Finder: A Novel Of The Borderlands (first chapter)

Falling Out of Paradise

I remember where I was and what I was doing when Bonnie Prince Charlie was killed. Not that I knew it at the time, of course. But while Charlie was travelling the distance from the Pigeon Cloisters belfry to High Street with all the dispatch that gravity can muster, I was sunbathing.

If the weather had held, I’d have been on the roof of my building the next day, too, spread out like a drying sweater. But it promised rain. (If the forecast had been different, would the past be, too? Would a lot of people still be here? This town is strange and has weather to match, but I never imagined it was a matter of life and death.)

So when Tick-Tick pounded on the frame of my open front door, I was in and washing dishes. She poked her head in and shouted, “I am the queen’s daughter, I come from Twelfth and Flynn, in search of Young Orient, pray God I find him!”

I lifted my hands dripping from the suds, took the herbal cigarette out of the corner of my mouth, and said, “Excuse me?”

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” said the Ticker placidly. She stalked in, the picture of elven self-possession, and picked a saucer out of the dishpan with thumb and forefinger. “Mab’s grace. So low as you’ve fallen, my precious boy.”

“I’m out of cups. Nothing else would have driven me to it.” The water had killed my cigarette. I sighed and flicked it out the window.

She dropped into my upholstered chair and swung her long legs over the arm. Her concession to summer’s heat, I noticed, was to tear the sleeves off her favorite pair of gray mechanic’s coveralls and roll the legs up to mid-calf. And still she did look rather like a queen’s daughter; but the elves usually look like royalty. When they’re trying not to, they only look like royalty in a cheap plastic disguise. Tick-Tick had a face like the bust of Nefertiti, only more daunting, and her eyes were huge and long and the gray of January ice.

“Is it still overcast?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. Nice summer thunderstorm tonight. Ah, of course, my condolences. Your tan isn’t finished.”

“You don’t exactly finish a tan.”

“I wouldn’t know. But I’m trying to share your sentiments on the thing, really.”

The skin on her face, her arms, her ankles, was smooth and almost buttermilk-colored. As far as I know, elves don’t sunburn, either.

“So have you come to help me wash dishes?”

“Earth defend me. No, I’ve come to take you away from all this. I’ve work for you to do.”

I raised my head like a cat hearing a can opener.

“Road trip?” Tick-Tick and I had a pleasant and profitable line of work established, guiding foragers, explorers, merchants, and whoever through the less-charted areas of the Borderlands, the Nevernever. There the magic boiling out of the Elflands makes Alice’s looking-glass garden, where you have to walk away from your destination to get there, seem like a trivial navigation problem.

“No, sorry. Not work for us, just for you. It’s probably only the work of fifteen minutes, but I’ll pay you in dinner. And it’s an excuse to stop what you’re doing.”

“You’re my partner, you ass. You don’t have to pay for it.”

“All right.” She grinned, and commanded, “You may find my torque wrench and do me the favor of joining me for dinner.”

I laughed as the last glass slid from my fingers back into the water. Then—“Ah,” I said. “That was quick.”

I can’t explain it well. I’ve lived with the phenomenon for eight years, and still it defies proper description. Somewhere in me, in my mind or my bones or my nerve endings or none of these, there was a pulling sensation, a highly directional drag at my attention. It was both less and more uncomfortable than I make it sound. I knew that, if I ignored it, it would go away in a few hours, but that they would be an unpleasant few hours. Not painful—just unpleasant. I told you I couldn’t explain it well.

The very asking of the question does it. “Where is… ?” and fill in the blankwith the non-abstract noun of your choice. But it has to be something that either the client or I know exists. Your left shoe; your grandmother’s diamond ring (even if you’ve never seen it, if you know it exists, and it hasn’t been pitched in a volcano, I can find it); a jar of mustard (a specific one, or just the nearest available for sate—you have to tell me which). And once the question’s been asked, I can’t just tell you “Under your bed,” or “At the Marvel Mart at the corner of Ho and Peppergrass.” I have to follow the pull; I have to track it down myself, as if I were a dowsing rod. It’s not a perfect system. But at one time or another, everybody loses something, and my rates are reasonable.

Now the Ticker raised her eyebrows hopefully, and I said, “Thataway,” and pointed.

“Bless you, my child. Get your hat, then. We’ll go straight from Thataway to dinner.”

I got my sunglasses instead.

I admit to a certain bias, but in my opinion Tick-Tick had some of the best wheels in Bordertown. Harley-Davidson made most of the rig in about 1962, but the Ticker rebuilt and modified the engine and installed the spellbox that operated the bike in the pockets of the Borderlands where the sensible mechanisms of real-world physics turn tail and run. She put on six coats of midnight-blue lacquer and bought a spell that protects it from flying gravel. Best of all, she found the sidecar. Riding in it, I felt like an oil sheik with my bodyguard.

I pointed out the turns to her, playing hot-cold-hot from block to block to find my way around buildings. Horn Dance passed us on their way to a show: twelve assorted bikes, their riders’ jackets trailing a wake of flying ribbons, more ribbons snapping from the antlers mounted behind the headlights, engines not quite drowning out the ringing of morris dance bells.

We crossed Ho Street at Danceland’s corner, and I saw that the club’s black-painted doors stood open to catch a little breeze. It was too early for a band, too early for the most determined would-be audience; Dancer must have set the staff to cleaning the place.

Snappin’ Wizard’s Surplus across the street was open and the tempera-paint sign on the front window glass read, “Chase Lights! Curse Limiters! LEDs! Pre-owned Spellboxes! Big Big SALE!” Tick-Tick slowed down for just a moment; she could never completely resist the siren call of Snappin’ Wizard’s. But she must have remembered that it was her wrench we were after, because it was only a moment.

Outside the Free Clinic near Fare-You-Well Park I thought I saw somebody wave. But I was in pursuit of a feeling with a torque wrench at the end of it, and we couldn’t pause to talk.

We were well south of Ho in a neighborhood full of what had probably been warehouses and light manufacturing back before the Border appeared, with the Elflands on the other side of it, to make Bordertown what it is today. I flagged Tick-Tick to a stop outside a squat brick building with no windows, and she killed the engine.

She tugged her helmet off and smoothed her already precise cap of chrome-yellow hair, fluffing the single long lock that fell, fine as mist, over one eye. She was smiling. 

“That’s interesting,” she said. “Walt Felkin’s place.”

“I don’t suppose you lent him the wrench and forgot.”

“Good. I’m glad you don’t. Are you in a wagering mood?”

“Um. Depends.”

“I’ll wager you five dollars that he’ll deny ever having seen my wrench until he finds out who you are.”

I snorted. “I might as well just buy my own dinner.”

“Quite right. Never mind.” She was whistling something under her breath as she picked her way through the stacks of old tires at the curb. It sounded suspiciously like Camper Van Beethoven’s “When I Win the Lottery.” There was a broken piece of tailpipe lying against the side of the building; she snagged it up and swung it like an umbrella as she walked to the door.

She used the tailpipe to knock. It didn’t make a friendly sound. After a minute’s wait we heard locks being unlocked. The door opened a crack; Tick-Tick jammed the tailpipe in to hold it open. A wide, watery blue eye appeared in the space.

“Hallo, Walt,” said the Ticker. “I believe you’ve borrowed something of mine.”

I got nothin’ of yours.”

“Oh, Walt. It’s a torque wrench. I find I have need of it. Do pass it out like a good fellow, and I’ll let you get back to your dirty magazines, or whatever it is you do to pass the afternoon.”

“Get gone, Ticker, or I’ll pass you a couple inches of this.” In the opening, something metallic flashed.

The Ticker slammed the tailpipe upward. There was a curse from Walt, and a clatter; the knife fell half-in, half-out of the door. Tick-Tick kicked it out onto the sidewalk with her foot and used her assault weapon to lever the door open. It must have banged into Walt’s nose, because he was clutching it when the door finally swung all the way open. He was wearing grease-stained jeans and no shirt. He didn’t have a tan.

“Walt,” said Tick-Tick, smiling, “you know Orient, don’t you?”

His face went blank and white as restaurant china.

“Hi,” I said. “Sorry to barge in on you like this.”

“The wrench?” Tick-Tick reminded him.

A patch of pink appeared on the skin under each of his eyes. “Uh. Oh, has it got, um, blue paint on the end of the grip?”

“Yes,” said the Ticker, smiling. “Exactly the color of my bike, in fact.”

“Oh. Hey, I thought that was Chillie Billie’s wrench, Tick-Tick. Honest. I’ll, uh…” He’d already backed his way out of the door; the rest of the sentence was lost somewhere inside the building as he disappeared. Then he reappeared with a torque wrench and another “Honest,” even more desperate than the last.

As soon as Tick-Tick laid hands on the wrench, the nudging, pulling feeling in me stopped. A little tension went out of my shoulders that I hadn’t known was there.

“Thank you, Walt. I do hope it works as well as it used to.”

Walt nodded as if the back of his head wasn’t very firmly attached and he had to be careful. Then he shut the door.

As I climbed into the sidecar, I said, “Weren’t you a little hard on him? The knife aside, I mean.”

“I don’t like thieves.”

“Wasn’t being caught at it enough humiliation?”

She turned to me, surprised. “You don’t know about Walt Felkin, then?”

I shook my head.

“He’s an under-lieutenant in the Pack. He’s admitted to that spot of arson at the Dancing Ferret, and bragged about beating up shopkeepers in Dragontown. No one can be brought to make a claim against him, though. The Bloods have sworn to make fiddle strings of his guts at the first opportunity. He’s an oily little Nazi.”

The Ticker sounded very much unlike herself, and it was a few minutes and several blocks before I said, “But he caved in as soon as he knew I was with you. And you knew he would. You could have told him I was there as soon as he opened the door.”

We travelled even more blocks. Her helmet kept me from seeing her expression, but her jaw was stiff. We were growling down Ho Street (the technology was on, just then) when she finally said, “You’re right. I wanted to frighten him. I think I rather hoped for an opportunity to hit him. That was inexcusable.”

“It’s not as if you make a habit of it.”

She lifted her head. “It’s easier,” she said, slowly, “to be angry on someone else’s behalf than on my own. And yet I find I have a well of anger in me, that I have been filling for years from my own hurts. If I spill it out in defense of another, I can deny that it’s mine.” She swung the bike up to the curb outside the Hard Luck Cafe and killed the engine. “Does that make sense, or is it a purely fey madness?”

“Oh, no,” I answered. “It makes a lot of sense.”

She smiled with half her mouth, the little wry twist that has as much sadness in it as anything. “Silly question. Of course you understand.”

I swung my legs over the lip of the sidecar and slithered out onto the pavement. “Hah. If we’re so single-minded, why don’t you understand about my tan?”

“But I do, my rambling boy! With my head, if not my heart.”

Elves are given to quicksilver slides from mood to mood, but when you know one of them well, you can tell the difference between that and genuine gratitude for a change of subject. I held the door for her, and we swaggered into the Hard Luck like the pair of reigning outlaws we pretended to be.

It was warm inside in spite of the fans, and busy, and noisy, and remarkably like a combination of farmhouse kitchen, private club, and arts salon. Anyone who makes trouble at the Hard Luck Cafe is considered an incurable misfit, even within the loose social contract of Bordertown, and is not welcome anywhere, to anything. 

Consequently, the Hard Luck’s habitués include humans, elves, and halfies, people from Dragontown and shimmers from up on the Tooth, painters and gang leaders. It’s such a desirable place to simply be that it’s almost too much to hope that the food is good.

The food is good.

I peered at the back wall and the blackboard that serves as menu. The Hard Luck is a cooperative, and the people working the kitchen cook whatever they feel like that day. Certain things are almost always available—burgers for the philistines, for instance—but if the staff decides they want to do Chinese that day, that’s what’s for dinner. If you don’t like it, that’s—all together now—Your Hard Luck. That day it looked like mixed down-home: fish chowder, lentil and spinach casserole, stuffed peppers, Brunswick stew.

“Bother,” Tick-Tick said at my shoulder, “no booths—wait, other side in the middle.”

We nodded to people as we crossed the room. An elf, identified as a member of the Bloods by the red leather headband and a cut-off, shredded red tank top, glared at me for an instant; then his face cleared and he nodded back. I’d found his kid sister’s stolen cycle a month ago. A muscular man, mahogany brown, with a blackwork tattoo over half his face and down his neck, looked up from a copy of Dubious Truth and a cup of tea and smiled vaguely. He was a sculptor; he’d come to me about a copy of a book on Calder’s mobiles. I read it before I passed it on. Life ought to be one long education.

County Hell Fairgrounds was on the sound system, and the window glass quaked audibly with every extra-low note. We claimed the booth just as the bass player grabbed a fistful of strings and climbed the alphabet with them.

“How does he make his hands do that?” I asked.

“Too much Fairport Convention in his youth,” suggested Tick-Tick. “Shall I make the A-sign at Peach?”

I thought about the alternative. “Yeah. It’s too hot for stout. Ale sounds right.”

The Ticker sat up very straight, caught Peach’s eye across the room, and made a pyramid with her hands. Then she held up two fingers.

The front door opened again and produced a partial pocket of silence. Well, no, it wasn’t the door, but the person who’d pushed it open. He moved smoothly on long, supple muscles that made him seem taller than he was. He grinned at the reaction in the room, which produced more of it, because the grin was full of large, white, pointed teeth in a long jaw, and the face and body were covered with smooth red-brown fur.

Tick-Tick made a scratch-that gesture to Peach and held up three fingers. The same hand turned into a waving white flag to summon Wolfboy.

“Ay, Lobito,” I said when he came up. “You’ll just have to sit with the scaff ‘n’ raff if you want a booth.”

Wolfboy raised his hands palm-up and rolled his eyes to heaven in a perfect “Why me?”

Tick-Tick slid over to make room for him

“How’s Sparks?” the Ticker asked.

Wolfboy dragged a notebook and pen out of his back jeans pocket before he sat; then he flipped to a new page, wrote quickly (it must be hard to write quickly and well with claws on the ends of your fingers, but I suppose anything comes with practice), and showed it to us. Way good. She’s minding the store, it read. Wolfboy and his girlfriend Sparks ran the best used bookstore in town. It made me feel almost old; the Ticker and I had known him since before any of us did anything useful with our time.

He slid the notebook back to his side of the table and wrote, Heard a great new Camphire-ism today. Camphire was a Ho Street mural painter, and by either human or fey definition, odd. If there’s an elven equivalent for LSD, she might have done too much of it when she was about six. He added to the page, “You have to break an omelette to make eggs.”

I stared at the sentence. “Oh. That almost makes sense.”

“You’re right,” said Tick-Tick, and shook her head. “It must be the apocalypse.”

Wolfboy raised one shoulder and both eyebrow equivalents, and wrote, Or Camphire’s a secret Sufi master … nah.

Peach set our bottles of ale in front of us, dug out her pad and looked hopeful. She was too shy to actually ask for an order. The Ticker opted for the casserole, Wolfboy for the Brunswick stew, and I decided on the fish chowder. Peach smiled at me as if she’d been waiting all night for someone to do that.

“You’re sure? I’m buying, remember,” Tick-Tick said.

“You’ve never had Lucy’s chowder, I can tell. Are there mussels in it today, Peach?”

She blushed like her namesake. “Lots. Um. And Bill just brought a cheesecake in.”

“See?” I said to the Ticker. “I’m having dessert.”

Peach smiled, blushed harder, ducked her head, and bolted for the kitchen.

Wolfboy wrote. What did the Human Compass do to rate dinner?

“Hisss,” I said. “I drink your blood, Dog Nose.”

“No killing,” Tick-Tick said, “or Peach won’t bring my order. He found my stolen wrench.” She told the story with, I thought, less relish than she might once have. I couldn’t decide if I felt bad about that or not. Partway through Wolfboy shot me an odd sideways look, as if to suggest that he’d ask for the rest later, from me.

Peach ducked past again. “I set a piece of cheesecake aside for you,” she told me, about as fast as the human mouth can move without stuttering, and darted away.

The Ticker propped her chin in her palm and regarded me with bland approbation. “She thinks you’re cute,” she said. Wolfboy giggled, a terrible thing to hear from a guy covered with fur.

I grimaced.

“Come now,” Tick-Tick said. “What’s wrong with Peach?”

“Nothing. She’s a sweet kid.” Wolfboy’s cider-gold eyes fastened on me. “Guess I just like wild women.”

“You like women who use men like you for toothpicks,” the Ticker said, and now she had me pinned in her sights. Elf-silver and wolf-gold—or maybe wolves don’t have gold eyes.

“Ahem,” I said, looking at Tick-Tick. “Since I promised not to mention your last boyfriend in your hearing ever again, I’m at a little disadvantage here.”

She grinned. “He was a double-dyed, thoroughgoing, ratfink louse. But he was the only thoroughgoing ratfink louse in my romantic history, which suggests that, unlike some people, I do not repeat my mistakes.”

“Not yet, anyway.”

Wolfboy sniggered and covered his eyes with one hand.

She ignored us both. “You realize, don’t you, that your love life has a certain nightmarish quality? That where other people have affairs, you have imbroglios?”

I held my beer bottle in front of me like a crucifix. “Down, girl. No more about my love life before dinner.”

“Okay. Let’s try your social life instead.” It was a new voice, and familiar. I turned quickly.

Anyplace with laws ends up having something like police eventually. Bordertown had some laws. Sunny Rico was something like a cop.

In a town where everyone dyed their hair, hers was uncompromisingly natural: light brown and showing a little silver over the ears, short on top and around her face and curving over her collar in back. Her tan was better than mine. I didn’t know the color of her eyes, and couldn’t see them now; silver Night Peepers wrapped across them. Her loose trousers and looser jacket were tweedy gray linen with a fleck of red. Very nice, and only a little conservative for the neighborhood’s catholic tastes. She had a red Eldritch Steel T-shirt underneath. Both her hands were in her pants pockets.

“Detective Rico,” Tick-Tick said, in the tone she uses when several drunk Pack members are blocking her way to the bar.

“Tick-Tick,” Rico nodded in greeting. “Lobo. Orient. How do. Mind if I sit?”

I kept my face empty. “We have no minds.”

“That’s what Dancer tells me.” She hooked a chair with her foot and pulled it up to the end of the booth.

Tricky, to remind us that she was a friend of Dancer’s. They’d run in a B-town gang together once, before Dancer grew up and opened a nightclub and Sunny Rico grew up to fight crime. And there you have a yardstick for maturity in Bordertown, I suppose. I asked, “What brings you south of civilization?” She wanted a favor, of course; that was what the reminder about her and Dancer had been for.

She studied us. “Social life. You know Bonnie Prince Charlie?”

Wolfboy nodded, and the Ticker said, “Somewhat.” Rico looked back to me.

“Yeah.”

“He died yesterday.”

It held us frozen for a moment, like the glare of a camera flash. “Violently, I suppose?” Tick-Tick said. Rico nodded, and her eyes came back once more to me.

I was damned if I knew why. Yes, I’d known Charlie. He came into Bordertown cocky, desperate to be a desperado. He told us his name was Charles Bonney, and to anyone who didn’t recognize it, he pointed out that Bonney was Billy the Kid’s name. It was Scully, lounging at a back table in the Ferret, who finally drawled, “So you’re Bonnie Prince Charlie? Welcome name to the ane true Prin.” The name couldn’t help but stick.

Charlie didn’t usually keep the company I did, or if he did, it was out at the brittle edge. Charlie worked questionable jobs for unpleasant people, ran errands in the service of projects I didn’t want to know about. I didn’t like him, I didn’t dislike him. If he was dead, I probably didn’t want to know why.

You can’t always get what you want. “He fell out of the belfry up on High Street yesterday,” Rico said. “The tattle is that he was playing a little turnabout on his employer. Got laid off in a big way.”

“Why are you telling us?” I asked, because somebody had to.

“Because I’d like to find his employer.”

Wolfboy spread his hands: Don’t look at us.

I felt the same way. Then I heard, really heard, the infinitive verb in Rico’s sentence.

“No,” I said.

Wolfboy and the Ticker looked politely confused; they hadn’t picked up the clue yet. Rico went on. quickly, as if she had to convince them before they caught on. As if she had to convince anyone but me. “Charlie was running for somebody doing business in a particular kind of designer drop. Looks like he ran the wrong way with something.”

Tick-Tick leaned across the table. “Are you choosing not to speak English?”

Rico slid the Peepers down her nose and gave her a stare over them. Brown eyes. “He was taking illicit substances to people who wanted to purchase them, exchanging them for money, and possibly failing to take the money back to the place where the illicit substances came from. Better?”

Tick-Tick nodded, her whole face working to stifle a grin.

“Come on,” I said, and I heard the way my voice cut across the civilized mood. “Charlie was a little thug. A little Soho thug. Thirty of ’em could be mowed down in an afternoon and the Silver Suits wouldn’t look up from their paperwork.”

“Not quite true,” Rico assured me, her expression mildly wounded. “But you’re right. I don’t really give a damn about Charlie. So why am I here?”

We exchanged an uncertain glance—or at least, Tick-Tick and Wolfboy did, and tried to include me.

It was Tick-Tick who picked up Rico’s question, cool and academic and dauntingly elven. “It’s not the drug problem. Capital D, capital P. The Mad River itself is a dangerous drug for humans, after all, and I’ve never seen the police concern themselves with what Soho’s children choose to intoxicate themselves with.”

Rico nodded. “Victimless crime. We don’t care who they sleep with, either, or whether they charge ’em for it. Though if they ask, we’ll tell ’em it’s a bad idea.”

“Are you having fun?” I asked. “Tell us a story. Detective.”

Rico took off the Peepers and folded them, set them on the table. She studied me before she spoke, as if she were seeing something or someone who wasn’t me. “Humans can’t get into the Elflands; maybe the Wall recognizes them. But what if someone gave you a vial of blue stuff to shoot and said it’d change you, make you just enough like an elf that you could step over the Border into Faerie?”

Wolfboy watched Rico, narrow-eyed. His lip twitched on one side, not quite a snarl, but maybe the possibility of one. He was a little ahead of the Ticker and me, I think, in following the idea to its consequences; he usually is. Tick-Tick frowned at Rico. “It wouldn’t be possible,” she said at last, but warily.

“Isn’t it? There are plenty of substances that shuffle chromosomes. They use ’em out in the World for bioengineering.”

“Leaving aside that the Elflands are overrated,” the Ticker said, “I’d guess a great deal of money could be made with a product like that. If it has any effect.”

“Oh, it has an effect. It brings on hallucinations and euphoria. At first, that’s all it does. With repeated use, it cranks up or damps down certain glands. You have a growth spurt, you lose weight. It seems to break down melanin; skin color fades. Hallucinations become increasingly intense.” She picked up the Peepers and sighted down the earpieces. “And then it kills you.”

If that was what Wolfboy had guessed ahead to, I understood the snarl. I thought of the runaways in Soho who wanted to see the Elflands—which was all of them. Or the less-than-halfbreeds who felt the pull of their elven heritage. Or dumb Jewish boys who’d arrived in Bordertown willing to do anything to stop being what they were, how they were. A shiver ran down my arms.

“I’ve hit the wall on this,” Rico said. “Charlie was a mule for the person or people behind the stuff. I found out that much, and we were on him like polish on a shoe for maybe twenty-four hours. Twenty-four God-damned hours later, he’s dead, with nothing to connect him to his bosses. Whoever it is I’m after might as well be an illusion.”

She paused to toy with her Night Peepers again, as if her next line didn’t come easily. Tick-Tick made a non-commital sympathetic noise, and Wolfboy grunted, which was probably the same thing.

Rico raised her head and stared at me. “Then I remembered how you tracked down the killer in the Danceland murder.”

I remembered it, too. Normal people can take only so much of that. That’s what people like Rico are there for. I wanted to look around the table, at my friends, to see whether they’d known that was coming, whether they’d seen what Rico had meant to do. Oh, lord, I should have understood. She wanted me, but she’d been careful to explain herself to them, to do this in front of them, to put my friends on her side.

“I am not a public utility,” I said.

Rico raised her eyebrows. “I’ll pay the going rate.”

“Then you can make me mayor and the King of Elf-land. I wouldn’t do it for less.”

“Why not?”

I drank off the last of my beer with a ferocious snap. Then I rose and leaned over her, so I could look into her face, and said, “Because I tracked down the Danceland killer.”

I straightened up, smiling like a plastic mask. “I’m gonna get another. Anybody else?”

“Me,” said Tick-Tick. She understood: Have another beer, business as usual, because the matter is closed. Wolfboy shook his head. Rico sat where she was, like a woman prepared to wait.

I picked up the empties and turned. I was two good strides away before Rico raised her voice and said it, like the answer to a question.

“Richard Paul Weineman.”

I took another step. One of the beer bottles slipped out of my fingers and shattered on the floor. I turned around and said, my voice unstrung, “I beg your pardon?” but it was too little, too late.

Rico was leaning back in her chair and staring at the ceiling. The Ticker was alarmed, by my face, I think. Wolfboy looked at me and turned to Rico, lips pulled back in a full-fledged snarl. He didn’t know how it had been done, but someone had just hit a friend of his, and he was ready to fight back.

Rico had even pronounced all three syllables of the last name.

She gestured me back to the booth with a jerk of her head. I came as if on a leash. The sound of breaking glass had stopped the conversations around us; now they started back up. I wondered if anyone but us had caught that name. When I was seated again Rico said, “The Suits have had a file on him for a few years. He’d be, oh, twenty-ish now.”

I watched her lips move. Mine felt like glaciers—cold, slow, and inclined to break around the edges.

Rico went on, “Five-foot-ten—maybe about six feet by now. Black hair, dark blue eyes. Good-looking kid. A lot like you. You okay? You’re a little green.”

My fingers were tight around the remaining bottle. I let go of it and laid my hands flat on the table instead.

“Charged with grand theft auto, back in the World,” Rico concluded. She folded the Peepers with a click. “And murder.”

I thought the Ticker’s shoulders moved. I was afraid to look at Wolfboy.

“If I found him,” Rico said, eyeing the wall above the booth, “I’d have to extradite him. If B-town got in the habit of harboring fugitives, we’d never be able to keep the damn real cops—the ones from the World, I mean—out of here. Nobody wants that.”

I scrabbled up enough self-control to speak. “What do you want me to do?”

“Help me find Charlie’s boss.”

“It’s not that easy. One of us needs to know who I’m looking for.”

“I’ve got to try.” For an instant, Rico looked hunted and hungry. That’s right, she’d been on the street. She’d imagine her friends falling to this. She put the Peepers on again. “Can you start now?”

“He doesn’t want to.” Tick-Tick, in her fine, measured voice, like a reciting poet or a courtroom lawyer. “Nor does he have to. He’s committed no crime—” I saw the stop in her thoughts mirrored in her eyes, when she wondered if I had committed a crime. 

“And if he has, arrest him. Where is it written that mere authority allows you these liberties with another person’s life?”

The smooth silver curve of the Night Peepers was opaque; all I could see there was the room, my face, the Ticker’s, and Wolfboy’s unreadable one over his clenched, black-clawed fingers.

I pried my hands loose from the table and stood up. “Isn’t that what authority is?”

Rico had the grace to flinch.

I smiled stiffly at Tick-Tick. “Tell Peach to eat my chowder and think of me.”

“Heartbreaker,” she said, as if it hurt her. Wolfboy made a quick, impatient gesture, then seemed to stop himself. I wondered what he would have said, if he could.

I led the way out of the Hard Luck, for the sake of my self-respect. Rico, for whatever reason, let me do it.

###

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About Emma Bull

Emma Bull is the author of War for the Oaks and other novels, including Territory, which was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award.