We found a vacant flyer, white with red stripes. It looked like a flying candy cane.
“Me? Why me?”
“But you guys call me Ed.”
“It’s just a nickname.”
“I’ll change it officially before I ride in this; it’s ugly,” she said. “We’ll attract attention we don’t want, and people will make fun of us. Well, you.”
We waited until another one came in, dark blue, clean lines, driven by a bureaucratic drone, who looked us over as if we were beetles on a pincushion before wiping his travel program from the hologram key map.
She programmed the key with our map, and the flyer whirred to life.
“How’d you two meet?” Ed asked.
“Candace? I met her in high school.”
“I didn’t mean Candace.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, it’s okay.”
“I don’t. Not now.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
“Now we’re talking about Candace?”
“Just making sure. Every day, Ed. They didn’t have to shoot up the neighborhood to find me.”
“They were sending you a message.”
“They killed my neighbors, innocent people. Children died. What was the message in that?”
She was quiet a moment, then she said “They’d do anything to anyone to get to you.”
“I didn’t consider myself that important.”
“Well, you were wrong.”
“No,” I said, struggling against the rise in my voice, “I wasn’t. They made me that important. It wasn’t the worth the show of violence and power. I’m going to find out who did it, and why, and then I’ll take care of it.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t expect to live ‘after that.’
“So how does Lliya fit in?”
“I’m going to ask for her help; the squad will be in Nanjasi looking for Steele’s key; it might be related, it might not. I don’t know what part I play; it seems pointless for them to go through all that and then summarily suspend me.
“Something’s going on, and since I don’t have the squad’s resources, I’m going to need Lliya.”
“Can you trust her?”
I chuckled with a grim humor. “In this context, I don’t know; I guess I’ll find out.”
What I’d loved about Candace was that she wasn’t part of any of this; there were times I wanted to include her, and sometimes I’d start to, but she’d put her finger to my lips to stop me; and she was right, because if she ever became a part of it, we were both in danger, and she was my refuge.
If I defiled her with my knowledge of the world’s maggot- filled underbelly, I’d have no place to go to get clean and sane again.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and she was rubbing my shoulders, humming softly to herself.
“What’s that song?” I asked.
“I don’t know; I remember my mother humming it sometimes when she was in the kitchen.”
“She never told you what it was?”
“I never asked. Why?”
“I don’t know; just seemed to me you would know something about it.”
She stopped rubbing. “Why is it so important to you that I know about it?”
I shook my head, “It’s not, babe. Forget I said anything.”
She resumed. “It’s that mind of yours.” Her voice deepened, mocking me. ’All data must be analyzed and re-analyzed.’ Really Warren, it’s a pain in the anal-ize.”
“Ha, you have jokes.”
She sighed, “No, just one; a big one, right between my hands.”
I reached back and pulled her into my lap as she squealed and laughed.
“I’ll put a big one between your hands.”
She wriggled her rump on my lap, and her voice grew husky as she drew close.
“Oh, yeah? Big talk, big man. Back it up.”
“I think that’s your part,” I said, slipping my hand inside her blouse.
And then she kissed me, and time went away.
“Warr, you listening?”
“Put the shields on; it’s starting to rain.”
I put the shields on, and the rain slipped off around them, keeping thing visible.
The afternoon was turning into evening.
“You’re going to have to go pack for Nanjasi soon, right?”
“Not taking much. I’m a girl, but not a girly- girl, otherwise I would’ve flown in that candy cane and talked your ear off about how pretty it looked.”
“You thought it looked like a candy cane too?”
“Yep.” She pointed. “There’s her place,” she said. “No lights on.”
“You know her haunts.” Again, not a question.
“I doubt I know them all, but we’ll try what I know first.”
We split up; Ed walked one side of the street, and I walked the other.
It was dark when we finally found Lliya; she was in an aging bistro, peeling, spotted paint, dank upholstery, long past its prime, which made it great for clandestine meetings, and hiding. She was sipping something fancy and expensive from what looked like a ceramic thimble.
I signaled Ed, and she waved goodbye, mouthed the words, ‘Be careful,’ opened her coat like a flasher and smiled.
I returned it, shaking my head.
She closed the coat, turned up the collar against the drizzle, and started walking back.
I slid into the seat across from Lliya. She never looked up.
“Want a cup of this?”
“Does it come in a larger size?”
She shrugged. “What are you doing here?”
“Came to ask you a few questions.”
She sighed, looked up then. “I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t set you up; you were happy with Candace, you were out of the life, you were out of mine, and I missed you, but not enough to do that.
“I don’t know why they took you, but if I had to guess, it was because out of all your squad, you’d worked everything. I don’t think sometimes you realize how long you’ve been at this.
“Surveillance, tech, infantry, sniper, impalement, martial arts; you’re a government agency wet dream. You’re not just a jack of all trades; you’re actually good at all of them.”
Kriley did say I was the best all around; still didn’t explain how I got caught.
“Any ideas who?”
“I know you’re thinking inside job; could be my people too. They didn’t send me after your squad. I came after you.”
“Why risk it, Lliya?”
“You’re an ass, Warr. Why do you think?”
“May I take your order sir?”
I’d been so focused on Lliya I didn’t see the waitress walk up.
“Is the food still good here?”
“They still have waitresses.”
“Something strong, with something broiled.”
The waitress smiled, her menu for savages at the ready: “Bourbon and steak?”
“I like you.”
“How do you want the steak?”
“Like a satisfied woman: well-done.”
Lliya sputtered out some of her droplet, and went into a coughing fit.
The waitress blushed and flounced away.
“My god, how did you ever get Candace to marry you with lines like that?”
“I didn’t use lines like that on Candace.”
She sobered. “I’m sorry, Warr. I didn’t mean…”
“S’okay, Lliya. Drop it. We’re good.”
She gave us a minute to make sure I meant it. I did.
“Listen to me, okay? She can’t be a distraction, and it’s my fault for bringing her up. You know how I feel about you, but we’re on opposite sides here. You had a choice to make, and you did, and I stayed away.
“It seems that circumstances are putting us back together, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. If it comes down to it, Warr, you know I’ll kill you, and I know you’ll kill me. We’ll hate it, and we’ll mourn inside, and move on, but there’s no question whether or not we’d carry it out.”
Her voice took on a note of wistfulness.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
“Our devotion. It’s misdirected: it could’ve been for each other, but now it’s for what we do.”
“You didn’t have to be on the opposite side.”
“I didn’t choose it; I needed a job. We had history, and Kriley didn’t like it.”
“Sometimes I wish I had; he would’ve left us alone.”
I looked at her.
“No, he never made a pass. Seriously, could you imagine?”
“Anyway,” she finished the liquid in her thimble, “it doesn’t matter now, does it? What do you need from me?”
I sat back, breaking the intangible tension.
“Well you’re right; I’m thinking it was inside, I just don’t know if it’s mine or yours. If it’s mine, I need someone from the outside looking in. I want you to shadow me, see if anything looks out of the ordinary, anybody I can’t see.
“Steele Industries has their own trackers on me; they’re good, but not as good as you, and they’ll be gone with nothing to report in a few days.”
“Wouldn’t Ed be better for this?”
“Don’t know, because I can’t use her. And if it’s on my side that would tip them off that I knew, though Ed is hard to track, and I think she’d do it. Anyway, they’re going to Nanjasi without me. I’ve been suspended for getting caught; the suits at Steele say I’m a liability.”
“The suits at Steele are wrong.”
“Kriley tried to say that, but they weren’t interested. Will you do it?”
The waitress came back with the bourbon.
“Should you be drinking?”
“Question is, shouldn’t you?”
She considered it.
“What the hell.” With that, she answered both questions.
I poured some into her thimble, but she took the glass from my hand.
“On the rocks ruins it,” she said.
“I didn’t want you taking advantage of me.”
She smiled. “We both know I can do that whenever I want.”
I reached over and brushed a strand from her eyes, my thumb brushing her temple, and she wanted to lean into my hand, and I saw the effort not to; I put my hand back on the table, and it was a little colder where her cheek would’ve touched.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
She lifted the glass in a silent toast, and I lifted the thimble, and we drank.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
March 3rd 2014
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