They may have been called "the beautiful people," but - for my money - most of them were butt ugly.
Overweight matrons balanced fruit baskets they called hats on their blue-haired heads. Pear-shaped gentlemen wore dark suits and shiny blue ties they thought made them look "distinguished" but instead made them look pompous, feeble and ridiculous.
And these were the purported creme de la creme of modern society. What had the galaxy come to?
A small army of diminutive servers, each decked out in a shining black tuxedo, sped around the room with trays extended with one arm, offering colorful but powerless libations and unidentifiable hors d'oeuvres. They looked like Keystone Kops, only smaller and more efficient.
My wife, Candy, was on my arm, the one glaring exception to the room's ugly only rule. She wore a skintight dress, made of some type of shimmering pink material that clung as though someone had thrown it on her in a liquid state and it had dried there. Her hair was so coiffed as to give her a coolly professional edge but still warmly accentuate the sunshine that was her face. Her deep blue-green eyes scanned the room as she pretended to look for friends to talk with but she was really searching for someone who looked better than she did.
She was wasting her time.
I didn't look half-bad myself. I was wearing my brand new leather tux with my full-length black canvas duster. My hair was combed straight back from my forehead like a Latin lover's. The nearly neon polish on my black dress shoes reflected light like a mirror. Still, I didn't feel like one of the beautiful people but, wrapped in my black leather tuxedo with the only truly beautiful thing in the entire room on my arm, I felt pretty damn good.
Another of the little guys walked by and lifted his tray in our direction. I stared at the collection of psychedelic liquid thereon, curled my lip in disgust and shook my head.
"It wouldn't hurt you to try one of them," Candy said teasingly.
"Maybe," I told her, "But it'd hurt like hell if someone saw me drinking one."
"Ruin that tough guy image?"
"Yep. And I've been cultivating it for years. Be a shame to have it destroyed because of some fous-fous party."
"Want a tequila?" Candy asked.
"Does a starwhale shit in the sky?"
Candy grimaced. "Where'd you learn to talk like that?"
"Bruno," we said together, invoking the name of my old drill sergeant. We shared a laugh and then Candy headed off in search of liquid tolerance.
I watched her go, enjoying the view, and then turned in the opposite direction. Suddenly, a man stepped into my path. A half-dozen identically-dressed others froze behind him, their heads bobbing like those little plastic dogs you see in rear windows. These weren't the little guys with the hors d'oeuvres. These were the big buys with the precision shatterguns.
The man in front of me beamed the crescent-shaped floodlight that was the smile that got him elected and held out a beefy hand. I smiled a warm greeting and shook his hand.
"Mr. President," I said, nodding, "It's good to see you." I was lying, of course, but he would never know the difference. Then again, maybe he would. Lying was what he did for a living.
"Good to see you, Fist, good to see you," he told me. I believed him about as much as I believed me. He pumped my hand with the kind of overblown energy that only a politician can muster. "You're looking well tonight. What is this? Leather?"
"Gen-u-ine," I told him, pronouncing the 'i' like 'eye.' I straightened my back with civic pride. I knew that I looked fine and now I had tangible evidence: the leader of the free galaxy had confirmed it. If the man was anything, he was a fashion plate. Where the hell were the paparazzi when you needed them?
Pinching my lapel between his thumb and forefinger, the President stroked the material of my tux. "Very nice, Fist, very, very nice," he cooed. His crooked, stubby fingers wriggled almost sensuously along the leather, like tomato worms thrown into a hot frying pan. He flattened his palm against my chest and began rubbing it in small circles.
An unpleasant jolt ran up my spine and I knew it was time to draw the line. "Yeah, but you can't wear it in the rain," I told him, gently taking his hand by the wrist and removing it from my tux. "Stinks like a bitch if it gets wet."
I saw the bobbing heads of the secret service men behind him stop bobbing, as though somebody had pushed their "pause" button. They had seen me gently but forcibly remove the President's hand from my chest and they had heard me utter the "bitch" word in his presence. Any minute now they would open fire, spilling my ungrateful brains onto the richly carpeted Presidential floor thus saving the President from a verbal terrorist attack.
Only that's not the way it would go down. By the time their neatly-groomed fingers touched the butts of their well-hidden weapons, I would have rendered them all helpless with the flapjacker in my coat pocket, transforming them from healthy, red-blooded secret service agents to two-dimensional images of their former selves. Then I might fold them up and fly them through the windows into the Rose Garden like flesh-colored paper airplanes.
Fortunately, they didn't give me the chance. The President eyed me with a strange, cockeyed stare - as though he were trying to determine if I were serious or not - and then burst out laughing, belting forward the guffaws in great, roaring blasts. "Fist, you are some kind of card, I'll tell you what," he bellowed. The secret service guys behind him relaxed, unwittingly saving their lives. Then, as if reading my mind, the President smiled a naughty, little-boy smile and asked, "The flapjacker. May I see it?"
I nodded resignedly and reached beneath my lapel into the holster hidden beneath. It was always like this, every time I met up with the Prez. He'd make some half-assed greeting and then ask to see the flapjacker. I think the thing gave him wood.
As I pulled the weapon from its holster, I admired its sleek, sweeping design. At first glance, it was just another pistol, cold and lifeless and ready to spit death. Another glance, however, and you realized it was more than that. There was an artistic style to it that there wasn't in other mere guns. And the fluidity of its design gave it an even more menacing aura - like a rattlesnake hiding behind a rock. Its cool black surface glinted with beauty and malice and it almost seemed more than metal - it seemed like a malignant extension of he who held it.
I was getting wood myself.
I passed the flapjacker to the President and watched as his overzealous secret service team tried to look like they didn't give a damn what the President held in his hands. Truth was, however, they were envious of me, every mother-lovin' one of them. Any of them would have given his left nut to have what the President now held. But, like me, they'd have to earn it. And it wasn't easy.
The President's mouth formed a sensuous "o" as he stared down at the weapon in his palm. He held the flapjacker in his right hand and fingered its embossed design with his left. "What I wouldn't give," he said softly, "to be able to fire this just once."
Of course, he knew he couldn't. The weapon was coded to react only to my touch. If he or any of the other people in this room - hell, in this galaxy for that matter - tried to pull the trigger, they'd receive a blast of electricity that would knock them flat on their ass. I smiled, thinking of the president looking up at me, wide-eyed, his perfect hair all spiky from a sudden dose of high voltage.
Alas, it wasn't to be. Wiping a sliver of drool from his egg-shaped chin, the President reluctantly passed the flapjacker back to me. As I slid it back into the holster, I noticed the heads of the secret service men ease back into their collars, like turtles into shells.
"And where is that delicious wife of yours, H.B.?" the President continued, staring over my shoulder as though Candy were hiding behind me. She wasn't. I could see her across the cavernous room where she was saying hello to the Vice President and his wife. I watched her enviously - not only because she wasn't stuck with me having to make small talk with the President - but because she had a glass of tequila in each hand. On the rocks.
I started to object to the President's casual use of the term "delicious" when he was referring to my wife, but then realized, in all fairness, it was an accurate description. At least he had good taste in women.
Candy arrived with the tequilas - a slender, tapered shot glass for her and a roomy tumbler for me. My eyes told her I loved her as I snatched the tumbler from her and took a healthy gulp.
"Here she is!" the President violently spat, pushing himself away from me like a fat man from an empty ice cream dish. "Candy Fist herself."
"Mr. President," Candy intoned a greeting, dipping her delectable chin respectfully and passing her tequila to me, out of harmís way (or so she thought). Her voice was silky and smart, her eyes nearly glowed from within. My chest swelled with husbandly pride.
I barely stifled an urge to scream in abject horror as the President embraced her. His thick, sausage-like body seemed to swallow Candy whole, allowing only her lovely little head to peek out over his padded shoulder. She caught me watching and gave me a playful wink. I made an ugly face at her (it wasn't difficult while watching the human clam envelop her) and took another sip of my tequila. It was really good. Smooth, yet almost heavy with the taste of agave. Reyes cartel, I guessed, circa 50 years ago. Very expensive.
Finally, the President released Candy from his meaty grip. "Well, Madame Treasurer," he bellowed, "How go the galaxy's finances?"
"You know as well as I do, Mr. President," Candy told him. She seized her tequila from me and drained it in a deep, healthy swallow. Probably to alleviate the crushing shock of that meat-clam hug. That or to prevent me from drinking it first. Smart girl.
Her strength obviously bolstered, Candy continued. "Thanks to the recent boost in the tourist trade and the merging of the major tequila companies, the galactic economy is in pretty good shape."
The President looked over at me and winked at the glass in my hand. I took it as an indication I should take another drink. And did.
"The Reyes Cartel has been very important to the success of this administration," the President said, "That's why we're here in their honor this evening!" He opened his arms wide, like Eva Peron greeting the masses, and beamed like the politician he was - that is to say, like a Great White shark preparing to make dinner out of an innocent sea lion.
"I'll drink to that," I said. And did. "Damn, this is good tequila."
"Yes, yes," The President hurriedly agreed, "It's the very best of the Reyes Cartel. Top of the line. One-hundred-and-twenty-five percent Blue Agave. Not available in any store."
"No?" I said, frowning. "That's too bad. I guess I'll have to hide some in Candy's purse and smuggle it home." Everyone thought I was kidding. I wasn't.
The President smiled and leaned in closely, as though offering me some top secret tidbit from a clandestine conspiracy. "I can get you some, if you like," he said, "You being a War Hero and all."
"I'd appreciate that," I whispered, playing up the cloak-and-dagger stuff. Secretly, I was hoping he would keep his word. Keep me from stealing the stuff. "I'm sick to death of that synthetic shit."
Candy glanced at me and gave me a stern look. I ignored her. I was still being polite. I hadn't decked the leader of the free Universe for feeling up my wife, had I? Not yet.
"I know what you mean," the President said, ignoring my latest vulgarity. "Ever try and make a margarita with synthetic tequila? It foams like a rabid dog when you blend in the ice."
I looked at Candy and mouthed the word, "Blended?" She shrugged and her eyes said, "No accounting for taste." Me, I could never trust a man who drank blended margaritas. And I was about to tell the President just that when the phone in my pocket suddenly burred, jiggling in the pocket of my leather tuxedo. "Excuse me," I said, grabbing for it. The Secret Service men got all tense again when I reached into my pocket. I smiled to let them know that I knew what they were thinking and then laughed to show them how ridiculous it was.
"Fist," I said into the phone.
"Fist, it's Sonny Beach."
Sonny Beach. I hadn't heard from him in what seemed like years. Beach was the Sheriff of the global village called Earth. His job was to maintain peace and order on a planet that had survived a series of increasingly bloody and pointless wars, twisted corporations that put money ahead of humankind and an invasion of the living dead. After all Earth had been through, her people deserved a calm, peaceful lifestyle. But there was always some asshole who wanted to fuck it up. And that's where Beach came in. It was his job to stop them.
And sometimes, when he needed help, he called me.
"Sonny, how the hell are ya?" I said, genuinely pleased to hear from him. We'd had some good times after the war, before going our separate ways career-wise. "It's been too long."
"Sure has," Beach replied. "Wish I was calling under better circumstances." I caught the seriousness in his tone. This wasn't just an auld lang syne call - something was up.
"Go on," I told him. I drained my tequila and set the empty glass on the piano beside me, earning a glare from the penguin-suited pianist. I glared back. He looked away. "What's up?"
"Wondering if you might come pay us a visit. We could use some help."
"Jamie Goodgarden," Beach told me. "You heard of him?"
I assumed that was a rhetorical question. Everybody had heard of Jamie Goodgarden. He was the galaxy's best-loved pop star - singer of hit songs, actor in hit RealFlicks, writer of books, a doer of everything. It's been said that he'd sold more books than the Bible and seen by more people than the Pope. He was galaxy-renowned for his acts of charity and kindness and those who knew him personally all said the same thing: There was no one more genuine than Jamie Goodgarden.
I had seen him perform myself on a couple occasions. I couldn't call myself a fan - I mean, the guy was no Lemmy - but I liked his music all right. And his RealFlicks were usually entertaining enough. His books, however, were boring as shit. But don't tell Candy I said that. She loves them.
"What about him?" I prompted.
"He's dead," Beach said, "Someone just gunned him down in San Diego."
I felt an ice-cold hand grab a fistful of my intestines and give them a gentle squeeze. I sat back against the piano, hard, earning another slit-eyed scowl from the pianist. I ignored him. Fucking musicians. Probably didn't even know where Middle C was.
Jamie Goodgarden was dead. Shot dead. The shock I was feeling wasn't because I was overwhelmed about the loss but because I was thinking about the effect his death was going to have on the planet - hell, throughout the galaxy. I couldn't even conceive what the next few days were going to bring as far as the media was concerned. The newspapers, magazines, television, MindWorld. Hell, it was going to be the top news story for the next few weeks. Tribute concerts, private gatherings, mass masses. The eventual RealFlick. On and on and on and on. Ad nauseam.
"I'm on my way," I told Sonny. I clicked off the phone and dropped it back into my pocket. It scraped past the flapjacker, sitting snugly in its holster, letting me know that Jamie Goodgarden might be dead, but I still had a good friend protecting me from the same fate.
Candy knew from the ashen look on my face that something bad had happened. "H.B.," she asked, concerned. "What is it?"
"That was Sonny Beach," I told her, "Jamie Goodgarden is dead."
A collective gasp went up from the people near enough to overhear. The President nearly choked on a cashew. "What?!" he exclaimed, shocked.
"Jamie Goodgarden is dead," I repeated, "Somebody shot him."
The gasps around me went to exclamations of horror, expressions of sadness and bleated demands for more information. A couple of the women started crying immediately. Sobbing, really.
I leaned forward and placed a quick peck on Candy's cheek. "I'm sorry," I said simply, ignoring the sudden chaos around me. "I gotta go."
"I know," Candy told me. Her eyes told me she understood. It's my job.
I shook the stunned President's hand (at least the news had shut him up for a moment) and exited the White House at a jog.