Episode 8

Fine Dinin’ Restaurant and Lounge, outside the eastside housing district

The waitress slouching behind the cash register at the entrance of the Fine Dinin’ Restaurant and Lounge had looked strangely at Dirt Man as soon as he walked in the door, and as the minutes went by her glances had become more and more suspicious. Dirt Man was just about ready to go loiter nonchalantly outside when the restaurant doors opened and a man with chiseled features and a long tan trench coat walked in. His eyes quickly scanned the restaurant and immediately latched onto Dirt Man.

“I’m Detective Walker,” said the man, approaching Dirt Man. “I presume you are Dirt Man?”

Dirt Man smiled in relief. This detective looked like a man who could afford to foot the bill, so he wouldn’t have to fulfill the waitress’s negative expectations after all.

“Yep, I’m Dirt Man,” he said.

“Let’s get a table and we can talk,” said Walker. He looked to the waitress, who smiled like a piece of lettuce that has been under the cheese sticks for too long. “Is my usual table open?”

The waitress shrugged, and gestured toward the interior of the restaurant. “Seat yourself,” she said. “Someone will be with you in a moment.” Her tone of voice was the same as if she had said, “Life is utterly futile.”

Detective Walker led Dirt Man to a booth in the corner of the restaurant. They sat opposite each other, and Dirt Man pretended to scan the menu while Walker casually scanned the room. Reassured that everything was as it should be, Walker turned his attention to Dirt Man.

“So you’re Gargle City’s new super hero,” said Walker.

Dirt Man nodded, but didn’t take his attention off the menu. Small talk had never been his forte, and according to Lesson 3–Small Talk and Other Foibles–of the Happy Hero(ine) Correspondence Course attempting to appear intelligent through small talk was just not worth it in the long run for the discerning super hero or heroine, and often would give super villains the chance they needed to reach the red button and blow the world to bits. Dirt Man wasn’t entirely clear whether this only applied to situations involving super villains and nasty red buttons, but figured it was good enough advice that it was worth accepting it unconditionally just in case.

Walker waited for more of a response, and then glanced surreptitiously at his watch. As much as he liked Fine Dinin’, Dirt Man wasn’t exactly the best company. In point of fact, he was about as good company as he was clean.

A waitress slouched over. If she wasn’t the same girl who had been planted behind the cash register, she was doing a good imitation. Then again it might have been the Fine Dinin’ uniform (designed by corporate franchise owners to maximize the guest’s dining enjoyment and minimize employee work fulfillment).

“Ready to order?” asked the waitress. Walker ordered a hamburger, hold the onions. Dirt Man ordered the minestrone soup, but mispronounced “minestrone”, so the waitress wrote down clam chowder and wandered back toward the kitchen.

“So,” said Walker. He glanced around the room again. “So you’ve been assigned the robberies.”

Dirt Man grinned. “Yeah, it’s my first assignment. Sounded like the case was a tough one and the Commissioner needed someone special on it.”

Walker was mildly affronted at the implication that he wasn’t special, but was professional enough not to show it. Of course, Dirt Man wouldn’t have noticed anyway, as ensconced as he appeared to be with his napkin.

They sat in silence for a short while. Plates and forks clinked against one another and conversation hummed. Walker looked at Dirt Man. Dirt Man looked at the table top, at the darker area of the rest of the restaurant, and at the wall. The wall didn’t look much of anywhere, covered as it was in old flyers of indiscriminate origin. Walker sighed to himself under his breath. As much as he didn’t like Dirt Man, he wasn’t going to like misdirecting the man. On the other hand, feeding him some misinformation could probably be considered ensuring his safety from himself.

“Here’s what we know about the case,” said Walker. Dirt Man looked up. “Our best lead is a gang that we’ve had trouble with in the past called the Black Panthers. Absolutely no relation to the black nationalist group, just a bunch of punks who missed out on social studies.”

Dirt Man, who had himself missed out on social studies due to a healthy respect for the damage that a history text book could inflict when the neighborhood bully ripped it out of his hands and battered him about the head with it, wondered vaguely what Walker was talking about.

“We had thought that the Panthers were completely defunct,” continued Walker, “but evidence points to the fact that they might in fact be back together. Why they’re committing robbery is beyond us, however. You’ll have to find that out on your own.”

In point of fact, the Black Panthers had been officially disbanded for several years, and the former leader of the gang owned and operated Ethel’s Used Books Emporium in the old downtown area of Gargle City. Fortunately this wasn’t widely known, and Walker doubted that Dirt Man would have the perspicacity to locate the Emporium and get himself into trouble.

“I wish that I could tell you where to find these thugs,” said Walker, avoiding eye contact. “But like I said, they’ve been off the radar for a while. I trust you’ll be able to track them down.”

“This definitely sounds serious,” said Dirt Man. “But my sidekick and I should be able to handle it. Thanks for the info.”

“Mmm,” said Walker, and was spared further uncomfortable comment by the arrival of his hamburger in the hands of their drooping waitress.

Dirt Man looked down at the white mess of potatoes and clams set down in front of him and wondered what on earth the kitchen thought they were doing when they cooked this particular batch of minestrone.

“By the way,” said Walker, fishing a little and not minding at all after the comment about being special, “where is your sidekick? I would have thought he would come with you.”

“No,” said Dirt Man, poking a clam which he hoped wouldn’t poke back. “He’s in school right now.”

“Oh,” said Walker. “I see.”

Surprisingly, the conversation didn’t improve much over the course of the meal.

* * *

A man in a flannel-lined jacket that had seen better days stopped outside of the Comnec building, and turned to face it, ignoring the three men following him. All four looked to have seen better days, and while they would have blended perfectly into the clientele of the taverns of the industrial part of the city, the better-dressed people walking through the business district studiously ignored them and gave them a wide berth.

The frown on the face of the man facing the Comnec building deepened as he stared up at its glass, metal, and stone façade. “My name is Jake Shinterman,” he said quietly to himself, still staring up at the Comnec building, “and I’m taking from you what I want.”

The men behind him shifted their weight, looking up at the building that Shinterman was staring at. Shinterman turned back to them.

“It’s the bastards like the ones in this building who we’re really going to take,” said Shinterman. “We may be small now, but come time we will smash those glass doors and they won’t be able to do a damn thing.”

The other men looked hungrily at the glint of the Comnec building’s wide doors as if they could see a system that had denied them everything shattering into thousands of shards of broken glass.

“We’ve wasted enough time here,” said Shinterman. “We’ve got work tonight. I just wanted you all to see, because I’ve decided. I’m assigning all three of you extra duty.” Shinterman turned back to the Comnec building, reddened eyes narrowing. “We’ve got a big job. Let’s start doing it.”

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