Zero Sum Game

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she’ll take any job for the right price.

As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower…until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved. There’s only one problem…

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game is available October 2nd from Tor Books. Read the first 3 chapters below!

 

 

one

I trusted one person in the entire world.

He was currently punching me in the face.

Overlapping numbers scuttled across Rio’s fist as it rocketed toward me, their values scrambling madly, the calculations doing themselves before my eyes. He wasn’t pulling his punch at all, the bastard. I saw exactly how it would hit and that the force would fracture my jaw.

Well. If I allowed it to.

Angles and forces. Vector sums. Easy. I pressed myself back against the chair I was tied to, bracing my wrists against the ropes, and tilted my head a hair less than the distance I needed to turn the punch into a love tap. Instead of letting Rio break my jaw, I let him split my lip open.

The impact snapped my head back, and blood poured into my mouth, choking me. I coughed and spat on the cement floor. Goddammit.

“Sixteen men,” said a contemptuous voice in accented English from a few paces in front of me, “against one ugly little girl. How? Who are you?”

“Nineteen,” I corrected, the word hitching as I choked on my own blood. I was already regretting going for the split lip. “Check your perimeter again. I killed nineteen of your men.” And it would have been a lot more if Rio hadn’t appeared out of nowhere and clotheslined me while I was distracted by the Colombians. Fucking son of a bitch. He was the one who’d gotten me this job; why hadn’t he told me he was undercover with the drug cartel?

The Colombian interrogating me inhaled sharply and jerked his head at one of his subordinates, who turned and loped out of the room. The remaining three drug runners stayed where they were, fingering Micro-Uzis with what they plainly thought were
intimidating expressions.

Dumbasses. I worked my wrists against the rough cord behind my back—Rio had been the one to tie me up, and he had left me just enough play to squeeze out, if I had half a second. Numbers and vectors shot in all directions—from me to the Colombian in front of me, to his three lackwit subordinates, to Rio—a sixth sense of mathematical interplay that existed somewhere between sight and feeling, masking the world with constant calculations and threatening to drown me in a sensory overload of data.

And telling me how to kill.

Forces. Movements. Response times. I could take down this idiot drug runner right now, the way he was blocking his boys’ line of fire— except that concentrating on the Colombians would give Rio the instant he needed to take me down. I was perfectly aware that he wasn’t about to break cover on my behalf.

“If you don’t tell me what I want to know, you will regret it. You see my dog?” The Colombian jerked his head at Rio. “If I let him loose on you, you will be crying for us to kill your own mother. And he will like making you scream. He—how do you say? It gives him a jolly.” He leaned forward with a sneer, bracing himself on the arms of the chair so his breath was hot against my face.

Well, now he’d officially pissed me off. I flicked my eyes up to Rio. He remained impassive, towering above me in his customary tan duster like some hardass Asian cowboy. Unbothered. The insults wouldn’t register with him.

But I didn’t care. People pissing on Rio made me want to put them in the ground, even though none of it mattered to him. Even though all of it was true.

I relaxed my head back and then snapped it forward, driving my forehead directly into the Colombian’s nose with a terrific crunch.

He made a sound like an electrocuted donkey, squealing and snorting as he flailed backward, and then he groped around his back to come up with a boxy little machine pistol. I had time to think, Oh, shit, as he brought the gun up—but before firing, he gestured furiously at Rio to get out of the way, and in that instant the mathematics realigned and clicked into place and the probabilities blossomed into a split-second window.

Before Rio had taken his third step away, before the Colombian could pull his finger back on the trigger, I had squeezed my hands free of the ropes, and I dove to the side just as the gun went off with a roar of automatic fire. I spun in a crouch and shot a foot out against the metal chair, the kick perfectly timed to lever energy from my turn—angular momentum, linear momentum, bang. Sorry, Rio. The Colombian struggled to bring his stuttering gun around to track me, but I rocketed up to crash against him, trapping his arms and carrying us both to the floor in an arc calculated exactly to bring his line of fire across the far wall.

The man’s head cracked against the floor, his weapon falling from nerveless fingers and clattering against the cement. Without looking toward the side of the room, I already knew the other three men had slumped to the ground, cut down by their boss’s gun before they could get a shot off. Rio was out cold by the door, his forehead bleeding freely, the chair fallen next to him. Served him right for punching me in the face so many times.

The door burst open. Men shouted in Spanish, bringing Uzis and AKs around to bear.

Momentum, velocities, objects in motion. I saw the deadly trails of their bullets’ spray before they pulled the triggers, spinning lines of movement and force that filled my senses, turning the room into a kaleidoscope of whirling vector diagrams.

The guns started barking, and I ran at the wall and jumped.

I hit the window at the exact angle I needed to avoid being sliced open, but the glass still jarred when it shattered, the noise right by my ear and somehow more deafening than the gunfire. My shoulder smacked into the hard-packed ground outside and I rolled to my feet, running before I was all the way upright.

This compound had its own mini-army. The smartest move would be to make tracks out of here sooner rather than later, but I’d broken in here on a job, dammit, and I wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t finish it.

The setting sun sent tall shadows slicing between the buildings. I skidded up to a metal utility shed and slammed the sliding door back. My current headache of a job, also known as Courtney Polk, scrabbled back as much as she could while handcuffed to a pipe before she recognized me and glowered. I’d locked her in here temporarily when the Colombians had started closing in.

I picked up the key to the cuffs from where I’d dropped it in the dust by the door and freed her. “Time to skedaddle.”

“Get away from me,” she hissed, flinching back. I caught one of her arms and twisted, and Polk winced.

“I am having a very bad day,” I said. “If you don’t stay quiet, I will knock you unconscious and carry you out of here. Do you understand?”

She glared at me.

I twisted a fraction of an inch more, about three degrees shy of popping her shoulder out of the socket.

“All right already!” She tried to spit the words, but her voice climbed at the end, pitched with pain.

I let her go. “Come on.”

Polk was all gangly arms and legs and looked far too thin to have much endurance, but she was in better shape than she appeared, and we made it to the perimeter in less than three minutes. I pushed her down to crouch behind the corner of a building, my eyes roving for the best way out, troop movements becoming vectors, numbers stretching and exploding against the fence. Calculations spun through my brain in infinite combinations. We were going to make it.

And then a shape rose up, skulking between two buildings, zig-zagging to stalk us—a black man, tall and lean and handsome, in a leather jacket. His badge wasn’t visible, but it didn’t need to be; the way he moved told me everything I needed to know. He stood out like a cop in a compound full of drug runners.

I started to grab Polk, but it was too late. The cop whipped around and looked up, meeting my eyes from fifty feet away, and knew he was made.

He was fast. We’d scarcely locked eyes and his hand was inside his jacket in a blur.

My boot flicked out and hit a rock.

From the cop’s perspective, it must have looked like the worst kind of evil luck. He’d barely gotten his hand inside his coat when my foot-flicked missile rocketed out of nowhere and smacked him in the forehead. His head snapped back, and he listed to the side and collapsed.

God bless Newton’s laws of motion.

Polk recoiled. “What the hell was that!”

That was a cop,” I snapped. Five minutes with this kid and my irritation was already at its limit.

“What? Then why did you—he could have helped us!”

I resisted the urge to smack her. “You’re a drug smuggler.”

“Not on purpose!”

“Yeah, because that makes a difference. I don’t think the authorities are going to care that the Colombians weren’t too happy with you anymore. You don’t know enough to gamble on flipping on your crew, so you’re going to a very faraway island after this. Now shut up.” The perimeter was within sprinting distance now, and rocks would work for the compound’s guards as well. I scooped up a few, my hands instantly reading their masses. Projectile motion: my height, their heights, the acceleration of gravity, and a quick correction for air resistance—and then pick the right initial velocity so that the deceleration of such a mass against a human skull would provide the correct force to drop a grown man.

One, two, three. The guards tumbled into well-armed heaps on the ground.

Polk made a choking sound and stumbled back from me a couple of steps. I rolled my eyes, grabbed her by one thin wrist, and hauled.

Less than a minute later, we were driving safely away from the compound in a stolen Jeep, the rich purple of the California desert night falling around us and the lights and shouts from an increasingly agitated drug cartel dwindling in the distance. I took a few zigs and zags through the desert scrub to put off anyone trying to follow us, but I was pretty sure the Colombians were still chasing their own tails. Sure enough, soon we were speeding alone through the desert and the darkness. I kept the running lights off just in case, leaving the moonlight and mathematical extrapolation to outline the rocks and brush as we bumped along. I wasn’t worried about crashing. Cars are only forces in motion.

In the open Jeep, the cuts on my face stung as the wind whipped by, and annoyance rolled through me as the adrenaline receded. This job—I’d thought it would be a cakewalk. Polk’s sister had been the one to hire me, and she had told me Rio had cold-contacted her and strongly suggested that if she didn’t pay me to get her sister out, she’d never see her again. I hadn’t talked to Rio myself in months—not until he’d used me as his personal punching bag today—but I could connect the dots: Rio had been working undercover, seen Polk, decided she deserved to be rescued, and thrown me the gig. Of course, I was grateful for the work, but I wished I had known Rio was undercover with the cartel in the first place. I cursed the bad luck that had made us run into him—the Colombians never would have caught me on their own.

In the passenger seat, Polk braced herself unhappily against the jounces of our off-road journey. “I’m not moving to a desert island,” she said suddenly, interrupting the quiet of the night.

I sighed. “I didn’t say desert. And it doesn’t even have to be an island. We can probably stash you in rural Argentina or something.”

She crossed her spindly arms, hugging herself against the night’s chill. “Whatever. I’m not going. I’m not going to let the cartel win.”

I resisted the urge to crash the Jeep on purpose. Not that I had much to crash it into out here, but I could have managed. The correct angle against one of those little scrub bushes…

“You do realize they’re not the only ones who want a piece of you, right? In case our lovely drug-running friends neglected to tell you before they dumped you in a basement, the authorities are scouring California for you. Narcotics trafficking and murder, I hear. What, were all the cool kids doing it?”

She winced away, hunching into herself. “I swear I didn’t know they were using the shipments to smuggle drugs. I only called my boss when I got stopped because that’s what they told us to do. It’s not my fault.”

Yeah, yeah. Her sister had tearfully shown me a copy of the police report—driver stopped for running a light, drugs found, more gang members who’d shown up and shot the cops, taking back the truck and driver both. The report had heavily implicated Courtney in every way.

When she’d hired me, Dawna Polk had insisted her sister wouldn’t have hurt a fly. Personally, I hadn’t particularly cared if the girl was guilty or not. A job was a job.

“Look, I only want to get paid,” I said. “If your sister says you can throw your life away and go to prison, that’s A-okay with me.”

“I was just a driver,” Courtney insisted. “I never looked to see what was in the back. They can’t say I’m responsible.”

“If you think that, you’re an idiot.”

“I’d rather the police have me than you anyway!” she shot back. “At least with the cops I know I have rights! And they’re not some sort of freaky weird feng shui killers!”

She flinched back into herself, biting her lip. Probably wondering if she’d said too much. If I was going to go “feng shui” on her, too.

Crap.

I took a deep breath. “My name is Cas Russell. I do retrieval. It means I get things back for people. That’s my job.” I swallowed. “Your sister really did hire me to get you out, okay? I’m not going to hurt you.”

“You locked me up again.”

“Only so you’d stay put until I could come back for you,” I tried to assure her.

Courtney’s arms were still crossed, and she’d started worrying her lip with her teeth. “And what about all that other stuff you did?” she asked finally. “With the cartel guards, and the stones, and that cop…”

I scanned the constellations and steered the Jeep eastward, aiming to intersect the highway. The stars burned into my eyes, their altitudes, azimuths, and apparent magnitudes appearing in my mind as if stenciled in the sky behind each bright, burning pinprick. A satellite puttered into view, and its timing told me its height above Earth and its orbital velocity.

“I’m really good at math,” I said. Too good. “That’s all.”

Polk snorted as if I were putting her on, but then her face knitted in a frown, and I felt her staring at me in the darkness. Oh, hell. I like it better when my clients hire me to retrieve inanimate objects. People are so annoying.

By morning, my madly circuitous route had brought us only halfway back to LA. Switching cars twice and drastically changing direction three times might not have been strictly necessary, but it made my paranoid self feel better.

The desert night had turned cold; fortunately, we were now in a junky old station wagon instead of the open Jeep, though the car’s heater managed only a thin stream of lukewarm air. Polk had her bony knees hunched up in front of her and had buried her face against them. She hadn’t spoken in hours.

I was grateful. This job had had enough monkey wrenches already without needing to explain myself to an ungrateful child every other minute.

Polk sat up as we drove into the rising sun. “You said you do retrieval.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You get things back for people.”

“That’s what ‘retrieval’ means.”

“I want to hire you.” Her youthful face was set in stubborn lines.

Great. She was lucky I wasn’t choosy about my clientele. And that I needed another job after this one. “What for?”

“I want my life back.”

“Uh, your sister’s already paying me for that,” I reminded her. “But hey, you can pay me twice if you want. I won’t complain.”

“No. I mean I don’t want to go flying off to Argentina. I want my life back.”

“Wait, you’re asking me to steal you back a clean record?” This girl didn’t know what reality was. “Kid, that’s not—”

“I’ve got money,” she interrupted. Her eyes dropped to her knees. “I got paid really well, for someone who drove a delivery truck.”

I snorted. “What are the going rates for being a drug mule these days?”

“I don’t care what you think of me,” said Polk, though red was creeping up her neck and across her cheeks. She ducked her head, letting her frizzy ponytail fall across her face. “People make mistakes, you know.”

Yeah. Cry me a river. I ignored the voice in my head telling me I should take the fucking job anyway. “Saving the unfortunate isn’t really my bag. Sorry, kid.”

“Will you at least think about it? And stop calling me ‘kid.’ I’m twenty-three.”

She looked about eighteen, wide-eyed and gullible and wet behind the ears. But then, I guess I can’t judge; people still assumed I was a teenager sometimes, and in reality I was barely older than Courtney. Of course, age can be measured in more ways than years. Sometimes I had to pull a .45 in people’s faces to remind them of that.

I remembered with a pang that my best 1911 had been lost back at the compound when I was captured. Dammit. Dawna was going to get that in her expense list.

“So? Are you thinking about it?”

“I was thinking about my favorite gun.”

“You don’t have to be so mean all the time,” Courtney mumbled into her knees. “I know I need help, okay? That’s why I asked.”

Oh, fuck. Courtney Polk was a headache and a half, and clearing the names of idiot kids who got mixed up with drug cartels wasn’t in my job description. I’d been very much looking forward to dumping her on her sister’s doorstep and driving away.

Though that small voice in the back of my head kept whispering: Drive away where?

I didn’t have any gigs lined up after I finished this contract. I don’t do too well when I’m not working.

Yeah, right. Between jobs you’re a fucking mess.

I slammed the voice away again and concentrated on the money. I like money. “Just how much cash do you have?”

“You’ll do it?” Her face lit up, and her whole body straightened toward me. “Thank you! Really, thank you!”

I grumbled something not nearly as enthusiastic and revved the station wagon down the empty dawn freeway. Figuring out how to steal back someone’s reputation was not my idea of fun.

The voice in the back of my head laughed mockingly. Like you have the luxury of being choosy.

 


two

I pulled the station wagon into a grungy roadside motel near Palm-dale, the type with a cracked plastic sign of misaligned letters misspelling the word “vacancy.” I’d detoured again, and we’d circled around enough to be coming in from north of LA, through the dusty shithole towns of meth gang territory. Courtney’s friends, on the other hand, had been smuggling coke, which I supposed made them the classy drug dealers.

I didn’t need to rest, but I suspected Courtney did, and I wanted to think. I had no idea how the hell I was going to approach her case. The obvious plan was to find enough evidence on her old employers to give the DEA some sort of smashing takedown, let Courtney take the credit for it, and broker a deal to expunge her record. That would involve dealing with the police, though, and that sounded about as appealing as driving two-inch bamboo splinters under my fingernails.

I ushered Courtney ahead of me into the motel’s threadbare office; her jaws cracked with a yawn as she stumbled in. The clerk was stuttering into the phone. I crossed my arms, leaned against the wall, and waited.

The clerk stayed on his call for another ten minutes, and kept giving us increasingly nervous glances, as if he expected me to bawl him out for not helping us straightaway. I supposed that made sense, considering my messed-up fatigue-style clothes and my messed-up face, which had to be turning into a spectacular rainbow of color by this point. Or maybe he saw brown skin and thought I was a terrorist—I’ve been told I look kind of Middle Eastern. Goddamn racial profiling.

I tried to smile at him, but it ended up more like a scowl.

The clerk finally got off the phone and stammered his way into assigning us a room on the first floor. He dropped the key twice trying to give it to me, and then dropped the cash I gave him when he tried to pick the bills up off the counter. If he’d known I’d pulled the money from a succession of stolen cars that night, he probably would’ve been even more nervous.

I pulled Courtney back into the sunlight after me, where we found the right door and let ourselves into a stock cheap-and-dirty motel room, the type with furnishings made of stapled-together cardboard. Apparently relieved by my promise to help her, Courtney zonked out almost before her frizzy head smacked against the pillows on one of the dingy beds. I tossed the cigarette-burned bedspread over her and went to push open the door to the small washroom.

Only to be met with the muzzle of a .45. “Howdy,” said the black cop from the compound from where he sat on the toilet tank, feet on the lid. “I think we need to have a talk.”

Well, shit.

No matter how much math I know, and no matter how fast my body is trained to respond automatically to it, I can’t move faster than a bullet. Of course, if the cop had been within reach, I could have disarmed him before he could fire—but the bathroom was just large enough for the math to err on his side, considering he already had his gun drawn and pointed at my center of mass.

“Don’t mind me,” I said, inching forward and trying for flippancy. “I’m just going to use the—”

His hand moved slightly, and I froze.

“Good,” he said. “You stand still now, sweetheart. You move and I’ll put a bullet through your kidney.”

I knew two things about him now. First, he was smart, because not only had he tracked us here and then gotten into our bathroom before we had reached the room, but he also wasn’t underestimating me. Second, he didn’t give a rat’s ass about proper police procedure, which meant he was either a very dangerous cop or a very dirty one— or both.

I let my hands hover upward, showing I wasn’t going for a weapon. “I’m not moving.”

“Pithica,” he said. “Talk.”

“You have me confused with someone else,” I said. Mathematics erupted around me, layering over itself, possibilities rising and crumbling away as the solutions all came up a hair short of the time the handsome cop needed to pull the trigger.

“Talk,” said the cop. “Or I shoot you and break your pet out there.”

Courtney. Shit. Stall. “Okay,” I said. “What do you want to know?”

In the bathroom mirror, I saw the rising sun peek above the sill and through the almost drawn curtains.

Specular reflection. Angles of incidence. Perfect. As long as the cop wasn’t going to fire blind, I had him. Hands still raised in the air in apparent surrender, I twitched my left wrist.

At the speed of light, the glint of sunlight came in through the window, hit the bathroom mirror, and reflected in a tight beam from the polished face of my wristwatch right into the cop’s eyes.

He moved fast, blinking and ducking his head away, but I moved faster. I dodged to the side as I dove in, my right hand swinging out to take the gun off-line. My fingers wrapped around his wrist and I yanked, the numbers whirling and settling to give me the perfect fulcrum as I leveraged off my grasp on his gun hand to leap upward and give him a spinning knee to the side of the head.

The cop collapsed, out cold, his face smacking inelegantly into the grimy bathroom floor.

I checked the gun. Fully loaded with a round in the chamber, as I’d expected. I gave it points for being a nice hefty .45 with an extended magazine, and points off for being a Glock. Typical cop. I hate Glocks.

I searched him quickly and found three spare mags fully loaded with ammo and a little snub-nosed Smith & Wesson tucked in his boot. No wallet or phone—and, more important, no badge or ID of any kind. I was right; he was dirty.

I dragged him out into the room, yanked the sheet off one of the beds, and began tearing long strips from it. In the other bed, Courtney stirred and squinted at me sleepily. When she saw me tying a tall, unconscious man to the radiator, she came fully awake and shot bolt upright. “What’s going on?”

“He followed us here,” I explained. The guy must have regained consciousness fast enough to track our escape back at the compound, and must have been the one on the phone with the motel clerk when we checked in, making sure someone let him into our room before we got the key. This time I’d make sure he couldn’t track us. By the time he woke up and got himself loose, we’d be long gone.

“Who is he? Is he with the Colombians?”

I frowned at her from where I was securing my knots. “He’s the cop from back at the compound. Remember? As to whether he’s with the cartel, I don’t know. I think he’s dirty.”

“How do you know he’s a cop in the first place?”

“Police training makes you move a certain way.” It came to me in numbers, of course, the subtle angles and lines of stride and posture. But I didn’t feel like explaining that.

“Oh.” Courtney’s hands had tightened into fists on the threadbare bedspread, her knuckles white.

I finished my work and moved toward the door. “Come on, kid. We’ve got to hit the road.”

Courtney scrambled up and stayed behind me while I checked outside. The sun gleamed off the cars, the dusty parking lot completely still. If our police friend was dirty, it was unlikely he’d have a partner nearby, fortunately. I glanced around to see if I could spot his car, figuring it might have some nice toys in it—as well as maybe his badge and ID, which could give us some leverage—but no vehicle stood out as promising. Instead, I led Polk over to a black GMC truck so caked with dust and grime it looked gray. In my business, getting into a car and hot-wiring it are such necessary skills I could literally do them with my eyes closed, and I had the engine coughing to life in fourteen seconds. We left the motel behind in a cloud of dust.

I flattened the accelerator, and the desert sped by around us, the morning sun flashing off dust and sand and rock. I drew a quick map of this part of the county in my head, calculating the best way to travel so that even if the cop woke up quickly and used the most efficient search algorithm he could—or had supernatural luck—the probabilities would drop toward zero that he’d be able to find us again.

Courtney’s subdued voice interrupted my calculations. “Was he after me?”

“Yeah,” I said. I brooded for a moment. “What do you know about something called Pithica?”

She shook her frizzy head. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Are you sure? You never heard a whisper from your former employers? Think hard.”

Courtney winced away from my harshness. “No. I swear. Why?”

I didn’t answer.

What the hell was going on? Why was a peace officer on the take after Courtney Polk? She’d been a drug mule, for crying out loud, one the cartel had ended up locking in a basement. She hadn’t exactly been high on the food chain. And what the hell was Pithica?

I didn’t go straight into LA; instead, I continued zigzagging through the brown desert of the northern outskirts and switched cars twice in three hours. I didn’t know if our dirty cop could put out an APB on us—he might even have enough resources to have his buddies set up roadblocks. Best to err on tdhe side of being impossible to find no matter what.

Once the morning hit a decent hour, I stopped at a cheap electronics store and picked up a disposable cell. I stood under the awning of the shop, watching Courtney where she sat in the car waiting, and dialed Rio.

“Pithica,” I said as soon as he answered.

There was a long pause. Then Rio said, “Don’t get involved.”

“I’m already involved,” I said, my stomach sinking.

Another pause. “I can’t talk now.” Of course. He was still undercover. I’d assumed he was just taking down the whole gang for kicks, but now .. .

“When and where?” I said impatiently.

“God be with you,” said Rio, and hung up.

I should’ve known, I thought. Undercover wasn’t Rio’s style. His MO was to go in, hurt the people who needed hurting, and get out. If taking down the gang had been his only objective, a nice explosion would have lit up the California desert weeks ago and left nothing but a crater and the bodies of several eviscerated drug dealers. That was Rio’s style. And why had he referred Dawna to me to get Courtney out in the first place? Why not do it himself? He was more than capable; in fact, I was sure he could have done it without even blowing his cover.

Unless things were way more complicated than I had realized, and this wasn’t a simple drug ring.

“Who were you calling?” asked Courtney, getting out of the car and squinting at me in the glare of the Southern California sun.

“A friend,” I said. Well, sort of. “Someone I trust.” That part was true.

“Someone who can help us?”

“Maybe.” Rio was clearly working his own angle, and didn’t want help—even from me. Which hurt a little, if I wanted to be honest with myself. I’m good at what I do. Rio didn’t mean to hurt me, of course; he didn’t care about my feelings one way or another. He didn’t care about anyone’s feelings. I wondered what it said about me that he was the closest thing I did have to a friend.

Suck it up, Cas.

Rio wasn’t the only resource I had. I contemplated for a moment, then dialed another number.

“Mack’s Garage,” said a gravelly voice on the other end.

“Anton, it’s Cas Russell. I need some information.”

He grunted. “Usual rates.”

“Yeah. I need everything you can get on the word ‘Pithica.’”

“Spelling?”

“I’m not sure. There might be some ties to Colombian drug runners. And the authorities might be investigating already.”

He grunted again. “Two hours.”

“Got it.” I hung up. Anton was one of several information brokers in the city, and I’d hired him not infrequently over the past couple of years, whenever I wanted to know more than a standard internet search would give me. If “Pithica” had a paper trail, I was betting he could find it.

“Come on,” I said to Courtney, shepherding her back to the car. “We’re going to hit rush hour as it is.”

 


three

“Do you have cash, or is your money all in the bank?” I asked Courtney as we inched forward through the eternal parking lot of the 405 freeway, the heat beating down through the windshield and slowly cooking us. The temperature had catapulted up by a full thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit with the rising sun as we finally headed into the city: Los Angeles at its finest. Our current junkpot car didn’t have air-conditioning, and the still air and stalled traffic meant even rolling down the windows didn’t help one whit.

Courtney fiddled with the end of her ponytail self-consciously. “They paid me in cash. I didn’t—taxes, you know, I thought it would be better if…”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, trying not to laugh at her. “No sign at all they weren’t on the level. I can see why you thought it was a legitimate delivery service.” I dealt only in cash myself, of course, but I wasn’t exactly a yardstick for legality. “Where is it, under your mattress?”

She grimaced, red creeping across her cheekbones again. “A floorboard.”

“All right. We’ll swing by. Let’s hope the cops didn’t find it.” I had a fair amount of my own liquid capital stashed in various places throughout the city, but I preferred to use hers. She was supposed to be the paying client, after all.

“You think they searched my place?” Courtney asked, going tense and sitting up in the passenger seat.

“You’re a murder suspect,” I said. “You think?”

Her whole face had gone flushed now. “I—I just don’t—I have some things—”

“Relax, kid. Nobody’s going to care about your porn collection.”

She choked and broke out in a coughing fit.

“Unless it’s children,” I amended. “Then you’d be in big trouble. Bigger, I mean. It’s not kiddie porn, is it?”

“What—? I don’t—no, of course not!” she stammered. Her skin burned tomato red now, from her neck to the roots of her sweat-dampened hair. “Why would you—I don’t even—”

I laughed for real as traffic started creeping forward again. She was too easy.

Courtney’s place was only a few miles from Anton’s, and I decided to drop by the information broker’s first. Anton’s garage was a constant of the universe. A ramshackle mechanic’s outfit, the place had never changed in all the times I’d been there. The words “Mack’s Garage” barely showed through a decades-thick layer of motor oil and grime on a bent-up metal sign, and the junkers in the bays were the same derelict vehicles I’d seen the last time. No customers were in sight. Anton did know cars, as it happened, but he wasn’t an auto mechanic.

I knocked on the door to the office and Anton opened it himself, a faded gray work coverall over his considerable bulk. Anton was a big, big man in every way—six feet five and beefy all over, he had a thick neck, thicker face, and steel-gray hair shaven to a strict quarter inch, which for some reason made him seem even bigger. Considering I was already short, I tended to feel like a toy person next to him. But as much as I was sure he could open a can of whoop-ass on someone if he wanted to, I always thought he was kind of a teddy bear. A surly, taciturn teddy bear who never smiled, but a teddy bear nonetheless.

He grunted when he saw us. “Russell. Come in.”

Courtney and I followed Anton through the outer office and into his workshop. Computers and parts of computers sprawled across every inch of the place, some intact but many more in pieces, and bits of circuitry and machinery I couldn’t name hummed away all over the room in various states of repair, with teetering mountains of papers and files stacked on every marginally flat surface. A huge office chair sized for Anton’s bulk stood like a throne in the middle of the chaos, and perched in its depths was a twelve-year-old girl.

“Cas!” Anton’s daughter cried, leaping up to run over and throw her arms around my middle. Even for twelve, she was tiny, and with her dark complexion, I always figured her mother must have been a four-foot-ten Asian or Latina woman whom Anton could have picked up with his little finger.

“Hey, Penny. How’s it going?” I said, ruffling her dark hair.

“Good!” she chirped. “We’ve got an intelligence file for you!”

“Thanks. Hey, I’ve got a present for you.” I pulled the cop’s little Smith & Wesson out of my pocket. “Look, it’s just your size.”

“Ooo! Cas! Thank you!” Eyes shining, she took the gun, keeping it pointed down. “Daddy, look what Cas gave me! What caliber is it?”

“Thirty-eight Special, for a special little girl,” I said. “Take good care of it; it’ll last you a long time.” What can I say, I have a soft spot for kids.

“You’re giving her a gun?” squawked Courtney from behind me. “One you stole from a cop?”

“She knows how to use it,” grunted Anton.

Courtney quailed. “That’s not what I—”

“You think I don’t take care of my daughter right?” said Anton quietly, looming a bit. “That what you saying, girl?”

Courtney stared up and up at him. Then she said, “No, sir,” very meekly.

“Didn’t think so,” rumbled the big man. “Russell, I got that info for you. Not much to go on, mind.”

“I appreciate anything you can get us,” I said.

He pulled a file folder from among the machines. “Some fishy things here. Could be more we ain’t hit yet. You don’t mind, me and Penny’ll keep digging on this.”

“Sure,” I said, surprised. It was the first time he’d said something like that in all the times I’d hired him. “If you think there’s more to find, go for it. Usual rate.” I opened the file and gave it a cursory glance—the contents were puzzlingly varied; I’d have to sit down with it later.

“I bet we get more,” said Penny optimistically, hopping back up on her dad’s chair and rolling it over to a computer keyboard. “Hey, Cas! I cracked an IRS database yesterday. All by myself!”

“She’s got the talent,” murmured Anton in his quiet, gravelly way, but anyone could see he was glowing with pride.

“Nice job,” I told Penny. “Too bad you don’t pay taxes.”

“Well, Daddy does, but he told me not to change anything. I want to try some White House systems next.”

I turned to Anton in surprise. “You pay taxes?”

“I use this country’s services,” he said. “I pay the taxes them people we elected says I owe. Only fair.”

Wow. “Your call, I guess.”

He gave one of his trademark grunts. “Want to teach my girl right.”

Courtney made a squeaking sound. I decided I’d better get her out of sight before Anton felt the urge to reach out his thumb and crush her like a bug. Besides, Anton’s reference to more weirdness was amplifying the alarm bells that had been going off in the back of my head ever since the cop had cornered us at the motel.

The feeling got about a hundred times worse when we got to Courtney’s house.

“That’s—that’s my…” She trailed off, her hand shaking as she pointed. Two white men in dark suits were standing on her doorstep talking, the front door cracked open behind them. As we watched, one of them pushed open the door and went inside. The other stubbed out a cigarette and followed a minute later.

“What are they doing in my house?” whispered Courtney weakly.

We were still a block away. I pulled the car over and turned off the engine. Courtney’s place was a little guesthouse-type cottage, and most of the blinds were shut, but one of the side windows was the kind of slatted glass that didn’t close all the way. Through it, we could see more suits—and they were in the midst of tossing her living room. Thoroughly.

“Who are they?” asked Courtney. “Are they police?”

“No.” Some of them moved like they might have military backgrounds, but I wasn’t sure; we didn’t have a good view and I didn’t have the numerical profiles of every type of tactical training memorized anyway. Definitely not cops, though.

“Do you think—are they with the Colombians?”

“Possibly.” The men were the wrong ethnicity to be on the Colombian side of the cartel, but maybe they were American connections. Why would the cartel be searching Courtney’s place, though? If they were after the girl herself, they would be lying in wait, not turning the rooms inside out. “Did you steal anything from them? Money, drugs, information? Anything?”

“No!” Courtney sounded horrified. “I have money there like I told you, but it’s what they paid me. I’m not a thief!”

“Just a drug smuggler.” As someone who did dabble in what one might call “stealing,” when paid well to do it, I resented her indignation a bit. “Let’s keep our moral lines straight and clear, now.”

“I didn’t know,” repeated Courtney hopelessly.

I reached for the car door handle. Maybe these men were only burglars after her little stash of savings, but I wasn’t going to bet on it. “I’m going to get closer. Stay here and keep out of sight.”

“What if they come this way?” Courtney had gone pale, her freckles standing out across her cheekbones.

“Hide,” I said, and got out of the car.

I still hadn’t had a chance to clean up my face, and despite this not being the best part of town—unkempt, weedy lawns buttressed trash-filled gutters, and most of the houses sported cracked siding and sun-peeled paint—I got a few looks from people on the street as I strolled toward Courtney’s cottage. I ran a hand through my short hair, but it was a tangled, curly mass and I was pretty sure I only made it worse. Undercover work has never been my forte.

I meandered down the sidewalk, keeping a sidelong view of Courtney’s house. The dark-suited men became points in motion, my brain extrapolating from the little I could see and hear, assigning probabilities and translating to expected values. As I drew up to the house, the highs and lows of conversation became barely audible, but I ran some quick numbers—to decipher the words, I’d have to be so close I’d be the most obvious eavesdropper in the world. The plot of half-hearted grass between the street and the houses didn’t have any handy cover I could use to sneak closer, either.

I ran my eyes over the surrounding scenery, a three-dimensional model growing in my head. A stone wall curved out from just behind Polk’s house and ended in a tumble at a vacant lot, and it very nearly fit the curvature of a conic.

Sound waves are funny things. They can chase each other over concave surfaces, create reinforcing concentrations of acoustics at the focus of an architectural ellipse or parabola. Some rooms are famous for the ability to whisper a word on one side and have it be heard with perfect clarity on the other.

I only needed a few more sounding boards.

I wandered back down the street and kicked at a trash can as I went by so it turned slightly. Ran my hand along the neighbor’s fence, pulling the gate closed with a click. Flipped up a metal bowl set out for stray cats with my foot so it leaned against a fire hydrant. Tossed a rock casually at a bird feeder so it swung and changed orientation. I ambled down the street twice more, knocking the detritus of the street around, making small changes. Then I ran my eyes back across the house, feeding in the decibel level of normal human conversation.

Close. All I needed was an umbrella. It wasn’t raining, but plenty of cars were parked on the street, and I found what I needed after a quick survey of back windows. I jimmied my way in, retrieved the umbrella from the back seat, and left the car door cracked at an angle for good measure. Then I headed over to a tree at the edge of the next lot, one that stood exactly at the focus of my manufactured acoustic puzzle, put up the umbrella, and listened.

The voices in Courtney’s house sprang up as if they were right next to me.

“—utter rubbish, that’s what it is,” a man was saying in a British accent. “FIFA’s got no right to blame Sir Alex. They got a scandal, it’s their own damn fault.”

“You two and your pansy-ass soccer players,” put in an American voice. “You’re in fucking America, you know. Watch some real football.”

“Oh, you mean that boring little program where they prance around in all the pads and take a break every five minutes?”

“Aw, fuck off. At least we score more than once a game.”

“Gentlemen. Focus.” This man’s voice was smooth, deep, and oozing charisma, and it cut off whatever the American’s retort would have been like he’d hit a switch.

“I don’t think it’s here, boss,” said a fourth guy in a nasally voice with an accent I couldn’t place. “I think she stashed it somewhere else. Or she—”

“ ‘Stashed it’?” cut in the talkative Brit. “Where? She doesn’t have a safe deposit box, they made it so she’s got no friends—”

“So she buried it in the front yard, or spackled it into a wall,” said the American. “Who knows what she was thinking?”

“The only place left to look here is if we come back with a sledgehammer and a shovel,” agreed the nasally man.

Their words fell off while they waited for the leader to make a decision. I found myself holding my breath.

“Hey, momma, it look like rain to you?”

I was jerked out of listening to see an arrogant teenage kid wearing far too many chains laughing in my face. “You expecting rain? Ha! Whatcha do to your face, or were you born that way?”

My first instinct was to knock him on the head and get him out of my way. But he was only a kid—a shrimpy Hispanic teen, probably part of a gang considering the area and the colored bandanna knotted around his bicep, and aching to prove himself. Even if he was doing so by picking on a small woman who resembled a disturbed homeless person at the moment.

“Are you trying to pick a fight with me?” I asked evenly, lounging back against the tree and letting the grip of the cop’s Glock peek out of my belt. The kid’s eyes got wide, and he stumbled back a step.

I glanced back at Courtney’s house. The men in dark suits were filing out the front door, either leaving for good or planning to return with a sledgehammer. Either way, I had missed it. I sighed and turned back to the gang member. “Hey, kid. Watch this.” I leaned down, pried up an old tennis ball from where it was embedded in the dust, and threw it hard off to the side.

A series of soft pings sounded—across the street, behind us. The kid looked around, confused. Then the tennis ball came rocketing from the other direction and bopped him lightly on the head.

“Whoa!” He stared at me. “Fuck, momma! How’d you do that?”

“Learn enough math, you might find out,” I said, keeping tabs on the suits out of the corner of my eye. Conveniently, this conversation provided a neat cover if they happened to look this way. I no longer appeared to be lurking. “Stay in school, okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Okay.” He nodded rapidly, eyes wide. Then he turned and hurried off, looking back over his shoulder at me.

Like I said, I have a soft spot for kids.

The Dark Suits had headed off at the same time, appropriately in a dark van. I glanced around the street and walked casually over to Courtney’s front door. The jamb was already splintered next to the bolt; I nudged the door open.

The living room looked like a herd of rambunctious chimpanzees had been invited to destroy it. Cushions had been torn off the furniture and rent open, their polyester filling collecting in puffy snowballs on the floor. Every chair and table had been upended. Cabinets and closets stood ajar and empty; clothing was tangled with DVD cases and broken dishes in haphazard piles amid the chaos. True to the Dark Suits’ lack of sledgehammer, however, the walls and floor were still intact.

I hesitated on the threshold, wondering what the chances were that the Dark Suits or anyone else might have left surveillance devices behind, but if so, they had probably recorded my skulking already. I picked my way through the destruction to the corner Courtney had told me about, a growing sense of urgency making me hurry. What the fuck was Courtney Polk mixed up in?

I didn’t have any tools, but breaking boards is all about the right force at the right angle. With one well-placed stomp from my boot, the floorboard splintered, and I pried back the pieces and fished out a paper bag filled with neat piles of loose bills.

My gaze skittered around the room as I wondered where else Courtney might have hidden something… something small enough to spackle into a wall. But the only option I could see was breaking every floorboard and then tearing down all the drywall, and that would take far too long. If Courtney still insisted on claiming ignorance, maybe I could stash her somewhere and then get back with tools before the Dark Suits did.

And maybe I could get some of my questions answered another way before then. Tucking the paper bag under one arm, I headed out, pulling out the cell phone as I did so and dialing Anton.

“Mack’s Garage,” chirped a girl’s voice.

“Penny, it’s Cas. Can you put your dad on?”

“Sure!” She shouted cheerfully for her father, and in moments Anton grunted in my ear.

“Anton, it’s Cas Russell again. I need you to look up something else for me.”

Grunt.

“That client who was with me today. Courtney Polk. Check her out for me.”

“Anything else?”

“No, just—”

A deafening explosion tore through the line. I heard a girl’s scream, and Anton shouting, and then any human sound was swallowed by the chaos of more explosions, multiple ones at once—and the call went dead.

Excepted from Zero Sum Game, copyright © 2018 by S.L. Huang.

citation

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