Hero for Hire
By Milo James Fowler
It’s like a new car or a girlfriend. Sometimes you really want something, and you want it so bad, you know your life will be ultimately complete once you get it. Well, that’s how much I’ve always wanted a Samurai sword. Blame it on Akira Kurosawa or Tom Cruise, but I’ve just always had to have one, for as long as I can remember. But after I got one, I didn’t know what to do with it—kind of like my last girlfriend.
Watermelons and pumpkins were fun for a while, but it got a little messy. I kept the blade sharp enough to slice through just about anything.
Once, I considered using it on the cat that kept leaving mangled sparrows on my doorstep. I mean, why kill a sparrow? Where’s the fun in that? The stupid cat didn’t even eat them. I could almost understand it if he’d been hungry, but I’d seen him before swatting a dead hummingbird between his forepaws for no apparent reason. Just some kind of innate malevolence, I guess.
Anyhow, there I was with my Samurai sword, and I knew I couldn’t keep hacking up produce or start using it on the neighbor’s pets. So I put an ad in the paper. It said: Hero for Hire, then my phone number.
I knew all the cool moves because I’d seen all the cool movies: Kill Bill one and two, Seven Samurai, The Last Samurai, Heroes—that was an old TV show, I guess, but it had its moments. I read up on the code of the Samurai on Wikipedia, and I realized I couldn’t keep my skills and sword to myself. I’d gotten a great deal on eBay, and I had to use the sword for good.
The ad had been in the paper for about a couple weeks. No serious takers yet. A few prank calls, but I didn’t really mind. They just didn’t understand what I was advertising.
I thought about clarifying a little: “Self-trained Samurai with sword available upon request for problems, big or small.” But I thought that might be illegal somehow, or it might require some kind of license. I didn’t want it to sound like I was a hit man. The last thing I needed were cops on my doorstep. I got enough surprises already with the dead birds and all.
So there I was one fine Thursday morning after my graveyard shift at Target, stocking shelves and driving the forklift around without running into anything important. I had Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody screeching out of my speakers and the floor of my living room meticulously cleared of the usual bachelor debris. I was ready to begin.
The guttural hiyaa is always an integral component of any self-respecting Samurai’s first series of poses and forms.
I lunged forward, hilt gripped in both hands at my side, blade pointed behind me. I whipped it out and thrust it into the belly of the first invisible Ninja adversary. He let out a shriek of both surprise and agony before he fell to the floor and lay still.
But there were more. Ah, yes. They had me outnumbered.
I spun to the left, sword gripped horizontally at neck level. The unsuspecting Ninja caught it in the jugular and shrieked as blood gushed upward like a fountain. Then he hit the floor.
In slow motion, I caught sight of a Ninja in the kitchen with my well-trained eye. He was wise to keep his distance. And he was sneaky—in a lethal way. His hand jerked to his black belt and whipped out a few standard Ninja stars, hurling them in my direction.
CLANG! CLANG! SHIZANG!
The ninja stars were no match for my Samurai sword. I dispatched them easily and with extreme prejudice, snapping the blade side to side in front of me.
Oh yeah. I was that good.
My next forms included the Crouching Tiger, the Hungry Monkey, the Graceful Sloth, and my personal favorite: the Prancing Meerkat. All well-executed. All very lethal. The piles of dead invisible Ninjas around my living room, dining room, and kitchen were my witnesses.
But they were dead.
Practicing with my sword always worked up a sweat, so I stripped off the soaked red bandana from my forehead, the drenched white polyester gi I’d gotten from Party City last Halloween, even my soggy Target-brand boxers and socks. That’s right. I got naked.
Then my phone rang.
Sword in hand, I sprinted to the kitchen counter and took a moment to catch my breath before snatching the handset from its cradle.
“Hello?” Sweat dribbled into my mouth from my upper lip.
There was a pause, silence. But I knew somebody was there. I could hear him or her breathing. Not in a nasty way, like those prank callers: more like this person was waiting for something.
Maybe they were second-guessing the prospect of calling a “hero for hire”. Maybe they didn’t know if I would be able to help them solve their problems. Maybe they didn’t know what to say. They just needed me to get the proverbial ball rolling.
“How may I be of service?”
“You can pick up your laundry.”
“Expecting somebody else?”
Sweat sputtered as I blew out a sigh. “I told you I’m expecting a call!”
“That was two weeks ago.”
She was right. What could I say to that?
“Listen Darrell, I know you need your privacy and all that, and since you moved into the cottage out back, I’ve tried to give you your space, but when it’s your laundry I’m doing like I’ve done for the last twenty-seven years, and you just leave it here like you expect me to haul it out to you—”
“I’ll get it.”
“It’s on top of the dryer in the garage, like always.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“Well, I can’t assume you know where it is.”
Click. Dial tone. Always awkward. I blew out a sigh and grabbed my gi from the floor. Yuck, it was sweaty – and a bit stinky. When had I washed it last?
The phone rang again, and I snatched it up.
“I’m on my way, Mom!”
Silence. No breathing.
“Is this . . .” A frail voice began. “The Hero for Hire?”
Yes it is! I wanted to shout it from the rooftops and click my heels together. I was stoked.
“Yes,” I said in a deep voice, striking a debonair pose with my drenched gi draped over one arm. “How may I be of service?”
“How much do you charge?”
I frowned. It had never crossed my mind. “That depends . . . on the job.” I thought that sounded good. “What’s your problem?” That hadn’t come out right. “I mean, what—?”
“I was robbed.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“I mean, I’m sorry to hear that. What did they take?”
“My laptop. I had it listed for sale on Craigslist, and they came for it, came to my home. They took it and left without paying a cent!”
“You’re telling me!” A cough. “So what can you do about it?”
“Me?” Of course me, idiot! “Right. Um . . . What did they look like?”
“They were big and ugly.” That was it.
“Okay . . .” I frowned. Not much to go on. “How many were there?”
I nodded, trying to form a mental image. “When did this happen?”
“Just an hour ago.”
“Did you call the police?”
A pause. “They’re no help.”
I bit the side of my cheek.
“So you’ll help me?”
I surveyed the mayhem I had wrought all around my living room and dining room and kitchen. The Ninja corpses had vanished, as per usual. I shrugged.
“Yes. I’ll do what I can. You can give me all the details when we meet.”
“I just gave you all the details.”
I frowned. “Right.” Dead air. “So . . . Where do we meet?”
“Can I trust you?”
“Of course.” I was, after all, the Hero for Hire.
“Meet me at my home. I don’t get out much these days. Are you familiar with Mission Village Drive?”
Of course I was. It was my street. Fascinating. Oh, what a tangled web we weave . . .
“Yes, I know it.”
Another cough. “I’m a few blocks down from the Stadium Market. 2938, blue house with white trim. Got that?”
Five houses down from mine. “I can be there in a few minutes.”
“Well now, you must be some kind of hero. You going to fly?” A hoarse chuckle.
I couldn’t help but grin. “You leave that to me.”
“Okay then, I’ll see you soon.”
I set the phone in its cradle and shook my head. My first case. It was going to be awesome.
I tugged on my soggy gi and re-tied the red bandana around my head. I was good to go. I just needed some way to transport my sword. Guess I should have gotten a scabbard on eBay when I was making my fateful purchase. Glancing around, I spotted the black plastic bag sticking out of the kitchen trashcan. Why not?
I chucked the trash onto the floor—Taco Bell wrappers, mostly—and wound the bag around my trusty blade. Good enough. Anybody driving by would have no idea what I carried under my arm. I’d just look like a karate student on his way to the dojo. . . with a strange package under his arm.
Maybe it wasn’t the best idea.
But nobody would think I was carrying a real sword. They’d just think it was one of those wooden practice swords. Anyhow, I didn’t need to worry about it – I had bigger fish to fry. Somebody had robbed one of my neighbors, and I was going to do something about it.
What’s the saying? About starting in your own backyard? Well, that was me.
Head held high, I strode from my bachelor pad into my parents’ backyard, then crept on tiptoe down the side yard past the garage.
“Darrel, is that you?” Mom called from the laundry room.
Not now, Mother—I’m a man on a mission!
I dashed forward and scaled the gate, dropping to the other side with the stealth of an evil Ninja. The gate shuddered, then swung open behind me, crashing against the garage. I guess somebody forgot to lock it.
Mom’s voice faded behind me. Because I was running.
“Hot, hot, hot,” I gasped as the gravel scorched the tender soles of my feet. I briefly considered going back for my Crocs, but then I remembered that I read on Wikipedia that a Samurai would never wear Crocs. So I forged ahead, ignoring the third-degree burns on each foot, passing one house, two, three, four, until I arrived at the vacant driveway of 2938.
You’d think I would know who lived five houses down from me, but the truth was, I did not. Does that make me self-absorbed? I don’t think so. After all, wasn’t I the one with the ad in the paper offering my heroic services for the good of humanity?
Head held high, I strode up the hot driveway and rang the doorbell. There was one of those security screen doors, the kind with the black iron bars that make a home look more like a prison. The front windows had them, too. I’d hate to be stuck inside there during a fire.
The front door opened.
“Are you him?” came a frail voice.
I squinted to see through the dense mesh of screen. There was a plump, shadowy figure inside, at least a foot shorter than me.
“Yes, we spoke on the phone—”
“You don’t look like much of a hero.”
“You look more like that dumb kid who lives up the street.”
“Uh . . .” This wasn’t going how I’d hoped.
“You’re still living with your parents?”
I nodded mutely.
“How old are you now?”
The figure gasped, shocked. “When I was your age, I’d already popped out half a dozen kids!”
“May I come in?”
“I . . .” I raised my chin. “I’m here to help you.”
“I don’t want your help.”
“But you said on the phone—”
“That’s when I thought I was talking to a hero.”
“But you said you were robbed—”
“I was.” A short sniff. “Not that you can do anything about it.”
My shoulders sagged. My Samurai sword suddenly felt very heavy.
“You want in?”
“Not you.” The pitch and tone of voice changed abruptly as the deadbolt on the security door slid open. “Come here, Baby. Come to Mama.”
The barred gate swung open wide, and I had to step back to keep from getting smacked in the nose. A chubby grandmother stepped out in her fuzzy slippers and purple flowered muumuu and held out flabby, wrinkled arms to welcome. . . the cat.
My vision clouded crimson and zoomed to focus with crystal clarity upon the feline that sauntered up the driveway like it owned the place. I saw nothing else. I could feel the blood boiling up from the core of my being. My nostrils flared. My fists clenched the Samurai sword in its black garbage bag.
This was Fate, if ever I had been witness to it in the real world. In movies, it was something I expected. But in real life, when does this sort of thing actually happen?
It was destiny. I could feel it.
Sparrow-Killer, you have left your last bird on my doorstep. Slowly, with the stealth of a highly trained Samurai, I unsheathed my sword, allowing the summer breeze to grasp the bag and take it away. It floated in slow motion across the lawn like a tumbleweed.
“What’s that?” the grandmother asked.
But I was beyond hearing her. I had entered what can only be described as blood-rage. Yes. I was in the zone.
“Time to die, kitty,” I said through clenched teeth.
“What?” said the grandmother. She was a little hard-of-hearing.
“Time to die, kitty!” I yelled, brandishing my weapon high and striking the best pose I have ever struck. If only Akira Kurosawa could have seen me.
“Are you crazy? Get off my lawn.” She beckoned the kitty closer. “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just that dumb kid from up the street. You come to Mama.”
Yes, come closer, kitty, and meet your doom! Slayer of the innocent! Destroyer of the hummingbird! Sink your hellish fangs into my blade!
The cat’s amber eyes glanced up at me, then looked away, obviously uninterested. Oh, but it should have been interested, for I held its very life in my hands.
A car pulled to the curb, motor running, and a door swung open. But I barely noticed, because I was in the middle of that full-on blood-rage I mentioned earlier.
“Ma’am?” came a deep bass of a voice from the curb.
The grandmother screamed. “It’s them! It’s them! Oh God Almighty!” Frantic and a bit terrified, she shuffled backward in her slippers, beckoning to the cat in a frenzy. “Quick, come inside, Precious! Come inside!”
The red tint to my vision faded, and I turned from the nonchalant kitty to face the very big and very ugly guy now headed up the driveway.
“It’s them!” the grandmother screeched. “They’re the ones! They’re them!”
“Ma’am?” The man, a large, dark-skinned guy in an enormous Chargers jersey and black Dickies shorts, came to the end of the walkway and stopped, frowning at me. “Everything okay here?”
“What do you want?” she demanded, standing just outside her door but clinging to the security screen and peering through with jittery eyes. “Why have you come back?”
That’s when everything became clear. To me, anyway. The kitty was no longer my concern—even as it crept forward and started to slink against my bare ankles, swishing its great, bushy tail—
“Is this one of the robbers?” I asked, my attention split between the giant in the jersey before me and the wicked feline working its soft, furry voodoo on my shins.
“Yes—get him! Get him! What am I paying you for?” she shrieked.
“You haven’t paid me anything,” I muttered. It was the truth.
“Yeah, sorry about that.” The giant fished into a wide hip pocket and came up with a wad of bills. “My bro’s a real dumbass. I thought he’d paid you for the computer, and he thought I did.” Massive shoulders arched upward then collapsed, and he grinned sheepishly. “I got your money here.” But he didn’t come any closer.
He knew a dangerous Samurai when he saw one. I shifted the hilt in my grip, and the sunlight glanced off the blade, flashing straight into his eyes. He scowled, wincing and holding up a fleshy palm.
“What’s your problem, man?”
“You’ve got my money?” The security door eased open. “Is that what you said?” She sounded like a gentle grandmother all of a sudden.
“I don’t have a problem,” I said.
“What?” she demanded. “Shut up, you. And get off my lawn already. Go on home to your Mama.”
“You supposed to be some kind of ninja?” the man asked.
“Samurai,” I corrected him.
“Yeah?” He chuckled quietly, deep in his enormous chest. “Where’d you get that cheap-ass costume? Party City?”
“Yeah.” And it was on sale.
The man laughed out loud. “He givin’ you trouble, lady?”
“Yes.” She turned to scowl up at me. “He won’t leave!”
“I’m trying to help you,” I said.
“I’ll get rid of him, if you want,” the man said.
“Yes please!” she said.
I frowned. This was not going well at all. “Give her the money you owe her. Then I’ll go.” I hefted my chin and adjusted my pose slightly. I was starting to cramp up a bit. Posing for extended periods isn’t natural for a Samurai: we’re meant for fighting. My highly trained muscles were itching to get started. “I’m here to see justice served. That is all.”
“What?” The grandmother dug a finger into her ear.
“You’re gonna get yourself served, you don’t clear out.” The giant lumbered forward with obvious menace in his frame.
“Stop right there!” I tried to flash the sunlight into his eyes again with my blade. It didn’t work. I backed up, shuffling my bare soles across the grass. The cat followed, purring now as it wove some kind of figure eight hex around my ankles, rooting me to the ground. I found myself frozen where I stood, unable to change poses. What is a Samurai without his poses? “Get away from me!” I hissed down at the cat.
It glanced up at me long enough to hiss back. Then it scratched up my shins in a sudden violent fit, claws distended from furry limbs, striking in a blur of demon-possessed speed. I screamed in both shock and fury—not to mention pain—and brought down my sword, striking once, twice, thrice. But the kitty was too fast, dodging every lethal blow with more skill than any invisible Ninja I’d ever faced.
One strong hand clamped down on my arm and twisted it, and I cried out as another hand tugged the blade from my grasp and tossed it away.
“Here you go, ma’am.” A second ugly giant had appeared out of nowhere, identical to the first. He lifted up the cat, suddenly docile in his grasp, furry legs dangling limply, and handed it over to the grandmother.
“Why, thank you,” she said, gathering the kitty to her flowered bosom and stroking it with adoration. “You boys look so much alike—so handsome! Are you twins?”
“No ma’am,” said the first one with a grin, even as he gripped my arm in a merciless vice. I struggled to pull free, but he only tightened his hold.
“Oww,” I moaned.
He ignored me. “Here you go.” He handed her the wad of bills with his free hand. “Had to stop by the ATM. Two hundred, yeah?”
“Yes.” She took the cash and pocketed it in her muumuu. “Thank you.”
“Our bad.” He nudged his brother.
“Yeah, sorry ‘bout that,” the brother mumbled.
“Water under the bridge, boys, water under the bridge.” The grandmother beamed. The cat purred, nestled against her chest. “Say, how would you both like to come in for some milk and cookies?”
Both of the ugly giants grinned appreciatively and nodded. “Cookies would be great.”
“Follow me,” she said and disappeared inside. The giant’s brother followed.
“No cookies for you.” The giant shoved me onto the lawn and I fell sprawling beside my Samurai sword. He glared down at me with what possibly could have been mistaken for disgust. “Take your toy sword and go home, fool.” He maneuvered his bulk to head into the house.
“It’s not a toy.”
“What?” He stopped to fix me with a fierce scowl.
“It is a Samurai sword.” Slowly, I reached for the hilt of my blade and rose to my feet before him. “Have you no respect?” I had intended for my voice to come out strong and even, just like a hero’s. Instead, it lilted a little there at the end like a yodel or something.
The scowl remained on the dark brow of the giant. He was trying to stare me down, intimidate me. It wasn’t really working. After all, I had stared into the eyes of a demon-possessed kitty only moments ago. Compared to that—
“Whatever,” he muttered with a chuckle and stepped into the house, leaving the security door to crash behind him. “Sorry ma’am,” his voice came from inside.
The breeze picked up, rippling the dry hem of my otherwise sweat-drenched gi and returning the black garbage bag to me, floating across the grass like a ghost, brushing against my right leg. I stared down at it and remembered my bleeding shins.
Another time, kitty. Your days are numbered. I now know where you live.
Laughter erupted from the house. I nodded to myself. It was time to go. My work here was done. According to the tenets of the Bushidō, as summarized on Wikipedia, I needed no reward. I could go home with honor.
With my Samurai sword hidden in the garbage bag and tucked under my arm once again, I trotted home, grimacing as the soles of my feet made contact with the hot pavement. This, I could endure.
For a few yards, at least.
“Hot, hot, hot,” I gasped.
“There you are!” Mom greeted me in the garage, the door wide open. “Forget something?” She gestured to the heap of unsorted laundry balanced precariously atop the dryer.
I nodded. This too I could endure. I was, after all, a Samurai.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, writer by night. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 25 publications, including The Best of Every Day Fiction, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Daily Science Fiction. Stop by anytime: www.milo-inmediasres.com.
This story was first published in A Fly in Amber. Republished with permission.