Ahmed removed a pocket computer from his lab coat, and turned the recorder on. He set it down on a counter and promptly forgot about it. He turned back to another counter and continued working on his experiment.
Of course, the lab’s two security cameras would record the experiment as well, but he didn’t trust them. Or rather, he didn’t trust the people in charge of them.
They aren’t even manned by grad students, he grumbled to himself.
The air in the basement laboratory felt chilly, even with his coat on. The air conditioning unit worked overtime to maintain a steady 65 degrees Fahrenheit. It flowed through an open ductwork system along the ceiling’s metal rafters between other pipes and cords of all kinds.
Every type of electrical and data wire snaked through the open rafters too, many dropping down and connecting to equipment scattered throughout the lab.
Speaking of grad students, Ahmed should have had one to help him tonight, a mid-twenties fellow by the name of Barker. But Barker had walked into his office earlier in the evening carrying a gun.
Well, not carrying it in his hands, but strapped to his body. He wore a light jacket and had it in a shoulder holster under his arm. Ahmed spotted it when Barker sat down to talk.
He threw Barker out and yelled at him not to bother showing up for the experiment tonight. Ahmed also decided to yank the student’s name from the paper he planned on submitting to academic journals regarding this series of experiments.
The nerve of that kid. Bringing a gun into my office.
Everybody knew faculty offices were off limits to concealed carry, and yet the kid had sauntered in without a care in the world for the rules.
Ahmed shoved down his irritation stirred up by the memory. Then he decided to mull on it a little longer, and considered additional punishments for the grad student. He would certainly be removing himself from Barker’s committee. The kid would not be writing a dissertation with Ahmed’s name on it, no matter how brilliant the student or his research might be.
Ahmed didn’t care what the department head thought about that, either. Let him find another committee member.
These gun-toting Texans, he thought. Why would you need a gun in a professor’s office? Why would you need a gun anywhere on a college campus?
He waved at the wall, and the lights dimmed. He flicked a switch on a long row of gray low-slung octagonal machinery, looking for all the world like a futuristic light cannon.
Which is exactly what it proved to be. It produced a humming noise, and the far end glowed.
A laser shot out, and Ahmed looked over to other side of the lab where a large cryogenically frozen crystal sat on a counter along the opposite wall.
He calmly walked the length of the lab to the table with the crystal, bent close and observed it change colors before becoming transparent. He waved at the light cannon, and a second beam shot across the room into the crystal. The first beam shut off and the crystal turned opaque. Then the second beam shut off.
Ahmed smiled, noting the slight glow from the crystal’s center.
This was an old idea, “freezing” light. Scientists had found ways to slow down a single photon, and had been doing so in labs since the dawn of the second millennium. But practical applications had proven limited.
But that had not stopped speculation on how the phenomenon might be used. Some of the more exciting ideas revolved around storing and transferring data on the trapped light. But storing that data for any reasonable length of time had not yet proven feasible.
That had not deterred Ahmed. For the last several months he experimented with different lights, different crystals, and a slew of other variables. He liked to remind his grad students, including the recently disgraced Mr. Barker, that Thomas Edison experimented with a thousand different filaments in his quest to produce a commercially viable light bulb. Ahmed’s experiments with “freezing” light photons, he explained, were similar in many ways to Edison’s work.
At that moment, just as he reflected on Edison once more, the security camera on the far wall popped off its mount and crashed to the floor.
Ahmed jerked his head up at the noise, and furrowed his brows.
How did that happen? There is no . . .
He heard a popping sound behind him. He turned just as the other security camera on the opposite wall fell to the floor.
Well it’s a good thing I have my . . .
He never finished the thought. A rope appeared out of nowhere in the air in front of him, one end tied into a noose. The other dangled off to the side. The rope approached him, floating closer.
Ahmed panicked. He looked around in vain for a weapon, anything he could throw at the rope that steadily advanced toward him.
But he found nothing.
The noose flew around his neck. The other end of the rope shot upward, wrapped around a rafter, and quickly yanked down.
Before Ahmed had a chance to think, the rope jerked tight around his throat, then pulled him up into the air with such force that it broke his neck.
The far end tied itself around the leg of a counter while the other end held the scientist’s body dangling in the air.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Ahmed’s pants pulled down to his ankles, followed by his underwear. A moment later a syringe appeared, floating in the air.
“Aiden, where are you?”
The baby giggled and squirmed another couple inches under the portable crib.
The baby giggled again, then grew quiet, continuing to hide. His feet poked out from under the crib.
“Daddy, have you seen Aiden?”
“No, I don’t know where he’s gone.”
“Jerry, have you seen Aiden?”
“No. He just up and disappeared!”
The baby giggled in delight, stomping his feet up and down several times.
“I’m going to have to get up and look for him!”
Emily Parker stood up from the recliner and made a slow walk around the lanai. She and her husband Dan exchanged smiles. This had become one of Aiden’s favorite games lately.
Emily had cut her blond hair short during the pregnancy. Now it reached down to just below her shoulders, but still a far cry from its former length.
Bryce knew his partner liked to stay fit. He suspected she worked out daily. Maybe twice daily. Already her waist had shrunk back down, and one would hardly suspect she had given birth a few months ago.
“If he can’t see us, then obviously we can’t see him,” Dan said with a wink to Bryce.
Bryce smiled back in understanding. It had been a few years since he had taken a course on the subject, but he knew a few things about babies and concepts like “object permanence.”
Dan is exactly right, he thought. If babies can’t see somebody, they don’t think they can be seen.
Or something like that. There are probably better ways of describing the phenomenon.
He smiled, feeling joy emanating from the proud new parents. In a distant corner of his mind, he felt a slight yearning of his own, too. He had always wanted kids. A miscarriage years ago had been nearly as hard on him as it had been for his ex-wife.
He had been surprised, and deeply honored, when Emily told him they named the baby Aiden Bryce Parker.
Aiden was a traditional family name, she explained. Dan’s paternal grandfather had been named Aiden, along with several other ancestors. But they’d selected Bryce as the baby’s middle name in his honor.
Jerry did not feel it was warranted. He told them both he didn’t deserve it.
“Don’t worry about it,” Dan had said with a laugh and a slap to his back. “Aiden Bryce Parker has a nice ring to it.”
Nonetheless, Bryce felt the sincerity behind the measure from both parents, especially Emily.
It was unusual for someone to appreciate him to the point they would name their firstborn after him. No one had ever done that before. He was still getting used to the idea, but he could not deny the gesture made him feel closer to the baby. After all, Aiden Bryce Parker was named after him, at least in part.
Emily finished her circuit of the luxurious lanai. One wall featured a kitchen, the other an entertainment center. A door on the back wall led to the hall, a door to the side of the kitchen led to a bathroom. But the open space in front of them looked out toward the State Capitol lit up in lights, offering a gorgeous evening view from the Nightsky Cigars & Fine Dining Club floating high in the air. Despite the Texas heat on the ground below, this high up the evening felt crisp and cool.
Emily stopped, and gasped.
“Look at these feet sticking out from under the crib! Daddy, do you see these feet sticking out?”
“Yeah. Those are some mighty big feet.”
She reached down, grabbed the baby’s legs, and gently pulled him out from under the crib.
Aiden giggled all the way.
“Daddy, look what I found! I found Aiden!”
She gathered him up in her arms and walked back to the recliner.
“It’s time for you to eat, baby.”
She walked past the table, still featuring remains of the adults’ meal. It had been a most excellent roast duck. Dan and Bryce split a small bottle of Chenin blanc. Emily abstained since Aiden was still breast feeding.
She sat down in a recliner and covered her front and the baby with a blanket. Bryce politely turned the other direction, giving her even more privacy.
Once Aiden latched on, Emily said, “He’s down to two times a day, morning and night. I don’t think he’s going to be nursing much longer. We’ve been supplementing with a bottle and introducing him to different solid foods.”
Bryce turned back around and nodded politely. He knew very little about raising a baby.
“Sounds good. Found a daycare yet?”
“Omigosh, Bryce. What a disaster that’s turned out to be. All the good ones have two or three year waiting lists. We couldn’t have gotten in one even if we applied the day we moved here.”
She glanced over at her husband. Dan nodded, and spoke up.
“We decided to hire an au pair. It shouldn’t be much more expensive than a top of the line daycare. In three years he’ll be ready for pre-K anyway.”
“Sounds okay, as long as you find a good one.”
“We’re working with an agency that has an excellent reputation. We hope to find one through them soon. Any day now, in fact.”
“I am SO ready to get back to work, Jerry. I’m just not the stay at home type.”
Bryce nodded, feeling her emotions on the matter even more strongly than her words betrayed. The department had a very generous family leave policy, but he knew Emily would be back before her allotted time was up. He could sense her resolve.
A few minutes later the baby finished. Emily snapped her nursing bra back in place, pulled down her blouse, and hefted Aiden up over her shoulder. She patted him for a moment until he let out a loud, wet burp.
She carried him gently over to the portable crib and laid him down in it. He fell asleep almost immediately.
Bryce’s phone implant buzzed. He pressed the slight bulge on his neck.
“Bryce. Yes? Yes. Okay, got it. I’m on the way.”
He pressed the implant again to hang up and looked over at the Parkers. They both stared back at him with questioning looks.
“The Hangman has struck again. This time in a university lab, so it’s in our jurisdiction. The captain asked me to help Jenkins out.”
He stood up. Emily stood up with him.
“I’ll go with you.”
“You’re not officially back on the clock, partner.”
“I don’t care. I want in on this. I’ve only been able to follow the case in the news. If he’s struck again in our territory, I want to be on the scene.”
Bryce looked between Emily and her husband. Dan smiled.
“You go ahead, honey. I’ll take the baby home.”
In an aside, as if pretending she wasn’t there and couldn’t hear them, Dan said, “She’s been chomping at the bit for weeks now.”
Bryce nodded, and turned back toward Emily.
“All right, come on. I’ll give you a ride home when we’re done.”
“Achmed Hussein Ahmed. He was a rising star on the faculty. Lately he’s been conducting experiments with light. This lab was signed out to him for the semester. All the equipment is geared for his research.”
Bryce and Parker listened to Jenkins recite the facts without comment. They stood in the basement laboratory wearing latex gloves and booties, looking at Ahmed’s corpse dangling from the rafters. James Ramos from Forensics walked slowly around the room with specialized equipment searching for fingerprints, hair, pollen, and other microscopic items that might be useful in a murder case.
Jenkins had gray hair, and a very wrinkled face. He walked with a constant stoop, always appearing to be looking down. He had let his stomach go, and sported a large paunch.
But what the older detective lacked in physical prowess, he made up in experience and wisdom.
“Ph.D. from Chicago. Lots of prestigious publications. Somebody said he’d be a shoe-in for a Nobel someday.”
“That’s the kind they like to hire at the university.”
Jenkins nodded at Bryce, acknowledging the comment.
“He’s the kind the Hangman likes to kill, too. It’s his M.O. Murder a highly intelligent man, then extract his sperm.”
Bryce shifted the weight on his legs uncomfortably, remembering how somebody had extracted his own sperm some time ago.
Europol Agent Phoebe Renard had tricked him, rendering him unconscious and extracting his semen with a needle and syringe before escaping on a flight back to Europe.
Since Europol tracked and researched “cunning folk,” Bryce assumed they wanted to study his genetic material. Just like they took Desiree Lamont’s body after the Chief shot her. She was a harpy, one of the most powerful cunning folk, and they had stated openly they wished to study her corpse.
Bryce tried to stop Renard at the airport, even going so far as to shoot at her. But she escaped back to Europe with a sample of his semen.
He tried not to think too much about it. If the Europeans were hell-bent on examining his DNA to try and figure out what made him tick, let them.
At least, that’s what he told himself. But in the back of his mind, it still bothered him.
To take his mind off sperm extraction Bryce said, “Cameras?”
Jenkins shook his head.
“As usual, surveillance cams were knocked offline. We do have images of the first one going out right before the second one, though.”
The older detective took out his pocket computer and made a few adjustments. A virtual screen shot out from the computer and displayed a view from surveillance footage. It showed the lab, with Ahmed puttering around his equipment. The far wall showed another cam, which fell off its perch suddenly. A moment later, the scene dissolved to white.
Bryce rubbed his chin in thought.
“Typical of the Hangman. Surveillance cams are the first thing to go.”
“Yeah, but how did they go out? This is the first time we’ve seen one taken down.”
“I dunno. Play it again.”
Jenkins motioned with his hand and the video restarted. He and Bryce watched as the far cam fell off the wall again.
Parker became bored with the video loop. As the men watched it again she wandered off, exploring the lab.
“It’s like somebody hit it with something,” Jenkins said. “Except, nobody’s there.”
Bryce nodded and waved at the virtual screen, making it start over again. They watched the cam fall off the far wall once more.
“Some kind of gun, maybe? You don’t see a projectile, or hear anything . . .”
From the other side of the room, Parker called out.
“Guys! Come take a look at this!”
Bryce sensed her excitement, and immediately headed in her direction.
Parker pointed to a pocket computer sitting on a counter.
“It’s still recording!”
He shared a smile with Parker. This promised to be a huge break in the case.
Jenkins huffed up belatedly and looked down at the pocket computer on the counter.
“We would have found that, eventually. Uh, but good job, Parker. Hey are you back on the clock?”
She grinned at the older detective.
“I am, now! And I think I just earned my paycheck.”
Bryce reached down and waved at the machine to stop the recording.
Chief of Police Jeremiah Jones walked into the lab, and inevitably attracted everyone’s attention. A commanding figure, tall, black and handsome, Jones assessed the room and those in it with a shrewd politician’s eye.
“Somebody leaked that the Hangman struck again. I have a press conference in a few minutes. Give me something to tell them, Detectives.”
He smiled at Emily.
“By the way, welcome back Detective Parker. Glad to see you joining us tonight.”
Emily smiled and glanced over at Bryce.
Bryce said, “Now you’ve got to go back on the clock. The Chief has acknowledged your presence on the case.”
The Chief cleared his throat, and everybody looked back at him.
“What have we got, people? This is the ninth victim in the last few months. There’ve been precious few clues left behind, and no leads to go on. Please tell me you have something this time. Jenkins, you’re in charge. What’d you find?”
Jenkins flushed slightly.
“Actually, uh, Parker found the victim left a pocket computer on record mode. The Hangman missed it when he took out the lab’s surveillance cams. So, for the first time we’ve got video of one of the murders.”
Chief Jones’ eyebrows shot up in surprise. Then he smiled.
“That’s great news! So we got it on camera. I presume we’re talking three-dimensional, right?”
Jenkins nodded, glumly.
“We did. It is. But, I don’t think it’s going to help much with a description. Play it for him, Bryce.”
Bryce reached down with a latex-gloved hand and adjusted the pocket computer by waving over it. A hologram of the lab popped up the counter. They watched the computer’s clock tick off seconds as Ahmed dimmed the lights and adjusted his machinery.
Soon, the first surveillance cam popped off its mount, then the second. A rope materialized in the air in front of the scientist, and the noose wrapped around his neck. The other end flew up through the rafters, tightened, and tied itself off on a counter leg.
They observed Ahmed’s pants go down. A syringe appeared, floating in the air, the needle puncturing his groin.
Bryce fast-forwarded the recording an hour and a half until somebody opened the door, poked their head in and saw the professor hanging from the rope.
He paused it at that point. Jenkins resumed his commentary.
“We checked all outer surveillance cams. Nothing. No one went in or out of the lab during the time this occurred.”
The Chief thought for a moment.
“Okay. This is the first time we’ve actually seen the Hangman in action. Well, I guess we didn’t actually see him, though. Thoughts?”
Bryce said, “Obviously, we’re dealing with an invisibility suit, sir.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too. It reminds me of that one you wore at the Governor’s Mansion.”
The three detectives and the Chief were all present several months ago, when Bryce helped lead an assault on the mansion to flush out Desiree Lamont. Bryce went in wearing an invisibility suit. Jenkins and his partner Miller had obtained the experimental suit from the department’s technology lab.
“That would certainly explain why nothing has ever been picked up on video,” Parker said. “He knocks out all the cameras, and nobody sees him coming or going.”
The Chief looked at each detective in turn.
“He must have been in here waiting for the professor, right? And no doors opened from the time Ahmed came in until someone came to check on him?”
“It’s possible he sneaked in when Ahmed entered,” Jenkins said. “I’ve looked at the security cam footage of that moment. Seems to me there was enough space for a second person to slip through. I think he waited until people came in after finding the body to make his getaway.”
The Chief furrowed his brows in thought.
“Is there a security cam aimed at the lab’s entrance?”
“Not on the hall outside. The security cams inside the lab cover the door. I pulled all the footage for today. There’s cams at the all entrances to this building, too, and we’ve got that footage as well.”
“Then why would he feel the need to wait before leaving the lab? As far as he knew, no cameras were on the door. We should see the door to the lab on this video open and shut by itself after the murder.”
“Maybe he found the pocket computer and realized it was recording?”
“If he found the pocket computer, surely he would have destroyed it.”
“Maybe he wasn’t worried about cameras.”
Everybody turned toward Parker as she spoke up.
“It wouldn’t have to be a security cam he was worried about. Maybe he was afraid somebody outside the door might have seen it open by itself. Then they could put two and two together and figure out he’s wearing an invisibility suit. Say what you will about the Hangman, but he’s been extraordinarily careful. I wouldn’t put it past him to wait over an hour by the door for someone else to open it before sneaking out.”
The Chief nodded in agreement.
“That sounds like a probable explanation, Detective Parker. He killed the professor, then waited patiently until someone opened the door to the lab. Then he exited, knowing that any witnesses on either side of the door wouldn’t see it opening by itself and reach a logical conclusion about invisibility suits.”
A uniformed officer opened the door to the lab.
“Chief, the media has gathered outside. We told them you’d be there soon.”
“Okay, thank you. I’ll be right there.”
When the door closed, he turned back to the detectives.
“Let’s hold our newfound knowledge about all this close to our chests, people. That goes for you, too, Mr. Ramos.”
Ramos waved at the Chief in acknowledgment from the other side of the lab. He continued sweeping the room with his devices. The Chief looked back at the detectives.
“I’m not going to say anything about an invisibility suit to the media. Maybe that’ll give y’all a chance to chase down some new leads.”
The next day proved to be a long one for Bryce and Parker. She showed up at the office right at 8:00. He came in about five minutes later. They spent the day covering leads. They rechecked what little surveillance cam footage existed from previous murders, looked back over statements of those who initially discovered the crime scenes, and tried to reexamine everything in light of the theory that the serial killer used an invisibility suit.
Just before lunch Captain Wilton opened the door to his office and called them in, along with Jenkins.
“The Chief filled me in on what happened last night. Give me an update. What do we know?”
The three detectives took turns filling in details. Wilton appeared slightly overweight. A thinning circlet of orange and gray hair topped his balding head. The Captain seemed tired and stressed-out.
“Great. So, our serial killer is running around with controlled high tech. Jenkins, who makes these suits?”
“We got a break in that regard, Captain. Only one company makes those things, Texas Raj Defense Corporation. They were the ones who gifted our department with Bryce’s suit. Evidently it was just a prototype. The company claimed in a press release several months back that they would have something even better for the next generation. They plan to sell it exclusively to military and law enforcement.”
Wilton nodded, deep in thought. Bryce sensed a sudden spurt of negative emotion, a mixture of dread and suspicion.
“Go check them out, Jenkins. Bryce and Parker, I want to know where our suit has been since we borrowed it for the raid on the Governor’s Mansion. I want every minute accounted for.”
The trio walked back to their desks in silence. Parker spoke up after they sat down.
“Surely he doesn’t think one of our people is behind this?”
“The thought crossed his mind.”
Both Parker and Jenkins gave Bryce a knowing look. He was not a mind reader, but he often made startlingly accurate guesses.
They ordered Chinese takeout, and the trio ate lunch at their desks. Afterwards, Jenkins left to visit Texas Raj Defense while Bryce and Parker went down to the Technology Department in the building’s subbasement.
The two detectives walked through a door and found themselves facing a desk manned by a short, plump, dark haired man with a sour expression on his face.
Bryce noted his name badge. It read, “Lawrence N. B. Witherspoon.”
He nodded at the squat, unhappy man.
“I’m Detective Bryce. This is Detective Parker. We’d like to see the invisibility suit from RajDef and talk to you about who’s been using it lately.”
Witherspoon’s expression darkened.
“Nobody’s used that thing ever since Miller and Jenkins checked it out months ago. They shouldn’t have taken it into the field, either. It’s only a prototype on loan from the company.”
“Then why’d you let them have it?”
Bryce noted the genuine curiosity in Parker’s voice behind the question.
“I owed them.”
Witherspoon’s expression remained placid. But Bryce sensed intense disappointment, as if the plump little man were mentally berating himself for past mistakes.
After several seconds of awkward silence, it became apparent he intended to say nothing more about the matter.
Bryce coughed to break the silence and hopefully lift the mood.
“Well that’s not really why we’re here, anyway. Like I said, we want to know where it’s been since then.”
“It hasn’t been anywhere since then. It’s been locked up down here and nobody has touched it.”
Bryce nodded patiently.
“Can you prove that? You have records?”
“Of course I have records.”
Bryce did not have to be an empath to catch hints of Witherspoon’s annoyance.
The little man murmured into his computer terminal’s virtual screen. A log popped up, floating in the air. Witherspoon twirled his fingers and the text turned around to face the detectives.
“There you can see where I checked it in when Miller and Jenkins brought it back. And as you can see it hasn’t been checked out since. We actually have two invisibility suits. The other one has never left the lab.”
Bryce and Parker exchanged glances.
“No offense,” she said. “But logs can be faked. How do we know for certain it hasn’t left here?”
“And we’d like to see both suits right now. Just to verify they’re still there.” added Bryce.
Witherspoon let out a long, exasperated sigh.
“I guess I’m not going to get any more work done this afternoon.”
At the end of the day, Bryce and Parker returned to their desks in frustration. They had discovered Witherspoon’s technology department kept a storage room rivaling the precinct’s evidence locker in terms of security. It held a variety of weapons and equipment, mostly experimental tools rarely used in the field.
When questioned why the department had so many high tech items locked in the basement, Witherspoon snorted and started off on a political tirade.
“Imagine if we used the invisibility suit to catch a perp in the act. Do you realize the uproar there’d be in the media? Fears of a police state would explode in this town. You can see the headlines. ‘Search and seizure!’ ‘Constitutional rights!’ ‘Violations of privacy!’”
He ranted on for another fifteen minutes about the media and the state’s political climate, as well as current attitudes of the public toward law enforcement.
Bryce and Parker came to the conclusion the invisibility suits assigned to their precinct had indeed been left unused since that night at the Governor’s Mansion.
Then Parker had an idea.
“Did any other precincts receive a suit?”
Witherspoon shook his head, and smiled for once.
“All new department tech comes here, first. We put it through its paces and decide if the department will purchase the items or not.”
Bryce felt the man’s pride swell up. He could tell Witherspoon took his job seriously.
“What about other police departments? Any in Williamson County, or down the road in San Antonio? Or anywhere else in the state?”
“I doubt it. From what Raj Defense told me at the time, they only released four prototype suits. We got two, and the Pentagon got the other two. Not every police department takes the time to test out new tech like we do. We have something of a reputation in the law enforcement community.”
By his smile, Bryce knew that Witherspoon really meant he held a reputation in the law enforcement community.
Back at their desks, Parker noted Jenkins had not returned from visiting RajDef yet.
“Maybe he had better luck than we did. I’m going to try and track down those other two suits that were sent to the Pentagon. I mean, hopefully they’re locked up in DC somewhere, and not floating around Central Texas. But it’s worth finding out for sure.”
“Sounds like a good idea. But I think I’m going to call it a day. I’ll see you in the morning, Emily.”
Bryce walked the streets near his apartment. He passed the boarded up windows and doorway to Marti’s, his old favorite bar and grill. The place had been destroyed by a mob controlled by Lamont over a year ago. Marti’s elderly husband died of a heart attack in the commotion.
Since then, Bryce took most of his suppers at Nightsky, but he kept searching for a replacement to Marti’s. He wanted to find a more inexpensive spot for supper, one filled with convivial people when he was not in the mood to be lonely. And one close enough to walk to from his apartment building.
So far he had been unsuccessful. There were several bars and small restaurants nearby, but none had the ambience of Marti’s.
Tonight he set off determined to try a new place, and perhaps walk farther than he had initially hoped.
After several blocks he came into a seedier neighborhood. The storefronts and apartments appeared worn down, and the number of homeless people on the streets increased dramatically.
A couple of older prostitutes eyed him hopefully, and he noted what appeared to be drug deals going on in side alleys.
But up ahead, in the middle of the block, newer cars lined the street. A few more floated down from above, joining the others.
Bryce suspected the city’s never-ending gentrification was in the process of reclaiming this area for more legitimate purposes.
Soon he neared the entrance to a new pub. A sign above the door read, “Ruffalo’s.”
He followed a young couple in through the door, and stopped to glance around and soak up the vibes.
The front was set up to be a small restaurant, just like Marti’s used to be, with a handful of tables scattered about. The back of the room featured a large bar. More people could sit there than at the tables.
At the bar, handing out orders to wait staff and serving drinks, stood a tall, muscular black man in his late twenties. He had shaved his head, but made up for it with a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard.
Behind him, surrounded by liquor bottles and with a spotlight shining on it, a Heisman trophy stood proudly behind thick glass. The ancient figure of a running American football player, ball in one hand and holding out the other as if to fend off a tackle, gleamed in the light.
Above it, a flashing orange Texas Longhorns neon sign blinked on and off, on and off.
Someone left the crowded bar and Bryce hurried to grab the stool. The big man saw him and walked over.
“What can I get you?”
Bryce asked for his favorite craft beer and a menu. The man nodded and went to pull the mug. He returned a few moments later with the beer and the menu.
Bryce looked at him and smiled.
“I take it you’re Roderick Ruffalo?”
The young man smiled back.
“The one and only, at your service.”
“Is this a new place? I don’t frequent this part of town that often.”
“We just opened a couple weeks ago. Man, you have no idea the trouble this city puts business owners through.
“This is actually not my first choice of locations, but they wanted me to modify my plans too much at the other place I’d picked out. It would have run an additional two hundred thousand.
“I was worried about this neighborhood, but so far the money I’ve invested in social media advertising is paying off. I mean, look at this crowd! It’s been this way pretty much every night.”
Bryce nodded, sipping his beer.
“I wondered what you’d end up doing once you left football.”
“I did too, man, I did too. They gave me a pretty good package after my injury, though. My old man was a bartender in one of the hotels downtown. He’d come home late every night, and I didn’t see him much, but we always had enough for food and clothes, you know?
“I used to talk to him about his work, and he’d always say, ‘Someday I’d like a place of my own, Roddy. Nothin’ fancy. Cold beer and hot food. Happy customers who keep comin’ back.’