The next morning, I kicked the Vietnam era, woolen covers off my cot and looked around. I was bedded down in a defunct, record store. Waist-high bins held hundreds of titles dating from the dawn of man to sometime in the mid-seventies.  Rock and Pop star posters hung from the walls.

When Bureau One started using the indoor mall for training, they left most of the store fixtures in place. It was great to have all the elbowroom, but I couldn’t get past the looming apocalyptic feel.

The previous day’s training wasn’t so bad after the hounds were called off. They ran me through a battery of psych-evals. One persistent doctor kept shaking his head as I answered the inevitable questions about my mother and father. It didn’t help my case when they showed me the inkblot test. It wasn’t my fault. They did it before dinner and I was hungry.

I pulled on a pair of jeans and white t-shirt and wandered out of the record store toward the chow hall.

“Hey, wait up.” A voice came from over my shoulder.

I turned and saw one of my roomies. The kid from America Samoa. He’s built like a barrel, all muscle too.

“Pick it up, dude. Eggs are hot, and my stomach is growling,” I said.

Lau pulled a black t-shirt over his head, which competed with his floral-printed surf shorts, and joined me in the hall. “Think they’ll have cake?”

“Coffee.” I twisted my lips and raised an eyebrow.

He struggled to get his massive shoulders aligned in the clingy fabric. “No, cake?”

“You get cake. I get coffee.”

We passed a nonworking water fountain and reflection pool along our walk through the repurposed shopping mall. Loose coins littered the bottom along with green-oxidized piping.

Lau turned eighteen last night and in fact, I was sure he was hoping to get leftover birthday cake. He came from a tiny island in the South Pacific and this was his first time away from home.

“Don’t worry, kid. I’m sure the kind lady behind the counter will have saved you a piece.” I patted him on the shoulder.

“I like her. She always gives me extra.”

“You know, that sounds like a perfect relationship. You ought to hold on to her.”

His face went round and pale. Granted, his face was already round but the paleness accentuated his chestnut-brown complexion. “You’re… you.” He punched me in the arm with a hand the size of my foot. “Ha, not bad. My sister would like you.”

I rubbed the newly formed bruise and eased a few inches away from the happy-go-lucky giant-of-a-man.

We continued to follow the central passage. On the left, a store displayed the latest choices in platform shoes. Across the way, a men’s shop mannequins wore purple and burgundy double-knit slacks. I was reliving my younger years all over again.

“Ironstone.” Gray Dude stood at the door to the mess and stared at me. “Ironstone. Double time.”

Lau and I stepped up the pace.

“Yes, Chief.” I stopped in front of the man with the gray and braided ponytail.

“I assume you have your pistol on you?” His face held no emotion, eyes still and breathing undetectable.

“Yes, Chief.”

“Good. Go on and get chow.” He walked down the hall the direction Lau and I had come.

Lau pulled the door open and entered. I followed.

The room smelled good. Whoever was the cook knew what they were doing. Running a short-order grill took skill and practice. I’d spent many an hour slinging hash and eggs while growing up and could recognize the subtle aroma of a short-order master.

Lau and I grabbed trays and shuffled into the line.

I was surprised to only see a couple of people ahead of me. The room sat a few hundred but only ten tables were set up with chairs. “How many are here for training?”

“You make fifteen. The chief said you were the last one,” Lau grabbed an apple from the bowl on the counter.

The lady holding the serving spoon stood poised. “Potato? Egg? Bacon?

“What’s the cook’s specialty?” I gave her a smile. “It all looks good.”

Her voice sounded a bit surprised. “The home fries, and she makes the sausage herself. Try that.”

“Fill me up.” I handed her my plate.

Once finished with me, she took Lau’s plate and loaded it with enough food for three men. To finish out the selection, she handed him another plate with a piece of last night’s cake. “Sorry you had to be away from home on your birthday.”

“Thanks.” His face beamed.

“See. I told you she liked you.” I said as I looked at Lau.

He bobbed his head. “She’s a nice woman. My sister would like her.”

We found a table to ourselves and while he started shoveling food, I went looking for the coffee pot.

The room the chow hall occupied must have been an anchor store for the mall. With all the clothing displays removed, the expanse encompassed several thousand-square-feet. A stack of chairs and tables were pushed against a wall, but other than that, it was open floor.

A woman in her thirties with big hair flipped over and highlighted like a movie star, filled her coffee mug as I approached.

“I’m Rye. Just got in.” I offered my hand for a shake.

Her eyes searched the room as if she was looking for something big and bad to jump out of a closet. “June.”

I pulled my hand back and tried again. “Coffee any good?”

“Yeah. It’s all good. Can’t figure out why. Food stamps never fed me like this.”

Her comment took me by surprise. “It does seem off kilter for what you’d expect.”

She glanced around the room again, searching for an unseen boogieman. “Why are you here?”

I followed her eyes, trying to imagine what she may be looking for. “I had a little tussle with some crazy women who could shoot lightning out of her fingers. I guess they thought I would make a good agent.”

“An agent? We weren’t supposed to get any agents in this group.”

“What do you mean?”

She clutched the coffee mug to her chest. Her eyes focused on a table without people and a single place setting with uneaten food.

I filled my mug. “Why don’t you join me and Lau. Safety in numbers, you know.”

Her breath came in short bursts. “Okay.” Her eyes danced across the room.

“I’ll walk with you if you want?”

She took a step forward. “Thanks. I don’t know why you’re here. We’re all going to be working in the labs or offices once our training is done.”

I held June’s chair, placing her between me and the big Samoan. She settled in and picked at her food. I figured she ate like that all the time. She was tiny, probably less than a hundred pounds.

“This is Lau.” I introduced the two of them. “It was his birthday last night.”

She nodded her head. “I remember.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lau said. “You didn’t eat any of the cake.”

Her face froze, as if caught in a trap. “Sorry. I don’t like cake but happy birthday anyway.”

His face softened. “That’s alright. My sister doesn’t like cake either.”

June settled and took a few bites of her meal. I dug into the food. My decision to go with the cook’s specialty was probably going to be the best decision I made all day.

As I laid my fork on my plate and leaned back to enjoy my coffee, June handed me an envelope.

“They said to give this to you when you finished eating.” She clutched the letter between the tips of two fingers, as if afraid of it, or possibly touching me. “You need to read it now.”

I opened the envelope and read the handwritten note.

Ironstone,

Your mission is to protect the innocent and shoot the designated targets. The targets are identified by bright-orange X’s.

If you injure any of my men…

-Chief Ohanzee ‘Shadow’

Someone must have turned off the lights. The room fell into semi darkness with only a sliver of illumination coming from the glass doors which led into the main hallway.

June screamed. Her high-pitched voice cascaded with the effect of darts striking my skin.

My stomach clenched. Holly, my pistol purred with excitement. It seemed the placid experience of morning chow was about to shift into the unknown.