Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Installment Three: Opening Gambit


Wicked Game
Fiction by John Seanchai Grose


Installment Three: Opening Gambit

Lily refused to spend the night in her brother's house, a decision Felicia did not argue with, but insisted they waited for him there during the daylight hours. The solo did not know exactly when Byron would be back, but she wanted to be there when he did return, if possible.
There was a knot inside her waiting to be released, a place of tension that rolled around her stomach or sometimes her hands. She would have to confront him with what she knew. With what she had experienced. Lily spent hours guessing at his reaction. Angry and hostile. Or immediately penitent. Ashamed.
Felicia watched the holovid or read. She was efficiently patient, sitting with a book on her lap, cleaning the lunch dishes, or reviewing files in her internal memory. Lily was too busy to engage her in anything but the most rudimentary of conversations.
At dusk on the fourth day after Lily had found the Oracle, Byron came home. He opened the door on the solo and Felicia as they were leaving, bags of books, tapes, and music disks in their hands. Lily dropped her duffle.
"Hey there!" said Byron. "What's up?"
Lily's breath was strangled in her chest. "I have to talk to you."
"Okay. What's wrong?"
"I found the Oracle."
He frowned. "What oracle?"
"The one in your computer. The one that uses a human..." Her throat closed over the word.
Byron was still, considering, sorting through replies. Then he looked over at Felicia. The girl shrank against the wall and Lily stepped quickly between them. She cut his gaze like a fire. "Did she tell you about it?" Byron asked.

"Leave her out of this. Let's talk about you instead."
"So she did break into my files and then helped you break in too."
"Byron, you're sick." The anger the solo wanted in her tone did not come through. Instead, the statement was a strangled cry.
The dwarf had a black nylon back slung over his shoulder. He slid it off. "Get out."
"You need help. I really think you need help, Byron."
"Get the hell out of my house." Byron rummaged through his back as Lily moved to put a hand on his shoulder. He drew back, a gun in his hand. His stunted thumb moved the safety to the off position. "Get the hell out of here!" he roared, motioning toward the door with the muzzle of the gun.
"My god," whispered Lily. "Put that away. Now."
"I will kill you if you don't leave immediate," said Byron, his voice black and low.
The solo held out a hand, palm first, as a kind of shield. "Calm down. Calm down." As she felt behind her for Felicia and dragged her towards the half-open door, she began to cry again. Byron was capable of shooting her. Her heart contracted around the fact like it was a serrated blade.
"We're leaving now. Don't shoot." When Felicia was safely out of the line of fire, she moved back into the foyer on the balls of her feet to retrieve their bags. They were unimportant as possessions but would serve as a test. He could shoot, but would he?
Lily saw Byron's finger tighten, tense, on the trigger.
She snatched up both bags as quickly as she dared and once again backed out of her brother's house. She set the duffle and backpack next to Felicia and watched Byron. Her arms trembled. With awkwardness caused by his twisted limbs, he reached out and slowly closed the door on her.

***
Byron blindly rode a wave of anger. It curled and writhed within him. His carefully built facade, his delicate relationship with his sister, lay in ruins, and he disliked feeling so naked. He disliked being discovered. The enormity of it.
The dwarf stalked to his couch, lay down in front of the computer, and jacked himself into his fantasy world, a furious addict. The world darkened. Byron opened the door without pause and moved through the chess room, not noticing or noting the placement of the pawns. He passed into the portion of the virtual environment that was model after his real world home.
He felt better, walking quickly. He was perfect again, perfectly formed in here.
Amanda intercepted him as he strode through the kitchen. She attempted to tangle him in a random storyline he'd written the elements of, and Byron struck her down. The fantasy woman's face swelled as she lay against a wall, her fingers tracing the edges of the blow's impact, eyes full of tears. "Stay away," Byron growled as he moved on.
Outside, it was thundering.
Byron navigated the basement stairs with ease and found the light still on. His stubby fingers, hidden behind the false world, typed commands into his deck. "Oracle," he said, typing, and the Oracle sluggishly materialized.
"Oracle," Byron said.
It lifted its head. Its eyes were hollow.
"Begin a search for a man named Jerome Black. Report your progress in real time."
"Yes..." The Oracle's face blanked and then, "I have initiated a connection to the Net. Processing. Search engines are being created. Search engines are being released into the Net. Processing. Processing. Processing. A reference to Jerome Black has been found."
"Report," barked the dwarf.
"Reference to Jerome Black found in a document located in San Diego Justice file server. File contains court transcripts, indicating Jerome Bla -"
"Does it contain his telephone number?"
"No."
"Find Jerome Black's telephone number."
The Oracle nodded weakly. "Search engines being modified. Processing. Reference to Jerome Black's telephone number found in the Tasty Jack's Pizza customer database."
Byron grinned and plucked the number from the Oracle's computer memory. He shut the Oracle down and it dissolved. Then, with a dance of fingers over his keyboard, he opened up a connection to Black's phone.
It rang. A window blossomed in the air of the basement as he answered.
Jerome Black was in bed, his dark hair bedraggled, a nude blonde woman hidden in a tangle of cheap blankets beside him. He frowned into his telephone's camera. "Who is this?"
"Hello, Jerome. This is Byron."
"Like the poet?" The man laughed and reached for a bottle of whiskey that was on the nightstand.
"You remember me. We've worked together before. Two years ago."
"I do? We did?"
"Yes," assured Byron. "Listen, I have a job for you. There's someone I want you to kill."
After the details were hammered out and payment arranged, Black hung up and the floating window winked out. Byron recalled the Oracle and said, "Begin a search for all reference to Lilith Jacobson..."

***
Lily's hands, which had incapacitated and killed men, gripped the steering wheel of her Mitsuzuki Bushi in effort to keep herself from crying while driving. She thought of the gun, and her white knuckled grip was rendered useless. Things were falling apart. The part of her life that had always been stable, solid, was disintegrating.
The traffic on the way to her apartment was full of aborted opportunities for lane changes and turn offs. The other drivers clashed over space, jostled each other. They were ignorant of the solo's distress. She gunned the engine and forced her car into another lane like a red wedge. Horns cried out.
Lily's apartment building had a secure parking lot. She paused at a gate while an automated computer sensed her car, queried it, and the car responded. The gate swung open on motorized hinges and Lily parked her Bushi with unnecessary speed. She distractedly helped Felicia with her bags. Her hands were shaking as took the girl's duffle.
Lily thought about the gun and her's brothers small hand pointing it on the slow, secure elevator.
After Felicia had fallen asleep on the futon in the spare bedroom, Lily prepared to cry. She curled around a pillow on her bed, the holovid tuned to a station that played only old black and white romances, and willed herself to let go.
But she felt empty inside, like a fire-charred building's shell. There were no tears.
With thoughts about Felicia turning slowly in the back of her mind and the holovid's light dancing across the walls of the room, it's noise level only suggestive, Lily let go of the images of the gun pointed at her and her brother angry, and without meaning to, succumb to sleep.
A shrill noise woke her.
Lily stumbled out of a sea of grey dreams and sat up. She let go of the pillow she was clutching, confused by the noise. A red light was blinking on a panel set by the door and a speak on it was emitting a high pitched whine.
Lily vaulted out of bed to check it. There was a fire in the building.

***
Practice allowed Lily to suppress a surge of panic and disable her apartment's alarm. As the shrill noise died, she began to notice smoke creeping in on the edges of her vision, a precursive ghost of the fire.
The solo felt the door. It was cool, and she opened it.
The living room beyond was a sea of haze and unlit furniture. A heavy black smoke clung to the ceiling and walls, staining the white paint with a greasy soot. Lily ran to the other bedroom, her hand over her mouth.
Felicia was asleep on the futon. She was below the line of smoke that was pressing itself under the room's door. Lily woke her roughly. "Come on," said the solo. "We have to go. We have to get out of her."
Felicia did not protest. As Lily gathered her up, she lay limply in her guardian's arms, her eyes wide, expression pale. Lily grabbed two of the girl's blouses, handing one to Felicia and pressing one over her mouth.
"Okay. Let's go."
The front door was warmer than the previous two, but not hot enough to indicate a fire on the other side of it. The hallway was filled with smoke, giving the solo's jog down it an eerie, supernatural, or dreamy feel. Felicia breathed deeply through her flowered shirt.
Lily paused near the elevator. Riding them was something you were supposed to avoid during a fire, she knew, and a brief image of her charred body being found curled around Felicia's instantly dispelled any notion of chancing a ride down.
The apartment building had been built only a few years before and had no fire escapes. They could not climb down the building's outside, in the cool, smoke-free air, while fire gutted the inside. There were no emergency slides that could be thrown off the roof and Lily did not think she could fit into the garbage chute.
That meant the stairs were the only path to safety. Lily moved past the elevator and opened a heavy door that led to her floor's landing. The bowels of the stairs were smoke-filled, full of a dim and flickering orange light, but Lily started down the steps anyway.
She passed the nineteenth floor. The eighteenth.
Near the sixteenth floor, she adjusted her grip on Felicia. A woman had run up past them moments before, screaming in broken street Spanish. Lily had tried to get her to turn around, but the woman wouldn't listen. "The roof," she kept saying in her native tongue, "the roof!"
The twelfth floor. Lily could hear near drown voices below her. The other tenants were braving the fire that seemed to wait below. The smoke was too thick now for the impromptu masks to keep out and the air was rolling with heat.
Eleventh floor.
Tenth floor. Lily counted them off as they went by.
On the eighth floor landing, the wall by the solo's head exploded in half-hearted explosion of white building materials. A smoke-slowed part of Lily's brain clicked and she realized she was being shot at, the gun's bark being hidden with a silencer. She dove forward -
- fell down the next flight of shallow stairs -
and twisted so that Felicia was spared the brunt of an impact with a wall. Lily's back slammed into a soot-smeared faux plaster wall and her breath exploded out of her with a puff of smoke. Her vision swam.
A man appeared in front of her, dressed in tight black clothing. He had a cybereye that gleamed with a ruby laser's light. He smiled and drew a bead with a black gun. Lily dropped Felicia.
The man fired.
Lily drove her head into his stomach. The assassin tried to twist away, but Lily clutched at his sides and held him in place. He doubled over and the solo withdrew. She panted for half a second, then snapped a kick at the man's head.
He slipped backwards, the gun coming up.
Lily spun away before the next bullet could find her and was back in front of the man before he could fire again. Her forearm contacted his chin. She drove her knee into his abdomen and swept his feet out from under him. He fell against a wall.
"Who are you?" Lily asked as she used the heel of her hand to drive the assassin's head back into the wall behind him. His cybereye left ruddy light trails in the thick smoke. The man did not answer. Lily hit him again. He brought the gun to bear, only to have the solo knock it out of his grip. It went off where it fell.
Weaponless, the assassin fought back. He feigned exhaustion and when Lily closed for another blow, he pivoted on his hip and sent a solid kick into her midsection. Smoke driving away the stairway's oxygen, Lily immediate lost her breath for a second time. Before she could work through it, the man darted past her.
She thrust out a leg, tripping him. The man hit the stair's railing -
- then fell over it.
Lily sucked in air through a blouse before she looked over the side of the railing. The man was sprawled on the steps below, his posture somehow off, subtlely unnatural. His arms and legs were bent at odd angles. He did not move.
The solo bent over Felicia, who had crawled into a corner, touching her hair, the skin at her hairline, before picking her up. The child's face was smeared with soot and half hidden under a blackened daisy blouse.
Lily carried her to the ground floor, where Fire-Rescue had cleared a path through the fire. Men in shinny yellow coats were spraying water over the buildings walls as they walked out to where the other tenants huddled.
Handing Felicia to a neighbor, Lily spoke with the fire chief about the man in the stairwell.

***
Although the apartments above the eleventh floor were all cleared for occupancy, the day after the fire Lily gathered her important possessions - an array of clothing, gadgetry, and forged identification papers - and checked herself and her ward into a hotel. She fished a random ID out of her bag and registered under a false name.
After all, someone was trying to kill her. Or Felicia, she mentally added as she rode the elevator up to her modestly expensive suite of rooms. The fire had been set to draw them out of her secure apartment and into the stairwell, where the would be assassin lay in wait. It was a good plan, the solo decided, and would have worked if the killer had been competent.
Lily opened the door to her room with gun in hand. Felicia waited in the hall while she searched the main room, then the two adjoining bedrooms. Lily signaled for the girl to come inside and Felicia sat on the suite's gigantic couch while the solo rummaged through her bags for assorted pieces of technology.
Lily attached tremblers, tiny vibrating machines that stuck to glass via suction, on each of the suite's windows and then set up a more bulky white noise generator near the door. On the door itself, she rigged a sensor that sound an alarm if the door moved more than a centimeter, then sealed the jam with a quick set chemical epoxy. Lily used a electromagnetic pulse generator to deactivate the lock. She set her cellular phone, and its accessories, on an end table. Then she used a second sensor to sweep the rooms for listening devices.
When she was done, she had a bottle of mineral water from the wet bar. Felicia had juice.
A few hours later, they curled together on the couch, gun and canister of sedative within easy reach on the floor, and watched the holovid. Felicia sat through Gone with the Wind, Part III and Return of Nanostein before she fell asleep.
Lily switched over to the classics channel, but it not watch the movie it was airing. Someone had tried to kill her. Whoever was behind the attempt had not hired a professional and, Lily decided, this could mean a number of things. Said person was either too poor to afford the best, didn't know he - or she, Lily added hastily - had not paid for a competent assassin, or the person who wanted her dead had simply been in a hurry and contracted what was readily available. Lily sighed.
Was it Byron? Lily took a sip from her water while the question hung in the air. Yes, she admitted, Byron would kill her. Her brother was dead, a twisted version masquerading in his place. If it was Byron, then the incompetent gunman made sense. He'd only had a few hours to find someone.
And that person had botched the job. Lily thought about the fire, the stairwell.
Tomorrow, she decided, she would make a few calls and discrete inquiries. She had contacts on the street, being part of that culture herself, and knew with the right incentive, someone would roll over and expose the person bankrolling the assassin. She would visit the bank and confirm what she dreaded was true.

***
When the teller at the First International Bank claimed that no account existed for Angel Watkins, one of Lily's shadowy identities, she was surprised and momentarily flustered. The Watkins account had held twenty thousand Euro Bucks a week earlier. Lily bit her lower lip, thanked the woman, and stalked out of the bank.
Although she had not intended to, she found herself crisscrossing the city, several credchips in hand, to visit the financial homes of her other identities. It was frustrating work. No, there was no account under that name. No, there had never been an account for that name. We don't make mistakes. Have a nice day.
Lily drove like the car was on fire.
Just as she was about to give up, she found an account that had not been compromised. The bank manager at the Rosy Dawn Vietnamese International Credit Union was about to about to turn the solo away, rudely claiming she did not look like a Susan Phat, when Felicia became bored with the bank's holographic sales pitch and wandered over to stand next to her guardian. Lily took her hand. The manager coughed politely and authorized the closure of the Phat account. Lily gathered up fifteen thousand Euro Bucks worth of credsticks and as she walked out, smiled.

***
When the teller at the First International Bank claimed that no account existed for Angel Watkins, one of Lily's shadowy identities, she was surprised and momentarily flustered. The Watkins account had held twenty thousand Euro Bucks a week earlier. Lily bit her lower lip, thanked the woman, and stalked out of the bank.
Although she had not intended to, she found herself crisscrossing the city, several credchips in hand, to visit the financial homes of her other identities. It was frustrating work. No, there was no account under that name. No, there had never been an account for that name. We don't make mistakes. Have a nice day.
Lily drove like the car was on fire.
Just as she was about to give up, she found an account that had not been compromised. The bank manager at the Rosy Dawn Vietnamese International Credit Union was about to about to turn the solo away, rudely claiming she did not look like a Susan Phat, when Felicia became bored with the bank's holographic sales pitch and wandered over to stand next to her guardian. Lily took her hand. The manager coughed politely and authorized the closure of the Phat account. Lily gathered up fifteen thousand Euro Bucks worth of credsticks and as she walked out, smiled.

***
Teddy bears sat next to boneless dolls on a wall of shelves. The remains of a tea party, small cups and saucers, plastic forks and plastic cookies, lay on a child-sized table that sat in a corner of the darkened bedroom. Crayola drawings, their colors muted by shadows, lined the walls.
The bedroom door opened and and a rectangle of light illuminated the room.

A golden-haired child stirred in her sleep, small fists pressing into her eyes to shield them from the intruding glow. She yawned, hunted for the doll that had fallen off the side of the bed, and sat up.
Byron entered the room, stooping to retrieve the fallen toy. "I think you dropped Suzie," he said as he laid the doll back into his virtual daughter's arms. He sat on the edge of the bed. "You awake?"
"Yes," said Cherise sleepily.
"Good. Your mother said you wanted clowns at your birthday."
Cherise nodded enthusiastically, drowsiness forgotten.
"How many did you want?"
"Five clowns."
"Just five?"
Cherise nodded.
"Alright then. I just wanted to tuck you in." Byron drew his daughter's coverlet up to her chin.
"How many more days, daddy?"
The dwarf smiled. "Two weeks left, honey. Can you wait that long?" Cherise nodded again, pulling her doll to her chest. "Good. It'll be here before you know it. Well, I have to go to bed now myself, honey. I'll see you in the morning."
Byron stood and walked to the door. He watched the mass of pixels and programming that was his daughter Cherise in his virtual fantasy, feeling hollow inside, then left and shut the door one the unsullied but unsatisfying part of his life.

***
Lily toyed with a credstick while her contact, the fixer Amsterdam, settled into the booth. She tapped the plastic bar against the worn formica of the table, not wanting to look into his craggy face, to read what was written there and destroy hope.
"Good to see you again," said the fixer. His bodyguard, a female solo named Mariposa, leaned against the Amsterdam's side of the booth, toying with her knife. Her assortment of specialized guns had been taken away at the door and put in a locker next to Lily's. "Now, what is it I can do for you?" the fixer continued.
Lily tensed, her hands still. "I need you to tell me who's trying to kill me."
"You know that's not done," Amsterdam sighed.
"I brought money, lots of it."
"Money won't buy me a new reputation when my current one is ruined. If I live long enough to manufacture a new one, that is. Once word gets out that my word is not my bond, I'll have some very unhappy ex-customers convinced I was lying when I said their secrets were safe we me."
"I'd protect you," offer Lily and her counterpart, the solo Mariposa, laughed.
Amsterdam was merely grinning. "I'm sorry to say I don't think you'd be up to the job."
Lily dug into a bag at her side, produced four more credsticks like the one she was nervously fingering, and laid all five on the fixer's side of the table. He eyed the denomination stamped into each - one thousand eurobucks - and shook his head.
"You know me," tried Lily.
"And you know how the business works. I'm sorry."
"Just something. Anything. A hint."
"A hint?" asked Amsterdam, incredulously.
Lily felt like crying. She hadn't expected Amsterdam to turn over a name, but she had hoped. Had hoped that their close association of more than five years would amount to more than business, hoped that Amsterdam was not as much a product of the streets as he seemed to be. Those hopes had crumbled and blown away.
Lily was more than competent as solo, a modern day solider of fortune who's battleground was the cityscape. But discovering the identity of the person or persons responsible was almost beyond her. She didn't have the necessary skills or connections to ferret a name out of the web of lies, rumor, and information. Now that Amsterdam, her best street-level contact, had turned her down, she would have to try.
Lily took a calming breath and pointed to the money. "Then I want a new identity."
"Another one?" asked the fixer. "Didn't I already sell you three?" Lily gave him a level glare, thinking, business men don't joke around with their clients, and Amsterdam capitulated. "Alright, alright. Did you want anything special?"
"Something unusual for me."
"As you wish." The fixer stood, handing the credsticks to Mariposa, who moved cat-like towards the door. Amsterdam followed, then turned back to Lily. He bent down as if to kiss her, did so on the cheek, then as he pulled away, whispering, "It's someone you've angered recently."
Lily pretended he had said nothing, then when the pair left, collected her gun and went to the apartment she had rented that morning. Felicia was waiting for her.

SeanchaĆ­

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