For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers the world over.
Once an assassin and spy, superpowered ace Noel Matthews confronts unexpected enemies after discovering a dead body on the job.
Now in development for TV: Rights to develop Wild Cards for TV have been acquired by Universal Cable Productions, the team that brought you The Magicians and Mr. Robot, with the co-editor of Wild Cards, Melinda Snodgrass as executive producer.
“There was a guy in the building we brought down, boss.”
It was my demolition foreman Sam Karol bringing me this particular bit of unwelcome news. I sat with it for a moment then asked the obvious next question. “Do we know who it is?”
“Not yet, Mister Matthews. I wanted to let you know right away. Auntie Gravity did her teke thing, lifted a block of concrete and there was all this blood and bones and stuff. I pulled everybody off the site.”
“Well done. Have you done anything else?”
“No, sir, I haven’t even called the cops yet.”
That was a relief. “Good man.” I stood, grabbed my black leather jacket off the coat racket and shrugged into it. New York was having an unusually cold autumn.
“Auntie’s real upset, sir. I wanted to send her home, but figured you should talk to her first.”
“You would be correct. Have you told Rusty?” I was concerned that big, slow, stupid and very kindly ace, the actual agent who brought down buildings, had been informed. Rusty would have immediately told the police. Which was not something I wanted.
“No, sir. Figured it would upset the big doofus.”
“And you would be right.” I clapped Sam on the shoulder. “Let’s go take a look at this body.”
“It’s bound to be ugly, boss. All that blood. It’s all crushed and smashed. Eeoch.” He gave a shudder, then looked embarrassed.
“I expect I’ll survive,” I drawled.
Sam gave me an “it’s-your-funeral” look. At first and even second glance I’m your typical Englishman. A bit too skinny, rather horse faced, and I’ve got that prissy BBC accent thanks to the fact my mother is a Cambridge don. Sam also knew that in addition to running Aces in Hand I’m a rather famous stage magician. It was no wonder he’d concluded I was a delicate snowflake.
What none of my employees knew is that the magic show had merely been a cover. My real career was as an ace assassin for MI-7, the British equivalent to the American CIA. To be more exact, I killed for the ace division of MI-7 known as the Order of the Silver Helix. Dead bodies bothered me not in the least. Most of the ones I’d seen I’d ushered into that state.
But those days were in the past. I’d parted company with my former employers, and it hadn’t been particularly amicable. They tried to hurt people I cared about so I stole a number of their dirty little secrets. They know I’ll release them if they fuck with me or mine. Hence we have each other nicely by the short hairs.
After the birth of my son I curtailed my performance schedule, but worries about money—I wanted Jasper to have the best of everything—and my basic restless nature had begun to set in and I walked out on my wife and child. At times I wished I still had access to the shrink who counseled MI-7 agents. I love Niobe and adore my son, but I had left them, and was filling the void I’d left in their lives with money instead of the husband and father. Why? In my more reflective moments I suspected it was because I didn’t want Jasper to learn about the less savory parts of his dad’s resume. If he knew my true nature would the adoration in those big eyes turn to disgust?
In an effort to keep the money flowing I’d founded Aces In Hand, a company that is designed to deal with real world problems using the extraordinary ace powers bestowed by the wild card virus.
We specialize in building demolition, toxic waste disposal, and nearly instantaneous travel for busy executives. I also design security systems for banks, corporations, and wealthy individuals. Since I had spent years learning how to defeat such measures it was fun to try to counter my own skills. Of course I always left a small imperfection that I could exploit should the need arise.
We had been steadily building, profits were up—well up—so I bloody well didn’t need a dead body in one of my job sites affecting our prospects. All of these considerations made me decide that I didn’t want to sit in a cab while it fought Manhattan traffic, or take the numerous trains that would be required to ride the subway out to Queens. “Come along, Sam, Ilya’s going to pop us over there.”
“Uh… I’d really rather not, sir. I’ll grab a cab.”
“We don’t have time for that.”
“I hate that Between thing.”
“It’s only for an instant. Don’t be such a pussy.”
I wasn’t going to admit to Sam that I felt the same way. Teleporting may seem instantaneous, but there is a moment in the transition when you are someplace not of this world, or perhaps even this universe. I call it the Between and my employees have picked up the phrase. It had always been a disturbing place. Even more so since the recent unfortunate events in Talas, when eldritch horrors from an alien dimension had invaded the Earth. Now a raging, brooding, inhuman presence washed against any traveler through the Between. Sometimes I thought it reached for me. I didn’t want to contemplate what would happen if it ever caught me.
We left the office. My assistant, Dogsbody, a particularly ill favored joker, looked up. Dogsbody doesn’t actually look like a dog. He looks like a vaguely human shaped turd. His body is covered with black and brown lumps. His eyes are mere slits peering out from between the knobs of flesh. He manages to type and answer the phone because his fingers narrow down to twig-like appendages. “Trouble, sir?”
“I’m afraid so. Can’t say when I’ll be back. Sam, wait here.”
I went to the next door office. The name plate read Ilya Kuusikoski. I stepped inside, closed the door, stripped, and changed into the clothes stashed in a filing cabinet. They hung on me, but not for long. I accessed my ace and let the bones and flesh start to shift and change. Within seconds I had become a much taller and broader man with red gold hair and gleaming golden eyes.
This other me has had a lot of names over the years — Bahir, Etienne, Christian. Right now he was Ilya Kuusikoski, the teleporting ace who could travel to any part of the globe. I created this bogus employee because we made a lot of money ferrying very busy and very important business leaders and government officials around the world in the time it takes to inhale. I had another persona to handle trips that took my clients in the dark of night. A lot of people know that I’m an ace, that these avatars are just me. Billions more don’t know, nor do they particularly care. Wealthy executives certainly didn’t care who ferried them around the world, any more than they care to know the name of the pilot on their private jet.
It was a damn shame I’d never managed to access my teleport power without assuming one of these alternate forms. My old handler at MI-7 had raged, cajoled, mocked, and pleaded, but I was unable to overcome the psychological block. I could only teleport as my male and female avatars. Lilith was the queen of the night. Ilya the sun god. Fucking wild card. I sometimes wondered if it was due to the fact I’m a hermaphrodite… or to use the more PC term, intersex.
I gathered up my Noel Matthews-sized clothes, stuffed them in a backpack, opened the door, and called to Sam. He joined me. I slipped on the backpack, wrapped my arms around the man, held him close. His stubble scrapped against my cheek and he smelled of sweat and concrete dust. He held himself rigidly within my embrace. I pictured an alley near the demolition site and went there.
On this particular morning the alley was empty apart from a skinny cat exploring the interior of a dumpster. It arched its back and hissed as we appeared with a faint pop of displaced air. Sam staggered a bit, but as Ilya I was strong enough to keep him upright.
“Go along. I need to change back to me. I’ll be right there.”
He nodded and tottered off toward the mouth of the ally. I changed, crammed Ilya’s clothes into the backpack. I then walked over to the site where a twelve story building had stood yesterday.
Catherine Powell—better known as Auntie Gravity, to fans of American Hero—stood beside a partially loaded flat bed. Her round face with its peaches and cream complexion was screwed into a mask of woe. Tears washed down her cheeks. “Oh, Mister Matthews.” She flung herself into my arms, and the smell of the hairspray that kept her bouffant blonde hair fixed in place assailed my nostrils. Her extremely large breasts pressed against my chest.
I patted her on the shoulder. “There, there,” I tut-tutted.
“I lifted away some concrete and there were these feet. It was horrible!”
“I know, Catherine, it’s terribly upsetting, but it’s not your fault. Why don’t you go on home? We’ll finish clearing the site tomorrow.”
“Okay, Mister Matthews,” she sniffed “Thank you.”
At that moment the large and lumbering figure of Wally Gunderson hove into view. The big iron-skinned Minnesota ace and I had worked together on a mission in Africa. From that association Rustbelt had concluded that I’m a hero and a real stand-up-guy. A belief I find to be breathtaking in its naiveté, but one which I’m careful to cultivate. It keeps Rusty loyal and working for me.
I gave Catherine a look. “Sam said Rusty hadn’t been informed.”
She held out placating hands. “I called Wally,” Catherine said. “I thought he deserved to know.”
“Oh, well done. Now he gets to feel responsible for killing someone,” I snapped. Catherine looked hurt and walked away, boobs bouncing in indignation.
The earth actually trembles when Rusty approaches; his body is sheathed iron and he weighs over seven hundred pounds. He was wearing another of his absurd hats, this time a British driving cap. For some reason the big ace had decided that hats looked good on his overly large head with its steam shovel jaw.
Despite the metal it was easy to read Wally’s distress. “Ah geez, Mister Matthews. I’m just sick about this. Do we know who the fella was? We gotta find out so I can apologize to his family.”
“You have nothing to apologize for, Rusty. This was clearly marked as a demolition site. If he was fool enough to go inside, well….” I shrugged.
Rusty’s ace power enabled him to serve as a one man demolition crew, without requiring the use of explosives or wrecking balls. Instead the crew would expose an interior girder or rebar and Rusty would unleash his ace, rusting the metal into powder. Since the rust had to eat its way through the entire interior structure, there was plenty of time for Rusty to retreat before the building quietly slumped and collapsed.
“That’s not fair, Mister Matthews. Maybe he was a homeless feller just lookin’ for a warm place to sleep. It’s sure been cold the past few nights.”
I turned to the two men who were tasked with doing the final check of the building. “You did a final sweep of building, correct?”
“Yes, sir. While some of boys were exposing rebar for Rusty to rust me and Dominic went through every floor.”
“Interesting. Well, let’s get on with it. Show me this body.”
“I’d like to come with,” Rusty said.
The building had collapsed into the basement. The leather soles of my loafers slipped a bit on the concrete, drywall, and tile as I climbed down the incline. Red rust puffed up and swirled around me like a devil’s whirlwind. The upper half of the body was still hidden beneath a chunk of concrete. Only the legs were visible, thrust out from beneath the slab. Concrete dust and blood caked the badly mangled limbs.
“Ding Dong, the witch is dead,” I caroled. Sam tittered, then looked embarrassed, and Rusty’s head swung toward me questioningly. “Perhaps not in the best of taste, but certainly apt,” I said… for indeed the shoes thrust out from beneath the slab were a pair of high heels.
“So I guess she was a homeless gal,” Wally said mournfully.
“Not when she’s wearing Jimmy Choos. Those retail for around two thousand dollars.” Lilith owned a few pairs.
That broke through Rusty’s distress. “Two thousand dollars for shoes? That seems… seems… well, kinda wrong.”
“Rusty, if you’re done contemplating income inequality…” I made a lifting gesture at the slab.
The big ace gripped the edge of the slab and flipped if off the body the way one might flip a poker chip. Sam immediately turned away and vomited. When several stories of a building come down on flesh and bone it’s crushed into hamburger. In this case, extremely inconvenient hamburger.
Rusty’s jaw clenched, but he kept it together. “I saw worse in Africa. Do you know who she is… was, Mr. Matthews?”
“A veritable witch indeed,” I said. I recognized the Yin/Yang necklace that was embedded in the shattered chest. It was Belinda Yamaguchi, owner of Elite Solutions, a competitor who had been increasingly persistent in her attempts to buy my company. All of which I had refused. She had taken to filing bogus and harassing lawsuits against me, keeping my lawyers busy.
I could foresee an unpleasant session with New York’s finest. My experience was that cops were lazy and unimaginative. An obvious motive had been handed to them. Along with a convenient suspect.
Not long after, I faced an absurdly tall and extraordinarily skinny young white man who lacked the nasal East coast twang. His partner was a small Asian man with a ferocious frown. They introduced themselves – McTate and Fong. Their relative sizes made them look like a bad comedy duo. The interrogation room was painted a bilious shade of pea green and a miasma of fear, despair, sweat, stale coffee, and old vomit clung to the walls and the concrete floor. The only furniture was a dented metal table and several equally battered chairs.
“Coffee?” Detective McTate asked.
“Yes please. I’ll take a Venti Iced Skinny Hazelnut Macchiato, Sugar-Free Syrup, Extra Shot, Light Ice, No Whip. And will you allow me to buy you a sandwich, detective?” That I directed to McTate.
“Oh, great, a comedian,” Fong growled.
“Anything will be fine,” I said.
“Limey asshole.” The muttered remark floated back as Fong stalked out of the interrogation room.
“So, pretty terrible what happened,” McTate said.
“Yes. Tragic. I’d like to have my lawyer present.”
“Really? Why?” McTate spread his hands in that universal and universally insincere cop “trust me” gesture. “We’re just having a friendly conversation.”
I leaned back in the battered chair and gave him a thin smile. “I find that conversations with law enforcement are rarely friendly.”
“Had a few of them, have you?” McTate asked.
I gave him another smile, and he gave a put upon sigh but didn’t interfere. I wasn’t under arrest, so there wasn’t even any limit on how many calls I could make. The efficient assistant at Dr. Pretorius’s office said she would get someone down right away. Once the phone was stowed I dug my hands into my pockets and slouched even deeper into the hard wooden chair.
“So you knew Ms. Yamaguchi?” I didn’t answer. “What kind of services does your company provide?” No response. Fong returned with coffee. I took a sip. It was terrible, but I’d drunk worse.
McTate explained I’d requested a lawyer. Fong’s expression became, if possible, even more sour. It was a long forty minutes. Finally there was a tap on the door. What entered was not the venerable, brilliant joker attorney Dr. Pretorius. Instead it was a young man, slight, thin, and nervous, trying to juggle his briefcase and a cup of coffee with awkward looking appliances that were hooked onto the flippers that he had in place of arms.
“Hey, Flipper,” McTate called jovially. The frown that was laid on the thin features looked forced.
“Are you charging my client?”
“We’re just discussing—” Fong said.
“No? Then we’re leaving.”
While it was the appropriate response for a lawyer, it didn’t suit my interests. I wanted to know what the cops knew — or the more likely and alarming scenario what they thought they knew. “No, no, Mister…” I paused suggestively.
“Oh, sorry, Charles Santiago Herriman.”
Why the young man felt it was necessary to give me his full name I wasn’t sure, but I nodded agreeably. “So pleased to meet you. I was going to say, I’m happy to answer questions about this tragedy now that you are present.”
“Very prudent,” Herriman said. “But I would still advise against it.”
“Please, one likes to be helpful to our boys in blue.”
Herriman shrugged and struggled to drag a chair over. Fong went to help. The lawyer settled down between the cops and me like a jurisprudential referee.
“So…” I raised my eyebrows inquiringly at McTate.
He flipped open his notebook. “How did you know Ms. Yamaguchi?”
“We’re in the same line of work.”
“That usually has a pretty unpleasant connotation,” Fong growled.
“Only if you have an unpleasant mind, detective.”
McTate jumped back in. “Her assistant said she was trying to buy your company.”
“She made an offer. It was declined.”
“Word is she offered more than once. Why would she do that?”
“Because my business model was proving to be more profitable than hers. She was using traditional methods. I use aces to achieve my goals.”
“She had filed a complaint against you with the Better Business Bureau and with OSHA.”
I shrugged. “Corporate games. I thought nothing of it.”
“So you weren’t pissed? Looking for a little payback?” Fong asked.
“It would be a rather stupid way to register my annoyance,” I said. I added softly, “Do I seem stupid to you?”
“No, you seem like a dick!”
McTate laid a soothing hand on his partner’s arm. “We talked with your foreman and the workers who made the final sweep through the building before Rustbelt came in. They said no one was in there.” I didn’t answer. The quiet stretched between the three of us. Quiet has a devastating power. Most people can’t stand quiet so they so say more than they intend. Which is why I kept my mouth shut.
“You’re an ace,” McTate finally added.
“A teleporting ace,” Fong added.
They both peered at me. “You sure there isn’t something more you’d like to tell us?” McTate suggested softly.
“Where were you last night?” Fong asked.
“At my apartment.”
“Anybody to verify that?”
“How about this morning?” Now it was McTate’s turn. They were so predictable.
“In my office. You can verify that with my assistant. I presume you’ve looked at the husband. Murder is so often a family affair.”
“Do you think we’re stupid?” Fong demanded.
I rubbed at my mouth thoughtfully. “I’ll decline to answer that on the grounds I might incriminate myself.”
“Keep laughing, asshole.” McTate pulled Fong back into his chair.
My lawyer made sad dog eyes at me. I gave him a not-so-rueful shrug. Deciding I had learned as much as possible from the interview I gave Herriman a significant glance.
He grasped my meaning and stood up. “If you’re not charging my client then we’re done here.”
I also stood and shot my sleeves and retrieved a small bug from my coat pocket. I reached up and clapped McTate on the shoulder as I walked past, setting the bug beneath his collar. Not for nothing had I spent years as a famous stage magician.
“Don’t leave town,” Fong huffed as a parting shot.
We passed through the bullpen. Hostile stares followed us. Outside not even the stinks and exhaust of Manhattan in general and Jokertown in particular could trump the noxious smells that clung to my clothes. Not that I wasn’t familiar with jails. I had been in more than a few during my career with MI-7. “Where is Pretorius” I asked. My tone had been merely inquisitive, but the young joker reacted as if I’d slapped him.
“Uh… in Chicago. Murder trial. I’m—”
“Charles Santiago Herriman. Yes, you said that. Apparently you are also known as Flipper, but if I were you I wouldn’t let the cops call you that. Rather undermines your authority.”
“I want to have a good rapport with them,” he said defensively.
“No you don’t. You want them to hate and fear you. To believe you’re a stone cold son-of-a-bitch… but never mind, you’re what I’ve got. I’m going to call you Charlie, all right?”
I slipped in an ear piece and picked up the end of McTate saying, “….a warrant.”
“Home and office?” Fong’s voice.
“Yeah. Got a feeling this guy is slippery.”
“Hey, I hate being the bad cop. Can we switch it up on the next one?” Fong asked.
“So I better get your story,” Flipper said.
“Let’s do it over a drink. I need one.”
It took one martini to tell what little I did know to Charlie. After he left I had two more while I contemplated my situation. It was clear the cops were wearing blinders and weren’t going to look past me. If I was going to avoid being charged I would have to find the real killer and deliver him or her on a platter to the fuzz. I really wished I could see the autopsy report and determine what actually killed Belinda. But first things first. I needed to scrub my place before the cops arrived.
My apartment is a dismal place. It’s a furnished one bedroom in the midtown Manhattan Oakwood. Oakwood is temporary corporate housing, but what it really is is ground zero for men who are divorced or separated from their wives. Whenever an actual business woman checks in, she will find herself immediately hit upon by the sad and desperate males. The fact I’m still there shows that I’m… ambivalent about my decision to leave.
I gathered up my extra passports and driver’s licenses, the guns I kept in New York, various knives, the garrote, and my laptop. Once I’d cleaned the apartment down to utter anonymity, I transformed into Ilya and teleported to an apartment I keep in a poor neighborhood in Vienna. I have several of these scattered around the world maintained under different identities. I dropped off the weaponry and documents and with the sun just kissing the ripples on the Danube I made the jump back to New York before sunset trapped me and I had to wait for full dark back in Manhattan.
I settled onto the couch and checked back in with the Dynamic Duo. They were talking to the grieving spouse. Well, to be more accurate, they were listening to the grieving spouse blubber. His sobs were so shattering that I could hear them easily through the small microphone on McTate’s collar. “I failed her. I let her down. I can’t tell her how sorry I am. She was always stronger than me. How did this happen?”
It went on and on in that vein. I was saved from the litany of self-pity when my cell phone rang with the ringtone that belonged to Niobe—I’m Falling, Baby Through the Sky”.
“Hi,” she said hesitantly.
My heart still gallops a bit when I hear her voice. “Hi yourself. You okay?”
“Yeah. I was wondering if you could pick up Jasper? I’ve got an opera guild meeting that I’d forgotten about.”
“I probably won’t get home before seven—”
“I’ll pick up dinner for us.”
“Thanks, I really appreciate it.”
“Anything for you.”
“Really? Then you should come home.” She hung up on me before I could respond.
Once back in my own form, I called for my car. Jasper attends an upscale private school on the Upper West Side which apes British boarding schools but without all the bullying and buggery. My son was sitting on the front steps with a friend. His backpack rested on the step next to him and his knees, exposed by his uniform, were red from the cold. He was busy weaving the light from the setting sun into intricate patterns to the evident delight of his companion. Jasper was an ace and the result of very tedious and very expensive medical efforts so that his two wild card parents wouldn’t produce a child that would die instantly or be a deformed freak.
it was a technique that relied on Niobe’s ace power that flipped the dreadful odds associated with the wild card. The doctors utilized the genetic material in her ovipositor eggs and mixed it with my sperm and her normal, human egg. Niobe had mused about donating some of these wild card eggs to other wild card couples, but I had argued against it. It smacked too much of the way she had been forced by the government to birth tiny, short lived aces. Those other wild card couples could just take their chances with the virus’s shitty odds.
Jasper could make beautiful fractal snowflakes out of starlight and sunlight and even the harsh light from electric bulbs. In time he might learn how to plait those photons into something destructive, but I was glad it hadn’t occurred to him yet. I really didn’t want him following in his father’s footsteps.
The limo glided to the curb. He waved a hand through his creation reducing it to glittering shards that flew off in all directions. A quick word to his friend and he ran down to the car as I pushed open the backdoor. He slid in next to me. “Hi, daddy.” He flung himself into my arms and I hugged him tightly. He smelled of child and Sweet Tarts.
I explained about Niobe’s meeting. “So what do you want for dinner?”
I sighed. Eventually he would grow up and we could share an actual meal. I called for a pie to be delivered from John’s, and we made our way through Manhattan traffic to the condo on the other side of Central Park. Jasper chatted artlessly about school and soccer practice, and what he should do for his science project. I leaned against the corner of the car and listened while my heart felt too large for my chest.
Once home he scurried to change out of his school uniform, calling out to me to load up Lego Takisian Wars on the Xbox. I did so. He returned and sat cross legged on the floor in front of me, controller clutched in his hands, tongue peeping out of the corner of his mouth as he fought his way through Swarm monsters and other evil aliens.
I sat on the couch behind him and made a list of all the known teleporters or aces with powers that could put a person in a place they weren’t supposed to be. At the top of the list was Mollie Steunenberg, the ace known as Tesseract, who hated me with a passion. A quick phone call established that she was still in the nut house and still wearing the ankle bracelet that prevented her from using her power. Next up was the private eye Popinjay, but I couldn’t imagine why he would want to fuck me over. Pop Tart, another former contestant from American Hero, was a grifter and conniver—my kind of girl—but her power was very limited in range, and somebody would have noticed her on the demolition site. Especially given the way she dressed. She was catcall bait.
This seemed like a dead end, so I turned back to my two employees who had been tasked with sweeping the building. Using Niobe’s laptop I delved into their on-line life. Like everyone else in the world (except for us in the intelligence biz who know just how dangerous it is) they had left a massive trail across social media. Brent had signed up for no less than three dating sites. It didn’t look like he was having much luck, which considering his looks was not surprising. Dominic frequented the fantasy football sites and played on-line poker. Once I was on a safer machine I would delve into the owners of the various sites where Dominic played.
The doorbell rang. I carefully deleted all record of my activities on Niobe’s computer before answering, and even took the added effort to wipe off any fingerprints.
I accepted the pizza, paid the delivery man, gave him a sizable tip, and we settled down to eat. “Do you think the Takisians were good guys are bad guys, daddy?” Jasper asked.
I chewed thoughtfully and contemplated the aliens who had brought their hell born virus to Earth some seventy years ago. I thought of those few of us blessed with meta-human powers, balanced that against the hundreds of thousands dead when they drew a black queen, the tens of thousands twisted and deformed by the virus. The key grated in the lock and Niobe entered, dragging her heavy ovipositor tail behind her. Thick bristly hairs dotted the leathery skin. I considered the generations of jokers reviled by their societies or murdered because of their deformities. Niobe rejected by her family because of her affliction. “Bad guys,” I said.
“Mommy!” Jasper ran to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. Niobe’s acne-scarred face glowed with joy and love. I crossed to her and gave her a hug. She kissed my cheek. She gave a sniff. “That smells good.”
“There’s plenty left, mama.” Jasper led her over to the table and she tried to find a comfortable way to accommodate the tail. She grimaced and pressed a hand to her back.
I drained the last of my wine, moved behind her, and began to massage the small of her back. She gave a groan of pleasure. “Thanks, that feels good. What have the two of you been up too?”
“Debating the finer points of alien diplomacy.” Both she and Jasper looked confused. “Shooting down Takisian ships and Swarm monsters,” I amended.
“Oh.” She pulled my head down and whispered in my ear. “I’m not sure I like him playing these violent games.”
“Don’t worry,” I whispered back. “He’s not likely to follow in my footsteps. He’s a far sweeter and better person then I ever was.”
“You were and are good to us.”
“I should get going.”
Niobe checked her watch. “Oh good heavens, look at the time. Jasper, you go brush your teeth and get in your p.j.’s. It’s bedtime.”
I held up a preemptory finger, cutting off the whine. “Do as your mother says.” He drooped off down the hall. Niobe and I shared a look and a laugh. I kissed her on the lips and she held me tight. Her head rested against my chest. “I wish you weren’t….”
“Me?” I suggested.
“A better you. A you who hadn’t left us.”
Back at my flat I checked in briefly with Detective McTate, only to hear a toilet flush and then Fong tell him they had caught a new murder. Since it wasn’t about me I didn’t particularly care. I turned to Brent and Dominic. I needed to set in motion the moves required to get close to them.
Brent was going to be easy. I went into the bedroom and laid out a pretty silk top and a bra. I then allowed the shift to take place. Soon Lilith was looking out of the mirror at me. Jet black hair tumbled to my waist and covered my unnaturally firm breasts. Silver eyes gleamed and my skin was almost marble white. I lifted a strand of hair and wondered if my avatars would go grey when I did. I dressed, grabbed my cell phone, and snapped a selfie.
I joined one of the dating sites frequented by Brent and gave him a wink. I got back a response in seconds. There was no danger my female avatar would be recognized by a guy who worked construction for me. We chatted, and he tried to be sexy and debonair but only ended up seeming pathetic. We agreed to meet for a drink the next night. I hated to delay but it seemed unlikely that a woman as beautiful as Lilith would be eager enough to meet this sad loser right away.
I returned to Austria, booted up my laptop, and located Dominic playing on-line poker. I lurked and watched. Dominic was not having a good night… probably because he wasn’t very good. I am a decent poker player on line, but superb when there are actual cards involved. Cards that I can manipulate. Meaning I can cheat. I would have to consider if there was a way to draw Dominic into a real game.
I next sent emails under my own address to both men, requesting they come to my office tomorrow morning at 9:00 and at 10:30 so I could get their statements. Then I teleported back to the Manhattan Oakwood.
At that point I was exhausted, and still felt the stink of the precinct even on my Lilith body. I took a long hot shower and crawled into bed. I contemplated shifting back to my normal form, but it makes my joints ache if I change too many times in a day. I had been Ilya, me, back to Ilya, me, and now Lilith. I decided to sleep as Lilith and let the dawn do the work for me. I might be able to sleep through the discomfort of the change.
The top sheet rubbed against my nipples, stiffening them and sending a flare of heat to my groin. Apparently my imperfect body was horny. I considered masturbating, but I found it harder to get the female body to respond, especially when I was distracted. Bringing Lilith to climax was like playing a violin. When I was Ilya I just needed to grab hold. Being a hermaphrodite my vestigial dick is nothing to write home about, so I usually use my uber male form to find release and relief. By the time I had considered all these ramifications I found myself drifting off to sleep and the “romantic” moment had passed.
The next morning, clutching coffee and nursing a headache, I sat in the back of the limo heading to the office. We had just pulled up to the building when my phone rang. It was the manager at the Oakwood informing me the cops had arrived with a search warrant.
I told him to let them, then instructed the driver to take me back to the apartment building. I arrived just in time to hear Fong grouse, “This guy has about as much personality as a piece of fucking cellophane.”
“I’m British, what did you expect?” I said.
McTate was just pulling off his gloves. They gave a sharp snap from the force of the pull, the only indication that he might be irritated. “It is a little unusual for a place to look like a hotel room,” he said mildly.
“My wife and I separated a few months ago—”
“Kicked your ass out, did she?” Fong snorted. “Can sure as hell see why.” I almost told him that I had left them, but forced back the words, angry that I had allowed the man to get under my skin.
“Do you think she’d be okay with us searching her place?” McTate asked.
“I’m certain she would not object.”
“There’s no computer here,” Fong said.
“No. I spend enough time on a computer during the day. I leave work at work. When I’m home I read.” I gestured at a pile of library books on the coffee table. “And I watch football – you know, real football — and cricket.”
“You’re a magician. Where’s your equipment?” McTate asked.
“A full show requires quite large props. They’re all in a warehouse in Oxford.” I gave Fong a smile. “That’s in England.”
“Keep it up, asshole. You won’t be smirking when we nail you,” the cop growled. I gave him another smile.
“May we take a look at your phone?” McTate once again, very humble and very polite.
“No. You need a separate warrant for that, also for my work computer.”
The cops left. While I was locking up the manager approached. “We provide corporate housing for upscale clients. We don’t need this kind of trouble.”
“Am I being evicted?”
“We’d prefer that you make other arrangements.”
“Fine. Expect to hear from my lawyer.” He didn’t like the sound of that, but also didn’t suggest I stay on. My headache intensified. The day was just getting better and better, and tonight I had a date with a particularly unprepossessing man who also happened to work for me. For a moment I was shaken with a desire to call Niobe and ask if I could stay with her.
I forcibly rejected the notion. Because of me, they were about to be subjected to a police search. No, I would stay in one of my other pied-à-terres.
It took continent hopping to get ready for my date. I had spent too much time working and hadn’t noticed that while it was still light in New York it was now dark in Vienna. Time zones are a bitch when you have to be in the proper form to teleport. I had to wait until it was fully dark in New York before I could teleport to my flat in Vienna and dress as Lilith. Which meant I had to contact Brent and ask if we could push our date back an hour. Once in Vienna I dressed in a short skirt, silk blouse, and knee high boots with a very high heel. That’s actually the worst part of assuming my Lilith form, the damn high heels. Foot binding and girdles might have gone the way of the dodo, but I was convinced that high heels were designed by frightfully insecure and fearful men to torture women. I also retrieved a small SIG Sauer pistol that could fit in a pocket or a purse.
Brent had suggested the bar of the Tavern on the Green, a dreadful tourist trap, but the perfect choice for a simple man trying to seem sophisticated. I teleported into a secluded area of Central Park, and actually met a mugger. Crime has gone down in New York City as the population aged and the city changed. Disney has replaced the porn shops from Times Square, even Jokertown has Starbucks and an upscale Hyatt hotel, and the mask and cloak shops now sell more to tourists than to residents. I left the mugger groaning and clutching his bruised balls and walked on. Passing a trashcan, I dumped the cheap .38 he had been carrying. A few moments later and I saw the lights through the windows of the restaurant as they flowed across the grass and trees.
I went inside and scanned the bar. Brent spotted me, slid off the bar stool, and waved frantically. He was wearing khaki slacks and a silk turtleneck with a sports jacket tossed casually over one shoulder. The debonair bon vivant. I recognized the look. Men who have gone to a discount suit broker and placed themselves in the hands of a sales person who had decided to find his inner valet. It wasn’t a bad look. It just tried too hard. I stifled a sigh and walked over to him.
I slid onto a stool. His eyes dropped to the flash of the milk white thigh I exposed. He gestured to the bartender, who ignored him. Yes, Brent was one of those men. I crooked a finger and the young man jumped to attention. I ordered the most expensive cocktail on the menu and watched Brent from the corner of my eye. He blanched. Then I ordered an appetizer of oysters on the half shell. That was another thirty dollars.
Brent was starting to sweat. “So, uh, you just joined Happy Couples. ‘Cause I sure would have noticed you before now.”
“Yes, I’d tried Ace Affairs, Wild Card Couples, and few of the other wild card dating sites, but aces can be so full of themselves.” There was no way of hiding my wild card, Lilith’s silver eyes will always give me away.
“So you’re not an ace?”
“No.” I gestured at my eyes. “Not sure if these make me a joker or not. They are sort of a physical deformity.”
“Oh, no, they’re beautiful. You’re beautiful,” he blurted.
“Why thank you, what a sweet thing to say.” The oysters arrived. I squeezed lemon across them, stirred the horse radish into the cocktail sauce, dabbed it onto one, picked up the shell and slurped down the oyster. I gestured at the plate. “Would you like one?”
“Uh, thanks… uh maybe later.”
I ate two more oysters then asked, “So what do you do?”
“I’m in… uh… I’m an architect.”
Poor baby, I thought. Start out lying and you’ll only end up in the suds. “Why, how interesting. Have you designed any buildings I might know?”
“Probably not. I just do ordinary stuff. What do you do?”
“Guess.” I teased him with a flutter of my eyelashes.
Well, at least he hadn’t said exotic dancer. I gave him credit for that. I lifted the last oyster and held it out to him. “You sure?” He shook his head. I told him I was a dress buyer for Bloomingdales. He told me that didn’t surprise him. He liked my outfit. The inane conversation continued. I learned he was divorced with an eight year old son. The longing in his voice as he talked about how weekend visits with his boy just weren’t enough caused a flare of pain in the center of my chest. The fact he pulled that reaction from me turned the pain to anger. How dare he be real? I ordered another overpriced martini.
“Do you like kids?” he asked. “Would you like to have some?”
“Not really and no,” I snapped.
“Oh, well okay then.” He surprised me by fishing out his wallet. “Look, this has been really nice, but I don’t think we’re gonna work out.”
“I really want to remarry. Have more kids. Family is important to me. Thank you for coming, but….”
It was the last thing I had expected, and it rather charmed me. I held out my hand. “No problem, and thank you for being so forthcoming.”
He got the bill, turned an interesting shade of grey and handed over his credit card. The bartender came back with a half-sneering half-regretful expression. “I’m sorry, sir, but your card was declined.” I watched as Brent fumbled through his wallet, pulling out and then mentally discarding the three other credit cards.
“Let me,” I said. “It’s the twenty-first century, after all.” I pulled out cash and settled the bill. We walked to the door. I gave him a hug and stole his phone.
Once I was out of sight I downloaded the contents of his phone into mine. Then I returned to the bar and handed the phone to the bartender.
“My companion dropped this. Will you hold it for him?”
“Sure. So I’m guessing not a great meet up. Wanna try again with somebody who hates kids too? And I won’t stick you with the bill.”
“You won’t stick me with anything, bucky,” I said, and left.
The next morning I was skimming through the downloaded contents of Brent’s phone. Pictures of a grinning pudgy boy, an overweight woman with the pudgy boy. His email was mostly messages from the ex about visiting and alimony. Emails from the boy reminding Brent of his baseball game. It was all rather sad, and nothing raised any flags.
My phone rang with Niobe’s song. I shut the door to the outer office then stood, cell phone pressed tight to my ear as if it could bring her closer, and stared out the window. A cold autumn rain was sheeting down the glass and the tops of the skyscrapers were lost in the clouds.
“The police came,” she said. “They didn’t find anything.”
“Of course not. I’d never endanger you.”
There was a long silence then she asked, “You didn’t kill that woman, did you?”
“No. If I had I would have disposed of the body far more efficiently.”
“Stop! Don’t act like that with me.”
“I’m sorry. I apologize.”
“One of the cops indicated you might get kicked out of the Oakwood.”
“Very likely. I’ll just stay in one of the flats.”
“Why don’t you come home, Noel?”
“You know why.”
“Actually I don’t. I still don’t understand why you left us.”
A stone seemed to have settled in my chest. “I’m not good for Jasper or for you. Better if I just provide you with a good living.”
“A child needs their father. You’re not protecting Jasper by abandoning him. You’re hurting him. You and your father were so close. Why would you deny that to your son?”
“Because I’m not my father! He was….” Grief washed over me, as cold and grey as the rain beyond my window.
“A good man?” she suggested softly.
“You’re trying to be, Noel. You have been for a long time.”
“And what happens when I’m not?”
“We get through it. Together.” The stone in my chest had lodged in my throat and I didn’t trust myself to speak. After a long silence she said. “Just think about it. Come home. We love you.”
I stood holding the phone long after she had hung up.
After Niobe’s call I almost cancelled Brent’s appointment, but mentally heard Captain Flint telling me to dot every I and cross every T.
Brent now sat in the chair across the desk from me. He looked nervous. “I guess you wanted to ask about sweeping the building. I already talked to the cops.”
“I’m not surprised, but I wanted to hear from you directly. Can you tell me anything that might shed light on how Ms. Yamaguchi ended up inside?” I found myself nervously clicking the top on my ballpoint pen. I sat it aside.
“Not really. I checked my floors and Dominic checked his.” He gave a slight chuckle.
“It’s sort of funny. Usually Dominic takes the lower floors. He’s always whining about climbing all the stairs, but this time he said he’d take the upper floors.”
“I see. Did you hear anyone in the stairwells?”
Brent shook his head. “It was pretty noisy outside with the trucks coming in to haul away the debris.”
“No strangers loitering around the site?”
His eyes narrowed and his mouth worked from the effort of recall. He shook his head. “No, not that I remember.”
I tried to think if I was missing anything, but nothing occurred. I stood. “Well, thank you for coming.”
I was dealing with the insurance issues that had arisen due to a dead body on my site when Dogsbody called me on the intercom to tell me Dominic had arrived. As they entered Dominic was casting uncomfortable looks at the joker. The construction workers never came to my office, so this was a first for him.
After Dogsbody left Dominic ran a hand through his thinning and rather greasy hair. “Wow, a joker… and a… dude. Didn’t expect that. Thought a big important guy like you’d have a gorgeous babe.” He gave a nervous laugh.
“The city offers tax incentives to companies that hire jokers,” I said with an indifferent shrug, thus indicating I was a fellow bigot. It was also absolutely true that I was happy to get the tax break.
Dominic gave me a knowing grin. “Oh, okay, that makes sense then.”
“Please sit down.” I put a hand on his back and guided him to a chair. At the same time I lifted his cell phone from his pocket and slipped it into mine. “Thank you so much for coming in,” I said, as I perched on the corner of my desk.
“Uh… sure. I’m mean it was… terrible… what happened. I have no idea how that… happened.” His eyes shifted left, right, up and down, but he never actually looked at me.
MI-7 had honed my interrogation skills, though I wouldn’t have needed them in this situation. Dominic was a terrible liar. I was also beginning to see why he played poker on-line. “So why don’t you just take me through the morning.”
“Sam had Fred and Bob opening up the wall to explode the girders. Rusty was hanging around drinking coffee while he waited. Sam picked me and Brent to search the building. We divvied up the floors. He had one through six. I had seven through twelve.”
“The indication is that the woman was on one of the middle floors. So it could have been either you or Brent who missed her.” Dominic squirmed. “Can you assure me that you checked every room on every floor?”
“Yes, sir. I sure did. I absolutely did. I can’t speak for Brent.” He paused and licked his lips. “Look, I don’t want to cause the guy any problems…” Meaning that he absolutely did. “… but I know Sam has gotten on Brent’s case about how he’s doing his job. I mean, I’ve never seen a guy have such bad luck with the subways.”
“He’s late a lot.”
“Thank you for letting me know. I’ll speak to Sam about that.” I stood, indicating the meeting was over.
Dominic dragged his feet as he walked to the office door. “Uh… that lady did she have a family?”
“I have no idea,” I answered. “Should it make a difference? She’s dead.” He flinched at the word. I find it fascinating the American inability to just say died. All these euphemisms—passed on, went to a better place.
“I guess not. Just hard on her kids or husband if she did have a family.”
“Your sympathy does you credit,” I murmured, and enjoyed watching him flinch again.
He left and I settled at my desk and pulled out his phone. I quickly jacked it into my laptop and downloaded the entire contents onto my computer. Then I hurried out of the office and caught him waiting at the elevator. I held out the phone. “This slipped out of your pocket. I found it in the cushions of the chair.”
“Oh, gee, thanks, Mister Mathews.”
I told Dogsbody to hold my calls and settled in to dissect Dominic’s life. Like many people he was lazy about removing old emails and totally eliminating deleted voice messages. It seemed that Dominic had taken to playing in some less savory corners of internet gambling, and he had racked up a very large debt. Judging by their phone messages, the people holding that debt were of the very large and very unsympathetic variety. The threats had grown ever more threatening and the promised bodily harm more graphic. Then abruptly the calls stopped. The day after Belinda found herself squashed by a collapsing building.
There were some sent emails by Dominic that didn’t correspond to any received. Somehow the messages to which he had replied vanished off the server. Which indicated a level of technological sophistication beyond what your average thug could muster. Dominic’s responses however were damning.
Why would you want to forget the debt?
What do I have to do?
I’m not real comtable with this.
Okay I geuss I can do that.
What was abundantly clear was that Dominic’s online creditors had offered him a solution for his financial problems. A solution that Dominic had accepted. Also that Dominic was a shining example of the American educational system.
I selected the relevant emails and prepared to print them, but suddenly a hack detected alert came up on my screen and an alarm started sounding. My program began trying to backtrace the hacker, but it was an aggressive assault designed to take over my machine. Most people’s computers would never have detected the hack, but I have extra layers of protection and surveillance on all my tech.
The faceless hacker and I sparred and struggled as my fingers flew across the keyboard. Windows flashed by, text scrolled, but he was very good and I was losing. He would be able to download the contents of my machine before I could trace him, and possibly insert something into my files. There was only one thing to do. I hit the burn command, unplugged the computer, poured a cup of tea across the keyboard. It sparked and died. I opened the case, pulled out the hard drive, and beat it into pieces with a heavy paperweight.
Panting a bit from the exertion, I fell back into my chair and considered. Someone with a high level of computer skills had been on the other end of this hack. They had paid Dominic not to make a sweep of the upper floors. I had to believe the man wouldn’t have gone through with it if he’d actually come across an unconscious… or dead… woman in one of the rooms. Someone was clearly trying to destroy me, and since the person who had been actively engaged in that attempt had ended up squashed at one of my job sites I had to look for another culprit.
One sprang quickly to mind. My former employer.
I paced the office pursued by the stink from the destroyed computer, and fought the rage that threatened to overcome me. Could this really be the Silver Helix coming after me? The level of sophistication of the hack suggested that.
I was ready to teleport to a working laptop and immediately release all the damning material I had stolen to Wikileaks, but I stopped myself. It’s never wise to react in haste and anger.
I sat back down at the desk and began to write a list. What I knew. What I didn’t know and more importantly what I thought I knew. I realized there were a lot of blanks under what I actually knew. It made no sense for the Silver Helix to use this method to destroy me when it would also destroy them.
No, the answer had to rest in the details of Belinda’s life and company.
I bought a new laptop, settled in at a coffee shop in Jokertown, fired up my personal hotspot, and began to dig into Belinda Yamaguchi. Born Belinda Fujasaki in Los Angeles, California, attended USC where she earned an MBA. Husband Harvey Yamaguchi, summa cum laude MIT, grad school at Cal Tech specializing in computer science. I had a new candidate for the attack on my computer.
I continued digging. Harvey had met Belinda at a mixer. Love bloomed and they married in 1999. One daughter Megan born in 2004. A few years after Belinda founded Elite Solutions Harvey had founded an IT company, Brilliant Solutions. The similarity in names was nauseatingly cute.
After Belinda began her assault on my company I had begun researching ways to take the fight back to her. Buy any outstanding debt, look at her investors and supplier and see if any of them could be squeezed. I still had the file so I pulled it down from the cloud and started to review. A name floated past – везучий. My Russian was a bit rusty, but the meaning came back to me. Lucky. Something niggled at the back of my mind. I had seen that name before. Then I remembered. It was the name of the company that owned the on-line poker site where Dominic played and had lost so much money.
I took a sip of my now cold coffee, leaned back in my chair and considered. So what did an on-line gaming site and a demolition and aftermath company have in common? I turned my attention to the Russian company and had soon traced it back to a particularly powerful Russian mob family in Brighton Beach run by Ivan Grekov. He had money, foot soldiers, and even a few aces on his payroll, but as yet the hapless cops of the NYPD had nothing on him.
Most of construction in New York City is heavily mobbed up. When I’d first founded Aces in Hand several large men with Italian surnames wearing cheap suits, shiny pointy-toe shoes, and large bulges beneath their arms had come visiting. They told me they could rent me equipment at very reasonable prices. I told them I had no need of their equipment. Our discussion became more heated until I pulled a gun on them. They had left threatening retribution. I had changed to Ilya, caught them on the street, and teleported them into the center of the Nefud Desert. The good thing about predators is they recognize when they’ve met a bigger one. Since then I’ve had no trouble.
But Belinda didn’t have my particular skills. It was likely that Gospodin Grekov had his tentacles in Elite Solutions and Belinda had probably failed to make a payment or make good on some other promise. It also made complete sense for them to dispose of a body and take out the competition all at the same time. I just needed to figure out who and how.
Rather than exhaust myself and play games with the sun collecting equipment that was scattered around the world I just went to a nearby electronics store, and used cash to buy what I needed. I then hied myself down to Brighton Beach and boosted a car.
Uncle Ivan had a number of offices for his various endeavors, but he seemed to stick close to home, a garish house on Corbin Place. Judging by the houses to either side Ivan had purchased one of the grand old places, knocked it down, and put up a monstrosity. There does seem to be something about decadent oil sheiks and mobsters that make them crave the vulgar and tasteless. The house was a perfect example.
It was close enough to the ocean that the smell of brine and soft rumble and hiss of the waves carried through the open car window. I sat with my sandwich and a beer, a pistol on the seat next to me, a camera, a change of clothing for both avatars, and a big ears rig that could pick up conversations inside the house. Men came and went. Strong guy, strong guy, thug, young woman with a little girl about Jasper’s age.
One of the strong guys took offense at a car that had been luxurious in parking so he picked it up by the rear axle and moved it. I marked him down as someone who could easily carry a dead body up a number of stairs. The sun was starting to set when a silhouette etched itself against the glow. A flying ace. I sat up and grabbed my camera. The ace dropped onto the sidewalk in front of the house, straightened his suit jacket and entered.
I had been so excited by the sight of this ace that I lost situational awareness. It returned in a rush when the top of the stolen car was torn back like a man opening a can of sardines.
I scrambled for the pistol, but found myself grabbed by the back of the collar and hoisted, choking, out of the car. I reached back to try and claw his eyes. He head butted me and red streaks flashed across my vision from the force of the blow. I went limp so he wouldn’t hit me again. I needed to stay conscious.
He flung me over his shoulder. Ilya was not accessible at sunset and Lilith could not be accessed until it was full dark. I desperately measured the distance until the sun set. Minutes yet.
I was carried into the house and thrown onto the oriental silk rug. It didn’t do much to cushion the landing since there was cold marble beneath it.
“Found him in a car, boss, watching the house. He had lots of surveillance equipment and a gun,” the ace said in Russian.
“Thank you, Vladimir.”
I groaned and peered up at the dapper little man standing over me. He had perfectly coiffed milk white hair and an absurdly elaborate waxed mustache. He seemed less cherubic after he kicked me hard in the ribs. I recognized Ivan Grekov from my research.
“Who are you? NYPD? FBI? SCARE?”
“None of the above.” I climbed to my feet.
Now that I was erect I could evaluate my surroundings. It was a study. A fire burned in the ornate marble grate. A huge polished mahogany desk, high backed leather armchairs, and a sideboard loaded with bottles of liquor—most of them vodka—made up the furnishings. The flying ace was also in the room peering at me curiously.
“Wait, I recognize you,” Grekov said. “You’re that Brit. You have been costing me, tovarich.”
“Cutting into Belinda’s profits, was I? Is that why you killed her?” The three men exchanged glances and began to laugh uproariously. “Okay, I gather that’s an erroneous conclusion. Care to enlighten me?”
Grekov exchanged glances with his thugs. “Why not? But nothing comes for free, Mr. Matthews. Same deal I had with Belinda. Thirty percent of your gross.”
“Sure,” I said. Now that I had been inside the house I could return and kill him any time I wanted.
He was smart enough to have a momentary worry over my prompt agreement, but greed and a lifetime of feeling untouchable made him continue. “She had fallen behind on her payments. I hope you’ll do better.”
“I’m sure I can. Now keep your side of the bargain.”
“Harvey, Belinda’s husband, called me a few nights ago. Blubbering about how he’d done a terrible thing. Could I help him. Once I understood the problem I saw a way to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Take over her company and yours as well.”
Grekov gestured at the flying ace. “I sent Boris to deal with the problem.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Ivan, Vladimir and Boris? Really? Could you be any more of a cliché? Sorry, you were saying?”
The old man looked amused. The two aces glared, but Boris picked up the tale. “I went to the condo. Guy had shot his wife. He was bawling about how he had let her down. I didn’t pay much attention….”
I wasn’t paying any attention either. The sun had set. It’s not easy to move during the change, but needs must when the devil drives so as my bones were shifting I lunged for Boris. I wrapped an arm around his throat, and with my free hand ripped the gun from its shoulder holster and pressed it into his side.
He took to the air and slammed me against the ceiling. It almost knocked the breath out of me, but I tightened my grip on both him and the gun, pictured our destination and teleported—
—To a jail cell in Cairo with which I was intimately acquainted. Since we were ten feet up in the air it was a hard landing. I scrambled away from Boris and jumped to my feet. Fortunately he was disoriented by the transition. By the time he rolled to his feet I was holding the gun on him.
Shock had robbed him of English. He stuttered in Russian, “Wha… what the fuck? What are you? Where am I?”
“In a jail cell in Cairo. I pay a monthly bribe to the warden to keep it for my private use. You never know when you might want to sequester someone,” I replied in the same language.
“Fuck you, you bastard!”
“Currently the proper term is bitch.” I shot him in the leg. He screamed and clutched at his calf. Blood welled between his fingers. He started crying.
“Oh dear God, stop blubbering. It’s a flesh wound. You work for a mobster. Didn’t you think this was a possibility? Tell me about what the husband said.”
He wiped snot onto his sleeve and glared at me. “He said she’d found out some stuff. He was bawling that he was a coward, that he’d let her down. I picked up the body and flew it to the building. Landed on the roof, carried her down to the eighth floor and left her. That’s all I know.”
“Excellent. I’ll be back for you later. And you can tell the police everything you just told me.”
“You’re leaving me? But I’m bleeding.”
“You won’t die of it. I suggest you use your shirt for a bandage, and tie it place with a shoe lace.”
I teleported back to my office.
I sat at my desk and gently probed my aching side while I considered. So Belinda had “found out something”. The question was what. I decided I probably had a couple of broken ribs, likely from Ivan’s kick. I added that to my list of things to settle after I had dealt with Harvey.
Affairs were the usual culprit in a spousal murder. I knew that Harvey was a computer savant so I didn’t try to directly hack him. Instead I dug into his employees; affairs usually start at the office. I found nothing beyond the fact he seemed to be a thoughtful employer, always remembering his employee’s birthdays, even their children’s birthdays. In short, everything I wasn’t. I had no idea when Dogsbody or Sam or any of the rest of them had been born, nor did I give a damn.
I managed to break into his accounting program, though I was pretty sure an alert had been sent. I wasn’t going to have much time, but fortunately I got lucky. Harvey had his accounting service pay his personal bills. If he had a mistress, a gambling habit, a coke addiction, I could find it. But before I jumped back out I noticed something far more interesting than his green fees at the Dyker Beach Golf Course, or the large stuffed unicorn he had, presumably, bought for his daughter, or the bouquet of roses.
His company was hemorrhaging money.
He had been pulling money out of Belinda’s company, and he was trying to hide it with creative bookkeeping. Which would explain why Grekov hadn’t been getting his cut. If Grekov had threatened Belinda, she would have tried to figure out why her profits were dropping. She discovered the embezzlement and confronts Harvey. The rest of the tale told itself.
I hit erase on the laptop, burned the hard drive back to factory settings, leaned back in my chair, and considered. So… did I take this to the bumbling cops? No. A direct approach was needed. I went back to work and located the Yamaguchi’s home address. Another search revealed that the condo had been purchased in 2010. I went through the archive pictures from the real estate company so I could study the rooms.
The placement of furniture is always a danger for me. Fortunately there was a very nice photo of the master bath. I was still taking a risk by teleporting in, but my search hadn’t revealed any filings for building permits so I was reasonably sure the large Roman style tub hadn’t been moved.
I muttered a prayer to a god I didn’t believe in and teleported—
—And landed, mercifully, in a bathtub that was dry and person free. I stepped out and morphed back into my own form. It hurt like a mother with my broken ribs. I noted the expensive fixtures, the His and Her sinks. The His was filled with soap scum and whiskers congealed onto the side. There were a few pieces of blood- stained toilet paper wadded up and strewn across the countertop, revealing a shaky hand with the razor. The marble tile around the front of the toilet showed pee stains. It didn’t look like Harvey had been doing all that well since he’d become a murderer.
I slipped through into the master bedroom. The bed was unmade and there was a sour smell. I moved on, searching for Harvey. I had to hope the daughter was like most teenage girls and out with friends, doing after school activities, or in her room with the door closed and texting with someone.
The condo was very quiet which made the ticking of the large grandfather clock seem very loud and very ominous. I passed an open door that showed a pretty canopy bed and a large collection of stuffed animals. The unicorn was there. Thankfully the unicorn’s owner was not.
Harvey was in the kitchen slumped at the kitchen table. An open bottle of Bunnahabhain “40”, which retailed for around two grand, was at his elbow. Judging by the level in the bottle Harvey was not sipping. I added that to his list of crimes.
He jumped as I walked into the room. The stainless steel surfaces in the very modern kitchen threw back my slightly distorted reflection—a dark haired man, wearing gloves, in a suit and carrying a gun. It was no wonder Harvey jumped and caught the bottle with his elbow. I got there before it completely tipped and spilled the nectar inside.
“You… you,” he stammered and shoving back his chair he inched away from me.
“So you know me. Good, saves time.”
“Wha… what do you want?” It wasn’t just fear slurring his words. He was clearly pissed.
“Well, for starters a glass. I’d rather not use yours.”
“Uh… okay.” He tottered to a cabinet and took down another highball glass. He picked up the bottle, peered at the glass like an archer focusing on a distant target. I put away my pistol, took the bottle and poured three fingers of scotch into the glass and refilled his.
I pulled out a chair and sat down opposite him. His bones seemed to have vanished because he melted more then sat.
“I take it that Belinda found out about your embezzlement. So is it going to be the accident defense she had a gun and when I tried to take it from her—”
“No, no it wasn’t like that.” He started blubbering. “She was scared. She couldn’t understand why profits were down so much. It was making it hard to pay Grekov. She was crying.”
He gulped down the scotch. I refilled his glass. “I felt so guilty so I… I confessed. Told her what I had done. She started screaming at me. That Grekov was going to come and hurt us all, and it was my fault. I was angry. She was the one who had put us in danger by getting us involved with that crook.”
I took a sip of scotch. “So you work for Grekov too.”
“No. I just handle IT for his companies. I’m not involved in any of that… other stuff. I’m not a criminal.”
“Yes, you are a model of courage and rectitude. Are we getting close to the part where you kill your wife?”
He flinched. “She called Grekov, told him what I’d done, and begged him to forgive us. She then put me on the phone. Grekov told me what I had to do to win back his trust. He wanted me to hack into banks and credit card companies. I wanted to be a hero for my daughter. Instead I was being forced to become a criminal.”
I took another drink. Playing therapist was boring the shit out of me, but there was also an uncomfortable resonance to my own life.
“Yes, terrible,” I snapped. “So what happened?”
“After we hung up Belinda went to fix a drink. I got my granddad’s Luger. He fought in Europe in World War Two. They didn’t trust a Japanese guy to fight in the Pacific. He took a pistol off a dead German, brought it home as a souvenir.”
“Boring and irrelevant,” I snapped.
He goggled at me the continued. “I was so angry. I followed her in here and shot her. When I realized what I had done I was going to kill myself…” He threw back the scotch.
“But you got cold feet. Or maybe that cold barrel in your mouth gave you second thoughts.”
“I thought about Megan, my baby. To lose both her parents…” He was crying again. “I realized Grekov could help me. Get rid of the body.”
“By framing me for murder.”
“I didn’t know Grekov would do that,” he whined.
“But you sure as fuck didn’t do anything to clear me!”
“What could I do? I’d go to prison and my daughter would be alone.”
“Where’s the gun now?”
“Good, that simplifies matters.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s get the gun. Then I’ll explain.” Fortunately he was too drunk to argue or consider where this might be going.
He led me to a home office and took the Luger out of the bottom drawer of the desk. When he straightened, he saw I was holding my pistol. “I’ve got a gun too,” he blustered. “I could shoot you. Say you threatened me.”
“I can assure you I have a great deal more practice with firearms then you do, I’m not pissed, and I have no compunction about killing people. As for threatening you, you are quite right. I’m going to.”
The man had already proved he was a coward, and my demeanor can be quite menacing. He shuddered and handed me the Luger. I pocketed the ancient pistol.
“Now, you have three options. You can go immediately to the police and confess. You’ll stand trial and go to jail, but Megan can come visit you, so she won’t be a total orphan. You can write a suicide note and finish what you started. Or I’ll kill you and write the note for you. Your choice.”
“You… you can’t match my handwriting…“
“Oh please, it’s 2017. Who does a hand written note today? I’ll put it on your IPad.”
He spread his hands beseechingly, “Please, my daughter… she needs me.”
“And my son needs me. Your daughter is fucked no matter what you do. The question is which outcome screws her up the least. I would suggest it’s daddy in jail, but it’s entirely up to you. Now, it’s late, I’m bored, and it’s decision time. So what’s it to be?”
He stood head bowed for a long time. He then lifted Detective McTate’s card off the desk and pulled out his phone. I laid the Luger down , and backed out of the room. He might be a worm, but I wasn’t going to risk turning my back on him. As I left I heard him say, “Detective, I… I have something to… to tell you.”
I went into the kitchen, washed my glass and returned it to the cabinet. Pushed back in the chair, gritted my teeth and turned into Lilith and left.
Back at the Oakwood I listened to Harvey’s confession as I stood looking out at the lights of midtown. There were still a few loose ends to settle. I returned to Cairo, grabbed Boris and dumped him on the steps of Fort Freak, the Jokertown police station. I then printed out Dominic’s incriminating emails and mailed them to Detective McTate.
It was nearly dawn by the time I returned to my flat. I was tired and hurting and I dreaded the change. With each transformation my ribs objections had become more acute. I dry swallowed four aspirin, sucked in a deep breath, and let Lilith melt away.
My suit had blood on it from Boris’s wounded leg. I undressed and taped my ribs. I eyed the bed and decided sleep was not attainable right now. I returned to the window and watch the sun’s rays glint off the roofs of skyscrapers. The music of the city: car horns, sirens, revving engines was muted beyond the glass. A flying ace was circling the spire of the Empire State Building.
I had told myself I had left my family to protect them. The truth was I had only been protecting myself. I had been afraid to see love turn to disgust if Jasper ever realized who I was and what I had done. I had called Harvey a coward. I deserved the label myself.
They were at the breakfast table when I walked in. They looked up in surprise. Jasper flew across the room. I dropped the suitcase I was carrying as he leaped into my arms. “Daddy!”
I held him close. Niobe’s eyes met mine across the top of his head. She took in the suitcase I was carrying and a look of satisfaction and relief filled her eyes. “Jasper, go get your satchel while I finish packing your lunch.”
He pulled back and gave me a desperate look. “Will you be here when I get home?”
“No.” And before he could react I added, “But I’ll be here when I’m done at work.”
“Okay!” he shouted and ran out of the room.
Niobe approached me, tail dragging behind her. “So, are you really back?”
“What changed your mind?”
I thought about the child who was soon going to be without a father and felt a tug of guilt.
“I realized I didn’t need to be a hero to my son or to you. I just needed to be here.”
“When the Devil Drives” copyright © 2017 by Melinda Snodgrass
Art copyright © 2017 by John Picacio