“You had to know we’d come for you eventually.”
“Couldn’t let you spread rumors about us like that.”
The men were almost identically menacing, though in different ways.
One had a scar along his jawline, and a gauge of stubble that gave him the demeanor of a rugged action hero, one who took no prisoners and always had a not-quite-witty one-liner ready for the camera, before he killed another bad guy.
The other was clean-cut, his hair slicked back and complexion unrealistically smooth. His jaw was pointier than his partner’s, but his eyes were also sharper: more aware and cunning.
They were both built like linebackers and equipped like riot police.
“How dare you come down here uninvited!” Steinberg said, standing up from his desk. It, and Steinberg’s laptop, were two of the many bits of replacement furniture and equipment that had been purchased and brought to the space after the original collection was carted away. By these very same men, among others.
“For such a smart guy, you’re not very bright. Hanging around at the scene of the crime like this.”
Rainer and I sat at our laptops, shocked looks splashed across our faces, hoping we’d looked as surprised to see Plato’s henchmen as we needed them to think we were.
“Well, hell. How did you guys make it past the new sensors?” Rainer asked the question innocently, as if the sensors hadn’t been made for the express purpose of seeming like we were trying to defend ourselves from intrusion.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Those budget-aisle motion-detectors?” The man grinned like a college-aged football player from a teen movie who was tormenting the geeky-but-lovable protagonist. He shook his head and addressed his friend, who had a similar demeanor. “Can you believe these jokers?”
“I really can’t, man. Jesus. I don’t know how Plato managed to put up with this shit for so long.”
The men chatted with a casualness that was itself disconcerting. That they could be so calm, so collected, in the belly of an antagonist’s headquarters spoke volumes about their self-confidence; that they could handle anything that might happen, and perhaps in a very permanent fashion.
“Whatever. Let’s do what we gotta’ do.”
“Sorry guys, we gotta’ trash your shit.”
“And tell you to stay backed off, or we’ll come back and trash you again.”
“Anyone else in here with you? We gotta’ check those back rooms?”
“No one else but me,” Ichabod said as he walked to the main room from the kitchen. “And all I have is a sandwich. But, ah, you’re welcome to a bite if you want.”
Ichabod, as per the usual, looked repulsive, like a teenage boy going through the most malignant pubescent period ever, though he was years too old for that to be a valid excuse. His face was perpetually lumpy, his body awkwardly shaped, and an ever-present goiter on his neck was pronounced in a way that made Cain think he had to be actively trying to put focus on the thing, cultivating it like a beauty mark.
The sandwich was equally grotesque: loaded with an unidentifiable, shimmery sauce, piles of past-date onions, and canned fish that smelled like badly canned fish. The two of them together — the sandwich and the young man — were almost more than Cain could stomach.
The two brutes scowled at Ichabod, their nostrils flaring in repulsion. But as he crossed the room and got closer to them, their scowls softened, and one of them laughed.
“Heh, kid’s alright.”
“Yeah, doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Thanks guys. I, uh, nah, you’re probably too busy…” Ichabod said.
“What’s up, buddy?” said one of the brutes.
“It’s just that…well, I’ve been curious what kind of work you two have had done. I’ve looked into this showbiz stuff, and I think it may not be the right fit for me. Too many…extreme personalities. You know?”
“Oh yeah, we’ve heard,” the brute smiled.
“So, yeah, I’ve been looking at the cop thing. Would need lots of training and stuff, but I mostly want to know where things stand now. What I can expect, if I make it into the best of the best. The Super-Cop Brigade.”
“Ha! I don’t think that’s the official name for it…” said one of the cops.
“…But it would probably be much better than the ideas Plato’s been knocking around,” said the other. He seemed to realize how involved he was getting in the conversation with Ichabod to the exclusion of all else, and looked around. He said, “Kid, I appreciate the interest, but we’ve actually got to take care of a few things here.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “We have to trash some things, you know? Nothing personal. Just part of this thing they’ve got with our boss.”
“Totally, totally. It’s just…I mean…have you had many augmentations? How long do they take to heal, after they’re installed?” Ichabod asked, pulling their attention back to him and his cloud of positive chemicals.
“Nah, nothing too serious. There’s word that maybe we’ll get something like Plato, once these government jokers get up off their thumbs and start legislating, but for the time being it’s all drug stuff. Uppers to keep us going, and make us a bit faster and stronger. More focused.” He tapped his head with his finger. “Makes us real smart, you know? Feels great. But it’s all chemicals.”
The other jumped in. “We’ve got the chips, though!” He tapped his shoulder. “I’ve got some kind of tracker chip implanted in here. We all do. Gives HQ the ability to see where we’re at, make sure we’re on task and safe and all that.”
“Nice! That’s pretty cool. Very cool.” Ichabod was keeping his attention on them, but his eye flicked over to Steinberg, who was very quietly typing at his computer. He gave a nod, and Ichabod said to Plato’s goons, “You know what guys, let me do something for you. To maybe help prime the wheels, for when I go to the academy and start looking for work. So I can maybe join you guys.”
Both cops smiled. One said, “I like your attitude, kid. What do you have in mind?”
“Let me take care of things, here. I’ll trash their gear — they know it has to happen, anyway, so they won’t put up a fight — and you guys can go ahead and get back to whatever important stuff you were doing. No need to waste what you’ve got on little stuff like this, right?”
“It’ll be a big favor to me, too, because then it’ll, I don’t know, be something for my résumé, you know?” Ichabod said. “I can say I helped you two at some point, and hopefully that’ll help me come work with you.”
That seemed to do it. “Alright kid.” The goon glared at me and Rainer and Steinberg, one at a time, as he pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to Ichabod. “But if these jokers give you any trouble, you call me, and we’ll come help out.” He clamped one meaty hand on Ichabod’s frail shoulder, gave a brotherly squeeze, and sauntered out. The other cop followed him, giving Ichabod a little wave before leaving the lab.
We all exhaled audibly, except for Ichabod, who looked just as calm but uncomfortable as usual. He said, “Well that was weird, huh?”
“Quite strange,” Steinberg said. “But very effective. Wonderful work, my boy.”
“Did we get what we needed?” I asked. “Was that enough time?
“Yes, yes it was. Ichabod kept them occupied long enough to log the frequency their sensors emitted.” He looked at Rainer and pulled a thumb drive from his laptop. “I hope your friend will be able to make good use of it.”
“Oh totally,” Rainer said, taking the thumb drive from Steinberg. “This’ll be child’s play. She’s…he or she, I mean…is accustomed to working with signals that are far more complex than this, believe me.”