Walking around J-District by yourself in the evening can be an overwhelming experience with all the people around, all the meaty smoke rising from the open-air restaurants and faint sounds of pop singers playing over distant speakers. But, when you’re with a companion, it feels more like an adventure through uncharted territory, no matter how many times you’ve been down this particular street.
That’s what tonight feels like for me while I walk next to Bronco Bill, the informant R8PR sent me to get some details on the Japanese mob. If this guy’s true cover is blown, it could mean some horrible stuff, and R8PR even said just the act of contacting him alone would send things spiraling into motion that we may not be able to stop. But even so, Bill puts me at ease, somewhat. He has the kind of calm, sure-headed personality that really has some kind of effect on me. He’s a genuinely cool guy!
Right now we’re making some pretty neat small talk. I never expected to have mildly stimulating conversation with a guy who’s supposed to be part of a vast criminal underworld filled with violence and mayhem.
“I’m really glad you like Alien better too,” I tell Bill. “My best friend is adamant about Aliens being the best, and I can’t stand it. Who even thinks that?”
“Some weird folks,” Bill says. “Some weird folks indeed. One alien monster’s as scary as Sunday. A bunch of ‘em at once? I just dunno about that.”
“Kind of like how this whole sidewalk is packed and we barely have room to walk side by side?”
“Yep. It sure is busy out here tonight,” Bill says.
“Yeah, but in a good way, I guess.” I say.
“You sure you don’t wanna get in snug and tight?” he asks. “Plenty of room next to old Bill.” He beckons for me to close the already-quite-small gap between us.
“Ha, no thanks,” I tell Bill. Any closer and we’d basically be cuddling… Which is not exactly my idea of a super serious meeting between an informant and his client trying to stop a heinous crime spree.
Speaking of the crowds… A lot of people are staring at us for some reason.
What, is there something wrong with two white people walking around together in J-District? No! We’re normal everyday Atlanteans, just like everyone else here around us. Even if Bill is wearing kinda silly clothing, it’s no different than those idol singer wannabe chicks walking about a block up.
I don’t know what the big deal is…
I also still don’t know exactly where we’re going.
“You know, It’s nice to have you escorting me around like this,” I say. “I don’t know the area all that well, and I, uh, get lost kinda easily.”
“Oh, really?” He tips his hat slightly for some reason. “Is that why you were holding out that piece of paper when you came in my office? Looked like you were a deer in headlights, what with that expression and all.”
“Expression? What expression? Is my face weird?”
He shakes his head. “Oh, Morgan, you ought to relax a little. You’re so tense.”
“Well… It’s pretty serious business, you know.”
“Serious?” Bill laughs. “You got it all wrong. This really must be your first time. But you know what? We’re almost here, so get ready.”
“I’m a little confused, but—Oh, wow.”
We reach the restaurant that Bill had been leading us to all this time: The Plaza Gate. It’s a two story establishment that juts out onto the street, with outdoor tables placed all the way into what was once the left-hand lane on the road. I guess traffic gets bottlenecked right beforehand, which kind of explains why everything is so backed up around this part of J-District even when it’s all just taxis and buses and auto-conbinis.
The Plaza Gate is lit up with rotating, shifting spotlights that synchronize in a mysterious, unknowable rhythm as they go from green and pink to orange and red to blue and yellow and then back again in countless combinations. The full color spectrum shoots by in a slow-moving wave. A limousine pulls up to the very end of the street before the restaurant space takes over (surely this can’t be safe), and a white-gloved valet rushes over to open the door for the faux fur-wearing guests who have just arrived.
There’s still a big crowd of foot traffic going through the middle of this outdoor seating area, which seems very un-fancy to me. It’s somewhat baffling what’s going on here, and I can only assume that the demand in this Plaza Gate place is so overwhelming that they just have to make do. Maybe the outdoor seating, which is relatively sparse by the looks of it, is for the plebian class who order stuff like hamburgers and 2000s wines, while the patricians with good taste get to go inside. You could probably make a really crappy prose poem about this whole situation here, unless I’m completely wrong.
“So this is where we’re eating, huh?” I ask. “I’ve never even seen the Plaza Gate before, let alone eaten here. What do they serve?”
“It’s as tasty as a possum on a stick,” he says in a turn of phrase that lowers my appetite quite a bit. “This is the place where all them Eastern Union delegates and fancy-schmancy people like to come have toasts and such. I get a lotta business here, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, if it’s this busy on most days, you must get a lot of action.”
“I’ll be getting a lot tonight, that’s for sure.” He turns his head at me and winks.
…Huh? “Uh, what’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
He sighs. “You’re a tough nut to crack, Morgan. But I’ll have you yet.”
“I’ll go get us a seat. They keep me a reservation open just in case, since I get a lot of the real high rollers. And a little commission or two if they get the real good wines. I guess I shouldn’ta told you that though, huh.” He laughs again with his probably-fake Texas accent.
I stop walking and raise my hand in the air. “Okay, Mr. Bill, Mr. Bronco, whatever,” I say, “what the hell is going on here?”
Bill furrows his brows. “What?”
“Why do you keep hitting on me?” I ask. “It’s so obvious and it’s kind of off-putting. I mean, it’s flattering, sure, but is this really the right time to be doing that kind of thing?”
“I mean, I appreciate the fancy restaurant and all, but
I still don’t see why we couldn’t just do it in your office.”
“Aaaahhhhhh, I see. I see…” Bill lets out a deep, almost condescending sigh. “Little Morgan, I get where you’re going with this. You don’t like the lovey-dovey flirty-hearty stuff. I get it.”
“I’m not sure you do…”
“You want to get straight to the action,” he says, “but I’m afraid the law’s pretty strict on what is and ain’t bueno in regards to our little dealings. We gotta have fun together before we get to the rodeo. You follow, partner?”
Oh. I finally do. He’s talking about the fact that there’s probably eyeballs everywhere in this part of town. If the Japanese mafia is involved with everything Bill’s got his fingers dipped in, then his own office might not be safe. Any casual restaurant might not be safe. Heck, the Plaza Gate, a giant fancy restaurant like this, seems like a hotbed for espionage, but maybe if it’s of the international sort, it won’t involve the mob quite so heavily. As long as we aren’t getting into some major spy stuff like Korean subterfuge of Mongolian mobile factories, we might be safer in a place this where there’s a billion things going on at once.
I’ve completely underestimated just how serious all of this might be. Though, I’m still really on edge about this flirting stuff. I’m still not sure what in the world he’s trying to go for with this. I’m obviously not into him, and wouldn’t it be a major problem if I was?
“I get it, partner,” I reply back to him after a moment of thinking. “Let’s get ourselves a table, then.”
After a few minutes of dealing with snotty-looking waiters all speaking Chinese or something, Bill nods and we venture into this grand restaurant. When it’s still barely dinner time, I am just floored to see so many people already deep into three-course meals, already moved onto their second bottles of whatever drinks they decided to order. Everyone wears suits and flashy dresses and everyone has roses on their lapels or gemstones in their hair. Walls of chatter in languages I cannot parse emanate from every corner of the building.
This is real, real nice. I really feel like I’m in a James Bond movie all of a sudden. I bet an awesome fight scene is about to break out, and a cool piece of technology R8PR gave me will prove invaluable as I fight through the chaos and save the day.
…R8PR did not give me any technology. And I’m wearing a t-shirt and shorts, so nothing I do can possibly look badass.
“Alrighty,” Bill says as we reach a small table nestled in the corner of some obscure part of the restaurant. He pulls out a chair for me, and I gladly accept his Southern hospitality by plopping my butt right down and letting him push me in.
“You know how to treat a person,” I say. “All we need is a movie and this becomes a date, eh? Entertainment, dinner, and some action?” I decide to keep up at the flirting game just to flex my cool super detective skills. I can seduce dudes if I try, I bet. Even if dudes are icky.
“Legally, it already is,” he says.
“So… Everything good here?” I ask. I motion around as if there might be listening devices planted in the walls and such. Not sure if he cares about stuff like that though.
Then, I lean in and clasp my hands together. “So then, let’s begin.”
Bill’s eyes open wide. “Right here? At the table?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“Little Morgan, didn’t I explain this to you already?”
“Bill, please, tell me about the Japanese Mafia. I’d really like to know all you can. Spare no details.”
“…Is this a sting op?”
“No. This is the reason my ally sent me here. We’re supposed to talk about any leads you might have about J-District’s involvement with that recent villain Mighty Slammer.”
“What in blue blazes are you on about?” This time, Bill raises his cowboy hat instead of tipping it.
I sigh. “No offense, because this Plaza Gate place is really nice and all, and I bet the food is delicious, but this ain’t why I came here, not one little bit. I’m after information, and that’s what you’re supposed to give me. I feel like we’re risking more every moment we’re together. I’m not exactly the most anonymous person in Atlanta, to be honest…”
Bronco Bill’s mouth opens to speak, but then closes again without any sound having come out.
He takes a few moments to look at the menu, then back at me.
After another moment, he blinks rapidly and says, “Morgan, I think you have the wrong guy. I’m a male escort.”
“Morgan, are you alright?”
“I… I really read this whole situation really badly. Like, catastrophically badly.”
My head starts to spin. The absolute dumbassedry of my existence knows no bounds. Like the edges of the ever-expanding universe, there is no endpoint for the maximum amount of a dumbass I can be. And, over time, it will encompass more and more of a percent of me. Soon, I will have passed the event horizon and become a full-on dipshit.
“So we aren’t doing the meal or going to a love hotel or anything, do I got that right?” Bill asks.
“You got that, uh, right. I’m… I just… How did I…”
“Don’t worry,” Bill says. “It happens to everyone.”
“No it doesn’t! This is far beyond the acceptable level of stupidity for a normal human!”
He chuckles. “I’m gonna make a guess that you just read those directions of yours wrong.”
“I know! How stupid can I be?!”
“Want me to help ya?”
So, with that, Bronco Bill and I, no longer part of any sort of obligatory escort-service-date-with-sex-afterwards situation, leave the Plaza Gate (before getting any expensive wine, sadly). Bill takes my printed sheet of directions and tries to decipher the code based on the clues I still do remember.
And… Lo and behold, we go in a completely different direction than the one I went on myself earlier in the day. It’s already like eight at night, so far past the original meeting time that it’s just plain stupid.
This is so embarrassing. I know most superheroes have weird weaknesses, but mine is that I can’t follow directions on a map and get lost all the time? How is this even acceptable? How did I survive to adulthood?
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Little Morgan,” Bill says as if reading my mind. “These directions are easy to mess up. I guess it’s pretty important stuff, though. Makes a lotta sense why it’s supposed to be so hard.”
“Please, please, please never tell anyone what happened here. First off because this meeting is supposed to be super ultra secret, and second off because I will die of shame.”
He pats me on the back, which I begrudgingly accept.
“You’re really good at making people feel better,” I tell him.
“Just doin’ my job.”
“Well, if I were into dudes, I’d probab—nevermind. I’m not going to continue.”
“Don’t you worry.”
We walk a little further and turn at a corner into an alleyway that I had completely missed earlier, because of one crucial mistake—I was supposed to turn right, not left. I was on the wrong side of the road. Now, nothing in this alley feels familiar at all, and it doesn’t feel like the right place… but it’s also exactly where the directions say to go.
It’s like, if I just made one better turn that I did incorrectly, I would have immediately alleviated all of my issues… One single directional problem ruined the whole trip.
We reach a dilapidated building covered in grafitti with boards over the windows and a “FOR SALE” sign in front of the yard.
“This ain’t too far from my office,” Bill says. “You were on the right track, you know.”
“Well, I guess you don’t wanna come back to my place after? I don’t got any appointments tonight.”
“No, sorry, but thank you very much, Bill, for your—”
Rapid-fire gunshots ring out into the night. And moments later, so do loud screams and shouts in Japanese.
A gunfight is breaking out right around the place where the informant was supposed to be.
Bill and I look at each other in terror just before a bullet whizzes past my face and the rodeo really begins.