“That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for another BIG WINNER here at The Excelsior Resort and Casino!” Gill Lutz, the Excelsior Runner, walked down the row of slot machines, past a couple of “Pots-O-Plenty” slots bedecked in traditional Leprechaun green, through a row of black-and-orange devices pimped out to recall last year’s big horror movie hit, and ending up on a series of red-and-green glittering machines, gold inlay on the lining, lights flashing from the top and a cheerful tone of jingling bells playing – in what was intended as an ironic commentary – “I’m Getting Nuttin’ For Christmas.”
The cocktail waitresses, all dressed in short skirts and spangled masks that vaguely resembled popular superheroines like Turnabout and Mistress Mynx, stood in a tunnel for him to walk down, clapping rhythmically in time with the jackpot jingle. In front of the machine was a tall, lanky blond woman, her age difficult to determine, as her eyes were sunken and her skin leathery enough from overexposure to the sun that she could have been anywhere between 25 and 50. Neither the cigarette dangling from her fingers, the ruby red lipstick and nail polish, or the tight red-and-black dress that ended some 13 inches above the top of her knee were any clue to her age, either, not in Las Vegas. But whoever she was, however old she was, how much time she had left before a lifetime of lying around in tanning beds and sucking up carcinogens took her off the playbooks, she’d just scored a million-dollar jackpot, and it was Gill’s job to present it to her.
She looked slightly bewildered as Gill approached her, a condition no doubt encouraged by the three empty bucket glasses lined up next to the “Santa’s Little Helper” machine that was announcing her as a BIG WINNER to anybody who was within earshot. Her eyes, once green, were shot red from smoke and drink, and the curl of her lips made her look as clever as any winner ever did after they dropped a week’s paycheck into a machine. He knew this look – she’d been ready to walk away, she was going to give the machine one more pull (possibly because she only had enough credits for one more), and she couldn’t believe that it hit now. That it hit for her.
He’d been seeing that look too damn much lately.
“What’s your name, miss?”
“Am… Amelia. Amelia Valley.”
“Well, Miss Amelia Valley, you’re Las Vegas’s newest millionaire! How does it feel?”
“It… it’s like a miracle!”
Gill smiled. “I love hearing that, Miss Valley.” (This was an utter lie.) “We here at the Excelsior live to make your dreams come true!” (Another lie.) “Let’s head back to our office so we can take care of your paperwork.” (That part was honest, but mostly out of government-mandated necessity.) Amelia Valley smiled back at him and he extended his elbow, all genteel-like, and escorted her through an applauding crowd. He held the microphone to his face and threw out one last plug before leaving.
“Thanks for playing, everybody! Don’t forget, the Excelsior is the place where heroes live and your Holiday wishes all come true!”
And indeed, it was. Million dollar payouts for at least 17 people in the last week alone. A lot of wishes were coming true.
And if Gill didn’t figure out what was causing it, it was going to cost him his ass, his job, and perhaps his kneecaps. Not necessarily in that order.
The “Santa’s Little Helper” machines were a seasonal addition to the Excelsior. The machines didn’t particularly have anything to do with the casino’s theme, but then again, neither did Dean Martin, Elvis, or the cast of that HBO comedy about the sluts in their 50s, and Gill knew exactly how many machines represented each of those franchises on the casino floor. If you had asked him six months ago, when the bosses agreed to install the machines from November through January 15, he would have said that Santa Claus was a much better fit for the Excelsior’s superhero theme than any of those others. But that was before “Santa” started crapping out jackpots like he’d swallowed an ATM machine. It wasn’t a surprise when the first machine hit a progressive jackpot right after they were installed – that’s what the machines were for, after all, and slot machines were programmed to pay out 95 percent of everything they take in. Even with such a high percentage, most people walked away losers – the 95 percent went out in micro-winnings to people who turned right around and lost the 30 cents they won trying to recoup the $100 they put in, or into jackpots to people like Amelia Valley. And the Santa machines were based on the same sort of payout algorithms as every other machine Gill had ever seen – there were chances for multipliers and big wins, and the games were linked across several machines so the progressive jackpot went up faster.
But the one thing he couldn’t possibly have foreseen was the way these machines would pay out. The odds were supposed to be on the casino’s side, even if it was just a five percent advantage, but these machines were hitting jackpots far, far too often. It seemed like a few times a day, in fact. Between the size of a player’s bet (the maximum was 400 credits – just $4, as Santa was lending his name to penny slots) and the potential for multipliers, side games, and free spins, whoever had the chance to win the maximum possible jackpot at any given moment seemed to have the edge over everybody else. It was starting to get terrifying, and damned if it wasn’t going to bankrupt the casino.
Okay, maybe “bankrupt” was a bit of an exaggeration – play had increased dramatically along with the payouts. But Gill’s bosses were none too happy about the sudden spike in million-dollar checks they were signing. They had the machines thoroughly checked out, assuming they were malfunctioning somehow, but every diagnostic they tried showed the machines to be in perfect working order, from the mechanical components to the computer chips. He looked into the possibility that there was a programming error – or worse, some sort of malicious worm planted in the software – but nobody was able to uncover anything. Gill tried to shut the machines down, but there was a rare outcry from the more fervent regular players and some nasty coverage in the local media. The machines had already become legendary on the Vegas strip, there were lines to play the Santa slots that stretched halfway down the casino, and people were starting to drive in from Los Angeles, from San Diego – at least one couple Gill heard of came all the way from Flagstaff – just to play the Santa’s Little Helper machines. None of them were happy to find the slots shut down, and rather than throw their money into any of the hundreds of other fine machines available, most of them decided they’d rather take their chances down the road at Caesar’s Palace or the MGM Grand – both of which also featured the Santa’s Little Helper machines, but neither of which were paying out in as grand a fashion as the Excelsior. After just three days, the bosses had him reactivate them with the stern warning that he better figure out what the hell was going on, and soon.
The problem was, once every possible mechanical, technological, and otherwise human variable was accounted for, that left Gill with just one option as to what, exactly, could be causing the gargantuan jackpots… a superhuman one. Gill may have been an employee of the Excelsior, Las Vegas’s premiere hotel and casino for those who were fans of the superhero set, but that didn’t make him a fan of them himself. Like most Casino Runners, he had a former life that didn’t allow him to be. The walls of the playing floor were painted in bright, primary colors, with the emblems of different Capes hanging on every support beam and corner. Glass display cases showed off different superhero memorabilia, like the helmet of the original Nightshadow, the one who used that name back in the 1940s as opposed to the clown that was prancing around Siegel City these days. Another showed off Stonewall’s Granite Glider, and there was an entire gallery featuring memorabilia of the different Silver Squires, each one giving his uniform to the casino when his elder partner, the Ebon Knight, retired from active duty and passed the mantle down. Projectors threw images of current favorites like Spectrum, Aquila, Pendragon and Helen of Troy on the ceiling, making it appear as if they were flying overhead while the tourists dropped their twenties into the machines. Even the clerks at the check-in desk were instructed to greet each and every guest with “Have a super day!”
A lot of tourists assumed that, due to their association with the Cape lifestyle, the Excelsior had some sort of inside track on the superhuman community, but that wasn’t really the case. Vegas itself wasn’t much of a draw for superheroes, who he assumed didn’t want the competition in the weirdness category. Villains tried to drop by with disturbing regularity, but there was almost always a hero from Los Angeles or Seattle or even farther away right on their tail, and on the rare case that there wasn’t, the LVPD had a direct line to the government’s Metapower Task Force – help would arrive shortly. Usually, Gill was fine with the distance – he actually hated the superheroes – but at a time like this he had to start to wonder just which superhumans might hold enough of a grudge to want to sabotage the casino.
In his office, he pulled the files on every known Cape and Mask appearance at the Excelsior over the last six months. It didn’t take that long. Arrow Ace had been in town following a rather spectacular abduction of the usually-elusive Herr Nemesis, and dropped in at the invitation of the casino owner to sign autographs. No reason to think he would want the Excelsior to hurt. In September there had been a rowdy customer who transformed into Centerville’s darling Catalyst, wrecking a roulette table and three video poker machines in the process. Turned out his rather unstable metabolism had an adverse reaction to a radiation bath in a nearby rumble and he was out of control. Once he was swept away (in battle with his usual sparring partner, Doomsayre) the casino got a phone call from a mortified-sounding woman who introduced herself as his representative and immediately made restitution for the incident.
The few other encounters sounded similar: Felix Flame had caused a minor fire in the lobby, which he put out just before hightailing it out of town. Neddy Money had been captured trying to escape – not by a cape, but because he got tangled in the bungee cord at the Stratosphere Casino down the road, evidently he’d bought a rocket boot assembly without bothering to learn how to steer. The Chrome Gunsel had been arrested after he tried to rob the cage of the MGM downtown and, as far as Gill could tell, he was still in jail. All that left was…
Heroes didn’t typically make Vegas their home, but now that he thought about it, there was one. She was a D-lister, a wannabe if ever he’d seen one, but she was there.
He picked up the phone and dialed his contact with the police department – not a beat cop, but a guy who had been around for a while and knew that information to a guy like Gill would invariably come with a subtle greasing of the palms.
“Rogers? Hey, it’s Gill Lutz down here at the Excelsior. You’re not gonna believe this pal, but… do you know how I can find Lucky Penny?
Lucky Penny was twirling when Gill met up with her. Legitimately twirling – something he didn’t think people could do if they weren’t flying or on ice, but she was doing a very respectable job of it right here on the ground. Vegas’s would-be heroine was in her usual place on Fremont Street, standing on the sidewalk about halfway past the Golden Nugget Casino. Gill knew the Nugget’s Runner, his counterpart at that establishment, and knew he would have been thrilled to get rid of her entirely. Unfortunately, she was protected under the same laws that allowed the small army of street performers that came to Vegas to try to coax pocket change and loose dollars from the all-too-eager hands of the tourists every day. She wasn’t there panhandling, though – her performances were always free. Every half-hour she’d randomly select a different spectator and kiss him or her on the forehead, promising good fortune as he went off to drop more money into the Nevada Tourism Industry. The lucky visitor would then wander off, usually with a mob of lookie-loos on their heels, in an effort to strike it rich. The mobs trailing the person would dissipate in a half-hour or so, because people in Vegas are there for their own fun, and there’s no thrill watching someone who wasn’t winning.
But the Runners – people like Gill – kept track of these things, and they shared information with one another. The tourists that Lucky Penny gave her “blessing” to never – never — hit a jackpot on the night they encountered her. But most of them did well. Overall, virtually all of them left Vegas with their wallets slightly more inflated than they arrived, which was a miracle in and of itself. Those who stayed longer did even better.
And some of them did inevitably strike it rich, and far more frequently than could be accounted for in a random sampling. The trick was, those who scored big only did it with the slot machines. And they only scored, as luck would have it, when they played the penny machines.
When she saw him approach, Penny’s mouth curled up in a smile. “Mr. Lutz! What a coincidence!”
It was impossible to tell if Penny’s eyes were smiling – her hideous white-and-blue uniform included copper trim and a set of mirrored, copper-color goggles that hid her expressions perfectly – but Gill would have bet against it. “A coincidence, Penny? I didn’t think you believed in such a thing.”
“It’s an expression. But I have been thinking about you lately. Excuse me for a moment.” She turned to the tourist in front of her – an elderly man with walnut-colored skin and kind eyes that didn’t look like they had slept in three days – and kissed him in the middle of his balding noggin. “Luck be with you, Mr. Overstreet,” she said. “I think you’re going to have a lot of fun before you leave town.”
“Try down at the Excelsior!” someone in the crowd shouted, and the others laughed in agreement.
“Now, Mr. Lutz, what can I do for you?”
“It’s not exactly that I want you to do anything, Penny. I’m here to ask you to back off on something.”
“Back off? On what?”
“I know what you’ve been doing.”
“Mr. Lutz, everybody knows what I’ve been doing. I do it here almost every day – and especially as we get close to Christmas. I’m here to help everyone’s holiday wishes come true.”
“Cut the made for TV crap, Penny.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Gill.”
He’d encountered Penny in the past, but only fleetingly. None of his various fights back in the day set him up against her directly, but people in their respective lines of work often felt like they knew each other. And after the way he’d retired, pretty much every superhero had a sore spot where he was concerned. He shook his head and took her by the arm, pulling her in close. “Look, just because you decided to move into Vegas doesn’t mean you have to start a personal vendetta against me. It wasn’t my fault and you know it.”
This time she looked at him with a spark in her eyes, with a fire that glowed through the lenses of her goggles and betrayed the gleeful little smile she wore for the assembled crowd. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean… Drawbridge.”
He glanced around, startled. She’d used the name in a very low tone of voice, it was unlikely that anybody in the crowd heard her, especially since the famous Freemont Street musical light show was just starting. They were standing beneath the world’s largest LCD screen, where there was an hourly blast of rock music and wild video images that tourists lapped up. Once that started, Penny could have stripped naked and run down the street and nobody would have paid attention to her. But like anybody with a guilty conscience, when confronted with a reminder of his sins, he blanched and got scared.
“Don’t call me that. I don’t use that name anymore.”
“Of course not, that’s one of the conditions of getting a job as a Runner, isn’t it? You have to have fulfilled any prison sentences and have no outstanding warrants in any of the 50 states. Ex-supervillains make good security for a casino, but not if they’re going to get dragged off to jail the minute their faces show up on television.”
It was one of those open secrets in the gaming industry. Most people in the public were aware that casinos hired reformed Masks in some capacity or another, but very few of them figured it was the guy who showed up to congratulate them when they hit it big. A Runner’s responsibilities varied from casino to casino and depended largely on an individual’s power set. Gill – back when he was known as Drawbridge – was stronger than most and tougher than some, not to mention his main talent, but he was also a lot smarter than some of the other tanks he associated with. (The Sub-Terror, operating out of Centerville, couldn’t beat a three year old in a game of Connect Four. He and Drawbridge had always had a rivalry that ended with Sub-Terror getting beat down and usually humiliated right up until Pendragon or the Paladins or somebody showed up to kick both their asses.)
It was his intelligence that secured Gill his job as a Runner. He was powerful, yes, but he was also smart enough to recognize some of the telltale signs of somebody using super powers, and if he thought there was any funny business with their winnings, he’d open up an investigation. That was one of the reasons it took him so long to think of a superhuman issue when it came to the BIG WINNERS down at the Excelsior – not a single one of the winners he’d spoken to in the last weeks showed any of the signs of super powers.
Why would they? None of them had any powers. It was all her, and it was all personal.
“You’re using your powers to hit my Casino, Penny. You and I both know it.”
“I just help out people who come to town looking for a little fun, Mr. Lutz. There’s nothing illegal about that. Certainly nothing that you can prove.” There it was again – that devilish look in her eye, that angry spark that was just enough for him to know it was personal without allowing him to do anything about it. Not officially, anyway. Not legally.
“Okay, Penny. We’ll play it your way.”
“Goodbye Mr. Lutz. And have a very Merry Christmas!”
The smile on her face was completely artificial, but so was the grin on his. He had to at least look affable, after all. Because when he made his phone call and summoned up a little help, he didn’t want anybody to be able to connect him with this. He was a Runner now, he was perfectly clean, entirely on the up-and-up.
But that didn’t mean all of his friends were.
The next morning, after a few phone calls to folks in the know, Gill sat in his office cheerfully smoking a cigar. It was, perhaps, a bit premature to be celebrating, but he felt confidant in his victory. Lucky Penny wasn’t exactly a formidable fighter. Her power was a novelty, a gimmick, and while it may have been just the thing to raise the spirits of the rubes who stepped up to the slot machines, here in the real world it wasn’t going to protect her from the likes of Comfort and Joy.
He’d worked with those two ladies on occasion in the past. Comfort and Joy were hired muscle, literally in Comfort’s case. She was a huge, brute of a woman with strength that rivaled his own. She also had an interesting little bonus power – the ability to twist around a person’s insides and cause great muscular distress and nausea. Her partner, Joy, was a small, silent woman who rarely spoke during negotiations. She was formidable in battle, though, with the ability to manipulate emotions, leaving people enraged, upset, or otherwise unhappy. The more he thought about it, Gill thought that was probably what he liked about the ladies – ironic naming conventions amused him.
In his mind, Comfort and Joy were arriving on Fremont Street (possibly shattering through that LCD screen on their way in) and landing on either side of Penny. She would leap at Comfort, only to find herself sick to her stomach. Her indigestion would leave her “paying out” all over the sidewalk, while Joy made her angrier and angrier until, finally, Comfort just kicked her face until she stopped moving. They wouldn’t kill her, of course – they better not, he didn’t want to attract the sort of scrutiny a Cape murder would bring with it – but the beating should be enough for her to get the message and lay off the Excelsior. Merry Christmas to Gill.
His yuletide joy was shattered when he turned on the news.
“In a stunning display of holiday spirit, the superhero called Lucky Penny was seen on Fremont Street today with two sometimes adversaries, the mercenary villains called Comfort and Joy. Although the two villains arrived to challenge Penny to a rumble of some sort, at the time of their arrival the hero was giving a demonstration of her powers to a class of students from Saint Agnes’ School For Wayward Girls, taking a tour of the famous Fremont Street Show in the Sky. Instead of rumbling with Penny, Comfort and Joy wound up joining with her in a demonstration of superpowers at work, with a reminder to them all to stay in school,”
“Wow, Diane. What a stroke of luck that the Saint Agnes girls were making their annual Fremont Street trip at that time, eh?”
“What a stroke of luck indeed, Tony. Up next, trouble in paradise? Find out why a blogger is reporting trouble for Siegel City Cape Couple Turnabout and Copycat…”
Gill turned off the television and snuffed out the remainder of his cigar. What a stroke of luck, eh, that he would hire the two mercenaries in his damn Rolodex with a soft spot for the modern Pinky Tuscadero crowd. What a stroke of luck. What were the odds.
He’d forgotten how it had to go with Lucky Penny. Sure, you could fight her. But you had to take luck out of it. Completely.
“I’m telling you, Mr. Lutz, it shoulda gone perfect.”
Shoulda. It wasn’t even a real word, Gill was fairly certain of that, but hearing it spill from Carmine Stanton’s lips made him want to pull out a dictionary and rip it out entirely. The little hood was cowering under his gaze – a small, pencil-limbed man, Carmine was indeed scared of going back to jail, but not as scared as he was of what Gill would do to him if he was mad enough. Gill was pretty much mad enough.
“Go through it, Carmine. Tell me what happened. Exactly.”
Carmine nodded, his lips smacking together loudly. His mouth was dry, Gill thought. Maybe he’d let him have some water after he finished his story. Assuming Gill didn’t want to pop his head back like a Pez dispenser after he heard it.
“Well I did just like you said, Mr. Lutz. I took some of the pot leafs—”
“Leaves, Carmine, the word is leaves. And I never told you to do anything with marijuana leaves, now did I?”
For a second, Carmine had a look on his face that fully displayed his usual stupidity, then it occurred to him exactly what Gill was saying. “Oh… no, no boss. No marijuana leafs. But like you said, I took a few herbal leafs and I made up a little corsage. You know, some leafs – leaves, sorry, leaves – and some red berries and stuff. Made it look all pretty and Christmas-like, just like you asked me.”
“Okay, good. So you made it all ‘pretty and Christmas like.’ So what went wrong? What happened when you tried to give it to her?”
“Well I went down to Fremont Street and I found where she was, Lucky Penny. And I came up to her and I said, ‘You don’t remember me, but you helped me win big at the Excelsior and I wanted to give you this’.”
“And I took out the corsage to pin to her, but when I did it… boss, it was the damndest thing.”
Gill sighed. If there was one phrase that could almost always be applied to encounters with Lucky Penny, it was, “it was the damndest thing.”
“All of a sudden I heard this pop and I looked up at the screen they got there on Fremont Street. You know, the one where they show the music and–”
“I’m familiar with it. Go on.”
“Well it was turned off because they was still fixing it after that thing with Comfort and Joy the other day, but apparently there was still some juice going through it after all, because one of the bulbs sparked and popped out of the socket. I jumped back and I dropped the corsage, and the bulb actually landed on it and set it on fire.”
Oh good grief.
“And the corsage burned way faster than it should have, but it was a good thing too, because while I was standing there stammering at Penny, these cops showed up sniffin’ the air like. And they saw the ashes on the ground, but by then I was far away from ‘em. They scooped ‘em up and threw ‘em in the trash, then they just kept going.
“And then Penny, she looked at me real funny. And she said, ‘Gee, I’m sorry, but I don’t take gifts from people for helping them.’ That’s just what I do. And then… well…”
“Dammit, Carmine, stop blubbering like a gibbon and just tell me!”
“She told me, ‘Say hello to Gill Lutz for me’.”
He grinned, but with no joy. If there was any emotion in his eyes, it was terror.
“Hello from Lucky Penny, Mr. Lutz.”
Gill fell back, sighing. He couldn’t destroy Carmine, not for this one. Even somebody competent probably would have fallen victim to that particular trick. The woman was insufferable.
“Fine, Carmine, go.”
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Lutz, I–”
“Just go, Carmine. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Aw, thanks, Mr. Lutz. I’ll see you later. And Merry–”
“Don’t even say it, Carmine.”
He was thick, but Carmine Stanton could take a hint. He slipped from Gill’s office as quickly as he could. Gill pounded his desk, feeling his cheeks redden. He didn’t want to do it this way. He didn’t want to make it personal. But that was hardly his fault, was it? He wasn’t the one who made this personal.
He turned on his computer, planning to look for a couple of phone numbers. Before he could, though, he saw he had a new message. It was from a free e-mail account, the sort that any person could apply for and use pretty much anonymously, but that didn’t matter. He knew who it was from. The message made that clear.
Two things. First: I remember everybody I help.
Second: I’m not a fan of those “leafs” anyway.
He wasn’t putting the costume back on. No matter what else happened, he promised himself that. Gill Lutz was a Runner, and relatively well known in Las Vegas, and the authorities tended to turn a blind eye when a Runner had to get active in the pursuit of his duties. But if he started walking down the Las Vegas strip decked out in his old Drawbridge costume, any sort of courtesy they may show him would evaporate like a snowball dropped in front of the Bellagio in July.
But after Comfort and Joy wound up working with her – wound up handing out candy if the follow-up to the news report could be believed… after Carmine brought her right up to his door… well, Gill didn’t have much of a choice left. He hadn’t actually gotten into a fight in a couple of years, but he worked out, he kept in shape. Like many other metahumans with super-strength as part of their power set, Gill had discovered years ago that his powers amplified his natural strength. Even a flabby guy with his powers would be the strongest in a room of non-powered types, but if he got his ass into shape, he’d get even stronger. So Gill had some specially-made weights he used to work out, he boxed to keep his fighting skills sharp, and he jogged three times a week to keep his legs quick and agile. He knew he wasn’t in league with some of the big boys – Justice Giant out of Siegel City would turn him into jelly – but he also knew that Lucky Penny didn’t have any strength in her power set. If he could just get his hands on her, he’d be able to mess her up. Bad.
It didn’t really make him happy to know that – even at the height of his career as a Mask he had never been the sort to beat the hell out of people for the thrill of it, and there was enough of a gentleman left in his remnant of a soul to feel uncomfortable planning to beat a woman. But this was on her. This was business. She knew that if she messed with his casino there would be serious consequences, and he was just there to deliver them, right?
She never managed to let go of what happened years ago, and now it was gonna come back on her.
It was Christmas Eve, and Fremont Street’s LED show in the sky was in the midst of one of the few changes in the regularly scheduled programming. Instead of running through “American Pie” or a medley of Queen hits again, it was Christmas music. Gill actually made three trips down to Fremont Street that day, watching the show. It cycled, with four different displays going through the rotation, so that the 3 p.m. show was replayed at 7 p.m. and again at 11. Gill listened to the music – some of that Trans-Mannheim whatever that got the crap played out of it this time of year – but he was really paying attention to the light show. He had to figure out the pattern of the lights, the rise and fall of the video, the flashes that accompanied each beat of the orchestra. He had to watch the lights as they flared, he had to know at what point in the music it would be at its brightest.
Even on Christmas Eve, the streets of Vegas were swarming with locals and tourists alike. Gill always liked to say that Santa stopped in at the Excelsior to play a few hands of blackjack when he was passing through town, but that was mostly to be cute. The people walking Fremont Street or the Strip on December 24 likely weren’t going to be looking to party with Saint Nick anyway. But there were plenty of people in the vicinity of Lucky Penny when he approached her at 11 on Christmas Eve, just as the musical show was beginning, and not a one of them was looking at her. She stood near the Golden Nugget, near the wall and out of the way of the assembled tourists. Fair enough – many of them would be seeing the show for the first time, while Penny was probably sick of it.
“Hey there, Penny.”
She was looking up too, at the images of snowflakes blowing across the enormous screen in a flurry of blue and white. From his earlier stakeout, Gill knew the snowflakes would blow away to reveal a log cabin, and the camera would zoom in through the windows and display a family all cozy around the fire, stockings hanging from the mantle and Dad reading to the kids from ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Lovely. But all he cared about was what would happen a few moments after that.
When she heard her name, Lucky Penny looked down to see where he was standing, off to her right, arms folded and eyes steel. “Mr. Lutz. To what do I owe this surprise?”
“I thought it was time you and I had a talk about our situation, Penny.”
“Situation? I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“No, of course you don’t.”
He advanced on her, listening to the music begin its crescendo. It was about to explode in a cacophony of percussion and brass, and when that happened he needed to be ready.
“You can spew your crap all you want, Penny, I’m tired of it. So I’m ending it tonight.”
For the first time, the façade dropped from her face entirely. “End it. You’re going to ‘end it’ here? Now?”
“You won’t touch me. I know all about your legal status, Gill, and we’re on one of the densest streets in the world. There are a thousand people who are going to see you if you try to attack me.”
“Here. You’re leaving out the most important word. Here.”
The music was escalating in volume and accelerating in tempo. They were almost there. Without looking up, he knew the camera was sweeping around through the cozy little family, showing Mom plunking marshmallows into cups of hot chocolate while brother and sister snuggled under a blanket. Gill stepped up to Penny, backing her up until she was against the outside wall of the Golden Nugget. Above, on the LED screen, the camera turned and tilted.
Into the fire.
“Hey, Penny? You remember why they called me Drawbridge, don’t you?”
Her eyes bulged with understanding and, behind her, the wall began to split and spill light. Twin streaks of light shot up from the ground, tracing the wall behind her, and forming a door. The wall itself seemed to fall away behind her, and there was a portal, spilling out light onto Fremont Street. At that moment, the camera zoomed into the fire and a magnificent burst of light filled the entire street.
Not one person was watching when Gill grabbed Penny by the shoulders, shoved her through the portal, and fell in after her. They still weren’t looking when the portal closed behind them, and the wall was again perfectly normal.
The transition was quick – shorter jumps always were. When the portal closed and the light around them faded, Gill and Lucky Penny were in sands of the desert east of the city. You could still see the Vegas lights in the distance – a bright little pimple on the horizon. Gill could have shoved her to the other end of the Earth if he wanted to, but the farther the jump the longer it would take, the longer the portal would remain open, and the better the chance one of the pedestrians on Fremont Street would have taken notice of the portal and caught a picture of it – or worse, followed them in. For Gill’s purposes, just outside the city would be just fine.
They were dusty, but the landing wasn’t so bad. Gill made it a point to shove her through the portal slowly, remembering far too well what happened if you tried to go through one of his portals with any speed. Penny didn’t seem to appreciate the care he put into it, though.
“What are you doing?” she asked, pushing back away from him in the dust. There was a look of terror in her eyes that stabbed him in the heart just for a moment. He’d done some dark things in his time, he wouldn’t deny it, but what she was clearly afraid of was far outside of anything he’d ever do.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” he grumbled. “This ain’t about that. This is about you and me putting a stop to all this before I have to….”
“What, kill me? That’d be easy for you, wouldn’t it? Guys like you, Gill, that’s what you do.”
“No, it isn’t easy. It’s never easy, and damn you for even making me think of doing it.”
She snorted at him, a quick derisive sound that somehow made him angrier than every stunt she’d pulled with the slot machines. “Don’t start pretending you’ve got a conscience now.”
“What are you talking about? I served my time, I’m good with the system, why is it that you can’t let anything go?”
“Because you killed him!” she screamed.
“No, I didn’t!” he bellowed back.
Nine years ago – nine years and it was coming back on him. It was, as it turned out, Drawbridge’s last job. He was in New Mexico at the time, using his powers to pull off the sort of thing the press liked to call a “daring series of robberies.” It wasn’t that spectacular, really, it was as easy as opening up a gate into the vault of a bank, then another, then another. All he really needed to do was visit the bank beforehand and chart the basic layout in his head. As long as he knew where the door was, he could approximate a safe place inside to open his bridge without the fear of running into a solid object. He’d been careful since the time, early on, he accidentally opened a portal that ended inside a rock wall. Fortunately, he was nearby when it happened and the jump was a relatively short one, he just bounced back. But a longer jump, a different angle – a portal that was only partially inside a solid object… the acceleration could easily kill him. He knew that and he was careful to avoid it.
The Cape community didn’t pay as much attention to how a villain’s powers worked back then as they did today.
His name was the Lone Star Shooter, a Cape who prowled the southwest in cheesy cowboy garb with guns that he claimed carried the “power of the cosmos” in them. Basically, they zapped people. Drawbridge knew that running into him was a possibility when he planned out the job, but he didn’t expect him to be waiting inside the last vault he leapt into.
“Well howdy there,” he said, tilting his hat back with the barrel of his gun, smiling broadly. Drawbridge assumed the accent was a put-on, a fake doctored up to make him sound more “authentic,” but that wasn’t really his concern at the moment. He needed a quick getaway, but if he cut open a portal Lone Star would easily be able to follow him. There was no place close enough for him to just jump through and slam the door – no place he was familiar enough with to whip up a portal, anyway. The farther away his portal came out, the easier it would be for this ten gallon moron to follow him.
Lone Star pulled out one of his cosmic shooters and fired, hitting Drawbridge in the thigh. The beam cut straight through the meat of his leg, burning the wound on its way out, and he fell back against the door of the vault, screaming. It hurt – bad, much worse than anything he’d ever felt before. He was pretty sure this was the kind of pain metaphors were invented to describe.
“That wasn’t so bad, now was it pardner?” Lone Star said, grinning. “Now then, if there’ll be no more of this foolishness, what say you and me take a little trip down to the hoosegow?”
Drawbridge looked at him, seeing the Cape through the thin fingers of smoke that were rising from the hole in his leg. He pushed himself back up and hissed.
“I’m doing this because you actually said hoosegow,” he snarled.
Behind him, the lines of a portal cut through the air and a glowing white rectangle appeared. He fell backwards into it, the easiest way for him to move at this point, but just before the light consumed his field of vision he saw Lone Star leap in after him.
Okay, sucker. Follow me.
He couldn’t manage a long jump, not like this, so he visualized the nearest place he could – the outside of the bank. He spilled onto the steps, bumping himself on them pretty hard. It was easy to forget sometimes that the portal acted as a sort of accelerator – he always came out faster than he went in. He immediately began thinking of someplace else, someplace farther away. The moment Lone Star came through he dropped the first portal and opened another one, shoving himself through. Lone Star followed him again. It was a longer jump this time, he could actually feel a sense of growing speed as he hurtled through the strange in-between place he saw when he travelled. This time he came out in the parking lot of the hotel where he’d been planning to flee if something went wrong; he’d heard enough stories about heroes who turned up with power dampeners – devices which could shut off someone’s powers – to always have a back-up plan in case his drawbridges didn’t work.
He stepped out into the parking lot and began shuffling away, trying to think of some place else he could leap to once Lone Star came through the portal. He couldn’t get far, not on this wounded leg, but if he could just get a bit of a head start…
He had another image in his head this time, the state capitol. He’d been there as a kid several times – field trips and the like – and he could picture those white steps perfectly in his mind. When he felt his other portal close he opened a new one and hurled himself in immediately. When he came out he began running again, thinking even farther. Central Park, New York. He could do this.
Any he may have, if Lone Star hadn’t come out of the portal this time with his cosmic guns drawn, firing on the Mask as he attempted to flee.
Drawbridge could see Central Park in his mind’s eye, a specific lawn where he’d taken a girl on a date last year, and he could only hope that there wouldn’t be any people there at this time of night. He wasn’t so much concerned with hurting them, but he’d hate to accidentally cut one in half by opening up a portal inside their bodies. He cut the hole in the air, wiping out a nice patch of white, and fell forward into it. This was the longest jaunt yet, but he wasn’t going that fast. He had practically stumbled into the portal, barely able to stand up by the time he got there, and he again that his speed when he entered the portal seemed to impact his speed travelling through it. A whistling sound in his ears made him realize that wasn’t a good thing.
“Get back here, varmint!” The Lone Star Shooter was right behind him, hurtling through the portal at an incredible speed. When he reached Drawbridge, he reached out and snagged him, grabbing his good ankle and dragging him behind as he zoomed along. He’d never felt himself going so fast through the portal before – Lone Star must have been running when he jumped through. That was bad – really bad.
Drawbridge tried to thrash free, but it was impossible. There was no leverage in the portal – no gravity, no walls, nothing to hold on to or hold him back – and his wounded leg couldn’t kick at all. He’d be lucky if he could even stand on it again.
“Let go of me!”
“Forget it, pardner, you ain’t getting’ away again.”
“No, you idiot, you don’t understand!” He tried once more to kick Lone Star’s hand free, but it was no use. There was a dark plane in the distance, growing and rushing in towards them. In seconds, they hit the portal that spit them out into Central Park. The re-entry jolted Drawbridge, who hit the ground feet-first. His wounded leg felt like someone sent a spike up through his foot all the way to the hole in his thigh, and he rolled over, screaming. He couldn’t think, couldn’t concentrate, no way in hell he was going to be able to create another portal. He was caught and he knew it. At least once they arrested him they’d take him to a hospital and give him something for the damn pain.
“All right, jackhole,” he moaned through his teeth. “All right, you got me! Just… ah, just get me to a doctor!”
He pushed himself up on to his side, vision blurred, and looked for Lone Star. “Where are you, asshat? Come on, get this over with. Where are you?”
When he heard the “click” and saw a gun pointed in his face, it was almost a relief… right up until he heard the voice. “LET ME SEE YOUR HANDS!”
It wasn’t Lone Star.
He focused his eyes, holding his empty hands out in front of them to have cuffs clamped on. This wasn’t Lone Star or any other cape, it was NYPD, and the cop looked absolutely terrified.
“Okay, you got me. I’m not resisting. Just get me to a doctor.”
A boot smashed into his cheek, knocking him back to the ground and sending a jolt of pain through his jaw to match his leg. When he looked up, he saw a pair of guns pointed at him, and two cops that looked equally panicked and angry.
“You’re under arrest, you son of a bitch.”
“Geez, what this all–”
“SHUT UP! YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” The gun was close enough to his face now that he accepted the cop’s suggestion without argument. He was strong and he was tough, but he wasn’t bulletproof, especially when the gun was this close.
As the cops yanked him to his feet, face and leg howling in pain, he glanced around for the Lone Star Shooter, trying to figure out where he’d gone, why these cops were so angry. He should have known. They were moving fast, so fast, and Lone Star had been moving even faster than he was.
He didn’t remember that tree being there, he really didn’t. But as he looked at Lone Star’s broken, twisted body smashed into the bark, he knew he’d never forget it again.
During the trial, Gill had become something of a pariah. Cops had special feelings for criminals who killed one of their own, and superheroes were even worse. The only thing that seemed to work in his favor was when the jury ruled Lone Star’s death an accident, the result of what Gill could only assume was the work of the universe’s greatest lawyer. He’d done time for the robberies – hard time – but not for murder. Still, the cops and Capes alike carried around a particular venom for him for the next several years. Fortunately, people tended to have a short memory, especially for details. Joe Blow on the street probably remembered the Lone Star Shooter as a Cape who died in the line of duty, but not many of them remembered that the ex-Drawbridge was the villain associated with his death. Fewer still remembered that Drawbridge’s real name was Gill Lutz.
“This is still about Lone Star?” Gill asked, trying not to spit on Penny when he said it. “Christ, can’t you people ever let anything go? Even the jury could tell that it was an accident. I paid my time, just let me be. I didn’t kill him, that idiot killed himself.”
She didn’t even speak. She launched herself at him, hands extended, fingers thrashing, and he realized she was aiming straight for his eyes. He put up his arms, protecting his face, and she began to punch him in the gut, over and over.
“Knock it off! What’s wrong with you!”
“You killed him, you bastard, you KILLED HIM!”
“No I didn’t! I–”
“YOU KILLED MY BROTHER!”
The four words resounded in his head like a chandelier crashing to the ground. Brother? He’d never thought… Penny had showed up outside of his trial a few times, but a lot of Capes did, all watching him, all judging him. Had she been one of the ones who cried? Maybe, but… there were so many…
She managed to pull his arm away from his face and scratched at his cheek, drawing blood. He knocked her hand away, suddenly having no stomach for the confrontation. When she reached for him again, he shoved her off and did the only thing it seemed he was good at: he ran. With a blink, the bright rectangle of a portal appeared behind him and he leapt through. If only—
Nope. She made it.
He could hear her behind him as the portal ripped open back on the Vegas strip, spilling them into the Bellagio fountain. He needed a place he could imagine clearly where nobody would possibly be standing, this seemed the safest place. He fell out into the water, splashing down and swimming as she shot out of the portal after him. He kicked away, opening up a second portal and rushing through, along with gallons of water. The water rushed around him as he zoomed to the other side of the portal – an unusual sensation, like being in a water slide without the slide – and he shot out like a flume, landing in a lump in the parking lot of the empty, abandoned Sahara Casino. He rolled to his feet and started running, knowing he couldn’t open the new portal until the other one was closed. When he heard Penny coming through, he shut the portal and cut a new one open in front of him. He glanced back at her.
“Don’t run through this one, sweetcheeks,” he said, then he stepped through.
It was another short jaunt, but shooting through it would have been suicide. When it opened up he stepped calmly, safely, onto the roof of the Stratosphere, the highest building in Vegas. The view from up here was spectacular – the black desert in the distance, the brilliance of the city up close – and he knew that under normal circumstances he could sit here for hours and just take it in. But these weren’t normal. He tried to move around the circular roof, trying to get behind the portal, the water from the fountain still sloshing around in his shoes.
When the portal gave up Penny, he was a little surprised to see her come through it slowly. He half-expected that she could rush through it the way her brother had, which he was just now realizing probably would have been a death sentence for her way the hell up here. Geez, he had to start thinking these things through.
As soon as the portal closed, he spun and opened another, one that would take him right down to the ground and, hopefully, let him make the jump fast enough to close the portal and open one far enough away that she couldn’t get to him in time. When he spun, though, a little more water gushed out of his foot and his shoe slid right out from under him.
He slipped. He plunged.
He was falling, he realized with something between resignation and terror. He was going to die. Even if he could concentrate hard enough to open up a portal, if he went through it at this speed he’d die crashing into whatever was on the other side. He was falling and he was going to die beneath the Stratosphere and he’d be lucky to make a blurb on C&M TV about the ex-Mask who jumped to his death in Vegas on Christmas Eve. He was going to be a worthless footnote.
Or he would have been.
There was a jerk and he felt his leg – the good one, the one the Lone Star Shooter had grabbed instead of shot – jolt upwards. The pain was horrible, but his fall stopped. When he looked up, he realized he’d been caught in the Stratosphere’s bungee cord assembly, which dangled down over the side of the hotel. Penny looked down at him from the roof, and although she was far too high for him to see her face clearly, he could tell she was looking with pity.
“I don’t believe this,” he wheezed, looking around him as he dangled. “This… they should have put this away for the night? Why the hell is it still here? What–”
“What are the odds, right?” Penny shouted down at him.
He swayed back and forth, looking up at her. He could see her hands flexing, the rage dissipating, the pain remaining.
He didn’t know what to think… didn’t know what she wanted to hear. So he said the only thing he thought mattered. To his credit, it was absolutely true.
“I didn’t want him to die!” he shouted. “I never wanted anybody to die! I was just a crook, not a murderer, Penny. I never forgave myself for that, I swear to you.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Why?” he said. “I dunno. Why’d you stop me from falling?”
“I’m not a killer,” she said.
“Neither am I.”
“Whatever. Get yourself down.” She turned and walked away, and although he didn’t see her leave the roof, he didn’t see her again before he managed to calm himself down enough to open a portal, swing through it, and roll safely into his office at the Excelsior.
On Christmas Day, Gill didn’t even want to walk the floor. But until Penny drove the casino bankrupt, he had a job to do, and he’d keep doing it. He walked the length of the Excelsior several times, avoiding the bank of Santa Slots as best he could. He was going to get fired, he knew it. This was Penny’s big day, these things were going to start spilling out cash like a hole in that cartoon duck’s money bin.
Only they didn’t.
All day he kept listening for the chimes, the cheers, the hated intonation of “I’m Getting’ Nuttin’ For Christmas…” but nothing. By lunchtime, he actually managed to convince himself it was over.
That’s when he saw the blonde at the casino bar. She was having a drink, sipping slowly, and looking at him. If he didn’t recognize her without her goggles, the copper color of the dress she wore was a dead giveaway. Penny raised a hand and curled her finger inwards, beckoning him towards her. He sighed and walked over.
“Buy you a drink, Mr. Lutz?”
“I don’t drink while I’m working. Can I do something for you?”
To his surprise, she actually appeared to be thinking about it. Finally, she looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t know.”
“Why are you here?”
“Seemed I should be.” She took another sip of her drink. “I could have let you die last night. I should have, but…”
“But it’s not you. I get it. I’ve looked killers in the eye, and I know when I’m with one. You’re not. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Yes, well…” She threw back the rest of her drink in one gulp. “I’ve looked at killers too. And you’re not one either.”
“Nice of you to notice.”
“I don’t know if I can forgive you.”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t forgive me either. But I am sorry.”
“I believe you.”
She put her drink down and there was a shrilling, ringing sound from a slot machine a few rows away. He looked at her and she held her hands up. “Not my doing, I swear. I’m done with that.”
It wasn’t the right song, anyway, that hateful yuletide intonation. Instead, it was you’re your run of the mill siren announcing somebody who was going to leave with a lot more money than they came in with. “Yeah, well… thanks. I gotta go, this is my job. Merry Christmas, Penny.”
“Merry Christmas, Gill.”
She got up and walked away, following the exit signs that would eventually bring her to the door of the Casino and out into Christmas Day. He didn’t know if she had anybody else to be with today, but he hoped she did. He didn’t have anyone, of course. People like him rarely did. But as he heard the music of the slots and the screams of the big winner down the row, he knew it didn’t matter so much if he had somebody to be with or not.
He still had a job to do.
* * *
There you have it, friends, I hope you enjoyed this little story. Don’t forget, Lucky Penny and Stowaway are both available in a free eBook download from Smashwords.com! And to read the first nine years of Christmas stories from this little tradition of mine, they’re all available in the eBook A Long November, now available in the Amazon.com Kindle Store, the Barnes & Noble Nook Store, on your iPad bookstore, or for every other eBook format at Smashwords.com!
And the two more recent stories, written since A Long November was released, are both still available online for free: