I never much was one for prayer. Even as a kid, I was the one kicking and screaming just to get a chance at ending my day without voicing my concerns to the ever-present God above. I hated praying to God, hated asking Trinity for favors, and I hated begging anyone for help.
Call it practical or call it stupid. If something could be done, I’d be the one to do it. For myself, for my sister, even for my parents.
I sat on the fiberstone steps of the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi my whole body wracked with the urge for a single cigarette. I flicked my lighter into the wind, watching as it blew out every time. The day’s wind was a dry exhale, swirling around the spiral station like a lazy hurricane. Eventually it would stop and a new weather pattern would emerge. Weather was constant change like the souls of men.
Still air was bad air. People craved change, and when it wasn’t flowing in the air around them they find ways to produce it. Raw instinct in the human spirit detests a static environment. Heat and humidity can be high or low and people adapt, so long as it changes.
Flick. The flame danced for a few seconds, then guttered to a cold death.
Sometimes we don’t like the changes life brings us. I’d worked a hundred cases like McCay’s, and a hundred ended the same way. These nice, safe cases always came down to a nice, safe end. Not this time. I found the meds. Held them in my hand. But I wasn’t giving them back. All that was left was to visit the good doctor and tell him he was out of luck.
A raw stone of guilt lodged itself in the back of my chest. Flick. The man was in pain. I could get the meds by using my credentials as a trained med tech. The flame danced. It was in my power to get him what he wanted, but would he appreciate what I needed to do to get it? Would he even bother to pay me?
The flame died.
I was invisible. As far as the police were concerned and as far as Trinity knew, I didn’t even exist. A man could back out of any deal with me and the only consequence he’d face was a frown and a few foul words. McCay knew it, too. Soon as he had another source for his meds, I was gone.
Flick. The flame instantly died.
McCay wasn’t in pain because his meds were stolen. He was in pain because he refused to get help through Trinity. His vanity brought him pain. His refusal to comply with the norms of society. Flick. Then again, wasn’t that what caused Retch’s trouble?
Or mine?
The flame died.
No, not really. My pain was a long, slow train wreck of a life culminating in a series of bad luck and worse associations. My excommunication wasn’t my choice. Retch’s identity wasn’t his. The only one of us who chose what they got was McCay, but did that mean he deserved his pain?
I pocketed my lighter. A tired ache drenched my bones, but there was more work to do. This needed to be finished, and soon.
Upspiral from the cathedral sat a shopping district complete with gambling hall and a few dozen decent bars. Later in the evening, the place would be crawling with acolytes of the mighty dime. Midday, however, the shops remained sparsely populated and the gambling halls were all but deserted.
The first shop I visited was a bust, as were the next several. Finally, I ran into one staffed by a bored-looking teen in a scrubby button-down blazer and a narrow-brimmed hat.
“It’ll cost you,” he said.
“I’ll owe you a favor.”
He looked me up and down, a slight twist of disgust tweaking his upper lip. “I like your coat.”
“It keeps the rain off my back.”
He looked away, his relaxed body language a clear dismissal, but I wasn’t ready to be done.
I leaned forward, the knuckles of my fists pressed down on the hard white of his low counter. I spoke in a low growl. “There comes a time in every man’s life when he finds a need for power outside his norm. He needs a problem solved or an obstacle removed. Maybe he says a prayer to God, but God doesn’t listen. Maybe he asks the blue, but police are just as bad as anything else out there. They’ve got better things to do.” My voice rose with a barely controlled fervor, and I leaned close so my face was an inch from his. I whispered, “Listen. One day you’ll need the man who walks in the dark. You’ll want questions answered that don’t need answering. You’ll want problems solved, and nobody out there is going to solve them for you.”
He nodded almost imperceptibly. His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“I’m the man who walks in the dark, and I’m offering to owe you a favor.” I dropped my business card down on his desk. “But I’m only offering this once.”
He swallowed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
He did fine, and when I left his shop I had a sack full of cast-off clothing and something that might pass for a decent meal. I ate the hard protein bar on my way back down the spiral, but this time I took the outer loop through gray, cramped streets. The cathedral shadowed this whole neighborhood, and as the scrubby residential brownstones turned to ramshackle warehouses, I noticed the first watcher.
And he noticed me. Soon, they were all around. A kid in the shadows or a gangly group of teens watching me from under a warm yellow lamp. None of the lights changed for me as I passed. Kids fell in behind me, keeping their distance at first, then closing closer and closer. By the time I reached Retch’s warehouse, a pack of thirty-some children nipped at my heels, bristling with makeshift weapons.
Retch sat atop a crate, arms draped lazily over his knees. “Didn’t think we’d see you back here so soon, dead man.” His gun hung from a holster strapped across his chest. “I was hoping we wouldn’t see you back here at all.”
“I was thinking we might continue our conversation from earlier,” I said.
“The one where I had a gun to your head?” The kids behind me laughed.
“The one that was interrupted before a proper conclusion.”
“Yeah, your girlfriend sure is a looker.” More jeers from the audience.
I held the bag out. “I’m not here to cause trouble, Retch.”
He gestured at the crowd around us. “And yet.”
“He went to the church,” shouted a kid from the crowd. “Was in there a long time, too.”
Retch raised an eyebrow at me. “Did the priest send you back here to show me the light?”
I took several steps forward. “Seems to me you might want some of this said in private.”
“I don’t have any secrets here,” he said with a quirky smile. “These people accept me for who I am because they know I can kick some ass if I need.”
A couple kids in the crowd sniggered at that. They pressed in closer, cutting off any illusion of an escape route I might have thought I still had.
“They know you’re sick?” I asked.
Retch made a show of looking around at his cohorts. “Hardly anyone here who isn’t sick with something.” He looked straight at me. “What’ve you got?”
I chose to misconstrue the question and set the sack on the crate next to him. “Your meds and an apology.”
He blinked.
“Bindings,” I said, “and boy-themed cloths that’ll fit you, if you’re interested.”
After a long pause, he whispered, “Why?” The waver in his voice told me that it had had the intended effect. My guess was he’d never heard that kind of respect from an adult.
I tipped my hat to him and turned. The crowd of kids parted before me, and as I passed, I saw that they all wore shoddy versions of the same screaming Jesus necklace that I’d given back to Retch. This gang of kids—forgotten by the church and all but ignored by Trinity—had managed to find each other in this vast city. They’d accepted each others’ strangeness and found a way to survive outside the system.
Maybe they’d even make it.
Maybe they would even thrive.
The details on the gang’s continuation couldn’t bother me, either way. There was still work to do before I slept, and the burning ache of exhaustion gnawed at my skull. My feet took me down spiral, past the warehouses and through the twisting residential tenements. Down where the air grew warm like the pit of my stomach every time I thought about telling McCay that I’d failed to bring his meds. It wasn’t failure that bothered me so much. Failure was a good friend of mine.
The lying sat ugly in the back of my gut. I’d have to lie to the man, and maybe even threaten him a little if he gave me a hard time. Nothing serious. Just a part of the job.
That’s why it hit me with a mixed sense of dread and relief when I saw the blue parked outside McCay’s apartment. The police brought the whole works: two light scooters, three heavy rescue vehicles—the kind that couldn’t go everywhere in the bead’s narrow streets, but where they could go they got there fast—and even a lifter. The big metal vehicle looked like it’d seen better days. Its brutal angular form wrapped itself around a trio of powerful rockets. Some enterprising cop had been upgrading and maintaining this thing for a long time. It’s paint job sported the modern blue and white of police vehicles, and every light on every vehicle screamed blue and red in a psychedelic, asynchronous pulse.
They might be there for anyone in that building. This could be a random raid on a suspected criminal and have nothing to do with my small potatoes medical fraud. McCay’s crimes were hardly worth the paperwork, let alone a full regimen of officers.
The poor chap they’d left to guard the entrance looked up as I approached.
“What’s the excitement?” I asked.
The officer’s eyes lingered on the shape of my face. No doubt he saw how the street lamp I stood near didn’t light up at my presence. Some of the older cops might ignore me entirely for the crime of being excommunicated by Trinity. The younger crowd tended to brush me off with short answers and a gruff attitude.
By comparison, this guy was downright friendly. “Fella’s dead up there. They think it’s a murder.”
“In a nice neighborhood like this?”
The cop—Anders by the name on his badge—gestured at the flashing vehicles. “That’s why we’re out in force. Apparently the guy had some karma.”
“Justice follows wealth, I suppose.”
He jutted out his lower jaw. “Well it shouldn’t.” I got the impression he’d had this argument before. He’d eventually come to terms with the cold fiber underpinning his reality. It wasn’t my job to force the issue.
“Who’s the corpse?”
“Dr. Anton McCay. He’s some bigwig at the hospital.”
“How’d he die?”
Anders shrugged. “They don’t tell me much except possibly over drinks later.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Sorry if you live here, buddy. I can’t let anyone in yet. Had to send a bunch of people packing for the night already.”
It wasn’t uncommon for the police to shut down a whole tenement for one reason or another. A single body in a single room didn’t seem like the best reason to me, but the police had their ways. They worked directly for Trinity, and if the station’s AI decided a whole block needed a shutdown order, then that’s what happened.
I took a deep breath of night air. “I don’t rightly live anywhere.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
A dead client meant no pay, and the deep hunger gnawed at me. As I walked away, an idea surfaced and I spoke from pure instinct. “Hey, Anders,” I said.
“You mentioned going out for a drink. Can I buy you a beer and ask a few questions?”
“I very much doubt you can.” He considered me for a moment. “If you come down around the Kinderson Creek tomorrow I’d be happy to swap stories.”
I tipped my hat to him and turned to walk away along the dark city streets. It didn’t take Beck long to find me in the Nicodemia streets, and it didn’t take me long to spot her when she did. She stood out like a canary on a foggy day, leaning against a building. Smoke wafted around her head.
“All right,” I told her as I took her up on the offer of a cigarette. “I’m in.”

A note from AWEichenlaub

Yeah, this is the scene that ended up inspiring the title for the book. I'll probably go back and tweak it a thousand times before it goes to print, but this is where Demarco's character really started to come together for me. Being excommunicated is a huge inconvenience for him, but it also gives him some advantages. He's not afraid to throw his weight around a little when he sees something wrong in the world. This is his first real chance to do that.

This is also the end of Part 1: the case of the missing meds. Stay tuned as Demarco delves deeper into the mystery of the missing art and gets somewhat sidelined by Heavy Nicodemia's worst crime boss, Saint Jerome.

And, don't forget, if you're interested in getting chapters early, you can find them by supporting my Patreon.

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About the author


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:

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