"And this IMOP officer just... gave you his number?" Aiko's father could help but be suspicious about her whole story.
"Yeah! Here," Aiko set the slip of paper with Officer Bhang's number on the kitchen table, sliding it over to her father. "This is it; he told me to ask you for permission before calling, so..."
"Aiko, I-..." Her father let out an exasperated sigh, running his hand through his dark locks as he sat back in his seat to think it over. He grabbed a photo from his pocket, the one he kept of Yumi; she was dressed in full IMOP gear next to him as they sat together on their living room couch. The picture was taken before her first day on the job. "Okay, Aiko... okay..." He said with much reluctance. "I know it's different this time. I know you have a Mark and all that, but-..." He sighed again, dialling the number on his cellphone. "It's ringing." He unconsciously began tapping his index finger on the armrest of his chair. "Hello?"
"Fuck, why do I push him all the damn time...?" Aiko thought to herself as she stood in front of Yuko by the kitchen island, seeing past her father's blank face, feeling his tidal wave of emotions. "I feel like a piece of shit." She had gotten so caught up in her own excitement, that she failed to recognize her father's discomfort with the whole situation. It was all bringing him back to her mother, over and over again.
"Hey, who's this?" Aiko could hear Officer Bhang on the other end.
"Roger Schmitt. I'm Aiko Schmitt's father. The one requesting a recommendation for the academy?" He answered, glaring down at his half-full cup of coffee set out on the table.
"Heh, nice to hear your voice after all these years, Smitty..." Officer Bhang laughed.
"Johnny?!" He gasped, nearly bumping his knee on the table as he got up out of his seat. "Oh my god, how long has it been?" He then held a hand over his phone to muffle his voice as he turned to Aiko. "Koko, you never told me you met Johnny Bhang!"
"Wait, you know this guy-? Wait, that's a dumb question..." Aiko slapped herself on the forehead, realizing she had forgotten all about the minor details of her conversation with Officer Bhang in the alleyway regarding her mother.
"Geez, where've you been, pal? It's been a long time." He seemed less tense than before, leaning up against the fridge as countless memories flooded back to him.
"I've been workin', same as always." Officer Bhang replied. "So, your girl's a Mark-user, huh?"
"Yeah, I'm... still trying to get used to it..." He glanced over at Yuko, who waved absentmindedly at him. "So she helped you out in the alleyway, huh...?" Officer Bhang's reply became somewhat muddled as Aiko's father turned away. "Yeah... she's always been sort of a rowdy one. Yeah, just like Yumi." He sat back down at the table, getting down to the brass tacks of the situation. "Anyways, you offered her your recommendation for the IMOP academy, right?"
"Yeah. Based on what I've seen, she can join for the second semester, and luckily that's only two days away."
"It wasn't like that when Yumi joined... what's the rush?" He wondered.
"If you haven't noticed, it's getting tense out there. The Third Wave is larger than we thought. Marcusologists predict an increase of three million at the very least. And Vancouver Island is special, Smitty. This whole area has been marked off as an anomaly. Thousands of new Mark-users have been comin' out of the woodwork as of late around the southern regions of the island, and that includes your daughter."
"Yeah, it doesn't look too good." He shook his head worrisomely as he took a sip of his coffee.
"With the mettle she's already shown to me, I'd be willing to fast track her into a group. The girl has spunk. She just needs the right training with Sarge." Officer Bhang paused for a moment, remembering Yumi. "Roger... it'll be different this time. The academy knows what it's doing now."
"I know, John... I just want to be sure..." He took a deep breath, taking note of the concern on her daughter's face. "I need you to guarantee her safety, Johnny. Can you do that for me?"
"Yeah, Smitty, don't worry. None of us will make the same mistake again. I promise." Officer Bhang's words were reassuring for Aiko's father, but Aiko's mind became an overflowing mess of chaos filled new questions about her mother. Though, reluctantly, she bit her tongue; dropping questions like that on her father would only make it difficult. "So how about it, Roger? You want to sign her up? I can do that for you right away. You won't have to lift a finger."
He thought for a moment, staring over at Aiko, who he could see was teeming with determination. Out of all people, he understood such determination more than anyone. It was the same kind that Yumi expressed every day during her years as on officer. If he said no, Aiko would surely resent him. He knew it was what she wanted more than ever. He knew it was time to stop thinking with his mind— so riddled with paranoia. It was time to decide with his heart instead.
"Yeah, Johnny. Sign her u-!" He was immediately embraced by Aiko, her warmth spreading through him. "C'mon, Koko, I'm still on the phone..." He grinned, returning the hug with his free hand.
"Dynamite! Aiko can text me for the rest of the details. I'll give her the lowdown on everything Monday." Officer Bhang instructed.
"Will she need books, Johnny? Binders? Loose-leaf?" He began to pace around the table, worried what it might cost.
"You need only pay the fee, Smitty. Don't lose your hat. Everything is provided at the school." Officer Bhang insisted in a calm and collected tone. "Besides... it's still a hands-on course anyways."
"What about residence, Johnny? Is there residence?"
"Ah, shit, sorry. Yeah, there is, Smitty. Should I check with the academy and get back to you if they have availability?" Officer Bhang asked.
"No, no... I have relatives nearby." He insisted.
"Oh, dad, no. C'mon! I'll take residence! Officer Bhang!" Aiko objected, trying desperately to take the phone from her father's hand.
A ruckus in the background hastened Officer Bhang's need to end the call. "Alright, Smitty. I'm a little pressed for time here. Get back to me if you have any more questions. But preferably later! See ya!"
"Okay, Aiko. He hung up." Her father said as he held the phone up high in the air, out of her reach.
"Damn you and your German height!" Aiko groaned as she launched herself into the couch face first.
"Koko?" Yuko tapped Aiko on the shoulder, who was breathing heavily into the couch pillow.
"Aiko, I'm not going to pay for residence. It's too much! IST may pay for the courses but I am not paying for the rest, okay?" Sitting down beside her on the couch, he tickled her foot, rousing her from hibernation.
"Dammit, dad! I'm ticklish there!" Aiko crossed her arms as she sat upright, trying her best to hide the grin on her face with a scowl.
"It's just Náanaa and Opa. Besides, you can stay upstairs in that spare bedroom." Reassuring her, he reached across her shoulder and held her close. Aiko still remained unwavering in her stance on the whole situation, keeping the scowl on her face. "Yeah, I know they can be a little too much for a woman your age."
"'Oh, you look so skinny, Koko! Eat some táana!'" Aiko imitated her grandmother as she imagined herself getting smoked salmon shoved down her throat. "I'm not exactly a bottomless pit like you, dad! I'm gonna weigh ten trillion pounds with you not there to eat the food they throw in my face. Nutritionally speaking, German and Haida food isn't the best for the arteries!"
"Oh, you like táana, Koko. That's just a grandparent thing, trust me. It'll pass once you live with them for a little while." He assured her, patting Aiko on the head. "And you'll burn it all off at the academy, won't you?"
"Yeah, yeah..." Aiko couldn't help but laugh. "I haven't played Opa in a game of crib for a while."
"That's the spirit!" He chuckled along with her as he turned on the television. "Now, I'll phone Náanaa and Opa. We might leave at around noon or so, so that leaves you with about an hour to pack. I think you should hop to it now."
"Alright, alright..." Aiko gave her father a kiss on the cheek before she raced up the spiral staircase to her room. "Don't let Yuko watch anything scary!"
Listening carefully, he turned on the television as soon as Aiko's door shut completely, tuning into the action movie channel. "Oh, hell yeah." He stared up at Yuko, who was still standing behind the couch. "Ya like Diehard...?"
Upstairs, Aiko messily stuffed her clothes into a duffel bag she set out on her bed, then packed her makeup into an organized plastic bag and placed it in a side pocket. Then, with no one looking, she packed the old teddy bear her mother had given her on her fifth birthday, Sunny. Sunny had seen much use in its day. It had an eye missing, a partially torn ear, even a coffee stain from when Aiko was seven; she had spilled her father's full mug on Sunny's chest. Aside from its scrapes and scratches, Sunny was your rudimentary teddy bear. However, for Aiko, Sunny was a piece of her mother's soul, and she kept Sunny next to her pillow at night wherever she went to dispel the nightmares. She knew it was childish and that she had outgrown Sunny, but she kept Sunny anyways, hiding him from even her father. Aiko kept Sunny, though, not just as a plush toy. She kept Sunny as a friend.
Packing Sunny away in the front pouch of the bag, Aiko moved on to her toiletries, grabbing her face wash, sponge, toothbrush, any item she could fit into her two remaining Ziploc bags. She tucked the stuffed pouches into the last empty side pocket of her duffel bag, doing each zipper up one by one in a methodical fashion. With a sigh, she backed up, sitting down at the rolling chair by her desk. Her whole life she had lived there, away from all her troubles, free from worry or doubt. In her room, she felt at peace, confident and composed. Everything seemed to make sense inside. Yet, beyond her door was a whole world ahead. And although Aiko was so very fond of the room, she couldn't deny all that was behind her. With one last deep breath, Aiko slung her duffel bag over her shoulder, then stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind her.
"See ya..." Aiko gave her bedroom door a casual salute as she began down the staircase, taking one last look before she left it for good.
Collapsing his umbrella, Officer Bhang entered the retro diner on Main Street. It was a typical 50's nostalgia establishment; space age chrome and red neon adorned the outside of the shoebox-shaped diner. It was the kind of dive Bhang often enjoyed— all flashy and bright, loud and proud. He had called a friend earlier after subduing his captive thief a second time when he tried escaping. He handed criminal over to the local IMOP detachment in Port Renfrew where he would be shipped off to the IMOP Nanaimo Penitentiary.
His friend sat at the furthest table down a long line of booths, taking a sip from her usual coffee; a double-shot of espresso and a shot of cream. Her deep brown hair wasn't in a ponytail like it usually was, but Bhang could recognize her long, wavy locks from a mile away. Her caramel complexion was the same as ever; a mixture of Ukrainian and Inuit. To conceal her identity, she wore a long red scarf around er neck, covering her chin and mouth. And she sported a pair of aviator shades with blue tinted lenses to cover her bright, emerald eyes. Over her well-built, easily recognizable body, she wore a dark brown trench coat. She was looking over a menu absentmindedly, perusing through what few pages she was given.
"Well, well... haven't I seen you before, gorgeous?" Bhang asked as he leaned up against the woman's seat, his eye wandering down towards her long legs.
"Oh, cut it out, Johnny. This isn't a date."She scoffed at Bhang as she directed him over to the adjacent seat. "Sit down. I already know what I'm having."
"Let me guess, Ila... a Reuben?" Bhang chuckled as he took a seat, placing his coat and cap on the hook between their booth and the neighbouring one.
"Ah, I'm switching it up this time!" Ila insisted, turning her menu around to show Bhang her order. "A bacon cheeseburger!"
"Okay, okay! You win, you're cultured!" Bhang joked as he sipped his glass of water through a straw, browsing the menu. "I can see it now... 'Northstar: Connoisseur of Fine Foods!'"
"Screw off, Johnny. Everyone's got to shovel shit in their body once in a while." Ila scoffed as she turned her menu over to signal the waitress. "Are you done?"
"Yeah..." Bhang replied as he set his menu down as well, removing his glasses to reveal dark brown eyes.
It took only a few seconds for the waitress to take notice, and once she did, she immediately sprung into action. She grabbed their menus, taking out a notepad and pen. "Hello, may I take your order?"
"Yeah, I'll have a poutine please," Bhang ordered. "Nothing on the side, though. I'll stick with water."
"I'll have a bacon cheeseburger. Replace the fries with a Caesar salad." Ila chimed in, adjusting her glasses to remain hidden. "Oh, and I'll have an iced tea as well."
"Alright, you two. Your orders shall arrive-..." The waitress trailed off as she took a long look at Ila. "Um... sorry, don't I know you from somewhere?"
"Uh, no, ma'am... you must be mistaken," Ila kept her cool on the surface, but inside she was practically screaming. "My apologies."
"Huh, alrighty then..." She nodded, running off behind a back door into the kitchen.
"Yikes... close call." Bhang snickered, leaning back in his seat, sipping down what remained of his glass of water. "And a Caesar salad? That's the equivalent to deep-fried fruit, Star."
"Johnny, not so loud! I told you not to use my codename in public!" Ila said in a muted shout.
"Oh, relax, Ila... Port Renfrew is far from a bustling city. It's not like you'll get tackled the second they all realize you're Northstar, 'Canada's Shining Star of Justice!'" Bhang couldn't help but put a sort of heroic emphasis on the title.
"Do you really need the hero voice?" Ila huffed, resting her right leg over her knee, unintentionally slamming her ankle into the bottom of the table. "Ah, shit... ouch..."
"Oh, so you can survive getting hit by a train, but you say 'ouch' when you get a boo-boo on your ankle?" Bhang chuckled at Ila's mundane injury.
"Hey, I said I can take extreme impacts. This is just... an annoying impact." Ila sighed as she rubbed her ankle. "This is all besides the point, Johnny. Why the hell did you call me here? Did you just want an excuse to go out for dinner with me?"
"As much as I'd like to say yes to that... no. Sadly, this meeting of ours is business related. I've got some information regarding The Kin's whereabouts." Bhang leaned to the side and reached into the inside of his coat, drawing a large file from the pocket and passing it over to Ila. "Looks like we were wrong. Based on a contact of mine, they're layin' low in Victoria— around the Saanich area."
"Saanich? I thought they were in Vancouver..." Ila shook her head as she looked over the various criminal records and photographs of The Kin members. However, no picture of the gang leader was included in the document. "Are there any pictures of The Father?"
"No. Only Camila Pistola and Varg Klo have turned up so far, as expected. The Sister and The Brother do most of the grunt work for The Kin. We've yet to catch a glimpse of The Father. The closest thing we've gotten to a lead on him is his first name... 'Damian'." Bhang explained as he too scoured through the photographs. "It's not a stretch to assume that The Brother and The Sister are here to stay; they only operate where The Father goes. That assumption rings true for the rest of The Kin as well."
"Have there been task forces sent?" Ila wondered, scowling at a picture of the feral beast named Varg— his sharp teeth on display in a sickening grin.
"No, not yet. We've yet to find their new base of operations thanks to whatever power The Uncle has. But the fact remains clear... they're Victoria's problem now. They've already killed ten members of The Paladins gang in the Saanich area. From the looks of things, they won't be slowing down anytime soon." Bhang groaned as he laid out the rest of the photos. "God, we just need to capture Varg or Camila at the very least! Maybe then we could get one good lead!"
"Perhaps that's why they've moved?" Ila suggested. "Maybe they recognize Victoria as an in-crisis city; the handful of IMOP detachments in Victoria are stretched thin in terms of numbers. They're blending in amidst the chaos."
"Yeah, I thought that too..." Bhang nodded, fiddling with the hair on his chin. "Looks like we've just got to wait for their next move."
"Damn... I hate sitting idly by while they just tear cities apart! To Ottawa, I'm not even an IMOP officer anymore! I'm just some figurehead!" Ila growled, failing to recognize the waitress carrying her food nearby. "Oh, sorry..."
"It'll be fine, Ila. I can handle the job with the Saanich detachment. Port Renfrew can be left alone for now. Arresting The Kin is our top priority." Bhang said as he gathered up the contents of his case file to leave room for the meal. "Don't lift a finger until you absolutely have to, okay?"
"Alright..." Ila breathed in deeply, regaining her composure. "I just want to do my job is all."
"We all want to, Ila. And right now, the whole island needs a shoulder to lean on. That shoulder is you. Remember that." Bhang reminded her.
"I know, Johnny, I know..." Ila rested her chin on the table, poking at her burger. "I'm just becoming more and more indispensable every day."
"Relax, Ila... at least for now." Bhang tried soothing her nerves as he stuck a fork in his poutine. "Enjoy the delectable ethnic food laid before you, my dear!"
"This isn't a date, Bhang..." Ila persisted with her stance on the dinner situation. "But... it is good to see you..."
"The feeling's mutual, Star..." Bhang grinned as he lifted a forkful of gravy and cheese covered fries to his mouth. "Fuck, I haven't had a poutine in weeks!" He was shaking with anticipation for but a moment before realizing he had unknowingly perpetuated a stereotype. "Jesus, how Canadian was that sentence?"
"Very..." Ila giggled as she grabbed her burger.