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  1. I don't know where it came from but it's one of those stories that must be told. The Mauve Knight -- Gloom "Now what?" Stag watched as a cryptic warning message flashed on his computer monitor. The red-bordered block of unreadable script sank slowly to the bottom of the display and vanished in a faint pulse of color. The screen faded to black and began to emit a thin trickle of smoke. He switched it off. Plastic sagged and began to burn. Circuits sizzled. Sparks flew. Cursing, he crawled under the command console and jerked at power cords until the sparking ceased. A few seconds later the smoking display splashed into a stagnant pool thirty feet below the equipment ledge. Archie stepped in from the galley. "What happened?" He stirred a bowl of leeks and turnips. Nothing else grew in the Stag mansion garden. Even the weeds seemed to have given up. "Monitor shorted out -- started burning -- worthless piece of junk!" The slap-slap of Stag's sandals echoed off the cavern walls. He sank into a battered chair and pulled at his kevlar underwear. "I'm bloody well tired of this heat. The humidity is playing hob with our gear." "Most of it is pretty old anyway," observed Archie. "We need to get a crew in here to clear the rockfall blocking the stream bed. Then we could replace the worn out stuff and make a new start, eh?" "Right." Stag looked for something to throw at his sidekick, then decided it was too much trouble. He settled for whining. "And what kind of a secret headquarters would this be after a gang of blokes crawl all over it? Bloody twit." His anger wafted away. It was hard to maintain any kind of strong emotion. Archie sighed and stared at the unsavory mess in the bowl. Walking as if to the gallows he made his way to the lip of the ledge and dumped the mixture, bowl and all, into the slimy morass below. "Come on. Get dressed. We'll go into town and grab a burger." Stag looked up. Something resembling life showed in his eyes. "Can we take the Stag-mobile? You got it running, didn't you?" "It will run but you can forget taking it anywhere. The transmission is shot, all six tires are down to a rumor of tread and the license plates have expired. I told you." "Yeah." Stag shrugged a shrug which can only be described as representing finality, the end of all things, a last hope extinguished. "Well, this whole affair is expired, ain't it?" He led the way to the stairway, shoulders slumped in defeat. Archie killed the lights. "How long has it been since the elevator worked?" asked Stag as they rested on the first landing. "Two years?" "More like three -- maybe four. It was the first thing to -- um -- fail." "Right." The worn out superhero started up the next set of stairs. "I'll tell you one damn thing. I'm changing out of this bloody kevlar. It chafes a bloke. Nobody is likely to care enough to shoot at me anyhow." Archie followed, lost in his own contemplation of their wrecked enterprise. **** "Look at us," muttered Stag as the duo rolled down the cracked concrete driveway. "Superhero and sidekick setting out on a mission -- in a Nash Metropolitan. Some crime fighters we are." "Come on, man. The car is an antique. And we're on a mission for burgers. Seems to me this is a perfect vehicle for that." Stag paid no attention. "I had it all planned. Stagman, the caped crusader. We were going to be a dynamic duo. Worked out a Stag-Signal and all. It was perfect." "Well -- except that He-Whose-Name-We-Can't-Mention had a copyright on "dynamic duo" and "caped crusader". And all those other words were the property of various sports teams." "Yeah. Bloody copyrights. Collector of the Culpable just doesn't roll off the tongue like that other phrase. And Peppy Pair sounds almost -- um -- odd." Archie nursed the Nash up to thirty. A stream of honking cars zoomed by on the left. Neither of the Peppy Pair paid any attention, so lost were they in memory. "The Stag-Signal," snarled Stag. "That insurance company put paid to that." "Not your fault, sir. Not your fault. No one could have foreseen that they would claim that a superhero signal was in conflict with their company logo. I mean, it was a picture of a stupid deer!" "A big deer with horns," admitted Stag. "But not really like their picture of a deer." Archie turned on a side street and pulled into their usual spot at the Tomcat Lounge. He turned off the ignition. No conversation was possible until the Nash engine clattered to a stop, producing one last bang just before expiring. They waited for the smoke to clear. "The thing that annoyed me the most," said Archie, "was the mandatory color scheme. I had no idea there was a Federal Superhero Uniform Code." "Me neither." Stag got out and touched the peeling paint on the car roof. "Mauve. I'm not even sure it's really a color." "That female inspector from the FSCU said it was. Said it would enhance our brand, whatever that means." "Did she say that?" Stag frowned. "All I remember is that low-cut blouse and the nice rounded shapes it mostly concealed." Archie nodded slowly. "Come to think of it, that's all I can recall as well." "We never had a chance, Archie." Stag opened the lounge door. "The government and all those lawyers made sure of that. Come on. Let's get a burger and see who's on the stage. It might be Lady DD. You'd like that." "Hah! As if you wouldn't." Archie shook his head. "If she's on stage Donnie will be here. He never misses one of her shows." "We'll have to risk it. I'm hungry. He never talks much anyway." "True. Unless you count calf-like bellows as speech." Laughing, their burden of care momentarily relieved by making fun of a fellow human being, the Collectors of the Culpable strolled into the Tomcat Lounge. End
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