Over the next two weeks, things went remarkably well. Bill’s contact was actually a real photographer’s shop, with a little extra on the side. It took them about a week to finish my documents. When I went to pick up the finished product, I was handed a dossier with birth certificate, social security card, driver’s license, passport, resume, and even a bank account. Also included were records of prior residences, prior employment, and all sorts of other random details. The history included immigration papers into the US from Hong Kong as a very young minor. I had apparently been born there to American parents. My father was supposed to have been a high-rise steel worker who lived on the road with his family. This was a lot more than the simple driver’s license and social security card that was the norm for Bill’s referrals, according to Darla. The price wasn’t cheap either, but even if it wasn’t as good as she said it would be, it would probably be at least good enough to get me out of anything minor, and cause lots of delays for any serious background check. I couldn’t see Bill risking sending people to someone who couldn’t reliably do what they said they could do.
I took about 15 minutes in a chair in the lobby to look through everything and it looked to be in order. I happily paid the second half of the $10,000 that the dossier cost me.
“I would like the extent of the work that you did for me kept private from my referrer, Darla.”
She was quiet for a moment, looking up at me, hands folded across her chest. I felt a little nervous for some reason. At four-foot ten, tops, and maybe seventy pounds soaking wet, Darla was not physically imposing. But something about her face made me cautious. It might just be the Japanese style of facial makeup that was throwing me off, she was fairly heavily made up, almost like she was preparing for a theatre act. “Your referrer has an arrangement with me that I would have to break to allow that to happen.” She responded.
I thought about it for a second. “Can you tell me what this arrangement is?”
“Certainly. It is not a secret arrangement. All my referrers pay fifty percent of the cost of any work that I do.”
I thought about it for a second. “You did not advise me that my referrer was sharing costs with me.”
“No, I did not. I don’t dig too deeply. If your referrer wishes to recoup the costs for my service from you, that’s between you and them. You can also return all the documents that you do not wish to pay for, and I will return half of what you paid for them, if you do not feel that your referrer would want to pay for half of their cost.”
“And if I pay my referrer’s share instead, does that change things?”
Darla put her hands together in front of her, and bowed slightly towards me. “If you wish to take on the full cost of the work, it will be perfectly acceptable, of course.”
“Everything except the driver’s license, and social security card. He’s expecting to pay at least that much, so we need to let him pay for them. I will cover the costs of the rest. What will the total be for me to pay my referrer’s share?”
As I walked towards the front door of Darla’s shop, even with another $9000 gone, I was in good spirits. I would have to hit a fast food joint’s restroom stall to refill my billfold soon. It would not be a good idea to have to open the backpack to get money to buy things. Having solid ID was going to make things a lot easier.
“How soon can I start using these documents?” I asked.
“Immediately. I do not give them to people until all of the work is done, and verified. What you have there is the next best thing to real ID. There are two or three layers of supporting documentation that you do not have in that dossier behind every document, planted or edited into the official record. Your history was deliberately chosen to be one that is more unclear than most, but not confusing enough to instantly raise red flags. My team is good. That is why our services are expensive.”
“I see. Thank you Darla. May I refer people to you in the future?” I start packing the dossier back into the manila envelope and put the driver’s license and social security card in my wallet while talking.
“Please do not. We have more than enough business to serve our needs with our current arrangements.”
“If I find myself in need of your services again at some point, may I return myself, even if I have no referrer?”
“No. Please do not approach us without being referred. Unless, of course, you just want some very good photographs taken. We have exceptionally skilled photographers here as well as those with the skills you took advantage of.” She paused. “Please do not take insult from our unwillingness to take on new customers, it is merely a matter of us being as cautious as we can by limiting our exposure to avoidable unknowns.”
“No offense taken. Thank you for your work.”
At the door, I turned around and gave her a half bow, (trying to mimic the Japanese style, and probably failing miserably based on her smile) but she returned my bow with a slight bow of her own and we parted ways.
Twenty thousand dollars for a new identity. Cheap at twice the price if it was half as good as she said. Especially since it wasn’t really my money anyhow.
I pretended to press a couple of buttons on my phone and started talking to Frank. “Anywhere in particular you want to meet up for lunch?”
“Heavy carbs please. I’ve finished making some adjustments so we can get your weight up again. I really wish you would reconsider this.”
“We had an agreement Frank, do you want to argue about it again?”
Frank and I had argued about this before, and I was sure we would again. He said he had stopped adjusting my bone size, and I had been carefully watching things to compare myself against just to be sure. I was about five foot six inches tall, slender, well-muscled, but only weighed ninety pounds. Since I kept getting onto him about keeping me looking human, Frank made me watch more martial arts movies than I cared to remember while he was researching what body shape he wanted for me. He decided that he would start with a body like Bruce Lee’s and work from there. I certainly didn’t have a problem with living in a body in that condition, but the carbon bones made me too light.
Frank wanted me as light as possible, but I moved abnormally when I was that light with that much muscle. It wasn’t blatant like a limp or a disability, but it was noticeable and hard to ignore after you saw it. I only noticed it myself after a young child asked me what was wrong with my legs as I walked past him and his parents. I didn’t even realize he was talking to me until a couple of seconds later when I saw that he was staring at my legs. I pretended not to hear, and just kept walking, looking at my gait in windows along the street as I walked.
Turned out that my legs and arms had, lacking better words, ‘sharper’ movement than normal for a human. When I moved my arms and legs, they accelerated more abruptly, so my gait looked vaguely insect-like. That’s the best way I could describe it when I was explaining to Frank why it looked wrong. He did some people watching and had to agree.
Frank still fought me hard on that one. He did not want to put weight back in my legs and arms at all, at one point flat-out refusing to make any weight adjustments. I finally figured out a way to make him happy with a compromise though. The synthetic adrenaline Frank generated slowly over time in a lobe of my liver that he co-opted for that purpose was, at that point in time, stored by him in small amounts throughout my body, carried by nanites, as well as in some adipose tissue. The substance could be released at various rates, but Frank didn’t have a lot of volume to store the stuff..
I needed more weight in my bones, and I remembered Frank complaining about energy stores. I realized we could do both at once, explained it to Frank, and he was willing to compromise. Frank was adding bulk storage for the synthetic adrenaline along each of my long bones, a center-mass storage container, and a simple vascular system connecting the leg and arm storage to the torso mass storage as well. The fluid would be stored along my bones, to add mass to the legs and arms, but in the event of a fight, Frank could pump the fluid from the arms and legs into the torso, lightening them. The arm and leg storage tanks, when empty, would still make my arms and legs a bit heavier than they were when my arms were too light, but not much.
So I was supposed to be getting heavier legs and arms so I could move more normally, and Frank got a bunch of fuel storage. At the same time, Frank will have to be unsatisfied with slightly heavier limbs and I would have to live with the knowledge that I would from that point on have roughly a gallon or so of something a lot like jet fuel in my body.
“I suppose we had an agreement. Sorry. Now that I actually can make changes to make you a safer place for me to live, it’s really hard to recognize limits based on external influences.” Frank sounded a bit peevish.
“I can’t say I understand Frank, because I’m sure I don’t, but I can sympathize with being required to do things that I don’t want to do. Been there. Done that. And you got to watch.”
“Truth.” A pause. “When we get back to the hotel room, I will show you something else that is new as well. It will not be visible externally unless we need it in a fight.”
I remembered the carbon claws that Frank had tried to convince me to allow him to build, based off some animalistic comic book character. I pointed out that he could just carry a knife, and without the extra weight of the claws and all their associated extension and retraction equipment, probably fight better with the knife. He thought about it for a second, grumbled something, and agreed.
Quietly, under my breath. “Frank, please listen to me. It’s easy these days to get high quality video from significant distances, and for all we know there might be people out there right now looking for us based on what they expect you to do to my body. Think about how aggressively you are trying to improve my body. I suspect that this is natural for you. A drive. A defining part of all symbiotes like yourself like the most basic brain functions in humans that tell us when to fight, fuck, or run. Just walking around could expose us if you change our body too much and someone with the right computer software is analyzing video with us in it.”
“I know. You are right. It’s part of me, and I’m going to have to learn to control it better. I still think you will like my newest idea.”
“Tell me.” I demanded.
“No, I’ll show you. Later.”
“OK. Chinese buffet it is then. Mmmm, MSG.” I said with a smile.
“MSG is a very simple organic compound with no negative effects, at least for you, even if I weren’t in here watching over things. Do you really want to know what the meat is?”
“If it’s anything other than what they say it is, keep it to yourself.” I commented, under my breath.
The buffet looked pretty good, but they had a sushi and sashimi bar for a couple extra dollars. The young woman behind the bar knew what she was doing, so we avoided the rest of the buffet and ate lots of sushi and sashimi. I tipped her well, because she was good at her job and she was cute. She was also young enough to be my daughter, so I left it at that. Thinking about any sort of relationship when I was in that situation was absurd anyway. Even a one night stand. Even if she had been nearer to my age. On top of that, there was still nearly four million dollars in my backpack. I really needed to figure out a way to safely store the money without having to carry it everywhere, and I didn’t need any ‘company’ finding it or forcing me to act aggressively to prevent them from finding it.
I clicked the phone as I walked outside. “How goes the tank filling?”
“About half done. Should be full after three or four more meals. Leg and arm movements are much more human-normal now.”
“OK, good, thanks. Time to find a Wi-Fi hotspot and look for a used truck.”
“Why not a small RV or a Semi with a sleeper cab?”
I pulled out my driver’s license. “I’ll be damned, I have a CDL. It’s been eighteen years since I drove something with more than six forward gears though. The RV sounds like a plan, if we can find a good used one. I know they won’t be cheap in this part of the country though.”
“You keep saying that things aren’t cheap – but they really are, because that’s not our money.”
“Point. It’s still painful to spend it like this.”
I walked down the street towards some taller buildings, figuring that there were likely to be Wi-Fi hotspots around high-rise office buildings in café’s and coffee shops. I was right, so I found a nice spot in the sun in front of a café, sat down, and waited for the server.
“What will you have sir?” The young man asked as he walked up.
“Just a coffee, large.”
“We have a lot of different mixes and flavors. The booklet on the table describes them. Do you need a couple of minutes to decide?”
“Do you have a simple dark roast? I don’t really care much for other flavors in coffee.”
“Sure, we have a few different dark roasts without any non-coffee flavors.”
“Any of them will be fine, I’m sure.”
“Will you need milk, cream, sugar, honey, or anything else?”
“Nah, just coffee in my coffee today, thanks though.”
The server walked off with a smile. Judging from what I saw in other people’s mugs and from what the other servers were doing to make other people’s drinks, I suspected that the place didn’t get many coffee drinkers who actually liked the taste of coffee. I probably amused my server with my simplicity.
The coffee arrived, and it was very good. I paid the server, tipped him well, and started web browsing, eventually finding a rather substantial RV lot that wasn’t too terribly far away. They were advertising at least four or five small RV’s which I might want to buy. There was also a camping supply shop right next door to the RV lot, apparently both owned by the same company. It would certainly be more expensive this way, but RV prices in this area were through the roof even from private sellers. The advertisements said this RV lot had been around for fifty years, and had its own service department. I’d pay a bit extra for a bit more confidence in what I was buying.
I pulled up a map to get from the café to the RV shop. It was only a couple of miles, so I decided to walk. As I was walking I started seeing advertisements for hourly hotel rentals, apartments offering a free mattress after signing a six month lease, or free month’s rent with the first month’s rent paid in advance on a six month lease. The buildings were poorly maintained, and what little vegetation there was around the buildings was in poor condition and untended, where it was alive at all.
“It could be worse, there aren’t any burnt out cars or building shells.” Frank said as I looked back and forth at an intersection.
At the next intersection, when I looked right, there was a burnt out shell of a building with two burnt out shells of cars in front of it. “Well, OK, I’ve been wrong before.” Frank said, as I chuckled.
“Frank, meet Murphy. Do not tempt Murphy, Frank.”
I continued up the road, and began to walk past a wide alley with half a dozen young men in their late teens lounging on boxes and benches ripped out of bus stops. One of the older ones looked up from where his smart phone was being held for the others to see, and walked towards me. “Granola tax, hippy. Come here and empty your pockets and your pack.”
I watched him walk slowly up to me, he was ready to run after me if I tried to run. He was trying to be clever and apparently the others thought he was, or he was the leader type that liked yes men.
“I gave at the office.”
“Glad to hear that yer so into giving. My buddies and I like generous people. The more generous people are, the less blood gets spilled.” A truck pulled up behind me and half a dozen more teens jumped out of the back, a couple of them were carrying short lengths of chain or rebar. A couple more were checking that their concealed weapons were ready, but since they were still standing out in the road, no knives or guns came out yet.
“Seems like a whole lot of effort for a bit of granola, a cue stick, and some cheap camping gear.”
“We ain’t stupid. Yer clothes are clean, yer clean and healthy, well fed. People don’t stay that way without money. We see lots of folks on the down with no money, and that ain’t you.”
Not stupid then, just ignorant, with terrible English skills. Fixing their ignorance was something I preferred to avoid, if possible, so I switched tactics. “If you look at my face, young man, you will see that life hasn’t been kind to me, and yet here I am with a dozen young thugs around me, and not even a drop of sweat on my forehead.” I didn’t want to fight these kids, and was doing my best to bluff them. They might not attack if they thought I would hurt a few of them badly.
Several of the teens who could see my face saw the wear and scars that Frank put there and looked at each other but didn’t back away. Every one of them was looking at my waist and armpits to see what I might be carrying.
“Yer a bit too close to us ta be making threats right now, old man. Drop the pack, then yer jacket, then empty out yer pants pockets and we’ll talk all nice-like. If ya don’t, we just beat everything of value out of you and dump you in the park with broken legs and arms.”
“I kind of like my legs and arms the way they are. One second.” I shrugged out of the backpack and coat at the same time, with one quick forward dip of my torso while pushing my arms back, followed by a quick hop. They fell in a pile behind me, the coat covering the pack. My clamshell was clearly visible under my left arm. There was a mutter from the circle of thugs.
“OK Bob, nonlethal only?” Frank asked.
I blinked once for yes.
“Too many here to try to avoid them all while at high speed, without killing them. A good chance I’ll cook us both if I try that, so we’re probably going to take a couple hits at least, if more than a couple of them are worth a damn in a fight. Shouldn’t be a problem though, even if they pull pistols.”
I blinked once again for yes.
“Last chance boys. There are some people in this world that can take on a dozen untrained thugs and know they will win. I’m one of them. This isn’t about me walking away, it’s about you walking away.”
Three of the youngest looking kids backed away from me a bit, but the rest encouraged or threatened them back in with crooked fingers and sharp looks.
The leader continued to approach slowly, a grin on his face, thinking he was toying with me. Eventually he was two long steps from me where he stopped and started talking, while watching my face. “Ya talk big fer a shrimp, but if you knew a damn thing about fightin’, you wouldn’t have let me get this close before pullin’ your pistol. I’m callin’ your bluff. That gun is fake, don’t work, or ain’t loaded. Or yer just an idiot.”
“OK, everyone who I catch and put down will get their left earlobe notched when there isn’t anyone but me left standing. Just to remind you that you should listen better next time.” A couple of the younger gangers lifted their left hand to touch their left ear, but none backed away. Not that I would have actually marked them like cattle, but saying that would either scare them or piss them off, and either one meant they would be thinking less clearly when the fight started.
The leader moved forward at that threat, face transforming from a cruel grin to an angry stare. “Was fun talkin’ fer a bit there, but ain’t no way ya can threaten us like that and live, shithead.” Then he swung his rebar club at me. It was about two feet long and half an inch in diameter. A nice, fast, dense club.
Frank enabled perception enhancement, and I started to see the fight the same way Frank was seeing it.
Compared to the assassins, these guys were pathetic. Slow, uncoordinated, untrained, and some of them were afraid.
The leader was fairly smart with his first blow. He started a swing that was aimed at the space between my right hand and my clamshell, apparently thinking I might be a fast draw, and wanting to hit the arm as I was starting to draw. He put himself way off-balance doing it though.
Frank had me grab the leader’s right hand and pivot, using his unbalanced attack to sling him sideways into the feet of two others running up behind me, tripping them up. While I was still turned about a quarter way around from where I started, Frank had me leap directly backwards about five feet. Both arms driving back hard. Apparently the two kids coming at me from that angle didn’t even realize that I was attacking them, since my back was to them. Both fists connected. The one on the right took the bottom of my fist on his forehead as it swept back, and he was out for the count. The other one managed to angle his head and take a grazing blow, but he was stunned. Since he was standing still, Frank grabbed him by the base of his neck with both hands, and leapt again, swinging around him. Due to our weight difference, the pivot thug didn’t move much, and he took the blow meant for me that was delivered by another thug with a baseball bat. Pretty sure the cracks I heard were breaking ribs.
Frank let go of the pivot thug’s neck with one hand and grabbed the bat, pulling hard. The bat thug didn’t let go and was pulled forward. Frank pushed the pivot thug with one arm and pulled the bat thug with his bat, and they met head to head, then started collapsing, but Frank was already moving on with the captured bat.
The fight was over after Frank got the bat. He just went from one thug to another around the circle clockwise, knocked away whatever weapon the current thug was holding with the bat, then popped them in the stomach or knee to get them to bend over or fall, following with a punch to one ear or the other, stunning the thug in question.
As I stood over the last thug of the circle, Frank released the perception enhancement, and I heard the squeaking of opening doors from the direction of the truck that had been behind me when the fight started, but was now to my left.
“Cap that motherfucker, don’t let them get close.” The driver of the truck was braced over the hood of the truck with a two-handed grip on a big pistol, the passenger had two smaller pistols, one in each hand, and he was facing me head on.
“Guns. We might take a hit but no worry.” From Frank.
Frank changed my perception again, and we leapt left, towards the two gangers from the truck. Frank threw the bat under the truck as we quickly dove headfirst towards the ground near the feet of the truck’s passenger who was firing high. I hoped they wouldn’t hit the gang members I had tried to avoid killing. Meanwhile, as the passenger struggled to adjust his aim down, Frank absorbed the energy of the jump with his arms, while flipping over and lining up both legs so that when he forcefully straightened both arms and both legs, each heel drove into one of the passenger’s collar bones. Two cracks. Definitely broken bones.
Another wet-sounding crack. From where? Frank fell back to the ground as the passenger flew back a couple of feet and hit the truck, his pistols clattering to the ground. I then saw where the other crack had come from. The bat that Frank threw under the truck had bounced off the back wheel of the truck, then forward to hit the driver’s right ankle, where he was sheltering his legs behind the driver side front tire. Even with a broken ankle, the driver was still braced on the hood, looking for a chance to shoot us. Had to give him credit for chutzpah, but he failed tactics.
Frank put us in a crouch against the truck and picked up one of the passenger’s pistols, then leaned under the truck and shot twice through the sidewall of the tire that the driver was trying to hide his legs behind. We heard the clatter of metal and a pistol fell off the hood of the truck onto the pavement, fortunately not firing a round when it hit the ground. We were all done, except for making sure nobody bled to death or was in serious need of medical attention.
The only one I felt we really needed to worry about was the driver, and his bullet wound was not severe, just a grazing flesh wound that stopped bleeding with some pressure.
The others were starting to stir, so I stood up from kneeling by the driver, grabbed the bat, and walked over to check them out. None of them had life threatening injuries, though a couple might have mild concussions. I walked back to my coat and pack, calmly put on my coat, then my pack, and turned to the gangers.
“I strongly suggest you fellas look into real jobs. You suck at this. Next time, if you decide to mess with the wrong guy, he might not be as nice as me.”
I unloaded all three pistols and used one of the pieces of rebar to break the trigger guards and triggers off them. As I turned away from the thugs and started to walk down the road, I saw a couple younger kids with smartphones. It was obvious that they had been there at least a few seconds, recording the fight.
“How long were they there Frank?” Under my breath.
“One was there the whole fight. I think he started recording when you dropped the jacket and showed that you were carrying. The second ran up started recording about halfway through.”
“You didn’t ever speed up beyond what would be possible for a human, right?
“Correct. I didn’t even pump the limbs out to speed myself up, really was no point to it for this fight, since we weren’t using ‘juice’.”
“Juice?” I asked in a confused voice.
“Short name for the artificial adrenaline? Seem OK to you?”
“Sure, ‘juice’ it is, but back to the kids there. Even if this stuff hits the news or TheTube, I’ll just look like a badass, not inhuman.”
“Pretty much. You didn’t do anything that the best martial artists in the world couldn’t match.”
“Great. That’s probably a bit much, since the grand total of all we know about the best martial artists in the world comes from Bruce Lee movies, Jackie Chan movies, and Chuck Norris jokes. I don’t think we want the publicity, but I don’t think we can afford to be afraid of it either.” I waved to the kids and turned to walk away.
“We either fought them, making ourselves potentially conspicuous, or we let them rob us, which probably would have ended with us fighting them anyway. At least we didn’t use deadly force.”
“Yeah. The cops are probably going to be upset and maybe start another manhunt for us after that much violence if we don’t at least put in a report.” I pulled out one of the disposable phones and dialed 911. This could have ended up being very bad. At the same time, with the kids and who knows who else getting video of the fight, if I wanted to continue using this ID, I couldn’t become a fugitive.
“911 Operator. What is the nature of your emergency?”
“I need to report fourteen injured individuals on the north side of Octavius Street between 14th Street West and 14th Street East. Five or six potential concussions, several broken bones, and one shallow bullet wound that has been treated.”
“Are there still people fighting?” The 911 operator asked me.
“No, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep all fourteen of them from getting away if you don’t get officers here soon.”
“You have captured fourteen of the Romans?”
“If that’s what this gang calls itself, yes.”
“Stay on the line with me please.”
“I will but I have to watch these guys too.”
“Understood. I’ll whistle if I need you to listen, and you don’t seem to be. Are you visibly armed?”
“Carrying a baseball bat, Native American, five foot six, thin, middle age.”
I walked back to where the gangers were, picked up the bat that I had dropped while leaving, and yelled out at the one kid that was still there. “You mind letting the cops see that videos when they get here?”
“Already been Tubed man, you were awesome!” Then he ran off.
“What you call it?” I had to raise my voice.
He stopped and turned, cupping his mouth so I could hear better “Badass Old Man on Octavius Street” then ran off.
I chuckled as I carefully dragged the driver to the same side of the truck as the rest of the gangers, so I could watch them all at once. “All right boys. You’ve seen how good I am. You stand up, I knock you down. So save yourself some pain and just stay sitting or lying there. The cops should be here soon.”
A couple of them were staring at me, left hands covering their left ears. I let them imagine the worst.
My nervousness grew as the sirens got closer.
“You sure you want to do this?” Frank asked, sounding a bit nervous.
“No. I’m not sure at all.” I subvocalized.