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by Malcolm Twigg about a month ago in Short Story / Sci Fi / Adventure · updated about a month ago
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Ever been played?

Photo by Phil Hauser on Unsplash

Hingis was on the street corner again, pushing whatever it was he was pushing today. He was doing a deal with a group of Off-worlders, and doing a good deal too if his face was anything to go by. He favored me with a curt nod as I pushed by and I flipped him a 'phet. He must have thought it was Christmas, but that's the kind of guy I am.

The biggest of the Off-worlders turned as I pushed past and jabbered a mouthful of consonants at me. You don't have to know the language to recognize a good curse. This was a doozie. I hauled off and smacked him in the mouth and he went down like someone took the bones out of his legs. His lip split in three places and there was dirty ochre blood everywhere. You'd think life-forms who damage that easy would put their brains in gear before the mouth motors off. He was lucky I was in a hurry. The others made a half-move towards me and then thought better of it as I waved a psycho-probe at them. The guy on the floor was bleeding all over Hingis's shoes. I nodded at him again. "You need a better class of customer, Hingis. They're bringing the neighborhood down" I said. Then I knocked the 'phet out of his hand again, caught it and put it back in my pocket. "I don't take kindly to having my morning disturbed" I said, staring at him hard The look on his face was almost worth the bruised knuckles. I left him hauling the Off-worlder to his feet and dropping his price just to keep him interested. Hingis is a fool.

The down-roller was out again. That meant the sidewalks were crammed. You go down in a crush like that, you stay down. I got better things to do with my time than spend it elbowing jerks in the face just to defend my space so I hooked a left into Marthold's place. As a place of business it qualifies ... just. He's got a brass plate on the wall and a sign, except today he's just got the brackets for the sign and an impromptu new paint job where the brass used to be. The wording is an improvement. He gave up taking the metal shield down years ago: now you got to hammer real hard to make him hear. I don't know how he keeps running. But he's got a side-line he keeps locked away, of course. Everybody in this mother-fuckin' city's got a side-line. Marthold himself slid the grill aside. "Angel!" he said. That's me: they call me The Angel. At least, those who got any sense do. "Door", I said. The bolts shot like Marthold was in a hurry to get the damn thing open. He was. I stepped inside.

If anything, it was dingier than the street outside. There was one fly-specked low energy bulb and a smell like cabbage cooked in stale urine. The desk had seen better days when better days were a distant dream. There was a sign above it: it said 'Marthold's Floaters. We Get you There!' A bum was stretched out in the corner snoring, with a bottle clutched to his chest - a Rigellian - they don't come much bummier than that, but that's maybe the reason Marthold keeps going - they also come cheap.

"I need a floater" I said. "That your driver?" nodding to the bum. Marthold nodded. "Then I'll drive", I said. I reached out a toe and hooked the bottle away. It clattered onto the floor. It was empty. The bum stirred and grunted and then started snoring again. "Beats me how you keep a license, Marthold". It didn't. I knew as well as Marthold how he kept a license, and it sure as hell wasn't by paying up his dues.

He flustered. "Now, Angel, you know I can't just let you drive one of these things ..."

I caught his wrist and dragged him over to the Rigellian. "You're gonna make me ride with him, huh?" I said. "I'll drive." Tell you the truth I wouldn't be seen dead sharing a pisser with a Rigellian. Except I wouldn't be the dead one. There's some Off-worlders you can tolerate. Rigellians ain't one of them.

"Shit Angel" Marthold complained, rubbing his wrist. "These things cost. I can't have anybody driving. He may be a shit-head but he's plugged for it." He indicated the socket protruding from behind the guy's left ear.

"You don't need to be plugged to drive a floater, Marthold".

"You do if you want to keep the blasters off your tail!" he retorted.

"I'll take my chances, Marthold" I said. "You'll have it back this evening as shiny as when it went out." That wouldn't be too difficult. I picked up a set of keys from the desk. "These work?" I asked. Marthold nodded, dumbly. "Good. Lead the way."

Give Marthold his due his yard is like a fortress. There was nothing about to get through those gates short of an explosion that's also going to take out the people exploding it. And if the explosion don't get them there's a whole heap of other nasties that will - there was a click of relays as we stepped outside and a million eye-cells focussed in on us. If Marthold hadn't been there yours truly would have been smoke.

The floaters were queued up looking mean and ugly. They looked like they hadn't seen a polishing rag since the day they rolled off the assembly line. I knew Marthold. They hadn't. I also knew that the engines ran as smooth as butter. The floater I wanted was locked away. Marthold knew it, but he was trying not to show it. I let him down easy - a man's got a living to make and, after all, any one of Marthold's heaps would suit my purpose. Marthold's secret was safe with me. I kicked the shabbiest. A plate fell off. "This one'll do". You could feel his relief. He almost fell over himself to unlock the door. "Look, Angel" he said. "You didn't get it from me, right? You picked it up off the street, unattended. I don't need any Troopers round here." He snapped his fingers. "Dump the Rigellian! He won't know shit when he wakes up. For all he knows he could've been out on a job and passed out. I'm not expecting the guy back, am I? I don't know the floater's free, do I?" There was a pleading note in his voice. I considered it. There was a drawback - I'd have to share the cab with a stinking, unconscious Rigellian. But the plus was I got to tip him out. I swung myself into the cab and settled myself into the seat. "Get the Rigellian" I said and gunned the motor.


He made a satisfactory 'splatt!' as he hit the street. Pity was I had to get down low to do it. Higher and this ethnographic shit-faced city would have had one ethno less to worry about, but what reason do I got for takin’ out anybody he lands on? I don’t need the Troopers onto me for no good reason. The Angel’s too smart for that.

With the Rigellian lying in the gutter and snoring the air was suddenly sweeter for tipping him out, and I took the floater up to the limit. From up there the city looked like what it was: a sprawling scab that crawled out further into the countryside almost as you watched it. Already one suburb had linked up with one spreading out from Velnut 80 miles to the east and the local Bosses were busy carving up what belonged to who. I keep out of small-town politics.

There were more floaters than usual. It was easy to see why. I could see at least eight down-rollers static and as many up-rollers moving in fits and starts. As I watched even those ground to a halt taking the east/west routes with them. The passengers swarmed off and swarmed away to find a roller - any roller - that was working. It was like watching an ant's nest stirred with a stick. I was beginning to feel conspicuous so I took her down and joined the stream of floaters on the commuter level queuing to negotiate Grogan and Haas'in. It stuck in the craw but you don't argue with either of these Quarter Bosses when all that's between you and the ground is air. It's a complicated toll structure. But you learn to understand it. And, in a way, it's a fair system by the standards that gave rise to the Quartering system. You pay a little over the odds to keep you in the sky but not so much that you don't stop using the floaters - and nobody asks where you get the extra when you need it. And it keeps Grogan and Haas'in happy. Grogan has even been known to crack a smile ... once ... when his old lady was done away by a floater that Haas'in's men shot out of the sky. Haas'in ain't really built for smiling. Reptiles got no lips. Hass'in's only got one eye too and half a left hand, and that's a source of great satisfaction to me. I don't much like Haas'in. Shit! Haas'in's nest-mother don't much like Haas'in come to that, and these things brood like freakin' symbiotic clones so you can judge just how likeable Haas'in's character is. On a scale of one-to-ten it don't even make the start.

Grogan, on the other hand, is the sort of guy it's a real pleasure to hate. People have made whole careers out of trying to rub him out - short ones, it's true, but none the less intense. Grogan and Haas'in between them rule half the city and they got to be that way because people look up to them - briefly, often from flat on their backs with a pyscho-probe in their mouths. You probably get the picture.

More floaters piled up behind me. It was going to be a slow passage. Then one got tired of waiting and slipped below the queue, diving low down to skim the surface of the stilled down-roller. He should have known better. There was a brief flash from the Gate hovering in the commuter lane and the rogue floater flattened its nose on the shield and went on flattening until it was only half its original length. Then it blew up and threw itself all over the down-roller. Someone was going to be late home for dinner.

After that things slowed down even more. I figured maybe Haas'in's boys were hoping someone else was going to try that particular trick again. They got no imagination. An Overseer Cruiser suddenly threw a whale shadow over everything briefly as it passed overhead. It carried enough hardware to fry this city to a black ash and the tempo picked up again suddenly. Haas'in's boys got that much imagination at least. It parked itself above and brooded.

Now, Grogan and Haas'in's boys you fear: Overseer Cruisers you respect. At least with Grogan and Haas'in you get a fighting chance if you got the balls, although you don't use that particular expression in Grogan's presence because he ain't, and it tends to bring back painful memories. Overseer Cruisers you got no chance at all. They don't even need to use the hardware: the threat's enough. Which is the key to how this city's economy works. Block Boss, District Boss, Quarter Boss to Mayor, it all gets screwed out of Joe Public and finds its way into Overseer and Government coffers with every layer of "administration" getting its own lucrative rake-off. Which leaves you and me feeling the pinch, so we go out and do the odd scam to put bread on the table ... and so it goes. Not exactly a black economy, more a shitty shade of gray.

I finally drew alongside the Gate. Haas'in himself was on - he does that sometimes, it's more fun tearing the wings off butterflies yourself than getting someone else to make them squirm.

"Ain-chhell!" he hissed, his one good eye lifting in surprise. "You! Driv-ving ffor Marrthholdd?"

"I'm driving one of Marthold's floaters, Haas'in" I said coldly. "There's a difference."

His scaly tongue flicked out of the side of his mouth. "E-ven ssso! It ssuitss your sstyle!"

I glanced overhead at the brooding Cruiser. "Cut the crap Haas'in. How much this time?"

He flipped his tongue to the other side and back again and gaped, evilly. "Fforr you, Ainchell. It'ss ffrree." Then he punched the button and the floater shot out into the flow on the other side of the Gate. Now, that I hadn't expected and I got to admit it took me aback. I was ten blocks down the flow before it struck me what the little shit had done. But by then it was almost too late. I gunned the motor and screwed the floater down into a steep dive. Scatt Bridge was just coming up so I took my chances. The floater screamed to a halt underneath it and I was out before the sparks had finished flying. I threw myself into the river, just as the world blew up. I clung to the underside of that overhang as the river boiled with falling masonry and watched as molten metal poured over the bank, hissing as it hit the water. The acrid stench of vaporized metal almost overpowered the natural smell of the Scatt. I gave it a few moments and then risked a look out. Scatt Bridge had gone, along with the colony of wino's who lived underneath it, and Marthold's floater was now floating downstream in little molten slivers. The ominous shape of the Overseer Cruiser hovering overhead nosed off, seemingly satisfied with the morning's work.

You can get too hived in to your own cool for comfort sometimes. I had forgotten about Marthold's warning. I was unplugged. Hass'in knew it, and when an unplugged floater screamed out of his port without paying the toll with a Cruiser right overhead, there could only be one outcome. If Hass'in wanted me dead there were a million ways he could have chosen, most of them so's you got to be on intimate terms with Death before the sand ran out, and Cruisers don’t miss …often …so what's going on?

When the Cruiser had lost itself amongst the snag-tooth high rises in the distance, I hauled myself out. I could've packed what was left of Marthold's floater in a match-box. Somehow I don't think he would have appreciated it. It was a pity about the machine but it had got me almost where I wanted to be. The rest of it would have to be on foot. The score with Hass'in would wait. In fact, the score with Hass'in would be better off waiting - a simmered pot has more chance to garner all the subtle flavors. Hass'in was in for a gourmet's delight.

But first I had to sluice off before the Scatt started eating me. Already the grazed knuckles from Hingis's client were beginning to sting and areas of exposed skin were prickling. The psycho-probe would be useless after the dunking so I ditched it. It was a pity about that, but they do say that a man without a weapon at all is more likely to survive than someone tooled up to the eyebrows. I never really believed that philosophy but I was about to find out I guess.

The place I had come down in was a maze of alleys, with buildings so run-down it was like a new art-form - you could've burrowed beneath the garbage. Not unnaturally the place was pretty quiet. Somewhere that has just had a paying visit from a Cruiser tends not to be a hotbed of activity. But, sure enough, it wasn't long before the ghouls scrabbled out of their hiding places to see what they could pick up. One or two of them eyed me up speculatively then thought better of it - someone who walks away from a Overseer Hit is usually someone who would think nothing of snapping necks like twigs. I left them to it.

The floater had come down in Grogan's territory. I suppose I should have counted it as a blessing - it could just as easily have been on Haasi'n's side of the Scatt. At least on this side there were more humans and I wouldn't stick out like a monk's dick in a nunnery - or wouldn't if my clothes weren't smoking with the Scatt's legacy. It's lucky people on Grogan's side of the bridge keep a fairly open house. There's not much point in their doing anything else, let's face it. If Grogan's boys want in, they get in, and replacing doors costs, so it wasn't too difficult to get a rinse and a new set of clothes. I left the old ones quietly fizzing in an alley.

You got to smell the alleys in Grogan's Quarter to believe it. Marthold's place is heaven-scented compared. But I wasn't there on any sight-seeing trip. Since Haas'in's freak-out at the Gate I had even more purpose behind me now. I was beginning to think the Cruiser was no co-incidence. Unless I missed my guess, the scaly slime-ball had something more going with the Government than simple pay-off. And, if that was the case, he wouldn't even know that the Government would be playing him for a patsy. Haas'in's I.Q. is about as big as Grogan's dick ... and Grogan's dick is enough to piss by and not much else.

I sat down to give it some consideration. I get this message on the net this morning to see a man about a job that takes me through Hass'in and Grogan. Hass'in throws me to the wolves when he could've 'probed me just as easy, and instead of doing a job the Cruiser let's it go. Now, that may be The Angel's luck. Somehow I don't think so. The Angel is the one who does the hits. The Angel doesn't get hit without someone setting him up real good. And it looked like the set-up was carrying on - that hit must have addled my brain, because next thing I knew, two of Grogan's goons had jumped me out of nowhere and bundled me off into a rotting building. They left me trussed like an oven-ready and leaned themselves against the wall. To say they were impassive would be understating it. I've seen slabs of stone with more intelligence than these guys. Hell, I've held conversations with more intellectual bricks. True that was with the help of some of Hingis's pure-cut special, but if these guys were mountains, trolls would take up market gardening.

Grogan himself waddled in then. What was this? First Haas'in and now Grogan - both Quarter Bosses sullying their hands with the proletariat?

"Angel" he wheezed in that high pitched whisper of his. "You got your wings clipped at last, hunh?" That got through to one of the monoliths because there was a sudden sound like cracking gravel and he sort of folded at where the waist would have been if there'd been room for one. The other just looked on amazed - you could tell that from his point of view laughter that didn't involve someone else lying in bits on the ground was hardly an intelligible response to anything. He half-raised his fist to hit something until he realized that there was nothing to hit and then dropped it with a frustrated expression. You notice these sort of things when you're tied up and racking your brains to try and find a way out.

The big guy slowly slid to the floor holding his stomach and continued cracking gravel. Grogan ignored him.

"You ever wonder why you ain't dead, Angel?" Grogan's voice wheezed to a leaky stop.

This wasn't the time for any smart-ass reply, gravel-cracker had emptied his hopper by now - I figured maybe he wouldn't sustain the thought that long - and had picked up on the note of menace in Grogan's voice. He looked like a Rottweiler/Pitbull cross knowing it was about to be let off the leash. "Just lucky, I guess, Grogan." I said.

"You don't know how true that is, Angel." He eased his bulk onto the single chair in the room and pulled out a hand-blaster. He weighed it in his hand. "You like it, Angel? Government issue. Just four models old. You gotta hold some sway to get one of these Angel."

I knew Grogan held some sway, but I didn't know it swayed so far. Most blasters you get hold of this far down the line are so far gone they're likely to take your own hand off, which is why most of us who can afford it favor the psycho-probes. I looked at him with a little more respect. "I thought you'd appreciate that, Angel" he cackled, sounding like a leaky bellows. He nodded to gravel-cracker who flicked out a shiv and slit the ropes on my wrists with a movement so deft it was creative. It seemed he had hidden talents too. I rubbed my wrists and then caught the blaster with a reflex action as Grogan tossed it to me. "It's yours, Angel."

The butt heeled into my hand like it was made for it and the nose came up to cover Grogan and his cronies automatically. That set gravel-cracker off again and he fell to his knees this time, with Grogan counter-pointing the rattle with his own, wheezing, cackle. "You think I'm so crazy to give you a live weapon, Angel? This is Grogan speaking, Angel. I don't got to be no Quarter Boss giving weapons to people gonna rub me out." His eyes narrowed. "Now listen good, Angel." The goons moved in and pinioned my arms while, so help me, Grogan yanked my pants down.

A while back, when penal colonies were off-world before this whole friggin' planet became one huge penal colony with privileges, the Overseers developed this intricate little collar to keep the inmates put. It was packed with unidirectional plastic explosive that triggered at the push of a button. Believe me, that must have been some incentive. That was before it got outlawed when some jerk in Control somehow jammed the frequencies and sent the entire prison population into orbit - the thinking parts at least.

Getting hold of outlawed equipment is something Grogan is good at. Something else Grogan is good at is improvisation and, given his particular deficiencies, it don't take much imagination to guess what his improvisations were. He yanked my pants back up.

"You goin' to do what I want, Angel?" he leered, giving the plastic truss a pat.

"You can count on it, Grogan" I said, tight-lipped.

"Good". He nodded to the goons and they let go my arms. "You don't even know what it is yet."

"Whatever it is, Grogan, it means someone is walking around already a dead man."

"Close, Angel" Grogan cackled again. "What I want you to do, Angel, is kill me!"

I nearly shook the man's hand. You get one opportunity like this in a lifetime, and from the lips of the man himself you got to count yourself fortunate.

"But, before you get carried away, Angel" he rasped "remember I got more blasters like that one, all trained on your back and, since I don't want to waste the power packs, I got this as first option." He waved a remote at me and fingered the red button oh-so-lightly and leered at my crotch which involuntarily began to contract into my body - or would have if it wasn't trapped inside the mechanism.

Grogan draped an avuncular arm across my shoulders. "I'm gonna tell you this Angel, not because I like you, but because I got to tell somebody who would appreciate it" he tossed his head deprecatingly at his granular buddies. "I'm gonna make a final move on Haas'in, Angel. Tonight we got a Special Meeting of the Quarter Council. Mayor an' fuckin' Government heavies an' everything. Seems the Big Boys ain't happy with the way things are running down here. Tonight, Grogan gets 'killed'. But, come tomorrow, this fuckin' Quarter Boss is gonna control half this fuckin' City and after that, who knows?" He wheezed a disgusting laugh. "But before I do that, I got to be seen as bein' dead. And who else apart from Hass'in might want to see Grogan dead, Angel?"

I could have given him a list - Hell, I could have given him an encyclopaedia - but I knew just what he meant. No-one else could have come anywhere near Grogan especially at a Council Meeting ... but The Angel? The Angel was something else. If The Angel's on your case the case is dead and buried before it's hardly opened. Full title: The Angel of Death. That's me. The hoariest hit-man this City has ever seen and now no more than a puppet dancing - oh so gingerly - to Grogan's tune. It was more than humiliating, it was downright embarrassing.

I shrugged Grogan's arm off my shoulder and stuck the blaster in my waistband. "I don't get it, Grogan" I said. "What you're saying is I make out I'm hitting on you and that way Haas'in gets his desserts. Don't make sense. This blaster's not armed. What'm I supposed to do?. Shout 'Blam! Blam! You're dead Grogan? Last one to stomp all over me is a slowcoach?'"

Grogan made a noise like an expiring elephant tire and I realized he was laughing. "I could get to like you, Angel" he gasped. "Look ..." Then, he blew apart.

The room could have done with redecorating, but red didn't go with the vestigial decor. And viscera dripping from the ceiling didn't do a hell of a lot for the ambience. Nor did the entrails wound around my neck leading their gory way back to the smoking hole that had appeared in Grogan's body. The funny thing was, Grogan was still standing and gravel-cracker had started up his engine again.

"Like it, Angel?" Grogan stood there displaying his insides like he was proud of them, then he peeled off the roll of synthoskin that was wrapped around his gut and threw it, and its disgusting contents, onto the floor. It was difficult to hear what Grogan said. For one thing the explosion was still ringing in my ears, gravel-cracker had got himself a double hopper-load to get rid of and his companion had been quite overwhelmed by the experience and was howling about the room trying to find the way out.

I removed an intestine from around my neck. "Neat trick, Grogan" I said dryly. "I suppose I get a half-charge blaster, point it at your belly-button and 'splatt!' the Mayor gets a face-full of Grogan substitute."

Grogan smirked. "And then the Council breaks up, Haas'in makes his move to take over the Quarter seeing as how the Boss has just been spread over the Chamber, but my boys are waiting and legitimately blow him away before he gets his lizard fuckin' feet over the threshold."

Politics is a dirty business. Played by hoodlums and rank amateurs it's positively frightening - I'm glad I have nothing to do with it.

"There's just one flaw in all of this" I said. "What happens to me?"

"You? You get to keep your balls, Angel" Grogan whispered fiercely. "If you do your job properly."

"That isn't going to be a lot of consolation if there's nothing left to hang them on, Grogan. I mean what happens to me when you've shed your breakfast all over the Mayor and everybody looks to see where the loud bang came from?"

"That's up to you, Angel. It's your fuckin' job."

Now I can't deny it had its attractions, Grogan's little enticement notwithstanding. Almost anything that removed Hass'in from this plane of existence was worth considering, but Grogan must have known I'd come after him when it was all over. I put it to him and he flashed the remote at me. I took his point. I took the point even more when he slipped the power source in the remote and I felt the fuckin' chastity belt start ticking.

"Just to focus your mind Angel" he said, "this thing is range limited. Get anywhere within 100 meters of me and that time-piece around your dick starts counting down. Outside of that you can do anything you normally do with it, except maybe screw." He slipped the power source out again. "I'm gonna get Hondo here" (he indicated gravel-cracker) "to take you away now and get you made over. Get you some credentials so's you can crash the Chamber legitimate. And this power goes on the second you walk through City Hall door, Angel. After that you got, maybe, half-an-hour to do the business and, if you're as good as you think you are, get out of there."

Hondo dragged me over to the door. "But just remember" Grogan said as the door creaked to behind us "the power stays on. You come anywhere near me after that and you ain't gonna know how long you got before you start singin' soprano."

As Hondo propelled me along the alley, I figured Grogan had covered all the angles. Somebody must have been writing his script because sure as Hondo was a moron Grogan could never have thought of that by himself.

Moron Hondo may have been but he was a strong moron. The thought had crossed my mind that, as soon as we were out of earshot, a spot of unarmed might take the big guy out of it long enough for me to slip out of range of Grogan's little toy and find some way to disarm the thing. Hondo had been too well programmed though. He propelled me into another run-down building further down the alley, up some rickety wooden stairs with half the banister rail missing ... and into the classiest joint you'll find this side of the Mayor's Parlor. The place was hung with mirrors floor to ceiling, lights like a shuttle-port and what looked like a mad taxidermist's stock-in-trade stacked along the wall in clear, plastic boxes. I realized, of course, that the heads were only syntho but the sensation of hundreds of eyes following your every move was distinctly unnerving. Hondo barked and a frowsty blonde with hair awry crawled out of a curtained-off cubicle and stood, blinking uncertainly. Hondo pushed me into a chair and barked again and the blonde slipped a piece of gum into her mouth, sized me up with a hand on her hips, and flipped open one of the plastic cases, lifting out a mask of syntho-skin that molded itself to her hand like a glove. Hondo took himself off and parked across the door.

When Blondie had finished with me even I didn't recognize me. She eyed me laconically. "I must say" she drawled. "For the Angel of Death you don't look very scary."

I pushed my crotch at her. "When this thing goes off Blondie, you better had be scared."

Blondie sniffed. "How many times have I heard that?" she said. "You couldn't scare me with Hondo's"... and walked back off to her cubicle. "He's all yours Hondo" she called back over her shoulder. "Take him away and do whatever you got to do with him ... but try not to put any holes in the mask." Nice girl.

Hondo took me away. And sat on me until it was time for the Council Meeting.

I like to read history, and I know what Council Meeting used to mean. It don't mean quite the same thing now. I know about the Mafia too. And I know that, if they came to a Council Meeting in Dropp City wearing clean diapers they wouldn't be clean when they left - if they left. And when one of Hass'in's predecessors started turning up to meetings in a fuckin' armored car and parking it in the Chamber the Overseers knew they had to do something - they were running out of Councilmen. So they eventually banned weapons of any sort in the Chamber - no mean feat, but anything's possible with a Cruiser hanging overhead.

Dropp City Council House is the hub of this City's administration. Nowadays, though, the spokes are a little rusty and some don't work at all. And those that do invariably have a kick-back attached, right into someone's back pocket. I'm only telling you this by way of background. I don't give a flying fuck about politics or the way things run. Somebody pays me to do a job I do it. Somebody stops me doing it they only do it the once. That's the only way to live in this City. You gotta be so far ahead of the next guy you're roaring down on him from behind like a fuckin' rhinoceros.

At that moment I don't mind admitting I felt like a rhinoceros with hobbled feet in a fuckin' fog. Hass'in sets me up like a shooting gallery. Grogan jumps me and claps a remote castrater on me like he's expecting me. I drive a hire floater - one out of thousands O.K. I drive it unplugged but so do hundreds of others who don't have the readies to plug into the protection system. Nobody should know I'm there. Marthold knows much better than to tell anyone. These guys' information networks are good. Too good to be true if the guy in charge is someone like Hondo, and if someone like Hondo is Grogan's First Lieutenant that seemed entirely possible. When I get to smell a rat I start to itch. I was scratching like a flea-bitten dog.

Hondo dragged me away to another cess-pit and we spent a pleasant hour or two whiling away the time until it was time for what I figured was The Angel's execution. During that time I reached a conclusion: some days you should just stay in bed.

Half-an-hour before the meeting was due to start Hondo reached inside his straining tunic and pulled out the clip for the blaster. He tossed it to me with a grunt: it was showing just a quarter charge - enough to make a respectable bang but hardly enough even to stun a grown man, and nowhere near powerful enough to cause someone as big as Hondo any problem at all. I clicked it home and, despite the dead-end alley I was facing, I felt the usual rush of adrenaline I got on any job. Hondo's alter-ego from the first cess-pit joined us then and, between them, they escorted me out.

Dropp City Hall is built like a fortress for the simple reason that is what it once was. Nevertheless I knew a hundred ways I could probably get in, none of which involved the door but, since I'd never had the reason I'd never tried. Consequently I had no knowledge of the layout inside nor of any goodies they got packed away. The Councilmen were just arriving as we got there. Overseers and back-up Government Troopers were much in evidence trying to blend into the background as the various black floaters and ancient ground cars drew up and disgorged their occupants, each with their own retinue of minders hefting a miscellany of antique projectile weaponry. The place was like a stand-off. They may have got rid of the hardware inside but it would take more than a gentlemens' agreement - and I just the term so loosely it rattles - to persuade any Councilman to come to meetings without a mobile armory.

Grogan showed up then, at almost the same time as Hass'in. Hass'in slapped out of his floater in that flat-footed way of his kind and beat Grogan to the steps. He flashed a lipless gape at Grogan and hissed "Sso sslow, Grogan, sso sslow. And sso fat!" then skittered up the steps leaving Grogan scowling behind him. At the top he turned round to watch Grogan laboring heavily up and glanced round at the opposing factions in the square in a quick, jerky fashion. His snake eye caught mine for one fleeting moment, and then moved on. He gave a leering gape towards Grogan once more and stomped inside.

Grogan paused halfway up, leaning on the baluster, and glanced back over his shoulder at Hondo and me. He nodded imperceptibly at Hondo and Hondo nodded back then gripped me by the elbow and marched me up after his boss.

The heat in the lobby was less gritty than outside but more humid, and stank of the sweat gland secretions of half-a-dozen different life-forms. The air-conditioning had obviously gone down but that wasn't surprising because nothing works for very long in Dropp. There was a long queue of Councilmen and their euphemistic "advisers" waiting to get past the obligatory body search. "Shit, Hondo! How the hell do we get past that?" I hissed. Then Grogan's jock strap started ticking like he promised and I added a bit more to the sweat count. Grogan waited for us to catch up.

"Don't worry Angel" he rasped "the guy on the door is in my pocket."

What I didn't like was the way he was in everyone else's. For one thing in my profession you like to keep your privacy, and for another it was just taking too long. The more time the goon took to search, the less time Angel's gonads got to stay attached.

Hass'in sidled through the great wooden doors ahead of us and looked back with that evil gape of his. A harassed-looking Overseer type pushed past him from inside the Chamber and spoke quickly to the guy on the door with much waving of arms. The guy gave him a mouthful and gesticulated at the line of Councilmen waiting to be searched, so the official tore out a few more hairs and disappeared back inside. A few moments later he reappeared again, with a couple of Government Troopers ... and set them to work alongside Grogan's plant. The picture the guy's face made was worth framing. Grogan's would have made a matched pair. The way I felt I could easily have made that into a triptych but I couldn't show it. "That in the script?" I hissed to Grogan.

"You know it ain't Angel" Grogan hissed back.

"I didn't think so" I said. "Nice knowing you Grogan" and, ticking truss or not, started to back right out of there, but Hondo had other ideas. His grip on my shoulder was like a hydraulic ram. The door was coming closer and my time was getting shorter. This, I said, is what messing in politics brings, Angel. Grogan's man looked at him with a panicked expression on his face. He was probably worrying what would happen to him if he let this one get away from him. I saw Grogan's lips moving silently - he was trying to calculate the queue in front of us so he and Hondo could draw the Troopers. To his credit I saw Hondo trying to do the same, but he kept getting lost after three. I'd already done it, and it was incalculable - there was just no pattern to it. There should have been, but Grogan's plant on the door was desperately trying to do the same thing but kept grabbing people at random and screwing the sequence up. So I did the first thing that came to mind.

The crowd behind had been shoving with impatience for some time now, so I hung back to let the pressure build up and then sideslipped releasing the surge from behind. It was enough to put Grogan off balance so that a judicious hook to the instep set him stumbling forward. Hondo tried to catch him, letting go of my shoulder, but succeeded only in putting him further off-balance and the both of them went crashing full-length on the floor taking the Government Troopers with them - it couldn't have worked much better if it had been choreographed. The only problem was, it took me with them and I joined the melee on the floor. There was a lot of swearing and thrashing of limbs before the bodies sorted themselves out. The Troopers' equipment had gone flying, the rope barriers had somehow entwined around Hondo's foot and somehow someone's shoe had come off. I got to my knees and my blood ran cold as I felt a lack of pressure in my waistband: the blaster had gone. Then I spotted a glint of silver amidst the still thrashing bodies and contrived to fall over again, recovering it and stuffing it back in my waistband before anyone could see it. Then I crawled over to Grogan's doorman and presented myself for inspection, breathing heavily, whilst the melee sorted itself out.

Grogan's man looked at me with such relief I thought he was going to kiss me. He ran his hands swiftly over my body, gave me the O.K. and beckoned the next one forward. I thought I saw one of the Troopers give me a more than thoughtful stare as I hurried inside the Chamber, but I was out of there before anything else untoward could present itself. Grogan and Hondo followed me.

The Chamber must have been impressive once. There were no windows of course, and few windows of any sort except high up, but the ceiling was high so the fug wasn't too oppressive, although it was rapidly getting more so as more and more bodies piled in. Some of the seats had the leather missing, others had splintered arms and most that I could see had some sort of graffiti scratched out on them - all of it misspelt. There was an air of decrepitude and an atmosphere of tension, the result of too many distrustful hoodlums sat cheek by generally distended jowl with too many others. Hass'in was seated across the far side holding court, surrounded by his cronies. He glanced across to Grogan and made a derisive gesture, then returned to his conversation. Grogan's eyes narrowed and I can't remember when I've ever seen such a look of hatred as flashed between the two Quarter Bosses when their eyes met.

Hondo steered me into a vacant seat in the crowded public gallery directly opposite to where Grogan was sitting and parked himself beside me as immobile as a stone gargoyle. Grogan tipped me a brief nod and opened his waistcoat. Spare, augmented, flesh slopped out onto his lap underneath his shirt. Time was ticking away.

Mayor Tarnell called for order by the simple expedient of getting one of the Troopers to discharge a blaster into the air. It was unexpected but effective. Most of the Councilmen ducked and shut up. Grogan and Hondo looked surprised that Grogan's little gizmo hadn't gone off yet, until Grogan saw what had happened and had the grace to look sheepish. As for me my heart was racing and adrenaline was pumping around my veins like they were slicked with grease. My mouth was dryer than Hondo's eczema but my mind was leapfrogging ahead of the next few minutes. After Grogan had been "splatted" my escape route was already planned. A quick hop from Hondo's shoulders onto the gallery running above then a flying leap through the grimed window filtering blotchy light into the Chamber. After that, well, I'd been in worse scrapes ... but not much. The presence of so many Troopers was what was worrying me. There were usually two or three, just to ensure fair play, but today there were almost a dozen scattered at strategic points around the Chamber, almost as if they were expecting trouble. Admittedly it was a Special Meeting called by Order of the Government to levy some sort of sanction on the Quarter Bosses if I read the situation right ... but, even so.

The two I had knocked over were stationed by the door, and I noticed that the one I had caught looking suspiciously my way earlier on was busy scanning the room. Grogan stood up then, to make some sort of point. An easy target. Shit! I thought. No time like the present. It felt as if the blaster found its way into my hand of its own accord and went off almost in the same movement. It was beautiful. Before anyone had a chance to react I saw that Grogan had disintegrated spectacularly. The earlier demonstration had been tame by comparison then, out of the corner of the other eye I saw that the suspicious Trooper had pulled his own blaster and leveled a bead on me. I must have been slow because, before I had brought my own blaster around - useless though it was - I saw the discharge from the muzzle and heard, rather than felt, the impact on my forehead. And that's all.

The Trooper looked astonished, then looked at his blaster in amazement, then gesticulated madly to his companion to take a shot. Which was a shame because the guy had been an innocent bystander. It was ironically apparent what had happened, although I don't suppose Grogan saw it that way - in fact I don't think Grogan was seeing anything at all, except maybe the Pearly Gates. I had inadvertently picked up the wrong blaster in the melee outside.

While the first Trooper dived for cover I took the other neatly through the head before his safety was off - he wouldn't have known anything about it - then I dived through the window and wondered what to do next as I rolled down the roof. But not for long. The explosive ring around my dick was still ticking away and I took off across the rooftops in the general direction of as far away from the late Grogan and his remote switch as possible. There was a bowel-gripping moment when the damn thing stopped ticking, then since nothing rolled down my trouser leg, I figured I'd got out of range, and found a convenient place to shin down from the roof and lose myself amongst the crowds on the sidewalk. I took a few elbows to the face but rode them. I figured it was worth it.

Marthold was understandably aggrieved when I told him about the floater. "Shit Angel. I thought you said I'd get it back!" he whined.

"Shit Marthold" I said "I thought I'd got rid of the Rigellian". He was back, still drunk, still snoring, but with his arm in a sling.

"He crawled back this morning" Marthold said. "They're resilient bastards."

I switched on his screen and turned the channels. I hadn't been home, just in case. I had ditched Grogan's make over kit in somebody's back yard and made straight for Marthold's. The bulletins were full of the carnage at City Hall. It seemed that Grogan had been right about one thing after all. Soon after the unknown assassin had made his get-away Quarter Boss Hass'in had claimed his right to Grogan's jurisdiction in the only way he knew how, and been blown away as a consequence. He should've waited until things quieted down. Hass'in always was impetuous - I'm glad to say. Haas'in's boys hadn't taken too kindly to this, however, and the mobile arsenals outside had torn the half the heart out of City Hall until the Cruisers had shown up to finish the job.

Mayor Tarnell had gotten away but, word was, his Overseers weren't too pleased with the way things had gone. It's a hell of a job at the top. I'm glad I stay right out of politics. I couldn't stand the heat.

Which is why I'm a little worried at this subpoena I got when I went back to the Apartment. Seems like the Chief Overseer wants me to pay him a visit. Seems like there's vacancies for two Quarter Bosses and a Mayor and nobody wants the job. He says there's nobody with better qualifications, but I should've used Marthold's other floater - the one he locks away. Nobody but me and Marthold knows about that, and I wonder 'who's working who here?' Then he mentions he's got a certain item I might like to get hold of but be sure to tell him I'm coming so's he can keep the requisite distance away and then I know who's working who. And it sure wasn't Grogan.

And who's got who for a patsy?

Short StorySci FiAdventure

About the author

Malcolm Twigg

Quirky humur underlines a lot of what I write, whether that be science fiction/fantasy or life observation. Pratchett and Douglas Adams are big influences on my writing as well as Tom Sharpe and P. G. Wodehouse. To me, humor is paramount.

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