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A note from AWEichenlaub

Part 5: the case of the widow's truth

The rush from the tip of Hallows to the bottom of the Heavies left an ache in my bones and pain in my knees. When I’d arrived I hadn’t even found Maurice Ribar. In fact, he and his entire clan was missing. By the look of their gutted village, they’d left as soon as Beck and I had walked away. I needed to find them before Beck, assuming my conclusion about her murderous intent was correct.
Even if it wasn’t, they were in danger. I needed help.
Retch lounged in a wide hammock, pulling a needle through cloth with so much intensity I wasn’t sure he heard me squeeze through his secret entrance. Halfway across the wide expanse of the warehouse, he looked up at me with a raised eyebrow. He had a new black eye and a couple of sloppily applied stitches in his eyebrow.
“Rough couple days?” I asked.
He held up the cloth he was working on. It was a cross stitch in the form of an elaborate skull, with the words FUCK YO in decorative lettering across its forehead.
“Fuck yo?” I asked. “Not sure what that means.”
“Listen, asshole. I’ve had enough trouble from you.”
I took a step forward, but stopped when he took a meaningful glance at the black pistol on the table next to him. Instead, I said. “Who gave you that shiner?”
“Just some friends.”
“You have an interesting idea of friendship.”
“You have an interesting idea of being an asshole.” His heart clearly wasn’t in the conversation. For several slow heartbeats, the kid didn’t say anything, then, “They took your papers.”
Damn.
“Look, I’m sorry. No refunds.”
“Nobody knew you had those. That was the deal.”
He shrugged and pulled a long thread through the cloth.
“I was hoping to finally give those papers another look,” I said. “The guy I want to help is missing, the painting I’m supposed to track was a fake all along, and that woman I was with might be a killer.”
“No kidding,” he deadpanned. “The woman who beat the shit out of me?”
“She’s usually nicer than that.”
“It’s the gang war,” Retch said. “The Saints are split down the middle and a whole lot of them are throwing support at The Gentlemen.”
“Is that Frank Lauder’s new gang?”
“It’s been busy since you left.” He pulled another stitch. “You look good.”
“Thanks.”
“The trench coat never really did anything for you. This is much nicer.” Without looking up, he said, “I read the papers before they got took.”
I moved forward into his home again, and this time he didn’t warn me off. I settled my aching bones into one of his chairs and leaned back. “Learn anything interesting?”
“I learned that a person desperate enough for reading material can make it through some pretty boring shit.”
“I’ll bet.”
“And I learned that there’s proof that Saint Jerome is embezzling from a fund designed to help poor shits like me find a place in this goddamn world.” He glanced up to make sure he had my attention. “Body, soul, community. It’s a loophole in the karma algorithms. Jerome gets a hold of art of a certain value to the soul, and he’s able to use it to raid a fund designed to support the community. Only, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
“How the hell do you know about karma algorithms?”
“How do you know about art?”
“Let me get this straight. He’s making himself rich by raiding a fund that’s designed to help everyone around him.” If what Retch claimed was true, then he had broken the case. Unfortunately, since the papers were gone, he had no proof. “I’m not sure if those were original papers or forgeries, so even if you held onto them there wouldn’t have been proof.”
“Proof is just going to get you killed,” Retch said. “Saint Jerome might not have the pull he did a few days ago, but he’s still got a whole pile of goons. That Sam shit still licks his heels.”
“Sam’s still working for the Saint?”
“He never stopped, apparently.” Retch sounded angrier than I expected.
“You’re mad he left your gang.”
“He traded up. Who wouldn’t do that?” He jabbed a needle in and yanked it through. “The Saint robbing us kids is one thing. Sam doing it…”
“He was one of you.”
“Yeah.”
I wondered why Sam would go out of his way to claim to have left Jerome. Maybe that was Jerome’s version of a contingency plan. “Frank must have figured out the Saint’s ploy, and he’s using it to recruit people to his side.”
Retch concentrated on the needlework, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth.
“I don’t have time for this,” I said. “There’s something more urgent, and I need your help.”
“What are you paying?”
“Don’t you want to know what the job is first?”
He pulled another long stitch through. “Wanna know how picky I can afford to be right now?”
“You’ve always got your art,” I said, gesturing at the cross stitch.
Retch held up the cloth, which now clearly read, “FUCK YOU.”
“Very nice.”
“It’s abstract expressionism.”
“That’s not very abstract. It just says fuck you.”
He grinned for the first time ever, dimples and all. “Written language is a form of abstraction.”
“Hoping to get in on the Saint’s embezzlement by creating art that speaks to your soul?”
“I had to do a little stitchwork, and there was extra thread.” He poked at his torn eyebrow, wincing. “Didn’t want it to go to waste.”
“Mind if I look at that,” I offered. “I’m a med tech.”
At first he looked like he might refuse, but then he relented. He knelt in front of me so I could lean down and shine a light on his cut. He’d done a better job than I initially thought, stitching a fairly straight line across the cut.
“Is it going to make me look badass?” His voice wavered as he spoke.
I met the kid’s eyes and saw real worry there. “You are badass, kid, so how you look doesn’t mean shit.” I peered closer, touching the skin around the wound. No response. “It doesn’t look like it’s picked up any infection, and it’s healing nicely. There’ll be a scar, but it’s not going to be an ugly one.”
He flopped back into his hammock. “They got the jump on me. I don’t know how, but they did.” Real emotion seeped into his cracking voice. For a second, he wasn’t the tough boy I’d come to know. He was just a vulnerable kid trying to survive in a harsh world. “I had your papers with me on the roof because I was reading them. I should have left them hidden.”
“A stunstick,” I said.
“What?”
I detached the stick from my belt loop where I’d stowed it after the fight with Ruiz. “A stunstick. That’s your payment for helping me find a couple of people. Keep it charged and you can give a bad day to anyone, whether or not they deserve it. Even if they sneak up on you.”
He gave me a wary look. “They didn’t sneak up on me. Someone I trusted turned on me.”
“Sam Wash?”
His eyes went wide, and I knew I’d hit it on the head.
“He’s in as much trouble as anyone. Hooked on electric mud. He’s betrayed Saint Jerome to side with Lauder.”
“Lauder’s Gentlemen aren’t particularly gentlemanly.”
“No, I don’t suppose they are.” I handed him the stunstick, handle side first. “I need to find two people. The first is a guy named Maurice Ribar.”
“So, check Trinity.”
“Can’t. Anyway, I think he’ll avoid the system as best he can. Do you have anyone you can trust?”
“Not one damn person.”
“I mean allies. The other kids. I’d like you to get an image of the guy and show it around. He’s gone to ground, but someone in the city might have seen him.”
“Who else is looking for him?”
“Charlotte Beck.”
He grinned. “She got you good, huh?”
“That she did.”
“I could have told you not to trust her.”
“I wouldn’t have listened.”
“Do you always have such poor taste in women?” Retch pushed the button on the stunstick, causing it to extend to its full length and crackle with power. “Holy shit.”
“You shouldn’t stay here,” I said. “There’s a place I know. A diner my sister owns.”
“Will I get free food?”
“Probably not.”
He waved the stunstick around, grinning at the sound it made as it hummed through the air.
“Are you going to be able to get others to help you or not?”
Retch hefted the stunstick. “I am now.”
“I mean by paying them or cashing in favors. Not bludgeoning them into submission.”
“I’ll be paying with the opportunity to not be hit with a stunstick.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He looked affronted. “When you pay with dimes, you’re paying with the opportunity to not starve on the streets. How is that any different?”
“I’m not really up for a fraught ethical debate right now, Retch.”
“Who says it has to be fraught?”
“Meet me at Angel’s Diner, down by the docks.” I stood, my bones aching.
When I left, Retch returned to his cross stitch, finishing the final flourish on the last letter. That’s all the world needed. One more artist.

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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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