Troy Freeman-Li spotted a man and woman in heated conversation. He tuned in his bionic ears.
“Bitch, you need to work. Get me three more paying customers, or I cut you.”
“I need some dope,” she protested.
The man reached back to slap her. But Troy had closed the gap, and caught the man’s wrist.
“The fuck? Who you think you are?” snarled the pimp.
“I’m the man who is stopping you from striking this lady,” answered Troy.
“Fuck you!” the pimp struggled to free his arm, and grabbed clumsily for his knife with his off hand. Troy was faster. The man’s own knife was at his throat.
“We cool, bro?” asked Troy. The pimp looked down. “We cool, man. We cool.”
Troy released the man’s wrist. The pimp backed up to the wall, blade at his throat. “Can we talk?” asked Troy. “I’ll give you your knife back.” The man nodded. Troy put the knife back in its sheath, keeping his hand on the hilt. “Sit?”
The two sat on the pavement. Passerby walked around them. The girl – she might have been 16, 18 – sat.
Troy fist-bumped both. “Let me explain the situation. I run the dojo, right there. With the rec center. I want this block to be a safe zone. That’s all I ask. You want to work this area, Sissy, that’s fine. You want to do business, Deke, that’s fine. But you got to respect some limits. Don’t hit people, except in self-defense. If you do, you’ll answer to me, or one of my people. I got eyes on you.”
Troy made the “eyes” gesture with two fingers. “We cool?” Deke nodded.
“Sissy, how bad is it?”
“Bad.” She was shivering.
“Deke, leave us.” said Troy. “Just leave.”
Deke stood, threw up his hands in a gesture of futility, and stomped off.
Troy pulled an auto-injector from his vest, and injected the girl. “This will take off some of the heebie jeebies. It will help with your addiction, you hear me?” She nodded. “Don’t take any drugs from Deke. You come to me, in the Dojo, or talk to the nurse in the rec center. All rght?”
“He’ll force it on me,” said Sissy.
“Then don’t go back to him. This is a safe zone. You need a place to crash? Go up to the roof. See the fire stairs?”
“How do I get up there?” asked the girl.
“Just reach, someone will see you and drop the ladder.”
Troy kept an eye on her, as he went back to the Rec Center. He had a small class already, from 6 to sixty years old. He taught them patiently, each at their level, and had a good eye. When Troy said “I got eyes on you,” he wasn’t referring merely to his own, or to the eyes of other people at the Rec Center; he was referring to the myriads of surveillance cameras, some of hidden, and all connected via the Dark Net to the Interfaces of people like Troy.
Troy was part of a sort of volunteer mission from Wallenberg to San Francisco. He had about thirty companions so far, each equipped with an Interface, each committed to creating a zone which would be safe from agents of violence, including those with badges.
After class, Troy spotted a police car, parked outside a donut shop. He entered, sat at a table nearby, nodded. One of the officers rose. “May I join you?”
Troy gestured; the officer sat. “Name’s Jordy Benson. Heard about what you did for Sissy.” He leaned in. “Unofficially” – the officer looked around – “me and Tom think you’re all right.”
Troy smiled. “Glad to hear that you and me are all right.”
Tom joined them. “Tom Walters,” he said. “Me and Jordy been talking. We prefer to just keep the peace. We got pressure from the brass to bring in vice arrests and stuff, but that always seems to be a waste of time, and our least favorite part of the job. I’ll deny any of this, of course.”
“I don’t have a boss telling me to worry about vice,” replied Troy. “So I do my bit to just keep the peace. That’s all I’m about, see.”
“What’s in it for you?” asked Jordy.
“Nothing. I got a business to run, and if my students are comfortable, I get more students. That’s all.” replied Troy.
“What’s on the roof?” asked Tom. “I saw Sissy go up the ladder.”
“A safe place.” replied Troy. “Used to be a penthouse apartment. I bought it.”
“You got a harem, or what?”
“Just a safe space. Y’all can visit, if you want. See for yourselves. Just remember, in my space, your badges don’t mean shit. Wear them or not, it’s up to you, but they don’t mean a thing up there.”
“Might take you up on that.” said Jordy.
“I’d be honored. Just signal.” Troy gestured.
“A’ight.” The two policemen paid for their drinks, tipped the waitress, and left.
“What’ll it be?” asked the waitress.
“Coffee to go, please.” Troy said. He took it, left a bill.
“Thanks!” said the waitress, grinning.
In the police station, Tom and Jordy were punching their clocks, and the next shift – Larry and Cass – asked them to step outside for a minute. In low tones, Larry said “What’s up with that breed, Troy? He offering anything?”
Tom winced. Larry had a rep for being crude, lewd, and dirty as a pig in a pool o’ shit.
“He ain’t like that, Larry.” said Jordy. “He’s a decent guy.”
“He ain’t paying you?” sneered Cass.
“Wouldn’t even buy us a coffee.” answered Tom.
“Cheap ass. Sucks to be you,” said Larry. “What’s his deal? I heard he had words with Deke.”
“He just wants a safe place to do business,” answered Jordy.
“You say so.” said Larry.
Larry and Cass went back into the station. Jordy and Tom looked at each other. “Let’s see if the Penthouse welcome mat is out.”
A few minutes later, they locked their badges and gear in the car, went to the foot of the ladder, and gestured. The ladder slid down. They climbed up.
“Wow, it’s nice here.” said Jordy.
Young lady, maybe 20ish, greeted them. “Hello! You must be Jordy and Tom. D’ye come in peace?”
“We do,” answered Tom. Jordy echoed him.
“Then peace be upon you. My name’s Salome. Please come in.”
The two men sat on a patio. It was a cool but pleasant night. Infrared heaters took the chill off. Another girl brought them glasses of iced tea.
Troy appeared. “Welcome, gentlemen.”
“Thank you,” replied Jordy. “Nice place. First time we ever got an invitation, to be honest. The owner before you was rumored to be a secret partner in a lot of shady business, until he met a bad end.”
Tom continued. “We just had a few words with a pair who did get an invitation, we think.”
“Larry and Cass?” asked Troy.
“You know about them?” said Jordy.
“Due diligence. Heard they came in through the front door, the lobby.”
“Heard rumors to that effect.” admitted Tom.
Troy smiled. “May I offer you some food? We have some very nice steaks, seafood if that’s more to your liking. Vegetarian offering, if that’s your thing.”
“We’re not for hire.” replied Tom.
“I know that,” replied Troy. “Due diligence. You two have a rep for not accepting bribes. Here, you are my guests, and my guests never go hungry, and the only quid pro I ask is that you don’t attack me without cause. This is a safe zone, where you and I should not fear attack.” The two discussed how they liked their steaks. Medium rare for Tom, well-done for Jordy.
“How many people work for you, if I may ask?” said Jordy.
“Here? You may be surprised to find that nearly everybody is a volunteer.”
Jordy’s eyebrows rose. A young man brought out three steak-and-turf dinners. How had Troy communicated with the kitchen, wondered Jordy.
“Jacob, may I ask a personal question?” asked Troy. He gestured to a seat.
“Would you mind telling these men how much I pay you, for your waiting on us? And what else you do?”
“Not at all, gentlemen. I do this for free, as a volunteer. I have a little portfolio of stocks, inventions, and writings.”
“Jacob Wasserman?” asked Tom.
“Good eye,” replied Jacob.
“I’m a fan.” Tom said. “Your detective Clay Hardiman series is always a page turner.”
Jacob grinned. “I’m glad you like it. Folks like you keep me solvent. Please enjoy your meal.”
“They’re all volunteers?” asked Jordy.
“Indeed. They’ve got real jobs, one sort or another. You’ll see different faces, different days.”
“It varies.” replied Troy.
“And how do you make a living? I’m sure a dojo doesn’t pay for this.” asked Jordy. “Sorry if I’m being impertinent.”
“Public information,” replied Troy. He handed them a card. It showed a headshot, logo, Troy’s contact information, and a few words. “safety instruction. martial arts.”
Tom flipped the card over. The same information appeared, with “education” tag. He flipped it again. “inventions. investments.” “entertainment” “real estate” “computer design.”
“e-ink,” explained Troy. “I wear many hats.”
Jordy examined the card. “Shoot, saw you in Forbes Magazine once. You could probably buy the building.”
Troy shrugged. “I did.”
Jordy began to laugh. He showed the card to Tom. It read “geeks with gold.”
“Fair summation,” replied Troy. “It can pay to be a geek.”
“I guess it must,” said Tom. “These steaks are amazing.” Jordy nodded.
The pair spotted a couple guys sparring in a rooftop dojo, and watched briefly. Troy walked them to the elevator. “Come back any time.”