Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 37
Stories
Elsa's Spheres
by Marina J. Lostetter
Underwater Restorations, Part 1
by Jeffrey A Ballard
Into the Desolation
by Catherine Wells
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Missing pieces
by Chris Bellamy

Underwater Restorations - Part 1
    by Jeffrey A Ballard

Underwater Restorations - Part 1
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

This is my favorite part, thirty feet above the ocean, falling at a hundred and ninety miles an hour. Close enough to see our reflections hurtling to meet us. It's the second just before the agitator lasers ahead to break the surface tension that's the sweetest. When all the adrenaline of a ten-thousand-foot free-fall culminates in a terrifying second of, "Oh, shit."

A hundred things could go wrong. The agitator may not move enough water out of the way. The air pocket could collapse before entry. The subroutine that mixes water and air for the controlled deceleration may miscalculate and flatten me into a shark pancake. Almost a hundred different ways to die in under a tenth of a second. I love it.

Then it passes and we're down fifty feet underwater and descending. Only when the static of the comm comes online through my earpiece, trying to make a connection, do I remember to breathe. The rush of the entry fades into focus on the job at hand.

Another fifty feet later, we stand on an exit ramp from I-95 and the rookie, Winn, brings up the holo-map with incomplete sonar data overlaid. Hurricane Gretchen passed through last night and did us the favor of muddying up the waters, an expected development -- the Feds are just as blind.

"Lovers, you're all clear." I can hear the smirk in Puo's voice, ten thousand feet above in the Seagull and driving north in the South Florida Memorial Airway.

"We descended four miles too far to the east." Winn points at the blinking dot on the holo-map. "I think we'll need to jetflow. Listen, about last night --"

The flow jets will make too much noise; the squiddies are tuned to it. Its only purpose is to outrun the damn things. "No, we'll have to jump, skip, and hop to the site. It's quieter and doesn't disturb the water as much. Adjust your buoyancy in rhythm to your jumps and try to keep up." I initiate my jump subroutine and leap.

Puo. That nosy punk's always got to stir the pot. I land forty feet away at an intersection and wait. Let Winn struggle; I'll send over the subroutine after he falls several times. It's just a fling. My father always said we Schmidts think with our cocks. Well, in my case, insert the female equivalent.

Winn is still just standing there. "Rookie, what's taking you so long? Let's move."

"I'm writing a subroutine to automatically manage the buoyancy adjustments. I can transmit it to you when I'm done."

"That's very kind of you, Rookie," Puo breaks in. "Don't you think that's nice, Isa?"

"Puo --" He is so going to pay for this. "-- focus on our pickup. Rookie, nice thought, here you go. I don't have time to wait for you to flounder through it." I transmit the subroutine.

Soon enough he's leaping as well. I keep one leap ahead of him as we make our way to the destination. What's left of the urban sprawl of South Florida passes by in blue-green shadows. Most of the buildings are intact, some are collapsed, but all of them are still. They seem to defy the churning of the water from the hurricane that passed through.

With less than a mile to go, alarms start going off: squiddies -- the autonomous eyes and ears of the Federal Government below the waves.

I cancel the subroutine and look for a place to hide. There's a Chick-fil-A thirty feet away. I glide through a broken window and hug up against the ceiling in the play area. Hopefully, Winn's done something similar.

What are the squiddies doing this far west and north? There's nothing out here they should care about. The juiciest loot is in Miami and along the old coast. South Florida isn't even in the top ten of the most federally protected underwater sites.

I move smoothly between the top of the slide and the roof, trying not to stir any silt. The more obstacles between me and the squiddies, the better the chance their sonar can't find me, particularly after a hurricane.

A tense half hour later Puo says over the comm, "It's gone. It's two miles south and continuing to move in that direction."

"It was supposed to be clear," I say.

"They changed the modulation on the carrier frequency." His voice is agitated. "I got it now. There's definitely a swarm of them farther north than normal, but they're hanging out by the old coast. The President must be looking for some electoral year victories or somethun'."

Catching grave robbers of the sunken state is definitely a low-risk, high-profile political victory. Too bad we don't have enough credibility to tell the masses the Feds do the same thing. The real reason they police it outside of public opinion is to protect their claim.

"Rookie, check in."

"I'm here, one block over in a half-collapsed gas station. I wasn't sure whether to break comm --"

"Hurry up and meet me at the site."

A school of mackerel hover around an old land car, an Audi, and duck inside as I approach. Too bad Audi couldn't use that in their marketing campaign. "Over a hundred air miles to the gallon now, an artificial reef and home to thousands for Mother Earth later." It'd get the dry-earth-humpers off their backs.

The mansion looks like every other one on the block. Spanish-tile roof, arched entries, horseshoe driveway and covered in algae and buds of coral.

After eighty-six years the wood backing the eight-foot wrought-iron door is rotted and feeble. It's no match for my Kung Fu fist.

The entryway's actually kind of tasteful, notable only in the absence of the ostentatiousness of the rich trying to live like the wealthy. No statue or fountain, no pointless two-curved stairway or cheesy hand-carved table with an over-sized vase. The marble floors open to a main living area that looks out on the back through a wall of broken windows.

Not long after, Winn shows up and I lead him wordlessly upstairs and down a hallway. I carefully step over the skeleton of a canine and direct Winn to do the same. I don't know why the pets bother me so much; I barely even notice human remains anymore.

The stupid owners either left him behind or didn't listen to the warnings when the mega-quake hit in the middle of the Atlantic. It all happened sixty years before I was born, but the event has been so dissected, practically everyone is an expert on it. Long story short: huge earthquake, tsunami warnings, complete ignorance of the brand new volcanic mountain range birthed in a matter of days and continuing to grow even now. The ocean doesn't mind; it makes room where it can -- goodbye thousands of miles of coastland, goodbye hundreds of major cities, goodbye entire states.

I stop in front of the last door and initiate a scan. Nothing. Still, I send Winn in first -- it is a tryout after all.

"The room's secure," he says. "The sculpture's here and looks to be in decent condition."

Jug Self-portrait by Paul Gauguin, a three-quarter foot stoneware mug from the late nineteenth century. Gauguin's more known for his paintings, but there's a market for his sculptures as well.

"Puo, we're ready for pickup in ten minutes."

"Roger. There's a McDonald's Airstation a few miles ahead I'll stop at and turn around. Want anything?"

"Yeah, a large fry. Rookie, want anything?"

"Uh . . . no, thank you."

It's good to keep Puo on his toes. Now he'll wonder if he should get the fries and risk getting yelled at for the waste of time, or risk getting yelled at for not getting them. Either way, I get to yell at Puo.

"All right, Rookie, let's see what you got." The mug's encrusted and stuck to its resting place in eighty plus years of ocean crud -- a result of the Atlantic homogenizing its new territory. When we go through official channels, the sculpture gets graded and then it's all about how damaged it is. It's critical to get it back to the shop with as little disturbance as possible. The less crud on it when we get it back to the shop, the better the equipment can restore it. A deft hand is required. A surgeon's hand preferably, hence the rookie, Winn. Sculptures don't sue for malpractice.

Winn lives up to the hype. His movements are smooth and deliberate. He gets the mug out in about half the time it would've taken me, and carefully wraps it up for transport. Impressive.

"Not bad, Rookie. Follow me to the extraction point." We get there a few minutes later -- it's only fifty feet from the mansion. "Puo, we're in position."

"I'm five minutes out. Transmitting sync for pickup now."

"Why--"

"I got your damn fries! I'll be there in four minutes and thirty-seven seconds."

Suddenly, I have to pass four minutes and thirty-six seconds alone with Winn. I'm not going to tell him what a good job he's doing. I already got Puo; I don't need another inflated head on this crew.

I pretend to fiddle with my equipment. That doesn't work for long, though. The silence is stretched, turning into a large pointing arrow at the lack of conversation. I need to say something soon.

Winn beats me to it, "About last night--"

I don't want to have this conversation with Puo listening. "Are the goods secure?" Talk about work, that's easy.

"Yes."

"You got the pickup routine activated?"

"Yes."

"Okay, check your power and gravity levels. It's like nothing you've ever experienced."

"How different is it from the descent?"

"It's not, except it's falling in the opposite direction. Kind of like going in an anechoic chamber: it's only when normal is missing that you experience how weird it is."

The reverse-gravity suits aren't supposed to exist. There are only a handful, and as far as I know, they're still a top-secret project for the special forces. When the opportunity presented itself to look at the plans for one from a desperate engineer with a gambling problem, I didn't hesitate. I had to go to Paranoid Pete and put out a second loan on the Seagull and empty the bank account to boot, but it was worth it. The engineer left out some key components to try to convince himself he wasn't doing anything wrong -- smart people always think criminals are idiots. But they weren't that hard for Puo to fill in.

"Okay, let's get to the surface for the pickup. When Puo's in position, the subroutine will automatically kick in, and whoosh, we'll free-fall toward the sky and onto the Seagull."

Winn doesn't say anything. His face is probably green. I'd tell him not to vomit, but there's no better teacher than experience and having to clean it up afterward.

It's still overcast when we reach the surface. The subroutine lights up a counter in the lower left of my helmet. Ten seconds to go. I take several deep breaths to prepare myself for the sudden reverse. Three seconds. "Remember to flip, so your feet are pointed toward the sky." One second.

You feel it first in the stomach, a feeling that something has gone terribly wrong. You're already two hundred feet in the air and climbing before the brain catches up and brings order to your system, reminds the body, this is what's supposed to happen.

I've done this enough times that my brain kicks in around a hundred feet. But something's different this time and it takes me another hundred feet to recognize it. It's Winn.

He's laughing.

"Rookie's gonna fit right in, huh?" Puo asks.

We sit in the driver's cabin of the Seagull, a ubiquitous air delivery vehicle we've modified for our purposes. We had tossed the back seats out to extend and close off the staging area and put in a trap door for the free-fall entries and exits. The door between the two areas is enough to stop the wind from buffeting whoever is driving when the trap door opens, but not enough to stop the smell of salt from pervading the cabin.

Winn's in the back changing out of the gravity suit. Getting out of those things is tricky, like trying to take off a wet t-shirt three times too small. "Yeah, he did all right."

"All right? The kid nailed it, wrote a jump routine on the spot, got the goods out in record --"

"What's your point, Puo?"

"Nuthin', just sayin' kid did a good job. We've needed someone else for ages. I was impressed that he handled himself so well, even the pickup, I mean --"

"Aww . . . how sweet, Puo and his man crush. But I got to say, I don't think Winn plays that way. Too bad, though, you two would make a sweet couple."

"After a night with you, you never know, he might play for the other team now. You never did say how he was." Puo looks at me for details he isn't going to get. "What's with you? Usually you're telling me how big the guy's --"

"Puo, pay attention to not being followed and your upcoming visit with Charlie." The satisfaction of Puo's face going lax is immeasurable -- he knows he shouldn't have stirred the pot. I'd bet a small fortune his testicles just defied gravity all on their own.

Winn and I are in a hidden room we call the Island in the center of a six-thousand-square-foot loft in the middle of Atlanta. We're cleaning out and soaking the gravity suits, while Puo is off meeting with Charlie, our longtime fence and surrogate crew member. She gives us fair rates, mostly I think because we're both women. Puo's scared of her. He made the mistake of hitting on her once in jest and didn't know what to do when she returned interest. She's bigger than he is.

The loft is owned by our topside venture, Underwater Restorations. To the law-loving public, we restore and sell damaged art. It barely turns a profit, but the other side of our business does rather well. We even employ Ashley, a young, over-eager, master of fine arts to run the gallery in Charlotte. She's perfect for it, way too happy to have her own gallery to ask questions.

The loft is on the top floor of an old manufacturing building on West Mariette Street. There are no windows and no advertising that we're here. All the restoration equipment and legitimate machinery is laid out around the center, with a small specialty elevator in the corner used for the delivery of pallets of restoration chemicals. Everything is designed to conceal the Island in the center. It even has a secret entrance. There's a six-foot replica of the sculpture David outside -- guess what you have to pull to get in. I make Puo do it whenever we're together.

Winn is cleaning all the connectors with a toothbrush. It's laborious like digging a hole is: it's never exactly clear when you're done. Winn is growing restless. I can hear him shifting in his seat behind me. "Listen, Isa, about last night."

"What about it?" I continue to face away from him.

"I'm -- I'm not looking for anything serious right now. With the malpractice suit and the insurance company screwing me over --"

"And you think I'm looking for something serious?"

"No, I mean, I don't know. I wasn't sure."

"'Cause I'm not." I turn around. "I thought that would've been clear when I said I had a date tonight." A pretentious gallery owner hit on me a few days ago when I was researching the competition. His chin almost faded into his neck, but the more people you know and can keep your finger on in the art community, the better.

Art snobs and criminals: those are the two types of people I'm surrounded by. Then there's Winn. I found him leaving Paranoid Pete's, the second most dangerous person I know. A loan shark named for his paranoia of not getting paid back and taking premature, often violent, steps to make sure people pay. Only the Boss -- the guy that runs and polices all the crime in Atlanta -- is more brutal.

Pete has terrible rates, unreasonable time-lines, and preys on the desperate. And he was the only one willing to agree to a second loan on the Seagull.

At first, I was just interested in Winn's shoulder-width-to-waist ratio and why such a Laci -- a law-abiding-citizen -- was even at Pete's. After I learned his story and he checked out, I worked out a deal with Pete to have him join my crew.

"Look," I say, "this is an easy gig. We don't hurt anyone, actually save art that would be lost to the world, and get to free-fall -- in both directions." He smiles at that. The crazy man really does like the reverse-gravity free-fall.

He nods in response. A man with a moral dilemma -- strange.

Puo and I are legacies, born directly into a crew and without a citizen chip, off the official grid -- ready made for crime. We accepted our lot as criminals before puberty. The only choice we had was deciding what type of criminals to be.

The monitor on the side of the room lights up and shows Puo coming back through the elevator from his meeting with Charlie. Puo's impending arrival is enough to shut down the conversation.

He comes through the door into the Island and only has eyes for Winn.

"How was --" I start to ask.

"The meeting went swimmingly."

"Really?" Uh-oh, double-talk. Whenever the ocean or water is referenced out of context, it's code.

"You couldn't have asked for better day at the beach. Sun shinin', fresh worms --"

"Excellent." We've been in business long enough to have been through this before. But it's never pleasant. "Now that that's taken care of, this place is a sty. Clean it up, please. The rookie and I are going out for a drink."

"Is that a fat joke?"

"Yup, sweep it up, fattie." Whoops, Puo can be rather sensitive. I'll have to apologize later. The possibility that Winn's a mole has me rattled. "Rookie, escort me to the nearest bar."

"Uh . . . I could stay here and help."

"Now, Winn."

Twenty-four hours later, Winn and I arrive back at the storage loft to find Puo waiting. He quirks an eyebrow at me when he notices Winn wearing the same clothes as yesterday, but says nothing. He doesn't even mention my missed date either. I don't know whether to be grateful or worried.

"It looks better in here," I say.

"It's clean, no bugs," he responds.

"So what happened?"

"The sculpture's hot, Charlie wouldn't take it. She gave me this." He slides over a federal stolen art sheet. "Look at the time stamp."

A chill runs through me. It's hours after we took it -- hours.

Puo continues, "I went back and reprocessed the standard imagery the Seagull collects and look, the squiddies weren't just to the east along the old coast. They were waiting for someone to take it."

An aerial map of the underwater site shows up on the wall monitor. It's zoomed out enough to display thirty nautical miles around the mansion. Squiddies are everywhere, forming a ring around the mansion. I start laughing. "This is fantastic."

"What?" Puo asks, sharing a confused look with Winn.

"Oh, you're still in trouble for missing this Puo, but they set up a perimeter to catch the thieves. They have no idea about our free-fall entry and exit. They probably think we enter the water outside of the monitoring zone and sneak in some other way."

Puo flushes red. I'd get on him more about the squiddies, but it's better to let him stew. Sure enough, little beads of sweat start to form on his temples. Puo's a softie, wrapped in a large package. He'd never forgive himself if we got nabbed.

"Oh, wonderful," Puo says. "What about the very hot, very expensive sculpture we gotta unload? We need the funds to prepare for the Jacksonville job."

"I know, I know." Interesting, Puo doesn't trust Winn. The Jacksonville job is a pipe dream. We're not even close to the kind of resources we need to pull that off. I need time to think, to sort out our next move, and how to vet Winn further. He's been with us for over a month now and passed all the screening tests.

Winn makes a suggestion only a newly defunct Laci could think of, "Well, what are the Feds offering?"

"Isa," Puo says, "this is a bad idea."

"We've been over this." And we have, extensively. The next payment to Paranoid Pete is coming up and we have nothing. At best he'll repossess the Seagull, at worst he'll live up to his name, become paranoid, and act accordingly. Our only chance is to get some sort of proof of future funds from the Feds that we can turn into liquid cash on the secondary market.

Puo and I sit in the Island, monitoring Winn. Both of us are leaning over the table toward a speaker in the center.

Winn was the natural choice to send into the viper's nest of the Federal building, claiming information leading to the stolen art. Up until a few weeks ago he was a pure Laci, so he has all the proper documentation of an upstanding citizen, and nothing on his record except the bad luck of the malpractice suit.

Also, having him interact with the Feds will give us clues as to what side Winn's on. If Winn is a mole they may give us the cash more easily. In which case, we pay Pete and go deep.

We put his citizen chip back in and outfitted him with a one-way audio that piggybacked off it. Puo and I could listen in to everything and the Feds would just see a citizen chip acting normally, emitting information like it should.

The speaker picks up a woman's voice. "Dr. Roonse, I'm Special Agent Lowry, the lead agent assigned to the case. Let's find a quiet place to talk."

Winn exchanges pleasantries and footsteps come through on the speaker.

Puo and I immediately start searching for information on Special Agent Lowry.

"How long have you been in Atlanta?" she asks.

"I was born and raised here. I even went to medical school at Emory."

"You look like a native, you have that genteel air about you. Sorry about that malpractice business."

Winn stammers in surprise.

"It's in your file. Rotten luck, I must say. Usually, the jury's predisposed toward tall handsome men."

That cow. I know it's a ploy to soften Winn, but I start sorting through the search on Special Agent Lowry for a photo anyway.

"You can understand then," Winn says, "why I'm interested in that reward."

"Right through here."

A door opens and closes, and chairs are pulled out.

"Is this an interrogation room?" Winn asks.

Puo and I both go still.

"Technically, yes. It's really just a quiet place to talk away from interruption. Do you object to having this conversation recorded?" Winn doesn't object and she prattles off some identifying information for the recording. "So, Dr. Roonse, you have information that will lead to the recovery of the stolen sculpture Jug Self-portrait by Paul Gauguin?"

"Yes."

There's an awkward pause before she asks, "Can you please tell me what that information is?"

"Right, sorry." Winn clears his throat. "I rent a storage locker. I . . . often have to spend the night. The malpractice suit left me with very little. Anyway, last night there was some activity in the locker next to mine. They were talking about a sculpture that was hot and in need of restoration before they could move it. I put two and two together and searched your page for stolen art and called." The best lies are the ones that toe the line of truth. Winn does have a storage locker but he's never spent the night there.

"Where's the storage locker?"

Winn taps his fingers on the table before speaking. "You'll have to forgive me, but I have reason to distrust authorities." Winn's voice increases a notch in intensity. "The people that are allegedly supposed to help you. The insurance company bailed on me on a technicality --" The scraping of a chair being pushed back comes through the speaker. " -- and the chief of surgery even said there was nothing I could've done. Instead --"

"Dr. Roonse, please, calm down. You came to us claiming information."

I'm not sure how much Winn is acting and how much is real frustration.

"That reward money can turn my life around. What guarantee do I have you won't find some technicality not to pay?"

The reward isn't bad for a deteriorated Nineteenth-century piece of art. We could get a lot more if we cleaned it up and sold it through Charlie, but that isn't possible. The reward should be enough to cover our next payment.

"You don't," Agent Lowry answers. "But there's no reason we wouldn't pay. It's in our best interest to reward informants. Bad press otherwise. What do you do the other nights when you're not in the storage locker?"

"Motel. I work odd jobs for cash. When I can, I get a room to feel like a human again." Winn scoots his chair presumably closer to the table.

"Odd jobs? With your abilities? Why haven't you found something better?"

"One, I can't practice medicine anymore, and two, liquidating all my assets and selling all my stuff barely covered enough to keep me out of debtor's prison." Winn is almost shouting. "The IRS garnishes my wages so much to pay off the rest, that they're pointless."

"I see. What places have you worked?"

"Bars, restaurants, any place that needs an extra set of hands. I doubt they'd remember me."

"A pretty man like you? I find that hard to believe. But here is something I don't quite understand, Dr. Roonse. According to our financial people, you couldn't have sold everything off and covered the part of the debt you paid. Can you explain that discrepancy?" The sound of shuffling papers and then of papers being slid across a table echo through the speaker.

Oh, shit. There's no way they worked that up that fast. They were ready.

"Here's the thing, Dr. Roonse, no loan officer would cover that amount for a doctor that could no longer practice. Well, sorry. I meant no legitimate loan officer, a loan shark on the other hand . . ."

Winn needs to get out of there right now. They were waiting for him, they knew all about him. He needs to leave, now. Move, Winn, move!

"Isa!" Puo says. "Winn can't hear you, stop shouting."

I'm standing at the edge of the table with the speaker in my hands. I'm not sure when I grabbed it or what I yelled.

"I don't like where this is going," Winn says. "Am I free to leave?"

"No, you're not."

"Am I under arrest?" Smart man, thank God we prepped him.

"No. We're holding you for questioning for suspicious activity."

"I want a lawyer."

"We'll get you one. In the meantime, tell me about Ruby."

There it is. Puo and I lock eyes. It doesn't need to be said. Paranoid Pete got paranoid much sooner than we anticipated. Ruby is the cover name I use when dealing with him.

"Isa," Puo says, "we got to burn the Island and go deep."

I can't believe it. Pete broke the only rule we criminals have. We have to torch everything, cut all ties, disappear. Lose everything we've built.

And burn Winn.

If they release him, they'll tag him. He won't even know where we went. I got him into this mess. I agreed to send him in there. This will probably destroy the last of Winn's innocence, turning him into another jaded criminal. And I'm responsible.

"Isa!" Puo's already shoving discs and hard drives into the arc furnace. "C'mon, we gotta go!"

My body responds mechanically and I start loading what I can onto the Seagull. All I can think is, we'll have to change its name, but to what?

The next seventeen hours are a blur -- the frantic flush of the Island, the transformation of the Seagull, disavowing Underwater Restorations, scrambling to determine the extent of the betrayal. Seventeen hours in seventeen minutes, that's what it felt like.

I'm driving loops around the Airway 10 at two-thirty in the morning in the newly minted Pelican, trying to figure a way out of this mess. Puo's in the next seat snoring. I'm not sure if he realizes how screwed we are or if it's a skill he's acquired being able to sleep anywhere at any time. I suspect it's a bit of both. I can't sleep, I know how screwed we are.

Almost in concert with Puo's are Winn's snores coming through the Pelican's speakers. The Feds never found the audio bug. We've been able to monitor everything. Winn hasn't said a word, not one to the Feds the entire time they've had him. Even to the lawyer he only said one sentence. "I intend not to say anything." And I'm pretty sure that was meant for me.

The only silver lining to this colossal stupidity is that I'm ninety-five percent certain Winn isn't a mole. He knew several of our contacts and none were being monitored by the Feds when Puo and I visited them to call in last favors.

Even so, the knowledge that Winn likely isn't a mole isn't particularly comforting. The only two outcomes I can see for Winn are either thirty years in prison or becoming a slave to Pete. If the Feds don't arrest Winn, Pete will get his hands on him. Winn's medical skills are too valuable. He'll go back to patching up thugs for Pete's conscripted army. Pete will never let him go.

The only outcome I can see that will turn out well for Winn, is if he is a mole. Of course if that's true, then he deserves to be gutted like a fish.

And around and around I go on the Airway 10.

Puo snorts and shakes awake. He wipes away some drool and sits up, looking groggy. "So, what's the plan?"

"Winn hasn't said anything to the Feds yet. They'll either arrest him or release him in seven hours. I'm not sure how to play it."

"I meant about Pete." Puo stretches, cracking various appendages. He sinks back into the seat and looks at me expectantly.

Oh, right. Why should I have to bail us out of this? Didn't I just prove my plans are epic failures? "I don't know, Puo. What is the plan? You got a plan?"

"No."

"'Cause I don't have a plan, Puo. So maybe you should pull your weight around here and come up with one for a change."

Puo doesn't say anything in return. I know I'm being a bitch, but I don't care. I abandoned Winn, burned everything I've built, cut myself off from the only world I know and, unless we take care of Pete first, he'll definitely have us killed so no one will know what he did. And Puo just sits there, calmly expecting some grand plan to set it all straight.

Puo says, "Pete busted the only rule, we could call --"

"No, absolutely not. That's a stupid idea and you know it." Calling the Boss from a position of weakness is a sure-fire way to end up working for him. Oh, he'll sort it all out, but remind you of that every time he wants something. It took a year last time to get his claws out of us. I'd rather take my chances with Pete, than end up working for him again. "Any other bright ideas?"

Puo mumbles something.

"What was that? Speak up, Puo."

"I said, you're the brains of the outfit. You always got a plan."

"Damn it, Puo. Not this time. And why the hell are you so calm?"

Puo smiles. "You always get like this before some really clever idea comes out. It's how you work. So go ahead and yell, it frees up your mind."

I nearly punch him. Puo is nothing if not loyal. I'm not entirely sure how I got to deserve that loyalty. Which gets me to thinking about loyalty and the situation with Pete. An idea starts to form.

Out of spite, I toy with the idea of not telling Puo, to discourage him from thinking he's got me figured out. But we have a small window before Pete finds out what happened.

"Pete's men only serve him," I say, "because they're either indebted to him, or because he provides steady pay."

"Right." Puo mulls this over. "So, we steal his stash and his men turn on him. I like it. Simple, plays to our strengths, lets others do the dirty work. So, what's the game?"

"We don't have time for a game."

"All right, old-fashioned, straightforward thievery it is. Classic. Where's the stash?"

"I don't know, Puo. Up your ass?" I'm still frustrated with him.

"Is that what that is?" Puo leans over and farts repeatedly in rapid succession. He settles back into his seat, smiling, his eyes half closed. "Mmmm . . . the stash is . . . lumpy."

Despite myself, I'm laughing. Ever since we were nine, Puo has been able to make me laugh. I vent the cabin.

"Fine," I say. "Here's my plan. Pete keeps his records in a tan ledger that he loves to lord over people. After several years in business, he's filled up quite a few of them. We need a recent one that he isn't using anymore. That'll tell us where his stash is, and since he isn't using it, he won't notice it missing."

"Right."

"He keeps them in a waist-high safe in the corner of his office."

"What kind of safe?" Safe cracking is Puo's gig. I've never had the patience for it.

"Don't know. A green one? There were five audible clicks when he opened it during one of my visits."

Puo rolls his eyes. "Isa, that's useless."

"Yeah, you're going to have come with me."

"How we gonna get in?"

Pete's office is on the top floor of a three-story building. Pete controls the area, which leaves coming in from above the only option. I smile at Puo.

"No, no way!" Puo shifts away from me as far as he can get. "I'm not wearing one of those stupid vomiting suits again."

I laugh, then mime puke exploding inside of a helmet and down my face.

"Isa, no." Puo's not above whining to get his way, but before he starts his face breaks into relief. "Besides all my tools are here, and since we don't know what kind of safe it is, I don't know what to bring."

"What? So, you want me to bring you the whole damn safe?"

Puo looks thoughtful for a second and says, "Yep, that's exactly what you should do."

End of Part 1

. . . to be continued in issue 38 . . .


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