Raken's cell phone rang, startling him awake. He tore yesterday's newspaper off his face in confusion as he sat up on the park bench he had fallen asleep on. Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee taunted him as he fumbled through his rumpled clothes, searching for the source of the ringtone. Despite himself, he found himself humming along as he emptied out pocket after pocket before finally pulling the phone from an inner pocket on his denim vest.
"Gotcha!" he exclaimed, squinting at the caller ID on the front before he opened took the call.
"Evil Dispatcher…" he frowned as he read off the display. "I better take this one."
Flipping his phone open, he wiped sleep from his eyes and stifled a yawn.
"Raken?" the voice on the other end asked, tentatively.
"Yes, this is he." Raken answered, very pleased about how this conversation was beginning.
"Do you have any idea how costly your last failure was?" the voice, now more sure of itself, shouted, "the Master is very, very disappointed that you didn't uphold your end of the bargain."
Raken frowned. "That technically wasn't my fault," he ventured, "I was woefully unprepared for what I encountered."
"Granted, yes, you were," the voice conceded, "so I hope your night outside in the cold taught you something about failure."
Always careful of others feelings, Raken decided not to tell the gloating man that it was, in fact, quite balmy last night. And the park bench was very comfortable to sleep on. Very ergonomically designed. In fact, the wood that the slats were carved from seemed squishy, yet firm enough that his back got the support it needed.
After a quiet moment, Raken spoke again, "You didn't just call to tell me that?" He guessed, trying to further the conversation without being rude.
"You are correct, I didn't call to socialize," the man on the other end of the phone spoke, his mood apparently better after the chewing out he gave Raken.
"I called to inform you that since you have survived your punishment, you are back in the graces of the Cabal of Wrongdoing. And, as so, we have another assignment for you. Go to this address to be further informed."
Raken could hear a sheet of paper being rustled on the other end of the line. After another few moments of awkward silence, he ventured, "Uhh, sir, I can't see the paper through the phone…"
"Right, of course not. Silly me," the man said, obviously exasperated. "It says 401 Mayberry Lane."
"401 Mayberry Lane." Raken repeated. "What will I find there?"
"It's all on the paper," the man said, speaking slowly and deliberately, as if to a child. Raken could hear it rustling again.
"Right." Raken frowned, getting a little frsuterated himself.
"Also, in addition to everything on this sheet, you will also meet your new partner, seeing as your last one never reported back in."
"Alright," Raken responded.
"That was a hint for you to tell me what you know about his disappearance," the man said, flatly.
Raken merely shrugged.
"Don't shrug at me," the man said hotly.
Raken frowned once more, "I'm not telling you anything."
"Damn" the man swore, "Your meeting is in twenty minutes, so I suggest you begin your journey to the rendezvous."
"Alright, you take care now," Raken said cheerfully.
"You too," the man said, hanging up with a click.
Raken hung up as well. His cell phone went back into his pocket, and he gathered the newspaper up and neatly refolded it before tucking it away into a large pocket on his cargo pants.
He checked his watch. He still had nineteen minutes left. He got up, walked a few paces in the direction of Mayberry Lane, and stopped to tie his shoe. Taking his time, he made a careful knot, double-checking to make sure that the loops and loose ends were the same length. Finally, he was satisfied. Glancing at his watch as he straightened up, he groaned. Sixteen minutes left. He had a lot of time to burn.
Two blocks and twelve minutes later, Raken stood on the sidewalk under the green street sign for Mayberry Lane. It was a nice, well-lit street, part of a housing development not even two years old. The entire community was occupied by well-to-do middle to upper income families. There were probably planned cookouts and block parties held here weekly on warm summer nights.
Raken frowned. None of it looked right. There was no way the most sinister and evil organization in the world would plan some sort of rendezvous in a neighborhood like this. It was too…too happy. That and nowhere on the street was there a house with the number 401. Not even close. The largest number was 207, the white two-story with a chicken-mailbox and a kiddiepool on the front lawn at the end, on the cul-de-sac. He had walked the length of the street and back again, just to make sure. However, there were still a few minutes left, so he decided one more quick check wouldn't hurt him.
As he made his way around the cul-de-sac a second time, his watch alarm went off. The soft beeping reminded him that the twenty minutes were up, and he slowly depressed the stop/split button to silence it. However, as he looked back up, a figure ran out of the woods behind the development at full tilt, awkwardly carrying a hammer and a thin pole. Just before the figure reached the sidewalk, he stopped short and cautiously looked around. Raken nodded his approval. Always check both ways before you cross the street. Instead of crossing though, the person stuck the pole in the dirt and began hammering it in. A dozen quick blows later; Raken saw him stop and produce a level from his pocket. With a few adjustments aided by the tool, the man stood back and brushed off his hands. He was apparently satisfied with his work; he began whistling as he hung a placard from the sign, then gathered his tools and sprinted back into the woods beyond the house.
Raken approached the post, trying to read the sign. When he got close enough, he managed to make out the words:
401 Mayberry Lane
Raken shrugged and made his way down the slight slope and over the ditch that was meant to drain runoff water from the street. There was a small path leading into the woods, and after a moment's hesitation, he ducked through some briars and strolled deeper into the woods. The trees loomed over him in a very unnerving and spooky manner, but he kept his composure. After all, it was Saturday morning, and not even eleven o'clock at that. If any monsters hid among the gnarled branches and twisted limbs, it was likely that they wouldn't be up yet.
The path twisted and turned, but Raken stayed with it, stopping only once to find a sturdy walking stick. With the dead branch in hand, he was able to keep pace along the rough path, allowing him to time his footsteps with the beat of a popular marching song. The catchy tune looped back on itself, making the song last as long as one needed it to. However, he only got through half a dozen verses before he came across the man who had put the post in.
"Hey there!" Raken shouted to him, waving a hand.
The man dashed towards him, leapt the final few feet, and clamped his hand over Raken's mouth.
"Quiet!" the smaller man shrieked, "This is a secret meeting!"
Cautiously, he removed his hand from Raken's mouth.
"Did anyone see you?" he asked.
"See me?" Raken looked puzzled, "I suppose so. The Shotters were out for a walk, and I stopped to talk with them for a few minutes. Their daughter, Kelly, broke her leg last week at auditions for Hamlet, which the community theatre is putting on in April, and I asked how she was doing."
"Are they following you?" the man's face looked so red, Raken was afraid he might pop.
"No, they were heading home to get some yardwork done. Now is the time to get your grub-control products down, if you want to maintain a healthy yard-…"
The man cut him off with some frantic hand gestures, and then shook his head. Instead of saying anything, the man scurried back down the path, taking a seat behind a card table that was set up. He motioned for Raken to take the seat opposite him.
"Let's get to business," he started, brushing away an unfinished game of solitaire and the remains of a grinder.
Raken took the proffered seat, and clasped his hands on his lap.
"First, your new partner," the man said in a low voice. He whistled shrilly.
Nothing happened. Raken frowned. There were far too many awkward silences in the last half hour for his taste.
"So… I never caught your name," he tried.
"I'm Edward," the man answered.
"I see," Raken said.
The silence continued for a bit more.
"I see you have no eyebrows," Raken tried again.
"Yeah, I shaved them off," Edward replied. "They were pretty annoying, you know?"
"Oh, I agree totally," Raken agreed, even though he was quite happy with his eyebrows.
Raken was saved from further conversation by a loud crashing coming from the woods to his right. Something big was moving quickly through the underbrush.
"I think it's a bear," he suggested, worriedly.
Edward, to his dismay, didn't seem very concerned. The crashing came an abrupt halt, and a slim man wearing a paper bag over his head came charging across the path. Raken noted that, despite the bag, the man didn't stop to look for traffic. The fleeing man's foot caught a loose stone and he pitched forward, landing hard on his stomach and rolling around. The impact knocked the paper bag free, exposing the man's face.
Raken gasped. Edward gasped. The man, apparently not wanting to be left out, gasped as well.
"You- You're… You're Ronin! You're the famous Crimson Blade!" Raken stammered. "My new partner is the Crimson Blade!"
Ronin's expression turned into one of shocked disbelief. "The Crimson Blade? Here? Where?"
He spun around in circles, apparently looking for himself.
"You'll have to excuse him, he took a blow to the head and is not quite the Crimson Blade anymore. In fact, we're not quite sure he's really Ronin anymore." Edward smiled sympathetically.
Raken shuddered, watching Ronin run in circles. "There was a second reason I was ordered here, wasn't there?"
"Right, I almost forgot." Edward said, passing him a thick envelope. "All you need to know is in here."
Raken hesitated, and then took the envelope. "Thank you," he winced as Ronin stumbled around dizzily before collapsing to the ground..
A few more moments of silence, punctuated only by the panting of Ronin as he slowly ran out of breath.
"So, I guess I'll get going," Raken said, awkwardly.
"Yeah, I think that's a good idea." Edward said.
They both stood. Edward extended his hand, but Raken ignored it. It was about time someone else had an awkward moment other than him.
"Are we ready to go?" Ronin asked, climbing to his feet.
Raken and Edward's jaws both dropped. Ronin had ceased his crazed activities and was standing in from of them as any man completely in control of himself.
"Weren't you just…crazy?" Raken asked.
"Right," said Ronin, "I'm completely aware of my condition. Every half hour or so, I either descend completely into madness or rise above it, depending which I am at the time."
Raken frowned in disbelief, "You can't be serious."
"You don't lie about stuff like that," Ronin looked indignant.
"Sorry," Raken felt himself flush.
"It's not a problem. You just have to be more careful of people's feelings. You could really hurt someone." Ronin admonished. "Alright, let's get going."
He accepted his paper bag from Edward, and bowed deeply to him. With a flourish, the bad disappeared onto his person somewhere, and he and Raken began to backtrack to the street.
In many ways, Mayberry Lane was exactly the same as it was when Raken ducked into the woods. There were still houses and sidewalks and trees and expensive SUVs parked in driveways. However, there were also many differences. The most obvious one was the moderately large group of neighbors waiting around the pole Edward had hammered into the ground a mere hour ago.
"Welcome to the neighborhood!" a middle-aged housewife shrieked, wielding a fresh pie. She waved it in their direction several times, and with each pass, the smell of blueberries got stronger and her smile got broader.
"Welcome!" the rest of the mob cheering, launching confetti and housewarming gifts at the pair.
The revelry continued unabated for several minutes, with Raken and Ronin exchanging neighborly hugs and making small talk until someone started shouting.
"Wait! They're a same-sex couple!" a voice from the back of the crowd called out.
As a collective horrified gasp rose, mothers clutched children close and fathers brandished grilling utensils in an unfriendly manner at the pair. The neighborhood watch turned out, determined to protect their community from the menace of a pair of men who were more than just friends.
Backing away from tongs and barbeque forks, Raken raised his hands and called for attention
"It's okay everyone! We're not your new neighbors- we're merely the movers," he shouted, trying to calm the now riled mob down.
The crowd immediately relaxed, sighs of relief punctuating the gossip.
"Same sex movers!" the same voice called out again after a brief lull.
"Shit! Run for it!" Ronin yelled, and the two of them shoved their way through the crowd as they bolted for the end of the street.
Unfortunately, the mob gave chase, somehow acquiring torches and pitchforks in the process. Mere yards ahead of them, Raken and Ronin ran for their lives.
"Jump!" Ronin yelled.
Raken stopped short, checking for traffic on the main road, but Ronin gave him a shove, sending them both clear of the street sign and onto the hard asphalt of the main road. Cut and bruised, they sat up and watched as the residents that had given chase celebrated, successful in having driven them off.
"That was odd," Ronin said.
"I agree," Raken frowned and pushed himself up on his elbows, "Let's go, we have work to do."