Hi, all, and welcome to another installment of randomly posted fiction. Last time out, I posted “Why Grant Jannen Can’t Have Sex,” a story that’s part of my long-term project, SUPERHEROES ARE STUPID. This time around I’ve got something completely different, a little tale I call, “Introducing Gunslinger Forever” that will be the first tale in THE EVERYTHING, VERSE ONE. Like SUPERHEROES ARE STUPID, THE EVERYTHING is a long-term, anthology project.
What makes THE EVERYTHING different is that even though it’s “verse one,” it’s actually a sequel. A sequel to what, you might be asking? The answer is right in the title. It’s a sequel to everything. I’ve got several different universes up and running, at this point: GUNFIGHTER GOTHIC and HAUNTING OF KRAKEN MOOR take place in one universe, DREAMER’S SYNDROME in another, SUPERHEROES ARE STUPID in a third, THE DEEP (where Harpsichord hangs out) is a fourth, and I honestly haven’t decided if STUFFED ANIMALS FOR HIRE and ADVENTURES OF THE FIVE represent a fifth universe, or a fifth and sixth universe.
People inquire quite often (for which I am incredibly thankful) about when we’re gonna see Austin again or Farm again or Jill and Hanna again, and the truth is I really don’t know. I’ve got the next volumes of most of those universes in the pipeline somewhere, but I write less by ordered plan and more by whatever seems like a good idea when I sit at the keyboard.
Which is where THE EVERYTHING comes in. The “Everything” is the term I use for all of my writing. It’s my version of “the multiverse,” and it’s a term and concept I introduced back in my MV1 days, when I was writing ALL GOD’S CHILDREN.
And that’s what THE EVERYTHING: VERSE ONE will be – a way for me to include all of my characters in a story without doing a straight universe-jumping team-up. How I will accomplish that is touched upon here, where I introduce the master of ceremonies for this collection, the Gunslinger Forever, which, as he tells us below, isn’t his name, it’s his title. I like to think when the movie gets made (*coughcough*), we’ll get Dennis Quaid to play him.
Get ready for something a little different. Thanks for reading and thanks for any feedback – good or bad – you feel like tossing my way.
“Introducing Gunslinger Forever”
Written by Mark Bousquet
People always asking, Mr. Forever, what’s the most realistic Western ever made?
I tell ‘em, City Slickers, ’cause I personally seen Jack Palance die on a horse 18 times.
“Always Dying on a Horse” Palance is what I called him, the Old Gristle.
Actually, that’s what Billy the Kid called Palance: the Old Gristle.
Butch called him Jack.
Sundance called him Voltan, and then usually chuckled something about a slaying Hawk.
I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now.
Sundance was exactly that kind of baby.
The year was 2619, and me, Bob Hope, and Cleopatr-
No, cat that. I don’t wanna tell that story. Every story about Cleopatra ends up being about her, and people only really want to know who she opened up for. That diminishes who she is, and who she is ain’t the story I want to tell or you want to hear or-
Ah, almost fell into it.
That’s who Cleopatra is.
The year was 1851. It was July. I was in Camico, Oklahoma, doing a job for the Rat Pack. Not the latter Pack but the original one. Bogey’s Pack, not Frank’s. When I say I was doing a job for the Pack, I mean that I was doing a job for the lovely Miss Lauren Bacall. She was always worried about the trouble Bogey and the boys would get in, but not in a nagging kind of way. You ask me, she liked when the boys went out because it gave her alone time to do the things she really liked: singing, reading Shakespeare out loud to homeless cats, and plotting the destruction of the Everything.
She’d never go through with it, of course. Ol’ Lauren liked to play it a bit rough but down deep she had a heart of gold. (Not literally, of course. LB’s heart was made of blood and tissue. It was Marilyn that had a heart of actual gold. All eighteen of them.) No, plotting the destruction of space and time was just Lauren’s way of one-upping all the other ladies out there in Hollywood. People will tell you she passed on all her knowledge to Ann-Margaret, but that’s a god-durned lie if I ever heard one.
Where was I?
The year was 1837. It was July. I was in Camico, Oklahoma, doing a job for Lauren Bacall. I’d been to Calico once before, fourteen years later when I was on another mission for LB. That time around, I killed a man who was going to blow up the hotel where Bogey, David Niven, and Robby the Robot were staying. This time around was something a little different.
“Mr. Forever,” she said as she stood on the diving board of the pool at the Playboy Mansion, “I need you to kill an Indian for me.”
Now, two things. One, I called it the Playboy Mansion but this was years before Hef bought it. Storytelling, son. Two: “B, I don’t go for that racist stuff.”
“I’m not being racist, Mr. Forever,” LB insisted. It was early evening and the sky behind her was plum-colored. She wore a light blue cloth that flowed over and around her body in the night’s gentle breeze. The blue cloth swirled around her as if it were making love to the night’s breeze and Lauren was just there to bear silent witness. “There is a man who needs killing and he happens to be an Indian.”
“American Indian or Indian Indian?”
“American, of course,” she smiled, a bit too condescendingly for my tastes. “You are at your best in the West, Gunslinger. I have other agents to handle my affairs in the British colonies.”
“I do not like your insinuation that there are others better’n me, LB,” I told her straight. “I really do not.”
“The man you need to kill is named Petrad Plainsman,” she continued, flexing her legs slightly so that the diving board began to gently sway up and down in a most hypnotic manner. “He’s a Christian now and he kills three children on July the 18th, 1837 in Camico, Oklahoma.”
“Thank you, Denise,” I said to the black maid who brought me a milk-flavored Slurpee, and then turned my attention back to LB. “Kids die all the time, lady. What makes these three special enough to be saved?”
Lauren let the diving board come to a stop and then stepped off to stand on top of the pool water. Slowly, she walked in a loose circle, the water cascading over her bare feet. I could tell something was eating at her soul, but I couldn’t quite see it. Might have been the angle of the moonlight. Might be the blue cloth lovemaking with the wind.
“What is it, LB?” I asked.
“Can I trust you, Gunslinger?”
I didn’t answer that. I never answered that. This Slurpee was delicious.
She continued. “I don’t care about the kids.”
Truth gets you closer to the truth.
“I don’t even care about the Indian.”
“Then what is it?” This Slurpee was god-durned delicious.
“Bogey, Mickey, and Sir Lancelot are going to rob a steamboat on the Mississippi that day.”
“Why?” This Slurpee was the god-durned best tasting thing I have ever god-durned tasted.
“Oh, you know the boys,” she said, allowing her lower legs to lower themselves beneath the surface of the water. “They want to steal something off a steamboat and then put it back years later when Samuel is working on that same boat.”
Lauren waved her hands in the air. “They think it will lead to Samuel taking the name, ‘Spooky Mc7′ rather than ‘Mark Twain.’ Childish, I know, but they are worried you will try to stop them given your affinity for Samuel.”
“God-durned right I’ll stop them,” I said, sucking more Slurpee through the giant red straw Denise had been so kind to bring me now that I was past the chewing stage of proper Slurpee-eating etiquette. “You tell me the name of that steamboat right now, LB, or I’ll never work for you, again.”
She was horrified by this, and her slow elevator ride to the bottom of the pool stopped at her waist. “You wouldn’t!”
“Gunslinger don’t lie.”
“You lie all the time!”
“Gunslinger don’t lie tonight.”
Lauren took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Fine, I will tell you the name of the boat, but only after you kill that Indian.”
“Again, I ask, why should I stop that killing? Kids die all the time. Kids-”
Denise stepped back into sight at that moment and kissed me. I kissed her back. I dropped the Slurpee. It was a shame to see it go, but it would have been a bigger shame not to use both hands on that woman’s lower back.
“Are you offering yourself as part of this deal?” I asked when we pulled our faces from each other.
“Absolutely not,” she insisted. “I’m just horny for cowboy.”
“I’m a cowboy.”
“That must be why I’m horny for you.”
I kept my hands on her hips but I turned my head back to Lauren. “You got a deal. The time and location of that steamboat in exchange for killing the Indian for killing those kids.”
“Deal,” Lauren said as black squids emerged from the depths of the pool to surround her. “Yummy,” she said as they began to touch her with their tendrils. “I can never remember which one is Jenson,” she murmured.
“I want one more thing,” I said, turning back to Denise.
“Yes?” she smiled, unzipping the top of her nurse’s outfit. (Did I forget to mention she was wearing a nurse’s outfit? God-durned Los Angeles.)
“I’m afraid this is a deal breaker,” I said hard, so she understood I was serious.
“What is it?” she asked, revealing her body to me, and pulling me down for another kiss.
“I want the god-durned recipe for that milk Slurpee,” I said, and when she said yes, I picked her up into my arms and carried her into the house.
“The billiard room,” she whispered in my ear.
“We used that room last ti-”
“The billiard room,” she insisted.
The billiard room, it was.
“Where you from?”
“Pillow talk from a cowboy?”
“I don’t see any pillows on this pool table.”
She smiled, bright, assured, and mysterious, then tightened her grip on me. We stumbled into this room 32 minutes ago and had been cuddling ever since. I was still dressed like a cowboy and she was still dressed like a nurse; one of us was wearing an outfit and the other was wearing a costume. Loosening my grip, I asked her again.
When she answered, “Brooklyn,” I could see her let her guard down.
“That’s not really what I meant, darling,” I said. She smiled, and that smile told me what I needed to know. “Ah. 1977. Good year for New York.”
“Not for me,” she answered, sitting up, hopping down, and walking across the billiard room to the wet bar.
“That why you volunteered for this assignment?” I asked, still on my back.
“How did you know it was 1977?” she asked as she began to make me another milk-flavored Slurpee from a vintage mid-’80s machine.
“God durn it woman,” I said, pushing myself up on my elbows to look at her fully clothed back. “What milk are you using? D? Two percent? Skim?”
Denise looked over her left shoulder and smiled. “If I tell you that, you might not come back and see me.”
I scoffed, hopped off the table, and moved to her. “I been here before with you, you just haven’t been here before with me.”
“I hate time travel.”
“This ain’t a romance. I cuddle with lots of women. I’m a chronic cuddler.”
“Who wants romance?” she asked, turning around with the Slurpee.
“What is it?” she asked. “It’s the same mix. Promise.”
I looked at the tall pint glass it was in. “Don’t you have any more Slurpee cups? It will taste wrong in another glass. The cheap plastic makes it all taste just right.”
Denise rolled her eyes and handed me the pint. “Shut up and drink it, cowboy.”
“Do you have another straw, at least?”
Denise shook her head, but reached behind her to find me a straw. “It’s authentic,” she said and came back to hand it to me. When I went to grab it, though, Miss 1977 pulled it back. “Not until you tell me how you knew the year I stepped back.”
I shrugged. It wasn’t a secret. “Your smile,” I said.
“My smile?” she asked as I grabbed the straw.
“Years smile differently,” I explained and sipped the milk Slurpee through the straw. It was good. Wish it was in the right cup, though.
Denise took my hand and led me to the sofa on the other side of the room. “My back hurts,” she said as she plopped down on the leather.
I pointed to the billiard table.
She smiled and ran a hand through her short hair. “I miss my ‘fro.”
“I miss it, too, and I ain’t ever seen it.”
I let her eyes study me as I worked slowly on the Slurpee. Before each sip, I conjured up a particular brand of milk in my mind, hoping the memory would match the experience.
It always failed.
She took a finger and began running it over my clothes. “How old are you?” she asked.
“To drink?” she asked playfully, taking my Slurpee and giving the straw a long suck.
“Old enough to have given up on romance,” I answered.
“That’s sad,” she said honestly, handing the Slurpee back to me. When I didn’t contradict her, she twisted on the sofa so her back was against the sofa’s arm and her lower legs were draped across my lap. “My sister,” she said, putting her hands into the ghost of her ‘fro, “got mixed up with a Dracula cult.”
“One of the Blackulas?” I asked.
“No,” Denise sighed, as if that would have been preferential. “Some white dude in Manhattan. Had himself what he called a ‘Doll Harem’ of non-whites. My sis was his Nubian Vamp.”
Suddenly, I didn’t feel like drinking anymore. “The Lamb Magnificent,” I said, putting my Slurpee glass on the floor. “Your sister was involved with the Lamb Magnificent. God durn, I’m sorry.”
Denise’s eyes closed. “That’s what … that’s what he said to me when I killed him,” she whispered. “’Your sister was involved with the Lamb Magnificent. I’m sorry.”
I leaned back against the dark brown leather of the sofa. I did not want to turn to Denise, but I knew I had to turn, and I knew I had to shatter her memory of that night. “You didn’t kill him,” I said, “and he wasn’t sorry.”
Her eyes told me she knew I was speaking the truth, but her mouth was not ready to fall in line. “I chopped him into 47 pieces,” she said. “One for every girl he kept in his penthouse.”
I sucked on my teeth and shook my head, but kept eye contact with her the whole time. “I’m sure you did, and I’m sure it felt good and right, but you didn’t kill him. You just put him to sleep for a time.”
“Don’t play weak, woman,” I ordered. Sometimes you had to get rough with a dame. I didn’t like it, but sometimes it had to be done. “I can tell from the way you cuddled that you’re as tough as the planet’s core when you need to be, and right now you need to be.”
“I need to get back,” she said plaintively. “I need to save my sister from him coming back.”
I frowned and she knew what that meant.
“I need to save my sister,” she repeated, knowing that was a reality not coming into being.
“Who sent you to 1977?”
She dropped her head.
I shook my head and looked to the fan on the ceiling. I didn’t want to cuddle anymore. I told her why. “Woody Hunching Allen,” I said with as much poison as I could muster. “Motherhunching amateur wizard.” I looked at Denise and held that look until she turned her head to look up me. All at once I could see 1977 coalesce. “You went to see Annie Hall, didn’t you? And sat through the credits, feeling all dream-like in your sadness over your sister’s involvement with the Lamb Magnificent. It was, what, three or four weeks after you killed the Lamb Magnificent and left your sister with a Healer? As you were sitting there letting the credits roll over you, the Wizard Allen appeared and invited you to stay, didn’t he? Said some of his friends were coming and there was gonna be a special screening.”
“Stop,” she whispered, but I didn’t.
Gunslinger don’t stop.
“You got drunk. Not on any booze, but on the celebrities. Actors, actresses, disco singers, maybe an athlete or two. A film started playing. Black and white. Rough cut. Quick jumps. Hard edits. You started wondering where the drugs were. You’re not a user but you weren’t a virgin, neither. You knew what the right drug could do, where the right drug could take you, only there wasn’t any drugs, were there?”
Denise dropped her head. “How do you know this?”
“You’re smart, but you were out of your league. Even if Allen was a hunching amateur he knew the Arts a whole lot better than some college-educated girl from Brooklyn.” I knew my words hurt, but I didn’t stop. Gunslinger don’t stop. “What you didn’t know, what you couldn’t know, was that you were the drug. They were feeding off you. Psychic vamps. Not Allen. He was a wizard. I already told you that. He was the conduit getting you into them. They were tripping unicorns on your pain and solitude. And that’s when it happened, didn’t it? That’s when the wizard gave you a purple rose and you ate it, and then you looked at the screen and a woman stepped halfway out of the picture and into reality. She reached out for your hand and you took it, and as she stepped out of the picture, you stepped in. Right into this mansion. Right into the waiting arms of ol’ LB out there. What did the wizard tell you? That you could save your sister if you went through the screen?”
She hung her head.
“The wizard said, ‘If you kill a man for me, I’ll give you back your sister,’ didn’t he?”
“And were you going to kill me when I slept?”
“Baby doll, what’s my name?”
She looked up. “Gunslinger Forever.”
“It ain’t just a name,” I said. “Heck, it ain’t even a name, at all.”
“It’s a title. Gunslinger Forever. Force of the hunching cosmos.”
“You can’t die.”
“I can die. But not by your hand. And not by the hand of no amateur hunching wizard from one-nine-seven-seven. You still want to try?”
“I want to save my sister.”
I nodded. It couldn’t be done but I understood the impulse. “Sleep. Kill an Indian. Stop Bogey. Save your sister. You in?”
Denise’s hand reached between the cushions and jammed a dagger into my heart.
I sighed. “I told you,” I said, pulling out the bloody knife, “I don’t believe in romance.”
She took me upstairs and we cuddled until dawn.
Four AM. Can’t sleep. Denise snores like a turbo chainsaw cutting through gravel. I don’t mind saying this woman is a dang fine cuddler of the highest order. Pity about her sister. Pity about the Lamb Magnificent getting his claws into the Wizard Allen.
I reach down to my pants pocket and pull out my white cell phone. Firing it up, I hit an app labeled, “Movies” and point it at the TV on the bureau beyond the foot of the bed. The black and white box blips to life. On my cell I start scrolling through movies but while I can’t sleep my mind won’t settle, either.
I’ll probably have to kill Denise before this is over, and I’ll definitely have to kill her sister.
I hit “Random” on the touch screen and the TV screen goes scratchy and then comes back to life. A movie starts playing. After the company’s logo – Atomic Anxiety Films – whirls past, the title wipes across the screen, all 1950s sci-fi drama-like. Good. I haven’t seen this one. I hope it sucks hard enough that it puts me back to sleep.
It’s called, Harpsichord and the Cathedral Crickets.
I wonder if LB is in it.
And that’s that. More to come when it comes. Thanks for making it this far.
If reading this makes you want to give me money in exchange for more stories, you are in luck! I am the author of multiple novels and collections, including the recently released The Haunting of Kraken Moor, Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.