Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to an old-timey telephone switchboard operator’s control room. It’s inadvisable to start randomly plugging and unplugging wires, though, as this may have consequences for the neurology of those connected to it.
There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—we’ve got streets which lead to dead ends, roads which criss-cross and loop back around, highways which go nowhere. Literally nowhere, as in "anybody going down that road is not coming back." This is not a good place to wander off unless you like wandering off forever…
Nobody knows where the city came from. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The city exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new people with it.
We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.
If we’re going to survive this, if we’re going to stay alive and thrive, we need to learn to live in the City of Angles.
…here’s an angle to consider…
"It’s not what you know, it’s who you know." This rule defines the concept of civilization, a mutually agreed upon structure by which people organize themselves. That interpersonal connectivity is what makes the entire concept of civilization stay civil. If you’re deeply rooted in a community, betraying that community for short-term personal gain is risky business. Even if you don’t feel the moral pangs of guilt for betraying those roots… there’s more of them than you, and they know who you are.
Of course, numbers alone do not ensure the civility of civilization. Numbers can be played with and manipulated. A skilled individual can, depending on what he knows and who he knows, come out ahead of the rest of his community without obvious betrayal and with little risk. It’s easy to gain for oneself, if you’re good at playing the game. He who dies with the highest score wins.
But for those who are good at playing the game AND place more value on civilization itself than on their own individual high score, for the ones who have roots that tangle and twist throughout the loam of society, the reward can be far richer than numbers account for…
//015: What Goes Around
Three champagnes this early in the party was probably not a smart move, but when you’re handed a drink, you’ve gotta accept it. That’s the rule. And drink it, of course. I mean, what else was I going to do, empty it in a houseplant? That’s an amateur move. A professional holds the alcohol and keeps functioning as long as possible.
The key is to prioritize. Tricky stuff up front while you’re sober, simple stuff in the back while you’re wasted. Immediately after the mingling began, I took care of the most complicated items on my list. Two of them were long-term builders; working on my relationship with a music producer and an event booker respectively. This involved layers from smalltalk to bigtalk… asking how their families were doing, how the latest projects were going, that sort of thing.
Montell’s having trouble with an unruly son, and seriously considering family therapy. I know a few names, which I pull up on my phone and offer on the spot. Evelyn is super excited about the upcoming Deathwatch album, saying it’s completely reinventing metal for the 21st century; I make a note to get a release copy and track its progress online, in case that information becomes useful later. (Also, hey, I like good music.) Schmoozing with these two takes a good twenty minutes, probably longer than strictly needed to establish a business relationship, but that’s fine. I like to get to know people.
See, that’s the trick to keeping the "human" in "human resources." You’ve got to connect on a human level. Anybody can walk up to someone and make an offer for an exchange of services. That’s basically just Craigslist, and’s not how I roll. I want to know the human before I dig for resources. It’s an ongoing struggle, I’ll admit; it’s very easy to see another human being as a potential item in your inventory and not a living person with hopes and dreams. That’s why I rarely approach someone with purpose from the outset. I approach someone to be approaching someone.
For instance, tonight I wasn’t even looking for any specific resources from these two; for instance neither Montell nor Evelyn have anything to offer of immediate benefit to me, or to anybody I’m looking out for. In the future, maybe they will; they have connections upon connections, and I’m working on my connection to them in turn. The more people I know, the more I can get done. But beyond that, hey: they’re people. I like people, as a rule. I want to get to know people. People are awesome.
Hollister Avenue is also an awesome person. At least, that’s what people tell him, and he keeps that idea cooking in their heads.
(Uh. He meaning me. That’s me. I’m Hollister. Just in case that wasn’t clear yet.)
Anyway, with those two items on my list down I can sling back two of the bubbly and move on to easier bullets from tonight’s list.
Meredith’s little purse dog needs a good veterinarian; I know one. Jackson’s trying to get his daughter into a private online academy with a tendency towards exclusivity; I know someone who knows the dean, and I pass over the contact information. Fitzroy needs to find a machine that can read old-timey magnetic tapes from a recently unearthed studio archive in the Sideways and I know some Salvagers who work out of District 12 that know their 8-tracks from their 45s. Simple and quick little exchanges with some mild pleasantries.
Still, by that point I was at three drinks, and they were starting to have an effect. I had to move fast to clear off the rest of my docket before the party went into the phase where people started embarrassing themselves, specifically me. Err, not people embarrassing me, me embarrassing myself. In front of people. You know what I mean.
Of course, new business has a tendency to pop up in the middle of old business. And a tap on the shoulder pulled me away from chatting with a costume designer who was keen on finding a new source for natural silk.
One of the various bow-tie wearing helpers for the evening was the owner of the tapping finger. Which meant an indirect request.
"Mr. Hayes would like you see you on the balcony, sir," he spoke gruffly.
Jack Hayes. Rising star of the music industry, despite arriving in the City of Angles only two years ago. Came out of nowhere to be one of the top audio engineers and producers in the game. Connected. Well known. Powerful.
I’d never been able to figure this guy out, despite working with him since day one.
Along with my wide array of extracurricular activities, I had a day job as a caseworker for the Department of Orientation. I saw to it that newly arriving imports got set up properly… and then, supposedly, cut loose to fend for themselves. Not that I ever really cut anyone loose, given the failure rates involved.
Most imports ditched the terrible entry-level jobs the Department got them within months, others were out of their terrible Department-issued housing within a year. Many found a better life… but many vanished into the night. I try to make sure my charges don’t vanish into the night. Few others in the Department care enough to go that extra mile for people, but I do. I care and I do what needs to be done.
A gift shouldn’t be squandered or hoarded.
Two years ago when I was passed the case file of Jack Hayes, I was all set to get his foot in the door at Mercy General. He was a neurologist, a field in high demand. Thing is, he told me he wanted to get involved in the entertainment industry. Didn’t make much sense, he didn’t have any experience in the field, but I like to help people chase their dreams, sooo… I got him the best position I could. Assistant audio engineer, nothing special. He took over from there.
Somehow he shot up the ranks from second banana at indies to first banana at major labels, despite only doing the minimum work required to actually produce musical acts. Never did quite get that. Granted, the industry suffered a lot of suicides recently and openings started popping up, but, well… he made it to man of the hour within an hour. Technically the man behind the woman of the hour, but basically the same thing.
Given I got him started, we stayed on friendly terms. He benefited from knowing me, I benefited from knowing him. He got me into all these swanky music industry parties, for instance. But… I don’t know. Something about him always rang empty. Like I’d dig and dig, and find nothing. Smiles and reassuring platitudes, playing along with smalltalk and answering questions, sometimes cracking jokes or dispensing a bit of grim wisdom. Very human bits and pieces which never quite fit together to make a human…
Anyway, this was his party—paid for on the company dollar, of course—in honor of his star act. But despite that, he wasn’t in there pressing the flesh. He was out here on the balcony by his lonesome, a glass of sparkling wine in one hand, a pocket mirror in the other.
No time to get more detail than that, as he snapped the little makeup compact shut, and pocketed it. Got up from his chair and approached, to shake hands, go through the motions of greeting.
"Hollister," he greeted. "Thanks for taking some time out."
"Hey, it’s no biggie," I insisted, pumping the handshake twice as is my custom. "It’s a great party. El’s really come far from her days with that crappy little punk band. You should be proud."
"I should be, shouldn’t I," Jack stated, glancing aside at the cityscape. "I should."
And… nothing. I studied his expression briefly, waiting for him to continue.
"You need something?" I prompted, to get on with this.
"No, not really," Jack admitted. "I just wanted to pull you out of there. You’ve been bouncing off the walls like a superball all night. It’s not healthy, Hollister. You need a breather."
A familiar song. Although normally, it came from a voice that couldn’t lift itself above a whisper.
"It’s cool, it’s cool," I insisted. "I came here tonight to have some fun and get work done. I’m doing both."
"You can’t mix the two, I find. There’s work, and there’s play," Hayes suggested, gesturing left and right to divide them. "Most of my time, working. Getting the new album ready and prepping the big debut concert, that’s a hell of a lot of work. Even tonight’s work. But I find time to play, too. It’s like I always say… all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."
"Soooo… uh. You invited me out here to play?"
"No, to suggest that you need to drop the work entirely for at least one night and play a bit. Drink up, laugh too much, pick up a girl. Pick up two girls, I don’t know, whatever. Just… give the Good Samaritan romp a rest for now. I mean, this ‘work’ you do… I’ve never really got it, you know? Your dedication to these people. Doesn’t make sense to me. You’ve got your nine-to-five, and you’re damn good at it. Got me where I needed to be. But here you are well into the dark of night and you’re still working, and for what? For those nothings and nobodies in there?"
Hella uncomfortable, there. This was his party, and he held his co-workers in such low esteem? I know for a fact Evelyn’s feelings would be hurt. She actually confessed to me that she had a thing for Jack.
"Life is short, Hollister. You can’t spend it all on the misfortunes of others," Jack suggested. "One day all of this could end in a heartbeat, and what will you have for yourself at that point? A maybe-maybe-not girlfriend and a contact list as tall as this building. Yippie."
Now my pride was being poked at. "That contact list served you well, y’know," I pointed out. "My work helped get you here…"
"I know, and I’m grateful. Tonight I’m going to repay the favor," Jack commented, slipping a hand into the pocket of his overcoat…
…and withdrawing two slips of paper.
"Front row at the big debut," he explained, pressing them into my hand. "For you and Vivi, if you like. Or give them away, or whatever. But I think you should be there for El’s shining moment. You’ve done well by me, and you deserve to experience your hard work firsthand. Could bring you the relief you need. She’s got… well. Her voice is ‘transcendent,’ I suppose. It sounds silly but trust me, it fits perfectly. And I want you there to enjoy it."
I palmed the tickets, slightly puzzled.
Jack never struck me as the ‘play’ type. Very much the ‘dull boy’ type, really. Always so glum, so serious. Maybe he got his freak on when nobody was looking? Hard to say. Being pulled aside by this guy of all people and told to lighten up, well… pot-meet-kettle, yeah?
Still, a gift was a gift. He seemed sincere about it despite his words not matching his tone. And I had been curious about the concert, figured I was going to hit him up for tickets at some point anyway. May as well take them. Maybe even go with Vivi. She was there at the start of El’s rise, so she might get a kick out of seeing the debut.
"I’ve got a few more hands to shake tonight," I warned him, even as I pocketed the tickets in a sign of acceptance. "After that if you want me to chillax, the Avenue can chillax. But, uh, ixnay on the irlgay ickinguppay."
"Why?" Jack asked. "I’ve never got that. This Vivi you always talk about, are you or are you not tapping that?"
Yeah, that was the end of that discussion. Not that I was rude about it; I laughed it off, exchanged some pleasantries, and a few final obligatory social exchanges. Then out and gone.
The man always rubbed me the wrong way, and well… I was not about to talk about the thing between myself and Vivi with him. He wouldn’t get it. He didn’t get why I did anything I did, so why bother?
It’s funny. I like people. People are awesome. But Jack, well… my natural instinct to reach out to people and understand them doesn’t reach quite as far for him. I made him the man he is today, but I can’t say I’ve ever really connected with him. Nor do I really want to.
Sadly, Jack Hayes wasn’t the only douchebag I had to deal with at that party.
"Hollister, darling!" Jasmine called out, pulling me aside as I rejoined the party. "It’s been too long!"
(Uh, no, I don’t mean Jasmine. Jasmine was not a douchebag. The douchebaggery comes in a bit later. …actually, are women ever called douchebags? I’m pretty sure that only applies to jerky dudes. I don’t know, I didn’t… invent… words. Bleh. Let me continue.)
You probably know Jasmine, if you’ve been turned on television at any point in the last five years. She’s hosted talk shows, run a spectacularly popular reality TV show called "Are You Seriously Wearing That?" and even hosted a children’s game show where losers get covered in green slime and winners get Playstations and covered in green slime. If I’m a back door man, she’s a frontman. Frontwoman. You get the idea; she’s loud and proud and out in front of things, unlike me.
This is really the ideal relationship for people like us. Someone in the spotlight makes it happen, while someone in the dark ensures that the one in the spotlight can make it happen. Jasmine was actually my foot in the door into the entertainment industry, even if Jack Hayes helped me kick that door open. Of the two… I’d rather work with Jasmine, to be honest. Despite her expensive handbags and lap-of-luxury lifestyle, whenever the cameras are off, she’s busy keeping eight or nine charities afloat.
"Jasmine! Precious!" I greeted, followed by a pair of kisses to a pair of cheeks. "It HAS been too long. Oh, are those new shoes? They look lovely!"
"Silly Hollister, you know all the right buttons to push," the woman tittered, clicking her heels a bit for emphasis. "Do you like? My own design. Flashy, but riding all the right trends for this season! Bit of a bother to have them made; I had to buy a rather useless factory in an abandoned district, arrange for travel vouchers, create a few hundred new jobs, revitalize a neighborhood, that sort of thing… ah, but you know that already, which is why you commented on them, yes?"
"You know me too well," I supplied with a wink. …despite, uh, actually having no idea about any of that. I was behind on my follow-up research, clearly.
"Actually, I was rather hoping to talk to you about that," Jasmine spoke, batting her rainbow-hued eyelashes at me. "See, I’m having a bit of a problem with that whole arrangement…"
"Really? What’s the scoop?"
"Well, I’d like to offer my employees a complete relocation rather than travel arrangements. You know how little people like to travel… all those twisty ways you can get lost, so they claim. But I’m afraid the neighborhood needs more work before it’s ready for residency. Notably… there’s a charming little abandoned corner store bodega which could be revitalized… and since you seem to have brought home the bacon lately, so to speak…?"
Definitely behind on my research. I like to keep up with what’s going on in the lives of everybody I’m connected to… usually by talking to them in person, but if all else fails, by tracking them in the news and online. I hadn’t been diligent in my duty in regards to Jasmine, but clearly she had done her research, if she knew about me and bacon.
Which was… troubling. I’d done everything I could not to be connected to bacon. Or eggs, or milk, or bread, or any other staples of a grocery sort.
"Mmmmaybe," I offered, not wanting to say no, not sure if I could say yes. "I might have a line on a supplier. Might. I’d need to shake a few calls and make a few hands first, so if you don’t mind me getting back to you on that…?"
"Back to her on what, exactly?"
There, right there. That guy. That was the aforementioned douchebag.
I should’ve known better than to trot that little suggestion out in the middle of a semi-public, semi-private space. Three bubblies in me, mistakes were made, it happens. Sadly it hit the ears of one Jon Polk.
"Hollister, hey, long time no see," the little weasel said. "Lady, mind if I pull Hollister’s ear for a bit? No? Good."
And like that, I was out of one uncomfortable conversation and into one I enjoyed even less. Jasmine batted her eyelashes and pouted in frustration, as I was wheeled away from her spotlight and into the less noteworthy corners of the room by one Jon Polk.
I could’ve pulled away, of course. Yanked from his grip and steered clear, completely ignoring him. But you don’t do that at a party, not when you’re me. Snubbing someone that hard in public? Doesn’t matter who you do it to, that kind of thing gets around. You have to give everybody the time of day, even if you don’t give them much more than that. I had to get into this new conversation… even if I intended to get out of it as soon as possible.
"You don’t call, you don’t write. Come on, man, I thought we had a business relationship going here," Polk insisted. "Hell, I thought we were family. You’re practically my uncle!"
Okay, that needs some explanation. Hell, this whole situation needs some explanation.
This little jerkbutt was Jon Polk, son of Bert Polk. Both of them long-standing members of the Department of Resources. His old man’s a stand-up guy, someone who does right by the small business owners that he wrangles throughout the City. But his son, well… his son is a meteoric rising star within Resources who… well. Okay. Let’s just lay this out.
By day, Jon Polk tracks redistribution of salvaged resources from newly arrived buildings—a more advanced version of his old entry-level job in the FARTs from years ago. (He actually worked alongside one Dave Smith for a time, before deciding he’d finally had enough of being shot at by Salvagers.)
By night, Jon Polk is a pimp and a pusher and a smuggler. Well. Not directly, no, never directly. But if you need a girl or a pill or a fully automatic assault rifle for whatever reason, he knows how to get you one with five minutes’ notice. And boy howdy, does he ever make sure the flow of vice keeps a-rollin’. His hands stay clean; he just makes the connection for you.
Many a time I’ve had to reach out to Bert to help someone going through the gears of Orientation, and he’s filled my ears with stories of his no-good son Jon’s antics. What’s worse, I got it from both ends, as father and son regularly moved through my circles. The son in a rather forced manner, though, repeatedly trying to ingratiate himself onto me. Trying to dig into my network of resources to add to his own.
But honestly, like I said: douchebag. And that’s all. Obnoxious and immoral as hell, but ultimately harmless. Pops up now and then in my life to scrape against my nerves, but so what? I could deal with douchebags with polite deferral. Getting into a blazing row in the middle of an industry cocktail party would be very bad for me, and frankly, blazing rows were not the Avenue’s style anyway. Like I said… time of day. And nothing else.
"Uncle Avenue’s having a very productive evening indeed," I spoke—while reaching for a fresh drink, because at this point I needed one very badly. "But whatever you’re thinking, no, I can’t make that happen for you. Sorry. C’mon, Jon, you know we don’t run in the same circles. I don’t have anything your buddies could possibly want."
"Ooooh, that I am not buying at any price," Jon said. "Look, man. Life isn’t all about the naughty stuff. Even my own clients aren’t all about the naughty stuff. A man’s got to eat, y’know. And you were talking about food just now, weren’t you…?"
"So I know a few soup kitchens and charities," I downplayed, with a shrug. "That’s not exactly a huge secret. Or a huge deal. Or even slightly relevant to your clientele."
"Not unless the soup kitchen in question used to belong to the Alphas."
Well, crap. —no, don’t express annoyance, or shock, or alarm. Don’t express anything…
"It’s the old stash of the Alphas, isn’t it?" Jon continued, since I was unfortunately not expressing anything, and he took my silence for acknowledgment. "You remember the stories I told you about them, right? The girls I’d hook up for that old geezer, the one who used to run the show. He’s still around, but his gang dropped off the map. Internal power struggle, they say. Their stash vanished overnight, nobody knows where it went. But with all the shuffles happening in the City lately, I figure… maybe someone found it. Someone who knows a guy who knows a guy…?"
Okay, so now we had to play the Lying Game. Cool. The dude could lie with the best of them, even if he preferred honesty.
"You really give your Uncle Hollister waaaay too much credit, Jon," I spoke, with a smirk. "I’m not some Sideways mapper. I’d piss my pants if I had to go toe to toe with some Picasso to find a lost grocery store of legend. If it still exists, and that is an if the size of the Defined Tower, then anybody suicidal enough to go looking for it deserves to go cubist."
The douchebag studied my expression, looking for a single crack in the exterior. The idea was jammed in his head now, and he wasn’t gonna let go so easily. But… he could pretend to.
"Yeah, guess you’re right. I mean, who would even know where to start looking for the grocery stash?" Jon pondered aloud. "Could be anywhere, now. Swaps, man. Crazy business, just crazy…"
"Agreed. And not really my business; the City sorts itself out, and I sort out the people who live there. Speaking of which, my glass is empty, and I need to sort myself out a refill," I suggested, waggling my now-empty glass. "In addition, I’ve yet to introduce myself to the lady of honor. Would you kindly excuse me? Thanks a mint."
There, time of day given. Polk blown off.
He couldn’t possibly know I was involved with the grocery store. Penelope buried that thing deep within the Sideways, a location only her closest allies knew of. Getting there and back again required a very specific sequence of non-Euclidian shortcuts; screw up and you’d be lost forever.
Anyway, Polk was a small-time hustler despite being connected to big-time hustlers. He was nothing, a nobody. I had bigger concerns. One of which had been on my bucket list for the evening, a big fat box left unchecked for some time…
Off into the crowd, weaving effortlessly through four ‘lanes’ of traffic despite all the alcohol fizzling away inside me. Off to ingratiate myself on Jack’s prodigy, the best possible excuse to trade up from talking with Jon to talking to someone more important.
She was the reason we were all here, after all. I had to make my introductions at some point, and ditching Jon in favor of her felt like great timing. Wouldn’t take long, just a few hellos, some how-do-you-dos, things like that. Talking the talk.
Except… El was not talking. To anyone. In fact, a guy in a waiter’s tuxedo but with a linebacker’s build stopped me cold before I got within four meters of the sofa that she was sitting on. A wordless shake of the head, denying any shot at access.
I’d been wondering about her isolation. This entire party was allegedly to honor her upcoming album release and debut concert, but despite being the toast of the town, young Ellie was sitting by her lonesome the entire evening. The other guests seemed to get the idea that they should move around her rather than towards her, and she gave no indication that she even knew they were in the room. She just… sat there, staring at her feet, thumbing some ancient bit of plastic connected to a pair of headphones. Adrift in her own world.
…something about it didn’t ring right with me. Jack didn’t ring right with me either, but this felt wrong on a different level. I genuinely did want to talk with her, if not for the muscle keeping me at bay. I wanted to say hello. I wanted to ask what was wrong. I wanted to…
I wanted to make a connection. But you can’t make a connection when you shut yourself off from the world. And after a few more drinks and a pile of extraneous smalltalk, I’d gone home without exchanging word one with Ellie. Felt like a missed opportunity. Not an opportunity to gather more human resources, just a missed opportunity at… something. Something else…
Drunk, stumbling, and into a taxi. Whatever strange idea had been floating around my head floated away, as did my consciousness.
This City changes too much. It swims and it sways, threatening to pull the ground out from under my feet. The floor of a taxi, the pavement of irregular sidewalk stones, so many flights of stairs. Asymmetric lean as I stagger up them, down them, across them. Hard to say. Stupid City.
Penelope disagrees with me, bless her heart. She feels the city doesn’t need to be stabilized into a coherent shape, we just need to learn to move with it. Maybe she could give me lessons, because even with someone supporting me along the way, those stairs are… were… they’re a lousy thing. They move too much and I can’t move with them. If I could change them, reach out and twist them around into a spiral, maybe it’d make sense…
My hand reaches towards the staggered surface of the stairs, and presses against them. Cool and metal, but unyielding. The warm and fuzzy body at my side pulls me away from them, urging me onward.
Now I was going through a doorway, with a familiar number. Not my number. I don’t climb stairs to get to my place; I lived in a rather nice little condo with a working elevator, befitting of someone who supposedly knew everyone and everything. All part of the performance package. No, this was a different-yet-familiar home. Led onward, through the small living room and kitchen combo, towards oh god yes sweet relief—
Drinks taste a lot worse coming up than they do going down. Poison poured from my lips into the porcelain bowl, the woman at my side keeping my head up, letting it empty out.
As my head cleared, the reality of my situation sank in.
It was three in the morning, and I’d given the taxi driver the wrong address. This wasn’t my stylish condo… this was the cheap fifth-floor walkup owned by the Wei sisters. The one at my side helping me get the sick out? That would be Vivi Wei, my soulmate.
I couldn’t exchange word one with her, but knew how to say thank you with my eyes. Those delicate lips offered a smile in return, as I returned to horrifying expunging.
"Soulmate." It’s a funny word, one that Vivi had selected for this thing we had. Even that wasn’t an appropriate word for it, just the closest approximation we could find. Something Jack Hayes couldn’t grasp with his cold hands. Something even the other Wei sister hadn’t completely come to terms with…
We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. We weren’t husband and wife. Hell, we weren’t lovers, not in any traditionally physical count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense. For Vivi, "love" and "sex" were independent concepts, and she applied them in varying yet always appropriate amounts to everyone she knew…
Okay. Permit me to wax flowery-philosophical a bit. I’m not expecting you to buy into this; it took me a long time to buy into it, myself. Vivi has… well, she’s got a way of helping people see things the way she sees them, in time. You haven’t had that time with her yet, I have, so I’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid.
There are some that Vivi loves deeply and intimately, like myself and Marcy… but in a pure way, untainted by lusts. There are some Vivi, well, plays with in extremely lusty ways, which has at times earned her a very foul reputation despite the odd innocence of her flavor of play. There are some she tangles up in both aspects, too; it’s rare, but it’s not impossible.
As for me… well. I’d bounced from lousy relationship to lousy relationship, having trouble not mixing business with pleasure (since it was often my pleasure to do business). Then I found Vivi. In her I found someone I desperately wanted and needed at my side… but much to my own surprise, not in my bed. She’s not my lover, she’s my solace. The calm little center of the insanity that is my life…
TL;DR, it’s complicated, and I should probably be focusing on the horrible night I was having rather than stray off topic like this. Get on with it, y’know.
So I finished sicking up, and Vivi… poor Vivi who had to wake up at three in the morning to help a taxi cab driver drag me up to her apartment… she helped me to the living room couch. Took my shoes off as I mumbled something incoherently. Rolled me on my side, and let me pass out into sweet oblivion.
Morning brought with it the promise of a better tomorrow, a splitting headache, and a disapproving glower from the other Wei sister.
Marcy Wei. We’d clashed, made amends, clashed again, ignored each other, and very occasionally turned to each other for help. Recently she had me stamping out fake I.D.s for her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s clones. (Don’t ask. Please.) This, of course, after she asked me for help keeping the two of them from being horribly murdered by her boyfriend’s oldest clone. (Again, ugh, don’t ask.) Needless to say, our relationship was… complicated. Complicated in a different way than my relationship to her sister, of course. Marcy ran hot and cold with me. That morning? Oh yeah. Hot.
"You smell like dog puke," Marcy commented. Not that this stopped her from drinking from a coffee mug, as she sat on the love seat across from my bed/couch.
"Mroghhph," I think I replied.
"Don’t you have your own home to go collapse in after slurping down beer with the boys all night?" Marcy inquired. "You wrecked our bathroom last night. Our bathroom. As in, not yours."
Ours and yours; words with weight for the Wei sister in question. Marcy often referred to the craphole apartment she shared with her sister as ours, a "sacred" and special place for the two of them. A place where I was not often welcome. Not that she’d ever straight up kick my ass out the door, but… she made her displeasure known all the same. Whenever Vivi and I wanted to spend a night enjoying time together, we usually went elsewhere. And here I’d gone and puked in Marcy’s precious sisterly palace.
The hangover nudged me towards rebuking her rebuke. Marcy had always been overly attached to her sister, right to the point of jealousy… a fact which worried even Vivi, at times. But I had every right to be here if Vivi wanted me here, and was in no mood for Marcy’s sass. Why not lash out? I could’ve put her in her place right there…
But… no. That nasty little idea to snap at Marcy was the hangover speaking, not the dude known as Hollister Avenue. The dude played it cool, kept the peace. He did not lash. And truthfully, he did screw up last night.
"Drunken mistake," I admitted to, pressing a forehand to my head to push the pounding down. "Sorry. I’ll be out of your hair once I clean up my own mess. Just point me towards the sponges and hazardous chemicals."
Colds are infectious, and so are cool heads. Just the thing to temper down a hothead in the room. Score another for the dude.
Marcy looked like she was ready to grind into me again, and… thought twice. Shook her head ever so slightly.
"I think what you’re going through right now is penance enough, so we’ll call it even. Besides, I already cleaned up," she spoke. "There’s breakfast if you want it. Vivi’s off doing her morning meditation without me while I play nursemaid, so your appreciation would be appreciated."
Ah, that would be the lingering toast smell. Food was not an appealing concept, but I knew I needed to get some down if I was gonna tackle today’s To Do list. Food and water, lots of water.
So, jam on toast. Nice and healthy organic stuff; expensive, but Vivi’s club was doing pretty well lately, and they could afford niceties even if they couldn’t move on up to the Zag side. I couldn’t enjoy it as much after my innards were coated with upchuck, but I could certainly appreciate it all the same.
"Productive night?" Marcy asked, curious.
"More or less," I said. "I’ve been making huge in-roads to the entertainment industry lately, all through this one guy I’m dealing with. Doesn’t apply very well to the day job, but—crap. Crappity crap. Day job! Day. What day is it? It’s Thursday, isn’t it. Crap crap crap…"
"Uh… yeah, Thursday," Marcy confirmed while I frantically patted down pockets, trying to find my phone. "That important?"
"I’m supposed to be in the office by now. Better call this in before it gets any later. I did not plan ahead, clearly—"
The moment the phone slid from its pocket, it came to life in my hands, shaking like a rattlesnake. Vibrating ringer. I nearly dropped it in surprise.
Incoming call, from New Horizons. The name sounded familiar, but in my haze I couldn’t place it. My contacts list was ridiculously deep, often with numbers that got properly tagged and named and never called again, but… this one felt like I should know it.
Marcy stayed politely quiet as I took the call.
"Hollister speaking," I spoke, because I was Hollister.
"Mr. Avenue? This is Janet at the New Horizons Rehabilitation and Wellness Center," the mystery caller replied. "Your friend is ready for pickup."
Half-eaten toast would have to wait. I got up from the couch, wandering off to the tiny kitchenette for as much privacy as I could get in this closet apartment.
"Pickup?" I asked. "I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, ma’am…"
"Annabell Jørgensen," she supplied. "You signed the initial admission paperwork and paid the bills up front. She’s completed her treatment and needs a ride home. Ah. Normally we ask for family assistance in situations like these, but… she requested you."
(…oh. Oh, right, that. A crazy situation brought to my doorstep by Kelsey Jones and Dave Smith.)
"Yeah, okay, yeah, Annabell, I remember," I insisted. "Right. I’ll be there in… an hour, hour-ish. Outlands exit 12, right?"
After confirming the address and the basics of the route, I said my thanks and closed out the exchange. Jammed the rest of my toast down my gullet and started hunting around for my suit jacket.
"Couldn’t help but overhear," Marcy admitted, while helping me locate the rest of my clothes. "Annabell? As in, Old Bastard Gustav’s wife Annabell…?"
"As in your time-displaced boyfriend’s widow, as in Dave’s Echo-disjointed mother Annabell, as in… a lot of things, yes," I confirmed. "Hmm. Taxi to garage, get my car back, an hour on the highway… timing’s tight, but it’s possible…"
Holding out my favorite snazzy white jacket, Marcy… paused a moment, letting it hang in her grip like a coat hook.
"It’s Thursday. Should you really be running around doing personal errands on a Thursday? Didn’t you just say—"
"No helping it," I said, tugging my jacket on. "Things need doing, I do them. Annabell wants a less familiar face, in the ‘family’ sense of the word familiar, so I’m providing. I’ll figure out what to do about the head office later…"
Marcy leaned against the wall (since all walls were pretty much in leaning distance in this tiny apartment) and pondered.
"You know, you keep volunteering to add more crazy to your life," she suggested. "But it’s gonna run you into the dirt if you keep it up. There’s only so much crazy one person can endure…"
"City is as City does," I said, tugging my jacket on. "Your options are to embrace the crazy or hide behind a locked door for the rest of your life. …you’re the one dating the guy running a criminal grocery empire, I’d like to point out. If crazy wasn’t your bag you didn’t have to volunteer for it, either."
"Yeah, okay, I’ll admit that I’m embracing the crazy too. I mean, I don’t wanna run when I can make a righteous stand. Gus has huge plans for the next food drop; we’re gonna do some real good for this city. That’s worth the crazy. …but I don’t think that Annabell woman signed on for the crazy in the same way you or I did."
"Which is why I suspect Mrs. Jørgensen called for my assistance," I said, tugging the jacket on. "Despite all of my complications, I’m a very uncomplicated guy."
My boss was not thrilled.
"The flu," he repeated, because they were words he put no stock in.
"Yah, really, really bad flu. Can’t get outta the house," I mumbled into my bluetooth headset, while holding my nose to simulate the ravages of disease. "Sorry. But don’t worry, I got this week’s case files in my cloud, and I’ll do paperwork for ya all the same—"
"Hollister, was that a car horn?"
"I… bought… a pet duck," I suggested. "He’s… not housebroken yet. Quacks a lot."
"Are you calling me from your car? Goddammit, Hollister, you’re seriously going to play hooky from work again?" he asked, anger rising. "What is it this time, cat stuck up in a tree? Someone’s grandmother needs help crossing the street?"
…yeah, so, not my best improv. Driving at seventy miles per hour down an Outland highway with huge shipping trucks coming at you in the oncoming lane can be pretty distracting. The dude knew when to let go of a losing gambit, at least.
"Okay, fine, look, I need a personal day," I admitted. "Stuff came up, and—"
"I’m tired of making excuses for your excuses, Hollister. You know how you look to upper management, with all this ridiculous freelance social work? Living outside your means, on all the connections and gravy you’re rolling in… why do you even WANT this job if you aren’t going to dedicate yourself to it?"
I had to resist the urge to snork back a laugh. As if this guy had any right to call me undedicated, when he was out at the golf course more than he was in the office.
Let’s be frank about this—the Department of Orientation is a mess. A horrendous, horrendous mess. It’s the least prestigious branch of City government around, only a step up from the First Action Response Teams in terms of career desirability. I’ve had four bosses in two years, because they keep getting promoted up and out of the pit that is Orientation casework. The City allocates just enough funds and manpower to make a token effort at helping immigrants, and a token effort is all these caseworkers are willing to put in.
Well. Except me, of course. My position was lowly, but casework was key to finding those in need… those lost immigrants that my gift for gab could lift up from government neglect. But the issue here was that those of us who do give a damn make those who don’t give a damn look bad. Those like my boss. There was a solution embedded within the problem, of course…
"Send me your own case files for the week, and I’ll do them the minute I get back tonight," I suggested. "I’ll have them on your desk in the morning. My work and yours. You can knock off for the day and play nine holes. C’mon, work with me here. This is important."
Tasty, tasty bait. The one thing he liked less than me working outside the lines was the work inside his own lines.
"All of it, my desk, in the morning," the voice over my earpiece repeated. "You do that, and I’ll overlook your umpteenth absence. Fine."
Transaction complete, call ended. The rest of the day to myself, provided I doubled down in the evening on the paperwork. Good. And just in time, as I was pulling up to New Horizons.
Paperwork, paperwork. Even in my side business there was plenty of paperwork to properly process. In this case release paperwork for Annabell Jørgensen.
Hers was a heartbreaking case, if ever I heard one. Middle-aged and abandoned by what passed for her family, stuck in dead-end secretarial job after dead-end secretarial job, losing each one as her undiagnosed bipolar disorder and unchecked drug habits put her on the fast track to unemployment. Her deadbeat husband dropped in sporadically to offer token child support and plenty of verbal abuse… until the day he dropped dead, cut down by the gang he ran with in highly suspect circumstances.
After drying out in a private clinic (on my dime, but at Dave Smith’s request) she didn’t look much healthier. If anything, the sad heap of humanity that sat nearby as I signed off the last of the documents looked more strung out than when she came in. At least she seemed a bit less twitchy… less glancing over the shoulder, as if looking for stalkers that were perpetually just out of sight. The metaphysical side of her woes had at last been stamped out. All that remained were the physical woes.
I tried to offer cheerful patter as we drove back to the city. Promises of hope and all that jazz.
"I managed to find you a position," I said. "Basic clerical pool work at TeleTech Communications. And your landlord’s kept your place just as you left it, with some leeway on the next rent check. Might be tight for a few weeks, but everything should balance out."
"Mhm," the woman replied, the same grunting reply she’d been giving me since we met that morning.
"Also, your prescriptions are available for pickup at your corner pharmacy," I continued. "Should help keep you level. And I found some NA group meets local to you that’ll be easy to get to…"
"…uh, also, there’s a group for Echo Survivors I think you’ll want to look into," I added, unsure if I should even broach the subject. "Good people, stuck in a similar situation to yours. And… if you’re amenable, doesn’t have to be right away obviously, they’d love to meet you and your son."
"He’s not my son," Annabell replied, softly. Almost too soft to hear over my engine’s hum as we rolled down the Outlands highway.
"Well, right, I mean, not in a direct sense, no. But—"
"He seems like a very nice young man," she admitted, continuing on without even looking my way. "A good man, who’d reach out to someone like me at a bad time. I… if I had a son, that’s the sort of son I’d want to have. But. But he’s not my son. …right now I just need to focus on keeping myself well, that’s what the counselors say. I can’t have that in my life at the same time."
"Yeah… yeah, I guess you’re right," I admitted. "And hey, you are gonna be well, y’know? If that other you back on Earth can be well, then, well, you can be well!"
"The other me died of cancer," Annabell spoke evenly.
(This entire morning has not been one of your shining moments, Hollister. Nope, nope.)
"You mean well. That’s why I called for you," Annabell continued. "You and your friends mean well. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but I can’t… I just can’t involve him in my life. Not yet. It’s too much. My husband died, my daughter’s run off, and I need to hold it together. I’m sorry. …convey my apologies to the Smith boy, will you?"
This City, I swear. If it was sentient, it had a cruel sense of irony. One of my buds, good ‘ol Dave Smith, lost in a tangled time-skipping echo-displacing family tree. This City wasn’t kind to him or to his mother, that’s for damn sure. Nothing I could really do about it, unfortunately… having the right contacts only went so far. Although, there was one thing I could dig up, tangentially…
"You want me to find your daughter, tell her you’re okay?" I asked. "What’s her name?"
Annabell’s gaze floated out the window, watching the trees roll by.
"Elizabeth," she replied. "But she got out long ago, with her boyfriend Jonathan. I think she’s a musician now. She’s better off without me in her life."
I was going to suggest otherwise, but we’d just made the off ramp to the Suburbs, and the shift from one ‘plane’ of the City of Angles to another was disquieting enough without trying to chat through it. One moment it was trees, the next it was picket fences. Enough of a jolt to the senses to stop conversation for the time being.
In the movies, private investigators show up with piles of black and white photographs taken from across crowded streets. In my case, I had a fan poster I’d found on the Internet.
"Her name’s Elizabeth Jørgensen," I explained. "Stage name while she was with Oblivion’s Advocate was Ellie, but now that she’s gone solo she’s just known as El. I actually know her manager; he’s a bastard, and I’m not entirely sure Ellie’s happy with her newfound fame, but… she’s alive and well. Richer than creosote, too. Big debut concert this Saturday night, if you wanna go. I’ve got tickets."
My client studied the poster, curious. Checking the contours of the face, seeing how familiar or unfamiliar they might’ve felt. The fluorescent overheads were quite harsh against the cheaply printed poster paper.
"How much of a bastard are we talking about here?" Gus Zero asked. "Is he exploiting or abusing her?"
Looking for the angles, that boy. It’s funny; when you talked to him "off the clock," he was a grinning goofball. But here in his place of power, the grocery store safely tucked away in a niche of the Sideways, he was all business. Darkly scheming business. He always paused before speaking, as if formulating the strategically perfect thing to say before daring to open his mouth. Gus Zero had plans, big plans, and tended to keep them quiet until your turn in them came up.
He’s the one who asked me to look into the family tree of Gustav Jørgensen, his elder echoed counterpart. Funny, how it turned out the daughter in question had been right under my nose the whole time. Funny strange, not funny ha-ha.
"Ellie’s not being used any more than any other pop starlet. Her manager’s creepy but not like creepy uncle creepy. He’s just riding her fame up the ranks of the industry," I suggested. "Ambitious as hell and cutthroat, but he doesn’t strike me as a complete monster. Something’s… off about him, but no, I don’t think Ellie’s in any actual danger."
Gus drummed his fingers on the grocery store counter, thinking hard.
"Gustav’s dying words were ‘she’ll need you,’" Gus explained. "The old fartknocker, right before he bled out, told me that his daughter… my daughter, I guess… was gonna need help. Like, totally serious about it. But what could I do for some super awesome rich rock starlet? She’s got it made, right?"
"Well, she does seem isolated and depressed," I suggested. "Might have similar issues to her mother. I’ve seen the music industry eat up people with depression, riding them into the ground. But if you’re looking for suggestions for how you could step in there, I don’t have any. It’s just as nutty as the situation with your wife. —with Gustav’s wife. You’re related, but… not really related. So. What’s the play, here…?"
After a few moments’ thought, Gus rolled the poster up, to store under the counter.
"There isn’t one. Not yet," he said. "If you don’t mind, I’d like you to keep an eye on her. I’ll have Gus Two do his own research on this, also. Spread the job around. I’m not sure what the shape of this is yet, and I don’t like moving until I know the facts. …don’t tell Dave or Annabell about me, either. I’ll stay out of the family mess until I know how to step in. The TroubleSolvers are busy with a lot of things right now ever since Penelope found out about the Blue-Eyed Plague, anyway. It’s pretty gnarly at the moment."
Understatement of the year, folks.
The "TroubleSolvers" had gone from being a twinkle in the eye of Kelsey Jones to a bona fide underground movement nearly overnight. They weren’t that far removed from the kind of work I do, actually… and I’d done work for them a few times, notably in hooking Gus Zero up with an identity forger for all his time-displaced copies.
But even beyond that, something big was going on. Something about a plague of suicides. I didn’t have all the details, busy with my own odds and ends, but given how things went down around Picasso Friday with this same crew… I had a bad feeling. From Gus’s expression, it was one he felt as well.
The stale air of the Sideways greeted me as I stepped out of the grocery store. The store front itself was designed to display various appealing edible goods to attract passers-by, but nobody would be passer-bying down here. In fact, the wall opposite the entrance was clearly yoinked out of someone’s den, complete with a grandfather clock and well-composed photographs of their entire family tree. The concrete chunk of sidewalk that came with the store meshed seamlessly with the deep beige shag carpeting. …once or twice I’ve been tempted to run my fingers over that, to see how it feels, but I would also be perfectly happy never knowing.
Gus leaned against the store exterior, hands in the pockets of his denim vest, as I paused.
"I forgot to mention… a friend of mine may have a need of some supplies. Grocery-type supplies," I said. "I gave her a definite ‘maybe’ since I didn’t know if you could fill the order, and I’m really not expecting anything serious from you, but…"
"Should run that through Kelsey," Gus suggested. "TroubleSolvers is managing the distribution. With my approval, of course. But she’s got the books and the shipping routes and knows where it’s all going in the end."
"Doubt this one will mesh with her plans, since my contact wants to fill an entire bodega in a newly refinished district. That’s a heck of a volume, even if it replenishes every month. Plus it’d be very much above board, so you’d have to be extra careful about filing off the serial numbers on the stuff to keep it from tracing back. …y’know, forget I asked."
"Hey, don’t be like that. If I can help, I will," Gus said. "That’s the whole point of this. I ain’t hoarding the stuff."
"A gift shouldn’t be squandered or hoarded," I spoke, by rote.
"Something my dad hammered into me at a young age," I mused, allowing myself a moment to think back. "He was a corporate efficiency expert. I had some very early and very harsh Econ 101 lessons alongside my allowance each month… and when I started spending above my means, he called me out on it. I told him how I was networking and trading with the other kids. Pop gave me a serious telling about abusing my connections for personal greed."
Gus smirked… and pushed away from the store front, lazily wandering towards the ancient metal newspaper dispensers and trash dumpsters on the faux sidewalk. "Sounds like my old man. He’s the one who yoked me to this store. Kept thinking it’d ground my feet. Guess it did, in the end—"
The smirk dropped when his hand slammed hard against the open lid of the dumpster, flooding the Sideways with the resounding sound of clanging metal as the heavy metal came crashing down. Not so loud as to drown out the brief scream of very human pain that came with it.
Reversing the motion, Gus flung the dumpster lid open again, then peered inside… with a nod of satisfaction at the unconscious body lying in the trash.
Once my nerves stopped rattling, I dared myself to take a peek as well.
"My old man also taught me how to spot some punk hiding outside the store," Gus added. "Although given we’re not sitting on a street corner anymore, I suspect this one’s not here to crack open the meter for quarters or tag the walls. You grab his feet, I’ll grab his arms."
The man came to with a splash of bottled water in his face. It soaked the cheap balaclava he’d obtained the day before, cool and wet against his skin. Probably something of a relief considering the splitting headache he was now enduring—not unlike the hangover headache which I’d been enduring this morning—but not quite enough to cut through the pain…
His eyes darted around, probably looking for an exit. Not that he’d spot one; just shelf after shelf of extraneous groceries, cardboard boxes and glass jars and bottles aplenty. Could use some as an impromptu weapon… if he wasn’t tied to a chair with heavy amounts of duct tape.
The masked man offered no hello or howdy-do after rousing from his forced nap. So, Gus took it on himself to start the discussion.
"You followed Hollister down here, didn’t you?" Gus Zero asked, rhetorically. "Joke’s on you, because the way back isn’t the way forward. Sideways are pretty bogus, huh. So… who’re you? What the hell’re you doing in my store?"
Silence. Not exactly stony silence, as the man’s eyes were only narrow from squinting, not from willful defiance.
His chair rocked slightly as the young man gave it a kick, driving it back a few inches.
"Who sent you? WHO?" he demanded to know. "Some gang-banger looking for the old man’s cache? Answer me—"
"Hey, hey, cool it down! Cool it," I insisted, getting between the two. "There’s no need for the Jack Bauer impression, okay?"
"Cool it? Cool it? Secrecy is how we do this thing! If that’s blown, we’re blown! —and you’re the one who led him down here! How’d you not notice you had a tail, man?"
Second time I’d been rebuked today. Mr. Hangover wanted to snap right back, but the dude would have nothing of it.
"It’s my bad, okay? My bad," I said. "Look, let’s just work this through. Figure out who he is and then figure out how to deal with it…"
"How we deal with it is we cut him loose in the Sideways without a map, and he gets himself promptly eaten by a Picasso," Gus suggested. "Nice and easy."
…and now the dude had to step aside, because Mr. Hangover was not having any of that. Supplicating and playing it careful had its place in networking, but this was not the time. Hollister Avenue can roll aggro when the situation calls for it.
"Gee, ‘G’, why don’t we just put two in his head?" I suggested, miming the gun-fingers to my temple. "That’s how the old fart would’ve done it, right? You’re filling mighty big shoes now, aren’t you, Alpha Dog. Marcy would be so proud."
It’s not easy to be bashed over the head with the baseball bat of righteousness. My own dad did it to me when I was running pyramid schemes on elementary school students. It’s a tactic that only works when there’s enough of a conscience in there to know damn well that you’re doing wrong; the baseball bat of righteousness shuts down the worst of you, so that small still voice can be heard.
Took a moment or three for Gus to hear that voice, but he heard it in the end. Wordlessly, he went into Loitering Mode, to let me take over from here. Probably needed to quietly pick through his own internal strife, anyway.
With Bad Cop in the box, Good Cop turned to face the prisoner. And to pull off the woolen mask, revealing… well, the person I already knew was under there.
"O-4 Security Officer Peter Gilt," I recognized. "Department of Safety, First Action Response Team. Dave Smith’s superior officer. Slightly lazy left eye when nervous. I could tell even through the mask."
Realizing he was caught, Gilt swallowed. Hard.
"What he just said, about dumping you in the Sideways to rot? We’re not doing that," I promised. "Peter, c’mon, you know me. It’s the Avenue here, the stand-up guy. If I say you’re walking out of this mess safe and sound, you know I’m good for it. And I know you; you’re the one who was willing to take on my orientation client who wanted to work search ‘n rescue. We’re all friends here, yeah? Yeah."
"…yeah," Gilt agreed, some hope returning. "Yeah. …this, this wasn’t my idea, Hollister. None of it."
"Masked men are rarely comfortable with the deeds they’re doing," I agreed. "Besides, skulking around isn’t your thing. You’ve got a legit day job, like me. Someone put you up to this, didn’t they?"
"No choice. I had to follow you," Gilt spoke, getting the words out quickly as he seized on the mercy being offered. "I don’t know how he did it, but he blocked my daughter’s admission to Maslow Academy. I can’t… I won’t send her to that public school anymore. There’s talk about some kind of suicide thing going around. I need her at home where it’s safe…"
Blackmail. Figured. Not the way the dude operated; I ran a web of trust, not a web of distrust. …which tickled a weird recollection in the back of my head, as I asked the obvious follow-up question.
"Who’s putting the screws to you, Gilt…?" I inquired.
The name came to my lips at the same time it came to his.
"Jon Polk," we said more or less simultaneously. Surprising him, and not surprising me.
"…he told me to tail you to some grocery store in the Sideways," Gilt continued. "Said my daughter would never get into Maslow otherwise. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew he’d been shooting up the ladder ever since he left my team… anything’s possible when you get high enough in Resources. Said he needed someone he could trust who knew how to survive the Sideways. And, well… it seemed simple. Just follow you around, then report back."
Just a douchebag. Obnoxious and immoral as hell, but ultimately harmless. Pops up now and then in my life to scrape against my nerves, but so what? I could deal with Jon Polk, I thought. He’s a nobody…
Except I didn’t deal with Jon Polk. I blew him off. And now the dude was bringing his own stupid problems to the doorstep of those he was trying to help. Wonderful.
Quickly, I indexed my contacts at Maslow Academy. Not too many, although I knew someone who knew someone whose kid was big in the student council. Not much to go on, not enough to make any big promises, but I had to make big promises all the same. What choice did I have? I had to counterbalance Polk’s moves with one of my own… either that, or see good ‘ol Gus Zero slide deeper into Gustav’s paranoia.
On the plus side, I think snapping at Gus snapped him back to his senses. Now my suspicious buddy had enough sympathy about him to convince me we’d avoided the danger zone. Unmasking the masked villain and revealing his very non-villainous motivating back story did the job; funny, how treating people like human beings tends to, well, humanize them.
"Okay. I’m going to make sure your daughter gets where she needs to be. You’ve got my word on that," I swore. "By hook or by crook. So consider Polk’s leverage on you null and void… and your contract with him broken. You walk out of here alive, with me, and report back to Polk that I am the most boring individual imaginable."
Now, Gus felt the need to inject himself. Stepping away from his looming position, ready to speak.
"Do you know why Polk’s so interested in this grocery store?" he asked. Trying to make it sound casual, rather than threatening…
…to which Peter Gilt offered a casual shrug. Simple enough to be honest rather than subterfuge. Good; Polk was playing it smart, not telling his helpless pawns all the details on what he was up to. And that ignorance was further cementing Gilt’s survival chances, as Gus nodded in satisfaction. The true secret of this place was indeed safe.
The trip back up to the surface was actually quite short; four hallways, three doors. The key was which doors, since some were one-way exits known only by mappers like Penelope. Soon after, Gilt was gone, and I was back in my car.
Grip the steering wheel. Try to breathe evenly.
When you make a lot of friends, you inevitably make a few enemies. It’s something I’ve gone out of my way to avoid, and when it does happen, usually a little social bacon grease can get the wheels turning again. A favor here, a bribe there, whatever. I’d never evolved anyone to the point where you could effectively call them a "nemesis."
Hopefully, Polk still didn’t count as nemesis. I don’t want a nemesis. But he’d managed to poke his nose in some very dangerous waters, cross-cutting into the lives of a large number of my friends. He wouldn’t stop at just sending down Gilt. He might not even stop at following me around. If he could threaten Gilt’s daughter, what other muscle could he throw around? What muscle would he throw around?
And that stupid headache. That stupid hangover headache. It should be gone by now, but it wasn’t. A persistent drill bit in the brain, threads turning their way down deeper and deeper. Couldn’t properly think in this state. Couldn’t figure out what moves to make. Something had to be done…
Key in the ignition, and off to find the calm little center of the insanity that is my life.
By the time I reached the center, it was clocking in around five in the evening. My entrance into the holy halls was secured nicely with pizza and beer for the dread minotaur which guarded this sanctum, and a few non-fat yogurt cups for myself and the temple priestess to enjoy. In other words, I bribed Marcy with some deep dish.
Layer upon layer of cheeses and meats were even enough to get me access to the bathroom I had annihilated some twelve hours previous… perfect for taking a rejuvenating shower, to purge the last dregs of hangover from my person. After my body cleansing, Vivi offered me a soul cleansing in the form of a neck massage, which I happily accepted. Even Marcy could accept this wanton display of personal affection, given I’d gotten the specific pepperoni I knew she craved right to the core.
I couldn’t talk with Vivi while she was working unspeakable magics upon my spine, of course. And Marcy was not putting down her slice of heaven to play sign language interpreter. So, I decided not to break this one lovely moment with the three of us at peace by bringing up my problems right away.
Only after all my kinks were unkinked in the least kinky way possible and stomachs were properly filled did I explain. The miniature conversation pit in their tiny apartment was arranged so I could sit adjacent to Marcy and across from Vivi, giving each of us our own unique visual or auditory window into the discussion. My sign language was pretty sloppy compared to Marcy’s, but it had been getting better and better over the last two years. Good enough even for a delicate discussion like this.
"I’m honestly not sure what to do about this," I admitted, while simultaneously translating into sign for the benefit of Vivi. "This is my screwup, and I brought it right to Gus’s doorstep. I could confront Polk and ask him to knock it off, but I don’t have any leverage to offer in return. He’s not going to go away easily; I’m going to need an offering of some sort."
"Or you could kick his ass," Marcy suggested, with a little drop-kick swing of her foot for emphasis. "A few missing teeth should be leverage enough, right?"
Vivi stared wide-eyed at her sister. [NO!] she flared, pinching her fingers sharply to close off the word. [That’s a terrible idea! If he’s working with gangs, they’d just attack Hollister in response.]
"Gus and I are ready to fight for the grocery store if we gotta," Marcy suggested. "We knew it might come to that eventually. It’s too important to let it go just because a bully comes along."
"Ideally I don’t want my own problems splashing back on the grocery store at all," I pointed out. "I’ve thrown his investigation so far. If I can keep that up, maybe come back to him with something else he wants…"
[Exactly! All Hollister needs to do is find something Polk wants more than the grocery store. He can make a trade,] Vivi suggested. [Nobody has to get hurt here, right?]
"THAT is a terrible idea," Marcy returned, with the same signs her sister gave. "You give in to a guy like this, it shows weakness. He’s just going to come back again and again. Say you snow him enough that he ditches chasing the grocery store, or you straight up bribe him… that’s a short-term solution. He knows how deep your resources run."
"Even if I wanted to make a trade, I have no idea what Polk wants," I felt the need to add. "And I can’t exactly ask him what he wants for Christmas without tipping my hand too soon. Right now I’m playing dumb; I don’t want to open discussions until I know in advance that I’m going to come out ahead. …I just need to figure out the right way forward. Every problem has a solution…"
Vivi sharply motioned for attention, before I could drift off in a haze of ponderance.
[Every problem has a solution,] she echoed. [And we know people who specialize in ‘solving trouble,’ don’t we…?]
My response was an immediate finger pinch.
"No," I signed.
[Why?] she gestured in reply, fingers from her forehead.
…and my words failed me. Both spoken and unspoken words. I had no follow-up to that ‘because.’
Because. Because. Because… it was just… unthinkable. Not right. Like a river flowing backwards. Like the sun setting in the east. Like a… a metaphor that breaks down.
Having Marcy raising her hand like a child patiently waiting to be called on to answer a tough math question did not help. Reluctantly, I nodded for her to continue.
"He doesn’t want to ask for help," she recognized. "It’s so obvious. Too proud AND too humble for his own good."
"Hey!" I barked in response, without a sign. An instant gut reaction. "That’s not—"
"We’re always asking him for help, sure. But he never asks anybody else for help with his own problems," Marcy signed, in smug satisfaction. "It’s so obvious, sis. Sure, he’ll ask us to help someone he’s helping… but he never asks us to lift a finger for him. Well, except when he’s busy ruining our toilet."
Yeah, okay. She had me there.
I don’t talk about it. I don’t even think about it, not consciously. But sheesh, when you lay it out there plain as day… I can only thrash around denying it for so long, you know? The dude is an honest man, and that means being honest to himself if he’s gotta.
Hollister Avenue knows a guy who knows a guy; he can make that connection for you, to get you the things you need. That’s what he does. But he doesn’t really need anything for himself. He has a job, he’s self-sufficient. Sometimes people give him gifts, but he never asks for them, no sir. That would be greedy. He had a gift and it wasn’t to be squandered or hoarded… or exploited. Not the way Jon Polk exploits it.
Just thinking about it made me feel… small. Vulnerable. I’d asked for help before, of course—a man can’t go his whole life without calling for a favor or two—but I did not make a habit of it. I’d, for instance, offer to help Marcy tag the Defined Tower in exchange for making a connection that would eventually come to soothe my soul. I could mask that, say Vivi was a terrific contact for others that needed my help, but let’s be honest… that one was all for me.
Vivi was the one to speak up, not me, after Marcy dropped that particular bomb.
[You can’t give and give and give without running out of yourself to give,] she flowed with her hands. [Let us help with this, Hollister. You helped us enough over the years; now we have a chance to help you. We’ll go visit Kelsey at the TroubleSolvers office. We can have yogurt, talk this through, and find an answer together.]
"Besides, if you screw this up, my boyfriend’s grocery store empire collapses and I’ll be forced to paint ‘Hollister Is a Tool’ on every billboard in town," Marcy added.
"…there is that, yes," I noted. "Duly noted. Okay. Let’s solve this trouble. We’ll take my car."
So this is the point where I should properly explain what the TroubleSolvers are.
Ostensibly, it’s a think tank. You have trouble, they solve it. Freelance social work for the folks the Department of Orientation fails, kind of like me… or using Penelope’s contacts in the independent mapping community (and her, err, unique extracurricular activity) to help those in need. Even her father decided to pitch in lately, lending his security consulting knowledge base to the project along with some office space above his inherited fish restaurant.
It’s kind of a nonsensical concept, of course. "TroubleSolvers" by all rights shouldn’t exist in the real world; it’s like Sherlock Holmes being a "consulting detective" instead of joining the Department of Safety like a non-crazy person. They meddle in things that nobody particularly wants to meddle in, and somehow they’ve made a business model out of this. Not a particularly profitable one, in the same way my own work isn’t particularly profitable, but when your landlord is Gregory Yates and there’s a gold mine in trout and lobster underneath your floorboards profit isn’t really a requirement.
They didn’t exist until very recent history. The way Dave explained it to me, originally Kelsey set the organization up as a surprisingly non-flimsy cover story for their shenanigans, and it snowballed from there. From a twinkle in her eye to something with a hastily engraved nameplate and door buzzer on the external stairwell door next to That Fish Place. Bonkers, man. Totally bonkers.
We called ahead to make sure someone was actually in the office, of course. Everybody involved keeps very strange hours. When the Wei Sisters and I dropped by, we were buzzed up and greeted by…
"Who’re you?" I asked, too puzzled to make with the greetings and niceties.
The guy with the nineties haircut and a slightly glazed expression extended a hand to shake.
"I’m Intern Scooter, the intern at TroubleSolvers. I’m the intern," he introduced. "Hi. Hello. Hi. Kelsey pulled me out the Sideways where I was cubist. I’m better now. …I’m not supposed to tell people that. I don’t think I’m supposed to tell you that. No, wait, you’re Mr. Avenue, right? Right. I can tell you that. Kelsey pulled me out of the Sideways where I was cubist. I’m better now. Okay?"
Hopes for my trouble being solved began to sink.
The offices themselves were a bit off kilter, as well. I knew the value of having a good office; my apartment often served as my office, a place to press the flesh and make deals happen. I kept it tidy and very, very rich-looking so it’d leave a good impression on folks. The TroubleSolvers… well, the "offices" were just one big room, with piles and piles of Kelsey’s techno-junk everywhere. A few chairs which looked like they were fished out of a dumpster comprised the waiting room / negotiation space. If not for a nicely printed sign hanging slightly askew on the back wall reading TROUBLESOLVERS I might’ve assumed this was an abandoned building taken over by hobos. Like, cyber-hobos.
Fortunately, two people I had more faith in were already here and waiting for us.
Kelsey Jones I’ve already talked about; she’s a hacker, in the classic Hollywood sense. She hacked the planet on a daily basis. I didn’t fully understand how she did what she did, and honestly it might’ve scared me to have the full details, but the results were always solid.
Gregory Yates I’ve mentioned once or twice. Put simply, the dude is intimidating as hell for a middle-aged restaurant manager. In an earlier life he was a bodyguard who crossed swords with Picassos on a regular basis; in an even earlier life he was a rough-and-tumble gangster who held territory against all comers. Old age hadn’t slowed him one beat, even the grey was eating at his hair.
So, the six of us sat down and hashed out everything I’d already hashed out earlier with Vivi and Marcy. I won’t repeat it here, ’cause you already know the story and it’d be boring. Scooter provided coffee and fishsticks, which was a bit unconventional, but Marcy will eat anything comprised largely of grease.
After finishing my sad sack story, Gregory made a complex situation very simple.
"You need more information on Polk’s network," he suggested. "Easily done. Kelsey can hack into his email and his cloud. From there, we figure out who he’s in with and devise a takedown strategy from there. A guy like this may have powerful friends, but he doesn’t strike me as being paranoid enough for a heavy operator. Not if he was willing to smugly confront you about the grocery store in the middle of a posh party. That’s the move of someone who thinks they’re completely in control. Kelsey?"
"Already cracked," she mumbled, while poking randomly at keys on her laptop computer. Huh. And here I thought she’d been taking notes this whole time. "I’ve got his email, his contacts list, his media storage, and wow that is a lot of pornography in there um anyway take a look I mean not at the porn take a look at the email and see if there’s anything good you can use, okay?"
Easier said than done.
Polk’s files were hella disorganized. I keep a tidy cloud, myself; easily searchable, properly tagged, great for quick reference. But if there was any method to Polk’s madness, it was known to him and him alone. Like, his folders were labeled "Barber" and "Violets" and "678" and so on. Probably little mnemonic in-references to his own wacky backstory which I would never understand.
I’m not exactly a techno-geek cyberwizard, myself. I can organize my own information, but plowing through this mess was beyond me. Kelsey had to walk me through it step by step, which no doubt tested her patience tremendously. She was speaking nice and slow, as if explaining it to a small child.
Two hours later, and we found the key to understanding this whole mess. An encrypted email, sender garbled. The content identified that sender quite specifically, though.
Glad to hear you might have a lead on the grocery store. We’ve sent out other feelers, but nobody’s come close. If you make this happen for us, you’re going to be our pointman on this operation. We need a new operator inside Resources, and this would go a long way to proving your value to us. Once you know where our store was moved to, contact us immediately. We’ll mobilize once you give word.
Our store. The implied ownership said it all.
"The Alphas," Gregory recognized. "I think this Polk guy just took a back seat in terms of major threats. In fact… I think Polk is in a hell of a lot of trouble."
"Uh, who?" Kelsey asked, confused. "Alphabets? Alpha Bits? Werewolves?"
I leaned back on the cheap sofa, groaning. I shared Gregory’s view on this one.
"They’re the gang who used to run the grocery store," I explained. "Vicious, brutal bastards. No mercy, no witnesses. Unlike other Salvager gangs, they didn’t even trust each other—only used code letters instead of names. Still, they worked together well enough to keep that store off anyone’s radar for thirty years through bribery, intimidation, and outright murder. I’d heard the gang broke apart when Gus’s counterpart turned and blew away their primary operators, but…"
"But obviously they want back in," Gregory finished. "They’re just using Polk to get what they want. I promise you that once they confirm he’s found the grocery store, Jon Polk is a dead man. Like you said—no mercy, no witnesses."
The crappy old couch grew instantly uncomfortable. "I… would like to avoid that," I spoke up. "Jon Polk may be a little piece of crap, but I don’t want him dead. I know his father; he’s a good man. If I got his son killed just to clear up my own problems…"
"Keeping Jon Polk alive when he’s already voluntarily jumping into a scorpion pit may be a problem," Gregory stated. "Polk is a smarmy used car salesman, while the Alphas are cold-blooded killers. Even if we get somehow got Polk away from them, the Alphas aren’t going to stop looking for the grocery store. Says it right there, they have other feelers out there. It’s just a matter of time."
"Can Penelope move the store again?" I suggested. (Yeah, as if he ran Penelope’s life.) "Maybe move it once a month? Keep us ahead of the wolves…?"
I was expecting him to bite my head off for suggesting it, but he stated his case plain and simple.
"Honestly, I’d prefer if you didn’t even suggest that to her," he politely asked. "She’d agree in an instant, wanting to try and avoid any conflict… which would put her at risk. She has to study the two areas being swapped intensely before she does… what she does. Even with the Department of Safety arguably in our corner lately, I’d rather not expose her like that. We can find another way out of this."
"A way without anyone getting shot in the face?"
"We are going to have to deal with the Alphas in a very careful manner," Gregory did note. "They’re too dangerous to play around with. Even old Gustav knew he’d have to take them down with him, that they’d never back down otherwise. So, we need to figure out a way to get them off our backs, hopefully for good. …I’m open to suggestions for how we can do that."
Marcy thought it over for a moment, before speaking up.
"Let’s give them the store," she suggested.
"Uh… isn’t that sort of the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish?" I replied.
"Actually, it solves all our problems. Think about it," she said, tapping her head for emphasis. "Penelope picked that particular corner of the Sideways because it’s nearly impossible to find, and nearly impossible to escape from. So, using our inside man Gilt, we tell them how to find the store… but we lie about the route back. Then the trap we set does what we intended it to do. The Alphas will get lost forever in the Sideways when they try to return to the surface. They never operated in the Sideways before—the store was above ground—so they wouldn’t know how to survive down there. Problem solves itself."
A glimmer of hope, true… before I realized the full implications of there.
"We’d be murdering them," I pointed out. "Not exactly pulling the trigger ourselves, but… it’d be condemning them all the same…"
"And? Considering they’re murderers, I’m not sure I have a problem with that," Marcy stated. "We thwart them, they’ll just come at us hard. Kill the Polk guy, maybe kill you, kill me and Gus, maybe even Vivi. Hostages, torture, who knows? Whatever it takes to get what they want. So… we preemptively defend ourselves against them. Gregory’ll back me up here; right, Gregory?"
"No. We won’t kill them."
Not exactly the answer Marcy expected to hear, her smile frozen in confusion.
Honestly… not exactly the answer I was expecting to hear, either. Once upon a time, Gregory Yates was perfectly willing to abandon Marcy and me in the Defined Tower, if not for Penelope insisting on saving our butts. The man never struck me as a Peace In The City And Goodwill Towards Men sort.
"Killing them would be easy. Easier than that, even. Invite Polk to a meeting with them, I snipe them from a rooftop across the way, done," he suggested. "But I’m learning that the easy solution is typically not the right one. Their history is bloody, but they haven’t actually threatened us yet; we’re building them up as huge bogeymen in our minds, writing horrible stories of what they might do. Drawing a line between us and them. …don’t get me wrong. If it comes down to it, I will pull the trigger and end them. But only if it comes down to it. In the meanwhile, we need to be smart about this. Think about what they want, and how we can turn that against them."
Maybe it was the man-of-war turning all man-of-peace on us, maybe it was just the overall seriousness of the situation. Either way, silence fell over the group after that. Thoughtful silence.
Think about what they want…
They wanted the grocery store. Pretty obvious, yes? Well, wait, think about that for a second. The grocery store is a building. A building that happens to house what they really want, an infinitely replenishing supply of food. It’s the food they craved, not the store. One was a means to the other…
The Alphas only knew each other as code letters. They weren’t a family, not like Gregory’s old Salvager gang. They had a single purpose, a binding cause which forced them all to work together. The only reason they still existed as a unit was their hope of returning to the status quo. Without that status quo, the Alphas didn’t exist.
Without the food, there were no Alphas.
"Marcy was right," I realized. "We need to give them the store."
Okay, okay. Let me have some fun with this. Explaining in perfect chronological order how that night went down would be WAY less interesting than playing around with it. And frankly, when you have opportunity to snooker someone in a playful manner, I highly recommend that you take it. It is SO choice.
I will say it took longer to prepare than I’d expected. Like, hours and hours. We started in the late afternoon and didn’t wrap until evening. Honestly, we probably coulda pushed it off a day—and in hindsight I wish we had. But Gregory was of the mindset that we needed to get on top of this now, before Polk figured out that his snoop was in our pocket.
The division of labor actually worked out quite well; I finagled my phone calls, Gregory and the Gusses did the heavy lifting, and Kelsey applied the finishing touches. In the end, we were ready to go… and then it all came down to me.
I knew Polk’s number, despite not wanting anything to do with him. I knew everyone’s number, in the end.
"Uncle Hollister! Funny, you calling me out of the blue like this," Polk spoke over the line, soaked in good cheer. "How’s your day treating ya?"
The timing was key. His snoop Peter Gilt would’ve reported back by now that I was searching around the city for something… only to come to a halt in front of a particular building. A story I came up with for him to deliver to Polk, of course. Just enough of a tease to bait the hook, while I did the reeling.
"Yeah… it’s been… kind of a day, definitely. It’s been a day," I said, mixing some tentative disappointment in my tone. "Not the most productive. Hangover city, some errands to run, and a project I was working on didn’t pan out the way I wanted."
"Really? Huh. I would’ve thought otherwise," Polk replied, confused. After all, this didn’t mesh with the story his blackmailed private eye replied with. "What’s up? Give me the deets."
"Okay. You mentioned the grocery store last night, right? You know which one. I didn’t have a lead on it, you thought I did, that one. Well, it got me thinking… what if I COULD find it? I mean, we’re practically family, right? If I tracked it down, I could cut you in on it. I’ve got no objections to your clients having full stomachs, as long as my clients get theirs too. Everybody wins."
"Uh… yeah, I mean, that makes sense, sure," Polk spoke, his pause betraying that he wasn’t expecting to cough up a single cupcake here. "So, you find it? C’mon, don’t keep me in suspense."
"Ohhh, I found it," I confirmed. "Jørgensen Family Groceries. Red-black wrapped building; popped up a few days ago on the grid. But… I don’t know if you’re gonna be thrilled with the end results."
"Let me be the judge of that. What’s the address? I’ll swing by."
The address I gave him matched the address Peter Gilt gave him perfectly. No shock, considering I fabricated the entire story that Gilt related to the man. The match was key; it would be enough to confirm that I wasn’t being slippery, that I had indeed been searching for the store, located it, and was now offering it up on a silver platter. No deception. Uncle Hollister making good.
With a coffee and a danish helpfully provided by the locals, I camped out in my car outside the store and waited for phase two of the plan. Not that I finished them. A warm coffee on a cold night was always welcome, but maybe caffeine wasn’t what my nerves needed just then.
Less than an hour later into the dead of night, and Polk rolled on up in a much nicer car than mine. Genuine Mercedes Benz, compared to the expensive brand car I had from a "local" Outlands factory.
Of course… he wasn’t alone. Three figures in overcoats piled out of the car with him, grim-looking men with grim-looking expressions. That would be the Alphas.
Unlike the flamboyant gangsters of most Salvager gangs, the Alphas tended to go in for Tall, Dark, and Not Interested In Dealing With You. They apparently had normal lives outside of their once-a-month gig looting the most valuable grocery store in the entire City, choosing to be relatively anonymous guns during those periodic heists. Pass one on the street and you’d never know they were an underworld operator. It was only the heavy pragmatic menace they carried themselves with that suggested they were something more than average joes.
Polk, meanwhile, was all flashy grins and flashy clothes. He had a much nicer wristwatch than mine, which glinted in the dim street-level lighting as he waved to me from across the street.
"Hollister, hey, good to see you, glad to see you," he greeted, as I stepped out of my car. "These are my associates; you can refer to them as H, K, and L. I believe you’re familiar with their work…?"
Cocky little thing. Walking at the head of the group, as if these three heavies were his henchmen. Probably trying to intimidate me, or impress me, or both. I knew who the Alphas were and I knew their reputation; if Polk had them in his pocket, or at least thought he did, damn straight he’d wave them around like a shiny trophy.
Gregory figured what remained of the Alphas would accompany Polk tonight; no way any of them would stay behind if they were about to end up back in the game. They worked as a unit, but never trusted each other for a second… and after their fearless leader plugged three of them in broad moonlight a few months ago, that trust was not likely to improve. Invite their new pet doggie Polk out to the store, and all of them were going to be in tow.
For my part, I showed just enough confusion and then concern as the men approached to be convincing. And then swallowed it down, also convincingly.
"Uh, hey, good to meet you," I greeted. "So. You said you wanted the store, and I’ve delivered. Well… this is it."
"Doesn’t look much like it. Wasn’t a corner store before," H commented. "Also there was a second story, with offices…"
"Trust me, this is the place," I insisted. "It got shuffled in, replacing the guts of the building. And… well, you’ll have to see for yourself. Although I don’t know if you’ll like the results."
"Didn’t we already reject giving them the store?" Marcy had wondered, back at that meeting of the minds. "And we rejected leaving them down in the Sideways to rot and get lost forever. Soooo… what do you mean, ‘we need to give them the store’?"
(Yeah, I’m skipping back and forth a little in my narrative. C’mon, it’s more fun this way.)
"They want the food, first and foremost," I explained. "The store is a delivery vehicle for food. So, let’s re-create the store, elsewhere in the City. It can be our decoy, throwing them off the scent of the real store. Shouldn’t be too hard; bring over the signs and the decorations and even the arcade game. All the trappings that identify the place as the real deal."
Gregory nodded slowly, starting to see it… but not seeing all of it. "The Alphas know that place inside and out. We can’t fool them with a fake. And besides, what good would that do even if they bought it? They’d wait around a month, see that it isn’t resetting, know they were snookered and then come back at us guns blazing."
"Well… that’s the second part of the plan," I said, a bit less sure about this bit. "Because if the store is a delivery vehicle for food, we need to convince them that the vehicle’s been in a head-on collision."
Took some cajoling to get the group inside. The Alphas smelled a trap, but it was unthinkable for any of them to stay outside; they were unified now, the core of the hardcore of the group, ones who didn’t float away back to their anonymous lives when "G" turned on them. Soon enough, all then men were inside, to bear witness to…
…well, an incredible mess.
Shelves bent and twisted, their contents rotting away on the warped floorboards. Overhead lights flickering or shattered. Movable letters on the daily specials sign rearranged into nonsense words, sometimes pronounceable, sometimes unthinkable. The stench of what happened to the food was barely bearable, to the point where it was doubtful any of it was food in the first place.
But unmistakably, this was the place. The sign proudly declaring WELCOME TO JØRGENSEN’S was still there, if warped in the center. Various advertisements and posters were straight out of the original store, hanging in roughly the same place they were originally. And notably… there was the Q*Bert machine.
The pixellated sprites were floating off the side of the screen, now hopping around freely on the counter around the Take A Penny change bowl.
All three of the heavy underworld operators fled the scene like frightened schoolgirls.
Kelsey shifted in her seat, fidgeting. The fidget had a slight hitch to it, as if a few frames of video had gone missing.
"I, I don’t know," she mumbled. "I could. I mean. I could probably do it, and do a good job. Very convincing. I’m very convincingly cubist because I can actually go cubist and the real thing is a lot better than just tossing food around and wrecking the place. I can go cubist. I can do it. Don’t know if I should. Danger might not approve. He’s worried, worried I’d lose myself if I do it intentionally like that…"
"Hey, hey, we can make the place look cubist even without you," I hoped. "Like you said, toss food around, wreck the place. It just has to be messed up enough to convince them that it’s been red-blacked for a reason—"
"No. No. That won’t do. It has to be real," Kelsey interrupted. "I have to do it. I… I can do it. I can do it and I won’t lose myself. This is important, this is something I can do, trouble I can solve. I want to help."
Folks, I’ll admit up front that I didn’t like this part of my plan.
I don’t like putting Kelsey at risk like that. Ongoing cubism in individuals is a scary thing, one that’s considered an inevitable downward slide into becoming a full-blown Picasso. But… a lot of the assumptions about what was inevitable had been disproven in the time I knew these people. I had to put faith in Kelsey, even as I put her at risk. No other way to throw the hounds off the scent for good…
"So, yeah, not exactly was I was hoping for," I summarized once everyone was safely on the sidewalk outside the freshly twisted store. "My best guess is that the store’s been shuffling around every few days, popping up in the Sideways, popping up on the surface, who knows. And each time it moves, it gets a bit more twisted. You could wait around for the next monthly reset, I guess, but you guys know how cubism works… it’s rare for something to get less twisted over time."
"…y’coulda told me this over the phone," Polk complained.
"I figured you wouldn’t believe me. I mean, if this was legit and high value, I’d be sitting on it for myself, right?" I reasoned. "If I didn’t bother reporting this and showing you the mess, you’d just keep hounding me and assuming I was playing dumb. Only way to convince you otherwise was to show you what I found."
The ashen looks on the faces of the three gangsters were just perfect; the situation had been sold to them. Even the toughest of hoods didn’t want to mess with cubism. Which was, ironically, how they kept the original grocery store out of enemy hands for so long… red-black tape was enough to deter their competitors from setting foot inside their domain.
But one of them, the one only known as H, came out of his anxious fugue state shortly enough.
"Disappointing," he admitted. "Damn disappointing. But not surprising. We’ve had other feelers seeded throughout the City looking for this, even though it was a long shot…"
"Other… feelers?" Polk asked, confused.
"You think we’d trust something this important to one small-timer like you, Polk?" H asked. "Get real. This is bigger than you."
"But you said I was getting a partnership on this," he replied, not cluing in. "An ongoing cut of the profits. Something more than a simple finder’s fee…"
"Are you kidding? You were never getting a partnership. Actually, we were going to waste you the moment we confirmed delivery," H said, matter-of-factly. "As a matter of fact, we’re going to waste you right now. You and your friend Mr. Avenue, for that matter. You know our faces and know what we’re up to, and we can’t have that. But mostly, I’d say it’s for wasting our time."
Guns out and ready.
"There’s one last hurdle to overcome," Gregory understood. "Let’s say you get the Alphas out there with your trap, let’s say they take the bait. They decide the grocery store is officially a dead end and they won’t pursue it any further. How do you stop them from killing you?"
"Uh… what? Why would they kill me?" I asked. "There’s no grocery store to protect, so nothing worth killing over, right…?"
"These men are efficient and professional. No witnesses allowed, even witnesses to failure. Even without their prize, they may want to wipe the slate clean. Maybe they’ll let you walk… maybe not. If they decide not to let you walk… well. I said it before: if it comes down to it, I will pull the trigger and end them. But only if it comes down to it."
Naturally, it came down to it.
I probably should’ve been more worried about being at gunpoint. Polk was damn near peeing his pants, being on the wrong end of the guns he thought were backing him up during this transaction. Both of us were non-Alphas, which meant we were prey of the Alphas… a distinction he hadn’t made until now.
Unlike Polk, I knew a much larger gun was pointed at the heads of the Alphas… a sniper rifle, procured from who knows where, in the hands of Gregory Yates. He had a clear target from a nearby rooftop. Presumably he could drop all three before I got dropped, but…
But this was my trouble. I brought it to Gregory’s doorstep, right as the man was clearly trying to overcome his tendency to shoot people in the head. They helped me set up the fake store, Kelsey risked her sanity to make it look convincing, everybody pitched in to make this happen… and I felt my job was to use my gift to keep Gregory from needing to use his.
To wit: I schmoozed.
"Look, there’s no need for this," I reasoned, perfectly calm in the face of my death. "Nobody is getting what they want tonight. You aren’t getting your source of revenue back, Polk isn’t getting his partnership, I wasted a whole day chasing down a fairy tale. There’s no value in killing us tonight. Is the value your anonymity, then? We don’t know your names. Faces are meaningless, in the long run. They fade from memory. And since you’ve done us no real wrong, we’ve no reason to vengefully chase you down once this night is over. I say we call this a bust and all go our separate ways."
Not quite enough to get H to lower his gun. But I did see it waver a little… very telling, from the normally oh-so-stoic Alphas.
"Cops could come to you," H pointed out. "While our faces are fresh in your supposedly rapidly decaying memory."
"Come to us for what, exactly?" I replied, immediately. "Your earlier criminal shenanigans? It’s a dead case, just as dead as the grocery store. There’s nothing here to really investigate… and they hardly have time, what with being busy with all those suicides and the ongoing aftermath of Picasso Friday. Gentlemen… your era is over. You have lives you can return to. There’s no sense adding more murder to your rap sheet at this point. Just let it go. Trust me."
…good… good. Guns definitely about to lower. Maybe that was just intuition speaking, but I could see it clear as day in my mind’s eye. We were getting out of this.
"How do you expect me to trust you?" H asked, simply.
For this… I could actually crack a smile. Tug on my jacket lapels a little.
"Gentlemen… I have no idea who you are, but you know who I am," I stated. "And in fact, everybody knows who I am. I’m Hollister Avenue. I’m the guy who knows a guy. Ask anyone if I can be trusted, anyone at all, and you’ll get your answer."
In they end, they went their separate ways. Literally so, all three walking off in three different directions. They had lives of their own, lives beyond the Alphas… and that night represented the last time they would ever stand together.
Polk owed me big time. Not that he chose to acknowledge it; he somehow found enough chutzpah to rag on me for a bit, saying I ruined a perfectly awesome deal he had been working on with the Alphas. He sped off in his Mercedes Benz without a single word of gratitude for saving his life. But… well, maybe I’m naive, but I think somewhere deep inside he was thankful. At the very least he left me alone after that, which was thanks enough.
We’d done it. The legend of the phantom grocery store had been destroyed. The real store would continue to operate in secret, splitting its bounty up across various charities… including that of Jasmine the celebutante, whose corner store bodega had been most graciously loaned to us for tonight’s adventure. We tidied it up as best we could before leaving, Kelsey un-twisting the space to keep it from becoming more and more toxic. Still not safe to inhabit, but that didn’t matter. Plenty of space left in that district to set up another store, one stocked with a non-traceable sampling of wares from the Jørgensen Family Grocery.
A few wrap-up calls and handshakes later, and I was on my way home after the longest and most trying day of my career as a professional busybody.
It wasn’t until I pulled back into my garage around midnight that I remembered… oh right, didn’t I promise my boss that I’d do two full loads of paperwork before morning?
Yeah. So. That happened. Or rather, didn’t happen, as I passed out on my laptop keyboard around three in the morning. Having spent the entire previous evening partying and drinking and the whole day running around doing errands and the whole night fleeing from gangsters and leading them into a deathtrap… kinda drains a guy, y’know? Only natural.
The next day at work was my last day at work.
I got all kinds of reamed out by my boss. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d just missed the day… but I’d promised to do his work. So, he didn’t do any work at all, and now he looked bad as well to the higher-ups at Orientation. The screaming started when I set foot in the office, and ended only when I walked into the parking lot with the contents of my desk in a cardboard box.
"It was a long time coming, honestly," I admitted to Kelsey as we shared lunch the next day. "The only way I could get anything done, anything of any real value of society, was to work well above the guidelines of the Department. Straw, camel’s back, done."
"Didn’t mean to cause you trouble," Kelsey mumbled. "Not at all…"
"I got myself into that trouble. You guys got me out of it," I reminded her. "In fact… I was thinking. We got a lot done yesterday, didn’t we? Risky as hell, but we figured our way through that mess when I couldn’t have done the same on my own…"
This had been a long time coming, too. A notion I’d toyed with for some time, ever since learning about Kelsey’s crazy business plan. Years of resentment at fighting the system to get anywhere, and a ray of light beaned me right in the face from the strangest place imaginable.
"…you guys looking to hire a freelance social worker?" I continued.
"The TroubleSolvers. Are you hiring? I mean, I was already doing the kind of things you do in the first place. It’s a perfect fit. With my contacts I can bring more clients to your door, people I know that need help but can’t find that help within the old regime’s systems. I know ways to make a group like this profitable without bilking the clients, either. There’s plenty to be made in incidental side benefits from jobs like these. TroubleSolvers could be self-sustaining, with enough planning."
The girl with green hair considered it… and nodded, rapidly. Then slower, when she started to frameskip again.
"You’re good with people. I need someone good with people to help me learn how to be good with people and to be good with people until I’m good with people," she almost comprehensibly stated. "Dave has the same problems I do with people, and Gregory scares people, and… yes. Yes. I’d like to hire you. For those face-to-face things I can’t face."
So, that’s how I joined the TroubleSolvers.
I guess it’s a very, very, VERY roundabout way to explaining how I lost my job and got my current one. Technically more information than you needed for such a simple question, but there you go. That’s how my life got flipped turned upside down.
I mean, technically, it got flipped turned upside down a year later in a pretty huge way. Same goes for all of us who were there when everything went bad, I guess… but that’s another story entirely.
Speaking of another story entirely…
"I prefer talking face to face," I told her, thrilled to hear she needed that particular skill. "Face to face is my jam, making that human connection. Helps me to know I’m fighting for a real flesh-and-blood person."
Two words that stuck in Kelsey’s head, tumbling around a little before coming out her mouth again.
"…some think none of us are really flesh and blood. That the City doesn’t exist," she spoke. "The TroubleSolvers have been trying to find a very bad man who’s determined to prove that, actually. Bad guy, a very bad guy making very bad music. Very busy making bad music that kills people. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, he says. Funny idea of play, I think…"
Ten words that stuck in my head, tumbling around a little before coming out my mouth again.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…"
Something big was going on; I knew that, despite being distracted by my own little problems. Something about a plague of suicides. Something the TroubleSolvers had been dealing with, like they dealt with the Cult of Bedlam back at Picasso Friday. They were apparently seeking a bad man, making very bad music that kills people…
The man that the TroubleSolvers had been looking for was right under my nose the whole time.
And THAT is where I think I should stop. Because how Penelope stopped his plans, or rather how she completely failed to stop his plans, is another story entirely.