“Clem, meet me at the cave, as soon as you can. Don’t call again, I wont be here.” Jig cut the call, removed the cell phone battery and tossed it onto a truck passing below the bridge. All the while running.
At the end of the bridge, he jumped off, and followed a narrow lane that lead into a cluster of abandoned apartments. Entering an alley, he pulled a few plywood planks away from an opening and jumped in.
Then he cursed. A deep, hateful, desperate curse full of hopelessness. Pulled at his hair. Then, like all strength had abandoned him, he collapsed in a heap against the wall, head in his hands. Sobbing.
A few minutes later, a shuffling outside made him jump and look up. A lanky man dropped in through the opening. Dressed in heavy boots and a thick jacket, with a hood covering his face, he looked like a mercenary or a thug. P2P was always drowned in a murk, which made the air chilly. Except for the city nucleus, where sunmirrors warmed the air, the rest of the city was stone cold. Here in the ‘cave’, below street level, the chill went to the bone. The newcomer pulled his jacket tightly around himself.
“Jig, you here man?” the man asked, rubbing his palms together.
“Mmm…” the voice was hoarse, like a shear cutting through rusted metal.
“What the fuck man. Why didn’t you light a candle?” the man sounded worried. With a lighter, he lit a slender candle lying in a nook and after dripping a few drops of wax, made it stand.
In the dim yellow glow of the candle, more shadows than light, Jig looked even more haggard.
“What the…hey you been crying? What the fuck’s wrong?” the man looked unsure what he was supposed to do. He stood where he was, holding the burning match in his fingers, staring stupidly at Jig.
“The Constables are coming for me…” Jig managed.
“Today’s number was mine…and I don’t fucking know–” Jig blurted, but the man cut him off “Whoa, man, why are you telling me this? And so you killed that merchant man the radio is going on about? Why?”
“Let me finish, Clem! I did not kill the man!” Jig looked up, his eyes bloodshot.
“But you just said the number was your-”
“Yes the number was mine, Clem. Yes it was my chance. But I did not kill the man! I haven’t been out of the house since last night! You can ask Xia…” he trailed off, suddenly embarrassed about what he had said.
“Ok, man, this thing about Xia, I will bring that up later,” there was a glint in Clem’s eye “but you are saying it was your number, but you did not kill the man. But the radios are saying the bullet was stamped P2P…”
“I know man I heard that and bolted out of Xia’s arms. Literally. I don’t understand!”
“So you left Xia alone in your flat, knowing the Constables would come knocking?”
Jig gave Clem a disappointed look. “What a fucked up buddy you are! No I told her to leave! We had seen the System’s mail together in the morning. We even joked about who I should go kill. Then I forgot about it till the bloody radio said I had killed some merchant! Why the heck will I kill a merchant? Who merchant? And I hope you can stop thinking of Xia and help me here!” Jig was almost shaking now. Clem felt sorry for him.
“Are you sure it was your number Jig? Do you remember your number? I mean, I don’t remember mine. Its easy to get a few digits mixed up in the head. It could be someone else-”
“Clem, please stop treating me like a sloth. It was my number, alright? Get that in your head and think forward from that point!”
Clem sighed and looked at his hand. He was still holding the half-burnt match. Surprised, he tossed it and slunk to the floor against the wall opposite Jig’s, thinking.
Clem spoke after a few minutes had passed. “Doesn’t that equipment building have all those fancy scanners for access? Palm prints and retina and all that?”
“Yeah…” Jig mumbled from between his legs.
“Then how did that happen..how did the killer get in?”
Jig said nothing.
“Jig, you are just mistaken for all I know. I am sure you have messed up your number. There’s no way the man could get into that building.” Clem paused for a reaction. There was none. He got to his feet and dusted the seat of his pants. A cloud of dusk fogged up the flickering flame of the candle.
“Know what, get your ass up. Let’s go and check out your place. If it is you, the Constables will be there already. You can explain it wasn’t you. If they are not, well, you can call Xia again.” a hint of mischief was evident in Clem’s voice.
“Explain to the Constables? Is that your brill plan? And they will listen to me right? All of us sitting with mugs of hot cocoa on the stairs, me narrating my story, the Constables nodding, the merchant’s wife fawning over me, right? They will pull me to the ‘bulary before anything and ask questions later!” Jig sounded disappointed.
“Fuck you!. Sit on your sour ass down here then!” Clem felt anger rising within him. He paused. “Ok, I will go check your place out. You stay here till I get back.”
Jig nodded. Clem looked at his friend, and then, shaking his head, vaulted himself out of the basement onto the street.
Even in haste, the man’s footfalls through the thick wood were no more than a murmur.
The forest floor was damp, crawling with creatures that thrive in murky conditions. He crushed them underfoot, wincing each time he heard a squish. Early afternoon was dark as twilight under the perennial cloud and canopy.
Shrouded, pulsing lights came into view between the trees. Walking for a few minutes, he arrived at two large trees with a makeshift chain-gate drawn between them. He stopped and hollered.
A bobbing globe of flickering light came out from the first burlap tent behind the gate, carried by a bald, bulky man. The man lifted the light and brought it to his eye level, then, frowning, lowered it a head till he saw the face of the man at the gate.
“Let me in, Bunt” the smaller man said.
A look of surprise crossed Bunt’s face.
“Din think youd come ‘roond here again Maws” he spoke in a voice surprisingly soft for his bulk and appearance.
The smaller man only rubbed his palms together. Bunt grunted under his breath, then shouted loudly enough to startle the small man.
“Chief, Maws s’at the gate. Wants to come in.”
The man in the tent mumbled something and cleared his throat, “Ask him!”
Bunt heaved a sigh that freed a bucketful of air, then turned back to face Maws.
“Maws, word ’bout yous got face” he paused for a reaction, then seeing there was none, he continued, “theres rules bout that Maws, cany let you thru if you has face. You got face?”
Maws felt worn. The chief called the shots at the camp. Maws didn’t want to waste time talking to him through Bunt. He took a step back then shouted with all the strength he could muster.
“That right what you heard Chief. I only want to get my stuff back. I will be on my way then!”
Bunt blinked at Maws, then turned to look at the tent, waiting for Chief to say something. After a moment’s silence, the Chief spoke.
“Bunt, take the rat to his tent. Make sure he picks everything up, then burn the tent down. Make him watch it burn, then escort him to the gate and lock him out. You better make it quick Maws, before I feel like coming out for a stroll. Coz if I see you today or ever again I am gonna drive a cleaver right through your face and carve it so your name fits you, rat!”
There was spite in the Chief’s words. But Maws didn’t mind. “Yes, I will remember that Chief. Thank you.”
Bunt dragged the heavy chains and opened the gate, all the while shaking his huge head. He then made Maws walk before him, holding the yellow light-globe high enough to light a few feet of path ahead of them.
The camp was full of night sounds. men snoring, talking. Sounds of women moaning from the occasional tent. Bunt cleared his throat near a tent where the moans and grunts were especially loud.
“All us mercs, we stay t’gether Maws. We’s a brothe’hood. Whyd you hav go get face, Maws.” the big man mumbled as they walked.
Maws had always liked Bunt. He was slow, but had a good heart. Never made a good mercenary, but was invaluable as a solid, bulldozing force, good enough for four men. Maws felt a wave of guilt, but did not make a reply.
His tent was just as dusty and tattered as he had left it. Bunt stood at the opening, holding the light-globe inside the tent. Maws quickly gathered up the spare set of clothes, boots and a knife stuck under the mattress in a backpack, then exited the tent.
Bunt walked him back to the gate in silence.
Before either of them could say anything, the Chief spoke up “Bunt, you got two Titans on you?”
Bunt felt his pockets and produced two large discs of bluish-grey metal, as big as a child’s palm. “I do, Chief”.
“Good that you work for cheap, Maws. I ain’t in a mood to hand you over too much currency. Take those Titans from Bunt and be gone. That’s all I owe ya, and its settled between us.”
Maws pocketed the two discs, though he knew he wouldn’t be needing them where he was going. He placed a hand on Bunt’s shoulder and thanked him with a nod. Then he walked out of the gate. A pang of guilt knotted his stomach for a moment, but it was gone the moment the camp lights disappeared behind a thicket.
Clem chained his bicycle to a solid iron lamp-post a few streets down Jig’s huge 300-story apartment building. Within the boundaries of what was called ‘the Nucleus’ of the city, people either walked or used bicycles. Fuel burners were not allowed within the boundary and nobody minded that. The Nucleus was all about building higher, and the whole population of the city lived in those buildings. To Clem, the city was like a bell-curve, highest at the center and spreading out gradually, with nobody living in the lower regions.
Clem started walking the short distance to the building, but the sight of a large Constabulary van made him stop short. It was parked right in front of Jig’s building. A few lower-ranking men in uniform milled about the van. There were tens of thousands of people living in the buildings around him, and it was possible that the killer was someone else, even though the van stood where it was. Clem crossed the busy road and made way to a cafe, hoping to whiddle out some info.
The man behind the counter in the cafe only shrugged when Clem asked him why the van was here, but his expression made it clear what it was about.. The radio on the counter was on low volume, a looping announcement playing on it: “THE RIGHT HAS BEEN AVAILED. CODE PROCEDURES WILL BE FOLLOWED”. All the programming for the day had been cancelled.
Clem took a seat on the side-walk and his heart almost stopped for a second time when he saw Xia talking to a Constable across the street. All sorts of thoughts went on through his head, if she had relented and told the Constable that she was Jig’s friend, if they would keep her till Jig surrendered. Then she crossed the road and while heading towards a parked bicycle saw him.
Her eyes lit up and she hurried over. “Clem! I was about to call. Did Jig come to see you?” she was breathless and was barely managing a whisper.
“Yes, in a way. But why were you talking to the Constable? Do they know you are with him?”
“No they don’t. I was just poking around to find out if they were indeed after Jig. I honestly thought he was freaking out for nothing, messed up his numbers” Clem nodded “but no, it’s him they are after. The System gave them the name and address.”
“Fuck. That’s bad.” Clem said.
“I don’t get it” Xia was almost in tears. Clem realized how much of an effort Xia had to take to keep her composure when talking to the Constable.
“I don’t either.” he managed. Xia was vainly trying to fight her tears, and before they would attract attention, Clem pulled her away.
“He is in the cave. Let’s go and talk this over.”
Jig was curled up like a fetus when Clem and Xia arrived. The sound of them jumping in startled him out of his sleep.
“Damn! You scared me!” his voice was almost normal, his usual carefree drawl. But the next moment he remembered his position and slumped “as if I am not scared shitless already.”
Xia sat by him and took his head in her lap. “Its so good to have you here Xia. I’m just gonna hold your hand and go to sleep.”
“Yeah, and what will do when the uniforms come sniffing with their dogs?” Xia chided.
Jig only groaned.
“Jig, get your ass up. You are in trouble.” Clem was already pacing across the small room.
“I will if you stop kicking up that huge cloud of dust”. Jig muttered through a coughing fit. Clem stopped.
Jig sat up, though he didn’t let go of Xia’s hand.
“So, what do we know?? Clem asked, then continued himself “Jig’s number came up. But he didn’t do anything about it. Some other guy went to the equipment building though, got in somehow, then killed some merchant guy.”
Xia and Jig nodded.
“So, either the guy broke into the building, which is next to impossible, or he had some equipment of his own which was also P2P…”
“If he had used his own equipment, he won’t have entered the building Clem. He took the equipment today morning. The constable told me that.” Xia said. “And anyway, the equipment is date locked. The bullet they found was for today too” she added.
“How do you know so much?” Jig looked at her wide eyed.
“The constable was quite friendly.” Xia said. Jig held her hand tighter.
“Okay, then I guess Jig walked over to the building in the morning, brought the equipment out and handed it over to the killer, then came back to your arms.” Clem sounded irritated.
“Still won’t work.” Jig said “it won’t work without…”
“Yes I know! I am no idiot Jig! I’m trying to think here!” Jig bit his tongue and stayed quiet.
“I was thinking while you were away” Jig said “remember that guy from The Spill? Jakob? Someone had wheedled all his credits overnight and he couldn’t even buy milk the next morning?”
“Yes, what about him?” Clem asked.
“Some merc had helped him out…”
“I thought they killed for money” Xia said
“Yes, but Jakob told me this guy was not your regular merc. He took money to solve problems. And if the solution needed a man to die, he would kill.” Jig looked hopeful.
“I also remember him saying the merc was awful expensive.” Clem was looking at Jig, not happy where his thoughts were going.
Jig shrugged. There was silence for a while.
“I think we should go to the Constabulary and talk to th-” Xia volunteered
“NO!” Jig an Clem exploded in unison, then instantly looked away. Xia, surprised at their reaction, looked at both their faces. They said nothing, so she let it drop for the time.
“We can talk to this merc then. If he asks for too much, maybe we can ask him for something to go ahead on..” Xia said, looking at both the men. They didn’t respond. ” Come on! Its not like the three of us sitting here are going to find a solution guys!” she snapped.
Clem nodded and punched the palm of his left hand.
“Right. Okay. I’ll go find Jakob. Xia, can you come too? I would like another head on my side if we find the merc. You remember his name Jig? Something funny it was…”
“Yes” Jig said “Mandolin”.
It took a while of asking around, but they finally found Jakob in a pinkie-den, a kind of place where addicts took drugs by injecting them through the tips of their little fingers. The pain was considered part of the high.
Jakob was slouched in a chair, eyes roving, a fresh dose running through his veins.
“Jakob?” Clem shook him by his knee.
“Yesp? phwu are you?” Jakob drawled, a sliver of saliva almost escaping the corner of his lips.
“I am a friend, Jakob. I need help.”
“A frind..eh..eh” Jacob cackled a silly laugh”…a frind in need a frind indeed…”
“Right, Jakob. Listen to me now. I have to know where I can find Mandolin.” Clem said it slowly but just loud enough for Jakob to hear.
Jakob’s eyes seemed to steady on hearing the name. “That’s big helph you need don’t ya…” he slurred “I will tell you if you buy me a shot…”
“You are already high as hell on this sh-” Clem snapped, but Xia cut him off,
“Ok, Jakob, I will pay for your shot on our way out. Where can we find Mandolin?” she asked Clem to be quiet with a blink of her eyes.
“Ahh girls. Alwais the wais ones. Thenk you, miss. tell thhat guy o’er the cownter the shot’s for J, right?” he drooled over his sleeve and slipped in his chair.
After a few seconds, Xia prodded him again “Jakob, where can we find Mandolin?”
“Ohh, yesp, yesp. Sorry abots that, lady. Mandolin’s contact’s in a sheck in the Spill, by the woodz. As’ for Emry.”
“What, another contact?” Xia looked angry and disappointed, but Clem pulled her away.
“That’s the best you will get. Nobody knows where these guys actually live, Xia.”
On their way out, Xia told the man behind the counter to put a shot on Jakob’s tab, and placed her card on the counter top. It took her a few moments to realize the man was staring at her, without touching the card.
“What?” she asked.
“you sure you wanna pay with that?” the man asked.
Xia gave him a confused look.
Clem snapped up the card and put it in her bag. Then he placed a large Titan on the counter. The man grunted, then waved them off.
The elevator ride down to the ground was long. As soon as it was just the two of them Xia turned to Clem.
“What was that all about?”
“Paying for drugs with creds…what were you thinking? I thought you knew better!” Clem looked surprised, then realized Xia didn’t really know better after all.
“If he had swiped your card there, it would be the bad books for you.”
Xia’s cheeks colored “Shit.” she mused for a second “Was that big coin…was that a Plato then?”
“No! Plato for a shot of pinkybomb? That was a Titan.” Clem looked at her curiously “Hasn’t Jig told you anything about this?”
“We are just getting to know each other Clem. I didn’t know you guys were part of this alternate economy stuff.” Xia sounded defensive “Wait, so is that the reason you were so against going to the Constabulary?”
Clem sighed and nodded “Both of us are in the bad books.”
A hurt expression crossed Xia’s eyes, then she looked away as a girl entered the elevator. They were silent for the rest of the descend.
It was late Lowlight when Maws knocked on a door of an abandoned building, much outside the Nucleus. In these regions, nobody could say if it was Murklight or Lowlight or Blacktime. The sun-mirrors worked only over the Nucleus; outside of it, it was eternal Blacktime.
A woman opened the door a crack, and peered through. Then she opened it just enough for Maws to pass and quickly shut it behind him. The room was dimly lit. An incense stick let off languid smoke in a corner. The whole place smelled of spring blooms.
Maws gathered her in his arms and kissed her lips for a lingering while. When he let her go, her cheeks looked flushed. She was dark haired and petite, smaller than Maws, pretty as a pixie.
“Is it done?” she asked him, her hands over his shoulder, ruffling the back of his head.
“What do you think?” Maws blinked.
“I see it in your eyes.” the woman smiled.
“Oh you do? Why ask then?” Maws drummed the air between them with his fingers. She tried to kiss each fingertip and laughed and chortled when Maws pulled one away each time she came close.
“Now, the wait.” the woman sighed.
“Let’s make the most of it!” Maws carried her to a large bed in an inner room.
Clem and Xia returned to the cave a little after the Sun had passed from the skies above the clouds, drowning the whole of the city into Blacktime. The hum of the sun-mirror motors slowly died down, and the city was eerily quiet.
“I was wondering where you two were!” Jig snapped.
Clem tossed him a large brown bag. It smelled of sandwiches and chicken wings.
Jig thanked him, then put the bag aside. “Anything?”
“The ‘stables are still there. I think they will wait it out today. They generally give the killer a day…”
Jig nodded “The merc?”
“We found his contact. Told us he would come see us Blacktime, soon. maybe today, could be tomorrow. We’ll have to wait.”
“Jakob did help then…I didn’t think he’d remember you.”
“I don’t think he does. He was bombed. We bought the info off him for a shot…” Clem trailed off and looked at Xia, who was fuming now.
Jig looked at her and flinched. She looked angry.
“What?” Jig asked.
“Clem tells me you two are in the bad books. I think I should have known that.” Xia had a businesslike tone.
“That’s not the kind of fact you ago about sharing with everyone, Xia. But -” Jig tried to calm her.
“I am not everyone! We have been sleeping together for god’s sake Jig!” Xia burst out.
“Hey, I’ll’ be outside. Give a hoot when you guys are sorted.” Clem snuck out of the room.
“Will you let me finish? I was going to tell you sooner than later Xia! And with the Suck-up day coming up how long do you think I would have hidden it from you?” this calmed Xia a little. “Clem, come back in! This ain’t a silly tiff!”
“You mean the Serialization day right? Do you hate the System too?”
“The Code actually, Xia. The System is just a medium.” Clem broke in, just as he entered “Any thinking, self-respecting individual would hate it! They have their own morals and rules and what not and they want the whole city to abide by them. If you don’t you get into their bad books for God’s sake! Who the fuck are they to tell us we shouldn’t drink or we shouldn’t get into fights or we shouldn’t do drugs?”
“Fighting gets you into the bad books?”
“No, not until you draw blood and someone reports it…”
“Isn’t the city in control because of the Code? It would be chaos otherwise, with so many million people crammed in such little space, in leaky, smelly buildings. Nobody dares cross the line because of the Code. ”
“It’s not because of the Code, Xia. It’s because people have no choice. The Code is dictatorial. The System can stop your cred flow if it feels you are too deep in the bad books. Why do you think we have no physical currency? They want control over everything! And the people know that. There are only a handful who would go against the System and live in the woods or outside the Nucleus.”
Xia sighed. “How did you get into the bad books?”
“Brawl with bombers. Clem’s ex” Jig looked at Clem with a wary eye “had a friend who was too deep into that pinkybomb shit. Confronted her one day at a cafe, drooling and talking nonsense. Clem tried to take him away but he got physical. I was there too. The guy had a few of his pinky-buddies waiting outside. It was a major brawl. One guy died of hemorrhage. That shit does that to your blood. The Constables rounded all of us up. Easiest way to get into the bad books”
“Wouldn’t have mattered to you, getting into the bad books.” Xia commented.
“It was different then. We were like you are now. In The Code We Trust. Next payday we realized our creds were cut down by 5%. I spoke to my boss. He simply showed me the black dot on my pay-slip. For something that wasn’t even my fault!”
Realization dawned on Xia then. “So obviously if you go to the Constabulary saying you didn’t kill the man, they will look you up and put you behind bars without hearing a word of it.”
“Exactly.” Clem said “And also-”
A loud noise made all of them jump. In the dim candle-light, Clem saw a slab of brown metal, the size of a small matchbox, lying near the door. He picked it up. It had a M etched on one side and a picture of a woman playing a mandolin on the other.
“He is here.” Clem declared.
They sat in a circle in the basement room. Mandolin looked at each of them while eating from a bagful of chicken wings. With a full beard, frizzy hair and dressed in simple corduroy pants and a shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbow, he looked as much like a mercenary as a dog looks like a horse. The only thing that hinted at his profession was the butt of a handgun sticking out at the waist.
“So today’s lucky one finds himself in a desperately unlucky spot.” Mandolin looked at Jig, who only nodded. Jig and Clem had stars in their eyes since they had seen the man standing by his bruiser of a motorcycle. Xia could see both of them imagining themselves in his place. Confident, strong. Carrying a gun.
“And we cannot go and talk to the Constabulary” he said, then nodded with Clem and Jig, which instantly made them stop doing it.
“We think the System may have been compromised.” Jig said.
“Unlikely. Nobody would compromise the System to kill a merchant” Mandolin said blankly “And even if we consider this Merchant was some important underground guy, why kill him through the System? The underground takes care of its affairs in its own way.”
“What if they wanted it to look like something different, like it was not an underground affair, and framed it on Jig?”
“Possible.” Mandolin nodded “but then Jig wouldn’t be alive either. They would have made sure it looked like Jig did his killing, then got killed in a freak accident.”
“And this is all just talk really. Compromising the system to pull off something like this is plain stupid. I wouldn’t do it. The impersonator would need to know Jig’s number, then he would need to swap Jig’s palm and iris prints with his own. Then there is also the question of the ID-locked equipment. And then also make sure Jig dies. All this knowing that the Code is extremely strict, to the point of cruelty, with someone who tries to compromise the System. Pulling this off would involve way too much hacking and favor mongering-” Mandolin trailed off into a thoughtful silence.
A few minutes passed without a word. Jig and Clem looked at each other. Xia gently cleared her throat.
“I have spoken about this too much already” Mandolin said “and we haven’t even decided if I am going to take your coin to solve this” he looked at each of them “Consider all I said to this point something I did because I felt sorry for essentially a group of kids who are clueless about what hit them. But something has occurred to me now which just seems plausible enough to be true.” he paused. Jig straightened in his place. Xia looked hopeful. “But we need to finalize the terms of our contract before I say anything else. And I don’t work cheap and I don’t take creds. ”
A few moments passed before Jig spoke.
“I do desperately need your help sir. But there is no way I can pay you in Platos or Titans.”
“I figured that much, kid. That is not half the problem. Even f it was credits, I would need 15000 creds upfront, and the same amount after the job’s done.”
Jig’s mouth fell open. Xia gasped. Clem only shook his head.
“I barely make 20,000 in 6 months sir…I can’t!” Jig almost broke down.
Mandolin cleared his throat. “I am sorry if I gave the impression I would be reasonable..” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.
“Jakob paid over a year right?” Clem asked. Mandolin shot him a sharp look.
Xia jumped at the opening “How much per month? We will split among us.” Jig gave her a grateful look.
Mandolin looked at her. ” I will take thirty from you. Split over a year, with interest, that comes to twenty-six hundred per month.”
“That’s still too much Xia. We can’t afford it.”
“Maybe you can. You won’t be paying me in creds directly. Just make sure you buy all your breads and eggs and what not from a man in the Spill. His rates are much higher than anywhere else, but thats the only arrangement I have.” Mandolin said.
“Done. Clem, you ok with it?” Clem nodded.
“Ok, what next?” Xia asked.
Mandolin drew two plain papers from his pocket and wrote down the terms of the contract, a carbon paper between the sheets to duplicate. He made each of them sign it, noting that Jig and Xia would each pay a thousand creds and Clem six-hundred creds per month. Then he signed himself, and handed over a copy to Jig. he folded up the other copy and put it in his pocket.
“Ok, now, I need you to do something for me.” Mandolin looked at Xia “I get it you two are intimate?”
“Yes.” Xia said, a bit uncomfortable.
“Good. I need you to confirm a hunch for me. Please take Jig to the back room and see if there is a mark that looks like a circle with three lines sticking out on his left cheek.”
“Oh, why the back room then, I can check it right here” Xia made a move towards Jig and took his face in her hand, then froze, going red in the face “you mean that cheek? Are you fooling around?” Xia looked Mandolin square in the face.
“Trust me, am not. If it wasn’t for you, I would have done it. I think Jig would be happy you are here too.” Mandolin nodded at Jig and winked.
“Right! Whatever!” Xia pulled Jig n the back room and took the candle with her.
Half a minute later she returned, leaving Jig struggling in the dark.
“Yes, there is. Barely visible though.” Xia looked excited.
“What does it mean?” Clem asked.
“Just an excellent clue to begin. You will hear from me soon. This is a good place to stay hidden, so I would come looking for you here.”
With that, he climbed out of the basement. Jig came out of the inner room, glared at Xia then followed him out into the street, momentarily forgetting he was hiding. Clem went after him and handed the metal slab back to Mandolin.
“Sorry about that stunt with this,” Mandolin said “a hole by the street to get into a room looked too much like an ambush to me. Had to draw you guys out.”
With that, he kicked the bruiser to life and disappeared into the Blacktime, away from the Nucleus.
“Maws, I’m scared. You should have killed that man, Maws.” the dark-haired woman whispered into the sleeping man’s ear.
Maws’ eyes jerked open. “Hey what’s wrong with you sweet? I thought you didn’t like the killing.” he kissed her lips gently.
“I know Maws. I’ve been thinking since you slept. What if that man was stubborn? I don’t want our plans to get screwed.”
Maws laughed a good-natured laugh. “Oh you worry for nothing my sweet. I had looked him up good. In the bad books for some brawl. A poor sod, earning barely enough for himself. Got a new girl. He’s not the kind of material to go after and find out the truth. I’m sure he was all blissful and clueless in his girl’s arms when the ‘bulary arrived. The bad book won’t let him get a word in edgewise.”
“You sure sweetheart?”
“Yes, baby. I’m sure” Maws looked out a window. The Nucleus looked dark, with a few yellow lights dotting the blackness. Still blacktime. He gathered her in his arms and held her. A slight nagging went off in his head.
It was late into blacktime, but the man’s pristine white lab-coat was fresh and crisp. He sat at a counter, nursing a slender glass of some sparkling liquid.
“Keeping up your best appearance at all times I see.” Mandolin sat down a few stools away from the man’s and smiled.
The man looked up from his glass. “Ah? Oh, Mandolin. Nice to see you. Appearances are important, old boy, most useful in sticky situations which unfortunately people like us too often get into.”
Mandolin nodded with a laugh and ordered a black rum. The tender was a portly man, but quick on his feet. He placed a bottle of rum and small glass quickly before Mandolin.
“Should I repeat your order, Surgeon sir?” the tender asked the man.
“Company makes drinking all the more pleasurable I believe. And with company like Mandolin’s, I cannot imagine saying no to a drink!” the slender, elegant man hopped out of his stool and took one close to Mandolin’s. Mandolin raised his glass to the man.
“How does the ticker go, my friend.” the Surgeon had an odd way with phrases, and people who knew him allowed him the eccentricity. Most mercs and men at odds with the System went to him for any medical help. Even some people who were not of the underworld swore by him. Nobody questioned his brilliance.
“I have been looking for you most of blacktime, actually.” Mandolin took a swig, then turned toward the Surgeon.
“Oh? And why would you do that?”
“Would you excuse us for a few minutes, Bertram?” Mandolin said to the bartender, who was wiping a glass with a rag. The tender looked at the two men and disappeared through a door behind the counter.
The Surgeon rubbed his hands together like a child.
“Secrecy! I like that! In my case, money usually follows secrecy” he giggled, “Usually!”
Mandolin took a deep breath. He knew he had to be delicate. “Surgeon, I have taken coin from a man who has your mark.”
The playful expression on the man’s face disappeared. “You have coin against me?” he asked.
Mandolin laughed. “No, no, oh no. You would be long dead in that case.” he said, in a matter of fact way.
The Surgeon nodded. “Give you that. What, then?”
“I need to know what you did to that man.”
The Surgeon emptied his glass. “There are hundreds of people with my mark Mandolin, How do I know?”
“You don’t leave a mark on people who come to you by themselves. This man was brought to you. Young man, by the name of Jig. I want to know what you did to him and for whom.”
Mandolin saw a shadow pass through the Surgeon’s eyes when he mentioned the name. The Surgeon made a move to get up. Mandolin held his wrist and pinned him to the counter. “Surgeon?”
“I don’t give details away. That’s part of my contract.” Mandolin caught a glint of steel as Surgeon drew a small knife from the his coat pocket and brought it down on Mandolin’s shoulder. Mandolin pushed the surgeon away, but the knife still cut a gash on his arm.
“Too bad you had to bring it to this doc. I thought we were civil.”
Mandolin lunged at the man and caught him by the collar. He hoisted him up with both hands and threw him against the counter, hard. Then he grabbed his arm and twisted it, while twisting the wrist the other way.
“Tell me who it was doc, or I’ll make sure you never do a surgery again!” Mandolin hissed.
His voice told the Surgeon Mandolin meant it. Mandolin increased the pressure on his wrist, making the Surgeon cry out in pain. Then he started laughing. A frothy, hysterical laugh.
“He was one of you, tough guy. All you tough mercs, you say you are a brotherhood. It seems one of you doesn’t want to be a brother anymore!”
“Who was it?” Mandolin was stung by the Surgeon’s barb.
“The one who gathers favors. And that’s all I tell you fucker.”
Mandolin let go of the Surgeon, then strode out.
Early murklight the next day, Maws made his way to the Nucleus. He had woken up with a start n the morning. A hundred doubts gnawed at him, and he was furious for letting a woman get better of his judgment, He should have killed the man. If by chance he had disappeared before the Constabulary got to him, there was nothing he could do. He wouldn’t know where to find him.
Without waking his girlfriend, he left the building, a knife hidden in his sock.
He followed the streets to the address he had got from one of the System engineers. The Constabulary van standing outside the building comforted him somewhat. Still, he had to make sure.
He went over to the cafe. The owner had only upped the shutters. He ordered a coffee, and took a seat outside, as the owner laid down the other benches around him.
“The uniforms still here?” he asked in a conversational one.
“Haven’t found the man yet. Says he’s in hiding. Hey!”
Maws didn’t stay to hear the man out. He walked away, furious and angry, clenching his teeth. He went over the options he had left. Find the man and kill him. Flee the city with Emi. Try as he might, he could not think of anything else.
Then he saw Xia coming down the road.
Mandolin thundered up the steps of the crumbling building. He found the door he was looking for and banged, his fists shaking the door in its frame. A small woman timidly opened the door, saw his face and tried to push it back, but Mandolin simply overpowered her.
“Where’s Maws?” he barked.
“I-I don’t know who you talk about!”
“Stop playing games woman! The people at the camp told me he was here holed up with an outsider. Tell me where he is!”
The woman crumpled up on the floor, realizing something it had gone totally wrong.
“He left this morning, didn’t wake me up.” she said, between sobs.
“Where did he go?”
“Look, woman, I am going to find him one way or the other. If I waste too much time looking for him, I will kill him just to feel better. If you tell me where I can find him, maybe I will let him come back to you!”
Jig’s hideout was on the other side of the city from where Maws had his hole. Normally, Mandolin would have taken the circuitous route around the Nucleus. But he didn’t have time. Maws was a ruthless, cold-blooded killer when operating with a peaceful mind. There was no telling what he would do under desperation.
Mandolin gunned the bruiser right through the Nucleus, attracting the attention of the few who were up early in the murklight.
There was commotion in the basement when Mandolin arrived. he heard shouting, a woman crying. Dreading the worst, he jumped through the small opening.
Clem lay on the floor, clutching a bloody thigh with one hand. His breathing was heavy, his eyes fixed on the back of man who was moving toward a cowering Jig with a raised, bloody knife. Maws. Xia sat in a corner, a deep gash marking her left cheek. Neither of them noticed Mandolin coming down the hole.
Maws was mumbling to himself as he closed in on Jig “i should have done what my gut said..” his breath wheezed “…should have killed you yesterday-”
“Get away from him Maws!” Mandolin’s authoritarian tone made Maws whirl around.
“Wha- Mandolin! What the fuck are you doing here?” Maws was wide-eyed with disbelief..
“I have the kid’s coin Maws. Let him go.” Mandolin tried to keep his voice calm. Maws’ knife was still too close to Jig’s face.
His words had the effect mandolin dreaded. A mad glint shone in Maws’ eyes.
“No. No! NO! Damn you and your coin Mandolin! I will have my face!” He lunged at Jig, but missed him completely. Taking advantage of the distraction, Jig had moved a few steps away. Maws regained his balance and went for him again.
“Too late for that Maws! You kill the boy and I kill you. I am a better fighter than you Maws, I will take you down for sure and you know it!” Mandolin yelled, gaining a few steps towards Maws, trying to get between him and Jig. But he worried for nothing. The effect on Maws was instant. He broke down and collapsed to the floor in a sorry, sobbing heap.
“I just wanted to get face Mandolin…wanted to get Emi in…” Maws was crying like a broken man.
“You should have done the whole job. Killed the boy when you had the chance. You left too much to chance. A merc doesn’t do that.” Mandolin said calmly, taking the knife away from Maws.
“What…what is this about Mandolin? Who is this man? What’s he saying about face?” Jig couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“He is the killer, I am sure you gathered that much.” Jig nodded “He did that so you would be taken to under-prison, and he could bring his outsider girlfriend to live in the city with him.” Mandolin spat.
Jig sat on the floor and shook his head. “Please explain Mandolin.”
Mandolin sighed. “That mark on your buttocks? That was left by an eccentric but brilliant doctor called Surgeon when he copied your palm pattern to Maws’ hands. Maws then gained access to the equipment building on the day you were chosen. I am sure he knew that by pulling another favor. Then he killed the merchant and left, which was a mistake. He should have come and killed you too. But he didn’t. Then, on Serialization day, he would join the queues to enroll in the city with Emi, using your palm-prints. Since Emi would be his partner, she would be made part of the citizenry too. Then both of them would live happily ever after while you rotted in the under-prison. I miss anything, Maws?”
Clem whistled from his corner. “But if he serialized himself with Jig’s prints, won’t the System match them up with the ones in the database?”
Maws looked up. “Clever boy you are” he whispered “I got the iris prints of another man a month back. Killed him though. Shouldn’t have listened to Emi about the killing. I had it all perfect.”
“Ah! Indeed, clever, Maws. the iris and palm prints are from different men, so they wouldn’t match up with either.” Mandolin nodded.
“Why not use his own prints though? Why get somebody else’s?” Xia asked, the line of blood standing out on her cheek.
“Mercs don’t have prints, Xia. We file them off so to say, as a gesture of cutting ourselves off from the System” Mandolin replied.