Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
“Talk to me, Ben,” Kendi said. “You shouldn’t keep it in.”
Ben remained silent.
“You’re angry with me.” Kendi sighed. “Ben, the thought of you wanting to kill someone scares me. You’ve never done it.”
“And how would you know that?” Ben said in a strangely gentle voice.
A familiar anger flared. Kendi knew what Ben meant. There were a lot of things Kendi didn’t know about Ben because their relationship had been stormy for years, with Ben coming and going from Kendi’s life like an ocean wave. But Kendi had never once initiated a breakup. Ben’s capriciousness, not Kendi’s, had put holes in their time together, and for him to intimate the apart times were Kendi’s fault ...
Kendi gritted his teeth and bit back sharp words. Ben rarely started arguments—he said small things calculated to anger Kendi and get
to start the fight, leaving Ben blameless. It was one of the things about Ben that annoyed the hell out of Kendi and served as a sharp reminder that no one, even someone you loved, was perfect. The only way to deal with this trick was not to rise to the bait, a skill Kendi had only recently learned.
“Look, Ben,” he said quietly, “no matter how much Sufur deserves it, no matter how justified your anger is, the law would still count it a murderer if you killed him. I’m ready to party on his tombstone, but I’m also be terrified the police will take you away from me—from our kids. Please promise me you won’t do anything. I can’t lose you like—like I lost—”
He stopped, unsure if he should go so far as to mention Ara’s name. But Ben had clearly understood. There was a long pause. Their breaths mingled in white puffs. And then Kendi felt Ben’s body slacken. He sagged back against Kendi, who sank to the balcony under Ben’s weight. He managed to control the slump and they both ended up on the cold planks. Kendi braced himself against the wall of the house. Ben lay like a rag doll against Kendi’s chest, his legs sprawled brokenly on the wood. His body shuddered noiselessly. It took Kendi a moment to understand that he was crying. Kendi wrapped his arms around Ben and held him while he wept.
“The bastard killed her,” Ben said in a thick, harsh voice. “He killed my
him, Kendi. I want him
. Why is he alive when she’s dead?”
Kendi didn’t give an answer, knew Ben didn’t want one. He rocked Ben like a child until Ben grew still and calm. At last Ben sat up and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“I’m freezing,” he said.
“How about some tea?” Kendi said. “Or maybe a beer. I think Lucia found some.”
They rose stiffly. Ben put a heavy arm around Kendi’s shoulders. “Thanks,” he whispered. “And I promise.”
Back in the house, they found Harenn, Gretchen, and Tan in the living room. The sharp smell of strong alcohol hung in the air, and several empty and half-empty bottles and glasses littered the coffee table.
“If we can’t kill him,” Tan said in an uncharacteristically bright voice, “we can at least get drunk.”
“So who’s going to guard us?” Kendi asked, more out of curiosity than uncertainty.
“Who the fuck cares?” Gretchen said. “I’ve saved your ass—what? Three times? Four? Save it yourself for once.”
“You aren’t drinking, are you?” Ben said to Harenn.
“Certainly not,” Harenn said. “I wanted to plan our next steps, but—”
“Lighten up, Hare,” Gretchen slurred. “A few hours won’t make a difference.”
“I was thinking,” Ben said, picking up a glass and sniffing at it, “of trying to hit Sufur’s computer trail. Since I know his home address, I can track quite a lot. He must have utilities and net hookups, and the ones connected to that address will have whatever name Sufur is using on them. Once I have that information, I can track down more records—his buying habits, what bank he uses, and so on. It might tell us what he’s up to.”
“I’ll search around the Dream,” Kendi said, “see if there are any rumors about him there. But first I’m going to go see him.”
“What?” Gretchen said. “You just said not to confront him.”
“I didn’t say
,” Kendi replied. “I said
. I need to look at him with my own eyes. He tried to kill me, too, you know.”
“I’m going with you,” Ben said. “Don’t try to talk me out of it—it won’t work, and I’m stronger than you are.”
“All right,” Kendi said. “But you’re it. No bodyguards. It’s dark out anyway—no one’ll see us.”
“Unless they have night vision equipment,” Tan said. “Oh, just go. I’m too drunk to do you any good. You die, though, your estate still pays me.”
They did take the precaution of wearing low rain hats and anonymous slickers as simple disguises. Outside, the damp winter air was still chilly but no rain fell. Kendi and Ben made their way over dark walkways toward the Treetown address Gretchen had given them. The neighborhood was quiet and middle-class, though very few outdoor lights offered to illuminate the way, and the two men slipped from small pools of light into long lakes of shadow. Sufur’s house was the highest in a small cluster of homes stacked up against the talltree trunk. A lattice of staircases gave access. Lights glowed behind Sufur’s curtains. Kendi picked a vantage point on a public balcony and watched it intently.
“Now what?” Ben asked.
Kendi shrugged. “I just needed to see the place.” He paused. “It doesn’t look like a monster’s house.”
“It looks like the kind of place a little old lady would live in,” Ben said. “Like Grandmother Mee.” He took a deep breath. “I want to throw rocks through his windows. Or maybe a grenade.”
“Me, too. But that wouldn’t tell us what—hold it!”
A figure on a small electric scooter buzzed toward the bottom of the staircase lattice. In the dim light of a lonely street lamp, Kendi could make out the name “Maureen’s” emblazoned on the figure’s jacket. He dismounted and started up the stairs toward Sufur’s house.
“Come on!” Kendi said, and ran down the walkway toward the delivery boy without looking to see if Ben were following. They reached the boy before he was quite halfway up the steps.
“Excuse me,” Kendi said. “Hey!”
The delivery boy turned. He was carrying a food warmer and he looked distinctly nervous at seeing two grown men dashing up the stairs toward him. “Look, I don’t carry cash, okay? You want the food, you can—”
“We don’t want the food,” Kendi said a little breathlessly. “But you’re delivering to that house there, right?” He pointed at Sufur’s house.
“Yeah,” the boy said. “So?”
“So the guy who lives there is a friend of ours,” Kendi said. “Listen, can you help us play a little joke on him? He won’t be expecting to us deliver his supper. I’ll give you fifty freemarks if you let me and my friend borrow your jacket and do the delivery for you.”
The money, Kendi knew, was probably more than the kid made in three days. “You’re on,” he said, and handed over both the jacket and the food warmer. “I need those back. Maureen’s will charge me if I come back without them.”
“No problem,” Kendi said. “Here—you can take my rain slicker as collateral.”
A moment later, Kendi and Ben were mounting the stairs, Kendi wearing the delivery boy’s jacket and Ben carrying the food warmer.
“What are you doing?” Ben hissed.
“Just getting a look,” Kendi whispered back, his calm voice belying a pounding heart. “To make sure it’s really him. “re you going to be all right?”
Ben paused, lifted the lid of the food warmer, and rummaged around inside. “Now I will be,” he said, closing the warmer.
“What did you do?” Kendi asked.
“I spat in his
Kendi gave a choked laugh and knocked at the door. “Delivery from Maureen’s,” he said, knowing the house computer would relay his words to the occupants. His heart continued to beat fast and his mouth went dry. Abruptly the door opened and Kendi was staring at Padric Sufur. The man’s face was lean, largely unlined, and hawk-like, with a long nose and thin lips. His body was equally lean, with long limbs and hands. He wore a heavily-quilted comfort suit. With a sudden rush of anger, Kendi wanted to reach out and snap the man’s neck. It would be so easy. The brittle old bones would break under his hands with a satisfying
and Kendi would be able to watch the man squirm and shit himself on the floor. Beside him, Kendi felt Ben tense and he knew Ben was thinking the same thing.
“I prefer to pay in cash,” Sufur said. “No prints. I assume that’s all right?”
“Yeah,” Kendi said shortly. “No problem. I don’t have change, though.”
Kendi collected the handful of bills Sufur gave him. Their hands touched at the transfer. No Silent jolt. Sufur’s skin was warm and dry, and Kendi felt nausea at the contact. Sufur hissed at the touch and yanked his hand back. He accepted the food packets Ben handed him from the warmer, thanked them curtly, and slammed the door.
“It was really him,” Ben said in a gravelly voice.
“Yeah. Let’s get out of here before it starts raining again.”
They returned the jacket and food warmer to the delivery boy, who was waiting below with his scooter, and headed wordlessly for home.
Jak Peer, delivery boy, climbed onto his scooter and hit the starter. This was shaping up to be a seriously weird night. He suspected that the guys who had asked to make the delivery for him were crooked somehow, but fifty freemarks was fifty freemarks and he’d have been stupid to refuse it.
The scooter didn’t start. The misty rain intensified and Jak tried again. The scooter still didn’t respond. Jak wiped cold water from his face in exasperation. Now what? Had those two weirdos had anything to do with it? He touched his pocket. The weirdo’s freemarks were a gift from Irfan, and he wondered how best to use it. Jak Peer didn’t see himself as a delivery boy for the rest of his life, no sir. He had been an Initiate at the monastery with dreams of becoming the youngest Grandfather Adept in history. The Despair had changed all that, Silenced him and crushed his Dream to dust. Now he had to find a new dream, and maybe fifty freemarks would let him buy one. The mining restrictions had been lifted. Perhaps he could use the money to travel to Othertown and get a job there. Mining would pay a hell of a lot better than delivering steamed slugs and
One more try. The scooter’s engine clicked twice and remained still. Jak made an exasperated noise.
“Having some trouble?”
The speaker was a woman wearing a rain slicker. Jak saw a few locks of dark hair peeping out from under the hood. He had been so intent on the scooter and his thoughts that he hadn’t heard her approach.
“It won’t start,” he said. “And I’m not any kind of mech.”
“Let me take a look,” she said. “I know a few things.”
“Thanks,” Jak said, grateful. He dismounted and held the scooter upright while she took out a small flashlight and peered at the motor.
“Major sucking to be a delivery boy in this weather,” she said.
“You know it,” Jak said. “The good stuff never lasts, either.”
“Here’s your trouble.” The woman did something Jak couldn’t see. “Try it now.”
Jak hit the starter and motor sprang to life. “Perfect!” he said. “Hey, thanks a—”
Something thumped against the side of his neck. Jak managed a gasp before the drug hit and he fell into wet unconsciousness.
“Okay, I’m watching,” Kendi said. On the sofa next to him sat Martina. They were at her house, the one she and Keith rented from Ben and Kendi. It was a week later, and the rains had begun in earnest. Sheets of cold water washed down the windows, and the damp got into everything. Kendi wore heavy sweaters and Martina was keeping the heat cranked up, but he still felt chilly and vaguely wet. The weather also put a damper on all the campaigns—open-air speeches were impossible, and few people braved the weather to attend the indoor ones, so most of Kendi’s activity was limited to commercials and newsfeed interviews, and that could be done close to home.
Martina lounged on the sofa, her brown eyes wide and on the edge of her usual mirth. Then she abruptly shifted posture, becoming stiffer and more upright. She put both hands on her knees in a gesture Kendi recognized immediately. It both chilled and excited him.
“All life!” he said. “Ben?”
“It’s me. Can you believe it?” It was Martina’s voice, but Ben’s inflections. “We’ve been working on this for a while now.” Martina-Ben got up and strode around the tiny room. “This is weird. Her body moves different from mine. And I can smell perfume.”
“Wait until you wear an alien’s body,” Kendi said. “I kept tripping over my own feet the first time I possessed a Ched-Balaar. Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“We wanted to surprise you. You kept saying how you wanted me and Martina to get closer. And we have.”
“Okay, that would be an ‘ew’ sort of thing,” Kendi said. “What about Keith? Could you possess him, too?”
Martina-Ben shrugged. “He didn’t want to try it. He’s kind of hard to talk with, you know?”
“I know,” Kendi sighed.