It’s like a new car or a girlfriend. You know how sometimes you really want something, and you want it so bad, you know your life will finally be 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 wanted one for as long as I can remember. There’s really no logic behind it. I just had to have one.
But then after I got it, I didn’t really know what to do with it. Kind of like my last girlfriend. It was like: Okay, so I’ve finally got one. Now what?
Watermelons and pumpkins were fun for a while. It got a little messy, though. 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.
Why kill a sparrow? Where’s the fun in that? The cat didn’t even eat them. I could almost understand it if he’d been a hungry kitty. But I’d seen him once before swatting a dead hummingbird between his paws for no apparent reason. Some kind of innate malevolence, I guess.
He caught me watching him. That’s why he left the sparrow in front of my door today. I’m sure of it.
Anyhow, there I was with my Samurai sword, and I knew that 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 read something like this:
Hero for Hire.
That’s what I was thinking. I knew all the cool moves; I’d seen all the cool movies. Kill Bill (one and two), Seven Samurai, The Last Samurai, Heroes. (That’s a TV show, I guess; it was pretty cool, once.) I read up on the code of the Samurai on Wikipedia, and I realized that I couldn’t just keep my skills and my sword to myself. I’d gotten it through a great deal on eBay, and I had to use it for good.
Hero for Hire – then my phone number. The ad had been in the paper for about a couple weeks now. No serious takers yet. A few prank calls, but I didn’t really mind.
They probably just didn’t understand what I was advertising.
I thought of clarifying a little: Self-trained Samurai (with sword) available upon request for problems, big or small – then my phone number. But I thought that might be illegal somehow, or might require some kind of a license. I didn’t want it to sound like I was a hitman or anything. The last thing I needed was the cops on my doorstep. I got enough surprises already with the dead birds and all.
So there I was one fine Thursday after my graveyard shift at Target stocking shelves and driving the forklift around (without running into anything important so far this week). I had Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody screeching out of my bookshelf speakers and the floor in my living room had been meticulously cleared of the usual bachelor debris. I was ready to begin.
The guttural HIYAA is always an integral component of any self-respecting, self-trained Samurai’s first series of poses and forms. Everyone knows that.
I lunged forward, hilt gripped in both hands at my side, blade pointed behind me. Then I whipped it forward and thrust it into the belly of my first invisible Ninja adversary. He let out a shriek of 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 my left, sword gripped in my right hand horizontally, pointed to my right at neck level. The unsuspecting invisible Ninja caught it in the jugular and shrieked as the blood gushed upward and outward like a fountain. Then he hit the floor.
In slow motion, I caught sight of a Ninja in my kitchen with my sharp, 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 of your standard Ninja stars, which he proceeded to hurl in my direction.
CLANG! CLANG! SHIZANG!
Ninja stars were no match for my Samurai sword. I dispatched them easily and with extreme prejudice, snapping the blade from side to side single-handedly 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 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. That’s right. Point made.
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, the soggy Target Brand boxers and socks – pretty much everything. That’s right. I got naked.
And then my phone rang.
Sword in hand, I sprinted to the wall next to my fridge and briefly caught my breath. Then I snatched the handset from the cradle.
Sweat dribbled into my mouth from my upper lip. Originally, it came from my forehead; my upper lip didn’t sweat. Not like Nixon. At least, I didn’t think so.
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 a skilled, self-trained Samurai would be able to help them solve their problems. Maybe they didn’t know what to say. Maybe they needed me to get the ball rolling.
“How can I be of service?”
“You can pick up your laundry.”
“Expecting somebody else?”
The 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? “Well … ” Not off to the best start.
“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 and all, but when it’s your laundry I’m doing like I’ve been doing for the last twenty-seven years and you just leave it here like you expect me to haul it out to you-”
“I’ll come get it.”
Where did my gi go? It was the only clean thing I had left – soggy as it was.
“You do that.”
“Ok, I will.”
“Yep.” I nodded.
Dead air. “Ok. It’s on top of the dryer, like always. In the garage.”
“I know that. You don’t have to tell me.”
“Well, I can’t assume you know where it is, you know. It’s not like you make a habit of picking it up.”
Point taken. “I’ll come over in a minute.”
There was a pause, silence. “I’m hanging up now,” I said.
Click. Dial tone. Always awkward. I blew out a sigh and grabbed my gi up from the floor. Yuck, it was sweaty. And a bit stanky. When had I washed it last?
The phone rang again, jarring the silence. I snatched it up.
“Yeah, okay, I’m on my way, Mom!”
Silence. No breathing. No Mom.
“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 – maybe not in that order, but you get the idea. 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 even crossed my mind. How much should I charge for my services? “That depends … on the job.” I thought it sounded good. “Tell me, what’s your problem?” Wait – that didn’t come out right. “What-”
“I was robbed.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“I mean, I’m sorry, sorry to hear that. What did they take?”
A short cough. “My laptop. I had it listed on Craigslist for sale, and they came for it, came to my home. They took it, then left without paying a red cent!”
“You’re telling me!” Another cough. “So. What can you do about it?”
“Me?” Of course me, idiot! “Right, me. 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?”
“Two.” I nodded slowly, trying to form a mental image in my mind. “When did this happen?”
“Just an hour ago.”
“Did you call the police?”
“I called you.”
“Right – but before me, did you call the police?”
A short curse. “They’re no help.”
“Okay.” I bit the side of my cheek in thought.
“So you’ll help me?”
I surveyed the mayhem I had wrought all around my living room and dining room and kitchen. (It was all the same room, really.) The invisible ninja corpses had vanished, like usual. I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Yes. I’ll do what I can. You can give me all the details when we meet.”
“I just did.”
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 home. I don’t get out much these days. You know Mission Village Drive?”
Of course I did. It was my street. Fascinating … and ironic. Oh, what a tangled web we weave . . .
“Yes, I know it.”
Another cough. “Well, I’m a few blocks down from the Stadium Market. You know where that is?”
“Yep.” Quickly, I corrected myself: “Yes indeed.”
“2938. Blue house with white trim. Got that?”
2938 … Five houses down from mine? “Yes, 2938 Mission Village Drive. Blue and white house. 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.” Click. Dial tone.
I set the phone in its cradle and shook my head. Wow. My first case. It was going to be awesome!
Quickly, I tugged on my soggy gi and retied the red bandana around my head. I was good to go. I just needed some way to transport my sword. I guess I should have gotten a sheath or something on eBay while I was at it. I glanced around quickly, but all I spotted was the black plastic bag sticking out of the kitchen trash can. 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 it was I carried under my arm. I’d just look like a karate student on his way to the dojo … with a weapon of some kind.
I frowned. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea.
But nobody would think I’d be carrying an actual sword. No, they’d just think it was one of those wooden practice ones. I forgot what they’re called. Anyhow, I didn’t need to worry about it. I had bigger fish to fry. Somebody had robbed from one of my neighbors, and I was going to do something about it.
What was the saying? About starting in your own backyard? Yeah, that one. Well, that was me.
Head held high, I strode from my bachelor pad in 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 am 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 had forgotten to lock it.
“Darrel?” Mom’s voice faded far behind me.
Because I was running.
“Hot, hot, hot,” I gasped, the sidewalk scorching the tender soles of my feet. I briefly considered turning around for my Crocs, but then I remembered what I’d 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 to benefit the good of humanity?
Head held high once again, I strode up the hot driveway and rang the doorbell once. There was one of those security screen doors, the kind with the bars that make a home look like a prison. The front windows had them, too: black iron bars. I’d hate to be stuck inside during a fire.
The door swung open behind the prison gate.
“Are you him?” came a frail voice.
I squinted to see through the bars and dense mesh of the screen. All I could see was a plump shadowy figure 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 shadowy figure gasped, shocked. “When I was your age, I’d already popped out half a dozen kids!”
Well, I can’t do that. “Can 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, not the dumb kid up the street who lives with his parents.”
“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 then changed abruptly, and the deadbolt on the screen door slid open. “Come here, Baby. Come to Mama.”
The security door swung open, 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-
My vision instantly clouded with red 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 my Samurai sword in the black garbage bag.
This was Fate, if ever I had been witness to it in the real world. In movies, it was something I usually expected. But in real life, when does this kind 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.
“What’s that?” the grandmother asked.
But I was beyond hearing her. I had entered what can only be described as the blood-rage. Yes. I was in the zone.
“Time to die, Kitty,” I said through clenched teeth.
“What?” asked the grandmother. She must have been a little hard-of-hearing.
“Time to die, Kitty!” I yelled, brandishing my weapon high and striking the best pose I ever did strike. If only Akira Kurosawa could see me now!
“Are you crazy? Get off my lawn.” She beckoned the kitty closer. “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just a dumb kid. You come to Mama.”
Yes … Come closer, kitty. Come closer, and meet your doom! Slayer of the innocent! Destroyer of the hummingbird! Sink your fangs into my blade!
The cat’s amber eyes glanced up at me briefly, 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. A door swung open. But I barely noticed, because I was in the middle of that full-on blood-rage I mentioned.
“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 maybe even 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 big and ugly guy headed up the driveway.
“It’s them!” the grandmother screeched. “They’re the ones! They’re them!”
“Ma’am?” The man – a very 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 it with jittery eyes. “Why’d you come back?”
That’s when everything became clear. For 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. It felt soooo goooood . . .
“Yes – get him! Get him! What am I paying you for?” she shrieked.
“You haven’t paid me anything.” It was the truth.
“Yeah, sorry about that.” The giant fished into a very wide hip pocket and came up with a wad of bills. “My bro’s a real dumbass. I thought he’d paid ya for the computer, and he thought I did.” Massive shoulders arched upward and collapsed, and he grinned sheepishly. “I got yo’ 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 from the blade, flashing straight into his eyes. He cursed and scowled, wincing, holding up a fleshy palm.
“What’s yo’ problem, man?” he muttered.
“You’ve got my money?” The security door eased open tentatively. “Is that what you said?” Suddenly she sounded very kindly.
“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.” That’s right. 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 retorted.
“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 up 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 and came up empty.
“Yo’ gonna get yourself served, you don’t clear out.” The giant lumbered forward with obvious menace in his large 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 warm, lush 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? (Rhetorical question.) “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 I 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.
A strong hand clamped down on my arm and twisted it violently, and while I cried out, another strong hand tugged the blade from my grasp and tossed it.
“Here ya go, ma’am.” Another ugly giant had appeared out of nowhere, identical to the first. He lifted up the cat, suddenly docile in his grasp with furry legs dangling limply, and handed it gently to the grandmother.
“Why, thank you,” she said, gathering the kitty to her flowered bosom and stroking him lovingly. “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 grip.
“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 fine,” said the brother.
“Follow me,” she said and disappeared inside. The brother followed.
“No cookies fo’ 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 turned his bulk to go 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 steadily 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 I was trying to yodel or something. Pathetic.
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 noticed my bleeding shins.
Another time, Kitty. Your days are numbered. I now know where you live.
Friendly 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 Bushido, 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 scorching 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 rocking dryer.
I nodded. This, too, I could endure. I was, after all, a Samurai.