by C.J. Burch
I don’t think most people like Sundays. Sunday is the end of the weekend...a signal to all those who have enjoyed a precious rest from the work week that they are going to drag themselves back into the salt mines the next day.
It is the grown up equivalent of the last day of summer vacation and to most of us it is depressing as all get out, but not to me.
Not having a regular job I don’t have to look at Monday as my summons back to the work day prison camps. I can enjoy my Sundays without fear of what is to follow.
What’s more I don’t have to train. Six days a week out of habit, vanity and necessity I force my battered body to work itself so that its joints won’t lock up and make me an old woman before my time, and though I find some peace of mind in the incessant, tedious work I don’t find much pleasure.
Instead, I find joy in knowing that come Sunday I can forget about the heavy bag and the speed bag and the weights and the road work and the sit-ups. On Sundays I can concentrate on the things that are truly important like a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice and my boyfriend’s chest when he wakes up and rolls onto his back and smiles up at me…
Some Sundays are more perfect than others and a given Sunday’s perfection is inversely proportional to the number of interruptions I am forced to put up with in the process of doing nothing.
Case in point is a couple of Sundays past. Ambrose Reed, lecturer, historian and my boyfriend had awakened from a sound sleep and was smiling up at me with half lidded eyes when I decided to put down my coffee and spread myself over him like a blanket.
I had kissed him on his chest, laid my head beneath his chin, wrapped my arms about him and was in the process of preventing myself from saying all the things one should say to the one they love when my in box chimed and told me I had a message.
I was going to ignore the thing, but Ambrose kissed me. “You better answer it. Otherwise you’ll be wondering who it is and I won’t be able to get you to concentrate on important things like passion.”
I rolled away from my warm boyfriend, wrapped a blanket about me to combat the goose flesh that was sprouting on my shoulders and arms and reached for the bedside table where my hand held lay.
The message was from Hollis Silk.
Don’t let the name fool you. Silk was a monster. He stood nearly six and one half feet tall and weighed well over two hundred and fifty pounds, none of it excess, and in case you hadn’t guessed he had been a cage fighter.
He had been a super heavy weight and a good one, and though he was never what the aficionados of the sport would call legendary he had been smart.
After ten years in the cage he had decided he liked the management side of the business better than the fighting side.
After his manager disappeared he took over his stable of fighters and handled them competently if not brilliantly.
His big break came when he bank rolled enough money to create his own tournament. The “Silk Cup” he liked to call it.
It had been a hell of a gamble, one that would have wiped him out had it failed, but he had succeeded and since that time he had forgotten about fighters all together and become a promoter.
He had also been the first man who purposely attempted to kill me in the cage. Nearly succeeded too, but that’s another story.
I peered at the screen of my hand held and raised an eyebrow when Silk’s image flickered to life. He smiled at me and doffed the ridiculous derby he wore, “Hi Holly.”
“Hey, hey, Manami Silverbear, my favorite female prize fighter.” He grinned back with all the warmth of a white shark. “Good to see you. Keeping yourself in shape now that you’re out of the game?”
“I haven’t gained any weight.”
“Maybe you should come back. My tournament will roll around in a couple months. The lightweights are weak this year. I could use a draw. The damn thing fell too close to the Neo York. None of the heavy hitters want to attend. If you show up you could notch an easy win and a big pay day.”
“You didn’t call to ask me to fight in your tournament, Holly.”
The big man gave me that strange maniacal look he had given me the night he almost killed me. “Last chance, Mannie, it could do us both a lot of good. Could make you a nice sum of cash and put fannies in the seats for me.”
I’m not so modest that my ego can’t use some stroking every now and again so I took the bait. “How you figure?”
“All I need is couple of pictures of you half naked. What man could resist those legs, those curves those eyes, those rippling abs...”
“Enough,” though Holly had meant everything he said in jest the look on his face sent chills down my spine.
I know this may sound patently bizarre for some one who has spent the greater part of her adult hood beating people unconscious for a living, but Holly Silk was weird.
Not that all of us aren’t. There is an element of dominance and submission in the fight game that only the slightly cracked can tolerate.
Holly didn’t just tolerate it, though, he liked it. He never made a big show out of it, but I had noticed it and had asked some other heavy weights who fought him regularly, about it.
They said I was right. Holly got a thrill out of hurting people, and when we had fought that exhibition I had the feeling he really got a charge out of hurting me. It had frightened me. It still did.
So why didn’t I tell Holly Silk to have a good day, turn off my hand held and roll back into my boyfriends embrace? Because I am that type that likes to be frightened. Otherwise, I never would have been a cage fighter.
“Holly, I’m not fighting. Now why the call?”
“I need you.”
“We’ve covered that Holly.”
“Not for the tournament, I hear that in your second life you do odd jobs for the needy entrepreneur.”
That was true enough. “What’s the problem?”
“I’ve lost something. I want you to get it back.”
“No, no, I know these damn things.” Holly shook his hand held and made his face do side straddle hops on my screen, “Are supposed to be encrypted out the wang but I don’t trust them, never have. You come to New London and we’ll discuss it.”
“Not for free we won’t.”
“Okay, how much?” Holly was as tight with a buck as a Dickens character. If he wasn’t arguing over my fee, he was desperate.
If I had liked him I would have taken it easy on him. As it was I quoted him the most outrageous figure I could think of without rolling out of bed and onto the floor giggling.
Holly nodded his massive head. “Done, how quick can you get here?”
“I can catch a shuttle tomorrow,” I cursed myself. The rat bastard hadn’t even blinked. I could have charged him more.
“I’ll see you then.” Before Holly could sign off Ambrose ran his hand across my stomach.
“Uh, Holly,” I inhaled sharply, “I’ll need a couple of tickets.”
“Because,” I inhaled again when Ambrose slipped his hand down my body, “I have a significant other and he hates to be left behind.”
“Sure fine, whatever,” Holly replied, “Two tickets. I’ll add the cost to your fee. See you then. Now if there’s nothing else I have a message waiting.” Without waiting for my reply he cut his connection and he was gone.
I rolled into Ambrose. “Couldn’t you see I was busy?”
Ambrose smiled. “All work and no fun and all that nonsense.” He kissed me. “So we’re going to be traveling tomorrow.”
I kissed him back. “Is it an inconvenience?”
“No,” he rolled over so that I lay on my back and kissed me once more. “I finished my research and sent it off last night before I came to bed. I’m a free man until my editor beeps.”
“Excellent,” I whispered back.
Ambrose kissed his way down my throat. I had closed my eyes when I felt a pang of regret so sharp it startled me.
I had to go to work tomorrow. Suddenly, my Sunday was no longer carefree. It was a pause before the storm, a signal that it was time to return to the grind of the every day.
I was like every other working slob in the universe and I didn’t like it.
Ambrose paused and cupped my chin in the palm of his hand. “Love, you’re tense.”
I made myself relax and felt the steady warmth of Ambrose against me and smiled. I told myself it was just one Sunday. Then I kissed him again and whispered, “No sweetie, I couldn’t be better.”
I am told that there was a time, way back when, that most folk were a little dubious about this space station deal.
Gerald K. O’Neil and a few others who had argued it would be easier for man to live in huge rotating cylinders than on the surface of our neighboring planets were pretty much hooted at.
No one figured, the historians say, that man kind could ever push enough steel into space to build on the scale O’Neil was talking about, and they sure as hell couldn’t think of a good reason to live there.
Just goes to prove that conventional wisdom is a thing that is often formulated without consulting the facts.
As it turned out construction jobs in space, especially the really, by god, big ones were a lot more simple than building on earth ever was. You don’t have all that nasty gravity to screw things up, and the moon is one of the best sources of natural resources you will ever find.
So, a few years after man finally got off his lazy ass and built the first Tor colonies the really big honking O’Neil colonies…that could house millions of people along with forests and parks and lakes…began to go up. Less than a century later there are two hundred of the damn things and over a billion people are living in space, but what the hell? There’s plenty of room out here and we haven’t found any aliens we can exterminate. So I guess we’re not doing any harm.
Besides, academics could make a pretty convincing argument that aliens have nothing to fear from us. Our history indicates that the one thing earthlings have been best at killing is other earthlings.
If you doubt me take a look at mother earth now. More of us live out here than down there. Which is a shock considering the fact that most statisticians figured there would be nearly twenty billion people teaming on the planet by now.
It didn’t work out that way. I could go into all the historical happenings and causes, but I don’t have time. Besides, self flagellation isn’t my thing. I always preferred to have someone else beat the spit out of me.
Suffice to say that earth is pretty screwed up, and the parts of it that are habitable are filled with people that are too busy beating their breasts and screaming praises to God or Allah or Yahweh or whatever it is they call him to bother with things like electricity and medicine. Though, they’re extremely interested in newer and more deadly guns.
The rest of us, those that chose reason over mantras, have pretty much left it to them. It was easier to leave than kill them all.
We don’t have much contact with each other now. Occasionally earth will send us a delegation of secret agents out to bring their crusade to the great unwashed in space. When they do we kill them. No one seems to mind. Most folks figure we’ve run as far as we can go.
Ambrose placed his hand over mine and gave it a gentle squeeze, “Share your thoughts?”
“I’m considering man’s place in the universe.”
“I’m wondering if he has one.”
“Of course,” Ambrose nodded, “as long as he’s willing to make it and protect it.”
“And I thought I hung about with you because you cheered me up.”
“The truth is a cold and prickly mistress, love.” Ambrose’s smile faded. “Mannie; you haven’t told me a lot about this.”
“I don’t know a lot about this.”
“Yeah, but every time I mention it you grow ominously quiet. I realize only an anal retentive, needy person who didn’t respect your personal space would ask why…but why?”
“Holly didn’t give me any specifics. I don’t say anything because there is nothing else to say.”
Ambrose laughed. “Just as there are sins of omission and commission there are spoken lies and silent lies. You are not telling me the whole story.”
“A woman without mystery is an unattractive thing.”
“Nice try.” Ambrose shook his head. “What’s bothering you? You’ve been unsettled since you spoke with this man.”
I could have lied, but I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong it’s not that Ambrose and I don’t lie to one another. Far from it, we lie to each other as all lovers must.
I told him because he needed to know. Holly wasn’t exactly what you would call a criminal. At least he had never been convicted of anything that I was aware of, but he should never have been mistaken for a good man either. If I was going to work for him I needed to keep my eyes open, and I didn’t think it would hurt if Ambrose kept his eyes opened too. “Holly nearly killed me.”
“Pardon?” Ambrose’s grip on my hand grew so tight it hurt.
“I don’t think it was anything personal.” That was a bald faced lie, but I didn’t want Ambrose so angry with Holly he tried to kill him on sight. “It was while we were both fighting.”
“He’s a fly weight?”
“Oh no, Holly is a super heavy weight.”
“Why were you fighting him?”
“It was an exhibition. Most fighters do those every now and again. You fight before a small, rich audience for a few bucks. Usually with the tacit agreement that you will make the fight look good without doing each other any real damage.
“There were a bunch of guys that thought it would be a nice contrast to see a light weight go at it with one of the big guys. Holly and I both needed money, so we did it. During the course of the fight he made me angry, I made him angry. The next thing you know we’re earnestly trying to take each other’s head off.
“I managed to hurt him. A couple of times I thought I might put him down, but he was just too big. He survived and hit me with a couple hooks that put me out on my feet. Then he got a little carried away playing catch up before I went down.”
“Why are we going to meet with this man?” Ambrose’s jaw set.
“His money spends too, sweetie.”
“Not good enough,” suddenly Ambrose was practically growing ice.
I could have lied again, but I decided not to. “I don’t know,” I finally said, “There was no dishonor in losing honey, but there’s plenty of dishonor in running scared. I can’t hide from him, not and live with myself.”
Ambrose didn’t say anything for the rest of the flight.
Damn. I knew Holly had done well but this was ridiculous.
He lived in the Neo London II mega colony on a side street near a park designed to look suspiciously like old Trafalgar in a brown stone I couldn’t have afforded back when I was at the height of my powers in the cage, and instead of one of those plastic and aluminum programmable servants that looked like a cross between a hat rack and a really ugly, skinny man he had one of those clanking rubber covered monsters that almost looked human.
Don’t get me wrong it’s not that I hated Holly for succeeding. I hated him for letting me know he had succeeded.
The butler or manservant or whatever the hell you call it led us into a sitting room filled with enough mahogany to bankrupt an asteroid mining out fit and bade us to sit.
We did. It offered drinks. I refused. I’m not quite so old yet, I’m thirty five, that I don’t watch my waist line. Ambrose did like wise, more I think, because he didn’t want a couple of belts to loosen his tongue when Holly showed up.
And Holly showed up pretty quickly. He was as big as I had remembered him with green eyes and red hair and a red beard, but the beard had streaks of grey in it now and a few extra pounds had stretched across his middle.
He wore a smoking jacket, of all things, and a pair of lounging pants and was puffing at a pipe filled with some of that harmless tobacco nonsense the gene farmers had been producing on the colony farms.
If I had liked him I would have attempted to be politic, but I pretty much detested Holly so I wasn’t. “Good God Holly if ever I met a walking caricature you’re it. In case you haven’t noticed there aren’t any natives to oppress out here. We’re fresh out of unexplored countries to colonize.”
“It’s a damned pity, too. A man earns himself wealth and power and finds he has no one to use it on. I was made for the eighteen eighties.” He reached over and took my hand. “Manami, love, you’re still smashing, as pretty as a picture.”
I took the compliment in stride and nodded towards Ambrose. “This is my significant other, Ambrose Reed.”
Holly greeted him and dropped into a plush chair and sipped at his brandy, “You two in the same business.”
“I’m a lecturer.”
“An educator, I’m impressed. What is your subject?”
“Really,” Holly grinned. “I have heard that some of the universities are trying to fund expeditions back to mother earth. You been on one?”
“Just a rumor. Even if Space Gov would agree we would never get past Earth security. We still do our research, but we do it the new fashioned way, with archives and spy satellites and informers.”
“I heard you guys tried to keep a few people on earth who could do your leg work for you. How do you pull it off?”
“They use old fashioned radios. When the waves bounce through the atmosphere we pick them up out here.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“For us? No, for the men on the planet doing the research, plenty, if they’re detected and apprehended they are beheaded.”
“History on earth is what one is told it is. Independent research is not allowed. Besides, admitting there are people in space colonies is an unpardonable sin. To the government of earth we do not exist. Or at least we didn’t. There’s some bizarre stuff going on down there now. No one has been able to put his finger on what it is, but most seem to think it’s dangerous.”
“Really?” Holly looked interested but changed the subject any way. “How much you pay these guys to get them to extend their necks like that?”
“The good ones…nothing.”
“Pardon?” Holly didn’t sound as though he believed that.
“Oh, there are plenty of entrepreneurs, and you can’t trust them. The scholars, though, they do it for free.”
“The only thing people have is their history. When you lie about it you’re committing genocide.”
Holly laughed at that. “No really...”
By this time I was feeling left out. “Holly if he’s got to explain it to you… you’ll never understand. Why don’t we turn the conversation to the subject I have always enjoyed best, me.”
Holly finished his drink in one gulp and his eyes widened, “Sort of a long story.”
“I’m being well paid.”
“Sort of dangerous too, whether you take the job or not I’ll expect everything I tell you to remain private.”
“I’m the soul of discretion, especially when I’m paid to be. Now out with it.”
“You ever hear of a guy named Bertram Westmont Suggs?”
I hadn’t but Ambrose had. “I’m not proud of it. He claimed to be an Archeologist. He appeared on Proto Boston a decade ago with a cache of artifacts he claimed to have found on Mars. He had attached himself to an offshoot of the space ark people.”
The mention of the space ark jolted my memory. “Aren’t those the folk that claim the human race was spawned on Mars.”
“One and the same,” Ambrose looked as though he would be ill, “and no amount of reason has been able to convince them otherwise, in their mind pyramids and crystals trump facts.”
“I never pictured them as dangerous.”
Ambrose shook his head, “Frustrating maybe…funny sometimes, but never dangerous.”
I turned to Holly. “So, what’s the deal?”
“After I got out of the cages and made a couple bucks I discovered a whole new class of people…educated rich people with discerning tastes. They were all willing to pay an arm and a leg for art and artifacts. It looked like it could be fairly easy way to make a buck so I fell into the business. I’ve been successful at it, too.”
I didn’t understand and said so.
“He is an artifact thief.” Ambrose understood just fine.
Holly grimaced as if he had a sudden case of indigestion. “Au contraire, other than the times I was payed to take a dive in the cage I have never stolen anything in my life.”
“Holly,” I wondered if I looked as flabbergasted as I felt. “You took a dive?”
“More than once,” Holly looked at me as if I were the silliest piece of fluff he had ever run across. “You didn’t?”
“No, I earned my hospital stays the hard way.”
Holly looked sad. “A lovely masochist with a good right cross…you should have stayed out of the cages and gone to Neo Kong instead. You’d have made more money.”
I let the subject drop. The things that went on in the seamy parts of Neo Kong could only be discussed in private and even then only with a detective and forensic psychologist, “back to your story, Holly.”
“Well I’ve made a little money procuring the occasional object de art that has floated out of old mother earth and into space.”
“Or been smuggled.”
“Smuggled, floated,” Holly shrugged, “as long as I didn’t have to move it and nobody tells me exactly where it came from I don’t much care. Long story short, last year I had a chance to lay my hands on something this Suggs guy had brought out of the Martian desert. He called it The Stone of the All Mighty or some such silly thing.
“Any way, time hadn’t been kind to Suggs. After a couple of clever investigators had discovered that all those abbreviations behind his name didn’t stand for anything other than the fact he had a first rate imagination he had landed on the streets in one of the mining colonies out near the asteroid belt. He sold his artifacts for whiskey and dope.
“Some miner had picked the thing up for next to nothing and offered it to me for even less. I took it off his hands, more as curio piece than anything else.”
Ambrose chuckled, “Don’t be modest the space ark societies will pay handsomely for Suggs memorabilia.”
“I heard something along those lines,” Holly grinned, “any way I let word slip through the usual channels that I had it. Then I waited to see if I would get a nibble.
“I did, and after couple weeks of counter offers and offers all of the applicants fell by the way side except for two. The more I corresponded with them the more apparent it became that they thought the sky, so to speak, was the limit. I decided I needed to bring them here.”
That I understood. “If you could get them both in one room you figured you could make a mint.”
“Yeah, but the best laid pans of mice and men, you know. I managed to get them together. In this very room, no less, and it turned out that one was none other than David Wilmot Timms.”
I looked like a Neanderthal trying to figure out quantum mechanics.
Ambrose came to my aid. “Mr. Timms is a former journalist and current novelist, a leader on the pyramids and crystals scene.”
“The space ark people?”
Ambrose nodded. I turned to Holly. “Who was the other one?”
“He called himself John Doe.”
I got a chuckle out of that.
“I thought it was funny too, at first,” Holly agreed, “I ain’t laughing any more...The bidding went fast and furious for a while, but finally Mr. Doe makes a bid that no one, not even Timms, was going to top.
“I lit myself a cigar and pronounced Doe the winner and began to decide just how big my next house should be and how full I should fill it with useless, ridiculously expensive things when Mr. Doe announced he would need a few days to acquire the balance of the funds with which he would pay me.”
“Funds? He wanted to pay in cash?”
“Nahh,” Holly shook his head. “He wanted to pay in gold and jewels.”
Cash was as rare as bankers with a conscience. Gold and precious rocks were unheard of, “Holly, who was this guy?”
Holly held up a massive paw. “By this time I’m thinking the same thing. I’m also thinking he’s trouble I don’t need. No matter how dirty an electronic transfer is you run it through enough banks and brokers it will come out smelling like a rose. Hell, there are even people about who can clean up money for you, but gold? Gold is impossible. Unless I was willing to melt all of it down into rings and bracelets and sell it on the street it was going to sit in my basement for a very long time. I said so and Doe raised the ante again. Suddenly gold was worth the trouble. I sell him the stone. Still it’s going to take him a few days to lay his hands on the gold, and I’m not going to take it until I have some one look at it and make certain it’s legit.”
“How did Doe take that?”
“Like you would expect, he was pissed, but I knew a banker who would set up an account off the books and hold a little money for me. I mortgaged my soul and deposited enough money in the account to cover half the value of the bid. Then I gave Mr. Doe a card for the account. In return he gave me the gold and let me test it. I, of course, held on to the Stone of the All Mighty.”
“You tested all of the loot?”
“I wasn’t going to let him pick the bits of it I tested. He didn’t like it much, but after a few days of hemming and hawing he went along with it.”
He took the card and I rented myself a transport and took control of payment. While I’m in the process of having the stuff tested some one breaks into my house and steals the damn statue.”
I concealed my smile. “What did you do?”
“Well, the first thing I did was take my money out of the account. If this deal was going south I wasn’t going to end up on the street. After that I contacted Mr. Doe. He isn’t one of my biggest fans any more.”
I knew Holly well enough to understand the source of the problem. “Just give him his payment back Holly. You have no right to keep it.”
Holly shook his head, “Not as simple as it sounds.”
“You’ve spent it?”
“After the boys at the lab said the metal was okay I started converting it to electronic funds, to do that I had to pay a few fees here and there. If I converted it back Mr. Doe would receive a stack of metal that is considerably lighter than the one he gave me.”
“Pay the difference out of the money you put up to secure the bid.”
Holly frowned at me. “You’re supposed to be working for me Mannie, not against me.”
“Just trying to be helpful.”
“Here’s how you can help. You can go get the guy that stole my stone and return it to me so I can give it to Doe.”
“That could take some time, Holly.”
“Not as much as you think. I know who stole it. It was Timms.”
“How do you know that?”
“The silly bastard beeped me and told me so, that’s why. He’s suddenly decided that Doe getting his hands on this pile of worthless crap will be a universal disaster. He said we had to keep the stone at all costs.”
I finally gave up trying to curb myself and laughed. “How did a journalist figure a way to steal from you?”
“Well,” I kept it here;” Holly looked embarrassed, “the thing was really worthless right? I didn’t figure any body in the universe other than nut cakes like Timms and Doe would want it, and I didn’t figure either of them would steal it. Timms broke in the house one night while I was out and about and took it off my desk.”
“How much pressure you getting from Doe?”
“That’s the interesting part. After I told Doe that Timms had filched the statue the shuttle Timms was taking back to New Boston exploded.”
I remembered that. I had heard about it, though I hadn’t known Holly had any connection to it. As you might suspect there had been no survivors.
“A couple of days later I let my nephew borrow my bug hummer so he could flit down to the lake. It exploded too, and now I’m getting threatening messages from parts unknown telling me to retrieve the stone and return it to John Doe.”
“Wasn’t it destroyed in the explosion?”
“That’s the strange part. I had a Marshall who owes me a favor make a call. Timms had booked passage on the flight to new Boston but he never showed to claim his seat. So far as I know he and my stone are still in New London.”
Ambrose, being a good and honorable soul, suggested something that was totally ludicrous. “You should go to the Marshals with this. Manami is not in law enforcement.”
“Oh yeah,” Holly chuckled without finding any thing funny. “I need to go to the marshals and tell them I have dealt in undeclared, untaxed artifacts and made a whole bunch of damn money which I have forgotten to pay taxes upon.
“On top of that I figure that a mass murder can be traced back to the transaction. Yeah I’m itching to do that.”
I thought for a moment. I knew Holly wasn’t telling me the truth, not so much because his story was implausible, but because I knew Holly.
Not only that, it was apparent that the person he had irritated was a major league bad dude who would probably be more than happy to kill me dead if I stuck my nose in his business.
Still I couldn’t say no. At that moment Holly was rich and scared and I was his only hope of survival. That made him the perfect client, “I don’t know, Holly, this Doe guy could be some sort of heavy hitter for some weird syndicate that really loves false idols. You didn’t tell me I would be fending off hired killers.”
“You’re holding me up for more money.” Holly looked genuinely hurt. “That was never your style. I called you because you could be trusted.”
Holly implying another human being might be untrustworthy moved me to laughter. “Holly, when we talked initially you said you had misplaced something. You didn’t say that rich lunatics were trying to kill you and anyone that knows you. If you had told me the truth I would have rolled over and gone back to sleep.
“As it is I’m here and I’m willing to do your bidding on two conditions.”
“One you double my fee and two if I find Timms I just get the stone back. I don’t hurt him.”
“Spoil sport,” Holly didn’t like the idea much, but he didn’t have a choice. After he had poured himself another drink and sucked it down he nodded. “Okay, Mannie, but the way you’re handling this makes me wonder if we’re friends.”
“No need to wonder, Holly. We aren’t. Now give me a description of Timms and your stone.”
You are pitifully easy to track. That might be something of a shock to all of you who believe that your home is your castle, but it’s the truth.
Financial records, credit statements, beeper addresses, com numbers, id numbers, package delivery addresses. They’re all dancing about in cyberspace and are easily accessed.
It’s like an old friend used to tell me, just before he was carted off to an asylum in the midst of a paranoid delusion. “Not only do they know where you are…their snipers can bring you down any time they choose.”
Until I had landed in this business I had thought he was crazy, silly me. As it turned out Timms was even easier to track than most of the rest of us.
He made his living writing books. Because he wrote books he had a publisher, and because he always wanted easy access to the people that kept him in silly looking sweaters, horn rimmed glasses and pipes his publisher always knew where he was.
That’s how I tracked him down. I didn’t call the publisher and ask him to tell me where he was. Instead, I had some one with respected and flawless academic credentials call them and explain that he had taken a fresh look at Timms’ work and had found some merit in it. Then I had him leave a number for Timms to contact him.
Needless to say, Ambrose was pissed, but I knew all I need do was suggest we take a tandem shower and all would be forgiven.
After Timms called back, you didn’t honestly suppose that his ego would have let him do anything else do you? Ambrose arranged a meeting.
We waited for him in a little coffee joint above one of those shops that sells ambient music and crystals and nonsense.
If I seem to be skeptical of the new Age stuff I am. The last time I was badly injured, some bull necked bastard I was fighting in the Neo Tokyo ruptured my spleen, medical science saved my life.
I don’t think that people chanting mantras, tossing flower petals and waving inert minerals over me would have helped at all.
Needless to say, I didn’t bother to look at the magazines. Instead I had a cup of cappa-something and watched the door.
Ambrose sat next to me twitching like a man in the last throes of delirium tremens.
“What is wrong with you?”
“You know, insects…flying critters…mosquitoes.”
“Ambrose, the environment is hermetically sealed. We don’t have those.”
“I see.” Ambrose waved a hand across his face as if swatting an invisible fly. “Tell that to the bugs.”
I took his coffee. “None of this for you, our nerves are stretched just a teensy bit thin.”
Before Ambrose could protest our boy strode through the door. I recognized him from the PDF file attached to his latest tome.
He was of average height and balding. He had salt and pepper hair that was just long enough and unkempt enough to give him a professorial appearance, and yes, he wore tweed.
I elbowed Ambrose in the ribs and he forgot about his imaginary insect and waved to him.
Timms waved back and strode over and dropped into a chair across from our sofa.
Then he laid the shopping bag he had been carrying next to him on the floor.
“You would be Mr. Reed.” He tried to look charming, but just looked clammy and sweaty and scared.
Ambrose shook his hand. “So I would. This is my girl friend, Manami Silverbear.”
Timms did not look pleased. “I assumed we would meet alone.”
“So sorry,” Ambrose smiled. “I was here for a conference. I brought Manami along. It’s a working vacation. It was purely luck that you happened to be on New London as well. I didn’t assume we could meet so quickly.”
That placated Timms. His shoulders relaxed. “Of course and charming company she is. What do you wish to discuss.”
Ambrose looked at me as if to say, “There is certainly nothing my professional reputation will allow me to discuss with this man.” I took it from there.
“Mr. Timms,” I leaned forward so that I wouldn’t be trapped in the couch should Timms decided to rabbit. “I’m afraid I have more of an interest in this matter than Ambrose does.”
“I don’t understand...”
“You have recently come into possession of a thing called The Stone of the All Mighty…”
Timms leapt out of his chair before I could finish and grabbed for his sack and turned to sprint for the door.
If I had been a woman of weak ego I would have dug through my purse and found a compact and studied my face for blemishes or, even worse, a zit. Instead, I tripped him.
Timms’ foot caught on my ankle and he took a staggering step and stumbled into his chair. Then he cart wheeled over that and took a header directly into an oak coffee table on its other side.
The coffee table shattered into three different pieces and Timms didn’t fare much better. He tore his coat and broke his glasses and ripped his pants.
Having been tossed on my head a few times I cringed, “You okay?”
Timms tried to push himself to his hands and knees but he couldn’t. Seconds later he passed out and dropped back to the floor face down.
Ambrose grinned. “There are thousands upon thousands of academics who would have paid good money to see that.”
I looked in Timms’ bag and made sure that the stone, or something matching its description was inside. It was, but before I could conjure a witticism the waitress rushed over with that “Oh god please don’t sue us,” look plastered all over her face.
“Is he okay? What happened? Should we call the medicos?”
Ambrose looked at me and said nothing. The ball was in my court. “No, no he’s just had too much to drink. That’s why we met him in a coffee house.”
The waitresses shrugged. “Is he an artist? I’ve heard artists have trouble with the bottle.”
Ambrose chuckled. “How ironic, so does he.”
I elbowed Ambrose in his ribs and nodded towards Timms. “Listen,” I pulled a currency card out of my bag and stuffed it in the girl’s hand. “I need to ask you a really big favor. This should cover the damages. We need to figure a way to get him home before his wife freaks. Can you help us?”
The girl nodded. “I understand. My brother had an obsessive compulsive personality, too. We couldn’t keep him off dope. It finally killed him. I hope your friend finds the right kind of help.”
“Thank you.” I tried to look as though I cared. “Could you arrange transportation?”
“I’ll call a bug hummer.” She turned to stride away but Ambrose couldn’t let well enough alone. “I’m sorry miss. How did your brother make his living?”
“Sanitation engineer, he cleaned the warehouses down at the hub.”
Ambrose watched the girl walk away. Then he turned to me and said through mock tears, “And he’s dead, but Timms still lives. My God, why is life so damnably unfair?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah pick him up. We’re out of here.”
Ambrose looked as if I had asked him to drink acid. “I’m not the fine tuned athlete.”
“You’ve never had your back broken, either.”
Ambrose catalogued all my myriad injuries and finally frowned. “Neither have you.”
“This conversation isn’t about me, sweetie.”
Ambrose picked up Timms and we struggled down stairs and out side and waited for the bug hummer.
It arrived after I had gone thorough Timms jacket and found his hotel card.
I spread a thick coat of lipstick over the hummer’s inside camera lens before we got in and insisted that Ambrose pay it with coins rather than a money card. Then I punched in the name of Timms’ hotel.
Twenty minutes later Timms had revived enough to begin babbling nonsense. Ambrose dragged him into his hotel room and tossed him upon the bed and bent double at the waist and sucked air into his lungs.
“Who knew the poorly educated could be so heavy.”
I thanked fate or luck or whatever random force that had ensured Timms stayed in a hotel where the security cameras were conveniently turned off and the management paid you no mind so long as you paid your bill.
Ambrose, after he got his breath back frowned at me. “Why have you become so secretive?”
“Whoever Holly is playing with is dangerous and pissed. Before this is over either Holly or Timms or maybe even both of them are likely to be killed. I had just as soon nothing connected us to them.”
“How reassuring,” Ambrose didn’t look reassured.
I opened the shopping bag and pulled the Stone out of it.
It was a dusty, flat brown rock with a few arcane symbols carved in it. In other words it was nothing special, and I said so.
Ambrose laughed. “A number of the most important archeological finds in the history of mankind have looked unremarkable to the naked eye.”
He took the stone from me, “This, though, is exactly what it appears to be. A piece of rock someone has marked with a sonic drill. The fact some one was willing to kill to possess it convinces me that we are a doomed species, and that the universe is fortunate for it.”
Before I could reply Timms eyes opened. When they finally cleared I held up The Stone of the All Mighty, “Mr. Timms,” I desperately tried to keep a straight face. “Holly wants this back, god help him.”
Timms’ eyes grew to the size of saucers and he grabbed at the stone and wrenched it from me. Then he rolled to one side and came to his feet unsteadily and staggered towards the door.
“He can’t have it. No one can have it. It’s mine.”
“Mr. Timms,” I pushed myself off the bed and stepped towards him. “You stole it.”
“I don’t care.” Timms spat at me. “I need to get out of here.”
Timms yanked the door open, and ran face to chest into Holly Silk. Who sent him reeling tea cups over elbows back inside the room and to the floor with a straight left. He held a buzz popper in his right hand.
Buzz poppers are nasty little things that look like an ink pen with a swelled head.
The head was an electric motor that superheated a pair of rails inside the barrel. The rails slung a nasty little explosive towards its target.
Once inside the victim’s body the explosive does what explosives do. Not violently enough to spray goo all over the place but more than forcefully enough to rip up a ton of blood vessels.
They were silent, very deadly and completely illegal.
They didn’t have much penetrating power, though, so if you wore body armor you were fairly safe. Neither Ambrose nor I wore body armor.
Holly pushed the door closed behind him, “Fancy meeting you here.”
I sighed. “I’m sorry Ambrose. It was a bug.”
Holly nodded ferociously. “So it was. The latest in micro technology. I sicked it on you when you came to my house. What do you know? It worked. I followed you just fine.”
Timms rolled onto his hands and knees. “For god sakes, you don’t know what you’re doing. Those people are barbarians.”
Holly kicked him so hard I feared he had done him permanent damage. Then he reached down and grabbed the Stone. “Aren’t we all at heart?”
“I told you we weren’t going to hurt him.”
Holly kicked him again. “So sue me.”
“Holly,” I felt my temper beginning to fray. “I’m not the type that likes being double crossed. You can take that thing, whatever the hell it is, and give it to Doe, but stop kicking Timms. I’m not going to be a part of a murder.”
“Sure you are, Mannie, you’re going to be one of the victims.”
While I was digesting that Ambrose cleared his throat, “Care to explain why.”
Holly laughed. “I’d love to. What’s the point of inventing a brilliant plan if you’re not going to share it with any one? As it turns out, though, I don’t have the time. Trust me, though, if I explained you would be impressed.”
Timms rolled onto his back. “They are everything that is loathsome in the human condition…”
Holly kicked him again. “You are a paragon of virtue you are.”
“They’re worse.” Timms words were slurred. He was passing out.
Holly kicked him again and I took a stride and launched myself at him like a missile.
He tried to step out of my path but he had tangled his feet up when he kicked Timms.
I hit him dead on, and drove my elbow into his nose so that the back of his head bounced off the door.
Another man would have gone down but Holly was as strong as an oak.
Still, I had disconcerted him a little and that gave me enough time to grab at the buzz popper.
I gripped at his wrist and turned it in a direction it was not intended to go and Holly growled like a bear.
Still he was strong enough to hold onto the popper so I used my other hand to swipe it out of his grip and send it rolling past Timms and under the bed.
That was as much time as I had though, Holly tossed the stone aside and rocked me with a left that ripped his hand out of my hold.
I retaliated with a couple of hard rights to his kidneys and tired to upper cut him but he leaned into me so that my fist bounced of his chest rather than his chin.
Then he returned the favor driving a pair of massive punches into my kidneys that nearly staggered me to my knees.
I managed to right myself and drive the crown of my head into his chin.
There was a sharp crack when bone met bone and Holly staggered into the door again, but I collapsed against him like a house of cards.
Before I could fall flat of my face Holly steadied me with one hand, and shook the cobwebs out of his skull.
I tried to drive another punch into him but the world still spun about me like a top on Quaaludes. I could barely raise my hands.
Holly drove a another punch beneath my guard and into my stomach that knocked the air from me. He followed that with another to the same spot and I felt my ribs give way.
Then before I could curl up he tagged me with a hook that nearly tore my head off and left me lying on the floor near Timms.
Wondering why I was still conscious I tried to roll to my feet but Holly kicked the air our of me again and left me lying flat of my back.
He was gong to crush my face with the bottom of his penny loafer when Ambrose Reed emerged from beneath the bed with the fuzz popper.
“Don’t move,” he said through clenched teeth.
While I congealed Holly wiped a trickle of perspiration from his fore head. “Sonny, you don’t have the …”
Ambrose triggered the fuzz popper and killed him dead before he could finish the sentence. Then he scooped me in his arms and laid me on the bed.
I sat up almost immediately, old habits die hard, “I’ll get him in the second round, chief.”
Ambrose didn’t laugh, “Lay back down, love.”
When I finally realized how close I had come to getting Ambrose killed I got emotional. Then I kissed him, “Sorry, honey.”
“Nothing to be sorry about, I just want to make certain you’re okay.”
I rolled off the bed and staggered over to Timms. “If you think this is bad… I should tell you about the time…”
Ambrose shook his head. “I don’t want to hear about it.”
I couldn’t argue. I don’t want to talk about it.
I knelt over Timms and he groaned again before his eyes fluttered open, “Where’s...
“Over there,” I replied, “but he’s not going to be getting up.”
“And the Stone?”
I pulled it from the spot where Holly had dropped it, and Timms grabbed it with both hands and pulled it to his chest. After he had hugged it for a moment he narrowed his eyes, “I can’t stay here…”
“Can and will,” I hauled Timms off the floor and let him fall back to the bed, “at least until the Marshall’s arrive.”
Timms tired to get up but Holly had kicked most of the fight out of him. “No, he shook his head, “not the Marshals.”
I dropped onto the bed next to Timms. Ambrose played with his palm com. “Maybe you should tell me what the hell you and Holly were up to.”
“Holly and I?” Timms tried to sound as though he hadn’t expected that.
“Mr. Timms, I’m not even a little bit blonde.” I decided I would explain. “Holly’s story was thin from the beginning and now that I’ve met you its damned transparent.”
“It is?” Ambrose had forgotten all about the com and was staring at me intently. So was Timms. That was good. I have always been an applause junkie.
“All the people mining the asteroid belt are engineers. They’re scientists. They wouldn’t buy that thing.” I nodded towards the stone, “Even on a lark, and even if that part of the story was true the most you would ever get for it is a few grand and that would be from some cockeyed collector. There’s no way anybody would be willing to drop the sort of money Holly was talking about unless they were conned, and unless I miss my guess you don’t have that kind of money either, which means you were bidding to drive up the price.”
“I was acting as an agent for a wealthy benefactor.”
I could tell by the way Timms said it that he didn’t believe it either.
I shook my head. “Any one with that kind of wherewithal wouldn’t have hired you to steal it. Not only that, he would have a battalion of security guards looking after it now.
“No, this is a con. I just don’t know who you have conned. How you conned them or why they haven’t gone to the fuzz.”
Timms put the statue down and cradled his head in his hands. “My degrees are quite legitimate you know. I studied at very fine universities. I am a man of reason.”
Ambrose forgot about the com and dropped onto the bed next to me. “Do tell.”
“My books have not been selling well. The space ark thing has played itself out. There are a couple of new theories floating around. They maintain that we weren’t raised out of ignorance by some space faring empire, but that, instead, we are descendants of a space traveling Empire that was marooned in this solar system and gradually forgot its history and technology. Nobody wants to be a well trained chimp from the planet next door any more. Everyone wants to be a forgotten member of a galaxy spanning civilization as old as the universe itself.”
Ambrose chuckled. “It gives delusions of grandeur a whole new meaning.”
Timms paid him no mind. “My work hasn’t been selling. My publisher has been unhappy, and my life style has become extravagant. Mr. Silk contacted me with an idea. If I could lay my hands on one of those discredited artifacts from Mars he believed he could produce a market for it. I was dubious but he assured me the price would be right. I dug up the Stone.”
“Not on Mars I’d wager.”
“In my basement,” Timms replied. “We made a few photographs and placed them on a site.”
“A site constructed for stupid people?”
Timms sighed. “For earthlings, its government hasn’t been able to stamp out all contact between earth and space. There is some radio contact and a few of the more ingenious people down there have managed to access our webs.”
Ambrose looked like that surprised him some but Timms shrugged. “It’s not hard. All you need is a little electricity, a mediocre computer and a tiny dish.”
I decided to jump to the end of the story. “You silly bastards conned Earth Gov.”
“It was more complex than that.” Timms didn’t disagree. “Silk put together a site where we could post images of the Stone. Then he quoted from this holy book and that. Then he had me concoct a story. It was rather simple to change the space ark story from secular to sacred. Mankind originally flourished on Mars, but Satan infected it and destroyed paradise. All the true believers fled to earth on the great ark and landed there. The current government on earth is, of course, a remnant of the of the great and godly civilization that had ruled Mars before the godless grew strong.
“When I put together the original manuscript I assumed we would create some interest on earth, but things leapt out of our control.
“The Stone of the All Mighty became a sensation, it spread from the relatively small clan of people that have access to PCs into the main stream. Finally, a government paper ran a story hoping to discredit it and the bloody article had the opposite effect.
“Suddenly, every person on the street knew the fantastic thing from Mars existed and more than half of them believed it was genuine. That created quite a problem for earth Gov.
“It has maintained…”
“That there is no life in space at all. Earth is god’s greatest creation,” Ambrose interrupted. “That explains why things have been so bizarre down there lately. They’re having a crisis.”
Timms nodded. “To cure it the Priests got together and adopted my story as gospel and added one proviso. When the infidels had arisen on earth once more God drove them into space where they live in utter darkness and destitution.
“The masses demanded The Stone of the All Mighty be returned to earth and Earth Guv was willing to pay an enormous sum of money to do just that.”
“Why the bait and switch?”
“It was unintentional. I pretended to represent some consortium of rich people here in space who was interested in the Stone and bid up the price. The Earth Guv Representative out bid me, but they couldn’t pay in cash. Earth money is quite useless here. So they had to pay in gems and precious metals. Mr. Silk did not trust them. He insisted experts of his choosing look at the materials presented in payment before he accepted them.”
I looked at Ambrose quizzically. He nodded, “In a twisted way that makes sense. Compared to some of the folks on earth Timms is a piker. They’ve been selling us bogus relics and tablets for years. We check them pretty closely before we pay them, now. I wouldn’t have taken anything from them without checking it first.”
“But this was coming from Earth Gov.” I wasn’t convinced.
Ambrose shrugged. “Most of the people that sell bogus artifacts are members of Earth Guv. They’re the only people rich enough to hire artisans to make the things look authentic. A thieving, murdering monster is a thieving, murdering monster even when he has a government title before his name.”
Timms returned to his story. “The earthlings didn’t want to turn their payment over to Mr. Silk for testing and Mr. Silk wasn’t willing to test portions of it they had selected. So he arranged an exchange. He took out a rather massive loan using part of the payment as collateral and stashed the money in an account and gave the earthlings access to the money.
“By a prior arrangement with the president of the bank Silk ensured that the he would be able to withdraw the money if necessary and that, while the earth representatives might be able to check the account to ensure it was still present, they would never actually be able to with draw it.”
“In the mean time,” I was running ahead of Timms. “You got cold feet.”
“Attack of conscience,” Timms smiled. “I admit it’s rather odd, to care about the flock you are fleecing, but you must remember most of the deceptions I had practiced up to now had been completely harmless. This one was different.”
“When word spread about the earth that they had once lived on another planet and that there were, even now, people living in space it gave all those who had questioned the silly nonsense their government spewed at them new credibility. Suddenly everyone down there wondered if the earth was indeed the center of the universe. If they were god’s only chosen people, if their priests were lying to them every day…not only about the big important things but about the little things as well. For a moment they had hope.
“By selling them this statue and letting Earth Gov tell them they had lived on Mars until Satan ruined it we were pushing them back into the darkness…into the unquestioning stupid blind allegiance to violence and despair and hatred and barbarism. I couldn’t stand that. So I kept it.”
“You kept it?” I hadn’t expected that.
“Yes, the Stone was never actually in Mr. Silk’s possession. I kept it in my basement until I came here. Then I kept it at my hotel room. Mr. Silk didn’t want it at his house for fear Earth Guv would decide to save the expense of purchasing it and steal it.
“When it came time to make the exchange with Silk I reneged and moved into this hotel so that I would be harder to find. I skipped my flight home in case they were watching the space ports. It was a good decision.
“I realize all of this is terribly inconvenient, but I can’t lie to the people of earth… I can’t.”
Ambrose looked as though he had swallowed a bug. “The first story you gave them was a lie.”
“Yes,” Timms nodded seriously, “but that lie was actually sort of liberating if you think about it.”
I wrapped an arm about my injured ribs and pushed myself off the bed. “Ambrose, I really don’t feel like man handling him.”
Ambrose is an academic, but he keeps himself in good shape and isn’t helpless with his fists, either. He wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in the cage, but he does all right on the street, which put him miles ahead of Timms. “Say no more,” he grinned.
Then he grabbed at Timms’ lapels and yanked him off the bed. “I don’t mean to seem dense, but now what?”
“Now we go to the nearest Marshal’s station, and hand this entire mess to them.”
Timms stopped looking sincere and looked horrified. “Don’t you see? I did a good thing. I did two good things.”
“Two wrongs may not make a right, but sometimes two rights can make a wrong.” I stepped to the door and pulled it open.
Ambrose dragged Timms into the hall. “Not to be difficult, but I can’t help wondering why we don’t just call the Marshals.”
“Because, the people that Timms and Holly screwed are not idiots, you can bet your last coin to a corporate stipend that one of them was following Holly. The longer we stay here the more likely we are to receive a visit.”
By the time I had closed the door behind us a handful of men wearing dark suits had stepped out of the elevator at the other end of the hall.
One of them pointed towards Timms and they all began to stalk towards us like monsters out of a bad dream.
We turned and began to steam in the opposite direction, but before we could break into a run another band of sinister looking hombres turned the corner ahead and hurried towards us. A couple of them reached inside their coats.
Not knowing what else to do I wheeled us all about and dashed back for the room.
We hit the door just before the guys that had stepped out of the elevator did and I kicked one of them onto his butt and dropped another with a short left before I pulled the door closed and locked it.
Then all three of us dove behind the bed and used it for cover. Ambrose tossed me the fuzz popper and began to fiddle with his palm com again.
“Honey,” I hoped fear hadn’t made my voice so shrill that only dogs could hear it. “I have no idea how to use one of these.”
“Neither do I,” Ambrose spat back and began to scream at the Marshall’s office automated answering system.
“You killed Holly.”
Before I could cheerfully surmise that the three of us were soon to be rapidly cooling meat one of the men that chased us kicked in the door.
I aimed the fuzz popper at his chest and my thumb trembled on its trigger. “I’m sure none of us want to die.”
The first man through the door stopped in his tracks and turned to his buddies. Then all of them had a chuckle at my expense.
Finally, one of them stepped forward and told Ambrose to deep six the com. Ambrose looked at me and I nodded. If they had been intent on killing us we would all be dead. Sure I would have taken one of them with us, but that didn’t seem an even trade.
After Ambrose had broken the connection the spokesman nodded at him. “Please pull the com out of your palm and crush it. I don’t want the Marshals tracing your signal here while we are negotiating.”
Ambrose looked at me and I shrugged. “Do it. If a gun battle breaks out we won’t survive it.”
Ambrose shattered the com under his heel and the spokesman grinned at us. “You were quite mistaken. We are all happy to die for our God. He sat on the edge of the bed only an arm’s length from me. Do you have the Stone?”
I pulled it out of its sack and all of the spokesman’s men muttered a mantra I could not understand. He looked as if he approved.
Then one of them kicked Holly over. The spokesman frowned. “If I may ask, why is Mr. Silk dead? Who are you and where is our gold?”
I gave him the story in a thumb nail, but I left out the part about Timms’ being Holly’s accomplice. I didn’t see any reason to get the little bastard killed.
After that I admitted I had no clue where the gold was, but no one had hired me to find that.
One of his man spat something at him when I was finished. The spokesman shrugged. “My man thinks you are lying.”
“I don’t care. Give me the Stone and you will live.”
That wasn’t the kind of choice I needed to agonize over. I gave him the Stone.
He took it from me and thanked me and nodded at the man who had called me liar. He pulled his own fuzz popper out of his jacket and killed Timms without blinking.
I pointed my Fuzz Popper directly at the spokesman’s head and he smiled at me. “You are in no danger. Only Silk and Timms must die.”
“Silk because he claimed this worthless piece of stone is a holy and sacred artifact...Timms because he stole one of the most holy of holies.”
I didn’t even pretend I understood and said so.
The spokesman looked at me as if I were a small and slow to understand child. “When Silk created The Stone of the All Mighty it was his lie. By the time Timms stole The Stone of the All Mighty it had become our lie. Now that it is our lie we shall protect it, defend it and cherish it. If you are silent you will live to a ripe old age. If you speak of this we will return.”
Without another word the spokesman led his men into the hall and to the elevator.
We went back to our hotel, and after Ambrose called Timms’ publisher back and told them Timms had never returned his message, we packed up and went home.
© 2003 by C. J. Burch. CJ Burch has been writing speculative fiction for about three years, now. He has been published on the web (Aphelion, Abby the Wandering Troll, The House of Pain, The Third Degree, The Sword's Edge, The Murder Hole, and Chaos Butterfly.) Next year his first novel will be published by Fortitude Press, and at the end of the year Publish America will publish his second novel.