The Bank Job

The Bank Job is technically my first sale, to an online magazine called Espionage.com. I made a hundred bucks. It never saw the light of day because the magazine folded before publication. But hey, I got paid. I consider it a win.

Now, two years later, I looked back at all the changes that I made with the editor of the magazine. I learned a ton in the process, and I’ll always be grateful, but when I looked back at it, compared the two versions with what I know NOW about story, pacing, character, and most importantly, MY work, I realize that…

…changing it so much was a mistake.

I wasn’t confident in my voice. I wasn’t sure I even belonged behind a keyboard. Someone who actually had a semi-pro magazine thought I was good enough, and I took that as a sign that I should listen to them.

In retrospect, I should have fought harder for MY version.

As I’ve sold a few stories, had some people tell me that my work is good, and gotten paid for what I did, I noticed one thing about all my sales, my contest entries, and my feedback-

No one who does this kind of thing professionally has asked me to change a goddamned thing.

I don’t mean that literally. But the changes I’ve made are mostly spelling, and in one case, a year. Turns out wine aficionados sometimes are also editors, and they can totally call out someone who just researched wine on the net.

But no one asked me to change a word of STORY. Not to change the characters, not to reaarange the plot, not to alter the motivations. No clearing up, tightening up, or editing. Once? Fluke. Twice? Coincidence. Four times? Pattern.

What I’m doing, in my own voice, is working.

So here for the first time, the opening chapters of the ‘Lost Classic’, the Bank Job, unedited and uncut.

 

The Bank Job

1

The air was hot and flat, and no one was moving. There was nowhere to go. No one breathed, no one coughed. There was none of the typical humans-in-a-group behavior. It was as if time stood still, as clichéd as that was. Catherine watched the great clock over the door, the one the bank had installed last summer, and the hands were not moving. Then suddenly, they moved. The minute hand ticked forward, in harmony with a guttural, warbling scream. A woman letting loose as hard as she could. A movie maven scream, a slasher-flick scream. It was a high-pitched beautiful scream. It went along with the sudden movement and sound of a dozen people suddenly spurred into action, spinning in place, dropping to the floor, and in one sad instance, running for the exit. The cough was hard and flat, loud and final. It could have been a board falling on a tile floor, or a hammer missing a nail and pounding a wall instead, or even a flat smack of flesh on flesh, someone landing a good roundhouse slap. It was not, though. It was a gunshot, and those always started by sounding like anything but a gun, and always ended up sounding like nothing else.

2

            It wasn’t a typical morning, Catherine reflected. It was raining, which was odd. It had been sunny for a week, and the news had promised more. It was cold, which was terrible, because she didn’t have a coat that would stave off this particular cold. Not so much cold as chilly. Her heavy coat was too heavy, her light coat too light. Moreover, her umbrella was in the car. Well, she thought, it was going to be a flat-hair day. The humidity would crush an elaborate style, so she just brushed it back and tied it. She knew several of the women at the bank would not, and it would be an all-day complaint-fest.

            She cast a critical eye at the mirror in her bedroom, staring as her reflection looked back. It was ok. Just… ok. She felt a little crampy, but not too much. Not yet. She grabbed a bottle of pain pills to throw in her bag, but when she picked it up, it was empty. Nuts. The medicine chest was empty, too. She started to grab her keys and stopped. It was rainy, it was cold, she was out of aspirin, and she was late. She skipped back into her room for a moment, and spun in place. She examined her stockings, but they were fine. If they were going to run any day, it would be this one, but they were fine. She even found both shoes where she’d kicked them off. Well, almost. One was under the couch. The cat batted at it as she fished it out, scratching her hand. She hissed at the cat, and it looked at her with a quizzical expression on its small white face. She smiled and slipped on the shoes. At least they matched. A day like this, you’d expect to only find one, and have to change into another outfit, or else look silly. But it was fine. She stood up and headed for the door. She looked at the coat in her closet, decided to be damp rather than sweaty, and slammed it behind her. As usual, she forgot to lock it, which was fine. She opened it again, grabbed her keys off the wall hook, and locked it behind her. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, today.

3

            She sat in her car, flipping through a magazine she had forgotten. Boring, trite, dishy garbage. She bought them, even still. She checked her watch. Late, late, late. A sigh. She looked at her coffee. It smelled good, and sat there steaming at her, all warm and inviting in her special non-spill cup. She wanted that coffee badly. The caffeine would make her jump out of her skin, though, and she didn’t like the jitters. It was almost good enough just to smell it. Almost.

            The tow truck guy was on time, amazingly, and fixed the flat, getting her on her way. She was only forty minutes late by the time she got Mike, the guard, to let her in the side door. She headed for the break room. She dropped her bag in the locker, took another whiff of her coffee, and handed it to Angie, another teller, as Angie came through the door.

            “You’re late,” she said, sipping the coffee. It was cool enough to drink, and she downed it in one long draught.

            “Flat tire.”

            “Didn’t that happen last week?”

            Catherine grimaced. “Well, yes. But I have a receipt from the tow truck guy. I really did have a flat. Both times.” She checked her hair in the little mirror in her locker. Not so bad. Hard to do much when it was this humid…

            “Maybe, but you know the Boss.” Angie grabbed a mug, filled it at the pot on the counter.

            “I know. Didn’t you just have a cup of coffee?”

            “Yes. But it doesn’t count unless it’s in a bank mug.” She sat at the little table, took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, sighed, and put them away again. “Still raining outside?”
“Yes. You should quit anyhow.”

            “Thanks, Mom. By the way…”

            Catherine turned to her, still trying to get her hair to fluff. “What?”

A new voice filled the room. A big, booming voice, jolly in that false management I’m-everyone’s-friend way. James Cotton, bank manager. His loud voice and false laugh were the bane of his employees. Even when he was trying to be quiet, he was loud as a plane taking off.

“Cathy.”

Catherine turned. “Catherine.”

“Yes. I’d like to see you in my office, please.” He turned and strode off, looking like an early morning speed walker.

“Boss is coming,” Angie finished, sipping her coffee.

Catherine shot her a glare, and took her name tag out of the locker, pinning it on. She looked all right, if a bit plain. She eschewed makeup, and only paid enough attention to her hair to keep it out of her face. Her clothes were always neat, but she stuck to earth tones and muted colors. She looked, most often, like a faded photograph of a woman. She didn’t stand out in a crowd, she never stopped anyone’s breath, and men did not suddenly buy her drinks in bars. She looked at her reflection again. An unremarkable woman looked back at her.

“May as well get it over with. See you, Anj.”

“Yup.” Angie was getting more coffee.

Catherine took the elevator up to the second floor. The stairs weren’t much, but the elevator was next to the break room. Easier. She sighed internally at the closed door. Mr. Cotton new she was coming up, and still he closed the door, just so she would have to knock, and he would have to say, “Come in, please,” in his big, booming voice. She would have to poke her head in and say, “You wanted to see me, Mr. Cotton?” and he would clear his throat and say, in his extra loud, best and most officious voice, “Ah, yes. Please come in and sit down. Close the door, please.” And she would. And he would proceed to explain, in his loud and booming voice, that he wanted to speak on whatever matter he wanted. Just as he always did. And even though he insisted the door be closed for privacy, everyone on the second floor would be able to hear him clearly. There were no secrets in the Hollimer Street Bank and Trust. Never had been since Cotton had come, and never would be until he left.

She knocked on his door.

“Come in, please.”

She poked her head in. “You wanted to see me, Mr. Cotton?”

“Ah, yes, Cathy. Come in. Sit down. Close the door, this is a private matter.”

“Catherine,” She said as she closed the door.

“Indeed. Cathy, I wanted to discuss with you your punctuality.”

“I thought so, sir. I got a flat tire on my way to work. I have a receipt from the tow truck.” She put it on his desk. “I ran over a broken bottle, I think.”

“Cathy, we start at seven here. Doors open at eight. You know that, right?” Cotton stood up and began pacing back and forth behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back.

“Catherine. And yes, sir, I do. It was an accident. I’ll try to keep it from happening again.”

“I need all my people here, on time, ready to work. We have a lot of customers who expect us to open on time, and to be prepared for them. This is a business, an important business. You see, Cathy…”

Catherine sighed, and tried to look contrite and attentive and fell asleep with her eyes open.

4

            At ten, after the morning business rush had died off a little, Catherine was balancing her drawer, trying to stay up on the day-to-day. It was easier than waiting until the end of business and discovering she’d misplaced a dollar. Sifting through three or four transactions was far preferable than sifting through forty.

            There were perhaps a dozen people in the bank. A handful of tellers, a number of officers, the manager, five or six customers. And six men with guns. As the leader screamed out the old saw, “This is a robbery! Everyone freeze!” Mike Carroll, the door guard, drew his weapon. Prepared for this, one of the robbers fired his gun. It went off with a hard, loud thunderclap. Mike never had a chance to pull the trigger on his revolver. The bullet entered just below his chin and pushed its way out of the back of his head, taking with it a saucer-sized portion of the poor man’s brain and hair and skull. He toppled like a tree onto his back, stiff and twitching. As he hit the floor, Catherine pulled her drawer out slightly with her knee, and reached under the stack of twenties. She found the bottom bill and pulled it out, placing it on top of the stack. She did this by feel. The bill slid from between the contacts of the silent alarm, and it, presumably, went off.

            “Four, Five, Six! Upstairs!” the leader bellowed.  “Two and Three, round ‘em up!”

His voice was authoritative and flat. He wasn’t hysterical or out of control. He knew what he was doing. Catherine examined him as well as she could. He stood in the middle of the floor, between her and the doors. The height measure put him at six feet, give or take. He was, and they all were, wearing a black ball cap, sunglasses, and little white painters’ masks. The jumpsuits also looked like painter or janitor uniforms. Black boots and black gloves completed the bland, hopefully too-generic-to-identify look. One of them had a backpack. None of them looked up. The cameras were recording, but unless they did something remarkable, or unique, it wouldn’t be an awful lot of help. That was all Catherine could file away because by that time, Two and Three had made it behind the counter and were forcing the tellers out at gunpoint. The guns were large and black, identical nine millimeter semi-auto Berettas. Army issue, but available pretty much everywhere.

            There was a shot from upstairs. And another. And another. When Four, Five, and Six led their half-dozen prisoners downstairs, Catherine was dismayed to see none of them were the other three guards. She felt sad. All of the guards were nice men, all of them ex-police. Unfortunately, all of them were in their forties or fifties, and she imagined none of them were quick on the draw.  Hollimer wasn’t exactly a one stoplight town, but it was by no means a teeming metropolis. Hollimer was a town of maybe a hundred thousand people. Enough that people didn’t know everyone, but not so much that you could get lost. Not a Chicago or New York. Hollimer was big enough to keep you from going crazy, and small enough not to worry about gang shootings. But apparently, not small enough to not worry about sudden daylight robberies.

            At least the police would be on their way.

            “Heads down, arms up, face the wall. If anyone gives us any trouble, we will not warn you. We will simply shoot you. I’m not going to ask if you understand. I’m not going to ask you anything. You will not talk. You will follow any order we give immediately or we will shoot you. Do not ask us to repeat ourselves. Do not stammer ‘what?’ at us. Do not cry at us. Comply with every order and you’ll live to go home. Fail that simple directive, and you’ll die here.”

            Catherine and Angie stood side by side. They stared at their feet, along with everyone else in the line. One by one, the crew patted each person down, taking cell phones and keys. Once stripped of anything that could be used as a weapon, they pulled each set of hands back and handcuffed them there. They were pressured to sit, which they did. Eleven people, sitting cross-legged, handcuffed, staring at their shoes. They were remarkably silent. Angie cried softly, tears running down her face. Another voice from the end of the line whispered over and over, like a mantra, “no, no, no, no, no…”

            Footsteps now, the hard clank of keys. One of the group locked the front door, then left, presumably to check the other doors. They seemed to know the layout well. Catherine watched as much as she could out of the corners of her eyes, not moving her head. She thought only one of the six was watching the hostages, but couldn’t be sure. In an empty room with marble floors, sounds were tricky. She heard a lot of footsteps. She knew that they would be spot-checking each room upstairs, looking for hidden employees or guards. Unfortunately, they had found and killed all four of the guards on duty. Catherine wasn’t sure, but she though the whole office staff was downstairs. That meant there were none upstairs to call the police, or escape. No matter. The police would be arriving soon enough.

Gethsemane

Gethsemane is a perfect example of the incredible wrongness of my brain- and a testament to the idea that the story has to be served. It was supposed to be about six or seven thousand words. But it kind of grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. And when i was done… it was, you know, a little more.

You know, twenty-eight thousand.

 

Also, it’s about demons and angels. I guess that’s important.

 

 

Gethsemane

 

I stared down at the mess of a blouse I still, at least technically, wore. The shreds of fabric failed as a blouse. My bright red bra, the one I wore when I felt particularly bad about myself, peeked through. It looked good on me, I knew, and sometimes the pick-me-up is exactly what I need. I’m glad I wore it, because now the guy hurtling at me down the alley can see through the tatters of my-

Babbling, even if only in my head. How embarrassing. I’ve always prided myself on being unflappable, and I usually am. Sure, in Burma I peed myself when a mortar went off near my tent. That’s understandable. In England I had a couple of minutes of a serious crying jag when I watched a man commit suicide by leaping in front of the tube train. In Russia I was almost kidnapped and sold into slavery, I think, but I’m quick with a mace canister and even quicker on my feet when my life’s in mortal peril. I bolted like a cat with its tail on fire and after in the hostel, I threw up for two hours. But other than those instances, I’m pretty solid in a crisis.

Now my blouse is a hankie, everyone can see my red lacy bra, and some freak with completely black eyes and foot-long claws sprouting from ends of his fingers is about to eviscerate me.

Sometimes I love my job. And sometimes I do not.

Rings, maybe? Or some kind of glove, like that horror movie slasher fellow? Time slowed like honey and I stared at his hands. One still arcing away with momentum after the backhand that shredded my-

Damn it. That blouse cost me three hundred dollars.

He brought the other handful of bunched claws down upon me. I stared in dazed disbelief. His hands started out pink and normal at the wrist. The skin darkened toward his palm. It grew bumpy and rough as it became fingers, chitinous and black as it became fingertips, and definitely horny and claw-like as it extended past his fingers and outward impossibly long. They angled toward the exposed white skin of my stomach.

Funny, the things you notice when you’re about to be gutted.

I wasn’t just sitting there waiting to be filleted. I wanted to be smooth about this. I watched the hand coming down. I wanted to grab it as it came down, redirect it, and bury it in my attacker’s own stomach. Use his momentum against him. Or I could throw up my arms in a cross-block that would stop him cold, leaving him open for a nice follow-up knee to the tenders. That would have been cool. I could even have heaved myself to the left or right- well, not the right. I already cracked the back of my head on the extended lip of the wall there. Not left, though. No sense in diving face-first into the side of a dumpster. What, then? Up? I’m not a ninja. Down?

I could have done any of those things. I did none of them because time ran out while I contemplated my options. See, that’s why martial artists practice so much, so when these situations arise, instinct kicks in, trained reflexes kick in. They react.

I just stared. I know. I’m a disgrace. My moment of opportunity comes, and I revert to damsel-mode. Damn it. Everyone blasts those women in the movies for not doing a damned thing except reacting like scared, helpless sheep. Well, when the fight-or-flight kicks in and the hindbrain takes over, pal, sometimes, you just do things.

And everyone knows what the helpless damsel in the horror movie who stands there screaming helplessly gets. In case you need a hint, it rhymes with Fred, bed, bled (bad choice of words), and red. If I’m going to die in pursuit of a story, fine. But like this? I wasn’t even looking for a story tonight. I just wanted a drink, damn it. And to die like…

Wait.

I forgot something. Something really important. What was it? It was on the tip of my tongue. It was… was…

The other man, the mystery man, who had come running down the alley toward myself and my creepy new acquaintance, flew through my vision field in a straight-out tackle, taking Claws with him. I blinked.

That’s what I forgot. Someone had heard my scream and come running. Funny what you forget while you’re preparing for evisceration.

They tumbled in a heap in the sludge and slime in the alley. I realized I was sitting in more of the same. My stomach rolled. I love this town, but the last thing you want to do is roll around on the ground anywhere in New Orleans.

They struggled, each trying to kill the other. I watched in awe as they pummeled and swung and blocked and gouged and kicked. I got slowly to my feet just as Claws gained the high ground. He pinned my savior to the ground with his left hand and drew back the dagger-tipped right for what would certainly be a game-ending stab to the face.

I grabbed my camera by the strap and swung it as hard as I could. The Nikon arced in a tight, fast parabola and slammed into the back of Claws’ skull.

He sagged and slumped sideways, and my mysterious new friend rolled away to his feet and prepared to leap again. Instead of rejoining the battle, Claws turned on me suddenly, and growled.

I’ll never forget that sound.

His eyes were black pools. His mouth seemed wider than possible, and his mouth was filled with razor-sharp teeth of all sizes. He crouched like an animal. Like a cat. A really, really big cat. A really, really big dangerous cat. Fangs and all. I backed up. I have no problem admitting I was terrified. But the distance would help me. The best part about being a woman is the idiots dragging a penis around on this planet who actually believe the helpless, inept female stereotype. I’m not above taking advantage of morons.

He growled low in his throat, so low I think throat isn’t the right word. What’s lower than the throat? Stomach? Can you growl with your stomach? Cockles? Are those near the heart? I bet you can growl with your intestines-

He leaped at me, claws extended, mouth wide in a snarl, and I swear to God fangs dripping with what I am pretty sure is foamy saliva. I held my ground. I’m no coward… but I’m not stupid, either. What I am is surprisingly quick, on my feet and off them.

Shut up. It’s not like that.

Just before his claws and fangs reached my supposedly helpless, fragile body I let my legs go limp. For the second time that day, I enjoyed coming in contact with the floor of a New Orleans alley, something that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be on anyone’s bucket list. Claws sailed right over me, and into the street.

He landed like that same cat, hands first, legs second, and he whirled. My cunning plan, however life-extending, did not have a follow-up. I wondered what I should do, just as my Samaritan sailed over my head.

I had one gratifying second of seeing Claw’s black, empty eyes widen with surprise before a black combat boot slammed into them and the surrounding face.

Claws reared back with a snarl, and rolled gracelessly to his feet. The Samaritan did likewise. They stood up, not unlike the good and bad guy in a western movie. Claws spread his fingers, and looked like… like… I had no description for someone holding hands full of seven inch claws. He looked feral. His lined face was drawn with anger and hatred. His eyes, if they hadn’t been black, would surely have blazed red. I could see the vague outline suddenly enveloping him. It was unnerving. The man before me wasn’t just a man. He wasn’t human. I could see the vague, fuzzy shape of… of… of I don’t know what. I’ve never seen anything like whatever this thing was. It looked like a hobbled, ancient, grim crone… with lank hair and wrinkled skin. Yellow-white pale rags hung from its desiccated skeleton. And at the same time, he was a more solid-looking man, thin and feral and creepy.

The Samaritan, however… I stared at him and suddenly could see the very same vague outline, almost an overlay of an image, like film exposed twice. I saw long white hair, and clean hands and feet. And some kind of bunched material between his shoulders, which were, as someone had once said, smooth as raven’s claws. His hands were normal hands, not masses of dagger-tipped claws. The Samaritan had no weapons, but he didn’t back down. They faced off.

This happened in the midst of a huge crowd of people. Bourbon Street at eleven o’clock on a Saturday. Doesn’t matter when. Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, New Year’s day, or just an average Saturday. New Orleans is a city that runs on tourist money and alcohol.

That wasn’t nearly as emergent a problem as you might think. Walk ten feet down any street in the Quarter and someone is doing something to draw attention. Street acrobats, tap-dancing kids with bottle-caps hammered into their sneaker treads, bucket-drumming virtuosos playing Neil Peart-like solos, half-naked guys in cowboy clothes painted gold or silver standing unmoving. Two guys having a knock-down drag-out fight? Barely registers on anyone’s weird-shit-o-meter.

I expected Claws to scream and leap. Except something happened that I couldn’t see. Samaritan did some kind of gesture or movement with his hands. Claws reared back with a hiss, and bolted, knocking drunk tourists over like ten-pins.

I got to my feet and went to him. He stood there, watching Claws recede into the distance.

“You’re welcome,” he said. His voice sounded tired.

I snorted. “Excuse me?”

He turned to me. “What?”

“What makes you think I was about to thank you?” I asked him archly. He cocked his head. It was oddly bird-like. Some people cock their heads slightly to one side when they don’t understand something. He cocked his too far to the left. It looked… bird-like.

“I…” he stammered. “Well. I did save your life.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“He would have killed you.” His voice reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place. I’m usually pretty good at accents, but his seemed… off.

“I don’t see why. I was minding my own business. I took a shortcut through the alley and there he was, getting ready to kill you. All I did was throw a trashcan lid at his face.” I crossed my arms over my now-abbreviated blouse. “In fact, it seems like I kind of saved you, Dudley Do-right.”

He blinked at me. “Perhaps.”

“Yeah, you better believe it.”

“Thank you,” he said. “For your help. Have a good night.”

“Hold it, bud,” I said. He stopped. The crowd had more or less resumed its haphazard revelry, flowing past again like a huge tide of drunken people.

“Yes?”

“I want some answers. You don’t get to just walk away,” I said.

“I certainly can. I don’t have time to indulge your curiosity. I have to catch-” He said something… or maybe growled something. Or coughed. I’m not sure. But I caught the flavor of a name when he spoke.

“Fine. Talk while we chase him.”

He blinked. “Excuse me?”

“You’re chasing him. I’m coming.” I picked up my Nikon and sighed. It was a wreck. There was dirt and grunge from the alley all over it, and something else. It was kind of black, and sticky, and… and… it smelled like sulfur.

“You’re not,” he said. “I took time to keep him from splitting you apart, but this is where you stay. It’s too dangerous.” He turned. I ground my teeth. It’s easier to just not argue.

“Fine,” I told him. And when he took off, I followed him. I try to run whenever I can, and I’m in pretty good shape. Each year I do a story on several different marathons around the world, always from a first-person perspective. I kept up with him easily. He shot me a startled look.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going after him.”

“I told you not to follow me,” he said.

“I’m not,” I countered. “I’m following him.”

“Now wait a minute,” he said.

“No time. He’s headed for the River Walk,” I panted, and took off toward the river. He mumbled something under his breath and stopped trying to argue. We cut across Bourbon Street and headed down Orleans, toward Jackson Square. We danced in and out of the crowd, all of whom seemed to stand still, compared to us. Given the dedication with which the locals and the visitors both took their leisure in this city, they probably couldn’t see us.   I didn’t think we’d catch up to the mysterious Claws, but as Orleans dead-ended at the Place de Henriette Delille, the small, well-kept dooryard behind St. Louis Cathedral, I saw Claws. He had stopped dead in the street in front of the dooryard. He seemed to have slammed against a wall that stood at the low curb in front of the sidewalk. He looked frantically left and right. He looked over his shoulder at us, snarled, and ran right, heading down Royal Street. He shoved and pushed people in his way out of his way, causing no small commotion. I galloped after him, leaping and sidestepping the fallen party-goers. I could hear the Samaritan behind me, his footfalls echoing mine.

We chased side-by-side down Royal until Claws darted left down St. Peter Street. He pelted down the darkened street, lit mainly by shop windows and flickering lanterns. I thought I might be able to catch him, but he put on a burst of speed that carried him swiftly down the street. He suddenly button-hooked into the crowd of professional wastrels that littered Jackson Square.

Leaping between caricature artists, musicians, crystal-selling new-age hippies, and fortune-telling gypsies dressed in rags and expensive sneakers, Claws leaped clear over the fountain and headed for the far side of the square.

I tried to ignore my burning lungs and ran harder. I’m good at distance, but speed isn’t something you concentrate on when you marathon. The idea is to find a good groove and stick with it, maintaining regular strides, arm movement, breathing, and posture.

Samaritan and I pelted across the square. Stunned gadabouts were just raising a hue and cry from Claws’ abrupt appearance and interruption. I ignored them and kept running.

Claws crossed Decatur Street full-tilt-barreling. He caromed off the bumper of a south-bound car, and I swear he hissed. I wondered what he thought he was going to do when he reached the river. I stuttered at the edge of the street, judging the traffic for a good place and offered a small prayer to whatever god looks out for runaway freelance journalists.

I made it across the traffic without being crushed. I saw Claws vanish into the dark space between the tables and foliage outside the Café du Monde. I started to follow, but Samaritan somehow leaped over me. He cleared my head by barely an inch. I’m not short. Shut up.

He darted into the same spot into which Claws vanished. I might have said something unprofessional under my breath, but I hurtled after them.

I caught sight of them both as they leap-frogged over the triple train tracks between the Café and the river. Just as they were back in sight, Claws turned suddenly, planted a foot against one of the iron rails and thrust his hands toward Samaritan.

I heard the ribs break from where I was. Samaritan hit the ground without a sound. I thought I actually saw the moonlight glint off fangs.

Claws lived up to his moniker, and it seemed both of his hands bristled with dozens of razor-sharp, glittering claws. Patently ridiculous, of course. But he prepared to turn my Samaritan into a pincushion.

Samaritan struggled to regain his feet, but gasped in pain as he tried to move with what had to be a couple of jagged floating ribs digging painfully into his sides.

I gave myself into the hands of the gods of physics. Momentum is a wonderful thing. I leaped the first set of tracks, bounded over the second set-

-and slammed with both feet out into Claws’ unprotected chest.

He went over backward with a startled sound that reminded me of a hamster being stepped on. I went down in a heap of arms and legs and Claws slammed onto the rails of the third set of tracks. I distinctly heard his skull fracture as his head bounced off the hard iron rail.

I clambered to my feet, aching from where I’d landed on the bed of crushed stone. I looked at Samaritan. His face stretched, distorted with pain and anger, and he pulled a strangely curved dagger from a sheath at his waist. He gathered his legs under him and leaped directly at me. I may have uttered a squeak very similar to Claws as I tried to drop back to the railroad bed. Samaritan passed overhead again-

-and he plunged the dagger into Claws’ chest. I closed my eyes, but the sound couldn’t be shut out. It sounded like…

There really isn’t anything else on Earth that sounds like a dagger being plunged into someone’s chest. Nothing I’ve ever heard, anyhow. Thankfully.

I opened my eyes when Samaritan started speaking to him. At first I thought I simply wasn’t close enough to them to hear what he said. But I realized I could hear the words perfectly clearly, I just didn’t speak whatever language they might be in. It wasn’t anything close to a language I’d ever heard.

I watched as Samaritan leaned close to him and spoke. The words rolled over me, but I couldn’t understand the words. They… they slipped through my consciousness like water through a screen. I couldn’t grasp what I heard. I wouldn’t even be able to recall the sound, let alone reproduce it. Then I watched him cross himself and I realized he was giving Claws benediction.

The overlay image and the real one were nearly in sync. The image writhed and clawed and spat foul words. Claws snarled and spat, writhed, and tried to slash Samaritan over and over, but the Samaritan batted them away easily as Claws grew weaker. Finally, he was twitching. I edged closer and he stopped moving. The overlay image shuddered once and lay back, pain fading from the horrible features. For just a moment, the image flickered, and became like my Samaritan’s overlay. Then it changed back to the horrid, ghastly creature it had been. And then it simply faded away, evaporating from around his body as his last breath slowly rattled through slack lips.

I stood next to Samaritan. His eyes were closed, and his hands were pressed together in prayer. He turned and looked at me.

He caught me in the middle of crossing myself.

“What?” I asked, belligerently.

“Nothing,” he said mildly. “Thank you.”

“Oh, now you’re thanking me?”

“Yes,” he said. He said it without ego or preamble. “He would have killed me that time if you hadn’t interceded.”

“Yeah, well… you’re welcome,” I said, rather ungraciously.

“I have to go,” he said. “I need-”

“You need to just stand there and wait. The cops will be here any moment. You have to tell them what happened.”

“I don’t,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the police.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me.”

“Thank you for your help, miss,” he said, and turned.

I chased after him. “Hold it right there.”

He looked at me, amused.

“Where are you going? I have questions.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“I want some answ- hey!” I grabbed his sleeve as he turned to go again. He stopped. He looked pointedly at his arm. I didn’t let go. I’m dumb sometimes.

“Yes?” Polite, disinterested, tone. As though I’d stopped to ask him directions.

“Why was he trying to kill you?”

“Because I was trying to kill him,” he said reasonably.

Reading by Gaslight

I wrote this about fifteen years ago. I wanted to write a story about goblins. No idea why. It came out all nineteenth century Englishy. If that’s a word.

 

Reading by Gaslight

1

“In the times before my dottage, I often engaged in the practice of travel. I have a keen interest, you see, in the faraway lands, and the mystical journeys that are told in those dusty tomes found in any proper English library. You know the ones; heavy, with gilt edges and thick leather bindings, the outside letters mostly faded off, so the impression one retains is of entering a huge, darkened room filled with books with no titles, a monstrous trove of stories, details, adventures. The joy lay in seizing randomly and plucking from the shelf a book like a rotted tooth from its socket. The mystery, the singing wonder of never knowing… ah. Pleasures of my youth. At this late date, my eyes are now so dim, and my fingers so weary that I have not enjoyed that singular pleasure for some time. I have a reader, now, a woman I pay to come and read to me from the massive books, but it is not the same, entirely, when you cannot crack the book open yourself and reveal the mystery like a gift at Michaelmas.”

            “I drift, my friend. My mind, the only aspect of my person that is truly free, has a tendency to race beyond my thoughts and out of my control. Move closer, my friend. Why must you remain in those shadows? Or are the shadows only in my eyes. Move closer! Ah. No matter. My man let you in, and said that you were a friend of my son. He is not here at the moment, but I expect him soon, and do not mind entertaining you until he returns. Shall I share with you a story? I have many stories. Many and many. It has been a long life, this life of mine, and many adventures have followed my path.”

            “Are you a friend of my son? A business partner, perhaps? Hm? No matter. He will be here soon. Have you news? Anything of note? How fares our Empire? No matter. Perhaps, while you wait, I should tell you one of my adventures, should I not?”

            “Young man, you have seen my collections. I have books scattered far and wide, through this house. I know for a certainty you had to come through three rooms that are now libraries. And every available surface and corner filled with more. Ah, books are a wonder! For an old man, they are everything, even though I can no longer focus on the print, I still enjoy the feeling of holding a book in these old hands; feeling it, heavy and  pregnant with promise. Ready to birth stories of the wonders of the world.”

            “Yes… You know, each book in this house was personally assembled here by myself. I traveled the world for them, learned as many languages as I have fingers, so I could translate them myself, rather than trust others. I love the languages. I love the ideas it can hold the knowledge it can secrete from prying, random eyes. I love everything about languages and words, and their eternal guardians, books.”

            “Yes. I am a lover of books. All books everywhere. And I have spent my life traveling to distant lands, all for the love of these books. My hands too frail to hold them up, my eyes too weak to read them, I can still smell them, and that is comforting.”

            “But one time… one time. And that’s what you’d like to hear, is it not? Did you say your name? I don’t recall, you must forgive me. Well, at any rate, young man, I’ll tell you of that time, if you so wish.”

            “India. My heart has always lain in India. The steaming nights, the exotic days filled with foreign noises, adventures aplenty… many a stout British heart has traveled to India. Not every one comes back. Some remain because they wish, some because they must. The relentless pull of the jungle, with its dark secrets, and its terrible consequences, the fakirs, the strong men, a mobile circus, India is. It is also home to many and many terrible secrets, let no one dissuade you of that. We like to think of India as just another British enclave, a taste of home among the barbarians… it is not so, my young friend, not even now. Of course, we’re close to losing our little outpost now, but then… then, in Bombay, in 1921…”

Like Father, Like Son

I don’t do first-person well. There’s tons of people who do, I’m not one of them. I can’t get into a character when I’m supposed to BE the character. I don’t know why.

This one is your Classic Time Travel trope. That’s what they said at Asimov’s, and Analog, and Clarkesworld. Nicely done, but predictable.

So I rewrote it. Still trying to find it a home.

 

 

Like Father, Like Son

 

One time, I accidentally changed everything. I’ll begin at the middle.

I grew up in Pasadena, California. I surfed, skated, and eventually I attended community college. I could have done anything, and my father encouraged me to do any and everything that interested me.

Dad taught physics until he retired early. My education became his priority. He let me make mistakes and taught me how to deal with them. He helped me over the bumps, bruises, and world-shattering crisis of adolescent life. He saw me off to the local college: Cal Tech.

When I turned twenty, he took me to dinner and told me I wasn’t his biological son. I’d been adopted when less than a week old, and how did I feel about it?

It struck me funny. Dad and I look so much alike that people joke about how ‘at least you don’t need to wonder about the mailman’.

I don’t know my birth name and it doesn’t matter. After my adoption, my parents renamed me. I’m named for my adopted father. I decided it didn’t matter. I told him that he was the only father I wanted. He got teary. Well, I did too.

Eventually curiosity got the better of me. The most I could dig out of the system was that my birth parents died in a car accident shortly after I was born, in 1971.

I graduated third at Cal Tech. I took my Master’s at MIT, and Brass Rat and all fell in love with it. Perversely, I took to Cambridge’s weather immediately. I love snow. Two years later, Ph.D, also in physics. I started as an adjunct until a full-time spot opened. When not teaching I performed experiments in the lab with a small army of undergrads hoping to grow their reputation off mine like starter yeast.

Few places boast the sheer weight of Nobels, Guggenheims, Fulbrights, Rhodes, and MacArthurs. Nobody here is satisfied with average. Take Richard Feynman. MIT graduate (and later Cal Tech professor), Manhattan Project contributor, Nobel winner (physics) and died of two rare forms of cancer. Most people would have settled with the one.

I walked to my building after scrounging dinner. In the middle of my takeout Chinese, I had an idea about the new equation. I’m not married or seeing anyone so I spend a lot of time in my lab.

I thought hard about gravity, and as I crossed the lawn, I spotted something.

A box of mice.

A clear lab box of live white mice. Each mouse had a number scrawled on its fur, one through six. I glanced at the side. Yep. One of ours.

A prank, likely. I set it down and kept going. We’re famous for a lot, not the least of which are pranks. Ask any local about the Dome.

Old balloons, a few steamers. The TA’s threw a birthday party for me two days ago. It had reminded me to call my father wish him a happy birthday too. We have the same one.

I ran the startup sequences and rolled the cameras. I heated the krypton/argon laser and put on coffee.

I wanted to create pseudo gravity. I had set up a miniature example. The scale model cost almost a quarter of a million dollars.

After warm-up I entered the new equations. I fired the laser at an oblique angle to the magnetic fields. I used three fields in concurrence. Instead of bending or hitting the backstop, the light… splashed. It made a ragged square of light two feet by two in the air.

It hung there, reflecting shimmering light. No random shimmer, I realized, but light playing off rain.

The hole grew. I watched in horror as it spread to the frame of the machine… and stopped. I circled it slowly. At oblique angles it was narrow, like a windowpane. From behind, it vanished. From the front it could be seen.

I found a piece of plastic pipe, and I shoved it through the window. The pipe came back wet. I rested it on the frame and circled it again. The pipe projected into… well… wherever the window went. I circled. No pipe. No window.    I ran a Geiger counter over the pipe. Nothing.

The unexpected is just that: unexpected. You can’t plan for it. I needed to learn as much as I could. Step one: inanimate object. Done. Step two: the go-to for dangerous missions: the mouse.

I crossed the hall and grabbed a small plastic carrier and six white mice, checking to make sure they weren’t gestating anything dangerous, and a broomstick with a hamster ball affixed to the end.

I wrote ‘1’ on the back of a mouse. I held him up into camera range, stuffed him in the plastic globe, screwed the top closed, and put on gloves. I pushed him through.

Nothing happened. Mickey ran in circles in the ball. The ball got wet, but the mouse seemed fine.

I did this six times, with each of the mice. I watched them crawl around the box, doing whatever mice do. Okay.

One: it did not kill mice.

Two: wherever it led, it was clearly not in my lab.

Three: this shouldn’t be happening, yet clearly was.

I should try to switch it off and back on, but I worried that I might not be able to recreate it.

I picked up the box, thinking I would need a spare cage to isolate them. I got too close to the door. When the phone rang, I jumped and the box squirted out of my hands. It tumbled through the door.

I leaned toward the hole. I pulled back with all the hairs on my body erect. On the lawn, in the gentle rain, lay the box.

I was out there, too.

It’s Good to Have a Hobby

This one popped into my head one morning after watching several happy elderly couples smiling and holding hands.

Yes, I know I don’t see the world in a normal way.

 

It’s Good To Have A Hobby

     Shouldn’t have tried to take a shortcut, obviously.

She scrabbled at the wire stretched tightly across her throat. Her fingernails weren’t short, but she couldn’t find any purchase. The skin bulged around the wire, folding over like a wave, enveloping it completely.

She tried to scream, but there was no air for that. She struggled, but could find to purchase. Too late she kicked hard, trying to lift her neck. Her strength was gone. Huge black spot obscured her sight. She felt warm and sleepy. The razor-line of pain across her throat retreated into the distance, into the background. She closed and opened her eyes three times.

First blink, she saw the side of a dumpster. Clotted rust around a hole punched through the side looked like dried blood in the failing light. Second blink, a sliver of sky, two light poles jutting from the edge of the building bisected it. Third blink, she stared at a brick in the side of the building. She saw how there was a chip out of the corner. She saw how the brick was lopsided. The left side was narrower that the right. She thought about that brick as she died. She didn’t feel her body being lowered to the dirty floor of the alley, or hidden under half-full trash bags of refuse from the hotel.

She didn’t hear his footsteps as he walked to the mouth of the alley. She didn’t hear anything at all.

#

     He locked the door behind him and went into the kitchen. There was coffee waiting, as always. In the refrigerator was half a ham sandwich with a pickle. He poured himself a glass of skim milk, which he disliked. Margaret only bought skimmed milk, always after him to watch his health. He took the plate to the table and sat in a pool of light that didn’t reach all the way to the walls in the middle of the night.

He took a bite of the ham and rye sandwich, savoring the tang of the dressing. He smiled to himself. Margaret was so thoughtful. He was lucky that way. They had been married for thirty-two years. She did her best to make him comfortable.

He looked over their kitchen, neat and tidy. There were pictures on the far wall he couldn’t see, but Arthur didn’t need the light. He knew each picture as though he could see it clearly. They were a chronological history of the marriage that He and Margaret had built. The pictures began in high school. Benton, Ohio was a quiet town. Truman high school was gone, which Arthur thought a shame. At the last reunion, the ever-dwindling senior class of 1965 had met in the Benton Street hotel.

Arthur finished his milk and his sandwich at the same time, as always, saving one last mouthful with which to wash down the bite. He rinsed the plate and glass and put them in the dishwasher, noting that it was full. She had waited for his dishes, being frugal about water and soap. He approved. He filled the pocket, slid the lock shut, and set the machine to its job.

Turning out the kitchen light, he navigated the house by memory, picking his way among the furniture, up the stairs, and into their bedroom. Her quiet breathing reassured him as always, and he smiled in the dark. He took off his suit, hanging each piece in the closet by feel. In the bathroom, he shed his boxers and slipped into his pajama bottoms and tops, folded as always on the counter for him. He brushed his teeth, counting to five hundred while he did so, rinsing, and wiping his chin on the hand towel.

He slipped into the bed softly, hoping that he might manage to do it for once without waking her. She woke, made a sleepy noise, and rolled over to touch him. He folded Margaret into his arms, and kissed her forehead as she burrowed into his chest.

“Good night, Margaret,” he said.

She murmured at him.

He smiled. It didn’t sound like words to anyone else, but he’s been listening to her for more than thirty years and it sounded as clear to him as it would have been had she been awake.

“It was fine. Ted says ‘hello.’ We had a good weekend, all things considered. I made three new contacts that, if they work out, have the potential to bring in some of the biggest clients the firm has ever had.”

In 1979, Arthur and his friend Allen had started their own firm. He employed over forty people now. From two people to almost sixty, counting accountants (which should be a joke, he thought), assistants, secretaries, interns, and the like. Allen had died in eighty-eight. Allen’s wife inherited his half, and she immediately sold it to Arthur and retired to Arizona.

As the tax laws had increased in complexity and sheer volume, accountants were more and more in demand. They did very well. His patience had paid huge dividends. In addition to being able to afford a lovely home, nice vacations every year (after tax season ended, of course), and new vehicles, once or twice a year Arthur got to travel to conventions. He looked forward to these little trips for several reasons; he enjoyed seeing new cities, he liked being able to reconnect with friends year after year, and while attending he often found someone to murder.

#

     A nurse staying in the same Minneapolis hotel hosting his convention became his victim. He strangled her with a long piece of 0000-gauage wire wrapped around two small pieces of wooden dowel. With this homemade garrote made from common materials (purchased with cash from small hardware stores with no closed-circuit camera systems) he closed her throat. She struggled, of course, but Arthur was strong for his age. When she stopped kicking and slumped, he held the wire in place for a 300-second count and his arms were trembling by the time he let go. His palms were sweating in the cheap gloves and he was almost breathless.

He left the garrote around her neck and walked through the alley behind the hotel. He did not look around. He would be spotted or he wouldn’t; he would be arrested or he wouldn’t. That attitude had kept him in good stead for thirty years of conventions and forty bodies.

Forty-one, he amended silently.

He walked down the block to a diner, not stopping when dropped the left glove in a street trashcan, then the right in a separate can. At the diner he ordered a cup of coffee, drank it slowly, and left a dollar tip.

The next morning, he packed his suitcase carefully, said goodbye to his acquaintances, checked out of the hotel, and took a cab to the airport. Two layovers later (Arthur always flew coach, and always the cheapest flights) he landed, collected his luggage, and called another cab. The cab deposited him in front of his small, neat house in the suburbs.

#

     Margaret watched the eggs cook. She was frying them the way Arthur liked them, with a good knob of sweet cream butter. It was the only time she used real butter anymore. She cooked everything else fat-free, low-fat, low-sodium, low everything-tasty.

The bacon sizzled beside his two eggs, and the toast was beginning to brown. As the toast popped, the eggs finished. By the time he finished with his shower and came to the kitchen, the eggs, toast, and bacon were just cool enough to eat.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Arthur said. He smiled at the table, and his breakfast, next to her bowl of cereal and half a grapefruit.

“Good morning, Arthur.” She kissed him, tasting his toothpaste. He sipped his juice and made the same face as always, because orange juice and mint toothpaste did not go together. He took a bite of toast and hummed.

He looked at the paper on the table but didn’t open it. He thought it rude to read while eating food someone else had prepared. He didn’t read in restaurants, or in lunch counters, or anywhere someone else prepared. When he fixed his own food, though, he read.

She patted his hand fondly and ate her grapefruit, trying as always to get the spoon to squirt juice on him. He grinned at her.

“What’s your day like?” he asked.

“Oh, I thought I might put down some wood chips. The side garden is looking a little drab,” she said.

“Mmm.” Arthur hummed. “Want me to help?”

“No, thank you.” Margaret smiled at him. “I know you’d rather be off doing whatever. Besides,” she said with a smile. “You always spill the chips.”

“They’re supposed to be on the ground,” he said reasonably. “I don’t see why it matters.”

“It matters,” she said.

“Oh well,” Arthur replied. “I’ll just have to go put in some time on the course.”

She clucked with her tongue. “What a waste of a good Saturday,” she said.

He nodded amiably. “Beastly, I know. What can you do?”

“Nothing, as usual. Well, get along with you, Beast. I’ve real work to do.”

Arthur rinsed his plate and put it in the dishwasher. He bussed Margaret on the cheek. “I’ll be back around two,” he said.

“Don’t you stop in the clubhouse and have drinks with your disreputable friends,” she scolded.

“No, dear,” he said.

“I mean it.”

“No, dear.”

“Arthur, I’m serious.”

“Yes, dear.”

She smiled. “All right. One beer.”

He grinned at her. “Thank you, dear.”

In the neat garage, Arthur collected his bag, checking the clubs. They were expensive and well-used. He enjoyed golf. It appealed to his patient nature. He enjoyed cleaning the clubs after, as well. It appealed to his meticulousness.

He put the bag in the trunk of his car next to his shoes and slipped behind the wheel. Twenty minutes later, he signed into the register and waited for his party. He was early out of habit and enjoyed a glass of tea while waiting, basking on the patio as the sun shone down from the clear blue sky. He didn’t think about the nurse, Jaqueline, dead behind the Quality Hotel’s dumpster. He wouldn’t think of her ever again. He never thought about them.

#

     Margaret cleaned up the dishes, neatened the kitchen, hung the towel just so. She spent an hour in the garden spreading the wood chips around her flowers. She put the tools away. Arthur wouldn’t be home for three hours or more. She went into the spare room, the one that children had never slept in. She reached under the mattress and retrieved a small laptop computer. She took it into the kitchen.

Arthur was frugal but not miserly. She had asked him for a computer and he had obliged. On rare occasions he availed himself of the computer in their office but most often it was for looking up recipes and gardening advice. She had a simple little email address with which she kept in touch with friends long since moved away.

This laptop, however, never accessed that email account. She booted the machine and opened a fresh browser. She had an entire file full of saved bookmarks.

She pulled up the news reports for St. Paul.

The police blotter was easy to find; she had been doing this kind of search for several years. It was far more convenient than going to the library in the city for the relevant newspapers.

Among the robberies, rapes, and assorted batteries she found it: a thirty-nine year old woman strangled in an alley.

Jaqueline Eloise Rattner, married, mother of two children, a boy and a girl. She had visited St. Paul to interview for a job at the hospital. The article didn’t say whether or not she had gotten the position. The reporter mentioned ‘leads’ that the police were following up, but Margaret was positive this was a smokescreen, because nothing ever came of it when they said that.

Margaret looked at the screen, staring into the eyes of the woman murdered by her husband. There was no possible way the woman knew Arthur. It was the same with all of the other victims, both women and men. Within a block or two of the hotels Arthur stayed in, in the same timeframe as his conferences, someone usually died. Not every time, but more often than not. He had been attending two or three conferences a year for thirty-four years. She knew she couldn’t have found them all, and she might have attributed a few to him that he hadn’t committed.

She knew well enough that he was a proficient and prolific serial murderer. He was methodical and thoughtful. He never killed the same way twice in a row. He didn’t read murder-mysteries, he didn’t watch horror movies. He read true nature stories and watched the sports channel. He wasn’t political. He was kind to babies and puppies. He was a wonderful, charming man who happened to be a mass murderer.

 

The Platinum Job

This one’s a dirty-quick crime story, done in flashbacks.

 

The Platinum Job

1

    “It always starts with a guy. There aren’t a lot of stories like this that don’t. This guy is the problem. He’s always the problem.” There was a coffee cup. She smelled the coffee, but didn’t drink it. “Every job has a guy who’s going be a problem. Just like there’s a guy who knows what he’s doing, one who thinks he knows what he’s doing, and one who’s going quit after that last, big score. The whole crew is always like that. It’s always full of the same people. Only the faces change.”

“Which one were you?”

“Which one do you think?”

“All right, all right. Keep talking, Catherine.”

2

     “A truck?”

“Yeah. A truck.”

She thought about it.

“What kind of a truck?”

Flynn smiled.

“A big one,” he said.

“A big truck.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Flynn said, puzzled, “Money.”

“Is it an armored truck?”

“Nope. It’s a truck full of wiring.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Platinum wiring.”

“I’m out,” she said. She grabbed her coffee.

“Wait, wait,” Flynn said, and put a hand on her wrist. She stared at him until he took it off.

“Sorry. But wait, would you? It doesn’t hurt to listen.”

“Flynn, you know the score. I drove down here on my own dime. You said you had a good proposition. Then you tell me it’s a truck full of platinum.”

“Platinum wire.”

“It’s still a big truck full of metal. A big truck we’re going take from some people who won’t want us to take it. You don’t outrun cops in a truck. You don’t pawn a load of metal like that without telling everyone what you been up to. We don’t get paid up front. So unless you have a buyer already, who’s going meet us on the road and drive off with the truck while we drive off with our money, it won’t work.”

“But-”

“Won’t work.”

“But-”

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

Flynn whined, “I’ll pay for your trip, plus an extra grand. Just listen.”

She eyed him. “Up front,” she said.

“Fine, fine. Sure. I got it back at my room.”

Catherine stood up.

“Wait, wait! Will you for Christ’s sake wait-”

“Wait for what? You said the money was in your room. Let’s go get my money.” She turned away. Her heels clocked on the floor. They weren’t too tall. She wore a dress and a decent blouse, and a small brown purse under her arm. Her hair was nice, not overdone, not complicated. The kind of arrangement a woman can do in ten minutes. She was wearing a simple wedding ring. It was her only adornment. Nothing extravagant, single small rock in a plain setting. Middle class dress-up. She always girled-up when working, and in public. Cops didn’t look twice at a housewife-type. Not too fancy, not to drab, not sexy. No hose. She was attractive, but less so in this outfit. Nothing about her drew attention which is how she liked it.

Flynn stood up hastily. She headed for the door. He grubbed in his pocket for a moment, came out with a ten dollar bill, swore, and threw it on the table. He rushed after her.

3

      The room was grubby, just like Flynn. It was a seedy hotel, a twenty dollar a day job in the middle of the city, the no-ID kind. The desk clerk was old, thin, and brown. He eyed them as they came in the door. He grinned at Flynn, started to wink, and Catherine saw him. She just looked at him. The clerk looked away. She had that kind of look.

Second floor. Three doors in. The window looked out on a dumpster. There was a flimsy click-lock on the door.

He crossed the meager room. He dug under the bed, pulled out a bible. Stuffed into the spine was a small roll of bills. He counted out fifty twenties, and held then out to her. She didn’t reach for the wad until he’d added a fifty and four more twenties. She grabbed it out of his hand.

“Talk, then.”

Flynn said, “Sit down.”

Catherine didn’t move.

“Fine.” Flynn tossed himself on the narrow bed. “There’s a truck gonna be coming down the Indiana highway. It’s full of platinum wire. The kind they use in big computers. It’s going to a warehouse in Detroit. In a different warehouse, one that ain’t owned by the same guy who owns the wire, some other company will pay us for it. They’re paying a hundred grand. We stop it on the highway, and then keep driving. It’s routine. We don’t even have to worry about being stopped, cause we’re taking it into Detroit, right? We got the driver’s books, and paper, and route map. We got a truck that’s filed for Detroit. We got a load that is what it says it is. When we get to the city, we just take a left instead of a right, park, collect, and we’re golden. The other guy gets the wire and we get our money.”

Catherine thought about it.

“Well?”

“Shut up.”

Flynn glowered at the floor.

She didn’t like him; he was a bug. Unfortunately, he was one of the best. Unlike most of the people in their line he had never done time. That was important; he wasn’t on anyone’s list. His license was clean and he paid his taxes. He knew where to get guns. He had no head for planning. He lined up jobs and found other people to plan. He knew his strengths and his weaknesses, and that wasn’t nothing. He’d never dropped a dime nor had he ever double-crossed anyone he worked with. He had a solid reputation among the people who cared about that kind of thing. Enough that she’d driven a day and night just to hear what he had to say.

But he was a bug.

“You mapped the route yet?”

Flynn said, “Can’t. It’s not a regular bus. This is gonna be a charter.”

“That’s no good. It’s going to look like an inside job. Lots of heat.”

“So? It’s an inside job, but the truck don’t go to the inside they’re looking at. Simple truck-jacking.”

“If it’s not a regular route, how’re you going to know when it leaves?”

“There’s a guy waiting outside the supply warehouse. He’ll see them load the truck and watch it go. Then he calls. The square that got in touch with me is legit. This is his deal; he got the information. It’s legal. He and the other company are competing for a contract. The other guy loses his shipment, our guy is able to provide. Simple.”

“If he’s so square, how’s he know to find you?”

“He has a partner, someone who isn’t so square. He did some time with a guy who knows a guy, and so on. He calls the number, that number gives him a number, and the guy at the end of that number gives him mine. He needs pros because he’s a square.”

Catherine closed her eyes. “Why doesn’t your guy just buy the platinum, if he’s got money to burn?”

“It’s too much, he doesn’t have the capital. He’s paying us with what he’s got left in his pocket. His business is almost broke.”

“And no one’s going to blink when he has the platinum wire and the other guy doesn’t?”

Flynn sighed. “I thought of that. But it’s not our problem, right? We get paid, and we vanish. He screws up, that’s his concern.”

“And if this straight arrow is even halfway smart, he drops the dime for a reduced sentence. He’ll lose his business, but might not do any time. Meanwhile, we get our picture on a milk carton.”

“Well…”

“No ‘well’ about it, Flynn. It’s crap. It’s a crap deal.”

“But-”

“No. I’m not going to get rolled by some square, doesn’t have to worry about a stretch. If you’re smart, you walk away. Like I am.” She turned.

“Wait, wait a minute!” Flynn was off the bed. He crossed the room and started to reach for her left arm. In a blink everything went sideways. He was against the wall with a hand on his throat. Her other hand had a three inch knife in it, almost in his eye.

Flynn held very, very still. He closed his right eye, so he wouldn’t have to look at the blade.

Catherine didn’t say anything. Flynn didn’t either. Finally, she eased back to arm length. The blade never wavered.

“You’re going to lose an eye, you keep pawing me.”

Flynn swallowed, hard. “It wasn’t like that. I just, I just didn’t want you to leave yet. I need you. I need you. I can’t plan like you do, you know that. I just I need I need-”

“You need to shut up.” Flynn shut. She watched him, thinking. The knife never moved. “Who else is in this?’

“I didn’t call anyone but you. No point. I know this can go off. I know it. But with just me…”

“With just you, you can’t get anyone who would be useful. All you can get are lames.”

“Yeah.”

“Like you.”

“Hey…”

She considered.

“If I’m into this, I get a bigger split. It’s not going to be even down the line if I’m planning and working. I get ten percent more.”

“That’s… that’s fine.”

“And I get final say in who we get in on it. I don’t want any lames, I want people I know, or who know people I know.”

“That’s fine.”

She lowered the knife.

“You came to me because you know my reputation. You and me, we haven’t worked together. You don’t know me well, Flynn, so I’m going to make this plain. I’ll do everything I can to see around the corners. I’ll figure it. If it won’t fly, you have to listen. If I say it won’t fly, I mean it. I walk.”

“That’s fair, that’s more than fair.”

She tossed the knife underhanded, and it thudded into the door beside his head. He flinched away.

“If you touch me again, you’re going to lose something dear to you.”

“I’m sorry! I’m just I just-”

“Shut it. I don’t care. It’s in the past.” She reached over and pulled the knife out of the wood without rocking the blade. “Now let’s go.”

4

     “I started thinking about it, and figured four guys. I’m in the lead. I’ve got one in the car, watching the radios. So we needed muscle with me, in case of… well… in case.”

“You expected trouble?”

“If you don’t, you’re a fool. You just cover all of your bases, that’s all.”

“Okay. So there was you, and the muscle.”

“And a wheelman. Someone has to drive the rig. When you need a gun, you find a shooter. They’re two pennies a dozen. But when you need a driver, you have to find a real driver. So I made some calls.”

5

     They sat around the table in a cheap room. Not the same room as Flynn’s room, he’d moved out after Catherine left. It was just a place anyhow. Something for their meeting, like a rented conference room. This room was something more real, something Flynn kept for things just like this. He didn’t use the apartment often, but he paid the rent year round. Utilities were included. It had a gate, and garage access. Flynn had a cover as a travelling salesman, so no one expected to see him. He had a square job at a bottling company, a flyer. He even had business cards. But the owner of the company was on the take. He financed jobs for Flynn, and kept him on the payroll so Flynn had a taxable income. He got triple his financing back if the job went down right, as opposed to the normal double. It cost a bit, but he could come up with more money on a short fuse than most moneymen, so it worked out.

Flynn kept his life in order, and kept personal feelings out of most things, so Catherine would work with him, despite his nature, which was to be a creep. She had a lot of rules she followed, which cut down on the amount of work she could do, and about the same amount of people she worked with, but at the same time, it kept her out of prison, those rules, so she didn’t mind so much. Working was part of her nature, but hard time wasn’t. So she worked with people she knew. Barring that, only people that people she knew would vouch for. She’d had a hard time, at first. She refused to take fliers, so building up a solid base of connections had been hard. But after a few years, it started to pay off. Those people with the skills to do the job, not get pinched, and keep under the radar were far and few. But in the whole country, there couldn’t be more than a thousand, or maybe two thousand, professional thieves. It was just getting tight, that was all. Cell phones, computers, cameras, and the like made those in her rarified profession tread a steep learning curve. It wasn’t all smash and grabs, hiding out, laying low until the heat was off. The heat was more tenacious than ever before. State lines meant jack. Every cop everywhere was a brother, and they all kept in touch. Every camera was the enemy, and those pictures could show up in every town large enough to have email, which was all of them.

So Catherine worked with Flynn. She didn’t like him, but ultimately, that didn’t matter. The thing that was the work. The work, and everything that went along with it. The discipline to follow the rules. The willpower to keep to the life. And the ability to walk away from a sweet score, a choice take, if the heat was on to you. It wasn’t an easy life, but for her, it was better than a nine-to-five somewhere in a factory or an office, or worse, a diner.

Flynn had that discipline. So did Catherine. You’d think that would make it easy to get along. But he just rubbed her fur in the wrong direction. Three times they’d worked together. Three times they’d pulled it off, got away clean, money to show and no heat on their trails. Once she’d had to put down a lowlife gun that thought that ‘woman’ meant ‘weak’. She didn’t mind that everyone looked at her twice, three times. In ten years, she was the only woman she’d even heard of working the jobs. Some grafters, sure. Lots of con-girls. Running low-level scams, letting themselves get seduced and all, them blackmailing the johns. Marriage crap, with rich ducks ripe for plucking. Wasn’t her speed. She wasn’t a moll, or a grafter. She wasn’t a sex-user, playing with her body for a stake. She was a professional. She was cold, and hard, and lean, and ready. She was a player. She didn’t need handouts or extra time on the gig. She didn’t need someone opening doors for her. She opened her own doors. And now, after all this time, she had people like Flynn seeking her out. Coming to her for advice, for planning. But even Flynn screwed up sometimes, forgot that she wasn’t a woman woman. Forgot that she could wrap him into a bow-knot. He fell out of the habit of seeing her as a female, just seeing her as a pro.

After two days she and Flynn had come up with a short list. After eliminating most of the names, they came up with two good ones. It was always like that. You started to call around, you found that half the people you thought were solid turned into flakes, or were in stir, or were dead. And you never got in touch with anyone directly. It was always a friend of a friend of a bookie, who was a friend of a friend, or like that. Dead-drop phones were one thing, but the Feds were more paranoid than ever, and would eavesdrop on any line they felt like. So there was two days of ‘arranging a business meeting to discuss fourth quarter profits” and that type of thing. It was a pain. But it was the way. And as long as the money was worth the pain, it would keep happening. Sooner or later, the Feds would nail everything down, and it wouldn’t be cost-effective to take any more scores. Until that day came, there were friends of friends of friends.

So, there was Tommy Klein, from Liverpool, New York. Weasel-thin, with a pencil moustache, and looking like all he needed was a matchstick in the corner of his mouth, and he’d be a movie gangster. A blue pin-stripe suit away from Nathan Detroit. He was a driver, able to handle anything with wheels. More, he could be anything from a cabbie to a chauffeur, a cop to a bank guard. He had a dozen costumes, a dozen licenses, and the nerve to stick to a story until whomever was asking was satisfied.

The driver was important, the muscle wasn’t. There was a guy, his name was Westrow. He wasn’t bright, Catherine supposed. But there were brains, and there were smarts. Bobby Westrow never copped a plea. Never dropped a dime. He was big, and bulky, and stuck out like a sore thumb, but he was a guy you wanted when talk was over, and it came to strong-arm. He could handle a gun, and more importantly, he knew when to shoot and when to look like he was going to shoot. He knew enough to know when he was there for show, or to put on a show. And really, bright was a matter of opinion, wasn’t it? Westrow hadn’t done time, and that was something. He’d never killed anyone he didn’t have to, and that was even more something. The guy Catherine had learned the trade from had said to her once, “You start killing your problems, and then sooner or later, that’s always going to be your first instinct, instead of your last. That’s rule one.”

Quine had a dozen Rules. He’d made her memorize them. They were good rules.

So there they sat, four bad guys, all of them vouched and backed, and interested. Catherine the planner, Flynn the finger, Westrow the muscle, and Klein the wheelman.

Flynn gives the details.

“So that’s the nub: we got this big semi running down a four hundred mile stretch of highway with nothing around it. We pull it over, grab the driver, do whatever we decide with him, and then drive it the rest of the way in Detroit, park it in the garage, collect our fee, and walk. We split on site, or near to it, and split for wherever. Simple.”

6

     “And was it? Simple, I mean.”

“It’s never simple. That’s not just how it is on my type of job. Every one is a complex job, no matter how simple the goal. You plan for complex. You hope for simple, but you plan for complex. You learn that in the service.”

“You were in the military?”

“You want to go into that, or do you want to hear this?’

“Continue.”

7

     “She’ll slap you.” Flynn drank his drink.

“You can’t be sure,” Westrow said.

“She’ll slap you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“You never know; I have charm. Anyhow, a slap’s not so bad.”

Flynn just shook his head.

“She’s the planner. We need her for this. We need to make this come off right, she knows how. Don’t fuck it up, Bobby.”

“I’m not gonna fuck up the plan.” There were three whiskeys in his voice. They were doing his talking. “The plan is one thing I’m not gonna fuck.”

Flynn just sighed.

They were a hundred miles from where the job would happen, so they went out to a bar, a group of friends just out for a night. It was Saturday. After they’d hammered details out, and Catherine had called a guy she knew in Minneapolis to get them a former Police cruiser out of storage, and four guns, plus uniforms, they’d decided to go out for a drink. There was a worthless bar band hammering out Stones covers. Klein was playing darts at ten dollars a game with some locals. Catherine was sitting at a table with a cup of fresh coffee and a beer, dressed, as she always did when on a job, as nice but unremarkable housewife. Flynn and Westrow had bellied up to do some serious drinking, and it was getting to Westrow. He started staring at Catherine, at first out of the corner of his eye, then watching her openly, a crooked smile sliding around his face. Catherine looked at him once or twice, her expression neutral. Flynn went to the bar, ordered, and while he was waiting, decided to talk to Catherine.

Flynn watched, and smiled, and remembered that time in the back of a van, twelve hours, casing a jewelry store, and there was nothing to do but watch and talk. He dozed on and off, but Catherine never seemed to sleep. Or talk. Finally, Flynn couldn’t stand the silence, and just started talking. She didn’t respond a lot, but then he stumbled upon a topic on which he could get her to speak.

“Ask you something?”

“What?” Her eyes were flat and unreadable.

“You ever hook up with someone on a job?”

“I don’t hook up.”

“I ain’t asking for myself, you know. I’m just curious.”

“I know you weren’t asking for yourself. You’re at least that smart. So why?”

“Just making conversation, for Christ’s sake,” Flynn had said.

“Well don’t.” Her voice was distracted.

“Nothing else to do.”

“There’s the job. That’s the thing you should be thinking of.”

“Yeah, but…” Flynn, the bug, wouldn’t leave it alone. Thinking he’d maybe drop it, she’d said, “Never on a job.”

“But after?”

“Never after. Or before.”

“Not at all?”

“She turned to him. “You have a steady somewhere?”

“A steady? No. But I know some girls.”

“They in the life?”

“Not major, but they know about it. Know I’m no nine-to-five guy.”

“Then they’re trouble. They know what you do.”

“Not the details.”

“But enough to shine a light. You know better.”

“It’s just harmless…”

Catherine sighed. There was no reason to tell him any of this, except maybe to shut him up. He sure wasn’t going to learn anything. Maybe she was bored.

“Nothing is harmless. Everything in front of you is two things: it’s a threat, or it’s a job. Everything else is background noise. You keep your life simple. You keep it direct. You want to do this, you do it. You don’t half-ass it like some kind of junior convenient-store stick-up artist. You do the job, and only the job, until you’re done. Not just the one you’re on, but all of them. That’s the way you have any chance at getting all the way to retirement with a nest egg, and no bars on your windows. You either know what you’re doing, and do it, or you don’t.”

“But…” Flynn trailed off. “Never?”

She rolled her eyes.

“Look, I spend my time with thieves and racketeers. Killers. Ex-cons. Former cops who went bad. Guys who break into safes for a living. Guys who break into houses for a living. Guys who lie convincingly, smile their way out of questions, and ease out of town at the first hint of trouble. Guys who are completely honest even when they’re lying. So good at it that they believe what they say. So much they could fool a judge, or a fed, or even a lie detector test. Untrustworthy lot. Backstabbers and bad men. There’s no loyalty. Not really. There’s just danger and uncertainty. I don’t care about anyone not on the job, I’m not going to waste my time on anyone who’s on the job, and I’ve got no time for anything but the job. So, no. Never.”

Although it wasn’t the type of life that Flynn would lead, at least it made sense to him.

“Okay. I was just curious.”

She hadn’t said anything for the rest of the night.

#

     Westrow went and picked up his order, and rejoined Flynn.

“I think you’d better just leave her alone. I think she’s not gonna like it,” Flynn said.

But Westrow wasn’t having it.

“She’s a woman under all that work. And women are like men. We all have needs.”

“She’s on the job, Bobby. She never screws around on the job.”

“Then after. Can’t hurt to plan for that.”

“She said never. And besides,” Flynn said. “This woman is serious about what she does. She’s a machine. She’s always working, always on the job. There ain’t no after.”

“We’ll see.”

“She’s gonna slap you.”

Westrow backed off his stool, threw down his last shot, and smiled. He was a charmer who looked like a gigolo.

They’d been in the bar for a couple hours. Since Catherine was alone, and female, she drew attention. Two or three guys had taken a run at her, and been shot politely but distractedly down. She returned the one drink the bartender sent over on behalf of one of the barflies. So, because she was interesting, the bar watched the newest would-be paramour’s run with interest. It would turn out to be so interesting that it would become a local legend.

Flynn never did hear what line Westrow laid on Catherine. His voice was too low to carry. He couldn’t see the grin on the man’s weasel-mug, but he could imagine it.

She looked down at her coffee. The half a glass of beer she’d been nursing. She didn’t look up.

She slapped him.

It’s simple to say, hard to see.

Her hand flashed, whipped to her shoulder, and up. She came up out of the chair at the same time, neither overturning the table, or her chair. In a neat economy of motion, she drove the back of her right hand up and into the hinge of his jaw on the left side of that smirking face. She swung for the door, although she knew that her hand would stop at his face. That’s the secret to power; don’t aim for the target: aim past the target. She curled her hand at the last second, almost into a fist, but loose. She didn’t want the contact to break the skin of the back of her hand. If she timed it right, she wouldn’t even bruise.

He was lifted clear of the ground, lights out before he realized he’d been hit. He gave a little hop and then his feet were back on the ground. The flat crack of her skin on his brought everyone’s attention to her, or at least the attention of those who hadn’t been watching.

He toppled over backward, not putting out arms. The thud was resounding. She was already sitting again, not a hair out of place. She sipped her beer, and looked pointedly at the bad band, who were about the only people in the place who didn’t see what had happened.

Everyone was impressed. Some nodded, two laughed. Only Westrow was watching her face when she cold-cocked Westrow.

Flynn was looking into her face when she laid the man out. Her face had never lost that polite, distant look. Her eyes never changed. She didn’t bunch up in anger, or twist her features as she wound up. She simply shifted from one mode to another. From drinking and thinking to standing and hitting. She did what she set out to do and went right back to her drink.

He had known from that night in the van that it would be a bad idea, but even so, Flynn vowed to never ever hit on Catherine, or even touch her again.

8

     “You slapped him?”

“I slapped him.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.”

“For hitting on you?”

“Yes.”

“Huh…”

“Go ahead. Ask me.”

“Ask you?”

“You want to. You want to ask me ‘why?’ Don’t you?”

“Well… yes. Why?”

“So it wouldn’t happen again.”

“Well, unless he thought you were being coy, I don’t imagine he would-”

“No. Not just him. Word would get around. No one would ever keep that story to themselves. It would get around the circles. People would hear. And no one, anywhere, who heard it would ever risk it. It was damage control. A small amount of effort expended to bring about the greatest reward.”

“You always that calculating about everything?”

“You know, that’s the kind of question that isn’t a question.”

“What do you mean?”

“In my experience, when people ask ‘why’, what they’re really saying is ‘I don’t understand you.’”

“Well… you’re right. I don’t understand you.”

“I know. What always surprises me is that people who ask that question think they can.”

Dirty Wings

This one started as a short story. it’s around 40 thousand words now, and complete. It’s off to a couple of horror magazines.

 

Dirty Wings

I

     There was someone following her.

It was a bad day and this would not improve it.

It wasn’t just that the day was dark and rainy. It wasn’t just missing her connection. It wasn’t getting evicted. It wasn’t that her landlord gave her a week’s extension for a blowjob, reneging afterward, and tossing her into the street. Okay, maybe it was some of that. That was in the past, however. The man was now.

He was tall and he was dark. Not dark skinned. He seemed to be in shadow even under the harsh glare of a streetlight. He was following her. It almost made her forget her landlord. Greasy, slimy, rotten son of a bitch. Sure, he hadn’t agreed to anything. His exact words, repeated back to her with a prissy smile, were “We’ll see.”

He threw her out anyhow. She had other problems, of which he was not a part. It was getting colder. She needed to find some shelter. Her arms shook. Her blonde hair hung in dark wet snakes plastered to her face with grime, sweat, and the rain. She scurried from doorway to awning to kiosk trying to keep dry.

The man followed.

She didn’t know she was crying. She was rubbing her arms and shaking. She stopped in front of a bookstore, using the reflection to watch behind her.

The man was still following.

Maybe he thought she was a hooker. It wouldn’t be the first time. It wouldn’t be the first time she considered it. Getting paid to rent her body wasn’t by far the worst thing in the world. She was philosophical about it, or so she thought. When you worked at a job, you got paid for the labor you did. When you built things, you got paid for your effort. No matter the job, you were renting yourself to someone. Well, why not be paid for sex? Men needed it, she had it, it was a simple transaction in theory. She had to be careful, sure, but that wasn’t so hard. There were places that would help her be careful. They would even provide her protection for free. Some of those places were the same places she got her needles from. That would be handy.

The man followed.

She quickened her pace as she tried to think of a place she could stay for the night. Casey was twenty years old. She had run away from home a year before. A man she met at a party upstate had lured her to the city. He’d promised a wild time, jobs simply everywhere, concerts, museums, and a little apartment where they could live, and share their dope.

Unlike many of the girls she knew, and thousands she didn’t, her dream was real. Ritchie, a skinny, seedy looking kid with a pencil moustache and muscles like an action star, did love her, as strange as that seemed. He had turned out to be a pretty stand-up guy. He worked hard, cleaning up in a local garage. He’d gotten a second job to help out with the rent and the food, and she tried to get a job, too. She waitressed, and temped, but none of her jobs were ever permanent. It was a time she wouldn’t ever forget. Youth made intolerable distractions like a broken futon to sleep on, and mice in the cupboard seem like an adventure. They worked too hard for low wages, they ate skimpy meals of pizza and noodles, they had run around like scared hens trying to cover their possessions with garbage bags the day a pipe in the ceiling burst. Just life, average, unremarkable, common.

Things were ok. She was happy. Until the night Ritchie had been killed while trying to score. Ritchie had been desperate. Not blind with it, just desperate. Their regular connection had been busted days before, and Ritchie didn’t know the name of the one that popped up to take his place. There always was one, of course. But the information was slow in getting around. And so Ritchie had walked into an untenable situation.

He was killed in a shootout with the police. The worst of it was that he hadn’t been a part of the deal. He just happened to choose that moment to round the corner, hoping to buy a twenty dollar bag of the stuff. That was the moment the cops chose to go ahead and land like a bomb. That was the moment the new guy, a three-strike dealer with more hair than brains, and his enforcers decided to try and shoot it out with the police instead of taking the fall, doing six months, and gearing back up when they got out. Ritchie had still been licking his lips in anticipation of punching the spike home. Likely he never even knew what hit him.

So there Casey was, all alone in the big city. New York isn’t so bad if you live there, isn’t so terrible if you know one or two people, and have a steady income. It was a little rougher if you have no job references, no support from home, no friends, and a drug habit besides. The dirty gray streets are cold and hard when you have to live in them. Casey had tried to make it work. She carried a sandwich board for a deli; she worked day jobs from the temp agencies. She might have made it by, but one day she decided that she could afford a small bag and the rent. It was a mistake. She was depressed and angry, alone, and upset. She couldn’t stop at a small bag. She wanted more. With Ritchie dead, she didn’t even have his temperance. While chastising herself and telling herself that she couldn’t do it, she also convinced herself that one or two more dollars wouldn’t matter. Pretty soon, she had one hell of a heroine hangover, and an empty kitty.

The streets were indeed cold and wet and hard. She knew of a few people who might be willing to let her stay. She knew it might mean more demeaning sex, but she was close to the end of her rope, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do to a desperate junkie to demean them any more than they already are, but she’d been turned away.

The man was still following her.

Casting a glance over her shoulder, she hurried to cross the street. She was almost run down by that natural predator, the New York taxicab. Cursing, she stumbled when the sheet of puddle-water was thrown over her, soaking her most thoroughly.

She sobbed to herself as she tried to thread her way through the unforgiving crowd. One man pushed her so hard she slammed against a parked car, setting off the alarm. The driver, who was just coming out of a porn theatre, slapped her hard, shouting in a language she had never heard. The side of her face was red and angry, her hip throbbed where the mirror on the expensive car had gouged her, and the man following behind her. She leaned against the dirty wall of the theater to composer herself, and looked him in the eye. There was a crowd. She should be safe in a crowd.

He stood under a street lamp. His hair was dark and slicked back by the rain. He smiled at her. His overcoat kept the water off the rest of his body, and she wished she could be as dry. Despite the relative safety of the crowd, she lost her nerve. She turned her back on the handsome stranger and hurried on.

The crowds on 142nd Street were thinning as she ran as fast as her feet would carry her. She was heading into the bad neighborhoods, but she didn’t care. She could only think of getting away from this man who was following her. She stopped by a set of stairs, leading down into an underground club; she felt the pulse of the bass through her feet. She gasped for breath as she looked back.

He was gone.

She sobbed in quiet desperation as the rain worsened. She knew she should just turn around. Maybe try to make it to Karla’s place. Just the floor, but at least it would be warm and dry, and well away from this place.

A hand brushed the hair from her cheek, and she screamed.

He stood next to her. He didn’t look dangerous. He looked a hale forty, maybe. He looked like an uncle she remembered from her happier life, before she’d grown up, gone to parties, and started smoking dope. Her voice stuck in her throat, caught on the sickness hooks that the rain and cold had planted there.

“Be at ease, child. I’m not going to harm you,” he said, in a soft voice. His accent was light and she couldn’t place it.

“W-what do you want?” She stammered, and backed up as far as she could, against the rail. He smiled at her again.

“Not much, to be sure. You are cold, and wet, and I thought I might be able to help.”

“Ain’t selling.”

“Excuse me?” He seemed surprised.

“I’m not a hooker, mister, so forget it.”

He laughed. “You misunderstand me. I have a niece about your age, and I haven’t seen her for many years. I thought I might be able to help you, and thereby remember her.”

She’d heard stories before. You develop a high tolerance for bullshit in the city, especially when you were a single mistake away from the streets. You got all sorts of propositions, all sorts of crazy, disgusting men trying to get you to… do things. This sounded like a set-up.

“Look, just leave me alone, ok?” She looked around. There were no people on the street now. It was a bad place to be. The rain was getting heavier, and the streets were empty of everyone who had somewhere else to go. There wasn’t even a single smoker from the underground club hanging out near the bottom of the stairs.

“I assure you, I do wish to help. You’re cold, and wet, and hungry, no? We can go just up the street. There’s a small restaurant. We can get you warm and dry, and have a small meal. Would you like that?”

Casey was not stupid. Well, maybe she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but she was street smart, and prided herself on being so. But the lure of food and warmth were too much for her. The alternative was a twenty-mile hike through the rain-soaked city, because she didn’t have cab or bus fare.

“Well… okay. But don’t touch me. You try and I’ll scream and run. Got it?” She leveled what she hoped was a mean and threatening gaze at the man. He smiled, ducked his head to her and said, “I accept your terms. Shall we?” He gestured for her to follow, and led the way. She waited until he was two or three feet away and followed, trying to hug the buildings where the rain fell partway.

They made it to a small all-night cafeteria. He opened the door for her, but she did not want him behind her, and so she made him enter first. He smiled at her and went in. He took a booth by the window. She followed and sat across from him, tucking her legs well back from his legs, making sure they would not touch.

A waitress came over, limping. Casey looked down. She had one leg. She was walking on a peg leg with a shoe nailed to it. It did not look comfortable. She had stopped being amazed, frightened, or fascinated with the ways her fellow city dwellers suffered. She didn’t notice any more. She had developed that quintessential New York attitude: “Tough. I have my own problems.”

“We’ll have…” He looked at the young woman, shivering. “Any vegetable soup you might have, as well as a pot of coffee?” He looked at Casey, and she nodded. “Also, a pot of strong mint tea, please.” The waitress wrote it down, and waddled off.

“I don’t drink tea, mister,” Casey said. He laughed. “Perhaps not. However, I cannot drink coffee. I have a delicate stomach.”

“Oh,” she said, and looked at the table.

“What is your name?”

“Casey. Casey Henshaw.”

He gazed at her with a gentle smile and said nothing. She twitched around the eyes, and looked away, at the table.

A gloved hand, held out to her, broke her gaze. She looked up at him.

“My name is Merchant,” he said, pronouncing it in the traditional French. She shook with him. He let her go and folded his hands in front of him.

“Is that short for Cassandra?”

The girl nodded.

“How pleasing. Cassandra,” he said. “What brought you to such a state?” He gestured at her clothes and body beginning to steam as the warmth of the diner’s air enveloped her.

“Nobody calls me Cassandra. Everyone calls me Casey.”

“Is this the same everyone who isn’t here helping you right now?”

“Why do you care?”

“As I said, I have a niece, about your age, who looks in many ways similar to your own self, except that her hair was red and shorter. Nevertheless, you have similar facial structures. She moved here many years ago, and we have not heard from her in all that time. I despair of her. So I know what a dangerous place this city can be.”

Casey snorted through her nose. “You don’t look much like you have any of the same problems I do, Mister.”

“Merchant, please.”

“Okay, Merchant. You look like you have money, and you look like you have a nice place to live. When’s the last time you spent all night on the streets?”

Merchant nodded. “What you say is true. I am doing quite well. However, I do spend many nights on the streets. I like to walk. I like to see the life that fills this city. I like to hunt among the denizens of this blighted town…” He trailed off, lost in his own thoughts. His head cocked as though he were listening to something. “I sometimes look for her. I know it’s a futile gesture, but I cannot help myself.”

The soup came, and the coffee and tea. Thick mugs came with all three. Casey looked at Merchant with eyebrows raised. He smiled and said, “Help yourself, child. You look starved, and the warmth will do you good.”

She filled a mug with coffee and sugar, and sipped between it and the vegetable soup that, although bland, was hot and good. She was beginning to feel more herself than she had in a while.

Merchant filled the empty mug before him with tea. He slipped his gloves, expensive and brown, from his hands. They were narrow and strong, those hands. He wrapped them around the mug and smiled at the heat.

“Tell me the story of you, Cassandra, and leave nothing out.”

Casey sighed. She still wasn’t sure she trusted this guy. He was creepy, and reminded her of an old-time movie star, with his still speech, and careful, over-enunciated words. He was speaking in a low and pleasant voice to calm her and keep her off-guard. He was hypnotizing her.

She ate her soup and began to speak. It was simple, tragic, and avoidable. She had fought with her mother about rules and school, and being like most teens smarter than her elders, decided one afternoon to run off to the city with a boy she met, where life would be fun and there were no rules or parents, and everything went her way. Then things started not going her way. Finally, on the downside of a drug habit, no job, no prospects, she had hit close to bottom. She knew it wasn’t dead bottom, but she was sure if she squinted she was sure she could see bottom, and was eating soup with a creepy old guy maybe entertaining daddy/daughter fantasies.

Merchant laughed. “Dear girl, I can understand your reluctance to accept the kindness and warmth I offer. In your short time you have seen a narrow but accurate cross-section of life in this city. There are predators in every corner waiting to feast.”

“You talk like that guy who hosts those murder mysteries on PBS.”

“I learned diction and speech by private tutors across Europe while my parents traveled. They were very strict in my use of communication, and I’m afraid their exacting methods have been written into my personality. I shall never shed the formalized stylistic speech I learned as a boy.” He smiled at her. “It’s all, you realize, a way of saying I had tough teachers.”

With a full mouth, Casey said, “I never liked school. The teachers, they all hated me, had it out for me.”

Merchant nodded and gestured for her to continue. Sipping from the coffee mug, Casey continued to speak.

“They all wanted me to fail. They kept making me fail. My English teacher, Mrs. Staub, she would lose my papers and claim I never gave it to her…” she stopped. Looking at the table, she sighed.

“Whatever is the matter, my child?”

“N-nothing. It… well.” She looked into Merchant’s somehow caring and expressionless eyes. “It’s not true,” she whispered.

Cocking his head, Merchant said, “What do you mean?”

“I mean it isn’t true. I didn’t turn in my homework. I never did it. I never wanted to.” Casey felt inside a little better at this admission. It meant almost nothing now, years past, but it made her feel a little better to tell the truth even to a stranger.

“I was a brat,” she said. And meant it. Time makes it easier to accept your mistakes. “I always wanted my own way. Mom and dad always tried to give me things, but I always wanted more. Always deserved more. You know?”

Merchant nodded. The waitress limped over, and asked if they needed anything else.

Merchant eyed the young girl, her big brown eyes on the table… or rather on the menu lying to the side. In the faded laminated picture was a cheeseburger and fries, glossy and enticing. Merchant said, “Thank you, yes. She’ll have one of those delightful-looking hamburgers, with everything, and don’t skimp on the French fries, please.”

She was hungry beyond belief. The soup had sharpened the knife in her belly.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“My pleasure.”

They sat in silence, and once the burger arrived, Merchant raised his eyebrows when she disappeared it. “Do you need another one?”

“Oh… oh no. I wish I could! I mean I wish I could eat another one. It’s not always easy to get food, you know? I mean good food. Not spoiled, or half-eaten. But if I try, I’ll puke.”

“Well, let’s forgo the second helping for now, then. Would you like anything else?”

Casey shook her head. There was silence. Merchant gazed watched the girl, and she watched him right back.

She said, “What do you want?”

“I explained-“

“And I don’t believe it, mister. Everyone wants something. Nobody takes nothing for what they give. Even I know that. So, you bought me dinner, which I needed, and you let me get warm, which I needed. Now what do you need?”

Merchant sighed. In a businesslike tone, he said, “You’re right, of course. I have an ulterior motive. You’re an attractive young lady and I want you to come home with me. I’ve paid for that much, at least. One meal; one night. How can you refuse? You’ll be sleeping on the street or worse, if you don’t take my offer. I have a room. Rooms. The Gramercy Park Hotel on Lexington is my home. You’ll never have stayed there, I suspect.”

“I knew it. I knew what you wanted. You think you can just buy the poor little girl with a meal and a smile. You’re sick, mister. Just a sick, dirty old man…”

She stumbled trying to stand. Casey slipped sideways off the seat and fell to the floor. The diner wavered as, exhausted, Casey tried to focus. Merchant was on his knee beside her. The waitress watched with a noted lack of interest from her corner seat, smoke from a cigarette curling around her tired eyes.

“Miss Henshaw, you don’t have much of a choice, do you? You’re tired, cold, broke, and one poor choice away from ending up in a dumpster dead.”

The look in Casey’s eyes made Merchant smile. The smile seemed delighted at her fear.

“No, my dear. I’m not going to kill you.” He cocked his head again like a cat hearing a faint, far-off sound. He shook his head, eyes closed, as though to dismiss errant thoughts. “But you need to realize I offer a much better answer than any you’ll find out there. After all, you’ve demeaned yourself for so long, what will one more night matter? Could I ask of you anything you haven’t already sold? I will take you home and bathe you; I will procure for you clothing and a doctor, should need it. You’re malnourished, I suspect, but a physical will not be amiss. And after I have had my fill of you, I will release you into the wilds of the city far more wealthy than you are now. Is that so terrible a bargain?”

A single tear wound down her cheek, leaving a clean track in the dirt around her eye. It was just another day. Casey felt the grit of the floor beneath her hands. Now she knew what the bottom felt like. The despair she felt was nothing to the realization that she was ready to sell herself. It is saddening to discover that we have a price, and that the price low.

She allowed Merchant to help her to her feet. She watched him remove a gold money clip from inside his coat. There were oa few small bills in it, most of them were hundreds. He took a ten from the outside of the bankroll and laid it on the table. He looked in the direction of the waitress who’d heard every word of Merchant’s speech. What she thought of it was on her face plain as day, but she said nothing. It was just another day in the city and it was none of her business.

Outside the diner, Merchant hailed a cab and gave the address. The cabbie refused to budge until Merchant showed him the money. Merchant wasn’t offended. Traveling all the way uptown was out of most of the local means.

Casey looked out the window and cried as the cab sped on its way.

#

II

     Casey had expected him to press her for sex, and she had prepared herself to not argue, to make him believe she was eager and enjoying it. She had made up her mind to do so even as the cab was slowing in front of the old hotel. There were beautiful people dressed in gorgeous clothing entering and exiting the double doors held by doormen when the cab arrived that first night. She had held her breath as they approached.

They wouldn’t let her in, not looking so out of place. Not looking like a street girl. The men tipped their hats, murmured, “Evening, Mr. Merchant, miss.” They entered the lobby, which was a finer place than any she had ever seen. Everywhere; red velvet and brass and wood polished to a mirror gloss and satin finish. It was wonderful. There was an elevator man, a young man with a small cap on his head, and that young man tipped his cap.

“Sir, miss. Penthouse, Mr. Merchant?” Merchant nodded.

There were two rooms of suites at the top of the hotel. One to each side of the building: each comprised of seven rooms. A lavish kitchen and dining area, a sitting room, a dressing room for each bedroom, and two bedrooms: master and guest. Each bedroom also had a full bathroom, complete with a large tub.

Merchant had shown Casey to the smaller room, which was larger than any she had lived in, even at home. She undressed. She tried to make it sexy and provocative, but she was still a skinny, dirty girl with matted hair. When she was naked, she turned. Merchant was gone.

She found her way back to the sitting room, still naked. In the corner, by the window, sitting in the dark was Merchant, fingers folded before his chin. He didn’t seem to see her. He was looking out of the window at the city. She was embarrassed and all of her sexual provocateur brass fled. She stood with one hand over her breasts and one between her legs, in a parody of modesty. She stood that way for a long time, watching him not notice her.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Every night, I spend time at this window, just sitting. I like to contemplate the darkness. I like to watch the city. But whatever are you doing, dear girl?”

“I-I thought…” She didn’t know how to say it without sounding cheap.

“You thought what?”

“I…”

“I have given you food, and drink, and a room to occupy. Take advantage of them, Miss Henshaw. You must be tired. Go to sleep.”

Casey was blushing, a deep red. She was confused and mortified. She started to turn, stopped, and backed out of the room. As she rounded the corner, Merchant’s smooth, dry voice followed her.

“Sleep well, Cassandra.”

And she did. She looked at her bed from the doorway, ran at it and rolled into it, pulling to top blanket over herself and was asleep in seconds.

Casey awoke at two in the afternoon, sunlight streaming into the room.

She smiled up at the ceiling. Stretching like a cat, She rolled over and over across the king-sized bed. Naked still, clad in a silk sheet, she padded around the suite. It was very large and very beautiful. There were heavy velvet drapes on the windows, and when drawn, all light was blocked. She opened them and stood on the iron and marble balcony, the breeze whipping the sheet around her body.

Impulsively, she dropped the sheet over the side and watched it sail away. At thirteen floors the hotel wasn’t very tall, but it was tall enough. She watched the sheet twirl over in the wind until it drifted out of sight. She imagined it sailing out to sea, puzzling the sea birds there.

Naked, she stood looking out at the park, a gash of green that bled into the city like an infected wound. She turned to go inside, but a flash of light caught her gaze. She squinted at the window of an adjacent building, and caught the eye of the man with binoculars staring at her.

Smiling, she waved gaily at the man, her small breasts bouncing. Turning on her heel, she reentered the suite and closed the glass door behind her. She drew the drapes over it. Her bathroom was enormous! She looked at the shower, and then the tub. She smiled in anticipation. She hadn’t had a bath in… oh… a year? Just showers, the tiny cubicles of cheap hotels, and terrible economy apartments. She let the tub fill, adding generous portions of bath salts and bubbles. Both were lined up with a dozen other bottles along the side of the tub, all new and unopened.

She washed the grime and bad feeling off her skin. Merchant hadn’t said so, but she’d been pretty ripe. That was probably why he hadn’t wanted her last night. She scrubbed and scrubbed. It felt so good to be clean again! She spent more than an hour, just soaking in the hot water. With a wistful sigh she drained the tub, turned on the shower, and rinsed off the remnants of the bath salts. She’d used too much, for it hadn’t dissolved. With luck, Merchant would let her try again before she left. She washed herself all over again, reveling in that curious freedom that a long-awaited shower imparts. Prepared and ready for the next step of the day. She dried herself off, brushed out her hair. She debated, took a deep breath, and then left her suite naked. May as well jump in with both feet.

He didn’t seem to be awake yet. She knocked on the door to his room, and there was no answer. She didn’t try the handle. Her stomach growled. She hesitated, and then padded into the kitchen. There was more than one way into a man’s bed.

It was well-stocked. She managed to make a decent meal of eggs and bacon, toast and cereal. Despite the good smells of a late breakfast permeating the air, Merchant never appeared. She ate by herself, both portions, and began to clear. As she cleaned up and did the dishes, she wondered about the unopened food. Every package in the kitchen was brand-new, just like everything in her bathroom, as if it purchased that morning.

She knew Merchant had snubbed her last night because of her appearance. Well, now she was bathed and glowing. She was clean and ready. She smiled to herself. She was naked, and she knew how she looked. She was skinny, but she was still pretty. No, she thought to herself. More than that! She was a girl and a half in every direction. Whatever he wanted, he had paid for and then some. A fleeting unwelcome thought presented itself, asking why she had accepted so low a price. He was clearly rich, he could afford what she asked. Something more substantial than a cheap dinner, bath, and clean bed. She pushed the thought from her mind. A deal was a deal. She’d accepted. Besides, although she felt wonderful this particular morning, she hadn’t quite managed to forget how low she had been the night before. It was a fair price he had offered, and she had accepted. Whatever else she might have become, she was a woman of her word, even now.

The entrance door of the suite opening interrupted her thoughts. He must have gone out somewhere! That’s why he didn’t come out this afternoon, or answer her knocks. He must have had somewhere to go. But he was back now. She relaxed against the counter, crossing her legs and thrusting her chest out. Merchant was sure to be ready this morning, and she was not going to disappoint. The view from the balcony alone was worth everything she had!

In strode a smallish woman, dark-skinned and old. Her huge glasses reflected light as she looked over at Casey. The woman nodded, said in a matronly voice, “Miss,” and took off her coat. She went to the closet and hung her coat. She reentered the kitchen and looked Casey up and down, from blush to toes, lowering her glasses to the end of her button nose. Muttering in a foreign language, she stepped closer. Casey, riveted to the spot, met the older woman’s amused stare.

Smiling, the woman patted Casey on the cheek. “You will want to go get changed, I suspect, dear,” she said. “When the Master rises for the night, he’ll want to go out. You’d best be ready. Did you not find the clothes I picked out for you?” She brushed past Casey, and gave her a little swat on the bottom. “Off now! I have work to do!”

With a tiny yelp, Casey moved like a horse spooked. The old woman chuckled, and said, “If you need anything, just call. My name is Lettie. I’m Master Merchant’s housekeeper.”

“Oh!” Casey said. “I’m…” And she stopped.

She realized that she wanted to introduce herself to this nice old woman with her proper name. It seemed the polite thing to do. As Merchant was a formal, mannered man, and his housekeeper seemed just as mannered, in an informal way. So she said, “Casey Henshaw. Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Lettie.”

Lettie smiled at her. “Just Lettie. Likewise, I’m sure. Off you go. I’ve chores.”

She went back to her room. After closing the door she stood, still naked, before the mirror. The dirty, stiff clothing she had been wearing for days awaited her on the floor of the bathroom. She felt so clean and smooth, so nice that she did not want to put them back on. However, she couldn’t walk around naked all day and night, especially if they went out. Oh, well. Nothing for it. She started for the bathroom.

She could not find her clothes. Her purse was still on the dresser, but the clothes were gone. She spun in place, noticed and tried the closet door. She went to it, and let in light on a selection of very beautiful dresses. Winter dresses in winter colors. She oohed to herself. Lettie chose that moment to bustle into the room, her arms full of towels. She stopped to appraise Casey again.

“Have you a personal grudge against dress, young lady?” she said with a hint of a smile, and broad suggestion of disapproval.

Casey gritted her teeth and resisted an urge to cover herself. Brass got her through tough situations and she fell back on it now. She even threw a hand on her hip, threw that hip toward the door, and grinned.

“Well, maybe Mr. Merchant will like me better this way.”

All the fun drained from Lettie’s face. Shaking her head, she pointed at the closet, and headed into the bathroom. Casey dropped the hand and stood where she was. Lettie seemed nice and Casey had just made her angry. She resolved to shut up.

Lettie cleaned up the bathroom while Casey looked at each dress. There were eight of them. The old woman came out of the bathroom, and looked at her. She clicked her tongue. “Well, don’t just admire them, child, dresses are meant to be worn.”

“Are they my size?”

“How are you going to wear clothes that aren’t your size, dear?” It seemed a reasonable question, as though this were a reasonable situation.

“But how…?”

Lettie shook her head.  “I’m very good with sizes. It wasn’t hard. The hard part was finding proper dresses for a proper young lady. Today’s fashions…” Another tongue click.

“I… I’m not sure which one I should wear. They’re all so beautiful.” She was out of sorts, and it wouldn’t occur to her until later to wonder when Lettie would have had time to shop for her, with her sizes.

“Well, start at the beginning. Work your way through.”

“How many times can I change in one day?”

Lettie looked over her glasses at Casey again. “One day?”

Casey just looked back at her. Lettie smiled a knowing smile.

“I see… the Master didn’t explain anything to you, did he?”

“Master?”

“We call him that. It’s a touch of English one of the butlers brought with him and it stuck. In England, butlers often call their bosses ‘master’. It’s a term of respect and affection. There was a man… what was his name?” Lettie stared at the ceiling for a second. “That’s it. Delaney. Can’t think how I forgot. Had this cat…” She shook herself from the reverie.

“Another time for stories. First, let’s get you dressed. You must be cold.”

Casey reached for a dress, but Lettie clucked.

“Dear… you haven’t any undergarments. Honestly. Someone should be given a stern talking-to for neglecting your basic education. Try the top drawer.” While Casey went to see, Lettie took the dress she had selected from the cedar hangar. She laid it on the bed, and then helped Casey with the complicated-looking lingerie. Stockings, underwear, and a small lace belt with little clips to hold up the stockings, which were white.

At last she was in the dress. It was rose, and had complimentary shoes, which accented her feet, encased as they were in the hosiery.

Lettie even helped her with her hair, arranging it in seeming-careless piles upon her head. The effect lent length to her neck, and highlighted her dark eyes. Lettie smiled.

“Now that’s a sight better than being naked, I should say,” she smiled at Casey. “Now I’ve other work to do. If you’ll excuse me, miss.”

Lettie made it all the way out of the room before Casey managed to thank the woman.

“Tut, child, it’s my job.”

Casey roamed from room to room. She discovered a large television in the central living area, disguised by an ornate cabinet, and she amused herself with vapid game shows and vapid talk shows and vapid news reports while she waited for Merchant to rise. Lettie served her a light lunch at one o’clock. After the meal, she was washing her hands in her bathroom sink, when the shakes started. She looked up into her own eyes. The craving. That old ache. She hadn’t scored yesterday. She might not score today. Her throat was dry at the thought of the shakes and the sickness that would follow these minor tremors.

She sat back down on the couch in front of the television, and tried to think. She was sweating as fear over took her. Well, it wasn’t like he didn’t know she was a junkie. Her habit wasn’t big, sure, but it was still a habit. She still wanted that push. He hadn’t given her any money yet. She glanced over at his door often, and her legs began to jitter. Time crawled by.

At five thirty, Lettie was packing up her belongings. She nodded at Casey from the door.

“You’ll be having dinner with the Master, I expect. Enjoy your evening, child. I’ll see you in the morning.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Lettie.”

At six o’clock on the nose, Merchant appeared from his room. He was dressed in a dark grey suit, complete with tie and waistcoat strung with a gold watch chain. Casey hadn’t heard his door. She bounced up from the couch, shutting the television off in the middle of a game show.

“Good evening, Cassandra. You look lovely.” He bent over her hand and kissed it.

“T-thank you, Mr. Merchant.”

He looked up at her.

“Sorry. Merchant.”

“No worries, my dear. I trust Lettie attended your needs today?”

“Lettie? Oh! Yes. She was very nice to me.”

“Good.” He looked her up and down. “You do indeed look pleasing, Cassandra.”

Casey acknowledged the compliment with a wan smile. Merchant’s brow furrowed.

“Is there a problem?”

“How come you never come out of your room?”

“But I do, as you can see.”

“No… I mean… you brought me here in the middle of the night, and slept all day. And you did the same thing last night.”

“Ah. I wasn’t sleeping. I was waiting for the sun to set.”

“Okay… why?”

Merchant sat and folded his hands on his knees. He gazed out the window at the city, bathed in the dying light of the day.

“I have a rare condition. It is a skin condition called porphyria. I cannot abide the sunlight upon my skin. It is painful and dangerous to me. I am allergic to the ultraviolet spectrum of sunlight.”

Cassandra looked at him with an expression that seemed to say ‘pull the other one, make it even, at least’.

“It has to do with my bloodline. I inherited the allergy, much like some children inherit blue eyes or a particular anatomical shape.”

“Really.”

“Yes. My room is blacked out, allowing me to rest while the sun is out without fear of the light.”

Cassandra didn’t know whether or not to believe what he said. Merchant saw this.

“Come with me,” he said. She got up to follow, as he led her into the kitchen, which faced to the west. The last few shafts of sunlight played on the far wall from the window at shoulder height. He held out his hand to her. It was smooth, clean, and undamaged.

He approached the window and held up his hand. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, with a suddenness that made her gasp, Cassandra could see the blisters rising on the back of his hand. He held his hand in the light as they grew in size and number, until Cassandra jerked his hand out of the light. She cradled it in her hands, watching as the blisters broke and began leaking clear fluid

“Holy cow! Merchant!”

Merchant pointed to a small cabinet; inside she found gauze and tape and burn ointment. She busied herself trying to dress the wound. Merchant watched, studying her. Soon she’d applied a fair bandage; he could feel the coolness of the ointment on his skin.

“And so, I am a night creature. Now you know why I avoid the sun. For me, the sun is pain and death.”

“I guess so. I’m sorry I doubted you.”

“Worry not, Cassandra. I know how unusual my condition, and how skeptical people are. I would have demanded proof as well. That you didn’t take my word is of more interest to me. You insist on seeing for yourself.”

“Well… yeah. Anyone who takes the word but fails to follow up gets what’s coming to them.”

“I can hear the wisdom of your father in your words.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “That’s one of daddy’s. He had a bottomless supply of good sayings.”

“So it would seem.”

They proceeded back into the large main room, whose large heavy curtains made so much more sense to her now. Reseated, Merchant again gazed out upon the city, waiting, is seemed, for full dark.

Cassandra sat across from him, not watching the city, but watching his face.

An hour passed.

Two hours.

In exasperation, Cassandra flung herself up, grunting in relief.

“How do you sit so still?”

Merchant smiled. “Years of practice.” His head twitched in that manner he had. Merchant always seemed to be listening to something. It was as though he were having a conversation she could not see. She thought he was unaware that he was even doing it. Besides, the quirk gave him a little humanity. He was always so distant and so formal with her that it was nice to know he was normal.

She bit her lower lip and decided it was past time to ask him. She started to feel sick. Casey tried hard not to raise her voice.

“I… can I have some money now?”

Merchant sat watching the stars come out.

“What do you need money for, Cassandra?” His voice was world-weary. He seemed tired. What would it be? Family? Friends? Rent? What poor excuse would she use, when he could see her need standing out on her face like new rain on the sidewalk.

She was honest, at least. She surprised him, as she had been doing since he first began watching her. She was unpredictable. He thought of something he’d seen her do.  The incident that came to mind was a night months prior. She had been coming out of a seedy club on West Ninth. She had turned on a group of three men, all drunk, who were harassing her. She slapped the first one so hard the gentleman went down. In the confusion, she kicked a second between the legs and jammed her thumb into the third man’s eye. Then, to the amazement of the crowd that had gathered, and the Merchant’s delight, she strolled away instead of running. That kind of moxie made him laugh aloud. It wasn’t her willingness to attack when threatened that impressed him. It was her knowing that form is as important as function. Having laid out three men, she couldn’t then belie her fear by running. That same flash of steel kept her from lying to him.

“Heroin. Twenty or thirty dollars will get me a taste and that’s all I need, just a taste, I promise. I’m not backing out, I’m just-”

He held up a hand. “Calm down, dear. I understand why you need the money. I gave my word to do just that. But I would instead like you to listen to an offer.”

“Another one?”

Merchant was somber. “Yes, another one. Please?” He gestured to the chair opposite him, a smaller version of his luxurious one. She sat gracelessly.

Merchant gathered his thoughts for a few moments, and then said to her:

“I understand your need, Cassandra. I understand that burning, desperate desire within you for this drug. I know.” Casey was shaking her head, but his next words pierced her selfish denials.

“Cassandra… I lost everything to my addiction. I lost my family, my friends, and my fortune. I lost my homeland and my love. I lost… everything that made my world worth living. I didn’t care. I didn’t fight it. I leaped into the arms of my drug.” She could see his eyes, empty and sad, and she reflected that his eyes looked like her soul felt when she was high. Hollowed out, scoured of goodness and life.

“I would have done… I did do… anything. Everything. I had no remorse. I had no pity, nor compassion. I hurt people. I was ashamed, and I still did it. I sacrificed everything for it. I lost everything. I almost lost myself. I did lose myself.” He stared into space for a moment. “When I managed to pull myself back from that edge, I was changed. I made myself change. It… it wasn’t easy. And there were… consequences. Things I will have to live with. At any rate, I managed to overcome my addiction. It took time, will, and help. I freed myself of my dreadful need.” He shook his head.

“My offer is this: I will help you. I will keep you safe and help you conquer your addiction. Our original agreement is by no means dependent upon your taking this offer. If you choose not to accept my help, our original contract stands. I shall give you a sum of money and let you on your way when I’ve finished with you. I will not recant my word. My word is a binding contract to me. All I ask is that you try. If you do not think that you can do that, if you’re too far gone, or you don’t want to beat your habit, then leave. I release you of every and any obligation. But if you are to stay, you must be willing to try. Do not tell me you will if you have the slightest intention of reneging your word. I will not tolerate it. I would rather we sever our relationship right now than bother wasting my precious time on someone who is happier on drugs than off. I may be a little melodramatic, but I am very serious, Cassandra. I will help you free yourself, but you must want to try. Do you want to try?”

She swallowed hard.

“It’s a nice offer, Merchant… but really… all I’m giving up is some money and food and a nice place to stay. You make it sound like I’d be giving up… I don’t know what. What are you offering? What can you offer that I can’t get elsewhere? In rehab, or somewhere.”

“A reasonable question. First, I can offer you money. I have millions. Many. If you allow me to help you, I will of course do something to assure your financial future. Not for the rest of your life, but well enough to allow you to decide how you want the rest of your life to go. I will give you money enough to take your time deciding, and enough money to reach whatever goal you desire, be that education or starting a business. Second, I am offering you self respect. Few are the souls who redeem themselves without help, Cassandra. I made a vow, a long time ago, that I would use my second chance to help others. That I would use my resources to lead others to the peace and happiness I have found. Believe me, my dear, I do want to help you for my own sake. Every soul I save is another soul not damned. It is a cause I believe in.”

“There have been others? Other women?” Not sure why, Casey felt an irrational stab of jealousy.

“There have, in fact. Not many. I have extended this offer to a few, and most of them took the arrangement. All but two of those followed through. In you, I have another opportunity to save someone less fortunate than I. And in this case, my dear, I don’t mind saying, I have a somewhat less than altruistic reasoning behind my offer.”

She looked puzzled. “An…”

“Altruistic. It means concern for the welfare of others, and is a notable virtue. My way of stating that I have a selfish motive for offering, not just a selfless one.”

“What’s that?”

“I am already very fond of you, Cassandra. I do not wish to turn you out of my home. I will, make no mistake… if you give me your word of honor and failed to try to live up to that promise, then we will be through. I would regret it, but I would still turn you out. I can help you change your life. Please accept.”

Casey didn’t say anything. She stared at Merchant until she couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes any longer. She looked at the floor. He didn’t say anything. She couldn’t even hear him breathe.

Almost twenty minutes went by before she looked up at him again. She was crying.

“Yes.” Her voice was a whisper, and it was shaking along with her body, as she began to sob. But she had to say no more, for he was at her side, an arm around her shoulders, cradling him to her. She sobbed. She sobbed for her lost innocence, for her lost time, for everything she had traded for her drugs, for her life. She sobbed and he let her.

She quieted.

“Your word, then?”

“Why?”

“Because it is important to me. Because when you give me your word, you’re telling me that on your soul you’ll try to keep it. That you would rather die than break it.”

Cassandra looked at merchant for so long, he thought she was going to take back her whispered word. But instead, she said, “My dad told me once that your word is a check you write for account on your dignity. Breaking your word is the same as bouncing a check at a bank. You do that, the bank won’t trust you, and pretty soon, your checks are worthless. Same with your word. Break your word, and it’s worthless too.”

“I find poetry in that statement. Your father sounds wise.”

“He is. He’s a professor. He’s the smartest man I know.”

“It’s going to be hard?”

“It won’t be easy. Have you never tried to break your habit before?”

“No. I never had a good reason. Until Ritchie, and losing the apartment. I was doing fine.”

He said, “It will not be easy, but I will be here. I have a doctor that I use in such matters, and he will be discrete and careful. He’ll give you a most thorough examination before we begin anything. I will send for him at once.”

“B-but it’s night-time,” she said in a small voice. “What doctor…?”

“You needn’t worry about that, or any other mundane detail. I shall arrange everything. Have you eaten?”

She shook her head. “No. Mrs… Lettie said that you would want to go out.”

“If you feel up to it, I would indeed. It is in your hands. If you feel that you aren’t up to a public outing, I’ll arrange food to be brought here. I myself do not cook. I’ve the time and patience, but not the knack.”

She said, “I’m not sure if I should eat. If I’m going to… if the doctor gives me stuff to help… won’t I sick it up? The drugs they give you to get you off… they make you puke, don’t they? I heard that somewhere.”

“Perhaps. We’ll have to see what he says. Wait here for a moment, while I make a call.” He rose, considered her, and sank again to his knee, bringing their eyes level.

“Cassandra… this is a serious undertaking, and a difficult one. But I know that you can do this. If you didn’t have the steel, you wouldn’t have agreed. I sense that about you. You’ve always kept your word, always kept your promises, haven’t you?”

She nodded.

“That is all the collateral I require.”

“I thought so. It was one of the things that attracted me to you. Be patient, I shall return.”

With that he rose, and it looked to her like a flower unfolding. He pulled his chamber door closed after him. There was no sound from behind it while Casey cried, arms wrapped around her legs, staring out of the window into the heart of the city.

Before long, Merchant emerged from his room, and took his seat beside her again.

“Doctor Allen will be along. He’s got to travel here from the school of medicine. He’s a dean there, and has been a close friend for many years. He works very late on campus. I believe he’s eager for an excuse to slip away. He is also schooled in the most recent techniques and theory concerning drug rehabilitation.” He smiled at her. “He also suggested you not eat until he examines you, but I have taken the liberty of ordering from a local restaurant a selection of light fare. In the eventuality of your being able to dine.”

She nodded at him, eyes still brimming with tears.

“I understand that you’re scared. You have my word, my promise, that it will be all right. I won’t let harm come to you, Cassandra. On that, you can rely.”

“Okay. I-I believe you. I’m just…” She trailed off. It wasn’t something she could explain. Merchant said, “I understand.” She believed him.

They sat in front of the window for almost an hour, until the intercom chimed. Merchant rose, and answered the doorman in a pleasant voice, giving permission for the doctor to be allowed up to the penthouse.

Moments later, the doorbell chimed, and Merchant opened it, letting in a tall, older man with graying hair and glasses. Behind him came the porter, with Merchant’s food orders. He showed the porter to the kitchen while the doctor came to Casey and introduced himself.

“Doctor Paul Allen,” he said in an affable, professional tone. She took his hand and gave a decent smile. After Merchant showed out the porter, He returned to them and sat.

“Okay, I was told to bring a full kit for examinations and blood work, as well as other tests.” He inclined his head at Merchant. “Our friend here was quite emphatic on that point. He wants me to give you a very thorough going-over. First, I’m going to ask you some questions, and get your medical history. Some of the questions are going to be… frank. But I assure you, they go no further than myself. Ethics aside, I’m being well-paid for my services, and one of my standard stipulations is that I couldn’t care less what you’ve done, or with whom, or how legal or illegal it is. My

goal is to get you healthy. Understood?”

Casey nodded.

“Can you be completely honest with me?”

“I think so. I’ll try.”

“Good girl. Do you want to be in private, or…?”

“No. He’ll find out everything anyhow. He’ll either ask, or I’ll tell him. It’s easier if he’s here.”

“I’m going to do a complete physical, too. Are you shy?”

Casey smiled. “That’s not one of my problems.”

“All right.” Allen clapped his pudgy hands. “Let’s get started, then. Over here, I think,” he said, moving into the center of the room. He put his bag, which Casey was surprised to see was black leather, on the antique coffee table. She thought that was just a television thing.

“Remove your clothing, please. You can do that in your room and get a sheet, if you need to.”

She debated. What would Merchant do? She decided that he would be dignified, in an undignified situation. So she would be, too.

“I’ll return, Doctor. Please excuse me, gentlemen.” She stood up. Merchant stood with her. He looked bemused, but she thought she saw a hint of approval. She walked into her room and closed the door.

Allen looked at Merchant and raised his eyebrows.

“Yes?” Merchant said. his tone was easy, easier than with Casey. He and Allen had been friends since Allen’s residency, at London Charity Hospital.

“Another project, Merchant?”

“Perhaps.”

“Ah.”

“Meaning?” Merchant’s eyebrow lifted.

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Allen said, grinning at the other man. Merchant smiled and said nothing more.

The Bank Job

     The ten o’clock rushed died away. Catherine balanced her drawer before her break. There were perhaps a dozen people in the bank besides the guards, a handful of tellers, the manager, and a few customers when six men with masks and guns burst through the front door.

     The leader screamed out, “Everyone freeze!” Mike, the door guard, drew his weapon. One of the assailants fired, and Mike never had a chance to pull the trigger on his revolver. The bullet entered just below his chin.

     Catherine didn’t avert her eyes from the sight, and she didn’t look down. She pulled her drawer out with her knee, reached under the stack of twenties, found the bottom bill, pulled it out from between the contacts of the silent alarm, and pushed the drawer closed, all in one economical movement.

     “Four, on the door. Five, Six! Upstairs! Two and Three, round ‘em up,” Their leader’s voice was authoritative and flat.

Catherine absorbed the details. The height measure at the door put the leader at six feet. They wore identical black balaclavas, sunglasses, white surgeon’s masks, jumpsuits, black boots, and black gloves. All of them had backpacks. The way they were outfitted and how they moved all but screamed ‘training’ to her. Military, maybe, and it looked to her as if they knew their way around the bank. They had either cased it earlier or had floor plans.

Two and Three kicked-in the door and were behind the counter, forcing the tellers out; now Catherine was staring down a gun barrel, Beretta M9. She knew it. You could get them anywhere.

     A shot from upstairs, then another, and a third, all the employees cringed. Catherine had them tagged now by height, slight variations in uniform and mannerisms, allowing her to keep their names straight.

     Five and Six forced a handful of prisoners downstairs from the second floor, no guards among them. All of those men had been in their fifties or better, and Catherine imagined none of them had been quick enough on the draw. In her six months of employment she’d considered the flaws in the bank’s security, and the guards had been her number one concern.

     Hollimer was by no means a teeming metropolis. With maybe a hundred thousand people, Hollimer was big enough to keep someone from going crazy but small enough to know neighbors; an unobtrusive spot in an unremarkable corner of the state–perfect if you were up to no good, or if you were looking for old friends to spend their retirement days as bank guards.

     Number One barked, “Heads down! Arms up! Face the wall! If anyone gives us trouble we will not warn you; we will shoot you. I’m not going to ask if you understand. You will not talk. You will follow any order we give or we will shoot you. Do not ask us to repeat ourselves. Follow orders and you’ll go home, otherwise you’ll die here.”

     His speech was efficient and to the point, sounding to Catherine eerily reminiscent of some drill instructors she had known.

     Two and Three patted-down the hostages, taking cell phones and keys. They flex-cuffed them and ordered them to sit. Angie cried. Another voice whispered monotonously “No, no, no, no, no…” Everyone looked down except Catherine, who studied the men closely.

     Footsteps and the hard clank of keys. Number Four was at the front door, signaling clear. The building was theirs.

Gearing up

I’ve got Pros polished and ready for the ABA. Now I’m starting the final polish on Magician for the Writer’s League agent contest. If i win that one, i’ll get a one-on-one with an agent in June at the conference here in Austin to discuss the pros and cons, the merits and flaws, and have a chance to pitch my book to them.

Big stuff.

And Ballot Press still has Return Fire. So that’s three books that are out there, doing something. And my story Repo gets published in April in Analog.

 

This is my year.

 

I’m full-court-pressing to get my career in writing going. I’m going to saturate the market with my stories and books, bombard agents and publishers with my info, books, and, stories, see what I can do. And if I can’t make a go of it…

…what?

Well, I’ll keep going. Obviously I can’t stop. Ever. I’ve still got The Long Way Home to finish editing and send off to several Scifi publishing houses, and of course, my big one, the Great American Novel, What You Wish For is still there.

Mainstream fiction. Heavy Duty Literature. I never thought I’d have written a book like that, but there it is. And it’s a good one.

 

Yep. This is my year.

The march

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slaving feverishly over a hot manuscript. Pros is currently on the ninth draft. I think it finally looks good. Especially after reviewing draft 8 and suddenly deciding to cut 9 fucking chapters right out of it.

Nine beautiful, character-driven, back-story chapters… that take the story from chapter one- the introduction of Our Hero with a gaping wound in his side to…. eight months in the past.

Yes, back-story can be awesome. And yes, the detail with which i lovingly crafted these characters is considerable. And yes, I think that each and every single thing I wrote is absolutely essential in getting to know them, and understanding their characters. However… the book’s about the STORY. And the back-story? it didn’t serve the plot. It was a painting of the characters. Did it help? yes. Was it necessary?

*sob*

No.

Guh.

So, it’s out.

But, draft 9 is done. I think it’s polished. I think it’s pretty. I’ve read it out loud, word by word, ten times from start to finish (said activity has taken me three days, by the way.) If you don’t read your work out loud, I highly recommend it. Beautiful prose is one thing. But nothing shouts awkward faster than trying to pronounce a bit of lovely, but awkward, vocabulary. Remember: it’s gotta flow.

Just like the Spice, man.

Today has been about the pitch. See, I’m getting it ready (slaving feverishly, remember) for the Amazon Breakout Novel contest (last year’s approach to the final 500 from 10,000 gave me a lot of hope, and more than a few panic attacks) and I really feel like Pros is a much stronger entry this year. But I need a good pitch.

Actually, i need an amazing pitch. Because even though a pitch is necessary, and the book is stronger than last year’s entry…. the first 5000 pages aren’t as grabby as last year’s pages. I really lucked out with last year’s pages, which started out with a good old fashioned murder at the end of the first chapter. This one? Not so much. Although there is a good bit of gore, there’s no murder. So, i need a good pitch. I need an awesome pitch. I need an amazing pitch.

I hate writing a pitch.

I hate it because I suck at writing a pitch.

As such, I’ve been slaving away at it today. I found a shit-ton of really good help online, not the least of which has been Nathan Bransford’s awesome blog, http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/05/how-to-write-one-sentence-pitch.html (Leave me alone, i haven’t figured out how to embed a link.)

He recommends a one sentence, one paragraph, two paragraph approach.

I’ve written twice as many drafts of the damned pitch as I have the book!

That’s to be expected. And i need the practice. *le sigh*

So, there’s that.