Angel watched me enter the diner with a icy expression that was a prelude to the storm of her rage. She sat in her wheelchair in the corner of her diner and made no attempt to berate me for my many sins.
That worried me.
The rest of the diner was empty but for Retch, who sat among the remains of several pot pies. He grinned at me, and said, “I like your sister, Demarco. She’s a lot nicer than you.”
I shot Angel a glance in time to see her brow furrow. “She’s got a streak of kindness,” I said.
Lauder swished through the open diner door and wordlessly gave the diner a scathing assessment. He wore a pristine pinstripe suit and carried a pistol fully visible on his hip.
I sat across from Retch, and Lauder joined me. When Helen cleared away the remnants of Retch’s meal, we ordered some coffee.
“Just curious,” Helen said, “because I don’t want to get in trouble. Are you able to pay for this?”
“He’s paying,” I said, gesturing at Lauder. “We’ll have pie, too.”
“Don’t push your luck, Demarco,” Lauder said.
“Saint Jerome never bought me pie,” I said. “Seems like a loose alliance might be a little stronger if it involved pie.”
Retch said, “The apple pie is decent.”
“I’ll have two slices,” I said, when Helen came out with the coffee. “one apple one cherry.”
Helen pursed her lips. “We’re out of cherry.”
“Two apple, then, and bring a lemon custard for Lauder here. Retch?”
“Three apple, one lemon custard,” Helen said. She cast a questioning glance at my dear sister, who nodded. “Coming right up.”
When she left, I turned to Lauder. “Lauder, this is Retch. Retch, this is Lauder.”
Retch grinned. “I’m familiar.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Lauder’s expression betrayed the lie, but Retch either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in the middle of a gang war?” Retch asked. “Last I heard it was going pretty rough.”
Lauder went cold. “I’m seeking a peaceful solution.”
“How noble,” deadpanned Retch.
I said, “If Lauder gets hold of the painting, he’s going to trade it up for karma under Trinity. It’ll give him leverage to negotiate for his power rather than seize it violently.”
“Oh, everybody wins,” Retch said dryly. “Except for the people who think you all are a bunch of assholes.”
“Right,” I said, “this will keep organized crime in power. It’ll also be status quo for anyone who wants to run around stealing without any organization at all.”
“I’m organized!” Retch said.
Lauder cleared his throat.
Retch said, “So, if he’s gaining leverage to run half of the Heavies, what do I get?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“What am I getting paid?”
“You get free pie,” I said.
As if on cue, Helen arrived with the pie and more coffee. I took a sip of the bitter, nasty stuff, and found it tasted like home. It made me feel like I was finally back where I belonged. My first bite of pie tasted that much sweeter with bitter coffee lingering on my lips. My head cleared, and the world settled into place.
I excused myself from the table and made my way over to my sister. “Angel, I need your help.”
“You always do.”
I almost shot back a retort, but the memory of my parents’ deaths ran through my head again and again. How much worse must it have been for my sister, who not only lost her parents but also lost the use of her legs? She had always taken care of me, her whole life. My older sister had been a powerhouse in the political circles, lined up to take over my father’s business—a business that I now knew to be corrupt and dangerous. She probably hadn’t known that. She probably never needed to know that.
“I found out something,” I said. “About Dad.”
“He dealt in stolen art,” she said.
Shit. “You already knew?”
“I suspected.” Something in her eased, and her shoulders slumped. “He always kept parts of his business secret, even when he was training me to manage the whole operation. It was suspicious, but I never really figured out what he was doing.”
“I could have saved them,” I said.
She went quiet. Extremely quiet. Dangerously quiet. I had never told her this. The topic was taboo between us.
“There was an override. After that first hit—the one that broke your back—I could have kept the ship from disengaging. It had a chance of saving everyone aboard.”
“But you chose not to.”
“They might have lived,” I said. “But the pressure might also have ripped a hole in the station.”
“Jude,” she said.
“Come here.” She opened her arms wide. I leaned forward and she hugged me. It felt better than anything I could remember, and I hugged her back hard. My eyes blurred with tears, but I blinked them back. “Sometimes the right choices are hard.”
I didn’t have any words.
“I’m still not forgiving you for gambling away our inheritance, though.”
“What do you need help with?”
I told her what I needed, complete with how the timing had to work. “I also need you to help me look after Retch. He’s just a kid, and could use the occasional pie and wisdom.”
A weak smile crossed Angel’s lips. “I can probably help with the pie.”
“You’re a dear,” I said, imitating our housekeeper’s voice.
She punched me in the shoulder.
Back at the table, Retch was telling Lauder about a time he stole a purse full of counterfeit dimes and had to try to find clever ways to spend them that didn’t reveal where they’d come from.
“They were fibersteel,” he said. “Someone printed them as if they’d pass through any kind of inspection.”
“They did if you dunked them in fish guts first.”
Lauder crinkled his nose at the thought.
It was my turn to clear my throat. “Retch, seeing as how you’ve already eaten my second piece of pie, maybe you’d like to start the business portion of this meeting.”
“Sorry,” Retch said. “We found your guy.”
“Yeah. Guy fitting his description passed through Screaming Jesus turf. Holed up right outside the docks.”
“The docks?” Lauder asked.
“Not the fisheries,” Retch said. “The actual station docks.”
“He’s going to pay Violet Ruiz a visit,” I said, thinking out loud. Maurice was a damn fool if he thought that was a good idea. “Was he able to get through any of the locks?”
“Nope. He’s still hunkered down. He thinks he’s well hidden, but we know all the good spots.”
“Perfect. I’ll need you to take me to him, and that’s on the way for what Lauder needs.” If Ribar was so interested in getting to see Violet Ruiz, maybe he would help us. “Lauder, you need the painting, but it’s big. Are you going to have your people come with?”
“I have a team in mind. They can meet us there.”
“All you need to do is get your people in, grab the painting, and leave. It’s all yours.”
Lauder didn’t seem convinced. “This seems too easy.”
“It’ll be anything but.” I swallowed the last dregs of my coffee. “Pay the bill, Lauder, and leave a good tip. We’re taking a walk.”
Lauder paid without further complaint, and the three of us made our way upspiral where the cathedral stood sentinel over a restless city. The mist had cleared and the false stars watched over the merciless city like a million uncaring sentinels. Stale air blew with a constant wind, not cold, but cool and unforgiving. This was my city. We walked through the streets like ghosts carried on the empty wind, rising in our restlessness to haunt the hallways of the discontent.
Maurice Ribar’s hiding place wasn’t very good. For one, he was within view of the false storefront that led to the dock where Violet Ruiz’s ship sat. I don’t know how he learned the correct location, but across the street there were only two buildings that would give him the view he needed. One of them was the home of an ongoing block party, complete with live music and an open bar.
The other building stood completely empty, and Maurice’s nest sat at the very top. I left Retch and Lauder down below so I could confront the man. He huddled down under the cover of a black shroud, peering out at the empty storefront.
“Ribar,” I said as I approached.
He startled, pitched backward, and jumped to his feet, hands balled into fists. His eyes rolled around in his head with a crazy, haunted look. After a few seconds, he calmed and squinted at me in the shadows. “Demarco?”
I stepped forward to where he could see me. “You need to melt into the woodwork, old man. There’s trouble coming.”
“Not until I can talk to Violet.”
“She know you’re here?”
“I sent a message. She’ll send someone out for me when she gets it.”
“She’ll send someone out to kill you when she gets it.”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. Violet—she was always nice to us. She kept an interest in her husband’s work, and she always helped us out when she needed. She’ll help me now.”
“Trey Vitez is dead.”
Ribar’s hands shook. “It’s a damn shame.”
“He betrayed you. Left you to live in the dark.”
“Vitez wasn’t such a bad guy. He did what he had to do.”
A stiff breeze blew across the rooftop.
“I’ll talk to Violet about your situation, but you need to disappear for now.”
“I’m coming with.”
“You can’t, Maurice. She’ll kill you. She already killed Vitez and she sent someone down into the tunnels to kill you.”
Ribar stood silent for a long time. Finally, he said, “I liked her.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”
“She’s really a killer?”
“Working for Violet. There’s no way this ends well, Maurice. You need to disappear. The ship is scheduled to leave in an hour, and after that you might be safe, but Beck is close and now she knows where you are. She’s probably planning on taking care of you on her way out the door.”
He chewed on that for a few seconds. “Then I gotta come with you.” Before I could refuse, he continued, “There’s nowhere I can go that’ll be safe. She can track me wherever she needs. If I don’t talk to Violet and make peace, she’s never going to leave me alone. She’ll just hire someone else to do the job once she’s left. That’s how she always did business. Hire experts to do the hard stuff. That was her thing.”
I crossed to the edge of the building and looked out at the ongoing party across the street. A well-muscled, shirtless man drank beer from a glass the size of his head while others cheered him on.
Ribar thought he could convince Violet Ruiz to back off, and it occurred to me what information he must have had to bargain with. “How long have you known about Richard?”
He swallowed. “He’s been down in the tunnels. I told you, the excommunicated sometimes go down there to talk to the big guy.”
“So, you saw him walking through your tunnels. You ever talk with him? Did he know how you lived?”
“No, sir. I steered clear. I told you, I don’t want that kind of life anymore. I don’t want anything to do with them.”
“You can come with,” I said, “but it’s going to be dangerous. Things just got more complicated.”
I pointed down below to the false storefront that led to the locks. Saint Jerome, Sam, and half a dozen thugs passed into the first airlock. “We’re going to have company,” I said, “and it’s not the friendly kind.”
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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