Barbara Harrier Spiegel turned sideways to the mirror and studied her reflection with a critical eye. The fabric of this dress wasn't her usual style; it shimmered and clung to every curve. Still, smoothing it over her narrow hips, she was satisfied with what she saw. Even in something this revealing, she was as lean and fit as ever. Living the so-called good life for eight years and having a son hadn't affected her figure at all.
Two sons, actually, her mind recalled, but she pushed that thought away. When you slept with a syndicate capo and made the truly stupid mistake of getting pregnant – especially a capo who was marked, as Eddie had been, and soon to die – it was a good idea to forget the entire thing. Good for her, even better for the kid, wherever he was. Better that it had never happened. Definitely better, if survival was your goal. Survival had never been one of Barbara's particular goals, but hell, if the kid had to be born, then he deserved a chance at it.
She tilted her head to slide the glittering sapphire clip into her pale hair, pulling the strands back from her face. Her movement wasn't graceful, the stiffness due to the wounds which had forced her early retirement. She'd mastered the limp, long ago, but had never quite regained full use of her left arm. Her husband Ben, watching from his own dressing table, believed her injuries had come from a vehicle accident, but he knew better than to offer her any help. He might be ignorant of who and what she had once been, but he was under no illusions that she had a sweet temper. But then, he was no saint, either. That was one reason she liked him.
The bedroom door slid open and their son made his usual low-key entrance, trying not to be noticed where he knew darned well he wasn’t supposed to be. His black hair, as untamable as Ben’s, was standing up in the forest of spikes that had given him his nickname as an infant, and God only knew where he’d been playing, because flakes of mud were crumbling from his jeans onto the rug. "Dammit, Spike," she snarled, and reached for him. At the same time the door opened further and Gretchen, their housekeeper, burst in. She also reached for Spike. Somehow, without apparent effort, he dodged both of them and flung himself into his father’s lap, screeching, "Dad! Save me!"
Ben ruffled his hair and laughed, both actions making a bad situation worse. "Back off, ladies. He’s mine. What do you want, Spike?"
Trying very hard not to smirk at the thwarted women, Spike said, "Where are you going?"
"Just to a party."
"But you promised me a ride!"
"That’s tomorrow." He avoided Barbara’s eyes.
"Oh. Tomorrow." Only a (spoiled!) little boy could sound so pathetic, as if tomorrow were a century away.
Furious with both of them, Barbara grabbed what little control she could. "You don’t get to go at all if you don’t do everything Gretchen tells you tonight. And take a bath!"
"And don’t forget to wash your hair. You’ve even got mud in that. Where have you been?"
Instead of answering the question, he turned to Gretchen and said, "Is dinner ready? I’m starving."
"You’re always starving," Gretchen groaned. "Come with me, and let your parents finished getting dressed, and I’ll give you something to tide you over until the potatoes are cooked, all right?"
He skipped out, neatly avoiding having to tell Barbara where all the mud had come from. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to know anyway. She rounded on her husband. "You’re not taking him out in that experimental ship!"
"No! Not that one. I won’t even be flying that one myself. She’s way too sensitive. I’m leaving her to the younger men. I’m just flying escort, to see how she does. Can’t sell her unless I can talk about her first-hand."
"That’s your reason for going. What’s Spike’s? Dammit, Ben, tomorrow’s a school day!"
He at least had the grace to look ashamed of himself. "I know."
"Well, he might never get a chance to see a ship like this one again."
"Oh, bull. He’ll see thousands of them. He’s going to be a flyer just like you when he grows up. If he finishes school!"
"I know, I know. But he hates school. And he heard me talking about the test flight today, and… well, he gave me The Look."
"No more! Never again on a school day, I don’t care if he follows you for hours giving you The Look, he is not going! And if you tell him he is, he’s going to be real disappointed and you are going to look like a liar. I’m putting my foot down on this."
He rose and grinned. "I can see that. All right, I promise. No more school days."
She grabbed the matching hair clip and shoved it in almost haphazardly. "Do I look all right?"
"Beautiful as always."
His voice sounded odd, and she turned to look at him more closely. He had a hand spread on his stomach and an odd expression on his face. "Ben? Is something wrong?"
"Naw. Just a little indigestion."
It looked worse than a little indigestion. He was pale. "Do you want to just skip the party tonight?"
"It’s not that bad, hon. Besides, the company’s going have clients there, important ones. I have to do the glad-hand routine."
"All right, but if you don’t start feeling better, we’ll leave early."
"Deal." He did seem to be shaking it off, and by the time he held out her wrap to drape over her bare shoulders, he was completely himself again.
Ben didn't sleep well that night, so before her men left for the new ship's test flight, she woke Spike early and took him to the gym for a workout, to get rid of some of that excess boyish energy. She rarely spent so much time with him – she wasn't exactly the maternal type – so she was hugely relieved to hand him over to Ben after less than two hours of his company. She didn't understand how Ben did it, but he never seemed to tire of Spike, no matter how long they were together, even if it was an entire weekend. Of course, they were a lot alike. Not in looks – although Spike had Ben's coloring, the black hair and the beautiful brown eyes, he was otherwise definitely her child, tall, lean and leggy – but in personality. They were like a pair of cats, lazing around one minute as if they didn't know how to move, then the next minute bounding about as if a mere house couldn't possibly contain them. Ben was nearly 20 years her senior, yet sometimes he made her feel old. The man has never grown up, she mused as she watched the pair of them clamber into the car. No wonder he gets along so well with the kid. Just bring him home clean for once, will you, Ben? But he wouldn't. He'd drag the kid along with him to the hangars and they'd climb in and out of space craft and come back with grease in every fold of their skin and huge stupid grins on their faces. Spike definitely got that from Ben. She hated space travel and everything to do with it. She'd been born on Mars and had never left it, and she never intended to. She didn't mind listening to Ben talk about his work, partly because that was her wifely duty, but mostly because he was so charmingly enthusiastic about it. However, she was delighted to present him with a son to share it with, so he would quit trying to get her to join him up there.
They came back late and in fine spirits, but Ben was worn out. He flopped in his chair and they watched vid, the shows punctuated by Spike's descriptions of the high points of his exciting day. The one he repeated most often was that his father had let him fly the ship they were on, a declaration that, the first time, made her jerk upright and open her mouth to yell until she caught Ben's wink over the top of Spike's head. Spike was still talking about it, and making obnoxious zip craft engine noises, when she shoved him into bed. Immediately after, she coaxed Ben into going to bed early. He was so weary, she tucked him in almost exactly as she had Spike.
That was the last night they had as a family.
Ben rose late the next morning, but otherwise he seemed fine. Luckily, Spike had gone off to school by the time she and Ben sat down to breakfast. Gretchen served Barbara her coffee and Ben his cereal, then started beating eggs for an omelet. Everything seemed so normal. Then Ben looked at her with an expression of mild surprise and abruptly fell face-down into his bowl.
Barbara sat for several seconds, staring at him, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. It was Gretchen who snapped her out of it, by coming in, dropping her tray, and screaming. Gretchen babbled hysterically for several seconds, then raced for the wall comm. unit to call an ambulance. Barbara didn't bother to move. She'd seen a lot of dead men in her career, and she knew it was far too late for any doctor to help Ben.
The shock of Ben's heart attack was severe, but not nearly as severe as what followed it. She'd been fond of Ben, as fond as she'd ever been of a man other than Eddie, but she wasn't the kind of woman whose life centered around her family. She'd married him because she couldn't support herself any more in her chosen career, and he was a nice, good-looking guy with money. She missed him, but the suddenness of it hurt as much as the actual fact. The larger shock, and the deeper pain, came a few days after the funeral, when Ben's accountant and their family lawyer gave her the worst news of all. Ben had left them almost penniless.
On his twelfth birthday, Vicious decided he was ready to roam the streets. Not permanently, but in an exploratory sense. He was ready to test his courage.
His birthday was an arbitrary choice, simply a day so he would have a specific goal. He’d been tall enough to climb in and out of the dormitory windows for over a year, a head taller than any of the other children, even those older than him. There were only two of those now, and every month there were fewer and fewer of the younger kids. Father Paul found reasons and excuses to turn new ones away. As the older ones turned sixteen, they were sent out into the world with a small amount of money and a letter of recommendation to a possible employer. More were being adopted, partly because Father Paul used money meant for the orphanage upkeep to bribe potential parents, while broken plumbing went unfixed and the younger kids wore the older ones' hand-me-downs. Once he’d tried to sell Vicious that way, bringing the couple out onto the playground, since Vicious wouldn’t come to them. He kept his head down as they approached and filled his mind with the things he would like to do to Father Paul. Then he looked up at them – and smiled. That was the end of that.
Yet the nuns liked him. They saw him helping the younger kids occasionally, and his behavior had vastly improved, so he had their approval if not their affection. What they didn’t know was that his behavior had improved out of boredom. Father Paul was simply too easy. Vicious hated him, although not as much as Father Paul hated him, he knew. Feeding Father Paul’s hatred was his only entertainment lately, and it was far too easy to do.
The streets would be more of a challenge.
A few weeks before his birthday, he broke into the kitchen and took a long carving knife, one of the old-fashioned kind that had to be kept sharp. What he really wanted was a sword, like one he’d seen in a weapons shop on one of the orphans’ increasingly rare outings. But until he found a way to get one, the knife would have to do.
His first night out, he discovered he would need more than just a knife. Quivering with excitement, nostrils flared at the unfamiliar scents, he crept down the alley behind the church, skipped across the road, and ducked into the shadows of another alley. There he discovered there were more fearsome enemies than rats or even humans. There were dogs. Very hungry, very mean dogs. He ended up clinging to a window sill halfway up a wall until dawn made the wary beasts slink off. He barely made it back through the windows of the dorm before the nuns came in to wake them for breakfast.
He did a lot of thinking that day. That night, he robbed the kitchen of a broom, a mop, a hand saw, a pair of scissors, and a leather apron. The next day, working whenever he could sneak away, he cut the leather into strips and cut off the handle of the broom and a short piece of the smaller mop handle. Wetting the leather, he used it to bind them all together with the knife into a serviceable spear. The piece of mop handle sat crossways over the top of the knife, so that if the first blow didn’t kill the dog, it wouldn’t be able to work its way up the spear to him, like a medieval boar spear. If he ever got the chance, he decided, he’d heat the knife and hammer the tip back so it worked as a barb, doing more damage when he pulled it out again.
A few days later, when the spear had been tested and the leather looked like it would hold, he waited for the darkness, slipped out the window, over the fence, and back into the alleys.
He remembered the first dog who found him, a big shaggy brute who’d been among the pack that had kept him on the window sill all night. He smiled at it. The dog growled and charged, stupidly, obviously expecting him to turn and run. He waited until the last moment, then set his body and the spear, letting the dog’s own weight drive the blade in. For a second he thought the crosspiece wouldn’t hold, so insanely furious was the dog’s thrashing as it attempted to rid itself of the pain in its chest and bite the boy it knew was responsible. Then, so suddenly it was almost funny, it shuddered and went limp.
He jerked the spear out swiftly, glad now that he hadn’t barbed the end, because other dogs had gathered, four of them, just inside the mouth of the alley. They edged closer, heads lowered menacingly, no doubt drawn by the smell of blood. Vicious leaped at them, using the spear as a slashing weapon, cutting across the muzzle of one and the neck of the one next to it, then leaped back, agile as a deer. He felt almost high with his power. Every muscle, every nerve in his young body was alive and vibrant and under his control, and every sense was totally alert. He could hear the dogs panting, smell their meat-eaters’ stench, see every muscle ripple.
The two wounded dogs had yelped and backed away, but all four were gathering their courage for a rush at him. He smiled again. "Come and get me. No, wait, I’ll come and get you." And he jumped on them, slashing and stabbing, dodging the snapping jaws, once vaulting over a hairy back when they almost got him trapped between a trash bin and the alley wall. In a short time, the dogs had enough. They trotted off, bleeding, to look for easier prey.
The rest of the night, he hunted dogs. He also found the dogs’ usual prey, rats. These weren't as big as the nuns had threatened him with, but they were big enough and fast enough and wary enough to make for good hunting. He returned to the dorm in the dark of the morning, exhausted, exhilarated, and badly in need of a bath.
After that, he went out at least once a week, honing his skills until he was a better predator than any four-legged alley beast. As the winter wore into the spring, he learned the streets for several miles in all directions from the church. At first the tall bell spire was a landmark for him, but eventually his sense of direction grew so good, he was able to find his way home from anywhere he ended up. He not only learned the haunts of the alley beasts, but those of men as well. He stalked the homeless men who slept on the streets, but only as a game, and could have killed a hundred of them, so stupid and unwary were they. When he grew bored with that, he began to stalk other men, marking those who looked dangerous and playing at how long he could follow them, a dangerous shadow among the shadows, before they saw him.
One spring night, he followed a man a step too far, and he learned a valuable lesson – that just because he didn’t win a fight didn’t mean he lost it.
Mars, of course, had no real seasons except on calendars, but there were those who swore it rained more in the spring and fall. Vicious had always scoffed at that, but this year he began to wonder. Whatever the reason, the season or simple bad luck, he spent most of the month of April soaking wet. On this particular night, he’d picked a "victim", a seedy-looking man with a knife in his boot, and had followed him for five or six blocks when a rain shower suddenly opened up over them. The man swore colorfully (words Vicious memorized for later use) and ducked into the door of a nearby bar. On impulse, tired of being wet and feeling daring, Vicious did the same.
He stopped just inside the door, staring in wonder. Here was where human civilization sat on the border of the savage world of the rats and the dog packs. The low ceiling was obscured by the haze of cigarettes, cigars, and – his nostrils flared – something else, something more acrid that he couldn’t identify. Under those smells was the brisk tang of alcohol, and weaving through it was the rank smell of unwashed men and too-sweet perfumes. The noise was incredible, almost unbearable. Dozens of men and women were talking, most of them at a loud volume, while music blared from the back. On the floor just to his left, seven or eight men were shouting curses at each other, and even as he glanced that way, two of them suddenly came together and began to wrestle and punch each other. All of the men either looked dangerous or wanted to look that way, and the women were dressed like no women he’d ever seen before, even on the streets. For the first time, he wondered what the nuns looked like under their habits.
A very large man, muscled like a rhinoceros, slid from behind the bar and stalked over to the two men fighting. He grabbed them by their collars and dragged them to the door as if they were puppies, tossing them out into the rain. He would have walked right over Vicious, except Vicious had slid deeper into the shadows, away from the door, and was almost invisible.
He felt eyes on him and turned swiftly. The first thing he thought when he saw the man was, He’s the real thing. The man wore a long dark coat over dark jeans and shirt, and a dark hat, and his skin was so dark that he was even more invisible than Vicious. He was slender and not particularly tall, and he wasn’t doing anything scary, simply staring down at Vicious, smoking a pipe – not a pipe like Father Thomas’, but a long-stemmed slender one with a small bowl. The pipe, which was white, and the glow of hot ash in the bowl were the only color about the man except the whites of his eyes. That was all he was, a lean dark man smoking a pipe, but somehow Vicious knew he’d crossed a line and come at last to where the human predators laired. He smiled.
The man took the pipe out of his mouth. "What are you doing here, kid?" His voice was soft and pleasant, almost musical.
"As long as you’re here, make yourself useful. Go to the bar and bring me back a bottle of whiskey."
"Get it yourself."
His tone was calculated to provoke. He’d honed that to an art with Father Paul. But what he provoked was nothing like what he expected, and it happened so swiftly that even he never saw it coming. One moment he was sneering up at the dark man, who was what he thought a safe distance away, and the next he’d been spun around to face the bar, one of his arms pulled up behind his back and his throat imprisoned in a vice. He’d never experienced pain like it before, not even with the cracked rib. His arm felt as if it were being torn off at the shoulder by a beast with a hundred sharp teeth, his wrist felt as if all the bones were being crushed, and his hand burned like a torch. He almost whimpered, and had to grind his teeth to stop the sound from coming from his throat. "You want to try another answer, kid?" the dark man asked pleasantly.
"Go to hell," he managed to rasp out.
The arm around his neck loosened, and he heard a metallic snick. He jerked his chin until he was looking up at the smoke-obscured ceiling, trying to avoid the sharp prick of the knife under the point of his jaw. The pleasant voice said, "You know, I could cut your throat, and nobody here would even notice."
His arm was still screaming in pain. And he was scared. Pissing scared. But he’d be torn apart before he’d admit to either one. He reached down inside himself and pulled up the last bit of courage he had left. "Go ahead. It might be interesting," he retorted coolly.
For a second, neither of them moved at all, and he knew that he was on a balance, and that any small thing would mean the difference between getting to go back home or having to watch while his blood spurted across the table in front of them. Then a woman laughed across the room, and the knife fell away, and his arm, blessedly, was released. The man rose, and with the same movement spun him around to face him. "Shit, kid. You’ve got guts. What’s your name?"
"That ain’t a name."
Teeth flashed, and to Vicious’ surprise, the man started to laugh. "Son of a bitch. Want a drink?"
Vicious was dazed by the sudden turn of mood, but that was something else he wouldn’t show. "Sure."
"You drink whiskey? Now, don’t lie to me, boy, you’ll piss me off."
He didn’t want to piss this guy off. "I drink wine."
The man made an inelegant noise. "You must be from that church orphanage. What are you doing out at this hour?"
"I told you. Hunting."
"That’s right, you did. Sit down." The table he gestured to had two men and a woman already seated at it, but they got up and left as soon as the dark man looked their way. Feeling both dizzy and giddy at the same time, Vicious slid into a chair, and the dark man bent, picked up the pipe from where he’d dropped it, and sat down opposite. He waved a hand at the bar, and a moment later a woman appeared with a bottle and two small glasses. "What in the world have you got here, Rafe? You’re gonna cost us our license." Her words were severe, but she sounded amused, and beamed at Vicious as if he were a nephew or something.
"This is a friend of mine, Sally my sweet, and we’re about to have a little man-to-man conversation. Put the bottle down and take your cute little butt back to the bar."
The woman grinned, put a glass in front of each of them, poured from the bottle into both glasses, and set the bottle next to the dark man, all with smooth efficiency. Then she took the bill the dark man was holding out and walked off, her hips swinging.
"First thing you’ve got to learn," Rafe said to Vicious. "Don’t be rude unless you’ve got something to gain from it."
He was serious. He was talking to him as if he weren’t just a kid, but another man. Vicious just nodded. He wasn’t sure how to speak to an adult who wasn’t patronizing him.
"My name’s Rafe. You might’ve figured that out. I’m also known as Black Rafe. You run into any trouble around here, and you drop that name, it might get you out with a whole skin. But I don’t think you’ll do that. You got the look of a guy who wants to win his own fights. So… what do you find, when you go hunting in the night like this?" he asked amiably.
To his own surprise, Vicious opened his mouth and told him. He spoke about what he was doing and what he felt, while Black Rafe repacked and lit his pipe and listened without a single interruption, with only an occasional word to keep Vicious talking. Vicious got thirsty, telling it, and drank the whiskey, forgetting what it was, which made for a long interruption while his eyes watered, his insides burned, and he choked and tried not to be sick, while Rafe’s chuckles flowed richly around him. Valiantly, he kept talking despite a now-raw throat, and when Rafe filled his glass again, he drank that, too. Only more slowly.
By the time he was finished talking, he was an apprentice who had found his master. No such words were spoken, but he knew it, in the same way he’d known that his life had been, literally and figuratively, on a knife’s edge tonight. He knew he would come back tomorrow night, and Rafe would be here, and they would talk and drink whiskey, and he would begin to learn.
Spike stuck just his head inside the door. "Mom?"
No answer. Good. She wasn't home. If she were, she would give him work to do. Not work around their apartment; that would be for later, when the daylight was gone and she didn't want him on the streets. No, she'd send him to Kao's to stock shelves, or to the Finneys' to see if any more painting needed to be done, or anything else where she thought he could pick up a few woolongs to bring home.
He hadn't minded doing the work at first. After all, his mother worked, too. He understood they were poor now, although he didn't mind that nearly as much as his mother did. He was happier moving out of the big house, where every room had some memory of his father. And he loved it here at the tenement. Sure, there were bugs and rats and dirt, and people who smelt of liquor sleeping in the stairwell, and never enough to eat, but there were also a lot of other kids his age, something he'd never had before outside of school hours. They were interesting kids, too, a lot more interesting than the ones in the other school, and they knew a lot of cool things to do, like how to pick pockets and hustle pool.
But he knew his mother hated this new life, so he started out, when they first moved here, eager to help her in any way he could. He was young and strong, after all, and the man of the house now.
That willing attitude wore off swiftly. His mother pushed him too hard, for one thing. She always had something for him to be doing, before school, after school, and on weekends, and then chores around the apartment in the evenings. He suspected some of that was her attempt to keep him from hanging around with his new friends, but after about a year of it, he actually found himself looking forward to the days he had homework, which was an appalling realization. What sealed his rebellion, however, was the silver bracelet. His mother had brought none of her jewelry with her, so naturally he asked about it when he saw the bracelet on her wrist. She didn't seem to think anything of it when she told him she'd just bought it. "It's merely a trinket," she smiled, "but pretty women like to have pretty things."
Yes, she was pretty. Yes, she deserved pretty things. But by then he had a good idea of what that bracelet cost, even "wholesale" from the back room of the local pawn shop, and when he did the arithmetic to translate that into hours of work he'd have to do to buy it – in other words, work he'd done so his mother could buy it – the total really pissed him off. From that day on, she had a harder time finding him for all the tasks she drummed up for him.
Since he never knew when she was going to be home or not, he went straight to his bedroom and worked quickly. First muss up the bed, just a little, as if he'd come home tired and taken a nap, to explain why his homework wasn't done yet. Then spread his books out on the desk, so it appeared that he'd been interrupted in the middle of doing the homework and that he'd need to pick it up again when he came home. He took the time to scribble a few notes on a pad next to the books. His mom never missed a detail. One last look around, and he ran to the kitchen to stuff his jacket pockets with bread, meat and cheese. Then he let himself out, locked the door, raced down the stairwell, peered cautiously through the so-called security door, saw the coast was still clear, and ran up the street, ducking into the first alley.
Safe from being spotted by his mother, he perched on the back fence of his friend Roach's building, stuffed the meat and cheese between slices of bread, and ate it all ravenously, save for a couple of scraps that he tossed down to the ancient yellow dog that belonged to Roach's landlady. Nobody ever got enough to eat around here, and that included the dogs. Then he waited, knowing Roach would have spotted him by now but that Roach, too, had to sneak out. Finally Roach came trotting up the alley, yelling at him, "Get down from there before my ma sees you, dumb-butt!" Punching playfully at each other, the two of them headed out to round up as many of the rest of their gang as they could for an afternoon of fun.
He forgot to watch the time and headed back late, almost dark. He knew he was going to be in deep trouble. As he hurried home he concocted an elaborate tale to explain why he'd been gone all day and was coming back without so much as a woolong to show for it. By the time he trotted up the stairwell, he had it all worked out, complete with appropriate facial expressions. But his luck was good and he could save it for another occasion, because when he let himself in, his mother wasn't home yet. Grinning with relief, he raided the kitchen once more and scrounged up dinner, eating it while he made a halfhearted stab at his homework.
He didn't worry when it got full dark. His mother kept her own hours and didn't explain them to him. But once the sky was black, he was drawn irresistibly away from his books and to the living room window. From there, in the distance, he could see the winking flashes of ships taking off and landing at the distant spaceport. He would sometimes stand and watch them for hours, wondering what kind they were – if only they lived closer, he would know, because his father had taught him every make and model there was – and imagining where they were coming from and why they'd come to Mars.
Because he was standing there, he saw the car come up the street. He would never have heard it, that's how quiet the engine was. He just saw the glaring arc of the headlights as it came around the corner, and then it purred to a stop right in front of his building, a huge car, with six doors, a car so big it wouldn't have fit in his bedroom. The driver, a young man in a suit, got out and opened the back door closest to the sidewalk. To Spike's astonishment, the driver reached forward and handed his mother out. She turned to speak briefly to someone still inside the car, laughed, then strode into the building. Spike stood watching blindly as the car pulled away, not wanting to listen to what his brain was saying about what his eyes had just seen.
One of the advantages of hanging out with his friends was that he'd acquired an education in areas of knowledge that weren't taught in school. One of those areas prompted him to put a conclusion to what he'd just seen, an ugly conclusion.
His mother came up the stairs, let herself in, saw him, and grinned. She pulled her banking card out of her purse and held it up, the red numbers flashing at him. "Hey, kid! Dream tonight, and tomorrow we'll go grocery shopping and get you whatever you want to eat. Anything, you name it."
He couldn't believe she was so casual about it! "I wouldn't eat anything bought with that money."
His tone startled her as much as the fact that he'd just said he wouldn't eat something. "What do you mean?"
"I saw you come in. I was standing here at the window. I saw the car, and the guys."
A small, puzzled furrow appeared between her brows. "Yes? So?"
"Come on, Mom! It doesn't take a genius to figure out what that was all about! I'd rather starve than have my mother be a whore!"
She stared at him for a moment, taking in what he'd said, calculating what to do about it. The next thing he knew, he was flat on his butt on the floor, against the wall on the opposite side of the room.
She'd hit him! Neither of his parents had ever laid a hand on him in his life, and his astonishment was so complete, blood from his nose and mouth was making red patterns on his shirt before he even realized that he'd been hit. Even more astonishing was how fast she'd done it. She had hit him three times, but he'd never seen one of them coming. He gaped up at her, too stunned to make a sound.
She grimaced and disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing in a minute with a wet towel wrapped around some ice. She knelt beside him. "Here, put this on your nose. Get out of that shirt and let me put it in cold water, or it'll stain."
"You hit me!"
"You called me a whore. Never do that again."
"No, ma'am." No way. No matter what he thought, that word was definitely not coming out of his mouth again.
She read his expression and sighed. "It's not what you think."
"Stop that. I'm not going to hit you again. Get up and let me get that shirt off. Did I break your nose?"
"I don't know."
"Let me see. No, take the ice away and let me see. Hold still! No, it's not broken. That's good. All right, put the ice back on it. Keep the towel under your chin so you don't bleed all over yourself."
She took his shirt and disappeared into the bathroom. With the resilience of the young, he was already beginning to come up with a horrendous tale (which did not involve his mother) to explain the condition of his face to his buddies. He was even regretting his nose wasn't broken. That would have been really interesting, to have a broken nose. Like a war wound. The guys would have been impressed as hell.
But when his mother came out of the bathroom again, he was brought back to reality with a crash, and he glared at her. She sighed again. "Come over here and sit down, and I'll explain."
Her exasperation, more than anything else, made him think he might be wrong about what he'd thought. But he wasn't prepared to admit it. "I'd rather just stay right here," he said sullenly.
She grabbed a handful of his hair and dragged him to the couch, pushed him onto it, then folded herself into the chair opposite, crossing her long legs. He rubbed his head and made his second mistake of the night. "Shit, Mom, that hurt!"
"What did you just say?"
Shit! I said ‘shit'! No way he was going to admit it. She'd never let him out the door again. He tried an ingratiating smile. That started his lip bleeding again, which was the best thing he could have done. His mother was far from soft-hearted, but although she would never say it, he knew she was sorry for hitting him when, as he dabbed at the blood, she didn't pursue his language lapse.
Instead, she said, "The man in the car was nothing like what you thought. He's one of my employers. He was just being kind, giving me a ride home."
It suddenly occurred to him that he should know what his mother did for a living, and he didn't. That was weird. All of his friends knew what their mothers did. Sammy Ling's mom babysat infants all day, dozens of them. Roach's mom worked at the leather factory three days a week. Tiger's mother took in sewing and laundry. And so on. Now that he thought about it, he knew what all his friends' mothers did to bring in the woolongs, but he had no idea at all what his own mother did. "What kind of boss is he?" he asked abruptly.
"One that pays well."
"That's not what I meant. What does he do? Is he with the Gate company? Does he own buildings?"
She chose her words carefully, because she wasn't in the habit of lying to him. "He's a member of a large organization which has interests in a lot of different kinds of businesses."
He knew what that meant. He'd heard that description almost word for word at Sammy's house once, and Sammy had translated it for him. "He's a syndicate boss, then, right?"
She stared at him. "How did you get so cynical, so fast?"
"He is, right? Which clan?"
He could almost see her thinking, making her decision on how much to tell him. "That doesn't matter. I work for a number of them," she said finally.
His mother worked for the syndicates? Wow. He wondered if he dared tell his buddies. The temptation was huge – they'd be a lot more impressed by that than by a broken nose – but on the other hand, talking about the clans could be dangerous, even for a kid. And there was still that other thing. "What do you do for them?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes at his tone. "Believe it or not, there's a lot a woman can do for the syndicates other than… well, what you're thinking."
Not from what he'd heard. "Like what?"
"Too many to list. But just to give you a few examples, we can be couriers. No one ever suspects a woman with a make-up bag. We act as negotiators and go-betweens, because most men see us as harmless."
Most men don't get punched in the nose by you, then.
"We can carry recording devices without them being noticed. We can deal cards. We can create timely distractions. We can get into the ladies' room without stirring up a fuss. We can even…" She stopped, and an odd, cold little smile curved her mouth. "Well, that's enough, you get the picture."
"You do all that?"
"That, and more. I have a lot of contacts from before I married your father, and lately I've been calling in some markers. With any luck, we'll be able to move out of this dump sometime soon, get a decent place."
He sat up straight. "But I don't want to move! I like it here!"
"I know. That's one reason we're moving. I don't want you to like it here. You're better than that." She leaned forward. "Let me see your nose."
He pulled the towel away, trying hard not to look at how red the white cloth had become.
"Good, it stopped. Come on in the bathroom and I'll put something on that lip."
"Will it hurt?"
"Of course it will hurt. It wouldn't be good for you if it didn't hurt."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Spike believed his mother when she said that she was working for the syndicates but not as a whore. And he knew she was sorry for hitting him. But neither piece of knowledge made him feel better that night, as he lay in bed, hands linked behind his head, unable to sleep. He was still a kid whose face hurt, whose mom had become almost a stranger, and who was going to lose all his friends.
He could hear his mother moving around in the living room, humming. The sound was like an itch in his mind, one that he couldn't scratch. He got out of bed and got dressed again, quickly and quietly. Then, with great care not to make any noise, he slid his window open and looked out.
His window overlooked an alley, and he was three floors up. Too far to jump down, as he'd long ago decided. The fire escape on his side had fallen away from the building the year before they'd moved in, so there was no escape that way. Even the pins which had once held it were rusted almost completely away. However, the fire escape on the other side of the alley was still there. The gap was a really long one, though. He'd never had the guts to try it before.
Now would be a good time. He got the window fully open and crouched on the sill. Just one big leap, grab the rail, and hang on. It would be fun.
Of course, if he missed, they'd be scraping him up off the floor of the alley with a putty knife.
His mother had taught him a trick once – don't think about failing, but instead visualize a move as if it had already been done. Crouching there, he pictured himself leaping across, then reaching out, catching the rail, and swinging up onto the landing of the fire escape. When he had it all very clear in his mind, and he was calm and sure, he jumped.
His legs launched him strongly, his hands reached; he saw the rail, watched it come to his palms, closed his hands around it, and held hard. But it wasn't the rail that he'd aimed for, and his lower body swung under the landing. The edge caught him hard in the stomach. He was wrenched free and fell, but his momentum carried him onto the landing below with nothing more than a hard bump on the head. He rubbed it as he ran down the steps, laughing. He'd done it!
He knew where he was going, and he knew how to get there. He'd planned it all out once, just for fun, on a day he was bored in school. The cross-town buses didn't run as often at night, but if he just kept going, from stop to stop, he'd at least be heading in the right direction, and he might get lucky and catch one. Not that he had any money to ride the bus, but then, another useful skill he'd picked up from his friends was how to catch a "bumper ride" on the back.
Three buses and a lot of walking later, he reached his destination. The spaceport. For the last half mile he'd just followed the lights. Now he was staring through the fence at all the ships, coming and going, hovering and landing. The really big ones, of course, were at the orbit station, and if he used his imagination just a little, he could almost see the station and even the Gate, out there among the stars. But there were still plenty of ships to see right here on the field, from zip craft to the smaller freighters and system cruisers. While he watched, two zips came in together, weaving in and out of each other's patterns like a couple of kids playing dodge ball. When they landed, the pilots got out laughing, greeted each other with mock punches, adroitly avoided an angry spaceport official, and headed for the terminal together.
This was definitely his favorite place in Tharsis City. Maybe even on the whole planet.
From here at the bus stop, he wasn't sure which way to go to get to the hangar where his dad's office used to be. That didn't stop him. He flipped a coin and headed left, following the fence. When he found a place under the fence deep enough for a skinny kid to fit, he wriggled through and then trotted onto the airfield. Soon he was at the side door of his dad's old hangar. It was locked, of course, but it was a really old lock, mechanical rather than computronic, and another of those useful skills he'd learned from his buddies was how to get past such things. He wasn't in much practice, so it took him a few minutes, but finally he heard the click of the tumblers, and he opened it and stepped into the dim light, past the boxes of spare parts, inhaling the familiar odors of fuel and oil and metal.
Someone to his left swore, and a hand grabbed his collar. "Shit, it's just a kid!"
He looked at a gun, then the uniform of a security guard, and then up into a face he didn't know. Not too surprising – the guards changed a lot. He grinned. "It's OK. I belong here."
"You do, huh?" At least the guard put the gun away. Spike now had another thing to tell his friends, he'd been threatened with a gun. This was turning into an eventful day.
He tried a grin. "I just forgot my key."
"Yeah, right. If you belong here, then Mr. Thermopolis would vouch for you, right?"
Thermopolis was his dad's old boss. "Sure!"
"Then lets go talk to him. He's still in his office."
Uh-oh. Mr. T might remember him, but he might not exactly vouch for him.
Mr. T was an old man, about 150 by Spike's reckoning, bent, wrinkled, with a spotted bald head. He was brusque, impatient, and demanding. Spike's mother considered him rude; Spike's father said he was the best boss in the world. Therefore Spike was never sure whether to like Mr. T or not. Now he wasn't sure if Mr. T was going to welcome him with open arms, tell the guard to take him off to jail for breaking and entering, or something in between.
Mr. T looked up from his desk when his office door opened, scowling, and Spike's knees began to shake a bit. "What is it, Williams? I… Spike!"
At least the old guy remembered him. Spike waved hello, resisting the urge to stick his tongue out at the guard when the hand let go of his collar. The guard said, "I caught him breaking in the side door, sir."
"Nonsense. This is Ben Spiegel's kid. He wouldn't do that. The door must have been unlocked. Go check it. You can leave him with me."
The guard didn't argue, but simply left, shutting the door behind him. Spike smiled up at Mr. T, but the smile was getting difficult. Now he felt like a traitor to his dad's memory as well as a criminal, and the first was a lot more uncomfortable than the second.
"What are you doing here, son?" Mr. T asked curiously.
"I was just taking a walk."
"In the middle of the night?"
"That's the best time. It's quiet."
"Would you like to try the truth?"
Spike quickly flicked through what part of the truth wouldn't get him in trouble. "I was taking a walk. Me and my mom had a fight, and I just needed to clear my head." That was what his dad always said, when his parents fought.
"Didn't you move to the District area? That's quite a long walk. In fact, it's a very long walk. That sounds more like running away from home to me."
"I wasn't doing that." Not exactly.
"I'm almost finished here. Why don't I give you a lift home, before your mother starts worrying about you? In fact, I think I'll call her and let her know you're safe."
"No, don't do that! She was asleep when I left."
Mr. T eyed him for a moment, but agreed, to Spike's relief. Then he said, "What did you do to your face?"
He'd been so excited, he'd forgotten all about that. "Fell off the fire escape." That was almost true.
Mr. T just grunted.
Spike loved the drive home. It was a lot easier than walking and bumper riding, and Mr. T had a great car, a Romulus 205X with all the extras. By the time they turned into the District, he'd checked out the entire interior, asked Mr. T about a hundred questions, and knew all the specs. But when they pulled up in front of the tenement building, it stopped being fun. Mr. T saw there was a light on and decided to walk him to his door. No amount of reassurance or coaxing could change his mind. So much for sneaking back in.
His mother must have already figured out he'd left, because she wasn't the least surprised to see him. She smiled and said hello to Mr. T, whom she called Leo, and then frowned down at Spike and said only three words. "Go to bed."
From his bedroom, he could hear his mother and Mr. T talking. He had a feeling he was really in for it now. Maybe if he got into bed, she'd think he was sleeping and wait until the morning to get after him. She'd be cooled off by then. He stripped hurriedly, crawled under the covers, and pulled them up to his chin. When he heard the front door open again and Mr. T saying good night, he shut his eyes and sent his mom a mental command. Go to bed, Mom. I'm asleep.
Of course, that didn't work. She sat on the bed next to him and pinched him. Hard. Hard enough to make him jump and yelp. "You woke me up!" he said indignantly. Might as well try for the guilt thing.
That didn't work any better than the fake sleep. "Too bad," she said heartlessly. "I've just had a long talk with Leo." She frowned at him. "You didn't tell him I hit you. You said you fell off the fire escape."
"Well, I did fall. It was none of his business anyway."
She looked at him a moment, then did something she very rarely did – she stroked his hair. "Leo likes you, you know. He wants to let you earn some extra money working Saturdays and maybe some Sundays, at the space port. Do you want to do that?"
He almost jumped right out of the bed. "Do I want to do that? Are you kidding? Of course I want to do that!" No more carrying things for people, or painting, or cleaning, or running errands. He was going to work at the port!
His mother smiled and held out a handful of coins. "What's this?" he asked when she put them in his hand.
"Bus money for Saturday," she smiled. "If you don't get fired on your first day, I'll give you more."
She left him then, and he threw himself backward into his pillows, gripping the money. So much had happened to him today, he was never going to be able to tell the guys all of it!
Throughout his entire life, Vicious would often hear the words of Black Rafe in his mind, as if Rafe were some kind of ghostly advisor. However, in actuality, he had Rafe less than three years.
They were an eventful three years. Rafe took him everywhere the night was alive. They went to the gyms that opened their doors to the down-and-out fighters now training young ones, and to anyone else who wanted to work out without worrying about having to be social or pretty. (Rafe: "Take care of your body, and it'll take care of you. It's an old saying, but that don't mean it ain't true.") They went to opium dens and other places where the drug users and sellers met. (Rafe: "You can sell drugs if you want, but don't use them. You use drugs, you're a loser. Period.") They went to a show on The Strip, but only once. (Rafe: "Seen enough? Silly, ain't it? Sex is a little like drugs. Sell it if you want, but don't go depending on it, or you're just another loser, like those guys in there.") They went to after-hours gun shops, and he learned the different kinds of handguns and ammunition, and the benefits of each. (Rafe: "Since you ask, I use a Colt, myself. There's history to it, and it's a good weapon. Some say the USP is more reliable -- that's why it's standard issue in the ISSP, because most of those assholes don't know how to take care of their weapons -- but the Colt's faster and more accurate.")
They also went to shops that sold blade weapons, and he finally got the chance to hold a real sword, a katana. Rafe was amused at his interest ("Useless damned weapon. No reach. But it looks real pretty. It's got style.") Vicious was startled at how much it weighed, and almost fell with it the first time he tried to pick it up. The store owner started to laugh, until Rafe turned and said, "Don't laugh at this kid, or in a coupla years, he's gonna be in here taking your head off with that thing." Rafe's purpose, however, was to introduce him to daggers ("It's always a good idea to have a blade somewhere. You never know when you might need it."), and except for drinks at the bar, that was the only time Rafe actually bought him something, a throwing dagger to fit in his boot.
Following Rafe, he got fit, he grew strong, and he learned things the church school wouldn't dream of, never mind teach. Not just how to kill efficiently, although he did learn that, but also, among many other things, how to keep his emotions from ruling his head. He stayed at the orphanage, however, and that, too, was primarily because of Rafe. ("You got free room and board, and you're getting a good education. Money don't mean anything to you, so you don't need work, and you ain't big enough for people to be taking you seriously anyway, not yet. And nobody there makes you obey any rules, from what you tell me. So why the hell would you want to leave?")
The people of the night got to know him. Most were amused by the contrast between Rafe's darkness and his own pale coloring, and he got the nickname of Rafe's Little Spook, but that didn't bother him. He was accepted, and he made friends, among a group of people who were totally sincere, because to them, social amenities meant less than nothing. His coloring, however, brought up one of the few things that, at least after that first night, actually surprised Rafe about him.
They were at Rico's gym, where Vicious was learning martial arts from a guy who wasn't much taller than he was. When he first met Sam, he flat refused to bow or call him Master, tradition be damned. Rafe negotiated a deal; Vicious didn't have to do it unless Sam could knock him down three times in a row. That feat took Sam approximately ten seconds, and Rafe laughed like a loon afterward. But Vicious had learned respect, and now he was progressing rapidly. Pleased with himself after his latest bout, he stepped off the mats, wiping the sweat from his face and neck, and emerged from the towel to see Rafe staring at him with a peculiar expression. "What's wrong?" he asked. "What did I do?"
"Nothing. I just figured out who you remind me of."
"I remind you of somebody?"
"Yeah. At first it was just the hair, so it didn't quite click. But when I saw you move just now, it came to me. You look like the She-Wolf. You related?"
"I don't know."
"You don't? I figured a guy like you would have already broken into the files and figured out who your parents were."
He didn't know the orphanage had files like that, but he wasn't about to admit it. He just shrugged, and then said the thing that surprised Rafe. "I don't really care, so why bother?"
"You don't care? That's your blood."
"My blood is my blood, not somebody else's. And whoever they are, they left me there, so they didn't care about me. Why should I give a damn about them?"
"Ain't you even curious?"
"Not even a little?"
"No." He sat at Rafe's feet, pulled off his T-shirt, and toweled more sweat. "Who's the She-Wolf, anyway?" That at least sounded interesting.
"She used to be a magician. Hit-woman, to you. She was freelance, worked for all the syndicates, like me. Damned good, too. She used to move so smooth, it was a pleasure to watch her. And fast -- when she wanted to be, she was like a ghost, blink and you'd miss her."
That was even more interesting. "You liked her?"
"Hell, no. Hardly knew her, just saw her around sometimes. Besides, she thought herself a cut above the likes of me anyway. But she was impressive. And you… the more I think on it, the more you look like her to me. I heard rumors she had a kid, but I figured those were just rumors. She was way too smart. Maybe she did, though." He chuckled. "I'd like that, thinking her kid might've come around to me."
"So why don't you ask her?"
"Don't know where she is. She up and disappeared about ten, fifteen years ago. Got out of the business after a hit went down bad. I suppose she could be found," he said, and then added, chuckling, "but I ain't gonna do it. Nobody messes with the She-Wolf's business if they want to stay healthy."
Vicious shrugged. Having a mother like that explained some of his abilities, and she sounded a lot more cool than, say, some hooker. But he honestly didn't care, nor did he ever begin to, until he lost Rafe.
That happened in the third winter after they met, and it was raining on the day he found out, just as it had been on that day. Rafe had failed to join him the night before, but that wasn't unusual. Rafe led a spontaneous life and never knew exactly where he might be at any given time. Their fall-back was always for Vicious to check at the bar whenever he could next sneak out, and if Rafe wasn't there, he'd leave a message with Sally.
He slid into the bar quietly, as usual, on the heels of another patron, and stood just inside the door shaking the rain from his coat. He knew something was wrong at once. It wasn't anything as dramatic as the whole place going silent, but a small thing: men who knew him glanced at him but didn't greet him, and some turned away. One of them caught Sally's arm and pointed him out, and when she turned her face to him, he knew.
She pointed him toward a table in the back, and he crept over there, his mind as detached as if he were dead, too, only he was still walking around. The only thing that bothered him was the horrible suspicion that Sally might want to hug him. But Sally wasn't one of the nuns. She brought a bottle and two glasses, and had a drawstring sack under one arm. Without a word, she sat down opposite him, set the sack on the floor, filled the glasses, and put one in front of him. Then she said, with blunt compassion, "Rafe's dead, Vicious."
"I know." He took a long sip of the whiskey. He was accustomed to it now and was even starting to like it. Tonight, however, it sat in his stomach and burned without giving pleasure. "How did it happen?"
"There was a big firefight down by the docks. He was there with some of the Red Dragons, just a turf thing with the Monsoons, but somebody ratted out and a lot more guys showed up than anyone expected. Then the ISSP got mixed up in it, and all hell broke loose. The guy who was supposed to be watching Rafe's back chickened out and ran off, and Rafe didn't make it."
He swallowed. "I guess he took a bunch of them with him."
"The official count's not out yet, but Rico was there just after it was over. He says there were eight guys dead around where Rafe was found. So yeah, I think he took a bunch with him. And it took a lot of bullets to bring him down, Rico says." She lifted her glass. "Here's to Rafe."
He joined her in the toast, content. That's the way Rafe would have wanted to die. But there was one loose string. "Who was supposed to be watching Rafe's back?"
"Carlo Bezois. But you can forget it, Vicious. Carlo didn't make it out, either."
That was good. Carlo would have been hard to get. But Vicious would have done it, if he'd had to.
Sally gave him a few moments quiet thinking time. Then she set the sack on the table with a hollow clump, tugged the strings apart, and pulled out a box made of some dark wood, of a color that reminded him of the altar in the church, only with a finer grain. The surface was nicked and scarred, but it was polished to an almost living gleam, catching the bar's dim light. Sally pushed it across the table. "Rafe said if anything ever happened to him, you were supposed to get this. Rico brought it back with him."
Puzzled, Vicious thumbed the latches and opened the box. What he saw took his breath.
It was Rafe's handgun, his beloved Colt. Vicious had never been allowed to even touch it before, and now it belonged to him. It rested in a satiny liner with the full clip beside it, along with a box of ammo and another metal box which probably contained the oil, polish, and cloths for maintaining it. He ran a finger along the blued steel of the barrel, then curled his hand around the walnut stock and lifted it out. He sighted down the length at Sally, and she shuddered. "Put it away, you're going to get us in trouble."
He smiled and set the gun reverently back where it belonged. He closed and latched the box, then sat with his hands resting on the top. He could almost feel Rafe in it.
Sally said, "Can you take that back to the orphanage with you?"
He shook his head. "I'll have to find someplace else."
"We'll keep it here. No, don't worry, no one will touch it. Everyone knows who it belongs to."
"I come out here, there's people who might want to beat me up, kill me or kidnap me into slavery. But no one will steal my gun. I go to the orphanage, I'm safe, but almost anyone there would steal it, including the priest. It's just a funny world."
"It is that," she agreed.
Through the winter, Vicious drifted. He no longer roamed the streets, except for an occasional visit to Sally to be sure the Colt was still where it was supposed to be. He paid no attention in school and ignored everyone in the orphanage. Father Paul was relieved; Vicious had stopped making trouble. The nuns were worried and kept trying, unsuccessfully, to bring him back to life. The other kids, wiser than the adults, just left him alone.
With the spring rains, he evolved another purpose for his immediate future. He would find his mother and discover why she'd dumped him here. He still didn't really care, but at least it was a purpose. He would leave this place to do it, too, and never return, and do it a year before Father Paul sold him as a worker to some factory. He'd never planned to wait for that event anyway. Not because he was afraid, but because he would sooner suffer torture than do anything to satisfy Father Paul.
He picked his night, a Wednesday, the one Wednesday a month when the Society of Charities was meeting at the Cathedral of St. Luke. Father Paul would be there, naturally, stressing the good works of St. Mary's and hiding with every ounce of his hypocrisy the diminution of the orphanage. The kids were put to bed at 8:00 and the nuns retired immediately afterward, and Father Paul wouldn't return until around 11:00, which gave Vicious at least two hours to find what he needed.
On that night, as soon as he was sure the nuns were settled, he climbed the wall and broke into the office from the outside. He wasn't sure enough of his burglary skills to think he'd go undetected, so he'd decided to go to the opposite extreme and make it obvious a break-in had occurred. He would never be suspected. After all, he was just a little kid.
Inside, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, all senses alert. The curtains were closed, but he went around the room, jerking the heavy material together until there were no gaps, before he turned on the desk lamp.
The only times he'd ever been here were for discipline, and since this was going to be the last time, he might as well make the most of it. A quick, careless search yielded two interesting things, a private cache of whiskey in a cabinet (Tsk, Father Paul) and a locked drawer in the desk. He left the drawer for later, took a swig from the whiskey bottle, then spit into it and put it back exactly as he'd found it. Then he faced the file cabinet for the orphanage. Father Thomas had been old-fashioned and distrusted computers, so, unbelievably, the church had paper files. This was something that hadn't been changed yet by Father Paul, although there was now a computer console on the desk. Vicious was grateful for Father Thomas, because one thing he hadn't learned yet was proficiency with a computer.
He opened the top file drawer, and for a moment he just stared at the folders, each with its neat little tab. They were in alphabetical order by last name, and it had been so long since he'd used his last name, he'd forgotten what it was. Ridiculous. Of course I know it. It's… Harrier, that's it. He moved down to the FGHIJ drawer.
His file wasn't there. Neither was Brady Isaacs' file, he noticed. Curious, he opened the top drawer and worked his way down, and he saw that a lot of kids he'd known were not in this cabinet. That was odd. He leaned his head on the cool metal and thought, but he couldn't come up with anything they had in common, him and the others. Every theory that rose in his mind matched no more than half of the missing names.
He glanced at the desk. The locked drawer was deep enough to hold files. Sitting in Father Paul's big leather chair, he bent and jimmied the lock with a letter opener. When he pulled the drawer open, he saw what he expected, another set of files, and the very first one was for Carina Anderson, one of the missing names. His own was about halfway back, and satisfyingly thicker than any of the others, even thicker than Brian Esposito's, who'd had the nickname Hell-beater when he was here.
There were colored labels – red, white, black, several other colors – on all of them. Except his. Now, what did that mean? He pulled Carina's file, which was labeled red, and the next two, one of which was black and the other white. Then he pulled his own and spread them across the desk to study them.
The color coding was actually much simpler than he'd thought, and so was the reason these files were locked away separately. On the face page of each file, at the upper right, was written an acronym, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that the letters stood for the names of syndicates headquartered on Mars. He got it immediately from the first two files he opened. Red tab, RD, Red Dragons. White tab, WT, White Tigers. Not very complicated.
Parents were listed for each of them, and when he looked a little deeper, pulling files from the cabinet as well as the drawer, he realized that the parents of the "syndicate kids" were always listed and some of them had information updated, whereas with the "regular" kids, almost none had parents' names in their files. He had no clue why the church cared about the syndicates enough to keep such close records on their children, but it didn't matter. What was exercising his mind was why his own file was in the drawer when it wasn't color-coded.
Then he remembered Rafe saying his mother hadn't worked for any one syndicate. That was probably it.
His file had another difference, he realized. His was the only one in the syndicate drawer without a father listed, at least as far as he could determine from a quick sampling. Another strange thing. Well, when he found his mother, she could tell him. Right now, he just wanted to know where to find her. But the file frustrated him. There was no known physical address for her even when he'd first arrived. In October of 2043 there was a note in Father Thomas' handwriting, saying simply, "m. Spiegel". And further down, without a date, was a note by Father Paul, "moved to District?" That was all. He grimaced in frustration. The District was a big place.
He touched the console and brought up the city directory, one of the few things he could do on the machine. There was no Spiegel listed, and no Harrier either. Not that he'd expected the latter. He didn't know where to start. He couldn't just cruise the District, asking people where the She-Wolf might be found. Not unless he felt suicidal. For a moment he toyed with the pleasant idea of torturing Father Paul for the information, but in reality, what the priest knew was probably exactly what was here, which was almost nothing.
He checked the time. He still had at least an hour of safety. He put his feet on the desk and pondered what to do next. Well, if I'm burglarizing the place, I might as well do it up right. A thief, a friend of Rafe's, had told him some of the favorite hiding places of amateurs, one of which was right in front of him, in the open file drawer of the desk. With more whimsy than any real hope of finding anything, he checked for a false bottom or side. Not finding either one, he reached up to feel the underside of the shallow drawer above it. His hand found something stuck there.
In a second he had it out, a large plastine envelope, nearly an inch thick, and not sealed. He popped it open and saw three things inside, and he pushed the files to one side to make room for dumping the envelope's contents to take a closer look.
The thing that interested him most was the money. The banded stack was as thick as his thumb, and all 10,000-woolong bills. He didn't have a clear idea of what money would buy in the outside world, but he had a feeling this stack would buy a lot. He folded it over and stuffed it in his pants pocket, where it made a comfortable lump.
The other two things were a bank e-book and a small hardbound notebook. He took a while figuring out how to access the e-book, and then it required a password. After three attempts to guess it, he tossed it aside and opened the notebook under the light from the lamp. The handwriting in it was Father Paul's, and that truly stirred his curiosity. What was this, that the priest wouldn't trust to his computer?
Only about a quarter of the book was filled, the pages divided into four columns. The first column was a date, with the first entry shortly after Father Thomas' retirement. This was followed by a column of children's names and then by what looked like a column of nicknames or code names. In the last column was a sum of money. Weird. He was about to set it aside when one of the nicknames in the third column caught his eye. He knew that name. Rooker. Where have I heard that? He closed his eyes, not concentrating but simply trying to let the name float to the surface of his mind, a technique Rafe had taught him ("Don't fight your own head, boy. Just leave it alone and let it work for you").
And it came. On a summer night two years ago, he'd been standing on a corner, waiting for Rafe to show up, when a weasley-looking man had approached him, an expression of concern on his face, saying, "Son, where are your parents? You shouldn't be out here alone."
He was trying to decide whether he wanted to punch the guy or kick him when the man suddenly veered off and disappeared down the nearest alley. Vicious turned to see Rafe scowling at him in a way that made Vicious want to disappear, too. "Don't you have any sense, boy? Don't you know who that is?"
Vicious shook his head. "Didn't look like anybody dangerous to me."
"Then you're a damned fool. Just 'cause he ain't tall and muscle-bound, or he don't carry a big ol' gun, don't mean he ain't dangerous. His name's Rooker, and he's got drugs and hyper-needles in his pockets, and a quick way about him, and he's as bad a man as a kid like you will ever meet."
That was interesting. The guy had looked meek and silly, like an accountant or something. "What would he do to me, with those drugs?"
"Just put you into a little nap. Problem is, you'd wake up a long way from here. The mines at Kessilin, for example. You're nice and strong, they could use you there. 'Course, pretty as you are, you might end up in some rich guy's asteroid mansion, chained to a wall when you're not needed. That Rooker, he's a slaver. That's what he does, collects up young kids and sells them to whoever wants them and can use them." He put a hand on Vicious' shoulder, a rare gesture. "You wouldn't like being a slave, I don't think. Not one bit. You'd last about a month, then they'd kill you. So you just stay away from the Rookers of this world for another coupla years, ‘til you're old enough so they won't want you."
Vicious had run across several more slavers since then, but, since he was now wary, he found them easy to avoid. Like thieves, they were lazy and pursued only easy prey. Now, skimming through the book, he found several more names he knew to be slavers – Dove, Shallan, Buggsie. Dreading what he was beginning to believe, he paged forward to the latest entries. The last one was Vasily Miskovitz, who, at 16, supposedly had been sent out into the world just last week, with a job waiting. He'd gone to Shallan. Before that was Angela Burton, ten years old. They were told she'd been adopted, and they'd all been happy, because Ange wasn't pretty, and she stuttered, so she'd given up hope of ever finding a family. He scowled. She hadn't found a family. She'd found someone named RiverRat who'd taken her off Father Paul's hands for w40,000.
Sick with fury, he went through all the entries. Here was Amy, who'd once coaxed him to play kickball, supposedly adopted at seven; Rita, tall and gangly, a great basketball player, supposedly gone to work at a business on Ganymede; big, strong, quiet Horace, whom naturally they'd called Horse, supposedly adopted by a farming family. All told, there were over forty children gone to the slavers, and, he bet, a lot of woolongs in that bank e-book.
His own name appeared three times, and each time it was crossed out, as was Mike French's, whose accidental death from a fall might have saved him from much worse.
Vicious' hands were shaking, and it was all he could do to keep them from crumpling the book, as if he could squeeze it from existence. He had to do something about this. But what? He could almost hear Rafe saying, Don't go into a fight mad. If you're mad, you already lost. I don't care if it's a fight with your woman or your worst enemy. You've got to have a cool head, or you're only half a fighter, and you're gonna lose. Hearing that voice, even just in his memory, brought reason to his mind. He sat, calmly thinking, and made a cool decision. Then he planned out exactly what he was going to do, and rehearsed it in his imagination until he was familiar with every step and had plans to deal with anything unexpected.
In a corner of the room, in a cardboard box, was a pile of toys confiscated from the kids by Father Paul for various "sins", like running in the hall or shouting too loud. He fished through it and pulled out a jump rope, competently looping it into a modified slipknot. There were two ways to tie a rope for this purpose. One was the "strangler's knot," which didn't let go once it was tightened. That, Rafe said, was for when you were in a hurry or needed speed and efficiency, and you weren't too particular about leaving the victim behind, with the possibility someone would cut him loose. The other, which you had to pull, was for when you wanted to be sure the victim was dead, or you wanted revenge with your own hands. The latter was what Vicious chose.
Slinging the rope over one shoulder, he put the e-book and the notebook back in the envelope, replaced the envelope under the drawer, replaced the files, and straightened the desk. He left the desk lamp on, and the file drawer open about half an inch. The desk was situated before a window, and he slipped behind the heavy curtains, checking several times to be sure he could clear them easily. Then he waited, drawing breath calmly. He didn't have to wait long; before he had taken fifty breaths, he heard Father Paul open the office door. He put one eye carefully to the crack in the curtains.
To his intense satisfaction, the first thing Father Paul did when he came in, after fussily hanging up his coat, was to pour himself a glass of whiskey and drink it off, finishing it as he sat at the desk. Then the priest saw the open drawer. "What...?" He bent to inspect it, and Vicious heard the sharp intake of breath when he saw the marks showing it had been forced open. He then did exactly what Vicious had expected – he leaned forward and to the side in order to slip his hand under the top drawer to reassure himself his treasure was still there. As smoothly as if he'd done it all his life, Vicious glided out from behind the curtain, dropped the rope over Father Paul's head, and pulled it tight.
Even knowing, as he'd been taught, that strangulation victims could put up a good struggle in the few minutes they had before unconsciousness, he was startled by the strength in the priest. Father Paul lunged out of the chair, pulling Vicious with him. Vicious rode him with one knee between his shoulder blades, his weight balanced backward with the pull of the rope. Father Paul's head turned, the eyes rolling wildly, and when he saw Vicious, stark terror came into them and he thrashed even more violently, hands clawing at the rope. But his lungs were already starved for air and his brain for blood, and he fell. Riding him down, Vicious braced a leg to pin him there on the floor with his other knee and prepared to finish the job.
Father Paul was trying to say something, but the only word Vicious could make out was "mother." He knew damned well the priest wasn't praying to Mother Mary, and he was curious. He loosened the rope, just a little. At once Father Paul tried to get his fingers between the rope and his neck. Vicious simply tightened it again, and then when he loosened it once more, Father Paul only lay there and heaved in what little air he could.
"You were saying...?" Vicious offered.
"...knew you were... spawn of Satan... never thought... this bad..."
"That's not what I wanted to hear."
"Your... mother. That's why... you're here?"
"I can tell you... where she is."
"No you can't. I saw the file."
"Not everything... in the file. Only confirmed. But I have friends. They tell me. Rumors." Every sentence was gasped, conserving air. "Let me go. I'll tell you... where she is."
Vicious laughed. "That won't do me any good if I'm in prison."
"Won't tell anyone this. My word."
Oh, right. But he could play along. "What about the mark on your neck?"
"Collar will hide it."
That was true. "All right. Tell me where my mother is, and I'll let you go."
"Girard Street. Don't know exact number."
"What else do you know? How did she end up in the District?"
"Husband died. Left them no money."
"She has a son."
"She has two sons."
Feeling the slight tension increase, Father Paul hastily agreed, "Yes! Two sons."
"She didn't go back to her old trade, then?"
"Couldn't. Wounded in a firefight, ten, twelve years ago. Crippled."
When he didn't add any more, Vicious said, "Is that everything you know?"
"All right." He tightened the rope again. "This isn't for me," he explained coolly as the thrashing started. "It's for Amy, and Vasily, and Ange," he said, growling the names, "and all the others. They didn't make you any promises, you bastard."
When the struggle finally ceased, he kept the pressure on for another few minutes. (Rafe: "Plenty of men have been killed by what they thought was a corpse. You make sure before you turn your back on it.") When he judged enough time had passed, he loosened the rope and waited. Nothing. He pressed his ear to the priest's back. No sound.
Good. He sat back, untroubled at the idea he was sitting on a corpse, and looked into his own mind. Rafe had told him, "When you make your first kill, you have to consider what you feel. If you feel anything – I don't care what it is, whether you're horrified, you feel top of the world, you get sick, whatever – if you feel anything at all except satisfaction from a job done, then you haven't got what it takes to do this kind of work, and you need to get into something else." So now he sat, and he probed deeply into his own heart, because he took every word of Rafe's seriously.
I don't feel anything. Except satisfaction. Rafe was right. He didn't even feel any leftover animosity toward Father Paul. The man had sinned, and now he'd paid. It was just history now.
But the job wasn't quite done. There were others to be dealt with. Not by him, but he could at least point the way. Maybe, even, some of the kids could be saved if the police had enough to work with.
Carefully, he wiped any surface where his fingerprints would not be naturally found, and any surface that a real thief might have wiped. Using one of Father Paul's handkerchiefs, he pulled open the desk drawer and scattered a couple of the files on the desk. The plastine envelope was next, and he laid it prominently on the desk with its contents partially exposed. He kept the money. The bank e-book would be enough for the police. When he was satisfied, he stood there, absorbing the scene, to be sure everything was correct and nothing would point to him.
Then he went to bed.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Father Paul's death created an enormous scandal, much bigger than Vicious had ever dreamed. Local police officers and ISSP men were in and out of the church grounds constantly for weeks. The nuns were hysterical for almost as long. Everything came to a halt until Father Thomas arrived to take charge, hurriedly recalled from retirement to fill in for a short time. Father Thomas not only got the church's functions back to normal, he also brought the entire weight of his personality and the authority of the church to bear on the police, to be sure they pursued the criminals in Father Paul's notebook. Father Thomas saw his efforts as a holy cause, an expiation for the church's crime in allowing Father Paul to have control over an orphanage. Far from being annoyed, both the PDM and the ISSP saw it as an opportunity to have a crack-down and feel virtuous about it. The next time Vicious went to visit Sally, every patron in the bar was talking about it, annoyed as hell because they couldn't turn around lately without falling over a cop. (Sally gave him a long, searching look, but she didn't say anything.)
Except by Sally, he was never suspected. The children were never even questioned; they were protected by the nuns, their youth, and the nature of Father Paul's crime. Vicious found it amusing that the police were more interested in what Father Paul had done than they were in the fact that he'd been murdered. From what he was able to glean, the search for the thief who'd killed him was desultory at best.
He waited patiently. Eventually the scandal died. Many of the slavers were taken into custody. If any of them ever went to prison, or if any of the children were ever rescued, Vicious never heard. Talk at the bar changed gradually to other topics.
Two months after the last whisper died away, Vicious climbed the wall of the orphanage for the last time and headed for the bar to pick up his gun. He never looked back.
Spike felt the eyes on him long before he gave any sign that he knew the other kid was lurking in the shadows. Hanging out in the District had given him a sixth sense about danger, and he didn't feel the guy posed any threat to him, so he pretended not to notice and kept on with his round of handball. His concentration was intense – the wall he was using was pocked and uneven, which made the sport more interesting because he could never be sure which way the ball would go when he hit it. Back here, behind the buildings, the traffic noise was mere background buzz, and the whap-pap of the ball and his own breathing were the loudest sounds. It was a hot, sunny day for a change, he was outdoors and chore-free, and his senses and reflexes were so sharp that he was keeping the ball in play for as long as he ever had before. He was perfectly happy. He had no premonition that the boy watching him was going to affect his life in many ways; he just figured it was some neighborhood kid he hadn't met yet. They'd only been on Girard Street a few months, so he met new kids all the time. At least this one was polite and didn't interrupt his game.
He finally lost the ball when it hit an uneven spot in the asphalt and went caroming over the chain-link fence. Panting, he scrambled over the fence to get it back, then climbed back over again, to collapse in a heap, exhausted and grinning. He wished he'd timed himself, because he didn't think he'd ever done so well before. Then the other boy finally stepped out of the shadows, and Spike forgot all about his game.
His first thought was, No way that guy's from around here! His second thought was, That is the coolest guy I've ever seen.
The difference between boys of age 10 and age 14 is greater than just four years, and Spike perceived the stranger as much older than he. Some of that perception, however, was an aura of confidence about the other boy that set him apart from his peers. He moved as if he owned the neighborhood and was so sure about it, he didn't even have to strut. Instead, he glided, loose-jointed and coordinated, like a large cat. He was tall and thin, and the black duster that hung loosely on his relaxed shoulders and away from his hands, jammed into his pockets, made him seem even more-so. He had shoulder-length, badly-cut hair so pale it was almost white, a color Spike had only seen before on his mother, and long, narrow, shrewd eyes. He was looking at Spike with almost as much interest as Spike was looking at him.
"Hey," Spike said. In tone and expression, the single word was boys' shorthand, giving permission to invade his territory and be friendly.
"Hey," the older boy said, properly, shorthand again for accepting the invitation with thanks, and hunkered down on the asphalt next to him. "You're good at that game." He had a soft, quiet voice, but with a gravelly edge to it, as if he didn't use it much.
Going on instinct, Spike held out the ball. "I've been doing it a while. You want to try?"
"Sure." The stranger rolled to his feet and stripped out of the duster. Had anything further been needed to impress Spike, what he did next would have accomplished it. The stranger reached behind his back, took an automatic pistol from his belt, laid it on the coat, then threw a flap of the coat over it to hide it. "Watch that for me," he said, apparently not noticing Spike's dropped jaw. He rolled up his shirt sleeves, took the ball from Spike, and positioned himself in the center of the makeshift court, balanced and poised. He bounced the ball once in his hand, then threw it hard at the wall. Naturally, it bounded back, hit the ground, and sailed over the fence before he could even blink.
Spike fell over laughing. The stranger stared at the ball's path and said, "Son of a bitch." Then he vaulted lightly over the fence, fetched the ball, vaulted back over, and said, "It's not as easy as it looks."
"Throw it slow. It picks up speed as you go along."
The next time was better. The pale boy got the knack quickly and actually managed three bounces before he lost it again. Spike applauded. "Keep it up, and maybe the next time you come around here, you and me can have a contest."
He was being sarcastic, but the stranger took him seriously. He tossed the ball a couple of times in his palm and grinned. "Maybe we will." Then he went back to practicing. He was concentrated enough, and athletic enough, that Spike began to think he really did mean to come back and challenge him.
When he'd finally had enough and sat back down beside Spike, sweating and panting, Spike said magnanimously, "You can keep that ball, if you want. I have another one."
"Thanks." He stuffed it into one of the pockets of the duster, flipping a corner back over the gun afterward.
Spike couldn't help it, he was too curious not to ask. "Where did you get that?"
"From a friend."
"You must have interesting friends."
"Not any more." The boy shrugged.
Spike was curious, but he didn't want to chance being too nosy about something that might be sensitive. He stayed on neutral ground and asked, "You from the District?"
"Not quite. You?"
"I used to live there. I live right up there now," with a jerk of his thumb to the apartment building on their right.
"What's your name?"
"Spiegel. Spike Spiegel."
"Spike," the other boy repeated. "Funny name."
"My dad's idea. He gave it to me when I was a baby, and it sorta stuck. What's yours?"
Spike tried not to laugh. This guy didn't look as if he had much of a sense of humor. But a snort came out anyway, and the next thing he knew, he was cracking up.
"What's so funny?" The tone was not amused.
"Sorry," Spike said, holding his sides, "but you think Spike is a funny name?"
For a moment, their budding friendship hung in the balance, and although he could see it, Spike still couldn't stop laughing. Then Vicious' mouth curved in a lazy smile, which widened, and he began to chuckle. "I haven't thought about it in a while. I guess it is a funny name."
"Your parents must be even sillier than mine."
"My parents didn't give it to me. I gave it to myself."
Spike was sobering up, although he couldn't quite get the grin off his face yet. "Trying to scare people?"
"Something like that."
"Does it work?"
"No," Vicious admitted, and Spike went off into laughter again.
They sat, shoulder to shoulder, leaning with their backs against the chain-link fence, long legs stretched out, sharing the tacit, comfortable bond that can only be forged, even if tentatively, between children. After assuring himself none of the nosy neighbors were at their windows, Spike offered Vicious a cigarette, a vice he'd picked up at the spaceport. Vicious turned it down but raised no objection to Spike lighting up.
Spike dropped the lighter back in his pocket in a way he hoped looked casual and cool. Not that cigarettes had anything on a gun, but he had to try. "So, where do you live?" he asked.
"Anywhere I want to."
"The Tharsis Ritz-Hilton?"
Vicious grinned. "Not there, no."
"What about your parents?"
"Don't have any."
"What about school?"
"I'm done with that."
"You're just all on your own?"
"You sound... envious."
"Well, my mom's OK most of the time, but every once in a while..." He stopped and just shrugged. "And I'd give anything not to have to go to school any more."
"Aren't you supposed to be in school now?"
"Yeah, but my mom's not home, so I cut. Good thing, too, or I never would have met you. That's one reason I hate school. You miss all kinds of good things while you're stuck there."
Vicious grunted agreement. "So, is that where you'd live, if you were on your own, the Ritz-Hilton?"
"No way. I'd live at the spaceport."
"Doesn't sound very comfortable."
"It's not, but it's exciting. I work there on weekends," he added with some pride.
"You like that, working there?"
"Yeah. When I get old enough, I want to race zips. That's what my dad used to do, a long time ago. Before I was born. Mr. T, that's my boss, says when I get old enough, he'll let the guys give me lessons and help me get my license. But, shit, that's years away yet," he griped. "So, where do you work?"
"How do you eat?"
"You steal it?"
"Sometimes. If I have to."
Spike realized his original assessment was right. This guy was definitely cool.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
For the next few weeks, Vicious never strayed far from Girard Street, although he rarely showed himself. He kept a close eye on his brother, saw his mother, and learned their routines. She didn't actually have a routine, but Spike did. At least he did when he wasn't cutting school.
He wasn't sure how he felt about having a brother. The concept was simply too alien. Nor was he entirely sure how he felt about Spike as a person, because the brother thing kept confusing him with a peculiar possessiveness, as if Spike belonged to him in some way. Which was, of course, ridiculous. The only way he could think about it clearly was to imagine Spike at the orphanage. Had he met Spike there, he would have liked him, he knew. Spike was young and just as naive as any other kid, but he was also intelligent, courageous and adventurous, and he was willing to bend or even break rules. He also challenged himself, physically and mentally, a quality Vicious valued in himself and others. (Rafe: Life never hands you a damned thing, boy. You've got to go out and take what you want. And unless you've got small ambitions, you can't do that without being at the top of your style.) Spike instinctively understood that.
Showing Spike the Colt had been a test. Before he even approached him, Vicious knew his brother wasn't exactly a Sunday-school kid, but he wasn't sure how far that went. There was a huge difference between mere rebellion and making your own rules. Spike, he felt (especially after showing him the gun), would do the latter, and that was good.
All in all, he was pleased with his new brother. What he was going to do about that, he hadn't the faintest idea. But at least he didn't have to forget he had relatives. Spike was not an embarrassment. In fact, despite his youth, he was fun to be around.
His feelings about his mother were more simple – he had none. He'd expected to have some, having been told so often that was normal, but he was indifferent to her. He hadn't been so indifferent to Spike, not from the first moment he'd identified his brother, finally hearing the name "Spiegel" from amongst the crowd of local kids and pinning the identification down to the tall skinny kid with the mop of black hair. He'd felt a pull then, a peculiar attraction, which he now believed was simply a recognition of the qualities he and Spike had in common. When he'd first seen his mother, his only reaction had been to think how weird it was that she looked so much like him.
Through the weeks after he introduced himself to Spike, he watched and waited and judged. He got closer to his brother, although always careful to approach him only when Spike was alone. He also watched his mother, trying to understand what kind of person she was. Despite her current domesticity, he could see she was still a predator, alone on this crowded street except for her son, and preferring it that way. He saw no sign of the crippling injury the priest had mentioned, but he assumed it existed, since he could imagine no other reason why she would remain on Girard Street, with its poverty and grime. She was proud; that much was obvious. She was also very alert. It was much more difficult for him to watch her without being seen than it was to watch Spike.
Spike would surprise him sometimes by changing his pattern, usually in response to a suggestion from his friends or an impulse to cut school on a fine day, but the one thing he never altered was going to work at the spaceport on Saturdays and for a half-day on Sundays. Even tempting him by offering to let him do a little target practice with the Colt didn't succeed in diverting him from the job. Vicious didn't understand the draw of a bunch of spaceships, but his understanding wasn't necessary. He could always be sure that, if his mother were home on a Saturday, Spike wouldn't be with her. That was when he would see her, when there would be no interruptions and no witnesses.
Barbara Spiegel was enjoying a rare day off, reading a novel, sprawled along the living room couch, but the tappity-tap coming from Spike's room brought her to her feet at once. Dammit, someone's throwing pebbles at his window. It must be a new friend who didn't know he was at the port on Saturdays. Making a mental note to have Spike tell this particular friend not to get his attention in this stupid way, she went into the back bedroom and opened the window. She didn't stick her head out until she'd taken a glance downward, which showed her it really was just a kid there, alone. Old habits of caution never really died.
This kid was older than Spike's usual friends, or taller, anyway, skinny, with very fair hair, wearing the ubiquitous neighborhood uniform of crumpled jeans, tee shirt, zip jacket, and billed cap. She called down that Spike was at the spaceport, letting her irritation show in her voice; that alone usually stopped this sort of behavior. The boy glanced up at her, frowning. He was a good-looking kid, in an aquiline sort of way. "Ma'am? I have something for him I promised to bring yesterday, but I forgot. Can I just bring it up and leave it with you?" He held up a stack of comic books as evidence.
She sighed. Despite Spike's disenchantment with school, he was a bright kid who read anything she put in front of him. Unfortunately, he also read things like comics. "OK, bring them up," she said, resigned. He'd be furious if he was expecting them and she didn't take delivery.
She picked up her Glock and tucked it into her belt, under her loose shirt, not from any sense of menace, but simply, again, the habit of caution. The kid would have had to be younger than six before she'd meet him, a stranger, without being armed. She heard his light footsteps running up the stairs, and they sounded peculiarly like Spike's. Smiling, she opened the door as he reached the landing.
He'd taken off the cap, letting his hair spill onto his shoulders, and as soon as she saw him, she knew. She didn't need the fact that he'd ditched the comics somewhere and was empty-handed. She saw that hair, his eyes, his expression, and she knew exactly who he was and that he was here to see her, not Spike. She drew the Glock and leveled it at him, but at the same time she swore involuntarily in surprise.
Not intimidated by the gun, he smiled at her. It was a wolfish smile, and she swore again. Jesus, he looks like Eddie when he does that. He said mildly, "You always meet people at the door with a gun?"
He had Eddie's voice, too, quiet and soft, if not quite as deep. She did some quick arithmetic. Hell, of course not as deep, he was only 14. He hadn't grown into it. "What are you doing here?" she asked him. She didn't lower the Glock.
He didn't pretend ignorance or innocence. "I thought we should meet. Don't you think so?"
"No." But he was here. She might as well speak to him. She supposed she owed him that much. She backed, clearing the doorway. "Come on in."
"Thanks. You don't need the gun, you know."
"I'll keep it, just the same." He was just a kid, and there was nothing threatening or even angry or resentful in his expression or body language. Still, she held onto the gun and stayed poised to use it. She didn't know why, but she hadn't lived to this age by ignoring her instincts. "How did you find me?"
He stood in the middle of the room, hands in his pockets, looking all around, unhurried and unselfconscious. He had Eddie's eyes, Eddie's smile, and Eddie's voice, but otherwise he was all hers, tall and slim, with a long fine-boned face and her silvery hair. If he stayed around here, in the neighborhood, there was no way she would be able to deny him. In every possible way, he was trouble, and she asked him again, "How did you find me?"
"Father Paul told me where you live."
"Who's Father Paul?"
He turned then to look at her curiously. "At the orphanage. Don't you know?"
"You don't even know where you dumped me off?"
"I didn't do it. The midwife did. I didn't ask where she took you. She had a good reputation, she could be trusted. How did this Father Paul know where to find me?"
He studied her a moment, then said, "Aren't you going to at least ask me to sit down?"
She thought it over, then indicated the small dining-room table just outside the kitchen door. "You want a glass of milk?"
"Milk? You're joking."
"You're 14. That's all you get."
"At least you know that much about me, my age."
"I'm not the maternal type. I hope that's not what you've come looking for."
He shook his head, taking Spike's chair, smart enough to know she would want the end of the table that placed her back to the wall. She sat opposite, laying the gun on the table, but keeping her hand on it. He answered her, "Father Paul wasn't exactly your average priest. He had a lot of underground contacts."
"Had? Wait. Is this that priest who got murdered? The one that was in all the news, who was selling the kids?"
For the first time, she was sorry for what she'd done. "I didn't know anything about that. I'm sure the midwife didn't, either, or we wouldn't have left you there. I wanted you to be safe."
"Father Paul wasn't there when you left me. Father Thomas was. It was all right, back then."
"Is that why you're here? Did they disband the orphanage?" She had to work to keep her voice calm.
"No, I just ran away. But don't worry, that's not why I'm here, either. I don't need a place to live."
She didn't like it that he could read her so well. "Then what do you want? You didn't go to all the trouble to find me for nothing."
"I was just curious. I wanted to meet you. I wanted to meet my brother, too."
"You stay away from Spike!" she said, much more sharply than she intended. She couldn't comprehend why he unnerved her – after all, he was her son – but he did. Controlling her tone again, she said, "He doesn’t know anything about you. He's just an innocent kid. I want him to stay that way."
"That's all I am. An innocent kid."
"I don't think so."
He smiled, that wolf-like smile again. "Maybe not. But I think Spike and I should know each other."
"I don't. I won't allow it. Stay away from him, or, son of mine or not, you'll regret it. And don't think I can't back that threat up."
"I know you can. Do you remember a man called Black Rafe?"
"Yes. A good gun."
"He told me about you."
That explained why the Glock hadn't even made him blink. She let her voice go hard. "Then you know I mean what I say. Stay away from Spike. Leave him alone. You're a danger to him. To me, too, but I can take care of myself. He can't."
Now he was curious. "Why am I such a danger? You don't know anything about me."
"I know all I need to."
"Then I don't know all that I need to. Do I?"
He had a very sharp mind. "You're better off not knowing. Look, I don't have a lot of money, but what I have, I'll give you. Get out of Tharsis City. Get off Mars, if you can. I mean it. You look..." She stopped, shook her head. "Sooner or later, someone's going to see you and add two and two. The wrong someone. Then you're going to end up dead, and me, too, probably. Maybe even Spike."
"Why?" He leaned forward. She had his attention now, when all she really wanted was for him to go far, far away. "Why am I such a threat? I'm not hurting anyone."
She stared at him for a long moment. He had a boy's gangly body, the way they got when they were outgrowing themselves, and a boy's smooth face, but he didn't have a boy's eyes. And if anyone had a right to know this, he did. "It has to do with your father. Do you really want to hear this?"
"I was going to ask you about him. No one at the orphanage knew who he was. Not even Father Paul. And it was nowhere in the records."
"I didn't tell anyone. No one. If I had – if I'd taken that chance – you might not be alive right now. If I tell you now, then you and I are the only ones in this world who know."
He sat back, relaxed. "Then tell me."
"Don't tell anyone else. You'll understand why." She collected her thoughts. She'd denied that period of her life for so long, she actually had to hunt in her mind for it. "Your father's name was Eddie Marcone. He was a capo in the White Tiger syndicate. He was very high in the organization, and trusted. Everyone figured him for the head of the clan, eventually. His only real competition was Carlos Resendez." At his expression, she said, "You know that name?"
"Everybody knows that name."
"Depends on the circles you travel in."
He shrugged. "So why do I know Resendez and not my father's name?"
"The Tigers erased him. Do you know what that means? It means they wiped him out of existence entirely, every bit of evidence he ever existed. When they took him down, they not only killed him, but his whole family – his wife and three little kids. Resendez even tracked down his brother and killed him and his family, and Don wasn't even in the syndicates. Anybody who so much as mentions him now gets severely punished. Do you see the problem? If they knew about you, Resendez would kill you, too, quick as you can blink, just for being Eddie's son. And maybe even me, just for having you."
He didn't look shocked or even upset, simply curious. "What did my father do that was so bad?"
"Eddie was greedy, he was hungry for power, and he liked to push things as far and as fast as he could. First, he stole money from the syndicate, a lot of it. Then he decided to eliminate his competition by setting up Resendez. When the trap didn't work, all the rest of it came out. Eddie was marked, and he ran out of running room in a real short time. He was dead weeks before you were even born. But if it wasn't for him," she admitted, "you wouldn't have been born at all. He wanted you. He thought a kid of his and mine would be good for the syndicate. I didn't agree, but it was what he wanted, so I went along."
"You loved him that much?"
"I wouldn't say that. But I wanted him. Eddie was... exciting. I never in my life felt more alive than when I was with him. Can you understand that? No, not yet, probably."
"Yes I can."
Maybe he could. She said, "He was always moving, planning, doing, and everything he did was on a grand scale. Even on the run, he was full of ideas for getting back in. He made me believe them. Every woman gets to be stupid once in her life. That was my turn. But do you see your problem now? We were discreet. I don't think anyone knew about me in Eddie's life. But if anyone so much as suspected, and they see you – well, the Tigers will be sending some guys around to ask really pointed questions. I don't want that."
"Because you're worried about Spike?"
"And you. And myself. I don't want to die."
"Death isn't so bad."
What kind of attitude was that for a 14 year old kid? Yet she was familiar with it. It was how she had been when she was his age. Unaccustomed guilt made her say fiercely, "Living's a lot better."
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"I don't know yet."
"You're not going to stay around here, are you?"
"Why would I do that?"
Relieved, she said, "I'll give you what money I have, like I promised."
"I don't need any money." He rose. She did, too. "I don't think I'll be seeing you again," he said.
"I'm sorry. I'm probably not what you expected when you went looking for your mother."
"You're exactly what I expected. But I needed to know a few things, and now I do. I won't bother you again."
When she closed the door behind him, she put the gun back in her belt, where it would remain handy. I don't know, Eddie. I'm not so sure our kid's going to be good for anybody, much less the White Tigers. She made a mental note to start looking for a new apartment tomorrow. Spike would be furious, but she placed no faith in her mere threat being able to keep her other son away from him. As she thought of that, she realized that, stupidly, she hadn't even gotten his name. She'd have to be circumspect questioning Spike about any new friends he'd made recently. Damn! You idiot! It was a measure of how rattled she'd actually been. But she would have to do something. Except for a kind of sardonic amusement, the only real expression which had come into the boy's eyes was when he mentioned Spike. She didn't like that, not one bit.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
They sat together on a park bench about half a mile from Spike's home, Vicious slouched, legs sprawled, and Spike lighting a cigarette. Spike narrowed his eyes against the acrid smoke and asked, "Did you talk to my mom?"
"For a little. Saturday. I was looking for you, and met her."
"I guess you forgot I'm at the port on Saturdays."
"No, I just forgot it was Saturday. I lose track of the days sometimes. Why? Did she say something? I don't think she liked me much."
Spike shrugged. "She didn't say anything, exactly. It's just that she's all of a sudden gotten nosy about my friends. Especially new friends. And she's acting kinda weird. She said I shouldn't hang out with kids older than me. So I figured she mighta meant you."
Vicious smiled. "I guess I don't make a good impression on mothers."
"None of my friends do. My mom never has liked any of them."
"So what did you tell her about me?"
"Nothing. I acted dumb, like I didn't know what she was talking about. If she doesn't know, she can't order me not to hang out with you."
"What if she asks you straight out? I don't want you to get in trouble."
"I won't. I'll just lie."
"Lie to your mother?"
"I lie to her all the time. You don't know what she's like. If I didn't, I'd never have any fun."
"You're comin' in way too fast."
"Lemme alone." Spike's hands drifted lightly but surely over the controls. "I can handle this."
"OK, you're the boss, but you're gonna crash."
"Am not." He knew he could do it. All he had to do was keep the nose level. Then it was a simple matter of cutting in the after-jets at the right moment, and he'd be on the deck, smoother than a baby's butt.
Garcia's lazy voice came in again. "You take too many chances, kid."
"Shut up! You're distracting me!"
"All sorts of distractions in space," Garcia drawled back.
Spike felt the sudden vibration of impact, too soon. Far too soon. "SHIT!" The panel and shield in front of his face abruptly turned into a ball of white and orange flame, and fragments came flying at him. He threw his arms in front of his face instinctively.
"You are a crispy blot in the fabric of space," Garcia said, a grin in his voice. "In fact, at that speed, you probably wiped out your mother-ship, too."
Dropping his arms, Spike thunked the link with a fist. "That was your fault."
"Uh huh. And when you're doing it for real and someone signals you and asks what the fuck you're doing, then whose fault will it be, huh?"
After a moment, Spike admitted grudgingly, "Mine." Quoting Garcia, he added, "I screw up, I clean up."
"Yeah, except after a screw-up like that, there's not much to clean up. Kid, you've got the best eyes and hands I've ever seen in this sim, honest to God, but you take too many chances. Why the hell do you do that?"
Spike leaned back and said lazily, "Somebody once told me, if you don't push yourself, you don't find out what you're made of."
Garcia snorted, a derisive acknowledgment that Spike was quoting him again. "Up for another round?"
Spike straightened. "You bet!"
"OK, let me... No, wait. Shut up. Oh, shit. Get out of there, kid. Now."
Spike monkeyed out of the sim fast. He knew when to smart off and when to obey, and when Garcia spoke in that tone, he wasn't kidding. He slid down the metal ladder and saw Garcia at the vid-link, grimacing at him. As soon as Spike's feet touched the ground, Garcia thumbed the link on, and Mr. Thermopolis' face appeared. Which explained everything to Spike. At 12, he was too young to be legally using the sim, and if Mr. T knew about these sessions, Garcia could be fired or worse.
"Sorry, sir. Just a little trouble with the unit," Garcia said.
"Cleaning up around here somewhere."
Spike immediately grabbed the rag tucked into his belt and began scrubbing at the nearest flat surface, just in case Mr. T did a pan.
But luckily for him and Garcia, their boss was too busy to pay much attention to them. "Well, send him down to help Doohan out, will you?" he said impatiently. "I don't have anyone else free. And tell him to watch his mouth."
"Yes sir." Grinning, Garcia closed the link. "Hear that, kid? Get the soap and wash your tonsils."
"Go to hell. Sir. Who's Doohan?"
"Special friend of Mr. T's. Flew in from Earth last night in that antique in Hangar 3."
Spike straightened so fast he almost banged his head on the sim's ladder. "The Bell?"
"Leave it to you to know what that old piece of space junk is. Yeah, the Bell. But that ain't what you'll be working on."
"Oh." Spike shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked the sim idly. "What does he need me for, then?"
"Just get over there, and you'll find out. Don't goof off, and behave yourself. Doohan's no softie like I am."
"Softie?" Spike cackled.
"See? That's just what I mean. Go on, git. And as soon as you're done with Doohan, you get your skinny butt back here and finish what you were supposed to be doing before I let you sidetrack me."
Spike sauntered out of the hangar, but as soon as he was out of Garcia's sight, he started to jog. He couldn't wait to see the Bell up close. That series of interplanetary ships had been phased out of production so long ago, even his father had never seen one. His luck was really in. A week earlier, he wouldn't have been on summer vacation, and school would have kept him from staying the extra hours. Telling his mother that he wanted to cut classes because he had a slim chance to work on a Bell IPS would be about as useless as trying to fuel a zip craft with spit.
He saw the Bell long before he got to the hanger. She was too big to fit in the building, and her nose showed through the doors, gracefully curved, painted blue and white. She was the largest atmosphere rider ever built that wasn't a freighter, and he gave an appreciative whistle when he saw her. Surely if he did everything else right, this Doohan guy would let him work on her. A ship that old took a lot of maintenance.
A man's voice was coming from the rear of the hangar. He ducked under the nose of the Bell, stroking her as he passed, and headed that way. But as he got close enough to make out the words, he paused. Maybe Garcia hadn't exaggerated. Gravelly and irritable, the voice snapped, "Where did you get your brain, a cryo pool? I ordered an 1124. If I wanted a 686, I would have asked for a 686. Look, you pansy, quit whining and put your boss on the link. ... Kurt? God damn it, don't let that puling little weasel answer the link the next time I call. Right. All I asked for was a Boedecker 1124 regulator. Is that going to be impossible for you? Yeah, I'm an old-fashioned guy, but this baby needs the 1124. Can you get me one? Good. Thanks. Yeah, I know it'll cost me, you bloodsucker. When can I get it? I know they're hard to find! That's why I called you! Go ahead and be flattered all you want, but get it here by tomorrow. Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Kurt. I knew I could count on you."
By this time, Spike had turned the corner and could see the man. He was an old guy, even older than Mr. T, his darkly tanned skin a startling contrast to pale eyes and white hair that stuck up in untidy tufts. He wore a tattered olive-green shirt, the tails hanging out and the sleeves torn off to reveal muscular brown arms, and baggy khaki pants were tucked into beat-up, scarred hiking boots. His long jaw was unshaven, and in general he had the look of someone who didn't give a damn about his appearance. But the Bell was clean and sparkling, and the toolbox he dragged toward himself was well-stocked and organized. Spike liked him at once. "Hey. Mr. Doohan?"
The pale eyes nailed him. "What the hell do you want, kid?"
"Mr. Thermopolis sent me."
"He sent me a kid?"
"He sent you the best." He always figured if you were going to lie, make it a good one.
Doohan scowled. "A goddamned cocky kid, too. You got a name?"
"Spiegel. Spike Spiegel."
"Hmph. Any relation to Ben Spiegel?"
That startled Spike. He'd gone a long time without hearing his father's name. "He was my dad. Did you know him?"
"Nope. But I heard of him. Good racer before he retired. Great reflexes. You think you got your dad's reflexes, boy?"
"Yes, sir. Maybe even better."
Doohan reached into the toolbox, pulled out a #4 sonic wrench, and flipped it casually toward Spike. Spike deftly plucked the small tool from the air, whirled it between his fingers, tossed it high, and caught it behind his back.
"Show-off kid, too," Doohan growled, but like Garcia's scowl, Spike sensed it was mostly for show. This time, anyway. "I got something in the Bell your daddy probably would've liked. That's what I'm going to want your help with. And by the way, it's not sir and it's not Mr. Doohan. Just Doohan."
"Sure. Doo-han," Spike drawled. He followed the old man up into the Bell, whistling cheerfully.
"Knock that off."
"Sure." He didn't want to blow this. If Doohan wanted silence, he'd get silence.
The rotation belt they were crossing, unmoving now that they didn't need artificial gravity, was as clean as the outside of the ship, and Spike was sure it worked beautifully. He ran an appreciative hand along a therasteel rib, caught Doohan's eye, and dropped his hand at once.
"That's OK, she likes being stroked once in a while," Doohan said. "Maybe Leo knew what he was doing when he sent you. We'll see." He turned and palmed the door. "Cargo bay," he said, leading the way.
Normally Spike would have taken time to admire the clean, roomy bay with its vast ceiling. But the moment he followed Doohan inside and saw what was berthed there, he forgot about everything else, even the Bell.
A ship took up nearly all the floor space of the bay, pinned carefully not only with cable but with grav units. Doohan obviously thought a lot of her, and Spike didn't wonder why. She was a monoracer, sleek, pinioned like a bird of prey, and painted aggressively red. She looked fast and mean and like no mono he'd ever seen before. He stood gaping until Doohan, chuckling, gave him a shove. "I take it you like her, huh?"
Spike would have cut his tongue out before admitting to being impressed, never mind thunderstruck. "She's not bad," he conceded. "Custom job?"
"Built her myself. I call her the Swordfish. She's fast and she's agile. Your dad would have liked her, don't you think?"
His dad would have loved her. "Yeah. He might have. So," he slouched, shoving his hands into his hip pockets, "this what I'll be helping you with?" Say yes, please say yes.
"If you're any good. She's sensitive and temperamental. Not everyone can get along with her. But we'll see how you do. I'm fitting her with cannon mounts."
All that, and weapons, too? "When do we start?"
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
The sun was setting before Spike left the spaceport. Absorbed by the monoracer, he'd stayed much longer than he normally did, but he'd called his mom and she didn't mind. He hadn't given her a specific time when he'd get home. He never did. That way he could steal a few hours a week to do the things she wouldn't allow. Like meeting Vicious to tell him this news.
Now they sat side by side on the edge of a water dike, passing a cigarette back and forth. Still excited, even after an afternoon of hard work, he told Vicious all about the Swordfish. At one point he realized he was babbling and stopped abruptly. "You don't get any of this, do you?"
Vicious' mouth curved. "You left me behind somewhere around torque ratio. Do you really understand that shit?"
"Enough to get by. Not like Doohan. But then I don't want to work the shop all my life. I want to fly. Like my dad."
"So you want to be like your dad."
"No, I just want to fly. Fast birds, like that Swordfish. I bet she can kick ass." He glanced at Vicious' profile, which was all he usually saw of the older boy's face. Vicious didn't often meet anyone's eyes, not even his. "Do you want to be like your dad was?" he asked, and then realized, even as he said it, that he knew almost nothing about Vicious' life before they'd met. He knew Vicious had no parents now, and that was about all. And Vicious probably wanted it that way, so he might be treading on dangerous ground.
But Vicious answered mildly enough. "I never met my father, just heard about him from my mother. He was in the syndicates. But yeah, I'd like to be something like him. But smarter, so I don't end up dead." There was no emotion in his voice at all.
"Sounds good to me," Spike said agreeably, glad that he hadn't given offense, and wisely dropped the subject. He took a long drag on the cigarette, handed it over, then took it back when Vicious waved it away.
Vicious lounged back, stretching his legs and crossing them at the ankles. "So, this guy Doohan – he's letting you work the controls while he does the hard stuff, huh? And they're paying you for that?"
Spike grinned. "Yeah. Good deal, ain't it?"
"Well, you stay long enough in one place, someone's going to give you a break." He was silent a moment, and Spike's smile faded. He'd been hanging around with Vicious for more than a year, and he knew his friend's ways and moods. Something was coming. Vicious glanced over at him. "I'm not going to be around as much after today."
Spike had a flash of unreasonable panic. "Why? For how long?"
"I don't know how long. As long as it takes. I'm going to get a job."
Was that all? "Tired of stealing your food and cigs, huh?"
"I steal the cigs for you, you jackass." They both grinned. Vicious said, "No, it's not that. I just need to learn some things, is all. And the best way to do it is to get the job."
"What kind of job?" Spike wondered.
"Anyone ever tell you that you ask too many questions?"
Again, Spike knew the nuances of Vicious' tone of voice. He dropped the questions, but he could still joke around. "You're gonna end up in jail someday, you know that?"
"I hope not. I wouldn't like that much."
For some reason, the soft way he said it made Spike's skin shiver. "If you don't want to, you won't. I don't think anyone's ever made you do what you don't want to do."
"Yeah, well, it helps not to have a mother hanging all over me," Vicious agreed. He rose, hands in the pockets of his duster. Then he glared at Spike. "I don't mind you practicing your pocket-picking, you jerk, but give me back my wallet."
Spike produced it, grinning. "Just keeping my hand in. Never know when I might need it."
"Just don't pick old Doohan's pocket and get the key to that Swordfish. I'll be around, even if not as much, and I don't want to have to bail you out or scrape you up to talk to you. See ya."
Finishing the cigarette absently, Spike watched him walk away, a slightly stoop-shouldered figure with a cat's step and an elegance that the shabby duster didn't conceal.
He'd never seen anyone who looked more alone.
Forgetting the thought almost as soon as Vicious turned the corner and disappeared, Spike slid off the dike and headed for the neighborhood. Unlike Vicious, he had friends – Roach, Sammy, Tiger – and they were going to die of envy when they heard about the Swordfish.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Vicious had created a lair for himself in a deserted building less than half a mile from Girard Street. He'd done some rough carpentry to make it dry and safe, then reinforced the casual boarding-up of the windows on the ground floor, not just on his own room, but all of the floors, so no one would see a difference and wonder. The room got no light except what he brought in himself, but he didn't care. He preferred the night anyway.
The outside of the building was dilapidated, dirty, and ugly, but his room was a unique mixture of Spartan simplicity and sybaritic luxury. He had almost no furniture, but what he had was classy and sumptuous. All stolen, of course, and brought in with a lot of difficulty, especially the only large piece of furniture, the bed. The room suited him entirely. But then, he had no one else to bother about.
A short time after leaving Spike, he sprawled on the bed, stripped so he could enjoy feel of the silk coverlet, and pondered his decision. He couldn't see another direction to go that worked better. He was going to have to hope that all the time and hard work he'd put into befriending Spike would pay off with his brother's loyalty. That was a lot to ask of such a young kid, but Spike wasn't an ordinary kid. Vicious believed he'd stick.
He could almost hear Rafe. Nobody sticks. Not for good, not on their own. The only person you can count on is you. But, boy, you push the right buttons, you can make anyone do what you want them to, at least for a while. Question you have to ask yourself is, does that person mean enough to you for you to bother finding those buttons and to go on pushing them?
He grinned humorlessly. He's my brother, Rafe. He's worth it. I'll find a way.
The store looked like any other cheap newsstand, with rows of shelves, the magazines grouped by type from the harmless to the prurient, and a low box rack for comics. The ownership had only recently changed, so the facade hadn't yet taken on the grimy hopelessness of its neighbors. The glass was clean, the name on the window was unchipped and lacking no letters. Other than this, nothing marked it as anything but another struggling enterprise on the street.
Vicious knew better. The owners of this tiny storefront also owned the building behind it and the stores on either side of it, and the proprietors of the magazine stand were employed to do much more than sell a few magazines. There was little or no money in print media in this technological age, even in this neighborhood. Profit, here, came from the sale of weapons.
The plump, pleasant woman he could see behind the counter, along with her square-faced, handsome husband, were experts in the business of firearms. Long ago, they had become friends with a man who appreciated their particular field of interest. Mao Yenrai had risen in the ranks of one of the Martian syndicates to a point where he could afford to allow these two friends to play storekeepers, live in secret style, and stock and store an armory for the syndicate's use. That was the man Vicious ultimately wanted to reach, and this was a good place to start.
Rafe had told him about the shop, and about the lucrative sideline of Henry and Anastasia Jacobs. He'd pointed it out casually one day, and when Vicious had given him a skeptical look, suspecting humor, Rafe said, Boy, a syndicate is like a snake under a box. You can't see it. You see the box, and it might be a plain one, or a fancy one. Either one, you pick it up, and there's the snake underneath, deciding whether you're worth biting or not.
Mao Yenrai and the Jacobs’ were members of the Red Dragons. Rafe had been working for the Dragons when he'd died. Rumor said Yenrai rewarded loyalty, so that connection was a possible edge, and Vicious knew needed every edge he could get. Besides, there was a kind of balance in his going to work for the last syndicate Rafe had worked for.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and sauntered inside, using the comfortably stoop-shouldered posture that let him pass unnoticed even with his unusual coloring. There were only two customers in the store, a little blonde girl and an old woman who was talking to Annie Jacobs. The little girl gave him a long, measuring stare with eyes that looked much older than her apparent years before turning her interest back to her fashion magazine. From the counter at the back of the store, the two female voices rattled on, Annie's sympathetic, the customer's determinedly cheerful. They were talking about the girl, he realized. Her parents had both died somehow, and this woman, her grandmother, had taken her in. Annie was gently teasing her, "And what do you think you're going to do with a girl her age, Sarah? She'll want to go places, and do things, in a few years. Parties, boys. How are you going to handle that?"
"I'll just have to find a way. I'll depend on her friends. Maybe trade with their parents, rides for some of my cherry cobbler. She'll make lots of friends. She always has, everywhere she's gone."
"It'll be a change for her, settling in one place after the way your son and his wife dragged her all over the planet."
"I'm not worried. She's a good girl, she'll learn to like it."
Annie gave a comfortable chuckle. "You'll spoil her rotten."
They were talking as if the girl wasn't there, although if Vicious could hear them, the girl, who was no more than a few feet away, could certainly hear them as well. Yet she kept on flipping casually through her magazine as if oblivious. Or as if she didn't care. With nothing better to do than wait, Vicious stared at her, curious. She glanced at him once more, dismissed him as being no threat, and went on reading.
The old woman slid off the stool at the counter with the exaggerated care of the frail and elderly. "Julie? Honey? Did you find one you liked?"
The girl set aside the magazine she was looking through and picked up another one, much bigger and more glossily expensive. "Yes, Granma. Can I have this one?" Her voice, like her eyes, were older than her years, low and calm, with none of the piping enthusiasm of the young.
Granma assured her she could have any one she wanted, Annie refused payment, insisting it was a gift, and the old woman and the girl left contented, waving goodbye. Vicious waited through the whole routine, his impatience carefully tucked away where no one would see it. (Rafe: You ever watch a cat hunt a mouse, boy? Talk about patience. A cat'll stay in one position, perfectly still, for hours. Whatever it takes to make that mouse think it's not there, that it's just a lump in the ground. Then when it pounces, that damn mouse is totally fucking surprised. And dead. That's a good thing for you to learn to do. You got the knack.)
As soon as the door closed behind the pair, Annie Jacobs turned her eyes to Vicious, and her expression had changed completely. Gone was the pleasant smile and the warmth, to be replaced by a hard suspicion. "What are you here for? You aren't buying, that's for sure."
She didn't miss much, and one of her hands was hidden under the counter. He adjusted his opinion. He wouldn't underestimate her.
Strolling over, he hitched up onto the stool and rested his elbows on the counter. "I want to see the man in the back," he said.
She snorted. "There's no one in the back. Just a little storeroom with some of my stock."
"You're wasting my time and yours. I know what really keeps this place going."
"What keeps it going is a lot of hard work and not letting young vagrants hang around. Get out, or I'll call a cop."
"That's the last thing you'd do." Reaching under his coat, he pulled out the Colt, carefully, using two fingers, and placed it on the counter between them. "You may have seen that before."
She'd tensed when she'd seen the sheen of the gun, and she didn't relax when it was out of his hand. "If you're trying to rob me, you're going about it in a funny way," she said dryly.
"Look at it," he said.
"If you're trying to sell, this isn't a pawn shop, either."
"Just look at it. You may have seen it before."
She picked it up, not clumsily like an amateur, but with a good firm grip, checking that it was loaded with a mere flicker of her eyes. Then those eyes widened, and she looked back to him, a smile blooming. "I thought I knew you! You're Rafe's Little Spook, aren't you?"
"People used to call me that." He held out his hand for the Colt.
She put it in his palm, friendly now. "Everybody wondered where you disappeared to, when he died. I'm sorry, kid. We all liked him."
"Yeah." He put the Colt back in its place, hiding the anxiety he'd felt when it had been in her hands. The gun was the only thing he valued.
"So what are you here for?"
"I told you, to see the man in the back."
"And I told you, there is no man there. Just a storeroom."
"I want a job."
"Does this look like the kind of place that needs help?"
He never saw the signal, even though he was watching for it. He only saw her expression suddenly change again. "Tell you what, kid. I can give you a job – cleaning out that storeroom. Want to take a look at it?"
With a kind of rough sympathy, she said, "Are you sure about that? That storeroom is such a mess, you might never come out again."
"I'll take my chances."
"You'd better give me that toy to hold, then. You can't trust anyone in this world."
"So why should I trust you?"
"No reason at all. It's just another of life's decisions, Spook."
"My name is Vicious."
She made an inelegant noise, then looked at him speculatively. He handed her the Colt again, watched her hide it in a panel behind the counter, and followed her into the back.
As he expected, he was met by two men and thoroughly searched. His other weapons were all taken away, and he never saw them again, which later made him grateful to Annie for protecting Rafe's Colt from that fate. The men weren't gentle, and he had a few bruises by the time they dragged him to the back of the storeroom. He was knocked down to keep him from knowing how to open the hidden door, and it was swinging open by the time he got to his feet again. He memorized the faces of the two. He'd deal with them later, when he was in a better position to strike.
His first glimpse of a syndicate executive might have been disappointing, if he hadn't been taught by Rafe. They don't have horns and a forked tail, boy. Don't let the words fool you. Lots of nice words, they've got, but when you come right down to it, dig down past all the honor and the power, the syndicates are all about money. And half of them look like damned accountants. Don't let that fool you, either. This one looked exactly like Vicious thought an accountant should, right down to the hunched position behind a scarred old desk and the little wire-framed glasses sliding down his nose. He was on a phone, a genuine antique, listening to someone and saying nothing. Then he hung the unit up and looked at Vicious, and his mouth smiled, but his eyes were expressionless, like black buttons on a doll's face. "Rafe's Little Spook," he said, sounding pleased. "Who would have thought you'd show up here?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
One of the bodyguards raised a hand to strike him, and Vicious stared at him, waiting. But the man behind the desk held up a hand. "Why don't you let me ask the questions, kid, and you just answer, and we'll get along a lot better. Why are you here?"
"Looking for a job."
"But why with us? You live in Tiger territory."
They know where I live? "I live wherever I want."
"That's not an answer."
"Rafe liked doing business with the Dragons. He said they paid best, and kept their word."
"He was working for us when he died."
"I know that."
"You don't have any thoughts about getting revenge for it?"
The man stared at him a moment in silence, and then another smile crossed his face, a genuine one this time. "We have a real tough application form for you to fill out. But I have a feeling you'll do just fine. Go out the front of the store and wait. A car will come and get you. And Vicious – leave the gun with Annie for now. I'll let you know when you've earned the right to carry it."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
The Red Dragons "application form" was several weeks of training and torture. The average amount of time it took someone to "apply" was five weeks; Vicious finished in three, with a new respect for the organization of the syndicate, but a diminished opinion of the men who worked for it. They were loyal, but none of them were the equal of Rafe. Not even close. He came out feeling superior, but he kept that feeling off his face and out of his attitude. He was only 16, and with no experience as far as the Dragons were concerned, so for now, a low profile was best. He didn't resent it. Rather, he planned to use it. Rafe had told him, Don't look to no one to take you seriously until you've got some years and inches on you. Most people are stupid, they don't see past the surface. You can use that, fool 'em. But you let it get to you, then you've lost the game. Vicious had no intention of losing any game.
That included his first real assignment as a Red Dragon. He was given a simple drop. Carry a payment to a certain location, exchange it there for a package, and drop that off in a bus station locker. Simple. But he knew better, again from Rafe. I don't know why, but a lot of guys think their first assignments are going to be a cakewalk, like the syndicate's going to ease them in. Bunch of shit. The first assignments are like evolution, boy. You know what I mean? In evolution, ol' Mother Nature throws everything she's got at a species. If it makes it, she knows that species is fit to live. If not, then it dies out, and no harm done. That's what the first year or so of being a syndicate man is like. They want to know who's fit enough, smart enough, to be allowed to work for them. They don't want to have to baby-sit anyone. Every guy's got to pull his own weight. The first assignments, they weed out the good men, the survivors, and kill all the rest without the syndicate having to waste any bullets.
Now he stood hidden at one end of an alley, like any one of hundreds he'd explored when escaping from the orphanage, and because he was familiar with all the sounds and smells of an alley like this one, he knew he wasn't alone there. He didn't hear, see or even smell anything suspicious, but he knew anyway. The lack of rats scampering would have told him, even if his instincts didn't. He'd been dropped off weaponless, told that this was a friendly situation. But these parts of town yielded many weapons, and his hands found them in the shadows and hid them in the pockets of his coat.
At the other end of the alley, his contact appeared soundlessly, a boy several years younger than him, carrying a bundle wrapped in paper and tied with twine. As agreed, he came halfway into the alley, then, not seeing Vicious, sat on an overturned crate and lit a cigarette, the package in his lap. Vicious stepped from the shadows, and the kid jumped, the dim light from the street reflecting from a blade in his hand. Then he relaxed. "They said you had white hair, and I didn't believe it." He gave a short laugh. "You got the woolongs?"
Vicious slid the card from his pocket, handed it over, and accepted the package. All very simple. The kid trotted off, but Vicious didn't pick up the package. Instead, he turned to meet the enemy he expected.
There were only two of them, both with their weapons drawn. Vicious put on an expression of stunned stupidity. "What...? What is this?"
"Go on out of here, leave those receipts, and you won't get hurt. It's that easy, kid."
"But I'm supposed to bring them... I mean..."
His confusion allowed them to move closer. "We know what you mean. Tell your bosses you were outnumbered. It's true enough."
Vicious backed, pretending fear, until the crate was between him and the men, his hands going into his pockets. As he thought, their attention was more on the package than on him, although only one of them actually glanced at it. They took another step forward, and now they were within reach.
In one movement, Vicious pulled both hands from his pockets and leaped toward them, using the crate as a springboard. His left hand flung dog shit into the face of the nearest man, and his right arrowed toward the neck of the other. The broken bottle in his fist plunged deep into flesh, and the gush of blood that erupted told Vicious he'd hit his target and would have nothing to worry about from that man.
The first man, cursing, had dragged the stinking muck from his eyes and was turning toward Vicious, leading with his weapon. A well-placed kick didn't dislodge the gun from the man's hand, although he fired reflexively, the silenced weapon making a sound like a stifled spit, the bullet sending dust and shards from the nearest wall. The second man was staggering, and Vicious dodged behind him as the gun spat again, the flash as bright as sunlight. The split second before the twice-killed man fell, Vicious again reached into his pockets. His right hand threw two eggshells to one side, and in the moment the gunman's eyes followed the white movement, Vicious' right hand struck with the short piece of pipe, breaking the fingers around the butt of the gun. Gun and pipe both went flying in different directions.
The crack of bone didn't bring a scream, only a curse, but the man had more guts than brains. He stupidly plunged to the side, reaching for the gun with his good hand. Vicious leaped and kicked in a movement Master Sam had taught him long ago. His extended toes hit the man's ribcage with all Vicious' weight behind them, driving broken bone into the lungs. The man staggered, his hand coming up instinctively to shield the hurt, and Vicious caught his wrist, twisted, broke the arm, and then drove an elbow to the base of the skull. The man fell like a stone. Stepping lightly back, Vicious picked up his package and left for the bus station.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
The message he got the next day was a simple one, a comic book left on his doorstep, weighted with a brick. He was feeling pleased with himself, but that didn't make him cocky. He went at once to Annie's shop.
As soon as he walked in, Annie put up the "Closed" sign, staring at him wide-eyed. "What the hell did you do, kid?"
"I don't know yet."
"Well, go on through, they're waiting for you."
As before, two men were there to search and escort him, but this time no effort was made to hide the secret of the latch that opened the inner door. That was either very good or very bad. The man behind the desk had company, a reedy man with long dark hair and hooded eyes, slouched casually on one corner of the desk, lighting a cigarette. He was the one who spoke. "I heard you killed someone yesterday."
"Two, I thought."
"No, the other one lived. Why didn't you finish him? You had two guns laying right there."
"That wasn't part of my job. I was told not to overstep my bounds, just do the job. I did."
"You were also told never to kill anyone without sanction, weren't you?"
"Yes? That's it, just yes?"
"The penalty for doing that is not a pretty one."
"And that doesn't worry you?"
He shrugged. "I had to kill the guy to make it out of that alley alive. If you want to punish me for that, I can't do anything about it."
The two older men looked at each other. The man behind the desk said, "I told you, Kito."
"You weren't kidding. Tell Annie." Kito stubbed out the cigarette and rose from the desk edge in a rolling, casual movement that reminded Vicious strongly of Rafe. "You're with me, kid," he said. "Can you work in a team, or do I have to beat that into you?"
"I don't know," Vicious answered honestly.
"Come on, then."
In the store, Annie waited at the front, ready to let them out. As they passed her, she reached into a pocket in her skirt, pulled out Rafe's Colt, and handed it to Vicious. Vicious couldn't help a smile as the familiar weapon came back to his hand and the man named Kito didn't even glance his way.
He was in.
Spike noticed the car as it cruised by, but only in the way any street kid noticed a car, especially a big one like that – did it seem to be looking for someone? were there guns peeping from open windows? But since it posed no apparent threat and didn't rouse his survival instincts, he dismissed it from his mind as none of his business and went on with what he was doing, which, at that moment, was showing some of his buddies a new magic trick. Even when it stopped a little way up the street, in front of Wong's Grocery, and a man got out of the back, Spike paid no attention except to note instinctively that it was happening. But something familiar about the man prompted him to turn his head as the car drove off and the man turned to go up the alley between Wong's and the shoe store. A breeze blew pale hair over the collar of the man's long coat, and Spike knew who it was.
He could barely contain his enthusiasm long enough to find a way to get rid of his buddies and run up that alley. He hadn't seen Vicious in months! Not since the day Vicious told him he was going to get a job.
His friend hadn't changed a bit. His clothes were better, but that was about it. He'd cleared a crate, turned it on one end, and was sitting on it with his long legs stretched out, slouched and looking as he always did, as if he owned the place. As Spike came trotting up, he smiled at Spike's grin. But, again as always, he didn't waste time with greetings. "Anyone see you come in here?"
"Naw," Spike said, although truthfully, he hadn't checked.
He vaulted up onto a trash bin, which put him eye-to-eye with Vicious, and Vicious said, "You've gotten taller."
"Yeah. Did you get that job?"
"They must pay well. Those are some fancy clothes." Not flashy – Vicious didn't go for flashy – but Spike could see they were fine quality. Then he looked closer at what the long black duster had concealed while Vicious had been walking into the alley. "What's that?"
"Looks like a sword."
"A katana is a sword."
"You bought a sword?"
"With my first paycheck."
"What did you think I was going to do? Blow it on women and drink?"
Spike laughed. "No, but a sword? What do you need that for? You have a gun."
"I don't need it. I wanted it."
Vicious shrugged one shoulder. "It's a more elegant weapon. It takes more skill to use it well, too. Anyone can fire a gun. A few people can even hit something when they fire. But almost nobody can use one of these right."
Vicious' lips twitched. "Well, I'm learning. What about you? Still at the spaceport?"
"You're not going to believe this..."
"You quit and went to work at Wong's."
Spike laughed again. "No, jerk-off." He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, then said as coolly as he could, "Doohan let me fly the Swordfish."
Surprising Vicious was difficult, but that did it. "You're shitting me."
"I swear. She was tethered to the Octalis, naturally, but I was still flying her."
"He is not. He knows a good pilot when he sees one."
"You just turned thirteen, you ass. If you get caught, you're both going to jail, you and Doohan."
Spike just grinned. "We didn't get caught," he pointed out.
Vicious chuckled. "So... how did you do?"
"Great, of course. I'm a natural."
"You're a natural bullshitter, and a cocky one, too."
"It wasn't that big a deal," Spike admitted.
But Vicious knew him better than anyone else. "It was a big deal to you. It's a good feeling, to do what you were meant to do."
"Yeah. Just like that."
The two were silent for a moment, Spike reliving those euphoric moments. Then he said, "You going to tell me what damned fool hired you?"
"I'm working for the Red Dragons."
The cigarette dropped out of Spike's mouth and hit the alley floor with a sprinkling of sparks. "The syndicate? How did you get in? You know somebody?"
"I did, once, a long time ago."
"So...." Spike struggled to stay cool and not look as impressed as he felt. "How is it? Do you like it?"
"Yeah, I do. It suits me. Not as well as flying suits you, I don't think. But it'll get better."
Another moment of silence passed while Spike took this in. He couldn't ask the obvious questions, because nobody ever asked a syndicate man what he did. That was a one-way ticket to oblivion. So he controlled his curiosity and dug for another cigarette. He pulled the pack out empty. "Well, shit."
Vicious reached into an inside pocket, took out an unopened pack, and tossed it at him. "I told you I was getting a job to keep you in cigarettes. Did you think I forgot?"
Warmed to the core, Spike caught the toss left-handed and said, "You never forget anything. I just figured that katana thing ate up all the cigarette money."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Two blocks away, Barbara Spiegel called on her shattered self-discipline, forced her long, rapid stride to slow to a normal walk, and brought her breathing and heart rate back into line. Against the curve of her lower back, under her light jacket, her Glock felt as if it were burning her skin, so badly did she feel the need to draw it.
She'd just passed an alley on her way home and seen her two sons chatting like old friends.
That Spike had lied to her was no surprise. Infuriating, yes, but not surprising. He was a boy, so lying to his mother was as natural as breathing. But she'd thought she was safe from Vicious by now. She'd been forced to keep her inquiries extremely discreet, even to the extent of dying her hair a darker blonde so no one would connect the boy's coloring to her, but she'd learned that no one had seen Vicious in the neighborhood for a long time. She'd also heard he'd joined the Red Dragons, which should have kept him too busy to wander in this direction. Nor had Spike made any excuses for being late that weren't covered by him doing things out at the spaceport.
She went up the stairs to their apartment, responding with an automatic smile to Mrs. Peinot as they passed, tugging out her keycard, doing all the things she normally did. Not until she set her sack of groceries on the table did she allow herself to switch off automatic and begin to think.
The major question in her mind was, what did Vicious want with Spike? Spike was too young for him just to want friendship. What could a thirteen year old boy offer, as a friend, to a boy of seventeen with eyes that looked forty? Nor, remembering those eyes, did Barbara believe that it was some kind of family affection or pull of mutual blood. She didn't even really think Vicious was doing it to get even with her for abandoning him. He'd seemed sincerely indifferent to that.
It bothered her when she didn't understand something, especially when that something made her want to draw her gun.
She pulled out the Glock and set it on the table, staring at it, using it to focus her thoughts. But logic wasn't helping her. She knew too little about Vicious to draw any real conclusions. Still, her instincts were telling her, screaming at her, that this situation was dangerous. So strong was her gut feeling that when she picked up the weapon and sighted down the barrel, she could easily see Vicious' temple as her target. That it might seem unnatural for a woman to want to kill her own son crossed her mind only to be flicked away contemptuously. Vicious was dangerous, to her and to Spike. This was self-defense.
Still.... The gun lowered as if on its own. He was her son. She was largely responsible for creating the circumstances that had made him so dangerous. No matter how she tried to convince herself that she was being stupidly sentimental to think that way, the feeling remained. Even more strong was the reluctance to put a bullet into a face that reminded her so strongly of Eddie. If there was any part of her that had once been able to feel love for a man, it belonged to Eddie.
Any capacity to love that still survived in her now, however, belonged to Spike. What she had seen in that alley scared her more than anything had since the day she'd awakened in a hospital bed, unsure if she'd be able to move her legs again. The two of them had looked so familiar with each other. Spike had been leaning forward, eager, as he did when happily interested in something, and opposite him, Vicious had sat like a dark, evil crow. Luring him, luring Spike... but to what? Maybe the Red Dragons. Maybe he thought bringing them the son of the She-Wolf would earn him a leg up in the organization. He'd be right, too. But if Spike went into the syndicates, it would be under her aegis, not Vicious'. He was her son. Vicious had no right to him.
She was surprised to feel the bite of her fingernails in her palm. She opened her hand, forced herself once more to control her breathing, and put the gun back where it belonged. She wasn't accustomed to feeling panic, but that didn't mean she would give into it.
The obvious and easy solution to this problem wouldn't work. She couldn't kill Vicious. The Dragons might learn of it, and then nothing, not even her services to them in the past, would save her. Nor could she stand back and allow Vicious to do whatever it was he planned with Spike.
She had to run.
Twenty minutes later she was entering a liquor store, disguised in a drab brown wig, dark-framed clunky glasses, and a shirtwaist dress which made her as inconspicuous as a lamppost on the street. But Richie recognized her as soon as she took the glasses off. "I'm looking for a '52 Blackrock brandy," she said. "It's a special occasion."
For a moment she thought Richie might deny her, but he owed her. He nodded once and said, "We don't get much call for any kind of brandy, ma'am. But I might have some in the back." He gestured a clerk to take over behind the counter. "Not Blackrock, though, I'm afraid. But come take a look, maybe you'll see something just as good."
"Thanks." She smiled, and Richie relaxed. A little. His shoulders were still stiff and tense as he led her to the storeroom and, from there, into the secret room which all syndicate fronts seemed to have. Richie's hideaway was smaller than most, barely big enough for both of them and the desk, chair and safe which were the only furniture.
He shut the door behind her, and as the lock clicked into place, he grunted, "This a social visit?"
"I don't make social visits, you know that. Not even to old friends."
"You're calling in your marker."
"Word is, you've been doing that for a while now. I figured you'd get to me. What do you need? If I have it, you know you'll get it." This was said in a resigned tone.
"Oh, you have it. And it's real simple. I need a new identity."
Richie relaxed fully now. "Is that all? Yeah, I can do that. New face, too?"
"No, we'll keep this simple. Just a new name, papers, for me and my son. Keep the same first names, change the last. Here's all the information you'll need." She handed him a disk. "And we need a new place to live, too. Away from Tharsis. Someplace else, maybe Alva City. I'll pay you the going rate, Richie."
She smiled again, then let the smile fade. "The thing is, I need it fast. And it's got to be first class. Not the cheap stuff."
"Naturally. Only the best for you."
"And there's one more thing I need from you, too. Silence. No one can know about this."
"No problem." Richie looked nervous again. "You think I'd cross you?"
"I like to think you wouldn't."
"But after this, we're square?"
"OK. Come back Tuesday morning, two AM. The back door will be open. I'll have everything you need then."
"You're a prince."
Spike noticed something odd about her that night, but when he asked, she just told him she had a headache. He dismissed it as a woman-thing and forgot about it, which was exactly what her tone of voice had been meant to make him think. She didn't tell him they were moving, because despite her watching him more closely, he might yet meet with Vicious and spill it all. Besides, the very thought of telling him gave her a headache for real. He was going to have a fit. Giving up the job in the spaceport would be the worst. Maybe Richie would find her a place near another spaceport – Mars had enough of them. Even if he did, she dreaded the temper tantrum Spike would pitch, especially when she couldn't possibly explain anything to him, and she truly hated to drag him yet again away from his friends and a home that had become familiar. But she had no choice.
The weekend passed, and Monday crossed into Tuesday. She couldn't go in disguise, because Spike was a light sleeper, and if he woke and saw her, there would be no way to explain. So she just dressed in simple black, with a cap to hide her hair, and let herself out quietly. An hour before she was supposed to arrive, she was hidden near the dark liquor store, watching, but seeing nothing except Richie's arrival with a briefcase. Exactly at two, she let herself through the back door. She used every precaution, but Richie was being honest. There was no trap, no problem.
He was waiting for her in the secret room, the papers laid out on the desk. She examined them carefully. Richie had been smart enough to give her an innocuous last name that did not begin with an S ("I figured you didn't have any monogrammed towels," he commented wryly), and the apartment he'd secured was in a neighborhood where she could easily disappear. Her most minute examination found no flaws in the paper or the holographs. Richie could have made a fortune with his skills. Had, probably, but had spent it all on the ponies, which was why he was still small-time. "These are good, Richie. You're a real artist," she said, straightening.
"What, you forgot? I'm the best."
She chuckled. "I haven't been away that long. You sure you don't want money for these? They're perfect."
"Like I said, this'll square us up. That's all I want. Here, you have to sign these before I seal them," he said, reaching for a pen from the desk.
"I have one, thanks." She took the silver stylus from her pocket and signed everything with her new name, then toyed with it while Richie finished his work. Compulsively neat, he folded the papers precisely and put them all into a leather portfolio. As he pressed the seal, she leaned over. "Wait, Richie. We forgot one thing."
"What?" he demanded, annoyed. He was a perfectionist, he knew he hadn't forgotten anything.
But his hand was spread on the portfolio. "Nothing, just a stray thought, never mind," she said, and tapped the stylus on the skin of his wrist as she reached for the papers.
The poison worked fast. Richie barely had time to realize that something was wrong, just time enough to get a startled expression on his silly face. Then he lost all motor control and collapsed like a rag doll. She waited until his heart and lungs gave up the struggle to work and his eyes glazed over as the blood congealed in his brain, and the whole thing took less than thirty seconds. Then she bent to close his eyes with her fingertips. "All square, Richie."
Moments later she was on the street again, a shadow in the shadows, going home. The secret room was soundproofed and sealed. It would be a long time before the recycled air announced to anyone that a body was in there. By then Richie's disappearance would have been noticed and he would have been replaced, and the new owner would eventually, resignedly, clean up the mess. That would give her all the time she needed, and no chance that Vicious could trace her.
She had no regrets over Richie. She never had regrets over any of her kills, but even if she'd been inclined that way, Richie had been necessary. He was a coward. If Vicious had found him, all he had to do was wave a blowtorch once over the hairs of Richie's hand, and Richie would have given every detail away. Would Vicious have found him? Maybe not. But if he was as much Eddie's son as he appeared, he was already making comrades in the Dragons, establishing a network which might have led him to Richie. Unlikely, but she wasn't taking the smallest chance.
In silence, Kito counted the woolongs a third time. Behind him stood two bodyguards, so unobtrusive that they were almost forgotten. Before him, on the other side of his desk, three men stood watching him. Chang Wei, bulky enough to make even Kito's office seem too small, stood with his arms folded on his massive chest, his expression impassive. Beside him, Roper Smith affected unconcern less successfully, his thumbs in the belt loops of his old-fashioned blue jeans and his shoulders slanted, but his eyes watchful and nervous. In front of them, the only truly relaxed person in the room stood at military ease, feet planted, hands linked behind his back, a faintly bored expression on his face.
Kito sealed the woolongs, thumb-printed the seal, and dropped the package into the courier safe. "Excellent, Vicious. More than I expected. Cho-Zhou will be pleased." He leaned back in his chair. "I take it you were able to get to Fontini?"
"He wasn't a problem."
"Did you have to break anything? Make any noise?"
Vicious shook his head. "I just reasoned with him."
Nothing in his calm, flat voice gave any indication that he was pleased or flattered by the rare compliment from Kito. But behind him, Roper stifled a grin, and Kito said, "Roper, you disagree?"
"No, sir. It's just that what Vicious calls reasoning with him, I would call quietly scaring the shit out of him."
"I like quiet. When it's possible. What did you say to him, Vicious?"
Vicious shrugged one shoulder. "The usual. It's not what you say, it's how you say it."
"That's true enough." Kito's mouth curved. He reached into a drawer and handed a fat stack of woolongs to Vicious. "There's your bonus, boys."
He rose, and while one of the bodyguards helped him into his coat, Vicious peeled a 10,000w bill from the top of the stack and tucked it into his pocket. The rest he split evenly between himself, Roper and Chang. Kito noted this with a lifted brow, and as the boys pocketed their money, Roper with a grin, Kito said, "A good night deserves a reward. How about I stand you three a round at the Jupiter Bar?"
This was so unprecedented that even Chang blinked. Roper said, "Sure, boss! Thanks!"
"Meet us down there. I need to have a little talk with Vicious first."
When they were gone, he sat on the edge of his desk and studied Vicious a moment. "Why did you do that? Split the money evenly? You're the boss for those two, you should get the largest cut."
"They work better that way."
"Are you having trouble with them?"
Vicious shook his head.
Kito lit a cigarette, taking his time. "I thought Roper, at least, would give you a hard time. He's still calling you 'the kid.'"
"He and I had a talk, so now he calls me 'the kid' in a respectful way."
That got a chuckle from Kito. "Another of those talks of yours, huh? I'll have to listen in on one sometime. Sounds like they're pretty effective. So, why did you take off the one bill? Good luck? Or plan to give it to charity?"
"No, it's mine. One off the top. To remind them I'm still in charge."
For a moment, Kito was still, and the only movement in the room was the drift of smoke. Then he said, "You have an old head on your shoulders. When I gave you those two, both of them were pretty pissed off about the idea of taking orders from a kid who barely shaves. You know that I figured you'd fall on your butt, don't you?"
Vicious nodded. "But I didn't."
"I have a feeling you don't like to fail."
"I don't know. I've never failed yet. But I don't like the thought of it."
Kito gestured to the bodyguards and sent them from the room with a jerk of his chin. When the door closed behind them, he said, "What you did then, with the bonuses – that's what I used to do when I first started. Right down to taking the first bill off the top."
"You asked around about me?"
"I listened. That's different."
"Why me? There's plenty of capos around. Are you imitating me because you work for me?"
"No. I did it because when I become a capo, you're the kind I want to be."
Kito's dark eyes narrowed, studying him. "I'm not sure if I'm flattered or threatened. Kid, I'll tell you something that I'd never say if there was anyone else here – you scare me. Not like you scare Fontini, or even Roper," he said, his lips twitching. "But I've never seen anything like you. Everything I give you to do, you do right, maybe even better than I expected. I figured two pros like Chang and Roper would eat you alive, and instead you've got them eating out of your hand. I have a feeling about you. I have from the minute I heard about you from Annie. I think you're going to go far. Maybe all the way to the top. Hell, I might be working for you when I retire, for all I know. But you're being noticed, and that's dangerous. You know you don't dare put a foot wrong now."
"I'm hoping you'll keep me from doing that."
"I might. I just might. As long as you promise me one thing."
Kito grinned. "Don't kill me to step into my shoes. Come on, I owe you a drink. We'll go in the car and beat those other two there."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Coddled in the air-conditioned luxury of Kito's limo, Vicious had to struggle to maintain his calm exterior and act as if this kind of thing happened to him every day, when what he really wanted to do was to dance with glee as he'd often seen Spike do. All his hard work had paid off. Not that he discounted his good luck. As syndicate men went, Kito was one of the best. He was fair, he rewarded good service, and he was a natural leader, the kind men want to follow, the kind of man who, when someone who failed him turned up missing or dead, everyone assumed they'd deserved it. Vicious knew he had some natural leadership abilities of his own, but he'd been watching Kito as well as listening to others talk about him, and he'd studied all the things Kito did that made him so effective. Some, such as Kito's wry and appealing sense of humor, he couldn't emulate. Others, like the even split of bonuses, he easily could, and still others, like the cool confidence with which Kito gave even the simplest orders, the easy assumption that he trusted his people to carry them out to the letter, he learned with practice.
Also lucky for him was that, for some reason, Kito liked him. Vicious worked hard on that, too, taking advantage of his luck in every way he could. Even the smallest assignment kept him up late, studying and planning. When he had been given Roper and Chang as assistants, he figured they were a pair of babysitters, helping the rookie with the assignment of collecting protection money, a job which would normally have gone to an older, more experienced man. Vicious had spent the next two nights studying, and when the three of them took to the street, he'd known everything there was to know about both of them, and he knew much more than they did about where they were going and who they were dealing with – every street, every alley, every entrance and exit to every shop, and the strengths and weaknesses of each "client". Within half an hour after they set out on that first afternoon, Chang had his measure and moved contentedly from babysitter to employee. Roper took a little longer, but not much.
As he'd told Kito, failure wasn't acceptable to him. But he hadn't thought to succeed so well, so fast. In the short drive to the Jupiter Bar, Kito spoke about syndicate business, and he listened and learned. When they got to the bar, Kito was of course shown into the private rooms and Vicious went to join Roper and Chang, but everyone had seen him come in with Kito, so his passage through the crowd was accompanied by newly respectful looks.
The irrepressible Roper, however, greeted him with a whistle and a demand to know how he'd learned to kiss ass so well, which Vicious didn't bother to grace with a reaction. Their drinks were set before them, and Vicious calculated exactly how much time he should stay to show solidarity but not familiarity with "his" men. Roper carried on most of the conversation, since Vicious wasn't talkative and Chang gave new meaning to the word taciturn, whereas Roper was in love with both his looks and his own voice.
Vicious was just laying the groundwork for leaving gracefully when Roper nudged his foot under the table and said, "Don't look now, but that Crys is getting an eyeful of you."
"Crys? Crys who?"
Roper jerked a thumb toward the bar.
There was a woman staring at him, so intently that he was surprised he hadn't felt it. She suited the bar, having a kind of casual flamboyance in her style. She was tall, a full head taller than the women on either side of her, but long legs, narrow hips, and a tiny waist prevented any categorizing her as a "big girl." A hot-pink blouse clung precariously to a chest that was lushly, definitely female, leaving her shoulders bare, and tight leather pants were tucked into boots with three-inch heels. Her hair was long, almost to her waist, as straight as a rule and black with the ends dyed green. Although it looked as if it had been cut with garden shears and an unsteady hand, the style worked for her somehow. When he looked into her eyes, she put out her cigarette and calmly stared back, unconcerned about being discovered or about being flirtatious. Her stare was a simple invitation.
"Jeez," Roper said. "I thought she hated syndicate guys."
"She does," Chang said.
"Then why is she staring at the kid like that?"
Chang didn't reply.
Vicious took another long pull on his whiskey. The woman was making him nervous, which was not a familiar sensation. "Who is she?" he asked casually.
"Crys. C-r-y-s, not C-h-r-i-s, and God help you if you get it wrong. She's a real ball-buster. And like Chang says, she hates syndicate men."
Vicious let his lips curve. "You mean you couldn't get to first base with her, right?"
"I didn't even get up to bat. But I bet you could."
Vicious suddenly realized he was in a situation he'd never faced before. One thing he knew almost nothing about was women. Rafe had said, There's no understanding women, so you might as well not kink your brain up trying to figure them out. And they're all different. Just find a way to deal with each one the best you can. But he'd never had to deal with them before, except the nuns at the orphanage, and this woman was nothing like a nun. Furthermore, he was facing another test in the eyes of Roper and Chang. He couldn't afford to look weak or ignorant in front of them.
He leaned back in his chair, stretched his legs, and put on a bored expression. "She's not that great to look at."
"Are you nuts?" Roper asked, laughing. About some things, he had a sure instinct, and he was ready to push on this, Vicious realized. "Are your eyes working OK? Not to mention the rest of your body. Hell, she's hotter than a solar flare."
"I suppose," Vicious said lazily, lifting his glass. He glanced toward the bar again. She was still watching him, but more coolly now, less intently. "How much is she?" he asked.
Roper sputtered, and even Chang blinked. "Damn," Roper said, "she ain't no whore, Vicious!"
"No? She dresses like one."
"Well, she ain't, and if you tell her that, what she'll say to you will make you miss your momma."
"I doubt that," Vicious smiled. "But I won't say it. Just because I'm polite."
Chang said, "I think you two would make a good couple."
This was so unexpected that even Vicious stared at him open-mouthed. Chang rarely said more than two or three words at a time, and never on a personal note. After a blank silence, Roper suddenly started laughing, a little too loudly. "You're right, Chang. Damned if you're not. They're a perfect match. Her with a tongue that can raise a blister, and him with one that can freeze your blood. Just perfect."
Chang pushed his chair back and rose with the fluid grace that always seemed odd with such a big man. "We should go," he said, and without waiting for a reply, he left. Roper, non-plussed for a moment, recovered and said, "Yeah, I guess that's right. Call me when you need me, you got the number. And have a nice night," he added with a grin.
Left alone, Vicious stared into his glass, figuring that in about two minutes he could leave without seeming to be in retreat in any way. He felt the woman's eyes on him again and looked up. She tilted her head to one side, as if saying, Well?
This was a challenge he knew he had to meet on some level. Others had noticed and were watching. He nodded, once, and she started toward him, weaving her way through the crowd like a Siamese cat. She sat next to him, in the chair Chang had vacated, and studied him frankly, with a faint smile. When he didn't speak, her smile deepened. "You know, you don't have to offer to buy me a drink or anything."
Her eyes were a mossy green, he saw, and she was older than she'd looked at a distance. Her voice was intriguingly husky. "I will if you want one," he offered.
She signaled to the waitress, and in a moment, fresh shots of whiskey sat before each of them. When the waitress was gone, he said, "Wouldn't you rather have wine?" That's what most women drank.
"If I wanted grape piss, I'd have ordered it," she said, amused, and sipped the whiskey with a daintiness that didn't go with her words.
Against his will, he was fascinated by her. He'd never met a woman quite like her. "Why were you staring at me?"
"Partly because you're pretty." At his expression, she chuckled. "You don't like that, do you?"
"Does any man?"
"You aren't quite a man yet. I guess, in a way, that makes it even worse. But it's still true. I've seen pictures in the art museum that aren't as pretty as you are."
"We aren't getting off on the right foot," he growled.
"Sure we are. You just don't know it yet."
"I know when I like someone, and I don't like you."
Unconcerned, she took a cigarette from the purse hanging from a string over her shoulder. Vicious said, "I don't like that habit, either."
She met his eyes, shrugged, and to his surprise, tossed the cigarette unlit into the nearest ashtray. Set off his stride again, Vicious did what came naturally. He attacked. "You said partly. What's the rest of the reason you were staring at me?"
She chuckled. "You'll like that even less."
"Tell me anyway."
Her expression sobered, and after a slight hesitation, she said quietly, "Your eyes. You've got lonely eyes. The loneliest eyes I've ever seen."
"I'm not lonely," he said coldly.
The smile came back. "You're full of shit."
"And you're an arrogant bitch."
"I still like your looks."
"I don't care."
"You've got a great personality there, too. Loads of charm. Oh, look, he can smile."
"Are you always like this?"
"I usually tell the truth, if that's what you mean."
"No, I mean obnoxious."
"Only when I want to get someone's attention."
"You already got my attention by staring at me."
"I doubt that." She rested her chin on her knuckles. "I doubt that very much. You aren't like the rest of the guys who come in here."
"Why? Because I didn't try to pick you up?"
She didn't react at all to the offensiveness of his tone. She just kept studying him. "No, not just that. You're just... different. Very, very different. I don't know why, though, so it interests me. You interest me."
He shrugged. In truth, he didn't know what to say to her. He felt as if she were looking deeper into him than most people did, and something about the way she was doing it made him uncomfortable in a peculiarly pleasant way. In another, very differently pleasant way, her position made him aware of how smooth the skin of her shoulders looked.
"Well," she said. Then, "I'm getting pretty tired of this place. It's too noisy to hold a conversation. Tell you what. I'm going home and take a bath. That'll take me about half an hour or so. After that, I'll be reading a book for a little while before I go to bed. If you should turn up then, we could get to know each other better. And if you don't, I'll have caught up with my reading. I'm two blocks north of here, number 1124 Baker, third floor, third door on the left. Just in case you're interested." She rose. "And if not, well, it was nice meeting you, Vicious. By the way," she added over her shoulder as she turned to go, "that's a weird name. But it suits you, in a weird sort of way."
He watched her walk out, her hips swinging under the curtain of hair, and he wasn't the only man who watched her. He remembered something else Rafe had once said. A pretty woman is a fine thing to touch, but in our world, it's hard to hold on to something that other men want. His shoulders twitched. He didn't want this Crys. If he were going to be honest with himself, yes, he did want her, but he didn't want the trouble she could bring. Nor did he want the possible humiliation of jumping into something where he had little idea what to do or how to do it.
Worse, he wasn't sure what effect this would have on his reputation. He would have been safe if she'd been an ordinary woman, one of those who hung around the edges of the syndicate or who worked for it. That she had the reputation for hating the syndicates, yet singled him out so obviously, could be either really good or really bad for him.
To hell with her, he thought. He would take risks with his life and safety, but not with his reputation. He was not going to see all his hard work get washed away for a tart who thought he was pretty, of all things. In a few days, he would have forgotten all about that smooth pale skin, those green come-hither eyes, and that husky voice.
He rose, tossed a bill on the table, and left the bar. Just outside the door, in the flickering orange and pink light of the Jupiter's neon sign, he hesitated. North? or south, and home?
He'd just decided on south and had turned when one of Kito's bodyguards came out and caught his arm, then slammed him back against the brick wall. He was used to how rough they were and didn't resist, knowing this only meant Kito wanted to talk to him about something. He waited fifteen minutes against the wall, unable to move, watched sharply by Kito's man, until the boss himself came out.
Kito casually gestured the man away, then paused to light a cigarette before saying anything. Vicious watched his hands. He didn't know if this was good news or bad, and he'd once seen Kito light a cigarette, just like this, and while pocketing the lighter, whip out a blade and drive it through the heart of someone who'd crossed him. But the lighter fell into his coat pocket and the hand came out empty, and Kito's expression was amused. "Roper tells me you just got propositioned by Natalya Maranovya."
"She calls herself Crys."
"Oh. Yes," he said, keeping his tone cool and unconcerned in an attempt to make up for having just sounded like an idiot. "What about it?"
"I just wondered what you were going to do."
What the hell? "I hadn't decided. If there's a problem, I'd just as soon go home. She's not that good-looking."
Kito laughed. "You play that act really well, you know it? But you're going to be a lot older before another woman like that one comes on to you."
"She could be trouble."
"She is trouble. But you're smart, you can handle that. And it would look real good if one of my boys had her on a leash for a while."
Now he understood. And now he knew he had no choice.
Kito smiled and said, "Well, have fun tonight." Then he got in his big car and left.
Vicious stuffed his hands in his pockets and headed north. He had two blocks to figure out what to do when he got there. He wasn't exactly an innocent, after all. He'd heard plenty of talk. All he had to do was remember some of what other men had said, then imagine himself doing it. And stop sweating.
He had what he thought was a pretty good plan of action by the time he knocked on the door. But when Crys opened it, the plan went completely out of his head. She was nothing like he was expecting in any of his imaginings. She'd washed all her make-up off, and her hair was still damp, pulled forward over one shoulder. The only thing she was wearing was a childish, fuzzy pink bathrobe that reached to her knees. Her feet were bare, the nails painted blood-red to match her fingernails. Barefoot, she stood as high as his chin, so she hardly had to look up to hold his eyes. "You came," she said with soft delight, and smiled.
"You invited me."
His scowl didn't faze her at all. "That doesn't make me any less glad that you actually came." She reached up, put a hand around his neck, and pressed her lips to his, briefly, gently. "Well, come on in. Lets quit giving the neighbors a free show."
He'd planned to stay an hour or so. He ended up staying the night, and he got very little sleep. But in those hours, he discovered there was something else for which he had a natural talent and someone willing to help him develop it.
Spike trudged up the stairs and to his door, but there he hesitated, glancing down at his shirt. Totally ruined, and there was blood on his pants, too. His mother was going to be pissed. She wouldn't screech and carry on like Biggy's mom was going to do, but she was still going to find some way to punish him. And he couldn't hide from her long enough for the bruising to die away. That would take days. Maybe she isn't home. That would only be delaying the inevitable, but hell, he'd take any break he could get. Hoping, he opened the door.
Naturally his luck was out. His mother was home, stretched out on the sofa, reading a book. She took one look at him and her eyebrows arched upward. "I sure hope the other guy looks worse."
His luck wasn't going to be entirely rotten. She was in a good mood. "Yup, he does. Lots worse."
She set the book aside and swung her feet to the floor. "You know, any clothes you don't grow out of in a week, you rip up or otherwise ruin. Look at you. Come on, lets get you cleaned up."
"I can do it myself, Mom!"
"Call it punishment for fighting. You won't use iodine. I will. Who was it?"
"Len Biggars? He's half again your size!"
He gave her a crooked smile. "You don't want me fighting with somebody smaller than me, do you?"
"Point," she conceded, holding his chin while she dabbed iodine onto his face. In that way she was better than his friends' mothers, too. They would have demanded he not fight. She didn't even ask what he fought about, simply fussed about the ruined shirt as she pulled it off his shoulders.
That reminded him of another sore point. He said sullenly, "If I was still working at the spaceport, I could buy a new one."
"Don't start with that again. I already said I was sorry. I tried to get a place near the spaceport here, but I couldn't. Quit pouting."
"I'm not pouting. My lip is swollen."
"I know a pout when I see one. Get out of those pants and I'll bring you some clean clothes. And see if you can't keep them in one piece for the rest of the day."
She wasn't finished with him yet, however. When he emerged from the bathroom, clothed and combed, she eyed him speculatively and said, "This is your second fight this month. You know what? I think you just don't have enough to do."
"I've got plenty to do!"
"Relax. I wasn't thinking about more chores. I think it's time you learned something useful."
More school? Oh, great, that was just what he needed. "Like what?"
"Self-defense. Come over here." She pulled him over to face her. "You're as tall as I am! You're growing so fast, I guess we don't have to worry about the clothes not lasting long. Anyway, we can do this standing, which is better. Now, put your hands up in front of you, like you're getting ready to clap. A little higher. Good." She held her hand toward him like an arrow, fingers together pointing at his chest, thumb up. "Now, I'm going to poke you in the chest, and it's going to hurt. I want you to try to stop me by catching my hand between yours. OK?"
"I want to test your eye-hand coordination. Ready?"
He knew his eye-hand coordination was good. He would never have done so well in battle programs in the sims, otherwise. "Yeah, I'm ready."
He saw her move, but far too late. His hands clapped on nothing and her fingers jolted into his breastbone. She was right, it hurt. It hurt even worse the second time, and he cursed.
"Spike, don't look at my hands. Look at my eyes. And don't focus all your attention in one place. Use your peripheral vision. See without watching. This has got to be something you do, not something you make yourself do. Does that make sense?"
He nodded, and this time he watched her eyes. He wasn't sure what he saw, when it happened. Just something, a change, miniscule. But he saw it, and he also saw and reacted instantly to the blur of movement at the edge of his vision. His hands closed on hers with a sharp smack.
She grinned. "Not bad." Then she reached to ruffle his hair. Without his even thinking of it, his hand went up to deflect hers, backhanding her away.
Her smile faded, and he thought for a moment she was annoyed. But when she spoke, she sounded pleased. "You're better than I imagined." She shook her head, but at herself, not him. "I should have started this a long time ago."
"You used to, back when Dad was alive."
They so rarely mentioned his father that she was silent for a moment, as if Ben's ghost had drifted through the room. "What we did back then was just fooling around. I want to teach you something more real."
"Teach me what?"
"To defend yourself. To move like water, so no one can touch you, and be one with the shadows so no one can see you. To fight. Even to kill, if you have to. Do you want to learn all that?"
She was serious. "Sure," he said, pretending nonchalance.
"This will take a lot of work, Spike. I'm too rusty to do more than teach you the basics. After that we'll have to find you a real master. But I'm not going to bother doing all that if you aren't willing to work hard at it."
"I can't go beating up my own mother."
She laughed. "The day you can lay a hand on me that I don't allow you to is a long way from today, sweetie. Do you want to do this? Are you willing to give it a try?"
"If I don't like it, I can quit?"
"You're always looking for that edge, aren't you? Yes, you can. At any time. But I have a strong feeling you're going to like it."
He pretended to think it over. "OK, I'm in. For now, anyway. I'll work hard until I decide I want to quit," he promised.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Crys was asleep, napping on the sofa.
A way to waken her, a wicked way, came into Vicious' head. In the months since he'd moved in with her, she'd taught him that they could have fun teasing each other, but he still hadn't gotten used to it, and the idea seemed both silly and alien to him. Yet he still wanted to do it. He knew it would make her laugh. Despite being almost twelve years older than he, she acted like a child at times, but whether he did the same, as he was contemplating now, was a day-to-day decision.
He'd done a lot of adjusting since she'd come into his life, but so had she. Long before he'd moved in, she'd told him why she hated the syndicates, about the friends she had lost to guns or drugs. "You people control everything, and the world you make for the rest of us is based on nothing but greed and vice. You take away people's hope, and that's a bigger crime than stealing their money."
She'd said it with such venom that he retorted, "If that's how you feel, why do you stay with me?"
She replied simply. "Because I love you. I know, that's fucking stupid. But that's the way it is."
He wasn't sure even now how he felt about her, but he cared about her. Too much to spy on her as Kito wanted him to do. He hadn't lived with her long before he understood the nature of her occasional nights away from home. She was part of a group that did its best to sabotage every possible syndicate operation by nonviolent means, such as stealing syndicate money and giving it to people to use to pay protection dues, or acting as police informants. "Small stuff," Kito had said, and shrugged it off, but just as Vicious was thinking his spying was over, Kito added, "But it will still be useful to know when she's meeting with these people, so keep me informed."
Instead, for the first time, Vicious went against orders. He asked Crys to quit what she was doing, or he'd have to move out again. She was predictably indignant, then furious, that he had the nerve to give her an ultimatum. He told her, "It's not an ultimatum. It's just what I have to do."
She understood then. Nervous, hands in his pockets, leaning against her door, he watched the understanding come to her, and then all the emotions which followed it. But in the end, she'd done what he asked. She quit the group.
She'd chosen him. No one had ever done that for him before. Because she had, he'd lied to Kito indirectly by letting Kito assume she'd given it up because she had a syndicate man in the house. Since then, he'd been free to find his way through this odd relationship without a shadow between them.
He decided to be childish today. But he would give her a chance, just one, to avoid what he was planning. He twisted a strand of her hair between his fingers and gave it a gentle tug. Her hair was red at the moment – she impulsively changed her hair color every few weeks. Red was his favorite so far.
She didn't stir. He smiled and headed for the kitchen, returning with an ice cube between his fingers. One of her eyes opened. "You'd better not, you sonuvabitch."
He smiled. He already had the ice cube handy, so even if she was awake, it was a shame to waste it. He lunged, and she shrieked and tried to get away. The next moment they were in an impromptu wrestling match which he easily won, and the ice went down her blouse. She shrieked again and reached to snatch it out, but he grabbed her wrists and wouldn't let her. She tried to knee him in the groin, cursed him thoroughly, then whined she was getting freezer burn. He relented, and as he expected, she pulled the remains of the ice cube out of her blouse and shoved it down the back of his neck. A little ice didn't bother him. He kissed her, thoroughly.
"Well," she said when they came up for air. "I'm definitely awake now."
"Good. I want you to drive me somewhere."
"You are such a bastard. You wake me up from a perfectly good nap, kiss me senseless, and then tell me you want to go for a drive? You're a sadistic bastard."
"I know." He rose and pulled her to her feet.
"I can't go anywhere. My blouse is all wet."
"It looks good on you, too."
"Flattery isn't going to work, so don't try it."
"You'll dry out in the car."
She made an exasperated sound, but she was also trying hard not to smile. "Where are we going?"
"To look for Spike."
"Three times the charm."
"You don't believe in that shit." She sighed. "All right, we'll go look for your little buddy. Although why you are so determined to find a thirteen-year-old kid is beyond me."
His amusement evaporated. "Humor me."
She was looking for her purse, but his tone made her turn to him. "I don't understand it, but I'm going, aren't I?"
He found a smile somehow, and nodded.
He had never had so much trouble finding Spike before, and he was getting uneasy. He knew everywhere Spike hung out, knew his school schedule and what days he was likely to cut, knew his schedule at the spaceport and every route he took to get there, and knew all his friends and where they lived. The most he'd ever had to try was four places. He'd never gone and not found him at all, and now that had happened twice.
He brooded over it for the first ten minutes of the drive, then realized he was fighting his own instincts. "Crys. Lets go to the spaceport first."
"OK." She made a left turn that endangered two other cars and a pedestrian, glanced over grinning to see if he'd braced himself – he hadn't – and read his expression. She sobered. "What's up?"
"A hunch. Will you do me a favor?"
"That'll be two in one day. You'll owe me. What is it?"
"When we get to the spaceport, go in and see if you can find out if Spike's still working there. Can you think of a way to do that discreetly?"
"Hey, I work for the city. I'll just flash my ID and tell them I'm from the school board."
He didn't stay in the car to wait for her, but got out and leaned against it, arms folded on his chest and legs crossed at the ankles, forcibly keeping himself from pacing. She wasn't gone long, and when she returned, her expression confirmed his apprehension. He straightened. "Spike quit the spaceport?"
"Yes, in a way. He didn't formally quit. He just didn't show up one day. No reason, not even a call. They're really pissed at him."
"It wasn't his fault," he muttered, and thought hard for a moment. This being a school day, the chance of finding one of Spike's friends was slim, and even if he did, the kid might not know anything or, more likely, might lie. Crys waited in silence, watching his face. He asked her, "Can you pull that same kind of act at his apartment house?"
She nodded. "Sure, I can tell them I'm delivering a summons card to his mother. No one looks at those closely. It's like the card's contaminated and it'll rub off on them. Come on, get in. You're getting me worried now."
He let her drop him off in the alley by the little grocery store where he'd last seen Spike. She picked him up again more than a quarter hour later, her expression sober and wary. As he slid into the seat beside her, she said, "You know what I'm going to say, don't you?"
"Say it anyway."
"According to the building manager, a couple of months ago, Mrs. Spiegel and her son just disappeared. They left in the middle of the night. The rent was paid up and the manager had the deposit, so he didn't give a shit about it, just rented the apartment to somebody else. Probably the next day. And there's forwarding address, either."
She'd bolted. Somehow she'd found out that he and Spike were still meeting, and she'd taken him and gone to ground somewhere.
The greedy, selfish bitch.
He was suddenly shaken by a rage blacker than any he'd ever experienced. He couldn't think. His surroundings – the street, the car, Crys – all faded away as if they were at the other end of a dark tunnel, while waves of anger poured over him. Spike was his brother. She had no right to separate them. She'd never given him a damned thing but his life, and he'd never expected anything from her. She didn't want him, and he didn't give a fuck. But not only did she give him nothing, she also refused to share the one thing he did want, the affection of his brother. And she had no reason for it! He hadn't tried to take Spike away from her, only to be his friend. His brother. But she wouldn't even allow that much. From the first she'd been his enemy. He hadn't harmed Spike in any way – he would never do that – but she acted as if he were a snake coiled to bite the boy.
She had two sons, but she loathed one and treated the other as if he were her treasure. That was it, right there. Spike was hers, and she was a jealous, possessive bitch. Nothing he could ever do or say to her was going to change her. She would keep them apart forever, if she could. Red lights flashed across his closed eyelids. He'd never truly hated anyone until that moment, but hatred bloomed blackly now.
The rage slowly passed, leaving behind an icy determination. He'd find them. If it took the rest of his life, he would find them. And when he did, he would do just what she feared. He would find a way to take Spike from her. And he'd fix it so she never saw her precious second son again.
Crys pulled into a gas station and got out to refuel the car, which brought him out of his fugue. He realized his hands were clenched into fists, so hard that they ached when he opened them. His jaw hurt from being clenched, too, and he was nauseated. He was dismayed that his rationality could be swamped so deeply that he had no idea how long Crys had been driving around, probably in circles, waiting for him to say something to her. His mind felt tattered now, and he tried to collect the pieces and return to his usual cool-headed, logical self. But just as he was succeeding, a monopod swooped up to the zipcraft island in front of him, reminding him of Spike and the Swordfish, and the rage blasted in him again. This time he was ready for it. He forced it back and closed it off. Anger would only cloud his mind, and he had plans to make.
Crys got back behind the wheel, and he forced himself to look at her, see her, and say, "Sorry."
He looked around. "Where are we? How long have you been driving?"
"About two hours. We're almost in Allentown. I thought you might like to check the spaceport there, see if they've hired any new kids lately."
He couldn't think of anything to say. She was giving up her entire day, had tolerated two hours of his silence and never intruded, and was ready to keep driving even further, on what would probably be a wild goose chase, all without a single complaint. Thanks weren't adequate, but he had no idea how to tell her anything more than that. He settled for leaning over, kissing her, and saying, "That's a brilliant idea."
He'd made the right move. As much for the compliment as the kiss, her face lit with pleasure. "Lets get rolling, then."
He settled back, picked up her hand and kissed that, too, and felt his mood lift when she actually blushed. He didn't think she ever did that. "Do you have any idea how many spaceports are on Mars?" he said.
"None at all. A bunch, I guess. But we'll just check them one at a time." She frowned. "Hell. Would she have gone off-planet?"
For a second he went cold again. Then he remembered something Spike had said. They'd been discussing the flying, and Spike commented, I get that from my dad. My mom's never been off Mars in her whole life. "No. They haven't gone off-planet."
"That makes it easier."
"But she'll have changed their name."
"Shit. Spike's first name, too?"
He gave that some thought. "No. I doubt it."
"Good. Spike isn't a common name."
"It's a nickname, not his real name."
"Damn. Do you know his real name?"
"Shit. That makes it a little tougher!" she said with wry cheer.
He had to say something. "Thanks."
"You owe me big," she grinned. "I'll get it back from you somehow."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
To Vicious, deep in the night was the best time for thinking, and that night he had a lot of thinking to do. Darkness cooled the anger that still came up once in a while. The only sound was that of Crys' breathing beside him, and the silence encouraged peaceful rationality. He put his hands behind his head and lay staring up into the blackness, letting his mind drift and the ideas come to him unpursued. Rafe had taught him that. Lots of times you know more than you think you do. Like any good servant, the brain works better if you don't try to tell it how to do its business. When you need it, you use it like any other tool, but when you've gotta do some deep thinking, boy, it's best to get out of the way and let your brain do its job without you pushin' it.
Crys had offered to call all the spaceports, one at a time, since she was home more than he, but he couldn't take a passive role in this hunt. He had to use what he knew. He and his mother weren't that different. He should be able to think like her. What would he do if he wanted to disappear? A new name. Probably a new identity. She doesn't have a lot of money. She must have called in a marker, or dealt with a friend. Someone she knew from before. No car, so it was probably someone close. If he could find that person, he could make him talk.
As if she felt him relax, Crys stirred against his ribs. "You still awake?" she asked groggily.
She chuckled. Then she murmured, "Truancy lists."
For a second he was as confused as if she'd spoken a foreign language. Then he realized what she meant. Wherever he was now, Spike was not likely to be a perfect student. He thumbed on the light next to the bed. "Can you get them?"
Rubbing her eyes and yawning, she said, "Yes, I think so. I have a friend in the school board offices. If the spaceports come up empty, we can try that. Run a search for truancy in kids who registered some time after the two of them disappeared. It'll be a long list, but it'll be something we can try."
He felt better. They had three plans now. He might even be able to come up with more tomorrow. He turned toward her and ran a hand down the smooth, warm curve of her waist and hip. She'd come to bed in a sexy little nightgown, which was now in two or three pieces on the floor. He'd rid himself of much of his remaining anger by pouring it into Crys' body earlier. Now he felt he'd been unfair, and said so. She only smiled and said, "Sometimes a woman likes it rough."
"Is that so?"
"Once in a while! Stop that! I've never known anyone like you for catching an idea and running with it. I don't want to go to work Monday with bruises."
"I'll put them where they can't be seen," he smiled, pinching her.
She bit him, but not hard. "You do, and I'll give you the world's biggest hickey right on your neck. See how you explain that to your big-balls buddies in the Dragons." She pushed his hair back from his face and said gently, "We'll find him, Vicious."
"What's that, woman's intuition?"
"No. I just know you. You won't quit until you do. Neither will I."
He let his fingertips drift again where he knew she was most responsive. "I haven't thanked you properly for all your help."
This was met with a crack of laughter. "Leave it to a man to consider sex a reward. No good, buster. I want diamonds."
"When I'm a capo, you'll get them."
Changing moods yet again, she gave him a strange look, a mix of sadness and affection. "Oh, baby. When you're a capo, I doubt we'll ever see each other."
"You'll still get the diamonds," he promised.
"I wouldn't know what to do with them. Besides, the way you're going, you probably won't live that long."
"Then you'd better get what you can out of me now."
"I love the way you always make this look as if I started it," she said, and laughed as he pushed her onto her back.
"I will never get the smell out," Kiu grimaced, gesturing Vicious forward into the small hidden office. "The gods only know how long he was in here."
Vicious said absently, "Less than two months." He glanced around, but there was little to see. The clean-up had been thorough. Either that, or Richie Carpetti had been a very neat man. He kept his hands relaxed, driving out the frustration, focusing, trying to find something that might help him. Whatever clues he found would have to be here, in this bare little room. Kiu wasn't in the same line of work as Richie, so he knew none of Richie's contacts and was useless. If Vicious started poking around looking for those contacts, Kito was bound to want to know why, and that was something Vicious didn't want to explain. Even this questioning of Kiu would be hard enough to justify, once it got back to Kito. "What killed him?"
"Who knows? Perhaps a heart attack."
"No bullets? No knife wounds?"
"No, nothing like that. Why? Do you think he had an enemy?"
Kiu shifted. "Look, I must get ready to open the shop."
"Go ahead. I'll close up here."
"I do not know what you are looking for, but you have no more than ten minutes to find it. After that, I must shut the door and hide this room, and you must remain until a time it is safe to open it again. I have to maintain appearances."
Vicious nodded, relieved when Kiu left. If he couldn't find anything in ten minutes, then he never would, but he couldn't concentrate, not with the mixed distractions of Kiu's chatter and his own knowledge that he was probably at another dead end. Crys' calls to the spaceports had been coming up empty, and the truancy lists she'd managed to obtain were so extensive, it would take both of them weeks to sift through them, and more weeks to follow up on only the most likely leads. Two months had passed, and that wasn't a long time, but he felt a sense of urgency he couldn't explain. He had to find Spike while his influence was still strong over the boy, before Spike found someone else to befriend and mentor him. And before their mother found a way to separate them emotionally as well as physically. He didn't know why he believed she was trying to do so, but he was certain of it. He couldn't allow that.
There was an old-fashioned pen on the desk, on a slate blotter. Richie's apartment had been a mixture of advanced technical equipment and antiques, and apparently his office was the same. The pen definitely didn't belong to Kiu, who was practically illiterate.
Vicious sat at the desk and began opening drawers. They were empty, and he cursed under his breath. Kiu said he'd handed everything over to the clean-up men, but Vicious had hoped something might have survived. The computer terminal, the blotter, the pen, and an antique lamp were the only remnants, and the computer had been wiped after being downloaded by the clean-up team.
He picked up the pen and tried to imagine himself as Richie. He pictured Barbara standing there, telling him what she needed. Pictured Richie writing it down. Not typing it into the computer, but writing it.
He glanced down at the blotter. Richie was a smaller man than he was, and he slid his hand back a little. There, under the point of the pen, was faint scoring. Vicious smiled. "Thank you, Richie," he said, and took the blotter with him when he left.
In the sunlight, when he turned the slate a certain direction, he could make out words. Two, total ids. Son. Alva City.
He called Crys. "About the lists, Crys – forget most of them. Look in Alva City."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
This has got to be him. Staring at the boy's face on the screen, Crys was sure of it. The registration time was right, and the description fit perfectly. The boy had a sweet smile – a charmer, for sure – and the wild black hair Vicious had described to her. He had a mischievous, go-to-hell look in his eyes. Yes, that would appeal to Vicious.
She rose and called to the next room. "Harry, I think I have it!"
Harry appeared in the doorway, a can of beer in each hand. He gave her one and glanced at the screen. "Cute kid. What's that bastard boyfriend of yours want with him, anyway?"
All her friends referred to Vicious in similar terms. She never let herself be bothered by it. Hell, she understood. "Do you really want to know?" she smiled.
"Uh-uh. I don't care, and I don't want to mess with that guy's business anyway." He rubbed his jaw with the cold beer. "I still can't figure you and him, Crys. What's wrong with you? Can't you pick one of the good guys to settle on, if you have to settle? Like me?"
She laughed. "You're too young for me."
"I'm older than he is!"
"Only in years, sweetheart. And I already paid you a case of beer for this job, so don't go getting any ideas." She gestured at the monitor. "This kid – can you get me the complete file on him?"
"In a heartbeat. A two-year-old can hack school records." Distracted by his first love, Harry absently handed her his beer to hold, sat at the terminal, and let his fingers do their magic. In a few seconds, the file appeared. Father: Deceased. Mother: Barbara. "Got you," she murmured. "That's got to be the one, Harry. Print it for me, will you? And send it to my private box, too."
"Done. Anything else?"
She handed him his beer. "I'll let you know if I'm wrong and we have to start over. But I don't think so. I think this is it."
"Well, that sure didn't take long. Sure you don't want to party a little?"
She pulled the sheets off the printer. "Positive. I have to make a delivery."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Vicious was at Rico's, practicing the katana with Master Sam. Crys found a chair, leaned it back against the wall, propped her feet up, and watched. He might be pissed when he found out she'd delayed telling him the news, but she didn't give a shit. She liked watching him work.
He'd improved even since the last time she'd been here, a week or so ago. He and Sam moved in a ballet so graceful that, if not for the sound of clashing steel, it would be easy to forget that they danced with death. She hated it and loved it, too. When she'd first seen him work this way, she'd been frightened, and she'd stupidly suggested that he use a blunted blade. His disdainful sneer still made her wince in memory. Now she was accustomed to it and had more faith in Master Sam, so she took pleasure in watching Vicious. He was powerful, fluid, and amazingly fast. So was Sam, of course, but Sam wasn't the man she loved. In a few hours, those broad strong shoulders and all that muscle would be under her hands, and anticipation as well as pride made her smile.
The end of the lesson came suddenly. Vicious swung at the end of his reach, and Sam's countermove sent the katana flying to embed itself in the floor. Off-balance, Vicious fell forward, but rolled and came up with his sword once more in his hand. Too late, however, for Sam's blade was already at his throat. "You did that well," Sam said. "But since I taught it to you, I expected it." He stepped back and sheathed his weapon.
Vicious rose, sheathed his own weapon, and bowed. "Where did I go wrong, Master?" he asked.
"Reach," Sam ordered, and Vicious drew his sword and took the stance he'd last held. "Do you feel this?" Sam said, poking him in the side. "Here is the place from which your energy springs. Too far back. You have no balance."
Crys blinked. Vicious was holding a stretched pose, arm extended, with a sword at the end of it, and he was doing so without apparent effort. That wasn't balanced?
But Vicious nodded. "Where, then, should it be?"
"Here, and here," Sam said, touching Vicious' forward thigh and his chest. "These are all wrong, as well. They must align. Even then, you must have strength. Strength in your back. Greater than you have now."
"How do I get it?"
"Work," Sam said, and laughed when Vicious glared at him. "Do you really think you will need such a stance? Your reach is already quite long."
"I might. I do with you, and my reach is several inches greater than yours."
"It is doubtful you will ever fight anyone with my skill, young one. But learning this balance will be good for you. You will be less vulnerable, and I know you desire that. Next time, we will work on beginning to achieve the proper stance. You may relax. We are done for this day."
Vicious drew himself up, sheathed the sword with an easy flick of his wrist, and bowed to Sam again. Sam pointed Crys out to him – even when working hard, Sam missed nothing – and snatching up a towel, Vicious came to where she sat. As he drew close, she saw the effort his work had been costing him. He was sweating heavily, his clothes and hair soaked with it, and his limbs were shaking when he took the chair next to her and toweled off his face. "Let me shower, and we can go get something to eat. I'm starved."
She knew he hated being dirty, but she was too excited to wait any longer. "I've got something for you that you'll want to see first," she said. "At least I hope so."
His face emerged from the towel, pale strands of hair stuck to his cheeks and jaw. His eyes had gone hard and keen. "You found something?"
"You're so damned quick. Yes, I think so." She took the sheet with the picture from her bag and handed it to him. "Is that him?"
He took the print-out and stared down at it. His mouth curved. "Yes. That's Spike." He looked at her, his eyes bright now. "Do you have more? An address?"
"Alva City, just like you said." She handed him the rest of the sheets. "I have it all."
He grinned, staring down at the address. She rarely saw him so eager. "So, I did good?" she asked.
Taking her chin in his hand, he kissed her, hard and long. "Very good."
"I suppose we're going for a drive tomorrow?"
"I'm going. Not you."
"How are you going to explain that to your boss?"
"I'm not. I'm taking your car."
"You are not! You don't even have a license!"
He laughed and kissed her again. "I don't have to worry about tickets. And I'll bring it back safe, I promise."
"Why won't you just let me drive? I don't mind. I can call in sick."
"Because...." Absently, he stared down at the sheets, and his finger tapped once on the name of Spike's mother. "Because I might run into someone I don't want you to meet. Ever."
After a moment, he said, "I just might tell you someday. But not now." He handed the sheets back to her. "Go home, put on something pretty. We're going out to someplace fancy tonight and celebrate."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Champagne, even a lot of it, didn't dull Vicious' senses. He'd also had plenty to eat and an hour or so of luxurious exercise with Crys, who was still elated over having found Spike for him, so he was keenly alert as he headed for the rendezvous with Roper. He was also suspicious. Roper wasn't the kind of man to set up a job on his own and then call it in at the last minute. Knowing his men's characters was part of his skill as a leader, and this didn't fit. Because it didn't, he approached from another direction than he'd told Roper he would come, and his senses were fully open, probing the darkness.
At this hour, every place the weak streetlights didn't touch was opaquely black. Vicious used his eyes only to keep on the walkway, while his ears and his instincts were tuned to those spots of blackness: the mouths of alleys, the alcoves, the hidden places behind dumpsters and under stairways. He didn't know who wanted to lead him into a trap – possibly Kito, as a test, since Roper had been used. His ignorance put him at a disadvantage, but that didn't stop him. He wasn't one to hide from a fight.
Even with his wariness at full stretch, he never saw his enemy until the first blow had been struck. Had it been a killing blow, he would have been dead, but instead, his feet were swept out from under him at the same time that something struck the side of his head, hard. He went down, rolled, and came back to his feet facing his enemy, reaching for his sword.
The man was masked, hooded, and dressed all in black, like shadow, and moved just as quietly. He was small, about the size of Master Sam, and equally fast. Before the katana was fully out of its sheath, in a blur of action the man struck at him, and Vicious was forced instead to use his hands to defend himself against a merciless series of blows. He gave way, gauging, seeing a weakness to his assailant's left. Pretending to stumble, he went to one knee, then swung the sheath of his sword up as the man closed in, striking the hip hard. Instead of going down, however, the man rolled with it and at the same time aimed a kick for Vicious' face. Vicious used the sheath to block it, then his forearm to stop another kick, but not so effectively. Tasting blood, he flipped backward, out of reach, rising with his hand already reaching again for his sword. He was up against a trained killer, he knew. No one else could move so fast, and in such silence. No one else could have caught him off-guard like this.
For a moment they faced each other, the streetlight giving his blade, poised between them, a golden patina. The assassin, slight and short, stood before him in a perfectly balanced stance. Vicious grinned. "Come on, then."
He saw the movement of the right hand and lunged forward. But the movement had been a blind. The assassin turned away from the blade, and the side of his left hand struck Vicious' temple as he swept by. Stunned, Vicious went down to one knee, but willed himself to hold onto the sword and not lose consciousness. Then a knee went into his back, a hand grabbed his hair and pulled his head back, and the cool steel barrel of a gun came up hard under his jaw.
For a moment, there was nothing but the feel of the gun under his jaw and the sound of their harsh breathing. Then, as his senses came back, he realized something. The body pressed to his back was not a man's, it was a woman's.
He smiled. "Hello, Mother."
She released his hair, but the gun remained where it was. Pulling off the mask, she put her cheek next to his. "If you weren't my son," she said softly, "I'd have killed you."
"I know. I'm impressed," he said coolly. He'd be damned if he'd admit anything more to her. "I heard you'd retired, gone to seed. I guess that was wrong."
"I'm not what I was, but I'm still good enough to handle you."
"Is that your point? Or is this a social visit?"
She wasn't amused. "I hear you went into a liquor store yesterday."
"That's not a sin. Are you worried about my health?" he sneered.
He clearly heard the soft click as she eased the trigger back from the guard. "I'm not in a humorous mood, son," she said softly. "I know you found nothing there, but I want you to stop looking. Now."
He could easily give his word on that, since he no longer needed to look. But he knew that if she suspected he already knew, his brains could well be decorating the street in an instant. "If I don't?"
"You don't have the skill to beat me. The next time I come to 'visit', I won't hold my fire."
"You'd kill your own son?"
"I'd rather not."
"So you want me to promise not to look for you anymore," he said, managing to sound surly. The effort cost him, because much of his attention was on the sweat trailing down his face and the gun barrel still jammed under his jaw.
"I don't expect you to keep a promise," she said. "I'll make you one, instead. I won't kill you if I can help it. You're still my son. But if you keep looking for us, I'll take away so many pieces of you that you'll get a nice long hospital stay with the prosthetic experts. Long enough to really contemplate how good it would be for your health to forget about your mother. And your brother. Understood?"
"It was nice seeing you again," she drawled, and he blacked out.
When he woke, he was still on the street, still sweating, and just beginning to catch his breath. Whatever she'd hit him with, it hadn't lasted more than a minute. Cursing softly, he got to his feet and put up his sword. A few minutes of limbering proved he was still in good shape. Not good enough to take on the She-Wolf, perhaps, but good enough to take on Roper. Whether tricked or threatened, Roper had led him into this. If the bitch hadn't already killed him, Vicious would.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Kito lit a cigarette and stared up at the ceiling through the smoke. This situation stunk. Fighting within the ranks was common, but it rarely came to killing. Of all of his men, Vicious was the last he expected to do this. "Did you have to kill him?" he sighed.
Even in the grip of Kito's bodyguards, with a gun to his temple, Vicious was icily calm. "Yes, I did."
For a moment, he thought Vicious wouldn't answer him. Then the boy said, "It was personal."
"Personal?" The snap in his tone made the bodyguards tense. They were likely to kill the kid by accident. Vicious made them nervous, he always had. Kito gestured them to back off. "What kind of personal? Don't tell me it was a woman problem." That would be typical of Roper, but unbelievable with Vicious.
"No. He betrayed me, led me into a trap."
"Is that how you got the bruises?"
"And here I assumed Roper gave them to you."
Vicious looked faintly contemptuous, but didn't reply.
Kito considered for a few minutes, unhurriedly. Silence worked well with nervous, frightened men. Especially liars. Vicious' expression, however, didn't change. "Why would he do that to you?" he asked finally.
"I told you. It was personal."
"And that's all you're going to tell me?"
Damn it. "Don't you think you owe me more than that?"
"Yes, I do," Vicious agreed. "But this has nothing to do with the organization. Nothing to do with you, or any of our operations. It was between Roper and me."
"This is the second time you've killed someone without permission."
"If he betrayed me, he would have betrayed the Red Dragons eventually. He was weak and vain. When you placed him under my leadership, you placed discipline in my hands."
"Discipline does not mean a bullet between the eyes, kid."
"For some, that's the only answer."
Kito smoked the rest of the cigarette, pondering, not looking at the kid. For three full minutes he was silent. His decision, however, was made in the first ten seconds. He really had only three choices. One, he could turn the boy over to people whose business it was to get the truth out of men. Two, he could simply allow his men to kill the boy. Either way, he lost a good man, a far better man than Roper would ever have been. Three, he could trust the boy, but if he did that, he was taking an enormous chance.
He hadn't risen to his current position by being afraid of risk, however. He'd never had a man work for him with more sheer courage and more intelligence than this one, and this one was still a kid. To shatter his brain with drugs or a bullet would be a waste.
He gestured the bodyguards out, telling them he wanted a few private words with Vicious. When the door closed, he said quietly, "You understand the concept of saving face, Vicious, don't you?"
"You aren't going to tell me what was between you and Roper?"
"Not if I can help it. But I give you my word, it has nothing to do with you or the Red Dragons."
"Roper was a good man."
Vicious said nothing, but Kito could almost feel him restrain himself. He stifled a smile. The boy knew men. "I'm going to let you off easy, Vicious. I hope this doesn't have to happen again, because if it does, I'll kill you with my own hands. I'll have to. Do you understand that?"
The term of respect was well-timed. Kito had to hide another smile. He wished his own sons were half as good as this kid. "All right, then. I'm going to let it be believed that, here in private, you explained yourself to me and only to me. I assume you won't contradict that. The boys will take you home, and I'm afraid they'll have to make an example of you. But you'll come out all right. This time. There'd better not be a next time, or I won't leave enough of you to wipe my shoes on."
Vicious didn't even look relieved. He simply said yes, he understood, and bowed in that almost military fashion of his. Then he left, as coolly and calmly as if this had been a social visit, and put himself into the hands of the bodyguards. Kito called a man in, issued his instructions, and shut the door on them all. He sat at his desk, put his feet up, lit another cigarette, and stared at the ceiling. "I must be nuts," he muttered to the air. He knew this wasn't over. Yet whatever trouble was coming, the kid was going to handle it. He was solid, Kito was sure of it. Sure enough to bet his reputation.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Crys, of course, was horrified. Vicious felt bad about that. He'd gotten up in the middle of the night and left her sleeping, without explanation, and hadn't returned for almost twelve hours. Then he'd reappeared looking as if he'd been dragged behind a truck, sporting a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist in addition to a lot of blood and bruises. Her panic manifested itself not in tears, for which he was grateful, but in cursing at him and fussing over him. All the way to the hospital, for two hours in the emergency room, then all the way home again, she gave him a long and profane categorization of his sins, his predilection for bad company, his stupidity, and his stubbornness. She didn't ask once what had happened or why, however, so he didn't have to lie to her. And when she brought him home again, she gave him brandy and a hot bath, still cursing and railing at him, but with gentle hands nevertheless. She didn't cry until he apologized for scaring her, and then she threw a pillow at him and stormed out of the apartment.
Putting the pillow behind his head with his good hand, he couldn't help smiling. Overall, everything had gone well. Tomorrow he would do Kito a favor and go about his normal routine while looking like a poster boy for syndicate discipline. But he would also contact someone who could help him deal with his mother. And he would take the time to shop for a gift for Crys, too. By then she might be civil again.
The meeting was formally over. The men in suits were leaving, cars were being called for, and the secretary was cleaning up the coffee and tea cups and the plates used for the exquisite and expensive hors d'oeuvres. Business was good, and everyone left looking satisfied. The only exception was Kito, who, although satisfied enough, stayed behind to talk privately to the man who'd sat at the head of the long boardroom table.
Mao Yenrai was a punctiliously polite man. He stood at the door, giving a courteous thank-you and farewell to each man as he left. Then he turned his equally courteous attention to Kito. Nevertheless, Kito assured him that this private business would not take up much of his time. Mao smiled. "Come to my office, then."
Kito's own office was luxurious, but nothing compared to Mao's. The view alone made Kito envious, but only in an abstract way. With wry self-knowledge, he knew he'd never rise to Mao's position in the Red Dragons, not on Mars or any other planet. There were several reasons for this, but in particular, as far as Mars went, Mao was the Van's favorite and far too healthy to oblige Kito or anyone else by dying in an untimely way. As for the rest of the system, Kito had been born on Mars and had no desire to leave. To be a capo on Mars was better than a director anywhere else, in his opinion.
He sank into one of the deep leather chairs – real leather, not synth – and accepted a brandy, but he was far too wise to think these meant he could linger. He came directly to the point. "I've found a successor, Mao."
Mao's smile was a fondly indulgent one. "Surely it is far too soon for you to be thinking of retiring."
"This is a bit premature. That's why I didn't bring it up as part of the regular agenda. But I wanted you to be aware of it. And of this boy."
"As I said, it's a bit premature. He's – I don't know. A kid. Seventeen or eighteen."
"That is very young."
"The usual rules don't apply to this kid." He leaned forward, arms on his knees, the brandy forgotten at his side. "He's a natural leader, for one thing. The older men respect him, and the younger ones follow him around like a pack of dogs around a wolf. He's a brilliant strategist. I've never set anything for him to do that he didn't accomplish, usually better than I expected. He's got incredible courage. He's got blood like ice. He's proven that he can kill ruthlessly, without flinching. And he's honorable and completely devoted to the Red Dragons."
Mao steepled his fingers and regarded him over them. "You're describing a true paragon. But no one is perfect."
"Neither is this kid," Kito smiled. "He's far too independent. He can take orders, but if he thinks he has a better idea, he'll do it his way. He's the type who believes forgiveness is more easily obtained than permission. And he's ambitious as hell. He wants to step into my shoes eventually. But he's willing to wait and learn and do it the right way."
"Not the worst faults in one you wish to eventually take your place."
"No, although he can make things difficult for me at times. Still, his judgment is excellent. He can pick his fights. Seriously, he's the only man I've met who I think can pick up the reins when I step down. I want your permission to bring him along, starting right away."
Mao pondered it a moment. "So young.... Still, you'll be there many years, to guide him. Who is he? Do I know him at all?"
"You may have heard of him. He calls himself Vicious."
"An ominous name."
"It suits him."
Mao smiled. "I would like to meet this Vicious."
Pleased, Kito said, "That can be arranged at your convenience, naturally."
"Invite him to my party next week. I assume he has a woman he would like to bring?"
This was better than Kito had anticipated, but the woman issue was something else. "Yes, he does. But you may not wish to invite her, and if you do, she probably won't come. She's one of the founding members of the Hyenas."
Mao's brows lifted. "And you allow that? Don't you fear her spying on him?"
"Quite the contrary, I had him spying on her. But she quit the Hyenas after he moved in with her and has had nothing to do with them since. However, she's had nothing to do with us, either, so I doubt he'll bring her."
"Tell him he should. That would make the party more interesting," Mao suggested. "And if he is the leader you claim, then he should be able to rule his woman."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Despite the rain, Vicious waited until Annie's store was empty of customers before he went inside. When she saw him, she smiled and waved, and gestured him to turn the sign to "closed". While he did so, she picked up the phone, keyed a number, and said only, "He's here."
When she broke the connection, he leaned his elbows on the counter and said, "Who's interested?"
"You'll see," she said with what she probably thought was a mysterious smile. "Look at you, you're all wet. Are you too big a boy now to be carrying an umbrella?"
If she was teasing him, nothing could be wrong. He relaxed, sat on the stool before the counter, and stretched out his legs. "I won't melt in a little rain. Do you have that name for me?"
"I do." She handed him a piece of paper, folded four times. He opened it and read the name Tom Draper, a number, and an address. Annie said, "I told him you're a smart boy, and Kito's man, so he said he'd teach you what you want to know. But Vicious, why do you want to learn that trade?"
He pocketed the paper. "What I really wanted was to learn how to fly a zipcraft, but I couldn't talk Kito into buying me one. So I chose this instead." She laughed, and he said more seriously, "I want to learn everything I can. I don't want to be dependent on anyone."
She nodded understanding, but was still troubled. "But even Kito didn't get into this field. It's so dangerous, Vicious."
"All the more reason for me to learn it properly, from one of the best. Thanks for talking to him for me, Annie."
"It wasn't a hard thing to do, so don't go getting soft on me. I'll probably end up regretting it anyway. And speaking of you getting yourself hurt, how's your shoulder?"
"It stopped bothering me the day after it happened. I only wore the sling because Crys made me. It's fine."
"Well, try behaving yourself and not scaring the woman like that, from now on."
He sensed rather than heard the car pull up in front of the store, and reached inside his coat. Annie slapped his arm. "It's Kito, so get both your hands in view."
Vicious rose and turned to greet Kito calmly – with both hands in plain sight – while mentally going over the past few days in his mind, trying to figure out why Kito wanted to meet him, and unofficially like this, at Annie's, rather than just calling him into his office. He believed he was prepared for anything, but nothing could have prepared him for Kito saying, after the briefest of greetings, "You've been invited to a party. A week from Saturday, at Mao Yenrai's house."
Kito looked pleased, and Annie was smiling broadly. Vicious kept his expression inscrutable while his mind whirled. A party? Mao Yenrai? Since they obviously expected him to say something, he managed, "If it wasn't you, Kito, I'd think this was a joke. Why would Mao Yenrai want to invite someone like me to his home?"
Annie said, "I think you can thank Kito for that."
"True enough. I mentioned you to him, and he's curious to meet you. The party was the most convenient for him."
Panic vied now with gratification. Kito had personally brought his name to the attention of Mao Yenrai! And he'd been with the organization barely a year. He couldn't miss the significance. Before his pride swelled too large to conceal, he thanked Kito for the honor.
Kito said, "There's a bad side to this, however. He wants you to bring Crys with you."
"She won't come. To Mao Yenrai's home?" He shook his head. "She won't come."
"Find a way to make her. It's important. First impressions count, kid. You know that."
He nodded. He understood completely. He was about to undergo a lot of tests, and this was the first of them. "I'll find a way."
"What about clothes? Do you have anything to wear? It's a casual affair, a garden party, but I want you in a decent suit. With a tie."
"I'll buy something."
"See my tailor. He'll fix you up."
Annie chuckled. "Yeah, if he can make you look good, he can make Vicious look like a prince."
"Very funny, Annie."
Vicious was staring at Kito's suit, which he mentally priced at about half a million woolongs. "Do I have a big bonus coming?"
Kito grinned. "Just mention my name. I'll let him know you're coming. It won't cost you a single woolong." At Vicious' blank stare, he grinned. "Welcome to the big time, kid. Free suits are part of it. Just don't let me down."
When Kito was gone, Annie brought out the whiskey and poured a toast for him. "Nervous?" she asked after they'd tossed the drinks down.
"Don't worry about it, you'll be fine. Kito must have sung your praises like a nightingale for this. You should be proud. Henry and me will be there, but we're probably going to be the only people you know. The rest of them will be capos, lawyers, businessmen. And their wives."
"You aren't helping my nerves."
She chuckled. "You don't look nervous. You just keep that expression on, and you'll have 'em all convinced you belong there."
"That kind of icy, bored look you get sometimes. Like now. The rest of 'em, all but Kito, Henry and me, they'll think you're cool as an ice cube about the whole thing." She poured another drink for them. "How are you going to get Crys to come?"
He picked up the drink and stared into the amber liquid as if an answer was there, then downed the burning liquid in one swallow. "I have no idea," he finally admitted, and Annie laughed and wished him luck. "Thanks," he said. Then, "Annie? Can I ask you a question?"
"Can you tell me who Kito's tailor is?"
"Everyone knows that."
"Except me," he said ruefully.
"Well, you haven't had much cause to need one, much less one like that. Come on. We'll get Henry, and he can take you over there."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Crys' reaction was pretty much what he expected.
"No. No way. You're out of your fucking mind!"
He just hunched his shoulders, hands in his pockets. Silence worked well on her.
"There is no way I'm going with you to..." She threw her hands in the air. "Mao Yenrai's! Why don't you just ask me to go to hell with you and shake hands with the devil!" Her eyes narrowed. "Does he know who I am?"
The expression on her face would have scared any other man. "That son of a bitch. You know why I'm invited, don't you? Invited – hell, I bet they told you to bring me. Like some kind of fucking trophy. Well, you can climb your ladder of ambition on someone else's tits, dammit. I'm not going."
"I didn't think you would. But I wanted to ask you."
"Ask me. Ha."
"Ask you. You're right, it would look good for me if you came. But I'm not going to make you come."
"Damned right you aren't. And you aren't going to con me into it by looking at me like that, either. You can forget it. I'd rather walk barefoot on lava than be caught dead in any syndicate man's house. And Mao Yenrai, of all of them...! I'd never be able to look at myself in the mirror again."
"It's just a party, Crys. You're over-reacting."
"Well, over-react this!" she said, made a rude gesture, and went out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Since he knew it wasn't really him that she was mad at, he wasn't concerned. He knew her temper. She flared up easily, but cooled down just as quickly. When she cooled down, she would think it over. In the meantime, he had some studying to do. He was at the computer, reading, chin in his hand, when she came out of the bedroom half an hour later. He looked up at the sound of the door opening, and she shut it and leaned on it, staring at him with an expression compounded of guilt and a lingering fury. "You don't really expect me to go, do you?"
He shook his head. "I want you to go, but I don't expect you to. No, wait," as her brows came crashing together and her mouth opened. "I don't want you to go for any reason that you're thinking. I don't need you for my career."
"I should think having me around would be more of a detriment than a help, as far as that goes."
"Kito thinks I have a lot of courage, hanging around with you, and that looks good for me," he said, and saw her resolutely resist a smile. "I needed you to go with me for support. Personal support, I mean."
"What kind of personal support?"
He turned back to the computer. "Never mind. It's not important."
She said stiffly, "Fine. Are you going to eat tonight, or are you just going to sit there with your nose stuck to the terminal?"
"If you're cooking, I'm eating. But I'm going to keep at this until it's ready. Or – do you need help?"
He knew she was curious about what he was studying, but he also knew she'd never admit it while still mad. She informed him that she needed no help, and resolutely refused to even glance at the computer as she went by.
Their silence on the subject lasted four full days. During that time, he never brought it up again, and naturally she didn't. Her temper tantrum was forgotten, and their life went on as usual. He bided his time without worry. His best weapon in this battle was the truth, and when she was ready to hear it, he believed he had a good chance of winning. Because he really did need her. Every time he thought about dressing up in a fancy suit and walking into a crowd of the most important men on Mars, in a social situation, he got sick to his stomach. Having Crys on his arm would keep him from slinking in like a scared cat, and that was vital. Showing fear to those men would be like showing raw meat to hungry tigers.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Crys fumed over the nerve of Mao Yenrai and Kito for most of those four days. When she told her friends about it, they echoed her sentiments, but they were less kind to Vicious than she was. They had never understood him, because they refused to.
Crys wasn't so much in love with Vicious as to be blind to his less attractive qualities. She was aware that he would consider it a coup for him to bring her to the party, as much as Kito would. But unlike her friends, she acquitted him of anything except having an eye to his own ambition. She didn't think that he had come up with the idea himself, nor that he was planning to force her into it somehow, even if she wouldn't put it past him to try to talk her into it. Her friends' suspicious rantings forced her to defend him, and defending him had the opposite effect than what they desired. Vicious had accepted her "no" without argument and without question, and he understood why she refused to go, and those things meant a great deal to her. Defending him made her remember that. She even began to feel a little guilty, making so much fuss over a simple party.
She was concerned about him anyway, for another reason. That he hadn't gone dashing off to Alva City to find his young friend was due, she'd believed, to the fact that he'd been injured. But even when he was fully recovered, he still hadn't gone. When she asked him about it, he said he was sure Spike was safe and well, and that's what chiefly concerned him, but she didn't believe that for a moment. His interest in Spike had been an obsession as strong as his work for the syndicates, and he'd been so angry when they'd discovered the boy had been taken away that he'd actually frightened her. Emotions that strong, from him, wouldn't just fall away so easily. Everything about the situation with the Spiegels was odd, and he was shutting her out, just as he did with the syndicate stuff, but for a different reason, a reason she couldn't even guess at. That's what troubled her.
On the fourth day, when she came home from work, she found him trying on a new suit in front of the mirror. She leaned in the doorway and admired it. The black jacket and pants were expertly cut in a quasi-military style, right down to tasteful gold buttons and a narrow piping of red on the cuffs of the jacket, and the pale brown shirt looked like silk. The tie, which he was still struggling with, was black with a faint striping in the same color as the shirt. Few men could have worn such a look, but on him, it was perfect. She gave a low, appreciative whistle.
The smile he gave her over his shoulder was nervous. "It's for the party. Does it look all right?"
"More than all right. You look fine. Here, let me help you with that thing." She fixed the tie and smoothed it down. She was right, the tie and shirt were silk, or an excellent synth. "What did you do, rob a bank?"
"Not this week," he said solemnly, but his eyes twinkled when she chuckled. "I guess you could say it was a gift from Kito. I think he's afraid I'll show up in my gym clothes or something. Does it really look good?"
"If I were going to that stupid party with you," she said, running her hands over his shoulders, "I'd be spending the whole time wondering when I could get you out of it." She relented, since he seemed honestly worried, and said, "Yes, it looks great. Sophisticated, but not pretentious. And it really suits you. You have the shoulders and legs for it. Not many men do."
"That's what Umbridge said, but I thought he was just being a salesman."
"Trust me, you'll knock 'em dead. No pun intended."
She left him to change back into regular clothes, amused at him. Although he'd cut out his own tongue before admitting it, he was vain about his looks, and he liked quality. He looked so natural and right in the suit, he made her feel a little gauche, and she was grateful she wasn't going to be with him at the party. Her own style might be fine for her, but she wouldn't impress the people he was trying to impress.
Thieves, murderers, and thugs, she thought savagely. He is so magnificent, and it's all for a bunch of jerks who are only concerned with how they can use him to squeeze more money from innocent people. But she didn't want him to see how angry that made her, so she ducked quickly into the kitchen and began to chop up vegetables for salad instead, imagining each cucumber to be Kito's lean urbanity – slice, slice – and each tomato to be Mao Yenrai's head – chop, chop – all to her great satisfaction. Feeling better, when she heard him moving around in the living room, she went out to him, ready to smile.
He was back in front of the computer terminal, reading again. She'd been dying of curiosity about what he'd been studying so intensely lately, so she took the opportunity now to find out. From behind him, she wound her arms around his neck and kissed the top of his head. "What do you want for dinner?" she began, then saw what was on the screen. "Etiquette? You're studying etiquette?"
Impatiently, he pushed her away. "Yes."
She straightened, staring down at his bent head. "What's the big deal? You go in, shake hands, act like everyone is simply fascinating, have a few drinks, eat a little food, and leave. No big deal."
He sighed and looked up at her, irritated. "I've never been to a party before. I have no idea what it's like or what to do. You make it sound easy, but it's not."
"You've never been to a party?" she repeated blankly.
Now that she thought of it, when would he have? She knew his background. The orphanage had given birthday parties to the kids, but by his own wish, not to him. He'd always been the outsider. And now, living with her, he'd never gone to a party because he wasn't welcome at the parties her friends threw.
She tried to imagine what it would be like for him. Social interaction wasn't his strong suit at any time, except when he was giving orders to someone. He was a leader, and a good one, but not comfortable in even the lightest social encounter, so a large party, where he had to mix with an entire crowd socially, might scare even him. And naturally he would go to references to try to think his way through it. But this was something he couldn't learn in any way except by experience.
Sitting on the edge of the desk to face him, she told him so. "Just think of it as being in the bar. You do all right there," she said. But even as she said it, she knew that wasn't quite true. He didn't have friends. The men in the bar who approached him, did so because they admired him, or envied him, or wanted him to notice them, and the women... well, she'd had to deal quietly with a few of those.
"It's nothing like going to a bar," he snarled, and gestured to the terminal. "Look at this. Since when do I have to take a hostess gift to a bartender?"
"Hostess gift? You don't need that for an al fresco party."
He put his head in his hands. "It doesn't say that anywhere. See what I mean? And I haven't even begun on small talk yet. Compared to this, Gate physics is easy."
She could feel herself weakening. As much as she hated the very idea of getting within ten miles of Mao Yenrai, she hated even more letting Vicious down when he needed her. And this was the first time he really did need her. She'd never seen him so rattled by anything.
He lifted his head, intent on the terminal again, and pushed her hip with one hand. "Get out of here, I want to get through this tonight."
"Hon, you're trying way too hard."
"I don't know any other way."
"I know, but really, you'll do a lot better if you just relax. You've got good manners. The nuns gave you that much, at least. Just use them."
"That's like saying, you have a gun, just point and pull the trigger and you'll get a bulls-eye."
He looked at her when he said it, and she saw that, under the grim determination and icy calm normal to him, there was something she'd never before seen in his eyes – panic.
No. I'm not doing it. Not even for him. She jumped up. "Just go on studying, then, you jerk. And if you want my advice, when you get there, drink four shots of whiskey, straight up. They'll do you a lot more good than all this reading."
Back in the kitchen, she tenderized a piece of steak with even more ferocity than she'd shown the vegetables. No way. I am not going to weaken. I'm not going to a house built with blood money. He just needs a little practice. We have a few days. I'll... But there, she ran out of ideas quickly. Their normal social venues wouldn't work. In a bar or a restaurant, the situation was always one-on-one, and usually with either waiters or syndicate inferiors who wanted him to be pleased by them. This would be monstrously different. He would be the inferior, this would be the most important social event of his entire life, and he'd be going in unarmed and alone.
No. No, no, no. She couldn't let pity and love force her into such a violation of her most dearly-held principles.
Vicious came into the kitchen, his jacket flung over one shoulder, and bent to kiss her temple. "I'm sorry. I know I'm being irritable, and I shouldn't be taking it out on you. I'm going for a walk. Just to work off some of this frustration. I'll be back in about half an hour. Will that be all right?"
"No! I'm putting dinner on now!"
Startled at her vehemence, he took a step backward. "Then I won't go."
"Neither will I. To that damned party, I mean."
He tilted his head, surprised. "I thought we settled that. I know you won't. I don't expect you to. That wouldn't be right or fair. Besides," he smiled and touched her lips with one finger, "if anyone saw you with that expression, we'd never make it out alive. Just forget it, and I promise I'll be better company next week, when it's all over."
He headed for the bedroom to hang up his jacket, but her voice stopped him at the kitchen door. "You really want me to go, don't you?"
He looked back over his shoulder. "Of course I do. I'd have a lot more courage, knowing you were there to keep me from saying or doing anything stupid. But that's beside the point. What I want, just because I'm a little nervous, is minor compared to what you believe in. I think I push that far enough just by being who and what I am. So don't worry about it."
He left her stewing. But as she pushed the steaks into the cooking unit, she got an idea. A way to toss the whole issue up to fate, or up to him. A way either to sooth her guilt, or to settle the other issue which had been weighing on her mind. She went into the living room, finding him stretched out on the couch, one arm flung over his eyes. When she sat there, next to his hip, facing him, he sat up and said, "Uh oh. I know that look. What did I do this time?"
"About this party. I'll go with you on one condition."
She saw him struggle to hide his elation. One of his better qualities was that he never gloated. "Name it."
"The Spiegels. Barbara and Spike. I want to know about them."
His expression became wary. "What about them?"
"You know damned well what I mean. You haven't told me the truth about them. Who are they to you? Why were you so determined to find them? And why haven't you gone to see them now that we know where they are? Why is Spike so important to you? I want the whole story. No holding back."
His stare went blank, and he was silent a long time. She kept quiet, letting him think it over and weigh the pros and cons as he always did. Finally he said, "If I tell you, do you swear never to tell anyone else?"
"If you want, yes."
He picked up a thick strand of her hair and let it slide through his fingers. She'd dyed it recently to the same color as his, then tipped the ends with purple and added a purple streak about half an inch wide. "I think you should buy a new dress," he said. "Purple, just like this. Something I'll spend the whole evening wanting to get you out of."
"Then you're going to tell me?"
"Yes. I'll tell you."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
The next evening, Vicious met with Tom Draper, the man Annie had directed him to. He was still feeling lucky. Telling Crys about Spike hadn't been as hard as he'd thought telling anyone would be, and he'd been doubly rewarded by her reaction at his mother's behavior, which she'd called unnatural, along with a few more profane terms. The trade had been worth it, because in just the few hours he'd had with her since then, she'd taught him more about social behavior than he'd learned from four days of reading. He had a feeling that, at the party, she'd be frigidly polite at best, but she wouldn't let him down. She' be right there at his side to keep him from going wrong, and he couldn't ask for anything better.
The place Draper had arranged to meet him was a warehouse not far from the spaceport, and inevitably, passing the port, he thought of Spike. One good thing about telling Crys about him, she was inclined to like him, just because Spike was his brother. He hoped that would be important soon. He wanted to introduce the two of them. Getting Spike's opinion of her would be fun.
Draper was nothing like he expected. A short man in his 40s, with a chunky, almost square build, he had broad hands with thick stubby fingers, not the artistic hands Vicious' imagination had taken for granted. As with most syndicate men, the manners he was learning from Crys were wasted on Draper. "You Vicious?" he asked when Vicious stepped inside the dimly lit, vast emptiness of the warehouse. Vicious confirmed this, and Draper said, "This way," and walked off. Vicious followed him to the rear of the warehouse, where a large workroom had been partitioned off. This was lit with merciless brilliance, and climate-controlled to about 65 degrees. The workbenches were covered with the paraphernalia of Draper's craft, mysterious to Vicious, but only for now. He planned to learn all about it.
Draper said, "Doing this work takes the proverbial nerves of steel, kid. You've got a reputation for being cool under pressure, but it takes a special talent to learn this art. Take this, for example." He lifted a vial from a rack and held it up. "It's called relthion. Half of this vial would take out this entire warehouse, and most of the ones on either side, too. Vaporize them." Without warning, he tossed it at Vicious.
Vicious snagged it from the air left-handed, studied it a moment, then tossed it back.
Draper grinned. "So your reputation's not a lie. You just might do, kid." He replaced the vial. The blunt fingers were as nimble and gentle as a woman's. "Stable as hell at anything under 110 degrees. Needs an incendiary trigger."
"I know that." He hadn't spent all of the previous days studying etiquette. None, in fact, except when Crys was around. "Usually it's triggered by a mini-flare."
"Sloppy and dangerous way to do it. I can show you better. But you've been doing your homework, I see. Or have you done this before?"
"No, I haven't."
"Then we'll start with the basics, develop a steady hand and eye. Once you have those down, the rest is simply a matter of knowledge, not skill. But don't go being a smart-ass and trying to jump ahead, or you'll end up blowing your fingers off. If you're lucky."
"I won't." Rafe's voice was in his head, from a day shortly after he'd begun martial arts with Master Sam. You go to an expert to learn something, boy, then you listen to him like he's God Almighty talking to you. Don't go being in a hurry and sticking your ignorance in, even when you think you know somethin'. Just listen and do what you're told. Anything else, you'd just be wasting your time and his.
So Vicious stripped off his coat and jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and prepared to listen to Tom Draper teach him about the fine art of explosives.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
It was worse than he'd expected.
He was fine when he handed Crys out of the car. He was fine when they were escorted by the butler through the house. Mere grandeur and the trappings of wealth had never awed him. But when the butler left them at the open glass doors to the patio and he looked out at all the people in the garden, he felt as if he'd swallowed a belly full of ice. Everywhere he looked, people were standing, drinks in hand, talking, laughing, in pairs or in groups. Women glittered with diamonds, men were smooth with self-assurance. All the polite phrases Crys had practiced with him fled, leaving his mind blank. He felt sick and had the idiotic impulse to turn and run. Instead, he squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, but that was all he could do. Until Crys stepped forward, he was paralyzed.
Her arm through his moved him with her, down shallow steps that his feet couldn't feel. She was looking all around with frowning interest. A waiter was passing with a tray of champagne flutes, and Crys squeezed his arm and nodded toward the tray. Somehow Vicious made his hands move, snagging two of them as the waiter passed, which was something he'd seen on TV once. He handed one to Crys. Had he been alone, he probably would have died of thirst before he'd done that.
Crys took a delicate sip, leaned toward him, and whispered into his ear, "Look at all the big shots here. If I'd brought a bomb, I could have set the Red Dragons back twenty years."
Champagne bubbles went up his nose as he stifled a laugh. He felt the ice thaw and his shoulders relax. He murmured back, "If you'd brought a bomb, we'd be laying together now with someone shoveling dirt in our faces."
"Damn. Poison, then. What was I thinking, not slipping any into my purse?"
"I don't know. Here I give you this priceless opportunity, and you blow it."
She chortled and leaned her head on his arm. "I might have poisoned you by mistake, and that would have been a bad thing. Oh, look – a scumbag we know," she murmured.
It was Kito, coming toward them from the other side of the garden, moving smoothly through the crowd with a pleased smile, a beautiful redhead on his arm. Vicious muttered, "You promised to behave, Crys."
She muttered back, "I won't call him a scumbag to his face. Watch and learn, darling. We're going to show you the epitome of party-manner hypocrisy, your boss and me. I bet he's good at it. He's slick." As Kito and the lady drew near, she turned on a brilliant smile. "Kito!" she said, sounding actually pleased to see him. "Were you invited, too? What a treat."
Kito's smile turned into a grin. "Did Vicious forget to tell you, you owe your invitation to me?"
"Oh, that's right, I forgot," she said, taking his hand when he extended it. "I'm glad to see you. I was beginning to think we didn't know a soul here."
"Annie and Henry are here, out in the rose garden. Karen, this is Vicious, who you've heard me mention, and his lady friend Crys. Vicious, Crys, my wife Karen."
The redhead smiled at Vicious and shook his hand, but he stiffened when she turned a frosty half-smile on Crys and made no other gesture. Crys, who'd held out her hand to the woman, let it fall quite naturally onto his arm, pinching him, and said brightly, "Nice to meet you, Karen. How are the kids? Did you have any trouble finding a babysitter?"
"We have a live-in nanny."
"Oh. Of course. I don't have kids, so these things just slip my mind. Sorry. Lovely dress!"
Vicious winced internally. Karen looked proper, neat, and affluent, but beside her, Crys was stunningly glamorous and a great deal sexier. And it was obvious Karen knew it. But somehow she managed a smile and said, "Thank you. Yours is, too. Although I've never seen hair dyed with a streak to match a dress before."
Crys laughed. "You got it backward. Vicious bought me the dress to go with my hair."
The woman's glance flicked to Vicious. "How... interesting."
Kito, who had been looking elsewhere, turned back to them and said, "Crys, I hope you don't mind if I steal Vicious for a moment. I'd like to introduce him around a bit."
The words were a casual request, but it was still a command. Crys assured Kito she would be fine, although she glanced up at Vicious first to be certain that he would, and he gave her a single nod. He wouldn't, but he would have to manage anyway. He knew the kind of introductions Kito would be making would be seriously hampered by Crys' presence. He had already begun to relax, enjoying Crys' tactics, but now he settled even more. This was business. This, he understood.
Without a thought of being denied, Kito was saying, "Karen, take care of Crys, show her around, would you?"
"Yes, of course, dear," she agreed, although by her tone, she'd rather have been boiled in oil.
Crys said, "Just show me the food. I'm starving. It's ridiculous how much I eat. Good thing I never gain weight from it, isn't it?"
Kito gestured Vicious away, and as the two of them made their way farther out into the gardens, he gave a low whistle and said, "That is one hell of a woman."
"Your wife didn't seem to like her," Vicious said, still faintly annoyed.
"Of course not. Mistresses don't normally come to these parties. You'll understand better when you're married." He chuckled. "I was worried about Crys, when I should have been worried about Karen. I'll be hearing about this for months."
Kito had a specific destination in mind, but they stopped occasionally for quick introductions along the way. Vicious found, to his relief, that he had little to do in the area of what Crys called "party-manner hypocrisy", because the men he met immediately separated themselves from compliant wives, shook hands as if testing his grip, and discussed business, briefly and succinctly. They were men he could respect and relate to, and he quickly realized that Kito had a method to the introductions. He met no legitimate businessmen, no fronts, and no politicians, but rather active Red Dragon members who, in rank, stood closer to Kito's level than his own – men whom, if he continued rising, he would be dealing with often. Their curiosity about him gave him a feeling of elation that, kept in bounds, helped him to speak to them with confidence.
That confidence evaporated when they approached a gazebo and he realized where Kito was ultimately taking him. There, holding court in a small crowd of well-known faces – businessmen, politicians, diplomats, and even actors – was Mao Yenrai. Kito waited respectfully at the edge of the group until Mao saw him, and after a few minutes, Mao graciously excused himself and came their way. Vicious' knees weakened and he stiffened them, straightening, although there was nothing remotely threatening in any way about Mao Yenrai. He was a short, smiling, round-faced man who looked far more like the diplomats he'd been entertaining than the hard-eyed men Vicious had been meeting so far. But Kito was nervous, Vicious could tell by his voice when he said quietly, "Don't offer to shake hands, not with Mao. Speak when you're spoken to, otherwise shut up."
Vicious nodded. That wouldn't be any trouble. He'd be lucky if he could speak at all.
But Mao greeted Kito like an old friend and seemed genuinely pleased to meet Vicious. "I hope you don't mind that I chose the chaos of a party to meet you, but I didn't wish to wait for a better opportunity."
Crys had told him, Two easy rules, love – lie nicely to anyone you meet socially, but be completely honest with your scumbag superiors. So he said directly, "Mind? I'm staggered and deeply honored."
"And a little overwhelmed, perhaps?"
"Not a little, a lot." He confessed the truth candidly, but calmly, with a slight smile, unconsciously mimicking Kito's poise.
Mao was pleased. "Come walk with me a moment, and tell me what you think of this new piece of sculpture. It was a gift from one of the men I was just speaking to."
To Vicious' alarm, they left Kito behind, but he rallied his mind to look at the statuary along the graveled walk they turned onto. Mao continued talking, but only in the most general way about the party. He had a soft, pleasant voice. Even that was nothing like what Vicious had imagined. He might have been walking with Father Thomas. They stopped in front of a granite sculpture that sprawled along the side of the path, and Mao asked, "What do you think?"
Be completely honest with your scumbag superiors. "Honestly?"
"Of course. I wouldn't have asked, otherwise."
"Then, no disrespect intended, but it's ugly. It reminds me of some alleys I've been in."
"Does it?" He studied the thing another moment, and Vicious wished he could read what was in his mind. "Yes," he mused, "I had the same reaction. It looks very much like a bad alley."
"Sir... that wouldn't be deliberate, would it?"
Mao looked up at him, his smile deepening. "I suspect it is. I may have to kill the sculptor, despite the fact that he's considered a genius."
"If this is a sample of his work, he won't be much of a loss."
"No. Sad to reflect on the state of public taste, isn't it?" He gazed up the lane and the rest of the statuary that framed it. "So, is there anything here which meets with your approval?"
One sculpture had already caught his eye, and he turned toward it now. Carved from some white material that was delicately veined, it was a life-sized figure of a winged woman standing on one foot, leaning forward, her eyes and face turned skyward, as if she were about to take flight. In her left hand was a wreath of leaves, and in her right, extended upward as if to guide her launch, was a long spear. There was something triumphant and strong about her. "That's the best here. Or rather," he amended, realizing how arrogant that sounded, "the one I like the best."
"Ah, yes. Nike, goddess of victory. A good choice." Mao said no more about the statues or even why he'd asked Vicious' opinion, but turned to walk again along the path, which wove back toward the house. As they walked, he asked Vicious questions, pertinent ones this time, about what he was doing and, once or twice, how he'd accomplished it. To his surprise, under the gently voiced questioning, Vicious found his mind working hard to keep up, and he began to realize why Mao Yenrai had risen to this position. Instead of making him nervous, this realization made him more comfortable. He was working for a capable man. He answered everything with complete truth, although there was a time or two, especially when asked about Kito, that he was glad the truth was what Mao might want to hear.
As they neared the noise of the party, he was suddenly struck with the fact that, as crowded as the place was, no one at all had come near them while they talked. Every detail here, it seemed, was in Mao's control, and Vicious was impressed. More than anything he'd seen so far, that level of control was what he would wish to emulate if he ever rose this far.
He saw Crys standing with Annie and Henry Jacobs, laughing, looking as if she were actually enjoying herself. He didn't think Mao knew her, but Mao corrected that misapprehension by saying, "There is your lady. I'll leave you now. I'm sure you'd rather be with a lovely young woman than with me."
"Not really, sir," he said, "but I know I've already taken up too much of your time."
"It has been a pleasure meeting you, Vicious."
The words to answer that had been given him by Crys. "The pleasure was all mine, sir. And the honor."
Mao smiled and left him, and Vicious made his way through the crowd to Crys' side. Annie saw him first and waved at him, grinning. "How did it go with Mao?" she asked as Crys, smiling, tucked her arm in his.
"All right, I guess. We saw some statues, talked a bit."
Henry chuckled. "I told you, Annie."
She punched his arm. "And you were right. So what? That and a K-note will get you a cup of coffee."
"Told her what?" Vicious wanted to know.
"That even if Mao had skinned you alive, you'd act as if it had all been nothing special."
"Not that Mao would," Annie said comfortably. "He's far too sweet."
Sweet? That was about the last word Vicious would ever apply to Mao Yenrai. But then, the Jacobs' were old friends of Mao's. Crys was looking up at him anxiously, and he smiled to reassure her. "You look as if you've been enjoying yourself more than I thought you would."
Annie answered him. "We've been getting along great. You don't have to worry about this one, she can handle herself."
Henry said, "And Annie isn't like Karen and the other wives here, after all, to turn up her nose at someone just because they don't quite fit."
Vicious couldn't imagine a more obvious understatement. The other wives he could see were sleek, well-groomed, and with trim figures that he imagined were more the result of medical science than any particular work on their part, and each was wearing a gown and jewels that had probably cost more than he would make in a year. Annie, in contrast, was plump, wearing a simple gown and a pair of plain sapphire earrings. Her expression, too, was open and refreshingly natural, nothing like the guarded, careful faces of most of the other women. Other than Crys, he thought her the best woman there, and told her so, which flustered her and pleased Henry.
Even with Annie, however, he could see that Crys was unhappy and feeling the strain. He asked her, "Do you want to go now? I think I've had about all the partying I can stand in one day."
Annie chuckled at Crys' grateful expression. "Yes, take her home before we pollute her beyond redemption."
"Annie, if it were only you and Henry," Crys said, "I wouldn't feel quite beyond redemption. Thanks for rescuing me." To Vicious' surprise, she hugged both Annie and Henry. Then she turned back to him, wove her arm into his, and said, "Take me home and I promise you a very nice reward."
He led her off to the sound of Annie's wicked laughter.
Spike heard the emergency vehicles fly overhead, but he paid no attention to them. They were a normal part of the background noise in his neighborhood, and besides, he had a lot on his mind. He'd spent an hour today doing something he'd never voluntarily done before, talking to a school counselor. What he'd learned had made him decide to cut school for the rest of the day, go home, and talk to his mother.
They'd been in Alva City almost six months now, and he hated it. Their neighborhood was a better one, safer, more civilized, but for that very reason, he didn't fit in and hadn't been able to make any friends. The only guys who seemed to understand him were his enemies. What after-school and weekend work he could find – for his mother still insisted on that – was so boring compared to the spaceport that he spent most of his energy trying to figure out ways to get out of doing it. The only high spot in his life was martial arts training with his mother, and if that wasn't weird, what was? Even there, she admitted he was ready for a true master, but if she was trying to find one for him, her efforts were invisible to him.
Then, last week, he'd accidentally overheard something that gave him hope, from Biggy Biggars, of all people. According to Biggy, by law, at fifteen a guy could get a work tag, legally quit school, and get out on his own, like an adult. And Spike's fifteenth birthday was less than a month away.
According to the counselor, getting the tag wasn't quite as simple as Biggy believed. Still, it was possible. The hardest part would be getting his mother to agree. For a guy with a family, the parents or legal guardians had to give consent. At least he had a mother. If he'd been an orphan, he'd be under Martian planet wide childcare rules, which were a lot more strict since that scandal in '55 with the priest, and he'd be stuck for another two years at least.
Now he was trying to think of a way to convince his mother to vouch for him. If he approached her the right way, she'd probably do it without fuss. It wasn't as if she liked having him around that much. He'd lie and tell her he planned to work here in Alva City, but the second he had that tag, he'd go straight to Tharsis. He only hoped Mr. T would give him his job back, after the way his mother had dragged him off without so much as calling the man and explaining.
The sounds of the emergency zipcraft and trucks was louder now, so loud that they interfered with his self-absorption. He realized he was walking toward them. Whatever was going on, it was right in his neighborhood. When he looked up, he could see the remnants of a thick plume of smoke being scattered by the backblast of a zipcraft braking. Wow. That looks like it's right over my building.
Even then, he had no premonition. He assumed the fire was somewhere in the neighborhood, maybe at worst on the same block, and his only thought was to hope it wasn't where someone lived that he knew. He didn't even worry about it spreading, not with all the city vehicles buzzing around. Not until he turned the corner and almost ran into the backs of the crowd did he realize that they were staring at his apartment building.
Mom! His mother had planned to stay home today. She might be in trouble in there. He couldn't tell where the fire was, exactly. The smoke was too thick, shrouding three or four floors, but it was definitely near his floor. Dropping his shoulder, pushing and scrambling, he shoved his way to the front of the crowd, cursing every second he was delayed.
When he finally reached the police line, what he saw made the universe tilt in his mind.
At first it didn't seem too bad. There was debris scattered on the ground, but not a lot of it. Through the smoke, in thin patches torn by the breeze, he could see that only a small part of the building had been affected, only one floor, but pieces of the entire wall were torn away, baring steel supports. His floor. His apartment. And on the ground near the silent ambulance was one body on a stretcher. It was covered, face to toes, with a black plastic sheet, but one arm had fallen out from under the plastic. He knew the arm, the hand – so like his own – even the bracelet on the wrist.
That can't be my mother. The shape under the plastic wasn't her shape, wasn't the shape of anything human. But the arm was human. Hers. Scraps of the pink blouse she'd been wearing this morning when he'd left for school were still clinging around the elbow.
He was staring, trying to get himself to comprehend what he was seeing, when he heard someone say his name. He didn't recognize it as his name, just as he didn't feel the people jostling him on either side. Then hands caught his arm and tried to pull him away.
"No!" he shouted, and yanked free. He started to plunge under the police line, but a big cop blocked his way, and the hands had caught his shirt and were trying to pull him backward. Distantly, he heard a woman's voice, That's his mother, Officer, and the cop say something back. Neither affected him. Stalled, stunned, he went down to his knees. Mom?
The woman was trying to pull him to his feet. He knew who she was now. He recognized her by the smell of garlic. Mrs. Hendry from the first floor. She kept talking to him and pulling at him, trying to make him stand, to make him leave.
Numb, he finally gave up and rose, let her turn him, let her lead him away. The crowd parted as they passed. No pushing and shoving to get away from there.
As they broke through the rear of the crowd to the open street, he began to hear some of Mrs. Hendry's words. She'd always been a silly woman, and now she kept telling him, Everything will be all right, baby.
"Don't call me baby," he said.
"It's all right. You're in shock."
"Shut up!" He collapsed on the edge of the sidewalk and put his head in his hands. Somehow he had to make this fit into his mind.
Mrs. Hendry, amazingly, did shut up. She sat beside him and put her plump arms around him, but she didn't get upset when he shrugged her away. Finally he said, "Was that really my mother?"
"Yes, dear. It was. The landlord identified her for the police."
At least she was honest. "What happened?"
As if he'd opened a door, she began to babble. "The fire officer thinks it was a gas leak of some kind. But I don't see how that can be. I mean, the landlord had an inspection team out here just last month, and I know they did your apartment, too! But they say they don't know what else it could have been. They say your mother went out somewhere, and what they think is that when she came home, she opened the door and caused a spark. But they don't know. They don't know anything. It's a miracle no one else was killed! If this had happened a few hours later, when everyone was home from work, it would have been even worse. Oh, but not worse for you," she said suddenly, giving him a hug.
He felt abruptly sick. The shock was reaching him from somewhere deep inside, and the combination of Mrs. Hendry's garlicky smell and sticky sympathy was making his stomach twist. "I'm leaving."
To his surprise, her hands closed on his shoulder and held him there. "You can't! Where would you go?"
"I don't know," he admitted. Just away. I want to get away.
"I know you can't think, baby," she said, her grip becoming a caress. "I understand. This has been a terrible shock to you. But you can't just wander off. Come inside. Come on, we'll go to my sister's place. It's right up the street. You can stay with us until your relatives can come and get you."
"I don't have any relatives."
"Sure you do. Everyone has relatives. The police will find them for you. Come on with me. Get away from all this smoke."
But he didn't have relatives. He knew that for a fact. With a cold certainty, he knew something else for a fact. When the police found out he didn't have anyone to take him in, they'd put him in a city-run home, or an orphanage. If there was any place in the world worse than this neighborhood, that was it.
He had to get away. Now, fast, before the police came looking for him and Mrs. Hendry. "All right," he said, and started to rise. As he expected, she let go of him so she could push herself to her feet. She was, after all, a fat, elderly woman. As soon as he was free, he bolted. He heard her call after him, yelling his name, but he kept running and didn't look back. Using alleys, jumping fences, he made sure he couldn't be followed, and ran until he couldn't run any more.
His roundabout route had taken him to a park about six blocks north of his school. The destination of a lot of kids cutting classes, it was full of places to hide. He found one and sat there, arms on his raised knees, head down, dragging in breath after breath, and trying to think.
For a long time, all he could think about was his mother. Not as he'd known her. That would come later, and hurt more. At that moment, he could only think that she was gone. It was impossible that he'd never see her again, but it was true. He felt as if a great hole had opened up inside himself, and he had no idea why or how or what would be the result of it. He didn't have a mother. He didn't have a home. He had nothing but the clothes he was wearing. Everything he knew was gone.
It simply wasn't possible.
As the sun started to set, he came to a kind of acceptance by simply pushing it all to a corner of his mind, to be dealt with later. At the moment, he had to deal with more urgent matters. He was hungry, but what money he had in his pockets wouldn't get him a meal. That wasn't a large problem. He'd stolen food before, back in the District, and he hadn't forgotten how. He was exhausted, but there were plenty of places here in the park where he could sleep without being found. The most urgent problem was what he would do tomorrow. The police would be looking for him. Mrs. Hendry would give them the direction he'd gone. He had to find a place where he could disappear. He couldn't just run aimlessly. He had to think of somewhere to go.
But with no friends and no real roots, there was only one place he could imagine going. The one place he'd ever really considered a home since his father died. Tharsis Spaceport.
An hour later, as it started to get dark, wearing a stolen raincoat with stolen food stuffed in all the pockets, he was on the highway with his thumb out, hitching a ride to Tharsis.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Rafe would have called it a clean kill. When you have to make a hit, make it clean. By that, I mean hit only the person you're aiming at. Don't take down any innocent bystanders.
But, he'd said, if you do that, isn't it obvious that it was a hit, even if it looks like an accident?
Obvious to you and to me, and to any syndicate man. And obvious to the cops. But to the average person, it just looks like bad luck. They'll read about it in the newspaper and forget it by the time they turn the page. Just one person dead, and it wasn't me, so it's no big deal, they'll be thinkin'. And as for the cops, you want them to know. That way they don't have to investigate it too closely. You kill a bunch of people, and they're forced to check it out, do the job right. You make it harder for them to work with us.
It had taken him more than five weeks to carry out the whole plan. Unable to be sure of finding all of his mother's tell-tales – those things that any cautious person planted to tell them that someone had trespassed on their territory – he'd used some of his new influence to arrange for a gas inspection, and he'd gone in immediately behind the team to plant the explosive. After that, what little time he could spare from his syndicate work had been spent here, in an apartment across the street, getting information with borrowed surveillance equipment. Barbara Spiegel had had no routine, but her neighbors did. He waited patiently to push the button until that one day when all came together: he was there, she was there, her neighbors were all out. Clean.
He left to get Spike as soon as he heard the explosion. He expected to find him in school, and for the first time was irritated by the kid's habit of cutting classes. He didn't worry when he couldn't find him right away, since he didn't know Spike's haunts in Alva City. But when an afternoon and the following morning spent searching didn't find him, his concern grew sharp, especially when, questioning the neighbors, he met Mrs. Hendry and she told him how Spike had run away.
He didn't share Mrs. Hendry's sanguine belief that the police would find Spike soon. But just in case they did, he got names of Child Welfare officers from Crys, contacted them, and convinced them to tell him when Spike came into their hands. For himself, he assumed Spike would avoid cops, in which case there were only two logical places where he might run, to his friends in the District or to the Tharsis Spaceport.
He checked both. Since the party at Mao Yenrai's several months ago, his apprenticeship to Kito was an open secret, and the kids that Spike had once called friends were willing and even eager to help him. But they weren't able to. Spike hadn't contacted any of them yet. Leaving them with their promise to call him if Spike showed up, he checked the spaceport, including questioning the man called Doohan, who had arrived in port the day before. No one had seen him, and everyone was still pretty angry with him.
He now began to really worry. Where was the kid?
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
For a person who knew his way around, Tharsis Spaceport had as many hiding places as a dog had fleas, and Spike knew his way around better than anyone. His first night, when he'd broken in under the fence, he chose the old hangar where Doohan had once berthed his antique Bell. Few people used the hangar, and no one ever seemed to clean it. He made himself a hollow out of storage crates in the rafters and floored it with scrap wood. Then he ate until he was full and curled up to rest. Exhausted, he dropped off almost at once, but the sleep didn't last long. Dreams woke him, bad ones which he forgot as soon as his eyes opened. The third time he woke, he gave up and sat, his back against a steel girder, his legs drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around them, chin on his knees, shivering in the light raincoat. Tomorrow, the first thing he needed to do was steal a blanket.
Everything caught up with him at once then – his mother being gone, the malformed shape of what had been left of her, the police looking for him, and being a cold, hungry, scared 14-year-old kid in hiding with no idea how he was going to survive to be 15. With no one there to see him, he let his head drop and began to sob until his shoulders were shaking so hard he gripped his legs harder to stop them. The breakdown only lasted a few minutes. He had his pride, after all, and got himself under control as quickly as he possibly could. During the rest of the hours of that night, he had more time than he needed to finally face his loss and remember his mother. But he shed no more tears.
The next day he began the life of a fugitive at the spaceport. Most things he needed, he could get at night, when traffic was slower and he was less likely to be seen. The most difficult thing at first was food. He didn't want to vandalize a vending machine, because that might make someone suspicious, but finally he had to. The haul kept him going for a week and a half, and after that, he disguised himself and picked pockets in the lobby, using the booty to catch a bus to a nearby grocery, then sneaking back in after dark. Everything else he needed, bedding and clothing mostly, he got by using his light fingers to open freight cases, and water, of course, was at any hangar he happened to be in. Cigarettes were no problem, either, since picking pockets inevitably yielded plenty of those. He created a stocked hiding place in every hangar, just in case, and started feeling both safe and clever.
His biggest concern was being seen by someone he knew, which was most of the weekend workers, so during the weekend he laid low. The only person he saw who he knew was Doohan, who berthed the Bell for a few days shortly after he got there, and he thought he saw Vicious once. But at that time he'd gone almost two days without eating, so he assumed it had been a hallucination. He wished it had been real, because if anyone could tell him how to elude the police and survive on the streets, it would be Vicious. He toyed with the idea of trying to find his friend, but decided it wasn't worth the risk. Instead, he settled down with his rabbit's existence, planning to wait until he was sure the hunt for him had died down. Then he'd see Mr. T and hope for the best.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Crys watched Vicious pace as he spoke into the phone, his face set like stone but his eyes blazing. Spike had been missing for three weeks, and each day of that time, Vicious had grown more and more tense. He'd gone everywhere he knew the boy had once hung out, not once or twice but many times. He'd questioned everyone who knew him, again and again. He'd bribed and threatened Child Welfare clerks and cops. Finally he'd even compromised his own integrity enough to mix his personal life with his syndicate business and gotten some of his men to look as well. All for nothing. He was receiving yet another negative report, and while the man on the phone might not realize it from Vicious' cool tone, she could see he was going to crack at any time.
She couldn't bear to watch him any more, and she went into the bathroom, closed the door, and started a bath. While the water filled, she wiped steam from the mirror and stared at herself.
You know he killed his mother. He won't say it, but you know it anyway, don't you? He hadn't lied to her, she was sure. He'd said his mother was killed in an explosion at her apartment, and that the authorities believed it to have been caused by a gas leak. But she'd read the newspaper account, a tiny article tucked away on page 8 which gave almost no more details than he had, except for one. There had been only one fatality. Plenty of injuries, all minor, but only one person died. She'd been a Hyena, and like a syndicate man and a cop, she also knew the concept of a clean kill.
She hadn't wanted to believe it, and she'd been very careful not to ask him any more about it or press him with any questions. She didn't want to know the answer to those questions. If she did, if she forced herself to face them, she wasn't sure she could live with him any more.
Now, staring into her own eyes, she asked herself, Are you that besotted?
The answer, of course, was yes. Not the right answer, but the true one. She'd asked herself the same question while, frigid with disgust at herself, she'd guided him through that party at Mao Yenrai's, and again when she finally figured out why he'd been invited. After that party, although they still lived in the same apartment, they had luxuries they'd never had before. He was gone more, and when they went out, people looked at him differently, with a new respect and even with fear. The last time he'd taken her out to dinner, they went to a place where she'd often longed to go but could never afford, where the hostess had taken them to a good table, the waiter treated them like royalty, and no bill had ever been presented. He was becoming Kito, and the thought made her ill.
But when she came out of her bath, wrapped in a robe he'd bought for her, and saw him lying on the bed, one arm flung over his eyes, she knew she wasn't ready to leave him now. He was suffering. The lines of it were on his face, and she simply couldn't resist the urge to want to smooth them away. But she couldn't help him. There was nothing she could do to find the boy that he wasn't already doing, and every idea she had, she'd already given him.
She sat beside him on the bed. "You'll find him," she said.
After a second, he said harshly, "I wish I had your confidence."
"You will. Because you'll never stop looking. But it may take a long time."
"He may be dead by now," he snapped. Then he sat up, although still without looking at her. "No. If he were dead, I'd know it. I'd feel it."
"Then he's not. And you said yourself, he's smart, tough, and resourceful. He'll take care of himself. It's not as if he's a child now. He's been on the streets."
He nodded, then swallowed hard. "If I believed in God, I would think this was some kind of cosmic justice."
It was out before she could stop it. "You did kill her, didn't you?"
He nodded, as simply as if she'd asked him if he had grey eyes. "It was the only way."
She wanted to scream, to cover her ears and just scream so she couldn't hear any more. Instead, in a wooden voice, she said, "The only way to do what? Get Spike away from her?"
"Yes. She drew the line herself, I didn't. She attacked me, she made herself my enemy."
And in the syndicate, if you have an enemy, you kill him before he kills you. This was how he lived and how he thought. Nothing in his past had ever taught him another way, and nothing she could do now was going to change him. "Well, I guess you won, then," she said, grieving. Not for Barbara, who had drawn her death on herself by what she'd done and, more importantly, what she hadn't done. She grieved for Barbara's sons, both of them, the one now reaching for her hand, seeking comfort for a pain she could do nothing to relieve, and the young one somewhere out there, alone and afraid.
"It's not winning, when you lose what you fought for," he said. Then, "Why are you crying?" When she didn't answer him, he put an arm around her shoulders and drew her close.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Spike had been at the spaceport for more than a month when he curled up to sleep one night and woke up the next morning to the smell of cigarette smoke and the sight of Doohan calmly sitting there, in his hiding place, watching him.
Doohan had come in again a few days before, and this time Spike had taken a chance when the old man was out and slipped down to see if the Swordfish was inside the Bell's cargo hold. It wasn't, and, disappointed, he'd taken no other risks. He was sure he'd left no sign that he'd been there, and that had been days ago, so Doohan's appearance was a complete surprise.
He came awake with a rush. His reflexes were good, and within a second of opening his eyes and seeing Doohan sitting there, he was starting to bound to his feet and get out. Doohan, however, was even faster. He snagged a fistful of Spike's shirt and dragged him back down, snarling, "Forget that! I have some questions I want to ask you."
"Well, let me go and ask them, then," Spike said, regaining his cool.
Doohan just grinned.
"At least let me get a cigarette."
"Maybe later. I'm stronger than you, kid, but I'm sure you're a hell of a lot faster. You awake yet?"
"Good. Then let me ask you my first question, something for you to think about. If I let you go now, and you go tearing out of here, where are you going to go once I've let the boss know you're here?"
"You'd tell him?"
"Don't look so hurt. That doesn't work on me. Yes, I'd tell him. But I have this feeling you don't have anywhere else to go. Right?" When Spike didn't answer, he gave him a shake. "Am I right?"
"You're an old man who ought to be minding his own business!" Spike snapped back.
Doohan chuckled. "Living like a rat doesn't seem to have hurt your spirits any. I figured. Now that we got that settled, I'll give you two choices. One, I drag your ass down out of here and over to the office, and let that Greek fella decide what he should do with you. Two, you give me your word you won't run off, I let you go, and we sit here and discuss this like men. Which is it?"
Spike pretended to think it over. "Mr. T might just give me my job back."
"OK, choice number two, then."
"You give me your word? Go on, say it."
Spike made himself say the words. "All right. My word, I won't run off until we've had this little talk you want."
"Good enough." The big fist uncurled from his shirt, and Spike sat back again with a bump. "First, how long have you been here?"
"I said I wouldn't run off. I didn't make any promises about answering your questions."
"Don't be stupid. What harm is it going to do you to answer that one? Save your energy for lying about the important ones. I'm guessing you've been here since your mother got killed. Is that right?" He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, shook two out, and handed one to Spike.
They lit up, and with the first pull, Spike felt himself calming down. If Doohan was planning to turn him over to the cops, he'd have already done it. For sure, being Doohan, he wouldn't offer him a cigarette. He sat for a moment, just enjoying the smoke, and finally said, "Yeah. I've been here since then."
"Don't you have any relatives that want you?"
"I don't have any relatives, period."
Doohan grunted. "How old are you?"
"None of your business."
"It's my business, because right now I'm sheltering some kind of fugitive."
Despite himself, alarm made him blurt, "The cops talked to you?"
"The cops have been here, and a bunch of other folks, too. You've got a lot of people looking for you, and I have to admit, none of them looked like loving uncles or cousins."
He could imagine what they looked like. Cops, and suits with the ticket to some orphanage prison. He said, "You turn me over to any of them, I'll..."
"Save your threats. In the first place, you don't scare me. You're a kid, and you weigh maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. In the second place, I ain't going to turn you in to anybody."
"Don't sound so surprised. Why should I? It's none of my business, and anyway, I never have gotten along too well with authority types."
Remembering some of the yelling matches from when he'd worked here, Spike grinned. "I can vouch for that."
"So what do you intend to do? Just hide here until the heat dies down, then slink out and ask that Greek fella for your old job back?"
Put that way, it did sound a little stupid. Spike just shrugged.
Doohan said, "Thermopolis isn't exactly your friend any more, you know. First you leave him in the lurch, without a word – no, don't fire up, I'm sure that wasn't your fault. But then he has the cops and the Child Welfare people bugging him, and that really pissed him off. I don't think he's going to exactly welcome you with open arms."
Spike hid his dismay and just shrugged again. "Then I'll think of something else. I have friends in the District."
"You go back to the District, you'll end up a thief, or worse."
"You got any better ideas?" Spike snapped.
"Yeah, one. Although whether it's better or not is questionable. You can come to work for me."
Spike almost swallowed his cigarette. "For you? You mean it?"
"I see you like the idea."
Regaining his composure, Spike said, "Well, it's got to be better than sleeping up here."
"Maybe not. I don't live in the lap of luxury, and I'll work you harder than they ever thought of working you here. And you may have noticed I don't have the world's kindest disposition. Furthermore, most people don't like living on Earth."
Earth. That was about as far away from Mars as he could ever hope to get. "I've never been to Earth," he said musingly.
Doohan laughed. "You've never been anywhere. But you'll go places if you come with me, I can promise you that. I can't promise you a regular pay, but I will promise you shelter and three meals a day, and plenty of hard work."
"Yeah. What did you think, I'd have you milking cows?"
"Sweeping floors, more like."
"You'll do that. But you'll work on ships, too. Including the Swordfish." He gathered himself to rise. "You think on it. I leave tonight, so you have until then."
Spike jumped up with him. "I don't have to think about it," he said, holding out a hand. "I'm in."
Doohan stared at his hand for a moment, then took it in a crushing grip. "We're probably both going to regret this."
"Probably," Spike said, and grinned.
Christmas eve, 2059 ~ Spike
"Doohan! You promised."
Doohan's response was a wordless growl.
"You did. Here's the list you gave me. It's all finished, right down to the last bolt and speck of dust. You said if I finished it, I could take the Swordfish. Well, it's finished."
Doohan took the list, studied it as if he'd never seen it before, then balled it up and tossed it in the trash. "All right. You can take her. But be careful with her."
"Kid, how can you stand there and lie to me with such a straight face? You'll get her out there and fly like a two-fisted maniac. I know you." He glared and pointed a finger. "If you wreck her and you don't get killed in the wreck, I'll make you wish you had."
"Come on, Doohan. Quit bitching and give me the key."
"Here. You got the shopping list?"
"I got it."
"Don't get into town and act like a fool."
Spike rolled his eyes. "I won't."
"Don't go drinking. Stay away from that pool hall. And stay away from the women there, they're all no good."
"OK, OK, Daddy, I'll be a good boy."
"And here." Doohan reached into his pocket and came up with a handful of 1,000w bills, which he pushed into Spike's hand. "Stay overnight. Have some fun."
Spike was so shocked, all he could say was, "Thanks."
"Don't thank me. You'll just blow it all on those things I told you to stay away from, and come back tomorrow with a hangover. Or worse. Go on, get out."
Already at the door, Spike retorted, "Well, you did say I should have fun." He dodged the wrench that came flying toward him and got out while he still could, grinning when he heard Doohan behind him saying, to no one in particular, that young kids today were worthless and he didn't know why he thought one would be any use.
He powered up the Swordfish with a rush of pleasure. In the six months he'd been here, although he'd piloted most of the aircraft and spacecraft, antique and modern, that belonged to Doohan or were brought to him to be fixed, he'd only been allowed to fly the Swordfish four times, and all four times under Doohan's strict supervision. But his pilot's license had come through a few weeks ago, and Doohan had run out of excuses for keeping him from flying alone into town. The list had been a last-ditch effort, and Spike had busted his butt to finish it. This was worth every minute of the work. As he took off and pointed the swift monoracer's nose toward the stars, he felt free, really free, for the first time in his life.
Grinning, he did exactly what Doohan didn't want him to do. He left the atmosphere and played dodge-'em amongst the asteroids and space trash that had formed a belt around the Earth since the Gate accident in '21. Past the belt and in deep space, he did a series of rolls and twists out of sheer exuberance. Then he began what he considered work. He had a training schedule in his mind, culled from his mother's martial arts discipline and applied to what he needed and wanted to learn about flying a fighting monoracer. He began with tests meant to show him the limits and teach him the "feel" of the Swordfish, did some basic combat maneuvers against an imaginary enemy and some target practice with some space trash, and finished up by zigzagging back down through the asteroid belt at top speed.
He landed outside of Deadwood with an hour to go before sunset. Even in space, the three hours he'd spent had used up some fuel, so his first task was to refuel so Doohan wouldn't notice. Then he shrugged into his jacket and walked to the top of Main Street.
Deadwood was aptly named, a small dusty collection of aged wooden buildings leaning on each other as if for support, possessing only one real road. A town that slept all day in the blast of the desert sun, it did show a little life after dark, when the bars opened and people from the surrounding settlements flew in for a night's relaxation. He got a room in one of the little hotels at the edge of town, where it was cheaper and quieter. Then, with Doohan's list in hand, he went to Zorda's General Store and loaded up on supplies on Doohan's credit, adding out of his own pocket a bottle of single-malt Scotch as a surprise Christmas present for the old man. By the time he'd finished the shopping and arranged for delivery, night had fallen in the abrupt way a desert night had, and he was ready to have some fun. Naturally, despite the assurances he'd made to Doohan, he headed straight for The Rack, Deadwood's best pool hall. He intended to obey one of Doohan's strictures. He didn't plan to drink. His money would be better spent, in his mind, on some good games of pool. One out of three wasn't bad, and as for the third, the no-good women... well, he'd worry about that if it happened. He had great hopes for one, a pretty little package named Ann Ripley who hung around The Rack with her brothers and with whom he'd been getting very friendly lately. Without Doohan around, maybe he could sneak her away from her brothers and get lucky. If he did, it would be his first time ever, but that didn't worry him much. Back in Alba City, he'd been a lot more popular with girls than with other guys, and by now he had enough experience to figure the whole thing came natural, once you actually got there. It was the getting there that was hard.
When he pushed through the door of The Rack, a harried-looking waitress came bustling up to him. "Hey, Spike. A beer?"
"Sure. Thanks, Brin, and no rush, I'm not thirsty. Is there a free table?"
"They'll be quitting #4 in a few minutes," she told him, and whisked off.
He'd played a lot of pool in the District, but when he'd first come here, he'd been away from it for months and was worried he might have lost his touch. Much to his delight, he discovered he was even better. He was taller, for one thing, and the awkwardness that normally accompanied growth spurts was negated by his mother's training. Since he always lost with the same cheerfulness as he won, he had no trouble finding opponents. Table 4 cleared, and he settled in for a good night.
Midnight came and went, but The Rack didn't close until the last customer staggered out, so Spike kept playing, pretty much breaking even, and as contented as he could possibly be, achieving the height of his ambition for the night when he was pointed out to a late arrival as a guy who would give him a decent game.
At 2:00 AM he was yawning and beginning to think of calling it quits. The crowd had thinned, and he didn't have an opponent at the moment. He racked up the balls to practice a few breaks before he went back to the hotel, and was carefully sighting down the cue when someone spoiled his concentration by sitting on the edge of the pool table just by his left elbow. He looked over, ready to snarl, until he saw that the butt parked there was small, well-shaped, and female. His eyes moved up to a blouse which was tied to reveal a bare midriff and had enough buttons undone to make it abundantly clear that there was nothing but female under the cloth, then up further to full lips painted red, a short-cropped cap of artlessly tumbled dark curls, and a pair of big blue eyes twinkling at him from a pixyish face. The cute butt was clad in a short skirt which revealed most of a pair of long, slim, silky-looking bare thighs. The rest of her legs were good, too, and she wore sandals that showed off a pair of exquisitely-shaped ankles, but his gaze wandered from those right back up to her thighs, which he stared at past any polite amount of time. "Hey, Ann. Aren't you cold, dressed like that?"
She laughed and crossed her legs, which put his body and mind into a pleasant confusion. "Not in this place. It's always too hot in here, even in December. You want another beer?" she asked, handing him one of the two bottles in her small hands. Her voice was light, pretty, musical. He'd always liked it. "After all, I bought this one for you. Mind if I watch you break while I finish drinking mine?"
He'd recovered enough presence of mind to shrug coolly and say, "Whatever you want," while mentally he was on his knees begging her not to go away. He broke badly, his concentration totally skewed because of the way she licked the beer foam from her lips after drinking. While she finished her drink, however, he somehow managed to sink all the balls in sequence, and by the time he was done, he was so focused that he'd actually forgotten her. Her applause as the last ball dropped into the pocket startled him.
"Not bad," she smiled. "You know, you keep promising me a game, but we haven't gotten around to it yet. What about now?"
He slipped an arm around her waist. Under his hand, her skin was smooth and cool, and he said truthfully, "The way you're dressed? You'd have a handicap I could never beat."
She giggled, pleased, and didn't move away from him. "Where's your dad?" she asked.
"Doohan's not my dad."
"Well, he acts like it. So where is he?"
"He didn't come in with me tonight."
She looked up at him speculatively. "Then you're all by yourself?"
"I was until you got here." He glanced around. "Where are your brothers?" He'd already had to beat up the two of them on his last trip to town, when they'd caught him kissing Ann. Well, kissing her and a few other things they'd taken exception to.
Her smile brought out the dimples in her cheeks. "They're in New Vegas for the week, working."
"So you're all by yourself, too."
"I was until a little while ago. But," she slid out from his arm and hopped down from the pool table, "I just dropped in for a friendly game. If you don't want to play, I think I'll just go home."
"I'll walk you home, then."
Her lips curved upward again, slowly. "That would be really nice," she said.
He'd never have a better chance, so he risked saying, "Or if you want, I've got a room in the hotel just up the road. We can go there for a while. It's still early."
"Spike, it's 2:30."
"I'm not tired." He had been until she'd sat on the pool table. "Are you?"
She shrugged into a pink jacket, picked up her purse, then stood on her toes to kiss him. She took her time and used a lot of tongue. "No, not a bit tired," she said blithely when she finally broke away.
He'd heated up like a piece of sheet metal left out in the sun, but he didn't let her see that. He just casually draped an arm around her shoulders and steered her out the door, grinning at Brin when she gave him a thumbs-up as they left.
As far as Doohan's strictures went, that night he ended up settling for one out of three without a single regret. Doohan got Scotch for Christmas, but Spike got to unwrap something much better.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Christmas eve, 2059 ~ Vicious
Crys' message light was flashing when she got home from her last-minute shopping that morning. Hoping it didn't mean the Christmas party was canceled, she put off checking it and took her groceries into the kitchen to put them away instead. The cupboard where she kept her wine was full, so to make room for her New Year's champagne, she pulled out a bottle of whiskey. With a grimace, she opened the bottle and poured the stuff down the drain. Whiskey had been Vicious' drink, not hers. He hadn't lived here in two months, so it was time to start ditching the mementos.
She missed him. She supposed she always would. But she had known from the beginning that, with their differences, eventually he would grow away from her. In a way, she had also grown away from him, more and more with every bit of evidence she saw of his increasing power in the Red Dragons, but beginning, she knew, on the day Barbara Spiegel had died.
Her love for him hadn't diminished. She sometimes wondered if she would ever be able sit on her couch or sleep in her bed without feeling his presence. However, she had consolations. Their parting had been mutual and friendly, and they were still friends. Nor had he replaced her. He lived alone now, and every time she saw him, if he was with a woman at all, it was with some syndicate slut. And never the same one twice.
Still, although they occasionally spoke, she was surprised to hear his voice on her machine when she finally collected her message. "It's me. Call me when you get home," he said, typically taciturn. Frowning a little, wondering what he wanted, she punched in his number.
What he wanted was to take her out to dinner that evening. "Vicious! It's Christmas eve!" she protested.
"I never heard that there's a law against going out on Christmas eve."
"I have plans already. I made them last month."
"Oh. Of course." There was a brief silence, and since she knew what he was thinking, she started to grin. She wondered if he would even ask. He did. "You have a date, then?"
"No," she said, still grinning. "Just a party. All my friends. You don't want to come. You wouldn't like it."
He chuckled. "Neither would your friends. Sorry. I didn't think ahead."
"You called me on impulse? You?"
"It's been known to happen."
"What about tomorrow, then? Nobody should be alone on Christmas day."
The short pause warned her. "I won't be. Mao Yenrai always throws a Christmas party."
"And you're invited. My, my, your social life sure has picked up."
"It's business, Crys. You're my only real social life."
He was amused. "Isn't it?"
Sparring with him was always so much fun. She began to think that she would probably not be missed in the large party her friends had planned, and that she really wanted to see him again. "I'll make you a deal."
"I'll think on it. What deal?"
"The Sultans are in town tonight, at the Blackbird Club. It's been a sell-out since October. They're my favorite band. If you can get two tickets for that, I'll go out with you."
"I don't like jazz."
"You don't like music. But I do. That's the deal. Take it or leave it."
"I'll take it."
"If you can get the tickets. Even big bad syndicate guys might have trouble with that!"
"Give me a few hours."
"Sure," she drawled.
Still, she wasn't surprised when, two hours later, she answered her door chime to a kid about 12 years old, with a chipped front tooth and a cocky attitude. "Hey, are you Crys Mara... Ma..." He dug a piece of paper out of his pocket. "Maranovya? Jeez, lady, what kind of name is that?"
"A hard-to-pronounce one. Yes, that's me."
"Here." He handed her an envelope. When she reached for her purse, he shook his head. "Naw, that's already took care of."
She pressed the woolongs into his hand anyway. "I won't tell him," she promised.
"Thanks, lady!" He winked at her and was gone.
She shook her head ruefully as she shut the door. Vicious had more hangers-on now than she could count, but the ones he liked best were always the cocky ones. She opened the envelope, looked inside, and whooped with glee. Not only had he gotten tickets to the concert, he'd gotten a front row table and backstage passes. Spreading the tickets on her coffee table to gloat over them, she mused, I should have known better. Sweetheart, I swear, there is nothing you can't do if you put your mind to it.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Summer 2060 ~ Spike
According to Doohan, unlike most planets Ganymede had two seasons: the rainy season, and the monsoon season. However, as far as Spike had seen, it didn't rain there any more than on Mars. The Ganymede 4X Monorace was always held in the summer, a hangover from the Earth tradition, and so far it had never been rained out, despite all Doohan's gloomy predictions.
The race was still two weeks away, but it was only Spike's fourth race, by far the biggest, and he wanted to remain undefeated. The Swordfish had made the other races nothing more than surmountable challenges, but this one, Doohan promised him, "will knock you down to size." He insisted on daily practice, which suited Spike just fine. He still hadn't outgrown his joy of flying the Swordfish. He and Doohan had modified her, and he was sure she was the fastest monoracer ever. All he had to do was fly her and not screw up.
Doohan had brought him all the way out here to the edge of civilized Ganymede and placed beacons in a pattern, similar to the ones used in the race. Spike was flying from one to the other as fast as he could, exactly as if he had opponents chasing his tail. Doohan had given up trying to make him more cautious during practice long ago, before their first race, in New Toronto on Earth. During practice then, he'd yelled to Spike not to wreck the ship and Spike had yelled back, "Caution never won a race, Doohan! And you want me to win, right?" Doohan had growled that he didn't give a damn if Spike won but he did want the Swordfish to win, and since she had, he had never again tried to tell Spike how to fly practice runs.
The 4X was a dual level race, so after tagging the beacons in space, Spike was back in the atmosphere and skimming over the ocean. This far out, there was almost no traffic, so he was able to practice surfing without being held up by having to avoid some lumbering fishing craft cutting across his path. The next beacon was in a half-circle of islands, and he had to slow to weave through them. When he'd tagged the beacon and come out again, he realized he was no longer alone. About 10 km behind him, another ship was coming, moving very fast and right off the surface of the water, so close that he was striking up flume with his jets.
Spike's first thought was that the guy was another racer, and it pissed him off that he was trying to horn in on Doohan's work, so he dipped a wing and swooped down to cut the guy off. By the time he leveled, however, he'd realized this was no racer. The guy was coming too straight and way too fast, and he bypassed the islands completely. Spike waggled his wings, an invitation to race, and although the other guy didn't slow down at all, over the communications link crackled a cheery, "Lets see what you've got, Red."
Grinning, Spike swung the Swordfish into the guy's flight path, let him catch up, and as he shot past, fired his jets and took off after him. Doohan's voice snarled, "What the hell are you doing?"
"Just a little racing," Spike said happily.
The other guy was flying a Leontine 4-alpha, a good ship, small and very agile, and fast enough, but without the speed of the Swordfish. Even with a handicap, Spike caught up with him in less than two minutes. The Leontine's pilot, a dark-haired young man scarcely older than Spike, glanced at him as he pulled alongside, laughed, and said, "What else you got?" Then he whipped right toward a power island, going vertical to cut narrowly between the two solar plates. Whistling appreciatively, Spike did the same, and when Doohan started to cuss, he turned off his link and, in silent concentration, began to race in earnest.
The other guy was good, and he apparently knew his way around this area. He got the most out of the little Leontine, and whenever Spike caught up with him, he'd find some other place to dodge into. They were approaching the more populated areas now, so there was plenty of challenge, and Spike stayed with him, grinning. He'd never had so much fun.
That there was more to the game than fun never occurred to him, not until the Leontine suddenly made a tight one-eighty and headed directly at him. With a yelp he pulled the Swordfish's nose up, then up more sharply as it became obvious that the maniac was going right under him. For a second he was soaring skyward, and then for the first time he saw that a third monoracer had joined them, and he was flying directly into its path. He banked fast as the other craft put on its reverse thrusters full, but they still clipped. He spun, leveled out, then hit the water hard.
For a few seconds after the Swordfish stopped moving, he just sat there, counting his bruises. The Leontine was nowhere in sight, but the racer he'd clipped was in the water and coming up behind him. It was a cop cruiser. That figures. Just my luck. And it wasn't one of the local boys, either, but one of the big white ISSP cruisers. Even as he realized it, he felt the gentle nudge of a magnetic grapple catching the Swordfish.
He was in big trouble.
The pod still worked, so he opened it and stood up, trying a smile on the ISSP cop who was already leaping from his own ship onto the wing of the Swordfish. He was a big, burly guy, but he moved nimbly and had no difficulty with the shifting of the Swordfish on the water. His expression was grim edging toward angry, and Spike tried a friendly smile and an equally friendly, "Hey, Officer."
That was as far as he got before a big hand closed on his collar and yanked him straight out of the pod. "You're under arrest."
"Arrest? Why? What'd I do?"
His bewilderment didn’t seem to faze the cop, who spun him around and quickly grabbed his wrists and snapped on a set of handcuffs. "Interference with an officer of the law in pursuit of a fugitive."
"Interference with …what?" He twisted his head around to tell the guy, "Look, you got this whole thing all wrong."
The cop gave him an icy stare. "If you’d like to add resisting arrest, I'll be happy to oblige. And since you were flying with Dozanti, I might find anything from XXXX to Sea Rat eggs with a vehicle search. You have the right to remain silent…."
Spike listened incredulously as the cop droned out his rights. If I end up in jail for the race, Doohan is going to kill me. But he wasn't going to get any sympathy from this guy. He made the decision that being a polite citizen was his best bet, and waited for the cop to finish before looking back again and saying, "I understand all that. You're welcome to look, but you won't find anything illegal in my ship. And I don’t know anybody named Dozanti. If you mean the guy in the Leontine, I was just racing him, that's all."
His nice-guy act wasn't getting through too well. The cop had an "I've-heard-this-all-before" expression. "If you were 'just racing', why didn't you respond to my order to get out of my way?"
Oh. "Uh... I had my link turned off?"
The cop wasn't the careless, trusting type. He spun Spike around, slamming him back into the side of the Swordfish to pin his arms, and then glanced into the pod to check the link. "You know, you're either the biggest smartass of a smuggler I've come across, or you're even stupider than you look. Why is your link off?"
"You know how bosses are. Mine was yelling at me, and I was trying to fly. Hey, I'm a race pilot. I'm entered in the 4X. How about you let go of me, and I can show you the entry disk and papers? They're in the pod."
The cop's grip switched, and Spike was facing the Swordfish again. "How about you just stand there and shut up, and I'll check for myself?"
"Sure. Be my guest." He could have freed himself at any point – nothing the cop had done had been outside what his mother had taught him, and he'd been able to get out of cuffs since his days in the District. But freeing himself would do him no good, whereas being friendly and cooperative might. Despite his gruffness and his hard-ass attitude, this cop didn't seem like the brainless bully that most of them were.
The cop flipped on the link, and Doohan's voice blistered the air. He turned it off again without speaking, then checked the race disk and papers thoroughly. Satisfied, he returned everything to its proper place, stepped up out of the pod and grabbed Spike's collar, turning him toward the cruiser. "Lets go."
"Hey, wait a minute," Spike protested. "Those papers are real!"
"Yes, they are. But just because you're entered in some race doesn't mean you're not a friend of Dozanti and that you didn't deliberately interfere with a police pursuit."
"Come on, you know I didn't do it on purpose."
"Save it for the judge. I don't need to waste my time explaining things to some punk who just screwed up nine months of detective work with his reckless flying – on purpose or not." He jerked Spike roughly around to face a large, red-scraped dent in the ISSP cruiser's side. "Do you have any idea how long it takes to requisition repairs? Well, you can spend a little of that time to think about how to choose your playmates more carefully." He thrust a finger towards the Swordfish's link controls. "You're allowed one call. You can make it here, or back at the station. Makes no difference to me. But you might want to let the owner know that he's going to have to make bail if he wants Junior Birdman out in time for the race."
Spike slumped, resigned. "I don't think they'll delay the race for that many years."
"My heart bleeds."
Spike was trying to come up with another idea when the cop's phone beeped. Growling irritably, he released Spike again, stepped away, out of reach, and flipped up the screen. "What!"
"Where the hell are you? I need back-up!"
"For what?" he snapped. "Lunch?"
"Dozanti. He came tearing my way like the devil was right behind him, and I figured you were. But you never showed. He didn't see me, and I put him on the deck. He's shipping a little water and I've got the cannon on him, but he won't come out of the pod, and when I hailed him, he shot at me. So I could use some back-up from my partner."
The cop gave Spike a murderous look, then spoke into the link. "I've got a little baggage to deal with here, but I'm on my way."
"Baggage? What baggage?"
"Some idiot who got in my way and clipped my cruiser. Otherwise, I'd be calling you for back-up. Or rather, I'd be calling you to go buy lunch while I took Dozanti in."
Spike stretched his neck to see what was going on between the cop and his partner. He caught sight of a face in the comlink screen that stared back at him for a moment, then stretched into a startled grin. "Son of a bitch!"
The big cop looked down at his partner's face in alarm, apparently thinking that Dozanti had made a break for it. But the partner said, "That's Spiegel!"
"Spiegel. Spike Spiegel. He's piloting the Swordfish on Saturday."
"Yeah, I know." He didn't sound particularly interested.
But now the face in the screen was addressing Spike. "You're Spiegel, aren't you kid?"
Spike grinned and said, "That's me, Officer."
"Damn! I've got money on you and that ship! Hey, Black Dog. Let go for once, and get your ass over here. Back up, remember?"
For a moment, cop's face wore a mixture of indecision and annoyance.
"Remember last Friday night," the partner said. "You owe me."
Spike heard the big cop utter an oath under his breath. "Have it your way!" he snapped, but somehow he seemed relieved at being given an out.
Spike heard the dim report of firearms over the phone, then the other man's voice. "Damn, our little friend is getting restless. Ditch the kid and get over here!"
"All right, all right! Keep your shirt on. Dozanti's not going anywhere. I'll be there in a couple of minutes," he said, and snapped the phone shut. He said to Spike, "Kid, this is your lucky day."
Spike's hands had been busy behind his back while they were talking, and now he smiled and handed him the cuffs. "I know. Here you go. Thanks, it's been a real pleasure."
The cop took the cuffs with a grudgingly wry twist of his mouth. "You don't live on Ganymede, do you?" he asked.
"Nope. I live on Earth. Why?"
"Earth. That figures. As for why, it's because I don't want to run into you again. If I do, I'm likely to take you in just for being a general nuisance and a hazard to the public. Got it?"
"Got it," Spike said cheerfully, dropping into the Swordfish's cockpit. "It's been fun."
The cop thrust a finger at him. "Don't push your luck." The Swordfish rocked slightly when the grapple was released.
Spike grinned. "Tell your buddy his money is safe, because I'm going to win that race."
"Not only a smart-ass but a cocky smart-ass. Push off before I change my mind. You're starting to annoy me even more than Dozanti does."
Laughing, Spike closed the pod and gentled the Swordfish away from the cruiser. He lowered the water foils as the cop blasted past him, but didn't take off immediately. Instead, he turned on his link and let Doohan's familiar voice fill the cockpit while he drifted for a few minutes with the current, trying to calm down, reminding himself that he was of age now and had nothing to fear from cops. Not even big grouchy ones.
Then Doohan demanded to know if he was listening, and he slowly smiled. He had one thing to fear from cops still. If he'd been arrested, Doohan would have taken his hide off in strips. He sat back, stretched, put his hands behind his head, and said, "Yeah, yeah, Doohan, I'm listening."
October 2060 ~ Vicious
Even in climate-controlled Tharsis City, the wind on the roof of a 120-story building brushed Vicious' hair into his eyes and pressed his coat to his legs. Hands in his pockets, he stared at the spaceship looming above them and said, "It's mine?"
"Officially, it belongs to a front, but it's for your exclusive use," Kito said. "What do you think?"
Since he knew almost nothing about spaceships, what he thought was that it looked like an extremely large stack of chrome. But there was a tech shifting from foot to foot in front of them, obviously eager to brag about the thing, so he said what he hoped would end up enlightening him. "It looks fast."
Kito glanced at the tech, who at once burst into description. "She's the S40, the newest monoracer out of the Blackhawk line, and she's so fast, she'll make your nose bleed." When Vicious gave him an encouraging lift of an eyebrow, he went on eagerly, "She's got more than just speed, sir. They've added the twin shift power drive so that she'll accelerate from a landing pad as powerfully as from flight, and the reverse thrusters can achieve a full stop in 2.2 seconds at anything but all-out orbital speed. The controls, both voice and manual, are so smooth you can almost just think what you want her to do, and she'll do it, and the navigation is by Harley, so she's nimble as a monkey. That's helped by the wing set, which is the optimum monoracer angle. The monosystem is the BHMS IV, with Marquad security and system redundancies. Universal connector on the pod, of course. She's got the cloaking surface, so in flight, she's almost invisible, and the ultraglide coating, so you'll never even get so much as a bump going from atmosphere to space."
The tech was pointing under the wings. "Two swivel-mounted machine guns, and another under the tail, but of course that's retracted now. Full 360 targeting when extended. Here you can see the MML. There's another on the other side. These babies are adapted to fire almost anything you want to load, but she comes equipped with three different missile types, all instantly available. Eyescan targeting as well as the usual, and with this monosystem, there's no jiggle when you make an evasive maneuver. The skin is the new titanium alloy, and the shields are top-of-the-line and auto-self-repairable to 88%. The pod is triple shielded and..."
"Enough," Kito said. "You're not selling it, you're just servicing it." To Vicious, he said, "Think you can fly her?"
The tech cleared his throat. "Sir? This isn't a monoracer for an amateur. Seriously."
"That's not your problem." He gestured Vicious back toward the elevator. Once the doors closed, he said, "Can you be fit to fly in a week?"
"I don't know. If it's possible, yes."
"Good. Get space-ready as soon as you can, as well." When Vicious looked at him curiously, he smiled. "We're not putting out the woolongs for that thing just to move you around Mars in a hurry. There's going to be a meeting of some of our trade associates on Tigris Asteroid on the 30th. We're expecting trouble. I want you to handle it."
Vicious nodded. He'd had no dealings with smugglers before, but their reputation was well-known to every syndicate man. "Who will be in charge?"
"You will. In fact, you'll be all by yourself. Representing the Dragons and keeping the peace. There will be a fight. Expect it. Conditions are tense, and we have reliable information that the White Tigers are trying to make a push in that sector, making undercover deals. I want you to teach them a little lesson about poaching." The elevator doors opened and Kito strode out. Vicious followed him out of instinct, listening, keeping his face calm while his heart exulted. This was exactly the kind of thing he knew he could do well, if only given the chance. Kito was saying, "You'll get a full briefing from me when it's time, naturally, and all the resources you think you need. Except men – you'll be on your own. We don't want any awkward questions asked later. Don't get a swelled head about this," he added with a wry smile as his driver opened the limo door for them. "I'm sending you not only because I know you can handle it, but also because you're the only expendable man who can. And incidentally, before you go getting all grateful on me, I should tell you – I requested a monoracer, but it was Mao who said you should get the best. So if you fuck up, you're letting him down, too."
Two hours later, with a note in his pocket extorted from Leo Thermopolis, he was winding his way through the confusion of hangars and alleys that made up the populated area of Tharsis Spaceport. He was lost in a place that Spike had once known well, and he couldn't help thinking of Spike. Wishing for him, too; he had to ask directions four times before he finally found the person he wanted.
Garcia was a short, stout, dark man in the innocuous jumpsuit uniform of the spaceport, a man no one would have noticed in the crowd. Vicious found him in a warehouse at the edge of the spaceport grounds, sitting on a chair in the back, some kind of engine casing open in his lap, parts scattered all around him, intently concentrating on working with a laser tool. When he finally noticed Vicious standing patiently nearby, he switched off the tool, pushed his safety goggles up, and stared at him coldly. "You again. What do you want? We haven't seen him."
"I'm not here for Spike. I'm here to see you."
Fear flickered in the dark eyes. "Me? Why?"
Vicious smiled. "You're a good combat flight instructor."
Garcia relaxed and shook his head. "Me? I'm just a mechanic."
"That's not what I've heard. They say you're the best."
"And who the hell told you that? I haven't taught anyone for almost twenty years."
"Not officially. Not since one of your students died in a training accident. I've done my homework."
Garcia's face hardened. "That was a long time ago. So what the hell do you want from me?"
"I want you to teach me to fly."
"I can't. I'm not one of the spaceport's flight instructors. Even if I still had my license, I'm out of practice and don't know shit about the new monosystems."
"That's not what I've heard."
"Who told you any differently?"
That changed his attitude. He put the engine casing aside, off his lap. "Spike did?" he said suspiciously.
"Don't worry, he knew the secret was safe with me. Before he disappeared, we were almost like brothers. That's why I tried to find him. I don't expect you to believe that, but it's true."
Garcia shook his head. "Leave it to Spike to make buddies with someone like you. Well, even if I do have the skills," he conceded, "I still can't teach you. I'm not authorized, I have a job to do, and there are no facilities."
"I can get you facilities. Not here, somewhere else. And your time has been cleared with the spaceport authorities. I have no reason to want you to lose your job. Nor do I expect you to teach me in your spare time. I know you have a family."
"Is that a threat?"
"Not at all. Read this."
Garcia took Thermopolis' letter and read it through, then read it through again. "I'm on some kind of loan to this company? How did you get Mr. Thermopolis to agree to that?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?"
"No." He handed back the letter, scratching his head. "You really just want to learn how to fly a monoracer?"
"I want to learn how to fly it expertly, in atmosphere and space. I want to be able to do combat against long odds and live through it. And I want to learn it all as fast as possible."
"What ship have you got?"
"A Blackhawk S40."
Garcia whistled soundlessly. "How much experience do you have?"
That got a snort of laughter. "You're joking."
"I never joke."
"Yeah, I can see that. Look, the level you're talking about will take months to learn. The theoretical knowledge alone will take some time."
"I've already begun on that. That, I'll learn when you aren't available to me."
"You also can't do the practical work in the sims for a whole day at a time. You'll get tired, become less sharp, lose your edge and your concentration and learn nothing."
"I can deal with that. My concentration won't be lacking."
"You are sure one stubborn bastard. All right, I'll teach you, under one condition."
"While I'm your teacher, I'm the boss. You do what I say, and don't tell me how to do my job."
"I'm accustomed to that. It's a deal." His lips curved. "I expected you to bargain for a safe return back here."
"I figure your word is about as good as a crayon-drawn woolong, but there's not a damned thing I can do about it. I'd love to know my family will be OK and I'll get to come back here to my life again, but I wouldn't believe you if you promised me, so it doesn't matter what you say."
"You can believe me. If you don't betray me, you'll be perfectly safe. You were Spike's friend. I wouldn't harm a friend of Spike's."
Garcia grunted, bent to pick up a rag, and wiped his hands. "Let's get started, then."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
October 2060 ~ Spike
Spike yawned and rolled onto his side, muttering. He didn't know what had wakened him, but whatever it was, Doohan better cut it out. He'd won three races in four days, and partied after each one, and he was tired. He needed his sleep.
He felt the next vibration and instinctively tensed even before he knew what it was. Then he heard the roar and the ship tilted, throwing him out of the bunk. "What the...?"
He was alert, on his feet and racing into the cabin before Doohan had stabilized the carrier's pitch. "What's going on?"
Doohan, calmly grim, nodded to the viewscreen. "Pirates."
"Pirates? What do pirates want with us? We aren't traders!"
"Why don't you ask them?" Doohan drawled.
"I will." He would just out of spite. The pirate's ship was an overhauled Army destroyer, repainted a virulent shade of green. Ugly, but too fast for them to out-run, and far too heavily armed for them to fight. It was repositioning for another hit, trying to lock onto them despite Doohan's evasive flying, and trying to come at the front of the ship to avoid hitting the cargo area, which was probably why he and Doohan were still alive. Spike poked the comlink on. "Hey, quit wasting your ammo, boys. There's nothing valuable on this ship."
The voice that replied was oily, with a Martian accent. "You have a real nice monoracer and a couple of million woolongs in prize money. Send it all out, and we'll let you go on your way."
Spike thought fast. "OK, OK. Don't blast us. Just give me a few minutes to get the woolongs into the pod, and I'll send the ship out the rear hatch."
"You have two minutes, FlyBoy."
Spike raced for the cargo bay. Behind him, Doohan abandoned the comm and followed, yelling. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You think they'll let us live? Even you aren't that stupid!"
"Nope." Spike climbed up the side of the Swordfish and dropped into the pod. He tucked a cigarette behind his ear, feeling no apprehension, no fear, nothing but a thrill of anticipation.
From the ground, Doohan was watching him with a sober expression. "You've never fought in this ship before."
"Actually, I have," he confessed. "I've been practicing on the days I've flown into town."
"I don't mean that," Doohan snarled. "I knew about that!"
"I was a teenager once myself."
"Shut up. Shooting at targets is a lot different than shooting at men, Spike."
"Then I'll pretend they're just targets on a screen."
"You might get your damned self killed."
Spike smiled. "Whatever happens, happens. Get out of the way, old man, so I can launch."
"If you get yourself killed, make sure you get all of them first."
"Hey, for you, that was almost sentimental."
He dropped the pod cover, and at once, just as in a race, the world narrowed down to just him, the Swordfish, and the competition. He let her drop from the hatch as if cut loose, allowing her to drift away from the carrier, keeping his head down. In the targeting screen, he saw two blips separate from the mass of the destroyer. Only two guys? You underestimate me, boys. The destroyer matched speed with Doohan, but didn't close the gap. They were playing it safe, planning to check their loot before they blasted the carrier. Spike waited until the two smaller ships were close, but still just out of grappling range. Then he sat up and fired the Swordfish's engines.
The two were both Furneaux-class monopods, so slow that he'd gone between them and past them, raking the flank of the one on the left with the Swordfish's machine gun, before they even reacted. He got a lucky hit and heard the pilot scream as the ship bloomed in flame. The resulting shock wave sent Spike toward the second ship, and he rolled the Swordfish, flipping over the other guy and then plunging abruptly to avoid the Furneaux's guns as they turned on him. The Furneaux released a missile, but he didn't target well and Spike easily swept out of its path. Then he doubled back and released one of his own at close range, seeing the flash of the explosion at the edge of his vision as he zoomed on by.
Doohan's voice barked at him from the link. "Spike. Four at three o'clock."
Spike glanced right. The destroyer had released four more fighters, not the sluggish Furneauxs this time, but, by their wing profile, Blackhawk Demons. The Demon was essentially a pile of weapons with a pod and a pair of wings attached, and while effective against larger ships, they were no match for the Swordfish.
Spike's mouth curved. "Bring it on," he said, and leaned into his ship, putting her right at them.
As soon as he was close enough, he fired missiles from both launchers. One hit. The problem with taking out a Demon was that, when it went, it went big, and he twisted the Swordfish through the resulting cloud of smoke and debris, invisible for several seconds to the other three. On the opposite side, he emerged behind two of them and opened up with his machine guns. One veered off to try to circle behind him, but he got the other. "Right up the tailpipe," he muttered with satisfaction as a series of small explosions rocked the ship and the pod ejected.
He was following the one who'd tried to get behind him, spiraling the Swordfish in a tight turn and coming up almost under its belly, when a series of loud spangs went off in his left ear. He'd never heard that sound before, but he knew what it was, machine gun bullets hitting the Swordfish. He saw the sparks on the wing and realized that the Demon was above him, so he set the retros and braked hard. The Demon shot by him, and he nosed up the Swordfish and returned the favor. His bullets ripped through the side of the other ship, and he'd turned for the kill when he got the target alert. The other one had fired two missiles at him.
They were so close, he couldn't out-fly them. Instead, he waited until they were almost on him, then swooped behind the wounded Demon, letting it take the hit. The resulting explosion was so bright, he was blinded for several seconds. "Shit! Doohan, I can't see! Where is he?"
"Your six, and closing."
Still blind, he rolled the Swordfish up vertically, as fast as she would fly, feeling her shuddering under his hands. His vision began to come back even as the target alert went off again, and he flew back into the cloud of debris from his last victim. While the missiles sought him, he targeted them, then zipped out and fired, hitting and disabling both. Now he could see the fourth Demon, even as it fired four more missiles. They were pulse missiles, tightly target-specific. He wouldn't be able to fool them or shoot them down. He could outfly them, but if he turned and ran, Doohan was doomed.
Instead, he flew right at them, and when they were less than half a kilometer away, he banked hard and made a tight circle. The Swordfish was faster and more agile than the missiles, so the maneuver bought him a few seconds. He used them to charge the last Demon. The pilot opened up with his machine guns at once, but Spike easily dodged them. At point-blank range, he fired a pair of missiles directly at the pod. This close, even a shielded pod would take damage, and disruption to the monosystem would negate the targeting of the pulse missiles. He got lucky, and saw the missiles hesitate and then begin to drift. He backed off, deployed the plasma cannon, and finished the ship.
"Spike, stop playing around out there!"
Spike turned and saw the destroyer had opened fire on Doohan. By the light show, the shields weren't going to hold up much longer. But how could he fight a ship that big?
If anyone knew how, it would be Doohan. "Relax, old man, I'm coming. But give me a clue. Where do I hit her?"
"Aft. Have you got any missiles left?"
"Go under her shields. Look for a port about six meters across. Give it everything you have. Then get the hell out of there as fast as you can."
The carrier turned as if fleeing. Well, he was. Spike grimaced. Doohan, what are you getting me into? But the destroyer turned to follow Doohan, presenting her flank to him, and in the zoom screen, he could see the port Doohan had described. On the way there, he hastily computed the speed he needed to get through the shields. If they saw him coming and changed the frequency, he would die like a bug on a windshield. And they would see him, unless they were stupid.
If he couldn't sneak, he'd misdirect. With one eye on the numbers flashing on the read-out, he opened a public channel and hailed Doohan. "Hang on, I'll be right there!"
Doohan started to answer, but the voice of the destroyer captain cut him off. "Don't worry, we'll get back to you, friend."
"I'm not your friend," Spike muttered, cutting the link. The computer spit out its figure. Spike accelerated hard, and when he was beside the destroyer, he hit the retros and turned toward it. His window was small, and for a moment, watching the glowing numbers of his speed gauge flicker rapidly down, he thought he wouldn't decelerate enough. "Come on, baby," he said. Then he hit the gravitational field, slowing him even more suddenly, slamming him back in his seat. And he was through. Grinning, he targeted the port and poured everything he had into it. As he broke through the shield again, he saw two more Demons emerge. "I have a feeling you're too late, boys," he said, and punched the Swordfish to her maximum speed. A second later, she bucked under him, flipped, and rolled, and he had to use all his skill to keep her heading in the right direction. For a second, backward, he faced the awesome sight of the destroyer turning into a series of fireballs, one of which consumed both Demons as if they were gnats. Then his back was to it again, and he was flying straight, at top speed, until the tumult of the explosion no longer rocked the Swordfish.
"Wow," he said as he turned back again in the free-floating conditions of normal space. Then, seeing what was left of the destroyer, he said, "Wow," again. "How did you know about that, Doohan?"
"Used to work on the things. You coming in, or are you going to float around out there admiring your handiwork all day?"
"Aw, c'mon, Doohan, I saved your life. The least you could do is thank me." He took the cigarette from behind his ear, lit it, and exhaled luxuriously.
"You act like you had fun," Doohan grouched.
Doohan grunted disapprovingly. "Well, get back here. We've got a lot of repairs to make before we try getting into Earth's atmosphere."
"Yes, sir." Spike remained where he was, leaning back and savoring the cigarette, and grinned.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Kito's bodyguards came alert at the stir by the restaurant door. Vicious eased his Colt out of his belt and placed it on his thigh without so much as pausing in his meal. He was just getting the hang of chopsticks and was pleased that there was no break in his concentration.
But Kito only smiled. "One of Ferro's boys," he said. "Name of Curt, and I have a feeling he isn't here to pat your head. I wonder what pissed Ferro off more, losing his two fighters, or that big hole you punched in his mother ship?"
Vicious slid his gun back into his belt and put his hand back on the table. "Probably losing the Tigris area free trade, more than anything else." As Rafe had said, the syndicates were all about the money.
Curt was searched for weapons before he was allowed within 50 feet of Kito's table, and although Kito waved the bodyguards away, they didn't go far. Curt glanced at Vicious, and Kito smiled like a wolf. "I think you'll find that Vicious belongs in this conversation, Curt. You are here to deliver a message, aren't you?"
Curt's gaze returned to Vicious for a long moment. "So this is him?"
"Stick to business," Kito said pleasantly.
"He is business. Our business."
"He's my man. You let Ferro know that. You're in my place, and you're spoiling my lunch. Say your piece."
"Ferro says to tell you he isn't forgetting what happened out there on Tigris. He says you'll be hearing from him, and you won't like it."
"So you're delivering a threat, not a message, is that it?" Kito's smile never wavered, but his eyes and voice had gone hard. "You can tell Ferro that affair was just business, and he shouldn't go making anything more of it. He was muscling in on Dragons territory, and we gave him a little hint to back off. Tell him I said as far as I'm concerned, it's over, and he shouldn't make it personal. But if he does, then he won't like it."
Vicious went on eating, unconcerned. This Curt person was a nobody.
When Curt was gone, Kito began to chuckle. "Welcome to the turf wars, kid. You did good, all the way around. Even here tonight. But keep your eyes open. If Ferro sends anyone after you, make an example of them."
Vicious nodded. He knew he'd been set up as a target, to stand between Ferro's men and Kito, but far from being troubled by it, he was pleased. Nothing like being hunted to hone one's street skills, and his had been getting dull.
He was dropped off home by Kito's limo, getting out a few blocks from his new apartment by his own request. He hadn't come up in the world so far that a limo wouldn't draw attention, and he didn't want any attention, especially from his neighbors. He moved through the Christmas Eve revelry in the street with his hands in his pockets and his head bent, vigilantly observant by habit, yet managing to meet no one's eyes. He had never understood the whole Christmas thing. To him, it was a season of false cheer and painted-on hope, all of which faded once the presents were opened and the parties done. The only thing good about this night was that he would be seeing Crys.
She'd laughed when he'd called her, and asked him if he was starting a tradition, asking her out on Christmas Eve. This time, however, he'd called her much earlier and didn't have to bargain with an evening of boredom listening to some jazz band. He never repeated a mistake. Instead, he'd talked her into cooking him dinner.
The building was syndicate-owned, and as he passed the unobtrusive guard in the lobby, who was pretending to be a loiterer reading a newspaper, he discreetly dropped an envelope of cash into the man's lap, behind the paper. This was something he would never have thought of doing on his own, but had learned from Kito. "I wouldn't insult you by offering it to you," Kito had said, "but with the average employee, loyalty can be better bought with one correct gesture than with a hundred bribes. Remember the guys at Christmas – even better, on their birthdays, that really gets to them – and whenever they do something that's really beyond the call of duty. For almost all of them, that'll get you their heart. There's always exceptions, men who don't care, but you'll learn to spot them pretty quick, and in the meantime it's a cheap investment." Watching his envelope disappear into the guard's jacket pocket, Vicious knew that Crys would be passed through without trouble and that he wouldn't be interrupted all night except for an emergency.
Crys described his apartment as "Spartan," but he had three computers now, on a console, one of which was dedicated to analyzing data from the Tigris sector. He was still in charge of keeping the lanes open there. A quick check showed nothing happening, and he sat down to put in a few hours' work before Crys arrived. Where once research had been his chief reason for having a computer, now it was communication. By the time he heard Crys' footsteps and her knock at his door, he'd contacted more than two dozen people for almost as many different reasons.
He expected the unusual from Crys, but even so, her appearance when he opened the door made him blink. She'd split her hair along a center part and dyed the right half red and the left half green. Sections at the sides were pulled back and braided with tinsel, and silver bells in her earlobes tinkled when she moved her head. He rather liked the bells, but the rest... "Green and red?"
"Isn't it?" Beside her was a tall narrow box with a domed top, covered with a cloth, a thin handle sticking out of the top. She laughed as she bent to pick it up. "I couldn't resist. If you can love me like this, you'll love me when I'm old and grey," she quipped, moving past him toward the kitchen.
She set the box down as she went by, and something rustled inside it. He studied it with narrowed eyes. "I'm more likely to cut off your head and let someone use you for a mantle decoration. What's in the box, Crys?"
She turned back. "Don't get nervous, it won't bite you. I don't think, anyway. It's a gift for you."
"I told you not to get me a gift." He'd given her a gift, naturally, but he'd only done it because he knew she expected it, and he neither expected nor even wanted any observation of this ridiculous holiday.
"It's not really a Christmas gift. It just happened to come into my hands yesterday, is all. Open it!"
He heard another rustle. "Is it alive?"
"Last time I looked," she said cheerfully. "Don't be such a coward."
"I'm not a coward. I don't need a pet."
"Yes, you do. You're barely human anyway, and living in this place all by yourself is making you worse. You need companionship. Oh, stop scowling at me and open it."
"You're taking it back to wherever it came from," he said, but squatted in front of the box and pulled off the cloth covering.
It wasn't a box, it was a cage. Inside was a very large, ugly bird, densely black in color except for yellow feet and beak, red eyes, and a white spot on the top of its head. The head was crowned by a long swoop of feathers and dipped at the end of a long kinked neck. The two of them, man and bird, eyed each other with an identical lack of expression, which made Crys crack up.
"I know this bird," he muttered. "I've seen it somewhere before."
"Last year at this time. The Blackbird Club. He was the official mascot there. But the club's under new management, and they changed the name. They were just going to kill this guy, but I thought that would be mean, so I saved him. For you."
Still squatting there, staring at the thing, he said, "I don't want it."
"He's incredibly smart, you know. They say he came out of an experimental genetics laboratory, and I think that may be true, because I've never seen anything like him before. Let him out."
"No. He'll make a mess."
"He will not. I'm telling you, he's smart. I had him out all day yesterday, and he didn't make one mess. Come on, let him out."
He grimaced, rose, set the cage on an end table, and opened the door. "All right, but he goes back home with you. He doesn't stay here."
Clipped next to the cage door was a wire ramp. The bird pecked it to release it, stepped out onto it, and at once launched itself into the air. Vicious' vision was filled with the span of black wings, and he started backward. The bird made one turn around the room, then glided to land lightly on his shoulder. It flexed its feet in his shirt, and soft feathers brushed his ear as it settled itself.
Crys was delighted. "He likes you! I told you he was smart. He knows he belongs to you."
"Get it off."
"Come on, he's not hurting you. Here, give him some food. He eats this stuff, corn and seeds mostly."
Oddly enough, the stupid bird felt comfortable on his shoulder. He took a palmful of seed from Crys and held it up. The bird lowered its head with immense dignity and deigned to peck at it. "What kind of bird is this?"
Crys was heading for the kitchen again. "I told you, no one knows. Nobody at the Club could figure it out, and nobody remembers where he came from. I guess that's why all the rumors about him being some kind of mutant genetic experiment. What do you think? Some kind of vulture? No, crow."
"Maybe a crow." He was beginning to like the bird, but he couldn't admit it to her, or she wouldn't take the thing away. "You know the old legend about crows, don't you?" She shook her head, and he said, "They're supposed to be the creatures that come to escort damned souls to Hell."
That stopped her. She frowned and said, "Maybe I will take him back."
"Why don't you just make dinner? I'm hungry, and I don't eat seeds." As she laughed and dashed for the kitchen, he said to the bird, "And you, get back in your cage."
The wings lifted, one over his head, and the bird launched itself. It landed on the platform, stalked into the cage, and turned to regard Vicious emotionlessly with its yellow eyes. Curious now, Vicious said, "All right. You can come back out if you behave."
The bird came back out, this time spreading its wings as soon as it was free of the cage and landing without fuss back on his shoulder. "You think you're smart, don't you?" Vicious said. The bird made no response of any kind. Smiling, Vicious gave it the last of the seeds in his hand. "Maybe I will keep you," he muttered, and with the bird riding easily on his shoulder, he went to the kitchen to help Crys cook.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
July 2061 ~ Spike
Holding his bundled shirt to his nose, Spike rummaged in the freezer. He found ice, but it was all in cubes. He'd have to find something to wrap it in. A clean rag or handkerchief. He remembered Doohan kept handkerchiefs, the old-fashioned kind, in his desk somewhere, and he went there and started pulling open drawers.
He'd never gone into Doohan's desk before, not because he respected the old man's privacy, but because he'd never had the need. It was a mess, and he dug around, seeing something white in the deep drawer at the bottom right, under some old flight manuals. But when he pulled it out, it wasn't a handkerchief, but a picture frame.
The picture made him forget about his bloody nose. He slowly sank into the chair, staring at it. It was a wedding picture, done in the usual style, nothing particularly special about it, except that the man was Doohan. A much younger Doohan, almost unrecognizable in a suit, without his deep tan and wrinkles, and with his hair long and bright gold in color. He almost looked handsome, and the woman was a stunner in an exotic way, with straight black hair to her hips and long, almond-shaped dark eyes that tilted in an elfin manner. Spike glanced up at the wall, which was covered with photos, all of them familiar to him, a record of Doohan's life, all centering around airplanes and spaceships. In none of them did he recall seeing a woman, and looking now, he still didn't find one.
"What the hell are you doing?" Doohan asked from behind him.
He turned in the chair and held up the picture. "Where id dhe now?" he asked.
"Is that blood all over you?"
"Yed. Ids from my node. I dink ids broken."
"Yeah." That was a huge understatement. "I wanted to put some ide on it."
"I'll get some." Doohan turned and left, and came back a few minutes later with a handkerchief tied around a pile of ice cubes. "Here. No, slide over this way, I don't want you getting blood all over my desk."
Carefully, Spike positioned the shirt to catch the still-flowing blood, then placed the ice on the bridge of his nose. The relief, after the first second of shock, was enormous, and he closed his eyes.
Doohan took the framed picture from his lax fingers. "How did you do that? Fighting?"
Spike shrugged one shoulder.
"Not over a girl again?"
"No, nod dis time. Bragging rightds. Erlin Dpinner didn'd dink I beat him fair in our ladt game. I tode him whad I doughd aboud his playing, and he dried do beat me up."
"Stupid thing to fight over. But none of those Spinners ever had any brains. I take it he looks worse?"
"Hid buddied had to carry him home."
"What'd he hit you with?"
Spike's lips twitched. "Pool cue."
Doohan snorted with disgust. Probably, Spike guessed, because a pool cue was the wrong tool for the job of bashing someone's face. But the old man was gruffly sympathetic when he said, "You want to go to the hospital and get that fixed?"
"It's broken good, Spike. It's gonna spoil your pretty profile."
Spike rolled his eyes.
"You're also going to have a beaut of a shiner. Two of them, in fact."
"You're dodding de idsue, Doohan."
"Yeah. Well, I'll wait until I can understand what you're saying before we talk about her," Doohan said, and replaced the picture where Spike had found it.
The swelling had gone down enough for Spike to breathe through his nose after about two hours, although it was still so sensitive to the touch that even the wind outside hurt it. He checked in a mirror and almost didn't recognize himself. As Doohan had predicted, both his eyes were blackening, and his nose was a shapeless bruised blob. For the first time in months he thought about his mother. She'd told him that, if he trained well, he could be good enough to fight without his enemy ever laying a hand on him. He was grateful to Doohan for taking him in, and he always would be, but why the heck couldn't Doohan live near civilization? The best martial arts person in a six-hour radius was Spike himself.
He put a freeze patch on his nose and shot it with painkiller. Feeling better, he went in search of Doohan and found him under a 250THT, doing something to the landing gear. He leaned against the side of the little ship and lit a cigarette. "So, Doohan. Where is she? Did she figure out you were a loser and leave you?"
Spike waited a moment, but the only sound was the purr of the laser drill. "She die?" he said at last.
The only answer was an affirmative grunt.
Damn. He gave it another couple of drags, then said, "When?"
Doohan dragged himself out from under the ship and propped his back against the strut, carefully cleaning his tools in his lap and putting them away. "Probably right around the time you were in diapers."
"You sure are nosy."
"Come on, Doohan. She was a pretty woman. You know how I am about pretty women."
"If you were as big a sucker about women as you talk, I'd have left you out in space somewhere, long ago." After the last tool was in its place, he finally said, "She went to visit her sister on Venus. There was a shuttle accident. No survivors."
Spike lit another cigarette and handed it down to Doohan. He didn't know what to say. "Sorry. I just never figured you for the marrying kind."
"Yeah, me either. Not until I met Linna." Doohan glanced up at him, rose, stretched, picked up his toolbox, and walked away. When Spike followed, he said, "When I was young, I was a lot like you. Drifting, doing what I pleased from one minute to the next. I thought my life was just fine, too. Then I saw her, and all of a sudden it seemed to me that something was missing, something big, something only having her could fix."
"And did marrying her fix it?"
"It did. Changed me, really. That's why I ended up here."
He'd stopped to put the toolbox away, and Spike glanced around at the lube-spattered hangar and the stark, dry, flat, over-bright landscape he could see through the partly opened doors. "You can't tell me she wanted to live in this godforsaken place."
"She didn't care. She just wanted a home. Some roots. Her parents died when she was young, and she went through a lot of foster homes."
"But why here? Why didn't you take her someplace nice to live?"
"We went to New Vegas for our honeymoon. I brought her out here and explained about this place, and she liked it. She was the romantic type."
"What's romantic about this place?"
Doohan gave him a disgusted look. "You don't know anything, do you, kid? Come on, I'll show you something." He led Spike out of the hangar and through the landing strip, between the planes that ranged in age from ancient to new. He stopped beside a low, sleek, bullet-shaped ship, definitely one of the antiques, barely more than two-thirds the size of the Swordfish. Laying a hand on the blunt, rounded nose, he said fondly, "This is a Bell X-1. A long time ago, when it was still just an experiment, a man got into this ship – not this exact one, but one just like it – to try something that had never been done before. He had busted ribs, but he got in anyway. Something like you, more guts than sense. Anyway, he flew her, and he broke the sound barrier for the very first time."
The sound barrier? That was ages ago. "I didn't know this ship was that old." Doohan gave him an annoyed look, and he said, "I don't get it. I mean, I get the ship, but what's that got to do with why this place is romantic?"
"Breaking the sound barrier was the first step to putting men into space."
Spike looked heavenward. "Now I'm getting a history lesson."
"You can use one. You're ignorant about most things, even for a sixteen year old kid."
"Aw. I missed your birthday."
"What else is new? OK, I'm listening. Tell me why all this ancient history makes this dump romantic."
"It's only romantic if you appreciate history. That flight happened right here. Or not far from here. Look up, like you just did, and you're looking up into the same sky where that man flew, and where space history began."
"Yeah?" He was impressed despite himself.
Doohan nodded. "For a long time, this area was a kind of Mecca for aviation enthusiasts. That died off as we began terraforming, and now hardly anyone remembers. But I do. Because I did, and because Linna liked the desert, we settled here." Spike glanced back at the hangars and their living quarters and then back at Doohan with a dubious expression, and Doohan growled, "No, not here. We had a house near town."
"So you weren't a total jerk of a husband."
"Nobody could have been, with that woman."
Spike dropped his cigarette and ground it out, thinking. He simply couldn't picture Doohan in any kind of domestic tranquility, no matter how hard he tried. "So why do you keep that picture hidden? She was special, so why don't you have her picture on your wall?"
"Something else you're going to learn, Spike. Some things, it's better to forget. To put behind you. While I was living with her memory in front of me all the time, I wasn't living, I was only surviving. That's not what she would have wanted."
"And you call this living?" He spoke jokingly, but he wasn't surprised when Doohan said he did. The man lived and breathed aircraft. "You must've driven her crazy. But then I figure she had to be half crazy to marry you in the first place."
"Some day that mouth of yours is going to get you into more trouble than even your skill can fly you out of," Doohan snarled, but as he stalked off, he was fighting a smile.
Spike stared after him, then shook his head. His mother had once told him that everyone had secrets. It seemed that was true even of a cranky old coot like Doohan.
Flanked by his two watchful bodyguards, Vicious strode into the emergency room, his face more than normally expressionless. He hated hospitals. He hated the smells, hated the weakness and fear thickening the atmosphere, and despised the hypocrisy of doctors and nurses. He'd been admitted to a hospital only once, as a kid, and he'd left with the determination never to go into one again.
He made a few exceptions, however, and Kito was definitely one of them.
With his imposing presence and two dangerous-looking men at his side, he made his way to the desk easily, the crowd parting like water to allow him to pass. The duty nurse, already rattled, assigned an orderly to guide him to where Kito was being treated, a private room on the 21st floor, without even being asked.
When he arrived, Kito was already up, allowing a nurse to settle his arm in a sling and put his jacket over his shoulders. The nurse looked afraid. Kito obviously was not wasting his charm in this place.
"Finally," he growled, "someone who's not going to tell me I should be in bed."
Vicious said mildly, "You don't look like you're dying."
For a second, Kito was poised on the edge of losing his temper. Then he grinned, and the nurse ducked out hurriedly. "I needed you," he said.
"I assume that's why you called me in."
"Not just to improve my mood." He frowned. "You hear what happened?"
"Not much. Just that you got hit. Was it Ferro?"
"Not him personally," Kito sneered, "but they were his men. They're idiots, they left a body behind. As for our boys, Matthews took two in the lungs, but they say he'll make it. Chen's dead, though." His expression had hardened.
"How did he get to you?" Vicious asked. When Kito was this angry, it was a good idea to keep him talking.
"That's not your concern. It's being handled."
"Why do you need me, then?"
Kito's eyes flicked to Vicious' two men, and both promptly left the room, taking up positions of guard outside. Vicious shut the door and looked curiously at Kito.
Kito said, "I want you to get Ferro."
"Kill him?" It was a stupid question, but Vicious was stunned. He was being given his first real hit, and it was huge.
"What do you think I want you to do, marry him? Kill the bastard. And I want you to make an example of him. Do it with some style. I know you can do that. Can you get to him?"
"Do we have anyone on the inside?"
"Not after today, we don't. Everyone's going to have their head under a rock."
"I'll need money, then, for some high-tech equipment."
Kito's brow twitched. "You already have a plan?"
"I have some ideas. It'll take me a day or two before they're a plan."
"You can have anything I've got. See my secretary for contacts. From now until Ferro's dead, on this job, you're talking as me. But I have one more condition."
"Name it." His mind was already working on the problem, like a dog with a meaty bone.
"I have a charity function to attend, a week from Saturday. It's a big press deal. I'll be there in a tux, with my wife, getting my picture taken as a fine upstanding citizen who's made a big contribution to the cause. That's when I want you to do it. While I'm there in front of all those cameras. My sources say Ferro will be home that night, so you'd have to get him on his own ground. Can you manage that?"
Vicious pondered it. "I don't know. I'll tell you tomorrow."
Kito had his mean look on again. "You do that."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ :~
Most men moved up in the syndicates slowly, gradually gaining trust and responsibilities as they proved themselves. Vicious felt as if he were moving up in leaps instead, from one crisis point to another. Focused on breaking Ferro's security, he worked under pressure, knowing that once more his career was balanced on his sword's edge. But he never stopped to wonder if he could do it.
Ferro's estate was actually a compound. Security had been stepped up after the failed attack on Kito, but Ferro had two weaknesses. One was that he had no imagination, so his extra security measures were predictable. The other was that he had a wife and two kids, which limited how deadly he could make the grounds directly around the house. That left a comfortably large area to use as a killing ground.
Besides his own expertise, Vicious needed the help of a few consultants. Normally he would have taken several weeks, spreading his contacts widely, to avoid alerting his target. With Kito dictating the deadline, however, he didn't have that luxury. Two different security specialists had warded Ferro's estate, so first Vicious learned everything he could about them and their techniques. Then, three days before the hit, he quietly kidnapped both, injected them with a slow-acting, lethal poison, and promised them the antidote when he returned safely from the job. They cooperated to his complete satisfaction.
He needed one person to watch his back, someone familiar with breaking security and whose brains and loyalty he could trust absolutely. But a traitor in the Red Dragons had fingered Kito, so until that person was dealt with, he could be sure of no one in his organization.
There really was, in the end, only one person he could turn to.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ :~
Crys stepped up into the truck and gazed around, impressed. Twenty monitors were arranged in a curve around a central station, and the bank of controls was so complex, even her training with the Hyenas didn't tell her what half of it did. On the far side of the main console, two men were bound to chairs, with the black bird perched over them. She was pleased Vicious still had the bird, even if he refused to give it a name.
The bound men were pale and frightened. Looking at them, she had to work to stifle her already-strained conscience. She knew the list of Ferro's crimes, and that the Hyenas would consider Ferro's death a reason to party for a week. These facts were small comfort when she wasn't really certain Vicious would let these two small fry live, and knowing she was here tonight to help him kill a man, even if it was someone who richly deserved it.. Everything about this went against what she wanted in her life. She was up to her neck in syndicate shit. And why? Because Vicious had looked soberly into her eyes and told her, If I fail, I'm dead. And you're the only person I trust with my life.
She loved him. She was a fool. But running her hands over the console, she saw that she could do the job. "This is first class."
Vicious was already changing into the black, specially-treated clothing that would get him past the infrared and thermal sensors. His head emerged from inside the slick cloth. "I wouldn't give you anything but the best."
"Even so, I still wish I hated you," she sighed, sinking into the command chair.
He didn't say anything, but as he passed her, he paused for just a moment to run a finger down her cheek. That single, very rare gesture of affection told her he knew how much he was asking of her. Still... She jumped up and caught him at the door. "There is an antidote, right?" she asked, keeping her voice down.
"I said there was."
"Then why won't you tell me where it is?"
He smiled. "Because they might ask you."
"So now you think I'm some kind of saint?" She gave him a push. "Go on. Do your dirty work, you bastard."
He faded into the night, so quietly that within seconds she no longer knew exactly where he was. She shut the door, set the controls, reviewed all the engaged monitors, and sat back in the command chair. The only monitor that was an actual television was showing coverage of the charity event Kito was attending, and she watched closely as she tucked the headpiece into her ear. "Testing"
"Loud and clear," came Vicious' murmur.
"I see your boss. He looks real cute in a tux."
"I'll tell him you said so. Going silent."
Nervously, she pushed the little speaker more tightly into her ear. She could hear sounds around Vicious, and even his breathing, but she wouldn't hear his voice again unless something went terribly wrong. She wiped her hands on her thighs and checked the progress of the software decoding the front gate's security lock. The monitors, married to Ferro's own, showed that Vicious had guessed right and the guards were concentrated at the back gate, the security chief believing that no one would have the nerve to waltz through in plain sight of the street. But when the combination was broken, he'd be exposed for only about three seconds. She glanced at the two bound men, and one leaned forward as far as he could. "Look, lady, you're not like him. Let us go. He knows everything he needs already. Just give us the antidote and let us go."
"Come on! I can tell you're a decent sort. I have a family. Kids. And I've told him everything!"
"You may have forgotten something," she said. "Or something may have changed."
The other man raged, "Forget it, Fred. She's his whore, she doesn't care."
Crys gave him a long look so full of deadly promise that he recalled his helplessness and shut up. "Wrong. I'm not a whore." She dismissed him and turned to the other man. "But Fred, the clown is right about one thing, at least. I don't care about you. So why don't you pay attention now? If you miss something, I won't be happy with you. And then you might not get that antidote."
The computer flashed out eleven numerals. She read them to Vicious, and a moment later one of the monitors showed the gate slide back enough to let Vicious through. She switched modes, and the dim scene became a complicated crisscross of heat sensor rays. The suit would keep them from detecting him, unless one roved over his face, and she concentrated on guiding him so that wouldn't happen.
For the next half hour, ignoring the weight of tension in her stomach, Crys helped Vicious past obstacle after obstacle – motion, sound, heat, color, and DNA sensors, a laser web, a neo-sound wall, and live guards and dogs. Vicious avoided the latter and competently disabled the others as he went, one after another, each time muting the interrupt and back up alarms as well, taking his time, making no mistakes. In one place she had to press Fred for advice, but for the rest, it was just her and Vicious.
Then something moved in one of the fringe monitors. Unexpectedly, the front gate rolled back and a dark limousine nosed up. Crys' hands clenched, and she quickly lifted them off the console. Ferro. Dammit, the informants said he wouldn't be arriving for at least another hour. He was supposed to be dropping his wife at some party up town. She cursed. "Vicious, it's Ferro. He's early."
He tapped his microphone once, letting her know he understood.
"How long before you're in place?"
A series of staccato taps told her. "Ten minutes. Shit. All right, let me see what I can do to hold him up."
With one eye on the clock and one on Vicious as he moved silently, ever closer to position, she tied her hair up into a bun as Ferro's limo glided through the gate and onto the long driveway. Then she dialed Ferro's private hotline, positioning herself so the video wouldn't show the interior of the truck. "Mr. Ferro? Please, this is Lillian."
His small, dark eyes squinted at her suspiciously. "Who?"
"Lillian. I'm the night maid, sir."
As Vicious had told her, even in these dangerous times, Ferro had never bothered to learn his servants' names and faces, leaving those details to his wife and his security chief. So he didn't question her, just demanded why she was calling him on this line. She said, "Mrs. Ferro told me to do it, sir. She says she left her purse somewhere. I couldn't find it, so she thinks it's in the car."
"Tell her that's too bad, live without it."
"But, sir! I don't dare! Could I meet you at the door? If you could bring it from the car, I'll be happy to drive it to her at the party."
For a second, she thought she'd failed, but then he snarled, "Oh, all right. But I don't see the damned thing."
"When you get here, I could help you look..." She trailed off with a whimper, then crossed her fingers.
"I'll find it," he snapped. "You just be ready to go. I have more important things to do than fetch purses."
"Yes, sir! I'll be there!" She clicked off the phone and told Vicious, "You have until he finishes looking through that limo."
One tap acknowledged her.
Great. I just had a conversation with a walking dead man. This is really how I wanted to spend a Saturday night. She absently reached out a wrist to the bird, but it declined the invitation. It had been totally Vicious' creature since the day they met. Smiling ruefully, she turned back to the monitors.
She couldn't see Vicious at all, even knowing exactly where he was trying to go. Ferro had kept his wife's landscaping creativity to a minimum, but there were still azaleas around the walkway to the house, and although they were cropped low, they allowed plenty of shelter for Vicious. She just hoped he was already close to being in position, as he'd indicated he would be.
The car pulled to a stop, and three men got out. Ferro, in a pale cape-coat, gestured grandly to the other two, and they leaned into the back of the limo, probably looking for the purse. When Ferro was satisfied it wasn't there, he yelled something, then dismissed the car with an irritated jerk of his arm. Both men straightened, one shut the limo's door, and the car pulled away again. Flanked by his bodyguards, Ferro shoved his hands into his pockets and strode toward his front door.
When he rose, Vicious was just a shadow, a black space against the darkness. She saw him move, saw the glint of starlight from his sword, and then the three heads went flying, round balls bouncing on the ground seconds before the bodies collapsed, just like in a cartoon.
She put her hand over her mouth. She couldn't throw up. She still had to get Vicious out of there, quickly, resetting all the security, and without being detected.
Nearly an hour later, she met him outside the truck. He wasn't smiling or in any way showing triumph. Just another night's work. But he did hug her and thank her. She said, "Those two men in the truck, those security guys. They know who did this. You're going to kill them, aren't you?"
"No. There's no percentage in it. They work for the Dragons, too, you know. We'll need them again." He rubbed her shoulders. "You're tense. You worry too much."
She pushed his hands away. "Don't ever, ever ask me to do syndicate work again. Not for any reason."
He stared at her a moment, then nodded. "I understand."
"Good." She turned and walked to her car without looking back.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ :~
Without much interest, Spike caught the video report of the death of Ronald J. Ferro, a businessman with "suspected ties to organized crime," but he got the real story from his current girlfriend, Sally, a dealer in the Golden Star Casino. The gambling satellite was the closest he'd been to Mars since leaving it two years ago, and he was still four years too young to legally go through the doors. Doohan would kill him if he found out. But he'd wanted to see it, and he talked Sally into finding a way. She'd filched one of the uniforms used by the casino's runners, the teenaged gofers who ran the errands that were beneath the dignity of the waitresses. Wearing the stupid-looking uniform, he'd be almost invisible.
She was helping him into it while she filled him in on Ferro's funeral. "Of course you couldn't tell his head was cut off. I mean, the undertaker fixed that all up." Sally's worst fault was talking in a breathy way that emphasized the smallest thing.
He shrugged into the green coat. It was stiff and cheap. The casinos didn't waste money on their runners. "Then how do you know? Sounds like a story to me."
"I told you. Rija dates a guy whose brother works at the mortuary."
"And he thinks somebody snuck onto a gangster's estate and just whacked the heads off three guys, huh? Guys with guns? Come on."
"OK, don't believe me. But that's what everyone's saying."
He settled the stiff, round little hat at a rakish angle. "Never mind that. How do I look?"
She looked him up and down. "Like a tall skinny monkey."
"It had better be because of the uniform."
"Of course it is," she giggled. She took his arm and led him inside. "Now stick close to me. We can't keep this up for long. We just go through, give you a look around. And if we run into anybody, let me do the talking."
He agreed, although he had no intention of obeying her. He was pretty sure that, once he'd gotten an idea of what the casino was like, he could change back into his suit and find a way to hang out without being caught. Sally had been teaching him the tricks of the dealers, and he was looking forward to seeing if he could spot them. Maybe he'd even sit down at a table. Maybe Sally's, and scare her half to death. He smiled at the thought.
The casino floor was loud, crowded, and full of distractions, but no challenge to a guy used to flying races. He was just beginning to enjoy himself when Sally pinched his arm, and he saw the runner heading towards them. Then she relaxed. "Oh, it's just Jake. He's all right."
Jake was a head shorter than Spike, with a round freckled face and red-gold hair that stuck out at angles from under the hat. He looked familiar, but Spike couldn't place him until he stopped in front of them, staring, with his mouth open and pale green eyes going wide. "Spike?"
The eyes were what Spike remembered, and he gaped back. "Roach??"
"Aw, come on, nobody calls me that now!" He rocked on his heels, staring at Spike and shaking his head. "Son of a bitch! Nobody's seen you since you left the District! Hey, you grew."
"You didn't." He couldn't help grinning. Just seeing Roach again brought it all back, the danger and the fun of the District, the camaraderie of his little circle of boyhood friends.
"So what are you doing here? Shit, buddy, we have to have a long talk, catch up with each other! When did you get hired?"
Roach looked resignedly at Sally. "Sneaking in another one, huh?"
"What's the harm?" she demanded.
"Sally, he's my age, and you always said I was too young for you."
"I'm not getting into this," Sally scowled. "Since you two know each other, why don't I just go to my table and get out of the way of the big reunion?"
She flounced off, and both young men laughed. Roach grabbed Spike's shoulders and shook him, then started to drag him away. "Come on, we can talk in the runners' room. I can't believe I'm seeing you! We all figured you were dead, or gone upscale on us. What have you been doing with yourself?"
"Damn. Leave it to you to be doing something cool."
"Working in a casino isn't cool?"
"It will be when I've worked my way up a bit. Being a runner is just one step from being on the streets." He opened a battered door and ushered Spike into a lounge which, with its mismatched furniture and out-dated food equipment, gave mute testimony to Roach's statement. But its casual messiness made Spike feel at home, and he draped himself on one of the couches. Roach fetched a six-pack of beer and sat beside him, and over the next couple of hours, breaking only occasionally when interrupted by other runners, the two of them hashed over old times, caught up on news of the rest of Spike's District friends, and laughed over how different their lives had turned out from what they'd expected.
Not everything was funny. Of the four who had been the core of a loose gang, Tiger was dead, the victim of a random drive-by shooting, and Sammy was in prison for drug smuggling, a fate Roach had narrowly missed. "I was with him, but they didn't spot me. You know, he'll be out in ten years. We should have a reunion," Roach grinned.
In the mysterious way such things become known on the street, Roach had heard about the death of Spike's mother. Spike brushed aside his sympathy with impatience, so Roach said only, "Too bad. She was a really gorgeous woman," as if only ugly ones should have to die. "But why would a syndicate hit on your mom?"
"Who said it was a syndicate?"
Roach rolled his eyes. "You've been stuck in that desert too long, if you don't know a hit when you see one."
The whole subject made Spike's skin feel prickly. "She worked for the syndicates sometimes. Maybe she messed up."
"Must've been big time, then." Seeing Spike's expression, he smoothly changed the subject, saying, "Remember that kid from two years ahead of us, Jacko, who thought your mom was so hot? He's here, in the casino. He's a bouncer now."
Spike rolled his eyes. "I suppose he's still got the IQ of a tapeworm?"
"Worse than ever. But you don't need brains to be a bouncer. Actually," he admitted, "you don't have to be too sharp to be a runner, but runners can change. Once a bouncer, always a bouncer."
"I'll try to keep that bit of wisdom in mind."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ :~
Rolf Mueller "owned" the casino, which meant that he was a front man for the syndicate, but his lifestyle suited his role. Looking through the simple two-way glass, Vicious saw an office furnished so luxuriously that the kid waiting there seemed, and obviously felt, painfully out of place.
Vicious wanted to just go in there, grab the kid, and shake out whatever information he had. In all this time, this was his first real lead to finding Spike. But he recognized the kid as one of those who used to hang around with Spike in the District, and while Jacob "Roach" Bell might be willing to take the reward Vicious had offered, friendship might interfere. He'd already resisted several threats from Mueller's boys, insisting on speaking directly to Vicious and no one else. Now he was sitting in one of Mueller's deep leather chairs, twisting his hands together, sweating a bit, and giving off all the signs of someone who was beginning to second-guess himself.
Mueller eyed the kid with contempt and said, "He works for me. I can scare him into talking."
"I don't think that's wise," Vicious said quietly. "We may need him again sometime. And I want to be sure I have the truth. So I talk to him alone. And in private," he added, yanking the power cylinder from the monitoring console. As the ruined machine sparked and crackled behind him, he asked blandly, "Any problem with that?"
Mueller stared at the wreckage and swallowed a protest. "No! None. Whatever you want. I've got things I have to do anyway."
"Good. Thank you. I'll remember this."
Mollified, Mueller held the door for him.
In the office, the kid jumped up when Vicious came through the door. Vicious smiled and said, "Roach, isn't it?"
"You remember me? We only met once!"
"I remember. Sit down. And ask your question."
"Question?" Pale, the kid sank back into his chair.
"It's all over your face. If you're tongue-tied, let me try to guess what it is and answer it for you." He sat on the edge of the desk, reducing his height and menace without reducing his authority. "If you remember me at all, from back then, then you remember I was Spike's friend."
"Yeah. That's what he said."
"It was true. It's still true. You have no reason to accept my word, but I'll give it anyway. I haven't been looking for Spike all these years just to hurt him."
"Then why do you want to find him?"
"We were friends. I don't have a lot of friends."
The green eyes narrowed suspiciously. The kid wasn't a total idiot. "You're offering a lot of money just to look up an old friend."
"Money doesn't mean much to me."
He spoke the truth, as far as it went, and he could see the change as the kid decided to trust him. "Well, it means a lot to me," Roach grinned, and inside Vicious, the coils of impatient violence that he'd been controlling so rigidly now unwound and relaxed.
"You'll have it. And a better job. I'm not sure you'll be too popular here, since you refused to give your message to Mueller."
"I figured he'd just horn in on the action."
"You figured right."
"You mean it? I can get out of here?"
"I mean it. But don't think I'm doing it for you. I'll do it because Spike wouldn't like it if I left you here after you helped me find him."
"You're probably right." Roach was almost glowing with pleasure, despite his effort to seem cool. Vicious estimated he would probably last another year or two, no more, even as just a syndicate gofer.
"So where is Spike?"
"I don't know the exact place, but I know pretty close. He's on Earth. He's been living there with some guy named Doohan."
The name jolted Vicious. He remembered questioning Doohan at the space port. The face came to him, tough, weathered, and shrewd. Obviously he hadn't questioned the old man forcibly enough.
Roach rattled on, "He's been monoracing. I don't have any contacts in that area, or I'd have more specific coordinates. But from what I hear, Doohan's a kind of living legend. Anyone on the race circuit would probably know where to find him. Or this." He pulled out a photo and handed it to Vicious.
Roach meant the red monoracer in the background, but Vicious didn't even see it. Spike was in the foreground. He was actually looking at Spike. Older, taller, with broader shoulders and shorter hair, but unmistakably Spike, leaning with typical insouciance on the ship, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Spike wasn't dead, but alive and even thriving. And, apparently, still clinging to the Swordfish. Why had he let that lead drop after the first few days?
He stared for so long that Roach cleared his throat before saying, "Can I have that back? He gave it to me."
With an effort, Vicious lifted his eyes and handed the picture back. He felt weirdly detached as he took out his phone and gave orders for Roach's reward. He hadn't realized how close he'd been to giving up hope of ever finding Spike again, and in a half-dazed state he thanked Roach and sent him away, then got back on the phone and arranged for all his business to wait until he made an emergency run to Earth.
One of his men had tracked down Doohan's coordinates by the time he reached his own ship. He called Crys and gave her the news just before entering the Gate. He smiled at her enthusiastic reaction, and was still smiling when the ruined hulk of Earth rolled beneath him.