On my way back home to Massachusetts, I stopped in a restaurant in Manhattan for a bite to eat. It was one of those bar and grille places, and of course, I went right for the bar for a quick burger and a beer. Mainly, I was just trying to get Indiana out of my head for a minute or two.
Why am I telling you this? Because of who I met in there. Or rather, who I ran into.
As I was having my drink, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone had taken the stool next to me. The bar was empty, that early in the day, of which I was grateful for. As long as the guy didn't try to make idle talk, I would be fine with him.
“As a cop, I figured you'd know that drinking and driving are against the law,” the light, city accent said.
I froze, then silently groaned. Not because he was making talk, no. Because I knew who he was. And I couldn't believe whose voice I was hearing.
“I thought you were in the maximum detention center in Brooklyn, Wren,” I said, eyes focused straight ahead.
“Out on good behavior,” he replied.
I snorted. “There's not a thing good about you or your behavior.”
A laugh. “Fine, I broke out. You going to arrest me, officer?”
I tore my eyes away to finally turn to see that it was, in fact, Wren sitting there next to me, though how that was the case I still can't figure out. I was picturing a man disheveled from two years of maximum security prison time, but instead he looked better than ever. Clean dress clothes, clean shaven, dark red hair combed backwards in that way I used to do, pointed nose. He looked like he was in tip-top condition, even if he did look pale and did have dark circles under his eyes.
“Maybe,” I said.
He snorted. “Way I hear it, you're not exactly a law abiding citizen yourself these days.”
“Depends on who you heard it from.” I rubbed my throat as the burning began.
“Hell of a croak you got there. What happened?”
“Been sick. Strep throat. Still getting over it.”
“Okay.” He leaned in with a knowing smile. “So what really happened?”
I glared at him, but also was curious. Did he know what was going on? Was he aware of my little adventure?
He stood up and placed his hand on my shoulder.
“C'mon, let's go somewhere private to talk,” he said.
“Whatever you have to say, you can say right here,” I retorted, not getting up.
“Come on, man. Just have a drink or two. I'm sure it'd help.”
Not any help you would offer, I thought bitterly, but before I knew it I was being led to the outdoor deck and shown a table as far back away from people as he could. Wren told the waitress he'd have a cocktail; I declined another drink, preferring to keep some degree of sobriety for the moment. So he ordered me a Mike's. I didn't argue much.
Once our drinks were delivered and we were alone, Wren began to sip his drink. He always liked to sip his drinks, never gulp or chug. Always sip. For the kind of guy he was, he always maintained a “classy” persona when he drank. If this were a first meeting, one would think it was the kind of guy he was, but no, it was only when he drank.
“This place always did have stir my cocktails right,” he told me. “I used to come by here sometimes. Found it when I was moving to Boston, like to come by every now and again. Hasn't changed a bit.”
I ignored it. “How'd you find me, Wren?” I wanted to know.
“You're all over FBI scanners, you show up in a town overrun by a twelve-hundred-year-old cult asking about the suicide of a key figure in the FBI's little pet project, using identities of dead cops and active agents, and you sent alarms out all over the Eastern part of America when you shot two agents and let them live to report back your whereabouts.” He looked at me with an “are you kidding me?” look. “No offense, Zee, but you're not exactly Whitey Bulger.”
“I take it you know what's been going on, then?”
“You mean Mr. Tall, Pale and Faceless? Ohhh yeah, I know alright.”
That interested me. “Have you seen him?”
“Face-to-face? No. I've come close a couple of times. No, it's his little worker bees that have been giving me trouble.” He sipped his drink and then sighed. “They're on the move again.”
“You talking about remnants or whatever they're calling them?”
He snorted. “Yeah, Zee, I'm talking about the super-powered remnants. 'Oh hey, look at me, I'm a remnant, I'm gonna fly around the fuckin' stratosphere and shoot bolts of lightening out of my ass and used condoms out of my fingertips!' Please, if I wanted that kind of hocus-pocus bullshit, I'd go and watch a Pen and Teller show.”
One thing we always had in common- we're both skeptics, we both believe in some form of real logic. As much as I hated seeing him, it was nice to have someone who shared that way of thinking again.
“So what are you saying then?”
“I'm saying that the proxies, the real, human proxies, they're upping their game. I don't know if it's because of your little excursion in Indiana or it's something else, but something's got them going after every runner out there and having their way with them. It's not armies, we're not going to see ten thousand mask-and-hood wearing psychos charging over the hills any second, but the small numbers he has, and they're real fucking small, they're getting extreme.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How more extreme can they possibly get?”
He sighed. “They've been carving operator symbols into the skins of whoever they get their hands on.”
My face fell. “Are you serious?”
“'Fraid so. Once they've done whatever they wanted, they carve it as a warning to the others that they're gonna be joining them.”
“And they kill them?”
“Some of them. Others they leave alive. Though every time they leave one, it's mainly just so someone else can put them out of their misery. They fuck 'em up bad.”
As if things couldn't get any worse...I leaned back in my chair, taking it all in. He sipped his cocktail again.
“Which is why I was hoping that you and I might be able to form some kind of a partnership. 'Cause you and me, man, we'd really send them running for the hills, and you know it.”
I glared back at him, sitting smugly in his chair with his drink when by all accounts he should be locked away in a high-security loony bin drinking piss.
“You really expect me to just let it all go like nothing ever happened?” I asked him.
“Hey man, I can't afford to look back. I can only look forward.” He smirked. “Besides, it's not like that bomb was meant for you or anything.”
“Not the point.”
“Look, Zeke,” he placed his drink on the table and leaned forward, his voice low. “If I'm right, and he's got something big coming up, you're going to need all the help you can get. I mean you, you're the big hope-”
“I'm not the one who's going to do it.”
“Okay, then we're helping out whoever is. I mean, come on, who else are people going to trust with this? Huh? Who, Crappy Frappy and his little band of merry magicians? Those losers can't even help themselves, they're a joke, they're nothing. You, though, you survived him not once, not twice, three times, and that's not even counting escaping him as a child. Pair you with me, you've got two highly-trained machines, two grown adults compared to a bunch of kids and melodramatic teenagers who are still in school and don't understand how bad the real world really is. We're the best chance out there of ending this. And you know it.”
He was right, in a way. We were among the oldest of these runners, we were out of school, he was in his thirties and I was nearing mine while the rest of them ranged from twelve to twenty-one. As to us being the ones to finish it, well, realistically was one thing, but desire was stronger, and in ways of desire I had lost two people I had cared about to this thing, and a little revenge never really hurt anyone.
Still, though, I was not entirely convinced. This was Wren I was talking to, and he was a tough gambler to read. He could be on my side, or he could just be bluffing.
“Do you have any proof of any of this?” I asked.
He sighed. “Yeah, unfortunately, I do.”
He unbuttoned his shirt and showed me his chest, where right above his breast, carved in with what had to have been a small pocket knife, was a small Operator symbol. Whenever it had been done, it hadn't been long ago; there was still signs of blood along the lines.
I looked away. “That's all I needed to see.”
He buttoned his shirt back up, then reached into his pocket for a pen and what looked like a paper business card and wrote something on the back.
“Tell you what, why don't you give me a call when you're ready to start thinking of things a little more seriously,” he said, sliding the card towards me and standing up. “You know where to find me if you want to meet up.”
He put his shades on and smiled, patting me on the back as he left, but stopped at the door when I called out to him.
“Why should I trust you after what happened?” I asked.
“Because Lizzie and Eric were my friends before they were yours,” he replied, and I turned to see him staring back at me, his shades back on his forehead so I could see the seriousness in his eyes. “And that makes it just as personal for me as it does for you. Put aside everything that happened, we're the same guy, Zee. And we both want the same thing.”
He nodded, put his shades back on his nose, and walked out, leaving me with a finished cocktail, a quarter finished hard lemonade, the bill, and my ever-conflicting thoughts.