Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chapter twenty-four: 'Skyfall'

Previous Chapter

It was late evening when I got to Police Headquarters, but Calvin was still there, just like he'd promised. He and another detective were sitting on opposite sides of a desk, going over printouts and eating bread pizza takeout from a street vendor.

"If I'd known you guys were hungry, I'd have offered to get you something," I said as I made my entrance.

Both of them looked up. With his mouth half-full, Calvin said, "That's okay, this is good stuff. The guy who makes it says he bakes his own bread, grows his own tomatoes, that sort of thing."

"Yeah, right," I told him and stuck out my hand to the guy on the other side of the desk. "I'm Ed Honlin," I said. "I don't think we've met."

He made that shifting of weight that people do when they abbreviate rising, and put out his hand to shake mine. His hand was faintly oily, and I'm sure that I picked up a trace of garlic and basil for my effort to be friendly, but that was okay.

"I'm Tol Sedik," he informed me. "Want any?" He gestured at the remaining food.

"No," I said. "I just ate." He shrugged and went back to his papers, or pretended to. But he'd shown a flash of recognition when I had stated my name, and I was now in at least part of his attention range.

"Long day?" I asked Calvin.

"Long enough," he replied. "We're up to our armpits in some excise tax scams, at least that's what I think. There are a couple of wholesalers who keep getting robbed just before tax inventory."

"And you think that it's bogus." It wasn't a question.

"Got it in one," he said. He paused for just a second, then said. "You got a package waiting. A couple of them actually. One's a data file that I've downloaded to my personal comm unit. Look under 'Skyfall.' The other is a bona fide they-actually-sent-it-down-the-pipe package from Anchorage. It seems to have a voice lock on it." He reached into his top desk pouch and pulled out his comm unit and a small package, just as advertised. He handed them to me.

"Can I take them into the other office?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, not really disappointed at not seeing the mystery missives. "Please do. You'd just interfere with our concentration here. What little of it we have left, I mean."

"Thanks," I said.

I very briefly debated giving Billy Greenleaf a call to let him know that the police were probably onto his partners in the tax scam racket, but what the hell? I didn't owe him any favors that month. Besides, there was no use in giving anyone ideas that I could be a pipeline. Playing both ends against the middle can leave you as the one in the middle.

So I padded into the next office and zipped the door behind me. I could hear Calvin and Tol get back to their important mastication of both food and clues.

I unlocked the "Skyfall" file with my access code, and was unsurprised to find list of names, each with a personal file subfolder. I scanned it briefly, but none of the names leaped out at me. Opening one of the files at random gave me more information than I ever wanted on one Michael Rosloff, biochemical technician, formerly of Hoffla Labs, Luna, now a fermentation engineer for Bavia Brewing Co., Sky City, Venus.

Big deal. Maybe there was something to find in the crew of immigrants, but it would take some study. Fortunately, there were only about thirty names on the list, all people who had worked at Luna or orbital biochem research facilities who had immigrated to Venus within the past ten years. Also fortunately, I had nowhere in particular that I needed to be that night.

The package was something else again. What had Landau sent to me?

"Okay, so what the hell are you?" I asked the box.

I'd given it enough phonemes, I suppose, and it opened for me, a series of seams coming apart that reminded me of Cheryl's method of disrobing a couple of nights previously. It isn't a secure lock mechanism; you can fool it with a recording, after all. It's usually used for things like birthday presents and such like.

Inside, there was a card, and a note. The card had my ugly face holoed into it, and official-looking type surrounding it, with three different kinds of coding strips on the back. The card said, Skyhook Public Investigator, and in parenthesis (Health and Security).

There was a note. It was from Landau:

"Mr. Honlin,

"I understand your reluctance to perform any official duties for me. However, it occurs to me that there might be circumstances when you need the cover of at least minimal authority. Hence, this card. Use it or not, as you see fit. There is also a debit account for it; that also is yours if you so choose.

"Thanks again for your work to date. If you see them, give my regards to Mr. Reed and Ms. Carlyle.


"Grant Landau"

The note had a scratch stripe on it. I brushed my fingertip across it and the note proved itself to be flash paper. Theatrical. I hoped that Landau was as amused by it as I wasn't.

There was a tap at the door skin and I said, "Yeah, what is it?"

It was Calvin. He handed me something wrapped in chamois cloth. It was heavy.

"I almost forgot," he said. "This was released from evidence yesterday. You're the man, so you get to keep it."

I unwrapped it enough to verify that it was the gun. A shell casing dropped from the bundle, but I caught it with my other hand before it fell to the floor.

"Two spent shells," he said. "Two live ones still remaining. I expect that the shells are worth something, too."

I nodded and held up the spent casing. "These were used to kill a man," I said. "I wonder what a collector would pay for them?"

He grinned. "I hadn't thought of that," he said. "But you're right; that probably ups the ante considerable."

I shrugged. "Or maybe not. Who knows from rich people?"

He gave me a look, but didn't say whatever he was thinking. "Well," he said. "Let me know how it turns out."

"You'll find out anyway," I told him, though I'm not sure what I meant by it.


I went over the list of names in the Skyfall file, one after another, hoping to find someone who looked to have been sufficiently inside to be able to shed some light on what the hell sort of thing had killed Lucy Dahl. When a disease that looks that much like another -- previous and artificial -- disease shows up, the first thing you wonder is if somebody got cute.

There were thirty-two names on the list, and most of them were nobodies. I'd asked for janitors, and I got four of those. Also six kitchen employees, and a plumber. The rest were mostly lab technicians. People who rise high in the scientific community are not prone to emigrate to a world where brewing accounts for a large fraction of the microbiology.

Of the thirty-two names, five were dead. I couldn't tell if they'd been included by mistake, or because Landau had thought that maybe their deaths had been related to this business. It didn't matter really. I looked through the dead files and there was nothing much to them. Two had died en route to Venus. That's not all that unusual; a sunsail voyage is long and stressful. Two others had been old; the last one had died in an accident, falling down a long access ramp in gravity that was four times what he was used to. It's a wonder more Lunar transplants don't go that way.

I had five names that looked like they might really know something and I went through their files, one by one. I was resolved to just make a cold call on one or two of them, to maybe ask a few background questions and see how they reacted.

Something kept nagging at me, though, and I couldn't put my finger on it. After a while, I just leaned back and let my mind drift. Slowly, the nagging began to settle on the dead files, on one in particular, in fact. The name of the guy was Quittel, Jorgen Quittel, which is not a common name. So why did it seem familiar?

I'd only been over one other list of names in the previous few weeks, and that was the list of General Delivery drops for Carnival. People without personal comm units still need to get messages sometimes, so there are semi-private services that take their mail. Some of them will accept object deliveries also, but that usually costs more, since it's harder to store bulk than comm files.

Carnival had two such services, little hole-in-the-wall shops where you paid a fee and collected anything that had come in for you since the last time you'd read your mail. Both would provide hard copy, and both had the usual encoded safeguards on the mail, which meant that only Skyhook or the police could eavesdrop. The really paranoid used secondary codes, some of them not worth the effort to break.

About half of the inhabitants of Carnival used the General Delivery shops, about six hundred, all told. I'd gone over the list a few times, as part of my general strategy of familiarizing myself with the landscape, and I'd looked up several personal files of citizens I'd encountered there. You can never tell when a little background edge will come in handy.

I called up the main General Delivery list once more, and scanned down to the Qs, all five of them: Quach, Quan, Quintana, Quinn -- and Quittel, first name Daniel.

Okay, that was quite a coincidence. So I jumped down a couple levels of detail in Jorgen Quittel's personal file, and there it was, one brother, born on the same date: Daniel Quittel.

They were fraternal twins. Fraternal twins are pretty rare on Luna; the parents have to have a double birth permit. Identical twins aren't even allowed to come to term except as part of some experimental project, and then they are rarely born to the same woman; one of the fetuses will be transferred to a different mother to carry to term. That wasn't the case here, so my first wild thought--that the wrong brother had been reported dead--couldn't be correct.

I put in another search to the main database in Skyhook for the file on Daniel Quittel. It only took a couple of seconds, and I briefly wondered just how high a level my new access code was. Brushing the thought aside, I began to read about Daniel Quittel.

Like his brother, he'd gone into medicine, but unlike Jorgen, Daniel had opted for clinical psychology. Graduate of Copernicus, middle of his class, so he was less of a star performer than his brother. He wound up in Luna City Psychiatric, the largest such institution on Luna. He had been an ordinary counselor and dispenser of psychotropic drugs. Three years previously, he'd left his job and shipped to Venus, on the very same sunship that had carried his brother, the same voyage upon which Jorgen had died.

All of which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. If Jorgen had somehow been affected by our mystery virus, and if Daniel had given him an anti-psychotic . . .

Jorgen's death certificate had been issued by the ship's physician, and it gave the cause of death as congestive heart failure. Whether or not that could have been mistaken for anaphylaxis, I couldn't say; there might have been some covering up in any case. Whatever else, it suddenly seemed like a good idea to give a try at finding Daniel Quittel, c/o General Delivery, Carnival Cluster.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chapter twenty-three: It was code named 'Monaco'

Previous Chapter

You've heard people talk about what it's like on Luna. There are plenty of people to talk about it, God knows. Half the population of Venus is no more than second generation immigrants, so you've heard plenty of stories. But even the immigrants forget what it's like, and it's not really something that can be explained. Life on Luna is tight, stingy. That's what it feels like, a constant tightness in your throat, a constant grasping at little things. Lunars live in cramped quarters, not because there's no room, but because Luna can't afford the water to humidify the air. A two-liter shower is a luxury. A large part of a man's estate can consist of the water in his corpse.

It all has to do with water, and the fact that Luna has none to speak of, really none at all. Most other things are plentiful. There's so much electric power that some of the solar fields are kept covered, and no more are being built. Electronics, photonic devices, anything that can be made out of silicon, oxygen, or aluminum, no problem. There's even supplies of iron from the meteor mines. But no water.

It's been better since Comet Alpha was captured, of course. They've eased some of the population restrictions; it's a lot easier to get a birth license nowadays. The biomes are being expanded and the air in the public corridors has enough humidity so that you don't need a mask to ward off scratch throat. But they're drawing Alpha down slowly; they're afraid of destabilizing the ecology or the economy, and it's easy to see why they're afraid.

It was especially easy for a cop to understand. We were all too aware of just how much violence hid beneath the surface, how much hidden evil can breed in the depths.

I was a cop, a member of the Luna City Police Department when I started out. My family has a history of police and security service; it's an upper class occupation on Luna. Most Luna City mayors are former policemen, and more than a few of the Pan Luna Board of Governors, and members of the Special Cabinet. Position counts for more than money on a world where the most important commodity is under strict administrative control. It takes maybe two metric tons of water to support a human being, and over ninety percent of that is sequestered in the biomes or leased to the farm syndicates. The Lunar Congress passes the laws on birth and death, but the Board of Governors controls the water that keeps you alive.

All the while, sitting directly overhead, is a world with kilometer deep oceans of water. On Luna, it's a crime to even talk about trying to return to Earth. Not that some people don't talk about it anyway, of course.

About ten years ago, I left the Luna City PD for a posting on the Cabinet Guard. The Guard is the most elite security force on Luna, descended straight from Colonel Maximilian's personal police force. The Guard is entrusted with protecting the Governors, the Congress, and the Special Cabinet. We were also responsible for oversight of all engineering projects, to make sure that nobody tried radio or video transmissions, or any other sort of communication with Earth. Earth's planetary defenses are still on red alert after over a century, and the last thing we wanted was for somebody to provoke an insane machine intelligence with a few thousand nuclear missiles still at its disposal.

So the Guard is a science police and a thought police. It's a nasty job, when you think about it, but when you think about the alternatives, well, those are nasty too.

I was with the Guard for a year and a half before I resigned my commission.

My resignation was a setup, an act meant to establish me as a deep cover agent. They picked me because I fit a profile and because I tested very high on certain talents. I had acting ability, as it turned out. I looked to be very good at immersing myself in a role. Little did I know.

Only a couple of the highest ranking Guards knew about the operation. It was code named 'Monaco;' I've heard of a few others with similar names since then. The setup looked legitimate. I developed 'personality conflicts' with my Captain, and my requests for transfer kept being delayed. The personality conflicts were real enough. Basil and I couldn't stand each other. Finally there was a snafu that I took the heat for, and I quit.

I immigrated to Korolev, on the far side of the Moon, and joined the police force there. Korolev is a mining city, with a fair amount of iron-based manufacturing and a small engineering college besides. Overall, it's pretty much out of the mainstream and doesn't get a lot of oversight. So it was quite a comedown for me, something of a scandal for the family. But because it's so out of the way, you get more in the way of fringe politics in Korolev. Maybe that's why it was the headquarters for the Whisper Society.

The Whisper Society was ostensibly an affinity group for those interested in Earth History. That's not illegal, just discouraged. So it draws people of a certain type, and some of those people wind up joining the inner circle, which is also a front. It's wheels within wheels, you get the idea. The first secret level is where they talk about contacting Earth again. Behind that are several illegal activities like drugs, booklegging, and unlicensed prostitution, ostensibly to raise money for the cause. Luna can be like that, just as I said. Beneath the surface, the skin crawls.

I'd been in the Whisper Society for about a year when I married Angie. To make a long story short, we'd met on a case, fell in love and got married. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was pretty heavily into my role at that point, and Angie was ideal for me. She was beautiful, smart, and a higher level Society member than I was. She often went to meetings that I wasn't allowed into. It was all very romantic, pillow talk about forbidden subjects, fantasizing about what it would be like when we returned to Earth. She used to joke about making love in the ocean.

I can't really talk about what she meant to me. Words are useless. But she meant a lot. I loved her, you see.

Being in deep cover meant that I had specific orders to behave at all times as if I were just who I seemed to be. I was to wait for my pullout signal, then I'd return to Luna City for debriefing, and that would be it. No constant communication with the Guard to put the operation at risk, and less chance of a blown cover getting me killed, or worse, used as a disinformation feed. That would be worse from the Guard's point of view, of course.

But the Guard had other types of operatives trying to penetrate the Whisper Society. I discovered that the day I came home to find a couple of Society members waiting for me. Joshua Norman and John Cleary were their names.

Norman and Cleary are dead now. I'll get to that later.

Anyway, when I asked them where Angie was, they ordered me to accompany them. We left Korolev main dome and went to a Society safehouse in what used to be the 'bubble burbs,' the vacation residence dome of some millionaire before the Plague. The Society had purchased it, through some front or another, and it was supposedly used for hard copy record storage. In reality, they'd turned it into an interrogation site. A torture chamber, in other words. On the way out, Joshua and John told me that my wife was an agent for the Special Cabinet Guard.

I didn't know what to think, but of course I got scared. Was this some kind of a test? Had Angie been planted by the Guard to keep tabs on me, or was it a coincidence that we'd gotten married?

Of course what scared me the most was wondering if my cover had been blown as well, or if it was about to get blown by Angie talking. What was going to happen to me next, in other words.

But I stayed in character. I found that I'd gotten furious at Angie. How dare she hold out on me, betray me like that! How dare she put me at risk? And who else was in on this?

That was what all three of us wanted to know, and the method of asking the questions involved a great deal of pain for Angie.

It was pain that I helped inflict. In order to prove my loyalty to the Whisper Society, I was expected to take part in the torture of my own wife. That scared me as well. I was afraid that I couldn't do it. I was also afraid that I could.

There was another man waiting for us at the safehouse; his name was Hills, Leo F. Hills. The four of us took turns on Angie, peeling her layer by layer, physically and mentally. By the time she started to talk, her voice was barely audible; she'd screamed her voice to a croak. We learned that she was a monitor operative, keeping track of other agents, and judging how close they were to the optimum time for pullout, judging how reliable were the agents who were not in deep cover, the ones who would report regularly, judging which agents were in danger of going double and feeding disinformation back to the Guard.

We pulled a lot of names out of Angie. She was lying about most of them, of course, attempting to cover up the real spies by naming loyal society members. But Angie had apparently been exposed by some agent that the Society had in the Guard itself, so we had a separate list to check against. The list we had was mostly code names though, with only a few of them identified.

My own name wasn't on the list, but my code name was. Whenever we asked her who 'Treeline' was, my gut would tighten, because I kept expecting her to say, 'Ed Honlin is Treeline.'

But she never said that. Even after she broke completely, mind mostly gone, when she was just babbling, naming names, places, dates, she said nothing about me.

Except that she loved me.

And it was my hands that broke her. By the end, I was doing most of the work, the other three either didn't have the stomach for it, or they just wanted me to do it. There is a rapport that develops between people under intense circumstances, and I can't imagine a rapport more profound than that of pain and the giver of pain. Just before she died, I saw Angie wake for one last time, a look of awful clarity in her eyes. She looked up at me with more love than I've ever seen on the face of another human being.

"Sorry, love," she told me. "Better luck next life," and then she died.

That night was the last time I felt anything for quite a while. My performance had apparently cleared me of suspicion. In fact, it was decided that I had an important place in the Whisper Society, and I became the personal bodyguard of Jeffrey Tamir, one of the members of the Society's innermost cell. My responsibilities included insuring his personal protection, finding listening devices -- and interrogation. Mr. Tamir liked to be present during interrogations, especially those involving young women. Most of the young women lived.

In all of it, I played my part. I was following my orders, you see.

That went on for two years, and during that two years, I heard a lot. Enough to develop some strong theories about the ultimate purpose of the Whisper Society.

Then one night I had a visitation. I can't tell you by who or what, but let's call it a ghost. It was not my expected trigger, but the nature of the visitation was such that it was clear that my orders now were to make my report to the Guard.

So I sat down and recorded everything I knew, put a high level cipher to it, and submitted the report. I can't get very specific about the method of submission, either.

At that point, I was supposed to withdraw and return to Luna City for a full debrief. But I didn't. I didn't have enough information to satisfy myself, and besides, I had reason to believe that the Guard had been penetrated.

So I snatched Tamir. I went to his residence, told him that it was urgent he come with me, then hit him with a shock stick and hauled him to a safehouse, the same one where we'd killed Angie. I peeled Tamir as thoroughly as anyone I'd ever done, and when I'd finished, I went and got a couple of others for confirmation. A few of them died before they told me much. I was feeling rushed by this time.

What I found was this: The Whisper Society was just the tip of it. There was a set of interlocking secret organizations that had banded together for the purpose of a full scale revolution on Luna. Ultimately, they planned to launch an all out attack on the Earth's automatic defense system and to then reestablish contact with Earth.

Of course, if they failed, the machines that ran Earth Defense might well decide to nuke every population cluster on Luna.

Even if they never got that far, the plan included a preliminary wave of over one hundred assassinations of high LunaGov officials and a paramilitary takeover of all communication, transportation, and water distribution facilities. Most of the assassins were already in place and the timetable put the execution of the plan at only a few weeks away.

I used Tamir's emergency codes to call a meeting of the inner circle of the Whisper Society in Korolev. They were surprised and suspicious, of course, and about half of them didn't show. But quite a few did.

I blew the air seals on the meeting hall. There were maybe twenty-five people inside. They all died.

Then I started my sweep. Or may you could call it a spree. I had three uniforms, Luna City Police, Cabinet Guard, and Korolev Police. I swapped them back and forth as I hit my list of names, first in Korolev, then in Mendeleev, Maunder, Copernicus, and Theophilus. Most of them I killed quickly, but I made special trips for Joshua, John, and Leo G. They died more slowly than the others, and a lot more painfully.

I can't tell you how good it felt to kill them, how very, very sweet it was to watch them die.

They could have stopped me at any time, I think. The Guard, I mean. By the time the first few reports reached them, they'd had time to look over my report and they must have realized what I was doing. They could have stopped me.

They didn't though. Somebody threw up a news blackout, too, because there wasn't a trace of the story on any of the news channels, not even the mail nets. I was just a ghost, killing people who didn't die, just ceased to exist. I don't know what the Guard did with the families of those I killed. Protective custody, maybe. Or maybe they killed them, too.

I was on my mission for about a week. I don't think I slept even once during that time. I don't even remember when they brought me down. I can't sort out which of my memories was the last one before the hospital.

They tried to put me together again, afterwards. I'll give them that. I got plenty of counseling, and they went as far with the memory wipes as they dared. Memory wiping is a funny business. You can delete ordinary memories, but when a memory has an emotional charge to it, the process doesn't so much expunge the memory as it blunts the affect and strips away the emotion. I can remember some of the things I did, but not the why or how it felt. What was I thinking at the time? I don't know. What was I feeling? That is lost to me.

I did crack my file while I was hospitalized. It had a line about a "trauma that has become centralized." I did some research to find out that a "trauma that has become centralized" is jargon for saying that the memory of some event had become so important to me that to remove it would destroy my mind and personality.

I don't have to guess at what the event was, do I? "Sorry, love. Better luck next life." I've never felt so close to another human being as I did when I was torturing Angie to death. And she loved me so much that she died protecting me.

Did I mention that one of the Society members was a coroner? He faked Angie's death certificate. He also did an autopsy on her after she died. It was to check for electronic implants. They didn't find any, but they did discover that she had been pregnant. Something else I learned from Mr. Tamir, and it's the reason why he didn't live quite as long as some of the others.

I'd killed Angie to protect myself and my mission. Every time I hurt or killed someone while I was undercover, I was following orders to not jeopardize the mission.

But when I sent in my report, I do remember a feeling of overwhelming relief. I can do anything now, I thought to myself. After what I've been through, no one will blame me for anything I do.

Blame me? If anything, they helped me do it. They switched off law enforcement and let me run wild. Doing a job for them. A necessary and bloody job. Maybe it was necessary. It certainly was bloody.

So I went out and executed maybe a hundred people, all told. No, scratch that. I murdered a hundred people. Many of them were guilty of a conspiracy to kill even more people than I killed. Some of those I murdered probably didn't deserve to die. Some may not have known what they were a part of. But I was heading off a war. You don't pay that much attention to who you kill in a war.

It cracked the Whisper Society and several other of Luna's criminal sects. I single-handedly thwarted an assassination plot on dozens of highly ranked government officials. There were a lot of very important people who were very grateful for what I'd done, even if only a very select few knew exactly how I'd done it.

Some of my doctors wanted me confined permanently. Some of the Guard wanted me liquidated, I expect, while some others wanted me to return to duty. Instead, I asked for a one-way trip to Venus. They wiped my records cleaner than they could wipe my memory, and sent me on my way.

So here I am, free floating amid the clouds, with the light above and the dark and storms below.

Freedom is a slippery thing, you know? Most people think of it in terms of the restrictions they live under. Few realize that their own incapacities are more restrictive than any law. The greatest bar to murder, rape, or any other sort of evil is that most people aren't very good at them. Most people couldn't kill someone they loved if their lives depended on it.

But I can. I know I can. I've done it.

I can still love, I think. I'm reasonably sure that I've felt the emotion in the past couple of years. I still care for people, some of them, anyway. I'm not a total basket case. I insist on that much. I'm not completely dead inside.

I do believe that I love you.

Sometimes lovers say things. They say things like, "If you loved me, you'd stay," or "If you loved me you'd do what I need or want." There are a thousand things that lovers say to each other to test the bonds between them. I can't help anyone out in that department. And I do appreciate that you haven't asked me for proof of my love. I can't begin to tell you how much that has meant to me.

Because I loved her more than I'll ever love anyone else…I hope. I hope I never again love anyone that much, because the final test of love is nothing that anyone should ever have to face.

Next Chapter

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Chapter twenty-two: Like harnessing lightning

Last Chapter

The next morning, from a public comm in the hotel lounge, I called Calvin Lee to tell him that he could close down the investigation into the death of Molly Laird. I didn't need the Police Department stipend, and there was no reason I couldn't continue any investigation on my own hook. Besides, until the case was officially closed, they couldn't release the antique pistol from the evidence lockers. I figured that the time had come to sell the damn thing and turn the money over to Marjori as soon as she became Anna's legal guardian.

Calvin also told me that I had a file waiting for me at Police Headquarters. I guessed that it was the list of names that Landau had promised me. Calvin said that he didn't know where it came from, since it carried a high level code. I told him I'd come in and get it as soon as I could get away.

I felt better after the call, and Lewis commented on it. "You're looking a little better," he told me as I ordered juice and porridge for breakfast. "Last night Joey told me that he was worried about you."

"I get worried sometimes, myself," I told him. "One can tilt at windmills only for so long."

"'So saddle up my Rosinante, and sing a song of madness due,'" he quoted from a popular musical of the last century.

"'And when I've had my fill of love, I'll end my quest and marry you,'" I finished.

"I think that the production number starts about now," he observed. "All the poor hung-over gentlemen are now supposed to throw off their gloom, jump onto the tables and begin to gyrate."

I surveyed the room. "Right," I told him. "And we should all be so clever in the morning."

He shrugged. "So how are things going in Carnival?" He knew that I was spending a lot of time there, but I hadn't told him much besides the fact that I was looking for someone.

I shrugged back at him. "I broke a guy's foot yesterday," I said. "Other than that, nothing much happened. I was looking at the sideshows."

"They have a couple of casinos there, too, but the games are rigged."

"So what else is new?" I said.

I ate my breakfast, caught a couple of news summaries, then watched a live feed on the megastorm. It was indeed winding down; there had been no fatalities on this one, unlike the previous ones. One analyst attributed the good showing to the long lead time. It seems that there was some old research satellite out past Anchorage that some guy had managed to reactivate into a remote sensing station, and he'd made a prediction on the storm a full month before it happened. So everyone was expecting it. Hats off to the rebirth of meteorology, I suppose.

By that time it was clock noon, so I went over to Marjori Low's.

She greeted me at the door with a hug and a kiss. "How was your evening?" I asked her.

"Passable," she said. "You know how I hate society functions. But it was for charity, and Leo made it bearable. We went out for drinks afterwards."

She led me into the sunken living room but we remained standing, a little awkwardly, two people unsure as to exactly what to next say to each other.

"Would you please bring us a couple of fruit punches, James?" she said to one of the servants. He nodded, bowed and left the room.

"How is the adoption petition going?" I asked her.

"Smoothly," she said. "It's maybe a little slow. Leo says that it is unusual for a widow with grown children to try to adopt a young child. He was tactful enough not to mention the age factor."

"Leo is a good man," I told her, just as we got our drinks. Still, we both remained standing as the butler left the room.

"Yes," she said. She hesitated, then said, "Last night he asked me to marry him."

I took a long swallow of the fruit punch and put the glass down on a table. "I can see how that would make sense," I said carefully. "It would probably help the adoption."

She said, "Leo said that, too. He also said that children should have a father while they are growing up."

I nodded. "I'd make a lousy father figure. About as poor a role model as one could find."

She closed her eyes tightly, as if she were in pain. I stepped closer to her and she embraced me, small choking sounds coming from her throat as she seemed to be fighting back tears.

"I told myself that I wouldn't screw this up," she said. "That I wouldn't make demands, that I wouldn't ask things of you that you didn't want to do. But I'm so afraid of losing you."

I wiped a tear away from her eye and held her face between my hands. "Do you love him?" I asked her. She nodded, then shook her head.

"How the hell do I know?" she asked me. "What is love anyway? I loved Henry, loved him dearly, and I was so lost and angry when he died. Then I loved you, but it's not the same as it was with Henry. Now maybe I love Leo, and again it's not the same. He'd make a wonderful husband and father, and I don't think he's even that concerned with being compared to you."

She closed her eyes again and another tear leaked through. "As if anyone could compare with you," she said.

I snorted at that, and she said, "It's true, though. You're not like anyone else. Part of me is very proud of that, proud of my time with you, proud of the looks that people give us when we're together. First they think one thing, then they think something else, then they learn a bit more and they finally realize that they don't know what to think. I like that. I like shocking people. I like not being easy to figure out. Is that so bad?"

"No," I told her. "There's no harm to it, and it's not so bad at all."

"But now I'm greedy," she said. "I want both the excitement, and I want security, too. Pure contradiction. Like harnessing lightning. You can do it, but it won't be lightning anymore, just electricity."

I felt that I owed her something, owed her because she had come along when I needed someone like her, owed her because she thought so much more highly of me than I thought of myself. I wanted everything to be different from the way it was, for me to be different from the way I was. I wanted to be able to fight for love the way any normal man will fight for it, even at the cost of losing. Maybe I'd have even preferred to lose. Maybe I even wanted to experience normal loss, and normal heartbreak. Anything but what I really had.

Instead, I told her, "Please sit down. I have something that I need to tell you."