Chris waited at the restaurant. A far nicer restaurant than he was accustomed to, in fact. He kept himself from fidgeting with the cuff of his suit jacket sleeve. I’m pretty sure I can pull off the three button look. You’ve done it before, don’t get so nervous. The restaurant itself was a fancy affair, owned by some retired football guy. Dim lights lit the interior, classical music played faintly over the hushed conversations of the patrons nearby. I will never afford anything on this menu. Ever. Oh well. I still have some leeway before the credit card company has grounds to legally break my knees.
Chris had arrived slightly earlier than the agreed upon time. Is that what you’re supposed to do? God damn it. Stop second guessing yourself already. Be professional. Even if you’ve fucked up, don’t point it out yourself. Finally, the prospective employer walked up to the table. Chris stood, they shook hands, and began exchanging general pleasantries. A server came around to take their orders. He finally caught the client’s name: Jeremy Schrader. He knows about that new Iraqi warlord? That hasn’t hit any of the major news networks yet.
During this time, Chris observed the man who wanted Chris and the gang to do…something. They were supposed to work out the details sometime soon. The man himself was rather tall, which would have been imposing if Chris himself was not nearly the same height and had a good thirty pounds on him. But not all command and intimidation comes from physical presence.
Those eyes are creepy. There was something off about Jeremy, the way he carried himself, and the fact he didn’t blink. He’s not going to start something in the middle of a crowded restaurant full of important people. Chris maintained a polite tone during their conversation, regardless of his unease. Their food arrived. We need a job. This job.
Finally, they came to the matters that had brought them there in the first place. During what Chris judged to be a good break in their conversation discussing movements of the Siberians along the Chinese border, he finally said, “So, what exactly was it you wanted me and my team for?”
In the same flat, matter of fact voice he’d been using all night, the other man responded, “There is a group of young men from where I live, in the southern part of Westward. They are involved in unprofessional activities. They call themselves the Undead. They’re a bunch of punks who engage in all the things high school boys think make them badass. Carjacking, armed assault, and the like. They do it for kicks. That assault is against the homeless, more or less. Usually I wouldn’t care but my son has joined them. Well, in all honesty he was one of the founding members.”
Chris listened attentively as Jeremy continued, “Recently some criminal by the name of Nevermore has taken over, and is goading them on to more shameful acts. My line of work means that I am not home enough to discipline my son properly.” I very probably shouldn’t ever ask about this kid’s mother.
Evidently some part of Chris’s thoughts made it to his expression, because Jeremy elaborated, “I would handle this myself, and normally gang activity is not my concern, but combined, I figured a couple ex cops and mercenaries who took down a large scale terrorist organization could take care of some kids so that I can focus on other matters. So I’m paying you to kill their leader, Nevermore, and punish the other members. Teach my son a lesson that this isn’t a game or movie. Obviously if it comes to it, I don’t expect you or your team to get yourselves killed holding yourselves to a no kill rule, so that is on the table as a last resort. I don’t care about the means by which you do this, the end must be that the gang has broken up and Nevermore is in a grave. If you are arrested or are otherwise caught up by the law I will not help you.”
Chris nodded silently, that much was to be expected. These first jobs weren’t going to be the most glamorous. Jeremy paused. Is he wearing a wig? That seems awfully out of place for a guy like this. Chris kept his eyes firmly locked with Jeremy’s after noticing that. He continued again, “I anticipate being gone for the next ten days or so. You have that long if you want your pay. Any questions?”
“Who is your son again?” Better know who not to accidentally kill.
“That does not matter. Like I said, he needs to know he isn’t playing games anymore. If he pays for his mistakes with his life, so be it.”
“But I’m still assuming you don’t want your house trashed, so homes and families should be left out of it.”
“That should not be a problem. I kicked him out three months ago.” Cold motherfucker aren’t you? Wait, how would you discipline him if he’s not in your house anymore? Chris suddenly got the feeling that this Jeremy was not to be underestimated. Jeremy continued, “If he does come back, and it is unavoidable… well, the things in my house are just objects. They can be replaced. I do not care about the families of the others.”
“Just wanted to make sure. Less chance for screw ups that way.”
Jeremy nodded again. “True.”
“Do you have any inside information on the Undead that could be helpful? Favorite hangout locations, members, M.O.s, powers, and so forth?”
“The gang is formed exclusively of young men from wealth. Too much time, too much money, and too little attention from their parents…” Jeremy trailed off for a moment. “Like all gangs they are not racially inclusive, if you need any more reasons for a clearer conscience. Women are objects to them, they always hold a pistol sideways, etcetera etcetera.” That actually did something to help silence Chris’s conscience. He felt a bit uneasy at the thought of killing just to discipline some rich guy’s kid, but on the other hand, these kids sounded like real pricks. “Nevermore is actually fairly powerful in the right conditions, but he lacks the motivation to go higher than where he is now.”
Chris could think of no more questions (Amanda’s good at research), and so the time honored mercenary tradition of haggling over the final price began. I hate haggling, but there’s no one else to do this. Amanda was always busy, Miya would probably lose her temper, Olivia would just stammer, and Rob/Ben would… Do something really stupid and lose us the contract before it’s even signed. He still wanted nothing more than to get away from Jeremy as fast as possible. Creepy. Just creepy.
Chris managed to negotiate a decent price, within the ballpark Jeremy gave him when he first contacted Chris. At least I think it’s decent. I’ll probably look back on this and want to smack myself, but the deed is done. The two men finished their meals, shook hands again, and Chris happily parted ways with the other man.
Once in his car he texted the group at large, then began to drive towards the lair.
He arrived twenty five minutes later, having stopped to quickly change at his apartment before heading out again. And Olivia’s missing and no one bothered to tell me until just now. He walked in, and was surprised to see a new (new in this case meaning new to the building) table and chairs. Rob’s stuff crowded Amanda’s in her corner of the building. I’m going to have to deal with that. Keeping Amanda and Ben off each others throats remained an eternal struggle.
Ben and Rob dressed exactly the same (why did I expect anything else?), and grinned exactly the same when he first walked in. One of them, the one next to Miya, had a faint black eye. Chris did a double take when he saw that to be sure.
After the general greetings he reached the head of the table and pointed the black eye, asking, “What happened to you?”
Rob/Ben smiled ruefully. The other smirked at the injured brother. Miya said to Chris, “They think they’re funny. I kept getting them mixed up, so I punched one in the eye. That one’s Rob.” She jerked a thumb towards the one with the black eye.
“She likes me,” said Rob, deadpan. Before Miya could respond, he said, “You want any barbeque, Chris? It’s probably a bit cold, but you can just nuke it. We got a microwave now.”
Chris eyed the table they sat at. There were indeed bags of barbeque off the side of the table, next to where the three had a poker game set up. “No thanks. Already ate.”
Ben said, “Poker then?” He reached across the table to poke Miya in the cheek, not taking his eyes off Chris. She slapped his hand away, then tried to punch him in the ribs when he didn’t move out of the way fast enough. Rob, sitting to her side, poked her in the other cheek while Ben had her distracted.
She glared at him. “I can still tell the two of you apart if you have two black eyes, Rob.”
He immediately moved to sit next to Ben, taking his money and cards with him. “Fine. I’ll just sit here next to Ben. He doesn’t punch me nearly as often.” He stopped suddenly. “Her nickname is Pokey now, by the way,” he announced to the world at large.
Ben nodded sagely. “Agreed. So it is written, so it shall be.” Miya sighed, fists clenched. Now now children. Settle down.
Chris hesitated. He could play a mean game of poker. However, he couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm at the thought. “Nah. That restaurant the client wanted to meet at cleaned me out. Don’t want to lose any more money today.” That wasn’t technically true, but Chris had no physical money with him at the moment.
“If it mean anythin’ to ya, it was for a good cause,” said Ben.
Chris snorted, then asked, “So, where is Olivia?” No more beating around the bush.
The three of them froze, exchanging glances. Chris felt some anger rising. Did you idiots do or say something? Because I will throttle you all if you got her captured by Marcus again.
Rob began hesitantly, “Well, she didn’t tell us…”
Miya said quickly, “We finished talking to Amanda a little while ago. She said the police don’t have her.” Just then, Chris’s phone buzzed, as did everyone else’s.
The text from Amanda read, “She just showed up here. See you soon.”
He glanced up at the rest. Genuine relief showed on their faces, so he decided to let that issue slide. “You get the same text I did?” Never hurts to be sure.
“Yeah. Olivia’s with Amanda.”
“Good. Now why did she leave?”
Rob winced. “We just explained this to Amanda. We don’t know. She didn’t say anythin’ other than she was goin’ to get some fresh air. That’s all.”
He studied them suspiciously. “Did you say something, or some things, unintentionally? People usually don’t leave home for no reason.”
Ben said, “Tha’s our best guess, actually. Problem is we can’t think of anythin’.”
Chris sighed. “OK, what’s your best guess? What did you unintentionally say?”
All three shrugged. Nothing? After a moment, Chris said, “I don’t think I need to say that this shouldn’t happen again.” Something caught his eye. “Also, what did you do to that chair?” He pointed to one with sanded down nubs where the backrest should have been.
“Oh, yeah. Olivia said she hates backrests, so I figured we could jus’ saw it off for her,” said Ben. You thought about someone other than yourself? I’m impressed… And I’m kind of being a dick aren’t I? Just take a mental step back.
Externally, Chris said, “Alright.” The conversation trailed off. I’ve never been too good at conversation anyways.
Then he got a text from Amanda. “We might be a while.”
“Any trouble?” he sent back.
Nearly instantaneously she said “No” and that was all. Might as well make myself comfortable. He leaned against the wall as Miya, Ben, and Rob resumed their poker game. He pulled out his phone. It kept his mind off of more depressing subjects.
After a while, Amanda and Olivia finally walked into the lair. Chris watched Olivia cautiously. She’s not flinching, doesn’t seem angry at anyone. She actually spoke up and said hi. But she probably doesn’t want to talk about up and leaving in front of everyone, so deal with it later. He met Amanda’s eye, she mouthed ‘later’. Everything’s under control then. He trusted Amanda to be rational if nothing else.
As everyone settled in, Chris said, “So our first job is to beat up a gang of rich white brats with powers and kill their leader. Any complaints?”
“I like it!” said Ben immediately.
Chris continued with the contract details. He leaned forward, his arms on the white table before him. Everyone actually stayed quiet until he finished. It’s like Christmas. Even more silence as everyone digested what he said.
Olivia spoke up first. “So, we’re supposed to kill someone?”
“Yes, he was very specific about that part.” Olivia looked somewhat uncomfortable, so Chris added, “That doesn’t mean you specifically have to do the deed, but going back on the deal now would be very bad for us.”
“Yeah, you don’ have to do it,” said Ben. “I have no qualms with pullin’ the trigger. Do you Rob?”
Rob grinned. “Nope. How ‘bout you Miya? Or Pokey, as you are now alternately styled.”
“If we get paid for it then fuck it, sure,” said Miya with a shrug. Amanda rolled her eyes at the proceedings, but Chris noticed she simply slouched in her chair, not sharing Olivia’s concerns. I mean, we’re not working for the most upstanding member of society, but he is basically paying us for vigilante justice with a few caveats.
“These are the kinds of people you saw mugging other people, Olivia. I’m not expecting this to end in a bloodbath, but if you don’t want to do this, that’s fine.” He kept forgetting that they were basically dragging a civilian into a firefight and expecting her to be perfectly fine with it. To be fair, this particular civilian shrugged off bullets, but there’s more to combat than simple power.
Ben said, “Come on. Irregardless-”
He was cut off by Miya on one side smacking him upside the head, and Rob on his other side punching him in the chest.
“No, we talked about this,” said Miya.
“Irregardless isn’t a real word,” said Rob.
“It is if ya use it enough,” managed Ben defiantly, with a somewhat shaky smile.
“No,” Miya and Rob nearly shouted simultaneously.
Holding his chest Ben muttered, “Right in the nipple, god damn it.”
“You deserve it,” said Rob. To everyone else he said, “Sorry ‘bout that. Please continue.”
Chris waited for Olivia to say something, but nothing came from her. He continued, “Are there any questions on the contract?”
“Yeah,” said Ben in a more normal voice. “How much does he care ‘bout the other ganglets besides his kid?”
“Absolutely nothing. He couldn’t care less if they lived or died. He just wants the gang gone and doesn’t care how.” Preempting Ben’s next thought, Chris added, “Obviously we’re going to have to keep destruction of property to a minimum, so just setting off a bunch of bombs at them will probably get us into more trouble that that’s worth. But not requiring the rest of the gang dead was his way of making this easier on us, and the contract more doable.” Ben adopted an air of self-righteous disappointment. I’m going to ignore you now.
Chris continued, “Any more questions?” There were none. I need to ask that more often, because no one has any once I say that. Then again, everyone expects me to lead, even though I don’t think I have any idea of what to do. “Now before we get too far into how we’re actually going to get into this contract, we need to get our own building in order. Ben, you said you were looking at other places for us to rent while construction happens here?”
“Yeah, I found a couple places. They’re… they’re OK, I guess. I’ll shoot what I got right now off to ya later, but I’m gonna keep lookin’ for a bit. Of course, we’re gonna need some money flowin’ before anythin’ is truly on the table.” Well, he said he was going to look, and he looked.
“Alright,” said Chris as Olivia said, “Excuse me.”
Everyone looked at her. She’s spoken up twice in the same conversation. “Yeah?” said Chris.
“I have a question.”
“Um… you know how we had to leave Ben’s apartment really quickly that one time, because they could track us to there?” Chris nodded. “What’s stopping the police from finding us here the same way?”
Amanda spoke up before Chris did. “Nothing. They could. It wouldn’t be easy, but if they were truly actively searching for us, they could. The reason they haven’t is because we aren’t on the government’s shit list right now. They found Ben’s apartment easily enough, mainly because we drove a van owned by the police to there. Also, I hamstrung their main tracking stuff when Marcus crossed me, which gave us time for the Freedom Fighter business. We finished that up before they could make any real headway in finding us again.”
Chris nodded in agreement. “Good question. We shouldn’t have any illusions about our secretiveness. Or lack thereof.”
“So how are we going to make our fortress thing then? If we aren’t so secret.” asked Miya.
“Rob, any thoughts on the matter?” said Chris. Let’s see what our resident builder guy has to say.
“Yeah, been thinkin’ ‘bout that. Might have to contact The Company.” Rob paused as everyone stared at him blankly. “Do any of you know what The Company is?”
Everyone shook their heads, then Miya said, “Wait, are you talking about The Guy at the Place with the Thing?” What?
“Yes,” said Rob excitedly, adding, “I’m pretty sure.”
Chris decided to speak up. “Right now what you’re talking about could literally be anything.”
“Yes,” said Rob hurriedly. “That’s exactly the point. The Company isn’t a real company. It’s the general name for a kind of regional syndicate. Apparently the one in Arizona is The Guy at the Place with the Thing, but I don’t know what it’s called here in Colorado. Every city, at least in America as far as I know, has one. They ain’t unified, but they keep in tabs with one another. An’ they could be anyone. The one I used out east was composed of a local credit union, the owner of a grocery store, and three truck drivers. Those are just the ones I knew of. An’ they do…things. You ever use ‘em, Miya?”
“No. Either we needed them but didn’t have enough money, or didn’t need them ‘cause we had enough money,” she answered. That’s a weird catch-22.
“Wait,” said Ben. “Is tha’ that Fight Club kinda thingy where everyone in the know knows ‘bout it, but no one talks about it?”
“Maybe,” said Rob hesitantly. “My point is, they can either do nearly anythin’, provided it ain’t violent. If we had millions to throw at this problem, we could get them to make the base. If we had even more millions, they could do it in complete secrecy, and we’d have insurance for it to boot. If you need somethin’ moved, they can do that. If you need to obtain somethin’, they can do that. If you need information, they can do that. An’ if they can’t, they know someone who can an’ get you into contact with ‘em.” This isn’t sounding very legal.
“How is it they are in business all over the country?” asked Chris.
“They’re very careful. Very. If Johnny Law ever finds out about their deals, it’s the outside party that always takes the fall. Any investigation finds a perfectly legitimate company on the other end who had no idea they were in business with criminals, or nothing at all. Usually. They don’t have a standard operating procedure for anything. If one of the members of The Company is found out, the rest severs him or her from The Company and replaces them. But the true power is the fact that there is always a Company. In ‘93 alone five Companies were rolled up by the government. Literally within a week five new Companies took their places. The police sometimes keep tabs on ‘em, but they’ve kind of stopped caring. Sometimes they take out a Company for good press if they really need it.”
“I remember hearing something about this,” said Amanda. “Some kind of conspiracy.”
“Kinda, yeah,” said Rob. “Gotta think of it like a hydra, except instead of world domination, it’s money they’re after. There’s probably similar things abroad, but I’m speaking in the capacity of someone who’s never left the country. And disclaimer: almost all of what I’ve said is educated guessin’.”
“But why aren’t they ruling us all right now?” asked Amanda.
“Dunno. They could be, but I doubt it. No one’s that competent. An’ what they do can be expensive. It’s kind of a natural monopoly, so there’s always only one in any given region, an’ they’re good at stompin’ out competition. They’re kinda territorial towards one another.”
“Alright,” said Chris. Let’s get back on track now. “What exactly are you going to do with this company?”
“So, I’m gonna contact the liaison guy I worked with back east. It’s the only way to get in business with a Company, be referred by a friend or business partner who they know. He’ll get us into contact with the local Company, an’ they’ll give us our own liaison for here. All jobs an’ money exchangin’ an’ stuff will go through him. I got a good reputation with The Company, at least out east. So what I’m gonna use ‘em for is stuff that’s really hard, if not impossible for us to do on our own. As of right now, that means moving all the dirt so as to not arouse suspicion.”
“How much is this going to cost us?”
“Don’t know. It’s dirt, so moving it is really super low risk. The main thing is volume, so I’m gonna have to do some calculations and get everything figured it out. Been workin’ on it, don’t worry. I’ll send them what I want with an estimate how much, they’ll give me a cost. Another thing is obtaining materials, like concrete so the thing don’t collapse on us. Also, Amanda, I need to talk with you at some point.” Rob pointed at her.
“What for?” she asked.
“We should set up a dummy construction company. That’ll cut down on our costs to The Company, an’ they’ll use that to get stuff for us. They got access to a lot more manpower than us. I’ll prolly need help on that. My old gang had someone to do that, I never did it myself.”
“OK, so long as you never use the word ‘prolly’ in my presence ever again,” she said reluctantly.
He grinned. “Deal.” He turned to Chris. “That’s all I got.”
“Alright,” said Chris. “Anyone have anything else?” No one did. “Now let’s get to work on the job at hand.”