Soon as we stepped free of the last airlock, Beck tossed me a roll of dimes packed tight in paper.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your stipend.” She turned to saunter away. Lazily waving me off. “I’ll see you tomorrow, big man.”
I hurried to catch up. “You aren’t going to stick around?”
“You have your job, I have mine. If you need me, I’ll know.”
“This isn’t a lot of money for an investigation,” I said, hefting the roll of dimes. “Hardly enough for a few drinks.”
She turned on me. “How many drinks does a guy need to solve a problem like this?”
“A few.” Maybe she wasn’t paying attention. “Maybe not all the drinks are for me.”
“And maybe they are.” She jabbed me in the belly with a sharp fingernail. “Keep it straight, big guy, and you’ll get a good payday out of this. If I come back to find you drunk in a gutter somewhere, I’ve still got the option to make things a lot worse for you.”
Something about the way she said it dissolved all my doubts in a strong acid. “You make a hell of a boss, Beck.”
“I’m not your boss, Demarco,” she shot back. “We’re just two independent contractors who happen to be moving in the same direction.” She flashed a smile and disappeared into a crowd.
“Let’s hope it stays that way,” I said, but she was already gone.
The yellow glow of noon warmed the city streets. My feet took me through the market district, my feet wandering as aimlessly as my brain. That was sometimes the key to solving a puzzle, I found. Let the mind wander. It knows how to make connections. Let it.
It wasn’t much to go by, but I’d had worse. Two names: Maurice Ribar and Trey Vitez. The art itself might hold some clues. The Garden of Earthly Delights wasn’t an unknown piece. Ruiz was right to covet it. It was unique.
Despite my reluctance to take this particular piece of employment, it did feel good to have a job. Working gave me purpose, and it was all I could do to keep myself from jumping in feet first. Instead, I picked my way meticulously through the narrow streets, moving closer to the busy corridors where the cathedral dominated the neighborhood. I took a random path, doubling back on my path half a dozen times just to be safe. It made sense to think the widow might have me followed. Even Beck might want to keep an eye on me for her own reasons.
That’s why it was no surprise to find someone following me. One of Saint Jerome’s men blended with the crowd a block back, and when he finished, I discovered he’d handed me off to someone else. They were good, blending the handoff like true professionals.
I came to a shop tucked into a secluded corner of the marketplace where bolts of cloth lined the walls and threads and yarn of every color filled the narrow shelves.
A man wearing a silver crescent necklace paused in the midst of a cut of cloth. “Can I help you?”
“Do you have a back exit?” I asked.
“One in the back and one down into the emergency corridors.”
Down was an option, but dealing with emergency alarms was more trouble than this was worth. “Can you let me out the back?”
He made a show of considering it. “Are you in trouble with the church?”
I ran a hand along a bolt of cloth. It was good stuff, and the colors were more than most places could afford. “There might be a couple guys looking for me.”
His expression soured. “What kind of guys?”
“The kind you won’t want to lie to when they come asking.”
He wattles of his chin jiggled as he shook his head. “I’m not getting involved in that. You can go out the front.”
“It’s just a little—“
“No. If I let you through and they decide I’m causing trouble, then my shop is ruined. It’s hard enough margins being Muslim in this city.”
I took off my hat and ran my fingers through my hair. I didn’t want to cause the man trouble, but I didn’t want to go out the front door. They’d be waiting for me, maybe they’d be impatient enough to jump me right there.
“I can pay,” I said, cracking open the roll of dimes across my knuckles. “These dimes are untracked. Totally outside the karma system.”
He tensed. “You think that’ll make things better for me? They find your dirty dimes on me, and I’ll be taking a swim for sure.”
The door swung open and a woman walked in. She wore a home-knit sweater and comfortable shoes. She moved straight to a pile of cast-offs and flipped through the reds.
I whispered to the shopkeeper. “Look, you let me through and I’ll make it worth your while. You can tell them where I went when they come asking. If I can get out the back I’ll be able to give them the slip.”
“Just open the door.” I moved up into his space. He was bigger than most folks around the Heavies, but I still towered over him. “Now.”
“Please.” Something really had the guy spooked. For the span of a heartbeat I thought I had him, but he stiffened when the woman spoke.
“Does this come in red?” she asked, holding up a bolt of blue velvet.
The shopkeep stuttered for a second, then answered in the affirmative.
“Good,” said the woman. “I won’t need to make any adjustments.” Her other hand came up holding a small pistol—the kind polite members of society carry to dinner parties. “Why don’t you step outside while Anton cuts some cloth for me, Demarco? The Saint wants to have a word.”
“I have a counterproposal,” I said.
She raised a well-groomed eyebrow. There were creases in her makeup where it had been caked on too thick.
“Tell Saint Jerome I’m busy right now and regardless I’d rather not talk about what happened last night.”
Anton backed into a corner. He wasn’t even trying to find the cloth for the woman, and I figured that was probably a mistake. She didn’t seem like the sort to put up with slow service.
“Lady,” I said. “Put the gun away. Someone’s bound to get hurt.”
To my surprise, she did. “He said you wouldn’t react well to the gun.”
“Most people don’t.”
“Well,” she said, “you’re not most people. It’s not about last night, Demarco. The Saint wants to hire you.”
Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “I bet he does.”
“It’s important to him.”
Where Saint Jerome was concerned, everything was important. From the amount of salt on his sardines to the dimes flowing through his countless gambling operations and illegal drug trades to the karats of the gold he wore at all times. If the crime boss of Heavy Nicodemia said to jump it was best not to complain about knee pain. If he said to collect a private investigator and handyman, that handyman got collected, brought kicking and screaming if need be.
So, it was clear to me that whatever Saint Jerome’s business with me was, it was really damn important.
Because the door’s bell dinged and Saint Jerome himself—head mobster of the whole bead—walked in the door.
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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