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Double-Secret Weapon

Written by Tony Frazier
Illustrated by Luis Peres


So I'm sitting in the food court, stomach growling as the smells of corn dogs and gyros swirl around me. There's a cardboard standee to my left and a Playco rep to my right. Her name is Fleming, and she's young and pretty, fresh out of college with a marketing degree and a dazzling smile. It's her job to take money, hand out glossies and keep me in line. I don't think she likes me.

The next kid in line hangs back a little. He's only five or six, and he looks intimidated at seeing his cartoon superhero idol come to life. His dad nudges him, and the kid shuffles up and slides the picture in front of me without a word. It's not really a photo of me, just a photo of a drawing of me, the same drawing they used for the cardboard stand-up.

"That's not the real Digger," some kid says from back in the line.

"What's your name?" I ask the kid in front of me.

"Make it out to Kenny," his dad says. The kid just stares, wide-eyed.

"Oh my God, they killed Kenny! Those . . ." It suddenly occurs to me that it might be inappropriate to yell out the word bastards in a mall full of kids. You'd think I would have already learned this, but I've been known to have trouble keeping my mouth shut, which is why I've never really tried to do the secret identity thing. Well, that and the rather obvious disfigurement deal.

"Sorry," I say to Fleming. It's entirely possible that I'll go the whole day having only spoken three different words to her: hi, okay, and sorry. A lot of sorry's.

I write, "Kenny, Be a Hero, Digger," on the picture using the swooping, company-approved penmanship that Playco made me practice for the last week. It's tricky to write with these big plastic shells on my arms. I'm supposed to write my name with a big flourish, but I can't pull it off. It looks lame, so I try for the jaunty underline instead. A little better than last time. "Be careful with that. The marker's still wet," I say as I hand the picture back. The kid practically dances away with his father in tow.

"I'm serious, Mom, look. His costume's all wrinkled, and his hair's all wrong, and the DBG's look totally fake," the kid's voice continues, drawing closer as the line moves.

Of course, the Driller Beam Generators look fake, because they are fake. The animation studio's artists took some liberties with the design, so my costume has been redesigned to match. The colors of my shirt and pants are brighter, I now sport a big "D" logo on each sleeve, and my forearms are encased in shiny plastic shells like blimps. I don't mind so much; I never thought the real Drillers looked all that good. At one point, I got so bored with them that I tried to weld on little Cadillac-style fins, give them some panache, but after two or three battles, they were beat all to hell. Looked really pitiful.

Another picture slides in front of me, a little blond kid, about the same age as the last one, staring at me with big, round eyes. His mother nudges him. "Tell him your name, honey," she says.

"Darren. I really like your show," the kid says, "And my favorite character is Dig-Dog."

Jesus wept. Of all the things I hate about The Digger Family Amazing Power Hour, and there are several, the one I hate most is the extended family they've saddled me with: Kid Digger and Daisy Digger and Uncle Digger and the Three Lieutenant Diggers: Ditch, Posthole and Grave. But the worst, the absolute worst, is the Mighty Dig-Dog, mainly because he's the real hero of the show. They play me as a big buffoon, always getting in over my head until Dig-Dog comes in to save the day. Bastard.

But I try to keep a smile on my face as I write on the picture. I hand it back and say, "He's my favorite, too." Smiling makes my face hurt.

The next kid is older, eleven or twelve maybe, and he's got an attitude. "You're not the real Digger, are you?" This is the snot-nose I've been hearing for a while now.

"Yes, I am," I say. "The real deal."

"You can't be," he says. "Those DBG's look plastic. Plus you're like, way too old."

"Okay, number one, the real Digger calls them Drillers, not DBG's like on the show. Number two, just because they look fake doesn't mean they are fake. Although, they are, but there are real ones underneath, trust me. And number three, I'm not old. Now who do I make this out to?"

Snot-Nose shakes his head. "Just write your name. I'll probably throw it away, anyway."

"You're not throwing it away," his mom says. She's blonde, well-dressed, working a little too hard to look like she's not getting any older. "I paid good money for that. If you don't want it, you can sell it."

"Who'd pay money for a picture autographed by some fake?" Snot-Nose asks.

"Listen, kid," I say. "When you get trapped in an alternate dimension by a resurrected god, and have to watch all your friends die while you barely escape, and then spend two freaking years trying to fight your way back to Earth, only to find out that they've turned your life into a cartoon while you've been gone, then I might listen to what you have to say about my authenticity or lack of same. Until then, watch the damn show, buy the damn toys, and shut up!"

My voice echoes from the rafters of the food court. I notice this because all other noise in the mall seems to have stopped. Did you ever see "National Lampoon's Animal House," where the Deltas go into the all-black bar and shout, "Heeeeey Otis!" and everybody stops and stares at them? Just like that. Snot-Nose and his mom, Fleming the Playco rep, passing lady with a stroller, corn dog girls in their goofy hats: all staring. Somewhere back in the line, a kid starts to cry.

"I'm sorry," I say to Fleming, and then turn back to the kid. "I'm sorry. It's just . . . It's been a long day, and I'm hungry. Maybe if your mom gives me her phone number, I could apologize more fully over drinks or something."

Mom stares daggers at me. "I don't believe you," she says.

"I am pretty unbelievable," I say. Did I mention my mouth control problems?

Mom leans in close, her perfume mingling with the aroma of chow mein swirling around my head. She smells really good. I try not to sneak a glance at her cleavage, and fail, as she says, "I'm reporting you to mall management."

"No, come back," I say as she storms off, dragging Snot-Nose with her. "At least let me sign the picture."

She keeps walking away as the next person in line, a tall man in a suit, steps up. I look around him at the retreating mom. "You know, this is probably for the best. I'm kinda seeing someone." If you can call sitting at the bar and paying her money to serve me beer seeing.

"This is not good," Fleming says.

I sigh and say, "I know. I'm sorry." I look down at the picture in front of me. "What's your child's name, sir?"

"Oh, it's for me," says a deep voice speaking in cultured, almost theatrical tones. "Make it out to Pierce. Professor Pierce."

"You know, I once fought a guy named . . ." I look up into a smiling, familiar face: tall, thin, with a regal crest of white hair sweeping back from his forehead.

"Hello, Digger," he says. "You've changed your costume, I see."

Oh, God.

Of all the things I've dreaded about doing one of these appearances—the goofy costume and the bratty kids and the cramps in my hand from signing my name a million times—this is the worst one, the one I tried hardest to convince myself wouldn't happen: one of my enemies showing up and starting a scrap in a crowded mall full of kids.

"Don't worry," he says. "I'm not here to start an altercation."

Which is good. As I recall, Professor Pierce was a nasty one. He threw needles. He threw them really hard.

I hate needles.

"Then why are you here?" I ask.

"Isn't it obvious? I'm a big fan of your show." He casts a nervous glance at Fleming, then leans in close. He's trying hard to seem self-assured, but there's something almost desperate in his eyes. "In fact, I . . . I was sort of hoping you could get me on it."

No. Freaking. Way.

"Uh, what?"

"Think about it," he says, looking back and forth between Fleming and me. "Digger versus his greatest real-life archenemy. It would give the show a real boost, I think."

"You weren't my archenemy, dude," I say. "We only fought, like, once."

"Twice," he says. He turns to plead his case to Fleming. "And they were epic struggles."

"So epic I don't remember the second one?"

"The L.A. tunnels?" he says. "Balloons full of poison gas surrounding you so you didn't dare deflect my needles?"

"That was you?"

"Yes, it was me," he says, gritting his teeth. He tries to force a smile back onto his face. God, did I look that insincere when that kid was talking about Dig-Dog?

"But what about my idea?" he continues. "You pay me a small licensing fee for the use of my likeness. I would even do the voice for scale. Think about it: the authentic villain with the real-life voice."

"I so don't remember that being you," I say. "I thought it was that laser guy . . ."

"Digger doesn't have any input into the creative content of the show," Fleming says.

"That can't be true," Pierce says.

"Fraid so," I say.

"But you could pull some strings," Pierce says. "I mean, they need your permission to make the show, obviously. You could threaten to withdraw it, or . . ."

"Seriously, dude, even if I wanted to, I can't," I say.

Pierce shoves his face close to mine, and this time there's no mistaking the desperation in his eyes. "Do you want me to beg? Is this fun for you? Fine. I'm begging. Please, I need this."

"Sir, you'll need to move along," Fleming says.

"No!" Pierce says, and I can see his eyes welling up. "Digger, I'm desperate. I can barely feed myself. They let me out on parole, but the terms . . . I'm not allowed near anything sharp. I got a temp job in an office, but I had to quit. They freaked out whenever I used a paper clip, and God help me if I sharpened a pencil. I can't work in a restaurant, I can't work in a garage, I can't even work in a bloody Wal-Mart because they carry sewing supplies! It's like they want to force me back into a life of crime. Please, you're the only one who can understand. You and I, we're special. We have a bond."

All I can do is shrug and say, "Sorry." It's "Sorry Day," apparently.

"Why won't you help me?" Pierce demands.

"The terms of Digger's contract are confidential," Fleming says.

"Screw that," I say. "You want to know why? Here's why: because when I was missing, Playco trademarked my costume, my name and my powers, figuring I wouldn't need them anymore. I came back from my two-year vacation in the nether realms to find out I'm now a big TV star. And then when I tried to help some folks out, I got slapped with a 'cease-and'desist' order from Playco's lawyers.

"I tried to fight it in court, but I found out that since Digger wasn't my real name, and I'd never taken steps to protect my use of it, Playco had every right to do what they did. I would probably have lost the case, but Playco offered me a settlement. They pay me a stipend and allow me to wear my costume and use my name, but only with their approval, to promote their show and their toy line. You think I can pull strings to get you on the show? I can't even pull any strings to get me off of it!"

My voice is echoing from the rafters again, and all traffic in the area has come to a complete standstill for the second time. At some point, I've risen from my seat, because I didn't like the way Pierce was looming over me. Didn't help, though. Pierce is way taller than me, so still looming. He looks like he wants to say something, but he just lets out this long hiss from his nose, and then he turns and stalks away.

He passes Snot-Nose and his mom, who are coming back with the mall's manager, a squat woman in a peach-colored suit whose name escapes me. I am so not in the mood for them to start yelling at me, and who knows? Maybe they won't do it right away. Maybe they'll, I don't know, stand in line and wait their turn to berate me like everyone else, except that there's not a line anymore. It's magically dissolved to nothing. Amazing how that happens.

"Great. You're going to get me fired before my six-month review," Fleming says.

"I'm sorry," I say. "It's just, you guys are gonna' need to provide better security at these things."

"Security? You're a superhero, and it's a bunch of kids," Fleming says.

"Not all kids, apparently."

"Mister Digger," says the mall manager. "Is it true that you've been verbally abusing the mall's guests?"

I start to protest, but Snot-Nose's Mom cuts me off. "I want him fired."

Off down the mall, I see Pierce going into a hobby store. Didn't he just say he wasn't allowed to do that? "She can't fire me," I say.

"I can't fire him. He's not a mall employee," the manager says.

"Then you fire him," Snot-Nose's Mom says to Fleming.

"She can't fire me either," I say.

"Yeah, see, Digger isn't technically an employee of Playco," Fleming says. "It's more of an independent contractor-type of . . ."

Pierce strides out of the hobby store, moving quickly. He's opening a small package as he angles back toward the food court. A woman trails behind him, trying to get his attention, but he ignores her as he fusses over something with his lapel.

"Well, somebody better fire him, damn it! He can't treat us that way!" the mom says.

"Your kid called me a fake," I say.

"Because you are a fake," Snot-Nose says.

Pierce disappears into a restaurant at the edge of the food court. The woman follows him in.

"Then call the cops," Snot-Nose's Mom says. "I want to press charges."

"For what?" I ask.

"Look, what if Digger apologizes?" Fleming asks as a tiny shriek escapes from the restaurant.

"I did apologize," I say.

"You didn't mean it," Snot-Nose's Mom says.

". . . things are totally plastic. Look!" Snot-nose is saying as he knocks on the shells.

"Stop that."

Pierce strides out of the restaurant and turns towards us. He's got a transparent plastic box in his hand now.

"So now you're a mindreader?" Fleming says.

"Excuse me . . ." I say.

"Even the toys look better than that," Snot-Nose says.

"Oh, first you try to suck up, now you want to fight," says the mom.

"Excuse me . . ." I say again as Pierce strides closer, his eyes locked on mine.

The manager says, "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to . . ."

I fire up the Drillers. I don't know exactly how they work, but I do know they work a lot more efficiently if you preheat them first, like the glow plugs in a diesel truck. When I hit the preheat, it makes this snap followed by a high-pitched whine like a camera flash charging. As soon as I do that, Mom stops talking, Snot-Nose jumps back like he's been shocked, and Fleming and the manager both turn to stare at me like I'm about to explode or something.

"There may be a fight," I say. "You all need to get out of the way."

"With him?" Fleming looks over at Pierce, who's practically trembling, he's so angry. "What's that he's got?"

"I think it's a toothpick dispenser," I say.

"Don't you dare start a fight in here," the manager says.

"I won't be the one starting it."

"Well, if you do fight, don't destroy my mall, at least," she says.

"You do know who you're talking to, right?" Pierce is looking down at the box in his hand, like maybe now he regrets having grabbed it. Maybe I can talk him down. "Hey, Pierce," I shout.

"Shut up!" he yells and flings out his left hand.


Light glints silver off something flashing toward me. I shove Snot-nose's Mom in one direction, use the momentum to bump the manager the other way with my shoulder as I lift my hand to intercept the needle strike. It's how I beat Pierce in the past, deflecting the needles with the metal Drillers grafted permanently onto my forearms.

The needles pierce the fake plastic shells, then a shock runs up my arm, courses through my entire body. I fall to the ground. The plastic Driller shell shatters when I hit.

My hand is numb. I look at the Driller, see three sharp points poking up a quarter-inch from the surface of the metal. Pierce's needles penetrated almost all the way into it and apparently hit the batteries, because little electrical arcs are jumping between the points. The hell?

I look at Pierce, who smiles angrily. "I practiced a little in prison," he says.

People run screaming from the food court, corn dog girls diving for cover behind the counter as I struggle to my feet. Snot-Nose's Mom turns to run, but Pierce spins a toothpick out of the dispenser and buries it in the back of her knee. She falls, screaming "Run, Kenyon! Go!"

Snot-Nose dashes for the nearest exit. Pierce spins another toothpick out of the dispenser. My right arm doesn't want to work, but my left is just fine. I pound the Driller into the floor and blast, shattering the plastic and sending out a shockwave all around me. Tiles fly up as the ground bucks and bends. Snot-Nose Kenyon screeches and falls as Pierce's toothpick goes spinning harmlessly up toward the second level.

Pierce snarls, spins out a toothpick and flings it at me. I leap out of the way, carom off a second floor balcony and launch myself at him. He throws another one at me in mid-leap. I deflect it with my left arm; the toothpick doesn't penetrate the way the needles did.

Pierce dodges out of the way of my landing, grabs for his lapel. I see three more shiny needles there, stuck through the fabric of his shirt. He flings them at me; instead of deflecting them, I try to dodge. I don't quite make it. The needles hit me in the left shoulder. Pain burns through the muscle, but the arm still works okay. The needles were so sharp, they passed right through.

I take two steps and hit Pierce with my left hand, simultaneously letting loose with a blast from the Driller. The Driller Beams, they're hard to explain. They're not laser beams; they're kind of like focused explosions. Through regular soil, they can blow open big tunnels, big enough for me to stand upright in and run. With stronger materials, I have to focus the blast more, so the tunnels are small and I have to move more slowly.

The point is, I could leave Pierce splattered all over this mall if I wanted, but I just want to put him down, so I diffuse the blast, fling him back fifty feet through a glass shop window.

Problem solved.

The food court is a bit of a mess. I didn't do any digging, but my shockwave ripped up tiles and flung tables and chairs in all directions. There's shattered plastic at my feet, a line of scattered toothpicks leading off toward the window I put Pierce through. My right arm is throbbing, rhythmic shocks from the Driller causing my fist to pulse open and closed. It hurts like hell. I turn to see Fleming help the manager shakily to her feet. Snot-Nose is kneeling by his mom, screeching for help.

"Hey, Fleming, you okay?" I ask. She nods. A lock of her perfectly-coiffed hair has fallen out of place and gotten caught in the corner of her mouth. She tries to puff it out and fails. Her blue eyes twinkle a bit at the silliness of it all; I hadn't realized just how gorgeous her eyes were, and I am way too old and in debt to start thinking this way about one of the enemy.

I start to tell her to call the cops and an ambulance when blinding pain rips through the back of my leg, just above the knee. I fall and look back toward the shop window where I last saw Pierce.

He's standing there, just in front of the window, his face wet with blood and tears. He holds glass shards in his hands; he snarls and draws one back to throw.

I can't jump. I'm a sitting duck, and so are the others. Snot-Nose Kenyon. Fleming.

"Wait a second!" I yell as I try to get my good leg under me.

"No!" He throws a shard. I try to dodge, but I'm just too slow. The glass buries itself in my left bicep. I scream and fall flat on my back.

"Stop it, Pierce! Don't make me . . ."

"Don't make you what?" he yells. "The mighty Digger, everybody's hero, big TV star! Try signing autographs without any arms!"

"I mean it, Pierce," I say. "I took it easy on you a second ago, because I didn't want to kill you."

"Right, but you're helpless now," he says. "Can't jump, can't punch. What can you do?"

"You ever see 'Voltron?'"

"What?" he asks.

"The Japanese cartoon," I say. "Or 'Robotech?' 'Starblazers?' 'Power Rangers' maybe?"

"What, are you just rubbing it in, now?" he asks. "Everybody's got a cartoon but me?"

"No, I'm just saying, these guys, every week they would fight somebody. And every week, the bad guys would be kicking their ass, until they pulled out their big ultimate weapon. The Blazing Sword. The Wave Motion Gun. And after a while, you just had to wonder, why do they bother fighting normally at all? Why not just fire the Wave Motion Gun the instant a bad guy sticks his head out of a hole?"

"Hello. It was a show. They had time to fill."

"Yeah, but you want to think that the character has some kind of reason. The best I could figure was, they were always trying to hold something in reserve. If your enemy knows the most extreme thing you can do, he can plan a way to counter it. But if you've got some ability that he doesn't know about, he'll underestimate you and you can beat him."

"So what?" Pierce yells.

"So quit now, so I don't have to use my Wave Motion Gun on your ass," I say.

Pierce hesitates for a second, then barks out a single laugh. "You don't have any 'Wave Motion Gun,'" he says. "And even if you did, I'd be able to counter it next time."

"That's the other thing about Wave Motion Guns," I say. "They're lethal. One shot, instant destruction. They have to be, so the bad guys can't get a second chance."

"You're bluffing," he says.

"Throw that glass and find out," I say.

He looks down at it, blinks at the sight of blood on his hands. He's been gripping the glass so hard, it's cut into his fingers. "Crap. Would you look at that? Fingers are all slippery. Couldn't kill you if I wanted to." He lets the glass slip from his fingers to shatter on the floor.

Later, after the cops have taken Pierce away, and I've signed Snot-Nose Kenyon's picture before he rode off in the ambulance with his mom, I'm standing with Fleming at the mall entrance. My wounds have been cleaned and dressed. The ambulance guys wanted to take me to the hospital, but I said no. I heal up pretty fast. "I think I'm going to get a beer," I say. "Want to come?"

"No," she says. "I've got a conference call waiting. You made a big mess here. The company has to reevaluate our relationship with you."

I nod. I expected as much. "Okay, see you later." I turn to walk away.

"Hey, Digger," she says.

I stop and look back at her.

"That stuff you said, about Japanese cartoons and your secret weapon. Was that true, or was it just a bluff?"

"What do you think?" I ask.

"I think it was a bluff," she says. "But if it were true, I thought it might make a good twist to add to your show, you know?"

"Yeah, that's a way to keep a secret," I say. "Put it on a top-rated TV show."

"Yeah, but it's a kid's show where the real hero's a dog," Fleming says. "No one would take it seriously. I just, I want to know because you were kind of staking all our lives on it. So, is it true?"

"Call me if you change your mind about the beer," I say as I turn and walk away. Maybe now I have a string to pull with Playco, after all.

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