Fiction: Observe and Report

There he is. No question at all,” said Kirkwood. He was standing over by the grimy east window

Carson looked up from a crumpled two-week-old newspaper and stared at Kirkwood.

“Can’t get a moment’s peace on this job,” he said.

Kirkwood lowered his binoculars, tapped a gloved finger on the frosted glass. “That’s the guy. I’d recognize him anywhere.”

Carson sighed, folded the newspaper and set it to one side as he dragged himself out of a comfortable armchair. He struggled a bit in the thick layers of cold-weather gear.

“Kirkwood, you’ve never even seen the man. How the hell would you know him from a hole in the ground?”

As soon as they got back home, Carson thought, I’m going to ask for a transfer or a re-assignment or something. Anything to get away from Kirkwood’s endless know better, know all crap. Monarch had a bunch of criteria for new hires. Not being a grade-A macho douche-bag was nowhere on the list.

Kirkwood turned again to the window, binoculars back in place.

“Forty degrees below ass-freezing out there. I got a rake-skinny white male heading this direction wearing dress shoes, gray pants, black tail coat, and a real natty top hat. Sound familiar?”

“Shit,” said Carson, reaching for his rifle. “That’s him.”

* * *

Topper walked out of the cold without a care and stood in the abandoned hospital foyer brushing snowflakes off the brim of his hat. By his feet sat a dark-red duffel bag with an old battered kettle tied onto it with rough sisal rope.

Two figures wrapped in padded coats bundled out of a heavy swing door to his right and stumble-slid to halt a few yards away. They had weapons, winter-white assault rifles, barrels pointing down. No sudden moves.

Topper placed his hat back upon his head.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said Topper. “Lovely day for it, no?”

“Day for what?” asked the thinner man, his face half hidden beyond the fur-edged hood of his coat.

“Kirkwood,” the fatter man was clearly exasperated. “Take some advice, once in your life. Ease off.”

Kirkwood snorted.

“The brass hats are all ‘Oh noes, it is the big scarey bogey man.’ Come on though, Carson, it’s just one guy. How much trouble could he really be?”

Carson started to respond, but Topper spoke first.

“Travel,” he said. “They say it broadens the mind, but not for all, apparently.”

Kirkwood seethed visibly.

The fatter man pulled down the hood of his coat, raised a hand, palm out. “I’m Carson, this is …”

“Kirkwood, I gather” said Topper. “My name …”

“We know who you are,” said Kirkwood. “What do you want?”

“Shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” said Topper. “Moving swiftly from A to B, the line, on this occasion, leads me here.”

“Monarch controls this room,” said Kirkwood. “We’re the trolls under the bridge.”

The statement and the challenge hung there for a while as quiet seconds ticked along.

“Look at it from my perspective,” said Topper.

Kirkwood stared at him.

Carson had to spell it out.

“The man’s traveling in a straight line, Kirkwood. We’re just standing in the way.”

Topper’s smile showed bright white teeth.

* * *

“It’s not our job,” said Carson. “That’s why.”

“We could have him,” Kirkwood whispered as they led Topper downstairs to the broken room.

“Above our pay grade, kid. Monarch’s got specialists, trained to take down guys like him,” Carson glanced back at Topper, striding along behind them down the dimly lit corridors. “No offense.”

“None taken,” said Topper.

“We’re here to back up November Three in case the X-site goes south,” Carson went on. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Kirkwood. Anything else is strictly observe and report. No volunteering. That’s rule number one.”

Kirkwood grunted something that Carson ignored. They’d arrived at a gray painted door, worn black stenciling spelled out: “STEAM PIPE ANNEX.”

Carson nodded to Kirkwood and they grabbed hold and hauled the sliding door to one side. It moved smoothly on greased runners.

Carson turned back to Topper. “I’d offer you a nice cup of tea, but I don’t think you have the time.”

“You sense it too,” Topper moved into the open doorway as Kirkwood stepped to one side. “The turning of the wheels, the rising of the tide.”

“Something like that, yeah,” said Carson. A little tingle in the center of the brain, that was as close as Carson ever got to reckoning a room. His skills were elsewhere — bit of fixing up, bit of an edge in games of chance. Nothing too flashy, because flashy got you noticed. Got you volunteered.

Topper headed on in like he owned the place, did a little pirouette thing in the middle of the bare concrete floor, shiny black shoes going tap-tap-tap.

“Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you fine fellows have important work to be doing.”

“If you’re sure? Well …” Carson gave a half hearted wave and started backing away. “Mind how you go and all that. Good meeting you.”

“Likewise,” said Topper, raised his hat and gave a slight bow as the door slid closed.

Kirkwood and Carson stood quietly in the corridor for a few minutes. Eventually, Kirkwood shrugged.

“Do we need to wait or …“

“Our work here is done,” said Carson, and turned to trudge back to the day room and the armchair and the heaters running full blast.

* * *

“We have a Visitor,” said Albrecht.

“Fascinating,” said Hetherington, reclining on a leather sofa, his head stuck in a bulky, dog-eared novel — something about pirates and lusty maidens, judging by the cover.

“Don’t you want to …”

“Look,” said Hetherington, lowering the book and frowning. “I get that you are keen. First assignment. Shiny and new. Need to make an impression. I was like you once. Maybe.”

“I think …”

“Do not interrupt,” Hetherington held up a hand. “I am imparting valuable intelligence to you. It’s a gift. Calm yourself. Pay close attention. Very. Close. Attention.”

Albrecht began to speak, stopped as Hetherington’s scowl burned on.

“We have SPIRE clearance, making us the officer class of the Regency Group,” said Hetherington. “Checking credentials at the door is not in our remit. We have troops for that. The same salt-of-the-earths soldiers who took care of that awkward Monarch situation when we arrived.”

“He’s just …”

Albrecht took a step back as Hetherington swept his legs from the sofa and stood up, pointing emphatically with the book in his hand. “You will learn nothing if you continue to prattle on.”

“… stood there in the center of the Room,” Albrecht finished quietly.

Hetherington blinked.

“No wailing or bleeding, puking or railing?” asked Hetherington. “No quivers and shivers?”

Albrecht shook her head.

“Experienced,” said Hetherington. “Lot of travel under his heels, certainly. One of the Names? Let us not get ahead of ourselves …”

“I’m not sure I follow,“ said Albrecht.

“Describe the visitor,” said Hetherington, eyes bright. “Spare no detail.”

“Old looking geezer in a seriously weird outfit — one of those retro Victoriana jackets with long tails. And a top hat. Have you ever seen the like?”

Hetherington’s book made a hefty thud as it slammed into the floor.

* * *

Headaches, nosebleeds, muscle spasms, dizzy spells — people had all sorts of reactions to traveling the Broken Road but Topper got beyond all that a long, long time ago.

These days it was painless, effortless, easy as breathing. Sometimes it felt as if the worlds were simply moving into line, arranging themselves to better suit his purpose.

Best not to think like that though. Too much of that and he’d get too big for his shoes. Who knew where that would end?

In a hospital basement room, Topper waited for the welcoming committee. There were cameras in the corners, bright lights angled in his direction.

From the scattered brass and the trails of blood down the corridor, it was clear the place had changed hands recently, and the argument had been intense.

Better to watch until he established the lay of the land.

The temperature was higher here. Whatever troubles they had, a worldwide freeze wasn’t it.

A low cough, from some distance away, the sound of footsteps. Two sets.

Topper waited.

The first arrival, male, suited, early 50s but fit, strode into the room with a hand held out and a big, bright smile. He looked like a car salesman who played squash to keep in shape. Too much tan, too much hair dye.

Standards were slipping, thought Topper.

They shook hands, firm but brief.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” the man said. “My name is Hetherington and I have to say you are just the chap we are looking for, just what we need.”

Topper waited.

Hetherington had been followed by a woman, much younger, wearing a military style outfit, meaningless insignia all over the place and a pistol holstered at her waist. Typical Regency Group flash and polish. They did love a palaver.

“Albrecht here had never even heard of you,” Hetherington chuckled. “Unbelievable. Man of your stature and skill set. What are the trainers up to …”

Topper tipped his hat in the direction of Albrecht. “Pleasure meeting you, love to chin-wag, but I ought to be going.”

Hetherington and Albrecht shared a glance.

“We have a lot to discuss. Monarch has been making heavy inroads in all sorts of areas. We are finding our resources stretched ever so thin,” said Hetherington. “Now, if we could avail ourselves of a talented individual such as …”

“No, really,” said Topper. “I must insist. This is not a negotiation.”

Hetherington shook his head. “There is no need for getting overwrought and anxious. We would like you to hang around for a sit down with some of our technical boys and girls. Iron out a few issues. Fill in some blanks.”

Albrecht had her right hand on her holstered pistol, and placed her left hand on Topper’s shoulder as he moved in the direction of the open door.

“Just a chat,” said Albrecht. “We don’t want …”

Topper grabbed her hand and squeezed it hard, wrenched her fingers backwards and kept twisting as Albrecht sank to her knees, pistol forgotten, screaming at the vice-grip grinding of broken knuckle bones. Hetherington was backing far away.

Topper let go of Albrecht’s hand and she curled up on the floor, wounded cat mewling. Hetherington had already scuttled up against the far wall, face pale, arms waving, breath heaving.

“Don’t mistake courtesy for weakness,” said Topper.

He stepped over Albrecht and headed for the doorway.

“We are on the same side,” blustered Hetherington, peeling himself off the wall.

Topper paused and looked back.

“We are the good guys,” Hetherington said.

“Whoever told you that?” asked Topper.