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Authors: Steven John

Tags: #Dystopia, #noir, #dystopian

Three A.M.

BOOK: Three A.M.
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For my wife,

as all things are

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

First, I must again thank my wife, Kristin, without whom this book might have been cast aside unfinished. Her loving support and encouragement kept the fire beneath me; kept the words coming.

Without Russell Galen, my superlative agent, even the finished manuscript might well never have found its way to print. I’ll let the word “superlative” stand on its own and not bother with many other adjectives, appropriate though they are.

To my brother and parents, the first editors of this book, and the first supporters of a lifetime of endeavors, I shall likewise avoid tossing about adjectives (and waxing maudlin—I can do that on my own time and not drag all these nice people through the process), so suffice to say I thank and love you.

Without the vision, skill, patience, and creative mind of Eric Raab, my editor, this would not be the book it is. (Maybe I’d still be happy with the story and the characters and the whatnot but … would you? I feel safer having left it to the experts.) Eric’s pondering and editing, and his dialogue with me, discussing and suggesting and debating, have helped smooth and tighten and mold and on and on—many thanks are due, and given. Katharine Critchlow, thanks to you, too, for steering us home.

The other half of my family, my parents- and brother- and sisters-in-law, deserves thanks, too. They brought (and bring) love and support such that one could scarcely hope to find in blood, let alone in marriage.

Ryan Ariano … you’re a fine writer and a sharp reader, sir. You helped me with this one a helluva lot. Good hiking and jogging and talking and sipping with you, too.

I must also thank Brendan Deneen, my first agent, in many ways my first editor, and the first “book world” professional to take real interest.

And no, I didn’t forget you, Osborne. Jim gave me the nudge that started the snowball rolling. I’ll buy the next round.

For all of you.

Glendale, CA
2011

CONTENTS

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Begin Reading

Tor Books by Steven John

About the Author

Copyright

 

My legs gave out after less than a block. I crawled for maybe a hundred yards and then pulled myself along with just my elbows for a few feet more. The pavement behind me was streaked with blood. I figured I was in the last few moments of my life, so what the hell—stop crawling.

Rolling onto my back, I looked up at the sky … the blue sky. There were a few clouds and the sun was bright, warming. I lay there staring upward for a long time. The buildings around me were all dilapidated above their first few floors—cracked paint, boarded-up windows, old signs, and bare flagpoles that no one had seen in years.

It was warm and bright in the sun and there wasn’t a soul around. Everyone was terrified and hiding. So I had the street and the sky to myself, and I lay there, bleeding and broken and probably moribund, and I was happy as hell. I had never felt such joy, in fact. Ever. I was … satisfied.

 

1

She was blond, of course. Eyes as gray as midnight fog and lips stained red. Her dress matched her lips and hugged her hips and chest, and my eyes kept drifting to where the crimson silk stopped and her thighs began. Christ, what a beauty. And oh how she knew it. And she knew I knew she knew, and it didn’t matter a bit.

She waited so long to start talking, I was lost in her beauty by the time she started playing her game … trying to hook me. She almost did. No one ever actually did, though—at least no one had in years. Sure, she was gorgeous, but I would just as soon have put a knife in her back as I would have put her back on a mattress. She wasn’t innocent … wasn’t clean. I could see it as clear as the skin between her breasts where her dress took a plunge. I don’t care who you are—a young beauty or some old tough—if you smell corrupt, I’ll take you down if someone hands me enough dollars.

And she was deeply corrupted. Lost in her own darkness. I sat there, feeling coy and looking passive and letting my eyes drift from her chest to her legs and every once in a while to her face. I wasn’t going to say a damn thing. It was her move, her game, and I knew how to play it. She did too, as I learned—and better than I would have expected from a girl barely pushing twenty-six, but just the same, she was good.

I hunched over my scotch and she lounged behind her vodka. I smoked and looked at her and she looked at me and she knew I was waiting and she let me. The place was mostly empty. It was late on a Tuesday—just folks like me who don’t have a schedule to keep. All burgundy paint and wood and always dark, but the vents were good and it was never all that smoky.

So I lit another cigarette and almost laughed when she actually broke the silence with a husky “Can I have a light?”

I held out my lighter, meaning for her to take it, but she leaned in and waited, a long black cigarette between her dark lips. I lit it for her and she touched my hand and it was all such a fucking cliché.

“So,” I said.

“So…” she said back. No way. I wasn’t giving her an inch. I turned back to my drink. When I looked up a second later at the mirror behind the bar, she was staring right at my reflected eyes. She smiled slightly. Beautiful. Dammit. All right, then …

“Okay,” I said to her reflection. “What is it you want to talk about?”

She laughed and it seemed genuine, pure. It sounded all wrong in this dark-walled bar. People here never laughed like that. She took a long drag of her cigarette and put it out well before it was done. “I thought you’d never ask.” A long pause. “I’m Rebecca.”

“Hi, Rebecca.”

“Hi, Tom Vale.”

I fucking knew it. I nodded a few times, looking down at my drink, a wry smile turning up the corners of my mouth. Must have been the whiskey; I was not amused.

“You know, Rebecca, I have an office.”

She smiled, leaning closer to me. I turned to face her. “I’ve stopped by many times in the past few days.… You’re never there.”

“Yeah, well, that’s still where I like to do my work. I come here to do my drinking.”

“Well, then, let’s just drink. We can do business some other time.”

I sighed silently, stubbing out my smoke. “Seeing as that’s not what you’re here for, let’s just have it.”

“This place seems a better office for you anyway.”

I couldn’t fault her there. I’ve been coming to Albergue for years. In fact, I did most of my work from the very barstool where I was sitting. Usually, though, I was alone here. Albergue was where I sat to think about things or to drink until I didn’t have to. It was small, off an alley that wasn’t even off a main street. No one new tended to find the place. Which didn’t make the lovely Rebecca’s presence any more comforting. It was one of the few bars around that still had cases of the scotch I like. The guys behind the bar knew not to talk to me too much unless I started talking to them. There were pictures of fields rolling beneath blue skies on one of the walls. It was perfect for me. Until this.

“I want to hire you, Tom.”

“No,” I said flatly.

She pulled away, looking slighted, but it was bullshit. “Won’t you at least hear me out?”

“I’d rather not.”

“Well, let me buy us another round and just listen. Please. Then I won’t bother you anymore if you still don’t want to help me.”

She finished her drink and waved the bartender, Adam, over to us. He caught my eye with a subtle smile the girl would not recognize as out of the ordinary. I looked down, shaking my head slightly. His slender, pocked face was placid again as Rebecca ordered another vodka martini for herself and a glass of Cutty Sark on the rocks for me. She knew my drink. She wanted me to know she knew my drink. Adam served us and she slid her glass toward mine and clinked the base of hers against it. A few drops of her vodka spilled into my scotch.

“Okay. You’ve got me for a drink. Let’s get to it. You know my name, you know my whiskey, and now you know my office is here, not the room with a number written next to it. Who are you … how and why do you know about me … and what are you going to propose that I’m going to say no to?”

She took a long sip from her glass and then closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them slowly, her irises following her lids upward until they locked on to mine. “If I offered you fifty thousand dollars for a month’s work, what would you say?”

“Probably yes.”

She smiled to herself and turned away from me. The last few patrons got up from their barstools and left. Now it was just me and her together with our reflections. She was studying mine, I could tell. I kept my eyes down, looking at the wood of the bar. It had been scratched and revarnished countless times. I’d stuck a knife into it myself once or twice on angry, drunken nights.

“A man named Samuel Ayers was killed last month.”

“Go to the police, sweetheart. We’re done here.” I turned away.

“I did … or I mean—someone did.… His wife, I think. And they found the guy who shot him and tried him and he’s probably on death row already.”

She pulled a cigarette out of her handbag and picked up my lighter. Her hand trembled a bit as she lit it, and though I couldn’t be certain, it seemed like the unsteadiness was intentional, practiced.

“The man they have didn’t kill him. I know it.”

Typical. So goddamn typical, I could have screamed. Instead I talked.

“Rebecca, do you have much experience with this kind of thing? This wronged-man kind of thing? No? Well, I do. A lot. Forget it. Forget him—your boyfriend in jail or whatever. He probably did kill your Mr. Ayers, and if he didn’t, sorry, he’s gone anyway. No way out. The system wins; you don’t. Apologies, but it’s your life, your problem, not mine.”

“I’ll pay you the fifty thousand even if you can’t change a thing. If you’ll just try.”

That was a lot of money: twice as much as I had to my name. Too much for me to write off out of hand even if she was dirty. So I finished my scotch and decided to get involved. But I wasn’t going to let her know yet—I was too far into my cups to play it cool right now.

“Okay. Here’s the deal. Give me your number in case I think of any questions for you, and come to my office in two days. I’ll hang around there in the early afternoon.”

“How about I keep the number to myself and come tomorrow?”

“No. I’m getting drunk tonight. Tomorrow’s all for me. Two days, afternoon. And keep the phone your little secret for all I care—pretty eyes or no, I want you to finish up your drink and leave now. I like to be at my bar alone.”

She seemed hurt. I didn’t give a fuck. Fifty grand or no, I was hating this situation already. I’d been paid to find things out and take care of problems for more than a decade, and the good ones never talked money before they talked facts. The good ones were never beautiful. But money spoke louder than morals.

I watched her go and she knew it.

*   *   *

I wanted to stay and get drunk, but Rebecca had screwed up my thinking. As I tried to reason through the few open cases I was working, all I could think about was her lips and her legs and her money and wonder what was behind it all. So I decided to go home to my little apartment and drink the same scotch there anyway and be done with Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Whatever.

Tossing some bills onto the bar, I nodded to Adam and headed for the exit. I pulled open the first heavy door and stepped into the alcove beneath the loud, massive vents. Shutting the iron door, I paused and waited until it was sealed, and then pressed open the second door and stepped out into the fog.

BOOK: Three A.M.
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