Meteor Mags: Whipping Boy. © 2015 Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Description: In the third episode of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches, a hell-raising space pirate and the guys in her rock band embark on a harrowing mission of vengeance that will require them to shoot pool, drink cheap liquor, and avoid public restrooms. But before the night is over, they will cross paths with their biggest fan, and forever change his life.
4,400 words. Appears in the Meteor Mags: Omnibus Edition in paperback, Kindle, iBook, and Nook Book.
Life’s not worth living if somebody thinks he’s in authority over you.
—Robert E. Howard; Letter to Farnsworth Wright, 1931.
February 2029: Ceres.
Jeremy jabbed the needle into his arm until the ink ran out. He had wrapped a sewing needle in thread and jammed it into a pencil eraser. The night before, he had used this tool to finish the outline of a five-pointed star. Now, taking his only shift break to sit on the concrete steps behind the bar, he did what he could to fill it in. He dipped the needle into a tiny bottle of India ink. The wind blew a cloud of regolith down the alley and through the stink rising from the garbage dumpster near Jeremy’s side. The billowing asteroid dust obscured the stars from the sky, but Jeremy only cared about one star right now.
Behind him stretched the grimy wall of Red Hot Rod’s Bar & Grill. Red Hots served terrible food to terrible people, mostly asteroid miners the industry was in the process of chewing up and spitting out, along with the peddlers, whores, and drug dealers who eked out a living from their suffering. The well-off corporate types who ran the mining businesses never came to this part of town. The neighborhood was not the very worst on Ceres, but it was trying its hardest to win that reputation.
An artificial gravity field held everything to the rock, including a breathable atmosphere. But sometimes Jeremy wished the GravGens would fail and all of it would just go floating into space. Poverty held Jeremy to the rock with its own kind of gravity. At age fourteen, he worked every single day, and still he could not afford to leave. He could barely afford his slotbox at the neighborhood motel, the coffin-sized enclosure where he slept and hardly had enough room to sit up straight.
Most nights after his double shift, he simply sat outside, working on his star tattoos and listening to recordings of Meteor Mags and her band, the Psycho 78s. He could not afford a tablet on his wages, but he had a small file player, with ear buds, he had found in a dumpster. He wore it clipped to his shirt. It now held the first album from the Psycho 78s and a dozen bootlegged concerts from their tour with Mags as the singer. Jeremy listened to nothing but these recordings, over and over, day in and day out.
He wore his Meteor Mags t-shirt every day, too. The front of the black shirt showed Mags silkscreened in white. In cracked and faded letters, the text below her read, “Рок спасет мир!” Mags danced on a stripper pole, naked except for star-covered socks, her skin adorned with more than a hundred black star tattoos. The stars ran up and down her arms and legs, across her belly, over her left breast, around her neck, and down her back. The word ANARCHY adorned her chest.
Suddenly, the restaurant’s back door slammed open. It smacked Jeremy’s arm, driving the needle a half-inch deep. He cried out then jerked the needle free.
“Germs? What the hell are you doing out here?” It was McAllister, the head waiter. “Cutting yourself again, ya little freak?”
Jeremy shook his head at the ground. He knew it was pointless to argue with the head waiter.
“Yeah? Well, guess what. That screeching hooker you’re in love with is here.”
He raised his eyes. “Meteor Mags?”
“That’s the slag.”
Jeremy grabbed his ink bottle and jumped to his feet. “No way!” But as soon as he tried to get in the door, McAllister yanked it shut from inside. The lock clicked shut. “Hey,” he shouted. He rattled the door handle in vain. “Hey, come on, Mick!” He pounded on the door. “It’s not funny! Let me in!”
Then McAllister flung the door open. It struck Jeremy. He staggered backwards, lost his footing on the concrete steps, and fell to the ground in the alley. His ink bottle shattered beside him on the dirty pavement. Jeremy groaned, trying to get to his feet.
McAllister stood in the doorway and laughed. “Jeez, don’t cry over it, ya little fuckin’ baby.” He slammed the door shut.
Wincing, Jeremy made his way back inside. He still had a few minutes left on his break. He walked through the food prep and storage area. To his left lay the dish station where he worked. To his right was the line cooks’ area with its grill and fryers. Several cooks clattered plates and pans below the ventilation hood which never worked quite right. They laughed at obscene jokes, chattering loudly about nothing. Ahead of Jeremy, through an open doorframe, sat the wait station where McAllister and another waiter gave dishes their final preparation before taking them out to the restaurant. But as Jeremy stepped up, his boss stormed through, bumping into the young man.
“Hey,” Rodrigo shouted at him. “No, no, no. You get back to work, dish-dog. Back. Back!”
“But, Rod, I still have five min—”
“Break time’s over, Germy. Get back to work!” Rodrigo grabbed the boy’s shoulder, turned him around, and pushed him back to the dish station.
“Now!” Red Hot Rod tromped off to his office to snort two more rails of cocaine.
Jeremy slumped. He shuffled to the dish station, a large sink where he rinsed dishes before loading them into the mechanical dishwasher. Just then, McAllister came around the corner. He tossed a stack of dirty plates into the sink. Filthy water splashed all over Jeremy’s shirt, splattering his face and soaking his music player.
“Look alive, freak!” McAllister walked back through the wait station and out to the restaurant. The door separating the wait station from the main floor flapped noisily behind him, back and forth, until it settled.
“Hot pan coming through!” A cook shoved a scalding-hot skillet into the dish water. A rancid cloud of steam rose from the sink. It filled Jeremy’s nose and made him cough. “Oops,” shouted the cook. “Sorry, Germs! Ahahahahaha!”
Jeremy grabbed a towel and wiped his face. His ear buds dangled around his neck, but now they made no sound. His sopping wet music player would never work again.
“I don’t know why they’re so hard on you, kid.” The second waiter stood in the open doorway. He leaned against the frame, crossing his arms. “Hey.” He looked up and down the cook’s line and craned his head toward the back. “You can totally see Meteor Mags from our station. Come take a peak. I’ll cover for you for a minute.”
“Really?” Jeremy looked up hopefully.
“Yeah, but make it quick! Okay?”
“I will. Thanks, man.”
He walked through the wait station. The door out to the main floor had a plastic window, so the waiters would not run into each other coming and going. Jeremy stepped up to the window and peered out. His eyes scanned the smoky, dimly lit restaurant though the plastic. And there, at the end of the bar, standing at a pool table with her back to him, was Meteor Mags. Jeremy recognized the two men with her: Donny and Fuzzlow from the Psycho 78s. Jeremy’s heart nearly burst in his chest. He held a hand to the window.
The door swung in and smacked him in the face.
McAllister’s head popped up on the other side of the window, laughing.
Laughter came from behind, too. “Hahaha! We got you good, Germs! What a sucker.”
Rodrigo strode into the wait station. “What in the hell are you doing, Germy? Didn’t I tell you to get back to work? Quit fucking around!” He waved his hands angrily in the air. “Move it, dish-dog! Move!”
Jeremy wiped his nose. It left a bloody streak along the back of his hand. He shuffled back to his dish station, looking only at the ground. Once he got there, he scraped dirty dishes into a trash can, and he cried.
“Are you sure we got the right place?”
“Mhm.” Meteor Mags eyed the layout of the billiards balls on the table. Donny had broken the first rack of nine balls, but none had sunk. “Red Hot Rod’s. Owned by one Rodrigo Galipollas. A real scumbag. He’s definitely our man.”
“The only thing red hot about this place,” said Donny, “is the scorching case of scabies you’ll get from the toilet seats.”
“I’d rather piss in the bloody alley,” said Mags.
“From the looks of this neighborhood, you ain’t the only one.”
Mags took a drag from her cigarette. She set it in an ashtray on the high-top table beside her. “Just get ready to pay for the next round of rum, Donny. Nine off the one for the win. Corner pocket.”
He smirked. “Uh-huh. From all the way across the table, with seven balls in the way? Why don’t you just call it a foul and hand Fuzz the cue?”
“Why don’t you shut the fuck up while I shoot?” Mags thoroughly chalked the cue tip then made a bridge with her right hand. With her left, she raised the butt of her cue at a forty-five-degree angle. In one powerful stroke, she drove the cue tip into the cue ball like she was trying to pound it through the table. The cue ball leapt into the air, jumped the length of the table, bounced off the back rail, and kicked into the one ball. The one ball rolled obligingly into the nine ball, which dropped into the corner pocket.
“What in the actual fuck?”
“Donny,” said Fuzzlow, “don’t ever leave the nine ball near a pocket when you play against her. It’s pure suicide.”
Mags laughed and laughed. “Don’t you know who my gramma was? Best damn billiards player in all of history. We’ll be having that shot of rum now, Captain Clueless!”
“It’s gonna be a long night,” said Donny, fishing a few bills from his pocket.
When he returned from the bar, Donny set three shots on the high-top table. Mags raised her glass. “To sweet revenge,” she said, and they all clinked their glasses together.
Mags gulped. “Holy shit-fire, Donny. What kind of swill did you order?”
“Tastes like sodding petrol filtered through a dirty sock,” said Fuzzlow.
“Give me a break, you two. I asked for top shelf!”
“They must keep their cleaning chemicals on the top shelf. Let’s try the bottom shelf next time!”
“Living dangerously,” muttered Fuzzlow. “So, how do you know this Galipollas is our guy?”
Mags leaned in and lowered her voice. “Let’s just say I know a guy in the Port Authority who knows a guy who knows a guy, okay? This Rodrigo character is definitely the loser who ratted out Plutonian’s pirate radio station. And it isn’t the only one he’s done it to. He picks up the scuttlebutt from the mining crews in this joint, and then he sells the info to the pigs in the MFA.” Mags referred to the paramilitary squadrons who operated under the Musical Freedoms Act of 2019, patrolling the Belt to shut down illegal broadcasts and confiscate banned recordings. “It’s how he keeps a constant stream of blow going up his fat nose. We’ve got rock’n’roll DJs doing hard time thanks to this jackass.”
“Not after tonight,” said Donny.
“Goddamn right,” said Mags. “We’ll jump his arse when he leaves for the night, and that’ll be the end of that.” She lit a stolen cigarette. “Now rack ’em up, Fuzznuts. We might as well have a little fun in the meantime.”
An hour later, Jeremy got his opportunity to go out to the main floor of the restaurant.
“Hey, Germs,” called McAllister. “Get your mop bucket, freak. Someone just ralphed all over booth four. There’s puke everywhere! You’ll love it.”
He filled his bright yellow mop bucket a third full with steaming hot water and poured in some cleanser. He set in the wringer that squeezed out water from the mop, and then stood the mop in the bucket.
McAllister looked around the corner to the dish station. “Don’t take all day, ya little wanker!”
Jeremy grabbed some wet towels and wheeled the bucket through the wait station, steering it by the mop handle across the cheaply tiled floor. He pushed open the swinging door with the bucket. But as he made his way through the restaurant, he only had eyes for Meteor Mags. Then he bumped a customer’s chair.
“Oi! Watch where yer goin’, ya bloody fuckwit!”
“Sorry, sir.” He looked at the floor and steered his mop bucket. Then he looked up towards the pool table Mags and her bandmates occupied. They stood there laughing, clinking glasses of rum together. Jeremy heard Mags’ laughter through the din of the bar as if he had dialed it in on a radio. It was the most angelic sound he had ever heard.
Then his bucket struck a chair leg. Water sloshed all over a customer’s boot.
“Hey, fuckmuppet! What are ya tryin’ to do?”
“Sorry, sir. I was—”
The man slammed a handful of cards down on his table. He stood up. “Ya lookin’ for trouble, mate?”
One of the man’s three companions spoke up. “Hamish, will you leave the little sod alone? Look at him! Probably ’tarded. Let it go, man.”
“Shorty, don’t ya ever tell me what to do.”
“Whatever, Ham. Are you playing or passing?”
The customer sat back down and scooped up his cards. “I wouldn’t pass if yer mum was rubbin’ her tits in me face and tuggin’ at me knob!” He threw down a card. “See how ya like that!”
Jeremy steered his mop bucket over to booth four, glancing at Meteor Mags, but taking care not to bump into any more customers. When he arrived at the booth, vomit dripped from the edge of the table, covering the thinly padded seats. Thick, beige, and full of meaty chunks, it splattered into a generous puddle on the floor. The puddle, like quicksand, closed over and filled the areas where customers stepped in it as they exited the booth in a hurry. Sticky, smeared footprints led away from it.
Jeremy would have been stunned to discover the human digestive system could hold so much semi-solid material, if not for the fact that he saw this nearly every single night. With his bare hands and a wet towel, he wiped vomit from the tabletop. He was going to need a bin for the glasses and dishes, and a lot more towels.
“There he is! There’s our waiter! Hey! We need four more orders of turducken wings!”
“I’m, uh, not the—”
“Janice hurled all over our turducken wings! Now get us some more!” She slapped Jeremy in the back of the head. “We don’t have all night!”
“But I—” Then he had a realization. “Of course, ma’am. Let me get your waiter. We’ll have some fresh wings in a minute.” He wiped his hands on a clean towel, then tossed it onto the table.
“Well, hurry the fuck up!”
He stepped away from the booth with a weak smile and walked straight towards the pool table. This was his chance.
“Yo, Mags,” said Fuzzlow. “Fanboy alert. On your six.”
“Oh, here we go.” Still chalking her cue tip, she glanced over her shoulder. She peered over the rims of her tinted glasses at the approaching boy. He looked like he had been soaked in dirty dishwater. Damp filth caked his pants legs. Food stains marred his concert t-shirt, and spilled bleach added ugly fades to the white silkscreen design of Mags pole dancing. But Mags could see the adoration in his eyes. She faced him, and she smiled. “Ahoy there, little pirate. How are ya?”
He stood dazed like an escaping prisoner caught in a spotlight. His mouth moved without making a sound. Then he found his voice. “I love your music.”
“How sweet,” she said. “What’s your favorite song?”
Jeremy could scarcely believe the moment was real. “Something to Destroy. But I have bootlegs of every concert from the tour, and I love all of them, and I listen to them every day and nothing else, and they mean so much to me. I mean if not for you and the band, I don’t know what I’d do, I just—”
“Germy!” Rodrigo’s shout destroyed the boy’s gushing fountain of praise. He stormed up to the pool table, waving his hands wildly in the air. “What did I tell you about bothering customers?”
Mags looked at the man from the corner of her eye, then back to Jeremy. “That your boss?”
“Yeah.” He shrunk in shame.
“Germy, you clean up that booth right now!” Rodrigo descended on the boy, grabbing his shoulder roughly. Rodrigo shoved him away from Mags and back toward the booth. Jeremy stumbled. He looked to Mags with the saddest expression she had seen in a long, long time.
“Heya, Rod,” she said. “Why don’t you take it easy on the kid?”
“I don’t pay him to stand around and talk!”
“Is that so?” she asked. “Maybe you should, what with all that money you make ratting people out to the MFA.”
Rodrigo’s eyes went wide, and his mouth fell open. The look confirmed everything Mags had told her bandmates. He waved his hand. “I don’t have any idea what you’re—”
Mags flipped her cue stick around and brought the butt down on his forehead as hard as she could.
“Oh, shit,” said Donny.
“There goes our plan,” said Fuzzlow.
Rodrigo stumbled backwards, catching himself on the end of the bar. “Aaa,” he shouted, holding a hand to his face. “Estás muerta, puta!” He pulled out a shotgun from under the bar top.
Jeremy knew his boss kept a shotgun there, though he had never seen it used before. When he saw Rodrigo reach back there, he knew what was happening. Later, when he remembered this moment, he would never quite recall what spurred him to act so recklessly. He pulled the wringer out of his mop bucket by its handle and swung it at his boss.
As Rodrigo brought the shotgun around to Meteor Mags, the wringer caught him in the side of the head. Jeremy picked up his bright yellow bucket and doused him with searing water. Rodrigo screamed.
“Get back, kid!” Mags pounced. She yanked the shotgun from Rodrigo’s grip and clocked him in the jaw with it. He slumped to the floor.
Mags pumped the shotgun and fired it into the ceiling. A buckshot round shredded the smoke-stained tiles. She pumped the shotgun again. “Guys,” she yelled to Fuzzlow and Donny, “get this creep out of here!”
A chunk of the ceiling fell out and collapsed at her feet in a cloud of dust. Customers dove to the floor. Some crawled under their booths or backed against the wall. “Listen up, motherfuckers! You can follow me outside and die, or you can stay in here where it’s nice and cozy. Enjoy some drinks on the house! It’s all the same to me.”
Mags kept the shotgun leveled, encouraging customers to step aside for Donny and Fuzzlow. The two of them dragged Rodrigo to the wait station door. Donny pushed his way through, pulling a knife and growling like an animal at McAllister and the line cooks. Having heard the shotgun blast, they offered no resistance. Fuzzlow dragged Rodrigo’s body out the back door of the restaurant.
Mags followed them closely behind. “Keep drinking, or come and die!” The swinging door flapped shut noisily behind her several times. Then it went still.
A moment later, the shotgun roared again.
Jeremy threw open the back door and dashed down the concrete stairs. He came to a sudden stop. Donny brandished a blade, and Fuzzlow held the shotgun. They relaxed at the sight of the boy.
Jeremy saw Meteor Mags dropping shut the lid on the restaurant’s garbage dumpster. A trail of glistening blood led from a spot just in front of the steps, through the dusty slime of the alley, and up the front of the dumpster. The winds of Ceres would soon bury it below a layer of regolith.
“Heya, kiddo,” she said. “You got a clean towel on you?”
Jeremy nodded quickly. He stepped up and handed her a towel.
Mags wiped her hands on it. They left bright red marks on the cloth, which she then pushed under the lid of the dumpster. She clapped her hands together. “Nice save in there, little man. You got a name?”
“Love your shirt, Jeremy. I think it’s one of our best designs.”
“I saved up for it for months.”
“Months?” Mags looked him up and down. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her bra. She lit one up and handed it to him. Then she lit one for herself. She blew three smoke rings into the dirty asteroid air. “Tell me something, Jeremy. Do you like this job?”
Jeremy coughed. He’d never had a cigarette before. “I fucking hate this job. Everyone here treats me like shit.”
“Mhm.” Mags flicked ashes onto the ground. “Made you their little whipping boy, didn’t they?”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“Mags,” said Fuzzlow. “We should bounce. Like right now, before it gets hot.”
She raised her hand. “We always make time for our fans, don’t we?”
Donny rolled his eyes and shook his head. He knew they would have better luck arguing with a brick wall than trying to get Mags to move before she was ready.
“Tell you what, Jeremy.” She pulled Rodrigo’s wallet from her skirt pocket. She rifled through it quickly, pulled out the thick stack of currency inside, and stuffed the rest into the dumpster. “Why don’t you get the bloody fuck out of this neighborhood forever?” She handed him the wad of cash. “And get yourself a better job while you’re at it.”
He stared in disbelief at the money, then up to Mags, then back to the money. He took it and shoved it into his pants pocket.
“Yeah, kid,” said Donny. “And stay the hell out of the mines. Take it from someone who’s been there. You don’t want to end up in those hellholes.”
Fuzzlow added, “Don’t become a musician, either!”
Mags snorted. “Yeah. Worst job ever!”
“Mags,” Jeremy stuttered. “I—”
“I know, dear.” She bent down, leaned over, and placed a single kiss on his cheek. Then she put her hand on it and looked into his eyes. “See you at the shows, Jeremy.”
He smiled like he had never smiled before.
Mags raised herself to her full height. “Fuzz? Donny? Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Jeremy watched as the three of them ran out of the alley and disappeared around the corner. Then he ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
A week later, he laid out his forearm on the padded armrest. “It’s just a shitty stick-and-poke. I know it’s terrible. Would you fill it in for me?”
Tinta owned her own tattoo shop. She had decorated the walls with her original flash art and posters of her favorite bands. She looked at the half-dozen star tattoos outlined on the boy’s arm, and only one of them partially filled in. “It doesn’t really look that bad. Did you free-hand all these?”
Jeremy nodded, embarrassed.
“Why didn’t you fill them in?”
“I, uh. I lost my ink. It’s a long story.”
“We can fix them up no problem,” she said. With gloved hands, she took a freshly autoclaved needle and set up her tattoo gun.
“Wow,” said Jeremy. “That looks like a nice rig.”
“Nothing but the best. Why don’t you watch me fill in a couple, and I’ll explain what I’m doing, and then you can try filling in one yourself, okay?”
His eyes lit up. “Really?”
“We don’t get many Meteor Mags fans in here. Let alone ones that do their own ink.”
“How did you know?”
Tinta laughed. “Who else would be trying to cover their body in stars?” She worked the needle over his skin. First, she tightened up the outlines. Then she set about filling in the pentagrams. She talked him through the process, giving him tips here and there, and asking questions to make sure he understood. “By the way. Did you hear the new Psycho 78s single this morning?”
“A new single?!”
“It’s all over darkweb. Here. Hold this, and I’ll put it on for us.”
Jeremy took the tattoo gun from her.
Tinta touched the screen at her station and brought up a video channel. “Check this out. It’s called Whipping Boy.”
The video began with Meteor Mags, Donny, Fuzzlow, and their drummer standing before a burning building. Mags wore a pair of .50 caliber pistols strapped in holsters at her hips. She brandished a black leather bullwhip. Other than her steel-toed boots and her star-covered socks, she wore little more than a ribbon in her long, white hair.
As she snapped the whip, Donny blew into his baritone sax. Drenched in overdrive and doubled with a bass note two octaves lower, the horn pulsated a monstrous, relentless riff.
The drums kicked in, and Fuzzlow ripped a searing lead with his distortion-soaked harmonica.
Mags wailed at the top of her lungs.
What’s your name?
A life of pain!
Maybe you should take the cash and run.
Maybe you should get yourself a gun,
Before they kill your soul. Alright!
Fuzzlow raged into his harp before she began the second verse.
“She’s something else, isn’t she?” Tinta asked over the music.
“She sure is.” Jeremy would never forget Mags’ kiss, and her kind words. He gripped the tattoo gun in his hand. He knew it was not the kind of gun Meteor Mags sang about. But it was the right one for him.
“You know, I could use an apprentice around here,” said Tinta. “Someone to help with the shop and learn the trade. I’ve got more space miners wanting tatts than I know what to do with right now! You think you’d be interested in working here?”
“That sounds like the greatest job ever,” said Jeremy. Then he filled in the rest of the stars, all by himself.