Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 01: April Guthrie [null]

“Ask very pointed questions. Sharp as sword blades…if you catch my meaning.”
Afterlife, by Mike Monroe.

Monitoring: April Guthrie [null]
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

12:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014
16:45 Coordinated Universal Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014

Fast forward—

“Table for one,” says April. “Over on the right, if you don’t mind.”

“The right?” asks the greeter.

“I think I’d like the view better from there. I hope that’s alright.”

April’s work for the CIA has taken her to a variety of places, and Alien Eats is less bizarre than its name might imply, even if it’s strangely in line with some of the other locations that PALATINATE has sent her to. Cubes hang from the ceiling by metal rods, transparent and full of light. The walls are yellow here and blue there, and there is a curve to them that minimizes, but does not eliminate, right angles. The floor, chairs, and tables are all wood, apparently reused if the marks on some of them are anything to go by.

For all that, though, the feeling that April gets is a contemporary one. Its strangeness is in the dishes being offered, though according to what she had heard, that strangeness is only poetic.

“Your menu, ma’am,” says her waiter, a cheery guy by the name of Reggie, and April takes the brown cardstock menu and unfolds it. Pork knuckles and ginger soup, it says, and Pork tenderloin sandwich and Ham & Garden Sandwich. Elsewhere, it is kebabs and cornbread made from crayfish, kudzu quiches, pan-fried Asian carp, baked starlings, and strawberry guava.

The restaurant distinguishes itself in enabling invasivory, the eating of invasive species, and every dish has a little entry about when that species had invaded the United States and what sort of damage it was getting up to. From its opening day, Alien Eats pledged that all of its invasives would be wild-sourced, turning the consumption of meat from something ethically dubious to an act of public service. Care about the environment? Then turn that human proclivity for eating things to the noble cause of preserving native species.

April’s scruples don’t run as deeply as they do in some other people, but she appreciates the excuse all the same and orders some steamed lionfish and an ice water before she lets herself really look in the direction of her… “Targets” sounds antagonistic. “Quarry” is worse, and implies an attempt at capture, which PALATINATE obviously hopes will be unnecessary.

“Clients,” maybe. That’s what it’s called when somebody was being observed for psychiatric purposes, April is pretty sure. Her position puts her just a few tables away from the man in the green and woman in white and a little bit past Dan, who has been here since before they arrived. He can eat a lot, certainly, and that trait is helped out by the fact that all of this can get written up as an on-the-job expense, but more important to the time was that he’s eating so slowly.

Her menu reports that feral boar is one of the most ecologically disastrous invasives, which is why it is featured so prominently. That isn’t the only thing available, though, and past the tables of lionfish nachos and salt mussels, Simon’s color-coded mystery people are eating today’s special: long strips of grilled python with honey. A bottle of white wine sits between them, used mostly by the woman in white. She has a glass of milk as well, which seems like an odd accompaniment to snake meat, but maybe it’s April who’s the odd one here. She wouldn’t know.

“…still performing miracles for the purportedly righteous, at least,” says the man in green. He’s eating with his hands, tearing off pieces of meat from the bone and putting them in his mouth. He chews slowly, like it’s something to concentrate on.

The woman in white uses a fork and knife rather than her hands, carefully but quickly separating pieces from each other and dicing them. Click, click, swish, click, go her utensils and she pops another small cube into her mouth. “It’s going to get very boring for a little while, with nobody to watch,” she says. Their voices are soft and difficult to hear where April is sitting, and she wonders what Dan missed just because they didn’t sit close enough to him.

Her phone plays the first few notes of a sea shanty, informing her of a text from Bert: Mary’s coming inside in five, and then maybe the kids. Did you get a good view?

Affirmative. How’s Dan holding up? she texts back. Communicating to Dan directly might have been more convenient, but it is possible that somebody would notice if she were hunching over her phone immediately before Dan pulled out his own. Bert is using a pair of phones, each of which has its own name and corresponding shanty for its alert tone, so that everyone can tell the difference between a text from Bert-as-himself and Bert-the-relay.

Dan’s phone goes off ten feet behind her, but April pays little attention to it. Bert won’t be sending Dan’s reply to her for a couple more minutes. Mary will probably be here by then.

Her clients are still talking, throwing little statements at each other, sometimes with responses. There’s something about “starving the beast, or at least evading it,” and poorly-considered (according to them) currency manipulation, which seems to be related to the first thing. They could be the Secret Service, then, except that PALATINATE’s inquiries didn’t turn up their images.

It becomes apparent as time goes on that they’re talking about, well, it seems like some sort of cult to April, or at least a fringe religious group with a poor opinion of the government. That…won’t be good, if her suspicions are correct and one of the kids that they’re looking for is wrapped up in this. Not good at all, no sir.

Reggie brings out her lionfish, topped with pickled peppers, onion, and vinegar brine and accompanied by a side of sauteed kudzu with parmesan cheese. It’s an opportunity, the menu had noted, to eat the vine that ate the South.

Out of the corner of her eye, April notices Mary arrive, Hannah walking in at her side. They settle in at a table a little further from their clients than April is sitting. Hannah doesn’t so much look in their direction, and betrays nothing of the fact that she might well become a sacrificial lamb here, a degree of composure that April can’t help but respect. Nobody’s sure how much these people already know about the kids, if they know anything at all, or whether they’ll recognize someone, so…

April turns away and stares into her glass.

…Better take a chance with the kid who makes coins disappear.

One minute passes into another. April’s crispy lionfish gradually disappears from her plate, chocolate ice cream (or something like it) appears at her clients’ table even though the woman in white is still eating her serving of python, and the conversation with and via Bert continues. Their clients maintain their discussion too, but half-heartedly, going in staccato fits and starts.

Mary and Hannah receive their meals, and apparently they take it as a signal to get started. Hannah unfolds and refolds her napkin, pushes out her chair, and steps her way to April’s side of the room. The woman in white notices her first, the man in green being ever so slightly positioned away from her, and emits a small gasp. Her hands fall to the table, utensils still in their grip, and the man in green turns just enough to see her.

Held between Hannah’s left pointer and middle finger is a coin. She moves to set it on the table, no doubt to perform her trick just in case their surprise is due to some other factor and they don’t know what she can do, but the man in green raises his hand a couple inches from the table and shakes his head.

“We know who you are, Hannah.” He smiles. “Care for some ice cream?

It’s a friendly opening, an auspicious one. Austin is outside ready to use his flames and there’s a police department on speed dial, but April finds herself feeling optimistic. There isn’t one part of her that thinks that things are going to go terribly wrong.

So it goes.

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