The Scholz Enterprises building in downtown Blackburn was a brilliant piece of modernist architecture, a forty story steel and glass reminder of better times past. Wilbur had forgotten just how damn big it was, at least in comparison to its neighbors. Blackburn wasn’t as vertical as New York or Chicago, with only a handful of buildings that met the definition of a skyscraper, but Wilbur liked it that way – better to be a big fish in a small pond.
Oh no. He had called for one of the interns to help with his bags. Why was he hearing that shrill voice? It belonged to Friedrich Kravitz, the man he’d appointed head of Creative Sciences according to his father’s will. He wasn’t particularly threatening, a scrawny blonde man with a ponytail who wasn’t much larger than that Mouse woman, but he could badger you. He was also his best friend. Laughing awkwardly, Wilbur popped the trunk and picked up both suitcases.
“I’m standing right here buddy.”
“You, you evasive motherfucker. You’re a terrible human being. I hate you. I should probably punch you in the face.”
“I’m shaking.” He dropped his suitcases, paid the taxi driver, and turned back around. Fritz was still pouting. He sighed. “Let’s talk more in my office.”
The guts of the headquarters building stood in stark contrast to its exterior. Renovated every couple decades, the current style was a sleek contemporary, with an emphasis on polished white where possible. Wilbur had made sure all the furniture had been replaced before he’d left.
“Mr. Scholz!” The receptionist, who looked to be a high school or college kid young enough to make Wilbur feel old, hopped out of his chair. “Oh wow, we weren’t expecting you back so suddenly! I can totally help you with those.”
“It’s alright, he can carry them himself,” Fritz answered, putting his hands on his hips. Resisting the urge to sigh, Wilbur smiled at the intern.
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
An uncomfortable elevator ride later and the two arrived outside Wilbur’s penthouse suite. His nose was assaulted when he opened the door. Right, he’d almost forgotten dust was a thing. Everything remained as barren as the day he’d left. The grand portraits of his father and grandfather remained on the far wall, but the rest of his stuff remained packed away. Only the sheer square footage of the office room and the windows’ eagle-eye view of the city revealed a wealthy person owned it. A lone oak desk with a computer sat in the center. Wilbur plopped his bag on top.
“So.” He unzipped the bag and began to sort. “Glad to know the street food’s still deliciously terrible.”
“Man.” Fritz brought a hand up to his mouth. “I hope you’ve had a good time smoking weed and banging broads in Amsterdam. I’ve only been stuck in this dump, with the board up my ass for ‘wasting money’. Hell, did you know the last time you gave me a call was two years ago?”
“You never asked. And I’ve been placating them by courting investors. I’m probably keeping Blackburn’s economy afloat singlehandedly you know.”
“God you’re hopeless. Would you at least like to see what I’ve been up to?”
Wilbur turned and smiled. “Would love to.”
The Creative Sciences division occupied a floor of its own a few stories below ground. It didn’t resemble what one might expect engineers to work in, being an open air, sleek communal space with rolling chairs and whiteboards that must have been erased ten thousand times. Too unstructured for Wilbur’s taste, but Fritz and company got good work done.
Creatives Sciences was Scholz Enterprise’s in-home house of ideas, where dozens of prototypes for a wide array of devices were drafted and tested. Most were never put into commercial production, but those that did generally made a return on investment of ridiculous proportions.
Such as, apparently, some sort of military armor. An engineer was currently scribbling on a whiteboard in front of a group of half a dozen of his peers. Tall, kinda lanky, black haired white guy… his name was on the tip of his tongue. Wilbur stuck his hands in his suit pockets and watched.
“-but the problem with the material is that movement is severely restricted if the armor is too thick, which obviously is troublesome if we want to go over handgun caliber. Not a big deal if you want to coat your transport or bunker with it, but for a full-body suit it’s quite ineffective. So in order to overcome this obstacle, we layer the armor into thinner parts and overlap them on top of each other in between a layer of buckypaper, dilatant fluid, and a second layer of buckypaper in order to allow for full moveme-”
Wilbur, getting impatient, cleared his throat. “Sorry to interrupt everyone! I just got back and I already feel like I need a break. Can someone show us around?”
Fritz gestured at the guy at the whiteboard. “You look like you’ve been busy Ryan, go ahead and let James present.”
Ryan visibly flinched before putting a cap on his marker. He led Wilbur and Fritz to a door. Everyone affectionately called the next room the gallery, where the blueprints, sales plans and prototypes for the gadgets recently cooked up were put on display. Lighting was more sparse, selectively placed like a car showroom in front of thin glass displays.
Wilbur brought a finger to his chin, then pointed.“Ryan. Wallace, right? I remember you. One of my dad’s final picks.”
“Yeah. He was a good man. We could use more like him.” He went over to a case in the center of the room. A lone light source shone down on the armor set, an almost rubber looking black synthetic material over digital camouflage fatigues. The helmet piece resembled that of a racecar driver’s. Must be his sci-fi armor.
“The Department of Defense is interested in contracting us to mass produce the stuff. They’re starting to take their exoskeleton program more seriously.”
“That’s great and all Ryan, but the Department of Defense has a budget,” Fritz interjected, slapping his palm on another display case. “You know who doesn’t have a budget? The American consumer! Check this bad boy out!”
“Bad boy?” Wilbur squinted and looked closer. “It’s a… toaster.”
“Not just any toaster! So like, it uses infrared right? Smaller wavelengths, so it heats up your bread quicker. Fifty percent so over the average toaster on the marketplace, actually, and believe me, I bought a lot of friggin toasters to test.”
Wilbur just shook his head. “You’re fired. Ryan, continue the tour.”
“Aw,” Fritz whined.
Ryan didn’t look very amused. Who crapped in his corn flakes? “Right,” he grumbled. Next on the slate was some sort of two foot tall robot.
“Looks like a vacuum with an arm,” Wilbur remarked.
“Well, it’s exactly that,” Ryan answered. He took a look at the blueprints. “It’s a cleaning robot. Self-guided AI with motion sensors, able to take its immediate surroundings into account, smarter than anything else on the market. Should be put into production within a few years.”
“Then we can finally replace the women in our lives,” Wilbur said with a chuckle.
For some reason, that really ticked Ryan off. His face scrunched up and he shot back a nasty look. “Alright funny guy, keep joking. One of these days someone’s not going to deal with your shit anymore.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Wilbur put his hands up. “What’s your deal pal?”
“My deal is that you do whatever you want, however you want, and think you can get away with it. Actually, no, you do get away with it!”
“Alright, that’s enough of that.” Fritz slipped between the two and pushed Wilbur back. “I get it, everyone’s stressed, things have been rough lately, let’s just cool it.” He gestured Ryan away. “I’ll take it from here, you just finish your presentation.”
“Things rough for rich boy, yeah right,” Ryan muttered as he stormed away. Wilbur turned to Fritz, bewildered.
“Why are you protecting him?”
“I’m not – I’m protecting you. You have no idea why that guy’s so tightly wound.”
Wilbur put his hands in his pockets. “If he’s so tightly wound, why’d you ask him to tag along?”
“I was hoping a leave of absence would help your people skills, and a pat on the back from the CEO would cheer him up.” Fritz sighed and leaned against a display case. “Obviously, it hasn’t. His sister got taken by Skinnyman.”
That got Wilbur to stop grinding his shoe. A lot of out-of-towners thought Skinnyman was an urban legend due to the lack of real information on the web, but locals knew better. Every few months, a handful of young adults – often but not usually anomalies – would simply vanish, plucked like ripe fruit. The disappearances had been going on for a while, since Wilbur was a kid. Whenever the cops squeezed perps for information, no one admitted to seeing anything, not even guys facing decades behind bars.
“Damn. How was I supposed to know?”
“I didn’t expect you to, but you could have at least said hi, shaken his hand, not cracked edgy jokes with strangers you know nothing about.”
Wilbur frowned. “I’ve lost a woman in my life too.”
“Well I really wish you hadn’t, because I feel like your mother sometimes. Look, just. Don’t fire the guy, alright?”
“Alright, alright. But I thought I’d already fired you.”
“Yeah right. You wouldn’t last a day by yourself.” Fritz straightened out. “Now come on, I wanna show this really cool optic camouflage.”