I step back into the Atlanta Cares bank, wearing the same now-tattered suit from yesterday. My hair is probably frayed and sticking up everywhere, and I can feel a very sore spot on the back of my head. Larkins gives me an impatient glance before looking at me more closely. His eyes widen.
“You look like shit. What happened to you, Harding?”
“Rough night,” I say.
My head is throbbing and my vision is still somewhat blurry. I’m imagining I wouldn’t be alive right now if I were anyone else. What kind of lousy thugs were those; they were supposed to question me or something, right?
“Well, you’re two hours late. Your day’s going to be rougher if you don’t sit your ass down in that chair and help me deal with all these morons trying to–”
“I came to say I need to use a sick day,” I say. “I apologize.”
Larkins’s face turns an all-new shade of red. “You know I can’t do this by myself, Harding. I ain’t taking a sick day for an answer.”
I stare into his eyes. Was it… him? Did he think I have something to do with the Social Media Killer, so he sent some goons to beat the information out of me?
If he had something to do with it I don’t think I’ll be able to hold back.
“What, were you expecting me to walk in here with a smile on my face?” I don’t need this job. I’m leaving Atlanta as soon as I can anyway. So he can take his smarmy face and shove it, for all I care.
“What’s wrong with you today?”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” I say. “I was attacked in my own home last night. They were asking about the Social Media Killer. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
No change of expression. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Are you coming into work today Harding, or not?”
He’s too stupid to have done it.
“I can’t,” I say.
I begin to walk away.
“Wait!” Larkins softens up a little bit. “I didn’t want to just come out and say it, but I need you here Morgan. You’re a great employee.” I see the way he strains his face while saying this. We must be REALLY short-staffed. “Listen. All this Social Media Killer nonsense is crazy, but it might be the best thing that’s ever happened to us.”
“I got a new deal brewing and it’s going to be real important to work out this week. Blyth Industries is trying to buy out that new Dreamtech company real soon, and I’m tryin’ to be the one who brokers the whole thing.”
“Dreamtech? You mean that stupid sleep helmet thing?”
“It’s definitely not stupid. Word is their product is hot. Consumers are seeing the way this thing tracks your sleep and they are loving it. Gonna be a best-seller. If Atlanta Cares gets involved as an investor and we all come out on top… that’s good for the both of us, no?”
“No.” I start walking again, but Larkins runs out in front of me. He really wants me to stay. All because of… Dreamtech? What’s the big deal?
“You wanna be rich, don’t ya Harding?”
The answer is yes, but…
Not today. Not if I have to keep living in Atlanta getting beat up for no reason.
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Larkins, but I feel really unwell. It’s probably the concussion I got from getting hit on the head with a baseball bat. I’ll be here tomorrow, okay?” That is, unless I end up getting attacked by thugs again and get to take a nice trip to the hospital.
Larkins grumbles something incomprehensible, but he lets me pass.
I would have simply called out today, but I have other plans at Peach Towers, anyway. I’m going to go have lunch at the food court.
Over by my usual table in the Peach Towers Floor 36 food court, I see Karina Kodama sitting down reading a book of some sort while taking some notes.
Just the woman I wanted to see.
Karina’s a bit of the stereotypical nerd– thick glasses, dark straight hair, pasty skin, a bit plump, and currently wearing a graphic tee with a black-and-white print of Stanley Kubrick. Don’t let appearances fool you, though; she’s no slacker like me. Actually, she’s the biggest busybody I’ve ever seen.
In the mornings she’s usually at her own part-time job making deliveries across town with the Packard’s Pizzas Company also located at Peach Towers. However, she’s also taking classes over at Georgia State University, so sometimes she’s occupied with that. Or sometimes she’s got piano recital practice or orchestra rehearsal. Or sometimes she has to help her father with lab work. Or an endless list of other errands.
Like I said, bit of busybody.
We met here at the food court about a year ago, though, and hit it off pretty well after that. In the increasingly-rare event our schedules line up, we try to hang out, but even if we can’t we still try to eat lunch here every afternoon.
For once in my life I’m being completely serious when I say I wouldn’t trust anyone else more with my life.
Karina doesn’t see me yet, too absorbed in studying for whatever classes she’s taking this semester. She goes to school full-time along with all her other duties, though her grades typically reflect the sparse amount of time she’s able to devote to her studies. She must have gotten done with all her deliveries early this morning, though, since she’s already deep into reading.
It’s not quite lunch time yet, but considering I was beaten up instead of getting dinner last night, the last time I ate was that granola bar after work. My stomach is begging me for a meal.
I go to the usual place, Soup’n ‘n Green’n, which serves you, well, soups and salads, but someone already took all the good puns related to that so they just gave it an incomprehensible name instead. The robot at the cash register, grey plating and a humanoid body shape with dull-green visual receptors, looks on at me with a completely neutral face. Robots usually don’t have faces that can emote; too expensive.
“Hello!” it says with a slightly-flat cheer. “Soup’n ‘n Green’n is here for you. What will you have?”
“Same as always,” I say.
The robot takes a moment to process this. “I am sorry,” it says. “At this time we do not currently enable individual personalized recognition software to store information about our customers. If you would like to speak directly to a customer service agent, I can–”
“The caesar salad, please.”
“Coming right up!”
The robot turns around, walks over to the back, and begins rapidly tossing out ingredients. Faster than the human eye can really process, it takes out various utensils from inside its body and begins chopping, sauteing, frying– stuff I am not sure is actually required to make a caesar salad.
And about half a minute later, there’s a loud DING, and the robot comes back to the cash register. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” I hand over a couple dollar coins over and it gives me exact change in return.
“No need to thank me,” it says. “Robots aren’t people, after all.”
I give a nervous laugh and walk very quickly away from the Soup’n ‘n Green’n. I really hate it when the robots make jokes about their own lack of perception and judgment.
I go back over to the table and sit down. Karina suddenly notices me and jumps back in her seat, startled by the sudden appearance of another human being. “Morgan!” she yelps. She adjusts her glasses and gets that bug-eyed look. “I– I didn’t expect you here so early this morning. Uh, good morning.”
“I got out of work early. What are you studying?” I ask. I take a fork out and begin shoveling large heaps of lettuce, cheese, and dressing into my mouth.
Karina quickly scoops all her papers and books together and stacks them in a neat pile. “Ah, nothing.” She takes out two bags with some mayonnaise-and-bologna sandwiches in them. “I’m glad to see you, though.”
She’s… is she not going to say anything?
Karina is halfway through her first sandwich before it hits her. “Say, Morgan… are you alright? You look… a little…”
“A little disheveled.”
“I really don’t think disheveled does service to how bad I look,” I tell her. “Listen, I had a bit of a bad time last night, as you can see, and I think I might need your help.”
“Last night? Then why are you still wearing that tattered suit?”
“It’s a long story, Karina,” I say. “Okay, it’s a short one. Some thugs came to my house last night and beat me up and destroyed my TV and computer and stuff. I got knocked out.”
“Knocked out all night? Morgan, that’s really serious. Do you need to see a doctor?”
“I’m fine,” I tell her. Except for the part where my head’s still throbbing and I just want to go to sleep and never wake up. But that’ll pass in a bit. I’m resilient or whatever. “What I do need is your help.”
“Cleaning your apartment? Not a chance, bub,” says Karina.
“No…. you know what I mean.”
Or maybe she doesn’t.
“We need to go see him soon.”
My eyes instinctively dart around the room just to make sure there are no suspicious figures that may be listening in on us. I’m usually not quite this careful about it, but after last night, I can’t help feeling cautious when discussing sensitive subjects.
“Him? You mean… Sage?”
Sage– what? “Who’s Sage?”
“You know… our ally.”
“What… Why are you calling him ‘Sage?’”
“He asked me to,” Karina says with a puzzled expression.
“Don’t– just don’t do it,” I say. I’m not dealing with his nickname nonsense again. It irks me for unexplained reasons. It may be that I am irked by everything that exists down to the molecular level, but I only outwardly channel those sharp, black feelings when someone does something really stupid.
Cute nicknames annoy me, okay?
I finish my caesar salad and toss the bowl towards a nearby compost bin. It bounces off the rim and falls onto the floor upside down, sending the remnants of my meal onto the floor. I decide I’ll just pretend I never saw anything.
Karina won’t stop staring at me.
Okay, fine, I go pick it up and drop it into the compost bin. There’s still green goop on the floor, but the robot janitors have to not get paid somehow.
“I can’t see him, though,” Karina says. “I have school in the afternoon.”
The dreaded school.
“No way. I always skip for you. My grades are not yours to destroy.” Karina has now finished her two sandwiches, and proceeds to pull out a bowl of instant no-water ramen noodles and some chopsticks. She narrows her eyes at me to show how admant she is. “I did finish all my midterms last week,…” Is she reconsidering that quickly?
“Okay… I’ll go with you. What’s this all about, though?”
“I need to talk to him about something important.”
“The Social Media Killer.”
Karina gasps, and a noodle falls out of her mouth back into the paper cup. “Are you… are you the Social Media Killer?”
“Yes, I’m the Social Media Killer.”
“Really? Wow!” I’ve heard all about that stuff, it’s pretty exciting.”
I shush her. “It’s just a side hobby. But now those thugs broke my computer, so I need help to keep doing it.”
Karina offers her left arm to me. “Here, you can use my portable PC.”
I push her arm back across the table. “I’m lying, Karina.”
“Oh… But it would have made a lot of sense, wouldn’t it?”
“Have you ever known me, Morgan Harding, as someone who uses the internet often?”
“Exactly. If you have nothing to hide, you can get away with a lot more.”
That’s actually pretty solid reasoning.
“Anyway the thugs at my apartment last night interrogated me about the Social Media Killer. They thought I knew something about it. And whoever hired them knew me.”
“Did they know about your thing, though?”
“I don’t think so.” I rub the back of my head again to see if it is feeling any better. Still really hurts. “But one of them had a robotic hand that could shoot out its fingers like claws. Whoever they were, they were professionals. That kind of scares me.”
“I understand,” Karina says. “So we definitely need to go over after lunch, then.” Switching subjects without a second thought, Karina asks, “We are still going to the shoot tonight, aren’t we?” Ah, I completely forgot about that.
Karina really loves movies. I’ve been dragged to the theater more often in the past year than I think I’ve gone the entire rest of my life combined. Between everything else in her life, she somehow still finds time to keep up with all the latest filmmaking news. She really wants to become an actor, though I have no idea how realistic a proposition that is.
The film industry really still hasn’t recovered since… well, obviously, the war, but studios are still trying to crank out money-making entertainment as if nothing has changed, which is a pretty admirable pursuit, most people would say. All month Karina’s been bugging me to go with her to the big film shoot in Piedmont Park, where the famous director Martin Quartermaster is selling his soul and making a big-budget fantasy blockbuster movie. That man isn’t here in Atlanta yet, but they are filming some important second-unit scenes, apparently.
“If life doesn’t interfere I guess…” I say. I kind of hope it does, though.
“Good. Then I’ve got the rest of the day mapped out. We go tend to your wounds at the hospital, then we go see our dear friend, then we go back and fix up your place, then we go to the movie shoot and grab a pizza afterwards.”
Sounds like a plan. A completely unrealistic, impossible plan.
“I’m not going to the hospital. And I’m not cleaning my apartment today.”
“It’s a good time for spring cleaning, though, don’t you think?”
“Are you done with those noodles?” I ask. “I want to go.”
“Be a little patient, Morgan.”
“So that’s a no?”
She shows me her empty cup before getting up and dropping it in the compost bin. She puts on her pink-and-blue windbreaker and neatly places all her books and papers into her bag. “That’s a yes.”
I don’t know how I could go through anything like this without Karina by my side. Alone out in the urban jungle, solving mysteries and fighting bad guys? It doesn’t sound right.
We’re a pretty dynamic duo, I think.
Problem is… I haven’t told her I’m leaving Atlanta yet.
She’s absolutely not going to take it well and I’m not sure if she’s going to understand if I explain how I feel. I mean, she’s great and all, and my closest friend. But… I really feel like I need a fresh start and I can’t get that unless I come away from this place. As good a friend as she is, nothing she can do will change that feeling.
I’ve got to tell her. Probably as soon as all this mess is done, whatever it is, I’ll make sure she knows, no matter what.
“Morgan? is something wrong?” Karina asks.
“Huh? Oh, nothing.”
“Oh, good, because you kind of looked like you were–”
And then Karina trips over an untied shoelace.