Carl slowly opened the door to The Pen, trying hard not to open it too slowly, or too fast, or to do anything that might give any indication that he was anything but normal and definitely not being a spy. The sharp scrape of the bottom of the door on the concrete outside turned every head in the bar towards him and people squinted to pick his features out of his silhouette.
“Sorry!” He said weakly as he pulled the door free with an equally deafening squeal. Finally inside the dim, close confines of the bar, Carl looked for the most logical thing to do. He ducked his hands in his pockets and joined the back of the line of people waiting to be served at the counter.
From this vantage point, he scanned the crowd. Students mingled with Alumni and the odd family with older children occupied the tables. Over in a booth sat Goldberg. There was no mistaking him. He was the only person still wearing sunglasses in the dim room, much less red tinted ones. He didn’t look a thing like the picture they had in the paper, Carl thought. Maybe money really does change people overnight. He had an entourage, that seemed new.
Carl turned back to face the line, to see the cashier and the person in line in front of him both staring at him. The line had moved on while he was casing the place and had left him standing alone. Now it was his turn. “Uh, hi. I just…”
He shuffled up to the bar and tried to act natural. “What do you have on draft?”
The cashier looked at the two tap handles not a foot from Carl’s nose. “You mean aside from Bright Beer? Nothing. No bottles either.”
“I’ll have a Bright then.” Carl smiled nervously causing the boy behind the counter to look at him twice.
“I’ll need to see some ID, Sir.”
Carl jumped in his skin. The way the boy said it gave him a bad flashback to the last time he was arrested. It wasn’t like he was trying to be stealth or anything. Do you give out your drivers license when you are being stealth? And anyway, he was pretty sure it was in the car.
Composing himself, Carl said. “Never mind then, I’ll have a cola.”
“Sure thing.” The boy lifted a red plastic cup from a stack and handed it to him.
Carl thought it was some kind of joke. The two stood staring each other down, waiting for the other shoe to drop. After a pregnant moment, the cashier lifted his eyebrows and looked of to the side. Only then did Carl notice that he was practically leaning on a self serve soda fountain. “Oh. Yeah.”
Carl fished into his pocket and pulled out a five, thankful to be done with this transaction. He shifted over to the soda fountain and filled up his cola. Again, he turned to scan the room. Goldberg was talking in a group with one of the largest people he’d ever seen in person, bigger even than Mr. Aye. The other kid was at that table, facing away from the door and there was someone small sitting next to him, across from Goldberg. Using his deduction, he assumed that there was at least one other person who was in the party, but not currently at the table due to the large man being in a chair at the end of the table rather than at the fourth logical spot in the booth.
“Hey BUDDY!” The bartender yelled. Drawing everyone’s attention. “Hey, you, in the skinny tie! You forgot your change!”
Suddenly all eyes were on Carl again, sitting by himself at a table in the middle of the room. He slowly stood up. Turned and walked over to the kid behind the counter, who was holding out three dollar bills and two quarters.
Carl slowly slipped the currency from the kid’s hand and said, “Thank you.”
When he turned around again, most people had gone back to what they were doing. He couldn’t tell about Goldberg, though. Those damned glasses made it impossible to tell what he was looking at, and he was no longer talking, just sitting. The longer Carl sat, the more Goldberg’s eyeless gaze bored into his soul.
Goldberg wasn’t thinking of anything. Still way too stoned to focus, he’d let his mind wander as Molly and Dan told Teague the story of the morning. He was over the weirdness for now and was simply enjoying how the caffeine sharpened the blurry edges of his considerable buzz.
Teague looked at the three people in the booth with wide eyes. He looked from face to face and then he smiled wide. “You all had me going there for a sec. Pushed it a little too far, though, so I call bullshit.”
“Well, you did ask what was up.”
He leaned in and grabbed some nacho. “Shoulda know better.”
“Believe what you want, man,” Goldberg said, coming back to the moment. “So, they got you on two a days now?”
“Yeah, was… Long story. New Coach is a hard ass. Said I was tackling too hard in our contact drills this morning. Gotta talk to him later.”
“But the team’s looking good?” Dan asked.
“Yeah, got a really good feeling about this year, even with the … recent injury problem. Anyhow, we got this new set of plays that should keep people from teeing up on our backfield so much. We were a little too pass happy last year, but they put in a trap package. Should make D ends think twice.”
“Well, yeah. It’s a blocking thing, but it’s based upon Sun Tsu, you know, The art of war.”
“War?” Molly burst out. “Football’s just a game.” The boys all looked at one another, aghast. “What?”
“So, where are you from again?” Dan asked.
“Connecticut,” she said, getting defensive.
They all grinned and Dan explained. “Well, yeah. You see, this is the South East. Second only to Texas or Ohio maybe in how seriously people take football. It’s not a game, it’s THE game.”
“Yeah,” Goldberg put in. “Even I know what’s going on with the hometown team and I’m as nerdy as they get. So is it top secret or something or can you tell us about this wrinkle.”
“Actually, it’s not secret at all. We want people to know we’re practicing it. The philosophy is… well, it’s like this. It’s conventional to think in black and whites, yin and yang, right? Can’t help it. But with a trap, you flip that on its head. Consider that there are just two sides, one has the ball and the other doesn’t, but aside from that the game is a struggle to push the line, right? Well the power of the Offense is that they have the one thing everyone wants.”
“The ball,” Goldberg breathed.
“Exactly. Without the ball, you got jack. So, people will flow toward the ball, especially at the line of scrimmage. So, you use that. Flash the ball. Play defense with it, defend the ball. Make them the aggressors and over-pursue. Make them go where you want them to go, then set up blocking to make sure they stay there. Use their over pursuit against them.”
“Ok, so fine, what’s the pay out?” Dan asked.
Teague smiled. “Well, first off, if we do it right, it strangles the rush, sweeping them either into the middle or ripping a hole with a pulling guard for the running back. Since you make the back wait a second, they can bounce out or use the hole to get to the second level. Hopefully your happy four yards per down. The second thing is that it looks like a pass play for long enough for the secondary to stay home and for linebackers to think about coverage. Unless they bite huge, then it’s all up to your back to either be where they won’t be or for the QB to see it and throw against weak coverage down field.”
“You’re being sneaky.”
“No, we’re being smart. We only have to use it once against someone and burn them good to plant the seed. It won’t always work. It’s not your high percentage bread and butter, but it doesn’t have to. It only has to work once.” He put up his huge index finger for emphasis. “And having it in our pocket loosens up everything else that one little bit.” Teague sat back and looked at the table.
“When does the season start?” Molly asked.
“Season never ends, girl, but we play our first game last week in August.”
“Yeah, and let me tell you that first game is a sweat bowl,” Dan said, leering at Molly.
“So, what are you boys talking about?” Joy and Sarah walked over, Sarah putting an arm on Teague’s shoulder as Joy slid into the booth.
“Football, death, and explosives.” Dan said.
“It’s a regular Michael Bay movie in this booth.”
Teague tilted his head up to her. “Nerd boy here is trying to convince me that he was in that building that had the gas leak this morning.”
“Where did you hear it was a Gas thing, Teague?”
“The news. Radio was on when we hit the showers and they covered it. Had a press conference and everything. The Mayor said something about upgrading our infrastructure.”
Goldberg looked at Molly. “Did your kitchen use gas?”
“No, but it looked like it used to.”
“What are you thinking?” Joy asked Goldberg.
“I think I smell a rat.”
Sarah said, “Paranoid much, Nerd boy?”
“You weren’t at Bill’s place. I don’t need my little bird to tell me that there was more there than meets the eye. Besides, I would have smelled the gas, I was right there in the kitchen. I told you guys I would need to investigate this personally. I was given these abilities for a reason.”
“You mean, you really…” Teague’s eyes went wide again.
Joy nodded. “Yep. Only good thing to come out of it is that it burnt off a lot of that hippie mop he’d been holding on to. It’s crazy but true.”
“Well I still think you boys smoke way too much grass, man,” Teague said. “That shit poisons the mind. Plus, I bet you haven’t seen the inside of a gym since you graduated PE in high school. Put down the bong and pick up some weights and your mind will clear.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that for a smart guy, you are buying your own press. That’s why I never read any part of a newspaper I am liable to be in. You are looking at that frontpage piece on your supposed luck and letting it mix with that drug addled brain of yours. You may have been lucky, but that doesn’t make you superhero man. Cooperate with the authorities.”
Dan looked at Goldberg. “Makes sense to me, dude. Told you that all along.”
“Yeah, but, I never even read that article. And I did cooperate with the authorities and either they blew me off or… well hell, I don’t know what they are doing. I gave them a lead, what else do they need? And Dan, you were there with the dart gun guy.”
Dan’s voice went far away. “Oh yeah.”
“And, no. I’m not paranoid. Look, if they are looking into leads, I’m a damned lead. Maybe that’s why people are coming out of the fucking bushes at me.”
“So, go to the cops again if you are concerned,” Sarah said.
“Ah, I see you’ve been briefed. No. That’s not right either. They would have just called me back, not send some dart throwing maniac after me. Dan had his phone on him the whole time. No. Maybe there is some other player involved. …Unless they are about to come and pick me up for murder or arson or both… Fuck! I can’t go to the cops. They think I’m a criminal. I’m sure of it.”
“Well of course you are a criminal.” Teague said.
They all went stone silent and looked at him.
“Hey man, don’t look at me like that. Nerd boy’s a doper. In my old neighborhood that’s a criminal, at least where the cops are concerned. I know you all are more cosmopolitan and white about it and all, but that is against the law. The man could come by and pop you whenever he feels like it, they just don’t.”
“I’m sorry, Teague, but that’s hardly helpful,” Joy said.
“It isn’t? Perspective man. You are no more a criminal now than you were this morning. It’s just that you have information that someone, the man, the… other man who ever that is… You have what they want.”
“Yeah, but what?” Sarah asked.
“Oh!” Joy reached into her bag and produced the wooden ball puzzle. “This.”
“Hey! You got it!” Goldberg reached over and took the ball from her outstretched hand.
Goldberg started to press the ball in places and quickly had it shedding pieces. “Did the police wonder why you wanted it?”
“Oh, we managed to take it without them noticing. Seemed prudent.”
“Good,” Goldberg said as some of the last pieces fell away, leaving just a small square of plastic about the size of his thumbnail.
“What is it?” Molly asked, straining for a look.
Goldberg held up the small data chip and said, “A clue, hopefully.” He looked at the home buyers guide which glowed faintly to him with possibilities. “And maybe a way out.”
“You are a regular James fucking bond you are,” Mr. Aye spat along with a mist of dark blood.
“Well, he’s in there. I counted four at his table with a spot for at least one more. Might have been in the john.”
“You were in there ten minutes.”
“Maybe they were pushing out a duce, ok?” Carl was still pissed and agitated from going into that bar with the target and being out here with the recently re-bandaged Mr. Aye held little respite. “All I know is people tend to sit in booths if the space is available not fucking drag an extra table over for the hell of it.”
“Oh, so now you are Sherlock Holmes?”
“Hey, why are you fucking with me? I got your intel. I did what you asked. This is not my fucking job to be doing this. I’m a god damned driver.”
“And you forgot my cola.”
“And I forgot your cola. Fuck!”
Mr. Aye let the whole thing sit for a moment while looking over the area from the concrete balcony before spitting out, “prick. Thirsty.”
The two squinted into the concrete plaza below, letting the hot wind blow past them.
“I’m going to go find a coke machine just to shut you up!”
“Fuck it.” Mr. Aye said in a tone that made it an order. “Wait in the car. This might be the best vantage point, but I’m going to need to be mobile on the hop, and that means you.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m gonna separate him from his group. Like a wounded buffalo”
“You have a plan?” Carl nearly bounced out of his shoes with tension as Mr. Aye remained hard as ice.
“We’re beyond plans,” he said, more to himself than to Carl. The bandage on his nose hid the deepening of his scowl. “I’m going to trust my gut.”
[Author’s note: Well… Day job. Sorry about the wait. Please keep spreading the word and I’ll try to be more prompt. And Stay Weird.