Masked by Design - Chapter Eight

  

Collar up, head down, and back pressed to a shadowed hallway, Erik kept a low profile, scanned the area to ensure no overzealous student was traipsing about, got his tool ready, and slipped to Professor Warren’s office door. 

With basically no security in this entire facility, or none that was worth anything, it took him only a second with a thin piece of metal to pick the lock and let himself inside.

Once closing the door, he assessed the space.  Degrees and pictures with students hung on the walls, books and papers stacked on every surface. Only one worn wooden desk with a large cushioned chair for the professor on one side and a plastic chair for whichever student was unfortunate enough to find themselves on the other. 

There was nothing to indicate that this man, this professor, this teacher, had led a much more colorful life previously. Strange how they all hid that part away if they somehow made it back to the conventional world.

In fact, it was Professor Warren who told him to get rid of his past, told him it would be easier that way.

If only it was that simple.

Though he stood in the professor’s cluttered office, in his mind’s eye he could see that airport tarmac as clear as if he just stepped out of the plane that had brought him and Trevor back to the United States.

While he was the one whose face was bandaged, wrapped up like a gift no one ever wanted, it was Trevor whose head needed even more repair than Erik.  The only difference was Trevor’s injuries weren’t visible.

He shielded his eyes from the harsh desert sun and looked down as his foot stepped back on his home turf.  When he was recruited and went on his quote, unquote, adventure, he imagined traveling the world in a designer suit while he ordered cocktails and drove around in fast cars catching the bad guys.

Instead he found himself in a different desert, hot, unforgiving, and thousands of miles from home, wearing clothes that were usually caked in filth or dripping blood, eating whatever he could find that wouldn’t make him throw up, and racing through streets in nondescript cars, while he and his unit created chaos.

To this day, he was never truly sure who the bad guys were—only that he was part of them.

There were only two things that made his agency life worth it.  First, the money, which would take care of him until a ripe old age should he survive his tenure in the field.  Second, his unit, a group of four chosen especially for their complementary talents and scores on algorithms that indicated they would work well together.

The day they lost one in their unit, and he lost his face, the money became not worth it, and there was nowhere left to go but back to a home he never had.

With his feet firmly on the ground, Trevor silent by his side, the third of their unit broken but still in active service, and the last six feet under, Erik was met by the debriefing team.

A tall older man in a suit with the requisite grey at the temples, held his hand out. “Dr. Phil Warren.”  

Trevor didn’t say a word, and Erik glared at the man.  “We’re done with doctors, get us out of here.”  Whatever new evaluation they wanted to give his friend, whatever great new technology they had to fix his face, didn’t matter. It was over just like everything else.  His face, his life, the world, they were all beyond repair.

“Doctorate in engineering, master’s in City Planning and Architecture, you and I held the same position in our units, Erik.” Phil Warren came to his side and the rest of Warren’s team guided them to a fleet of waiting cars.

Erik shook his head.  “So you blew up the world. Strange that they think one needs a degree to light an explosive.”  The agency began courting him right as he finished his Master’s of Architecture degree.  He was going to design the future, put everything in its place, but instead he ended up shattering it to smithereens.  Until he found one of his own among the rubble as he tore pieces of rock and glass out of his face, he never really considered the destruction one well positioned fuse could accomplish.  Part of it always seemed like a giant board game with nameless victims who he was told time and again were nothing but collateral damage and disposable. 

At the end of the day they were all disposable, he supposed. 

Trevor got in the car and he went to follow.

Dr. Warren stopped him. 

Erik clenched his fist and spun toward the man.  The only thing stopping him from pummeling him to death was the fact that it would only cause the debriefing to last that much longer.

“You may not need a degree to strike a match, but you’ll be thankful for it on this side of things.”   

The familiar Santa Ana breeze brushed over him, one thing that felt comforting in all this mess.  “My degree is not going to help him.”  Erik pointed back toward Trevor.  “My degree is not going to bring anyone back,” he snarled.  “My degree will not fix this.”  He slapped his hand over the bandage on his face and the pain from a fresh round of stitches reverberated through him.  

Warren motioned for everyone to move away.

Everyone backed up and got into their respective vehicles.

“What your degree will do is give you a direction.”  The man nodded.  “It’s going lead you down a path to start over.”

“You and I both know there’s no starting, it’s just over.”  Why did they have to go through this reentry process?  They should just be thrown away like the trash they were. 

“Your degree is going to give you a new starting point.,” the man countered.  “Everything else is gone.  Put it away.  Go back to what you originally wanted to do, because now you can do anything and be anyone.”

Was this man serious?  “Is that what you’re doing?  From the looks of things, you’re not taking the city planning world by storm.”

“I was brought in for you.  You’re my last assignment.”  The man chuckled.  “I’m going to get you going, and then I’m going to go back to where I wanted to be.”

Erik crossed his arms.  “What is that?”

“I’m going to teach.  You and I have the same alma mater. I always wanted to teach.”  He patted Erik on the shoulder. 

A flash caught Erik’s eye, and he blinked to see a neat band of gold around the man’s finger.  While Erik never wanted a wife, a family, he didn’t want anyone else to have it either.  “Suffice it to say you have many more options.”

“Put it away, Erik.  It’ll be easier.” The man lowered his voice.  “Encapsulate it, and set it aside, or it will make you insane.” 

“I’m already insane,” he growled. 

“Even more reason to set it aside.  One day the edges won’t be jagged, they won’t cut you.”  

“Doesn’t matter, I’m already dead.”  Not in the mood for any more pep talks, Erik had gotten into the car with his remaining unit mate.

If there was no other piece of advice Erik took from the man who helped bring him back to the civilian world, it was to put that part of his life away.

However, unlike Trevor or Professor Warren, every time he happened to pass by a mirror or a piece of glass that had too much reflection, he caught a horrible glimpse of what he desperately wanted to get rid of.  There would be no shoving that part of his life in a drawer.  The jagged pieces continued to slice through him.

Now he walked around the mess of the office, opening a drawer here and there, thumbing through the filing cabinet that held nothing but junk, and finally helped himself to the weathered chair behind the desk, put his feet up and waited.

No sooner did he notice that this tiny room no bigger than a broom closet, was in much need of a paint job to wipe away years of sepia color sweat that no doubt dripped off the many students who had come and gone, than the door opened and Professor Warren entered. 

“I wondered how long it would take you to come here.”  He closed the door and put his bag down on the floor.

Erik rocked the chair back and put his hands behind his head.  “If you were expecting me, I would have appreciated a better welcoming.  This place is a dump, they must not pay a lot to teach the future.”

“Not everyone gets the luxury of designing their surroundings.”  Professor Warren took the chair on the opposing side of the desk.  

Erik pondered his words.  “Is it a luxury or a necessity?”  

“I suppose that all depends on how you look at things,” the professor shot back.  “You know, bird in a gilded cage and all.”

“Broken bird.”  Erik put his feet down and stared at Professor Warren.  “At least the cage is secure.  Better that than go flying about hither and yon.”

 

“Sometimes you have to fly, and sometimes you have to let someone into the cage.”  Warren smiled.  “I’m referring to the latter.”

“With your kind of insight, I can’t believe you didn’t earn a degree in psychology.”  At the near blatant mention of Kristine, he sat up. 

 

“Teach her, Erik. She’s good for you.” Warren nodded.  “You’re good for her.”

“What do you even know about her?”  Erik turned away.

“Glad we got right to the point, I have an early class.”  The man chuckled.  

Out of the corner of his eye, Erik glanced over at him.  It shouldn’t matter, yet he was here asking the question.

“Smart, loner, parents killed in a fire, was taken in by a kind woman who recently passed.  She strong, never missed a class. I like her intuition.”  Professor Warren filled in the blanks.  “She is a dreamer.”

Fine, Erik liked her intuition too, the fact they could talk the language of design and art, and she went with her gut.  Even more, her beauty was beyond.  “We don’t need dreamers.”

“Yes we do,” Warren said.

Erik faced him head on and noticed the same neat band of gold on his finger as the day the man met him on the tarmac.  That was a dream for sure.  “Not if they can never be fulfilled.”

“That’s what you make of it.”  The man leaned forward.  “But to set your mind at ease, she’s a good girl, she wants to learn, she can be trusted.  Maybe it’s time to let someone in.  You and Trevor don’t make a good couple at all.”  At his own joke, he burst out laughing.

“You’re not the first person to say that,” he snarled.  

“Better make a move before your best friend sees the potential.” Warren’s tone teased him.

The man was delusional, insane.  There could be nothing with Kristine except his own fantasies. “Well, if she thinks we’re a couple, then I suppose we’re all fine.”  He stood, then stopped.  Wait a minute, did Kristine think that, really?  Lord, this was getting worse by the second.  “I need get to work.”

Warren got up as well.  “She’s a good girl, Erik.  A little bit of light.”

“She needs to stay good.”  He walked around the desk and pushed past the professor.  “I won’t ruin her.”  But he would clear a few things up.  “Goodbye.” With that, he turned off the lights and left.

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