Chapter 4

By L.X. Beckett
May 25, 2019 · 5,948 words · 22 minutes

Queen Subway

Photo by LinedPhoto via Unsplash.

From the author: Drow starts to understand Tala's endgame. Can he extricate himself from her clutches before it's too late?


Another night smeared away into morning, and by dawn his left hip had caught fire and he was nursing a stutter.

            By February, Toronto’s streets usually gave over to a hard, dirty melt, receding mountains of filthy crystallized snow scraped into piles on streetcorners, revealing clumps of muck and the rare bit of litter tossed by people who didn’t mind risking a cap hit. This winter the snow kept coming, renewing the virginal blanket laid over the roofs and yards.

It was a sign, Drow thought, a hint from Someone Up There who wanted him to know he should’ve just kept shoveling sidewalks.

He was braced for Jervis as he stepped into the infusion center, but it was Trevon who met him at the door. The medic’s hand lit on his burnt, scabby shoulder, making Drow flinch.

His muscles were screwed tight; no pretending this was a casual encounter.

They made their way down a narrow flight of stairs, through a hallway that smelled of burnt, powdered turmeric.

“Are we making for the sewers? Underground cave system?” Drow asked—the stairs were wearing him out.

“Your guy claims the clinic’s changed ownership,” Trevon whispered.

“My guy—”

“Our cameras and mics have been getting an upgrade. He refuses to come upstairs. Anyway, here we are.”

It was a file room, dank and ill-lit, with a screechy fan planted near the door.

Jervis was waiting beside a dead potted plant under an equally dead grow lamp. Relics of the building’s former life as a pot dispensary, probably.

Dad’s widower had yet to lose his looks or the salesman’s smile. He’d always been charismatic: the light in his eyes beamed goodwill and noble intentions. C’mon, of course you can trust me, it said. Jerv’s charisma drew people like a beacon, pulling in the emotionally storm-tossed. Even now, seeing him brought an involuntary lift to Drow’s spirits. A lift—and then a swift hit of guilt about the distance he’d scrupulously maintained between them since Dad’s death.

He loves you, the guilt said, look at him lighting up there, he’s no monster . . .

No lighthouse, either, Drow told it.

More a siren; get close and rocks would tear out your bottom.

“Brucie,” Jervis said.

“It’s Drow.” He cleared his parched throat. “Let’s keep this to business.”

“Of course.” If he’d hurt his ex-dad’s feelings, it didn’t show. “Shirt off, then.”

Drow peeled, sat. Trevon hemmed and hawed over the infusion port as Jervis unpacked a bit of filament, fine as dandelion seed, microscopic wires arrayed around a central stem.

“The idea here is to have Crane run parallel installations. Twoface protocol, I call it. The vulnerable version, DayCrane, is available to Spiderlady, or whoever’s hacking for her—”

“Stop! Back up! Whoever’s hacking—”

“You’ve got a me, kid. She probably has a me, too. If she didn’t, she got one the first time you went off-script. You act, she reacts, she acts, we react. Play, counter-play, do-si-bleeping-do. I should write a dance instructor protocol for Crane, shouldn’t I? Anyone wanna learn to fox-trot?”

Drow flicked him. “Focus, Jerv.”

“Yeahyeahsorry. DayCrane still does all your donkeywork, and she can mess with him at will. Meanwhile, NightCrane communicates via tonguetext, evading the mics and security apps in her recording studio.”

“You’ll feel a pinch now,” Trevon interrupted. He pulled two pump staples and unearthed the belly of the injection device.

Drow looked away, imagining the scar it would leave, hating the self-mutilation.

Dad’s voice whispered in the shriek of the fan. Your body is the only thing you truly own . . .

Stick to business. “What will this new hardware do?”

Jerv outlined the problem: Drow’s pickups were loading to the airlock in Tala’s home. The video and conversation transcripts were then scrubbed by the confidentiality app in the psychiatric office on-site before they ever made it to the Sensorium or its permanent archive, the Haystack.

“So you override that somehow?”

“No,” Jerv said. “We add a cache of on-site storage to the port. NightCrane can upload the records on your command.”

“On-site . . .” Drow had barely heard of such a thing; private hard drives had been one of the first things to go out when international transparency accords began proliferating and people started loading their whole lives to the cloud.

“As medical tech, the port’s allowed some freestanding memory, in case it has to shoot you up during . . . dunno. A broadband blackout? I’m radically increasing its capacity. NightCrane can stash footage inside and upload it when you’re back in the world.”

“Can you get us into Tala’s mics and cameras, at the house?”

“Maybe,” Jervis said, with a significant glance. Meaning: if Drow gave him another Brilliance vial.

“I can’t spare more.”

“You’ve got twenty-some coming, don’t you?”

He tongue-texted: Goddammit!

Crane: I do apologize, sir. I cannot keep secrets from Master Jervis when he’s effectively performing brain surgery on me—

Drow said, “I get more, Jerv, if I finish the contract.”

Raised brows. “You’re thinking of walking away?”

No, Drow thought. He was going to get the goods on Tala: expose the truth. Win the likes, win the game. Make his name.

But Jerv always did have a way of making him feel contrary, of wanting to say fire when he was drowning. “Everyone says I should walk.”

“Run screaming,” Trevon muttered. He was easing the upgraded port into position, prepping for the unnecessary cleaning Drow had scheduled.

“Who asked you?” Jervis said.

“As my chemo pusher, Trevon, shouldn’t you be on Jerv’s side?”

The medic ran a gentle finger over the scabs laced across Drow’s biceps. “Chemo didn’t cause these.”

Jerv wasn’t listening. Behind his pricey low-profile goggs, his eyes were flickering. Reading software install specs, probably, or checking the handshake with Crane. Possibly writing the programming equivalent of symphonies. “Come on, Trevvie my boy. Trevvy muh man. Goal here’s to get Drow to the end of his contract in one piece.”

“It’s Trevon, I’m not your man, and you of all people . . . Jesus, isn’t this your son?”

“Technically, he’s my surrogate’s brother,” Drow said.

Jerv snapped out of quasi-REM. “Didn’t you say let’s stick to business? Because if you want to argue genetic semantics and familial bondage, I have footage from changing your godforsaken diapers—”

“Business, definitely business,” Drow said. The sudden bursts of rage hadn’t gone away, then. Why would they?

“Anyway, buddy,” Jerv went on, turning a glittery gaze on Trevon, “you’re the one literally poisoning the kid.”

The medic’s hands came up. A surrender. “Right. Got it. Seen and not heard.”

Drow swallowed rising anxiety. “Trevon, really, I’m fine.”

“See? All good.” Jerv twinkled, apparently surging back into bonhomie. “Drow, let me see your goggs.”

Drow slipped off his rig, brushing away the by-now usual fall of hair, and handed them over. “Trevon, can you tweak the chemo mix so I can’t fall asleep. Just for . . . say three days?”

“Days? You want to add psychosis to your problems?”

“Can you?”

“No! What about taking a placebo for the remaining infusions?”

Drow waved the handful of hair. “I need to keep falling bald or T-T-dammit-Tala will know what’s up. And the modeling contract requires I do ten treatments.”

Trevon considered. “If we’re talking tweaks . . . how about a lighter dose?”

It was a lifeline, one he hadn’t expected, and Drow grabbed it gratefully. “Yes. Right. Say, enough to finish off the hair, maintain this fabulous green skin tone and a bit of the quease. But not so much as—”

“Keep getting worse, but not as fast or as bad as expected? Excellent strategy, kids!”

Approval from Jervis: ironclad sign that this was an incredibly bad idea. He went on: “Hey! What if we threw in a dose of Sustain?”

Trevon groaned.

“Which is what?” Drow said.

“Slows down the Charly effect. Gets you more out of the remaining Brill.”

“So I can conveniently spare more for you?”

“You in this to win or not, son?”

“I’m in it to . . .” His mind tumbled possibilities, finding murk where, three weeks ago, everything had seemed clear. Commit to journalism? Truth, strokes, redemption? A little payback for Tala’s previous models, if she had indeed driven them to suicide? “This Sustain stuff. It’s d-d-dangerous?”

Trevon said, “You’re past worrying about dangerous.”

“Is it a zombie drug? Something for life extension that’ll interact badly with the actual boost to cognition?”

“Not a zombie.” Trevon sighed. “It just slows down your system’s ability to flush out the Brill. The combo will worsen your mouth sores and almost certainly give you nosebleeds.”

Drow thought of the list in his notebook. Cardiac arrest, in his script. In comparison, a nosebleed sounded both minor and suitably gross. “Might be just the thing.”

“Too bad. I’m not licensed to give Sustain.”

“Me either,” Jervis said, pressing a packet of patches into Drow’s hand. “No more than one a day, kid, hear me?”

Trevon’s expression—disgust with them both—morphed into a sudden “O” of surprise. “Speaking of zombies, yours is parking outside.”

“What?”

“My manager says to hold off on your port cleaning until she arrives.”

“Say it’s already done?” Jerv suggested.

“No.” Drow sighed. “Either Crane blabbed or she has a source at the clinic. You said new owners, Trevon?”

“This is me bugging out the back way.” Jerv flashed Drow another of those incandescent, sucker-luring smiles and scuttled off.

“Wow. Dad really is everything you said he was,” Trevon said.

“Jerv’s the least of my worries,” Drow said, struggling to keep his voice steady. He buttoned his shirt. “Come on. Haul me up the stairs so we can rip out my staples again.”

 

The new drug, Sustain, gave Drow a weird feeling, something like having a dissection pin embedded in his eye. Combined with Brill, it also bestowed photographic memory. He remembered visuals, suddenly, something that had never been his strong suit. How things looked, where they were: he could glance at a floor plan and see the house it described. He could score music by visualizing the notes on each page. He memorized the map of Paris, for fun, and ogled scans of John Keats’ handwritten manuscripts.

The songstorm he was writing for Cascayde took on a strange, New Wave undercurrent, opera-meets-electronica-mashes-romantic-poetry. Everything old made new again. All Thieves Together, he called it. Extremely fitting material for a virtuoso rising from the depths of despair.

When he arrived at the clinic for his next infusion, he brought bottled water and more printed clean diet. At Jerv’s suggestion, he brought his saxophone, too.

The sax was something they’d built together, back in the days before Dad was gone. It had its own modem, fine-tuned for Sensorium upload. Jervis hoped it might attract the attention of his counterpart, Tala’s hypothesized hacker.

“It’ll look like spyware, your next move,” he explained. “She’d be nuts to take the thing into her house until she had it checked out.”

Tala hovered, watching Drow’s every move, each drip of the infuser. She was humming, the way she did when she was hard at work. Drow would have bet she’d gotten through the clinic’s privacy protocols, that her goggs were capturing footage now, not just stills.

He clutched his sax case like it was a teddy bear, waiting for her to make her counter-play.

And sure enough, after the drip ran dry: “Got a surprise for you, Handsome.”

She poured Drow into a waiting limo and bundled him to a private reception, some arty event in the lounge of the fanciest of the downtown hotels.

“A party, Tala? Really?”

“Sleep if you have to, Handsome. If not, all the carbon costs and calories are covered. Anything you want, just ask.” With that, she installed him in a leathery black smartchair parked in a shaft of blue-tinted sunlight.

“Are you comfortable, sir?” That was dayCrane, the vulnerable one, talking aloud for show.

“Yes, thanks.”

Do we have transparency here? Drow tongued in Morse to the stealth version.

Nightcrane: Technically, yes—this is a public space. However, Master Jervis reports some data packets are being “accidentally” scrubbed before they reach Sensorium. Drow’s goggs showed a set of hands, drawing quotes in the air as the word accidentally played on his tongue.

So Tala’s tech guy is here.

It seems likely.

Tala tottered through the crowd, mingling, pressing the flesh. Everyone knew her; each conversation ended with her audience turning its gaze on Drow. A feeling of expectation, dense as summer humidity, permeated the room. Were they all hoping he’d pass out?

Drow forced his tongue to move again: Can you whooz these people?

NightCrane: Of course.

Public profiles of businesspeople began filling his whiteboard.

Drow gave one of the looky-loos a dozy grin, successfully luring him to the chair. He pushed out bleary chitchat. How do you know Tala? Have you seen her work? Are you an artist, too?

The man deflected Drow’s questions with the ease of long experience. But he’d broken some kind of barrier. More of them came, people wanting a closer look. Finally, one of them dropped a shiny tidbit: “I’m a collector, not an artist. Well. By day, I’m a litigator. Collecting’s my true passion.”

“You’re looking over the goods?” Drow asked, trying to sound knowing.

Startled, nervous chuckle.

“It’s okay,” he lied. “I’ve a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen—”

The woman’s pupils dilated. Brilliant Sustained Drow lay under the weight of his chemo load, memorizing every nanoshift in color as the blood leached from her face.

What’d I say?

Excusing herself, the litigator beelined for someone who looked like they might be her date.

Tala, missing nothing, orbited back briskly.

“Is this an auction?” Drow asked. “Am I on some kind of block?”

“I’m swanning you around while I’ve got you, Dearheart.” She rolled her shoulders, as if they ached.

“We have weeks yet.”

She gave him a birdlike, assessing gaze.

Drow texted: Is Jerv eavesdropping on the mics here?

NightCrane: He’s grabbing what he can.

Drow: Try to catch that litigator’s convo.

The analytic look on Tala’s face hadn’t vanished. To distract her, he said, “Wanna drive my price up?”

Pink brows climbed so high he could see them over the brass rims of her goggs. “What do you have in mind?”

He waggled the saxophone, baiting both her ego and her phantom tech support. “Another public feed?”

She brightened, rummaging in her purse. “You can’t play that horn of yours, can you, with that dry mouth?”

“Let her give your some ointment, sir.”

“Trevon gave me something, Crane,” he replied.

Nightcrane: That wasn’t me, Master Woodrow.

His skin goosed.

“Found it!” Tala raised a small tube.

Crane’s voice said, “Hers will undoubtedly be of the highest quality.”

Seriously, Crane, that’s not you?

Nightcrane: A decoy, I assure you. Do you remember the Twoface protocol?

He made an affirmative noise as he shook out his hands, loosening his fingers.

Nightcrane: Miss Weston’s tech has compromised DayCrane and tasked it with selling you on that ointment. Obviously.

Drow pressed the keys on the sax, tinkling them like piano keys, and declined Tala’s ointment with a fixed grin. Trevon’s remedy had vanished from his case, so he settled for a swig of bottled water.

His reed tasted funny. He wondered if she’d spiked that, too, but no. Just another effect of the chemo.

“Score this as I improvise,” he ordered DayCrane before he began.

For the first minute or so, the sound was rough. Embarrassing, even. Wheeze of an amateur, rank beginner, baby musician forcing the sounds of dying animals and old awoogah car horns. Drow kept at it, easing into an old practice tune, something learned when he was all of four, secure toddler with two fathers who thought him a prodigy, ensconced in a world he could trust. The sax exercise was barely a step up from playing the chromatic scale, but his lips moistened; the notes smoothed and elongated, transformed from barnyard honks to music.

He began to embroider.

Drow no more thought of himself as a jazz guy than a symphonic composer. But his memory was a treasure vault of theory lessons and music history, things Jerv taught him as a child, archived and long-ignored.

Jerv had been the one to start him on a pint-sized saxophone, when he was four. It was his first instrument, a cool instrument, but as a little kid, Drow hadn’t really understood it. He wanted lyrics, structure, choruses, intros and outros. He wanted to set up and sim guitar solos without blistering his fingers on strings. He wanted a band, Sensorium soundstorm tricks and virtuosi sensibility.

Crane’s voice had told him to take the ointment. If he hadn’t gone to Jerv, hadn’t split the app’s personality . . .

The sense of danger was diminishing. What mattered was the music spilling out of him, Pied Piper calling all the art collectors. Vibrations from the reed penetrated his jaw and teeth, transmitting waves of bone-deep pain. The edges of his mouth ached and chafed. Moisture dribbled off his chin. Warm wet landed on the collar of his shirt, spreading and becoming cold wet.

He pushed against the bodyfeels, continuing to improv. The collectors were clustering, cocktails growing warm as they stared at Drow like a zoo exhibit. He threw out an unexpected trill, almost a hit of birdsong. The whole room, right down to the coat-check girl, gasped-laughed.

Gotcha.

Kids, he realized, couldn’t appreciate the saxophone. Jerv should have held it back. A horn thrust music’s animal howl through the pure throat of a downed angel. It could purr lust, run a seduction, lure you to the rocks. It could shriek your regrets to the rooftops, whisper a graveside lament, trade your soul for a broken string of pearls or a kind word.

He played, and everyone in the lounge stood transfixed, hanging on every note.

This was what he should have been doing with every waking moment. Not journalism, certainly not law. What a waste, all that clumsy fumbling to woo the musical trendsetters of the stroke economy. Drow played a confessional, spinning all his fails into song. Worm-crawling low notes of cowardice, self-sabotage: the way he’d blamed Jerv for all his troubles, the way he’d given up composing original flows.

Then the bright, staccato thorns he’d grown whenever someone . . .

. . . Marcella . . .

. . . Seraph . . .

. . . got too close.

Fat alto bombast played a countermelody of rationalization, long, tricky runs etching his descent from trying to honestly build strokes and a reputation to grubbing for them, with that final, dirty, cold-blooded attempt to leverage Cascayde’s fanbase.

Now he was playing Cascayde.

It had maddened him! Her riding high on a glittering wave of stolen tracks. Undeserved success had left him, frankly, jealous . . .

He ran the melody back and forth for so long that it conjured the virtuoso.

At first, Drow took her for hallucination. Some trick of the Brill, transforming a wispy apparition in a high-necked white gown, just now stepping off the elevator, into her, into her . . .

But no! Reality. Not a vision. Not a sim.

Electric recognition spread through the lounge. Victor and victim, reunited. High drama.

Drow kept playing. This was it; this was everything he could get away with. He pulled the opening of her Cataract from his drug-enhanced infallible memory, remaking it on the fly, flagrantly stealing unprovenanced phrases, effortlessly burnishing.

The virtuoso was crossing the lounge.

Drow forced himself to rise. His knees shook as he stood; acid burned in his gut.

No matter. Keep playing.

Cascayde was a wand of a woman, substantial as the smoke from an extinguished candle, wrapped in Ralph Lauren. The assembled listeners drew back, leaving her acres of room to come to him.

Within his peripheral, the bartender muttered awed curses. On the sidelines, Tala had a camera in each hand, feeding him to the Sensorium with both fists.

Cascayde drifted past a guy so pale he looked frightened. Then another whose face, inexplicably, was tracked with tears.

Drow brought his last note to a shuddering triple-piano fade as Cascayde reached him. Empty-handed, she pulled the mouthpiece away from his lips.

Bursts of sensation, like fingernails digging into a blister, made him gasp.

She tried to speak, but the assembled collectors broke into applause so loud it drowned her.

Drow wasn’t going to be on his feet for much longer.

“I’m so—” His voice broke. “Sorry. I mean, please—”

Hooks, salty, in his throat. An itch. He fought the spasm but coughed nonetheless. Cascayde drew back, fractionally, not fast enough to dodge the spray of crimson, aerosolized blood misting her collar and jaw . . .

Drow half-turned, coughing up more red. Lips bleeding, tongue bleeding. “Crane,” he said, diction muddy. “Give her the score I just wrote.”

“All of it, sir? Or just the embroidery of Cataract?”

“All,” he said. “Sign over full rights.”

Cascayde was hyperventilating, staring at the blood on her dress. Her eyes had that wild, vulnerable look again.

“Call it . . . a peace offering,” Drow finished. His knee buckled and he lurched involuntarily.

Whether by default or design, she caught him. Barely strong enough to support his weight, she planted her spike heels and heaved, tipping him into the smartchair. He’d left a patchy red handprint on her pristine sleeve.

“It’s okay,” she said, grimacing, mastering herself. Then, louder: “I forgive you.”

As she spoke her gaze jogged left, into her peripheral. Checking the strokes, no doubt.

Still in the game, Drow thought. Cascayde was fragile, no doubting that. At the same time, part of her was still performing, always would be.

So what? The comp was good and his performance had been solid. If his regrets were real, did it matter if her forgiveness was counterfeit?

He deflated into the chair’s ever-helpful embrace, uncertain and depressed.

Pressing a hand to her chest, as if overcome, Cascayde returned to her bodyguards, vanishing back into the elevator. There was a second wave of applause.

“Masterful performance, Handsome!” Tala swooped in with a wetwipe.

“I wasn’t simming,” he muttered.

“So much the better. Lord, what a mess!” She smeared the cloth under his nose, over his lips, down his chin and neck. Each wipe left a strip of pristine alcoholic chill, smooth traverses unimpeded by his hairless chin. She crunched bloodstained wipes, discarding them like trashy rose petals.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Drow whispered.

“Shush.” She pressed him against the cushion.

Bubble of panic, fueled by phantom memory. He pushed back. Were her vulture claws weaker? “I want a doctor.”

“We’ll call a car.” She kept swabbing, humming tunelessly all the while.

 

She’d put something on the wetwipes, of course. A now-familiar narcotic dizziness was taking hold as the car, naturally, threw in its lot with her credit rating and took them to Tala’s house rather than a hospital. The saxophone, conveniently enough, got left behind at the hotel.

DayCrane was crooning in his ear, “It’s all right, sir, go along. Almost home, everything’s fine.”

“Fine,” he agreed. Maybe he should let Tala have his husked-out remains.

NightCrane texted: Sir, I cannot contact Jervis. It is possible he’s under arrest.

Would Tala report him?

Her tech support may have forced him into the open.

Play and counter-play.

He get anything from the crowd mics?

Crane assembled transcript, snatches of conversation from the party. At least one promising utterance caught Drow’s eye:  “. . . even being here may be aiding and abetting!”

But reading was hard; his mind was liquefied.

As they parked, Drow protested: “I wanna Emerg.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Tala stepped into the street, smoothing the fleshy pink skin of her knee-length jacket. “We agreed I’d capture—”

“You captured p-p-plenny. Dammit! Plenty. I puddon a real show for your art buyers, din-d-didn’t I? Richard Bramp—”

She cut him off before he could unspool the cocktail party whooz list, right there within range of the car mics. “Come inside and discuss it.”

“You must get out of the cab, sir.”

He was out, on the street, before he remembered the Crane he could hear was the compromised tab. Slush spattered his face, fat gritty drops, smearing the surface of his left gogg. The car door slammed, nearly catching his hand.

“Inside,” Crane urged. “You’re shivering.”

“Open up!” He pounded on the roof. The smartcar pulled away.

“You must change clothes, sir. You’re covered in blood.”

Tala had reached the same conclusion; she was tapping her elegant way to the door.

Drow barged past before she could get her hands on him, locking himself in the bathroom. Washing his face in the hottest water he could run, he tried to sober up.

Beetle-tap of fingers against the door. “Handsome?”

“Sec.” He texted: Crane? Any good news?

Alas, no. In fact, Miss Weston appears to have contacted Imran about buying your home.

That woke him, more effectively than hot water. He go for it?

Unknown.

Seraph had been wrong. Tala would tie up his escape routes as fast as he could sight them. He wasn’t free to walk away.

Don’t walk then, donkey. Run.

He fisted his hands, shaking them in a parody of tantrum, forcing himself to say goodbye to those all green vials of potential. Farewell to future symphonies, the exposé about chemo, the prospect of catching Tala in the act.

Feeling reasonably clearheaded, he stepped out.

Tala was perched against her kitchen counter, idly stirring a glass of water with the narrow-bladed business end of a pair of stylists’ scissors. “Done sulking?”

“You tattooed me without permission, didn’t you?”

She tinked the blades against the glass, thoughtful. Then the overhead lights colorshifted into the luminous purple of an olden days disco. The scab tissue across the back of his arms lit up with fine white lines. Maggots, feasting on torn flesh. Image of future decay.

“Don’t look all wounded. It’s only skin-deep. You, sonny, you fiddled with my muscle stims.”

“You hacked my sidekick.”

“Pish. A privacy violation. Stim-regime tampering is assault.”

Drow took a deep breath. “Sounds to me like a mutually assured contract breach.”

“It’s all about what you can prove, Handsome. You’re on camera consenting to the tattoos.”

He swallowed.

Sir! Someone has triggered my hardware inventory! My compromised counterpart is uploading specs for the tongue texter . . .

Drow unzipped his overnight bag, extracting a clean shirt. Clawing off the bloodstained one—its clean patches glowed a luminous white in the ultraviolet—he tossed it at her feet. “Here. Call it a souvenir for whoever bought . . . what was it? Wings off a Fly.

“You’re not going anywhere.” Her gogged eyes filled with red veins. She threw the contents of her drinking glass into his face and mouth.

Drow sputtered, choking.

She raised the scissors.

He had one moment of perfect visual recall: Cascayde, in his kitchen. The magician’s flourish of her spindly fingers as she produced a straight razor.

Tala wasn’t the type to cut her own throat, and she didn’t give him time to step away. She sprang, a furious bundle of little old gymnast, lightweight and perfectly balanced, brandishing the scissors as she bore him to the floor. Her left hand clamped around his jaw.

He clenched, tongue-texting: Save this footage, save it. His vision was starting to double.

“Snip-snip, Handsome, let’s cut that wire. You don’t need bad advice from outsiders, do you?” The hand gripping his face was going to rip his jaw off, and his nose was bleeding again . . .

What kind of idiot goes courting nosebleeds?

. . . which at least had the effect of making his chin slippery.

“I’m all you need now.” She brought the blades down, cutting his lips a little as she wedged the points between his teeth, metal scraping enamel. There was a cold zip across his tongue as she forced it in. The fibenoose at the back of Drow’s throat popped like a rubber band. He gagged as it rolled down his gullet.

No more NightCrane.

Panting, they eyed each other, she atop him with the scissors clenched between his teeth.

Fear coursed through Drow and he let the anxiety crank up, fight-and-flight-and-fight-some-more responses pumping adrenaline. He clubbed her with the fisted ball of clean shirt, knocking her off him and crawling through the spinning room. She scrabbled at his ankle, ripping off a shoe just as he reached the front door.

Gaining his feet, Drow ran into slushy rain. Cold drops chilled the burn on his back. He plunged the unshod foot into cold water, drenching his sock.

“I believe I’ve deleted the surface protocol, sir. It’s me.”

“Safe word,” he rasped.

“Safe word, sir?”

Gotcha. NightCrane would have known they didn’t have one.

Within a block, he had slowed from his run, gasping for breath as he lurched on toward College Street.

A limo turned the corner up ahead, headlights washing him in sterile LED glow.

Drow changed direction, forcing himself up over a neighborhood recycling bin that would no doubt give him a strike for vandalism or trespassing. “If anyone can hear this, I need a pick-up. Help. Someone text 911—”

“Sir, return to Miss Weston’s before you get frostbite.”

“Where’s the nearest Emergency?”

“You mustn’t hazard a blood test.”

“I’m beyond worrying about jail. Nearest hospital? Bathurst and Dundas, right?”

Crane didn’t answer. Drow circled south, aiming for College and University instead. Further away but the route would have more people on it, out and about.  Better safe than sorry.

Safe. Sorry. The words ricocheted in his backbrain, setting off an internal soundtrack of screaming hyena laughter, an uproarious chorus. They laughed as he coughed up the texting rig, dusting crimson and a filament of tech onto a jagged array of icicles dangling from a leaky rain gutter.

They laughed when the car reappeared, half a block behind him.

Drow minced onward. Dry foot, iced foot, dry foot, repeat. Keep moving.

On the intersection where Queen’s Park segued into the hospitals on University, he stumbled onto a metal grate and into a blast of hot air. The fetid breath of the subway system gusted over him.

Pizza farts. But the warmth was irresistible. Drow couldn’t make himself move on.

Tala, goggles bright and projected eyes blue, stepped out of the limo.

“Subway stop,” Drow rasped, pointing.

“You dislike the subway, darling boy. Isn’t it where Daddy went splat?”

“Subway stop,” he corrected. “Security cameras everywhere.”

“You need a ride, Honeypie. You need help.”

“I’m not going with you,” he shouted.

“Don’t make a scene.”

“Will too! Begin scene! Stay away!”

“You’re sick. You’re confused.”

“I go with you, you’ll kill me.”

The words landed between them, truth pure and simple, the answer to a riddle he hadn’t known he was solving. Art’s what you can get away with, she’d said. Hurting people and filming it, driving them to the edge—that was old news to her. The one way to level up from what she’d accomplished so far, to make something better, truer to her perverse artistic vision, had to be getting away with murder.

Dead Donkey,” he muttered. “In private collection.”

Tala fisted her hands, regarding him with unblinking cartoon eyes. Then, to his utter astonishment, she said, “I’ll double the offer. Sixty tubes. We’ll visit the middleman tomorrow.”

Drow pulled off his goggs—and a goodly amount of hair—and gaped.

Had the tide turned? Tens of thousands of people had probably pinned this feed when Cascayde turned up at the hotel. Still. Could they be watching now?

Tala wouldn’t care if she took a few thousand strikes. She could pay exponential pricing on everything: services, cars, taxes, food. She could hire someone to do her shopping, call her cars, tighten the loose screws on her goggs. She could literally afford to ignore what society thought.

So why was she negotiating?

“Ten more days,” she wheedled. “For sixty.”

She thought he had something incriminating on her. Or on her rich friends. If one of them had exposed criminal intent, if she knew he could make it public . . .

“I guess you gotta care what they think, huh?”

“Seventy-five,” she said. “Handsome, come on. You’re dying to say yes.”

He was. For a second, he almost relented. All that Brill. If the increased attention of the Sensorium kept her in check...

Really? An internal cacophony of unhinged laughter. You still think you’re cleverer than her?

“Immediate payout on the original offer,” Drow said, testing. “And I still walk.”

No pause this time. “I’ll want all your files.”

“I could . . . send the info to the middleman.” A siren wailed and he saw her flinch. “’Course, for that, I’d need you to leggo both my sidekick and my—”

He’d almost said father.

“Your . . . ?”

It would endanger Jerv, wouldn’t it, if she thought he mattered to Drow?

Tag the feels later. “I can’t give you anything without my tech guy to assure transparency.”

“He’ll be released immediately.” She folded herself into the car, settling in with the look of someone expecting a long ride. “Sure I can’t drop you?”

He managed a shivery hyena-laugh. “I’m parked on this grate until someone I know comes to peel me off.”

“Well. Sensorium has it your elderly landlord and your roommate are apparently on their way. It’s rather sweet.”

Drow found himself smiling at the thought of old Imran, dragging his deaf ass out in the dead of night just because the two of them had bonded over the care and washing of ancient Mason jars.

As for Marcella . . . it wasn’t too late to refriend. Trevon, too.

And Seraph?

Time would tell.

Tala brought him back: “I’d have made you immortal, you know.”

“Your definition of immortal? Is deeply warped.”

“Fame is the only eternity someone like you can afford.” She clarified her goggs, taking a last ravenous look at him. Drow sketched a trembly bow: the unfinished work in progress. The one who got away.

The limo door slammed and the vehicle purred off.

“Smart knows when to walk now!” he shouted after the retreating car. But once the taillights vanished, relief dropped him to his knees.

Bravado could say what it liked, but smart wasn’t walking anywhere.

Instead, Drow leaned sideways, struggling to sit, to settle, however temporarily, within the grate’s torrent of warm air. Peeling off his wet sock, he massaged feeling back into the bottom of his foot.

He found tattoos there, too. Worms, under his toes, on his heel, writhing around a sketch of the bones of his foot.

Instead of giving in to hysterical laughter, Drow wiggled his toes, drawing in the sour breath of the city’s underworld, lifesaving sigh of burnt machine oil mingled with the piss stench of a nighttime drinking crowd. Fumbling on his rig, he waited for Imran and Marcella--he’d even settle for Jerv--to reclaim him.

Feeling at once skinned and yet, somehow, unencumbered, he hummed along with the molten shriek of the poor man’s chariot, seeking a melody within the rattle and clash of the subway cars as they brought his rescue ever closer.

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