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Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 18:32; Argent’s, Bellevue, Seattle

Silk swept up the drive on her bike, past the still smouldering Beltane fires from the night before. Clearly the right palms had been pressed to allow a conflagration in a quiet Bellevue neighbourhood. Argent’s youngest waved to her from the lawn as he propelled a ball back towards a catcher drone and Silk mused that they had dealt with the death of their father far better than Argent had, far better than she herself had dealt with the death of her mother…the resilience of youth was to be envied…and then she laughed slightly bitterly at herself, she was hardly old!

Putting the kick stand down she took off her helmet and ran her fingers through her hair to shake it loose and headed towards the front of the house. Ari barrelled past, on her way to a dance class by the look of things, and Silk got a perfunctory ‘hi’ from the teenager before she disappeared inside the waiting car. Argent was waiting at the top of the steps and Silk waved a greeting.

Argent was tall, even for an elf, the striking lock of silver hair giving reason for her handle. Her softly spoken French accent washed over Silk, making her feel immediately at ease

“Welcome cherie, come in, come in”

“Thank you. Did you have a good evening?” and Silk nodded back at the smouldering embers

“Oui,” the indrawn breath that is so French “the fires burned well, and we welcomed the summer…see it has even stopped raining for us! For a time anyway. Come, entre, there are things we must talk about…”
Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 18:32; International District, Downtown, Seattle

"Pick a card. Any card."

Al was holding court on the front stoop of the old building where he lived. There was laundry hanging between windows. Stray dogs drifted past in squalid parody of the pedestrian traffic passing the properous shops at the bottom of the hill. With darkness approaching, some old raggamuffins were arguing about the best way to get a barrel fire going. And one of the little Khmer kids took a card.

"Alrighty then, amigo, don't show me." None of these kids really spoke English. They should by now, but they never went to school. So Al figured he was doing his bit by speaking American to them instead of the Khmer he used with their parents. They seemed to be tracking pretty well today. But then, he'd been trying this same trick on them for weeks.

Al's ass was wet. It had been raining, and the water on the steps was soaking through his jeans. Well, they needed washing anyway. Ash dropped from the tip of the cigarette in his mouth as he concentrated on his trick, beetle brow furrowed.

"Now put 'er back inna deck. Anywhere ya like, won't stop the magical third eye from piercin' the veil o' reality." The words meant nothing to them, but they all giggled when he made his silly eye-in-the-forehead gesture. He shuffled the cards deftly, and they wondered again how hands so horrifically burned could still host fingers so nimble.

"Okay, abrey cadabrey, ali-kazam!" He cut the deck, confident that this time he'd gotten it right. "Is this yer card, ya little scallawag?"

"Kmean!" A delighted and resounding Khmer no.

"All right, all this yer card?"


"Okay, this one? This one?"

"Kmean, kmean, kmean!!!" They were all chanting now, the cheeky bastards. Then he felt a telltale brush at his waist and caught a thin wrist. He pulled the small hand from the right-hand pocket of his leather bomber jacket. He gave the kid a tut tut that was a really a 'keep trying, boy" but then heard his name being called from his left.

"Aaaaaaal. Aa-aaa-aaa-aaal!" He turned and saw the first brat had been the distraction, his older brother dancing just out of reach with a folded slip of dogeared paper.

"All right, all right, ya got me." He held out his hand for the paper.

"Sampa, sampa, sampa," they were taunting him, and the tiny thief was opening the page. Couldn't read a word of English anyway, so Al took his time stepping over and snatching the yellowing page back.

"What is it, anyway," the kid asked in Khmer.

"Reality, amigo. Cuz sometimes yer sanity depends on proof ya din't dream somethin'," he answered in English as he gathered up his cards. The kid shook his head in uncomprehension, and then a car horn honked.

The sleek Commodore was out of place in this slum, and the kids kept their distance. It had come a few times before, and always Al had gotten into it.

This time was no different.
Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 18:32; Argent’s, Bellevue, Seattle

Silk followed Argent inside the house. The cool modernist exterior was replaced by rich woods, busy with Celtic artefacts, children’s art and a wealth of AROs that controlled the heart of the spider’s web. The air was warm with the scent of jasmine and teenager’s music filtered down from one of the upper rooms but as soon as they entered Argent’s sanctuary all outside influences were cut off.

“You look tired,” Silk observed quietly “is everything ok?”

“Merci cherie,” Argent smiled wryly “we partied into the night, non?”

“That’s not what I meant, but I will let you explain in your own time”

“Oui, please, sit…” and she settled herself into a comfortable reclining chair “can I get you a drink? Or something to eat perhaps?”

“Thank you, I know you have better kaf than I can usually afford”

“I am French, only the best!” and she smiled, the perfect host, “so, while we wait I will begin, I know you young people have lots to do. Have you had a chance to think about my proposal? I am going to return to France shortly, not for ever bien sur, but for now at least, and I would like to know that my network is being looked after.”

“It goes beyond anything I’ve ever done before…I’m honoured that you think I can do it but I’ve thought of myself as a runner for a while now, the jump to infobroker seems like a big one…”

“Your Gift will mean you are probably better suited to the job than I am. We all need to begin somewhere, and you should not underestimate the benefit to your own personal quest in being at the centre of my webs…”

“I am thinking carefully about it, I promise you, and it hadn’t escaped me that it might bring me closer to my own goals, but that somehow seemed like a selfish reason to accept…”

“If it written in your Pattern, non…?”
Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 18:50; Giuseppe's Place, Downtown, Seattle

Two big mooks sat up front. Al sat with Vinnie in the back.

"There you are my friend, good old paper and ink, just the way you like them," said Vinnie. He was in his thirties, with perfectly coiffed black hair and a sharp three-piece number, pinstripes like razor cuts.

Al had been listening to the gorillas in the front talking about a low-level bookmaking op they were going to muscle in on. It was good stuff to know, as far as it went. The longer he could keep the rolling meet going, the more he'd hear. These guys tended to be fairly careless around him, and he figured all this info could come in handy, especially to someone who had absolutely no interest in keeping these gangster assholes' secrets.

"Much obliged," he answered with a tip of his invisible hat. He started thumbing through the folder - three single sheets of typed vitals, each paper-clipped to an eight-by-ten glossy, the paper of considerably higher quality than the photography. Then he spotted a Stuffer Shack up ahead on the left and shouted, "Hey, pull over here, Italian kemo sabe."

"Al," Vinnie chided, "we are conducting business."

"Somethin' I make it a rule never ta do sober," he answered, then, "Jist right here, amigo. Won't be a minute."

Dropping back into his seat a quick minute later, he pulled some cans off his twelve-pack and offered them around. The mobsters laughed him off, turning up their noses at the bargain-basement brand Al preferred.

Al popped the first one, chugged it, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, opened another one, and returned to the files. "Alrighty then, where was we?"

The guys in the front hadn't been talking about much of import, but they'd be more loose-lipped if they thought he was drunk. And as a master Thespian and disciple of Stanislavski's method school, Al reasoned that the best way to appear drunk was to actually get drunk, and he attacked the problem with gusto.

He took his time with the papers, sensing Vinnie's impatience and not caring as he burped and farted his way through two more beers before crumpling two of the names into his jacket pocket, and handing the third back.

"Al, it's not a pick-and-choose kind of thing. We'd like you to address all three problems."

"Vinnie, baby, every thing I do's a pick-an'-choose gig. Now Harry Fletcher there, hell, it's your own damn fault fer extendin' that sorta cred to 'im. Ya know he ain't got it, an' if he had it he'd throw that at the ponies too. Ya also know if ya touch 'im an' it gits pinned on ya, yer gon' have all sorts o' problems with the stevedore union. So that's why ya want me ta do it. Well, I work with the guy, an' aside from his issue with the horses, he's a hard workin' feller, takes care of his kids. Ya wanna break someone's legs, take it out on Louie Two-Pockets - he's the one gave Harry the line, right?"

Vinnie's face turned red, but the guys in the front were going on about some good stuff now, so Al did his best to listen to everyone at once. "This is not your decision to make, or even to have an opinion on."

"You want me ta do it, then it is. So if ya want I can jist drop all three? Except this guy's cousin's Lone Star, an' ya can't be seen up in that action, now can ya? An' this man-mountain here, din't he put three o' yer boys inna hospital and then walk away laughin' last time ya went at 'im? Use a bullet, make an example."

"Examples don't pay what they owe."

"Well, then, sounds like I'd better take care of it fer ya." The car pulled to a stop in front of Giuseppe's. "Good choice, Vin, reckon ol' Al could go fer some carbonara jist about now."

"Dream on, pipsqueak. Until you learn how to speak to your betters, there is no way I can take you to dinner with Uncle Arturo. Now hit the bricks."
Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 21:36; Argent’s, Bellevue, Seattle

Silk’s head ached from absorbing so much information. She slipped the trodes off and rubbed her temples…she had thought at one stage that her Gift would be strained to the point of breaking but it had astounded her once again, expanding her understanding as the Patterns raced across her mind’s eye. The web that Argent had created was immense, and she knew without any self-aggrandisement that under her care it would grow even bigger and more intricate.

But there were subtle gaps in the mesh, holes that appeared to be new…informants that were for some reason no longer feeding information to the network or refused to accept contact from Argent. It was subtle, and perhaps might have escaped notice normally but Silk saw the irregularities clearly.

When she pointed it out to Argent she had found to her satisfaction that her patron had already spotted it

“That was one of the reasons I wanted to bring you in now, cherie… there is a problem, one I can’t pin down. See, this one here…” and she gestured at an ARO… “he was one of my better sources at the docks. I have a couple of replacements in mind, perhaps you could go out an meet them, non? It would serve you well to get to know the individuals on the ends of the web rather than plucking the strings from here…”
Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 23:23; Scabby’s Drinkateria, Seattle waterfront

Kryzstof Reznicek looked as Czech as his name. If you’d asked Al what Czechs looked like, he’d only have been able to say they looked like Kysztof Reznicek. He knew other Czech guys, but none of them looked as Czech as Reznicek. He was a fairly big guy, not quite huge, but getting there. His hair was jet black. He was good looking despite a broad, flattish nose.

Al didn’t like him. Not because his cousin was Blue Crew and dirty, nor because of the way he used that to his advantage. And it wasn’t because he’d got himself in deep with the wise guys. It was because he was lazy on the job, letting other guys pick up the slack. That kind of thing would get your ass kicked after hours, but there was the cop thing. So he drank too much and talked shit to everyone. And he borrowed too much, way too much, thinking the leg breakers could never come after him.

Strictly speaking, there was some truth to that - he was off limits to Gianelli’s boys, or anyone working for them. But Vinnie figured no one knew about his organization’s relationship with Al. Maybe he was right. He was as far as Al knew anyway. But Al didn’t really care about that. What he cared about was that, while sending a little message to Reznicek might not get the spaghetti-eaters in trouble, it would certainly get Al in the back of a cruiser in no time flat. And he wasn’t going back to prison.

He thought about going after Reznicek when he was alone. Catch him in an alley when he went out for a piss. But he was never alone - there was always one of his hangers-on, other losers that rolled with him hoping to leech off a bit of that untouchability. His house was out - he had kids.

So Al went right up to him in Scabby’s, whipped out The Elephant, and proceeded to relieve himself with a fair degree of accuracy all over Reznicek’s shoes.
Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 23:25; Scabby’s Drinkateria, Seattle waterfront

The Czech stood in bewilderment for about two seconds and then started quickly back-pedalling as if the urine was acid burning through his feet. Cigarette hanging limply from the corner of his mouth, Al calmly lifted The Elephant’s mighty trunk a bit for additional arc and kept the stream squarely on Reznicek’s brown synthleather shoes. The victim’s little band of cohorts scattered back from the offending splash.

It always amused Al how a bit of sterile human piss could make even a would-be hard man like Reznicek squeal, stammer and panic as if it were some dire and unchallengeable threat.

Once his bladder was finally empty, Al buttoned his fly back up and stood waiting for his target to pick his wits up off the wet floor. It took three or four seconds - enough time for Al to finish the plastic stein of watery beer he’d been holding and set it down on a table.

At first Reznicek stood with his eyes shut tight and head cocked to the side, making a show of sadness at what he now must do and how mighty was his effort to restrain his temper and limit himself to a proportionate response. Then he opened his eyes and fixed them on Al. His voice was quiet because he thought that would be cooler, but it cracked with the effort of not screaming in a rage. “Do you have any idea at all what you’ve just done?”

“Well, I ain’t a scientist or nothin’, but I’m pretty sure I jist passed water on yer shoes.”

More show, as Reznicek glanced around helplessly at the dockworker dive’s other patrons - all now transfixed - appealing to them to understand that his indignation was righteous, leaving him no choice about the manner in which he would now be forced to deal with the much smaller man. He took two steps forward until his heavily muscled chest was brushing Al’s nose and he was looking down at the top of Al’s head.

“Before I kick your ass…why?”

“Well, ya were so busy shtuppin’ the foreman’s assistant behind the north pallet farm that ya was twenny minutes late back from yer break. Which I’ll allow does speak well of ya in one sense. But threw the rest of us behind schedule. Had ta work too fast. Some crates tipped. Now Manny Fiorello’s out with a busted foot maybe a month. We ain’t got no injury comp like you union fucks. An’ this ain’t the first time yer horseplay done caused us all grief. Reckon it’s high time fer ya ta shape up or ship out, asshole amigo.”

The feeling of the room shifting in Al’s favor was palpable, even to Reznicek. It worried him more than the urine drying on his trouser cuffs.

“Fuck you, little man. Do you know what I can do to you?”

Al looked up at the big Czech’s face. The man had a head of height and double the weight. “Yeah, you can call yer kin an’ have my ass kicked an’ then git me locked up an’ fined fer my trouble.” Check mate.

“No, runt, that isn’t me. You and me. No one else comes into it.”

Al knew he was lying. He might have thought he wasn’t, but if he lost he’d be running to his brother like a lawyer after an ambulance. But Al had thought about this carefully enough. He took his cigarette out of his mouth. People that had seen him fight before held their breath. But instead of sticking the lit end into the Czech’s eye, he simply stubbed it out on the table next to him. Then stretched his arms wide.

“Right here, baby.”

Reznicek swung.
Tuesday 2nd May, 2073, 23:27; Scabby’s Drinkateria, Seattle waterfront

Al started to duck, but not too fast, and the big man’s first haymaker landed on his forehead. He saw stars, and the guy’s wedding ring opened a bleeder above Al’s left eye, which would look good, but the idiot yelped as hairline fractures opened up in two knuckles. Hard to soft and soft to hard, that what Al’s Pa had taught all his sons. He guessed Reznicek must not have had a very good father.

He staggered back to make it look good and give the Czech time to recover. He’d go for body shots now instead of the face, which was part of the plan since Al intended to be in Hollywood this time next month. The big guy came in strong, using his strength and his weight. Al kept his elbows down and they caught most of it, but it didn’t look like that the way he grunted and recoiled with each blow. Three, four, five body shots in quick succession and he went down on his back, but not before grabbing Reznicek’s shirt and pulling him down on top. The Czech wanted to box, not wrestle, but as he got up on his hands, Al grabbed his wrists. He brought a knee up hard between the man’s legs and his muscular arms became spaghetti. Al put the man’s hands on his throat, and then nutted him again. The man turned green with pain, but Al kept the man’s big hands on his own neck, holding them in place by the wrists but squirming about and gagging, as though he were desperately trying to break the Czech’s chokehold. Al started to gasp. He shifted to internal air and let the man’s hands press down hard on his neck, obviously cutting off his airway but making sure they stayed below his larynx. Reznicek was in agony and confused but he knew something was very wrong. He started trying again to break free but, with all eyes on the choking, another surreptitious knee to the balls took the last fight out of him as Al continued gagging and twitching as if being strangled to death. His mouth gaped open and shut like a landed fish. All good practice for his career change a month from now. Blood from the cut on his forehead covered his face.

Reznicek was a rag doll, but when he turned green and looked like he’d puke, Al pulled him in close and in between choked gurgles he whispered, “You upchuck on me boy an’ I’ll nut you again so hard yer balls pop out her damned mouth. That’s it. Git a grip. No. No. Swallow ‘er back down, asshole. That’s it, baby. Now listen - you git yourself tomorrow over ta see Mr. Vinnie an’ you find a way ta make things right with him, or next time I won’t crush ‘em, I’ll cut ‘em the hell off. An’ you think about tellin’ yer no good brother, you’ll hafta admit this here runt done kicked yer big galoot ass easy as pie. An’ even then no one’ll believe ya cuz they all done seen ya near ta kill me right here on this floor.” And with that, Al’s gurgling and struggling stopped and he let his head drop back onto the beer-stained floor with an audible crack.

Reznicek staggered up, and through slitted eyelids Al watched him force a smile and hold an arm up weakly in victory. Only his hangers-on clapped, and he brushed them away as he staggered to the head to puke his guts out.

Some men got Al up and took him outside, splashed water on him and he spluttered and became alert. “Much obliged, fellers.”

“You did the right thing, Al. It would have been worse if you’d beat him.”

“Yeah, well, heh heh, maybe he at least got the message, hey baby? Yeah, reckon he got the message.”
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