farewell the unseen morn
by
david england

The sequel to Fortune's Bitter Road, this is the fifth episode in the series The Hard Streets of Aphrodite.

 

Part I

A Desperate Gambit

 

My fingers curl around the cold hard glass.  Better than a cold, hard dame, a quiet memory echoes with the ghost of a sneer.  Or have you gone sap-soft already?  The half-empty drink doesn’t add anything to the conversation as I stare into the uncaring swirl of blood red and midnight black that comprise my poison of choice.  There’s a light fuzz hovering at the edge of my vision, a comfortable buffer that holds the harshness of a stark, pitiless reality at bay, if only for a little while.  I don’t think about the headache I had waking up this morning or the one I’m likely to have tomorrow.  Shut up, I tell the voice in my head.  You talk too much.  A grimace curls one corner of my mouth.  And I’m thinking too much, which means I’ve haven’t drunk nearly enough yet.  Well, there’s a way to fix that.  I lift the glass to my lips and knock it back.

“She’s gone, Jack.”  The words come out without my meaning them to, but I’m beyond caring at this point.  The empty glass makes a hollow sound when I clunk it on the bar and I frown at it for a moment.  “Gimme another.”

The murky atmosphere of Perdido’s is even more hushed than usual.  A familiar malaise lies on the dimly-lit space like a wet blanket, but the typical haze of low-quality cigarillos is noticeably absent.  Probably because I’m the only patron here and I haven’t bothered to light one up yet.  Been too busy wallowing in my self-pity.

There’s no immediate response to my request, but I don’t bother to look up, keeping my eyes squarely on the empty glass.  Not like I’ve got anything else to do with my life.

A hand slaps down on the bar, right next to that empty glass, the fingers long and the skin a brown that reminds a person of well-tanned leather.  Then I do look up, right into the face of one Jacquin des Jardin, proprietor of this fine establishment.  His hawk-like eyes are hard, dark and hard like obsidian, and his expression is harder.  Hell, even that beak of a nose looks like a wedge of flint.  Don’t let the barkeep’s apron fool you: get crossways with this man and you’ll find a blade in your kidney soon enough.  And you’ll make the next day’s news when your body gets fished out of the bay.  Lucky for me, Jack’s a friend.

A very pissed-off friend.

“See here, Nick,” he says, his syllables sharp like the knives he uses on both vegetables and enemies.  “You’ve been muttering that crap for the last three days.”  He jabs the forefinger of his other hand at me.  “And for those three days, you’ve been coming in here, sitting your ass down on that stool, and drowning yourself in more bottles than I care to count.”  He pauses pointedly.  “The first night, I had to carry your sorry carcass back to your place just to make sure you didn’t wake up dead in some back alley.”

I wince at the memory.  Or, more specifically, at the non-memory.  So that’s how I got home, I think to myself.  I’d been wondering about that.  I recall coming here after discovering Mel had left and I remember diving into the task of trying to forget everything by drinking the strongest stuff I could get my hands on.  And I remember waking up in my bed, still in my suit, with a buzz-saw cutting through my brain and a throat on fire.  It was like a construction zone going on in my head, with a million hammers clanging away all at once.

“Now,” Jack continues, “I’ve told you more than once that your money’s no good here, on account of what you did for my Priscilla.”  His stony expression gets even stonier somehow.  “But if something doesn’t give, I’m going to have to lay down the law and tell you that you’re no good here until you straighten your crap out.  Don’t make me do that, Nick.”

That hits home.  That hits home damn hard.  I close my eyes for just a moment, absorbing the verbal blow, steadying myself.  Then I open them again.

“You’re a better friend than I deserve, Jack,” I tell him plainly.  It’s a hard thing for a man to admit he’s acting a fool, no matter how little self-respect he’s got.  “Okay, no more sauce.”  I give the empty glass a shove and it slides a short distance down the bar top.  “Would you be willing to give a man a cup or two of hot chikrey, though, before you cut him off completely?”

The right corner of Jack’s thin mouth twitches upward, which is about as close as he ever comes to a belly-laugh.  “Tell you what, Nick,” he replies.  “You promise me you’ll fix up whatever’s eating you and straighten out your crap, I’ll set you up with a whole pot.  On the house, of course.”

I’ve made far worse deals in my life.  “Done,” I nod.

Jack makes good on his promise and a short while later I’m two cups into a full pot of some damn strong chikrey, the kind that’ll wake you up even if you’re stone-cold dead.  The thick, pitch-black liquid is punching me good and hard in the face, which is exactly what I’m needing at the moment, so I take the punishment with a grimace of a smile and like it.  The dried and roasted root of this Venusian hybrid of good ol’ American chicory packs twice the wallop of Old World coffee, a fact which I’m appreciating right now, and I think Jack made this particular pot stronger than usual.  He’s a good friend, Jack.

The haze at the edge of my vision disappears by the middle of that second cup.  I take another sip, put the cup back down, and take stock of myself.  The sense of helplessness that had been clinging to me these past three days is gone, too.  Fallen off like an old, threadbare coat that just can’t stay together anymore.

After the pot had been brought, I’d asked Jack if he could whip me up some grub and scrounge up a copy of the day’s paper.  Perdido’s doesn’t have a fancy kitchen, but Jack’s a mean knife handler in more ways than one, and he serves up regular pub fare on a consistent basis.  What gets set in front of me is anything but regular pub fare, though, and I give Jack a questioning look when he arrives with an impressive sandwich of marinated fungus and a side-dish of roasted tubers, well-seasoned and still steaming.  He doesn’t answer, aside from a shrug, and places a folded newspaper next to my plate.  By this time, some of the early regulars have begun to filter in by ones and twos, so Jack leaves me to myself and drifts over to take their requests.

The aroma of my food reminds me how incredibly hungry I am.  The first bite of that sandwich erupts in my mouth and it’s all I can do to chew it properly before swallowing.  The tubers are just as delicious, but I can only take a small forkful as they’re too hot to eat yet.  I take another bite of the sandwich to satisfy the immediate demands of a very insistent hunger, then push everything aside to allow the tubers to cool a bit.  The food isn’t going anywhere, I tell myself, and I need to see what’s been happening.  I turn my attention to the paper.  More pointedly, I think as I unfold the broadsheet, I need to see what I hope hasn’t happened.

With no small amount of trepidation, I scan the headlines of the front-page stories and let out a low sigh of relief.  No giant letters in bold type announce the sudden death of the imperial viceroy or an attempt on his life, so at the very least that particular point of no return hasn’t yet been passed.    I work my way through the lesser stories and inside pages, looking for anything out of the ordinary, or even anything that might otherwise be ordinary but nonetheless bad news.  No mysterious bodies of young women have shown up, anyway.  The one body fished out of the river yesterday, according to the brief account, turns out to have been a middle-aged banker who had been about to be arrested for embezzlement when his little pyramid scheme had blown up spectacularly.  That’d have been something which might have interested me on any other day.

But not today.

So there’s nothing.  And nothing’s a good thing in my book.  As I close the paper, my eyes catch a short follow-on story about Miss Roberts--the main story having gone to print a day or so earlier, by the references here--recapping her dramatic dive onto the cobblestone streets in the middle of an upscale neighborhood.  There are comments regarding an “on-going investigation,” but the casual mention of drug-use and indications of needle-marks on the body’s arm make it clear as to what the conclusion of that investigation is going to be, regardless of the hunches of a certain chief inspector.  Politics conquers all, baby.  And everything’s politics in the end.  The wealthy and the powerful live by a different set of laws than work-a-day slobs like you and me.

Doesn’t mean those laws can’t be rewritten, though.  Doesn’t mean that at all.

My first and foremost concerns settled by the absence of news, I fold the paper back up and set it to one side, then slide my plate of food back towards me.  The tubers are cool enough now that I can eat them without scalding my tongue, so I dive in and make short work of the meal.  I wash it all down with one final cup of chikrey and pull my wallet out as I stand up.  Down at the far end of the bar, I see Jack shake his head, but I drop a few bills on the counter anyway.  He’s just going to have to deal with taking my d’argent this time.  I owe him a hell of a lot more than that.

A moment later, I’m leaving the pub.  The vague outline of a plan has started to form, dancing in and out of my awareness like a woman flirting with her date.  If Mel hasn’t done anything stupid yet, then maybe, just maybe, I still have time to head her off.

 

###

 

Now, I use the word “plan” very loosely, of course, because the term generally connotes a coherent course of action and the idea coming together in my brain is nothing of the sort.  Lots of other descriptors come to mind, though.  A hare-brained scheme?  Sure.  Downright insanity?  Quite likely.  A desperate gambit?  Most definitely.  But a desperate gambit is all I’ve got to work with at this particular moment, so that’s what I’m running with.

With my brain clear and my stomach full of something other than liquor, a certain sense of purpose begins to coalesce and focuses my energy in a way I haven’t experienced in a very long time.  A dust-covered memory surfaces and I realize when I felt like this before: right before that big bust that made a name for myself back in Phillie.  It’s that sense of being on the hunt.  I smile that not-nice smile and the various things that need doing map themselves out in my mind’s eye.  Yes, I say to myself as I glance over the mental list.  Exactly.

I hail a cab and tell the driver to drop me off at the edge of the financial district.  The ride is quick, in part because the traffic is still light and in part because the financial district is large.  But the outskirts are not too distant and that’s where the humble institution housing my meager accounts resides.

The bank lobby isn’t terribly crowded and I’m only waiting in line for a few minutes before a teller window opens up.  A fresh-faced young man greets me with a practiced smile, the light fuzz clinging to his upper lip expressing an obvious yearning to be taken seriously.  The effect is unfortunate, but I feel like being nice today so I don’t say anything about it.

“How may I assist you, monsieur?” he asks in only slightly accented English.  I must have one of those faces that screams “American!” or something.  Brits are mostly bilingual these days.  We Yanks not so much.

“I’d like to speak with a senior clerk,” I reply.

The kid does his best to not look affronted and succeeds about halfway.  “If you’ll permit me, monsieur,” he says in his best professional manner, “I’m quite sure I can see to your needs.”

“No offense, son,” I answer, leaning in with the full weight of all five of my standard decades, “but I don’t think so.  I’m here to close my accounts.”  Not that it’s a planet-shattering occurrence of anything, but the young teller’s eyes open a bit wider at that.  “So, a senior clerk.  Please.”

I get a quick, jerk of a nod in response.  “Yes, monsieur.  Of course.  I will return momentarily.”  And he sort of skitters away.  I glance about the lobby, taking in the atmosphere and the barely-audible hum of conversation from the other teller windows along the counter.  Get a good look, I remind myself.  You won’t be seeing this again, not for a long while.

The kid’s not gone for more than a few minutes though, so I can’t fault him for his efforts.  I see him coming back my way, accompanied by a middle-aged man with a pin-striped suit and the kind of officious expression one finds plastered on the mugs of self-serious petty bureaucratic types.  I hope this isn’t going to be too terribly painful.  At least his mustache isn’t a joke.  The pair halt on the other side of the teller window and the man, who I’m assuming to be the senior clerk I requested, gives me a cursory examination before speaking.

“I understand, monsieur,” he says in the professional tone you’d expect from middle-management with dreams of someday making partner, “that you wish to close your accounts with us.”

“That’s right.”

“Have the services we’ve provided been inadequate in some way?” he inquires, almost but not quite keeping his expression from illustrating what he thinks of that notion.

“Not at all,” I reassure him with a shake of my head.  “This institution has served me remarkably well.”

“However…?”  He trails off into a question.

“However,” I explain, “I am going to be relocating.  Off-planet, you see.  And I would prefer it if my funds relocate along with me.”

I mean it as a joke, but he either doesn’t get it or doesn’t find it funny.  “Ah,” he replies, still serious but at least apparently satisfied by my answer.  “I understand.”  He reaches for the drawer behind the counter.  “Would a cashier’s cheque be adequate for your needs?”

I shake my head again.  “The details of my relocation are still being worked out and I may need a fair amount of flexibility.  Cash, if you would please.”  A short pause.  “A mixture of bills.  I’d like some petty cash on hand if needed.”

It’s not like I have a hoard of d’argent to begin with, even with my better fortunes with clients in these last months, so the request isn’t too far out of bounds.  Even with the smaller denominations, my savings amount to a single fat envelope.  Still, that’s a good amount to be carrying around in a person’s pocket.

“If you would, monsieur,” the clerk slides a couple of forms at me along with the envelope.  “Please sign these where indicated.  This will complete the closing of your accounts.”

I nod and pick up the pen I’m given, signing my John Hancock on the lines he’s marked.  And that’s that.

A minute later, I’m out the bank’s double doors and getting into another cab to take me back home.  Those stiff shirts in the bank may be arrogant snits, but they’re efficient enough at what they do.  Can’t complain about that.  I give the fat envelope resting in my breast pocket a soft pat and settle back into my seat, running through my mental checklist.  There’s a number of things to get done before nightfall.

My brilliant scheme, such as it is, amounts to little more than a gamble, a wild gamble on any number of fronts.  First, I need to intercept Mel before she commits herself to anything that she can’t back out of.  Second, I have to be able to convince her that my alternative might actually succeed and that it would satisfy her thirst for revenge.  And third, pulling the gambit off.

And what is that gambit, you ask?  Nothing less than knocking that prick Diego off his high pedestal and sending him plummeting into humiliation and disgrace.  Ruining his reputation beyond repair.  And possibly, just possibly, getting him arrested for treason.  If I’m really lucky, they’ll shoot the bastard.

If I’m really, really lucky, Mel and I might be able to slip away with our hides intact.

It’s a crazy idea--so far beyond crazy that you can’t even see the normal kind of crazy from where I’m standing--and it has an iceberg’s chance on the Fireside of Mercury of actually working.  But it’s all I can come up with and my choices are taking a crazy gamble or watching Mel throw her life to Diego’s dogs.  And that’s not a choice in my book.

But for the plan to have even that iceberg’s chance, I need leverage.  I need that document that the late and unlamented Simone Roberts tried to seduce me into getting for her.  Once I’ve got that letter in my hands, I’ll be in business.  For one thing, it’ll show Mel that I’m serious about this fool plan of mine.  And for another, if it’s anything like Miss Roberts intimated, that letter just might do the job if it gets put into the right hands with the right context.  Court intrigue is a deadly game.  I’m no courtier, but a man doesn’t wade through the muck of Aphrodite’s underbelly for half his life without getting some sense of where the political bodies are buried.  Diego’s got his fair share of enemies.  It’s all about finding the right one.

The cab slows and I give my head a sharp shake--I’m getting way too far ahead of myself and that’s dangerous.  I need to focus on the present and get done what needs doing.  I’m trying to set a trap for some very dangerous prey, and the best way to set a trap is to have some understanding of how your quarry thinks. 

And if there’s something I know something about, it’s how that man thinks.

There’s more to be done before evening, though, and I step out of the cab onto the walk in front of my building.  Without hesitating, I’m through the street entrance, up the stairs, and to my office, locking the door behind me.  Tossing the envelope on one side of my desk as I take my seat, I reach into the top desk drawer and pull out a pen and blank sheet of stationery.

You might be wondering what I’m up to at this point.  You might also be wondering exactly how I plan to get my hands on that letter Miss Roberts was all hot and bothered over, given that the map she provided to me has been reduced to a pile of ashes and thrown in the waste bin days ago.  These are excellent questions.

I’m good at my job and I’m a good snoop.  Scratch that--I’m a damn good snoop.  And one of those little things that makes me a damn good snoop is the fact that yours truly has the kind of memory that stores pictures in his head, particularly things that I can have a few moments of concentrated effort examining.

Like those few moments before I held a lit match to Miss Robert’s little map.

So I have all those details in my head--the map of the grounds, the notes, the marked doorways, the patrols--and I quickly sketch it out again on the sheet of paper.  When I finish, I give it a good looking-over, making sure it matches what I remember, then nod in satisfaction.  I stand, grab the envelope of d’argent, and head for the door, leaving the map sitting on my desk.  Think of it as window-dressing in case I need to go with my contingency plan.  But right now, I’ve got to take care of a few more details before tonight’s adventure.

A little while later, I’m leaving Perdido’s one last time.  Jack and I have something of an understanding and the small bag he’s keeping for me will serve a purpose one way or another.  I gave him a bit of the d’argent, but knowing Jack, he’ll just put it right back in the envelope with the rest of it.  Jack’s like that.  Stubborn as all hell.

The hour’s slipping into late afternoon by now and I’ve got some time yet before it’ll be late enough for me to get on with it, so I decide to treat myself to a dinner at Flo’s.  I haven’t been by her place in a little while and odds are that I won’t have an opportunity to go by again anytime soon, so I figure I should take advantage of the opportunity while it’s here.

The dinner crowd is only now beginning to trickle in, so the diner’s not too full yet.  I sit myself on a stool at the counter instead of taking a seat in a booth and Flo comes by a few moments later.  I go for my favorite--that faux-Phillie cheese steak that tastes damn close to the original--but decide on a glass of water rather than a cup of chikrey.  I had enough of that this morning and I don’t need to be making myself jittery this evening with too much caffeine.

Flo and I chat while I eat.  It’s a good kind of casual without being too intimate.  I happen to mention in passing that I’m going to be going away for a while.  She takes that in without comment, but seems to get the message.  At least, I think she does.  It’ll have to do, regardless.

By the time we’re done, evening’s come and the streetlights have been lit.  I stand and toss a few bills on the counter, leaving a nice fat tip for Flo.  She deserves it, putting up with me all these years.  I pull on my reversible trench coat, still with the black side in, and plop my fedora on my head.  Then I’m out the door, into the night.  I give the brim of my hat a sharp tug, pulling it a little lower over my forehead.

Time to get to work

 

###

 

I set out on foot, my pace leisurely, blending in with the trickle of pedestrian traffic.  No hurry, nothing to see here, folks.  It may be evening, but I’ve got to allow some time yet for the bustle of the household I’m about to break into to settle down for the night.  Regardless of whether or not the master is in residence, there would be staff keeping up the place.  No need to call attention to myself.  I plan on being a ghost.

Plus, it wouldn’t do to bust in on someone’s dinner.  That’s just not polite, you know.

The address Miss Roberts had noted is in the area and the distance is easily walkable.  I meander a bit, taking something of a circuitous route.  Not that it’s likely anyone is tailing me, but an extra layer of precaution doesn’t hurt and a habitual paranoia on my part has kept my skin intact on more than one occasion.

The very thin stream of traffic thins even further, both the kind with wheels and the kind with feet.  The wet air, in contrast, thickens as evening slips into night, a light haze creeping in and draping itself over everything like gauze.  Not circumstances I’d planned on, but hey, I’ll take any help I can get, even if it comes from sheer dumb luck.  Wouldn’t be the first time.

Eventually, I near the neighborhood of my target.  The buildings here exhibit that genteel kind of decay, nice digs gone to seed, a decrepit ostentation.  More than one sits vacant by the looks of it, closed-up windows and overgrown lawns.  Those that show signs of habitation look to be used far below previous standards, with whole wings shut down.  That’s the way of it.  Everything rots at some point, whether you’re talking about bodies or cities or empires; it’s only really a matter of when.

But I’ve got other things on my mind right now and no time for pondering the fate of humanity.  Much more important things, like the present whereabouts of a certain hot-tempered young woman from the back hills of Nuevo México.  I wish I had a clue on that particular front, because once I get my mitts on that letter of Diego’s, I’m going to need to find Mel pronto and have a heart-to-heart with her before she makes any irrevocable decisions of her own.

That’s step number two, however.  Step number one involves breaking into the imperial viceroy’s hidey-hole, nicking the letter hidden by the woman he’s just had killed for taking said letter, and getting away--all without getting caught or killed, and preferably without anyone knowing I was there at all.

So no problem.

About a half block from the address, I slip into a narrow alleyway and take that opportunity to reverse my trench coat so that the night-black is on the outside.  A dark cloth covers the lower half of my face and I’m all set for the night’s business.

A quick glance around shows an empty street in both directions, so I step out of the alley and move quickly but quietly the rest of the way down the block.  Streetlight maintenance has been slack in this neck of the fungal forest, as the saying goes, with something like one in three functioning.  The deeper-than-usual shadows help me considerably.  Again, I’m not going to complain.

The address in question proves the basic outline of Miss Roberts’ sketch to be accurate.  The grounds are walled, with a large metal front gate and a smaller rear service gate.  The main building possesses the same faded grandeur of the general neighborhood.  Several smaller buildings are scattered about the compact grounds, which I guess to be a combination of guardhouses and storage sheds.  The notes Miss Roberts had added to her sketch mentioned patrols but I don’t see evidence of any.  Perhaps those are only for when the master of the household is around.  The whole place is pretty damn quiet, in fact.  A small part of me doesn’t like that quiet, but nobody asked my opinion, either.  And I don’t really have a choice here.

I climb to the top of the brick wall along the backside of the estate, but still far enough away from that service gate so as to not be too near the walkway leading to the back of the main house.  I don’t pause to take in the scenery, though, and drop quickly to the ground on the far side.

Freezing in a crouch, I scan the scene, waiting for a sound, any sound, which might indicate that someone’s been alerted to my presence.  I’m ready to clamber right back up the wall if there is, but there’s no hue and cry, no growling of guard dogs, no lights coming on.  Only the beat of Aphrodite’s bitch-heart far away in the distance.  So far, so good.

The murky glow of the streetlamps doesn’t reach beyond the wall and the lighting on the grounds is even sparser than in the street, like a feeble afterthought.  Makes my job here far easier than it should be.  I slip through the shadows, crossing the stretch of ill-maintained lawn and reaching the main house without incident.  Still no sound from inside.

Based on the layout in Miss Roberts’ sketch, there’s a patio on this side of the house, along with a set of doors providing access to the grand hall where she said she stashed the letter.  My plan at this point is simple: get in, get out, get gone.

I peer ahead through the gloom and spot the outline of the stone terrace further down, half swallowed by the haze of the wet night.  Sliding along the wall, I reach the patio and climb the two steps from the lawn.  The glass double doors would prove no barrier to anyone intent on getting inside, but I’m not exactly trying to announce my presence, either.  The lock only argues with my picks for a moment before giving in with a soft click.  One door swings open noiselessly.

I don’t pause, but step through, quietly pushing the door to without latching it.  I can take care of that little detail on my way out and having one less step in case I need to beat a hasty retreat isn’t a bad idea.  But the goal is for no one to know I was even here in the first place.

By the map in my head, the open space in front of me is a short connecting corridor which opens into the grand hall just ahead.  I creep forward.  Maybe ten feet or so and I come to the doorway I’m expecting.  So far, at least, Miss Roberts’ sketch has been dead on target.  I’m hoping everything else is just as accurate.

The woman’s former suite would be to my right from that doorway.  The fireplace, however, is supposed to be on the far wall to my left.

I slide leftward, keeping to the perimeter wall for the time being.  A short ways in, I can make out the mantle and stonework of the massive fireplace through the shadow.  At that point, I cross the open floor, making a beeline for the far side of the hearth, to the outermost corner flagstone on the right hand side.

My luck continues to hold as the house remains silent.  I crouch down, feeling along the edge of the flagstone.  There’s a subtle groove along one side which offers a grip for my fingers, so I dig them in and give the stone a tug upward.  Sure enough, the thing is loose, though not so loose as to arouse suspicion if someone were to walk over it. I prop the flagstone with one hand while I grope about underneath with the other.  After a heartbeat, my fingers touch paper, an envelope of some kind.  I’ll look at it later.  Taking the envelope, I lower the stone carefully back down.  This has been too easy, I think to myself.

Which, of course, is precisely the moment the electric lights flick on, flooding the hall with brilliance and momentarily blinding me.

“Lévez-vous, monsieur,” a cultured voice behind me says with that casual kind of command that makes it clear he’s used to being obeyed.  “Stand, if you would.”

Like I said before, the best way to set a trap is to get inside your quarry’s head and know how he thinks.  So much for my crazy scheme.

Looks like I’m going with Plan B.


Part II

The Trap

 

I do as the man says, giving the flagstone a final nudge into place and then standing up.  Very, very slowly, I might add, keeping my hands up and in plain sight.  The envelope is in one hand and the other hand is nowhere near my piece, still slung securely in its holster beneath my arm.

Once fully up, I pause, waiting.  You don’t take initiative in a situation like this where someone’s gotten the drop on you; not if you want to keep breathing, anyway.  No, you wait for the other guy to tell you what to do, then you do it.  It’s the best way to get through an encounter like this alive.  Now, I’m personally less concerned about that last bit, but I’ve still got a job to do and I need to play this smart.  So I wait.

And he lets me wait.  I stare at the elaborate woodwork of the wall and the elegant painting hanging just a bit to my left.  It’s all part of the game, though my teeth grind at knowing how much he’s enjoying the moment.  But then, it’s not like I have much choice but to go ahead and give the bastard his jollies.  A good minute passes before he speaks again, all polite in that condescending manner I remember too well.

“Turn around now, s’il vous plaît,” he commands.  “Slowly.”

Again, I do as I’m instructed, carefully rotating with deliberate steps, my hands held high and clearly visible.  The far end of the high-vaulted hall comes into view, along with two men standing part way back along its length.  I keep my face studiously blank.  It takes some considerable effort. 

The space is decorated in that tastefully ostentatious manner of the wealthy and powerful who know their status but are also comfortable enough in their skin that they don’t have to ram it down your throat.  Nonetheless, my surroundings here are clearly those of one who walks in the upper stratum of society.  Of the two men, one stands off to my left, the other just right of center along the axis of the hall.  The first is built like a brick wall and has a face to match.  He wears a dark business suit, not an expensive one by the look of it, but seems clean enough from where I stand.  He has a pug face with a nose that’s been smashed in one too many times and his dark eyes watch me steadily.  The expression on his flat face is folded into a scowl.  What concerns me the most right now, though, and a fact I note most carefully, is the hefty revolver he holds in his meaty hand, the business end of which is pointed my way.  I don’t know him from Adam, but this guy is obviously hired muscle and, well, he’s got plenty of it.

The second man, on the other hand, is a stark contrast to his companion in just about every way a person could think of.  And unlike Bruno the brick wall over there, I know him.  Oh, I know him very well, indeed.

He has aged a good bit since I’d had the pleasure of seeing him up close and personal like this, but only in the ways that one might expect.  Unlike so many men of power who slide into maturity, he’s not allowed himself to go to seed.  In fact, he seems to have kept much of that trim, athletic build he’d possessed when we’d squared off on the dueling green a good quarter-century ago.  His eyes (green like spring grass, I hear Mel’s voice in the back of my mind) have remained bright and clear; his cheekbones have retained their distinctive aristocratic character.  His black hair is well-peppered and shows more substantial grey at the temples, but this only lends more gravitas to the image.  The very presence of the man screams power and prestige without saying a damn word.

Those green eyes examine me in a manner that’s both simultaneously intense and casual.  It’d be as unnerving as all hell if I hadn’t already been well-acquainted with the man.  As it is, the whole thing still irks me.  Of course, having his muscled ape pointing a piece at me might also have something to do with that.

We all stare at one another for what seems like forever; well, two of us do anyway, while the hired muscle looks on.  Then the nobleman makes a vague, waving motion in my general direction.

“The face cloth, if you please, monsieur,” Diego commands casually.  “Slowly--with your left hand.  I’d like to see who it is with whom I’m speaking.”

All prim and proper, naturally.  The letter is still held aloft in my right hand, which had likely given him a clue as to which was my dominant.  There’s little to be done but to play the game.  I shrug and comply with the demand, carefully moving my left hand toward the cloth and giving it a slight tug so that it falls around my neck and away from my face.

“Ah, Nicholas!” Diego exclaims with an exaggerated enthusiasm and feigned surprise, as though he hadn’t already known.  Just like he hadn’t had Simone Roberts followed or hadn’t known that the gendarme had picked me up for questioning.  Hell, like his man hadn’t tried warning me off as far back as the case of Madame Deschamps’ dress all those months ago.  On the other hand, this display of familiarity is not something I’m fully expecting.

I play it cool and reply in kind.  “Diego,” I nod.

That smile grates on me, with its perfect teeth gleaming in even rows.  It’s as broad as it is unsettling, made all the more so by the fact that it’s about as genuine as the goat-boy I paid a full nickel to see at the circus that came by my town when I was ten years old.  But Diego, well, he’s a showman’s showman and even though I despise the man with every fiber of my being, I can’t but admire the understated yet elegant flair of his performance.  It’s more than apparent to me that he’s decided to put on a show tonight, and since I can’t imagine that he’d be doing such a thing to amuse muscle-bound Bruno over there on the other side of the room, process of elimination compels me to conclude that this evening’s little waltz is for my benefit.

“I must ask, Nicholas, to what do I owe the honor of this visit?” he inquires lightly as if I’d just been shown into the parlor for afternoon tea or some crap like that.

I shrug as best I can while still keeping my hands in the air.  We may be doing a dance number here, but there’s still the muzzle of a gun being pointed at me by a lunk who looks more than willing to pull the trigger and I have no intention of getting shot sooner than I have to be.

“I was just out for a midnight stroll,” I reply nonchalantly.  “Thought I’d sit for a spell and rest my feet.  Didn’t know you had digs on the slum-side of town here, Diego.”

A curt nod of Diego’s head acknowledges the point and he barks a sharp laugh.  “You’ve always had a particularly dry sense of humor, mon ami.  It is one of your more redeeming qualities.”

I give a tight smile of my own.  Any list of my redeeming qualities would be most notable by its brevity, but I keep my trap shut and allow my silence to speak clearly enough.

My adversary considers me for another minute, the time slowly sliding past us in the quiet of the evening, then gives another wave of his hand.  “However much I am enjoying our reunion and witty repartée,” he comments, “there is business to be done.”

“Of course,” I acknowledge.

“You are armed, I would expect.”  It is a statement of fact, not a question.  “Unbutton your coat, if you would.”  My right hand still holds the envelope, so I fumble with the buttons with my left for a bit before succeeding.  “Now, your suit jacket.”  Again, this is done.

Diego seems satisfied with my actions to this point.  “Hold your suit jacket open.”  I comply, revealing the harness and holster with my piece tucked under my left arm.  “Using your thumb and middle finger alone, remove your pistol.”  I do so very carefully, pinching the grip of my piece as instructed and making no sudden movements.  “Finally,” Diego says, “place it on the floor in front of you and kick it over to me.”

I deposit the pistol on the smooth stone tiles and straighten back up again before giving it a good shove with my right foot.  Metal clatters as the gun skitters over stone, covering the distance between us in a few seconds and coming to a halt maybe a yard from Diego’s feet.

He bends down to retrieve it, keeping his eyes on me the entire time.  I do an excellent imitation of a statue, all too aware of Bruno and his trigger finger on the other side of the hall there.

Diego stands, then gives my piece a casual examination.  “An effective, if inelegant weapon,” he observes.  “I have found that a man’s methods mirror the man.”  He gives a smirk.  “This suits you well, I think.”

“I can’t say that I didn’t have you in mind when I bought it,” I reply, letting my own multiple shades of meaning sit there in the space between us unresolved.

Diego doesn’t reply to my jab, but keeps his own smile even and unfaltering.  The pistol--my pistol--in his hands, however, levels with the business end pointing my way.

“And now, my dear Nicholas, to the matter at hand.”  He gestures with the muzzle.  “Or to be more specific, the matter in your hand.  The letter you’re holding: place it on the floor in front of you and take five steps backwards.”

There’s not a whole lot of choice I have at the moment.  I’m going to have to bide my time and wait for an opening to present itself, so I do as I’m told.  Those five steps nearly back me against the wall, but Bruno’s still got a bead on me.  I’m only going to have one chance to pull my backup plan off, so I have to wait.  For now.

Diego steps forward and retrieves the envelope, then moves back to his original position.  I’m not told to do likewise, so I stay put.  Bruno hasn’t so much as blinked this whole time.

The envelope isn’t sealed, apparently, with the flap only tucked inside.  Diego extracts the letter, unfolds the high-quality paper, and scans its contents.

“Simone, Simone, Simone,” he says chidingly with a shake of his head.  “If only you’d taken my advice to heart, you might still be alive today.”

At this point, I’m beginning to become unsure of how long my part in tonight’s drama is going to last and I wonder about my odds of being able to bum-rush Diego, wrestle my piece back, plug him before getting plugged myself.  A quick glance at Bruno tells me those odds aren’t very good at all, since the lump of meat hasn’t taken his eyes off me since the lights first snapped on.  I don’t think I’d even take two steps before getting gunned down.  All I can do, it seems, is to wait and to hope that my number doesn’t come up before the opportunity to rub Diego out presents itself.  Someone’s going to have to pay for the man’s death and my sole focus right now is to make sure that someone isn’t Mel.  If I kill him first, then she can’t put herself in that position to begin with.  She might be really pissed off that I cheated her out of her long-sought revenge, but she’ll also stay alive.  The woman will just have to deal with that.

Lucky for me, Diego seems to be in no hurry.  He carefully folds the letter again and reinserts it into the envelope before slipping said envelope into the left breast pocket of his vest.  Regarding me in that casual way of his, that smile strikes me as particularly less than comforting, if you know what I mean.

“And that,” he says, “takes care of the evening’s business.”

That doesn’t sound very promising, so I figure I need to draw him out a bit and play for more time.  “As simple as that, then?” I ask.  “I always took you to be more sophisticated, Diego.  Bump off a prostitute here, shoot a man there.  Not your style at all.”  A carefully-measured amount of sarcasm gets ladled in.  Don’t want to overdo it, though.

But Diego doesn’t react to my needling, at least not in the way I’m expecting.  “That takes care of the evening’s business,” he repeats with an emphasis on the last word.  “What is to follow, I can assure you, is entirely pleasure.”

I’m not sure how to interpret that comment and a certain puzzlement must show on my face because Diego chuckles.  “Come now, Nicholas, I have something planned for you and the evening, she is still young yet.”

With a gesture of exaggerated politeness, he indicates a doorway behind him, further down the great hall.  “If you would be so kind as to step this way.”  I look at the doorway, then at Bruno, then back to Diego.  Whatever he’s got up his sleeve, if it keeps me alive for a bit longer, then I’ll take it.

“Sure thing,” I reply and move toward the open door.

 

###

 

Given where that doorway sits in relation to the layout of the hall and given my recollection of the outline of this portion of Diego’s hideaway according to that sketch, I have my suspicions as to what waits for me on the other side.  A moment later, I step through and have those suspicions confirmed: there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m standing in the suite of rooms where Simone Roberts spent her time while visiting here.

The decor is definitely feminine, soft gauzes and lace draping everywhere, though the color scheme makes me think that the master of the household holds far more sway than his mistress.  Given the dominant reds I witnessed in Miss Roberts’ choice of clothing, the prominence of softer blues and greens around me suggests that her preferences were not given significant consideration.

The room is obviously one of a suite, probably the main chamber for entertainment.  There’s a chaise in the center of the floor with a side table nearby displaying a silver serving tray complete with a decanter and glasses.  Several paintings of various land- and seascapes cover the walls and there’s an open doorway at the far end which I’d guess leads to a bedroom, though my view is blocked by heavy curtains the color of seafoam.  A sitting chair, its seat well-padded and its wooden back decoratively carved, sits opposite the chaise.

I don’t have too long to take in the scenery, however, as Bruno reminds me to keep moving with a solid poke to my ribs with the barrel of his pistol.  I make my way further into the room, then stop.  Diego follows us in, closing the door behind him.

“Have a seat, Nicholas,” he offers, indicating the sitting chair with a casual gesture.  “We have much to discuss.”  He makes his way to the chaise and seats himself gracefully, placing my piece on the side table next to the silver tray with its set of crystal.

“And what makes you think that I want to talk with you?” I counter.  It’s a bluff, of course; I’d much rather hear him gloat than end up plugged with lead.  At this point, it’s all about buying time and waiting for my chance.  On the other hand, there’s an element of truth to my retort, as well.  I have some amount of pride, however misbegotten and misplaced it might be.

Diego laughs as if I’ve cracked a witty joke.  “Come now, mon ami,” he chides.  “We both know the other far better than that.”  He gestures at the chair again.  “Have a seat.”

“I’ll stand, thank you.”

Diego’s smile doesn’t physically change.  That is, no muscle in his face moves even the slightest.  Suddenly, however, his expression turns very, very cold.  “You mistake my words for a suggestion,” he says, his tone deadly calm.  “They are not.  Have--a--seat.”

I’m propelled forward by a hard shove and stumble toward the chair before regaining my balance.  Making some attempt to keep an element of personal dignity, I give Diego a steady look and plant my hindquarters in the proffered seat.

“Excellent,” Diego responds.  “Would you care for a beverage?”

“Is that another non-suggestion?” I ask.

Diego allows the point with a mild shrug.  “Your choice.”

“I’ll pass.”

“Very well,” he answers and reaches for the decanter sitting on the side table.  “Suit yourself, as you Americans would say.”

Two fingers of a brilliant amber liquid pours smoothly into a small crystal glass that by itself probably cost as much as two months’ rent on my hole-in-the-wall apartment.  He sets the decanter down, settles back in the very comfortable-looking chaise, and takes a sip.

“You’ve been a busy man since we last encountered one another,” he observes.

So that’s how he wants to play this--all chummy.  The sheer arrogance of the man cascades from him like water flowing off the pavilions shielding Aphrodite from the Venusian rains.  Yet, beneath the overwhelming revulsion I have for him, I can’t help but acknowledge a subtle, if surprising, respect.  And it’s all the more surprising because that begrudging respect seems to be mutual.

“As have you,” I answer and make a show of looking around this chamber of the suite.  “You’ve done rather well for yourself, Diego.”  I may despise the man, but he does have style.  My gaze returns to him.  “About as well as a man can expect to do, given the limitations of birth.”

Diego allows a small smile and nods.  I’m playing a dangerous game juggling fire like this, but I’m also past caring about my own hide.  If he wasn’t planning on killing me before, that last jibe likely sealed my fate.  Of course, I have my own reasons.

“I take your meaning, Nicholas,” he replies, calm as ever.  “The majority of the staff were given the evening off, even some of the guards.  I preferred to have a more private setting for your visit.”

I look back over my shoulder at Bruno, then to Diego again.

“One cannot go completely unarmed,” he replies to my silent observation.  “I still have some guards on the compound perimeter, although they were instructed to allow you entry.”  He sips again from that far-too-expensive glass of brandy and regards me silently for a time.  “I must say, mon ami, that I find it most fascinating that the lives of two men so vastly different as ourselves can nonetheless be intertwined so very intimately.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I reply sharply, even though I have a very good idea indeed as to what he’s talking about.

“”Nicholas, Nicholas,” Diego shakes his head slowly.  “I am an astute observer of men’s characters--I would never have reached this position in life without such an ability--and I know quite well that you are not the fool you play at.”  He pauses, considers me for a moment.  “I have always had a certain degree of respect for you as an adversary, even if the outcome of any contest between us was nonetheless a foregone conclusion at the outset.”

I reward him with a grim smile, but say nothing.  That’s just like the man, giving a compliment with the back of his hand.

Diego takes another sip of brandy, clearly savoring the moment.  “In my years,” he continues, “I have battled countless opponents, but far too many of them were of such a caliber that the resulting victory was as hollow as it was inevitable.  A man of worth needs worthy adversaries against which he can test his mettle--flint to my steel, one might say--to elicit that spark which makes existence worthwhile.”

“I suppose I should feel honored,” I observe, making no attempt to disguise my sarcasm.

“You should,” he agrees.  “Of my long list of vanquished foes, I cannot think of another with whom I would be having this conversation.”

The man is consistent in his opinion of himself, I’ll give him that.  “Humor me,” I say.  “Perhaps I’m just being dense tonight.  How exactly is it that you see us as so ‘entwined,’ as you put it?”

Diego waves his free hand in a grand, sweeping gesture.  “Consider the paths of our respective careers, mirrored as they are: mine in governance of society, yours in the underbelly of that same society.  Consider the planet on which we have both chosen to reside, the city to whose embrace we have both succumbed.  Finally,” he says, bring the crystal glass to his lips, “consider the shared women in our lives.”

Women.  Not woman.

I may be a washed-up has-been crawling through Aphrodite’s underbelly and I may be lacking in all that refinement and those social graces Diego was born into, but his nuance is not lost on me.  A chill runs down my spine and I struggle to keep my expression blank.

“I never slept with Miss Roberts,” I answer, clutching at the only straw I could think of.

“So I understand,” Diego responds.  “I admit myself to be somewhat surprised by that fact, actually.  Simone’s talents were...considerable.”  He gives another of those small, knowing smiles that I’m really coming to hate.  “That, however, is not the other to whom I refer.”  He turns his head toward that curtained doorway.  “You may come in now, my dear.”

My heart drops like a brick as the drapery parts and Mel steps into the room.

 

###

 

She’s clothed, though the sheer, ice-blue silk of her billowing pantalons and the broad band binding her breasts do little to obscure her womanly attributes in any material way.  She’s barefoot, toenails decorated in a complementary shade of ocean-like blue that matches the tips of her fingers.  Her long black tresses are done up in an elegant arrangement piled on top of her head and held in place by an elaborately-carved hairpin the size of a large knitting needle.  The whole set-up highlights the graceful arc of her neck, her very feminine jawline.  Mel’s body exudes a raw, unfiltered sexuality that for all her efforts Simone Roberts could never have hoped to achieve.

I’m too late.  The realization hits me like a punch in the gut.  She’s already made her play and failed.  She’s already fallen into his clutches.  Even if she’s not dead, this might even be worse.

She stops in front of Diego and waits.  The expression on her face is utterly relaxed, almost unnaturally so, and the distant look in her eyes makes me wonder if she’s been helped into this cooperative state by a substance or two.

Diego glances up at her and smiles, then looks at me.  Somehow during this interval I’ve risen to my feet, though Bruno’s right next to me and the muzzle of his pistol in my ribs keeps my feet planted exactly where they are.

“Your woman came to me a few days ago,” Diego explains in that casual manner of his, as though I’m not able to put two and two together to come up with four by myself.  “Offering information in exchange for a position.  As I had a recent vacancy in my staff, it seemed to me a fortuitous coincidence.  I’ve waited until the business matter had been settled, however, before engaging in the more...diverse aspects of her employment.”  He nods to her and Mel sinks to her knees.  Diego continues his narration even as he’s watching her.  “I’ve saved her for tonight, as it seemed somehow appropriate that my esteemed adversary be witness to her breaking in.”

I watch, speechless, as Mel’s fingers work the fastenings of Diego’s trousers.  He shifts his hips, allowing her to slide his pants down.  She bends her neck and to my horrified fascination begins to service him.

Diego observes her for a while as Bruno and I look on, the elaborate hairdo bobbing slowly up and down.  Without raising his eyes from Mel, he comments, “What she lacks in experience, she makes up for in enthusiasm.  The experience will come with time.”

What’s a man to say to that?  Particularly when he’s got the business end of a piece stuck in his side?   It’s all I can do to manage to keep myself still so that Bruno doesn’t have an excuse to plug me full of lead then and there.

I sense a change in the air around me and it takes me a second to realize that the rhythm of Bruno’s breathing has changed.  Moving my head as little as I possibly can, I sneak a glance to my side.  Sure enough, the big lunk is totally focused on the scene unfolding before us.  If I can move fast enough, then I just might be able to salvage something out of the boondoggle.

But it is not to be.  Mel stops her ministrations and stands.  Diego says nothing, but quirks an eyebrow--apparently impressed by what seems to be a certain initiative on Mel’s part.  Of course, knowing her as I do, such a thing doesn’t surprise me in the least.  But my moment has passed, I realize, as I look on helplessly.

She reaches for the knot at her right side that holds the gossamer band in place.  The tie gives way and the sheer strip of fabric flutters to the floor, leaving her breasts bare.  They stand firm, a testament to her youth, the tips dark against the lighter bronze of her skin.  A moment later, the pantalons collapse into a puddle of silk around her feet.  Mel steps clear, naked and powerful like a goddess, and climbs onto the chaise, straddling Diego.

The man is caught a bit off-guard by her audacity, that much is clear, but he recovers quickly and allows her to continue, the pleased expression on his face rather like that of one who’s discovered a prize-worthy horse hidden away in a peasant’s stables.  Mel takes his manhood in her hand, adjusts her position, and in one determined thrust, impales herself.

She utters only a single cry and holds very, very still for a few heartbeats before her own body’s nature takes over.  Her hips rock slowly, purposefully.  The pain is passed; now, it is clear, she is determined to take her pleasure.

My stomach knots watching her.  Watching her riding him.  Mel’s obviously caught up in the moment, her hands moving slowly up her belly, cupping her breasts, then up to her neck and face.  Her eyes are closed, her expression one of abandon.  Diego’s hands are at her hips now, pulling her hard onto him, taking over the rhythm she’d set.  One of her hands moves back down, back to a breast, while the other continues upward into her hair.  The long, elegant hair pin slides out, the elaborate styling of her tresses collapsing as they tumble free in long waves of night.  Then Mel’s eyes open.

And that’s when I understand how very, very wrong I’ve been about the events of the evening.  When I’d set out, I’d intended to save Mel from her self-destructive course by retrieving the letter and using its contents to set a trap for Diego.  But he’d turned the tables on me, it had seemed, and set a trap for me, using the letter as bait.  Well, turns out we’ve both been played by a pissed-off peasant girl of the back-hills of Nueva Espagña.

Turns out, Mel had set a trap for him with me as the bait.

Her eyes are not those of some drugged-up pleasure doll satisfying a nobleman, but bright and clear and full of that dark fury I’ve seen too often.  The hand gripping the long hair needle tightens--that deadly, decorative accessory she’d been wearing this entire time--and her hand plunges down, driving her weapon into Diego’s chest, then again, and again.

My elbow slams into Bruno’s solar plexus with as much force as I can muster.  The man’s a wall of muscle, but that particular bundle of nerves is a chink in anyone’s armor and he drops like a sack of rocks, wheezing for a breath.  I’m on top of him in an instant, wasting no time, and grab him by the hair at the back of his head, then slam his face into the decorative floor tile twice, followed by one more for good measure.  Satisfied that he’s out cold, I stand and direct my attention to the more immediate problem.

Diego’s body has stopped twitching and now lies still, reclining back on the chaise, half-naked.  His chest is a bloody mess.  Mel is frozen in a state of shock, still gripping the hair needle, still mounted on the dead man.  Diego’s own blank stare shows the remains of astonishment at his swift demise, but I give him only a moment’s thought as I move quickly to the girl and pull her away.

“Mel!” I don’t quite shout at her.  “Mel, stay with me here!”  She doesn’t respond, her face blank like a line under tension that’s suddenly gone slack.  It’s as though she’s lived her whole life under the domination of this single, driving purpose and now that it’s been released, she doesn’t know what to do.  I give her a hard shake to try to snap her out of her daze.  Those night-black eyes blink once, then once more, then find mine before widening as though surprised to see me here.  My brain buzzes with everything that I want to say to her, but we have no time.

Plan B has gone right out the window, but I’ve always been good at thinking on my feet.  We’ll just call this Plan B-and-a-half.

I slide out of my trenchcoat and place it over her shoulders, covering her naked glory.  “You’ve been here a few days now, right?” I ask.  “Is there a back exit you can get to?”

She looks at me blankly for a moment, but then nods.

“Good.”  I take her by the arms and look her right in the face.  “Get yourself to Perdido’s, you hear me?  Get to Jack and he’ll take care of you.  Got that?”  Another shaky nod answers me.

“Now go.”  I shove her away hard.  When she just stands there, I almost lose it.  “Damn it, woman!” I yell.  “Get the hell out of here!”

Mel finally responds, pulling my coat tight around her body before fleeing the room.

Behind me on the floor, I hear a low groan.  Turning, I see Bruno start to move.  What a mess, I tell myself as I move back over to him.  What an ever-loving mess.  But like I’ve said on more than one occasion, you play the cards you’re dealt no matter what kind of hand they make.

“Sorry, mac,” I mutter as I kneel on his back, my right knee between his shoulder blades, and pin him to the floor.  “This is only going to work if there aren’t any other witnesses.”  I take his chin in one hand and the back of his head in the other.  A sharp twist is followed by a sound like the crunching of celery.  Bruno flops, then lies still.

I straighten back up and take a minute to handle a few details before walking purposefully over to the side table to retrieve my piece from where Diego had placed it.  Standing over his body, I aim at his ravaged chest with the end of the muzzle just a few inches from his bloody wounds, then pull the trigger three times.

 

 Part III

Swan Song

 

You know, I’d always hoped to go out with a bit of flair.

The weak light of pre-dawn filters through the narrow, barred windows high on the cell wall behind me.  An equally-feeble light shines in through the thick glass panel set above the heavy cell door, the single electric light doing what it can to dispel the shadows.  I sit on the wooden bench running along the wall opposite the door.  That bench is just wide enough, as it also serves as my bed, but I’ve been awake for a while now, sitting up in the corner where the stone walls meet.  My accommodations aren’t exactly spacious, but it’s not like I need much in the way of amenities these days.

“You have a visitor, monsieur.”  A guard’s face appears, framed tightly by the small window in the door.  I don’t recognize him, despite the fact that I’ve been held here for a while now.  There’s been a fairly constant rotation of guards assigned to my detail all throughout my stay.  Hard to say if that’s just standard protocol for a case like mine or if there really are that many men vying for a spot.  Even odds, I’d guess.  I’ve become something of a minor celebrity these last several weeks, you see, though I can’t say that I’ve had any visitors to speak of.

The door swings open ponderously, testament to its heavy construction, and I’m mildly surprised to see François Durand, chef inspecteur des Gendarmes Territoriales de Vénus, step into my small cell.  His well-cut grey suit fits him well and has a gentle blue sheen to it.  I note, too, that he’s got a medium-sized paper bag in his right hand, the top folded down.

“Merci, corporal,” he says to the guard.  “That will be all for now.”

“Oui, Chef Inspecteur,” the guard replies.  The door swings shut again and the lock closes with a very audible clunk.

Durand regards me for a moment in silence before slowly shaking his head.  “Phillips, Phillips, Phillips.  What am I going to do with you?”

I can’t say what Durand might do, but I’m pretty damn sure what the Franco-Spanish Territorial government will be doing with me very shortly.  I keep my comments to myself, however.

“Nice to see you, Chief Inspector,” I reply and wave at the far end of my bench with a mild exaggeration.  “Please, make yourself at home.  I’m afraid I haven’t much to offer in the way of creature comforts.”

He gives me a look.  “You’re a strange one, Phillips.”  But he sits down anyway and places the paper bag between us.

“So I’ve been told,” I allow.  My court-appointed legal representation did what they were supposed to do and stayed within the bounds I’d given them, but had been clearly unhappy about it.  My defense had been largely for show, a box-checking exercise, but I’d also known that I couldn’t be too obvious about how I went about it, either.  To the man on the street, everything had looked kosher.  Legal experts, on the other hand, may very well have smelled some overripe fish.  Too bad for them.

“I’d like to have a chat with you, if you wouldn’t mind.  Just the two of us.”  Durand nudges the paper bag toward me.  “Your clothes are in here and your breakfast will be here soon enough.  Why don’t you change and we can talk while you wait?”

I consider the request, weighing the pros and cons at this stage in the game.  After a moment, I shrug.  “Sure,” I answer.  He’s on a fishing expedition, that’s clear enough, and he’s looking for something beyond the court’s verdict.  Well, he’ll be walking out of here empty-handed, I can tell you that.

I open the bag and pull out the clothes--my suit coat, slacks, shirt--all cleaned, pressed, and neatly folded.  My socks and undergarments are there, too.  Right down to my shoes, laces, and belt.  I suppose the authorities aren’t thinking I’m going to hang myself with any of this.  It’s a big difference from the plain, woolen prisoner’s uniform I’ve been wearing.  A small thing, but worth something in the end.  I’m forced to admit, some of the parts of my journey these last weeks have honestly surprised me.

I slip out of my prisoner’s uniform and pull on my underclothes, followed by the slacks.  “What do you want to know,” I ask Durand, “that I haven’t already testified to in court a dozen times already?”

The chief inspector gives another one of those looks, the kind that tells me he suspects something even though he can’t prove squat.  He can just deal with it.  That’s one thing I had going for me in this whole set-up: being found standing over a dead body with a gun in your hand makes for a damn tidy case.  Open, shut, execution.  And no questions asked.

“I went through the details of the coroner’s report again,” he explains as I thread one arm into a shirt sleeve.  It’s my turn to give him a look, and his turn to shrug.  “I’m a poor sleeper these days,” he says casually.  “It makes for good late-night reading.”

I grunt and get my other arm into the remaining sleeve.

“The coroner makes note--in several places of the report, in fact--that the damage to the victim’s chest and heart doesn’t quite match what would be expected of the bullets’ trajectories.”  He pauses.  “Then, of course, there’s the question of that hairpin.”

There had been a couple of details I’d taken care of in order to deal with the traces of Mel’s presence.  That a woman had been present was going to be apparent no matter what I’d been able to do in the short time I’d had.  Likewise, the activity in which Diego and said woman had been engaging in at the time of his demise.  But what I certainly had tried to do had been to make that a passing detail (A nobleman being pleasured by a prostitute? One expects such things…) and a line of inquiry not worth pursuing.  Diego had been a powerful man and powerful men have pretty playthings as a matter of course.  The woman’s value would have been most significant as a witness, but a witness hadn’t really been needed in this case, had it?

So what I’d needed to do had been to make the presence of a woman seem like window dressing and not in any way linked to the murder except by circumstance.  Since that image more or less fit everyone’s expectations, I’d not been too surprised when it had worked.  Before I’d pulled the trigger, I’d put the sitting chair back against the wall, wiped the hairpin on Mel’s gossamer clothing, and arranged those garments in such a way that they’d soak up a good amount of Diego’s blood naturally, hiding the wipe-stains.  I’d also opened the door to the hall so that the sound of the gunshots could be easily heard by the guards at the perimeter of the compound.  The hairpin itself I’d snapped in two and placed beneath Bruno’s body--the lunk had no doubt rushed in, tripped up on the hairpin rolling beneath his foot and fallen, which accounted for the broken neck.  Freak accident?  Sure.  But these things happen and in any event, let’s not muddy the evidence when the case is so very clear.

“Is that so?” I reply just as casually, my attention on the shirt buttons.  “The court seemed satisfied with the conclusions drawn by the Imperial Advocate.”

One of the things that I’d come to understand as the trial had gotten underway is that Diego had a lot of enemies.  Not at all uncommon in that line of work and I knew that the man was a right bastard, sure, but I’ll just say this: while the shock and grief and outrage at his murder has been very public and very notable, the number of people who are truly sorry to see him dead?  Those I can count on one hand with room to spare.

Take the judge, for instance.  A tall, severe man with a long, skeletal face who loomed over the courtroom like Death himself.  All swathed in black, the only thing missing had been the scythe, I tell you.  And he had run the proceedings with precisely the kind of stern-faced decorum one would expect in a trial of that magnitude.  But once the jury had reached its inevitable conclusion and once the verdict had been read, the sentence had fallen into his hands and his hands alone.  I’d be lying if I tell you I hadn’t been surprised by his decision.

Throughout the trial, the Imperial Advocate had spent a good amount of energy highlighting my past with Diego: our feud over the woman who’d broken off her engagement with me to become his wife, our infamous duel on the grounds of the Franco-Spanish consulate in Philadelphia, my fall from grace in the police department there and decision to follow the couple to Venus, and finally my subsequent work as a dead-beat private detective.  It seems that the image of two men facing one another with pistols over the affections of a young maiden had caught fire in the public’s imagination.  There’s something in the Franco-Spanish temperament that’s attracted to airy, romantic crap like that.  And the notion that someone would nurse a grudge for some twenty-five years, waiting for an opportunity for revenge, had only fanned those flames even more.

Murder most vile, the judge had said at my sentencing, cannot go unpunished.  This had hardly been unexpected.  It had been what he’d said next that had made me wonder where he’d crossed Diego.  However, neither can such passion go unacknowledged.  To do evil out of passion is no excuse.  Yet, even the Great Judge of us all allows for the nature of punishment to suit the nature of the crime.  My fate had already been sealed, but the manner in which I would meet that fate had not been.  After handing down my sentence, the judge had gone one step further, directing that I be afforded haute honneur.

And so that’s why I’m not facing the hangman’s noose while wearing a prisoner’s uniform this morning.

“Yes,” Durand agrees.  “You’re correct in that.”  He settles back against the stone wall.  “I’ve made no effort to disguise my opinion of you, Phillips.  None at all.  You’re a lowlife and a nightcrawler.”

“No disagreement here,” I reply.

“But,” he continues, “to some extent, we’re cut from a similar cloth.  I’m a lawman and you were one a long time ago, back before you fell down the sewer.  You have those same instincts I do.”  He pauses, considers me a moment.  “And you know that I know that something’s not right here.”

I kneel down to tie my shoes.  The damn things have even been polished.  Now that’s a nice touch.  I knot the right shoe, then switch knees so I can get to the left.  And I say nothing.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” he asks after another moment.

I stand back up and look at him.  “There’s nothing to tell,” I say flatly.  “I’m glad the bastard’s dead.”  That last bit even has the virtue of being a true statement.

That’s when the cell door opens and a guard comes in, pushing a serving cart.  Durand gets to his feet.  “The evidence against you was extensive,” he observes.  “The map found on your desk was a particularly fine touch, I thought.”

“No idea what you’re talking about, Chief Inspector.”

He shakes his head and turns to leave.  “Enjoy your breakfast, Phillips.”  Then he’s gone.

“I plan to,” I reply to the doorway as I sit back down on that wooden bench.  The guard rolls the cart in front of me and lifts the metal dome, which he sets to the side before retreating.  I hear the door shut and the lock latch, but I’m paying more attention to the fully-loaded orla omelet with a side of buttered toast and a carafe of dark-roast chikrey.  They’d brought Flo in to fix it up right.  A bit of a bother, but hey, if the old gal gets a bit more business from the notoriety, it’s the least I can do.

 

###

 

Far too short a time later, I set my fork down, then reach over to the drinking cup.  Draining the last of the chikrey, I put the cup back down and lean back with a contented sigh.  Damn, that was good, done up just right.  Flo has a special touch and that touch had been one reason, aside from that other aspect of our relationship, that I’d begun frequenting her place those years ago.  I’m really going to miss her cooking.

I have only a few minutes to contemplate the empty place-setting when the guard’s face appears in the small window of my cell door, checking in on me, and a moment later, the door swings open again.  The one guard retrieves the serving cart as the corporal looks on from the doorway.  Standard procedure, I know, but it seems a bit silly at this point.  I mean, where am I going to go?

The first man leaves with the cart and the corporal’s gaze follows him down the corridor a ways before returning to me.

“I was told to give you this,” he says as he steps into the cell and I only now notice that he’s got my fedora in one hand.  “The chief inspector said that you should have it.”

I take the hat.  “Thank you.”

He says nothing for a moment, then:  “It will be soon, Monsieur Phillips.  You should prepare yourself.”

I don’t reply, but give a nod of understanding.  The corporal steps back into the corridor and the door shuts once more, leaving me to my thoughts.  I’d declined the services of a padre some days before and I see no reason to change that decision now.  I’ve got a little time before the big hurrah and how I spend that time is my own damn business.

They say that no matter how much you’ve thought about it beforehand, you never know what’s going to go through your mind at this point until you actually get here and the stark reality of it all--the plans you’d had; the events that had chucked all those plans in the trash; the choices you’d made, whether stupid or merely dumb--until all of that is staring you right in the face.  At that point, they say, and only at that point, do you get a real sense of perspective.

I’ll tell you something: they’re not wrong.

But I’ll tell you something else, something strange about it all.  Despite all of those dumb choices, as I sit here, I can’t really see how it could have come out any other way.  Too many strings tying up too many lives all together in one giant knot that we experience as “life.”  What can a poor slob do but plod ahead as best he can with what he’s got?  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you play the cards you’re dealt.  Whining about what might have been is for schmucks.  Sometimes you bluff.  Sometimes you fold.  Sometimes you go all-in because the pot is worth the price.

And in my case, the pot is a certain hot-blooded chica with eyes like midnight and a soul of fire.

My period for reflection doesn’t last too terribly long, however, and the door to my cell swings open one final time.  The corporal stands in the doorway, along with the guard from earlier.  There’s also a second guard, an obviously-green recruit who’s trying very hard to maintain the stoic expression of his companions but succeeds only part way.  He looks a bit pale, in fact, and I’m guessing that I’m going to be his first.  Better toughen up, kid, I say silently.  Or this city’s going to eat you alive.

The corporal says nothing, but gives a curt nod.  I stand, then settle the fedora on my head.  “Alright, boys,” I say out loud.  “Let’s get this show going.”

The first guard steps into the cell.  “Your hands, monsieur,” he directs me.  “Please hold them out.”  I do as I’m instructed and a pair of handcuffs snap shut around my wrists.  They’re more or less standard issue, with a few inches of chain between them.  This is another one of those small things I’ve been granted, having my hands secured in front rather than behind my back.  I can’t say that I don’t appreciate these little dignities the judge saw fit to bestow.  In so many ways, what matters most is not your end, but the manner in which you meet it; not the winning or losing, but how you play the game.  It’s an old cliché, but very true from where I’m standing just now.

We head down the corridor with the corporal in the lead.  The young kid’s next, then me.  The more seasoned guard follows up the rear.  No one speaks.  There’s nothing to say, really.

We reach the door at the end, which the corporal unlocks and opens.  A pale light pours into the gloomy passageway.  We file through and a few moments later, I step outside for the first time in nearly two months.

Despite its name, le champ du jugement isn’t so much a field as it is a wedge-shaped wound cut into the east slope of the hill crowned by the grand edifice of the Justice Ministry.  The apex of the wedge is cut off, rather like a truncated V, terminating in a high wall of heavy timbers backed by the rock and soil of the hill’s interior.  The Justice Ministry complex looms above, set back and slightly to the north to allow for a safety margin, though the forty-foot embankment serves as protection enough from errant fire.  The field itself very gradually slopes upwards from that timber wall until it meets the level of the surrounding landscape perhaps a hundred yards away, where the contour of the hillside descends in its turn.  Far above all of this, the crystalline structure of the pavilion shielding this portion of the city arcs gracefully, revealing the swirling grey-green of the Venusian atmosphere along with its interminable rainfall, and somewhere beyond all that, the unseen sun of morning.

The four of us exit onto a small landing that juts out of the northern embankment, maybe halfway along its length, and then descend a modestly-sloped cobblestone ramp to the field itself.  The air is only slightly less wet than your typical Venusian day; I can see the rain above even if I can’t hear it.  I miss the close-in feel of fat water drops pelting the walkway covers like pebbles on my side of town.  The fancy folk here like their space, though, and I’m not exactly in a position to complain.

Down below and slightly to our left, I spot the rifle detail, five soldiers and a sergeant, standing at attention in a crisply-dressed line parallel to that timber wall and perhaps twenty yards or so back.  Next to them, a drummer taps out a measured rhythm with a light trill every fourth beat.

I’m nearly to the bottom of the ramp before another element of the scene fully registers and I cast my eye along the ridgeline of the southern embankment opposite us.  There’s a low fence that runs the entire length, mainly to keep potential gawkers from tumbling over the edge and breaking their fool neck.  The exhibitions here have an aspect of spectacle to them and they do draw the occasional crowd.  Even allowing for Diego’s status, I hadn’t thought my case to be exceptional in that regard, but I see at this moment how mistaken that judgement had been.  Now, I wouldn’t say that the entire city had turned out to see me off, but it looks to me to be a healthy percentage.

Folks are strung along the entire length of the fence, even spilling around the edge at the bottom of the hill where I spot a contingent of soldiers stationed to keep the crowd back at a proper distance.  I hope they all enjoy the show.  But my attention turns now to the bare patch of soil we’re approaching, the one only a few yards from the thick timber wall.  We’re close enough now that I can see the pitting in the wood.  There’ll be a few more divots in just a little bit.

We come to a halt and the other two guards retreat to positions far to either side, well out of the line of fire.  The corporal, however, faces me, the drummer behind him maintaining that same, steady beat.

“It is traditional at this point, monsieur,’ the somber-faced man says, “to offer you a blindfold and a cigarillo.”

“I’ll pass on the eye-blanket,” I reply.  “If you’ve got a smoke on you, though, I won’t turn you down.”

The corporal reaches into a small pouch on his belt and produces a shiny metal case.  Makes me wonder if the thing is standard-issue for these little ceremonies or if I’m special somehow.  When he flips the case open and I catch a glimpse of the design on the cigarillo bands, my eyebrows shoot up and I wonder about the second of those options.  Let me just say that they’re not of a brand that I’d have been smoking on any regular basis.

He selects one and offers it to me.  My hands are still cuffed, so I have to move them together, but I manage to take the cigarillo in the fingers of my right hand without too much difficulty.  I bring it to my mouth and hold it while he lights a match.  The splinter of fire flares to life and ignites the tip.  I take a sample puff.

“That’s quality,” I observe appreciatively.

The corporal says nothing, but closes the case with a snap and returns it to the pouch.  He pivots away and moves in measured steps to join the guard off to my right.

The drummer goes into a sustained trill for four full beats, then falls silent.

I take a long, slow drag on my cigarillo, relishing the sensation of the rich, full-bodied smoke as it settles deep into my lungs and run my gaze along the line of faces, searching for the only one that matters.  The sergeant’s voice cuts through the quiet like a knife blade.

“Détail de l'exécution!”

There, not quite midway along the ridge, I spot her.  She’s wearing that same homespun from the night we first met, but I hardly notice that.  Her long black hair hangs down, framing a face that only looks expressionless but that’s taut with something I’ve never seen there before.  Her eyes, intense as any night storm, seize hold of mine and refuse to let go. 

  “Prêt!”

I exhale, the smoke escaping the corner of my mouth in a long stream that holds its shape only for an instant before dissipating.  Those midnight eyes hold me firmly in their embrace, but I say nothing.  She’s too far away to hear me in any event, yet somehow I know that she understands, that she already knows everything I want to say, everything I ever could have said if only I’d had more time. 

“Visez!”

An air of calm settles around me like a well-worn jacket that fits just so and I realize that it’s all alright.  In the background, the stone-hearted seductress Aphrodite looms, cruel and ruthless and beautiful, but this chica can hold her own.  She’s got a wide-open life in front of her now and a fat wad of d’argent to get her started.  That city may be a bitch, but Mel’s going to be okay.  Mel’s going to be just fine.

“Tirez!”

God, I love her.