Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 38
Stories
The Sound of Death
by Gareth D. Jones
Underwater Restorations, Part 2
by Jeffrey A Ballard
Rights and Wrongs
by Brian K. Lowe
A Little Trouble Dying
by Edmund R. Schubert
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
New wave
by Chris Bellamy

Underwater Restorations - Part 2
    by Jeffrey A. Ballard

Underwater Restorations - Part 2
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

. . . continued from issue 37 . . .

This is not my favorite part. I love the free-fall descent, and tolerate the unnatural ascent. But bouncing between the two for the purposes of hovering -- not so much. It's not even hovering, it's jerking me up and down, mixing the contents of my stomach up like some Rube Goldberg blender.

We designed the suits to work in the ocean. The extra force from buoyancy helps smooth out the motion. Buoyancy is negligible in air -- it makes for a bumpy ride. There wasn't time to see if we could modify the subroutine. Even worse, the reverse-gravity modules work on a closed system, which means I'm in the full gravity suit, helmet included, jammed over my night vision goggles. My peripheral vision's cut off and what I can see is distorted through a curved glass plate. Plus, everything I hear sounds distant. I'm going in almost deaf with tunnel vision. Maybe I should've shoved nose plugs up my nose to match the motif.

I oscillate outside a window that's been filled in with brick to match the rest of the side of the three-story building. Pete's office is on the other side. I have no idea if he's in there. For this to work, Pete can't have any clue something is amiss and that means setting the laser cutter on the narrowest setting. So narrow, that I can't even fit a scope-wire through to see if the office is occupied.

I have to time the laser cutter with my mini-ascents, as I cut through the mortar. Thankfully, the brick in the window was added later so all the edges around the window are straight. There's a slight dip in the cut along the left edge, where I realized this would've been a perfect task for Winn's steady surgeon hands.

I put the laser cutter in my pack and take out handles, which I attach to the center of the brick window. I push the brick forward into the office. It slides smoothly but not easily. Two hundred pounds of brick isn't trivial to move. The moment of truth is when the brick is halfway into the office. I need to push the brick in, get into the office and reverse the gravity enough not to slam the brick on the floor. If Pete's in there, I'm a sitting duck. If I drop it, without the additional weight I'll hit the ceiling.

The gravity subroutine will help with lowering the two-hundred pound block, but I still have to hold it, it's still two hundred pounds. Holding a cannon ball descending or ascending is still holding a cannon ball. I check my gravity subroutine and get ready to push.

I pause to see if I can detect any clue about what's on the other side. I can't.

I push the block the rest of the way.

Several things happen. My arms are seriously considering life without my body. It's dark and I feel more than see that I'm descending too fast. I try to get my legs down toward the floor, but it's all I can do to keep ahold of the damn block of bricks. My legs end up parallel to the floor behind me, with the block of bricks leading the charge.

Thunk.

Even through my helmet I can tell that was a hell of a lot louder than I intended. Books, it landed on books. They softened the blow, but there's no time to waste.

I quickly search the room. No one's in the office. The night vision goggles paint the room green. The brick cutout rests squarely on several piles of books, it didn't even knock any over. The brick walls are bare, but several bookcases are set along the walls and full with either books or knick-knacks -- probably trophies of some kind. Directly across from the door is an oversized desk illuminated by the light from under the door. It's a monstrous wooden thing. I wouldn't be surprised if Pete had it raised just so he could look down at people when doing business.

I turn off the gravity subroutine and take off my helmet so I can hear properly. Hopefully, if I have to bolt, I'll have enough warning to get it back on and escape.

The safe is waist high and almost as wide and deep, and at least five hundred pounds of the latest and greatest steel alloy. There's no way I'm moving this thing by hand. Which is where Puo's idea comes in.

I take Puo's modified extra gravity suit, which is the largest we have, out of my pack and start sliding it over the safe. Once most of it's stretched into position I turn it on. Even though the suit isn't a closed system yet, it's enough to generate a weak gravity field, reducing the weight enough for me to get the rest of the suit around the bottom. I seal the gravity suit and activate the hover subroutine. It rises and bounces between my chin and chest.

I'm silent for this job so I signal Puo it's ready.

Puo speaks through my earpiece, "I'm one minute and forty seconds away."

I signal back "acknowledged." Puo is up in the Pelican driving a loop in the airways around the area. Each loop takes about four minutes. Which means there's only a twenty second window every four minutes when the safe can be delivered, or I can be picked up.

I guide the safe toward the window. When Puo gives the signal --

Voices. Someone's approaching the door.

One, maybe two. I can't tell. I scoop up my helmet. The safe is blocking the only way out. I position myself to chuck the safe at the door and start to squeeze my helmet on.

The handle twists and the door shunts inward. It's locked!

I freeze with my helmet halfway on and listen over my beating heart.

"Do you have a key?" a man with a deep voice asks.

"No," another man answers, "it's Pete's office. He don't give no one keys to his office."

Oh, thank God for Pete's paranoia. That stupid bastard just bought me time.

The first man says, "Then we have to call Pete."

"I ain't callin' Pete."

"You said you heard something."

"I did."

Puo thunders in my earpiece. "Forty seconds away." I know the men can't hear Puo, but his voice is jarring. "Launch the package in thirty. Sync in three-two-one, sync."

I activate a hack of the pickup routine on the safe and push it outside the window. When Puo's in position the safe will fall into the sky.

"Fine, I'll call him," the first man says. "But you're going to tell him what you heard."

"If you're calling him, why don't you tell him? I don't want to wake Pete up."

The voices fade down the hallway the way they came. I look out the window, the safe's gone.

Fifteen seconds later Puo comes on the line again. "Package delivered, unwrapping it now."

I type the situation out on the communicator. We have probably less than ten minutes, including getting that brick back in place.

Puo responds. "Understood."

It's all business for him now. He's in his element with the safe. Safe cracking is about as intimate as I've ever seen Puo get. I've even heard him refer to it as caressing the tumbler.

I'm tempted to go through Pete's stuff while I wait, wipe boogers on the coffee mug, run his pencils through my ass crack, that sort of junior high stuff that's stupid but so oddly satisfying. But he can't know we were here. Even though he's probably on his way right now.

If Pete catches on, this whole thing is blown. Pete needs to find something. Something that could explain the noise, justify him getting called, but stop him from looking further.

There's a bookcase with adjustable shelves by the window and the top shelf is even overloaded. I remove all the items and scatter them about like they fell. The bookcase is close enough to where I set the brick cutout down that it could justify kicking over the books when I leave to cover any debris. The laser cutter takes care of the front left-side adjustable piece that holds the shelf. A slight cut is enough for me to break the rest of it with my hands, giving it a sheared, tried-to-hold-too-much-weight look. Perfect.

It's been three and half minutes since the safe left. Pete could be here any second. I query Puo on his status and wait for a response.

And wait. And wait.

Four minutes and forty-five seconds. I have to get the safe back in and restore the brick wall. I resist the urge to keep pinging Puo, he's probably in the middle of climaxing.

Five minutes, fifty-one seconds. Puo speaks through my earpiece. "Got it. Repackaging and ready to drop in two minutes ten seconds."

My impatience flares. Two minutes of dead time. Two minutes for simple repositioning. Two minutes of Pete drawing closer.

Time hasn't been kind to me lately. The past eighteen or so hours have passed like minutes, now the minutes pass like hours. Every creak of the building, every noise coming from the street through the window sounds like a gunshot. It's wearing on my nerves.

And the damn musky smell of Pete's office isn't helping. I should've worn nose plugs. The smell is overpowering, almost like Pete's in the room. I can't decide if Pete uses a cologne that makes this room stink, or if this room makes Pete stink.

Finally, Puo says, "Twenty seconds out."

I force my helmet back on.

Puo continues, "Sync in three-two-one, sync."

I sync my gravity subroutine and go outside the window to direct the safe back in. The safe is falling toward me. This is a precision drop like nothing we've done before. At least when I drop, on the way down I can adjust to some degree where I'll land. The safe doesn't have arms and legs to steer. But objects don't just fall straight down when pushed off a moving vehicle. They capture some of the momentum. It's all part of the calculation and fervent prayer.

Fortunately, in a night sky that is clouded with moving objects, the safe is hard to distinguish against the background. Unfortunately, it looks like it's going to hit the edge of the roof.

Clang!

The safe clips it and spins on the way down. I'm able to corral it, but the noise is on the level of throwing a metal trash can to the ground.

Well, if they didn't hear the first noise, they certainly heard that. I get the safe back into the room, set it in place, and remove the gravity suit. I look the safe over. No scuff marks that I can see; must have hit on the bottom or back, which is fine with me.

Puo says, "Isa, a vehicle just descended and pulled in front."

Thirty, forty-five seconds at best before Pete gets here. I'm already moving.

All I need to do is move that two-hundred pound block of bricks that nearly ripped my arms off once before. I dart into my pack to get the handles and stop when I brush up against the extra gravity suit. It worked with the safe.

I put the modified gravity suit on the back the bricks first, then attach the handles.

Shadows start jumping underneath the crack of the door. They're coming.

I activate the gravity subroutine. Two-hundred plus pounds of brick magically turns manageable. I kick over the books.

I'm in the air with my ass outside the window, about to fit the bricks back in place, when the shadows stop moving again.

They're outside the door.

I might make it, they might not notice the wall right away. I line up the edges.

The left edge won't fit. The brick wall is upside down.

I freeze. It's over.

I get ready to use the blocks as a weapon. I strain and can barely hear someone's soft garbled voice. They keep talking. They're just standing there.

I seize the opportunity and flip the block around. Sweat drips down the back of my neck from the effort. They still haven't opened the door. I fit the block into place and pull it flush. I made it.

I take the handles off and remove the modified gravity suit. My adrenaline's so high I think I can hear them through the brick. I'm left with an uneasy feeling. What did I forget?

The distant voices are getting louder. They're not in the office. They're on the roof, heading straight toward me.

I use the building to leapfrog myself toward the back of the building. Silence is secondary to speed. I just turn the corner when my heart stops.

A muffled yell, followed by a back-and-forth I can't distinguish.

My eyes are glued to the roofline.

One one-thousand -- two one-thousand -- three one-thousand. No movement.

The muffled talking continues. They must've found where the safe hit the roof. With any luck, they'll assume it was some type of throwaway from the sky.

My body can't take much more adrenaline. I use the gravity suit to drop to the ground and make a run for it. I need to find someplace to hole up in and have Puo come pick me up. I think I might finally be able to sleep after this.

Three hours later I'm back on the Pelican getting cleaned up. What I really need is a decent shower, but I'm making do with a wash cloth and a fresh change of clothes.

After escaping from Pete's place, Puo and I decided he couldn't just drop down and get me after all. Personal air vehicles aren't very common descending down into Pete's slum. The Pelican would be noticed -- and reported.

I ended up having to wait for public transportation to start back up and take me to a better part of town for the pickup. I passed three of the dullest hours known to man, sitting in an all-night diner in my own filth, keeping an eye on the door. I hadn't planned on taking off my gravity suit, so I sat in the diner in a tank top and black yoga pants, plastered in sweat. Fortunately, with my odor, I fit right in at the place.

Those three hours weren't completely wasted, though. Puo's been deciphering the ledger. I finish cleaning up and walk into the cabin.

Puo looks solemn, resigned.

"Well?" I ask.

"Pete stacks."

I slump into the chair next to him. Stacking is when a mark splits his stash among multiple locations. "How many?"

"Definitely four, possibly five. There's something else, Isa. Pete keeps his wealth in the physical. Jewels, precious metals and the like. Even if we could hit all the stacks, we can't physically move everything by ourselves. The Pelican's too small. We can't expose ourselves to get help."

"We don't have to steal it, just destroy it or stop him from getting access."

"Isa, Pete's loaded. We could hit all but one and he'd survive."

Where's Puo's optimism now? His we-can-do-anything attitude? Suddenly, it gets hard and he wants to roll over?

"Isa, you gotta call him."

"Stop using my name, Puo. It's annoying, Puo. I'm not a child, Puo."

Puo taps the tan ledger. "Pete's embezzling."

Interesting. The Boss gets a cut of all the crime that goes down in the city. If Pete's embezzling and we have proof, then we're not coming to him in a position of weakness. We're whistle blowers doing the Boss a favor, still looked down on like scum, but maybe after everything is cleared up we could leak the true story.

But God, I hate calling the Boss. I'll be perceived as a scared little girl, "Daddy, there's a big bad man after me. Daddy, I need you to protect me. Daddy, I'm too weak to help myself." It's enough to make me sick. Pete deserves it though.

"You gotta call him," Puo repeats.

"Fine." My brain's shot. I can't think of anything else that might work. I'll make the call later at a more civilized hour.

I lean into the reclined seat. I haven't slept in almost twenty-six hours. My nerves are fried, my brain's dead, my body's exhausted. Falling asleep isn't the problem -- staying asleep is.

The twenty-minute chunks are the high performers. The rest average between ten and fifteen minutes. Every time I slide into sleep, Winn is there to meet me.

His clean-shaven face gains a gray, scraggly beard. His well-fitting clothes morph into a disheveled prison uniform. The worst are the images of his hands. His soft, surgeon's hands. Steady and strong, turning into cracked, nicotine-stained skeletons bound by handcuffs.

After about an hour and half of this, I give up. Winn will haunt me waking or sleeping. At least while awake, I can block some of it out.

It's 8:00 a.m. Winn is due to be released in an hour and a half. If the Feds do release him. They're probably working overtime to pin the theft on him. Even if he is released, Pete will pick him up at the first opportunity to work off his debt.

Winn doesn't realize that he's already too deep in our world. The criminal underworld leaves a trace on a person. People who have fallen into crime hold themselves a certain way. They know where to look, linger a second too long on a cop. In Winn, this is an oxymoron. If I saw him for the first time, my thoughts would be that he's trusting, a rube, but from the trace, in trouble, panicked.

In other words, easy prey. An ideal mark, a perfect patsy. Winn will spend the rest of his life wasting away in a cell or in the hands of someone like Pete, being used and manipulated.

I can't leave Winn to this fate.

"Puo, I'm going back for him."

I stand in a storage closet full of restoration chemicals in the loft where the Island used to be. Owned and run by Ashley's Restorations. It wasn't even a half hour after we had turned control over to the twit that she had changed the name.

The Feds released Winn an hour ago. I had picked up a disposable communicator, and sent a one-word message to him: Island, then tossed it in the trash. The Feds will have hacked his communicator at a minimum and are going to be watching him, but we need to get Winn now before Pete gets his hands on him.

I've been waiting for twenty minutes, drifting in and out of alertness. Even after I had called the Boss, I still couldn't find rest, stuck in the same track of questions. Will he come? How angry will he be? What will I say? Will he believe me? And more importantly, will he have a visual cortex bug?

The last question bothers me the most. There's little I can do if he does, other than coldcock him and run. We don't have the equipment to deal with it anymore, and even if we could take him somewhere to deal with it, the Feds would know where and who, as well as get an image of me.

I hate waiting.

Puo speaks through my earpiece. "He's here, and he's got a tail." Puo's high in the sky in the Pelican, running command.

I ready my equipment and step flush to the side of the door.

Several minutes later, Winn enters, turns on the light, and walks past me. I put the end of a short metal tube I found in the closet between his shoulder blades. "Shhh."

He freezes.

I start scanning with my other hand. Sure enough, the scan picks up a tracking and audio bug almost immediately on his citizen chip. Well, good tricks are good tricks for all sides. That's one bug. I keep scanning.

Puo says, "More plain-clothed cops are showing up."

Not a good sign.

Winn starts to tense, he still doesn't know it's me. He's going to do something stupid. I lean forward and kiss the back of his neck, then nibble on his ear for good measure. He relaxes and I drop the metal tube.

I initiate the visual cortex scan. The scan itself takes only a few seconds, but then the software needs time to chug through the data before giving the results. Puo explained why it takes so long to me once. Something about how the brain communicates with tiny electrical signals that can mask the signature of the bug.

Seventy percent done. I take a deep breath. If this comes up negative, then all I have to do his remove his citizen chip and we can get out of here.

Puo interrupts the silence. "They're forming a perimeter around the building. I also think they got an unmarked air vehicle up here."

Great. I was hoping they'd be content to watch. The earlier text probably got them hot-to-trot.

Eighty-five percent done.

Puo says, "They're entering the building. You gotta get out of there."

Shit. I need to get the audio chip out before we can bolt, but the scan isn't done.

If the Feds get my image, at best my ability to work will evaporate, at worst I'll rot in a ten-by-ten concrete jail cell for twenty-three hours a day for the rest of my life. I'd be a maximum security risk -- an accomplished thief, con woman, and escape artist. There probably wouldn't even be a window. For twenty-three hours a day, for the next sixty years, I'd just sit there. I'd be insane in less than a year.

Ninety-four percent done.

Puo says, "They've got dogs."

I step around front to face Winn and put my fingers to my lips to keep him quiet. I had made my choice when I decided to come here. Thankfully, he listens. He still trusts me. I expect to see anger. Instead I see fear, desperate need -- that I'm his last hope. Why does he still trust me after I nearly hung him out to dry? He's like a lost puppy that deserves better.

I put the extraction device over his left hand to remove the citizen chip. Once the device indicates it's found the chip and got a lock on it, I rip the device off bringing blood and the chip with it. There isn't time to be gentle.

Ninety-eight percent done.

I set the chip in the center of the floor. I motion to Winn to add his communicator next to the chip. I open the door to the loft and wait. Attenuated dog barks travel up and out the stairwell from the first floor. Winn looks at me in alarm. His round blue eyes contrast against the straight line of his jaw. I wink back.

A hundred percent. No cortex bug.

I grab Winn's shirt and run for the corner of the loft with the small specialty elevator and climb in.

The shaft is lined with regularly-spaced bars to make the descent easy. I added them when we got the loft, as a quick escape route. I still can't believe we had to burn this place. It was perfect.

The cops are working their way up the building. As we descend we can hear cops talking to one another, giving orders. They still haven't searched the elevator. That'll probably change when the dogs get to the loft.

We reach the basement and I check: no cops. We climb out, remove a sewer grate and drop down into the sewer, replacing the grate behind us. In a couple of blocks we'll get out and Puo will pick us up.

We jog to the first turn, then slow to a brisk walk.

"You can talk now," I say.

"What happened?"

"Pete rolled on us. He figured we wouldn't find out. It was a hedge, either he'd get paid reward money if they arrested us, or we'd be successful and we'd pay him. Either way, he gets paid. He never thought we'd be so stupid as to try what we did."

"They think I'm a criminal. They wanted to arrest me."

You are a criminal. What did you expect? But I don't say these thoughts out loud. I've lived this moment; I know those words won't be helpful. It's the moment when you realize that's it, there's no going back. Mine was when I was seven. I botched picking a tourist's pocket and had to run for my life.

"I want out." His voice is small.

There is no out. The only way out is to purchase it with more money than we've ever had, which means pulling more jobs. I don't have the heart to tell him, so I say, "Okay."

He chews on his lip. "So, what now?"

"First, we need to deal with Pete. He'll know soon, if not already, that we know he ratted. He'll move against us."

Winn pales. "How'd Pete even know I was with you? All I ever told him was that I had another source of income."

"I bartered for your debt. Pete didn't let you go easily. He had his very own personal doctor to patch up his thugs, your services were more valuable than the coin. The only way I could convince him was to add your debt to mine."

"But I was still paying him. I used the money you paid me with. You took on double my debt?"

"Yeah."

He pauses, then says, "Thank you."

I can't remember the last time someone has sincerely thanked me for anything. Ashley doesn't count, she has no idea what she agreed to. "Uh, you're welcome."

"He would have never let me go, would he? Even after I worked it off?"

"Not likely."

"So how do we deal with Pete?"

"We settle the score."

Puo closes the tan ledger when Winn and I enter the cockpit of the Pelican. "Welcome back, Rookie." Puo smiles in greeting. The smile is genuine but distant. Not saying anything to the Feds for twenty-four hours does wonders for trust, but we're not completely there yet.

Winn nods his greeting and sits down. I stand behind him.

"Any progress?" I ask Puo. Time to put on a show for Winn. Hopefully, this will get us to a hundred percent trust.

"Five as far as I can tell. Two we can easily hit -- his restaurant The South Grill and a small local bank. That may be enough with a fire run."

"Yeah," I say, "but with a fire run the mark is clued in."

"But it works, or we get lucky and he tries to move it, bringing it out into the open." Puo hands me the ledger, which I slip into my bag.

"Guys," Winn says, "what are you talking about?"

Hook, line and sinker. Winn really would've made a good patsy.

I answer, "Pete divides his wealth among multiple locations. It protects him against unforeseen loss, like theft. If he loses one stash, it's only a percentage of the total. We know of two locations but not the rest. A fire run is when you clue the mark in by going after the pieces you know about in a very set fashion, say every three days. In this case, the restaurant and the bank, after those are gone, the mark will assume we know the rest and will either check on them or have them moved. Either way, we're watching and will learn the location of the remaining pieces."

"And that will get him off our backs?" Winn asks.

"His men will turn on him," I say. "Half only work for him because they're indebted, the other half because he pays regularly. Take away his capital, his ability to pay, and we cut him off from his men." I sit down. "We'll hit the restaurant first."

I hope this is the last time I have to lie to Winn.

The following afternoon, I sit in Pete's office, waiting for the pompous ass to stop reading his Zen and the Art of Leadership book. I can't help but think of Winn, sitting in The South Grill restaurant at this very moment waiting for a cue that will never come.

Pete thinks it's a power play to make people wait. I should have sent Puo and loaded him up with beans. I start laughing at the thought. That gets Pete's attention.

"Something funny?"

"Just something Puo does." Normally, I'd draw this out, savor the moment, but Winn's waiting. "We couldn't unload the sculpture. Someone tipped off the Feds."

"That's not really my problem, now is it?"

"It is, since you're the one that tipped them off."

Pete leans back and subtly moves his hand along the chair's arm. To an untrained eye, it would look like he was getting comfortable. To the trained eye, he had just called for help. "That's quite an accusation. Can you prove it?"

"Nope. Very hard to go to the Feds and ask who tipped them off. One might be able to trace the money, but you didn't get paid, did you, Petey?"

The muscles twitch on one side of his face. Petey . . . I'll have to remember that.

Two of his thugs come to stand behind the desk on either side of him. "So you come in here with accusations you can't prove and no money. Jerome, Boots --"

"Hold on, I do have something of interest." I pull out the tan ledger and hand it to him.

I've been schooled for over twenty years, in cons, games, swindles, flimflams, you name it. Composure is the single greatest factor that affects the outcome of any of them. But I can't help but smile at his shaking hands.

He compares the ledger I handed him to the current one on his desk, then glances over at the safe. "How?" Pete starts, then collects himself. "I just checked hours ago. You haven't stolen anything."

"Nope, not a thing. Why go through all that effort when the Boss offers a ten percent finder's fee on assets people hide from him?"

It's the knockout punch. He blanches and drops the ledger. He skips over the first stage of grief and goes immediately to anger. "Jerome, Boots, kill her. Make her suffer. I don't care what you do."

Jerome and Boots shift their stance to box Pete in.

"Looks like Jerome and Boots have a new employer," I say. When the Boss learned of the situation, the first thing he did was forgive debts and offer three times what Pete paid to control his men. Much easier to have allies than a war.

The elation of victory is short lived. Pete starts to tremble. Soon I start to see that same need in Pete's eyes that I saw in Winn's. There's a reason I went into thievery and not other criminal enterprises. The look on Pete's face is it. I can't stand it. It robs the triumph right out of the moment. I wouldn't have the heart to follow through. That's why I rob underwater graves -- doesn't hurt anyone.

I get up and pause halfway to the door. Pete's whimper of "please" will haunt me for years.

"How'd it go with Pete?" Puo asks.

"He crumbled much faster than I thought." I'm back on the Pelican, heading toward The South Grill.

Silence settles over the cockpit. Puo has no stomach for that stuff either.

After several minutes of fighting traffic on the Air 20, he says, "You know, with the ten percent finder's fee, we could actually pay for one of us to go legit. Pete was one rich son-of-a-bitch."

"I know." We both know we're not talking about ourselves and there's nothing left to say. The rest of the ride is in a comfortable silence.

The South Grill is a dive, a total hole -- plain wooden booths, laminate table tops. There are even grease stains running all along the top of the walls. Winn is sitting in the only occupied booth, eating a stack of pancakes. I slide in next to him and Puo plops down on the other side of the table.

He doesn't say anything at first, but sips his coffee. "There never were conch shells on the beach, were there?"

Damn, the man learns quick. "No, there weren't."

He nods. "What's the point of gathering them then?"

Right to the heart of the matter. "Pete's been dealt with -- definitively. You were the one to suggest going to the Feds. We needed to make sure you were clean."

He starts to object, but I interrupt him. "There was a chance Pete was playing you, even without your knowledge. We had to make sure."

"Are you sure now?"

"Yeah," I say. And we are. The restaurant's been monitored since about eight hours after we learned of Pete's betrayal. There's been no out of the ordinary activity telling us Pete had been tipped off.

The waitress comes over and I order a bowl of oatmeal with no intention of eating it and a glass of water. Puo loads up on an omelet.

"How'd you deal with Pete?" Winn asks.

"We stole his ledger," I say, "to find out where he hid his cash."

"Ahem," Puo says.

"Oh, all right. Puo, in an astounding display of skill, cracked the safe in amazingly, stupefying, mystifying speed -- without which, we would have surely failed and been roasted alive. Satisfied?"

Puo bows his head.

"Anyway, turns out Pete's been lying to the Boss for years about what he made. It was easier to notify the Boss and let him do the dirty work. He'll give us a ten percent cut of what he recovers."

"I didn't realize you knew the Boss."

"He's her father," Puo says. He's calm about it, matter-of-fact about dropping one of my deepest secrets. I've sought for so long to distance myself from him. Puo remains silent and eyes me, inviting me to challenge him. I decline.

Eventually Puo caves to the intervening silence and says, "C'mon Isa, if he's gonna be a fully vested member, he's gotta know."

"Fully vested member?" Winn asks.

"The rookie's graduatin'!" Puo grins and pretends to wipe away a tear. "I'm so proud."

"You have two options," I say. "One, you stay on and help us rebuild. We could use the help."

"Is that the only reason you want me to stay on?" Winn asks. His full, honest face regards me over his pancakes. I divert my eyes to stay focused.

"Two, you go legit. Our take from the finder's fee is enough to cover the cost. You'll have to move overseas, but it's a chance at a normal life. So there it is, a way out. They don't come often." Never actually, this is the first time we've ever had the capital to try to do it.

"What about you guys?"

"What about us?" I ask. "We are what we are. It's a little hot here for us right now, so we're setting up shop in a new city." It's stressful, starting all over again.

We fall into silence as the waitress brings our food. Puo dives right into his omelet, while I ignore the gray stuff in front of me that's supposed to pass for oatmeal. The clinking of Puo's fork is the only sound at the table for several minutes, punctuated occasionally as Winn pokes at his pancakes.

Finally the silence is too much and I say, "Look, you don't have to decide now --"

I never see Winn move. One second he's next to me pushing food around on his plate and the next we're locked in a full-on kiss.

He breaks away and says, "I'm in. You're a real piece of work Isa Schimdt."

"Wait till you meet Dad," Puo says.

I'd tell Puo to shut up, but I can't. I'm not done with Winn. The maple syrup on his lips is delicious.


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