Location • Vendetta •
Date • 2020-05-30
Summary • Brendan meets the mysterious Mr. Ben-David, who reveals he's the factor for whoever it is that's behind the Outreach Institute. But can he be trusted?
Vendetta, like pretty much every other bar, is both closed and not-closed. Technically open, the place is as dead as heaven on a Saturday night. On this Saturday night, far from heaven, the main room is empty except for a lonely barkeep washing barware that will not be needed. The patio out back is mostly shut down, with only the occasional string of Christmas lights left up year-round for illumination.
And out there on the patio sits a well-dressed, if not lavishly dressed, gentleman in a neutral gray suit and a solid-color necktie finished in a proper Windsor knot. On the table in front of him is a small cooler opened to reveal a few good beers in dewy bottles, and a transparent plastic bag of bagels.
Brendan thought about not coming. After all, he’s had one hell of a day, and he doesn’t know who this guy is. But he might have answers, so in spite of his misgivings, Brendan shows up. He’s in jeans, a t-shirt, and a denim jacket. He looks pretty low-key, but he can’t hide the grace in the way he walks, and the self-possession with which he carries himself. He’s internet-famous. It’s not much, but it’s enough for him to look around warily when he’s out in public.
There is no recognition whatsoever on his face when he sees Avi. His gaze drops to the beer, not without interest, and he lays a hand on the back of his chair before he asks, “You wanted to talk to me?”
“Mister Phillips!” Avi says with a broad smile, the sort of thing so white and pristine it must’ve put a dentist’s daughter through Bennington. He rises from the table as Brendan approaches, extending a hand to the newcomer in what appears to be a sincere and warm greeting. Of course, the day Brendan’s having, he could be forgiven for doubting such things. Just as quickly the expression turns somber. “Dean Perkins was in touch with the Scala Foundation to tell them about the goings-on today. Utterly terrifying. I hope you’re all right? Please, sit. The Scala Foundation is taking this very seriously, and within ninety minutes had hired me to represent them and their interests in the continued health and operations of Outreach and those it sponsors.”
Brendan takes a seat, not taking his eyes off Avi. “Is Dean Perkins alive?” he asks. He then admits, “I don’t know who the Scala Foundation are. I also don’t know who attacked us, or why.” He hesitates, then he takes the beer in hand. After the day he’s had, he just about doesn’t care if it’s poisoned. He just wants to drink it. So he takes a pull, then swallows and says, “I’m all right.” He doesn’t seem to be hurt. “I mean, no, I’m not all right. I’m freaked out. We could’ve died.” Maybe it’s Avi’s steadiness that causes him to relax somewhat. “I’m not really sure what happens now.“
“I don’t know,” Avi says a bit apologetically. “The Scala Foundation is the principal financial backer of Outreach. Yes, those alumni pledge drives do help, but honestly they’re mostly to keep people in touch with Outreach. More than ninety percent of Outreach’s funds come from the Scala Foundation, which in turn is a consortium led by…”
The short explanation lasts for three minutes and ultimately reveals very little; just that the Scala Foundation, whatever it is, pays the bills. “And in that function, Mister Phillips, you see that I am not ‘the money’,” he says with finger-marked scare-quotes. “I am the wallet. I hold and disburse money when someone else tells me to. Money, and other resources. Are you healthy, Mister Phillips? Do you need medical care? Do any of your friends?”
Brendan listens as he sips from his beer, and he nods his understanding. Scala Foundation pays the bills. He understands the concept all too well. “I was able to heal,” he says. “I don’t know about the dean. If he dies after all this…” He shakes his head. “Rowan and I are good. I don’t know about the rest. Just make sure the dean’s okay.” His brow furrows. “There was a woman there too I never met before, and things got a little strange there toward the end, but she seemed to be on our side.”
“The woman is Dean Perkins’ normal contact with the Scala Foundation,” Avi says easily as he reaches into the plastic bag to fish out a bagel. “Hummus? Sabra. Just what I could find in a convenience store on the way over, but it’s good stuff. Life is better with hummus, I’ve found. Please, indulge.”
With that, he separates the presliced bagel into halves and tears each into bite-sized pieces, before dipping a bagel chunk into the hummus. “Howso did things get strange, Mister Phillips? If you don’t mind me asking. Scala sent me here to ensure you’re all right and attend to the safety of you and the others, since our normal representative is recuperating from her injuries. But I assure you, her health, and that of Dean Perkins, is a high priority.”
Brendan shakes his head and says, “I’m avoiding carbs right now.” He doesn’t keep that figure without some effort, alas. Still, he hesitates, glances at the hummus, then says, “Fuck it,” and takes up a bit of bagel. He took a sucking gut wound today, he can cheat.
“We got to the basement,” he says, “and the woman did something with coins. I don’t remember a lot of it. I was in an awful lot of pain, but Rowan and I ended up out by OMSI, of all places.” He shakes his head. “Too much of the day was fuzzy.” He dips the bagel in hummus, then nibbles on it with a fitful appetite. “I’d be crushed if anything happened to the dean,” he murmurs. “I’d be crushed if anything happened to any of them. I don’t understand why we were attacked.”
“I don’t know either,” the bagel-granting man says, but not without a touch of kindness and a hint of the gentlemanly shame that comes from being confronted with one’s powerlessness against the vicissitudes of fate. “But being in pain like that — it’s completely understandable your memory would be shot. Accept it as a gift, Mister Phillips. Plumbing those memories too deeply will likely only bring pain.”
He falls into respectful silence for a few moments before he slaps his forehead. “My mind, where did I leave it.” He rummages around in his satchel to extract a silver business-card case, and he slides two cards over. One reads, AVI BEN-DAVID, CONSULTANT, SCALA FOUNDATION, with the expected business address, phone number, email account, and the like on it. The other is SPEEDY SANITATION SERVICES, with the rest. “If you call the first you may or may not reach me — I’m a busy man — but I will return your call. The other… the Scala Foundation believes you ought be encouraged to ask for help in case there’s a mess. As any janitor will tell you, the sooner you call in a professional the less mess there is for the professional to clean up. If you call that number the people answering it will know you’re in trouble before they pick up the phone. If you’re talking to me on my own personal cell, the way to signal me that you’re in trouble is to say you’re doing great. ‘Fine’ is okay, ‘super’ is okay, ‘good’ is ungrammatical but okay. But ‘great’ means you need me to call the Janitor.”
Brendan takes the offered cards, and he takes a moment to look them over. “Mr. Ben-David,” he says. “You can call me Brendan, by the way. Studio execs call me Mr. Phillips, and it makes me wonder what they want from me.” He pockets the cards and looks at Avi again. “I live with Garrett Knox,” he says as if that’s supposed to mean something. Then again, Garrett Knox is a rather famous musician who lives in the area. “I should be safe, but I worry about Rowan. Can you maybe spare a glance her way? I know she has friends, but the school was her home.”
“She’s on my list of students with whom to speak,” Avi answers easily. The sentence construction marks him as a foreigner who’s spent many hours developing his neutral American accent. No native English-speaker would be so careful to avoid ending sentences with a preposition, or practiced so intensively as to make it second nature. No hint as to where he’s from, though: just … definitely not anywhere English-speaking. “But if you could be so kind as to pass on those numbers and to have her contact me? I think after today’s fright she’d probably like to be in control of the meet, rather than receiving invitations to speak with strangers. But — I assure you — she is on my list of students to watch.”
Brendan nods, and he deigns to eat more hummus, perhaps further comforted to know Rowan won’t be forgotten. “I will,” he says. “Garrett’s with Outreach, too, so I’ll make sure he gets them, too.” He’s kind of got an East Coast lilt to his accent, though it has faded. He’s definitely an American boy.
He pauses after taking another bite of hummus, and for a split second, there’s a crack in his calm, something haunted in his eyes. He stares at nothing for a few seconds, then shakes his head, opts not to have a breakdown here on the patio, and he takes a drink of his beer. “She was with a friend when I left her,” he says. “He seemed pretty capable, so I think she’s safe right now.”
“It’s something for which we ought hope. Her safety, that is.” Another bagel bite, another dip, another slug of the cheap-but-cold beer. “Tell me, Brendan, did you find anything that might help us determine the perpetrators? Any evidence would be useful. A shell casing, a bullet … I doubt the police will cooperate with us as we try to conduct our own investigation, and I doubt the police will treat this as a high priority. People do not send assassination squads against children unless they’re certain they can control the police response. But Speedy Sanitation would deeply appreciate any help you could possibly give them.”
Brendan takes another drink and gets that distant look again. He’ll probably be all right. There’s just that little corner of his mind that’s still screaming, and it’s a little distracting. “I pulled something out of the dean,” he says, “it was like a slug of some kind, only it was hot. It burned me to touch, so I dropped it. I’m sorry, I should have held onto it, but I was in pain and it was hurting me. It wasn’t like any bullet I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve seen a lot of bullets, but I don’t know of any that burn like that. It really messed him up, too. Unless it was an incendiary round, it’s not normal.”
Avi looks down at his satchel for a moment, then reaches into it to pull out a notebook. He opens it to reveal writing in a strange script, something not using the Latin alphabet at all. “Speedy Sanitation already reported back — they’re very fast, they had a janitor at the building practically before the echo faded. They say the shooters were using Eastern European assault rifles in five five six Nato, with suppressors. High-end hardware for mercenaries, really. Hard to trace, given Russian non-cooperation with American investigations. Yet, none of them owned or used grenades, nor were they wearing body armor, nor was the hit squad using much in the way of small unit tactics. Very odd. But there was a fatality when these amateurs went blue-on-blue. Hmm. They’ll have to work to cover that loose end: perhaps we can find some answers there. If you like, Brendan, I’d be happy to speak to Speedy Sanitation and see if there’s any legwork they haven’t been able to get around to just yet. It might do you good to help some in getting to the bottom of all this.”
Brendan shakes his head. “Why does anyone with that kind of firepower want to come after us? We’re just a school. We’re not fighters. We’re not trying to hurt anyone. That’s so much overkill.” He’s not even freaked out at this point, just so confused. “If they find that slug, I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like they threw anything, you know, supernatural at us.” He nods then. “If you could talk to them, yeah. And if there’s anything I can do to help. I’m really just a healer, but I have, like, access to a fair number of people who might become eyes and ears. I’ve thought about mobilizing fans before, if I ever had a reason. Of course we couldn’t tell them anything too useful.”
“Supernatural?” Avi asks with a hint of incredulity entering his voice. “Brendan, you’re exhausted. There’s no such thing. There’s only the real and the unreal. Nothing real can defeat you; nothing unreal exists.” Apparently, Scala doesn’t trust Avi to know the truth about Outreach — or perhaps Scala themselves don’t know.
“Now, regarding your fans, I think it would be a terrible idea to get them involved. These people see nothing wrong with murdering children, Brendan. They’d see nothing wrong with murdering a fan who started asking annoying questions.”
See, now Brendan’s doubting himself. He was sure he saw things, but… He sighs with a little frustration, and he says, “Some people would consider what I can do to be supernatural. It’s why I don’t just walk into an ER and say yo, how can I help? If they didn’t think I was crazy, they’d stick me in a lab somewhere. I just meant, if I’m weird, maybe they were, too.” He shakes his head then and says, “I wasn’t going to say anything to them. I just meant, if that was ever a useful avenue, it’s possible. I wouldn’t tell anyone about what I can do, or about our school, or any of that. But sometimes eyes and ears can be useful. It’s just something you’d have to be so careful about.”
“You may want to be very quiet about the things you think you can do,” Avi says matter-of-factly over another swallow of beer. “There are really only two options. You’re delusional, in which case you’ll soon find Thorazine is now available in tropical fruit flavor. Or … you’re not. In which case, the fact you’re not delusional at all might be the exact thing that brought the danger. I do not speculate on which it is, Brendan. But you need to learn to keep your mouth shut unless you’re in a known-safe place… not if you’re in the open patio of a mostly-shut tavern. You never know who’s listening.”
Brendan spreads his hands and says, “Who am I blabbing to? As far as anyone’s concerned, I’m a vapid dancer who loves the limelight and who is — by the way — damn good at what he does.” He looks around. “Who’s around? Look, today, the school was a known safe place. We saw how safe that is. There’s no such thing as safe.” He is, by the way, keeping his voice down. Not a whisper, but not far above one. His voice won’t carry very far beyon the table, if that much.
“The school was a safe place. You thought it was a safe place. But it was clearly not safe enough. One might be forgiven for hoping it would underline the fact you need to tweak your paranoia sensor. Unless you’re in a known-safe place … watch your tongue. It’s good for everyone’s life and health. Yours. Garrett’s. Rowan’s. Dean Perkins’. It’s not about you, Brendan. If it was just about your safety, you’re a big boy, you can take risks if you want. You can smoke cigarettes, too. But it’s not about you. They’re relying on you to do what is smart, what is wise.” Avi keeps his tone calm and nonconfrontational, further underlining the hint Brendan saw earlier about the man’s unusually even disposition — and if nothing he says is a lie, he’s definitely been around the block enough times to know how important the framing of an unpleasant truth can be.
Brendan sighs and says, “I don’t disagree. That’s why I’m so irritated. I am careful. I would say 99% of the time, and I know that 1% is the 1% that could fuck everything up, but cut me some slack, okay? Today was a lot. I can’t even tell you the weirdest parts of it. But you were asking what was strange, so I figured you knew if it was safe to talk. I don’t know anything. My world is turned upside down, and part of me just wants to walk away and forget about all of it.”
“I wanted to see how easy it was to get you to talk about these things. I have my answer,” Avi states simply as he finishes his beer. “If I may offer some unsolicited advice? The trick is to keep breathing. Stress disrupts your normal cycle. Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe deeply. Do it once, twice, a hundred times. Each breath puts a little distance between yourself and your past. If you like, I’d be happy to arrange for you to meet an expert on meditation. You might find it useful.”
“Taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable is a dick move,” Brendan says. “You’re not catching me on a normal day and you know it. My strength and support are gone, and you come posing as that strength and support, knowing I’m in freefall, and think that’s a determination of my character.” He shakes his head. “Why should I trust you at all?”
“I’m not paid to be your friend, Brendan.” The words are calm, matter-of-fact, delivered without venom — which, curiously, might make them sting more. “I’m paid to represent the interests of the Scala Foundation as regards the Outreach Institute. They have a deep interest in the safety, health, and even the happiness of you, Garrett, and Rowan. Yes — the happiness. And part of discovering where you’re not safe is is discovering how likely you are to start talking out of school to someone who seems to be lending a supportive ear.”
Avi makes eye contact, holds it, gives a shrug. “You don’t like having your nose rubbed in it. I understand. And so long as you understand why it’s happening, I don’t need to do it further. Insofar as why you ought trust me at all — that’s a superb question, and one I won’t answer. I will tell you, though, don’t ever trust anyone who will answer that question for you. Ever.”
Brendan maintains the eye contact as he says, “I understand why you’re doing it, but it’s still a dick move. Fortunately, you don’t need my approval to do whatever it is you do. I won’t talk. Not to you, not to anyone. I’ll figure out some way to accept that that strength and structure is gone. And no, no one ever has a good answer to that question.”
Avi … blinks. “Whoever told you that strength and structure was gone?” he asks, his voice holding a note of very real surprise. “Outreach is in no danger of falling or ceasing to be. A building is gone, yes — lives are tragically lost — our hearts are rent with grief. But not all is lost, Brendan. All is not lost. And Outreach is very much still in operation… and with backers who will not let it fail.”
Brendan looks dubious when Avi says their hearts are rent with grief. “When I see the dean again,” he says, “and when I know that he is alive and well, I’ll believe there’s hope. I don’t deify the man, I know he’s just a man. But he’s a good man, and he’s our leader, and the last time I saw him, I was pulling a burning slug out of his guts. So yeah. When I see him alive and well, I won’t be so fucked up over this.”
“Then I’ll make a note to keep you in the loop on his status,” Avi says peaceably. Then he rises to his feet, smiling down at Brendan. “Now, if you’ll pardon me. I have many things yet to do: brief Scala, read Speedy Sanitation’s reports, line up new housing for Ms. McKenna, ensure the safety of the orphans. It’s a very good thing I wasn’t planning on sleeping this week. Until we next meet, Brendan.”
Brendan nods to Avi and says, “Okay, til then. And yeah, keep me in the loop.“ He settles back with his beer, planning to linger a bit before he heads out, himself. Awkwardly, he says, “Thanks. For the update. I appreciate the information.”