Berserker and Valkyrie

 Berserker and Valkyrie

Chase Raimundo by RJ Keith

Chase Raimundo by RJ Keith

Who was that?

Linette.  Rhys is there.  He had a moment of suspicion.  She threw him off.

Artemis (Artie) Raimundo by RJ Keith

Artemis (Artie) Raimundo by RJ Keith

Glad to hear it, considering she’s the one who told us not to tell him.

How did she know, Chase?  We didn’t tell her.  We didn’t even breathe it, or think it anywhere in her vicinity. 

Because she’s crazy, Artie.  Crazy people know things sometimes.

You’re an asshole, Chase.

Me?  I’m not the one hiding shit from Rhys —

Bickering about it isn’t going to do anyone any good.  We’ve made our decision for now.  Let’s stick with it for five minutes before we change our minds.

What is this “we” shit?

If Mom were here —

If Mom were here.  Mom was very rarely here, Artie.

She was here enough to have a decent strategy to get us to stop fighting.

I’m not sure looking at the enemy and sighing, “I just wanted to spend a nice night with my family,” accompanied by glistening eyes and a smirk is included in The Art of War.

It worked, didn’t it?

Why not?   The rest of our childhood fit into the cliché category pretty well too.  Rich kids, growing up under the watchful eye of British governesses and tutors, male and female, garlanded in tweed, patched at the elbows and otherwise artfully disheveled.

Some of them were pretty boss, bro.

I don’t deny it.  Not the one who made us ask for lunch in Latin, though.  He was a douchebag.

Yeah, he was.

Then again, if he hadn’t bullied us, we might never have ended up where we are.

Oh, please.  You make the whole thing sound so noble.  

Hey, getting beat to shit for justice is totally noble.

The venture didn’t start out that way though, did it?

It doesn’t matter how it started.

You don’t think?

No, I don’t.

Chase, you’re not cute when you sulk anymore.  When you were seven, sure.  Now it’s just annoying.

You’re perpetually annoyed, Artemis darling.  I may have the privilege of being slightly more provocative than some to your low threshold —

I know where you sleep.

Case in point.

I declare this the talking harpoon.  No talking unless you have the harpoon.

Fine.

You just talked without the harpoon.

I admit it: when they were around, they were more than decent parents.  I think most people in similar circumstances, of whom there are more than the average American might think, would let their kids get away with murder because of guilt or remorse or some other useless emotion.  Ma and Pa Raimundo held no truck with that nonsense.  They knew who they were and what they wanted.  They loved us.  A lot.  But they weren’t raising no barbarians and excusing a lack of discipline by extra hours at the office.  They ran a multinational corporation.  Medical research, healthier crops.  Good work.  It would have been nice to have them around for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  The occasional Tuesday.  But yes, Artie, I agree, it isn’t like life was rough.

That wasn’t always what the company did, Chase.  During World War II, it made bombs.  Big nasty bombs that killed a lot of people.  Mom and Dad spent most of their professional lives trying to make amends.

Amends was one of their favorite words.  And, in fairness, most of the people those bombs killed were Nazis.  It’s always okay to kill Nazis.

I grant it is always okay to kill Nazis.  Why are we telling each other this story again?

I’m trying to figure something out.  Bear with me.

Should I lay in MREs?  

They gave away more money than they ever made.  Oodles.  They made sure we appreciated what we had.  They took us to volunteer, let us help designate charities.  The let us choose the colors for the new children’s hospital, remember?  So they missed some band concerts and some soccer games.

Art openings.

Birthdays.

Graduations.

It sucked sometimes.  But when they were here, they gave all the fucks.  And they bought us great presents.  Until —

I was in the darkroom in the basement.  I had this perfect print cooking, but I hadn’t had a chance to fix it.  I was so pissed when someone turned the lights on.  Figured it was you being a twit.  But it was Sean.  Dad’s — he liked major domo, I think. Nice, middle-aged uncle type.  Kept the house in line, the media scavengers in line.  Kept us in line.  

Remember when he broke his foot? Dad was trying to paint the porch for some incomprehensible reason and he had no idea how to open the ladder —

Oh my god, that’s right and —

Ow.

You should laugh more.  It would hurt less.  It was Sean with his boot and his crutches.  His tie was askew.  His tie was never askew, not even in the ER after the ladder incident.  I had never, and never thereafter, saw the man with so much as a wrinkle in his pants.  

I used to have these visions of him like Dracula in the old movies, sleeping on his back, perfectly still with his hands crossed on his chest.

Really?  Me too.  He was sweaty and out of breath.  Which was weird because even in the moment that ladder slammed into his foot —

Perfect composure.  I definitely never heard him cuss.

It was raining.  No, sleeting.  I thought something happened to you, that you’d taken that fucking bike out and laid it down on ice and were in a coma or dead.

I was doing homework.

Forgive me for anticipating you doing something reckless.

I admit to recklessness.  I was also way more of a nerd than I pretended to be and anything reckless was reserved for after calculus.  He brought you to my room.  I noticed the tie thing too, and you were crying, and I had no idea what to think about that because I’d seen you cry maybe twice in our lives to that point.  Sean, I mean, dude wasn’t an icicle, or anything, but he was reserved and he was there a lot of the time Mom and Dad weren’t.  The joint waterworks knocked me back.  He tried to tell me, but I think telling you did him in.  You had to tell me.  Nearly puking on your own tears.  About the engine failure and the crash.

What were they on their way home for?

Your show at the Warhol, Artie.  It was important.  Really fucking important and they wanted to be there so much.

It wasn’t my show, it was a young artist’s show.  Three photos.  I wish they’d stayed in ChinaI told them to forget about it, but they wouldn’t.

Of course not.  They were proud of you.  They’d hate it that you haven’t been back in the darkroom since then.

It makes a better man cave anyway.

That’s bullshit and you know it, Artie.

You, and every therapist who tried to convince me taking pictures would be part of my healing process, said that.  Everyone who mentioned dysfunctional grieving.  Assholes.  It’s my grief.  I’ll handle it the way I see fit.

Didn’t you tell that hypnotherapist that very thing before you shoved his patchouli stink couch out the window?

That guy was a tool, and he reeked of weed.  Besides, you and I had other things to worry aboutOne of them huge.  The company.

The company.  Mom and Dad left it to us.  The majority shares, and their will stating we were to take over chairmanship of the board.  Which is normally something said board would have to vote on but… It shouldn’t have been an issue in our case.  Wouldn’t have been if I’d been smarter.

Chase, Donegar had been planning the takeover forever.  And I was just as willfully blind as you were accidentally.  I didn’t want any of it.  I wanted to float along taking pictures and opening gallery shows forever and not give a shit about dividends and shareholders’ meetings and power suits and lunches comprised of scotch and more scotch and whiskey.

Gin and tonics are an option.  I couldn’t believe that after all those years with Mom and Dad, Donegar wanted to start developing weapons tech again.

Dad would have fired his ass. Mom would have kicked his head in.

With one of her incomprehensibly pointy Italian shoes.  I still haven’t figured out the loophole he used to banish me to silent partner, even after an astronomical number of those scotch lunches with Dad’s judge friends and Mom’s law school buddies.  We’re Queen of England chairpeople.  Parliament has to approve everything and they don’t.  Ever.  Not the microsurgery nannites, not the pills that target specific metastatic tumor cells, not the corn that will grow twice season.  Neither the HIV, nor the ebola vaccines.

And they shut down so many of the company funded philanthropic efforts.  Anything that goes to public radio or the art museums comes directly from our coffers.  Which, I won’t deny are well stocked, but even we aren’t bottomless.  Only one of Mom’s free clinics is still open, all the sliding scale mental health places have been shut down.  The free daycare for single, working parents.  The scholarships, grants, computers.  The fucking library donation.  All rerouted to people who make the NRA look like a bunch of garden party grannies.

And then came the day.  The day I stormed in all power-suited up, wearing Dad’s most powerful of power ties, his family crest cuff links and tie tack.  I even cut my hair and shaved.  You raided mom’s closet and jewelry box.

And her shoes.  She had great shoes.  The day we asked why.

The day we demanded to know why.  They day they told us to take our money and shut up.  The day they told us they’d let us know when they needed us to make an appearance for the good of the company and made sure we knew they’d have their hands up our assess every moment there might be a camera on us.

We tried everything, Chase.  Old allies, lawyers..

Hit-men.

Hit-men?

Maybe.  All those fuckers had guard dogs and gate lasers and shit, though.

We still had money, we still had the house.  We could have gone on with our lives.

If we’d had movie rich parents.  We didn’t.  We had actual parents, and they would have expected more.  They would have expected us to stop the bastards from using generations of our family’s efforts to kill people.  No way I was going to let that happen.

Again with the nobility.  That’s not how it started, Chase.  You wanted revenge.

People are allowed to want things, Artie.  You went along with it.  And you loved strapping that armor on the first time as much as I did.

It’s cool armor.

Right?  Fine.  Yes, I wanted revenge.  I was a crazy stalker who lurked, dressed like a crazy ancient warrior, in the shadows with a giant hammer I had every intention of using to bash heads.  And yes, Artie, if not for you, I would have killed someone, and I would have regretted it.  Most likely.  You kept me from falling into the canyon, and for that, I am in your debt.

Only you could make that sound smarmy, brother mine.  And you should thank Rhys too.  He was always there, no matter how many hours he’d worked or how many classes he had, how poorly Linette was doing

I can’t get gushy with him.  It would be weird and we’d have to bro hug.  No one wants that.

We had Sean too.  Poor guy, trying to manage two enraged teenagers.  Whipped you in to shape when you tried to drop out of college.

It was only twice.

It was six times in two semesters, Chase. 

Yeah, yeah.  How’s that business degree working out for me?  Comes in really handy for the crime fighting, that’s for sure.

We’re not going to do this forever, Chase.

Speak for yourself, Miss High and Mighty.

Don’t make this about me, Chase.

Artemis, goddess of the hunt and deflection.

Fuck off.  Do you remember the time —

We were waiting for one of the board members to leave the house, to tail him…

You

— We were sure it was going to be some sort of shady dealing, but it turned out to be dinner with his mistress.  Damn, she was fine.

We waited in the freezing rain for him to come out, hiding in one of those terrifying parking garages, ice blowing in and around.  A woman passed us… Some guy came out from behind one of the posts, pulled a gun on her.  We hadn’t noticed because we’d been all eyes on HRH.

Yeah.  It’s amazing we didn’t get massacred in those early days.

He demanded her jewelry, her keys, her cash.  She gave it to him, but he grabbed her hair and started dragging her —

And we decided maybe revenge wasn’t as important as making sure a soccer mom got to see her kids again.

We?

Can’t have it both ways, Artie.

Bite me, brother dear.  I will admit pulling the guy’s legs out from under him with the scythe was hugely satisfying and not nearly as bloody as I expected.

Because you wussed out and used the haft instead of the very, very expensive, Japanese folded blade, oh squeamish one.

Chase, you passed out when you got a bloody nose last week.

My blood.  I don’t like seeing my blood.  Other people’s blood isn’t a problem.  God, do you remember the sound his bones made when I hammered him in the foot?  I still have nightmares about that sound.

Do you remember what you said when you gave her back her stuff?  And I quote: Fear not, citizen, for Berserker and Valkyrie will always fight for you.  And then you swished your cape and it got stuck on a hood ornament.

That did not happen.

It totally happened.

Well, at least we got rid of the capes before they got us in really serious trouble.

The capes were dumb.  Yours always managed to find piles of dog shit.  It had its own superpower.  

Douchebag was gone by the time we had eyes on the restaurant again.

Yeah.

I was okay with it.  Thinking about someone other than myself and my wallowing turned out to be good for me.  So we waited a few nights and then we went on patrol.  Two muggings, a carjacking, a child abduction, and the theft of the Leona’s cart from Neighborhood Flea.

A few days later we stopped that nut job trying to disrupt Handmade Arcade.

Stopped an art heist at the Carnegie.

The great decorated dinosaur caper at Natural History. 

Kept some blowhard from making off with a very rare and horrifically scented plant from Phipps.

Our favorites were beating the crap out of abusive fucktards.  How many rapists and abusers have we taken out in the last ten years?

One thousand.  I keep track.

Sean ran the game for us, compiling information, telling us where we needed to be and what to watch for.  But we looked up one day and realized he was old.  He was slowing down, couldn’t keep up with the tech, had no clue how to custom program.

He was terrified of what a computer might do if he looked at it funny.

He did a lot for us, and it was time for him to enjoy retirement.  We needed someone new.  Someone who didn’t nod off during missions.  Don’t look at me like that, Artie.  You know you got shot that one time because he was flitting off in dream land.  Rhys was a perfect choice.  The only choice, really.  Phone calls were made.  Well, it only took one.  Very little negotiation.  Though he was working in a shit hole.

Our corporate headquarters?

Yep.  That was all she wrote.  Until Kass.

Ah.  Now it comes around.

She’s a distraction.  And he spends far more time at the library than is healthy.

I’m not even going to dignify that.

You just did, Artie.

Give me the harpoon, Chase.

As if.  I’m just saying he needs to revive his ability to compartmentalize.  She gets a bump on the head, and we almost get outed?  Not going to work.  Chupa Chup could have wiped out Lawrenceville, and there are some really good bars there now. And you know you’d be pissed if Pageboy went up.  Who would do all that weird shit to your hair if Chauncey didn’t have a chair?

Admittedly, that would be irksome.  I do like Pageboy.  And Espresso a Mano.

The loss of that place would be a national tragedy.  That’s what I’m saying.  One does not simply allow the best coffee place in town to be lost because one’s girlfriend is a bit confused.  Those lattes could never be replicated, the heavens wouldn’t allow it.  Also, there is no better place in town to tattoo watch.

It didn’t happen.

It could have.  

He deserves a life, Chase.

I’m not disagreeing, Artie, I’m just saying —

That said life should be our mission and nothing else?

No but… look, with Rhys here, things changed.  I sort of started having a life again, you know?  Got out once in a while?  Thought about something other than the company and all the horrible things people do to one another for no good reason.  The world at large became a little more decent, despite the three hundred sixty-two nights a year we spend tearing around Pittsburgh wearing masks and carrying war hammers and scythes.  Because I remembered what it was like to have friends.  Someone I could trust, someone who wasn’t out for my name or my money or an endorsement.

Friends insulate you from tragedy the way no amount of money canThe way not even what we do can.

Would you do it, Artie?  Give it all up?  Go back to making art in beautiful places?  After all we’ve seen?  Jet off to Fiji when the weather’s bad?  To fashion week in Milan?

I never went to fashion week.

Queen of evasion.

Says the King of never having a serious answer to anything.

I have them.  I choose not to eject them from my mouth.

No.  I wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?

There are not couldn’ts, ChaseI choose not to.

People need us, Artie.  Whether or not there are other vigilantes playing rooftop hopscotch and whack-a-nutbag.  They need to know someone is around to protect them.  I though Rhys understood that.  He’s been protecting Linette her whole life, and then he joined us.  How can he just walk away?

This is what you were puzzling out?

I guess.  I wasn’t totally sure.

Chase, Rhys isn’t walking away.

He’ll have to tell her eventually.  And then what?  How are they going to get married and have adorable babies if he’s always running off to help us?

Rhys isn’t going to abandon you, Chase.  He wouldn’t.  We’ve been friends too long and, as insane as you make him, he loves this.  It’s important to him.  People can be more than one thing, big brother.

Can they?  When was the last time you were someone besides Valkyrie?  I mean not just for show.  For real.  When was the last time you were only Artemis Raimundo?

You choose the most irritating times to be profound, Chase.  I made a choice, you made a choice.  Rhys has made a choice.

He doesn’t have all the information he needs to do that.  Explains a lot though, doesn’t it?  Why she doesn’t mind him vacating suddenly?  Why she’s fine with having more than the usual couple in love amount of time to herself.  Why she’s constantly banged up or concussed, and it doesn’t faze her or anyone she lives with at all?

I told you I wasn’t sure, Chase.  I could be wrong.

How many people in the world can possibly have the call number for The Count of Monte Cristo tattooed on the back of their necks?  And I think the long-view payback suits, considering what Rhys told us happened to her friend Rifka.  The Count waited.  Kass takes her time.  Makes sense.

It was dark and a bomb had just gone off. 

You know what you saw, Artie.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have said anything to me or to Linette.  Look, this is good.  If Kass is Shadow Archer, Rhys doesn’t have to skulk around worrying about lying to her.  Neither of them will have to lie anymore.  They have the same fucking secret!  You couldn’t write this novel if you tried.

We can’t tell him, Chase.

You have slipped a gear, sister.

Look, Linette laid it all out.  Rhys has kept his arrangement to himself.  Kass has done the same.  It’s not our place to bust those walls down.  You and I are fine with her knowing.  Great.  She works with a team, and maybe she hasn’t told Rhys because she’s trying to protect them.  Five other people with their own lives and loved ones to protect.

Do you think it’s everyone in the house?  Fatima, Cree?  The father figure, the twins?  A whole bat family?  That would be rad.

I haven’t thought about it. 

Artie, all you do is think.”

I said I haven’t thought about it, Chase.

Shit, fine.  I still think we should tell him.

What aren’t you getting?

Artie, this is huge.  

They’ve been dating for five months.  They are in disgustingly adorable love, but they have also been lying to one another.  Regardless of it being mutual, there’s going to be damage.

Then my point stands, and Rhys is compromised.

Are you telling me you’d let her take a bullet if it meant saving other innocent lives?

What does that have to do with anything?

If he knows, Rhys, that’s what we’re asking him to do.  Forget that he loves her and put the lives of people he doesn’t know over hers.

He does that every time we go out.

It’s different, Chase.

How is it different?

If you can’t see it, you’re going to have to trust me.  It’s different.

If you weren’t my sister, I would be punching you so hard right now.

For pointing out you’re wrong?

For activating conscience and guilt.  For convincing me not to do what I know is the right thing.  You know what he’s going to think when he finds out we knew?  And he will find out.

He’ll see it as selfish.

Yeah.  And despite this lengthy conversation, he won’t be entirely wrong.  Because we don’t want to make him choose.  We’re afraid he’ll choose her.

Maybe a little.

And we’re used to our… what did you call it?  Insulation?

Yes.

This is absurd.

Chase, our lives are absurd.

Fuck.  Fine.  I will make an attempt to cope, Artie.  For now.  But if, at any point, it looks like this is going to blow up, I’m telling him.

Agreed.

Harpoon shake?

Harpoon shake.

Good.  I’m hungry. Want anything?

Coffee would not go amiss.

You got it, little sis.  Listen you know…  despite… I love you, Artie.  There is nothing in this world more important to me than you.

Ditto, meathead.  Now go away.  I need to cry. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hero Handlers is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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