Chapter One


“Anna. Let me get this straight: I gave you one last chance to write an interesting article I can actually publish, and this...” Mr. Jensen said, slowly pressing a finger to the draft resting atop his desk. “How exactly was it you pitched the idea to me? A story featuring an eccentric eighty-four-year old cat-collecting woman you just so happened to have met?” The heavyset man glanced at a framed picture of his small family off to one side of his desk. Portly wife at his side, and their young teen daughter standing between them holding a black and white kitten.

“Yeah, so?” Anna tilted her head, wearing a puzzled thumbs-in-her-jean-pockets expression.

Anna was a gal of slightly past shoulder-length and unkept dark brown hair. An average build. She had the appearance of someone who – aware they were damn fine – chose to dress in the non-accentuating manner of a homely plebeian. At this particular moment she was wearing a T-Shirt of an empty grey color, which, while noticeably clean, still bore multiple permanently discolored splotches along both stomach and waist. The jeans had a tear beneath one of its pockets, from when she'd accidentally caught her hip on a piece of metal protruding from some doorframe in her office a few weeks prior.

Mr. Jensen ran a hand down his face. "While not technically a lie, there is a small margin of difference between an eccentric old woman, who also happens to own forty seven cats. And a batty old hag, who steals other people's cats; kills, stuffs, and arranges them throughout her entire house in order to protect herself from the, uh...” Mr. Jensen glanced at the draft, sliding his finger down the page until he found the line, “continued advances of her late husband."

Anna stared back blankly before saying, "Aaaaand?"

Mr. Jensen ran an exasperated hand through his prematurely gray and thinning hair, and said, “Questions: Did you stalk this woman for a period of no less than a week?” Anna nodded. “And did you hide behind bushes and whatnot, observing as she broke into several different homes, while doing nothing at all to prevent her from pilfering people's cats?”

Anna nodded again. Mr. Jensen sighed.

“And did you also bug her living room and perch behind a shrubbery beneath a window in order to take detailed notes of her performing her creepy ritual? Handcrafting wax candles in the image of her dead husband; arranging them at the points of a pentagram drawn with her own blood; drugging and skinning a series of cats; all while chanting dark prayers to some...” Glancing back at the draft, Mr. Jensen drew a confused expression. “R... ra, ruxa...” he attempted pronouncing the word several more times, before shaking his head and giving up. “Some word I can't pronounce.”

“And your issue is... what, exactly?”

Mr. Jensen was visibly disturbed for some weird reason or another.

“Do you remember me telling you how my daughter's cat disappeared last Wednesday?” Mr. Jensen sighed. “I noticed from the details of your story that this woman lives in the Glendale subdivision, correct? A few streets down from me, in fact.”

Slowly, realization dawned on Anna. “Oh shit, yeah. That's right.” Anna grinned, sliding a thumb into the pocket above the tear in her jeans, while firing a finger gun at Mr. Jensen with the other. “Thanks again for tipping me off boss. Couldn't have done it without you. Anything else?”

It probably would've been a wise investment for Mr. Jensen to purchase a button that – when pressed – would play the sound of a sigh. Save himself a lot of wasted respiratory cycles in the long run.

"Because you clearly aren't catching my drift here, I'll just cut to the chase: I will not publish this story, Anna.”

Anna hung her head and said, “Aw, man. Why not?”

Mr. Jensen sighed. “You write for a comedy magazine." He articulated each syllable individually.

"I don't think it could hurt to include a little more variety in the content we offer," Anna said innocently.

"What part of comedy magazine are you apparently failing to grasp, because I'm really having a difficult time understanding.” Mr. Jensen lifted his thin-rimmed glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “Listen, Anna: your writing skills are top notch. Your investigative abilities... amazing. But everything else about you is, regrettably, terrible. The fact you willingly spent so much time secretly observing this woman's... unusual proclivities – and in such gory detail – instead of actually reporting her to the authorities is questionable at best.”

Anna winked from behind her dark and wild bangs, and in a single snappy movement formed a finger gun aimed at her boss and let fly. “Boss. Give me half an hour and I can spin that story into something new entirely.” Sliced the air in front of her with a hand. “Got black humor written all over it, don't ya think-”

“Absolutely not." Mr. Jensen sighed. “But as morally bankrupt as you seem to be, this story is definitely remarkable, in so many ways... But I do hate letting an entirely untapped talent slip through my fingers, so I'm gonna give you one. Final,” he paused to make sure Anna understood, “chance to bring me something a little less... unsettling. Something I can actually publish. But this is the last time. Do you understand Anna? No more chances."

Anna looked at him for a second, wearing an unreadable expression before finally nodding her assent. “Thank you Mr. Jensen.” She swiped her draft from the desk. “I won't let you down. I'll bring you the best damn feature you've had in years.” Turning about face, Anna grasped the door handle to leave.

“Oh, and Anna,” Mr. Jensen's dull voice dragged on, “one more thing.”

Anna cast her head over shoulder and saw plump Mr. Jensen propped up on his elbows, leaning over the desk.

“Yes?”

“I know this isn't something you'd normally need to ask a reasonable person, but you did end up reporting this woman, right?” Mr. Jensen's bare face couldn't decide whether it was full of play, or of fear.

Anna's features grew suddenly serious. “No. I hate cats.” After a moment of silence though, she melted into a coy smirk. “What kind of person do you think I am?”

“Oh, well, of course.” Mr. Jensen slouched back, relieved. “Very well then. You may go.” He brushed her aside with a bored, backhanded move-along gesture, already perusing another draft on his desk.

Following a return to her desk, during which she made an important phone call, Anna purchased a Dr. Pepper from the nearby vending machine, and caught the elevator for the first floor.

Until recently, she'd written a weekly column comprised mostly of stories involving her intellectually humiliating various people she'd encountered to comedic effect. She had a biting wit, and she deployed it with only rare instances of hesitation. Some-guy-at-a-bar's offer of buying her a drink would most often result in her leveling some manner of alienating response, such as a spray of laughter punctuated with a bold and potentially clever declaration of Anna's recognition of said tiny-dicked individual's intent to get at her good parts. Only after her debit card was later declined while attempting to pay for her ample bar tab would Anna come to regret having publicly humiliated a grown man for no reason beyond her own personal whimsy.

Those white russians weren't gonna buy themselves, after all.

Though when all three local colleges had let out for the summer, two of them suddenly announcing they were in such dire financial straights they were closing down for the foreseeable future, Anna found herself lacking a sustainable quantity of available material. The largest portion having come from those drunk college students unfortunate enough to attempt picking up on her.

It hadn't been popular, but it had been enough.

Anna exited the building, closing her eyes as she did so. She allowed the afternoon sun to warm her face, and sighed. She was out of ideas, and drawing short on time. There had to be some new source of material, or an idea, or something. She followed the sidewalk, keeping her eyes peeled for a place to grab some lunch as she muttered to herself.

“And then, I just so happen to be approached by the world's most interesting man while eating an appetizer sampler over lunch at Applebee's. Heh. As if.”

Anna twisted the cap off her Dr. Pepper, taking a sip as she attempted not thinking about how she'd be able to afford eating the following month. Anna thought the beverage tasted slightly off, but she summarily dismissed it as her imagination.

Soon enough, the number of remaining crosswalks to Applebee's had been reduced to three, and Anna had the distinct impression of being followed. A few steps later she stopped, and an instant later heard something rustle behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a bright figure shuffle against the wall of a nearby building. She took a gulp of Dr. Pepper before slipping the bottle into her underarm purse, and shifted to glance behind her.

A lone man was leaning against the brick wall of some shop with whimsical dummies on display in the window. His face was hidden behind a newspaper.

“Hey, buddy,” Anna said as she approached, her tone not too unfriendly. “Can I help you with something?”

“Hmm, me?” The man lowered the newspaper, wearing a smile which seemed unnaturally wide, though it was still weirdly sincere. “Not at all. I'm just your a-ver-age guy, out reading his local newspaper.”

Bullshit, Anna called.

The stalker guy looked maybe mid-twenties. Clean-shaven. He was wearing a pair of lime green corduroy shorts, which stood in abject contrast with the almost obscenely bright yellow Superman shirt he'd paired it with. Dark and dirty blondish curls stuck out from beneath a top hat with a toy propellor atop it. He had the kind of piercing green eyes she wouldn't mind seeing-

Anna cleared her throat, rearranging her thoughts.

He had a good face, and one of those generic strongly clefted and handsome-looking chins, or something equally f*cking cliché.

“Tch. I know you were following me. I saw you start reading that paper soon as I stopped.”

Her stalker stared blankly for a few seconds before his eyes wandered down Anna's body, stopping at a point in the rough vicinity of her chest. Miraculously, his grin widened further.

“Really,” Anna said, staring back at him unfazed. “Just gonna shamelessly stare at my tits, huh?” Though as she found him a rather attractive man, she was honestly a little flattered. Curling a grin, she said, “F*ck you.”

It is important to note that, routinely, whenever Anna says the f-word, she does so whilst omitting the u-sound entirely. A form of self-censor. Observably, it sounds like a softly blowing fffff, punctuated by the hard and whiplike crack of a c and k standing united.

Newspaper-stalker-guy's eyes widened in shock. He threw his hands up and waved them about, inching backwards against the wall.

“No, I wasn't staring at your...”

“Yeah?”

Gulping, he continued, “I was just saying that I wasn't looking at your breasts. It's... you see...” His worried expression vanished in a single excited moment as he fixed Anna with a proud smile. “The Dr. Pepper bottle. It's okay.”

Anna chewed her lip. The hell does he suddenly look so damn proud of himself? “What,” she answered flatly.

“It's uh- you see...” He scratched the back of his head furiously, screwing up his face as if locked in some fierce inner battle. “Uhhh, okay fine. Fine. My lovely lady, in order to clear up this whoooole,” stretching his arms out wide in a gesture like, well... that, “misunderstanding, I believe it will be necessary for me to break the rule - the big one - and actually explain the reason why I'm so interested in the fact you're drinking out of a Dr. Pepper bottle.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Anna took a step back, sticking a hand out in front of her, suddenly thrown off by the apparent one-eighty in Creepy-Dr-Pepper-Stalker's persona. “Why do you keep saying, Dr. Pepper Bottle, instead of just Dr. Pepper. The way you keep doing that is really... weird.”

“Well, I was going to get to that. It's kind of a long story, but... if I may?” His eyes became a pair of puppies traipsing about on a hardwood floor.

Anna half-looked away, scratching the side of her face. “Tch. Fine. Why not?”

It's not like I've got anything else going on. Well, aside from my upcoming termination, anyway.

A big, friendly smile overtook the man. “Yes. Well, I guess I should start from the beginning: I was seven years old at the time-”

“That's obviously way too long ago,” Anna snapped, rolling her eyes.

But he wasn't slowed in the least, “Not at all, I'm afraid. You see, everything starts before my brother was murdered.”

Anna sighed.

Great. I get snippy with my stalker once. ONE F*CKING TIME! Now I'm the one who feels like the asshole. Wonderful. Just f*cking terrific. Over the years, Anna's self-censor habit had even managed to transition over into her thoughts.

What-the-f*ck-ever-guy charged on, “So once, at seven years of age, I was thirsty. As I'd broken both legs at my birthday party earlier in the day, it was difficult to procure a drink for myself. I asked my brother if he would be so kind as to pour me a glass of Dr. Pepper. And he did so. But after I'd taken a drink I just had to say, But brother, this is Coke.” He struck a cheesy one-sided grin.I'll never forget what he said next, he said, No little brother, that's Dr. Pepper.

The man grinned with all the satisfaction of a child whose father had just praised him for his assistance with taking out the trash only adding a few extra minutes to the process.

“...is that it?” Anna asked, but an idea was already forming in Anna's mind. She wondered how deep this particular rabbit hole went.

Shaking his head, the man continued, “Not at all. You see, my brother was the greatest man who ever lived. He was always chasing after his dream, even when I was but a mere seven years old. Even after he was eventually estranged and disinherited from the family, penniless and living under a bridge, he never once gave up on that dream.

“No!

“Instead he proudly took up the bottle, and got really into playing cards.” Brother-of-presumably-the-most-stereotypically-washed-up-guy-ever-guy pumped a fist in front of his face and said, “Always pressing ever onward towards his goal.

“Eventually his luck took a turn for the worst, and he ended up owing money to the wrong sort of individual. But not even then did he lose sight of that dream! No!”

Fire burned in the young man's eyes as he spoke.

“And when the union eventually came calling for their money, and my brother lacked the eighty dollars he owed them, they stabbed him thirty seven times in the back. Right there on the floor of his very own apartment. And yes, he may have been forced to give up on his dream that day when he gave up the ghost, but his dream lives on through me!”

Anna shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, unable to decide how she was supposed to react to this increasingly tall and discomforting tale.

“One day,” he continued, “I will make my brother's life-long dream a reality. I'll craft the most Perfect Joke-” said like it was a proper thing “-this world has ever seen. The one my brother spent his entire life trying to tell.”

He finished the impassioned declaration of his brother's sadly pathetic life wiping the moisture from his now-puffy eyes.

“I'm sorry. I always get really emotional whenever I talk about my brother.” And through tear-ridden eyes, he smiled. “And there you have it.”

Beat.

“Have what? The f*ck do I have?” Anna calmed herself with a deep breath, and a lowering of her for-some-reason airborne arms. She couldn't lose this one. So much potential. “What does any of that have to do with you following me?” Anna licked the tip of her mental quill.

Maybe-a-little-too-obsessed-with-his-dead-brother-guy's crest fell to the sidewalk. "Oh, dear me. Dear me. Apologies. I seem to have gotten carried away, and altogether forgot to get to the point. Well, alright. Let me start from the beginning.

"When I was but a humble seven years-"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You already said that part."

The man looked at Anna with a big all-toothy grin. And his eyes sparkled. F*cking sparkled. "Yes, please forgive me. I tend to get very much ahead of myself." He cleared his throat. "A few months ago, I did some research and discovered there are only three distribution centers sourcing the entire city's supply of Dr. Pepper. A little over a month ago, I purchased each of these centers. From there I-"

Why in god's name would anyone do that? Anna's heart was racing. Something inside her was certain she'd stumbled across a veritable cornucopia of material. Her inner quill scratched wildly, capturing the subtle nuances of his words, and his general expressional overkill.

"-spent the rest of my time creating these devices, you see? Capable of instantaneously transforming the chemical makeup of Dr. Pepper - and only Dr. Pepper, and only within a set radius I might add - into that of Wal-Mart's off-brand, Dr. Thunder. I installed one of these devices at each of the distribution centers, and voila."

He finished strong with the grin of a triumphant child. Much like a pot of water on a stove, his look was still before it began to bubble. Churning until the laughter finally boiled over.

In truth, there were many things Anna wished to say and ask, but her quill merely made note of them for later. She was having an influx of new thoughts and ideas in far greater quantities than she'd experienced in quite some time. Far more than she was capable of processing while still paying full-attention to the tale of her prey- er... the crazy Dr. Pepper guy.

Uhm, I kind of wish he'd give his name already. This naming shit's getting tiring and repetitive. But as she didn't like how the question would fit into the conversational transcript in her memory at this particular moment, Anna served a verbal nothing with a firmly blank expression.

It took a lot of effort for the man to stifle his laugh, which seemed to have the staying power of the world's finest perpetual motion machine.

"I guess you don't get it," he said a little dejectedly.

"I'm afraid I don't, sorry." Anna uncomfortably tuned her eyes in to a crack in the sidewalk, twisting her right foot's tippie-toes into the ground absently. Crazy-Dr-Pepper-Guy sighed, though he remained visibly excited.

"By now the city's supply of Dr. Pepper is no more, having been replaced in its entirety by Dr. Thunder. In other words, that isn't Dr. Pepper you're drinking! Get it now?"

Anna did not. But funny tasting Dr. Pepper aside, she knew she'd stumbled upon her metaphorical golden goose. The psychoses of this man were almost legendary.

"So... the punch line,” Anna began, purely to confirm this was in fact the source of what the man found so humorous, “is that I'm not actually drinking Dr. Pepper?"

He bobbed excitedly, grabbing one of Anna's hands. "So you do understand! I wasn't trying to stalk you or anything. I'm not that kind of guy! Everything I do, I do for the joke. And one day I'll finally tell that Perfect Joke, in stead of my dear, departed brother."

Insane or not, there was no obvious deception in the way he presented himself. Were it not for the things he was saying, he would've seemed like just another nice, albeit strange, guy.

"Godspeed.” Anna saluted. "But I just have to ask: do you do this often?"

Golden-Shiny-Dr-Pepper-Guy tilted his head and furrowed his brow. "Do what?"

"You know, systematically replace brand name products with a generic counterpart via magic."

Anna heard a soft chunking sound growing louder in the distance.

The still-unnamed-man stroked his chin, humming Little Drummer Boy for some reason. "Not really. I tell all kinds of jokes, but this is the first time I've ever done something like this."

If he'd picked up on her sarcasm, she couldn't tell from his response. Excellent. "Hmm. You seem like an interesting guy mister..."

His eyes widened in sudden horror. "Oh my goodness! How rude of me! All this time and I've never bothered introducing myself." He bowed deeply. "Apologies. I have a tendency to get carried away whenever I talk about my dead brother or my jokes."

Does he always have to bring up the fact his brother's dead?

Striking a pose with one arm down at his side and the other flush with his body but aimed upward, the man gently boomed, "My name is Charles Phoenix Bellesemer. May I have the pleasure of knowing the name of such a lovely lady as yourself?"

The name sounded familiar, Bellesemer at least, but Anna couldn't place where she'd heard it before. "Well it's certainly nice to meet you Charles. The name's Anna Dunkirk."

"Anna. A simple name, but one I've always liked never-the-less." Charles suddenly grabbed Anna's hand - much to her complete bewilderment - and bowed to place a kiss on its back. "The pleasure is most assuredly mine."

Anna was positive this Charles Phoenix Bellesemer was her golden Dr. Pepper goose, and whatever else may come, she knew she absolutely had to strike up a relationship. "I'm actually on my way to lunch right now, if-"

Charles held up a finger as his phone began ringing. "What is it Charles?" he answered.

Calling himself?

The cha-chunking sound was much louder now.

"Oh! Lunchtime already? You're on your way to pick me up?" Charles glanced up at the sky. "So it would seem. Alright." He hung up the phone, saying, "Anna, I must apologize for the time nuisance I've no doubt been."

Anna's hair and clothes whipped about in the downburst as a helicopter descended to a few stories above them. A long rope ladder fell from the chopper to Charles' side, and to the bewilderment of Anna and the hundreds of others out walking the midday streets. Charles climbed a few rungs up the ladder before swinging out with only a single hand and foot supporting himself.

"Anna, it's been an absolute pleasure. But as you can see: it's lunchtime, and I must be on my way. I sincerely hope to have the pleasure of meeting you again."

As the helicopter began flying away, Charles panicked momentarily as the propellor on his hat began twirling in the downdraft. Holding the hat on his head, he shouted, "And Anna! Please don't tell anyone what I've told you today!"

The whole damn block watched the scene in a heavily befuddled awe.

From somewhere to Anna's left there was a grunt, followed by the crunching of flimsy metal. She turned in time to catch some barefoot middle-aged dude pitch a crushed Dr. Pepper can to the curb, looking not-exactly-thrilled. Apparently satisfied with his blatant littering, the man stormed off down the street in a huffy.

Anna shook her head, beside herself. She was breathing heavily; dumbfounded and intrigued; and excited; and fearful she'd never be able to find this particular treasure again. Hailing a passing cab, Anna had the door open and was sliding in back before the car even came to a complete stop.

"Follow that helicopter,” Anna said seriously.

Next Chapter: Chapter 3