"All right," Adams said, marching back and forth with the military bearing of a General addressing his troops. "The name of the game tonight is 'Bar Crawl.' Five bars. Five bartenders. You copy?"
"… copy," Iris said reluctantly.
Blaire gave her a friendly, reassuring smile. Chelsea looked nervous, but grinned hopefully.
"First step, squad assignments," Adams said. "Chelsea? You're designated driver. You're in charge of driving us to each bar. You will also be in charge of making sure that we drink enough water to avoid dehydration and hangovers. Due to your role, you will not be drinking tonight. Understood?"
Chelsea breathed a sigh of relief. "Yeah, I'm fine with that," she said, smiling.
"Blaire, you're Mother. You'll be drinking along with us, but feel free to take it slow. Your main job is to watch out for creepers and assholes. Redirect them away from Iris by any means you see fit."
"Question, Captain," Blaire said, with a note of humor in her voice. "What weapons should I use to deter the enemy?"
"Weapons?" Adams scratched the back of her head. "Um. Shit. I dunno. Mace? Pepper spray? Probably none of us should be armed except maybe Chelsea. Booze and guns don't mix."
"Guns and me don't mix too well either," Chelsea said nervously. "But I've got pepper spray."
"All right, then. No guns," Adams said. "In any case, my job will be Party Girl. I'll order the drinks, pay for everything, and send any promising-looking young men Iris's way." Adams paused thoughtfully. "Men, right? That's the way you swing?"
"Um, yes?" Iris said tentatively. "But I wasn't really looking to…"
"Right. No men, then. Just drinks. Girls' night out. Good times. Any questions?"
Iris raised her hand. "Yes, Iris?" Adams asked.
"What's my job?"
"Your job is Birthday Girl," Adams said. "You decide if you're having fun, if you want to stay, and when you want to leave. Speaking of which, we should talk about the venues you want to go to. You looking for skeezy and dangerous? High-class and expensive? Trendy and loud?"
"Uhhh… I actually wasn't looking for anything too exciting," Iris admitted.
"Fair enough. Cozy and comfortable, then." Adams closed her eyes and ticked off some secret calculation on her fingers. "Blaire. What do you think of this: We'll start at The Armory, move on to Spectrum, stop off for a cider at Nottingham's, move on to WingDings, and end up at The Blue Velvet."
"Ooooh… that's a nice itinerary." Blaire seemed to relax a bit. At least, she didn't seem as on-edge as she did before. "Yeah, that's good. None of those places are too scary for a first-timer."
"Yeah, I think that's fine." Chelsea, too, seemed to relax a bit. Iris felt inexplicably comforted by this.
"Right, then. One last thing," Adams said.
Her carefree, happy attitude fell away, and her voice turned very serious. "I've arranged for a squad from MTF Sigma-Four to shadow our movements," she said. "If there is an emergency, they will indicate it by dialing our phones on the emergency channel. It will sound like a long, solid tone, as if you were receiving an Amber Alert or emergency weather update. If that happens, we will follow, to the letter, any instructions given by them. Understood?"
"Yeah," Blaire said.
"Got it." Chelsea nodded.
"Good. And… um. I hate to have to say this… but, Iris?"
"If I try to run, the MTF will 'blow up' my head," Iris said. The seizure device in her skull (replacing the old explosive collars) would see to that. She'd had it installed years back in exchange for "privileges," back then when "privileges" entailed getting to spend the occasional afternoon inside a fenced-off area, with an armed guard watching her every move.
"Right," Adams said. Her grim expression softened. "But, so long as we all behave, I think we can forget about that and just have a good time… Oh, wait! One last thing." Adams reached into her coat pocket and tossed a small plastic rectangle to Iris. "Congratulations. You're legal."
Iris looked down at the little card in her lap. It was either an official state ID card or a very good facsimile.
"Just in case you get carded. I wouldn't try to use that to book airline tickets, though. It's not that good. I'm gonna go pee, and then we'll be off."
Adams strode out of the room with way too much confidence and vigor for someone with her announced destination. The sound of the bathroom door closing forcefully was followed by an awkward silence.
"… the first time we went bar-hopping," Chelsea said, "Andrea took us to this place called 'Molotov II'. A man with big tattoos on his arms and funny red marks on his face tried to hit on me. She ended up fighting him and all his friends."
"We're not going anywhere like that tonight, are we?" Iris asked.
"Hell no. I'd kill her if she did." Blaire took a seat on the couch and patted the cushion next to her. "So. What do you think of the world?" she asked.
"… it's different," Iris admitted. "A lot has changed in nine years."
"You don't know the half of it," Blaire said, laughing.
"Everything seems so much faster now," Iris said. She took the offered seat, smoothing out her jeans with the palms of her hands. "Everyone's carrying these weird looking phones. Computers are smaller. Music is stranger."
"You'll get used to it eventually," Blaire said.
"I lived through it, and I'm still not used to it," Chelsea admitted.
"Andrea seems used to it," Iris said.
"Andrea's not a role model," Blaire warned.
"More like a roller-coaster," Chelsea muttered. She rubbed her elbow nervously.
The sound of a flushing toilet could be heard from the back of the safe house. "Well," Blaire said. "Looks like we're gonna get going soon." She leaned in close to Iris. "Don't try to match drinks with Andrea," she whispered. "Just don't."
Iris blanched. If Adams drank like she shopped, they were in for a rough night.
"All right!" Adams shouted, as she strode confidently back into the living room. "Let's move out!"
They walked through the door and passed out of the busy street outside into the blue-lit stillness of a nearly empty bar. The walls were covered with weaponry of all shapes and sizes: there a Japanese katana, over there a (hopefully deactivated) Thompson submachinegun. The televisions above the bar were showing some kind of basketball game.
A friendly-looking blond man in a neatly pressed button-down shirt and slacks stood behind the counter, chatting with a waitress in a short plaid skirt and midriff shirt. He waved as the four women walked in. "Yo, Dan!" Adams said cheerfully. "How's it hanging?"
"Hey! Good to see you again, Andy!" the bartender replied. "Brought some friends along?"
"Yeah," Adams said. "You remember Blaire and Chelsea, right?" She put an arm around Iris's shoulders, pulling the startled younger woman to the front of the group. "This is Iris. She's celebrating her twenty-first birthday."
"Cool!" Dan said. "Congratulations. Let me see that ID?"
Iris nervously passed the ID to Dan, who looked it over carefully and handed it back with a wink. "Well, I can confirm that you are indeed twenty-one," Dan said. "Do you want seats at the counter, or a booth?"
"Actually, do you mind if we take the couches? A bit cozier there."
"Sure thing," Dan said. "I'll bring over some drinks. First round's on me."
He gave Iris a friendly smile and wave, then began busying himself conjuring up some kind of complicated concoction in his cocktail shaker.
"Dan's awesome," Adams explained, as she collapsed onto a low couch in the corner. She put her high-heeled pumps up onto one of the coffee tables, stretching her arms out along the backs of the couches as if she wanted to take up as much room in the world as possible. "He started out here as a bartender, then moved up to manager. Keep this on the down low, but he's in talks with the current owner to buy out this place."
"You come here often?" Iris asked, taking a seat across from Adams.
"Andrea comes here so often, she practically pays Dan's salary," Blaire said. She sat down next to Iris, swatting Adams' feet with the palm of her hand. "Get your feet down, Andrea. That's rude."
"You're not my mom," Adams protested, but she put her feet down anyway.
"Damn right I'm not your mom. If I was, I would have raised you better than that."
Chelsea, meanwhile, took a seat in a large, comfy-looking armchair with its back to the walls. She scanned the mostly-empty bar nervously.
"Heeee~ere we go!" Dan said. He'd brought over a tray holding four shooter glasses, filled with some kind of layered green-and-white mixture. "Shots on the house for the birthday girl and her friends. Can I get you guys anything else? Something for dinner?"
"Old Fashioned and a basket of the sweet potato fries," Adams said. "You?"
"I'll have a lager," Blaire said.
"Just water for me," Chelsea said.
"… I really don't know," Iris admitted. "I have no idea what any of this stuff is."
"I'll come back later, then," Dan said. "Cheers."
Adams reached over and picked up one of the shot glasses, then gestured for the other women to follow suit. "To Iris," she said. "May this be the first of many nights out with friends. Cheers."
"Cheers," everyone agreed.
Adams tossed her shot back in one gulp and placed the glass back down on the table with a solid clink. Iris stared, awestruck, then turned to Blaire, who was taking a smaller, more measured sip of her shot. Chelsea, meanwhile, just touched her lips to the glass and put it back down on the table, where it was immediately scooped up by Adams, who once again downed it in one shot.
Don't try to match drinks with Adams. Right. Iris took a small sip of her drink. It tasted sweet and fizzy, but with an oddly unpleasant edge which she assumed was the alcohol. She took a larger sip, then decided to throw caution to the wind and drank the rest down in two gulps.
The drink was cold, but it seemed to burn a bit on the way down, and settled into her belly like a warm little ember. "What's in this?" she asked.
"Damned if I know!" Adams laughed. "Dan's magic. He's one of the best bartenders I've ever met."
Iris put the glass back down. She felt a little bit unsteady, but not too bad. Something exciting seemed to happen on the basketball game, as one of the few other people in the bar (a young man wearing a red-and-white jersey), let out an excited shout and jumped into the air.
She glanced over and saw a young Asian woman sitting at the counter, dressed entirely in black. The other woman turned to glare at the loud man, then glanced over at Iris.
Their eyes met.
The Asian woman flinched, then turned back to her drink.
Yeah, I know the feeling.
Iris looked down at the cocktail menu. It didn't seem to make much sense. She finally settled on a drink that sounded interesting just as Dan returned with a big basket of oddly-colored french fries and three drinks. "Excuse me," she said. "Tell me about this Moscow Mule?"
"Ooh, yeah," Dan said, grinning. "I think you'll like that one."
Something exciting happened on the televisions. The basketball guy let out a loud groan of dismay. Iris glanced over. The Asian woman at the bar was nowhere to be seen.
The ladies' room door opened, and the Asian woman returned to her seat at the bar.
Iris relaxed. False alarm. She leaned forward and tried one of the sweet potato fries. It was actually pretty tasty.
"Moscow Mule's got a bit of a kick to it, huh?" Adams laughed as she put her arm around Iris's shoulders, guiding the slightly unsteady younger woman down the block to their parked car. "All right. Next stop, Spectrum!"
Adams slid bonelessly into the back seat of Chelsea's sedan, slumping against the driver's side rear door. Despite her oddly sinuous movements, Adams' eyes were bright and alert. Not quite so with Blaire, who was looking a bit distant as she primly took her seat next to Adams, leaving Iris to ride shotgun.
Chelsea checked all of her mirrors before pulling out of the parking spot and into the considerable (but still moving) traffic. "Next stop is Spectrum, right?" she asked.
"Yup! Just get onto the freeway and get off at… shit, I can't remember right now. Just pull it up on your GPS or something."
"I remember how to get to Spectrum," Chelsea said. She stopped at the red light, resting her hands at the ten-and-two positions on the steering wheel.
Adams, meanwhile, was busying herself by drumming along with the music on the radio. Her eyes were closed and her face was screwed up into a look of intense concentration as she lightly tapped her hands against her thighs, the car door, and the back of Chelsea's seat. Blaire was resting her hands on her knees and staring straight ahead, smiling pleasantly.
Iris rested her forehead against the cool glass of the car window and stared out at the sidewalk. An Asian woman dressed all in black was leaning against the streetlight, doing something on her cell phone.
Their eyes met briefly, and then the other woman flinched and looked away, staring into her phone's screen.
The Original Spectrum Bar and Grill
"Cover fee is ten bucks, but they'll give you two vouchers for five bucks each," Adams explained. "If you guys are hungry, you can get food, but I usually spend it on drinks. Mostly just a way to make sure that anyone who comes in spends money."
"Is that a problem?" Iris wondered.
"Spectrum's kinda popular with celebrities. Sometimes people come in just to watch."
There was a big line outside, but Adams walked past it and right up to the big man in the tight black t-shirt standing at the door. "Hey, Kurt!" she shouted.
"Andrea! What's up, babe?" The big man extended his hand, and Adams gave him a high five and a friendly hug. "Got some friends with you tonight?"
"Three of them. I'll cover all of them." She slapped a pair of twenties into the bouncer's hand.
"Hey!" an angry-looking guy in a dark grey suit shouted. "How come she don't have to get in line?"
"Cause I like her, and I don't like you," Kurt growled. "Go on inside, babe."
Adams herded the other three women past the front door. There was an explosion of light and sound. Loud rock music played over the loudspeakers as waitresses in tight jeans and black t-shirts expertly navigated big trays of sandwiches and pizzas through the crowd, towards the red naugahyde booths. Framed photos of celebrities hung on every wall, many of them signed in sharpie or silver pen. The entire place had an air of barely controlled bedlam.
Iris was relieved, then, when Adams led them past all of that chaos, up a narrow flight of stairs, and into a quiet upstairs lounge. A young blonde in black leather tended bar while a few people milled around a stage where a man wearing a long cashmere scarf was tuning his guitar.
"Hey, Trish," Adams said. "Who's the music?"
"Hey, Andrea. Some local guy."
"He any good?"
"Don't know. Never heard him before."
"Guess we'll find out tonight." Adams slid into a barstool and gestured for the other women to take seats at the counter as well. "Anyway, this is Iris," she said, patting the younger woman on the shoulder. "This is her 21st birthday party."
"Cool," Trish said, smiling. "Mind if I see that ID?"
Iris handed it over. Trish gave it a quick glance and handed it back. It took Iris a couple of tries to put it into her pocket.
"So, what'll it be?" the bartender asked.
"I dunno… shot of cinnamon whiskey all around?"
"I'm not drinking," Chelsea said.
"Oh yeah. Then one shot for Iris and Blaire, and make mine a double."
Trish rolled her eyes. She began laying out shot glasses onto the counter.
"So," Iris asked awkwardly. "I know Adams, but what exactly do you two guys do… um. For the company?"
"Oh!" Blaire said. "I guess we never did mention that. I'm Tilda's assistant."
"Tilda?" Iris asked. A couple more people wearing plaid shirts and trucker caps came up the stairs and stood by the stage. They started chatting with the blond young man on stage. Friends of his maybe?
"Tilda Moose," Adams interrupted. "Director of '19." She picked up the full shot glasses and passed one to Blaire and one to Iris, keeping the highball for herself. "Cheers," she said.
"Cheers!" Blaire replied.
Adams and Blaire drank their drinks down in one shot. Iris took a careful sip of hers. It tasted like Red Hots candies… mixed with burning. "You're at Site 19?" she asked, as Trish turned to refill some drinks at the other end of the bar. "That's um… not exactly nearby, is it?"
Adams, Blaire, and Chelsea gave each other surprised looks, then understanding seemed to dawn. A sly smile crept over Adams' face. "Think I should tell her?" she asked.
"Let her find out herself," Blaire said, grinning. "I wouldn't dare spoil the surprise."
Iris stared down at her drink. She gulped the whole thing down in one shot (on the 'it's better to jump down the deep end' logic), and immediately wished she hadn't as fire shot into her sinuses, making her cough.
Adams laughed out loud and thumped Iris's back. "Careful there, short stuff," she said. "The night's still young."
Up on the stage, the quiet young blond man cleared his throat into the mic. "Hi," he said. "I'm Tom Dylan Porter and this is a song I call 'Your Love Is Like a River'."
"Oh Lord," Adams groaned loudly.
The musician gave her an angry glare, but began to play his guitar anyway.
He was okay, Iris decided. Adams seemed to disagree. She did shots the entire time he was performing.
"God, that was torture," Adams groaned, as they staggered out the front door. She nearly collided with a young woman wearing a black leather jacket and a newsboy cap waiting in line. "Fucking hacks…"
Iris stared intently through the swimming, swirling world. Blaire was quiet, walking oddly stiffly and upright, seeming to have gotten even more prim and proper over the course of the night. Chelsea had the haggard, harried look of a mouse being stalked by a very large and hungry cat.
They poured Adams into the front passenger seat, then Blaire and Iris took the back seats. Chelsea's lips were set in a firm, resolute line as Adams rolled down the window and took a deep breath of the cold night air. "YOU SUCK!" Adams shouted at no one in particular.
Iris glanced out the window at the crowd waiting in line. The woman who Adams had nearly collided with was glaring angrily at her. Iris sympathized.
Interim: Fifteen Minutes Prior
Command Vehicle, Mobile Task Force Sigma-4 ("Chain Chomps")
"This has to be the most boring assignment ever," Harken said. He picked up his fast food hamburger and took an unenthusiastic bite, resting his hand on the steering wheel of the supposed police car. "All right, then. What's next on their agenda?"
"According to the itinerary? A little Irish pub uptown," Mario said. "We'll wait until they say they're heading out, and then we'll move on ahead." He picked up his radio and spoke low and crisp into the handset. "Sigma-Four, report in," he said.
"One okay," replied a staticky voice over the radio. "Still nothing interesting going on."
"Two. No updates. I've seen more action at a church picnic."
"HELLO!?" a woman's voice shouted.
Mario glanced up at a young Asian woman dressed in a black leather jacket and a newsboy cap knocking on front passenger's side window. Harken glanced over and quietly put a hand on his sidearm.
Mario waved him off and rolled down the car window. "Yes, miss? Can I help you?" he asked.
"I was just wondering if you could direct me to the Spectrum?" the woman asked, resting her hand on the roof of the car.
"Right across the street," Mario said.
The woman rolled her eyes and smiled. "Duh, sorry about that. Thanks, officer."
"No problem," Mario said. He rolled up the window was the woman jogged across the street. A brief moment later, his cell phone beeped: incoming text message.
He checked the message, picked up the radio again. "All right, pull it in," he said. "Teams one and two, proceed to the next stop. I'll escort the package."
Movement from several different rooftops and darkened alleys. The perimeter team for Mobile Task Force Sigma-Four retreated from their overwatch positions. Two of them rendezvoused with Harken and Mario: the rest piled into their vehicles. Within a few moments, they were on the road, heading towards the next spot on the itinerary.
Harken started up the car as Mario watched the entrance of the Spectrum, the two shooters waiting to deploy at any sign of trouble. "Package in sight," Mario said, as the four women left the bar. "Wait one…"
Adams nearly bumped into some drunk waiting in line to get in. Aside from that, the four women climbed into their car without incident. Mario nodded. "All right," he said. "Keep them in view, but don't follow them too closely."
"Got it," Harken said.
The cop car carrying four members of Mobile Task Force Sigma-4 headed onto the freeway. A blue rune on the roof of the black-and-white glowed briefly, then faded away. Harken didn't even notice when he made a left turn towards the suburbs, while the dark red car carrying the package turned onto the freeway headed uptown.
Nottingham's Pub and Restaurant
There was a big crowd gathered in the front room of the picturesque little pub when the four women walked in. They seemed to be paying close attention to a man standing on a low stage, reading off trivia questions in a loud, intense voice.
A big-bellied, red-faced man with a white Santa-Claus beard grinned at them as they walked in. "Hey, love," he said, in a heavy Irish accent. "You're late for trivia night."
"Aw, shit… is that tonight?" Adams groaned. "Sorry, Sean, completely forgot. This is Iris. She's shele… celebrating… 21 years."
"Really? Isn't that nice?" Sean replied, a friendly twinkle in his eye. "Mind if I see some ID, love?"
Adams leaned back in her chair and took a big gulp of her double-scotch on the rocks, glowering balefully at the other pub-goers, who seemed really intent on the trivia questions. Iris took a sip of a frightening-looking black foamy liquid that she was told was "Chocolate Stout." It didn't taste much like chocolate.
She took a quick glance at the other members of the party. Chelsea was staring intently at her cherry cola. If she were a cat, her hackles would be up. Blaire was outside: allegedly taking a cigarette break, possibly also taking an Adams break.
This whole "bar crawl" thing was starting to wear a bit thin, Iris decided. It was just the same thing over and over again. Go to yet another weird locale where everyone seemed to know Andrea. Order yet another round of weird-tasting drinks that made her feel funny and didn't taste that good. Listen to a bunch of loud people yelling incomprehensibly.
"Hey, Adams?" she said tentatively.
"Hold that thought, love," Adams said. "I need to douse some flames."
The older woman got unsteadily to her feet and marched into the ladies' room.
Iris sighed and stared morosely into her drink.
"Not having fun?" Chelsea asked.
"… not really," Iris admitted. "It's all really loud. I think I'm getting a headache."
"Yeah, I feel you," Chelsea whispered. She was looking around at the big crowd, biting her lower lip nervously. "Tell you what. When Andrea gets back, just tell her you want to end after WingDings. That place is a lot quieter: mostly a hot wings place. It'll be a nice way to end the evening."
"If you say so," Iris said dubiously. "I guess this isn't my thing. Not like it is for Andrea."
"Andrea's…" Chelsea waved her hands helplessly. "… unique."
"The single most extroverted person in the universe?" Blaire offered. She sat down across from Iris, next to Chelsea.
"That's not a bad way to think about it," Chelsea admitted. "She's fun to be around, but she can be incredibly exhausting."
"No kidding," Blaire said.
Iris took another sip of her chocolate stout. She grimaced at the bitter taste and pushed it away. "So, uh. Chelsea," she said, by way of chancing the conversation. "I know what you do, and what Adams does. What exactly do you do at the uhh… the company?"
Chelsea gulped nervously. "I'm a botanist by trade, but uhhh…" she glanced over at Blaire.
"She can't tell you," Blaire said, softly but firmly. "Not in public."
Oh. One of those jobs, then. "Same job description as me?" Iris asked.
"In… umm. In a manner of speaking," Chelsea said nervously. She was fiddling with the hem of her sweater dress, playing with a loose yarn that had started to unravel.
Iris looked away from the obviously distressed young woman, feeling guilty. As she did so, the front door of the pub opened up and an Asian woman walked in, wearing a blue button-down shirt over black jeans and a red scarf.
Iris suddenly felt very cold.
It was the same woman she'd locked eyes with at The Armory… and if she didn't miss her guess, the same one that Adams had bumped into outside the Spectrum. The clothes were different, but the face was the same. What did Adrian always say? "Once is accident, twice is coincidence, three times…"
"… three times is enemy action," Iris whispered.
"What's that?" Adams asked, as she flopped back down into her seat.
"Don't turn around," Iris whispered, "and don't look directly at her. But the Asian woman sitting at the end of the counter?"
"… the one in the red scarf?" Chelsea asked.
"… I think I saw her back at The Armory. And at The Spectrum," Iris said.
Adams sat up very straight, and the vaguely distant look in her eyes went away. "Are you sure," she asked calmly.
"Ninety percent sure," Iris said. "Is she part of the MTF?"
"Sigma-Four's all men." Adams pulled out her smart phone and tapped a few buttons. "They're not answering," she said grimly.
"Suggestions?" Blaire asked. She'd put down her glass of cider and was taking deep, slow breaths. One hand slipped inside her purse and pulled out a canister of pepper spray.
"It could just be a coincidence. Or a mistake. In any case, I think we should settle up and exfiltrate," Adams said. She pulled a couple of bills out of her pocket, folded them in half, and left them under a salt shaker. "When I give the signal, I want you guys to get up and walk out of the bar. Go to the car and wait there. If I don't come out in… let's say fifteen minutes… leave without me and call in the big guns."
"What are you going to do?" Iris asked.
Adams gave the younger woman a confident wink. She took a deep breath and walked right across the room, straight towards the Asian woman sitting at the bar.
"Hey," she said, giving the stranger her biggest, most winning smile. "Can I buy you a drink?"