Red Five, Standing By
Red 5 comics sat on the corner of Asimov Avenue and Lily Drive in the southern part of Bacatta’s “downtown” area that stretched more than five miles. Nestled beside “Oddities knick-knacks,” and the sprawl of the rest of downtown Bacatta, it was one the main attractions for the nerd and geek community. Its only, minor competition was that of Gamer’s Galaxy a block southeast. Luckily Red 5’s proprietor, Winifred “Red” Asner, had no real competition. G-G sold only the few, odd comics that would fit in the last half of a game-book shelf, hardly comparable to the plethora of colorful covers that spanned the walls, shelves, and egg-crate aisles of Red’s store.
Like the others on downtown’s south-side, Red 5’s size had been fixed when the city’s reconstruction was planned over a decade ago– long before its owner had ever laid down her wares. At times, between six and nine shops shared these city blocks, and only a fortunate few had procured the coveted corner spot. Red had been quick enough to snatch up corner store before someone else got it. Others were less-fortunate, buried in the center of roads so that even pedestrians paid them less attention. Knowing that, Red kept the shop as quaint, stocked, and inviting as was humanly possible.
Presently she stood before the register on the small counter at the shop’s rear, centered between the four aisles of tables with egg-crates mouth-up on them. Every comic book from the heroic Avengers to the cunning and mischievous Zorro was stocked and alphabetized through-out the crates, while thick, hard and soft-bound compendiums filled the right walls, separated by category and shelved in common book-cases.
The compendiums stretched all the way to the store’s back wall, where the most precious first and signed editions hung in a locked, glass display case behind the counter. Though a few sold, to Red, they were more show pieces than sale items, and their prices reflected that. Conversely, the left wall was covered by hanging racks in slotted peg-boards, “New Issues” emboldened above them in large, black letters. The melange of hues below was speckled neutral around the random of hot and cold colors.
The din of the after-school rush rose and fell as bodies weaved through the store, or thumbed the merchandise. Every few moments, the bell rang as someone came or went, more than a few without purchases. Those lined up to pay were greeted by Red’s bushy, curly, red-hair and thin-rimmed glasses. She wore the standard dress of a lifetime nerd; a screen-printed T-shirt with slacks and flats a decade out of style. She shifted back and forth rhythmically, conducted a symphony on the register with one hand, and bagged merchandise to keep time with the other.
The typically nerdy kids with bad skin, braces, or oily hair– or any combination therein– were interspersed with their more hygienic, elder counterparts in a line that made its way down the middle aisle. At its rear, a smug kid in a blazer stood beside his gum-popping brunette as she wore a perpetual disgust above her crossed arms. They couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, but the kid had “spoiled brat” etched permanently into his forehead, as though tattooed their at birth.
The line shuffled forward to Red’s left-handed symphony, and the punctual whole-rests after dings as the drawer slid open. A cascade of change clamored over the audible flit of bills counted out. Plastic rustled, gave way to light tamps on carpet that preceded yet chime of the door’s bell.
Even before the smug kid and his disgust compatriot made it to the register, Red smelled trouble. It clung to the air like B-O at a Comic-con, thickened the air she drew through her nose and mouth with a pungent putrescence. She’d been attuned to it for years, once its long time victim and its occasional visitor. Its attraction to her was more than part of the reason she’d continued to live alone at thirty, and otherwise interacted very little with the world outside work. While it was lonely, it was better than the humiliation and drama of being rejected past her twenties. She was single, plain-looking, and her bushy, auburn hair was mostly usually wild, unflattering.
In short, she wasn’t in the mood to be harassed, but the spoiled brat didn’t seem to notice nor care. He merely stepped to the front of the line, sans merchandise, and slapped a business card onto the counter. Red eyed it from afar. The minute text inclined something about investment banking with Bacatta First National bank. It was BS, and Red knew it– probably Daddy’s card he used to get what he wanted.
She furrowed her brow, “Can I help you?”
The brat glanced sideways through the place like he owned it, “Yeah, I’m with BFN. Noticed your contract’s up at the end’a the month, wanted to by the place out.”
She slid the card across the counter, looked past him to the next customer, “Sorry, not for sale.”
He filled her vision by leaning forward with two, greasy hands on the counter. His blue sports blazer hung open over his t-shirt and above his blue jeans with a wannabe-Hollywood style.
He leaned forward, whispered, “Look, we can talk civilly about this, or I can get my attorneys involved. Believe me when I say, you don’t want that.”
She lift the card with a finger nail, slipped it in between her fingers, and leaned forward to slip it into his front blazer pocket, “Not. For. Sale.”
He straightened with a twitch to the corners of his mouth and eye, puffed out his chest. He gave a hearty laugh, “What, you think these dweebs’ll keep you in business forever?” His projected speech drew the collective ire of the “dweebs” around the store. “Hell, I’m offerin’ you a good deal. I buy out your contract right now for my girl’s new pad, you get a little extra, and we don’t have to take this any further.”
Red grit her teeth, crossed her arms with a sneer. Her spine went rigid, “These dweebs are my customers and friends. You think you can just walk in here with your Daddy’s clout and harass me? I think the BPD’d have something to say about that.”
He snorted, glanced around at the oiled faces of the kids in the store. He threw out his arms to beckon a fight. A few of the adults shook their heads in disgrace.
“You think a guy like me’s gotta’ worry ’bout cops?”
A deep, heavy man’s voice intoned from the left, “No, but I think a guy like you’s about to get thrown out on your ass.”
Red’s face went blank, her jacked slacked slightly. The brat turned, readied a smug grin. It sank as his eyes met the hulking figure of Cameron Burr, owner of Gamer’s Galaxy, world-wide internet celebrity, and local brick-shithouse. He took two, wide steps toward the brat, dwarfed he and his girlfriend in width, and nearly a foot in height.
At one time, Cam had been a heavy-set guy with a failing business. Then, some of his friends got together to create an internet-video network– like a television station– that revolved around Gamer’s and their interests. One of the shows, called “Tank Training,” had been Cam’s attempt at a reality fitness show. Among other things, Cameron had lost the majority of his fat, compressed the rest into thick bulges of muscles. The show’s format then changed as he began training others, but it had left him looking like a pro-boxer with more confidence.
Red’s dull expression tracked him toward the brat, but it disintegrated as Cam met her eyes.
“This asshole botherin’ you, Winny?” He asked, with a nickname she hadn’t heard since Junior-High.
Red wet her dry mouth. To see Cam in her store was like a celebrity sighting and rival confrontation rolled into one. More than that though, he seemed more than ready to defend her, risk a possible fight. Even if he pummeled the dumb bastard into the ground– which he most certainly could– Daddy’s lawyers would have a field day. Then again, Cam had always been the gentle giant, and now had piles of money from his internet network to stand on. Perhaps there wasn’t as much risk as she thought.
She stammered a reply, “Cc-am? Y-yeah. Little brat just walked in here–”
“That’s slander,” the kid spat.
Cameron crossed his massive arms, “Why don’t you turn your little ass around, and get outta’ the store before this dweeb shows you the door.”
The kid glanced around with a smug sneer. The kids and adults alike had begun to whisper to one another. Clearly they knew something he didn’t. Even his “girl” seemed afraid.
She leaned into whisper with her high, valley-girl nasal-ness, “Mark, that’s Cam Burr, the guy from the web.”
A slow, terrified realization crept across his face as his confidence fell away and his chest deflated. A shit-eating grin spread across Cam’s mouth. His head titled with a lift of his brow as he spoke, “You recognize me now, don’t you?.”
Red saw her chance, took it. She flanked the bratty punk with a harsh tongue, “You think everyone in here’s just a loser ’cause they’re not rich pricks like you. Then you see someone you know isn’t, and you’re instantly terrified they’ll rat you out for the asshole you are. You’re pathetic kid. Now get the hell outta’ my store before I have Cam toss you through it.”
The kid’s mouth hung open like a stoned catfish. He met Cam’s eyes beneath brows that jumped with an eager smile. A voice sounded behind him, caused him to whip backward. One of the “dweebs” had shouted “Would you kindly fuck off!” Others began to spout curses and swears to decry the kid’s continued presence. He swiveled to see eyes and faces directed at him as a chant rose through the store. Up-thrust fists kept the beat.
“Prick. Go home. Prick. Go home. Prick. Go Home.”
The kid was thrown for a loop; a spoiled brat to put a moldy apple to shame. His “girl” began to drag him away as he rubbernecked his way out, completely dumbfounded. The terror in her face feared the of oily nerds getting too near, her humiliation tenfold the red on her cheeks.
Red called the door’s bell rang, “Let it hit your ass on the way out!”
Cam gave a roaring chuckle as the brat passed from the store. His dumb expression was still plastered over his punk-face when it disappeared around the left-corner windows. The people roared with a cheer that brought a timid smile to Red’s face. Cam braced a hand against the counter to lean as the crowd settled, returned to their former moseys.
“Thanks,” Red said through her shy smile.
Cam tossed a dismissive hand sideways, “Eh, fuck ‘im. No one messes with Winni Asner.”
She chuckled, “It’s Red now.”
Cam’s smile was charmed by hers, “I know, but you’ll always be Winni to me.”
Her face reddened slightly, “That’s fine.”
Cam caught it, his face glowed, “Don’t worry ’bout guys like that. Long as you pay your rent, you got nothin’ to worry ’bout. And if you ever need anything… you know… business-wise, don’t hesitate to stop by the shop.”
Red saw a curious gleam in his face, thrilled by the rush of adrenaline from the confrontation. “S-sure,” she stammered. “I… uh– I could use some, actually.”
Cam straightened with a wily eye, expertly contained a tickle of glee beneath his aloof exterior, “Why don’t you stop by the shop tonight then? Say… 8:15? Max and Riley’ll cuttin’ out ’bout then. And we can… you know, talk.”
Red’s cheeks and ears suddenly matched her hair, “Uh.. s-sure. Talk. About business.”
“Right,” Cam said with a single nod.
She half-laughed, half-inhaled a breath, “S-so I’ll s-see you then.”
He smiled, readied to turn away, “I’m lookin’ forward to it.”
Her heart jumped as he turned away with a smile, stepped outside to where he thought he was out of view, then thrust a fist in victory. She giggled with a exhilarated breath as the next customer took their place in front of the counter, ranted and raved about her expert dispatch of the brat. Through-out the next hour, each of the people in the store that had seen the confrontation gradually stepped up to say their piece or thank her. As the last of them trickled out, her day returned to normality.
Night gradually overtook the store outside as Red’s adrenaline waned, gave way to anxiety at the meeting ahead. What neither Red nor Cam could have anticipated was its eventual outcome. That cryptic “meeting” clearly became a date as she thought more on it.
Red’s anxiety peaked as she pushed open the door to Gamer’s Galaxy. Despite it being just around the corner from her shop, the place was mythical to her. Its hardwood floors, aisles of board games, and stocked walls of rule-books, card games, and video-games had been immortalized in countless internet vids. The terror of a celebrity meeting skyrocted as she met her other, fellow Bacatta alumni Riley and Max; two, beautiful, female lovers she’d known nearly as long as Cam. Like him, they were world-famous for their vids, doubly so even for their extreme popularity. Even so, they greeted her as old friends as they pointed her to the backroom and readied to leave.
Red’s notion of a date was asserted as she stepped into the small, back-room where the large, gaming table sat with its leaf in. Atop its deep, glossed mahogany finish were a pair of place settings and a handful of bags from Emma’s Diner next door. A plethora of scents wafted from them to fill the back-room with mouth watering
Cam stood up from the laptop on a card table in an alcove at the room’s left, “Winni! S-sorry, I was just finishing up some last-minute stuff.” He shut the laptop, stepped toward the table, “I know it’s not much, but Emma’s place is our mainstay. I-I wasn’t sure what you’d want, so I bought the place out. I-I figured we’d both be hungry after a full day of work.”
Red’s anxiety dissolved at Cam’s own, stammering terror. A wide smile crossed her face, plumped her cheeks.
What took place in that small stock-room, was the furthest Red had ever known from a business meeting. They drank, smoked, talked well into the night; until dawn drew their respective open-hours frightfully near. Even so, neither cared. They split for work only to return the next night, then again, and again before the dates blossomed into more.
Before either of them knew it, they were celebrating an anniversary, Red’s patronage nearly doubled from the consequences of that fateful day she’d slain the snot-nosed brat’s ego. The confrontation became a legendary tale that spread through the “dweebs” of Bacatta, tripled her earnings, and created a safe place for the nerds and geeks. They finally had a place of peace, where they didn’t have to fear those rich pricks she’d spoken of. As Red 5 continued to grow, it appeared more and more apparent that– for the dweebs at least– Red 5 would always be there to welcome them, shield them. Forever more, they knew, Red 5 was standing by.