Food stalls lurk in the skeletons of office buildings. Homes are made with plastic tarp and corrugated steel more often than brick and mortar. Nearly every building here has been touched by Affected war at some point in the last century. Capes move overhead like moons shifting the tides of the lives below them. And when they pass by, the people are the ones left to rebuild.
Thanh serves ramen out of a space on the fourth floor of an abandoned high-rise bank. Below him is a brothel, and above are a set of apartments swarming with johns.
They do make the best of things: Colorful rainbows of chalk are splayed across the outer walls, accompanied by homemade paintings and banners, to where nearly every square inch of wall is covered.
There’s a ten-foot wide hole from the top of the bank to the bottom, exposing every floor to the ones below and above them. Green cables adorned with paper leaves creep down the hole, made so they resemble vines.
I make my way up through a collapsed stairwell. I leap up past the stairs, the steps broken so that no normal human could climb them. I spot a couple hiding in the rubble trying to fool around. They gasp, but before they can say anything I’m already gone.
Music plays out of Thanh’s joint as the fragrant scent of scallions and pork fills the building. Street musicians are perched near the door, playing for diners on the “patio,” which has little distinction as Thanh’s joint is located inside another building itself.
I can’t go in the front, of course, mask or no mask. Can you imagine if Megajoule, even his clone, just up and walked in the ramen shop you were eating at? You’d lose your mind. Even if that clone isn’t really him. Even if that clone only has half the power.
No, people getting paid to do Affected work go through the kitchen. I consider that this makes me little more than a mercenary, but I don’t particularly care.
Thanh’s bouncer, some welterweight kid standing at the metal door with no outward knob, sees me coming and nods before knocking on the door. The kid is enough to keep most people coming to bother Thanh away, but he’d be a two second roadblock to a heavyweight.
One of the chefs allows me in.
The kitchen is tiny, but leads directly to a private room Thanh uses as his office. The room is never rented out, and is barely spacious enough to fit more than two or three people, but Thanh told me he’ll clean the papers out if a large group visits. From the look of cardboard boxes piled in one corner of the room, moldy and wet from rain, it’s been a long time since he’s had that many guests.
However, it’s not Thanh waiting for me in the backroom. It’s Paul instead.
Do you know that feeling when you enter a room and you can sense the anger, the tension, the bad blood? They used to think that was some quirk of facial recognition. Except you can feel it even if you’re blind or if you’re looking the other way.
In a nutshell, that’s the Affect. We pollute the air with our emotions.
What I mean is, Paul’s fury has filled this room like a thick, greasy, industrial tire fire. The kind there used to be laws against.
How to introduce the man who saved my life, who plucked me from the lab? He’s always struck me as a desperate man, with very little sense of fashion. He owns five pairs of slacks, all varying shades of olive. He has the country’s reserve of plaid button-ups. You’d never mistake him for a younger man even under his ski-mask. He moves like boiled leather. He’s also very sick.
He clutches a tablet in his hands, holding it like a smoking gun. He thrusts it at me as I enter and asks, “What the hell did you do?”
“You got involved when you shouldn’t have,” Megajoule answers, though of course Paul can’t hear him. I alone bear the burden of the phantom asshole hero.
“Careful old man,” I say. “I bite before I bark. What are you doing out?” I snatch the tablet from his hands. Last night he had the worst episode I’ve seen in months. Now, he’s out like nothing happened.
Paul grunts instead of answering my question. He nods to the tablet.
As I feared, I’ve made the news channels. The picture is suitably frightening: The drone caught me standing in the middle of the warehouse, my jacket covered in gore. They’ve censored the bodies for the public, but I’m still in the picture, standing in a sea of concrete and blood.
He picks at my jacket having noticed some of the dried flesh. “You got caught just an hour ago then.”
“It was an accident,” I say.
“Well, you just accidentally became the epicenter of a shit storm we can’t handle.” Paul shakes his head before retreating to his seat to sulk. I can hear him growl beneath his breath in his usual bear-like manner.
“How are we gonna get work?” Paul asks. “No one’s gonna hire us, kid. No one’s gonna pay us to take care of gangs.”
“It was an accident. I walked into that expecting a gang, not a graveyard.”
“So many dead,” Megajoule croons. “Makes you think of the lab, doesn’t it?”
“You’re not going to be working. You need to be recovering,” I say to Paul.
Paul shakes his head. “Can’t keep me on the couch forever.”
“Yeah, and if you have a fuckin’ seizure while you’re out on the job, what then?”
“I’ll call you,” he says weakly. “What happened tonight?”
“You gonna tell him about the clinger-on?” Megajoule asks.
No, that’s too dangerous. As long as I’ve been out of the lab and living with him, Paul’s had a murderous gleam in his eye. I know he would kill anyone who dared to disturb our life. Anyone who knew about me. If somewhere in our past is someone who knows about me, I’m sure they’re in the ground and I just don’t know about them.
So I settle for most of the truth: “Thought it’d be a normal brawl, just scaring people away. He said they’d been putting the wrench to some of his family. When I got there, they were already dead. All of them. The gang and who knows how many other people.” I don’t need him asking me follow up questions, so instead, I ask him one: “Who is Pandahead?”
Paul recoils. His heartbeat speeds up, rushing blood through his veins. “Where did you hear that name?”
“So you know him.”
“I know of him,” Paul says. He sighs and scratches his cheek through his mask. “We can’t get caught in his mess, kid.”
“Who is he?”
While Megajoule is silent, I can almost feel his breath on my neck. He wants to know too.
Paul draws his feet up to the table and leans back into his chair like an old gunslinger. He stares past me, through me, at something horrible. The gleam in his eyes fades, the shine of violence snuffed by the darkness of real murder. “He’s a human trafficker.”
“Slaver,” I say. There’s one thing I won’t ever accept: Clean words for disgusting crimes.
Paul glares at me, but continues on. “I worked a job once that crossed paths with one of his men. Half a family ghosted from their home, the other half dead, one survivor.”
“I don’t know,” Paul says. “I refused the job when I learned about the ring. I only ever found out one thing. The survivor, a young woman, had the power to turn invisible, which is why they missed her. She hid. The people that died were featherweight and lightweight. Little gimmicks, no real power. The family members taken, she said, were welterweight.”
So he targeted people with powers. “You think he’s some kind of Affect slaver?” I ask.
“How’d you hear his name?” Paul shoots back.
“One of the victims was still alive when I arrived. Just whispered that name.”
“And now you were seen on one of his properties.” Paul falls into a growl, riding his vocal fry. “Shit.”
“I can keep my head down. He’ll forget me. The city will forget me,” I say.
Paul shrugs, as if to say we’ll see. “If it doesn’t blow over… well, we can look at other cities. Beaumont, maybe.”
“Beaumont is barely alive,” I say. “You want to live that far out?”
“There’s good work on the frontier.”
He means more heads to knock around.
Megajoule chimes in: “We can go east and escape the long arm of Foundation. No capes, no masks, no drones. Just a wild, lawless land waiting for you.”
“There are worse things than that,” I say, not quite sure on who I’m replying to.
Paul puts his feet down and stands back up. “Steer clear of this Pandahead nonsense, okay? I’ve got more work to do tonight.”
“You shouldn’t be out,” I say. Last time Paul used his power, he was in bed for a week, totally unaware of where he was. I had to sit by his bedside for hours just to feed him.
“Tough shit. You’re not the boss of me,” Paul sneers. He stomps out of the room, taking his smog of anger and disappointment with him. He farewells someone in the kitchen and leaves. Someone who was eavesdropping on us for the last part of our conversation.
“How long have you been listening?” I ask Thanh.
He’s a good man, Thanh. Not robust, not slick, not a betrayer. He is a stick-thin man who looks like he didn’t age so much as acquire wear and tear as life went on. A featherweight whose only ambition is to live as comfortably as he can. No power to defend himself or his family, so he hires out.
He enters the private room with a guilty look on his face and a giant brown stain on his shirt. “Oh, not long, not long,” he answers. “Enough to hear a name thrown out.” Thanh winces as he beats around the bush, as if the bush has thorns.
Thanh draws a cross over himself. Old school. “I didn’t mean to get you tangled up with him. I didn’t know.”
“But you know who he is?”
“As Paul said, he’s a trafficker,” Thanh whispers, as if invoking even the profession will summon the boogeyman into his restaurant. “One with quite a nasty reputation, Gabe. Please, for your trouble.” He puts an extra hundred in old American twenties on the table. They are stained from use, torn and frayed, but still good in certain circles.
I reach out with my thermal sense. His heart is steady. He’s earnest.
“Bodies don’t bother me that much,” I say as I pocket my payment. “But thanks.”
“You would be wise to listen to Paul,” Thanh says. Now his heart quickens. Getting involved in another family’s business is not his usual MO.
I don’t know what to say, so I shrug.
“You would be wise,” Megajoule says, his voice slithering up my spine. “But you’re not known for wisdom. You’re known for getting paid to get blood on your hands.”
Luckily I wear a mask, otherwise my face would betray me. I’m sure Thanh feels the spike of indignation I just felt, but he stays silent and his heart doesn’t betray him.
“Can I get two tonkotsus to-go?” I ask. “Hungry tonight.”
“I’ll just make you one big one,” Thanh says. “It’s fine.”
“No. Two. I’ll take one back for Paul.”
Thanh hesitates, as if he’s about to protest, but he keeps quiet. He bows out while I wait, wondering how long I can hide the kid from Paul. When I have the food, I leave.
Pandahead fills my mind. What a stupid name, yet the mention of it worries both Thanh and Paul. I’ve never heard it before tonight, but I wonder how long he’s festered in the Shells without the notice of the capes.
I think of Danger Close—and then the kid.
Maybe the capes have noticed him.