“Saint Jerome has got to go,” said Lauder. “He’s a blight on this city. He and his fish-smelling thugs need to take a step aside so that we can run this city like the city of the future it was always meant to be.”
Lauder’s hideout was in an old pita shop that smelled of gyro meat and pepper. His men had carted me upspiral to the place, nestled in among residential districts adjacent to the government center. This was the government worker Matthew Williams’s neighborhood. Frank’s people looked a whole lot like Jerome’s, and in fact I recognized a few faces in the crowd. There really had been a fair number of defections. Sam was right to be afraid.
“Let me take a look at your injured,” I said.
Lauder narrowed his eyes at me.
“Why does everyone think I’m up to something?”
“Word on the street is that you usually are,” he said.
Fair enough. “I’m a trained medic.”
“Your buddy is still out there causing trouble for us.”
“Saint Jerome’s no buddy of mine.”
The door crashed open, and two men hauled a woman in, laying her on a table. She bled from a deep wound in her leg, and her face was twisted in a silent scream.
“Let me help her,” I pleaded.
Lauder nodded. “Fine. Help my people. I’ll pay you.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“I don’t trust a man I can’t pay.”
“You mean you don’t trust anyone you can’t buy. I’m not loyal to you, Lauder, and I’m never going to be. I’m not loyal to Saint Jerome, either. Sometimes I help him. Sometimes he helps me. That’s the end of it. If you want your people to suffer from their wounds, then I’ll leave them be. If you want them to get better, let me work.”
The woman’s silent scream transformed into a very loud one. The men at her sides held her down as she thrashed from the pain.
Lauder pointed to a man lingering in the corner. “You. Keep a gun on Demarco. If he does anything funny, give him some better injuries to start working on.” With that he left the room to shout down his troops. He’d always seemed so calm and collected. It was interesting to see him cracking under pressure.
The woman’s skin had gone pale and cold. Blood poured from the wound, which someone had inexpertly bound with a bandage. I pushed on the artery to slow bleeding. “Where’s the nearest medical station?”
One of the thugs who had brought the woman in said, “Couple blocks away there’s a clinic.”
“Go there. Pick up bandages and painkillers.”
“We’re not supposed to use it.”
I grabbed a handful of his lapels and pulled him close to my face. “Listen to me. You’re going to go get me some decent supplies. Pick up a full surgery kit.” I glanced around at the other injured people. “Five surgery kits. You’re going to order them up with a provisional code. Tell Trinity that medic Jude Demarco requests the supplies. I’ll check in later and make sure it’s squared away.”
“What if it won’t give me the supplies.”
“Then next time you’re in charge of making supper you don’t have to make quite so many gyros.”
The thug disappeared into the dark streets. I gave it about a ten percent chance that the med station would supply him with surgery kits, but it was worth a shot anyway. The woman screamed again, and I did my best to adjust her bandages so that the bleeding slowed. After several minutes, I got her bound up and stable. She needed painkillers before I could set her broken arm.
A familiar voice carried from the kitchen. “I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a war. I told you to find him, and I expect results.”
Charlotte Beck. My heart pounded, but I didn’t know if it was rage or fear or something else. I moved around the table to get a better look into the well-lit kitchen. She stood there in a sapphire dress with matching gloves and pumps. It was a stylish outfit that showed off her sleek form.
It wasn’t rage or fear making my heart pound. It was definitely something else.
Part of me wanted to go to her, help her, maybe talk about what we would do. Part of me knew how stupid that was. Beck was a murderer.
“I told you,” Lauder growled. “I have half my people searching for this guy. We haven’t seen him.”
“Things have changed. My boss is leaving in the morning,” Beck said. “She gave me three hours to find him, kill him, and get back to the ship for your payment.”
“Maybe I should demand payment up front.”
Beck’s knife moved so fast Lauder hardly had time to blink. She pressed it to his neck and leaned down so her face was close to his. She whispered something I couldn’t hear, but the expression on Lauder’s face was enough to tell me it was a threat. It got to him, too.
As fast as it came out, Beck’s knife disappeared. She took a step to the side and I couldn’t see her behind the gyro station. “You’ll get it all, Lauder. Everything I promised. The node, the whole city if you want it. I can give it to you, and all you need to do is find one man.”
“It’s a big city.”
“Excuses!” she snapped. “Don’t give me excuses! This is harder for me than you can possibly understand, and in three hours I’ll be on a ship destined for the stars. You know what you need, Lauder. You know what I can get you.” Her voice cracked a little, but I couldn’t tell if it was regret or just the massive weight of her stressful situation.
“I understand,” said Lauder.
“Just find him and bring him to me at the ship. Once it’s done, you’ll get your payment.” She stepped back into view, and I caught a glimpse of pain in her expression. A tear threatened to spill onto her heavily made-up cheek. “Just get Demarco for me, Lauder. That’s all I’m asking.”
“You’re going to kill him.” Lauder said.
“I’ll take care of what to do with him.”
“What about the other guy?”
“Ribar? I know where he’ll be. Don’t worry about him.” With that, she exited through the kitchen door, leaving Lauder standing alone.
Now, my heart pounded for an entirely new reason. Beck was after me? It didn’t make sense.
Then again, maybe it did.
The thug returned with a single surgery kit. I worked on the worst of the injured with what I had, rationing painkillers to those in the worst shape.
After a while, Lauder came back into the dining hall. “Seems you’re a popular man.”
“I heard.” I didn’t look up from my work.
“Now will you make a deal with me?” His voice sounded exhausted, on the verge of giving up.
“How did you get involved with her? She hasn’t been in town very long.”
Lauder took a man’s hand as I worked to remove a bullet from his leg. The man swallowed a scream and clutched his boss’s hand hard. “Tell me what you know about Saint Jerome’s scam.”
“It has to do with art,” I said, figuring Lauder probably already knew the basics. “He traded art for Karma, bolstering his own importance to the ship’s community, allowing him the luxury of threatening body and soul on a regular basis.”
Lauder said, “He’s been doing it for years. It wasn’t hard for Beck, who had all the connections of the original thieves, to discover who was affected by it on our side. We’ve been in communication for the past year as their ship approached.”
“So, she used you to form connections in Heavy Nicodemia.”
“She knew my parents had been murdered by Jerome’s gang. She helped me trade up so that my people have some of the same capital Jerome enjoys.”
“And that’s why you chose now to make your move.”
“Only, it’s been harder than we expected. The Saint grasps at power like a greedy hog. If we’re going to win, we need more Karma. More capital. That means we need access to new art.”
“Saint Jerome’s supply ran out a long time ago, didn’t it? His hold on the node has been weakening for years.” My tongs snagged the bullet fragment in the man’s leg, and I extracted it. “He depended on the thieves for a constant supply. He didn’t have much spare Karma when Trinity learned that some of the art he brought in was fake. Forged art meant what he had left went away fast. Perfect time for you to strike.”
“Except the discovery of all that forged art meant an erosion of the confidence behind what I traded.”
“Music. Analog music recordings dating all the way back to the twentieth century.”
That struck me as particularly funny. “You’re trading the blues to the devil for the right to murder people.”
“We’re not killing anyone who doesn’t deserve it, Demarco.”
My instinct told me it wasn’t his decision to make, but I didn’t think he wanted to hear it. “Why does Beck want me dead.”
“Same reason she wants all of them dead.”
“All of who?” Then it clicked. “Violet Ruiz thinks the art thieves were responsible for murdering her husband. She sent me to look for the painting knowing that it would lead Beck to everyone involved in the trade. This has never been about recovering art.”
I remembered that moment speaking with Violet in her ship. Violet Ruiz had seemed distant and cold, except when she turned her attention to the art. Was she really capable of such a plot? Then I remembered the art on her ship. Paintings and statues. Strange things to haul around on a spaceship, given how heavy and breakable they were.
“My father was involved in the trade,” I said. “He found buyers for the art up in the Hallows. She probably wants me dead because of him.”
Lauder shrugged. “Not my problem.”
“Then why did you keep me alive? You could have offed me outside the cathedral and been done with it.”
“I need someone like you, Demarco. Jerome only survived these last few years because he had someone outside the system to help him out. If I don’t have that, I won’t be able to keep a hold on this place.”
“You want all the power of being excommunicated without the inconvenience.”
“Something like that. I want you on my side. When I figured out what you were capable of, I finally understood how his whole organization functioned. Trinity’s everywhere. It’s impossible to get around without the AI knowing. But you. You can do it. You can get the supplies needed. You can solve things that need solving. Trinity doesn’t come after you for anything.”
A smile crossed his lips. “A well run organization doesn’t need to rely on murder.”
“Everyone thinks their organization is going to be well-run, don’t they?”
“Work for me.”
He drew his pistol and pointed it at my chest. “One way or another, you’re working for me.”
So much for a well-run organization.
We stood in silence for a long time. I closed the man’s wound, stitching it as neatly as I could. The man didn’t even flinch as I pulled the needle through, so I knew the painkillers were working. Half the people in the room were on one painkiller or another now, and those I hadn’t treated would heal on their own.
I said, “The final panel of the Garden of Earthly Delight that Trey Vitez brought to the Hallows was a forgery, but I know where the real one is.”
Lauder raised one of his perfect eyebrows. “It’s on the widow’s ship.”
“True,” I said, “But I can get you and your people onto that ship.”
He leaned forward over the table. “I’m listening.”
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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