Cactus. Dry.

“Go ahead,” Mundo smiled at the lean, mousey man at the bar. He wore a cactus-green pin-stripe suit and seemed to have something on his mind. It took him two shots of tequila to open up. “I’m usually the one talking. As much as I like it, it’s nice to hear other voices too,” she said.

Mundo’s bar had its share of daytime regulars. The bar was little more than a storefront for under-the-table business, or a library for college students during the day. Thorne was the only one drinking.

“You can’t win for trying these days…,” Thorne shook his head, then downed the third shot. He gestured at Mundo for a fourth one. “You ever have an idea so good, it takes off without you?” he laughed at his own question as Mundo refilled his shot glass.

“What, another one?” Mundo asked. “What happened to the Syndicate you were talking up a couple of weeks ago?” Thorne froze before he took the fourth shot. His eyes widened at Mundo.

“You remember me talking about it?!” he asked. 

“Sure,” Mundo shrugged. “You’re the only Nopal that’s ever come through here. You seemed really excited about the Syndicate. Everyone’s talking about it, so what’s the problem?”  

“No one believes me…,” Thorne sighed. He took his fourth shot, then set the glass down to ask for another. He continued talking while Mundo refilled it. “I guess I’m not surprised,” he whined. My last few contracts were huge failures. I invented the Syndicate just to give myself some visibility, but I can’t even prove I belong to the organization I made up,” Thorne chuckled. “As much as I love my job; the business side is murder.” He downed the fifth shot and requested another. Mundo obliged.

“Well if you tell me how to prove Syndicate membership, I’ll let everyone else know and you’ll be set,” Mundo said. Her polite, customer service smile grew wider when Thorne tilted his head at her. 

“Huh?” he asked “Let who know?” Mundo giggled and shook her head at him. 

“Everyone,” she stressed the word. “I’m a Mundo, it’s what we do.” 

“Oh yeah!” Thorne slapped his palm against his forehead once he remembered Mundo’s abilities. “You can talk to everyone on Earth, can’t you?” 

“Or just the people likely to be interested in the Syndicate,” Mundo said. “Same group from a couple weeks ago.” 

“You?” Thorne was surprised. “You’re why the Syndicate is so popular all of a sudden?” Mundo nodded, but shrugged.

“I’m fond of Plant Uniques,” she said, then filled the shot glass a sixth time. 

“Thank you!” Thorne said. He hopped to his feet and began digging through his pockets. “I’ve gotta give you something extra,” he said. Mundo shook her head, then smiled and pointed at the shot glass. 
“You’re already paying for all this alcohol that doesn’t work on…,” Mundo pointed at Thorne. “…#39 El Nopal.”

Sharp Ending

“Not me,” the towering demon grumbled

“Me neither,” the well-dressed man mumbled.

“What?” Bob asked with wide eyes.

“Then what happens? Where do I go, guys?”

They both shook their heads.

Satan spoke; his annoyance evident. 

“You already chose your soul’s road.”

Satan nodded at Bob’s clear node.

“That node cost your soul,” Satan said.

“You belong to Sharp Development.”

Dragon’s Hospitality

The dragon opened the door and entered.

The princess half-looked up; unafraid.

Her attentions somewhat splintered.

He looked at her, then nodded at the door.

“The price has been agreed; you’re free once more.”

“So soon? Please, wait. I’m not ready.”

He pulled her up but she remained limp, unsteady.

“I need to get you back so I can get paid.”

“Let me stay longer; as long as you’re able,”

She said, then added. “My father doesn’t have cable.”

Play. Playing. Played.

“Are you sure that’s all you want?”

The demon asked and tilted his head.

Jeff nodded, then said,

“That’s the talent I’d like to flaunt.”

“To be the best at playing a guitar.”

The demon shrugged. “Sure, sign here.”

He offered a red clipboard with a white form.

Jeff grabbed the pen and signed there.

“Congrats. Now playing a guitar for you is the norm.”

Jeff cheered, then called all his mates.

He planned a party to show off his new skill.

He picked up the house and cleaned the grill.

The party started and everyone gathered ’round.

“Now watch me play a guitar like one of the greats.”

*POOF* he became a guitar and fell to the ground.

Alarming Awakening

Miles hesitated at the mouth of the cave. Logically, he knew there was nothing to fear, but his brain could not seem to communicate that to his pounding heart. Miles Howard was the richest man on Earth, but no one knew it. He’d spent his life amassing a fortune and staying in the background.

Stalactites hanging around the entrance gave the cave a frightful, toothy look. Miles really did not want to venture into it, but he knew his options were limited. Extremely limited; if he did not enter the cave, he’d probably be dead within a week.

“Might as well get it over with…,” Miles mumbled to himself then entered the cave. He walked as straight a path as he could manage with his flashlight guiding him over the rocky interior. It took him over an hour of darkness to notice a faint light in the distance. The inky emptiness stretched for nearly another hour before Miles stepped into flickering torchlight. A dozen tall, lit torches circled a great red beast. A sleeping dragon with blood-red scales and wings.

Miles sighed to himself as he stared at it. Its sleeping form was at least twice his height at the bulkiest end, but it was still considered small, medium at best, by dragon standards.

*ahem* Miles cleared his throat. He wasn’t trying to be quiet, but he did not make an effort to be loud either; the dragon did not stir. Its steady breathing continued undisturbed. Miles watched its body rise and fall with the breath a few times, then he tried again.

*AHEM* This time he injected more volume into the action; the dragon continued to sleep. “Geeze,” Miles grumbled. Then, he remembered how loud his cellphone was. He already knew he couldn’t get service anywhere near the cave, but it could still make sounds. He found the loudest alarm he had and promptly tested it.

Loud, staccato buzzing filled the cavern around him, as did a slight groan. The dragon moved.

“I’m up, I’m up,…,” the dragon spoke with a tired, feminine voice, then it rolled over on its back and curled up facing the other way. Miles took a few steps back, but did not shut off the alarm.

“I’M AWAKE!” The dragon roared at the same time it stretched its arms and hind legs up. Its long tail nearly knocked down a torch as it stretched out. That seemed to satisfy Miles and he shut the alarm off. It lingered for a moment on its back, then rolled around to stand on all fours to stretch its wings. Finally, a pair of pale blue eyes turned to land on Miles.

“Why am I awake,” the dragon asked. Miles only had news with no way of knowing how she would react; he hoped it was good news. He took in a deep breath, just in case it was his last, then nodded at the dragon.

“Chroma has summoned the Chrome Court,” he said.

“Ooooohhhhhhhhh. Shit,” the dragon replied with obvious disappointment. “Do you know why?” The messenger did give Miles a reason, but he didn’t know what it meant. He shrugged and nodded.

“The Conquistadors are free,” he said.

“UUugghh,” The dragon grumbled like an over-dramatic teenager. “Fine, fine. I’ll go.”  Miles nodded, then stood still and continued to wait.

“Can I get some privacy please? I need to change,” the dragon asked.

“Is that it?” Miles asked.

“Is what it?”

“I woke you up. That was the favor, right? The first time, you helped me and said I’d need to help you in the future; that was the wake-up call, right?”

“How long has it been?” the dragon asked.

“Three thousand years,” Miles replied. He knew that she would probably take away whatever magic kept him alive long enough to serve her, but he’d had time to see and do everything he wanted. He was glad he only had to kill 3000 years, the original wakeup date was much later. However, this message fell into the ’emergency’ category that she laid out for him.

“Yes, and no,” the dragon replied. “Technically, I intended to let you go after the planned wakeup call; but, this isn’t a wakeup call, it’s an interrupted nap. You’re still on the hook, buddy,” she said. Miles couldn’t even begin to act surprised. 3000 years gave him a lot of time to think and dragons are well-known for changing their minds. Miles sighed and nodded, then turned around to give her privacy.

“Besides,” she added once his back was turned. “If this isn’t a false alarm, tagging along with me is the safest place to be,” she said.

Stone Flushed

“Gaia, I come in peace…,” Firebolt held his hands up when Gale Stone opened the door. She sighed, then stood aside to let him in.

“I know; call me Gale,” she replied. Gaia was the most powerful supervillain in the world, with hair and clothes made up of tangled roots. Gale was the brown-haired soccer-mom that opened the door. Firebolt relaxed his hands and walked into her house.

“Thank you,” he said. She closed the door behind him, then turned around.

“What do you want?” she asked. Firebolt tilted his head in confusion.

“You said you already knew?” he asked. Gale rolled her eyes.

“I said I knew you were here in peace. Just because I can know everything doesn’t mean I bother checking up on any of you idiots,” she said. “But, when you’re standing on my doorstep mumbling, ‘I hope she doesn’t kill me, I hope she doesn’t kill me,’ it’s kind of a different situation,” she smiled. Firebolt nodded.

“Spex said you might be able to help us with a problem the league is having.” Gaia’s smile disappeared as soon as she heard the name. Firebolt was surprised when he identified her new expression as concern.

“Is he okay?” she asked. “Why didn’t he come himself?” Firebolt shrugged.

“Just because he’s your son-in-law doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t kill him; that was his excuse anyway.” Gale’s concern disappeared and she giggled.

“I do have quite the reputation don’t I,” she asked. “Well, get on with it. Why are you here?”

“I, and several other league members, are being blackmailed with our secret identities,” Firebolt said. “This new villain, The Stalker, follows us around; he’s invisible, intangible, and can teleport. The only way we’ve been able to spot him is with the psychics in the league. But we can’t contain him.”

“Well the only way to capture someone like that…,” Gale began. She took a deliberate, slow look around her living room. “…is to catch them by SURPRISE!” When she said ‘surprise’ a thick green vine sprouted out of the hardwood floor. It speared forward and impaled itself in the drywall.

A lean, pale, frightened man appeared for just a moment before he flashed out of existence again.

“You missed?” Firebolt asked, and shook his head. “He was here in your living room and you missed?”

“Next time the league wants to ask me for a favor, don’t hold a meeting about it. I’m sure this idiot stalker thought he’d try and blackmail me for my secret identity too.”

“How’d you know about the meeting?” Firebolt asked. Gale rolled her eyes. “I told you, I can know everything; if I’m curious enough.”

“Then,… how’d you miss?” FIrebolt chuckled. He felt a bit braver knowing Gaia was a terrible shot. Gale smiled and opened the door for him again.

“You’re asking the wrong question. It’s now about how I missed, it’s about why,” she said. “I read his mind, he can only use one of his powers at a time. And he’s only a short-range teleporter.” Gale nodded out the door. The same lean man stood on her front lawn with golden vines pierced through his arms and legs, and one wrapped around his mouth. He wriggled in pain as blood leaked out of his wounds. “He can’t use his powers as long as those are in him; I just didn’t want a bloody mess in my house.”

Super Logic

“It’s about time,” Karen said as she walked into Satan’s office. She sat in the black leather chair in front of his obsidian desk and waited with crossed arms.

“What can I do for you, Karen?” he asked as politely as he could.  The blonde scoffed.

“Aren’t you supposed to know everything?” she asked. Satan shook his head and sighed.

“I can know anything I want; but, I make it a habit not to pry into the personal lives of family,”  he explained. “So, what brings you to Hell?” Karen’s eyes softened slightly at that; but, just for a moment. She was there on a mission and intended to see it through.

“It’s about the boys,” she said. Satan guessed that much. Karen was his son’s mother-in-law. It was the only reason Satan tolerated her.

“What about them?’ Satan asked.

“I’m getting old,” Karen said. “I’m not going to be around forever.” Satan nodded and let a smirk tug at the corner of his lips.

“I know,” he said. “What does this have to do with Arthur and Eric?” Satan secretly hoped she was going to try and get immortality out of him just so he could deny it.

“I want a grandchild,” Karen replied. Satan tilted his head at that.

“The boys have been discussing adoption, but they haven’t decided anything yet.” Karen shook her head.

“Not adoption. I want my grandchild to be born into the family naturally,” she said. Satan chuckled.

“You do understand biology, don’t you, Karen?” Satan couldn’t help but stress her name with a patronizing tone. “Just to remind you; Arthur and Eric are both males. Neither of them can get pregnant.”

“Aren’t you the omni-potent dark master of the universe?” Karen replied with her own patronizing tone.

“Huh,” Satan had to admit she had a point. He nodded his head. “I have to admit, I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll have to talk it over with them, but thank you for bringing it up. But…,” he continued. “That doesn’t really qualify as ‘natural’ anymore if they did want to go that route.” Satan was compelled to point out the disconnect of involving magic.

“Nonsense,” Karen replied curtly. She stood now that her business was completed. “It’s only fitting that my super wonderful grandchild has a supernatural birth.”

Wishing to Connect

“I wish for the world to reach Utopian status within the next century and maintain it until the sun burns out naturally,” Peter said. After he made his wish, he laid down on the couch to wait for three minutes.

“Wait, that’s your wish?” The genie asked. She walked to the couch and looked down on Peter through narrow eyes. “That doesn’t count yet, unless you’re sure,” she added.

“I’m sure,” Peter replied. The genie shook her head, her gold dangling earrings jingled with the motion.

“No, no. Hold on. You haven’t even given it any thought,’ she said. “I didn’t even tell you when you had to use it. Why don’t you hold on to it for a while, maybe you can think of a way out.” Peter remained on his back, but he gave her a curious look.

“You said I can’t wish for anything that will save me,” he said. “There’s no way out.”

“You didn’t even try,” she said. She had an edge of annoyance in her voice. Peter shrugged.

“I’m going to die one day anyway, right? At least this way, my death means something for everyone else.”

“They’ll never know it was you,” she said. Peter laughed.

“I’m going to be dead, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.

“No, c’mon. You’re supposed to try and outwit me. I’m a genie, there’s gotta be a loophole, right?” She grabbed his hand to try and pull I’m off the couch; she only managed to get him sitting upright again. “I said you can’t wish for anything that’ll save you, but maybe you can come up with a wish that ends up saving you as a side effect? You can take your time, there’s no rush. I’ll just hang around until you use it up.” Peter tilted his head at the genie.

“What’s life like inside the lamp?” he asked. She hadn’t accepted his wish, so he felt comfortable starting a conversation.

“It’s not bad,” she said. “It’s actually a pocket universe, so I’m not cramped or anything. It’s a lot like being the last person on Earth, I have an entire planet to myself.”

“Do you have to grant wishes?” he asked. The genie nodded and shrugged simultaneously.

“What’s the point of a genie that doesn’t grant wishes?” she said.

“Why just one wish? And why does it kill me?” Peter asked. The genie shrugged again. She sensed it was going to turn into a conversation and sat down on the couch next to him.

“Genies get to make up their own rules. The three wish limit is commonly accepted, so most genies will use that as a standard. I’ve tried several different rulesets; and, I’ve found that making a client think long and hard about one wish earns me a lot of free time on the outside world. Most people…,” the genie reached out and gave Peter a playful shove. “…think about their wish for more than a few minutes.” Peter smiled as he gave her situation some more thought.

“I think you’re right, maybe I rushed it,” he smirked at her. “Give me a few years and I’m pretty sure I can outsmart you,” he said.

“Really?” she asked, her eyes brightened. Peter nodded.

“But, until then, do genies eat? It’s getting close to dinner time and since I’m going to be alive, I need to eat. You should join me,” he said. The genie grinned.

“That’s a wish I’ll grant for free.”

Name Recognition

Johnathon picked up the bright red bucket hat out of curiosity. The color drew his attention as he watched a surprisingly spry old man dash into the alley. Red stood out from the blacks and browns of most of the other pedestrians wandering around downtown. Johnathon’s curiosity led him to follow the old man into the alley; but, he was surprised to find it empty except for the red hat.

Johnathon checked the inside of the hat and was surprised to see his own name written inside the brim with a black marker. He turned it around to look over the outside and noted the number 13 embroidered in small gold numbers on the top of it. He spun around in the alley again to double-check for a sign of anyone, but he was alone. The hat looked like it would fit him comfortably and he tried it on. The moment it sat on his head something felt different; but, he wasn’t sure what. A tingling sensation ran down from his head to envelope his whole body. It surprised him and he pulled the hat off, the sensation instantly disappeared. He looked down at his hands but did not see anything that might have caused the tingling sensation. He shrugged and donned the hat again.

The tingling sensation returned but he was expecting it this time. He checked his hands but they were missing. He wiggled his fingers frantically, still feeling the sensations but he could not see his hands. or arms. He looked down further and realized his body invisible, clothes and all. Johnathon kept his focus on his torso and reached up to lift the hat off his head. His body reappeared as soon as the tingling sensation ended.

“Nice…,” Johnathon grinned to himself. He put the hat on and walked out of the alley. He worked extra hard to dodge pedestrians that couldn’t see him, but the strangers ignored him even more than usual. Johnathon made his way home as he planned the best way to make use of his new ability.

At 21, he was just starting his life and he knew he could use the hat to make a great life for himself. But, he wanted to avoid drawing too much attention. He used it for occasional minor thievery to help him stay current with his bills, but more often than that he used it to spy on others. Over the years his business grew successful because he somehow always knew exactly what others would accept to make any deal work.

40 years later a very wealthy Johnathon happened to be passing the very same alley where he discovered the hat. He’d been hit by a wave of nostalgia and flew back to his hometown. He smiled when he recognized the alley and turned into it. He was surprised to see an old man looking around and grumbling to himself.

“Where the hell is it?” Johnathon heard the old man ask. An old memory crossed Johnathon’s mind as he wondered what the old man was looking for. It was the same man that wore the red hat when he ran into the alley, then vanished. 40 years ago Johnathon’s curiosity led him into the alley and now his curiosity again pushed him to approach the old man.

“Everything okay, sir?” Johnathon asked. The old man looked up and nodded.

“Fine, but have you any chance seen a red hat anywhere around here? I’m pretty sure this is where I lost it.” Johnathon had the hat in his coat pocket; but, he wasn’t ready to return it just yet. There were still several unanswered questions. As his memory clarified, Johnathon realized the old man looked the same age he did when he first saw him. He didn’t look like he had another 40 years in him then and now. He wanted to see if he could get any more information out of the man and decided to try and be helpful.

“When did you lose it?” Johnathon asked while giving a cursory look around the alley for effect. The old man answered with a laugh.

“If I knew that, it’d be easier to find,” he said. “Instead I’ve got to retrace my steps through all the years I’ve been here.” Johnathon didn’t quite understand what the man meant, but he chalked it up to the stranger just being old. But, the fact that he mentioned a timeframe gave Johnathon an idea. He snapped his fingers, which drew the man’s attention.

“I knew you looked familiar,” Johnathon said with wide eyes as if he’d just had an epiphany. “Is it a red bucket hat?” he asked. The old man stepped forward and nodded. “Yeah…,” Johnathon nodded as well as if he were jogging his own memory. “.. well I don’t it’s going to help you any. But I think I remember seeing you around here wearing a red bucket hat 40 years ago.” 

“40?” the old man asked. Johnathon nodded. The old man smiled, and seemed relieved. “Thank you,” he said. Then, Johnathon blinked.

40 years earlier, a 21-year-old Johnathon stood in an alleyway holding a red hat. He checked the inside of the hat and was surprised to see his own name written inside the brim with a black marker. He turned it around to look over the outside and noted the number 13 embroidered in small gold numbers on the top of it. He spun around in the alley again to double-check for a sign of anyone,  and was surprised to see the old man there; seemingly appeared out of thin air. He stared at Johnathon and narrowed his eyes.

“My hat, please,” he said.

“Oh, sorry,” Johnathon returned the hat with a smile. “It has my name in it; I was a bit surprised,” he added as the old man accepted it. “I thought maybe it was meant for me or something.” The old man laughed and shook his head.

“Thanks for helping me find it,” he said. He extended his hand in greeting and Johnathon noticed the number 14 tattooed on his hand. “Name’s Johnathon,” he said as they shook hands. “I’d say it was a funny coincidence, but we both know how common our name is.”

Conspiracy. Teamwork.

“You’re asking me to move?” Blake asked. The visit from Theodore was unexpected, and the reason even more. He’d only moved into the neighborhood a month ago and now the head of the Homeowner’s Association seemed to be kicking him out. Theodore shook his head.

“Not me, the neighborhood,” he replied. He held up a list of signatures to Blake for effect.

“You can’t make me move,” Blake said. He clenched his fists to keep his growing anger in check. Theodore nodded.

“Of course not, but we can still ask. At least this way, you know where you stand with everyone; we don’t like you.” Blake was genuinely surprised. Everyone he’d talked to in the neighborhood seemed pleasant and chipper every time he talked to them. Occasionally, he thought them too chipper, and suspiciously pleasant.

Ever since Blake arrived, he noticed every aspect of the neighborhood appeared to be perfect. However, it wasn’t long until he started noticing small things that bothered him and no one else. At 45, Blake had lived in a lot of places, but none were as flawless as this neighborhood. The roads were pot-hole free and every yard was perfectly maintained. Even his own, that he never put any effort into; his neighbor happily volunteered to mow Blake’s lawn.

Prices at the local grocery store were the cheapest he’d seen, and even then paying seemed to be optional. He’d witnessed several of his neighbors load up their carts and walk right out the door; he even managed to do it himself a couple of times. Blake knew a town this perfect couldn’t exist and he began investigating.

Blake did not want to draw attention to himself and kept his snooping around to the late-night hours. He went through trash cans around the neighborhood and only grew more suspicious. All recyclables at every house he checked were perfectly cleaned and sorted, and the trash bin was usually only full about halfway. Not a single house put out as much waste as a normal family.

Somehow, despite Blake’s best efforts at stealth, they were on to him. He realized that the only reason they would ask him to leave was if he was close to uncovering something. Still, he wanted to at least try and put Theodore on the spot.

“Why not?” Blake asked. “What’d I do that half the neighborhood hates me?” he asked.

“The whole neighborhood,” Theodore corrected him. Blake only meant it as a turn of phrase, but Theodore’s comment punched him in the gut.

“We’ve seen your kind before,” Theodore said. “This time we’re getting ahead of it.”

“My kind?” Blake asked. “What does that mean?” He immediately tossed out any racial discrimination. Another suspicious thing about the neighborhood was that it was perfectly diverse.

“Cynics,” Theodore replied.

“What?” Blake asked. “So what if I’m a little cynical? Everyone is.” Theodore shook his head.

“Not here,” he said. “It always starts the same. We welcome newcomers to our neighborhood because we were all new at one point. But, occasionally a person refuses to accept how smoothly everything functions here. So, they start digging, confident they’ll find a reasonable explanation. As if a giant conspiracy was somehow more reasonable than a group of people organizing together to make their lives better. We all pitch in and work towards improving things for everyone here.”

“I haven-,” Blake began to protest, but Theodore shook his head.

“You’ve already begun digging,” he said. “This is a very safe neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean we don’t use security cameras. If you’re suffering financially, we’d be happy to donate food. But, going through your neighbor’s garbage is a fairly decent invasion of privacy.”

“My finances are fine,” Blake grumbled. He felt rejected and attacked; his pride insisted he not let him think he was poor on top of all that.

“Wonderful,” Theodore said. “Then, if you’re not going to move, the least you could do is settle your tab at the grocer’s.”

“Tab?” Blake asked. He gave Theodore a slightly confused look, which Theodore mirrored.

“You didn’t know?” he asked. “So… you were just stealing groceries?”

“No no, I-” Blake protested. But, Theodore shook his head and interrupted him.

“It doesn’t matter. Please settle that account by Friday, no questions asked. Stop going through everyone’s garbage, and for god’s sake, man, mow your own lawn. Samuel offered to do it for you one time while you got settled, but you’re really abusing his kindness.”