Curveball Issue 20: The Drums of War

Part One: Queens, 7 PM

Roger Whitman stops at the end of his block, trying to figure out what’s bothering him about his street. The sun is down, and the street lights shine dim white light that doesn’t quite reach the far end of the sidewalks. The street is empty and silent; the only sounds come from the families in their houses: TVs blaring, music playing, people laughing and shouting. The sounds aren’t overpowering—just there, familiar and comforting. Ten houses on each side of the street, cars in front of each.

That’s it. That’s what bothers him. There are too many cars.

His neighbors are creatures of habit—they park in the same spaces every night. Two cars parked along the street in front of the house on the left, one car and a motorcycle on the right. Station wagon, minivan, used Prius—Elly was so proud the day she bought that car. A clunker bought by the parents of an over-enthusiastic teenager who keeps talking about how he’s going to convert it into a muscle car, but never does. Roger takes in each car, each in its proper place, until he comes across the car that isn’t.

It’s a red Ford Escape, parked a few houses down from his. It doesn’t belong to any of his neighbors, but he recognizes it from another part of his life. He frowns slightly—he doesn’t mind the visit, but given recent events he’s not sure he’s going to like why she’s here.

He takes his time getting back to his house, enjoying the last of his walk, and notes the slim figure waiting patiently on his front stoop—an attractive, middle-aged white woman with blond hair, dressed in blue jeans and a black-and-white spring blouse. She waits patiently as he continues up the sidewalk, and says nothing when he finally stops in front of her.

“Hello Juliet,” Roger says. “Hope you weren’t waiting long.”

Juliet Forrest smiles back. “Not too long. Hope you don’t mind.”

She looks very small standing in front of him. She was always small physically, but she was so fierce she seemed to tower over everyone else in the room. It was one of the qualities that made her such a good reporter, when she was still doing that. Everyone always underestimated Juliet, until she opened her mouth and suddenly she was the giant.

She doesn’t come across as a giant tonight. Tonight she looks like a frail white woman who got lost and wound up in the wrong neighborhood. She’s not, but she looks it, and that says a lot. He can’t help but notice how tense she is. It’s in her voice, the way she carries herself, in the tightness around her eyes. “Always good to see you. Sorry I was out. I was about to brew some coffee. Interested?”

“I’d love a cup,” she says.

Roger’s house is modest compared to the Forrests’ brownstone. The ground floor has a small living room, a bathroom, and an eat-in kitchen. In the living room, stairs go up to the second floor. In the kitchen, stairs descend to the basement.

The kitchen was last decorated in the 70s. The floor is covered in faded orange linoleum tile, the countertops in green Formica, and the appliances are all brown and gold. Juliet sits at the dinner table and fishes through her purse, eventually pulling out a pen and a small notepad. Roger breaks into a grin—it’s a holdout from her days as a reporter. She hasn’t been one for some time, but she never goes anywhere without the notepad.

“I see your kitchen is still ugly,” Juliet says, clicking the pen and starting to write.

Roger snorts as he rummages through his cupboard for the coffee tin. “I’m too lazy to renovate. It’ll be orange and green and cheap linoleum until I move out. Or something interesting happens.”

Juliet laughs softly. Something interesting has a very specific meaning to the surviving members of the Guardians. It usually involves smoking impact craters.

She puts her pen on the table, holds up the notepad toward Roger, and coughs softly. Roger looks over his shoulder and narrows his eyes as he reads the hastily-scrawled script on the pad:

I was followed but I lost them. Anyone listening in?

Juliet is still smiling, but once again Roger notices the tightness around her eyes. He puts the coffee tin down on the counter and concentrates for a moment. Then he shakes his head.

Juliet sighs, relaxing slightly. “You’re sure?” The cheerful facade slips, and he can hear exhaustion and worry come to the forefront.

Roger nods. “Even the good ones make noise. When I’m listening I can hear it.”

Juliet nods slowly. “I sort of forgot you could do that.”

“It was never something I advertised,” Roger says. “More useful that way. They haven’t tried to bug my house for years, but occasionally I need to have stern words with someone in an unmarked surveillance van. Haven’t had to do that in months. I’ll keep an ear out.”

“Thanks,” Juliet says. “I’m sorry, Roger. I didn’t see you much at the funeral, and it’s been a long time since we—I just don’t know who I can trust right now.”

“You had other things to deal with at the funeral,” Roger says. “And I like to keep to myself these days… but my door is always open to friends. How’s the house? Moved back in yet?”

Juliet shakes her head. “It’ll be another few months. We could buy another place, but we’d rather not… so we’re still in the hotel.”

“You both could stay here for a while,” Roger says. “I have an extra room upstairs. There’s not much space, but…” His voice trails off as he sees the expression on her face.

“That’s probably not a good idea right now,” she says.

Roger nods, and fills the carafe with tap water. “You look tired. Is this about CB?”

Juliet laughs—half amusement, half terror. “Yes. Not exactly. It’s about Jenny.”

Roger narrows his eyes. “Jenny?”

“She went with him, Roger. I didn’t want her to—I don’t think he wanted her to, to be honest—but she did. Just like I did, back in the day. And now she’s…” She breaks off, draws a deep breath, steadying herself. Hardening herself, a little. “She shot someone, Roger. A security guard. He’s dead, the government’s involved, and they’re seconds away from branding her a terrorist under Title XII.”

Roger stares at Juliet for a moment, expressionless, before he pours the water into the coffee maker. “Think maybe I chose the wrong drink for this. Too late now. Start from the beginning.”

He makes coffee while Juliet talks. When she finishes the pot is almost full.

“Shit,” Roger says.

“Now they’re following me, of course,” Juliet says. “I don’t know who. FBI. DHS. Someone attached to all those papers I signed. They obviously don’t think I’m much of a risk, because they didn’t put a tracker on my car and the people they assigned to follow me aren’t that good. I was worried about electronic eavesdropping, but you cleared that up.”

“Looks like someone underestimated you again.”

Juliet smiles slightly.

Roger pours the coffee into two mugs and sets one in front of Juliet. “There’s cream and sugar if you want it, but I seem to remember you preferring it black.”

Juliet nods. “Still do. Thanks.”

Roger takes a moment to enjoy the smell of coffee filling the room. Caffeine has no effect on him at all—the only reason he drinks it is because he likes the smell. “So. Does the government know about Richter? That he killed Alex, I mean.”

Juliet shakes her head. “We haven’t told anyone. We have a copy of that file, but we’re sitting on it.”

“So all they know is that CB and Jenny disappeared after those guys attacked your house, and then they wound up in Farraday City attacking a… health insurance building?”

“I have no idea what they were doing there,” Juliet admits.

“Dammit, CB…” Roger shakes his head. “And Travers? Wow. OK. So you’re here because you don’t trust your brother.”

“Do you?” Juliet asks, sounding surprised.

“No. But he’s not my family. Where does Marty fall on this?”

Juliet hesitates. “He… he believes CB and Jenny are innocent. But he also thinks Toby is being reasonable. He’s doing exactly what my grandfather would do in a situation like this.”

“Cooperate with the authorities as much as he can, but keep CB and Jenny safe as long as he can,” Roger says. “I assume he doesn’t know you came here.”

“The less he knows, the less he has to walk that line,” Juliet says.

They lapse into silence. Juliet hunches over her coffee, not bothering to drink it, just soaking in the heat. Roger leans back in his chair, staring at his orange kitchen ceiling.

“CB told me he was going to get in touch,” Roger says.

“When?”

“At the funeral. I guess he hasn’t had much opportunity to call…”

Roger pushes back from the table and gets to his feet. “The neighborhood is quiet. Give me a second to take a look outside, just to make sure, then go home.”

“What are you going to do?” Juliet asks.

“It’s like you and Marty,” Roger says. “The less you know the better. But I’m on it, OK?”

Juliet stands, and hugs him. A flash of that old fierceness returns, and she fills the room again. “Thank you.”

Roger laughs. “I knew I’d have to pull CB’s ass out of the fire eventually. I didn’t think your daughter would be part of that, but I guess it runs in the family.”

Juliet tries her best to look disapproving.

Roger opens the front door and looks around. “It’s clear.”

“You have X-ray vision, too?” Juliet sounds more playful now, the way she did in the old days.

Roger snorts. “You’re just like CB. Trying to get me sued.”

He waits until her car drives down the street before he closes and locks his front door, empties Julie’s coffee into the sink, then takes his own mug with him upstairs. His computer sits on a small desk next to his bed. He turns it on, leans back in the chair, props his feet up on his bed, and sips at his coffee until it boots up.

He spends a few minutes checking his regular email, then he opens up his other email. No messages—he didn’t expect any. He creates one of his own:

To: rt@thorpe.tti

Subject: Something interesting

Alex, CB, Crossfire. Thought I’d stop by.

– Roger

He hits send, then returns to sipping his coffee. Five minutes later, he gets a reply.

To: roger@regiment.tti

Subject: Re: Something interesting

I’ll leave the door unlocked.

Roger spends an hour writing letters on his computer, printing them out, and stuffing them into envelopes. Then he goes back downstairs.

He does the dishes by hand, including the coffee pot, and puts them away before they’re dry, ignoring the mental image of his mother scolding him for doing so. He empties his refrigerator, putting most of the perishables in a trash bag, putting the more useful items—eggs, milk, butter—in a small cardboard box. He takes out the trash—a few days early, but it should be OK—then starts unplugging everything, and turning everything off.

He takes his printouts and the cardboard box filled with perishables as he steps outside and locks his front door. He walks over to the house on the left and knocks. The thunder of footsteps booms through the door, and the sound of laughter and excited shhshing and whispering, along with the twitching of the living room curtains, tells Roger that Esteban’s kids have decided to ignore their bedtime in favor of spying on their late-evening caller.

A small, thin, clean-shaven Hispanic man with salt and pepper hair opens the door a crack, then all the way when he sees who it is.

“Roger?”

“Hi Esteban. Sorry for coming by so late.”

“We were just getting ready for bed…” Esteban frowns slightly and looks over his shoulder. He shouts something in Spanish, and Roger catches a glimpse of Esteban’s kids as they race past the doorway, up the stairs.

Esteban stifles a yawn. “Anything wrong?” He eyes the cardboard box.

Roger holds it out. “From my refrigerator. I’m going to be traveling for a while, I figured your family could use it. Also I wanted to leave you my key. Can you keep an eye on things?”

“Sure.” Esteban takes the cardboard box and sets it down on the floor, then takes the keys.

“One more thing,” Roger says. “I’m sort of in a hurry, and I need to leave some messages with some people. It’s… work related.”

Esteban raises an eyebrow. “You mean…?” He makes an up, up and away motion with one hand.

Roger nods. “I wrote some letters. Put names and addresses on each one. Could you deliver them? I hate to ask, but—”

“No problem, Roger.” Esteban doesn’t hesitate. “We’ll be OK. Nobody’s gonna mess with a guy doing Regiment’s business.”

“Thanks.” Roger hands the letters over.

“So you’re going to make trouble, eh?” Esteban’s grin is uncharacteristically impish.

Roger can’t help but grin in return. “Sort of. I’m getting the band back together.”

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