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Chapter One

 


Chicago, Friday, May 10, 2047

His favorite sports bar in Chicago had taken an old prewar rectangular middle-of-the-room bar and replaced the central island of glassware, bartender, and drinks with a large holotank. Unusually for a bar, smoking was absolutely forbidden, as the wafting smoke tended to interfere with the image display. The surround sound was practically perfect, and the waiters and waitresses who delivered the drinks from a traditional bar retrofitted next to the kitchen took extra care to take patrons' orders discreetly so as not to interfere with the game. Instead of the more usual stale smoke, this bar smelled of a mixture of beer, fried food, and the lemon oil the staff used to keep the bar top polished to a high gloss. He seldom came here, because a man in his business needed to avoid patterns. Nevertheless, it was his favorite watering hole, to the point that he probably came here slightly more often than he ought.


Charles Worth liked hockey. It wasn't so much the violence when a fight broke out. Primal violence was old hat in his line of work. What he liked was the fast pace, the sheer competitive artistry of it. Hockey was a real guy's game with real music to back it up, not some tin-horned pep bands. No cheerleaders, but he considered himself something of a connoisseur of women, and he definitely preferred his women close enough to touch. He preferred the original, the genuine, the unusual, provided she was also beautiful. The blonde over to his left had caught his attention. He could spot a bottle blonde a mile off and made a point of never, well almost never, settling for the artificial. This one was clearly a natural blonde. Even a good hairdresser still had difficulty getting all the highlights of a natural hair color into a dye job—as he knew from his own frequent appearance changes. Her other assets looked natural to the extent that he could tell with her clothes in the way.


She was almost enough to take his attention off the game, even though Zurich was really pummeling Montreal. As a Toronto fan, there were few things he enjoyed more than watching Montreal take it in the teeth. She had the creamy fair skin that went with her hair color, and her eyes were a warm brown. Odd combination, that. Either her skin was bare of makeup or she was a better expert than any he'd seen. She noticed him watching her and smiled, her lips parting slightly.


She had excellent taste. That blouse was real silk and impeccably tailored, the top two buttons left open to reveal just a hint of cleavage. The deep forest green was perfect for her and he felt heat clench in his gut as she picked up her drink and walked around the bar to take the seat next to him, looking into the tank as she slid onto the barstool.


"You picked a good spot. Better view of the Zurich bench from here. Okay if I join you?"


"Be my guest." He gestured to her almost empty glass. "Guinness?" Definitely natural skin. The soft musk of her perfume was almost painful.


She smiled and nodded absently, eyes glued to the tank.


He caught a waiter's attention and gestured at her glass. A moment later a fresh Guinness arrived. He pressed the price of the drink and a healthy tip into the waiter's hand immediately, leaving the boy no excuse to linger over the woman Worth hoped he would be taking home.


"Thanks." She took a sip of the fresh glass of stout and licked the foam off her upper lip.


"So are you a big Zurich fan?" he asked.


"Nah. Toronto." She grinned. "Well, okay, and whoever's playing Montreal."


A slightly sick twinge bit into the pit of his stomach. Same team as mine. Too convenient? Or is it just the warning from the Tir's office making me paranoid? 


The broadcast broke for a commercial. Some things even technology couldn't change. A pair of small, black-and-white still holos in one corner of the tank depicted a sixtyish man with a cane and a slightly older woman in a wheelchair. The main section of the tank showed the same pair, in full color and motion, healthy and fit and looking about twenty, in tailored BDU's and each sporting a brand-new grav-gun, walking through a waving field of wheat hand in hand.


"Tired of being old?" A cool but somehow friendly female voice asked, "Dead-end jobs taking the romance out of your relationship? The Epetar Group is looking for aggressively minded human colonists to join a multirace world reclamation expedition. Age and health no barrier, standard contract. . . ."


"Damn juvs." One of the other patrons threw a beer nut through the holo-projection.


"Hi, I'm Sarah Johnson." The blonde had turned to Worth and was offering her hand. Her grip was warm and firm.


"Jude Harris. Nice to meet another Toronto fan." He smiled, fighting the urge to linger over her hand.


"Oh? Well then you've got excellent taste in teams. What do you do?" she asked.


"I'm a corporate troubleshooter. Basically, I travel a lot," he said.


"That sounds like an interesting job. Trouble ever shoot back?" she teased.


"Not if I do it right." His grin tightened. "So, what do you do, Sarah?"


"I'm a legal secretary." She grimaced. "Not very exciting, but it pays the bills. You said you travel? It's got to be great to, you know, get to go places." She looked up at him and took another sip of her stout.


"Just one hotel after another. Whups, game's back." His eyes focused on one soft hand wrapped around her pint glass. "Nice nails for a secretary."


"What?" She looked down at her immaculately manicured hand as if trying to figure out what he meant. "Oh yeah, the typing thing. Nobody has to type much anymore. They mostly want you to talk clearly. And you've gotta organize stuff and be good with details. That kind of thing."


"But still, there has to be some?" He took her hand in one of his own, meeting her eyes and holding them as he gently kissed her fingers.


 


"Well, a little." She smiled. "There's kind of a knack to hitting the keys just right so that your nails go in the spaces between the keys." She suddenly pulled her hand clear and pointed into the tank. "Did you see that? Shinsecki just sticked Schmidt right in the face! God, look at his nose, ohmigosh, the refs are going to have trouble breaking that one up." She clapped her hands over her mouth and her eyes were wide at the spatters of blood on the ice between the two combatants.


"Yeah, looks like he broke his nose. That's gotta hurt," he said. They watched the fight, the other players circling like sharks while the referees waded in trying to pull the two apart, one getting a probably inadvertent elbow in the face for his troubles.


"My God, the things we do for a little excitement, right?" She shuddered and gulped her drink.


"I dunno," Worth shrugged, turning towards her. "I enjoy the game, but I really watch it more for the strategy and the competition. The fights, I guess that's part of the darker side of human nature that's in all of us, really."


"You think so?" She tilted her head up at him, taking another drink. "I think that's more of a guy thing, the aggression thing. I think—" She flushed a bit, taking another fast gulp. "I think there's something just a little bit submissive, deep down, in almost every woman. I mean, I don't want some guy to drag me around by the hair or to spend the rest of my life washing his socks and underwear, but I think most women prefer a guy who can, you know, kinda take charge. And I think that men are, well, like that." She shrugged. "Like I said, a guy thing."


"That's very . . . perceptive of you." He looked at her intently, holding her eyes. "I'll bet you're very good with people." He could see the pulse at her throat beating rapidly. She licked her lips and was oddly still, as if frozen by the tension between them. He leaned over and claimed a slow, tantalizing kiss, pulling back when he realized his hand was tangled in her hair at the nape of her neck, his jeans were awkwardly tight, and they were still in a very public place. For his preferred games, public wouldn't do at all. Besides, there was the warning from his control. She could be a very pretty piece of bait. Either way, if he had anything to say about it he was going to have one hell of a time making sure.


In the tank, the game had restarted after the referees finally got Schmidt and Shinsecki separated and sent Shinsecki to the penalty box. Zurich was clearly in a mood to take out their indignation on the ice. Montreal was now down by six and beginning to show signs of being rattled by the humiliation.


He noticed her glass was getting low and ordered her another drink, and spent most of the rest of the game teasing her thigh with one hand under the bar. By the time Montreal was down by nine he was starting to get bored with the slaughter and interested in more personal pleasures.


"Got a question." He leaned over and breathed against her ear. "You said you liked a man to take charge? I'm going out the front door. Don't follow. There's a back exit between the restrooms. It says an alarm will go off, but it won't. If you really meant what you said, wait five minutes and then leave the bar, come out the back door and I'll be waiting. You want me to take charge?"


She nodded rapidly. "Yeah, I think I'd like that."


"Okay, then that's what you do. You do that, and I will." He walked out of the bar without looking back, hoping she was tipsy enough and horny enough to do as he'd asked. He wanted her, bad, but he hadn't lived this long by being seen leaving bars with his victims. The night air smelled crisp as he walked past a couple of other bars to the parking lot, the crispness underlain by the almost imperceptibly faint tinges of stale urine, vomit, and sex that always linger in the streets outside popular establishments dedicated to the nightlife. The adrenaline rush was hitting his system and he wondered, as he always did, whether he had set the hook and played the line in just right. Would she come to him, or would she get away?


The timing was perfect. Just as he got the car pulled up to the curb in back, hidden from view on one side by the bar, on another by the large dumpster out back, she came tottering out the small back door. Another plus for him, the light was burned out back here, and he only saw her by the scattered illumination from his own headlights as she stumbled slightly, on a bit of loose gravel maybe, and opened the passenger side door.


She lowered herself with exaggerated care into the passenger seat of his low-slung Detroit Raver, while he pretended to be searching for a music cube. His nerve endings were sizzling with a mixture of triumph and anticipation that sent a chill down his spine as the door to his car clicked shut behind her. The beat of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" shuddered through the frame as he pulled out into Chicago's Friday night traffic.


* * *

Worth disentangled the blonde from around his neck long enough to get them from the elevator to his warehouse loft apartment. He pushed open the door and paused a minute to let her get the full effect. It had taken large chunks of even his generous salary to outfit the room in the vintage '70s "contemporary" style he preferred. Still, he was proud that he had managed to obtain every necessary item of furniture in black leather, glass, and chrome, set off nicely by flawlessly white shag carpeting that he'd had to order custom-made. Three walls were covered in faux-oak paneling—even for him, real oak was scarce. The fourth was covered in floor-to-ceiling black velvet drapes. The free-standing wet bar that ran parallel to one of the oak walls was topped with poured black marble and had faux-oak cabinetry that exactly matched the walls.


Matching red lava lamps—original, not reproduction—illuminated the room and provided a necessary hint of color. Track lighting emphasized the Dali and Escher originals on the walls. The scent of pine air fresheners mingled with but did not quite mask a faint odor of stale sweat, sex, rust, and leather.


She stopped still for a moment and looked around the room, blinking rapidly. She favored him with another of those blindingly perfect smiles of hers and quickly buried her face in his neck, shuddering softly against him. God, she must be really hot to trot. . . . 


"You want a drink? I'm having a martini." He smirked. "Shaken, not stirred, of course." He walked over to the wet bar and began pulling down various bottles off the glass shelves at the back.


"Why not?" She laughed, dropping her purse on the couch.


He poured her drink and handed it to her. "Cheers."


She took a sip and set the glass down on the chrome and glass end table, slinking up to him and sliding her hands up his chest. He wrapped his arms around her again and trailed his lips up her jaw to nibble lightly on her ear. He felt her knees buckle slightly and shifted his weight to support her as her hips seemingly involuntarily thrust against his. He felt the heat tighten in his groin as he buried his face in her hair and inhaled the clean, fresh scent of it mingled with her own soft musk.


His fingers trembled slightly as he unbuttoned the silk blouse, carefully, tenderly, savoring the opening strains of this overture that would end in so much sound and fury. Gently, now, building the trust that led them willingly into the trap—the purest and most exquisite test of his art. His hands slid inside and teased along the line of her spine and the soft, perfect skin of her back. He rubbed her jaw with his own, glad that he'd had an afternoon shave, and took her mouth, delving deep into the moist and the heat. God, he could drown in this woman.


Her slender fingers with those exquisitely feminine nails were playing with the hair at the nape of his neck and he felt himself breathing faster, impatient with the need to restrain himself and tease her into the next move. He drew one finger very lightly right up her spine before cupping his hands under her butt and pulling her, hard, against him as she shivered.


"So where's your room?" She nuzzled up to his neck and bit his shoulder softly.


He slid one hand up from her ass and tangled it in her hair, pulling her head back gently, nibbling the tip of her nose and shaking his head.


"Nah-ah. Bedroom is plain vanilla. C'mere." He took her hand and led her over to the velvet-draped wall, pressing a switch at the side and grinning as the drapes parted to reveal a wall set with four steel rings and a three-inch seat of obviously adjustable height.


"Once you try this, you'll never want to do it in a bed again. It's incredible." You won't be around to want anything, but that's not my problem, he thought.


"You're not gonna hurt me, are you?" She looked at him nervously.


"Never. Cross my heart." He cupped her face gently, his eyes holding hers. "That would just be no fun for me. My pleasure comes from pleasing you."


She melted against him as her knees gave way, and allowed him to maneuver her back onto the seat.


"Oops. This'll work better with the jeans off." He pulled some black silk scarves out of a pouch at the base of the wall and looked up at her, going down on one knee to help her off with her jeans and panties as he trailed a line of kisses down her hip bone and inner thigh.


After she kicked them free, he stroked the silken length of one of her legs as he tied her to the rings. Nice legs. Nice everything. Be a real shame to waste it. He unfastened his own jeans and put a hand on either side of her head.


"You know you're helpless now, don't you?" he purred.


She nodded and moaned softly as he took her. It didn't take long. She blinked bewilderedly as he backed away and fastened his jeans.


"Are . . . are we done?" She twisted a wrist against the tightly tied scarf and winced. "Can you untie me now? These things are starting to chafe a bit."


"Oh, we're not done, sweetness, that was just act one. Who sent you?" He walked over to the bar and took another swallow of his martini.


"What? Nobody . . . Is this a role-playing game? Because I'm not too good at those. . . ."


"Yeah, right." He grinned nastily. "So what's your name, sweetness?" He paced back over to the wall and yelled in her ear, "Who. Sent. You!"


"Ow!" She tugged harder at her wrists. "I'm not having fun, I want to go home now. Untie me, dammit!"


"Sorry, sweetness," he stepped to the side wall and slapped a switch, "act two's a command performance. Now, you tell me who sent you and your real name, or act two's gonna be real fun for me and no fun at all for you . . . unless you're into that sort of thing." His voice sounded oddly hollow. "Who sent you?"


"I'm . . . I'm Sarah Eileen Johnson," she stammered, eyes about twice their normal size, "and I'm a legal secretary for Sinclair and Burke's. Nobody sent me, I swear to God. Uh . . . please let me go. If you let me go now I promise I won't tell anybody ever, everything will be all right, please . . . please let me go!" She blinked rapidly, probably at the changed sound of her own voice.


"Can't do that, sweetness." He walked back for more of his drink. "Not safe for me. I'm real big on self-preservation. Obviously you aren't. Oh, you may notice we sound funny? Little side effect of the electronic damping. Gags and interrogations don't work together. So you go ahead and scream as loud as you want. Then again, I guess you've probably heard a similar system before. Who did you say sent you?"


"Nobody! God, I'm sorry, mister, I don't know who you think I am but I'm just a secretary, I don't know what you want! Please, please just don't hurt me. . . ."


"Okay sweetness, looks like we do this the hard way. Groovy." He walked over to the end table and picked up the phone. "Sam? Can you come up here? I think I may need a professional. . . . Yeah, you have a slightly more . . . dispassionate touch. Okay. Well, I might as well get started . . . yeah, I'll leave some for you."


"Oh my God please don't hurt me, please don't!"


"Let's see . . ." He walked over and opened the cabinets under the bar, "bull whip, cat o' nine, baseball bat, cattle prod, sharps. . . ." He looked up at her, quirking an eyebrow, "Got a preference?" He grimaced, "Oh, can't forget one thing."


"Last time you wouldn't believe what I had to go through to get it all out of my carpets." He went to the coat closet and took out a plastic rain mat, unrolling it beneath her feet. "You know meat tenderizer takes out blood stains? Okay, well, you're a girl, you probably do."


"Oh God, oh God, oh God. Save me and I'll never do anything like this again. Oh God . . . please, mister, I'm not whoever you want, please don't hurt me."


"Mmmm. I love leather." He walked over and pulled out the bullwhip, asking again, "Who sent you, sweetness?"


"I'm a secretary!"


The distant sound of the dampened screams rolled over Worth like ambrosia. No matter how jaded you got, you didn't ever lose your taste for this. He eventually noticed the red light blinking and fastened his jeans again before answering the door.


A squat man with a receding hairline and a pizza box ducked through the door and bolted it behind him. Setting the box down on the bar and opening it, he glanced over at the woman hanging limply from the rings.


"Geez, Worth, you didn't leave me much to work with. At least she's still got teeth. Man, I've been standing out there punching the bell for ten minutes!"


"She's got most of them. You know I can't hear when the system's on."


Sam went into the kitchen and brought back three beers. "You want one?"


"Nah. I just keep 'em for you, man."


The shorter man shrugged and took a bite of his pizza, carrying a beer over to the working wall where a set of clean sharps were already laid out for him.


"At least you were smart enough to leave the sharps to me. You must be more suspicious than usual of this one."


"Maybe I'm gettin' cautious in my old age." Worth shrugged, mixing himself a fresh martini.


"You're not too bad off." The interrogator snickered and poured a good half of the beer over the blonde's head, nodding to himself as she spluttered. "Of course, that's bad news for you. Lady, I'm sorry to say that my amateur friend's part in this is over. Now, Worth's a talented amateur, and he's a real pro at his job, but he's not me. You really need to save yourself a lot of pain and answer my questions now, instead of later." He picked up a small scalpel and looked at it coldly, "What's your name. Your full name."


"Sarah Eileen Johnson," she breathed weakly.


He looked up at Worth, who shook his head and handed him a small purse. He pulled out the already ruffled contents and looked through them.


"Driver's license, two credit cards, a business card for Sinclair and Burke—attorneys-at-law, a few receipts, miscellaneous business cards, a little cash, a checkbook, some makeup, change . . . none of it new. Good documents. Very professional." He sighed and put the scalpel down, walking over to the cabinet under the bar and pulling out a small bag. He took out a needle and a small bottle. "I always like to do sodium pentathol, first, but then I'm a bit old-fashioned."


He injected her expertly and set the needle next to the sharps, looking at his watch. "Okay, what's your name?"


"I'm . . . I'm Sarah Eileen Johnson. Why are you doing this to me?"


"Hmm . . . interesting." He pulled a small flashlight out of a pocket and checked her eyes. "You want to explain to me why you're immune to sodium pentathol?"


"I . . . I told you," she stammered. "I'm a legal secretary. I handle confidential files. You . . . you have to get treatments and a doctor's note or they won't hire you."


"Yeah?" He pulled out another bottle and a fresh needle. "Let's try the next one."


Five bottles later he smirked at her. "Pretty thorough protections for a secretary."


"They're . . . the insurance companies . . . they're paranoid. I . . . I . . . please, please don't hurt me anymore. I'm just a secretary!" She wailed in despair, "I don't know anything!"


"I think the back teeth, next. Who are you?"


"Who do you want me to be?" She screamed, and pleaded, "I'll be anybody you want me to be! Please, please. . . ."


"So, who are you?" he asked, after waiting for her to wind down.


"I'm a secretary! Just a secretary . . ." she trailed off, sobbing.


A couple of hours later, he stripped off the rubber gloves he'd had to add at one point, looking up at Worth.


"There's really no more point. Her story's changing randomly and none of it's very inventive." He wandered into the kitchen and came back out with a paper plate. "It's getting harder to revive her." He shrugged. "We could pull an all-nighter, but I really don't see the point." He put a piece of the cold pizza on the plate and took it back to the microwave and came back to where Worth was scowling at the limp and half-dead mass of blood and matted blond hair. "In my professional opinion, my friend, that," he gestured with his pizza, "is a secretary."


"Damn. She would have been good for the whole weekend. Cut her down I guess, while we decide where to get rid of her."


"It's Friday." Worth took out a bottle of solvent and started the laborious process of cleaning the blood out of his whips. "The guy who runs the incinerator on Oak Street can sell all the GalTech drugs he can get his hands on. For a couple hundred hits of Provigil-C he'll walk around the block." He tossed a damp and bloody paper towel into a trash bag and grabbed another, watching out of the corner of his eye as Sam cut her down and she collapsed on the mat.


He had an instant to register that the squat the body landed in was oddly coordinated before she erupted upwards into a leaping roundhouse that caught the torturer behind the jawline at an angle. The man collapsed as though his strings had been cut and the red blur flipped off of his dead friend's waistband and landed facing him. She paused just long enough to pivot around one hip and hit him with a side kick to the solar plexus. It connected with enough force to throw him back against the coat closet door, his head cracking against it solidly, and leave him on the ground, gasping up through sickly doubled vision, "Who . . . who are you?"


The last thing Charles Worth saw was the muzzle flash from his late colleague's pistol, in his victim's leveled hands.


* * *

"I'm somebody that doesn't chit-chat while they're killing people." She walked over to the body and tilted her head appraisingly a moment, before carefully and deliberately spitting on it. "The name's Cally O'Neal, and that's for trying to kill me when I was eight."


The door burst open to admit three heavily armed men in black body armor.


"You're late, Granpa," she snapped coldly.


"The traffic was miserable." The team point pulled off his mask and ran a hand through blazingly red hair, absently tucking a plug of Red Man in between cheek and jaw. He was a medium height man with a broad, low-slung body and long arms that gave him something of the impression of a gorilla. He looked to be about twenty but something about the way he moved, the look in his eyes, gave an impression of age and experience.


"Three hours?" Cally asked, incredulously, twisting her still naked body slightly as if stretching out a sore muscle and examining her pulled fingernails. "It had better have been a full scale pile-up. I was supposed to be bait not the trigger puller, dammit!"


"Hi, Cally," Tommy Sunday said, pulling off his balaclava and grimacing. "Tough day at the office, huh?" The number two was a huge man, broad across the shoulders and heavily muscled, with bright green eyes in a face that was almost movie star handsome.


"Yeah, those files were miserable," she replied. "Give."


"Jammer," Tommy said, shrugging. "Spoofer, whatever. Gave us the runaround; we've been over half of Chicago looking for you. Figured out a filter. Sorry it took so long. Glad you made it."


"How's Wendy?" She walked over to the other side of the bar and picked up her jeans.


"Pregnant again."


"Don't you guys do anything else?" She donned the jeans mechanically, shaking her head.


"I only see her every few months, so the answer is 'no.' "


The fourth member of the team surveyed the room for threats in a textbook maneuver before walking over to the nearest body and nudging it with a foot.


"Is that really him?" he asked.


"I dunno." Cally shrugged. "Toss me a sampler." She caught the probe deftly and knelt beside the body, pressing the needle into his temple on the more-or-less intact side. She looked at the readout and nodded. "Brain DNA never lies. It's him."


"Cleanup on aisle one," Tommy quipped, moving aside as several silent figures in white moved past him and began meticulously sanitizing the scene. He pulled off the black jacket and the white undershirt underneath, offering it to her. His eyes flickered to where she stood, lingering on the blood dripping into the white shag carpet. "You okay?"


"Pain is weakness exiting the body." She took the shirt and pulled it over her head. "Nothing a trip to the slab won't cure.


"Can you get the squealer from his car? Passenger seat, by the door," she asked Tommy, waiting while the cleaning crew moved the first body out the door and following them out. "Thanks. See you in the van."


"Post op review on this one's going to be . . . interesting." He pulled his jacket back on and followed her out.


* * *

O'Neal noticed the team member standing, almost frozen, looking at the splattered brain matter and fluids where Worth's body had been.


"You got a problem, Jay?" He considerately spat onto the second body instead of the floor so as not to make more work for the cleaners.


"She literally blew his brains out." He shook his head. "I don't know how she did the other guy, after letting them do God knows what to her, and she shows less reaction than most people would over a hangnail."


The older man held up his hand to stop the cleaners from picking up the other body. He examined it briefly, noting the discoloration at the jaw line, and popped a brain sample in a storage cube.


"Looks like a fairly clean impact to one of the sweet spots. Can't tell if it was a kick or a strike." Mike O'Neal, Sr. waved the cleaners back over and walked across the room to pick up the discarded high-heeled shoes and purse. "Cally is creative," he said. "Creatively violent."


"Too bad we couldn't have been in place beforehand." The younger agent shook his head, still looking at the mess, "but when you've got a guy who's weaseled out of three hits already just by burning the surveillance . . . It . . . couldn't be helped."


"Okay, let's see what we've got," O'Neal frowned, searching the room briefly for electronics, and handed a reader and a few cubes to the Cyberpunk. "Your domain, Jay. Probably nothing useful, but you never know." He walked back out to the hallway and headed for the stairs, leaving the other man to follow. Doesn't matter how long it's been, climbing stairs without creaking never seems to lose its thrill. 


"She's gonna be pissed," Tommy said, following him down the stairs.


"It's okay," Papa O'Neal replied. "I know her weaknesses."


* * *

Cally walked into the blessedly cool dry air of her apartment and stopped, shaking her head; every square inch of the place was covered in either flowers or boxes of chocolate. There were irises and roses and mums and daisies and . . . stuff she couldn't put a name to. She kicked off her heels and walked over to one of the chocolate assortments, grunting at the label. Make that "very expensive" chocolates.


"I cannot be bribed, I cannot be broken," she muttered, pulling one of the chocolates out and crunching on it. "Usually." Her eyes narrowed and she rolled the chocolate around in her mouth, frowning at the flowers. Then she took another bite and frowned again. "Mostly."


She walked across the room, munching chocolate and wriggling her feet in the carpet for a moment, relishing the feeling of unbroken toes, then padded into the kitchen and poured herself a margarita from the dispenser in the fridge. On her way back to the bedroom she popped another chocolate in her mouth, grimacing at the taste of raspberry, stopped at the vidscreen, selected a cube, and dialed it to Tori Amos on audio.


"Three cheers for music to sleep to," she muttered to herself.


In her room, the freshly cleaned evening bag went in the top drawer of one dresser, with a dozen or so others. The wallet, less the cash, went in a thumbprint-locked and trapped drawer at the bottom, with a few dozen others. Sarah Johnson from Chicago hadn't been burned—well, the identity hadn't, anyway—and might be useful again.


The new T-shirt and very well-cleaned jeans went on hangers in the closet. The underwear, also new, went into the laundry hamper. She walked over to the triple full-length mirrors and looked at herself, front and back. No scars, no signs. But there never are. She leaned forward and examined eyes that were again her own cornflower blue. She bared her teeth and looked at them from all angles—perfect, as usual. Not the slightest sign that anything had been damaged.


She walked into the bathroom and set the glass next to the sink, grabbed a clean washcloth from the linen closet, padded back to her bed and set it down on the night table.


Hopefully this one was good for a couple of days of downtime, at least.


She used the bedside touch pad to bring the volume down to a soft background level, and set it to shuffle through the night. Another touch of the pad turned on active countermeasures. Rolling over and clutching her pillow in a way that was oddly like a child with a stuffed animal, she drifted off to sleep.


Tibet. Before the war her height would have marked her in a crowd. Postwar, with Americans everywhere there were still humans, she was unremarkable with mouse-brown cropped hair and a red parka. And now in the house, in a darkened bedroom. The former Party official had sped up the initial Posleen conquest by two weeks, and won himself twenty years of borrowed time. One of his children squealed at the TV in another room. The garrote made no noise at all. 


Ireland. An American official on vacation. Tourism never died, it seemed. No witnesses, but he's all in black, a player? His neck cracks so easily, and he rolls as he falls, and it's white it wasn't supposed to be white what why was he here? God, no. No. 


The light is red and it smells of incense and books. He's puttering around the sanctuary. A slow day. Father will you hear my confession? There, yes, through the door. What? Outside. Snow falling. The doors locked. Can't get in. Always the same. Can't get back in. 


Florida. Swimming with dolphins. Mom's with me. She's proud of me. And the water's cool, and the sun hot. Silly Herman. There'll be key lime pie tonight, and a hug from Dad at bedtime. 


She woke with a smile on her face and absently flipped the countermeasures off, reaching for the washcloth to dry her face. In thirty years I haven't woken alone without my face soaking wet. But I sleep like a baby, thank God. I love living in a beach town. She sat up and padded over to the dresser, thumbing the bottom drawer open. "So, who do I want to be today? Not Sarah. Let's see, local, fun, not a brain but not a ne'er do well . . . Pamela. She'll do. Tan, perfect nails. A manicure, pedicure, an afternoon of serious shopping, then an evening out." She looked at her reflection in the mirror. "Just what the doctor ordered, Pamela."


She set the hot pink leather wallet on the dresser and closed the drawer, grabbing a miniscule bra and panties in matching silver-gray lace. She showered, and washed her hair, adding the tiniest hint of dark at the roots and such, Pamela not being a natural blonde. She pulled out a bottle of gray lotion and applied it carefully, rinsing and checking the result. As always, no streaking, no fading, no patches, and absolutely no tan lines. 


She went back to her closet and stood for a minute, finding the role. "Pamela. Smart, casual. Likes pinks, grays." She put a pink v-necked blouse, a pair of gray pedal pushers, and a burlap beach bag on the bed, and took a pair of brown strappy flats out of one of the cubbyholes built into the closet wall. "Watch? Yeah, brown-strapped analog." She added them to the beach bag.


After she was dressed, she went looking for breakfast. Pamela meant grapefruit, but first she frowned over Sarah's shoes on the living-room floor and went to put them in their proper place.


After breakfast, she drove to the mall. There was only the one in New Charleston so far, but it was always crowded. Ex-urbies adjusting to surface life tended to find it comfortingly reminiscent of home, and even teenage Charleston natives appreciated the air conditioning. Low Country Nails and Spa was on the lower level near one end, and she walked in with a smile ready, fastening on a curly-haired brunette who was puttering behind the counter.


"Jeannie?" she said.


"Pamela!" The other girl greeted her with a sunny smile, "Where have you been hiding, girl, it's been weeks!"


"Visiting my mom and sister in the Cairo Urb, and boy, am I glad to see the light of day again! Got time for a bunch? I need my hands and feet done and I would just die for one of your cucumber facials."


"How on earth did you keep that tan in an Urb?" The other girl came out from behind the counter and gently ushered her back to a seat at a small table set with the tools of her trade. "You must have been using a sun bed every other day."


"Just about that. Would that watermelon pink go with my skin, or should I go with more of a rose today?"


"Hmm. Let's see . . ." She held a couple of bottles of nail polish up against Cally's hands. "I think you can carry off the watermelon. In a bit of a playful mood?"


"In a mood for some serious fun." Cally grinned mischievously. "The Urb was like being buried alive."


"They always are." Jeannie tsked softly. "Girlfriend, you are under way too much stress, and you're not eating right." She held up one of Cally's fingers where she'd just trimmed a cuticle. "Look at these ridges. But I'm not too surprised. Family can be the worst for stress, and they still don't get very good food underground. Not like you can get out here."


"That's for sure. Urb cafeterias do not serve she-crab stew."


"Seafood's all right, but you've got to eat your fresh veggies or you'll be old before your time. And drink lots of water. Give me a minute." She stepped into the back and came out with a pair of glasses and a pitcher of ice water. "Here. Distilled and remineralized. Best water this side of the Blue Ridge."


Seven hours later Cally put away two new outfits and a pair of shoes, did her hair, added a couple of strands of freshwater pearls, and went back out for pub grub, some decent music, and whatever fun she could find tonight. One good thing about a beach town. Even after the Postie war, there's always something. Pappas Street down near El Cid is always good for some fun. 


Oddly enough, the Citadel had suffered little actual damage in the war. Charleston had been thoroughly evacuated, so there had been no food, from the Posleen view. Many historic buildings had been left completely intact, along with the Battery, and the centuries old military school. Nobody knew quite what the Posties had seen in the collection of white, crenellated buildings—only that the campus had suffered a very little careful looting and had been recaptured virtually intact. It had recently celebrated the thirty-fifth anniversary of its reopening as a university and training academy for future Fleet Strike officers. While graduation did not guarantee a commission in the postwar world, it opened vast fields of opportunity and acceptance was highly coveted by young men as a ticket out of the constrained life of the Urbs.


Where there were young men, there were bars, and music, and nobody she had to kill. Usually. All in all, a good place to have a good time.


 


 


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