A Contentious Retirement

The stage was set. We had both agreed to a duel at high moon, which was Witch’s idea of comedy. Granted, she could only appear when the sun was below the horizon, which took regular old high noon out of the picture entirely, but…

But frankly, it didn’t matter to me at all. I was tired. Exhausted, really. For five long years now, we had been going back and forth, fighting over the people of Denver as though they were mere setpieces on our grander stage. For so long, I had assumed I was Doing The Right Thing, saving lives, putting out fires, the whole shebang.

How many lives were lost, though? Was forcing people to live in a constant state of fear really the answer? For, truthfully, people were afraid. They ran screaming, fleeing the city in droves whenever even the thought of Witch and I sparring entered their heads. When we did have one of our semi-regular blowout battles, the city felt more like a ghost town than a thriving metropolis for more than a week at a time.

What was the point? The newspapers had been asking those questions more and more regularly, and these days, I found myself agreeing with them more often than not. I had no idea if Witch’s ideas of ruling were even that bad. Hell, I had no idea if she even wanted to rule Denver.

I… I didn’t know what she wanted at all.

And I had no plans to find out. Because at high moon, I was going to die.

I took a deep breath in, then out. She may have chosen the time, but I had chosen the place. It was an innocuous enough street, but distant from any potentially innocent bystanders, and (most importantly) it had very convenient sewer access.

The plan was simple. Witch was fond of her magic blasts of power; I, of my technologically marvelous six-shooters. The people knew plenty well to expect explosions, but after this one, I would simply… not be. They would find the charred remnants of my gear, and perhaps bits of a blackened skeleton.

Cliche, I know. But effective. Sure, some would question if I was really dead, but conspiracies such as that die away with enough time as more bizarre theories start to drown out the relatively tame truth.

And that would be it. Witch would win, I would lose, and I would find some nice beach town to waste away in, spending my remaining days fishing and sunbathing and absolutely wrecking my liver.

The moment of my death approached like a thief in the night, but all I could feel was a sense of calm. Any bystanders, perhaps even Witch herself, would take it to be the cocky smile I was known for, but only I knew the truth: I would know peace at last.

“Cowboy.” Her smooth, accented voice glided over the cold pavement between us as she took form in the dim moonlight, staff in one hand and broom in the other

“Witch.” I tilted my hat down at her. It was only polite.

“After all these years, you still think we can settle our differences one on one?” she asked, the lilting words attempting to mock me.

“Mano a mano,” I confirmed. “Thought I’d give it one last try afore we settle things the barbaric way.”

She laughed a manic laugh, like glass shattering and scraping my very bones. I shuddered.

“After all this time,” she said softly. “You’re still a fool.”

I sighed and lowered my hand to my hip. “I’ve learned a lesson or two.”

She noticed the movement, and I could see a smirk growing on her lips. She raised her staff as my fingertips brushed the worn wood of my pistol.

“Easy, Witch,” I said. “It don’t have to be like this.”

“It won’t be,” she said. “Not after tonight.”

“On that, we agree.”

As one, we moved, she slamming her staff to the ground and me grabbing the revolver and taking wild shots of specially modified flashbang bullets. The hail of lead met a fierce wave of dark power expanding like a shockwave of void, and the blast was…

Well, I assume it was spectacular based on the sound. As for me, I shed my gear as soon as I could see her spell take shape, and I dropped into the surprisingly spacious storm sewer with a light splash that I felt more than heard.

Overheard, I heard screams, not of pain, but of fear.

“He’s… he’s gone,” I heard one man say, the sound barely intelligible through the manhole that I had slid down and replaced.

“Dead, another said. “Look. It’s his gear. And… is that…”

“A finger.”

I smiled to myself. Mission accomplished. I reached into a somewhat hidden hole and grabbed the backpack I had stashed earlier. It had a few changes of clothes and enough cash to get me on the road, but not much else.

“But where did she go?”

I froze.

“Did they…”

“They must have killed each other!”

That was not part of the plan. Had I really finally defeated the Witch by pure accident?

I allowed myself one light chuckle. The sound echoed demonically in the enclosed space.

“Who’s there?” a whisper responded. “Show yourself!”

Chuckling may have been unwise.

Moving as quietly as I could, I slung the pack over one shoulder and tiptoed through the inch or two of standing water, careful to not lift my feet above the surface to prevent the slightest splashing sound.

“I can hear you!”

Apparently I wasn’t that stealthy. So sue me. Creeping through the night was more Witch’s wheelhouse.

“Come out now!.”

That voice… why was it so familiar?

I rounded a corner, raising my hands.

“Hey. I don’t know who you are,” I began, “but I’m—”

“Shit.”

I blinked, struggling to focus in the near-perfect darkness.

“…not a threat,” I finished.

“What the hell are you doing down here?”

Finally, with that full sentence, my two brain cells created a spark and made the connection that I had been refusing to see.

“What happened to your accent?” I asked lamely.

“What happened to yours?” Witch challenged.

“I’m dead.”

“Me too.”

I opened my mouth, then clamped it shut. “Wait, what?”

Witch clicked on a flashlight, and for the first time, I saw Witch out of costume and at a distance of fewer than fifty feet. She was younger than I expected, no older than her thirties, and without the ghoulish black makeup, I could have mistaken her for a grad student, or perhaps a particularly tired librarian.

I could see the same evaluation taking place in her eyes. I didn’t wear a mask in my superheroing, per se, but only because a bandana fit the theme better and still protected my identity.

“You’re clean-shaven?” she asked.

“Beards are itchy,” I replied. “What do you mean, ‘me too’?”

“I was tired of the back and forth,” Witch said. “Tired of all the fighting. I just… wanted to stop. But I can’t turn myself in, not after all I’ve done. They’d have me in jail for life.”

“You did kill people,” I pointed out.

“As have you. I notice you’re not exactly retiring in glory.”

“I… didn’t really expect you to go down today,” I admitted.

“For that matter, aren’t you technically abandoning your people?” she asked, raising one eyebrow. “Some hero. What if I were a tyrant?”

I shrugged. “Winning is easy. Governing is harder.”

She snorted. “Lame reference.”

“So you’re not going to blast me?” I asked.

“That would defeat the purpose of faking my death, so… no. And you aren’t going to shoot me?”

I raised my hands. “With what gun?”

“So we’re at an impasse.”

“Could just be a regular pass,” I said. “You go your way and I go mine.”

“And we’ll both go our separate ways knowing full well that the other is alive and what they look like so we can hunt them down if we so choose? Nuh uh. No can do.”

I sighed, feeling the same sense of exhaustion that had led me to my fake premature demise. “Well, either kill me or come with me, then, because you’re putting me behind schedule.” With more bravado than I was feeling, I stepped past Witch, leaving my back exposed. No sneaky blast of power struck me.

I made it almost twenty feet before she replied.

“Can… can I?”

“Can you what?” I asked, turning back.

“Can I… um… come with you?”

This time, it was my turn to raise an eyebrow.

“It does feel safest, after all,” she said hurriedly. “That way we can be more sure the other won’t… you know… do something.”

“Uh huh.” Even I could hear the disbelief in my tone.

“And…” Her voice was even softer than a whisper now. “I don’t really know anyone else. I don’t even know how to be normal. I’ve always been… Witch.”

“So who do you want to be?”

“Alice,” she said without hesitation. “I… I think it’s a nice name.”

I clenched my fists and ground my teeth as the debate raged inside.

But I couldn’t leave this woman at the mercy of Witch.

I let out a sigh.

“Come on, then, Alice. Let’s get moving.”

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