wore black jumpsuits with bones painted on them and Dia de los Muertes masks, as was Doctor Zombie’s motif. Ed had just finished tying the family up by the Christmas tree when the detective came home. I’d usually have no problem restraining a guy, but he was understandably in full adrenaline mode. I had to sock him one in the back of the head to settle him some, and even then he still had plenty of fight left. I’d have done no less if it were my family sitting there like that—bound and gagged and whimpering.
I took his handcuffs and locked his hands behind his back as the boss walked in from the kitchen. He took his “stained with the gore of a thousand victims” lab coat off and draped it over the couch. He called it his “Slab Coat,” the sick bastard. Dr. Zombie rolled up his sleeves while a wicked grin cracked like a fault line across his gaunt face. He rattled on and on about all the typical villain crap; foiled plans for the last time, thorn in my side, you will know the true meaning of blah blah blah. Practically straight from the handbook. He produced his trademark Scalpel (The ScalpAll), and handed it to Ed.
“B-Boss?” he stuttered in confusion.
“Kill them,” Dr. Zombie pointed. “I want the good Detective to see that his family is so far beneath me that I won’t kill them myself. Their blood splatter won’t become immortalized on my Slab Coat. They will simply be eradicated!” Cue villainous cackle. Ed shot me a look. We’re going too far, the look said. Can’t go against the boss, my look replied. Another Henching 101 no-no—don’t go against the boss. Even though I agreed with Ed, I knew we’d be through in this city if we didn’t follow orders. Ed’s shoulders sagged slightly as he resigned himself to the truth of it. Quickly, he stabbed each one in the neck, severing the artery. Wife, daughter, son. They slumped as their blood crawled across the hard wood floor and pooled around the Detective’s face. He stopped struggling then.
I felt him break.
Dr. Zombie cackled harder. He snapped up the ScalpAll and slid his coat on. He crouched close to me and the Detective and said some more villain bullshit. I don’t think the Detective heard any of it. Dr. Zombie splashed through the blood like a kid in a puddle over to the Christmas tree, and set it alight. It didn’t take long for it to spread.
“Time to go, boys!” he chuckled. Out into the snow we went, leaving a broken man to burn in the blood of those he loved. Ed and I left that outfit a few weeks later. We rarely ever spoke of it, but word got around that it was us and not Dr. Zombie who did the dirty work. He was going to have us whacked, the son of a bitch, but I guess he realized that it was easier to just let us go and try to reclaim credit for the kill. We were happy to oblige.
Turned out the Detective didn’t die. He was pulled from the burning house by his neighbor who saw us leave. He left the force shortly after, and trekked the globe. They say he lost his mind that night. Understandable. But then came the fateful day he came across some screwy Bat-God relic in Nepal, or wherever, and it gave him superpowers. It shredded what was left of his sanity, too. He became The Moonbat, and his first order of business was to come back to the city and stomp the living shit out of Dr. Zombie. He must have forgotten about me and Ed. We caught a lucky break. Dr. Zombie, not so much. Screw him, anyway.
“Best leave us be,” Ed nods to the boys. They walk away deflated. The garage door opens, and in walks the Boss and a handful of his bodyguards. He looks pissed. He’s dressed not unlike Kermit The Frog, green everywhere except the purple mound of flesh over his left eye that’s barely covered by taped gauze. His name is The Leaper, and god knows why Ed and I signed on with him.
“I’m disappointed,” the Boss says uncharacteristically soft. “Very disappointed. I should have made off with a fat payday, but instead I got this!” He points to his eye then makes a fist. “The doctor said the entire socket has been crushed. My eye ruptured. I’ll… I’ll…never be able to see with it again.” The room is full of murmurs, henches questioning, fretting, getting pissed. Ed lights another Mal Burro and chews his lower lip between drags.
“Maybe you can get a cyber eye, boss!” one guy says like he just discovered electricity. The Leaper would usually counter with some kind of derogatory rant about cretins and buffoons, but he just sighs heavily. I start to see the writing on the wall.
“Those things cost money… lots of money. And I’ve got nothing. I can barely make the payroll each week.” More murmuring from the troops. I can tell some are eyeing the door. No pay? No play. Ed and I have seen this before, so we know it’s best to keep low and quiet until its over. Thing is about these super villain types, you never know what they’ll do.
“Can you get by with just one eye?” another bold hench pipes up. He’s weighing his options. We all are.
“I’m The Leaper! I can’t freaking leap without depth perception, now can I?” He throws his hands up in defeat. “It’s over. The Night Guard took my goddamn eye… I’m finished. And since I can’t pay you, you might as well go. I’m sorry.” Most of the fellows throw their masks to the floor and head for the exit.
“Looks like I’ll have to tell Sue that vegan joint is a no-go.” Ed shrugs.
“Try to look more disappointed when you tell her, though.” I say, forcing a chuckle.
“Wanna hit the diner?”
“Probably should take a rain check…” I look at the poor bastard in the green leotard with what nearly feels like sympathy. He sits on a crate and sobs softly as his would-be dreams of domination crumble to dust. As Ed and I walk to our vehicles, the realization hits me that we are once again unemployed. I could always pick up some hours at the docks, I guess, until something else comes up.
“Listen, I might know a guy who could use our kind of expertise.” Ed says. He opens his car door and flicks his cigarette into a puddle. “Didn’t want to say anything before, you know… too many ears.”
“Yeah…” I say, my mind still buzzed with that fresh unemployed feeling.
“Guy’s real serious, though—a real hardass. ‘Streets running with blood’ and whatnot. He’s a billionaire, from what I heard. Wants to tear down the system that made him rich, I dunno. The point is, the money is on the level. We just have to get our hands dirty again.” I think about Trish and the kids. I promised I wouldn’t hench for City Killers, or maniacal apocalypse nuts anymore—just the run of the mill costumed weirdos with delusions of grandeur and a hard-on for bank robberies caped douchebags. It wasn’t lucrative by any stretch of the imagination, but at least I didn’t have to be a monster. This sounds like Doctor Zombie all over again.
“I’ll have to think about it,” I shake Ed’s hand.
He nods with a smile. “Yeah, it’s not easy, is it? This life.”
“Not at all. You know… maybe…maybe we should really think about doing our own thing like we used to talk about. Maybe this is the time.”
“Become our own villains?” Ed chuckles.
“Sure. Can’t do any worse than The Leaper,” I laugh. “We know the ins and outs of the game. Hell, you even taught that course at The Henching Academy that one time.”
“Shadow Shanking and Subterfuge Sabotage, yeah.” Ed props his foot on the running board of his SUV and scratches his chin. “I’ll think about it, buddy.” We shake hands again, and Ed starts the engine. As he sets the transmission to reverse, he smiles. “Could be fun. I’ll call you.”
“Sure. You take care, Ed.”
“You too, Hank.” With that he reverses out of the spot and cruises out of the lot. I get in my pick up and start her up. My hand hovers over the gear shift. I’m nervous, which strikes me as funny. Here I am, a brute-class hench, able to lift cars and punch through brick walls—went toe-to-toe with the world’s most powerful heroes—and I’m scared of telling my wife that I lost my job.
I look up at the swollen moon and sigh as a caped shadow sails across it. I flip him off, yank the truck in gear, and get it over with.
©Peter Hammarberg 2019