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Once A Hero

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It was early evening on just a regular night - I have a lot of those, these days - when Derek called. Just checking in, you know. Or so he always says. “Hey Dusty. Hadn’t talked to you in a while, thought I should check in. How’s things?”

“Hey, buddy. On a break between hero calls?”

“Usually, it’s been slow - not that I’m complaining.”

He actually is. He runs a little engraving business in his non-hero life and he’s bored out of his skull by it. “Everything still okay in Justice League Land?”

“As okay as it ever is. Batman is still a jerk. Dude doesn’t even try to pretend he’s not spying on everyone…”

A soft buzz of static invaded our conversation, along with a computer-filtered voice. Batman can access the content of this conversation, Mr. Bright Eyes. He will not appreciate that sentiment.

“God dammit. See what I mean?”

“Yeah. Hey Marty, tell Batman I said that if he doesn’t want his pants to fall down in the middle of his next fight, he’ll chill out.”

A pause. I wouldn’t say Marty and I are buddies or anything, but I’ve met him. Nice guy, a little too square for me even though he is grass-green and from another planet, but nice. Noted.

Derek waited until the static had gone away to say anything else. “Dammit, Dusty, he’ll totally show up at your house now to give you shit.”

“No, he won’t.” He won’t. Because the last time he showed up here trying to be The Man, I took his utility belt and locked it in his car, then put the car in gear and pushed it down the road. You know what Batman doesn’t like? Chasing his car half a mile down a desert road on a hot afternoon and then having to wait for me to unlock the doors for him. After having left signed comp tickets to my next show in the driver’s seat, of course. He did turn up at the casino, though, with that piece of kitty tail he’s supposedly not dating, and even though he didn’t want to I know he enjoyed the show. And his kitty winked at me on the way out, me-ow.

Derek has never heard that story, of course - no one has. “Do I want to know?”

I chuckled. “No. But he won’t come out here, trust me.”

“If you say so. So is anything interesting happening out there in the middle of nowhere, Dusty?”

That’s a leading question. Have I robbed another bank? Been attacked by an old arch-enemy? Gotten busted buying weed? No. “Interesting? Not unless you’re into coyotes and lizards. Something strange did happen last Tuesday night at the Laughing Brave, though.”

I can hear him switch gears. Trouble in Sin City is always weird trouble. It’s that kind of place. And some of our surviving arch-enemies are that kind of people. “Strange as in…?”

“Strange as in the old lady who used to be the chick I took to senior prom once upon a time showed up. All fixed up to go whale-hunting, too.”

“So not hunting you, good.” It wasn’t an insult. Those whales blow more on dinner than me and the guys used to in a whole year of living it up, and they dress to show it. I look like exactly what I am, an old Age of Aquarius guitar player with my old boots and my old hat and my old denim vest that a star-struck groupie embroidered flowers on back in the day. I still have the beard, too, although now it’s colored more like ‘Frisco’s storm clouds than Sonora’s sun-kissed sand. “You think she just happened on the place in between hookups and recognized you?”

He wants me to say yes. “No, she came to the show on purpose - and alone, too. Maybe nostalgia kicked in and she wanted one more taste of the good old days before she hooked up with her next Daddy Warbucks. You tell me once you and Marty are done checking her out with that fancy computer of yours.”

That made him laugh. “Dude, you sound like an old man.”

I laughed back. “I am an old man, Bright Eyes - and so are the rest of you, whether some of you show it or not. Any news from the Turbo Twins?”

That was his out, and he took it - Derek does not like to talk about the aging thing, probably he tries not to think about it too much either. Also one reason he never comes around to visit, because we’re both in our seventies but people just assume he’s my kid. “No, not lately. Ace turned up on our radar around six months ago, but Trev wasn’t with him. Supposedly he’s gone legit and squared up as a piano player somewhere.”

“Whatever does it for him, I guess.” Trevor’s got a good, quiet gig going at a white-tie piano bar up the Strip from my gig, because I know some people and he was needing to get away from Ace. I could dig it. Ace always had this idea that he was the baddest thing in two boots, and now that he’s starting to lose it…well, trouble for trouble’s sake gets old after a while. “Eddie called around five, six weeks ago. From a gold lounge chair on his white marble patio while he watched the sun set over the ocean and drank Chivas, of course.”

“Of course.” It’s an old joke, one Eddie himself plays along with. He even spray-painted the lounge chair and took a picture. But his place does have a great view. “Has he been up to anything interesting?”

“We’ve been planning a massive crime spree so we can finally afford that volcano lair we always wanted, but other than that? No, he gets all his excitement from watching the stock market fluctuate and doing riffs for his dogs.” Silence. “Just spit it out, Derek. You’re wasting my limited remaining time on Earth.”

That stung, I know it did. “I just want to be sure…”

“That the rest of us aren’t about to try going out in a blaze of anti-glory like Ace? You know what the dude’s problem is, and you know how to solve it. Just lock his ass up.”

“But Trevor…”

“Was sick of the whole mess, so he split. And if you or any of your super nosy friends try to drag him back in again ‘for Ace’s sake’, I’m coming over to your house and moving everything exactly one inch to the left and a quarter-turn clockwise.”

“You can’t fly this far.”

“I can on a plane. I mean it, you guys need to leave Trev out of this. Lock. Ace. Up. Bright Eyes.”

He released an explosive sigh, and I knew without being there that he was probably frustration-carving random marks into whatever surface was around with each blink. “You don’t get it. That place, where they lock the supervillains up…Dusty, it’s horrible! I don’t want Ace in there!”

“But you’re okay with them putting people who weren’t your buddy in there, huh?” No answer, and this time I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose, reminding myself that he’s just a second- or third-stringer over there in Justice League Land and the super-prison system is really not his problem to solve. “Derek. Without Trevor, Ace is just some old bass player whose marbles are starting to slip out. You guys have got connections, put him in a home someplace nice and stuff him full of happy pills. He’ll hit on all the old women and watch soaps all day, maybe play some canasta. And he’ll be safe, which is not something he is now.”

“No, he sure isn’t.” And it came out, finally. “That’s why…someone’s been starting to target the older supers, Dusty. One of the freak villains, the kind that get off on mind control.”

“Not that weirdo who thinks he’s off to see the Wizard, is it?”

I can almost hear him roll his eyes. “No, not the Scarecrow. Nobody’s seen him for a while, anyway. Just…keep your eyes open, Dusty, okay? You can’t do that much anymore, and whoever this guy is…well, he can apparently do a lot.”

Well, he’d thought he could. If it was the same dude who’d showed up at my place a little while back, anyway. He’d been looking to take over the Scarecrow’s spot - possibly because he’d killed the guy to open it up, not sure - but I’m not the Wizard so I’d just tied his mask a little tighter around his neck and then dug him a hole and filled it in after. Did a little landscaping, too, while I was at it. No idea who he was, don’t really care either. “I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”

“And you’ll call for help?”

“Sure, if you think he’s that dangerous. And if I don’t call you, I’ll call Marty. Happy?”

He wasn’t, but he took it. “Yeah. I just worry. I need to be getting back to work now, got a chalice to engrave for tomorrow, but I’ll talk to you later. Okay?”

The question in his voice was telling. He knows I can see through him, he’s always afraid that one of these days I’ll tell him where to stick it and to forget my number in the bargain. I won’t, though. His calls let me keep tabs on him, too, and on that group of ‘super friends’ he hangs on the fringes of. “Sure thing, Derek - looking forward to it. And when you pick Ace up, tell him I said hello and maybe Cher would come see him if he stayed put for a while.”

“Will do.”

He disconnected, and the softer buzz on the line stopped a few seconds later. “Bye to you too, Marty.” I stretched out my legs and looked out at the sun getting ready to go down in a blaze of desert glory, took a pull off my beer. We’d bought this place to use for an album cover and then forgotten about it. It was dirt cheap, even then. Luckily Eddie remembered it after he hunted me down in Chihuahua back in ‘89 so he could drag me back into the land of the non-drunk and gainfully employed, and now it’s my home. I’m not broke anymore, far from it, but the solitude is nice and I can fly into Vegas in about fifteen minutes, give or take. Which I do, a couple of times a week, to have a jam session with the Good Time Palominos in the senior center’s community room - they’re all just as old as I am except for the kid we picked up to play drums. But he’s an old soul and he can turn into any animal he wants, so I’ve given him the run of the property and he calls himself my sidekick. He’s a good kid. He’d have laughed his ass off if he’d heard Derek say I wasn’t able to do much anymore. Yeah, some people’s powers fade as they get older, but mine sure haven’t.

There’s a reason I know I can fly into the city in ten minutes if I have to. And a reason the weird shit that tries to start in Vegas has been staying in Vegas, too.

For a long time, I thought fighting made the nightmares worse. And playing our music brought the old days back for me a little too much, so I avoided that too and just bummed around Chihuahua with my buddy Jose Cuervo and his girl Margarita. But then thanks to Eddie I finally figured out that the opposite was actually true. The nightmares are still bad, but that was because we had some bad fights. Like the time the Sunset Strip Assassins broke Commander War out of prison without realizing she’d gone completely psycho - she killed all but one of them before we could get there. Or the thing with Dr. Z, who was like the worst penny ever for turning back up and who looked me in the eye as he took his own life because we’d cornered him and he knew there was no way out. But the good memories will balance out the bad if I let them.

That former sweet-thing from high school didn’t fit in either category. It hadn’t been good to see her again, not really. She looked like the old days, sure - a little too much, thanks to silicone and a well-paid surgeon. I know she wondered why I wasn’t interested in making a night of it for old-time’s sake, and that was why: I’ve never had an interest in playing with plastic dolls. And the love-song crooning Leave It To Beaver boy she knew then? He’s gone. He’s been gone a long, long time. Dusty California blew him away in a cloud of sweet smoke and sweeter riffs and hasn’t ever thought about going back to look for his remains.

They’re somewhere in New Mexico, I think. That was where I ran into Eddie. And that was when Dusty California was born, and I’ve been him ever since. He’s the only secret identity I’ve ever needed.

Sometimes I wonder about the timing of all of it, though. Eddie doesn’t talk to the rest of us all that much, less and less as the years go by. And the thing you’ve got to know about Eddie is, secrets have always been something he had trouble holding on to, especially around his friends. He was known to the reporters as Silent Eddie in our famous days, and that was why. He kept his mouth shut to keep things from spilling out.

He told me once that using his time travel power to change things creates ‘gaps’ in people’s memories. Did I really forget that he and I outright bought this patch of land because it was cheaper than renting it? This patch of land with a trailer still on it, still livable even, in exactly the place I needed to be? Or did Eddie go back in time after the disco ball wrecked everything, fixing what he could…or maybe did Eddie just set it all up from the beginning? Did a boy hitching across the country with a guitar on his back and starting to think California was a dream too far and maybe he should just go home and get a job like everyone else…did he just happen to run into a guy named Eddie in New Mexico who introduced him to Jose Cuervo and Jose’s sweet cousin Mary Jane and then the three of them convinced him to give that dream another chance?

Did Eddie have powers from the get-go, and just made sure me and the other Arroyo Harbor Desperados were in the wrong place at the right time…because he knew something we didn’t?

We had a freak with mind control powers on the loose, some dumbass had shown up to try me in my own territory, and my oldest of old flames had just turned up in my city all plasticked up. A test and some bait, maybe? I took another drink, reached for the phone. It rang before I could pick it up, but I still did. “Hey Eddie,” I said. “Thought it might be about time for you to call…”