“What happened?” the first guard asked the new arrival.
He was standing there in black slacks and t-shirt, the word SECURITY printed across the front in blocky white letters, hands braced against his knees, having just scrambled out of the food court to hear what the commotion was all about. It didn’t take Shades years of martial arts training to observe that this guy was just a little out of shape.
“Some guy… one of the… help… fell off the railing near…” The new guard choked and gasped several times, doubled over. Totally winded. While the first guard was a little stocky, this guy’s gut hung down over his belt. The word SECURITY looked stretched-out around the front of his shirt.
Shades’ diagnosis: too many donuts. Apparently, even in other worlds, some things never changed.
“I know that,” the first replied, then looked a little concerned, asking, “You okay, man?”
“Yeah… I’ll be… I’ll be alright…” the second huffed and puffed.
“Okay,” the first resumed, folding his arms in thought, “but what’re we gonna do about it?”
“Wasn’t that guy,” the second said, pointing at Shades, “just talking to him?”
“Then he must have pushed him,” the stout guard concluded. “They’re gonna want an explanation, and he’ll do just as good as the next…”
By now Shades was no longer paying any attention to the guards’ conversation, having left the scene of the accident at a brisk pace. As tired as he was, the timing of all that had all seemed just a little too coincidental for him. The events of the past minute or so, this whole “curse” business, which sounded just crazy enough to be real, had re-energized him.
When the guards called out to him, and then actually started in his direction, Shades started moving faster, breaking into an all-out dash in an attempt to use the crowd as cover. This whole situation was becoming so surreal to him, the certainty that his real self had perhaps already caught up with John, that he was fast believing that he was really dreaming, zonked on the couch at home with the TV still running. Obviously, the late-night flicks were showing a twisted film about hitchhikers, then some B horror movie— a really bad B horror movie, at that— about evil malls. That was it.
That, and nothing more.
As he ran, the absurd thought kept repeating in his head that all he had to do to end this ordeal was just wake up.
Shades raced up and down various halls and passages, checking every turn for an exit. The sheer scale and design of this building was so disorienting, confounding any attempt of finding his way back the way he had come. Having long since lost the guards, and having bigger problems to contend with, he had all but forgotten them.
Some watched him with curiosity, consternation, puzzlement, or even amusement, most affording him only a passing glance. A few, who saw the growing panic in his un-shaded eyes, felt a chill trickle down their spines. One called out mockingly, “Run, Terrance! Run!” To Shades, it sounded like “Run, Boy! Run!” and he poured on more speed.
He could still see the mortal terror in that man’s eyes as he lost his grip, not just on the railing, but on his very existence.
Between his full day, his harrowing experience in the woods, all the long hours he had been on his feet, non-stop for over twenty hours, he knew he was pushing even his high energy to its limits. The snow had only finally melted off (and stayed melted off) for just over a month after a long winter, so he had only recently resumed his distance-training again. The Iron Man of Lakeside, he thought, trying to stifle the hysterical laugh seeking to escape him. He barely prevented himself from collapsing and continued his aimless flight.
“This is too much…” he panted.
After a while, Shades stopped running, having gone as far as he could. Frowned at his watch, knowing that if he had started out fresh, he could easily have gone a whole lot longer. In the twenty-odd minutes he had run, a time-frame that had utterly exhausted him in his current state, he hadn’t seen anything even resembling an exit.
Thinking of the repairman’s apparent resignation to his fate, Shades nearly collapsed where he stood. Feeling totally spent at the possible implications of that grim warning, figuring that fatigue alone would have been problem enough, he wondered if all his efforts, as Olympian as they may have felt, were all for naught. If he was perhaps doomed before he even started.
He stumbled, bumping into a life-size cardboard cut-out standing in front of some video store. Shades nearly fell over himself picking it back up, but he managed. Even as he turned away, he saw the words, the name of a movie he had never heard of, called Crossfire 3: Extreeeme Jake!!! in blocky, camouflage letters riddled with bullet-holes, out of the corner of his eye. Then he recognized one of the cast standing before him, a burly, machine-gun-toting commando-type who looked quite deranged, and wondered just how many Crossfire spin-offs existed in this world when he and Amy hadn’t even seen the first movie.
“Hey! There he is!”
Shades’ stupefied wonderment came to a crashing halt as he saw the guard and his portly partner come around the corner.
“Oy…” Shades sighed raggedly, nearly staggering as he took up his flight again. He almost decided to give up, but dug deep for a little more adrenaline, though he understood that he would collapse soon if he didn’t get a break, that he couldn’t keep this up much longer. “Not these guys again…”
“There he goes! There he goes!” the hefty one shouted, wondering what he had done to deserve having to do so much running today.
“Get back here!” the other ordered, knowing that he would have to listen to his partner’s bitching about his knees for a good couple days after this. Nothing for it but to treat him to lunch as appeasement later.
Normally, I’d be able to run circles around these pigs, Shades thought. But the past twelve hours had drained his reserves. This chase would be brief, and he would not be able to win it with speed or stamina— his usual trump cards— this time.
One of Master Al’s favorite sayings came to mind: Fight smarter, not harder.
As he scrambled around the corner, Shades snatched a box of gumballs from a candy stand in a stroke of inspiration, spilling them on the floor behind him. Paying heed to neither the cashier’s demands, nor the guards’ cursing they slipped and fell on their asses, he didn’t even look back. As he staggered around the next corner, he happened to turn to his left, seeing what appeared to be some kind of dance club. Bankshot, he read out of the corner of his eye. Loud music, flashing lights, and, most importantly, dozens of people on the dance floor.
In one last burst of speed, hoping he wasn’t too late, he ran full-out into the crowd. As he waited he did his best to pretend to dance on what little strength he had left. After a nerve-wracking wait, from behind the wall of dancers, he at last saw the beleaguered guards peer in for a moment, then continue on their errant way.
Hoping he wasn’t celebrating too soon, Shades allowed himself a sigh of relief as he stumbled over to one of the lounge tables near the edge of the floor. As he fell into a seat, he concluded that, if a lowly repairman knew as much as he did, surely others around here would be able to tell him more. Of course, it also occurred to him that clearly someone or something here didn’t want people to talk about it, that he would have to be careful who he spoke to.
In the midst of his frantic, weary strategizing, a man in a teal uniform sauntered over to his table. As he drew nearer, Shades saw his nametag read Boss DJ. Deep, dark skin, long black dreds, and warm brown eyes. In a decidedly Jamaican-sounding accent, he asked, “Welcome to Bankshot. Can I help you, mon?”
At first no words came as Shades tried to decide whether or not to say anything. Unfortunately, he was running out of clever ideas fast. What finally convinced him to try was the simple fact that he was getting a totally different vibe from this guy than from the guards, one he hoped he could trust. Resigning his fate to the unknown, he spoke.
“I think so…” Shades told him, trying to figure out how to work this with a brain that was as tired as his body. Most people seemed oblivious to the curse, so he didn’t want to say anything that could backfire on him. In the end, he settled for, “Do you mind if I talk to you in private?”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Extreeeme Jake” Simoneau was Tomcat’s arch-enemy, who, much like the rest of this action-comedy cast, really wasn’t as funny as this one thought back in the day. As well as one last inside joke for the road.