In which the two spies meet!
After the goosebumps faded, however, she was exhausted. At this point, she wanted to do nothing but sit all day in the office, back to her bylines. She drifted to sleep to the lull of her vehicle, while meditating on the most boring bylines she could imagine: Local Woman Discovers GM Aphid on Prize-Winning Rosebush; Governor Sanchez Delivers His Most Engaging Political Speech For No One to Hear While Riding in Hot Air Balloon. When her phone rang, it shook her awake from black and white dreams.
“Uncle Adam?” she sleepily said.
“No, it’s Javi. Were you asleep while driving?”
“No. I was expecting a call from Uncle Adam.”
“Yes, you were. You were asleep while driving a car that could malfunction at any second and drive you off a cliff while coming down the mountain. That’s right. I know about you visiting Granddad.”
“I did tell you about it when Mark and I came over for dinner.”
“But you thought I wasn’t paying any attention!”
“Whatever.” Stephanie cleared her throat and stared at the road her car was staying on with all the precision a clunker like this was capable of. “Why are you calling me? You haven’t called me for…what is it, three or four years now?”
“I heard what happened with Mark, and I want to help.”
“You heard he broke up with me? How? Nobody knows but Granddad. And Mark.”
“Hold it there just a second, little sis. Mark broke up with you? He’s perfect for you. I felt it the instant I shook his hand. How can that be?”
What had he heard about, then? Oh, probably the controversy over his front-page story on the true nature of sports. Idiot. Stephanie smacked herself to wake up her mind. “He won’t apologize, and he thinks I’m a whore.”
“Did you sleep with his friends, or what? You don’t really do that, do you, Steph? You’re one of these prudes who avoids relationships.”
“No, I didn’t, and no, I don’t avoid relationships.” She didn’t dignify the accusation of prudishness with a denial.
Javi heaved a gusty sigh. Relationships outside the virtual world were not his forte; he was probably sorry he’d called. “Look, I don’t care. I’m sure he’ll take you back if you apologize to him.”
“Apologize for what?”
“It doesn’t matter. But don’t wait around for him to apologize to you. If you want him back, just apologize for whatever and I’m sure he’ll accept it. Don’t even give specifics. Just say, I’m sorry.”
“I can’t believe I’m taking relationship advice from you of all people.”
“I didn’t call to give you relationship advice.” His voice rose with his typical shrill impatience. “Come over to my place, and let’s talk.”
“Now? I’m hungry, tired, and I’ve had the worst day of my life.”
“God, Steph, the man you love just lost his job and all you can think about is yourself. Emmett’s bringing pizza. You can have some.”
Emmett? The clown he’d de-committed himself from? “Pizza will make me fat.”
This protestation, however, was met with silence. Javi always did this. He branded people with the most cutting assessments and then never repeated them again. He didn’t have to—a branding never faded. And he was right. All she could think about was herself. And Gilly. And Granddad. And Mark. What he said wasn’t true, the manipulative brat!
“All right, I’m coming over. Where do you live, again?”
Nobody knew where Javi lived, except Javi. And Emmett, apparently. Stephanie was astonished that he cared enough about Mark’s fate to give her directions to his game testing lab, where he also slept. To be fair, he had to keep his lair secret because he had the ability to make or break people in the gaming industry. There were a number of people who wanted him dead, in fact. Nobody knew quite how it had happened, how Javi the Androgyne had become the voice of the industry, but some said it was because his visage, in his video commentaries, was so pretty and yet so boyishly handsome at the same time that he resembled the latter models of Minäs—the Devon variety before they’d been lobotomized. His ears were a little oversized, too.
It turned out that Javi lived in a regular stuccoed house, in a regular neighborhood off Zuni. In other words, he was hiding in plain sight under an assumed name, which was why he didn’t invite his family over. If he did, his cover would be blown. He advised Stephanie to park two blocks over and to enter through his back gate that faced an alleyway. And their code names would be Burt and Julia.
Stephanie hoped she had fully understood the directions, as she didn’t want to break into a stranger’s backyard. She needn’t have worried. Her brother was waiting in the alleyway to make sure she chose the correct yard. He was smoking a cigarette, and judging by the pile of cigarettes at his feet, this was a regular habit of his. There would be no eyebrows raised over unusual behavior, such as being an androgyne or wearing a clown suit, although Stephanie was certain there had been many eyebrows raised over the smoking habit. The bans over fat food may have been lifted, but the stigma attached to cigarettes went above and beyond government regulations—which, by the way, hadn’t been lifted regarding cigarettes.
“Julia!” he preened when he saw her, air-kissing each of her cheeks. “I love you, darling! That’s my girl.”
“Burt!” she cried out in mock flirtation, while inwardly shuddering. Her brother was anything but charming, and she was anything but flirtatious.
He ushered her inside, his generically pretty, yet boyish visage not letting on to the game until they were safely ensconced away from probing eyes and ears, inside his New Mexican haven, complete with fake horno fireplace and sunset-scapes on the wall. Then his usual misanthropy fell like a veil over his fine cheekbones.
“You remember Emmett from TV, I’m sure,” he said, with not an ounce of politeness or charm.
Stephanie examined the woman sitting on the couch, absorbed in a game. No, she really didn’t remember this Emmett, as this Emmett was lacking a red bulb nose and makeup and baggy clown clothing. This Emmett looked startlingly like…Stephanie’s brother Javi. Stephanie blinked to make sure she wasn’t seeing things after the long day. The two could have been twins. Not only twins, but identical twins, as they both appeared to be the same nondescript sex.
Emmett lowered her VR goggles and looked up at Stephanie with a scowl, just as Javi might have done if she’d interrupted his game play.
“Nice to meet you, Emmett.”
“Always a pleasure,” Emmett mumbled.
Stephanie had always suspected that clowns weren’t merely sad under all that makeup, but grumpy as well. Emmett confirmed the suspicion, at least as a single case study.
Javi led her to the kitchen, where there was a homemade pizza cut into squares on a cookie sheet. “Help yourself,” he said.
Tears sprang to Stephanie’s eyes as nostalgia overwhelmed her. This pizza appeared to be a recipe from the DHS health guide recipe book, one with a cauliflower crust, tomato sauce, Nutrilla cheese substitute, scrambled tofu, asparagus tips, and one olive slice per square. The olive slice was supposed to provide a day’s worth of essential fatty acids, while the tomato sauce provided a fruit source to balance the nutrition.
The year Stephanie was born, the government changed the legal designation of tomatoes from vegetable back to fruit, based off scientific analysis as well as in conjunction with the DHS health guide recipes, which were short on low-carb fruit sources. It caused massive upheaval in tomato growing regions, with rioters hurling cans of tomatoes through the windows of shops they’d set on fire.
“You’re crying over pizza,” Javi spoke the obvious.
“I’m worn out, and it looks just like mom’s.”
“Which means it’s disgusting. Emmett’s a vegan. She loves these old recipes.” He slid a piece onto a paper plate and took a bite. “I eat it because I love Emmett.”
“Do you love her, for real, Javi?”
“Yeah she’s like the sister I never had.”
Stephanie shoved him on the shoulder in response.
He smiled slightly and air-kissed her cheek. “Javi has a silly sister named Stephanie. Burt has no siblings. Let’s get started.”
He slammed on his sunglasses and sat down at the dining room table. For unknown reasons, Javi, aka Burt, always wore sunglasses indoors. He was wearing his hair bleached blonde these days, and with his green eyes, he might have passed for a Germanic type, if it weren’t for his brown skin and Castillian nose.
“The only way of dealing with these twats that are tormenting Mark is to turn the tables on them.”
“What do you mean? Are they tormenting Mark? I mean, I know they were protesting outside the Daily building, but he already quit his job. What more do they want?”
Javi shook his head as if in disbelief. “Stephanie, Stephanie, do you know nothing about the world?”
“I know a few things.”
“You haven’t been on the internet today. The masses outside Albuquerque are piling on. They’re asking for his head. He’s getting death threats. He hasn’t been doxxed yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”
“Why? All he did was write an article for an Albuquerque paper that isn’t even part of the mainstream news.”
“The article was picked up and run in full by SportSlut. It’s gone viral.”
“Shit. He’ll never get a job anywhere.”
“Eh, non issue. Heck, I’d give him a job, put him on video or something doing gaming news.”
“He does have a sparkle in his eyes, doesn’t he? He’d look good on video. His eyes are bluer than any other eyes I’ve ever seen.”
Javi cleared his throat. “Focus, Steph. Now what you need to do is make use of that stupid farcical news section you have that the average person believes is real. First step: do some biopics on those androgyne sports stars. Get the public behind you.”
“Won’t that just make things worse? Maybe give someone leeway to sue?”
“It’s the farcical section; it has a disclaimer for a reason. Besides, they’re all behind Mark. Maybe not Toby Mann, who’s one of the idiots demanding his head. The other sports stars. They loved Mark’s article. They rarely get acknowledgment for their art.”
Millions of dollars, apparently, weren’t enough acknowledgment for them. “How do you know they’re behind Mark?” Stephanie glanced over at Emmett, who was absorbed in her game, not paying attention to the world at all. Normally, Javi was, too. How did he know any of this? Stephanie’s mind reeled.
“I know most of them in the virtual sports world. You might say we’re good friends. Look, Mark has become an overnight star. People are role-playing him, using him as their identicon. Of course, there are trolls who are out nuking all the little Marks, but that’s irrelevant. Mark is a minor deity now.”
“After you get the public on your side, then you play dirty.”
“I don’t know what it means to play dirty.”
“You’re such a liar, Stephie,” Javi said, and pushed the pizza tray toward her. “For someone too hungry to come over, who practically cried at the sight of nostalgic pizza, you’re showing very little interest in the food.”
“Granddad has spoiled me with real food.”
“Ah, well, don’t let him spoil you from your devious ways, if that’s even possible. You remember your subterfuge as a child? You were like Wormtongue, and you always got me in trouble. Quiet and deadly.”
Stephanie’s heart sank within her. Although there was something in the way of truth in the accusation, at least pertaining to her childhood self, she refused to admit it to her brother. “Whatever.”
Silence filled the space, just as with the previous accusation. This branding gave her some discomfort, however, because of its truth. She couldn’t cast it off as she’d done with the last one.
“You know what to do,” he said, finally. “They’re androgynes. We’re all androgynes. Figure it out.”
“I’m not. And neither is Mark.” Javi laughed at her. Sometimes, she hated her brother. “I need to talk to Granddad or Uncle Gilly. I’m not sure if Mark will talk to me. I need to go. I need to sleep. No, I need to talk to Uncle Gilly.” She rose from her seat. “Thanks, Javi. I mean Burt. See you later, Emmett.”
Emmett raised her head, but didn’t remove the goggles. “I just fucking hacked this football game and created a team of 5000 Marks. I’m so getting banned,” she said.
“Nice!” Javi high-fived his twin. “Don’t forget to use the back gate. Would you like some pizza for the road?”
She waved to him, but didn’t answer. Sometimes her brother didn’t deserve an answer.