Murder in “Utopia,,

Who am I today?
Who am I tomorrow, then?
How can I be both?

Murder In Utopia Cover JPEG

What’s up, y’all? Today I’m happy to announce that a novella I’ve been working on for some time now (Murder in “Utopia,,) is up for pre-sale on Amazon, available this coming Sunday, October 4th.

Now, I know, I know. That’s a pretty short pre-sale time limit, but I just wanted to give a little time for everyone to hear the news and put their two dollars in so we can have a big group of them sold all at the same time on release day. That way I’ll get higher up in the Amazon rankings and I’ll be seen by a wider audience.

So please, think about reserving your copy of this absurd first person novella about a priest and a psychiatrist living in utopia who discuss with each other their confessors and patients, a list of people that includes a surprising number of murderers for such a “utopian” society.

Thanks for your time. Have a great day.

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Chapter 17: Russ

Today brings us chapter 17 with Russ’s last chapter. He’s learned a lot about the worlds throughout his previous two chapters, and he has to decide what he wants to do about his knowledge in this one. Enjoy everyone. And don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of the novel through here.

< XVI. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XVIII. Mr. Kitty >

XVII. Russ

Russ’s heart wanted to jump out of his chest and flop on the floor. His lungs wanted to push all the air out and never suck in anymore. His brain wanted to close all channels and end any synapse firing for all of eternity. He did it!

Well. He did something at least. He had been told what to say when he was elected. He was supposed to be humble and show his gratitude at the owners’ charity in providing for him to make the movies he made. That’s what the speech director had told him to do. The writer had given him the same in the script. He didn’t have much time to practice it, but he was used to that. He was an actor after all. It was his job to be ready to take on any role at a moment’s notice. And this role—the role of the voice of the entire creative community—this was a role he had practiced—and fulfilled—for many years already. But he was too prepared, he could act too well. He had acted so well, in fact, that he had fooled them into believing that he was going to read their script and play their part, but that wasn’t his intention from the opening credits.

He followed his own script. He said what he wanted to say. At least he thought he did. He did, right? They had to know his words meant more than what they said. Didn’t they?

The elevator door slid open and Wes was in the hall, waiting for his own elevator.

“Russ!” he said. “Russ, Russ, Rrrruuussssss. Just the star I wanted to see. How’d it go, Russ, baby? You did great, huh? I mean, who am I kidding? I know ya did!”

“I did what I had to do,” Russ said, hoping Wes caught the undertones. He was such a subpar director, he probably didn’t.

“Oh. Ho ho. Russ, my boy. I know you did. You always do. Right?”

Russ didn’t answer. He wanted Wes to get out of his way and let him through to his dressing room. It was as if the idiot didn’t know that he couldn’t get into his elevator until Russ left his own and sent it away. He grit his teeth and tried not to let his adrenaline drive him to punch Wes in the face.

“That’s right,” Wes said. “It is. I know it. Now. About that documentary, Russ. The slip, snap, clicking. You know. I—”

“Don’t you talk to me about slip, snap, clicking!” Russ snapped.

“Wh—What?” Wes shook his head. “No,” he said. “I—”

“No. You have no idea. I know what slip, snap, clicking is really like. I’ve seen a real assembly line. You have no place to tell me how they would act when you yourself have never stepped foot on a line in your life. I’d say it’s safe for you to take my advice as the most viewed actor in the history of actors when I say an assembly line worker might act a little differently than you think they would. You got that!?”

“I—No,” Wes said, waving his hands and shaking his head. “Woah ho ho. I—I have to follow the script, you know. And the producer tells me what to do. I didn’t have a choice, Russ. It wasn’t my decision.”

“Yeah yeah,” Russ said, shaking his head. “You do have a choice, though, Wes. Everyone has a choice. You have the same choice I’m making right now when I tell you to fuck off. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He stepped out of the elevator and let the doors close behind him. “I’ll be heading back to my room to get some rest.” He opened the door to his dressing room and stepped in before Wes could respond.

There went his heart again, trying to escape from its rib cage. His legs wouldn’t let him sit down, they paced back and forth between his couch and mirror.

As he walked toward the mirror, he marveled at how great he looked. Not just his hair, clothes, and makeup, though, it was something altogether more than that. His face seemed resolute and somehow more confident—if that was even possible.

As he walked toward the couch, he thought about what he could do next to keep this energy flowing. He wanted to go out and yell at Wes again, but Wes was probably long gone by now.

Ugh. But it felt so good. It felt so right. He went back in his head through all the times he should have done the same thing in the past, starting with those two stupid pieces he was forced to put together for the last documentary shoot. He should have said no then. He should have stopped working when the bell rang. He should have dashed off home where he really wanted to be.

He slumped down on the couch, angry at himself for going along with everything he was ever told for so long. He was out of breath and his heart rate was finally dying down. He rubbed his palms on his thighs and took a few deep breaths.

No.

He stood up and walked over to the window. He put his arm up on the glass and rested his forehead on it, looking out on the scene below.

His dressing room was at the top of the tallest building around. Well, not the top, but it was higher than any of the surrounding buildings. It was so high he couldn’t even see the ground without sticking his head out the window, but the window didn’t open so that wasn’t an option anyway. He looked up at the fluffy white clouds, floating through the blue skies, then down at the windows below him. He wondered if the buildings were all windows with no walls. It looked like it from where he stood. He wondered what it would be like to live in a glass building, who would live there.

Now that he thought about it, he had never seen those buildings other than from his window. He had asked them to keep the real view, but he had never stepped outside to experience the view in person. How many years had it been? Well, what better time to finally do it than when he was doing what he never would have done before?

His stomach growled in response.

“Not now,” he said to it. “Not now, you! Why do you have such poor timing?”

He opened the door to the hall and looked up and down it, hoping to see Wes, or a writer, or—even better—a producer to yell at, but the place was empty. They didn’t have a speech to give, so they were probably all out eating a Christmas feast at some fancy restaurant. Too bad.

He pressed the button to the elevator, and the doors opened almost instantly. There, sitting cross-legged in a big velvet couch, dressed in red with fluffy white trim and wearing—as always—stark red lips was Jorah. He smiled and bounced his foot like he had been waiting in that pose for Russ to call the elevator.

“Jorah,” Russ said, taken off guard.

“Russy, dear,” Jorah said with a smile. “Don’t look so surprised. I can visit my besty on Christmas, can’t I? You know you’re like family to me.”

“Right,” Russ said. “But I—”

“How did the speech go, darling?” Jorah said, ignoring him. “You wowed them, I’m sure, but what’d you say to do it?”

“I—uh—well…”

Jorah stood from the velvet couch and embraced Russ. “Where are you going, dear? Don’t you have some time to tell your Jorah about it?”

“No. I was—” Russ remembered the speech he had just given and the people he had seen, he remembered yelling at Wes and the feeling it had given him. He decided to be direct instead of regretting this instance like he regretted so many others. “I was going to take a walk,” he said.

“Take a walk?” Jorah frowned.

“A walk.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

Oooh. The park!” Jorah clapped his hands. “Let’s go to Central Park. I love that one.”

“No.” Russ shook his head. “I—”

“You’re so right,” Jorah said, frowning. “It’s too cliché, isn’t it? Hmmm.” He tapped his chin. “I know, the Garden of Fortuna. Have you ever seen it?”

“I’ve never seen my front steps,” Russ insisted.

The Myfront Steppes?” Jorah said, grimacing. “I’ve never heard of them. Oooh. Is it something new?” He grinned. “Who told you? Tell me all about it.”

“No, Jorah.” Russ sighed. “It’s not a place. I mean here, the bottom floor of this building. Where does the door go out to? Those are my front steps!”

“Oh…Ooohhhhh! Ugh.” Jorah put a face on like he smelled something terrible. “Really? That?”

“Well, I’ve never seen it, Jorah. I mean, I look at it through my window, you know, but I’m so high up I can’t see it. Have you ever been down there?”

Psssh.” Jorah scoffed. “No, sweetheart.” He shook his head. “And there’s a good reason for that. There’s nothing out there. All the good places to go are somewhere else, and that’s why Fortuna invented elevators.”

“No, Jorah,” Russ said. “But there is something—” His stomach growled so loud it interrupted him.

“Oh, dear,” Jorah said, putting a hand to his mouth. “Did you hear that? Your stomach says food, not walking.”

“My stomach doesn’t control me!” Russ stomped a foot, half-jokingly.

His stomach growled again.

It begs to differ,” Jorah said with a smile.

I beg to differ!” Russ flared his nostrils, made his breath heavier, and scrunched his brows into the perfect “I’m in charge here” pose.

Jorah clapped and laughed. “Good show, Russ. Good show! Now. Do you have any reservations, or should we go back to your place?”

“No, Jorah,” Russ said, crossing his arms to keep in character but slowly losing his resolve. “I’m going downstairs for a walk. I want to do this, and you can’t stop me.”

“Oh. No no, dear,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Don’t you worry. I won’t stop you. But I must tell you that I’m not going down there with you, and you’re not going to make me.”

Russ lost character at that. “Um,” he said. “Wha—No. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t—”

“Okay, then.” Jorah nodded. “Do you have time to tell me about your speech and eat a little Christmas feast, or is your walk too urgent for that?”

“No. I—” Russ could just go down there after he visited with Jorah. And his stomach did keep growling. There was really no reason to say no. “Of course I have time for you,” he said. “But reservations are another story.”

“That’s perfect, dear.” Jorah touched Russ’s chest. “To be honest, I wasn’t up to facing the public anyway. My makeup is just hideous today. I couldn’t bear the stress.” He looked away and covered his face.

Russ shook his head. He couldn’t believe that Jorah actually meant what he was saying. His makeup was perfect, as always. “Oh no, dear,” Russ said. “Your face looks like a painting. I wish I looked half as good as you, and I just came from in front of an audience.”

“Oh, please, sweetheart,” Jorah said, waving a hand at him. “You’re just being kind. Your face is twice as beautiful as mine. It always is. You have the newer battle station model, dear. It’s inevitable. But forget that. I want to hear about the speech. Come come.” He grabbed Russ’s arm and directed him back into the dressing room, closing the door behind them.

Jorah plopped Russ down onto the couch and went back to the printer. “So, dear,” he said. “What do you want? Christmas ham and turkey. Oooh. And we have got to get potatoes. And stuffing. And deviled eggs. Fortuna, I love Christmas! Thank you owners. What do you want, Russ?”

Russ wanted to get up, but the couch was so soft it took too much effort to struggle out of. “I don’t want—” he said.

“Pie!” Jorah cheered. “Apple pie.” He clapped his hands. “That’s what we need. À la mode. What did you say, dear?” He went on ordering food and stacking it on the serving cart.

“Jorah,” Russ said as he did. “Do you ever wonder where all that stuff comes from?”

“Where it comes from?” Jorah pushed a full cart over to the couch and started putting everything on the coffee table in front of Russ. “It comes from the printer, silly. Where else would it come from?”

“No,” Russ said, shaking his head. “I mean, where does the printer get it?”

“It makes it.” Jorah shrugged.

“Out of thin air? Just pressing a few buttons is all it takes to create anything?”

Jorah sat on the couch next to Russ and started scooping food onto a plate. “I don’t know, Russ,” he said. “I’m not a scientist. I’m an actor. We have mechanic bots and engineers to take care of all that. What does it matter?”

“What does it matter?” Russ scoffed. “What does it matter? That’s where we get everything we need to live, Jorah. You have one, too.”

Duh. I’m a pretty big star myself, Russ. In case you’ve forgotten.”

“No. I haven’t forgotten. That’s the point. We’re both big stars. We have the privilege of owning our own printers. But what about the community actors? What about the camera operators, and set builders, and extras?”

“What about them, Russ? They go to a store with a printer, and they buy what they need. No one ever starves. No one sleeps in the streets. What’s the problem?” Jorah forced the plate—piled with food—into Russ’s hands and started filling another plate for himself.

“Well,” Russ said, ignoring the food. “Why do they have to buy anything if all it takes to make it is to press a few buttons on a printer?”

“Because they don’t own printers. Why else would they be in the store?”

“Exactly,” Russ said. “I mean, how do we get printers anyway? Does it just take a few button taps to make one of those, too?”

“I don’t know.” Jorah chuckled. “I’ve never ordered a printer from a printer. Maybe you should try it.”

“That’s—that’s the point, though, Jorah! The point is that if it doesn’t take anything to create anything, then why are we selling everything in the first place?”

Fortuna!” Jorah sat back in the couch and started in on his food. “I don’t care, Russ,” he said with a full mouth. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about anymore. I just want to hear about the Feast and the speech. What were the owners wearing? Are they all still stuck in retro tuxedo land? Have they gotten fatter? Have their hats gotten taller? What did you say? And why don’t you eat something to shut your stupid stomach up already?”

Russ looked down at the piles of food sitting on his plate. He picked up his fork and poked at the ham and turkey, all slopped in gravy. It reminded him of the food on the tables of the owners he had just ranted at. He pictured their fat fingers, stuffing their fat faces with equally gravy-slopped food, and their flabby cheeks chugging drinks until they couldn’t speak straight or listen to a stupid short speech.

“Oh. I forgot the drinks,” Jorah said, setting his plate on the table and standing to order some. “How does a mimosa sound? I know, I know, it’s Christmas, we should be drinking eggnog, but ugh. I hate that stuff. Don’t you?”

Russ poked at his food some more as Jorah got the drinks. He didn’t want to eat anything, or drink mimosas, but he was hungry, and the food did look good. He poked at some turkey then scooped up some potatoes and took a big bite. The gravy felt warm and comforting as it slid down his throat and into his stomach. Why had he been fighting the food for so long? He squirmed back further into the soft couch and dug in.

“There you are, dear,” Jorah said, setting a drink on the table in front of him and sitting back to his own plate. “Now that’s the Christmas spirit. It’s delicious isn’t it?”

Ughm. Yes. Om nom.” Russ didn’t stop eating to talk. He couldn’t stop eating.

“Now, dear,” Jorah said. “Why don’t you tell me, how was the big Christmas Feast? Were they still listening to the same old carols played by an old-timey symphony?”

Ugh. If I ever have to hear an entire orchestra play This Land is My Land one more time, I think my head will explode.”

Ah ha. Oh, and what about Hand Bless America?” Jorah said. “The worst.” He sang a line of the song in a nasally voice.

Fortuna. Stop!” Russ almost spit out his food with laughter.

“I know it. And were they wearing those hats, too?” Jorah held his hand high over his head, puffing out his cheeks and crossing his eyes to illustrate the point.

“Fortuna, yes,” Russ said, covering his mouth to hold back the laughter. “And tuxedos.”

Ugh. Really?” Jorah frowned. “They are so conservative. Haven’t they ever heard of fashion? Turns out trends change.”

Russ laughed. He took a sip of his drink and set it back on the table. “At least I was there to brighten up the scenery. What do you think?” He struck a pose with his fork and knife in hand and plate on his lap.

“Oh. Just beautiful, dear,” Jorah said, clapping. “Be—e—au—ti—ful. You always did know how to dress the best.”

“Oh, you’re too kind,” Russ said, blushing.

“No, dear. I’m honest. It’s not kind when it’s honest. It’s just true.”

“Thank you for your honesty, then.” Russ winked.

“Of course, dear. What else would you expect from your besty? Now. Tell me. What did you say to those fat fatties?”

“Well…” Russ poked at his food with his fork. “They gave me a script, you know, like they always do, and I did my job.” He stuffed a few big bites into his mouth so he couldn’t talk anymore.

“Yeah,” Jorah said, nodding. “So. Did you read it? What did you say?”

Muhhm,” Russ replied, stuffing more turkey into his mouth.

“Russy, dear,” Jorah said, tapping him on the arm with the back of his hand. “Manners! Now tell me. I want to hear all about it. It’s the biggest, most exclusive event for the entire year. So drop the gossip.”

“Oh…well…” Russ had to say something. He was going to have to say something on his show, too. But would they understand? Would they hold it against him? What if he started spreading what he had said and the protectors came back? What if he didn’t spread what he said and all those people kept getting forced to work on the assembly lines? There wasn’t any right course of action. “I don’t know,” he said, stalling for time. “I just crammed. Short term memory, you know. I can’t remember.”

Jorah put down his plate. “Russ,” he said. “C’mon. I’m going to watch your show. You don’t have to advertise to me. Just tell me what you said.”

“Well, I…You know—I told them that we were thankful and all that. I don’t know.” Russ shrugged, eating some more.

“That’s it? Just like that? We’re thankful. Bye!” He said it in a monotone voice and waved his fork and knife around with jerky, robotic movements. “No more showmanship than that?”

“No,” Russ said, shaking his head. “Of course not. I mean, I—well…I kind of went off script.”

No.” Jorah gasped. Russ couldn’t tell if he was acting or not, Jorah was one of the best. “Off script. You don’t say?”

“Yeah. Well, you know…They had the usual patriotic, Christmasy thank you letter, filled with historical quotes, and I didn’t want to give them another rerun.”

“Oh no,” Jorah said with a shrug. “How cliché. So what did you say?”

“I don’t know.” Russ shrugged. “That Christmas wasn’t enough, you know. That we have to work our whole life to give them what they deserve.” He stuffed some more food into his mouth.

Jorah looked him in the eyes. “Give them what they deserve? Did you say it just like that?”

Russ shrugged, stuffing his face some more.

“You know…they might have taken that the wrong way,” Jorah said.

“What do you mean?”

Ha! What do I mean?” Jorah laughed. “I think you know what I mean. You badass you.”

Russ spit some food out onto his plate. “Badass? No. I’m no—”

“Yes you are,” Jorah said. “You said it exactly like that, didn’t you? We’ll give you what you deserve. I know you, Russ. Better than anyone. You can’t help but act the part. You gave them a lecture. You want a feast as big as theirs, don’t you?”

“I—Wha—No!” Russ shook his head. “That’s not what I want at all.”

Uh huh. Sure, buddy.” Jorah rolled his eyes. “I believe you. But I’m right there with you, too. They eat while we work. Who asked them to take it all, right?” He stuffed the last bite on his plate into his mouth and set to piling it with food again.

“What do we need more for, though?” Russ asked.

“What?” Jorah said, giving him a look. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m serious. Look at all this.” Russ dropped his plate on the table, and it made a loud clatter, sending food everywhere.

“Russ!” Jorah snapped. “What are you doing?”

“Look at all this,” Russ repeated, waving his hands as if he were displaying a prize on a game show. “We have more than we’ll ever eat, we’ll throw more than half of it down the trash chute, and you’re talking about a bigger feast?” He stood up, red-faced and breathing hard.

“Now now, Russ,” Jorah said. “Settle down.” He set his own plate on the coffee table and guided Russ back to the couch.

Russ hesitated but gave in. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself. This was Jorah he was talking to. Jorah who he loved and who had no more idea of where the food he ate came from than Russ himself did only yesterday. It wasn’t Jorah he was mad at, it was the people who kept Jorah ignorant of what the world was really like. “I’m sorry,” Russ said under his breath.

“Excuse me, dear,” Jorah said, cupping his ear.

“I said I’m sorry,” Russ repeated a little louder.

“Sorry, dear,” Jorah said, nodding. “That’s right. Now eat your food so you’ll feel better. You’ve barely touched it.” He forced the plate back into Russ’s hands.

“I don’t wan—” Russ complained.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Jorah said. “Eat!”

Russ took a bite. Then another and another. His anger and frustration seemed to drift away. He forgot what he was even talking about in the first place.

“By the way, dear,” Jorah said after some time of silence. “Did you get a chance to see the Christmas Award Ceremony pre-show? I mean, I know you had work to do, but they have a pretty nice green room over there, right? I’d imagine they’d have to. Wouldn’t they? One day I hope to see it.”

“Not if I can help it.” Russ smiled and sipped his mimosa.

“Oh, you can’t, dear,” Jorah said. “Don’t worry.” He winked.

Russ flicked a glob of potatoes in his direction but missed by a long shot.

Ooh, girl,” Jorah said. “You’re lucky you didn’t hit me.”

“Or what?”

“Nothing.” Jorah shook his head. “Just don’t. Now you got me all off script. Look at you. What was I talking about?”

“The red carpet show,” Russ reminded him.

“Oh. Ooohh whee. Yeah, girl.” Jorah put his plate down and took a quick sip of his mimosa. “You didn’t see it, did you?”

Russ shook his head.

“No? Good. Well, you’ll never believe this. Okay. So Paige. You know her, right? Cute little girl. Well she was wearing the most sheer, see-through dress you have ever seen. I swear, Russ, it was made out of saran wrap or something.”

Ugh.” Russ sighed. “She didn’t.”

She did. And—predictably—the papos ate it up. I swear to you, I’ve seen more angles of her vagina today than my battle station back home gives me angles of my face.”

Russ spit out some mimosa, and this time, he managed to hit Jorah square in the face. “Ha!” he laughed.

Ugh. Sweetheart,” Jorah said, wiping his face and standing up. “Well, now the jokes not even true, because your battle station is gonna give me more views of my face than I’ve ever seen of her anything.” He swept over to Russ’s battle station to redo his makeup.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Russ said. “But that was funny. And oh so typical. I mean, if I went out in saran wrap, I bet you’d be saying the same thing about me.”

Jorah sat back on the couch, his face in perfect condition. “I don’t know, Russ,” he said, shaking his head. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“What?”

“I was under the impression you didn’t have a vagina to see.” Jorah grinned. “Silly me. In the future I won’t assume. After all, ass out of you and me and all.”

“No, Jorah. Ugh. I would tell you if I did that! We’d have a party. You know me.” He slapped Jorah on the arm. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, dear,” Jorah said, smiling wider and chuckling. “I do know what you mean.” He grinned. “And I agree. That’s why I wanted to get your opinion on my New Year’s Eve outfit decision.”

“You can’t be serious.” Russ shook his head, matching Jorah’s grin.

“Well,” Jorah said. “It’s not going to be saran wrap exactly. I was thinking of going for more of a silhouette, you know. Leave a little to the imagination. There’s this LED fabric. Have you heard of it?”

“That stuff from Tesla?”

“Yeah, girl,” Jorah said, reaching over to touch Russ’s arm. “The best new designer in the business. She says I can make it so the lights turn the dress into a shadow play screen. You’ll be able to see every little movement underneath.” He stood and did a little dance with a lot of hip gyration to illustrate his point. “What do you think?”

“It is interesting,” Russ said, putting his plate down to think about it. “Definitely more subtle than the saran wrap, full see-through dress. And I really like the shadow play imagery.”

“I know, right?” Jorah said, smiling and full of himself. “I’ve been practicing getting it to move like a puppet, too.” He danced some more.

“Well,” Russ said, tapping his chin. “I’d say as long as you incorporate some of the history of shadow puppetry into the design of the dress—and your makeup and accessories, of course—you’d attract more attention and be less gratuitous about it.”

Ooh, dear. I love it!” Jorah’s voice got so high it sounded like he was going to scream. “We’ll make the rest of the dress the scenery for my little actor. You see, that’s why I always come to you for fashion advice, sweetheart. You never fail me.” He hugged Russ, spilling food off his plate.

Russ blushed. “I just helped you edit, dear. It was your idea.”

“And humble, too,” Jorah said, smiling. “No wonder you’re the most viewed actor in all of history. Who wouldn’t want to watch the perfect human being?”

“Oh, now,” Russ waved a hand. “That’s going a little too far.”

Jorah put his plate down and stood up. He pulled Russ up, too. “Let’s go to Tesla now,” he said. “Tell her the idea. She can get started on it right away.”

“Don’t you think she’s at a feast, though,” Russ said. “It is Christmas.”

“No, dear,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Uh uh. She’s a designer, and a new one at that. For us, she’s free. It’ll be like a Christmas present for her.”

“Yeah. I guess, but—”

“And we can take a walk after that,” Jorah said. “We’ll go out to the Garden of Fortuna. You’ll love it.”

“I did want to go for a walk…”

“It’s settled then.” Jorah smiled. “Let’s go.”

#     #     #

< XVI. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XVIII. Mr. Kitty >

Thanks again for joining us. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far. If so, please do think about picking up a full copy of the novel right here. And have a great weekend.

Chapter 16: Ansel

Another day another chapter. And just a short intro because I have some moving to do. Enjoy.

< XV. Haley     [Table of Contents]    XVII. Russ >

XVI. Ansel

“I never should have trusted you, Pidgeon! I knew it.” Ansel wanted to hit him, but he was too far away.

“No, Ansel,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “That’s not true. I helped you!”

“Helped me? You think knocking my friend out and kidnapping me is helping me?”

“No.” Pidgeon shook his head. “We didn’t kidnap you. We rescued you. And he’s not your friend. He’s a protector.”

“He was a better friend than you ever were. He gave me jerky, and he didn’t run away at the first sign of danger.”

“He was the first sign of danger!”

“He wasn’t dangerous! He said he could find my dad. He was trying to help me!”

Ha! Yeah right.” Pidgeon scoffed. “More like he was lying to you so he could arrest you.”

“Arrest me for what? You saw that gun he had. You said they kill whoever they want, whenever they want. If I was in danger, I would have been dead already. And now I’m never going to meet anyone with a better chance of getting my dad back. You took that away from me, Pidgeon. You and your stupid friends.”

“I—I didn—I’m sorry,” Pidgeon said, almost too low for Ansel to hear. “I was trying to help.”

Rosa came out of the room where they were holding Tom. She had a big smile on her face. “Whatever you said to him did the trick,” she said. “He’s actually listening to what we have to say, at least. He may end up doing what’s best for you after all.”

“What are you making him do?” Ansel asked. “He should be getting my dad back!”

“We told you, girl,” Rosa said. “It’s not in his power to do that. He can aim a gun, though. And thanks to you, we might be able convince him that doing just that is his best way of protecting you. So you did well, child. I appreciate that. Now you and little Richie here are going to have to leave until we’re done with him. Come back tomorrow morning, and he’ll be waiting for you. You got it?”

“But, she doesn—” Pidgeon protested.

“I’m not going anywhere!” Ansel stomped her foot.

“Now I mean it!” Rosa stomped hers back. “You have no investment in that protector, girl. He’s no use to you. We thank you both for leading him our way, and you have our food in your stomachs to show that gratitude, but we’ll be doing business with Mr. Pardy overnight. He’ll be in one piece tomorrow morning if you still want him, but until then, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Thank you.”

“No, but you sai—” Pidgeon was going to go on, but Ansel grabbed his arm.

“You won’t get away with this,” she said, looking Rosa in the eyes.

“Oh, ho ho, girl.” Rosa laughed. “Get away with what?”

“Whatever you’re making him do. Whoever you’re trying to kill.”

“That, girl, is far enough,” Rosa said. “I’ll have you leave now, and I hope not to see your face again. If you do decide to come collect your friend tomorrow, make sure I don’t see you when you do it. Do you understand me?”

“I understand better than you might think, ma’am,” Ansel said, nodding. “Thank you for the soup. Let’s go Pidgeon.”

Pidgeon tried to protest, but Ansel dragged him out under the stern gaze of Rosa. Neither of them said a word until they had burst out into the open air.

“What was that Ansel?” Pidgeon said, tearing away from her grip. “You can’t treat them like that.”

“And why not?” Ansel asked, grabbing him again and dragging him into the first alley they passed. She let go of his arm and peeked around the corner.

“Because they’re—they’re—old,” Pidgeon said, scrunching up his nose. “And they gave us food, they helped us. And they’re my—my fri—”

“Helped us?” Ansel snapped. “You mean kidnapped.”

“I told you. That was—”

To protect me. Yeah. I know. But did you ever stop to think that maybe I don’t need protecting?”

“I didn’t—I wasn’t—I just wanted to help,” Pidgeon said, lowering his eyes. “We do nothing alone. Remember.”

Shhhh. Of course I remember,” Ansel whispered. “But shut up.” She pulled him behind a dumpster and sat on the dirty ground, leaning her back against the cold metal trash can.

“Wh—What are y—” Pidgeon tried to say.

Shhhhh!” Ansel put her finger to her mouth.

“What are—”

Shhh.”

She waited a few more heartbeats then started to breath.

“What are you doing?” Pidgeon whispered.

“I’m finding out what they’re making him do.”

“But how?” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “And why? They told you to—”

“Whatever they want him to do, they can’t do it from in there, right? So I’m gonna wait until they come out then follow them to wherever it is they are going do it. That’s how.”

“No. But Ansel. You don’t understand—”

“Pidgeon. If you don’t shut up right now—you know—I’m glad you ditched me. You would suck at hunting. You’d scare all the prey away.”

“But—”

No buts. Okay. That protector was my last chance, Pidgeon. Even if he couldn’t get my dad out, he might be able to get me in. Or—I don’t know—get a message in or something. I have to try. You know that don’t you? You would do the same thing if you were in my situation.”

“Of course I would. That’s why—”

“That’s why I need you to shut up. So we can follow them without being noticed. That’s how hunting works, Pidgeon. Or I guess you already said you didn’t know anything about hunting. Well this is lesson one. Shut up so the prey doesn’t run away.”

“If you would just shut u—”

“Wait.” Ansel held up a hand. “Look,” she said, pointing down the alley. “It’s the cat!”

Back toward Anna and Rosa’s place was the black cat licking itself on the sidewalk.

“No way,” Pidgeon said.

“Let’s get it,” Ansel said.

“But what abou—”

She was already gone, and he had to sprint to catch up. The cat bounded down the street straight toward the building they had just come out of. Ansel thought she had it when it stopped right in front of Anna and Rosa’s apartment, but it jumped into the door and disappeared. Ansel stomped to a stop, and Pidgeon ran into the back of her.

“Where’d he go?” he said.

“Did you see that?”

“What?” Pidgeon said, looking around for the cat. “What happened?”

“It went through the door.”

“Did they see you?”

“No. I mean it went through the door. The door wasn’t open. The cat just disappeared.”

“Like in the alley?”

When you ditched me.

“He disappeared then, too,” Pidgeon said, ignoring her.

“I’m going in.”

She had already reached out to touch the doorknob, but her hand disappeared before she felt it, cut off in a straight line along her wrist like the clouds behind the invisibility screen in the sky. She pulled her hand out and laughed when it reappeared.

“Ansel,” Pidgeon said, taking a step back. “I don’t think you should do that. You don’t know how it’s going to—I don’t know—affect you.”

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said with a grin. “The Curious Cat just jumped through there. You know what that means.”

“No, Ansel. I don’t think that’s the Curious Cat. I think—”

She didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say, because she jumped through the door into a big, dark closet with clothes piled up all around her. The cat sat on a particularly high mound of clothes in front of her, licking itself.

“I found you,” she said.

The cat meowed.

She took it as a challenge. “Oh, yeah? Well I will then.” She pounced toward it, but it ran out of the open door which provided the only source of light in the room. She chased it and lost all her senses in the blinding white lights that she ran into. She was defenseless, and the cat was gone for sure. When her eyes finally adjusted, she saw a giant in a white uniform, pointing a gun at someone behind the lights. Her first instinct was to flee, but then she heard what the giant was yelling, she recognized the voice. He was telling them that he was doing this for her. She never asked him to do that.

“Don’t!” she screamed as the gun went off. She tackled him to try to stop him before he fired again, and they landed in a tangle on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Tom pushed her up off of him and pointed his gun at her, the gun he had just used to shoot someone in what he claimed was protection of her. She had never seen a gun until she met him, and she had certainly never had one pointed at her. She put her trembling hands in the air and saw his finger flinch, but he didn’t pull the trigger. Instead he pulled off his helmet and looked at her wide-eyed. “Ansel,” he said. “I…”

She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t care anymore. She squirmed away and ran toward the costume closet in the hope that it would let her pass back through the other way.

“Ansel!” Pidgeon grabbed her and hugged her on the other side. She broke away from him and ran down the alley to sit behind a dumpster and cry into her hands.

“Ansel!” Tom called.

When she heard his bootsteps getting closer, she swung her fists towards his face, but only got high enough to hit him in his padded stomach. “Get away from me!” she cried as she swung at him again.

“No, Ansel,” Tom said, holding her at arm’s length. “You don’t understand.”

You don’t understand! You pointed a gun at me. A gun!”

“I didn’t know it was you. Why’d you stop me? How’d you even get there?”

“You said you were doing it for me.”

“I was doing what you asked me to do.”

“I never asked you to shoot anyone.” Ansel scoffed. “Who’d you kill anyway? You fired two shots.”

“I don’t—”

“You don’t even know?” Ansel shook her head. “Then how could you know you were doing it for me?”

“I don’t know if I hit him, because you interrupted me. I was shooting at the person who owns the protectors. They have to do what he says, so ultimately, he’s responsible. Right?”

You have to do what he says,” Ansel reminded him. “He owns you.”

“I—No.” Tom shook his head. “I tried to kill him, to free us.”

“Like you freed my mother”

“No. I didn—”

“But you did. You did, and nothing you can do will ever change that!”

“No. But I—”

“No!” Ansel stomped her foot. “Leave me alone!”

She sprinted out of the alley and down the street, grabbing Pidgeon along the way. He protested a little, but not much, and soon they were running as fast as their feet could take them down the Green Belt. Pidgeon begged to stop not far along, but Haley wasn’t going to stop ever. She didn’t care if he did. She didn’t care if he left her like everyone else. He had already done it once, and he would probably do it again: lie to her just like Tom did and disappear when she needed him the most. She was stupid to trust either of them in the first place. She would get to the end of the Belt by herself if that was what it took.

She heard his footsteps drop out from behind her, but she kept on running anyway. She would run far and fast enough to leave it all behind, Pidgeon and the stupid Concierges that he said were after her, Anna and Rosa and whatever plans they had to kill more people, and especially Tom with his attempts to put responsibility for murders he had committed on her. There was no one left in the world who cared about her. No one at all except for her…dad.

She slowed to a jog, then a walk, then fell to her knees in the middle of the sidewalk. Her dad was the only thing she had left in the world, but how was she supposed to get him back? How could she do it when she was all alone? We do nothing alone.

She caught her breath and wiped her eyes, then turned to see if Pidgeon was still chasing after her. Her heart dropped into her stomach when he wasn’t there. She had run too fast. She had gotten too far ahead of him. He hadn’t ditched her this time, she had ditched him.

The tears came back at the thought of it. Now she really was alone. Before, with him chasing after her, there was still someone driving her on, there was still someone who would be there if she tripped up or lagged behind. But now she had gotten so far ahead that he had given up on her. Now she had less hope than ever of finding her dad. She didn’t even know where to go anymore. She didn’t know where she was. She found herself turning this way and that with tears in her eyes, and the people walking around her couldn’t even spare a second glance.

Then she thought she heard her name. She wiped her nose—and sniffled and coughed—and it came again. It was her name. It was Pidgeon’s voice. He hadn’t given up yet!

“Ansel!” he called. “Ansel, wait up!” He was jogging and out of breath when he finally caught up to her to sit on the ground in a huff. “I thought—I lost you,” he said through deep breaths.

Ansel chuckled a little, her eyes watering again, and said, “You lost me?”

“Yeah.” Pidgeon shrugged, still breathing heavily. “You’re fast.”

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said, working hard to keep her voice from breaking. “Why’d you keep chasing after me?”

“Well.” Pidgeon shrugged. “Because. Besides…You needed me, right? I mean, you need me.” He nodded hopefully at her.

“But you don’t need me, Pidgeon,” Ansel said, scrunching up her eyebrows and wrinkling her forehead.

Pidgeon looked hurt, sitting on the sidewalk, searching for a piece of grass to tear to pieces. “I do though,” he said. “Unless you don’t want to take me along anymore.”

“Take you along?” Ansel frowned.

“Yeah, well.” Pidgeon stood up and brushed himself off. “I guess that was a prank or something. I’ll—uh—I’ll just get back to the orphanage then.”

“No!” Ansel cried a little too desperately. She composed herself and went on. “I mean, you still want to do that? You still want to come with me?”

“Of course I do. I wasn’t lying when I told you what they did to me. I have to get out of there, and I need your help to do it.”

“But Pidgeon,” Ansel said, crossing her arms and looking away from him. “I can’t leave yet. I have to try to get my dad back. Tom may not be able to get him, but I believe him when he says my dad’s still alive.”

“Tom?”

“The protector.”

Ansel. He killed your mom. He admitted to that. How could you trust him?”

“I don’t trust him,” Ansel said, turning back to Pidgeon and shaking her head. “I believe what he’s saying. There’s a difference.”

“How can you believe him, then?”

“Because he wouldn’t admit to killing my mom and lie to me about my dad being alive.”

“Unless he wanted to arrest you.”

Then he would have already.” Ansel sighed. “You saw how big he was. He could have picked me up with one hand and carried me away. Haven’t we been through this already?”

“Yeah, well…”

“Well I’m not negotiating. I’m gonna get my dad back whether you help me or not.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know.”

“So what are you going to do next?”

“I don’t know.”

“So you want me to agree to nothing, then.” Pidgeon scoffed. “What’s the point?”

“I just want you to know that’s what my goal is, that’s all I care about. I’m getting my dad back and nothing else matters.”

“Well, let’s do it, then,” Pidgeon said, finally standing from the sidewalk and looking ready to go.

Ansel rubbed her forehead. “Pidgeon,” she said. “You do understand what this means, don’t you.”

He didn’t answer. Ansel could tell he wanted another blade of grass to tear apart.

“He was taken by the protectors, he’s being held by them, so we have to go to them to figure out how to get him back.”

“Ansel, we can’t,” Pidgeon said. “You don’t—”

“You don’t have to come with me. That’s why I’m telling you now.”

“But how are you going to get to him? Anna and Rosa. They can—”

“I’m not asking them for help,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “You weren’t there, Pidgeon. There were people there that were bigger than the protectors, but they were a different kind of big, wide, too. And Tom tried to kill one of them, but I stopped him.”

“What are you talking about Ansel?” Pidgeon shook his head, confused.

“I’m saying Anna and Rosa aren’t my friends. You can go back to them if you want, and I’ll just find my own way to get my dad back.”

“But they can get him. When you disappeared I tried to tell you. That was them. They transported you. They can get your dad the same way.”

“I don’t care, Pidgeon.” Ansel shook her head. “I can’t work with them. It may be asking too much, but I’m asking it. Like I said, you don’t have to come with me.”

“I just don’t know how you’re going to get him without them.”

“I don’t either, Richard. But I will.”

“Well…” Pidgeon thought about it for a second. “If you’ll take me with you, I’ll still come, then.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Then if you’ll take me with you, I still want to come. I can’t go back to the orphanage. I won’t.”

She realized how selfish she had been. She realized that they were standing in the middle of the street with people walking all around them. She realized how vulnerable they were. “You’re right, Pidgeon,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“You don—”

“We need to get out of here, though. We’re not hunters anymore, we’re prey. What road are we on?”

“I don’t know,” Pidgeon said, looking around for any indication. “Roman or something.”

“Roman and what?”

I don’t know,” he repeated. “I was trying to keep up with you, I wasn’t taking the time to read every sign I passed.”

“Fine,” Ansel said. “Okay. Just follow me.” She went down the closest alley she could find in an attempt to set her bearings. She could almost see the street sign across the way when it disappeared along with Pidgeon and the rest of the city around him. She turned and made to go back to find him when someone grabbed her from behind, lifted her off her feet, and carried her back the other way. “Put me down!” she demanded, kicking and struggling to get away, but whoever it was didn’t respond.

They carried her through a short hall into a big room that had a lot of metal tables covered with glass tubes and jars which were filled with different colored chemicals. There were little flames coming out of metal tubes, heating some of the glasses of color, and the chemicals were bubbling and boiling with their essences all mixing together. It was the most interesting thing Ansel had ever seen. She stopped struggling, too busy gawking at the place to fight. She was still staring in awe at her surroundings when the person dropped her on the floor in front of a tall chair which was turned with its back facing her.

“Let me go,” Ansel said, standing and turning to find a big mechanical arm with its hand open and waving. “Who—What are you?”

It kept waving.

“You won’t get anything out of that one,” a voice said behind her.

She turned to see a woman sitting in the chair which was now facing her. “Who are you?” Ansel said. “Let me go.”

“Settle down, girl,” the woman said.

“I’m not a girl!” Ansel said, crossing her arms.

“We’re here to help you,” the woman said.

“Who are you?”

“I’m someone trying to get back what they took from me. Just like you.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Ansel said.

“I know more than you think, girl. I know you were there at the Feast with that protector. I know you’re running away from home. I know you’re looking for something and we can give it to you.”

“You would have started with that if it was true.” Ansel scoffed.

The woman laughed. “You’re a sly little one, aren’t you? It’s partially true. We can get it for you, but we don’t know what it is.”

“Then how do you know you can get it?”

“We can get it,” the woman said with a grin. “Don’t you worry about that. Whatever it is, we can get it.”

“I want Pidgeon to be here, first,” Ansel said. “Can you get that?”

“You want a pigeon?”

“No.” Ansel sighed. “Pidgeon. Richard. He was following me, but he won’t come through the portal or whatever. He never does.”

“You’ve been through one before?” The woman raised an eyebrow.

Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “Bring him here. Prove you can get what I want when it’s simple, then I’ll bargain with you.”

“I swear,” the woman said. “You Sixers are more miserly than the owners. Fine. Popeye, you heard the girl. Go get Pidgeon and bring him in. What does he look like?”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, shrugging. “A kid. Dirty clothes. Dark hair. Pimply face. He’ll probably be standing exactly where I disappeared, wondering if he should follow me or not. That is if he hasn’t run off already. You’re losing time.”

“Go on Popeye,” the woman said. The metal arm rolled out through the door they had come in. “There. Popeye’s fetching your pigeon. Now how did you get into the Feast?”

“How did you know I was there?”

“I’m not here to play games with you, girl. You interrupted an important operation. Tell me how you got there.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just saw a bunch of really fat people acting like babies. I don’t know how that could be important.”

The woman laughed again. “No,” she said, shaking her head and trying to suppress a grin. “That wasn’t the important part, you’re right about that, but I still need to know how you got there.”

“I’m not saying anything until I see—”

“Hey! Let me down!” Pidgeon’s voice cut her off. The big metal arm dropped him on the floor next to her. “Ansel,” he said. “How did you get here?”

“Alright,” the woman said. “Your boyfriend’s here. How did you get to the Feast?”

I don’t know,” Ansel said. “I tried to open a door, and I ended up in a costume closet.”

“The closet,” the woman said, more to herself than to Ansel. “Of course. I should have known.”

“So you already know about the closet,” Ansel said.

“Ansel,” Pidgeon said. “Anna and Ro—”

Shhhh!” Ansel elbowed him.

“Girl,” the woman said. “We’re going to find out one way or another. You might as well let your boyfriend tell us now. We’ll be more likely to help you if you cooperate.”

“I’m not her boyfriend,” Pidgeon said, crossing his arms.

“That doesn’t matter, boy,” the woman said. “Shut up. Now, your Pidgeon is here. I held up my end of the bargain. So tell me, how did you get into the feast?”

“I told you!” Ansel stomped her foot.

“Where did it happen?”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said. “Pidgeon?”

“St. Roch and St. Claude,” he said. “That’s where it—”

“You heard him,” Ansel said. “Now how are you going to get my dad for me?”

“And you say you tried to open the door, but you went through into a costume closet?” the woman asked.

“Am I here all alone?” Ansel said. “Yes. Then I heard the protector say he was doing what he was doing for me, so I tried to stop him. I never asked him to shoot anyone. He was supposed to help me get my dad back just like you are now. Right?”

“Right,” the woman said. “But you’ll have to wait for the Scientist for that.”

“Wait for the what?” Ansel said, losing her temper. “Listen lady. Tell me how you plan on getting my dad back, or we’re leaving.”

Pidgeon didn’t look as sure of himself as Ansel was. He was still staring at the mechanical arm, afraid it might grab him again. The arm didn’t seem to be paying any attention to him, though. It was sweeping up something on the floor. The woman laughed and turned her chair around so Ansel could only see the back of it. “Well leave then, girl,” she said. “See if I care. We already have what we want. You should have held your cards closer to your chest if you wanted to negotiate.”

“You’re lying!” Ansel rushed at her, but Pidgeon grabbed her arm and turned her around.

Uh…Ansel,” he said, staring at the door they had come in.

A dark-faced man that was even taller than Tom walked into the room. He was wearing a black suit, with a black piece of cloth tied in a bow around his neck, and a tall, black hat on his head. He looked down at them, took the single gold-rimmed lens out of his eye, and said, “Ahem. Rosalind. You didn’t tell me our visitor—or should I say visitors—were here. Hello, ma’am. Sir.” He took off his hat and did a little bow. “My name’s Huey. It’s so nice to finally meet you.” He held out his hand and bent over at the waist so Ansel could shake it.

She looked at it, not sure what to do. She didn’t know what to think of this giant. Why was he being so nice? And was that woman in the chair as big as he was? It was probably a good thing that Pidgeon had stopped her before she could hit the jerk.

“Go ahead,” the giant said. “I won’t bite.”

She put her hand in his, and when he closed it around hers, her hand disappeared. She drew it away as soon as she could, and he extended his hand to Pidgeon.

“You, too, sir,” he said. “Even though I know less about you than I do about our mutual acquaintance whose name I don’t even know.”

Pidgeon took his hand. “Hi, sir,” he said. “I’m Pidg—er—Richard. And this here’s Ansel—Ow!”

Ansel elbowed him. “I can speak for myself.”

“Well.” The giant looked between the two of them, studying their appearance. It made Ansel feel self-conscious so she started kicking at nothing. “Ansel and Richard. As I said, I’m Huey. And you’ve already met my sister, Rosalind.”

“Sister?” Pidgeon said.

“She said you could get my dad back,” Ansel said.

“Rosalind,” Huey said. “The lab? Really. We couldn’t find a more comfortable place for our guests to wait?”

“I’m plenty comfortable here, Mr. Douglas,” the woman in the chair said. “Thank you.”

“I’m sure you are,” Huey said. “But I imagine our guests would prefer a soft seat and a nice view.”

“Then why don’t you take them to a more comfortable location,” the woman said. “Popeye and I here need to get some work done anyway.”

“Work?” Huey scoffed. “If ever there was a time to take a break, it was now.”

“A break?” The woman scoffed back. “You always want to take a break, brother. And, like always, you will. So go ahead. I’ll get my break when my work’s done.”

Huey sighed and shook his head. He turned back to Ansel and Pidgeon. “Her position is so much more difficult than mine,” he whispered to them. “It’s a shame she can’t enjoy these small victories like I do. Anyway. Let’s go then. The Scientist has a little more business to tend to, but she’ll be right with you. Let’s go somewhere more comfortable to wait. Shall we?”

He led them to a door, opened it, and showed them through. They walked out into the little hall she had come in through, and Pidgeon kept walking for a bit, but Huey said, “Uh—ahh—Richard. This way, please.” He reopened the door they had just come out of, but the lab was gone, and in its place was a room with a big desk and a table surrounded by several tall, puffy chairs which Ansel forgot all about when she saw the view out the window making up the opposite wall. Pidgeon ran up to it and put his face against the glass to get a closer look. Ansel looked up at Huey first.

He nodded. “Go ahead.”

She ran after Pidgeon and put her face on the glass, too. There was more green grass and blue skies than could be found in the entire Belt. There were hills, and trees she had never seen before, and she couldn’t count the number of animals that were standing out in the open for anyone’s taking.

“What is that?” Pidgeon asked.

“How do we get there?” Ansel asked.

Huey sat on one of the puffy chairs, putting his hat and lens on the side table. “That’s a wilderness reserve,” he said. “And getting there isn’t hard, if that’s what you decide you want.”

Pidgeon kept staring. Ansel took her attention away from the view and sat in the chair across from Huey. She had to jump and struggle to climb up into it. Huey smiled as he watched her. When she was comfortable, she said, “That woman said you could get my dad. Can you?”

“Oh ho. No, Ansel,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Not me. But the Scientist can. I have no doubt about that.”

“The Scientist?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “You’ll meet her soon. She…She can give you anything you desire. Or at least she can tell you how to get it yourself.”

“Whatever I want?”

“Within the bounds of reality, of course,” Huey said with a nod.

“And you’re sure she’ll help?”

“Certainly, child. Just you wait and see.”

#     #     #

< XV. Haley     [Table of Contents]    XVII. Russ >

Thanks for reading. I gotta get back to work. Peace.

They Say It’s Your Birthday

Well, it’s my birthday, too. Happy birthday me. And happy birthday you.

If you want to get me a present, don’t. Get yourself a present instead and buy my novel, The Asymptote’s Tail, on Amazon through this link right here.

That’s all. Have a great day. And thanks everyone for the birthday wishes so far.

Chapter 13: Pardy

Today brings us Tom’s second point of view chapter, and you might notice he’s thinking of himself as Pardy now rather than Officer Pardy.

But before we get on with that, I wanted to comment a little on yesterday’s last chance for first editions post. It looks like (I’m sorry hipsters) I’m going to extend that last chance until next Saturday because I realized that this coming Wednesday is my birthday. I think the author’s birthday might be a pretty good marketing opportunity, and I don’t want my updates to make the novel unavailable for purchase on that day, so I’m just going to wait until next Saturday to do it. Yes, you heard that right people, that means you have one more full week to slip into the hipster parade with us. Just click through here to buy the full paperback first edition and you’re a member of the club. Easy as that.

Now that we have the business news out of the way, here’s Pardy’s chapter. Enjoy:

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

XIII. Pardy

Pardy couldn’t stop wondering if he had made the wrong decision in asking for Outland 6. He had been on patrol for only a few hours and he already knew that the populace hated him, they disappeared any time he came near. There was no point in him walking the streets but to send the Sixers back inside for the few seconds it took him to pass by. This was what he chose, though. He wanted to find something out about that woman’s daughter, and this was the only way he knew how to do it.

He had filled out his forms, just like the Captain asked, and sent them straight to her first. She made him sit down so she could read them over, and when she was satisfied, she asked him which patrol he would like. She hinted that Outland 3 was flashy and upscale—with a lot of celebrities—but Outland 5 was where protectors went to make a real name for themselves, to go down in history. When he told her he wanted Outland 6, she didn’t believe him. She gaped at him, wide-eyed, then laughed. “Good one, Pardy,” she said. “But really. What patrol do you want?”

When he insisted that he was serious, she tried to convince him that he was making a mistake, that Outland 5 would serve him much better than Outland 6, which no one anywhere cared about, but he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t have it. He had to find that woman’s daughter and protect her, even if he couldn’t tell the Captain that was why he wanted 6 in the first place. She was going to have to accept that and send him there or deal with her superiors about the death of Rabbit. But he hadn’t told her that, either. She knew her career was in his hands as much as he knew his was in hers.

And so she gave it to him: Outland 6. But she made him go on a solo patrol which started not moments after his initiation was over, after his partner had died and Pardy had killed a mother. As a result, he found himself walking along the streets of Outland 6, in the dark of night, looking for a boy he wasn’t sure he would recognize, to ask him about a girl he wasn’t sure existed. He figured his best bet was to find the kid he had seen in the tree—the only person who hadn’t run when Pardy came around in protector gear last time—and the only place he knew to look was the last place he saw him.

His path to the Neutral Ground from the last checkpoint on his patrol took him through the alley he had killed the woman in without his realizing it until he was already there. He stopped when he did. The ground was still dark with her blood. No one cared to clean it. There was no point. This was Outland 6. Pardy pictured his son again and set off toward the Grounds with a renewed sense of urgency.

Even the Neutral Grounds were empty. Word of his coming had come before him. That, or no one cared to be out at this time anyway. He heard a rustling in the trees down the street and darted back into the alley to watch the very kid he was looking for—plus a little girl—chase after a cat along the Neutral Ground in front of him.

They were so small that they might as well have been walking. Pardy could have caught up to them in a few long strides, but he didn’t want to scare them away before he found out where they were going. He had to keep stopping to let them get further ahead before he continued his pursuit from alley to alley. At one time he thought the little boy looked back and saw him, but the kid kept running, trying to keep up with the little girl who was much faster than him. They turned down an alley, and Pardy had to sprint so he didn’t lose sight of them.

When he turned around the corner, the girl had climbed up on a dumpster, chasing the cat which seemed to disappear into the wall a few feet above it. “Hey! Stop!” Pardy called, running down the alley towards them, probably not the best idea if he actually wanted them to stop he realized too late.

The boy turned to see him storming down the alley, then sprinted wide-eyed the other way and disappeared around the corner. The girl tried to jump up to where the cat had vanished into the wall, but she couldn’t get high enough, so she crawled down the pile of boxes to get to the top of the dumpster just as Pardy got to the bottom of it.

“Stop right there,” Pardy said. “I need to talk to you.” He dodged back and forth to bar her escape.

“Yeah. Right,” the girl said. “I know better than that.” She faked one way and stepped the other, but Pardy was too fast. He was there to stop her no matter which way she went.

“I’m not going to hurt you, girl. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

“I’m not a girl,” the girl said, pulling a slingshot out of her back pocket and taking aim.

“No. I—”

“I’m not.” Sh—er—not-she held the slingshot steady, aiming it directly between his eyes. His helmet scanned her heartbeat and breathing which both indicated she was calmer than her voice betrayed. “You gonna kill me now?” she asked.

“What? No. I—Of course not. Why would you ask that?”

“That’s what your kind does,” the girl said. “Isn’t it? That’s what Pidgeon says. He knows.”

“Pidgeon?” Pardy remembered Rabbit.

“Do it, then!” the girl yelled, stomping her foot on the dumpster lid with a loud thump. “I know you want to! What’re you waiting for?”

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no.” He reached slowly to his cargo pants, and she backed closer to the wall, keeping the slingshot aimed at him. “Look,” he said. “I have some beef jerky here. I’ll give it to you if you put your weapon down and answer a few questions. That’s it. I promise. I would—I would never…kill you.” He grimaced.

The girl slowly let the tension out of her slingshot, slid it into her back pocket, and crept up to the edge of the dumpster to sit down with her legs dangling off, reaching her hand out toward him expectantly. “Well,” she said.

He fumbled through his pockets some more, searching for the jerky he had grabbed to give him some energy for this stupid shift. He hadn’t eaten in he didn’t know how long, but the girl seemed like she could use it more than him anyway. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in days. “There,” he said when had found the pocket it was in. “Here it is. Just like I said.” He handed it over and prepared to stop her from running off with it, but she just took a big bite and chewed loudly with her mouth open, kicking her dangling legs back and forth against the dumpster.

Pardy took off his helmet, lodging it up under one arm, and ruffled his hair. He could breath so much better without it on. “I—uh…” he said. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t trained to investigate or interrogate, he was trained to observe, find law breakers, and dispense justice. But he had to do something, this was the first and only person to actually stop and talk to him.

“Well,” the girl repeated through a mouth full of jerky.

“I—uhhh…” Why couldn’t he figure out what to say?

“You had some questions,” the girl said, still chewing. “I can’t give you your jerky back now… Unless you’re willing to wait a little while.” She giggled.

“No,” Pardy said, cringing. “Uh…No. That’s just—no. So…” He grasped for anything. “Do you know a lot of the kids around here?” he decided on. It was something at least.

“I ain’t snitchin on anyone if that’s what you’re asking,” the girl said, taking another bite of jerky and eyeing him suspiciously.

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no. That’s not—No. No one’s in trouble, okay. I’m just—I’m looking for a girl.”

She stood up and backed away, still chewing. “I told you I’m not a girl!”

“What? No. I—look. Have you heard about any of your friends, or anyone you know really, who—who’s lost their parents recently.”

She threw what jerky she had left at him. “Go away! I don’t want your stupid jerky!” She spit a half-chewed glob at his face and only barely missed.

“No,” Pardy said, waving his hands. “No, wait.” He fumbled through his pockets, looking for the necklace. The little not-girl was climbing the stack of boxes on the dumpster, trying to jump up to nowhere. “Look!” He held out the silver butterfly for her to see. “Look, I’m sorry. I have something for you.”

She turned to see the necklace, and her eyes widened in anger. She stormed down the boxes, leapt over the dumpster onto Pardy’s shoulders, and beat at his face with her tiny fists. “You! It was you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

Pardy dropped his helmet with a clang and pried her off, holding her out at arm’s length. The fury in her face brought tears to his eyes as she struggled against him, flailing her fists and kicking her legs. He tried to fight the tears back, but they wouldn’t surrender. They weakened him. He couldn’t hold her any longer. His arms gave way and the flurry of fists resumed. He had no recourse but to cower into the fetal position on the concrete and let the tears flow.

“It was me,” he said. “It was me. I’m sorry. I didn’t—I don’t deserve to live. I did it. I can’t even say it. I’m sorry.”

The tears kept coming but the pain of the fists had gone. He was still lying in the fetal position on the rough alley concrete, sobbing, and sniffling, and crying like a child. Then he felt two tiny arms wrap around him in a warm embrace. For a second he smelled his wife, and pictured his son, and he felt good. He was doing his best. For them. And he had found the girl he needed to protect.

As his sobbing subsided, he realized the arms weren’t around him in an embrace. They had intent. They were fumbling through his belt for something, and he only realized what it was when it was too late. He backed toward the dumpster, crab-crawling on hands and feet, and stared at the little not-girl pointing his own gun at him.

“Please,” he said. No more tears in sight. This type of danger he was trained to overcome. “If you pull that trigger, it won’t end well for either of us. There’s a biolock. If you try to fire it, it will explode in your hands.”

She took a step closer. “Explode in my hands, explode in your face, what’s the difference?”

“I deserve this. I know. What I did was wrong. But you don’t deserve it. There has to be a better way.”

“I don’t know, pig. I think there was probably a better way to handle my mom and dad, too. But you didn’t care about that. Did you?”

“You’re dad!” Pardy said, remembering why he had come in the first place. “You’re dad. He—he’s not—dead. I know where he is.”

He could see her grip on the gun loosening. “Yeah,” she said. “Right. How do you expect me to trust a lying pig?”

“I’m not…I’m not a pig. I’m a protector.”

“Protector, pig, same difference.”

“Look at me,” Pardy said, pointing at his eyes. “Just look at me for a second. Okay. I’m at your mercy. You can commit the same wrong that I did, and add your life to the count, or you can trust me just a little bit. I won’t even ask for the gun back. I just want you to take your finger off the trigger.”

Her hands started to shake. Pardy squirmed back a little closer to the dumpster. She wanted to pull the trigger, he could tell, but she wanted to see her father, too.

“You’re lying,” she said.

“No. I’m not lying. I swear it. Look.” Pardy felt around the ground for the necklace and held it out again. “See? We took your father, okay. They took your father. I’m not—I can’t help them kill anyone else. And I will get him back.”

“I don’t believe you!” She shoved the gun closer to his face.

“Here,” Pardy said. “Take it.” He dangled the necklace right in front of the gun’s barrel.

The girl took one hand off the trigger and grabbed the necklace. She slipped it into her pocket then put the gun right back to his head. “All that means is that you killed my mom,” she said.

“No. It means that I cared enough to keep it. It means that I came searching for you, and I found you. It means that I’m here to help you. I want to protect you. That’s what it means.”

“I don’t need your protection!” the girl yelled. Pardy flinched away from the gun. “Look at you.” She laughed. “I stole your gun while you were crying on the ground like a baby. If anything, you need my protection.”

As if on cue, a group of hooded figures came into the alley. They stopped at the Neutral Ground entrance and one yelled, “Hey! You two. What’s going on down there?”

The girl turned and pointed the gun at them. “None of your business!”

Pardy stood up. He searched for his helmet out of his peripheral vision but couldn’t find it quick enough without a 360 degree view. He reached for his gun before he remembered the little girl was still holding it. Just what he needed.

“Now move along!” the girl yelled, shaking the gun at them.

“You. Girl,” the voice from down the alley came again. “You the Server kid?”

“I’m not a girl!”

The hooded figures started to creep closer. The girl backed up, and Pardy stepped between her and them. “Give me the gun,” he said, his hands behind his back, not looking away from the slowly advancing gang. She handed it over and he pointed it at them. “Stop right there, citizens,” he called in the deepest voice he could muster. He wished he had his helmet on, with it’s voice modulator and aiming assistance technology, but he had practiced enough without a helmet to take care of this small problem. “Turn around and go on your way.”

Ha ha ha!” They laughed, still slowly approaching. “No,” one of them said. “We’ll take the girl, pig. She belongs to us now. If you go on your way, maybe we won’t roast you with her. And that’s a one time offer. You got that?”

They were closing faster, and some of them had started making loud animal noises, halfway between oinks and barks. The girl tugged on his vest. “It’s not worth it,” she said. “We can ditch them. Follow me.”

“If you take one more step, I’ll have no choice but to use deadly force,” Pardy said, ignoring the girl.

They didn’t stop. “Yeah right, pig. Try and stop us.” A couple of them broke into a run, and Pardy fired, knocking both to the ground with one shot each. The others stopped in shocked silence.

The girl pulled on his vest again and yelled, “Come on!”

They sprinted off, twisting and turning down the alleys, away from the Neutral Ground and into the streets, before the gang could gather themselves. They sprinted a few zigzag blocks, then ducked behind a dumpster. Pardy was breathing so heavily he could barely hear the footsteps running past as the gang went looking for them.

“Y—You shot them,” the girl stammered when the sound of them running by had disappeared. “You actually shot them.”

“Why were they coming for you?” Pardy said.

“You just killed two of those guys, didn’t you? You’re a killing machine. Is that the only thing you know how to do? Pidgeon was right.”

“They were coming after you. It was us or them. Why did they want you?”

“Because you killed my parents!”

Pardy stood up and peeked over the dumpster to see if anyone had heard her. There was no one to see. “I—We’re going to get your dad back,” he said when he crouched back down to her. “But why would they chase you because of that?”

“To put me in their orphanage. Duh. You took some of their best employees, and now, they want me as payment.”

“What orphanage?”

“I don’t know.” The girl shook her head. “But Pidgeon didn’t make it sound good.”

“Who’s Pidgeon?”

“Pidgeon,” she said, scoffing. “That kid you chased away earlier. He was supposed to go to the end of the Belt with me. I knew he’d never make it, though. But he lived in the orphanage. He would know. If he was here, he could tell us.”

“Okay,” Pardy said, nodding. “Well. The first thing I need to do is get out of this gear. Let’s go back toward the Grounds—er—Belt. I have a change of clothes there. C’mon.” He got up as if to start on their way, but she didn’t budge.

Um…No. They’ll be looking for me there. The only safe way is to go toward the Streets.”

“I can’t walk around in these clothes anymore,” Pardy said, looking down at himself. He had lost his helmet, but he still stuck out like a Sixer in Amaru’s Temple. “Not while we’re here. It draws too much attention. Everyone will be looking for a protector walking around with a little girl.”

“I’m not a girl!”

“Whatever,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “They’ll find us. I need to change or get back to the precinct. One or the other, and they’re both towards the Neutral Ground.”

“Whatever that is, I’m not going there,” she said, crossing her arms. “So you’ll have to leave me behind or come this way with me.” She turned her back to him.

Pardy sighed. This was the point of no return. He had found the girl he needed to protect, but how much was he willing to put on the line to do it? He was going way off regulations already, but hadn’t the Captain encouraged him to do just that? Not only that, she had pushed him into it by giving him this shift. “I’m not leaving you,” he said.

“Well then.” She smiled. “Let’s go this way. We’ll get a little further from the Belt, so they’re not looking for us, then head west out and beyond their reach.”

“But we won’t be able to get your father back unless we go back to the transport bay,” Pardy said in one last ditch effort to get her to comply. He didn’t have time to go running around Outland 6, and he didn’t want to have to pick her up and carry her where he needed to go.

She was about to head the other way but stopped. “You’re really serious about this?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“I’ve heard that before.” She shook her head.

“I mean it,” Pardy said. “Look.” He pulled the picture of his son and wife out of his pocket and handed it to her.

“This looks like a baby Pidgeon,” she said with a laugh.

“That’s my son. I see a lot of him in you. If I was…gone, I would want someone to protect him for me, so I want to protect you. I will protect you. I promise.”

She rubbed her finger across the picture. “He looks like you, too. You look like Pidgeon.”

Pardy laughed. “I wish I hadn’t scared him away. Maybe he could help us right now.”

“Maybe he’s trying to,” the girl said, shrugging. “Help me, at least. He hates pigs.”

Pardy laughed again. “Are you ready to go back toward the transport bay? I know a place where we can lay low for a while.”

“If that’s where my dad is,” she said, eyeing him.

“It is.” Pardy nodded. “I promise.”

“Well…” She shrugged. “Let’s go, then. But let me lead the way. I have more experience in the Streets than you do.”

“Okay,” Pardy said. He didn’t care as long as she led in the direction he wanted her to go. “Just take us toward that tree your friend was climbing. Do you know the one?”

“You saw that?” the girl said, blushing.

“I—uh…yeah,” Pardy said, blushing himself. “I used to climb trees when I was a kid. It was the first thing I ever saw in Outland 6, that tree.”

“Outland 6? What does that mean?”

“You know, Outland 6,” Pardy said. “The world you live in. The one we’re in now.”

“I know the Streets and the Belt and that’s it. This Outland you’re talking about must be someplace else.”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Pardy said, shaking his head. He wasn’t supposed to be talking to a Sixer about the other worlds anyway, even if he was already this far off regulations. “My shift is supposed to end soon. We need to get to the costume closet and get you set up so I can figure out how to get your dad out.”

“Costume closet?” The girl raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll see,” Pardy said. “Come on.” He started around the dumpster, but she pulled his arm to stop him.

“Hey,” she said. “Me first, remember. I know this place better than you.”

“Oh,” Pardy said. “Right. Go ahead.”

She poked her head around the dumpster then started moving in bursts. She crossed the street into another alley and stopped in the shadows to make sure no one was coming before she went a few steps further and stopped to peek around the alley’s corner. He kept track of their position as they moved and she seemed to be taking them a roundabout way but in the right direction.

“The closet’s on this alley,” he said when they got far enough back east.

“Alright,” she said. “How close to the Belt?”

“Right off it.”

She sighed. “You have got to be kidding me,” she said, shaking her head. “Alright, well, we’re not taking the straight route, that’s for sure. Follow me.”

As they dipped and dashed through the alleyways, Pardy thought that this gir—er—or, whatever she was, didn’t need any protecting. She was leading the way. She knew what she was doing. She was taking a circuitous route like he had been trained to do, and she was only a child from Outland 6. How could she be so competent without any training? She was smarter and more able than his son, and his son must have been a few years older than her. How was that possible?

He was still thinking about it when he felt the thud on the back of his neck and his mind blacked out to nothing.

#   #   #

Pardy woke to the sour aroma of waking salts. He tried to jump up into a defensive position, but his arms and legs were tied to a tiny chair with linen. Two dark shadows blocked the light shining in his face, blinding him. One of them spoke.

Tsk tsk tsk. You’re all alone now, protector. You know that much at least. Don’t you?”

He struggled against the restraints and grunted.

Aww. He still thinks he’s in control of his life,” the second voice said.

“Protector. What’s your name?” the first voice said.

“Where’s the girl?” Pardy demanded. “What did you do with her?” He fought against his restraints.

She’s not a girl!” the second voice said in a mocking tone. “And it’s you you should be worrying about, protector.”

“Now,” the first voice came back. “What were you doing with her? What use is a little girl to the likes of you?”

“She’s no use to me. I’m not trying to use her. I want to protect her.”

“Protect? Ha ha ha!” The second voice cackled.

“Like you protected her mother, yes?” the first said.

“I know that was wrong,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “I want to make it right. I—I already talked to—”

A door groaned and more light poured in from behind the two shadows. Two shorter figures came in, one of them yelling, “I told you to get me when he woke up! He’s the only one who can get my dad!”

“We told you to stay out!” the first voice said.

“No,” the girl said. “You don’t own me. Set him free so he can get my dad!”

“Listen to her,” Pardy said.

“Shut up!” the first voice yelled. “Shut up all of you!”

“But I—” Pardy protested.

“No! Shut up. Answer this, protector, why are you here?”

“To protect her,” Pardy said, nodding in the direction of the shadow he thought was the little girl.

“You know you’re not gonna be able to get her dad out,” the first voice said. “I know that badge and your uniform. You’re an Officer. You don’t have the power it takes to affect something that important.”

“What?” Pardy said. “No, I—”

“Get her out of here!”

The second form ushered the two small shadows out of the room and closed the door. It was only Pardy and the first voice left.

“Look, protector,” it said. “What’s your name?”

Pardy didn’t answer.

“The girl wants you to get her dad back, but you can’t. We both know that. It’s not your fault. Now whether or not it’s your fault that you killed her mom is a little more of a gray area. Or a white area, should we say? Protector’s white.”

Pardy struggled against the restraints again, moving the chair with his effort. “I didn’t want to kill her,” he grunted. “She threatened me.”

Ha ha!” the voice laughed. “Sure. Sure, protector. It wasn’t your fault. No, you were just following orders, weren’t you? You’re a cog in a big machine and you alone can’t grind against the forces that tell you which way to turn. Sure, protector. Believe that if you must. You are only human, aren’t you? You are human, right? You bleed?”

Pardy struggled to break free, but the shadow only laughed.

“Oh. I know you are protector. It takes a human to fight like that, a human to gnash against chains he never expects to break free of. You are a human, protector. Not a cog. And you pulled that trigger. No one else.”

The door opened and closed, letting the second figure back in.

“Do you have everything under control?” the first said.

“Yes, yes,” the second said. “She won’t bother us again. She knows what the deal is now.”

“Did you hear that, protector?” the first said. “She knows what the deal is now. She knows what we’re going to do to you for what you did to her. Do you know, protector?”

Pardy struggled against his restraints and the two figures laughed together.

Struggle, struggle, all you want,” the second voice sang.

“Protector—huh huh—protector. It’s okay.” The first voice forced down its laughter. “Protector, we aren’t going to do anything to you. That’s why the girl won’t come in. She knows we won’t hurt you. In fact, my partner here has some food for you.”

The overhead lights flipped on. Two short, dirty-haired, dirty-everythinged women crouched in front of him. No, they weren’t crouching. They were standing, but their backs were so hunched as to produce the illusion of crouching. They looked so small and frail. He almost wanted to laugh at the thought that they could hurt him. He chastised himself for somehow being caught by them, a giant knocked out by ants. One of them was holding a bowl of steaming something, and the other was empty-handed. Pardy looked around the room for his gun but it wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Ha ha! You called it,” the one holding the bowl said, the second voice.

“Your gun’s not here, protector,” the woman who owned the first voice said. “You can stop searching. We got rid of your comm link, too. Don’t worry. They won’t know where you are. In fact, they’ll think you’re in two places at once. Huh huh.”

They burst into laughter again. Pardy looked at his wrist and his comm was gone. “How did you know?”

“You’re not the first protector to try to help a Sixer.” The old woman shoved the bowl into Pardy’s chest, spilling hot slop over his white uniform. When she realized he couldn’t use his hands, she put it on his lap and untied them. “And you won’t be the last.”

“Settle down, now,” the other said. “Let me talk to him. You go take care of the girl.”

The door slammed and Pardy’s stomach growled. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He sniffed the soup and looked closely at a spoonful.

“Don’t worry,” the woman with the first voice said. “She made it, not me.” She pointed over her shoulder at the other woman who had already left. “It wouldn’t kill you either way, but this way it tastes better going down.”

Pardy took a big spoonful, and it tasted much better than he had expected, much better than all the nutritionally balanced meals he had eaten in his life, the ones designed to make him a perfect protector. He couldn’t help shoveling it into his face.

“That’s real cooking there, protector,” the woman said, laughing. “Homemade by human hands. You can have all of it you want, too. So don’t be shy. Heh heh.”

Pardy ate and ate until the spoon couldn’t scoop anymore.

“Now. Protector,” the woman said. “Your arms are free, I couldn’t stop you from leaving if I tried, and we’ve fed you from our own feed stores. My name is Rosa, and I want to help you help the girl. So, do you think you can trust me with your name?”

He didn’t trust her still. She was right, though. With his hands free he could easily get past these frail, old women, but she probably also knew that he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He had to see to it that the girl—he still didn’t even know her name—was protected. These people seemed to also want to protect her, but he wasn’t sure how they could. Still he had no choice. He had to at least hear them out until he could find a better way to protect the girl. Maybe they could help him find that way.

“Pardy,” he said.

“Pardy?” Rosa repeated. “That sounds like a surname. Do you have anything more…intimate?”

He didn’t understand why he didn’t want to tell her, but he didn’t. “Tom.”

“Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Was that so hard? It’s so nice to finally meet you, Tom. Would you like me to untie your legs? That can’t be comfortable.”

Pardy started untying them himself, but she helped with the other leg. When they were done, he stood and stretched his muscles. He had to stoop so he didn’t hit his head on the short ceiling, and Rosa looked even smaller from the new vantage point. He still didn’t understand how he could let them knock him unconscious.

“There,” she said. “That’s better. Isn’t it?”

“What do you plan on doing with me?” he asked, finally back in control of his fate, gun or no.

“Do with you?” Rosa laughed. “No, Tom,” she said, shaking her head. “I thought it was clear that we couldn’t do anything with you if we tried. We don’t want to do anything with you at all. We want do it for you. And for the girl, of course.”

“Where is she?” Pardy demanded. “I want to talk to her.”

“Yes, well, you will. But first you have to understand that you can’t get her father back. Now do you understand that?”

“You don’t know that. I’m a protector. I can—”

“You can shoot her mother when a superior officer is nowhere near?” Rosa frowned with her lips in a tight line. “We know how it happened, Tom. If you can’t resist the other cogs when they’re nowhere near you, how do you expect to go into the heart of the machine to bring her father back out?”

“I—I could—”

Y—You would fail. Get arrested yourself. I don’t intend to sound rude when I say this, either, but you have to know that we can’t lose whatever chance of protecting Ansel you actually do offer us.”

“Ansel?”

“That’s her name, Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Ansel. And her parents were Eva and Andy. You killed one and locked the other up. No one else, Tom. You. And do you know why?”

“I was ordered—” Pardy stuttered. “I was ordered to stop her.”

“Ordered by who, Tom?”

“By my Captain—My superior officer.”

“And who ordered your Captain to order you?”

“I don’t know. The Major, or the Chief, or—”

“Exactly, Tom. There are more and more. Your boss, your boss’s boss, their bosses. But where does it end? Is it bosses all the way up? What exactly are you protecting?”

“Property, liberty, life,” Pardy replied by reflex.

“Exactly,” Rosa sneered. “Property first, then liberty, then life. In that order. You’re protecting someone else’s property, too. Not ours. Not here. Not in Six. Have you ever heard of property being returned to Six?”

“Six has no property,” Pardy said. “Everything they have they’ve stolen.”

“That’s not true, Tom.” Rosa shook her head. “You spend some time here with us and you’ll learn that.”

“I don’t care about any of this.” He was getting annoyed. He clenched his fists. He had to fight the urge to hit this trash for talking to him like she was his superior. He couldn’t keep the edge out of his voice. “Where’s the—Where’s Ansel? I want to see her.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll get her. But I’ll need to talk to you after you’re done telling her you can’t save her father. I can offer you a way to actually protect our mutual friend. That’s what we both want, isn’t it? Now, I’ll go get her. You and I will speak again soon enough.” She swept out of the room, and shortly after, Ansel stormed in.

“They said you can’t get my dad out,” she said, crossing her arms.

“They might be right,” Pardy said, shaking his head.

“But you said you could.”

“I thought I could. I was lying to myself, though. I’m just an Officer. I don’t have that kind of power.”

Ansel hit him on the arm, and he flinched away, hitting his head on the roof. “You also said you wouldn’t lie!”

“I didn’t know I was lying,” he said, rubbing the quickly forming knot on his head. “I wanted it to be true, so I thought it was. That’s not the same as lying.”

“A lie’s a lie.” She hit him again for good measure.

“I may not be able to get your father back, but I still promise to do whatever I can to protect you.”

“They told me you’d say that, too. They told me it may not be true either.”

“They don’t know me, Ansel. How would they know what I’ll do?”

“How do you know my name?” Ansel asked, raising her hand to hit him again.

“I—they told me,” Pardy said.

He relinquished himself to the slaps as she said, “And I don’t even know yours! They know you better than I do! And they knew you were lying even when you didn’t!” One slap on the arm for each word of the accusation.

“I—well—yes,” Pardy said. “That’s—”

She hit him again. “Then they know you better than you do.”

He didn’t know how to answer. He gave up and plopped back down into the short seat. He huffed and looked at Ansel’s size compared to Rosa’s, wondering how old she actually was. She could be older than his son. “Tom,” he said.

“What?”

“My name’s Tom,” he said. “Tom Pardy.”

“Well, Tom,” Ansel said, extending a hand. “I’m Ansel Server.”

“Nice to meet you Ansel,” he said, taking it.

“You said you’d do anything to protect me, right? Well Rosa and Anna said they have a plan that you could help them with. Pidgeon seems to think the world of them, but I wouldn’t trust his judgment. I don’t even know if their plan has anything to do with getting my dad back, but I need you to figure out what it is before I can decide what to do next. What do you say?”

Tom didn’t trust Pidgeon’s judgment either. Nor did he trust Rosa or Anna. He didn’t trust their methods—ambushing him in the alley and tying him up—and he didn’t trust that they wanted to protect Ansel. He didn’t trust a Sixer to look out for anyone but themselves. But who was he to talk? He was the one who had killed Ansel’s mother. He had gotten ambushed by two scrawny, old, hunchbacked Sixers. He was protecting a Sixer, and maybe a Sixer was exactly the help he needed to figure out how best to do that.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”

“I ain’t asking you to trust them.” Ansel scoffed. “Just hear them out and tell me the plan, then I can decide from there.”

He couldn’t argue with that logic. Even if it would be him deciding from there and not her. “I’ll hear them out,” he said, nodding.

#   #   #

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

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