Joy turned Molly away from the Cop once the Detective gave them a pass. She was still a little buzzed and had no desire to go to jail for pissing off a cop, no matter how much he deserved it. Besides, it looked like cooler heads were taking over and Joy was here to help.
“Come on, killer.” Molly felt Joy’s hand on her shoulder. “Let’s see what we can see here.”
At the first close up look at the wreckage of her apartment, the anger and disbelief that was keeping Molly up seeped out, replaced by despair. “This is pointless. I mean, Jesus, you’d need a bulldozer to even start.”
“Um… I’m sure things…” Joy came up short and said, “You know, I gotta tell you, you’re right. This is pretty much defines ‘hopeless.’ Bad deal.”
Molly shook her head. “Thanks for coming anyway. I guess I had to see if maybe there was something.”
“Yeah. No problem.” Joy was ready to turn back around when something on the ground right outside of the rubble caught her eye. “Hey, didn’t Goldberg say something about a wooden ball puzzle thing?”
Molly straightened. “What wooden ball?”
“You know, the thing he said he threw out the window or something. I think it’s right over there.” She pointed at the ball quickly but stopped as she saw the plainclothesman come over to them. Instead she walked over and put the ball behind her heels, obscuring it from view.
“I’m sorry about that. Conflicting orders, you know.” He looked back over his shoulder and gestured at the cop. As he did, Joy kicked the ball behind her. It rolled over the sidewalk and into the street, coming to rest in the gutter.
The detective put out his hands. “Now here’s the deal. You can take stuff you find as long as you don’t go digging and you let me verify what you are taking away. The pile is still very unstable so watch yourselves.”
Joy said, “You know, I don’t think that’s going to be necessary. We were just saying that this is a total loss.”
“Yeah. Except that Joy found her boyfriend’s balls.” Molly stared at the pile. Her voice once again became meek and small.
The detective looked puzzled.
“It’s been a hard day and, uh, we started drinking early.”
He shot a good look at Molly, particularly her eyes. “I don’t blame you, though she really shouldn’t be…” He gave a knowing pause. “…drunk in front of a bunch of police. Know what I mean?”
Joy guided Molly once again by the shoulders. “Yeah. We’ll be laying off the mimosas while looking for a more three-dimensional living space.”
Brace grimaced. “Yeah, well, I understand, but… discretion, you know?”
“Of course. Thank you, Officer… Brace, was it?”
“Yes ma’am. Detective, actually. Again, I apologize for the officer. It’s been a strange day so far.”
“You will find no arguments here. Good luck.”
They ducked under the police crime scene tape and strolled down the street. Without looking or stopping, Joy bent down and scooped up the wooden puzzle ball and tossed it in her bag.
Belatran leaned against the counter in the long empty terminal building at the Hogstown regional airport with a look of wonder on his face. “What do you mean?”
“Well It’s pretty obvious.” A man in an oil-stained one-piece said. “Ain’t no vans.”
“I know. You told me. Just like I told you that I reserved a van.” Belatran waved a piece of paper at the man.
“Well when did you do that?”
“From your web site. Hours ago?”
The man looked at him hard, as if he were a puzzle. “How many hours we talking here? Exactly?”
“Well it must have been eight or nine.”
“Shoot.” The man smiled with genuine warmth. “Here I thought we had a problem. Nope. No vans. And how’d you get here that quick?”
“You are at an airport. You realize that, right?”
“Yeah but… no planes scheduled.”
Belatran let out a breath. “Forget it. I have a receipt for a van, but as you said…”
“There ain’t no van.”
“Yes and very eloquent. What do you have?”
“Welp. Since you look a might peeved, I’m going to guess you aren’t going to be happy with this neither.”
Belatran held up his hands. “As long as it rolls without being pushed, we’ll manage.”
“OOOOOoooKay!” The man shook his head and walked out from behind the counter. He made for the door, still chuckling.
In the hospital’s ICU ward, the alarms stopped screaming as Natasha Riley regained her tenuous grip on life for the third time that morning. The nurses trickled out to work with other patients, leaving Natasha and Frank Riley with the doctor.
The old man’s eyes looked up at the doctor, bloodshot and out of tears. “Things aren’t looking up, are they?”
Doctor Moore fell into the seat next to him and rested his head on the cool, glossy wall. “I’m afraid not. Frank, we tried our damnedest in there and we almost lost her. She’s stable for now, but if she decides to take a dive again, I don’t think we’ll be much good at all.”
“So what…” He swallowed. “What now?”
The doctor exhaled. “Now, if you give the word, we take the mask off her face and the wires off her chest.” He Nodded at the hairbrush in his hands. “Now, you should brush her hair. Whatever happens now is up to her, not me.”
Frank looked at the brush in his hands. He remembered her buying it in Prague after the war. They had replaced the bristles a few times, but the gleaming silver against her hair always seemed to shine with its own light. He smiled weakly thinking of better times.
“Ok. Ok. Let… Leave her alone. It’s up to her now.” Voice quivering, Frank added, “She likes it when I brush her hair.”
The old man in his robes walked awkwardly away from the diner. He patted himself down. His hand found a leather binder in the folds and he sighed. He got to the edge of the parking lot and continued there along a footpath along the side of the road who’s only name was a number. Shade was a mercy on this path and the further he got from the diner the more of it he received.
He looked into the forest. The first path he found got only a headshake and he continued.
“Hey! Hey Chuck!” The voice calling from behind made the man whip around. His hand came up to try to see who would have shouted something like that at a time like this.
Another old man came trotting down the path. His polo and tasteful white pants reflecting the heat of mid-day. “Chuck! Jesus!” The man jogged to a trot and then finally took a knee. Though the man was thin, it wasn’t due to exercise. “Oh thank God. For a second I thought I was going to miss you. Or you weren’t going to stop. I…” The man continued to puff.
From within his robes, Chuck ducked down. The thin man looked up briefly and his face lit with confusion. “Larry?”
“Hah! Yeah. Hi.”
“Larry, what the fuck are you doing here? What’s it been? Decades?”
The thin man straightened up and took in a deep breath, trying to compose himself. “Definitely over twenty years, so yeah.”
“And… you … remember?”
The thin man smiled. “You’re a slippery one Chuck. Took me all this time. But yeah, I remember. Not only that, I … noticed … that you were nearby … and why.”
“You…” Chuck rubbed his hand over his head. “Meh. Should know better than to consider anything strange, especially now.”
“Yes. Especially now. I’d ask how you are, but…”
“Yeah. Not exactly a fair question.” Chuck’s face lightened. “But I gotta say, I’m feeling a little better now.”
The thin man smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. Do you mind if I walk with you a bit?”
“Sure Lar. You… uh… know where I’m going?”
“I know the destination you intend, sure.”
“And you’re still up for a walk?”
“Chuck, you of all people should know that while a body may intend to go to a place, there are times when the path points to a new direction. Remember, once upon a time, I read your books. I was there at the hole in the world. And for better or worse, it touched me. I remember it. I remember what they did with me because of it. And now, I have this.”
Larry stuck out his hand and from around his open palm, an aura grew. Within the aura every possible instance of that open hand flickered through existence.
“Chuck, there are more worlds than this one. We always talked about it, late at night after the wine ran out and the girls went to sleep. When the G-Men caught me, they tried to go through there, but I couldn’t let them. I was the Ultra and for years I fought to try to find that again.”
“But it’s back.”
“It can’t be denied, really. It led me to you.”
The two men continued to walk, each in thought. They found a promising trail and pushed through the low hedge to get to a manageable trail made of sand and dead plants. The forest gave shade but took away any hint of a breeze. They went on for a bit before Chuck spoke up.
“You realize how fucked up that is, right Lar?”
The thin man smiled. “Yesterday, I’d have told you it was impossible. Yesterday I wouldn’t have remembered you enough to tell you anything if you weren’t standing right in front of me. Today though, well, it’s still pretty fucked up, yeah.” He chuckled. “You know that even without my memories of you and our talks, I became a philosopher? Shows you how people just are what they are in their core, regardless of external forces, eh?”
“So why are you here, Lar? I’ve got enough smack in my pocket to kill a dozen mortal men or one Keith Richard’s and I aim to use it before too long. You know that. You know why. I’m at the end of my rope. It’s good to see an old friend and all, but…”
“You misunderstand. There are other worlds. We had the right of it back then. The elves that greet you when you take the vines, the aliens we met with Ken and Bear… They are there and they are not bothered by your physical form… or lack…”
Chuck jumped back as if struck.
“I’m here to take you to them. You are remembered by them. They brought me here.” The thin man held out his hand, unearthly power still radiating from it. “What do you say, old friend? One last trip?”
“Ah, what the hell. Not like I got any better plans.” With smile, the man in the robe gave the offered hand a hearty shake.
“Ok Aye. Stand by. I agree that the apartment is too hot now and likely not terribly useful. Bee out.” Ms. Bee closed the encrypted communicator and stuffed it back into her bag.
Across the large desk, Alexi Loveless continued to stare at his model. Without looking up he said, “Mr. Aye … Is he badly hurt?”
“Hm. Doesn’t sound serious.”
“He’s been at this since early last night. I’d like to swap him out with someone.”
“No. Sorry, but I’m giving that man one more chance to redeem himself. He’s botched this twice. You don’t think pulling him now will itch his brains a little? Make him question himself?”
“Aye’s a professional.”
“So am I and this is my line.” Loveless drew a line with his hands. “No He finishes this thing. Park him close to the action. We will find a way to locate Mr. Goldberg. I’m working on that now. After that, Mr. Aye can capture him with all haste.”
Ms. Bee nodded and stood. “Then I’ll leave you to it and try to get Aye a breather at least. Man’s not a machine. We’ll plan an extraction when we get a location. Until then, I’ll be working with your guys to shore up defenses.”
“I’m not paying for that. Why would you do that?”
“In case your Noodle Boy decides to zig our way. You aren’t the only one who doesn’t appreciate surprises.”
The door shut. Loveless looked back to his model on the monitor that took up the top of his desk. Head in his hands, he stared at it.
Minutes went by and he finally asked himself, “How to plan for true, no-bias randomness?” The question hung in the air unanswered for more long minutes until a soft chime announced a visitor.
“Come in,” he said, clearing the broken model from his desktop.
Vic Goodman pushed his large square frame through the door. His jowls sagged as he looked down at Alexi Loveless, sitting at his fancy paperless desk.
“Ah Victor! Nice to see you.” His tone changed from neutral to questioning. “It is nice to see you, isn’t it? You look uncertain.”
“I am at your service.”
“Yet you are unexpected. You know, that secret entrance through the quarry only stays secret if people don’t use it just to pop in and say ‘hi’.”
“Don’t worry. I re-arranged my schedule, moved some things up to make it look like I have official business in town. Worked out better than planned, actually.”
“And I assume you are really here to do business with me. All right then, what’s on your mind?”
Vic sucked himself up into a square with perfect angles. “Mr. Loveless, I would like to tender my resignation.”
“No.” Loveless said plainly. “Is there anything else?”
Vic pursed his meaty lips. “Surely you can’t believe that the casino racket will not be discovered? It’s only a matter of time!”
“Yes, but in that time we’ll make money hand over fist. That operation is neatly contained and contingencies are in place to handle the inevitable investigation. Really, there is nothing to worry about.”
“For you! I’m the damned contingency!”
“Now now, Victor. Swearing really doesn’t suit you.”
“I don’t hear you denying it.”
Alexi slumped forward in controlled exasperation. “Victor, this is a risky business. You should know, you have been at it for way longer than I have.”
“Yes. And the bosses I had … the ones you had killed or exposed, or crushed under your boot, you ruthless bastard … they knew how to treat people.”
“And yet they routinely set underlings out there to do risky jobs of which they would deny any knowledge of if things went south. You know this.”
“But this is a crazy risk!”
“With an obscene profit margin. And its very boldness disguises it. It’s a great operation. The risk reward ratio is… well, it’s pure gold. So, no.”
“You’ll do what? Out me, Vic? Do you even think you can? You would only out yourself. Don’t test me, Victor. Never forget, I have the game rigged in MY favor, always.”
“You son of a bitch. I’ve never asked for anything. I’ve always lived by the code. You took over for my boss, my friend, my mentor and I never said a word because that’s not the way. You went on a tear through the other outfits and even though those mooks were my enemies, they deserved better than what you gave. You humiliate people, people who played by the rules and showed respect.”
“And look at what they gained in return. Are you upset with me personally or just pissed that I worked your system of fealty to my own ends? Don’t fault me because I am a better gangster than you or your cronies, Vic.”
“I have no cronies because of you. All my friends are dead or banished. All I want is to retire someplace that isn’t a prison cell.”
Loveless’s voice changed, becoming truly apologetic. “Then you picked the wrong line of work, Victor. That’s the pension plan.”
Victor slumped in the chair. His face was a meaty mask of despair.
“Look, Victor, I can’t just let people leave, even if they are, like you… problematic. You are looking at this thing I built, my method, and you see the juggernaut that steamrolled your compatriots. But you see, I understand the weakness in the design and while you all keep the thing running, I’m up here, alone, constantly patching up those cracks to keep us all as safe and well off as I can. Sure, people will get caught now and then, but the success rate under me is much better than any historical accounting in this line of work. And if they weren’t, people would be super suspicious. Surely you can see the progress. Better jailed than hunted or dead. And one of the central parts of that is keeping loyalty. If you skip out now after Urk stepped out of line and after… this morning’s incident… that would be destabilizing.”
The light began in Vic’s eyes and spread up to smooth his brow. He lifted his head to Loveless who met his gaze. “What if I gave you something you needed. Let you save face, make it look like I went out on a high note?”
“It would have to be something pretty good.”
“I can give you Goldberg.”
It took a beat, but Loveless replied, “No, you can’t. Sorry, but he’s untraceable. He only has one listed phone number and it’s under the…”
“Building you blew up. You aren’t the only one who can put two and two together. But he got in touch with me through back channels. Had to get his money, right?”
The younger man leaned back in his chair.
“You could trace the back channel, try to figure it out, try to get me to spill, but that would take time … even with your ‘system’” The last word came out like a curse. “I don’t think you have time. I think you’ve got a bigger problem than just some dumbass making you look bad. So … Can we make a deal?”
Loveless once again leaned forward on his desk and smiled. “Victor, you have my attention.”