New Debts – Chapter 8

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My shirt dried and I ended up having a very pleasant conversation with Balan. He’d seen some pretty insane stuff, and those were just the stories he felt like telling me. The things he didn’t want to talk about, I probably didn’t want to hear about. What gives a Guardian nightmares? I hope I never find out.

Balan promised me he would find out something about who the Shepherds were. When I asked him how long he thought it might take, he confidently told me he would know something in the morning. He could see my surprise and smiled. “Guardians are really a pretty small community. You don’t have to look too far before you find somebody that fought alongside somebody at Twilight Gap who was with somebody else at the Battle of Six Fronts, or whatever.” He looked around and dropped his voice. “Everybody claims to have known Saint-14, but it’s mostly bullshit.”

It was night when I left The Second Pillar, but it was still a couple of hours until it could be considered late, so I decided to see if Devarius Scout was home. He was, and agreed to speak with me after I explained who I was and what I was doing. Spending glimmer on cabs the last few days had put a hurt on my disposable income. Walking and the train would get me to Mr. Scout’s apartment, if somewhat more slowly.

Night time is when a lot of my work usually gets done. People tend to be less inhibited at night. If you’re going to cheat on your spouse, chances are you’re going to do it at night. The opposite is true of most of the people I get paid to serve with legal papers. They’re usually at home at night, which makes them easier to find.

Checking the time, I saw that I might have enough time to seek out the suspected cheater, if I was quick about wrapping up my meeting with Mr. Scout. The office where she was supposed to be working late every night was a few blocks south of Mr. Scout’s apartment. The realization hit me after I boarded the train that by riding the maglev to Mr. Scout’s apartment, I was riding the exact route of the train that had killed Rupert. There was nothing inherently wrong about riding on a train that had possibly killed someone. I knew that, but that fact didn’t stop the weird feeling got in my gut as the train zipped through the city.

I finally managed to put the morbid rumination about the maglev out of my head, and by the time the train got to the appropriate stop, I had planned out everything I was going to ask Mr. Scout. I got out of train and walked west. The intersection where Rupert had been killed wasn’t a place where the train stopped, otherwise my walk would have been several blocks shorter. Also, Rupert might still have been alive.

Devarius Scout was a 112 year old retired welder. He’d grown up in the wilderness and then lived a full life in the Last City, helping build the infrastructure and towers that made up the city I knew today. He welcomed me into his apartment with the sort of wary politeness people put on when they think you’re going to try to sell them something. I’d encountered that type of reception before, and I knew the best way to move past it was to be as honest as possible. When I called, I’d told him briefly who I was and what I was doing. Once I actually made it into his home, I told him about Kara, though not what my relationship was to her, and that she was having trouble dealing with the death of her uncle, thus my intrusion into his evening.

“I can understand that,” he said, nodding from his argyle recliner. “I lost plenty of family and friends over the years. When I was fifteen, me and my whole family was still wandering then, ya know, my cousin Teddy went to a stream for water. It wasn’t no more than ten yards to that stream from our camp, but we never saw him again. We searched for days and days, never saw a sign of him. Finally, we had to move on. I still wonder what happened.”

“I was born in the wild, but I grew up here. I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for real pilgrims.”

“We all live on the edge of a knife, son. Be grateful for everything you have, because none of it is owed to you. Especially your family, keep them close. You got family?”

“Yessir.”

“Good. I should have asked before I said that about being grateful for family, but I’m an old man and I run at the mouth. What did you come to ask me, Mr. Hill?”

“Well, as I said when I called, I got your name and contact information from a police report. It said that you were awake when the maglev train came through that killed Rupert Dillon two weeks ago. The report said that you got up to look out the window when the train came through, and I wondered why you would do that. They come through all the time, after all.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t get up to look at the train. You’re right, those come through so often, and right outside my window, that I hardly notice them anymore. I got up to look because the warning light didn’t look right.”

“Didn’t look right how?”

“It was too dark, a darker shade of red, that is. I was sitting right where I am now, the window to my left. I like reading here when I can’t sleep. At night the warning lights from the crossing show up against my wall there in front of me.” He gestured at the living room wall behind me and continued.

“Those lights show up all the time as well, of course. I happened to look up from my book and I noticed that the light didn’t look right. It was darker than usual. So, I got up to look out the window to see if one of the pylons had gone out or something. I couldn’t see them from here, though—the angle is too steep. I guess I could have opened the window and leaned out, but it was cold that night and I wasn’t really all that interested in a light being out. I didn’t hear about the fella being killed on the tracks until the police came around asking about had I seen anything.”

I was silent while I took notes about what he said. His words triggered a strong feeling of connection in me. Something was clicking home; it felt like trying to screw together a nut and bolt with my eyes closed. This information fit with something, but I couldn’t quite get the threads to mesh.

Mr. Scout was looking at me, eyebrow raised and a small grin on his face. “Did I say something interesting? You got a look on your face just then.”

“I’m honestly not sure, Mr. Scout. Can you think of anything else different from normal that night?”

“I really can’t. I told that to the officer then, and I’ve thought about it off and on since then. I still can’t come up with anything else that seemed out of place.”

“The light was darker, not dimmer, but a darker red?”

“Yep. Whatever it was, I guess they fixed it. It hasn’t been that way since.”

My blindness had returned, in a way, when I left Mr. Scout’s apartment. It was like I was groping in dark. I had the edge of something though, I knew it. A seam in the case had passed underneath my mind and I was struggling to get my fingertips into it.

My watch told me I had to go stake out my other case right now, or I would miss my target leaving work. Torn between going to look at the train crossing again and getting started on the surveillance I needed to do, I hesitated in the lobby of the building for a few seconds. There was no time; I’d already cut it too close. Kara mentioned that David might need braces, so I needed to be sure that I didn’t start flaking on paying jobs.

I hustled south using side streets and alleys to make up time. My breath was coming in chuffing bursts by the time I got within view of the entrance to the small marketing firm where the suspected cheater worked. The lights were still on, so I was in time.

With one eye on the office building door, I pulled up the pictures I’d taken of the maglev crossing on my pocket terminal. Looking through them, I finally made the connection. The bent light pylon. Somehow that one pylon had been knocked out of true. It wasn’t until that moment, looking at that picture again, that I knew. Rupert had been murdered. I didn’t know how, or by whom, but I knew that someone had intentionally killed him. Somehow, it had something to do with that light pylon, and the change in the light that Mr. Scout noticed.

The suspected cheater, her name was Lesa, walked off down the street. I would have completely missed her if she hadn’t entered my peripheral vision. The pictures on my terminal had all my attention at that moment. Reluctantly, I put the terminal away and followed Lesa. Predictably, she went to a nearby restaurant where she met another woman. They had an intimate dinner for two and then retired to a hotel close by. I recorded all the video and pictures that any reasonable person would need for proof. No need to do anything dramatic like burst into the hotel room. That’s a good way to get yourself killed.

The thrill of my sudden revelation had worn off by the time I got home. Okay, so Rupert was murdered. Knowing who, or why, or how still eluded me. The Traveler Worshiper angle was in there somehow—I felt confident about that. The question was: what was the connection? I fell asleep in the pre-dawn hours, confused and exhausted.

Mid-morning sun and my lower back finally woke me up. Falling asleep on the couch in my office had been a mistake. Skipping the shower, I went right for the coffee machine. I deliberately tried not to think about the evidence in Rupert’s case. Going over and over it wasn’t getting me anywhere right now. Instead, I planned the rest of my day. I would set up a meeting with the jilted spouse, report to her what I’d seen and show her the pictures I’d taken. From costly experience, I knew that I would need to wait until I’d actually received the remainder of my fee to give her pictures so she could use them as evidence. For some reason, people tended not to want to pay you for giving them bad news.

A hot mug of coffee in hand, I sat down at my desk and turned on my terminal. Reflexively, I checked the news feeds. When I saw the headline that a Guardian was dead, my head felt suddenly numb. Before I read the story, I closed my eyes and prayed, I don’t know to whom, that it wouldn’t say what I knew it was going to say.

I set the coffee mug carefully on the desk and read the story three times. Tears were standing in my eyes. He’d been killed during a mission on the Moon. Balan was dead.

Chet Kirkham

Been playing since Y1. Currently expanding the Universe with fiction.