"Aaagggh! Hank, it's the Monarch! Run, little Bro, run!" Dean dropped the chamois cloth he was polishing Brock's car with and ran towards the rear door in the empty airplane hanger. He missed the door by a good six feet, bounced off the plywood interior paneling and collapsed on the floor. In the silence a large fart could be heard.

"All right, mister, stay right there," Hank Venture swung around to face their visitor. He held his hands menacingly. "I know Kung Fu, Karate and Ti Chi! My hands are registered weapons in six countries!"

"Come on, nobody registers hands as weapons. I know, I tried. I'm Gary, your new bodyguard."

"Brock Samson is our only bodyguard," Hank insisted. He slowly spun around to follow the chunky young man with the five o'clock shadow as he walked over to a table and sit a briefcase on it. Two suitcases were dropped to the floor. He turned back just in time to see Hank, his legs twisted around each other, fall to the floor. Even as he fell Hank held his arms in what he assumed as attack formation.

"Daddy, why does the bed smell like hot monkeys?" Dean was groaning from his vantage point on the ground.

"OK. listen up," Gary said in imitation of a Command Voice. "Brock Samson is your nominal body guard but he's also Col. Gather's right-hand man when it comes to special assignments. So I've been assigned here to cover for Brock when he's called away. As he is just now. Something going on in Brungaria. So until he comes back you are to do whatever I tell you, when I tell you and with no lip, back chatter or smirking. Got that?"

"But aren't you, like 21 from the Monarch?" Hank asked before untangling his feet and getting up.

"Those days are behind me." Gary said in a dramatic voice. "I'm with OSI now."

"Does that mean you're not...evil?" Dean asked from behind the safety of a 55 gallon drum.

"Of course I'm not evil. I'm reformed. I quit the Monarch and joined OSI."

"Don't you have to grow your hair long and wear it in dreadlocks when you're reform." Hank wondered.

"Wow!" Gary shook his head in amazement. "When Brock said you guys were special I guess he really meant 'special'. You're thinking of Hassidic Jews. Here! Brock wrote you guys an introduction." Gary pulled a small square device out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Dean.

"This isn't a letter, it's an MP3 player." Dean protested.

"You know Brock's not big on writing. Just listen to it."

Dean had found the play button and pressed it. "Boys," Brock's harsh voice began, "this is me. I'm not going to be able to come back to the compound as quickly as I'd hoped. Col. Gathers has some special missions; things he needs cleaned up so I'll be away for a while. Anyway this is - um - Gary. He used to hench for the Monarch but he decided to join the OSI. He'll be in charge of you guys while I'm gone. He's not quite up to OSI standards yet but he's a lot better than anything that Monarch has to throw at you. So do what he says, just like if I were giving the orders, OK? Unless he turns evil again, then - well - I guess you ought to stop him. Oh, and don't touch my stuff." Brock's message stop as abruptly as it began.

"Wow, you can turn evil?" Hank wondered.

"My evil days are behind me," Gary insisted. "I was just wasting my life henching for the Monarch. Now I want to do something meaningful."

""Like keep us alive?"

"Uh - yeah - that too. So, where do I bunk?"

"Well, since you're taking Brock's place you could use his room," Dean suggested.

"No way is he taking Brock's room," Hank objected. "He's not Brock. He's not fit to use Brock's room!"

"Uh, yeah. I wasn't going to anyway. You heard what Brock said about touching his stuff. You got some place else." Gary crossed his arms against his massive chest and waited impatiently.

"Well, there's Sgt. Hatred's room," Dean suggested.

"Dad said to burn everything in it," Hank reminded him.

"There's the guard shack by the main entrance. It's got it's own toilet and everything - microwave, minifridge, TVs that can pick up everything..."

"You mean surveillance camera?" Gary asked.

"No, like everything. It has it's own satellite dish," Dean asserted. "It can pick up Gargantus 2, the secret Lunar base, even the Martians although you do not want to reply to anything the Martians say. They think it's an invitation to invade or something. Boy was my face red when they came that one time when I spoke to them and they tried to take over the Earth."

"That's because you called their Supreme Leader a "doo-doo head!" Hank interrupted.

"I don't recall any alien invasion." Gary looked at the boys dubiously.

"There was a lot of brain washing." Dean conceded.

Gary looked at the brothers. Were they pulling his leg, or had Dean really started an interplanetary war. His briefing on his charges suggested that either could have happened. "Go with the flow," Brock had advised him. "If that TV can bring in Skinimax then I'm in. Let's go look at it." He took a final glance around the hanger they were in, checking the security of the perimeter.

He saw a glint far off in the hills surrounding the Venture Compound. Without stopping to think, Gary leaped for Hank while shouting, "Everyone down!"

A bullet bounced off the floor where Hank had been standing with a "zing!" and ricocheted into the distance.

Gary dragged Hank behind a pile of airplane tires for the X-1 then stood up with the knives lashed to his forearms extended. He could see the glint of light reflecting off a telescopic sight, then it disappeared. He looked around for more immediate dangers but there were none. Reluctantly, Gary hit the retract lever causing his knifes to slide back into their holders.

"What's the idea, man?" Hank demanded.

"Bullet!" Gary snapped. "You two, into the house and stay put. I'm going out to recon."

"Nyet!"

A stilettoed boot jammed down on the rifle the girl was holding, forcing your fingers out of the trigger guard.

"We are assassins. We only kill when we are paid to!" The owner of the boot continued, speaking in a heavy Russian drawl. "Did someone pay us to kill the Venture Brothers?"?

The girl on the ground with the rifle shivered. Molotov Cocktease on a rage was not a pleasant person.

"No," the girl answered. She was about 18-19, tall, heavy chested, with dyed black hair with one magenta streak. Her face was thin, emaciated from too many drugs. 50s era transistors hung from her ears as decorations. The ring in her eyebrow, however was a capacitance detector that warned her of high voltage electric fields. She was dressed in a slick black outfit that covered her from head to feet. The boots were heeled - only 2 inches. Rank was indicated by the amount of heel one was permitted to wear. The suit was without any decoration except for a bright red heart over the nipple of her left breast. Most other uniforms have the insignia over the heart, a few inches towards the center of the chest. But the Blackhearts were an all-girl crew and said as much by placing their insignia were it was most visible.

"They have not!" Molotov repeated. "So - do we shot at the Venture Brothers? - no, we do not!"

"But he's my arch," the girl protested.

"Hank Venture? Ha! Do we belong to the Guild of Calamitous Intent? We do not! Only the Guild Archs other people. We are Blackhearts! We are professional assassins. Do not get the two confused. Now come my disobedient Kim. It's an hour in the punishment room for you."

Kim Duquenes sighed, put her rifle on safety and got up. She looked at her commander and shuddered. Molotov Cocktease towered over her, and would have even in her bare feet. She was a tall, rail thin woman, with slender hips and enormous and improbably high breasts all but revealed by the open front of her uniform that ran nearly down to her pubes. Molotov spun on her heels and marched away, Kim followed, head down. She wasn't afraid of the whipping that would follow. Since getting hooked on drugs, pain and feelings of self-loathing were an everyday experience. She was a bad girl. She deserved getting beat. What she didn't like was all the lesbian banter that went along with it. If she was going to get felt up she's rather it was by a guy, someone like that Brock Samson Cocktease was always going on about. Such a rough player he was, so strong, so domineering! He probably put out her eye for not coming across before this. Kim would have, if she were a man.

"Look, have you ever met the Venture Brothers?" she asked.

"Many times, actually. I have even - "babysat" - them."

"Yeah, but I went on a date with them. A Date!"

"And thus you hate the Venture Brothers? What did he do, stick his tongue down your throat, feel up those delectable breasts of yours?" Molotov teased.

"He didn't do any of that. I would have respected that if he had. He talked about Batman all night. And made cheap puns that only a ten year old would have found funny."

"He was boring, my little dumpling, and for that he has to die?"

"Yeah. I mean, no! I mean - Actually, yeah. I never met a man who so deserved to die before. And I swore I would be the one to do it, too!"

"But only if someone pays us to do it. Until then the Ventures are out of bounds, off-season. Verboten. Do you catch my drift?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good!" They walked the mountain side until they came to a car parked at the end of a trail. A Mercedes, black with tinted windows. As Molotov unlocked the doors she smiled that the girl. :"Do not be so downcast, my pet, he is, after all, a Venture. How long can it be before someone wants us to kill them?"

Gary spent most of an hour circling around to the place where he'd spotted the glint of light on glass. He was practising his stealth and stalking abilities. Finding where the girl had laid in wait with the rifle wasn't all that hard. The grass was crushed down in a large patch where she had lain. He didn't know whether the assassin was a man or a woman until he had laid down in the patch and breathed deeply of the soil there. The scent of perfume was strong on the ground. Gary had no idea what sort of perfume it was, having had little contact with women in his years henching for the Monarch, but knew he would recognize it if he ever smelt it again.

There were a lot of tiny heel marks punched into the ground. Stiletto heels! Blackhearts! But they had lead a away after just one shot. Had someone hired them? Or had someone gone off the reservation. Gary trailed them down to where a car had sat. He filed a report using his new Venture two-way communicator then headed back to the compound.

Doc Venture had not been pleased to find that his new bodyguard was the former Monarch Henchman #21. Gary had another letter from Brock to deal with that. That didn't stop Dr. Venture from grousing no end about how Venture Enterprises was not some employer of last resort, that he didn't like the way Ex-Nemesis and Ex-henchmen were being pushed on him as his bodyguards and that he was an important man and deserved a professional. Gary had hauled Dr, Venture off to detention in the Cacoon more than a couple times while he had been henching for The Monarch and was use to Dr. Venture's diatribes. It didn't make them hurt less when he was called a fat, over-grown oaf.

Brock had explained something to Gary before sending him out on this assignment. "Look - ah - Gary (Brock always had trouble remembering not to call him 21 any more) "The Ventures are a big name among super-villainy..."

"Him?" Gary had asked questioningly.

"Nah, his father, but everybody figures, you know, 'like father, like son.' So we keep a close watch on him knowing that eventually all the bad guys are going to try to kidnap him and steal his father's inventions. It's what they call a 'honeytrap.' So don't let his complaining get to you, and don't get let yourself get soft just because it looks like nothing's happening. Because something always comes up and when it does you've got to be at your best. Got it?"

24 had gone on about honeytraps once when they were playing on-line D&D. You had to be careful about what sites you visited on-line because some looked good but they only existed to upload porn to your computer. And viruses. That was before he died. Looking around the living room of the Venture Residence, a large 50s era collection of low furniture and throw pillows Gary found himself thinking too much about his past, henching for the Monarch and his best friend, 24. He had to get out of here - at least for a while.

Nightning Ales was across the street from the equally infamous "VIDEO HO S ", both victims of defective neon lighting. Gary walked into the strip club in casual wear, black jeans and a white polo shirt. He'd combed his hair back and even shaved twice so that his chin for once was nearly hairless. He dropped a twenty for the cover charge and another five for a beer that tasted watery. At that point he realized that he didn't have much more money to have a good time on. The OSI had given him some traveling money but his first real paycheck wouldn't come for two weeks.

Then again, looking at the local talent, he suspected he wouldn't be spending a lot of money here.

Finishing his first beer a little too fast, he ordered another and moved across to a booth where he could lean back on the cushions and people-watch He'd been sitting there for maybe five minutes when a nearly naked woman slipped into the booth beside him, took his arm and draped it over her shoulder and scooted real close.

"Do I know you lady?" Gary asked. She had enormous fake boobs encased in a very small bra and a double trail of pin-pricks down the length of her arm.

"Brock?" she asked, squinting through mascaraed eyes.

"Gary."

"Really." She continued squinting. "Eh, wanna a lap dance?"

"Not now. I just got here."

"Your loss." she got up. "Well, whenever your ready, just give ol' Robin the high sign."

Gary sipped his beer and watched the dancers lurching about on the stage like so many zombies. The room was fairly empty but with what they were charging for cover and drinks Gary suspected they were still doing OK. He wondered why the old whore had thought he was Brock. He looked across the narrow room to the mirror behind the bar. The whole place was covered in mirrors but this one gave a clear view of himself. The shirt, the pants, the mullet. My god, he did look like Brock. Too much so. He tried combing his hair to the side and folded the collar of his polo shirt inside so it looked more like a pull-over. He had come to idolize Brock Samson, the epitome of the professional spy but he didn't mean to go all fanboy over him. New clothes, new haircut first thing in the morning!

"Well, you don't buy beer, you only rent it," Gary sighed, got up and searched for the restroom. It was down a narrow hall with "dudes," "dames" and "employees only" painted on the three doors there. He was about to enter "dudes" when a girl came out of "dames." Gary stepped to the left to let her pass, only to find that she'd stepped to the left as well. Gary moved to the right, but so had she. He flattened against the wall, which didn't open up that much space considering his girth.

"Oh, I thought we were dancing," she laughed. She turned sideway to scuttle past him. Her heavy breasts slide across his chest like a line of fire.

"I'm sitting over there," Gary pointed out his table, "if you'd like to wait until I get back."

"But" she started to say, then after looking him over, gave him a smile and finished with "sure."

She was sitting at his table when Gary came out of the restroom, a martini in her hand. She smiled as he sat down and asked "Did you wash your hands?"

"What?"

"The sign in the restroom said all employees must wash their hands."

"I'm not an employee."

"Neither am I."

"Oh? Sorry! I didn't mean to ... it's just, you know. This is a strip club I just assumed..." His face was beet red as he tried to apologize.

"Hey, it's OK," she said with a laugh. "I was just teasing. There's, like, no other bars open in this town. What a hickburg, right. So if you want to wet your whistle, you come here, no matter what your sex is."

"Oh, sorry. It's just you're the only pretty lady in this joint and I didn't mean to offend."

"None take. So did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Wash your hands?"

"Of course I did. I'm not a pig. Also I flushed and would have raised the seat on the toilet, only I was using the urinal."

"OK, that was too much information! So what's your name. I'm Kim."

"Gary. I just started work near here and wanted to check out the lay of the land."

"Was that a double entendre?"

"What? No."

"Pity."

Kim finished her drink and held up the empty glass for the bartender to see. He was over in a minute with a refill. She put it to her lips and poured half the glass down her throat in a single gulp. Gary looked at her a little appalled.

"Rough day at work," she explained. "The boss yelled at me all afternoon.

"I had a boss like that, too" Gary said. "Always shouting. 'Minions do this, minions do that. Got tired of being a minion."

Kim looked at him oddly for a moment, then dismissed the 'minion' comment. She saw a beefy young man of middle height. There were lines about his eyes as of he had seen, if not "too much", certainly a lot. His hands were large and capable. There was an animal musk about him coming out from under his cologne. Gary in turn saw a girl with a big smile, big hair with a wild streak of red in it. She wore a short skirt with suspenders, a striped vest unbutton half-way down. When he looked at just the right angle he could see part of her bra. Below her skirt were fishnet stockings held up by visible snaps from her garter belt. Short velvet boots were on her feet, with surprising low heels. Gary had practised memorizing stuff until he could recall as many as eight things on a tray after only looking at it for ten seconds. Remembering what a girl was wearing when she was a hot piece of tail was easy.

Kim had leaned back into the booth and was now sipping at her drink. "I must be keeping your from getting a lap-dance. That's what you came here for, wasn't it?"

"Well..."

"Go ahead. It's OK. I like to watch. Hell, I'll even pay for it!" She smiled. "How 'bout that girl? She looks - pretty clean?"

Gary would have objected that she was too flat-chested. But he was really turned off by Kim's comment about liking to watch. The Monarch had liked to watch, too, apparently, while Dr. Mrs. The Monarch had torn his heart out.

"Maybe I should hire one of these girls to give you a lap dance," Gary answered, wanting to see how far Kim would go.

"I've already had one. Anyway I don't swing that way. Now if you wanted to give me a lap dance..."

Gary leaned over and kissed her. He may not know as much about women as the great Brock Samson but he knew an open invitation when he heard one.

He was short of breath by the time they broke off. Also he had a piece of olive stuck in his teeth.

"You got some place where we could be more private?" the girl asked.

"I wish. I just get here today. I have no idea how the boss feels about ladies in my room," Gary said with a sigh.

"I know. We girls are closely watched as well."

Gary thought that he could possible sneak her into the back of Brock's car at the compound but that sort of conflicted with Brock's hands-off-my-stuff rule.

Kim tossed off the rest of her drink then whispered, "let's go." Gary followed her out into the early evening darkness. They kissed some more on the veranda outside the club. Gary was on the verge of suggesting they look for a deserted park bench or picnic tale to finish urgent business when Kim's wristwatch started beeping.

"Shit! Curfew! Gary, this has been the most fun I've had since getting out of rehab. You going to here tomorrow night?"

"Maybe."

"Well, if you are, call this number," she scribbled on a piece of paper. "If anyone but me answers hang up and don't come here. OK?"

"Sure." he carefully folded up her paper and put it in his shirt pocket. He looked up and she was gone. A minute later a bottle rocket ignited a block over, and tore into the sky. It had disappeared before he could spot it.

He walked, a bit stiffly, down the parking lot to the motorcycle stalls and unlocked what looked like a child-size Harley. Gary didn't know whose bike this was. It was just there at the compound. As such he figured he had as much right as anyone to use it. He got it started and cruised out of the lot. "Curfew?" Gary thought as each bump in the gravel lot reminded him of their unfinished business. "If I didn't know better I'd think she was a spy or something."

Gary had just come in from his morning five mile run. (Truth be told it was more like 2 miles. Maybe a mile and a half. At the very least a full mile.) When he was approached by a bearded man wearing a long, flowing bath robe. "I am Doctor Byron Orpheus!" he declaimed in a loud voice. Are you the one they call - 'Gary'?"

"Yeah. What are you doing on the Venture Compound?"

"I! live! here!"

"No, according to the floor plan you live in that building over there. This is the Venture Compound. I'm in charge of security on the Venture Compound and by my book, you're trespassing."

"Oh, for heavens sake, boy, I have free run of the entire complex. I have saved Dr. Venture's life on numerous occasions. I'm not just a tenant, I am a friend!"

"Yeah, yeah. What do you want?"

"My daughter is coming home for a visit. I haven't seen her in Six! Month! I want her visit to be a pleasant as possible so I would appreciate it if you could take the boys away somewhere."

"Why? I thought Dean was dating your daughter?"

"He! Is! Not!" Orpheus again struck a dramatic pose and shouted.

"Funny, because that's what he said."

"He is wrong, which is why I do not want my daughter running into the misguided fool and causing a scene."

"Where am I supposed to take them. I just got here last night. I don't know anything about this town."

"I don't care so much where you go so long as my daughter does not have to run into," he shuddered, "Dean Venture." Orpheus turned and strode away, as if he had issued a command that Gary was sure to follow.

"You're not the boss of me, now," Gary muttered, entering the guard shack he had made into his new home.

A couple hours later, dressed in an ill-fitting Venture Enterprise jumpsuit Gary was sitting the in the X-1's hanger watching Hank show off a various tech devices they had to defend themselves. Dean was ignoring them by reading a volume of Giant Boy Detective. There was a lot of cool stuff here but Gary was beginning to see why Brock relied on his knife. It was simple. It was reliable, and you didn't need to wade through a dozen levels of menus to make it work.

A wave of strangeness sweep over the three of them. Gary looked out the open door of the hanger and saw a ripple in the air at the gated entrance to Venture Enterprise. The ripple deepened then split open. A moment later a man on a horse rode through the gateway. As he turned horse and pulled back on the reigns they could see someone riding on the back of his saddle. It was a girl with purple hair, wearing a black t-shirt with a skull, a short skirt and long striped stockings.

"Trianna!" Dean shouted, dropped the book he was reading and raced out the hanger door.

Gary watched in amazement. "I take it he knows her?" he asked Hank.

"Yeah, Trianna. She's hot."

"So, this is Doctor Orpheus's daughter? I was supposed to keep Dean away from her."

Dean had caught up with the Trianna and the man on the horse. He offered his hand to help her down but she brushed his hand aside, slide one leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground unassisted.

"Thanks for the lift, Outrider." she said.

"Now, darlin'," he said. "Call me Dad."

Trianna put her hands on her hips and stared up at him. "We've have this conversation before. You may be living with my mom but that doesn't make you my dad. My dad lives over there. I'm not your darling, your pet or anything. You're just the man who broke up my parent's marriage. Got it!"

"As you wish. Sunday at 6, then? Or would you rather I send a limo?"

"Sunday will be fine." She turned away and nearly bumped into Dean.

Dean smiled brightly for a moment then the smile drooped off his face as she scowled at him.

"I hope you're not planning to burn any more crosses in our lawn while I'm here." She began.

"Yeah - I'm sorry about that. In hindsight I can see that it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do."

"You think? Dean, why can't you think of these things before you do them?"

"You must hate me."

Most people have to practice that kicked puppy look. With Dean it came naturally.

"I don't hate you, Dean. I like you - as a friend. But the only thing we ever had together was that we lived next door to each other. That's all."

"And our dads."

"What does our dads have to do with anything. My father is a famous necromancer. You father is a - what?"

"A super-scientist!" Dean explained. "He's done incredible things. Anyway Necromancy, super science, it's all the same thing..."

"No it's not. Only people who are sensitive to the vibrations of the other realm came perform magic..."

"Not that. It's the stuff about fighting super villains, doing good, being the white knight to the world.

"Geez, Dean, what have you been reading lately? Oh, never mind. I will concede that our fathers can be - difficult. Which is why I want this weekend to go smoothly. I don't want you hovering over my shoulder all the time. OK?"

Dean's puppy-dog expression was getting longer. Oh, please don't start crying, she thought.

"Hey, Trianna, how's it going? Raising the dead yet?"

Oh, great, the goth girl thought. Wingus and Dingus!

"It takes a lot of study before you can raise the dead. I'm just beginning. There's a lot to learn." Trianna wondered how she was going to get rid of both Venture Brothers. Then she had an idea. "I've learned to do one trick, though. I can make a flower blossom. Watch."

Trianna stepped away from the boys and spread her arms dramatically. She chanted in a strange language for a moment, then pointed at the ground before her. There was a brief flash of light as if a bubble of energy had popped. The grass stirred, swayed and slowly a thick, waxy stalk poked its tip out from among the finer grass blades straighten and rose several inches about the grass, a green bulb grew on the tip of the stalk and and after a brief shiver opened into a round and bright yellow flower.

"Trianna! That was awesome," Dean said.

"Brock is gonna be so mad when he gets back," Hank complained. "You grew an dandelion in his lawn."

"It was already there. I just made it blossom. Oh, forget it. Some people just have no appreciation." She stooped and plucked the dandelion and sniffed it. It gave off a light, pleasant fragrance. There wasn't a button-hole on her shirt for it, so she stuck it behind her ear. Her hair covered it up instantly but she knew it was there, a thing of her own creation.

Hank was kneeling in front of her with a pocket knife out, slicing around the base of the flower. Gently he pulled the root out and shook the dirt off it. "Brock has worked on hands and knees for years to eliminate every dandelion in sight. I won't let a single one plant its roots here while he's gone!"

"Later, Dean," she called as she picked up the small backpack the Outrider had dropped before he left. Before she had taken a dozen steps toward's the part of the Venture Compound they called home, her father was running across the lawn, robes flying. "Pumpkin!" he cried as he sweep her up in a smothering embrace.

Then seeing the circle of boys surrounding her his eyes narrowed menacingly. "I thought I told you to keep this - this - person away from my daughter." he said to Gary while pointing to Dean.

Gary rocked back into a relaxed combat stance. "Is you name Thaddeus S. Venture?" he asked.

"I am Doctor Orpheus!" the Necromancer roared, "as you well know!"

"Yeah, but you see: I work for Dr. Venture. So if your name isn't Venture, you don't have the right to tell me squat."

"Why you impudent little pup. I'll teach you to defy the will of Doctor Byron Orpheus!"

Gary brought his arms up, the knifes strapped to his arms extended, kind of like Wolverine's claws. "Bring it on, Old Man."

"Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Can't I just come home to see me father without World War 3 breaking out!" Wiping the tears from her eyes, Trianna began running to the building where the father loved.

"This isn't over!" Dr. Orpheus warned before hurrying after his daughter. He caught up with her after a moment and lead her to the building, talking all the while about the things he had planned for them over the weekend.

Trianna found herself revising the list of things she needed to talk to her father about. Trying to run her life remained at number one, but bumped up to number two was the matter of calling her "pumpkin."

The three boys wandered back to the empty hanger. Gary picked up one of the Venture rapid-fast pistols and started tasking it apart. Hank found a couple G. I. Joe dolls at the bottom of the box of weapons he'd been showing Gary and was now re-enacting some fight between the Joes and Sphinx. Dean picked up the book he'd dropped earlier and held it for a while before realizing that he was holding it upside down. He turned it around and opened it at random. Several minutes passed without Dean turning a page. From time to time he would look at Gary, then turn back to the book.

"Aren't you going to say something?" he asked finally.

Gary looked at him in confusion. "About what?"

"Girls, love, growing up, stuff, letting go of the past."

"What do I know about girl," Gary said gloomily. I'm nearly thirty years old and I'm still living with my mom. At least when I wasn't henching for the Monarch. The only girl I've ever kissed was my bosses wife and even that was part of a joke."

"You kissed Dr. Girlfriend?" Hank exclaimed.

"It's Dr. Mrs. The Monarch," Dean corrected.

"No, Dr. Mrs, the Lying Bitch," Gary finished.

"Dad says her boobies are fake," Dean wondered.

"Brock says she used to be a man." Hank laid down his dolls and sat in a chair across from Gary. "Is she?"

"How would I know?" Gary complained. "She looks like a woman..."

"And what a woman," Hank added.

"Yeah but with plastic surgery what it is today, how would you know."

"Her hips are too big to be a man's," Dean observed. It's one of the things they're always going on about on CSI. And no Adam's Apple, though I hear they can shave those down."

"Dean - shut up!" Hank was hanging on to Gary's every word.

"I - I thought she liked me. She was always complimenting me on things well-done. Some times she'd come over the console I was working at to look at something and she'd brush up against me. All but shoving those tits of her in my face. She'd send me on secret missions to smuggle her cigarettes into the Cocoon. and all this time I thought she had feeling towards me the way I felt towards me. But it was all a lie!"

Gary paused to let a flood of emotion wash away before going on.

"Apparently they discovered my crush and were playing a game with me all along. She'd been rubbing up against me to see how it would take for me to lose it. And of course I did, and then she just laughed at me..."

"Yeah. we were there. It was during our Prom."

"So what do I know about women, huh?"

"You gonna fight the Monarch for her?" Dean wondered

"Are you nuts? She's dead to me!"

"You don't have the least little bit of feeling for her?" Dean persisted.

"She broke my heart. There's nothing left to feel."

"Ouch!" Hank said.

Gary picked up the disassembled automatic pistol. He sighted down the barrel then started putting the rest of it together. "I wouldn't mind the Monarch attacking so I can give him what for. He was the one egging her on, getting his jollies from watching his own wife make out with other men. That's sick. I'd love to smash his whining little face in. But Dr. Girlfriend can go to hell."

He'd found an old recliner in a storage locker and dragged it into his new "command center." He set it up so he'd have a clear view of all the perimeter camera monitors, easy access to the toilet and the back door. There was room enough for a cot but at the moment Gary liked the idea of sleeping on the recliner where he could keep an eye on things even when asleep. There was a small closet where he hung his spare clothes, and a paper bag at the bottom where he's stuffed the polo shirts that looked too much like what Brock would wear. His underwear went into a filing cabinet. He wrote a big "U" on the front of the drawer in a moment of whimsy.

And at 8 O'clock on the dot he called the number Kim had given him. She answered on the first ring. "The bar, 9 o'clock" she said and hung up before he could even say "Hello."

The bar, huh? That's sounded pretty promising. Fore-warned is four-arms or something like, Gary broke into Brock's room and liberated a handful of condoms. He'd replace them later, of course, but he needed them now. Or at least hoped he would.

The question of a private room bugged him since he still didn't know enough of the downtown to find a vacant motel room. Also he was a little embarrassed to be riding around on a midget's motorcycle, so he snuck back into Brock's room and took the keys to the Charger. This was definitely "messing" with Brock's stuff. But he figured Brock would understand. It's all about the ladies. Nine O'clock found him pacing nervously outside Nightnin'Ales. Five minutes and one pre-ulcer later Kim came around the corner of building and greeted him with a wet sloppy kiss. They went inside.

It was nearly midnight by the time Gary carefully backed the Charger back into the exact place it had been before he's borrowed it. He was walking somewhat bow-legged as he moved around the car checking that every thing was back whee it should be. He tossed the keys in the air and caught them, planning to put them back in Brock's room, then deciding that he just might want to borrow the Charger again. Kim had nearly pulled him into the back seat as soon as he unlocked the doors. A woman like that wasn't going to take this as a one-night stand. He put the keys back in his pocket. He could imagine the grief he'd catch if Brock ever found out he'd used the Charger, and in fact much later he did, since he had forgotten to set the seat and rear view mirrors to the positions they had been before. After an hour of screaming at him, Brock stopped, sighed, and asked if it had been worth it. "Oh yeah," Gary assured him.

But that was later.

Now, Gary was walking and floating on cloud nine at the same time, back to his bunk. he stopped short of the door as something flickered in the window of the guard shack. A shadow disappearing where one shouldn't be in the first place.

"I know you hate me," a deep voice whispered, "but I can't let you walk into a trap."

Gary looked behind, into the eyes of his dead friend, 24. "I know they're there. At least three."

"Four"

"You're dead. Don't confuse me with facts.

"I'm a spirit, set to wander this world..."

"Another time."

"But I'm real! Ask Dr. O."

"And I'm psychotic seeing you."

"Can I at least stick around to see you take them?" The voice faded away as did 24's visage.

Grasping the doorknob with one hand, Gary inserted the key and softly turned it. He could feel, but not hear the deadbolt retract. He stuck the keys back in his pocket and, still holding the door in place, planted one foot on the ground and the other on the door. A deep breath followed by a loud scream Gary kicked the door open, banging the person hiding behind it into the wall and out of commission.

The guy on the other side of the door missed with his garrote as Gary barrel rolled into the room. As he popped up someone dropped out of the ceiling on to his back. Gary spun around and felt the garrote intended for him slip around the neck of his attacker. An elbow in the kidneys got the man to let go, though he was already too busy fighting the garrote to fight anyone else.

Gary let the garroter strangle his compatriot for another minute before lashing out with a flying roundhouse kick that sent him bouncing off the wall and falling into a heap on top the first man. Gary unwrapped the wire cord from around the strangling man, picked him up by the collar and threw him through the open door. He was not surprised by the folded wings on the man's costume. He went over to the two men piled up by the door and pulled both of them to their feet before kicking them out.

He slammed the door and bolted it before turning on the lights. Nothing looked disturbed except for the open panel in the drop-down ceiling. Piling up a couple chairs Gary hoisted himself into the crawl space overhead. A faint trail in the dust showed where the henchmen had entered the guard shack through an air conditioner vent. He'd put a grill over that in the morning.

Gary dropped back to the floor and thought about 24 had told him. Lately he'd decided that 24 didn't really exist, he was just a projection of his own heightened combat senses. But...

The door to his clothes closet was open a crack. Not like he had left it. He sprang to the door and yanked it open.

"Don't kill me!" squeaked the henchman cowering on the floor. "Please!"

Gary looked at the number inscribed on the henchman's helmet. "Geeze, 130. You'll never get into the double-digits acting like this. How many times do I have to tell you, you'll never get anywhere hiding in a closet."

"I think this is the first time - sir!"

Gary wrinkled his nose. "130.- did you - soil yourself?"

"Maybe."

"Sheesh. Get your stinky ass out of here. You're in more trouble with the monarch than you are with me." He grabbed the henchman and dragged him off the floor, unlocked the door and throw him out. "And when you see the Monarch tell him next time to do it himself - if he has the balls!"