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Milton Merriweather craned to study the detail of the massive canvas before him: "L'Art de la Guerre". The shining metal of helicopters and tanks glistened through dusty craters with a breathtaking realism. He felt like he was at the battlefield. He could feel the heat. He could hear the dread engines roar.
His brow furrowed. He really could hear the engines roar. The noise reached a crescendo, and Milton backed away from the painting in fear.
There was a deafening, resounding crash and rumble as a real tank burst through the canvas, showering bricks and plaster dust across the entire gallery. Milton had half a second to contemplate his fate before being crushed under the caterpillar tracks.
The tank careered into the middle of the giant room, taking out a viewing bench and two college students on the way. The shroud of noise and dust rooted every spectator to the spot like a herd of deer trapped in a 105mm-gauge headlight.
Then it stopped. It was still and quiet for long enough for the remaining survivors to stand warily upright, wipe the debris from their faces and try to take in the surreal scene before them. There was suddenly a huge Centurion tank in the middle of the gallery, an oversized hole in the south wall, and various bits of brick, canvas and people in between.
The dust settled around the tank. Its intimidating L7 heavy-duty gun stood at an absurd angle, like a giant erection. The hatch popped open.
A man rose up from within; a muscle-bound Adonis of a man; with khaki trousers, a naked torso, a sub-machine gun and a Cohiba clenched between his teeth. He surveyed the carnage he had caused with obvious satisfaction. Then he took a deep drag of his cigar and announced:
"The name's Steelballs. Bang Steelballs." He made a generous sweeping gesture with his free arm. "And these are my Merry Men."
A burst of rapid gunfire floored the spectators as a small army invaded the gallery through the tank-shaped hole. The men shouted instructions to the spectators and manhandled them until every surviving member of the public had been herded into the northwest corner, away from the exits.
Bang stepped down from the tank and addressed the huddled, terrified group. "We've come to take some paintings. You just stay there and don't piss yourselves and you might just live." He chewed on his cigar. "You!" he said, pointing his JF60 Heavy Suppression machine gun at a middle-aged lady in the crowd. "Come on out here."
The lady started bawling as one of the Merry Men pushed her towards the middle of the room. She looked pleadingly up at Bang, who shot her right in the face.
"Damn, you were ugly."
Bang shouted for a couple of his Merry Men to join him while the rest guarded the hysterical gallery-goers. Bang systematically removed the required paintings and stored them in a large metal container that had been jerry-rigged onto the back of the tank. Silent alarms triggered bolts in all of the external doors, but the gallery security system had not been designed for tanks.
He lingered for a moment in front of a vulgar painting of a woman's vagina, called "Source of Life". With a surreptitious glance over his shoulder to see if anyone was looking, he took it.
"Hey, that's not on the list," said one of his Merry Men.
"Reminds me of a whore I had in Santa Negro."
The Merry Minion accepted this explanation with a shrug. Bang loaded the painting onto the tank and closed the protective container. He climbed up the tank and stood over the hatch, grinning insanely. He let a burst of machine gun fire hit the ceiling above the screaming crowd's heads, showering them with rubble.
"So long, fuckers!"
He signalled for his Merry Men to move out, and a young woman burst forward from the crowd. Several of the Merry Men took aim at her, but Bang motioned for them to hold fire. She threw herself around Bang's waist, her head at his knees.
"Oh, Bang, take me with you!"
Bang gave her a once-over. "I could fuck you, lady, but I'd have to kill you."
The woman started fumbling at his flies. He shoved her into the hatch, gave his Merry Men a wink, and disappeared into the tank himself.
The tank started rolling again, scattering the art-lover crowd. Bang made sure to miss the hole in the south wall as he exited, crumbling another section of wall and making the whole gallery shake on its foundations.
Bang was in a reflective mood at the strip joint that evening. A pair of well-oiled and well-toned young women gyrated enthusiastically around a pole, and each other, for his viewing pleasure – but he seemed distracted.
His Merry Men sat around him drinking draft Miller and shots of Jack Daniels. They noticed his distant gaze. One of them, Milo Steelfox, spoke up.
"What's up, Bang? You need a private session with Lola?" he said, indicating the more energetic dancer.
"You need Tanya there too?" said Milo, indicating the other dancer.
Bang was silent for a moment. Then he leant towards Milo and said, "Milo, do you ever long for the simple life?"
"We got it, boss. Ain't nothing money can't buy. Where's the complication?"
"Well, you know, all the killing and the stealing and the hiding..."
"And the blowin' shit up."
"And the blowing shit up," repeated Bang. "And the fucking and the money and the chasing. I wish sometimes we were real men."
Even the strippers stopped there. Bang spoke up and the Merry Men all leaned in to hear.
"Real men watch TV. Real men have wives that cook for them. Real men talk about cars and football."
"We could talk about cars and football," Milo offered.
"We don't know shit about cars and football," Bang retorted. "We know about armoured SUV's and kicking the shit out of people. Real men snore, and fart, and get pissed on a Sunday night, and think that's pretty funny."
"The simple pleasures," said Milo.
Another Merry Member, Roger Steelwank, offered a suggestion. "You mean you want to lead a life with less responsibility? More stress-free?"
"Yeah," pondered Bang. "Yeah. It's a lot of work being a kingpin crime stud. I want to go to the pub after work. I want to sit on the sofa with a can of Carling and let my wife bitch at me for not doing any housework, just to watch her do it anyway."
"That sounds pretty good, actually," said Milo, his eyes glazing over as he imagined himself there. Most of the other Merry Men seemed to have trouble with the idea.
Roger, however, thought he might be getting the hang of it. "You want to feel that shudder of excitement you get when you flirt with another woman, instead of just being able to pay that other woman to get your rocks off on a whim."
"You got it," smiled Bang, lighting up a Cohiba. "Real men feel a bit ashamed at buying porn, but they do it anyway."
"That reckless abandonment of dignity," said another Merry Man who was starting to feel enlightened. "I haven't felt like that in years."
"Real men buy stupid gadgets that they only use once," grinned Bang almost in a chant, his eyes wide.
"How wonderfully frivolous!" cried another Merry Man. By this time the two strippers had come over to listen. They perched their glistening naked bodies on the laps of a couple of the Merry Men, but they may as well have been wearing shell suits – no-one was thinking of sex now.
Tanya had a go: "Real men teach themselves DIY and never bloody finish a job." Lola shrieked with joy.
"So resourceful, but lazy too..." dreamed another Merry Man. The whole band of Merry Men seemed to be coming around to the new philosophy.
"Real men scratch their fucking testicles just to make you feel awkward!" said Lola.
"I want to be a real man!" barked Bang, standing up and delivering his final oratory. "No more of this pansying around smashing people's heads in! No more blowing stuff up for the sake of it!" There were cheers all round. "We will infiltrate the proletariat. We will subjugate ourselves to suburbia.
"From this day forth, Bang Steelballs and his band of Merry Men are no more!"
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