“You can’t keep bringing every poor sod you meet here,” my sister whispered through clenched teeth. Angel was a head shorter than me but she was my older sister and I’d never shaken the impression that she could kick my ass even after she found herself confined to a wheelchair. She sat across from me at the booth with a cleaning rag in one hand and a scowl making the lines of her brow stand on end.
Her wife, Helen, peeked in from the kitchen as if trying to gauge whether or not there’d be trouble. When she saw me, she gave a polite nod and disappeared behind the plain white door.
I said, “He needed a hand.”
“So take him to a church.”
She was probably right, but the diner was empty and any food she had left that late at night was probably going into the recycler anyway. Only a person who wanted to get smacked would mention that fact to my sister.
“You’ve got stock going to waste,” I said.
She cuffed me upside the head. It stung worse than it had any right to.
“He’s not bad looking,” she said. “What’s this guy’s name?”
“He never said,” I admitted, “and you know I’m not interested.”
“Right,” she said. “How’s that working out? Met any nice ladies recently?”
The image of Charlotte Beck’s sideways grin flashed in front of me. “No such luck,” I said.
Angel sighed. “You really didn’t get this fella’s name?” Her raised voice carried through the diner.
The hot dog vendor sat in the corner booth with a blank-eyed stare. Even from across the half-dozen booths, I could see that he wasn’t listening, and he probably wasn’t going to talk. Angel rolled away from the booth and rounded the counter.
“It wasn’t right to just leave him. He lost half his stock, Angel.”
“You brought him so I’d feed you both,” she drolled.
“I’ve lost half my stock to my leech of a brother who keeps dropping in.” She spoke as she rolled around the counter. A display stood at the corner with the remains of an apple pie. Angel always managed to procure fancy food in a bead that dealt only in fish and mushrooms. She had done well for herself, putting together a decent place to stop for a bite. “When are you going to get a job, Jude?”
I gave her a dry look. She knew my situation. The meaning of her words were clear. When was I going to seek reconciliation? When would I rejoin society and beg forgiveness for what I had done?
“I’m not ready,” I whispered quiet enough that I didn’t think she could hear.
Angel brought a plate around, paused in front of me long enough so I could smell the rich gravy she’d slathered all over an open-faced salmon sandwich, and then brought it to the hot dog vendor. He stared at it blankly for several long seconds before smiling and thanking her. She shot me a dirty look as she passed me on her way back behind the counter.
“I’m on a case,” I said.
She slid into the booth across from me, leaning forward with her elbows on the table and her palms supporting her chin. “Tell me all about it, bro.”
“Someone’s stealing meds.”
Her brow furrowed. “Why? Meds are free.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Does it pay?”
“Not everything’s about money, sis.”
“It is if you don’t have any, Jude, and you don’t have any.” She poked me in the chest. “I won’t, either, if I keep having to feed your excommunicated ass. Just reconcile, already.” There. She said it.
I drew a deep breath. We’d been over this same argument a dozen times and I didn’t have the energy to go over it again. Instead, I stood, placed my hat on my head, and said, “Thank you for feeding the guy. He should be able to get home on his own.”
With that I pushed through the glass door into the night. The rain had stopped, leaving a cloying mist clinging to cool streets. Far away, the red and blue still pulsed warnings into the thick haze.
The door opened behind me. At first, I thought it might be Angel, out to apologize, but it wasn’t. Of course, it wasn’t.
Helen handed to me a paper package. “I heard what you said back there.”
“You’re a decent man, Jude Demarco. Angel knows it.”
Strong evidence spoke against that. “You think I should reconcile, too?”
“I’m not talking about your status with Trinity.” Her hand rested gently on my elbow. “You’d be welcome back, you know. She would give you a job at the diner if you asked.”
Helen was a Catholic with a capital ‘C’, just like my sister and me. Christian through and through, descended from a long line of half-hearted zealots. Unlike Helen, my sister and I came from a family assured of its righteousness by the esteemed virtue of wealth. It’s hard to imagine anything going bad in the afterlife when your whole current life is so damned blessed. When things finally went sour for our family, her faith adjusted to the change. Mine didn’t.
High above, a blaze of white light cut through the haze. Searchlights pierced the mist. More signs of trouble in Nicodemia. Same old, same old.
“Even if the church lets me back in, I’d still be hungry.”
Hellen shook her head. “With the church’s blessing, Trinity would let you back in the fold.”
I opened the paper package. “Mushroom sandwich?”
“Portobello and mustard.”
One of my favorites. Helen had a knack for that kind of thing. I took a bite, my hunger getting the best of me. Through the mouthful, I said, “You know anything about a new gang rolling around these parts?”
She crossed her arms. “Is this about that job you told my wife about?”
“Maybe.” I took another bite. The sandwich was a little slice of heaven, and I’d never enjoyed anything more. “If the meds had painkillers mixed in, then the new gang might have taken them to help with some off-books surgery.”
Helen didn’t look convinced, but she’d spent her whole life on the right side of the law. It was hard for her to imagine anyone operating in the dark, especially in a city where the AI watched everyone all the time.
But there would always be those willing to break rules. There would always be people willing to hurt others for fun or profit.
“Rumor around the diner is that the new guy’s name is Frank Lauder. He’s a hotshot, and nobody thinks he’ll be around much longer, soon as Saint Jerome bothers to take care of him.” Helen’s eyes followed the spotlight slashing through darkness far across the city. “I don’t know. I never figured out why Saint Jerome got a pass on everything he’s done.”
“Body, soul, community,” I said. “Trinity’s an AI designed by Catholics for their long journey across the stars.”
“Don’t give me that shit. The Saint doesn’t serve any of those things.”
“Maybe he serves a necessary function of the community. The only one around here who doesn’t do that is me.”
“Says the guy who saved a hot dog vendor from certain doom.”
“Yeah,” I said. “What would happen to our souls if we ran out of hot dogs.”
Behind us, the hot dog vendor picked that moment to leave the diner. He still limped, but he gathered his cart without too much trouble. He gave me a nod as he walked past, and I tipped my hat to him. He’d be fine, and once he got back on his feet maybe I could depend on his charity for a meal or two. The kindness of those who owe a favor beats the kindness of strangers any day—and it all beats the hell out of the kindness of family.
I finished off the last few bites of sandwich. “Thanks, Helen,” I said, unable to confer the depth of the gratitude that I really felt. “You know I’ll pay you back.”
“No need,” Helen said, slapping me on the back. “Just don’t give your sister too hard a time.”
“And stay out of trouble.”
I stepped off into the mist-laden night, sure now where my next visit needed to be. The cross I’d picked up under McCay’s floor felt heavy in my pocket and if anyone knew where it came from, it would be the Saint.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub