A half an hour passed before we finally got visual confirmation of Theo exiting the restaurant. Looks like Thompson’s nose and ears had been right. This was where Mickey was holed up to watch the show. I waved her towards us while the intercept team moved in to do that thing they’re named after.
Holding out her hands, Theo patiently waited for them to cuff her before moving almost robotically towards the armored car we had prepared for her, a line of heavily armed men trailing behind her. Looking at it from above, the whole thing certainly seemed excessive, almost farcical. I mean, she was just one girl. Just one girl who could toss I-beams off of buildings and gut a man cock to sternum like she was filleting a fish.
Okay on second, maybe it wasn’t so excessive.
She kept a timely pace as she power-walked her way to the car, leaving everyone else behind. I was surprised when stopped in front of me, her security escort at her back, panting. We both looked at each other, silently acknowledging the inexplicable attachment we’d formed in the middle of this crazy shitstorm.
“You will keep your promise, yes?”
“On my life.”
“And what if he takes your life?”
“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“I am merely being realistic,” she said. “Although… I do not mind the terms of our agreement at all, so I will pray for your safe return.”
I smiled. “Pray? For me? Now I know you’re trying to screw me.”
For the first time, I saw her laugh. Or something like it.
“Perhaps the gods will be merciful.”
I snorted in disbelief. “Yeah, and maybe I’ll win the lottery and become Prince of the Universe.”
The Big Guy cocked his head, nodding at the car. Time was running out. I pulled a pad and pencil out of my coat pocket and began writing. I made sure to press hard so the lead tip would leave a solid imprint. That way the note could be read even if the message was erased.
Carefully creasing the paper, I tore along the line and handed Theo the perfectly angular piece of paper. She studied it. I’m not sure if she understood the significance at first.
“Last time we did this, you gave me an address carved on that little piece of metal. Now I’m going to do you the same favor, ‘cept I’m not gonna deck you in the fucking jaw first.”
“You would only hurt yourself if you tried,” she said flatly.
“Yeah…” I said, deciding to ignore how she’d completely missed my attempt at humor. “Anyway, that piece of paper has my address written on it. If for some reason you can’t find me once this is all said and done, come visit me and my little kid sister here. You’ll have a home for as long as you need one, or for as long as we can spare it.”
“As long as? I was under the impression this was to be a permanent arrangement. Are you retroactively changing the terms of our agreement?” she said all too seriously. She looked like she was glaring at me. Was she mad at me?
“No,” I said, trying to explain the concept of a home to her. “It means you can come and go whenever you want. No strings attached. It can be your home whenever you want it to be.”
“Why would I ever want to leave my home?”
She caught me off-guard with how blunt she was, and how quick she’d been to make up her mind. Did she still feel like she had to repay me?
“Alright you two, break it up,” Marq said, dragging me off to the side. “We don’t need the waterworks right now. Big Guy, would you please escort our guest to the safehouse? I feel like I’m about to start crystallizing in the sap.”
I watched them herd Theo into the back of the armored van, letting her go bit by bit with every step she took. I’d leave it up to them to worry about her for now. My job was here, with Mickey. With Theo’s future. And, come to think of it, ours too.
Our group was about thirty strong. We had cops and robbers here together, working side by side under the family banner. The long and short arms of the law, each of them protecting the people in their own way. This was their city. This was our city. This was my city. We weren’t going to let Mickey have it.
I slung a shotgun over my soldier, my knife and .38 resting comfortably in my pants leg and back pocket respectively. With Marq’s permission, I turned to face our crew.
“Alright guys, who’s ready to break bad?”
We knew there was something wrong the moment we walked in. No guards. No soldiers. No men in sight. Just an empty pasta bar that looked like someone hadn’t so much as taken a shit in it in weeks. The air was staler than the bread, and smelled musty, like death. This place couldn’t have been more dead if it was a graveyard. Was Mickey really holed up here?
“Thompson, you sure this is the place?” I asked, keeping my voice down.
“Positive. Mickey’s men have been coming and going all day. And call me ‘Officer’, shortstuff.”
“Well then why the hell is there no one here?” I hissed. Him calling me ‘shortstuff’ hadn’t been funny the first time. Now it just pissed me off, and that did not help with the situation we were in.
“Maybe there’s some kind of secret entrance? How the fuck should I know? I keep my ears open, I’m not a fucking dolphin. Echolocation is not on my resume. All I know is that this place suddenly reeks of garlic when normally the food here is about as well-seasoned as cardboard. Take my word for it, you’re standing on one of the biggest WP bombs I’ve ever seen.”
“You mean you’ve seen one before?”
“Some of us were in the War, you know. It’s hard to forget the smell. Why do you think I don’t eat Italian food anymore?”
“Okay, so Mickey’s goons have been here and there’s an enormous gas bomb right beneath our feet that could burn us all alive if Mickey decides to go down with the ship. Is that all of the good news or do you have anything else you think we should know?” I said sarcastically.
“One other thing. I don’t smell many other WP bombs. This seems like the only one. The rest I can’t really make out for sure.”
“Which means most of them must be sarin,” I said, cursing internally. I could only hope the other teams remembered the instructions I gave them about when and how to use their belladonna tablets. “Alright, thanks. Keep us posted.”
We slowly made our way through the back and into the basement, inching further foot by foot with carefully measured steps. The situation had us all wound up like crank dolls, pushing us forward until we could finally let go of the tension in the air. Sadly, we’d been wound up pretty tight. Something was wrong here.
We all felt it. There was nothing worse than when something was wrong. Things could go wrong, but no matter how bad they got, it was still better than something being wrong. When something is wrong like it was now, that’s an x-factor that you don’t know about. It throws a wrench into things, and it makes you question every move you make like it’s gonna be your last. Because without full knowledge of the situation… well shit, it just might.
We gathered around the cellar door. On the count of three, we breached. What we found… well…
“Mickey…?” a few of us whispered in confusion. And I’ll be fucked with a chainsaw if it wasn’t him, strung up to the seat of a swivel-chair with enough black electrical tape and twine to make him look like an arts and crafts store mummy, his mouth duct-taped shut and spitting muffled curse words like an out-of-control slot machine. He stared at us, eyes angry and wide in terror. It looked like Mickey. It sounded like Mickey. It smelled like Mickey. It seemed to be so obviously Mickey that I knew right away that something here was dead wrong.
Frustrated and more confused than ever, I marched up to Not-Mickey and ripped the duct tape off, ignoring the pig-like sounds Not-Mickey made as I castrated the unkempt facial hair on his face. He coughed, spitting in my face, and I slapped him. Fucking disgusting.
“Alright, listen to me. I know you’re not Mickey, so let’s cut the crap. Where’s the real one?”
He coughed again, and I slapped his shit some more. Finally, he stopped hacking and choking on his own stale air and talked.
“Please, you gotta help me,” he said, panting and gasping for breath. “Those fuckers… they set me up! They fucking set me up and left me here to die! They fucking set me up and left me here to die, those fuckers!”
He began rocking the chair back and forth in a panic, so I decided to slap him again. Knock some fucking sense back into the hysterical twit.
“Enough with this bullshit! I’ll ask again. Where is Mickey?”
“Please don’t hurt me, man,” he said weakly. “I’m sorry…”
I scowled, and butted heads with him. He reeled back, moaning with pain as a tiny trickle of blood ran down his forehead.
“Sorry’s not fucking good enough! Drop the fucking act, you prick! Where the fuck is Mickey!”
I felt someone put a hand on my shoulder.
“Al,” Marq said, motioning for me to take a step back. It looked like there was something he wanted to do.
“W-What are you doing?!” Not-Mickey whimpered.
Carefully, Marq spun the chair around to face the back. He pulled Not-Mickey’s collar down to the base of his neck, looking to see if he could find what he already knew was there. We all saw it. A disfiguring black mark on his skin the size of a fist, dark pink in color with smooth ridges in the shape of the letters DÄ. It was a brand, and one with a very ugly history at that.
Specifically, it was the kind of brand you put on a doppelgänger.
The pit in my stomach grew from a pebble to a prize-winning marble, hungrily gnawing away at my insides like a black hole as I stared the ugly truth in the face. Hypothetically speaking, if you were told that someone who looked like you and talked like you could be living your life when you weren’t looking, how would you respond? My guess? Like most of us, you’d probably shit your fucking pants. You’d want to know where they are and what they’re doing at all times. You’d want people to know that you’re really you, instead of the fake. Most importantly, you’d want to protect people from being taken advantage of by a man wearing your face. It would only be natural to be fucking terrified.
Now imagine all that, except add in the possibility that this duplicate could become anyone. They could replace your neighbors, your friends, your family, and you’d never be able to tell. How could you sleep at night? Not knowing who is who, always living with the possibility that the person lying in bed beside you isn’t actually your wife, or that your kid is really your kid? Would you run, living in constant fear for your own fucking identity? Would you fight? Could you take it upon yourself to clip your own clone, or your brother’s? Would you end an innocent life to preserve your own? What would you do? To what lengths would you go to protect yourself and your family? I might be able to answer that question, but can you? Have you ever really thought about it?
Luckily, the United States government made that choice for us. The answer is: anything. Anything and everything.
The option they chose was blatantly inhumane, and it spoke volumes about what government policy would be like for demihumans in the days to come. They chose to brand them, to make them wear their deformity as a badge so people would know. That when they walked past someone in the street, they would be able to tell immediately if this person was an identity thief, if they were dressed up as another person they might meet. It let them know that they should fear them, that they should run far away, and fast. It was a crude, effective weapon for spreading fear. Humans feared doppelgängers. Doppelgängers feared the brand.
Nothing in US history short of outright slavery had ever been quite so inhumane and cruel. The systematic capture and branding of thousands of United States citizens, folks who had just been trying to live someone else’s normal life because they weren’t born with an identity of their own. People justified it to themselves by saying that other people with non-human features were already wearing a black mark, that a doppelgänger’s brand was no different. They weren’t the ones being poked with red-hot cattle brands.
“Damn…” Marq whispered. “Damn, damn, damn-”
“Fucking hell, you rubes really fell for that hook, line and sinker, didn’t you?”