by: CJ Fogarty
I pull in outside of the Alley Cat Club. It’s not crowded, though, I hear this place never is. Getting out and handing the keys to my Nissan FE- New Frontier to the bear of a valet. He’s a six”two black male, and about three-hundred seventy pounds of muscle underestimated by a wide girth. Aged about 24. After our encounter, I deduce he has been heavy for much of his life and was picked on for it in high school. Seeking to prove his haters wrong, the man joins bare-nuckle boxing, only, he couldn’t make it due to bad hand-eye coordination and so got a job as a valet/bouncer. Earlier tonight, he had a run in with a rather rude patron who graduated high school in 2054. The latter is both dead and robbed.
Oh, how do I know this? You’d be amazed how easy it is to trace one’s recent history just by looking at ‘em. The look he gives me is that of a man who didn’t listen to his mommy and he made a face that’s forever frozen. Yet, this would indicate someone used to clenching his face in order to absorb blows, explaining a history of violence. On that face are three dents, two of the scars are darker and around seven or eight years old, placing such squabbles around the age of 16 or 17, high school. Yet one by the left forehead is shaped different than the rest and must only a few days old. The right fist unclenches almost involuntarily to take my keys, and he examines my silver credit slowly, moving it back and forth from his face. And as he walks to place it in the machine, I turn back and notice his walk is straight, instead of the hobble one might observe from someone of his weight. Added to it, his breathing isn’t heavy, as often is the case for people living on this high level of the city with the thinner air. This not only indicates a practice in walking with such girth but also of formal training which, backed up with the history of fist-fighting, leads me to conclude that he was a fighter. That’s where the eyes come in, the hesitation in both examining my credit and, later, as he slides it into the machine, indicates faulty depth perception. Furthermore, if his career as a fighter had been successful, he’d be able to afford optiotechnics to help his eyes. His conical head is shaved, not bald, yet there are several tiny cuts dotting the cranium. I know these are cuts because he wipes off his head with a rag, the saline perspiration proving to be a minor sting. They aren’t shaving cuts because that practice is habitual to him. The cuts form a pattern, a connected line that couldn’t have been caused by a razor, but more likely a glass bottle. Both the glass injuries and the third scar are only a few days old. Meanwhile, the third scar barely resembles a ring, definitively a class ring dented so far into the skin the year 2054 is indented.
But, this is all mere supposition until I have clear evidence, right? Okay, he comes back with my receipt now, and as I slip an extra cred in his front pocket, he doesn’t see me remove a gold ring, engraved Albany Prep. High School Class of ’54, with a rectangular, false sapphire, that was too small for this man’s finger but big enough to fit a certain dead man. Three days ago, Ricardo Gutierrez, aged 25, Albany Prep. High School Class of ’54, was reported dead, his body found in an dumpster off Newman Street, the only street in the vicinity of the Alley Cat with a large enough dumpster. Post-mortem interval was listed as three days, cause of death was determined to be severe beating, and a ring was missing off his right hand. Looking inside the ring, I find “ R. Gutierrez” engraved in cursive, and case closed.
So, I just run into a man and convict him of murder in five minutes. Some call it chance or Providence. I call it slipping up. It ought to take me just two minutes. You’re gonna find plenty of murderers and cheaters and drug dealers on the Fourth Level. It’s maybe looking for someone outta the ordinary, i.e. somebody supposed to be good, yeah, that’s a bit tougher. Though, it isn’t like this guy’s hands are totally clean I’m sure. He’s an operative whose skills, experience, and intellect have made him one half of the most respected, most feared, most uncatchable duo in the world. Code-named D.B., Duke Bishop, and his counterpart known only as R.S., were the Order’s, “golden boys”, for as long as the Order’s been around, and before apparently.
When I had asked my boss, the old, black man known as John would reply with unusual humility, “Older than me.” And when I’d ask about how old he was, he’d reply sarcastically, “well, like a smart man, I stopped counting at forty. Just know that those two are our oldest members and our top priority.”
When I’d asked about that priority, there were no real answers available. There was little intel on where they could be and no documentation on where they came from or personal lives, and no conclusive proof to the talk that they apparently didn’t age or die. All I got were the stories of old-timers recounting how great they were. And this was a thing even before I was an operating guardian. When I was a kid, the seniors would say that D.B. and R.S. were the best fighters, the noblest guardians, the most experienced operatives, the best shots.
“They were sociable, charismatic, charming, funny at times, yet quiet at others.”
“They carried the weight of our world on their backs, yet smiled in the face of adversity.”
“They’ve dealt with countless wars, the worst nightmares, and just about the craziest shit ever.”
I just listened, trying to pick out the truth from the tales. I’m not supposed to form my own conclusions above objectivity, but the stories I’d heard about daring rescues, fights against the odds, doomsday weapons, even monsters, demons, magic, and all such crap, lead me to believe that they didn’t exist at all. If they did, they were two operatives who manufactured great deeds about each other so that future generations of guardians could look to them as good examples. Now, when I was a kid, it’s nice to hear about Santa Claus, God, and the great Guardians to teach you not to lie or cheat and stand for justice and peace. But, there comes a time when life turns into something more complicated, and all of the sudden you only have yourself to count on. Not Santa, not God, not the great Guardians, just you. So, I was naturally surprised when John told me that it was all true, the great Guardians were real, and gave me the order to find them at all costs and bring them back into the Order.
Anyway, we’d searched tirelessly for three months, me and Sage, our resident tech jockey. It’s been harder to get straight facts outta him lately, the few days when he decides to talk instead of playing his Playstation X4. His mannerisms are quirky, to be polite, and incredibly frustrating, to be honest, but his intel was rarely incorrect. It’s why the Order had assigned him to be the database, the hacker, and the intelligence keeper of most of our operations in the U.S., and probably the world. Certainly not bad, for a twenty-two-year-old who stopped growing up at twelve. I can’t get around how John put up with Sage and his teenage antics, but when I wanna choose my reconnaissance outfit, he’d have plenty of problems.
“Your job is to survey your target, goddammit, not look like you’re trying to pick up mohawk boys!”, he’d say, gesturing to my revealing top. “And what’s with the spiky boots, I didn’t tudor no cyberpunk girl.”
“If we’re going to blend in, the old trench coat concealing fifty weapons and shit isn’t gonna blend in”, I had countered, “I’m just trying to be practical, John”.
I was right after all. The typical outfit for those of us who worked in the field was not practical. It was too dated, we needed to start looking like we were people, not vigilantes, assassins, or a secret society, even if we’re actually all three.
But, John would say, “Our first priority is to become guardians of the good and just, and our second is to perform the first in secrecy. While this is true…”, and here came the knockout when he’d raise his finger at me and say, “you still better watch yourself, little girl, cuz you’re on your own”.
I’d probably respond with something like, “Fine, deal with that”, or something of equal finality.
We’d have these debates in which I found myself dealing with a truly old man, thinking every girl’s another damsel who needs a man’s help. I’m almost glad he’s-, well, no, I-I can’t. Ugh, just shut up girl…Just find D.B., and get to work. Huh, now I sound like John.
Let’s see. He’d probably be alone, though I’ve been debriefed on the possibility of D.B. having company. D.B.’s a talker they said, as well as a flirt, but I know that I’m looking for by a guy with a heavy trench coat and wide-brimmed hat.
Here’s a candidate. Man alone at the bar, caucasian, six”two, given the shoe size, a grizzled face lies underneath a size seven black hat with a two-inch brim. The blond hair tucked under that hat isn’t greasy but the bags tucked under his light brown eyes are grey. This indicates he’s had access to a shower and bed, but rarely uses the latter. I only need to look into those half-closed eyes and the large torso rocking in the stool to figure he’s drunk, then prove it by the quantity of Catesyes in front of him.
I was told he likes retro settings, but this is practically ancient. Old glass chandeliers, made outta some real crystal given the richer luster, golden, incandescent lighting, and brass furniture, actual brass, instead of chrome or that new and very convincing die cast material. Yeah, he’s pretty retro. I wasn’t told he’d be drunk though. Oh this’ll be wonderful. Thought I was reconnaissance and extraction, not an intervention. Let’s hope he still remembers how guardians address each other.
“Hey, nice hat. Tell me, did you buy it or was is passed down to you?”
We have a certain code of how we greet each other. An operative chooses a piece of clothing and asks if it was bought or passed down. They’ll specifically say that it’s, “passed down”, from their father or mother, grandmother, any family member, and the conversation can start from there. It’s specific yet ordinary. Good cover, that’s one method of ours I have no problem with. No sooner do I greet him, though, that he starts laughing, then slurringly follows with, “So, who the hell are you supposed to be?”
I go to tell him my name when he cuts me off with, “-Wait, don’t tell me. You’re my former employer, aren’t you? Or one of them anyway. You sure don’t look like it, though, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t flattered by your choice of attire.
“Duke Bishop, I presume. I’d encourage you to stay focused.”
“I am focused, Miss uh..”
“Miri, Mr. Bishop, and I’d also encourage you to remember that my eyes are up here”, I reply, noticing his eyes go for my cleavage, with no attempt to be sneaky. Some hero.
At this, he pauses, almost looking a little guilty when his head turns up, “Sorry”, he says with hindsight, “Guess I should’ve kept ordering bouncers like Iris had me doing”, his mood then goes back to mean with, “But, in any case, Miri, I’ve given up”.
Shit, this is what three months yields? A complaining drunk? But, we still need him, apparently, “Well, Mr. Bishop, that’s something we can’t afford”, and with a lowered voice, “either you come with me or I find some other means of getting you out of here”.
The suddenly sober look in his eye shows that he’s not pleased with his opinions, nor my tone. Alright, I’m annoyed, hell, disappointed, but I gotta remember to get along with people better, “Look, D.B.-”,
“D.B.? That’s a new one”, he replies curtly.
“- it’s just a code name, and it’s taken us months to find you. I don’t mean you harm and you’re not in trouble. It’s just that this was John Morris’s request and-”
“John?”, he replies, suddenly interested, “John sent you”.
I nod. It’s true, John did send me. He…did.
“I’ll go”, he says, paying the android bartender and heading for the door. Huh, that bartender’s an old Hakura Enterprises TA-1. Thought those were all decommissioned.
Focus, Miri. D.B. gets up and I find that he’s got substantial size to him. I’d be worried about him being top-heavy, but he holds up a hand telling me he can walk.
I hold the door open for him, to which he comments, “Hey, isn’t that my job little lady?”
“Just get outside D.B.”
At this he shrugs, and as I go to leave my eyes catch a woman, five”eight, standing out on the floor, one long leg crossed over the other underneath a long black dress. She takes a drag from her cigarette, then her head turns to me, long black hair falling over her shoulder and deep blue eyes fixing me up and down.
What the hell is her-let it drop Miri. Getting outside, I find that it’s raining. Even better, considering my flat’s on the second level. I come to get my keys from our favorite valet/bouncer/murderer, whom I find sleeping in his both, when I almost forget about, “his”, ring. I slip it back into his pocket, open my holophone on my wrist, and open Tattletale, an application created to send digital anonymous tips to the police, those times when we see fit to have the law take care of things. This practice is controversial, hard to do secretly, quasi-legal in New York, and one of the other many perks of knowing a hacker. I scrolled through the reports and selected Ricardo Gutierrez-manslaughter, unknown assailant 8/20/52. With a description of our bouncer and the coincidence that lead me to find his ring, I press power and the hologram goes back into the tech on my arm. One thing about being a Guardian, we are responsible for enacting justice in the world when society won’t. We aren’t always right and, lately, it feels like at lot of us are more unsure, even the old timers. Maybe that’s why John felt like we needed to find these guys, these, “golden boys.”
I go to open the red and black, two-seat New Frontier when D.B. says,”Hey, isn’t this my job too, little lady?”
“Ugh”, is my only, disgusted reply, but I can’t help smiling just a little, even though I’m annoyed.
At least he’s not a total stiff like I though he’d be, and a total jerk like he appears to be.
D.B. slouches himself into the car seat, I press the ignition, and switch into the first gear. The car rises directly up, and the camera mirror views the skyway above me. I pull directly underneath the red entry light and both it and the camera mirror turn green to indicate it’s okay to levitate into the skyway. I switch to second gear then to drive, and we’re off. Okay, so I found him finally, and he came quietly, that’s a relief.
I look toward D.B. and follow his eyes out the window. In the sky, the clouds are swirling into a large storm that’ll mean the way home will be rainy. His eyes then go toward the ground, the ground street directly below us packed with cars, since less people use the airways in the rain.
“We’ll go back to my flat”, I explain to the drunk periodically closing his eyes before jerking himself back awake, “there, you can sleep. And tomorrow you’ll have to help us track down your other half”.
At this he nods in understanding, yet follows with, “Rich. Right, we gotta find him. Why now? We had gone for a year without contact from you guys, then Rich gets tired of it and leaves a month ago. He’s not my other half, by the way, he’s a completely different person.”
New York’s fourth level itself isn’t much to behold, most of the slum houses from original New York being moved up here. Old, dilapidated brick houses with newer, aluminum ones dot the projects, the dark buildings with the few yellow lights adding the only colors. These skyscrapers aren’t nearly as high as you’d expect in New York, but most of them are still under construction, and will probably stay that way.
“But I ask again, why now?”, D.B. says,”Surely you knew we were back”.
“No, we didn’t”, I answer firmly, “ it was only a few months ago that we started looking for you two……It was John’s, last request”.
“Last request? Oh Jesus. So he’s gone, eh? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. If he was alive, I’d simply tell him that the world doesn’t need us anymore”.
I know he’s drunk, but there’s only so much I can blame on that. But, I have to be the one to keep cool.
“Do you what it feels like?”, he goes on, “to devote so many years of your life to a cause of justice and peace and shit for the entire world just to find out that there’s too many things you aren’t able to do, too many people you aren’t able to save?”
I try to answer in kind but with authority, as John woulda done. But I don’t need him pouring out his drunken heart to me. Not right now, “You can’t save everyone, D.B., you must know that better than most.”
“Yeah, but I’ve done that for too long and I can’t do anymore, and I think Rich thinks the same thing. So what’s the point in even looking for him, eh?”
My eyes switch back to what’s in front of me and his go back out the window. Skyway driving’s no problem, really, as long as you know how to fly, which many people just can’t do. Behind me are a few other aerocars, but it’s all clear in front as I follow the lighted yellow wires, marking the skyway that corresponds with the ground street. Around the lights is a holographic projection forming a clear tunnel around cars. It keeps out solid objects like birds or bugs and deters a car’s exit, but they haven’t come up with a way to keep out the liquid precipitation.
“How long could you have been doing this? You can’t be much older than me, and I’m twenty.”, I then ask.
I know I don’t know anything about this guy. Maybe he’s unstable, which is why John needed me to find him. But, he seems just too young. Too young to be what everyone said he was, but anyone can be crazy.
He chuckles at this query and, putting him arms behind his head, “How old am I? Eh, somewhere around twenty-”.
“Okay”, I reply
“-thousand”, he finishes.
“Come on, really”, this is just getting annoying. Why the hell did I have to pick him up? Why doesn’t he just tell me the truth and shut all these old-timers up? I notice that I’m still looking at the road but that I’m hunched over the wheel. Am I stressed or just plain exhausted? I glance back at him and I realize that it’s become too dark to make him out, save for when we pass by markers and his face lights up orange.
That’s when I make out that smile break to say, “You don’t believe me? Yeah, I’m drunk, okay, but, I’m being serious, okay”.
He is trying to sound so sincere, but there’s no way I can buy it. It’s actually getting me more pissed and annoyed.
“This ain’t the time for jokes or fucking delusions, Bishop!”, I’ve got enough to worry about, I don’t need this.
“No shit it’s not!”, he goes on, not letting up, “do you know what it feels like to keep on living, keep on fighting, when you lose everyone you’ve ever made friends with, everyone you’ve ever loved?”
I can’t take this. I suddenly stop the Nissan. There are angry horns behind me that I’m disregarding, because all that matters is that this drunk son of a bitch understands. I seize his collar, look him dead in the eye and say through gritted teeth, “I absolutely know, how that feels!”
I release my breath, just barely keeping that one tear from escaping. I start the car moving again. As much of a pain in the ass that old man was, he’s the only thing I’ve had that could be called a- a-, screw it. You can’t cry, you’re not a little girl anymore. I look back at D.B. His mood has changed and he’s calmed down, that soberness coming back I guess.
“I’m sorry Miri. I uh-I sometimes think I’m the only one with problems.”
“Alright, it’s okay.”, I reply, quietly.
D.B. slouches back into the chair, his hands on his temples.
“So”, he says as we enter the vertical tunnel taking us to the second level, with rain splashing against the polymer of the giant, gravity-operated elevator, “you still don’t believe me, huh?”
“D.B., I only believe in what can be proven objectively, rationally, and logically”.
“Alright”, he answers. Then, after an large yawn, “You help me find Rich, and you stick with us for a while, you will find that there are other ways than that to prove something”.
I switch back to first gear, and staring at the swirl of the grey clouds and the line of the street rising above us, I can finally let some other force take the reins, if only for a little while, as gravity does its job.