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The Eternal Prison
By Somers, Jeff
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Somers, Jeff
All right reserved.
SHORT WORK OF A FILTHY JOB
“Stay down,” the tall System Pig with the precise, fussy beard said in a reasonable tone of voice. Gentle pressure on my shoulders guided me to my knees, my wrists bound behind me. “Or I will cut a few tendons and hobble you, capisci?”
His partner was shorter and older, standing in front of us, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. His face was red and blistery, like he’d fallen asleep in an oven, and he hadn’t said a fucking word since I’d been dragged out here. After a moment he scanned us quickly, nodded once to himself, and stepped around to join his partner behind us.
I was soaked and shivering, the steady rain drumming down onto my shoulders and finding its secret ways inside. The street outside the remnants of Pickering’s bar was half-flooded, inches of water in spreading pools. I was one of four assholes kneeling in the damp; I wouldn’t have suspected four people remained anywhere below Twenty-third Street these days. Not alive, anyway.
The two System Pigs who’d scooped me up with their list of Very Important People had moved on down the block, taking their team of Stormers into a sagging old tenement. Every few minutes there was a gunshot or a shout, but otherwise it was peaceful, kneeling in the water, feeling the cold rain make its way down my back, my hands bound and no more decisions to be made. I’d been ready for my execution, but I was just as happy to kneel here and think about nothing.
I hadn’t been myself for a long time. The Plague had sucked everything out of me.
The guy next to me started murmuring something; it took me a moment to recognize it as praying, old ritual language. I remembered my mom praying when I’d been a kid, her singsong voice, her tightly shut eyes. I opened my eyes and looked at my fellow Very Important People: none of them looked so important to me. They were wet, thin, and all three sported the ugly scars on their necks left by the Plague; a few months before, they’d been coughing blood and croaking, inches from death. And I’d saved them. These three assholes. I’d scratched myself bloody crawling around the fucking world, and it was because of me they were still here, still breathing.
I looked around dreamily, this block I used to know so well. The System Security Force had already torn down half the buildings, flattening everything into rubble and then sending in Droids to crush everything into neat little cubes. I had no doubt more Droids would eventually roll in to collect the cubes, picking the whole place clean until you’d never guess that any of this, any of us, had ever been here.
The thought slipped off the shiny, smooth surface of my brain and disappeared.
A block or two over, a huge Vid screen glowed silently, bright and frantic, beaming the mime-news to everyone within a few hundred yards. The clips were short and edited to convey most of the message without audio. Most of the stories were upbeat testimonials to how the System was recovering from the Plague, but I’d been tuning into the underground Vid nets out of the Appalachians for the last few weeks, and I silently translated as the clips flashed by.
First, fifteen seconds on how casualty numbers from the disease were still going down as more and more surprisingly tough and scrappy citizens emerged from hiding places, shaken but alive. Translation: the entire East Coast of North America was a fucking graveyard, and places as distant as Brazil had seen upward of 10 percent of their population killed. Two more days and the whole fucking world would have been dead, jiving and singing, doing dance moves.
Then, a happy story about the citizens of the System of Federated Nations African Department discovering they had a food surplus and electing voluntarily to send huge shipments of organics and nutrition tabs to other areas of the System more affected by the Plague. This with lots of clips of smiling, celebrating people, people just fucking delighted to be living in the System. Translation: everyone, everywhere was starving before the fucking Plague, and the way things were going, n-tabs were going to be the new goddamn currency any day now. And if you didn’t have any n-tabs, you could cut off a finger and pay—feed—someone with that, and we’d all be eating each other, over and over again, the System gnawing itself raw.
The rotten tenement down the street suddenly exploded, a plume of fire and masonry shooting out into the street below, the world shuddering and leaping. The skinny guy kneeling next to me cursed under his breath. I turned to watch the smoke and fluttering debris for a moment. It was beautiful.
“They’re okay, Silvie,” Fussy Beard behind me said, getting his report in his earbud. “The rats are holed up in a secret room, packed in like fucking roaches, and blew a charge when Solly came sniffing around, but they tripped it too soon and killed two of themselves, and we didn’t even get a scratch.” The two cops laughed. I smiled, too. This was fine. Everything was fine.
The Vid was now showing Dick Marin, the Emperor himself. Director of Internal Affairs of the System Security Force; no one was telling Dick what to do these days. Dick was discussing the need for a reorganization in the wake of the Plague, in order to make things more efficient. Translation: his nominal bosses, the Joint Council Undersecretaries, who thought they ran the System, were starting to give Marin flak, and he’d decided it was time to forcibly remind them of the real pecking order. From what I’d heard, he was going to find out they hadn’t been sitting on their hands, waiting for him to send his cops after them. I thought about the fucking mess things were going to become soon and for a second almost wanted to stick around, just to watch the fireworks.
“Here they come. Look at those shitheads!”
They came stumbling out of the dust and smoke, three more of us coughing and bleeding, followed by a knot of Stormers in their grimy, flickering Obfuscation Kit that struggled to map itself to the swirling smoke and rain they passed through. Then the two officers, the bald one and the stiff, good-looking smiler, who had taken me down and checked me off their list of People of Interest, people too important—for whatever mysterious reason—to just kill.
The three prisoners were young kids, teenagers. They were all wearing long oily-looking coats and bright red pieces of cloth around their necks, black, homemade ink around their eyes melting onto their faces in gummy streaks. I’d seen that a lot recently. It was a fashion. The one in front was tall and skinny, with deep cavernous cheeks and bright, wide-open eyes. He had a big scar on his forehead, old and leathery, and some fresh cuts all over his face. Even with his wrists laced up behind him, he walked steadily and with his head up. He was staring at me, and when the Stormers brought them over to us, he took an extra two steps and landed next to me as someone swept his feet out from under him, sending him to his knees.
“Fucking manners,” the kid hissed.
“You okay with these chumps?” Baldy shouted.
“Fuck, Mage,” one of the cops standing behind us shouted. “Yeah. We can handle babies and gramps, here.”
The kid next to me sucked in blood from his nose and spat it onto the street in front of us, where it was immediately washed away. “Babies, fuck,” he muttered.
This was fine. Everything was fine. I didn’t have any outrage anymore. I knelt there feeling nothing but cold and wet. No anger, no sadness, nothing. I was just waiting for the next thing, and not feeling terribly interested about it, either. I wondered, idly, if they would shoot me in the head if I stood up and started to walk, or if I’d just get another beating. I wanted the bullet, but I didn’t want another beating.
The two cops in charge signaled their Stormers, and the whole herd of them marched off to clear another building on their list. After a moment it was just the rain and wind again, the sucking noise of the System Pigs’ boots as they stepped under a scrap of roof still clinging to the building behind us.
“I’ve got a blade,” the kid said suddenly, his eyes locked on the street in front of us and his voice steady. He knew better than to whisper—the cops couldn’t hear him, but I could. He knew better than to look at me or to move or to do anything except talk in a steady, controlled voice. “I can get my fingers on it, saw myself loose, and pass it to you.” I remembered when I’d been sixteen, running the streets with a blade and nothing to lose. I’d pulled some demented shit back in the day—it had been all about survival, from one day to the next. Then I got some yen and some standing, and it became commerce and reputation. And then one day a pair of System Cops had come to make me an offer I wasn’t allowed to turn down, and then I’d been angry. I’d been angry for years.
I saw Gleason, cold and dead, changed by the Plague into something terrible. I wasn’t angry anymore. I wasn’t anything.
“My two guys will jump in,” the kid said, spitting blood into the street again. “Well… one of them will. I dunno about the other one. We take these two cocksuckers out. Fuck, I was willing to take my chances alone, but you look like you’ve seen some shit, huh? A player. That’s luck. I’ve always been lucky.”
I closed my eyes. The kid was probably nicknamed Lucky or Chance or something fucking ridiculous like that, probably had it tatted onto his chest in big block letters with some fucking dice or playing cards or something. He was right, though; the two Pigs weren’t paying us much attention—to them we were just shivering assholes who’d gotten a foot up their ass, who’d gotten the point. If we moved slow and secret for ten seconds and then fast and furious for ten more, we had a good shot. If their Stormers and bosses didn’t pick that moment to return. If I let the kid take most of the chances. And if our two minders didn’t turn out to be like some of the cops I’d known, like Nathan Happling or Elias Moje, mean and tough and full of unpredictable tricks.
Or Janet Hense: inhuman, unbeatable.
All this I thought by rote, mechanically, some programmed part of my brain just clicking and whirring along the usual routes, slamming into hardwired decision trees onto new paths and arriving at the expected destination. None of it was connected to my body. There was no flood of adrenaline, no familiar spark of rage and terror. There was nothing. I knew I wasn’t going to move. I wasn’t myself anymore: I’d become a ghost. And it felt good to be a ghost.
The kid waited for me to say something. He didn’t move. The kid had discipline. He wasn’t going to be impatient and blustery, wasn’t going to threaten me and waste time. I liked him. I wished him luck. I thought about telling him I would go for the smaller cop first, if I were him, because the tall one liked to talk and threaten, which probably meant he was all bullshit. The short one just stared at you, and that made me nervous. But I didn’t say anything.
“We got like a minute here,” the kid said. “Those other bitches come back here, we got a problem. We gotta move right now.” His shoulders rolled, and I could tell he’d sliced himself free. It was impressive. “Here,” he hissed at me. “Take it.”
I closed my eyes again. Fuck you, I thought. You don’t tell me what to do, when to do it, or when to give a fuck. I’d be happy enough to keep kneeling here until I died of hunger. A few heartbeats ticked by, ragged and lurching. Opening my eyes, I saw the kid turn his head to look at me.
“What the fuck, man? Take it.”
A few months ago, I would have reached out and grabbed this hunk of snot by the ear and pinched until he cried, and fuck, I would have enjoyed it. Now I just wanted him to volunteer to shut the fuck up and let me die in peace. It wasn’t that pinching his ear wouldn’t have solved my problem. And I still would have enjoyed it. But it would simply require way too much effort. I was old, and I’d survived things no one should have to. Survive, that is.
“Don’t tell me you’re going pussy on me. Fucking hell.”
A spark of something, something molten and corrosive, flared up in my belly, flickering on for an instant and reminding me of… and then it was gone, snuffed out, drowned in a black inky flood of who gives a fuck, and I just smiled, looking up at the Vid hovering above the rooftops. It was showing a bright, clean, pure white nutrition tab factory in Brazil, smiling tan people in clean white jackets processing raw protein and minerals into tiny white pills that guaranteed no one was going to starve to death. The tagline informed us it was the fifteenth new factory opened this year, and n-tab production was at a record pace.
I closed my eyes, smirking. Translation: you are all going to starve to death, probably sooner than later. Shit was falling apart. Marin’s snatch of People of Interest was just the beginning, I figured.
“Shit,” I heard the kid mutter. “Fucking bitch.”
He fell silent, and then it was just the rain again and the sucking noise of one of the cops behind us on the move. Bitch. The word sank into my neck and made swallowing difficult.
“What are you two fags jawing about?”
The cop’s breath smelled like dead fish and cigarettes. He knelt down between us with the casual ease of someone who’d been in charge of every situation he’d encountered, ever, his face almost close enough for his trim little beard to scratch my cheek. He plucked the cigarette, damp and cold, from his mouth and put a hand on each of our shoulders, pulling us toward him.
“No fucking talking, okay? You two want to suck each other off, wait until you’re alone. Be decent about it.”
I wondered why every fucking cop I’d ever met was afraid of the queers. Me, I’d worked with plenty of them, and they were just as dirty and apt to shiv you in the back as everyone else, but no more so. Then, before I could even think to tell him that this wasn’t right, this was too soon, the kid jerked his elbow hard into the cop’s face, crunching his nose into a pulp and knocking him back onto his ass. It was an easy move, a surprise move with the cop off balance and in a dumb position, and it had been hard to resist, but I knew better. The easy move wasn’t always your best move.
The rest of it happened outside my peripheral vision. I didn’t turn my head to see, but I could hear, and I knew exactly how the choreography went—it was a short, unhappy skit. The cop was on his back like a turtle, nose a fountain of blood, and the kid leaped on top of him with the blade, swinging it down in a dramatic, stupid arc to slice the throat presented to him. I could see the kid’s face, the same face I’d made a million times—not ecstatic, not excited. Grim. Twisted up in concentration, trying to make short work of a filthy job.
And then the gunshot, and the kid sailed into my field of vision like a cannonball had hit him in the stomach, landing a foot or two away with a big spray of dirty water. He lay there in the street clutching his belly as blood poured between his fingers and blended into the ocean around him.
“Moda-fucka!” the first cop hissed, lurching to his feet and into my sight. I didn’t look up at his face. He stood there next to me for a few seconds, just panting through his mouth, and then half twisted around. “Danks, Silbie.” He stepped out into the street, sinking into a puddle up to his ankles, and approached the spluttering kid. For a few seconds he stood over him, hands curling and uncurling. “Moda-fucka,” he repeated more softly. He breathed in through his smashed nose violently, his whole body shaking with the effort to suck air and blood through it, and then spat a prodigious glob of blood and snot onto the kid, followed by a solid kick to his stomach that made him scream and flip over.
“You piece of shit,” the cop hissed, kicking the kid again. “You know what, Silvie? Upon further fucking reflection,” he huffed, landing another kick to the kid’s side, “and study of the fucking lists”—another kick—“I don’t think this particular shithead is all that fucking important after all.”
One more kick. The kid started to crawl, pulling himself feebly forward through the puddle of rainwater with one hand. The cop drew his handgun and pointed it lazily down at him and waited.
From behind me, the other cop, the one with the blistered face, spoke up. “Not to me, that’s for sure.” He sounded sad, like he’d seen this little play before and hadn’t liked it the first time.
With a nod that sent a little mist of blood spray around, the other cop squeezed off a shot. The kid’s head did a quiet little explosion, and he sank down into the water as if relieved. The cop stared down at him for a moment and then nodded, holstering his gun and yanking a handkerchief from his coat to press against his flattened nose as he stepped back behind the rest of us without even a glance. I stared at the kid, slowly joining his ancestors in the sewers of Manhattan Island.
“There’ll be heat for this, because of the lists,” Blister-face said without emotion. “You’re fucking filling out the Incident Report.”
“I’ll fill out the fucking SIR,” Fussy Beard snapped back. “That’s you all over, Silvio. Afraid of fucking paperwork.”
I kept my eyes on the kid for a few seconds, watching. He was just dead, though, like I should have been years ago, like everyone I’d ever known—give or take a few shitheels I didn’t care about—was dead. The cops’ talk descended into murmurs behind me, indistinct and predatory. I closed my eyes, and it became just the rain and the wind. I was a ghost.
Las Vegas was a scrub of a town, an electric grid in the middle of the fucking desert, guarded by the burned-out husks of ancient hotels. You could walk through the inhabited town in ten minutes and be in the extended graveyard that was the old city, and I was getting the fifty-yen tour following the Russian around. You could get anything you wanted in Vegas—easier if it was illegal. There were no cops in Vegas; I wasn’t sure if there had ever been, but now that the cops and the Spooks were at war, there wasn’t a cop within five hundred miles of the place.
Romanov’s was a dump from the outside—pink-gray stucco, bars on the windows, and weak, jittery neon—set between happy-ending bars and burlap-window opium dens. Inside, it was plush, red velvety material everywhere, brass on the bar. Although the waiters were all Droids on wheels, skimming across the floor with terrible efficiency, the bartender was a human in a black suit, bright eyed and pasty faced, speaking English like he’d memorized it off cards. He didn’t like the look of me but took his cigarette from his mouth long enough to saunter over and toss a napkin onto the bar. There was music in the air, a tinkling piano, and I could see my Russian in the mirror across from me, which was good enough.
The bartender stopped in front of me, his dark hair hanging in his face. He picked tobacco off his lip and spat it onto the floor. “You have yen?” he asked.
I smiled, tossing my credit dongle onto the bar. “Sick with it.” One thing I still had was yen. Problem was, you needed a fucking wheelbarrow of it to buy anything.
He looked down at the dongle for a second but didn’t bother to pick it up and scan it. He sighed, almost in disappointment. “What will you have?”
I liked his accent. It was hard to understand, but it sounded nice. He was Russian, of course, of some sort—maybe he was Bulgarian or maybe he was a fucking Cossack, but it didn’t matter: he was Russian for all practical purposes. Everyone in Vegas was a fucking Russian—they owned the city, if you wanted to call it a city. Mainly because no one else wanted the piece of shit out in the middle of nowhere. The Russians were keeping Vegas going through sheer determination, though things had gotten easier recently since the army had moved into the Southwest. I hadn’t seen a System Cop in months.
“Doesn’t matter, I can’t taste anything anymore anyway. Gin,” I said. “Warm.”
He snorted, producing a glass and dropping it in front of me. “Gin. Fucking prole, yes?”
I winked, pulling a cigarette from my pocket. “Fucking right.”
My Russian was an old guy, short but broad in the shoulders, with the tight look of a man who’d been lean and tough his whole life. He was old, silvery hair thick and short on his head. In the mirror, he was sitting at a table crowded by two tall, plump baldies who sweated freely in their standard-issue leather coats. My Russian was clasping the hands of a tall, thin man with waxy skin and a shiny suit: the owner. They were beaming at each other so forcefully, pumping hands, I wondered which one hated the other more. The dining room was pretty full, lots of swells out for a nice meal, mostly fat men in suits so fucking pretty they were almost gowns. There was a nice buzz of noise in the air.
The bartender poured my drink, and I lit my cigarette, sending a cloud of bluish smoke into the air. I picked up my glass and swallowed the drink in one gulp, ticking my head down toward the glass before he could put the bottle away.
“Another,” I said.
“You really can’t taste anything, eh?” he said, squinting at me and pouring another.
“Or feel anything.”
In the mirror, I watched the tall, waxy guy walk away from My Russian and plucked my cigarette from my mouth. I pushed the red coal against the top of my right hand and held it there, white smoke curling up. I counted five, watching My Russian in the mirror sweep the room with his tiny, thin eyes, and then put the butt back in my mouth, waving my hand at the bartender to show off the blackened welt. “Not a fucking thing.”
“That’s impressive.” The bartender nodded, leaving the bottle on the bar as a sign of good humor. “Nerve Augment?”
I shook my head, picking up my glass and staring into the cloudy liquid. “Something that happened to me in prison,” I said slowly, one of my moments coming on me, a strange, slow feeling in my thoughts. I shook my head a little and let it slide past me—it only got worse if I tried to force a memory. “I don’t like to talk about it.” I toasted him and drank my shot off as he spun and walked away. As I was setting the glass down, I felt the air around me getting crowded. In the mirror, My Russian and his two sweaty bodyguards had suddenly gotten much nearer.
“My friend,” My Russian said, “I have been seeing visions of you all day.” He spoke with the weird precision foreigners brought to English, every word bitten off, newly minted, invented a few seconds ago. “Why is that?”
I returned my cigarette to my mouth. Without looking around at them, I shrugged. “I’ve been hired to kill you.”
In the mirror, My Russian shot his cuffs, and I caught a glimpse of a dark, blurry skull tattoo on his wrist. Fucking Ivans and their bullshit: the Russians had been just about the only organization to survive Unification, and it had made them fucking batty with the symbols and rituals. It wasn’t pretty, of course—they made most of their yen through drugs, heavy shit sold to the bottom rung of the System, mostly designer, unstable, and as likely to pop a vessel as get you high. The cops had no patience for narcotics—Dick Marin, the Director of Internal Affairs and pretty much king of the cops, set the tone there—and they beat up on the Russians every chance they got, and the Russians were quick to put a bullet in the head of anyone who looked like a weak link to them.
They’d never made much of a dent in New York, back when there’d been a New York. The locals had closed ranks against them, and the System Pigs owned New York the way the Russians owned Vegas. There’d been a couple of attempts over the years, but it had ended in tears. But the Russians had survived.
Everyone in that organization had done terrible things. Terrible Things was their fucking initiation rite.
My Russian cocked his head at me for a moment and then burst into laughter. His two bald friends joined in after a second of hesitation. Their boss looked around as if he’d made a terribly funny joke, soaking up the room.
“Come have a drink with me, my ghost,” he chuckled, turning away. “Talk to me.”
One of the bald giants leaned down, but I forestalled that bullshit by standing up, blowing smoke around. “Touch me, Boris, and I will break a finger.”
He grunted, straightening up. “Name not Boris.”
I nodded. “Finger will still be broken,” I advised, pushing through them. I jerked my head at the bartender, who was back to leaning against the wall, watching me walk by with slitted eyes and smoke curling up from his own cigarette. He flicked his hand from his waistband, and my credit dongle leaped at me. I snatched it from the air.
“Spaaseeba,” I said, just a collection of sounds I’d learned. I tucked my dongle away into a pocket.
“Nice knowing you,” he said to my back.
The place was air-conditioned aggressively, but I imagined I could still sense the heat out in the desert. It had been 113 at noon, though it was expected to cool down to a manageable 104 by midnight. I hated Las Vegas. It was like living in someone’s armpit.
They led me toward the back, passing the packed tables, and kept walking past all of the heavy-looking red padded doors marked PRIVATE and took me through the swinging doors into the kitchen. The black, humming cooking unit took up an immense amount of space, swollen within the tiled room, just a cube of rough black metal with neat, tidy conveyor belts inching out of it. It was idle at the moment, there being more activity at the bar than the menus, but I didn’t like the way it hummed, an almost silent vibration that reached inside me. I pushed my hands into the loose pockets of my ill-fitting suit, too heavy for the weather and full of my sweat, soaked up lovingly and held jealously. I wasn’t made for this town. Too hot, too empty, too old.
My Russian kept walking through the empty kitchen and out the back door into a fenced-in lot that smelled like rot, the wet, heavy smell hitting you in the face and settling down to soak into your clothes and skin. Weeks from now I’d be smelling like this fucking parking lot. I kept smiling, though, trying to look my new friends over. All of us thought we knew exactly where this social call was ending, and all that remained was to see who was right.
I put my eyes on My Russian and ran them up and down his shiny suit, deciding he wasn’t carrying a barker. The Russians—the higher-ups, at least, the real old-school Ivans—had a fetish for strangulation, a wire shining out in the darkness. I’d heard they regarded any murder that didn’t require you to get right up close to the mark—a knife, a piano string—as pussy work. American murder.
Pussy or not, the two bald mountains had two guns each, big ones, under their arms. They didn’t look fast, and their coats were too tight for that kind of move—it would bunch up if they tried to pull both at once, and if they were going to pull them one at a time, they were fucking morons for carrying two anyway. The two bodyguards stopped and let My Russian and me take a few steps more, so that I ended up between him and them, the two huge balls of flesh between me and the door.
My Russian stopped and turned to smile back at me. I squinted around, the dark heat settling on my shoulders and pushing. It was bright out, a big moon shining down onto us. The fence looked high, a serious fence. Not impossible to scale, but not something I was going to leap over while people shot at me. The sky was a dark blue canopy over us, empty, clear, just filled with evaporating heat.
“I take meetings here,” My Russian said, spreading his hands and grinning. His suit shone expensively in the dim light leaking from the sky. “It is quiet. So,” he said. “You have been hired to kill me, yes? Who has hired you? Why?” He cocked his head. “I know your face. I know your name. New York, yes? Lots of you New Yorkers out here these days. Rats fleeing the sinking ship.”
“New York’s gone,” I said. “They’re tearing it down and replacing it with a goddamn shopping mall.”
“Yes. I know you—a big gun, yes? How many men have you killed, for yen?” He said it as if there were better things to kill for. Then he squinted one eye at me owlishly. “You were in Venice recently, yes? The World Banker. I forget the name.”
I shook my head. “Haven’t been to Europe in years, Boris. You’re thinking of some other desperate old man.”
My Russian frowned and pushed his hands back into his pockets. From below his collar a smudge of ink was visible—a star atop what I assumed was a crown, the symbol of high rank. I reached up and scratched my shoulder where my own prison tattoo used to burn. Prison had been good for me. I didn’t like to think about it too much, about Michaleen and Bartlett and the others. It hadn’t been a good time, an enjoyable time, but it had been a necessary time, for me. It had boiled me down, and I’d come out of it the better man.
He saw me looking and smiled. “You know what it means?” He suddenly jerked his sleeve up, revealing two and a half of the blurry skull tats on his arm. “And these?”
“Prison work,” I said, keeping myself still, feeling the bodyguards’ eyes on me. “Where’d you get the art?”
“You know what it means, my friend?”
I smirked, figuring that would annoy him. “I know what it’s supposed to mean, Boris. Anyone can slap some ink on you.”
“My name is not Boris,” he complained. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as me after all. I wasn’t used to being the smartest guy in the room. “And where I come from, they kill you for false emblems like that. Buy you a drink somewhere and slit your throat, you fall back onto a plastic sheet; five minutes later it is like you were never there.”
“Yeah,” I said. “How many? Five? Ten? You think ten is a big number?” If I’d had a skull for every person I’d killed, I’d be a fucking shadow. I’d be nothing but ink.
“Numbers do not matter. You New York boys, always counting.” He peered at me. “You are sure you did not work the Venice job? I heard your name, very clear.”
“Then someone is lying to you,” I said. I’d been sucked into Chengara Penitentiary and hadn’t made it too far away since getting out. “The last two times I made it to Europe, things didn’t go so well for me.” The two big boys behind me hadn’t moved, not even to loosen up their coats.
He nodded, crimping his lips as if to say, Yeah, okay, whatever. “You know my people?” he said suddenly, voice soft and casual, like he was asking me if I liked his shirt. I didn’t. My own shirt was white and scratchy and a little tight around the neck, like it’d been made for a different man. “You know who I work for?”
“Sure,” I said, nodding. “You’re connected. You’re a high roller. You run this town—for your boss. You live in a fine suite in an ancient hotel; you go from an air-conditioned room to an air-conditioned mini-hover—it’s fucking cute, like a little toy—to an air-conditioned room every day and probably haven’t sweated in ten years.”
He chuckled, nodding and stepping around me. “Da,” he said jovially. “Da! And you were sent to kill me. It is funny. Now, if you will excuse me, I must have my dinner. Lyosha and Fedya will finish our conversation.”
I turned to watch him walk back into the restaurant, the door shutting behind him as if on a motor of some sort. I looked at one of the big guys and then at the other. They were slightly different in the shape of their rounded heads and the angle that their mouths hung open but were essentially the same person occupying different space. I wondered idly if there would be an explosion if they accidentally touched.
The one I was looking at—I thought he was Lyosha but wasn’t sure why I thought that—grinned. “You break my finger now?”
I sighed, feeling tired. “Sure, why not,” I said. I could do the math: two of them against one of me, alone in a back lot, their friends inside and everywhere, fuck, the whole damn city. They hadn’t frisked me or tried to take my own gun away. I chose not to be insulted. I reached up and took my crappy cigarette from between my lips and held it carefully between my thumb and forefinger.
Lyosha flicked his own cigarette into the air and exhaled briskly, shrugging his shoulders, getting loose. The butt fell limply to the ground as if the air were too thick to travel through, the coal bright on the dark, shadowed ground. For a moment we all stood there, hands hanging free, each of us waiting to see who would move first. First move was a losing move—it telegraphed your intentions, and when you had more than one person to deal with, it guaranteed at least one gun was going to find its way onto you and make some painful alterations. The air around us was completely still, like hot jelly, and I was reminded of the yard back at Chengara, where I’d gotten a free but excellent education on how to fight when outnumbered.
Rule number one was, sometimes making the first move made sense.
I launched myself at the one I’d decided was Lyosha, tossing my cigarette into his face with my left hand as I pulled my gun with my right. He cursed in Russian, all consonants and fucking phlegm, waving his hands in front of his face and dancing back. As I crashed into him, I brought my gun up and fired twice into his belly, falling down on top of him and rolling off to the side. I wasn’t worried about the noise; My Russian expected a few shots. A few more and he might send the waiter out to see if we needed anything, but not yet.
I came up into an unsteady crouch and fired three times, quick, where the other bodyguard had been a second before. He was still there, for a moment, and then toppled over, hitting his knees and then falling over face-first. I stayed low, listening to the sudden silence, feeling the heat on me, straining my senses.
Rule number two was to never assume. It wasn’t nice, but I turned and found Lyosha, put my gun against his head, and made sure he was dead. Then I stepped over to his buddy and did the same, warm blood spraying me lightly. You assumed people were dead, they had a habit of coming up behind you at the worst times. I’d been assaulted by dead people so many times I’d become paranoid about it.
I turned and jogged back toward the door in a wide arc, approaching from an angle, taking soft, easy steps. I knew I didn’t need to worry about getting the door open—I had magic. By sheer force of will, the door was going to pop open. After five steps it did just that, and a big, thick-necked woman with a goddamn shotgun held across her body, a streak of absolute darkness, stepped halfway out into the yard. She peered out into the lot, muttering to herself, not seeing me coming at her. I just kept approaching, holding off; you couldn’t shoot someone in the back. I wasn’t a big believer in justice, but everyone deserved to at least see it coming.
I was just a few feet away when she suddenly turned, hissing something I couldn’t make out and swinging the shotgun around, slow and clumsy. I squeezed the trigger, and she whipped around, sending one blast from the shotgun into the night air and falling awkwardly against the door, propping it open with her body. I leaped forward and plucked the shotgun from her loose grip; studied the wet, ugly wound I’d created in her chest; then looked into her staring eyes. With a quick glance into the bright, empty kitchen, I broke open the shotgun and let the shells drop out, then tossed it away to my right, the shadows swallowing it. After putting an insurance shell into her, I edged into the humming kitchen. The crank air being pushed out of the vents above rushed past me like someone had opened an air lock out in the desert. I stopped right inside and wasted a moment or two, listening, watching the swinging doors that led to the dining room.
As I stood there, the doors swung inward and admitted a pair of serving Droids, skimming along the floor bearing dirty dishes. As the swinging doors snapped closed, I caught a glimpse of the busy dining room, all reds and browns, plush fabrics that looked heavy and old. My Russian was sitting back toward the front of the place, laughing and holding a drink up as if making a toast. I looked straight at him as the doors swung shut again, gliding slowly on their tiny motors, but he never looked up at me.
I raised my gun and let the clip drop into the palm of my hand; it was difficult coming by hardware these days, most of it coming out of scavenge yards down south, Mexico generally, where the SSF’s grip was getting a little sketchy under pressure from the army. For six yen a week kids sorted bullets into calibers and hand-filled clips, which were then sold to assholes like me for a thousand yen a clip. I wasn’t sure where the fucking bullets came from, loose and sometimes ancient as hell, and I generally expected my gun to blow up in my hand every time I pulled the trigger. It kept things exciting.
I exchanged the old clip for a fresh one and snapped it into place as quietly as I could. I wasn’t paid to scamper around waiting for the safe moment—I was paid for results, and now that My Russian was aware of me, there was no better time than the present, before he called his people and brought the hammer down—a wall of fat guys in leather coats, a team of idiots with garrotes in their pockets and my picture on their little handhelds. Besides, my instructions had been pretty clear: My Russian had to die tonight. I’d agreed to terms, and terms had to be upheld. I took a deep breath and racked a shell into the chamber gently, deciding that the best way to do it would be to be fast—no wasted movements, no wasted time.
I put the gun down low by my thigh and pushed my way into the dining room. I walked quickly and steadily toward My Russian, my eyes on him the whole time. Momentum was the key—no one paid me any attention as I crossed the room, just part of the blur of motion around them.
When I was halfway to his table, My Russian glanced at me, then looked away, his face a pleasant mask of polite enjoyment. Then he snapped back to me, his expression tightening up, his hands jumping a bit on the table like he’d thought about doing something and then killed the idea. It was too late by then; I was at his table. I should have just brought the gun up, killed him, and walked out. But I stood there for a moment with my gun at my side. I wasn’t sure he could see it.
“Lyosha and Fedya will have some explaining to do, yes?”
I shook my head. “No. And neither will the kitchen help.” I gave him another second, but he just sat there staring at me, his hands balled into fists. Macho asshole, no gun because he was tough. Fuck tough. Tough got you killed.
I raised the gun and there was no reaction at first—I’d expected a hubbub from the crowd, some noise, chaos. But I’d been away from civilization for so long I guess I’d forgotten the rules, how it worked. I raised the gun and put it a few inches from My Russian’s face—not close enough for him to grab it easily or knock it aside—and nothing happened. There were people just a few feet away, eating their dinners, but no one was even looking at me.
My Russian stared at the barrel. “You know who I am, my friend,” he said slowly, licking his lips. “Maybe you wish to be rich?” His eyes jumped up to my face and then tightened up. “No, I see you do not wish to be rich. Perhaps you don’t wish to live, either. You are not a young man. You know who I work for. This will not be forgotten.”
I nodded. “You draw a lot of fucking water out here. And now it doesn’t matter. I don’t know what you did, but you pissed off the wrong people, and here I am.” Talking was for amateurs, but I wanted to give him his say. When you killed a man, you had to let him have his last words, if you could.
He was shaking now—with fear or rage, I couldn’t tell. “You do not care who I work for, then? But you do not understand. It is not like the old days, where we run from the fucking cops and they chase us behind the furniture. We are part of things. We are partners. You do not fear us, but do you fear Cal Ruberto? Ruberto, the Undersecretary.”
I blinked. Now there was a sudden shout from across the room, and the whole place got quiet for a second, followed by a hissing wave of whispers. Cal Ruberto was Undersecretary for the North American Department and, nowadays, a major general in the New Army. The Under-secretaries had been running things—as much as Dick Marin and the System Cops would let them—since the Joint Council had gone senile years ago, but now they had some muscle. Ruberto wasn’t just an Undersecretary anymore. He was a fucking general.
“You do not fear my boss,” My Russian continued. “But maybe you fear Ruberto. Maybe you fear the whole damn System behind him.”
I stared down at him a second longer, then cocked the hammer back. “Cal Ruberto,” I said, “is my boss.”
I squeezed the trigger, the gun making a thunderous crack, My Russian’s face imploding as he was knocked backward, spraying me with a fine mist of brains and blood. I stood still another moment, thinking that I was almost at the point where I felt nothing when I admitted that.
Then I spun around, bringing my cannon with me, and stood there dripping blood, running my eyes over the crowd. Most of them ducked down as I looked at them, crouching in their seats. There were some shouts, but no one was moving. I let my gun drop to my side again and stepped quickly toward the entrance. There would be no cops, but you didn’t kill a man with a crown on his chest in this town and just walk away whistling.
I crashed through the doors and into the hot, empty desert night, slipping my barker into my pocket. I imagined My Russian’s blood baking onto me, turning into a shell. The street was busy, crowds of people who made up the infrastructure of the Russians’ private city out for the night. I just pushed through bodies, looking up at the dark, hulking shapes of the ancient hotels on the horizon, huge complexes rotting in the sun, marking the outer edge of a rotting city slowly filling with sand and choking sunlight. A man could get lost in the darkness there forever, if he wanted. In the heat, forever was a lot shorter than you might imagine.
Walking steadily toward the horizon, I wiped My Russian’s blood out of my eyes and heard him asking me, How many men have you killed, for yen? I shook a cigarette out and placed it between my lips. I didn’t know. I’d lost count. I was dead. I’d died back in prison. As I leaned in to light up, there was a deafening boom behind me, and I was lifted up off my feet for a second by a warm gust. I staggered forward and steadied myself with the street, lying there for a moment, my cigarette crushed into my face. When I flipped over, the restaurant was on fire, pieces of its roof sailing down in fiery arcs from the night sky, all of it in strange, muffled silence as my ears rang.
Well, shit, I thought, sitting up on my elbows. That’s fucking strange.
Excerpted from The Eternal Prison by Somers, Jeff Copyright © 2010 by Somers, Jeff. Excerpted by permission.
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