“Thanks for everything, Bill,” Morgan, also known as me, says awkwardly.
Yes, I’m completely self-aware about it and everything, and yet I’m unable to do more than live with my perpetual embarrassment of this entire situation.
Bronco Bill, in his mostly shirtless attire and ripped abs, projects his overly friendly aura right in my face. “Nothing to it, partner,” he says.
“I’m really sorry that you didn’t, uh, do your real job. I mean, I guess I can pay you a bit, since I took up all your work time…”
“No need, Little Morgan.” Bill tips his cowboy hat. “You’re saving the city from those mob creeps, ain’t you? That’s good enough for me.”
“Are you sure? I—“
“Nah, keep the cash. Spend it on something nice.” He reaches out and, after a moment of hesitation, tousles my hair, runs his fingers through it like he’s petting a particularly fluffy puppy.
I hate this a lot, and yet he’s really good at it. Very soothing…
But then I realize what’s going on and I jerk away from the guy. “A-anyway! I’ll see you around. Or, I guess, never see you again for the rest of my life most likely.”
“Go be a hero, Little Morgan.”
“You got it, partner,” I say with the worst Texas accent ever recorded in history.
We part ways in the humid night, and I head on home.
Tonight got me some good information, I will admit. Learning about this “Ohata King” guy is a real break in the whole case, even if I have no idea how he connects to the Mighty Slammer, or the gold, or any of it. This one big conspiracy is so convoluted and complex that I struggle to wrap my brain around it. I’m not even sure if R8PR would know, honestly, without a whole lot more information to back it.
I should have met with that contact, but I failed. I got lost, I was late, and the shooting started before I made it there, all because I’m terrible at reading directions. I accidentally stumbled into the office of a male escort and walked around town with him for a couple hours, somehow, through my sheer idiocy, not realizing that he wasn’t the contact. And because of that, I’m a whole lot of info short.
The case is aggravating. My mistakes are annoying. And the weather is just way too hot, even right now well after the sun has set. All of this wrapped up and gifted to me as a present in the form of immense frustration.
Yep, that’s right. I’m frustrated.
As I sweat my way home, all I can feel is that overwhelming desire to let loose, to blow off some steam. I could stop by that junkyard and fight some scrap robots, but they’re closed at this hour, sadly. I could buy a bunch of junk food, but then I’d certainly regret it in the morning—I don’t have acid reflux symptoms yet, but my Dad’s got it and I very much don’t want to test how a greasy hamburger fares in my gut tonight.
I might just try to run it off, or something. Jog the rest of the way home instead of taking a bus. I’ve never been known to be someone who exercises for fun, and you can probably tell that from my very scrawny figure, but maybe that’s just what I need.
Or, I guess…
On the other side of the street from me is a pretty large one-story business, well lit with a blue roof and a neon flashing logo of a smiley face. It’s practically the only building on the street with any light on, so it stands out like a welcoming beacon.
I glance back and forth to see if anyone is watching me, and, no, there isn’t really anyone on the street right now.
The windows in the building are mostly blocked for privacy, but the fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling shine through anyway.
Usually I don’t really go in these types of places, you know. It’s not very in-character of Morgan, because Morgan is the type of person who shies away from the seedier elements of town except. But then again, who says it’s seedy? Maybe it’s just something adults should consider normal instead of being ashamed of.
Well… I’ve convinced myself. Here it goes.
I enter the only place that makes me more embarrassed than the Anime Attic: “Lilly’s Adult Goods & Entertainment.”
I’m already too embarrassed to look around. I’ve got pure tunnel vision.
Listen, folks. I’m feeling real overwhelmed lately, and I need to blow off some steam somehow. My stock of magazines at home are getting a little boring, and I’m too paranoid about the Ascendants to look this sort of stuff up online. So don’t blame me that I have to go out of my way to enter an adult goods store in the middle of a case! You would do it too!
…I might be overreacting here.
Well, my face is certainly completely red, but the only other people in the store also have very red faces, so it’s okay. (Besides the one very skinny young white man with a beard, pushing along a whole buggy of, uh, supplies. He’s pretty calm about it.) Nobody’s daring to look in my direction, or anyone’s, so I’m safe.
There’s a row of big laserdiscs that showcase collections of material that I definitely won’t describe in too much material. It’s got the big boob ladies with sexy faces and all that horrendous typography that the genre is known for. It’s all designed specifically for the straight male in mind, and unfortunately it’s not the most arousing stuff. I don’t know; it just doesn’t get me with those covers. I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover… But they’re not books, they’re porn.
Instead, in order to accurately judge by covers, I go past the laserdiscs and into the book section. It’s got magazines, photo galleries, erotic art collections, comics… I just sort of, uh, prefer this stuff if I have a choice. Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m telling you about this. I’m going to die because I’m telling you about stuff I wouldn’t dare tell anyone in the world. Please never share this story with anyone. Please.
Well… With that pleading out of the way, I might as well pick something out.
“Buxom Babes with Boisterous Balance,” a photo shoot where naked women hang off tightropes and other precarious positions… No.
“Hunky Cowboy Stud—” NO.
“The Robot+Human Gazebo,” which sadly is one of the top-selling magazines in Atlanta. Also no.
“Glasses Glasses Glasses!” The copy reads, “Sexy gals with spectacles are ready to meet you. Want to introduce yourself?”
Not the most effective marketing, but a quick flip through the sample copy, and… Okay. Maybe this is—
Wait. Don’t you dare draw conclusions about this and any other particular people in my life who may or may not be impacting my stress levels. I refuse to make a comment about that except that it’s all false.
This book is, too, designed mostly for horny straight dudes, and not really people like me. But seeing as there is literally nothing in here designed for people like me, I just have to make dowith what I’ve got. I guess.
I pick up the “Girls Who Love Girls Anthology #7” too just for good measure (please never share this story), and walk to the cash register, thankfully manned by a low-spec robot model.
“Two items. Paper bag?” it asks.
“Cash or card?”
I start to consider the question for a millisecond, until the events at Anime Attic flash through my head. All the information that Tony and I were able to uncover on that Phil guy just through looking up his payment information… It was extremely unethical, extremely illegal, and also extremely easy.
“Cash,” I answer.
Brono Bill was right. I bought me something nice indeed.
And as fast as my feet can carry me alone, I’m out of that damn building and continuing my path home.
Whew. I don’t even care how hot it is out here, as long as I’m not in the most socially incriminating place in the world. I don’t care if it’s nothing to be ashamed about; it’s shameful to me anyway.
You and I made it through that ordeal together, and we are stronger for it. That, or you now see me in a much different light, and I will forever be ruined as the honest and unbiased narrator I otherwise am. I’m hoping for the former.
My face is still kind of red. Still way more flustered than I have any right to be.
I pass a St. Burger on the street and wonder for a moment if I want to risk late-night greasy food despite everything I said before. Then, though, I remember the large paper bag in my left hand that might look vaguely suspicious, and my social anxiety skyrockets. Now I know why women wear purses everywhere, despite being unwieldy and a real chore to lug around—you can hide incriminating shit in them really easily.
Nah, no burgers. I’m just going to go straight home and—
Wait a minute. The person approaching me from the other side of the sidewalk. Overcoat, sunglasses… long blonde hair tied up in a ponytail.
She sees me and stops. Then approaches me.
“Hey, it’s you. That one guy,” she says.
“Yeah, Morgan,” she says. “Nice to see you.”
I get a closer look at her in the street lights, and realize—this is Hope Winters. The same Hope Winters who is running for Mayor of Atlanta, who I met and hit it off with at that fancy party a couple months back. The one whose heart is filled with so much cynicism that it makes me look like a cheery ray of sunshine.
Why the hell’s she walking around in the middle of the night in a weak disguise?
She smiles at me. “Want to hang out?”
I glance at the paper bag and then back at the woman. “Uh, sure…?”