Truth. Justice. Minesweeper.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Third excerpt:

Okay, so I missed my first assignment. It probably would have been lame and soulsucking anyway.

Still, never let it be said that I'm not up for anything lame or soulsucking. I called the temp agency back and reaffirmed my commitment to their intermittent supply of joe jobs, and they told me they'd call me. I then spent some quality time with the phone book, and noted down some other temp agencies, as well as other things that a young man in the city needs to know about--music stores, grocery stores, video stores, stuff like that.

I was still making notes when Ron came in. He put a box of donuts and a newspaper down on the couch next to me. "You need to eat more donuts," he said. "I've noticed you have a serious sprinkle deficiency."

"Thanks," I said, launching my face into a Boston creme.

He picked up a big envelope from the kitchen counter. It had already been torn open. "See this?"

"I saw it lying there. I didn't look at it. Why?"

"Carl dropped it off this morning. He's moving out."

"What, he's moving out moving out? Just like that?"

"His girlfriend got a big promotion, and she has to move to Atlanta. So he's going with her. He left us his keys, his pass and his next two months share of the rent. And that is that." Ron crammed half a donut in his mouth, opened the fridge, and took out a carton of milk. He hefted it. Empty. Frowning, he put it back and got a glass of water.

"Two months rent? Wow; he didn't have to do that. So he's already gone?"

"I guess. Hey, you did a thing for him last night, right?"

"Yeah," I said. "Why?"

"I was wondering if you had any idea what he did for a living. I lived with the guy for months--not that I saw him more than twice a week--and I still don't know anything about his job. He never said."

I shrugged. "He wouldn't tell me anything either. I mean, he said it wasn't illegal, but . . . I don't know. You never asked him?"

"Once," Ron said. "He kind of danced around it."

"Huh. How was work last night?"

He made a face. "A guy puked all over the bar. He was just standing there, perfectly ordinary, no reason to think I should have cut him off, and he goes into reverse right there on the bar. Everybody cleared out and I had to clean it up. I got about half the tips I'd normally get, and my cousin chewed me out about how the guy was obviously overserved."


"Yeah. Hey, listen, are you free Friday night?"

"I guess my socks can sort themselves. Why?"

"My friend Sean is having a party. You wanna come?"

"You know what? I really should. I should do that. I should go to that party."

"Sure you should."

"Because there will be women there, and I should go where women are."

"Yeah. 'Cause you don't know any women."

"I know some women."

"Not around here."

"No. So I should go to your friend's party. Sign me up."

"All right," Ron said, and flopped down on the other end of the couch. He pulled the sports section out of the paper, a donut out of the box, and started into both.

I took the front section. I was still new enough in Empire City that I felt no attachment to any of the local news stories, but I thought there might be some mention of the goings-on last night on First Street.

There it was, on page ten. No picture, and not many details, but there it was. And as I read the article, I felt like an idiot just about instantly.

According to the Empire City Moon, the cops had broken up a meeting of a bunch of drug lords and arrested everybody in sight. Guns were fired, grenades were handed and tears were gassed. No fatalities on either side. The police gave a big share of the credit to local superhero Greyghost, who was instrumental in finding out about the meeting in the first place and busting some heads to soften up the drug lords' security.

When I was thinking what it would be like to move to Empire City and forge a new life for myself and all that crap, I never considered superheroes. I mean, we didn't have them back in Keysbury; they only existed on the news.

Which I personally tuned out. I was never into the whole superhero deal. There were people in high school who were big fans, but I found it too much to keep track of. There were hundreds of them, and they were always changing their names and costumes and powers, and there was always some damn menace or other that we were supposed to worry about until they fixed it, and I couldn't imagine keeping any of it straight. So I forgot about it. I knew there were superheroes out there, and that they were supposed to be generally good to have around, but it didn't have anything to do with me.

And now here I am delivering a briefcase to one so that he can go beat up a bunch of drug guys. I didn't want to start freaking out in front of Ron, but my eyes glazed over for a second there. Carl sent me into the middle of a drug cartel! I could have gotten killed. The guy in the car who wanted to know what I was doing there--he could have killed me. What the hell, Greyghost almost twisted my head off for being late. I exhaled slowly and carefully.

Anyway, it was over.
Second excerpt from the pen-and-paper early journal:

Out all day looking for work, and when I got back to the apartment Carl was putting on the Ritz. "Dennis," he said in the middle of applying aftershave. "Just the man."

"The man what?"

"How'd you like to do me a favor?"

"I'd hate it. A favor? Nah."

"I don't mean for free. A hundred bucks sound okay?"

"Really? One hundred non-Monopoly dollars?"

"Yup. Just take a briefcase down to First Street at two this morning and lock it to a fire escape." He seemed serious.

"What is it, drugs?"

"Go to hell. No, it's not drugs. It's nothing illegal and you won't get in any trouble for it."

"So why don't you do it?"

"Because I--" he picked up his wallet "--am going to pick up Heather--" he put his keys in his pocket "--and we're going to see a movie--" he straightened his collar in the mirror "--and eat food in an actual restaurant--" he examined his teeth "--and spend the night at her place--" he put on his watch "--and I am not going to have my cellphone or my pager with me--" he dropped them in a dresser drawer.

"I don't know . . . ."

"Come on, decide," he said. "If you won't do it I'll have to make other arrangements."

"What's in the case?" I asked.

"Can't tell you. I promise it's nothing illegal. Come on, you want money, I'm pretty sure you're not busy at two a.m., and you'd really be helping me out."

I wavered, and sighed. "All right, I'll trust you. Gimme the directions."

Carl produced an envelope and a briefcase. "There you go. Oh, and here," he said, opening his wallet and handing me five twenties.

"You're sure this isn't going to get anyone in any trouble?"

He squashed up his face and gave his lip a chew. "Probably be better if you weren't late," he said. And left.

I still didn't like it. I only knew Carl because he was Ron's roommate when I moved in last week. He was hardly ever around, spending all his time working and with his girlfriend. He seemed like an okay guy, but . . .

The briefcase was made of some kind of matte black material, kind of like a laptop. Not really heavy. No hinges or any obvious way of opening it. There was a little combination lock cable doodad on the handle, and it didn't rattle when I shook it..

The note in the envelope said, "775 First St. near Cumberland. Third floor fire escape in alley on north side. Have in place by 2:15 a.m., not before 1:45 a.m." I didn't think it was Carl's handwriting.

It was about eight o'clock. I sacked out and set the alarm for one-thirty. I had a hard time getting to sleep, because it was still pretty bright out and I wasn't used to all the city noise. I did eventually drop off, though, and I think I dreamed (unusual for me) about someone trying to stick my head in a bag.

When I opened my eyes, my clock read one-forty-one. Damn it! I sat up and hit the light. Apparently I had set the clock for one-thirty p.m. instead of a.m. Crap! I pulled on some clothes and headed out with the briefcase.

I figured I'd head down Quentin to First and hang a left. This took longer than I had hoped; it was after two by the time I reached First. Then I got lost, because for some stupid reason First is all chopped up once you get east of Johnson. I had to go all the way up to Second to get pointed in the right direction, and when I tried to go down Cumberland, I found that Cumberland is all chopped up around there, and it was purely trial and error that put me in front of 775 First at 2:35.

775 First was a little poured-concrete apartment building with broken windows and masking tape holding on the front door latch. A black car was idling nearby. I looked at it probably longer than I should have, and a guy got out of the passenger side and strode toward me.

Run? No; he'd catch me, and that'd be bad. Plus I haven't done anything wrong.

"What do you want?" he said. Threateningly, unless I imagined it.

"Nothing. Why?"

He looked me up and down. "You don't live around here."

"Now that my landlord kicked me out I do. What do you care?"

He pointed at number 775. "You're staying in here?"


"Then I don't give a shit." The guy got back in his car, but I figured he was probably still watching, so I went up to the front door. Technically you needed a key to get in here, but the lock was broken and I just walked in. Only one light was working inside, and the lobby smelled like pee. I walked past the mailboxes and the stairs and right on out the back door into an alley.

Man, it was dark. I couldn't see a thing. I stepped in a bunch of wet objects that I still don't know what they are, and knocked over between two and seven garbage cans. Eventually I found the fire escape--I could only see it by a light in a neighboring building--but the ladder was too high for me to reach. Carl could have reached it, but Carl is eleven feet tall. So I hauled a garbage can over to stand on. Making more noise. I hoped the guys in the car had the radio on.

I used the little locking thing to hook the briefcase to me while I climbed the garbage can and up the fire escape, and made it to the third floor. You'd be surprised how hard it is to do both those things in the dark. I started looking for a good place to attach the briefcase, feeling like I had earned every penny of Carl's hundred bucks.

A hand clamped over my mouth and jaw and hauled me in the third floor window. It was just as dark inside the apartment. Whoever it was shoved my face against a wall and I lost the briefcase.

Right against my left ear I felt a scrapy-sounding whisper, "Where is Carl Downing?"

"Murgg . . ."

The grip loosened. "Where?"

"Couldn't make it . . . he sent me . . ."

He spun me around and kept me against the wall with a fistful of T-shirt at my neck. "Who are you?"

"His . . . his roommate. Dennis." He eased off, a little, and I said, "Carl's directions are in my front pocket." Sorry if that was supposed to be secret, Carl.

A hand reached into the inside pocket of my jacket and pulled out the piece of notepaper. "Mm. Maybe." Still holding me, he pulled my wallet out of my jeans.


"Shut up."

I could hear him flipping through my wallet. How was he seeing anything? Even Carl's directions. It was pitch black in here.

"Mm," he said again, cramming my wallet in my pocket. "Don't move." And let me go.

I straightened up but didn't go anywhere. I heard the briefcase scrape on the floor, a complicated click as it opened, and, a couple of seconds later, another complicated click as it closed.

"You're late."

"First Street screwed me up, the way it-"

"Fine." A pause. "Where is Carl?"

I hesitated. "He just said he couldn't make it."

"Did he." He started moving me across the room. "Get out as quickly and quietly as you can, and leave the area."

"I can't go that way; the guys in the car will see me."

"They saw you come here?"

"They think I live here. I went in the front door and out the back."

He turned me around to face him - I guess - slowly. "You tricked them. What did Carl tell you about . . . all this?"

"Nothing. Just what was on the piece of paper."

"And why did you agree to it?"

"I don't know - Carl needed a favor, I needed the money, and he said it wasn't illegal."

"Mm. So."

Who the hell was this guy, anyway? "Can we switch a light on so I can find my way to the window?"

"No. Stay here. I have an errand to run, and when I return it will be safe for you to leave. Until then, do nothing."

"Oh, come on."

The only response was a soft echoing step on the fire escape.

You really start to question yourself when you're sitting on the floor of a grungy apartment at three in the morning, alone, in the dark, while you wait for a bunch of tough people with unclear motivations to finish doing God knows what. Next time Carl wants a favor, I have to wash my hair or something.

About fifteen minutes later, all hell broke loose somewhere nearby. I could hear glass breaking, people shouting, gunshots, police sirens, explosions and a helicopter. The commotion went on for maybe ten minutes. I tried looking out the window, but all I could see from that angle were flashing red and blue copcar lights, bouncing off the opposite building. Did I cause this, in some way?

Eventually the noise died down and the lights went away. I poked my head out to reconnoiter, but--oh yeah, right--it was dark in the alley.

I was thirsty. Hey--there could be a fridge in here! I fumbled my way toward a wall and felt along it looking for the kitchen. I found it okay, and there was a fridge, but nothing in it. Not even a light bulb. I ran the water in the sink, but I could feel all grit and flecks in it on my fingers, so I just shut it off.

Someone cleared his throat behind me.

I gasped and said, "Who - Is that . . .?" Good, Dennis. Be cool.

"You can go now. Don't bother with the fire escape; just walk out normally. It's all over."

"What happened here, anyway? What's going on?"

No answer.

It figured.

I walked out. The black car was gone. Nobody bothered me.

When I got back to the apartment I fell asleep immediately and stayed that way until noon. When I woke, the answering machine light was blinking at me. The message, left at eight a.m., was from Kim at the Stuart-Neill Temporary Staffing Agency. She had an assignment for me if I could be at their office by nine-thirty. I erased the message; easy come, easy go.

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