“Rules of Engagement”


A hot cup of coffee cures a lot of ills, but not everything. It can start your day, it can calm your nerves, it can wake you up. But it can’t make you any more attractive than God created you.

I thought about that as I stared at the ugly, old man sitting handcuffed in the next room. The one-way mirror made it impossible for him to see us—I knew that—and yet I felt as if he were checking us out just as much as we were examining him.

“Wow, what an ugly dude,” I muttered under my breath. Too much nose, too much ears, not enough chin. Fat lips. I was surrounded by homeless people every day at work, and saw many who could have benefited from better hygiene or a visit to the dentist. But this guy…he was in another league.

“Hey,” Ibañez said to me. “Be nice, detective. Maybe he’s somebody’s daddy.” She was working with the cameraman, getting the recording ready to go.

“I doubt it. No woman’s going to want to snuggle up to that.” I watched them over the steam rising from my Styrofoam cup. “You guys about ready?”

Ibañez muttered something technical to the cameraman, then turned and shook her head to me.

“Something screwy here. Five years and we’ve never had a problem. This guys comes in and the whole system goes kablooey. The autofocus isn’t working, and we can’t even get the manual to work.”

“What about audio?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Should work, but who knows at this point.”

I frowned. “Well, feds will be here in 45 minutes. I want my pound of flesh before they arrive. Keep working on it.” I picked up a yellow tablet. “Guess it’s time to go old school.”

I slipped out the door and into the locked door to the interrogation room, stopping for a moment before entering to take a second cup of coffee handed to me by an assistant. I fumbled to shut the door behind me, almost spilling the coffee. Then I sat down across from our detainee, Mr. Smith.

“Thanks for being patient, Mr. Smith,” I said, handing him the second cup of coffee. He looked at the coffee and then at his handcuffed hands shackled to the table, and then finally at me. I nodded and dug out my keys.

“Sorry,” I said. “Standard procedure, but I doubt very much that we need these any more.” I unlocked the handcuffs and Mr. Smith took a minute to rub the circulation back into his wrists.

“Thanks for the coffee,” he said in a husky voice. I envisioned him lying in a cardboard box somewhere near the Chicago River, or maybe just off Michigan Avenue. His appearance was definitely consistent with the many homeless I knew. His overcoat was two sizes too big, and was soiled and stained. His shoes were held together with duct tape. A flannel shirt that was missing two buttons scarcely hid a dirty t-shirt beneath. And I could smell his breath from the other side of the table.

“So, Mr. Smith, do you know why we brought you in?”

He shrugged. “Guess I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I nodded. “That’s about the size of it. Except the Feds seem to think this isn’t the first time.”

I expected him to be surprised when I mentioned the FBI. Instead he calmly kept drinking his coffee.

“You’ve got me curious,” I said. “We don’t know much about you. Your fingerprints and mugshot—heck, I would wager even your DNA—doesn’t show up on our database. Yet the FBI seems to believe you have been seen at the site of at least four disasters in the past six weeks.” I started counting on my fingers.      “Madison, Wisconsin: hotel fire kills six. You were seen outside in the crowd. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania two days later. A freak auto accident kills a family of five. Feds have a photo of you on the sidewalk half a block away. San Luis Obispo, California, two weeks ago. Drowning at a public pool. You were there. Shall I go on?”

Mr. Smith stared at me and shook his head slightly. “Would there be any point in it?”

“You tell me, Mr. Smith. Was that you in all of these locations, or are we just mistaking someone else for you this many times?”

He shrugged, still unruffled.

“I tell you what. I think you’re some sort of terrorist, or a serial killer or something. Why else would you be in all these locations at just the right time?”

Mr. Smith’s eyes locked with mine.

“Circumstantial,” he said quietly. “Being there doesn’t mean I did those things.”

“Well, then, maybe you can explain to me why you were in Madison, and Harrisburg and San Luis Obispo? What about tonight? Why were you outside that club tonight? Give me a good reason to believe that you weren’t part of that shooting? The one that claimed four lives?”

Mr. Smith inhaled through his nose slowly and then nodded.

“OK I will tell you,” he said. “I was in Harrisburg, and San Luis Obispo, tonight in Chicago, and all of those other places because I was looking for someone.”

“Looking for someone. Someone, who?”

“Actually, two someones,” he said. “But you’re not going to believe me.”

I leaned back in my chair. “Try me.”

 

The throbbing sounds of techno filled the night sky as Roni stepped out of the club and headed home. The Miami night was muggy and she had cab fare, but her head was pounding and she felt like night air and a walk would help it. South Beach was a lot of fun—at least she used to think so—and was one of the main reasons she left her home in West Virginia. But after four months of working with friends during the day and partying with the same friends at night, she was growing tired of it. Tonight she thought of the young men who seemed to be incessantly pawing at her. Some nights she was up for a close encounter; tonight it irritated her.

Ironically, she thought back to the little white steepled church where she had attending services every Sunday. Bethlehem, West Virginia was a far cry from South Beach, and right now it sounded pretty good.

“Pardon me, young lady,” she heard behind her. “Can you spare some change?” The voice came from a woman who looked to be in her 70s, but Roni knew that homelessness made age deceptive. She paused, then reached into her clutch for a dollar bill.

The old woman peered at her from bushy eyebrows and a weathered face. “You’re a pretty girl. What’s your name?”

“Veronica,” Roni said, finally settling on a five-dollar bill and handing it to her.

“Veronica,” the old woman repeated. “I bet you go by the name Roni.”

Roni’s head bobbed backward in surprise. “How did you know?”

“You didn’t stay at the club, Roni?” the woman continued. “Weren’t you having a good time?”

“Not really,” Roni said. She smiled thinly at the old woman. “I really have to go. Have a good night.”

“Sweetie, maybe you should just get something for that headache. You’re young. Take care of it and get back out there.”

Headache? How did she…? Roni stared at the old woman.

“West Virginia is no place for a young woman like yourself.”

Roni took a step backward, then turned away, muttering, “This is too weird.”

She walked swiftly away down the avenue, the old woman calling to her from behind. When she passed a newspaper stand, the man behind the counter shouted out at her:

“Roni, you need to go home with someone tonight.”

She stopped suddenly and stared at the man.

“Do I know you?” she asked, knowing the answer already.

The man smiled at her in response. “Don’t be alone tonight.”

She turned and fled down the street.

 

“OK, I’m listening,” I said, stirring my coffee with a swizzle stick.

“Imagine a war going on,” Mr. Smith said. “A war much bigger than anything you have ever seen. Instead of countries, think of it involving whole worlds, systems, galaxies even.”

“Galaxies, right,” I said. “And I take it you’re one of the soldiers. Maybe a general?”

“Nope, just what you would consider maybe a sergeant,” Mr. Smith said. “But then the war goes into a cold-war stage, much like the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 50s. There’s not a lot of out-and-out fighting going on, but that doesn’t mean we are friends. Both sides are tired of the fighting, even though one side—my side—has technically already won. And so we come up with rules—what you might call rules of engagement.”

“Right,” I said. “Go on.”

“The rules are that we allow the bad guys to stay alive as long as they behave themselves and we can keep tabs on them. We know where every enemy is, and what he’s doing.”

“But these are bad guys,” I said, interrupting. “You can’t expect them all to obey the rules.”

“You’ve got it,” Mr. Smith said. “When one of them disappears, and stuff starts happening, then I am the one they call to track him down.”

“So what does this bad guy look like? You can save us all a lot of trouble by giving us a description of him. Maybe we can put out an APB.”

Mr. Smith cringed. “That’s the problem. You have to remember that this is a galactic war. He’s not human. He’s a mesomorph.”

“A what?”

“Mesomorph. Changeling. Shape shifter. One of his skills is changing shape as needed. That’s just one of his skills. Remember when I said I was looking for two people? He’s the first one. You’re the second. I need you to help me find him before he causes any more trouble.”

“If he’s a shape shifter, then how am I supposed to be able to find him?” I asked, still playing the devil’s advocate.

Mr. Smith smiled back thinly. “Shape shifting works because he plays with how we see him. Our eye tells us that we see one thing, but mirrors and cameras don’t lie. They tell the truth.”

I stared at Mr. Smith for a long moment before I started laughing out loud.

“That’s the stupidest story I ever heard.”

He shrugged as I laughed heartily, spilling my coffee on the front of me.

“Aw crap,” I said to him, and stood up. “Be right back.” I headed for the door to clean off the coffee, rapped on it to let the guard know I was done, then turned to look at Mr. Smith.

“Don’t you go anywhere,” I said, then laughed again as I looked at the ugly old man.

 

A dozen blocks later, Roni saw the lights of her own apartment building, and sighed relief. After the first scare of the old woman, then the magazine stand man, a cabbie had slowed down and offered her a ride. She almost took it, but saw something in the cabbie that made her hesitate.

“Come on, Roni,” the man had said, and Roni began running again, the fear renewed in her. She was now out of breath, but within sight of her home. She ran up the stairs to her second-floor apartment, and was greeted by a familiar sight. A yellow tabby cat rubbed at her leg as she fished for her keys. She found the right one, put it into her lock and picked up the cat.

“What are you doing out here, Mr. Snuggles?” she said to the cat, relaxing as she heard his purr. She flipped on the foyer light in the apartment, stepped inside and immediately pulled the deadbolt into place and put the chain in place in the latch. Then, for good measure, she pulled the nearby table over into position against the front door as well.

Her heart still pounding, she stood in the semi-darkness and petted Mr. Snuggles. The cat continued to purr, and his monotonous sound helped her slowly begin to relax as she buried her face in his coat.

What a night, she thought. She still could make no sense out of the three strangers who seem to not only know her intimately, but even know what she was thinking. She mulled the strange train of events through her head as she put the cat down and ran a hot bath to help her soothe her nerves.

Twenty minutes later, dressed in a terrycloth robe, she put out a saucer of milk for Mr. Snuggles. As he drank the milk, she yawned and decided it was time to head for bed. She changed into her nightgown, turned the bedside light on, then went into the living room to turn off the foyer light. Then she remembered Mr. Snuggles, who would wake her up in the middle of the night, needed to be let outside.

“Mr. Snuggles?” she called into the other room. She stepped from the foyer and into the darkened kitchen. She never saw the large, dark form that was waiting for her there. She had just enough time to let out one muffled scream.

 

I didn’t bother trying to wash the coffee out of my shirt. Instead, similar mishaps over the past eight years had taught me to always have a backup. I pulled another dress shirt out of a box in my desk drawer and took it into the men’s room to change.

Five minutes later, I figured it was time to check in with the techies. I slipped into the observation room. Ron, the cameraman, was still working on it, and Ibañez was nowhere in sight.

“So what do you think of our loonie?” I asked. Ron shrugged, and I thought, well, he never had a sense of humor anyway.

“Where’s Detective Ibañez?” I asked. Ron shrugged again, but I saw her sitting in the next room, and said, “Never mind.”

I entered the interrogation room and immediately knew something was wrong.

“Where’s Smith?” I asked her, sitting where I had left him, the cuffs around her wrists.

Her response was groggy at best. “I came in looking for you, and the next thing I know, I’m here and he’s not.”

I pulled out my keys and unlocked her cuffs. Then I knocked on the door and waited for the guard to open it.

“Did you see an ugly old man come through here?” I asked the guard, then asked every other person in the squad room. No one had seen him pass, and I immediately got everyone looking for him. I know how it looked, and with the camera not working…The Feds were going to have babies.

Mirrors and cameras don’t lie, I remembered him saying. I thought about the non-functional camera, the first problem we had had with it in five years. And I thought about Ibañez.

I found her finally when I crashed through the doors into the restroom. Ibañez—the real Ibañez—was out cold in one of the stalls. I called for help, then ran back to the interrogation room.

Our Mr. Smith—now Ibañez—still sat at the desk. I closed the door behind me and looked at Mr. Smith/Ibañez. And then I looked at the one-way mirror.

I saw a crystal sharp version of me, standing next to an image of someone—or something—that never quite came into focus. I stared at it, unbelieving for a long while before turning back to Smith/Ibañez. She smiled up at me.

“When you’re ready to talk, I’ll be around,” she said.

As I watched, the being flickered and disappeared in front of my eyes. On the chair where he/she sat lay a simple, white business card, which read:

Mr. Smith

            Center for Concerned Studies.

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