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I may have told Helen that Saint Jerome was a necessary component of a functioning community, but there’s a big difference between repeating the twisted tenets of an ancient religion and swallowing them whole. Jerome was a wart on the ass of society and about as essential as a eel in a vat of tuna. Fear of his gangsters made parents keep their children indoors. Maybe his iron fist and vicious territorial tendencies kept crime from running rampant, but the cost of organized crime was the well being of everybody in the lower bead of Nicodemia. Jerome was the slug in the garden that kept the lettuce from growing too tall. Neither God nor machine could possibly see a benefit in keeping the gangster boss in power, but there he was, a testament to the imperfections of the powers that be.
He was also impossible to find, despite the fact that he supposedly wanted to talk to me. The easiest way to reach him was to go through Sam.
Dammit. That asshole knew I’d come looking for him.
Dockside was a misnomer for the district of the lower Heavies that held the fisheries. Sure, there were docks. It was all docks down in the pitted bottom of the station. There, the gravity was heaviest, making every breath a pull through gritted teeth. Every step was a marathon. This was Jerome’s territory, more than anywhere else, but as I walked the streets, his thugs never stepped out to greet me. Nothing lit up the foggy Dockside night.
I was alone but for the fish in their pools.
The fiberoak grid splayed out across the pits where fish of various varieties splashed slick and dark in the night. Tuna, salmon, carp. Every fish had its use in the station, and every single one of them stank its own kind of ugly. I’d visited Dockside plenty of times, but that stench hit with an aching newness every single time.
There, in the small hours of the morning, with air heavy with fish and fog, a person could almost feel alone, even with all the world on his shoulders.
A blue light flickered through the heavy fog. I headed for it, ignoring the slosh of the fisheries to either side. Out there, in the cold docks, a person could fall into the water and his body might be lost for days before anyone bothered to dredge him up. Those black waters swallowed sin and sinner alike, and to feed the fish was almost a kind of redemption. It helped the station, anyway. In a closed system like ours, death was a person’s final good deed.
The solid click of a small firearm told me I was no longer alone.
I raised my hands into the air. “I’m unarmed,” I said, letting a small fraction of my weariness slide into my voice. “Here to talk to Saint Jerome.”
After a long pause, a voice responded out of the fog. “You came.” It was Sam Wash again.
“I couldn’t get enough of your charm,” I said.
He stepped closer, his silhouette looming between rippling ponds. “You’re working for Lauder now?”
“Come on, I—“
“Fucking admit it.” He raised an arm to point at me, but there wasn’t a weapon in it. I wondered who had the gun I’d heard. Sam’s jerky movements betrayed fear behind his aggression. Fear of what, I wasn’t sure. Maybe he was afraid I would humiliate him again.
“I’m just here to talk, Sam.”
“You’re here to ambush us.”
I looked around, double checking the army I hadn’t brought. “How exactly do you think ambushes work?”
The twitchy smile didn’t settle well on his soft features. He made a faint whistling noise through his teeth. “You tell Lauder we’re not falling for it. Not this time.”
“I thought Jerome wanted to see me.”
Sam ran his fingers through his hair and breathed a deep, noisy breath through his nose. “I told the Saint you switched sides.”
“He’s not going to believe that.”
When Sam stepped close, an odor hit me above even the stench of the fisheries. Something raw and ripe, like the musk of an animal. Every muscle in his body shuddered with tension.
“I just need a few answers,” I said, hands still raised. “That’s all.”
Sam glanced to the side. Two of his buddies stepped forward from the mist on either side of me. That’s where the guns were. I was surrounded. Oh. That’s how ambushes work.
“Pretty clever,” I said to the guy on my left.
He shrugged.
I looked from one to the other, making a point of ignoring Sam. “I don’t think your boss treats you very well. Have you ever considered unionizing.”
Sam slugged me fast, hard, and low. I crumpled, unable to compete with the brute’s sheer mass. My knees hit the fiberoak dock. He looked down at me. My long arms might have given me some advantage if I’d been stupid enough to try to fight back, but I wasn’t that dumb. Sam was a native Heavy: built like a brick and twice as smart. He’d mop the floor with me if I didn’t catch him off guard.
“Tell me what you’re doing for Lauder,” Sam hissed. “Or you’ll feed these damn fish.”
I patted my pockets. “I think I left my fish food back at the office.”
“I ain’t talkin’ about fish food.”
“Flakes, chum, feeder fish. I don’t know man.” I showed my empty palms. “I got nothing.”
Sam sputtered. “With your body, asshole.”
“We can’t do that.”
“Why not?”
“I use my body.” I flashed him a crooked smile. “Almost every day.”
His thick fist pounded the side of my skull, and in all fairness it might have been deserved. Little flashes danced around my vision, and if I hadn’t been on my knees I’d have worried about toppling over into the drink.
The guy on my left had the good grace to look uncomfortable, but I had the feeling his discomfort wasn’t going to help me much once my corpse hit the bottom of a pond. I moved my hand slowly to my pocket, careful not to trigger Sam’s twitchy paranoia. From it, I drew the small cross. “Thought the saint might have an idea where this came from.”
Sam’s eyes went wide. He took a step back, eyes darting around at the fog. “Where’d you get that?”
I could have taken the advantage to stand, but I got the distinct feeling that my height was one of those things that really pissed Sam off. Where was that conflict-avoiding pushover from a few hours prior? Instead, I knelt on one knee, ready to stand at the first sign of trouble. Sam didn’t appear to pick up on the irony of my genuflection. I held the cross out on its chain, its screaming Jesus spinning in the dim light. “Where’s Jerome?”
“He’s not around,” said the guy on my left, putting away his gun. “Not for you, anyway.”
“And here I thought he and I were friends.”
“Nobody’s friends with the Saint,” said the thug.
“Really? That’s a shame. I thought we got along so well at singles bowling night.”
Sam’s brow furrowed, as if he truly couldn’t tell if what I said was a lie. It was, but the fact he couldn’t tell meant he had some serious drugs in his system. That explained the lack of self-control and severely dilated pupils.
“Well, he must be lonely,” I said. “Having no friends.”
This time when he swung that meaty fist of his, I caught it. Standing to my full height, I kept hold of his arm in a joint lock, trying my very best to ignore the two men pointing guns at me.
“Just shoot him!” shouted Sam.
A dozen heartbeats passed. Neither of the guys shot me for reasons I could only guess. I set my gaze on Sam, meeting his brown-eyed stare until he twitched.
He growled, “I said—”
“They heard what you said, but here’s the thing: a good thug knows what his boss really wants. These two guys? They’re looking at you right now and they’re seeing you wrecked off a bad high. They’re looking at how you cracked after that encounter with Lauder, and they’re asking themselves how long you’ll be around.” I shoved him away. “When they walk away today, they’re going to report to Saint Jerome. Do you think they want to tell the Saint that they murdered his favorite bowling buddy? A powerful friend? An excommunicated man who can work outside the system to do things they’ve never imagined?”
“He’s not your friend,” Sam said, his voice almost swallowed by the fog. “He’s never been your friend.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” I took a step forward and held out the cross like I was warding off a vampire. “But here’s how it’s going to go. You’re going to tell me what you know about this cross. Then you and your boys are going to go tell the Saint that I’m busy with another job and I’ll get back to him when I’m ready.”
Sam worked his mouth like a damn fish a few times before responding. “The cross is from a bunch of kids I used to run with,” he said. “Nothing big. They’re not trouble if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“Kids?”
“Young,” he said. “Some of them really young.”
“Where’s their turf?”
He stared at me, the twitchiness in his muscles fading. Whatever courage he’d dosed himself with was dying off. “It’s not a good night for the guilty, Demarco.”
“Hardly ever is.”
Sam looked down at his big hands, as if finding them for the first time. His bruised knuckles looked black in the dim Dockside lights.
“If you’re going to talk about guilt,” I said, “you’d best know I was raised Catholic, too. Guilt is in my blood.”
His expression grew dark. “You don’t know what it’s like growing up on the streets.”
“I know Trinity takes care of you.” Homelessness couldn’t really exist on the station, present company excepted. Anyone under Trinity’s purview could have a place to live and food to eat. Good karma made the house nicer and the food more palatable, but shelter and calories were a human right. Only the excommunicated needed to really worry.
Sam shook his head. “You’re wrong. There’s so much more to this place that you’ve never seen. Nobody has.” He pointed at my chest. “And people like you are the ones who go around wrecking things. You want to know who that cross belongs to, but you’re only going to bring them pain.”
“Sometimes that’s what I do.”
His shoulders sagged. “Maybe it’s time you visited the church.”
“I keep hearing that.”
“Lot of good answers around there,” he said. “Maybe the kind of answers you’re looking for.” He nodded to the necklace. “A piece like that? It belongs to someone special.”
With that, I left the docks, ready to make the long, slow slog up the spiral to the city’s biggest cathedral. He thinks I should visit a church? Hell, I’ll visit the biggest church in the whole damn city.

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About the author

AWEichenlaub

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

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