A close follow-on to yesterday. I knew where it was going, but wanted to take great care to get the conversation right.
The Russians have a saying: any meeting that does not start with a drink* is inherently hostile.
*Of course alcohol. What about Russians didn’t you understand?
The spring afternoon was partly cloudy. What few other students and staff about were dressed against the 48F cool. Around the Engineering Building in the southeast of campus, many knew her and waved. Just shy of the pub, one of Nike’s men, typically kitted out all in black with bleached white hair, fell in next to her. He was carrying two crates of supplies.
“A word from my master, miss,” she just barely heard. “A recent acquaintance of yours will intercept you, seemingly by coincidence.”
He abruptly turned left, separating from her just before they became visible to what had once been called the Simon-Benson House.
Who, she wondered, was still so young as to believe in such things?
Sitting at a table on the veranda’s southeast was Armando Bakke. Nike was just bringing him what looked like a mug of coffee. Bakke saw Nichole a moment later and smiled. Nike leaned back up and turned to face her. He did not.
“Captain Bakke,” she said, sitting across from him, gesturing at his BDU, “on duty?”
“These days, I’m almost never not!”
“Thank you,” Nichole directed to Nike who had brought her coffee as well. It would be far too obvious for her to pretend to drink. She’d just have to clean up later. She took a sip and studied the man across from her.
Dark eyes and facial bones said Central American, but his light brown hair made her think that leavened by the Spanish castes. A muscular build, but not like Joe’s bulk. She guessed his age at around mid to late twenties.
She lowered her mug.
“What brings you on campus, Captain?”
“I’ve a meeting with some Admins, later. A few of my men had mentioned this place, so I thought I’d take a look, first.”
“I see.” His voice held no accent, so likely a native of the City. Still, he was not telling the entire truth. She would not either.
“And what do you think?” She could tell she had confused him. “About Zom’s?”
“Oh. Very interesting!” He leaned back with his mug. “An overnight campus tradition in the midst of the Breakup? The owner must have some very interesting connexions to keep himself supplied and in business.”
Business that, Nichole noted, was not going to be good today. Anyone that was headed in their direction for a drink or dinner, upon seeing the uniform, decided to go somewhere else.
Also taking a drink, she took in the uniform: mottled field green that would do just as well in an urban fight as in the field. Unlike the regular special police that derived their nickname from the pin of the City flag they wore, Bakke’s had a patch of the City on his shoulder. Interestingly, an old Oregon state flag was just below it. She decided to ask.
“It appears you have a rather broad jurisdiction,” she said, nodding at his shoulder.
“That was a vote of the City Council,” he said with a glance, “to make sure there was no legal question if we needed to do work outside the City. At the Lewis and Clark Bridge, for example.”
Or up the Columbia? She wondered. The rest of his uniform seemed unremarkable: his captain’s bars on his collar, his service semi-auto on his right hip. Its oversize grip indicated an expanded magazine. When first walking up, she noted that unlike her troopers’ high boots, his were typical for infantry.
He’d arranged this meeting, so he wanted to talk.
“Have you served the Mayor long, captain?” she asked, to fill in his biographical details.
“Actually, no! And,” he leaned forward, “please call me Armando, Miss Clarke!”
“Then I’m Nichole, Armando.”
“Nichole.” He was enjoying this. “Before the Breakup I did a lot of work in the grey market around the Port. Later, I was asked to join the Special Police… after they had arrested me!”
“Lucky for you they could spot talent,” she said with a sip and a smile.
“I suppose! I think the just needed cannon-fodder for the new Heavy Weapons company! More luck that I had a knack to lead.”
“You certainly showed that at the wargame.” She looked over his shoulder. Upriver. “Those men fought, bled, and died for me and everyone here. I was sorry to not see them win.”
“Major Muller is very good,” Armando allowed. “He’s proved that over and over. I’m just better.”
She let her eyes slide back to his.
“Are you, indeed?” She saw his smile not reach his eyes. Time to push. “Then, perhaps for your next trip upriver, I’ll accompany you?”
“I’d like that,” he replied.
She looked at the little in her mug. In a realm of scarcity, no one left anything behind. Nichole tossed that last bit back and made ready to stand.
“You’ve done the City great service, three times over,” he said, his eyes still on hers. “It seems a shame to waste such talent in a classroom.”
So that’s what he wants.
“It has been my inadvertent pleasure to provide what little help I can,” she said, standing. “Who knows what the future holds?”
“Truly.” He stood with her and extended his hand. “Nichole.”
He walked down the veranda’s few steps and off toward the south; presumably to the Admin building. She made her way around, surprised to see the north side dense with patrons. Very interesting.
Carrying a tray of drinks, one of Nike’s men brushed past her. She felt the transfer. Only when she was halfway to the Stratford did she reach into her left jacket pocket and draw out what had been put there. A tiny bottle of bleach.