Gideon picked up the tail two blocks from the tram station.
A quick glance in a grocer’s window told him his shadow was small, and clad in the universal urban camouflage of patchwork trousers and hooded tunic he recalled from his own youth on the streets of Tesla.
Gideon remembered a time he would have given the dodger a shot at his wallet, but in those days he’d possessed more than a handful of starbucks and a draco, so, instead of lingering at a dark corner staring at street signs or wandering lost amongst the few pedestrians out in the rain, he decided to shake the kid.
It was quite the surprise, then, when the kid refused to be shaken.
Admittedly, the rain put a damper on Nike’s nightlife, making the pickings slim, so Gideon countered the dearth of pockets by detouring down a narrowly winding foot-lane bearing all the markings of the night trade, which never failed to provide a wide variety of marks for a dedicated dipper.
As he meandered down the lane, looking into various windows and greeting the odd brave soul under an umbrella, he found himself propositioned more than once, and not only by the professionals. One woman offered him a very tempting sum for a few hours of companionship.
He could even bring the draco along.
She was an attractive woman, sleek and lean and wearing her silvered hair in a straight rain down her back, but six years of sexual drought notwithstanding, Gideon still felt the sting from the earlier rejection on the tram. Plus there was that dodger on his tail, so he refused, offering his not insincere regrets before moving on.
And so did his shadow, who ignored the trove of pleasure seekers, and their wallets, just to keep up with him.
Maybe he should have taken a tour past a sweet shop or bakery, but, as time passed and the game continued, Gideon found he didn’t mind the company. Truth was, compared to the dire implications of the attack at the airfield, the dodger was proving more distraction than a worry.
The fact he needed a distraction in the first place was something of a worry, and not one he could ever have anticipated.
It was only as he continued to wander rain-drenched streets—their muted watercolor of motion and energy a stark contrast to the suns-bleached calcification of the Barrens—that Gideon began to discover freedom to be… not unpleasant, exactly… but certainly uncomfortable.
This truth hit home with particular strength when he stopped smack in the middle of crossing a street, not because of any oncoming traffic, but because he’d been counting his steps and reached 7,852 which, given Gideon’s long-legged stride, was the maximum safe distance a Morton inmate could walk from his work party and expect to get back alive.
“These walls are not your prison. The desert is your prison. The suns are your prison. The demands of your own bodies are your prison.”
Such was Warden Simkin’s standard greeting to new inmates, the single warning he allowed for those taking their first enforced breath of desiccated air. They could either listen from the get or—
“—consign your bones to the suns. I will waste none of my officers on seeking wayward inmates.”
Others had not.
The ring of a rickshaw’s bell and a harried shout got him moving, but once he reached the safety of the curb he stopped again, this time to quell a bubbling resentment for the other people rushing, kvetching, laughing, or cursing their way through these rain-polished streets for not knowing what it was to be so constrained.
He resented them for not having to calculate how many mouthfuls of Morton kibble—the prison’s version of food—one could swallow before another inmate tried to steal your rations.
He resented them for not knowing how many sips of water one could afford to drink at once, because waiting risked loss to evaporation or theft.
Most of all, he hated them for never having to hesitate before taking that 7,853rd step.
But then, he caught a hint of motion at the corner of his eye, noted a darker shape in the darkness beyond a window to his left, and the game of dodger vs. mark—a game he’d once played from the other side—brought him back to the here and now, and he continued on his way.
This time he didn’t stop until he turned onto Carroll Square, which consisted of a quartet of streets surrounding an agri-center. Each street held a mix of small retail businesses, eateries and pubs, and, on the agri-center’s west side, the towering five stories of the Elysium Hotel.
“What do you think,” he murmured to Elvis, “do we keep him following in the wet or settle in for the night?”
Elvis snorted and shook his head.
Gideon took this to mean the draco didn’t give a broken talon they were being followed, he just wanted to get someplace warm and dry.
“Settle in it is,” Gideon said, aiming for the Elysium, which had been advertised on the tram station kiosk as being keeper run, which in its turn meant clean beds and decent food, much of it likely grown in the square’s agri-center.
“There’s the place,” he said, louder this time, so his shadow would be sure to hear, then adding, more to himself than his unknown shadow, “hope they have private baths.”
Elvis flapped in agreement.
Or at least, Gideon took it to be agreement.
“There’s the place.”
Hearing the mark’s voice, Mia pulled back into the nearest recessed doorway and waited for him to enter the inn.
She was relieved he’d finally stopped, especially as she’d hoped for a shot back in Red Crystal Alley, none being so easy to rob as those in the throes of carefully negotiated passion. But he’d passed through the alley with no more than a smile for a lonely Jane, and so Mia had continued after him.
Then there’d been the point he’d stopped dead in the middle of Chaucer, and she thought sure to see him flattened by an oncoming rickshaw.
Despite the fact the mark’s untimely demise might give Mia a better shot at the draco, she’d still been on the verge of rushing out to push him onward when the driver’s bell woke the man from his stupor.
Lucky for her he’d taken a few moments to recover, as Mia also needed a second to calm her racing heart.
By the time he moved on, she was silently pronouncing the man a complete nutter, and figured she’d be doing the draco a favor by removing it from the suicidal maniac.
But now, finally, he was entering the Elysium Hotel.
Mia remained in hiding, watching and waiting until, honeycomb! A light went on in the second floor, street side.
Not as good as one of the alley-facing rooms, but better than those facing the pub on the other side, which would be busy well past fourteen o’clock. And, with the agri-center between the hotel and the buildings on the opposite side of the square, anyone looking out a window would see nothing but trees, trellises, and rain-towers.
She was about to slip out of her doorway shelter and make for the alley when she spied movement on the other side of the street, which was interesting.
It was interesting because the movement appeared to be another individual, dressed in clothes as dark as hers and, like her, moving from shadow to shadow, right before darting into the selfsame alley Mia planned to use for her own purposes.
Someone is following my mark!
Even as she realized this, the someone stopped dead in the light of the last street lamp before the alley, and turned in her direction.
Though she could see no face, and in fact, suspected that face wore a mask, she did see, quite clearly, the hand which rose and pointed up to the newly lit room. After a measured pause, the hand dropped down but the finger remained pointing straight up so Mia could easily see it shake back and forth in a distinct “no, no, no,” fashion.
Then the hand fell, the figure turned, and, in seconds, disappeared into the blackness of the alley.
Most people, faced with such specific opposition, would shrug and move on to the next mark.
Most people didn’t have to deal with Fagin Ellison.
Oh no, you don’t, Mia thought at her rival, already adjusting her plan of attack. No one’s getting that draco but me.
Safely hidden by the alley’s shadows, Nahmin Soor—Mia’s rival, and General Rand’s sometimes-valet—made a few hasty changes to his appearance.
This was his second such transformation of the evening, having already discarded the coveralls of the down-on-his-luck rigger he’d worn aboard Quinn’s tram, leaving him dressed in matte-black garb suitable for tracking one’s quarry through the streets of Nike.
Now that Quinn had gone to ground, Nahmin needed something a bit more flamboyant.
The hooded mask came off first, and he used it to dry off as much as possible, before tossing it into a nearby compost bin.
Next he reversed his jacket, trading the near-invisible matte black for an eye-searing puce which, with a twitch of two buttons, lengthened into a full tunic.
From one deep pocket he drew a length of blinding yellow fabric, which he wrapped into an elegant pagri for his head, and less than four minutes after entering the alley, Nahmin emerged a changed man.
As he approached the doors, he gave the street beyond a casual glance, though in truth he wasn’t concerned by the young thief who’d also been following Quinn.
The little one’s tenacity impressed, but any dodger worth his lockpicks would be smart enough to know when a mark was lost, and move on. Though why any thief would be interested in the ragged ex-soldier in the first place confounded him.
The same might be said of his employer, were Nahmin not also aware of the threat Gideon Quinn presented. Enough of a threat that Nahmin had protested allowing the Pradish twins, Rey and Ronan, first attempt at containment, but his employer would not be swayed.
Their failure came as no surprise.
Still, that failure was his opportunity, and with one last scan of the street, Nahmin entered the Elysium Hotel to finish the job.