“Best French toast in town.”
Ben and Dan were sitting in a local diner not far from where the skirmish of an hour ago had taken place.
“Yeah,” Dan agreed, taking a sip of coffee, “Since I moved to evening news, I’m not up super early like this to grab a nice breakfast anymore.”
“So why were you up this morning, then?” Ben shot him a look over his own coffee cup. Dan blew out a sigh that was only half due to too much French toast.
“I’ve been moonlighting again,” he said finally when he was sure the waitresses were in the back with the cooks and the rest of the diner was sufficiently safe to talk, “Ever since Gina… you know. I just can’t sit around doing nothing.”
“I know the feeling,” Ben said with a laugh.
“Plus…” he lifted up his mug and muttered into the coffee, “It’s a shorter commute to sleep in the truck rather than going to Mom and Dad’s every night.”
“Jesus,” Ben shook his head, “how does Mom handle that?”
“You think she knows?” Dan allowed himself a little smile, “I’ve got covers, and if I need to I’ve got friends with couches.”
“Well, I got one, too, if you ever need it.”
There was something about those two little words that meant a lot for Ben. Sure, it was a crummy, cramped one bedroom apartment, but it was his. He was an adult now, and his brother, his cool, older brother was taking it as a foregone conclusion that Ben would be there for him. There was something about it that absolutely thrilled Ben to his core, until the news broke in with the disturbing, brazen tones of a female anchor trying to fake sincerity.
“Officials say the threat has been neutralized and that, despite some initial confusion, today can continue as normal in our nation’s capitol.”
Ben glanced at the tv screen in the corner of the small dining room, not paying it too much attention. Another day, another crisis, such was the world these days, especially if you watched the news too much. Dan, on the other hand, did something interesting.
“Hm,” he said before turning back to the last few pieces of his breakfast.
“What ‘hm?’ What was that about?” Ben asked as his brother tried his best to be engrossed with French toast, “You know something about that news? The reporter? Is she an idiot? Because she sounds like an idiot.”
“No, that’s not… well, yes, she is,” Dan corrected himself with a shrug, “But that’s not the point. The way she was saying that stuff… someone wrote it for her. Whenever I’m producing her stuff, I’ve got to fix it eight ways to Sunday. Lady can’t spell February half the time. But this… I didn’t write that, and neither did anyone else at the station.”
“So?” Ben leaned in closer.
“So it means it’s a line of bull,” Dan leaned back and put a restraining hand on his stomach, “Listen to the words: neutralized, confusion, continue as normal… that’s what they like to say when they’re actually shitting their drawers.”
“In the capitol?!” Ben asked, slightly agog.
“It happens more often than you think, Banjo,” Dan smiled, “You should know that.”
Ben had a quick memory of deep below the WWII memorial, and gave a lame shrug.
“So what does this mean?” Ben asked, inspecting his empty coffee cup, “Share with me some of that wisdom, crafty veteran.”
“Very funny. Well, I don’t have to be in til the afternoon, you said noon for you?”
“Yeah, but I got one more day to burn,” Ben replied, “I’d gladly play hooky.”
“Well, in that case,” Dan stood up from the table, “we’d better pay this and go to see my guy.”
“Your guy?” Ben asked, standing and stretching.
“Yeah, man. You always gotta have a guy. All the fighters had a guy. Even Dad had a guy… I mean, they turned it into a guy in the comics…. but it was Mom, technically.”
“I always wondered where that corny scientist character came from,” Ben said with a smirk, “Seems like every book had one of those back in the day.”
“You need someone to talk to, someone who’s not in the business, y’know? Someone who can connect you to the world outside your world. I mean, how would you handle it if you only had the people you work with to talk to?”
“I’d lose my fucking mind,” Ben said slowly, the thought of it crushing his chest like an iron weight, “I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like in that place.”
“So, don’t,” Dan said with a smile, tossing a $20 on the table, “let’s get outta here. We want to make sure we can beat the traffic on the way to DC.”
Ben decided not to ask any more questions, but he did send Lucy a quick message. By the time she finally got back to him, her slightly worried message proved useless, as Dan and Ben were already halfway to the Capitol.
“So, where are we going?” Ben asked, his fingers drumming nervously on the armrest of the pickup, “You’ve got someone with a fair bit of info on this, right?”
“So… Pentagon? Congress?”
The car came to a slow stop in front of a run down fish and chicken stand in an eerily quiet neighborhood. A few old pieces of paper blew across the street as they headed to the front door.
“What the hell is this, Dan?”
“Secret government installation. Why do you think they haven’t been renovating these old neighborhoods in the past twenty years?”
Ben stopped in his tracks on the sidewalk, waiting, pleading with his brother for it to be a joke. Dan simply put his hand on the door handle and beckoned him in.
“Look, little brother…”
Dan stepped away from the door and put a hand on Ben’s shoulder.
“You’re about to see a lot of shit that might make you uncomfortable. I’m not really cool with it either, but I told myself a long time ago that it helps me protect people. Sometimes you have to use Big Brother to feed the other kids.”
Ben looked up at him, reluctant to agree, but finally he broke and nodded harshly.
“I still wish they wouldn’t let these neighborhoods rot,” Ben added under his breath.
“Leave your bleeding heart at the door, Banjo,” Dan said with a smile, “we’re going in deep.”
Ben, despite his best intentions, found himself tossing nervous looks every which way, ready to throw up a shield at a moment’s notice.
“Oh, stop,” Dan caught him looking as he opened the door, “What makes you think you’re so special?”
“No, you didn’t,” Dan shook his head, “Look, if you’re going to get all defensive for the poor in this country, you don’t have a right to be afraid of them, too.”
“Just relax. We’re two scraggly looking white dudes in a beat up Chevy. Who’s going to care?”
“I guess you’re right,” Ben sighed, “Just make sure to keep those newsman teeth hidden.”
They stepped inside to an interior that Ben thought only existed in movies: metal lattice protected the windows, and a massive bulletproof barrier stood between a tiny lobby and the rows of fryers just heating up.
“We’re not open yet,” said a man of Arabic descent with his back to the door. As Ben and Dan approached, Ben noticed that he was in the middle of dressing several chickens with lightning speed and an impossibly sharp knife.
“Well, that’s good,” Dan shot back just as gruffly, ” ‘Cuz I’m not hungry.”
The man’s back straightened, and he turned around to regard the two that had entered his shop. Despite the surroundings, the man had taken good care of himself, with close-cropped hair and a neat beard that didn’t match the grease and blood on his white t-shirt. He looked about fifty, but a good fifty.
“Is that who I think it is?” the man asked, his eyes suddenly wide and his mouth agog.
“Yeah, Farid…” Dan said, a little nervously, “It’s me.”
“Are you… back?!”
“Part-time, for now,” Dan replied with a shrug, “Figured I’d stop by and catch up with old friends. Is Scott in?”
“Like he always is,” Farid smiled, “I don’t think he ever sleeps.”
“Just like old times,” Dan smiled back before remembering he had a guest with him, “Oh Hey, Farid, this is my brother, Ben. He’s, uh, part-timing, too.”
“Nice to meet you, Ben,” Farid beamed from behind the glass, “Come in, come in, both of you!”
There was a loud buzz that made Ben jump a little, but the locks opened and Dan stepped inside the kitchen. Ben followed behind, suddenly hit by a wall of heat from the fryers in the cramped kitchen. It quickly occurred to him why Farid was so thin, he must sweat off twenty pounds a day in here.
“So sorry,” Farid said, wiping his hands on his shirt until it was nearly translucent with fat, “I’d shake your hands, but…”
“It’s okay, Farid,” Dan replied in a gentle tone, the kind Ben usually only heard him use on Mom or Dad, “Just glad you let me back in.”
“Are you kidding? I’m wondering what took you so long. You should come to my neighborhood, it’s a mess. We could use some of that big boom stuff you do.”
Dan laughed it off as Farid turned to Ben, squinting through aged eyes.
“And your brother, he probably brings the boom all by himself!” Farid chuckled over Ben’s wide frame.
“In his own way,” Dan said. Ben was a little too overwhelmed by grease and surprise to say much of anything. In the middle of all this was someone who not only knew Dan’s secret, but seemed to know much more… and here he was, flabbergasted and quiet like a five year old at the adult’s table. Damn.
“He don’t say much,” Farid cut right to the point.
“He’s new to the whole thing,” Dan answered, and Farid nodded sagely.
“Ah, yes, they are always quiet when they are new. Well, good luck, Ben. Come back anytime, it’s on the house. Except–”
“The shrimp. That’s too expensive.”
Dan cut him off perfectly, remembering a line from years past. The two friends shared another laugh as Farid wished them goodbye again and they headed past the fryers into a small pantry. They stopped at what looked like a massive walk-in freezer door, and Dan turned to his brother.
“You all right?”
“Yeah,” Ben coughed the word out, “It’s just… not what I was expecting.”
“Oh, it’ll get there, just wait.”
The two stepped inside the frigid box, which was less than half full.
“Ah,” Ben said with a smile as they looked around, “I thought so.”
“What?” Dan asked as he headed to the far end of the freezer.
“Your buddy, Farid… all that stuff he was using was fresh. Makes sense why there’s hardly anything in the freezer.”
“Not bad,” Dan mentioned, “And just so you know, Farid’s your buddy now, too.”
“Why? Because of you?”
“No,” Dan said as Ben joined him on the far side of the room, “Because of Dad. They used to call him Ahriman back in the 60s; he fought with Dad in the DC area.”
“No shit. Too bad his eyes went to hell, Dad said he was a real terror.”
“So is Farid your ‘guy?’ ”
“Nope,” Dan replied casually, brushing aside a thick coat of frost to expose buttons, “Farid was in the business. You can tell old war stories, have a beer, or play cards with guys in the business… but you’ve all been there. It’s different with people who haven’t put on a mask.”
He pushed the down button and part of the wall slid away into the next door empty storefront. As Dan and Ben stepped through, Ben couldn’t help but wonder why exactly his brother was making such a distinction between people who have “put on the mask” and people who hadn’t. As the door closed shut behind them and left them in a spartan concrete corridor with only bare bulbs overhead, Ben had an overwhelming sense that he still had very much to learn.
“Wait,” he said with a sudden bit of horror, “Was Farid boning those chickens… could he even see?”
Dan hid his smile from his brother and began walking down the corridor.
“C’mon Ben… let’s go.”
“Best French toast in town.”