So this is how it feels to be a sardine, thought Wilbur, resisting the urge to retreat to a nice secluded corner. The lobby of one of Edward Hamilton’s fancy hotels was packed full of politicians, businessmen, philanthropists and other high society types, all there for a benefit.
Edward had a certain kinetic energy about him that could capture your attention during the most boring of conversations. It was hard to dislike the charismatic, always happy black guy. Wilbur did question his sense of style, though. A black pinstripe suit with an orange tie? Yeesh.
“Thank you all for coming,” he began, standing on a balcony above the crowd. “Always nice to gather Blackburn’s finest in one room. Speaking of which.” He smiled, raising his champagne glass in Wilbur’s direction. “I’d like to give a shout-out to my largest backer. Say hi, Wilbur!”
There was a mix of groans and light laughs in response, but Edward just rolled with it.
“You’re welcome for the lob.” He finished his chuckle. Then, his expression turned more solemn. “You know, it really is a blessing to be able to give back to this city. I didn’t always have all this, the money, the real estate, the high class booze. I basically lived in a shoe box, drinking dirty tap water before my momma helped put my ass through college. And you know how we did it? The good people of this city. My teachers, my church, the folks at the library. Good role models every kid should have. Good role models that turn boys into men like me. So please, when the Martin Salazar Community Center opens next year, you’re all cordially invited. Don’t expect to be drinking my booze though.”
That got the crowd giggling, but it just made Wilbur really thirsty. What was there to drink around here? He slipped into the dining room, finding a towering stack of champagne glasses on a table in the center. Snatching one, he went for a sip but almost bumped into two ladies.
“Hi Mr. Scholz,” began the one in the nice yellow dress. “My friend and I were just wondering – did you visit Southern France at all? My father’s side of the family comes from there.”
“Actually I did. Check this out.” Wilbur whipped out his phone and pulled up his gallery. “Rome, St. Petersburg, London… Here it is, Toulouse.”
The woman laughed and pointed. “Hey, I’ve been there! Cité de l’espace, right?”
“I have to take you one of these days Megan. So what else did you do there?”
Wilbur shrugged and dug further through the gallery. “Rented a couple Renaults, definitely inferior to German engineering. Some old guy taught me savate. Tried all the restaurants, of course. Let’s see, what else do we have here…” He flipped to the next image: him taking a selfie with himself on the news channel. “Ha! Good times.”
He turned to his female company, but alas they were already gone. He sat down at an empty table and watched Edward move from person to person, seemingly entertaining the whole crowd at once. How did people like Edward, or his father, make navigating these events look so easy? It was always the same story with Wilbur: people gravitated towards his wealth like moths to a fire, but when they got too close to him, burnt up and dropped away. Were people that shallow, or did his personality just suck that bad? Or both?
Eventually Edward made his way towards him. “Nice to see you again Wilbur. I wanted to thank you for your donation personally.” He gave him a half hug before pulling away. “Damn dude, you got strong! Those snails you been eating got a lot of protein?”
“Ulch, escargot. Couldn’t stand the texture. You look pretty well yourself.”
“Business is booming! I guess it’s karma at work – I bought a decent stake in Cerberus Security. We’re doing some good work around the city. Hopefully some will come around to you brother.” He patted him on the shoulder. “Take care now.”
Wilbur raised his glass in salute before resuming his drink. Karma. The world probably did owe him something for kicking that guy’s ass earlier and helping that Jessica chick. It felt pretty damn good, he had to say, better than this lousy party. He went for another sip, but his glass was empty already. He toyed with going for another, but then he remembered something – that pale woman, Mouse, didn’t it have a bar listed on her card? The gears grinding in his brain, he gave her number a call.
“You dialed the wrong number. Fuck off.”
“Wait, hold up. It’s me, Wilbur.”
“Scholz? What’s up?”
“I really need a drink and champagne isn’t doing it for me. Meet you at the Witch’s Brew?”
“Already here. Feel free to drop in.” Click.
That suited him just fine.
A quick drive later and he found himself in the Cauldron neighborhood, outside the Witch’s Brew. The building was lit a dazzling mix of purple and green, a stark contrast to the drab, haze-choked Blackburn sky. The place was largely wood and glass but he didn’t recall it being in this part of town five years back. Boorishly loud electronic music blared from inside. He liked the tune, but couldn’t they turn it down a little?
As he walked in, he was surprised with the place being as well polished as it was. At least as far as he could see. The place was dim, with most of the patrons gathered around televisions and the jukebox and a few quietly hidden in corners. Many of them began to stare. He had to admit, he probably looked out of place, a sharp-faced blonde white guy in a suit.
“Hey! Don’t just stand there like a deer in headlights, come sit down.”
Mouse, who was sitting at the end of the bar with Jessica, motioned him over. Now that he got a chance to examine Jessica, she definitely looked distinctive. Torn jeans, a band t-shirt and a rolled-up army jacket – talk about three decades behind the times. At least she had a nice face, with high cheekbones, a pointed chin and freckles. He took an empty seat and called the bartender over.
“I’ll take that Absinth King and a few shot glasses.”
Mouse smirked and tapped her fingers on the bar. “Alright hot shot, what’d you come here for? Trying to get me to be an organ donor?”
“Just to talk.” He poured her a shot first. “You scared those goons off like they were stray cats. What’s your story?”
“Me? I’ll show you. You care much about that watch?”
He wriggled it off his wrist. “Not really.” That was a lie, but he had a few to spare and his curiosity was getting the better of him. Mouse knocked back her shot, sloshed it around her mouth, then to his horror, spat it back in her glass. The liquid turned clear. She dropped the watch into the glass. It began to rapidly corrode, the liquid popping and fizzing.
“Well. That’s not normal. You must be one of those…”
“Anomalies is the PC term. But it’s okay, we’re freaks, we get it.”
Her words, not his. He carefully took his shot.
“So uh. Your superpower is… acid?”
She shrugged. “If someone’s pissed me off. It’s complete control of my physiology. I can turn a substance into other substances.”
“Shit, I need to hire you,” he said. “Screw Ryan’s vacuums, just have you spit out non-newtonian fluids. Or gold coins.”
Jessica snorted as she sipped her whiskey. “Hmph. Blowhard…” As she raised her glass, he got a better look at her right arm in the light. It was covered from the wrist up in a green tattoo sleeve, celtic knots, shamrocks and other assorted Irish symbols.
“And what’s her story?” Wilbur asked, pointing. “Is she the daughter of Oscar the Grouch?”
“Actually yeah, kinda,” Mouse answered. That managed to get a brief grin out of Jessica. “What about you? The hell’s a suit and tie guy like you doing with goons like us?”
“Isn’t that the million dollar question?” Wilbur knocked back another shot. “I don’t know. I guess I’m… I guess I’m bored. That’s crazy right? I have my own conglomerate, millions of dollars, all this material wealth and I’m so fucking bored. I’ve tried everything. My brain’s like a, a scrambled egg.” He laughed, but this time there was no humor in it. “You know the most fun I’ve had recently is beating that guy’s ass… Do you think I’m just messed up?”
Mouse spun her drink in circles. “I don’t think you’re bored, Wilbur, I think you’re rudderless. What’s money got to do with purpose?”
“So what you’re saying is I should sell all my earthly possessions and join a Tibetan monastery?”
“God, no! Money’s great. Money buys expensive booze. But you should be making money doing what you love. Works well for me.”
He had to admit, he did like his expensive booze. Taking another shot, he squinted at her. “And what is it you do for a living?”
She smirked. “Let’s just say freelance chemist.”
He knocked back another, hoping for some liquid courage. “Hey, uh. How much do you know about Skinnyman?”
Mouse nearly began to choke. “The hell?”
“Um, well, you see… Guy’s a fucking dickhead right? And he probably took one of my employee’s sister and someone should really stand up to the guy, right?”
Mouse calmly sat her glass down. “Wilbur. Are you thinking of picking a fight with the devil?”
“Nooooooo!” Wilbur waved dismissively. “Of course not… I could just hire a PI and a bunch of Cerberus mercs or something.”
Mouse looked over at Jessica, who was shaking her head. “Might as well throw your money in a blender,” she said.
Mouse didn’t seem to be in the mood for drinking anymore. “I know a lot about Skinnyman. That ‘man’ is the worst kind of sick, sadistic sociopath. He experiments on human test subjects like some kind of supervillain Joseph Mengele. If someone has a death wish they can find his gang in the shadows of Olympic City. I’d wish them the best but expect the worst.”
Wilbur was beginning to feel somewhat ill, so he stopped drinking. Maybe some of it was fear, or nervousness, or even excitement. Whatever it was, he needed to head home and work it off.
“Thanks Mouse.” He got up and began dialing a taxi. She began to hand him the bottle.
“No no, keep it.”
She shrugged. “Sweet. Good luck with, everything I guess.”
Wilbur pointed at Jessica as he got up. “Get that one a Snickers or something.”
She raised her pint. “Bite me.”