science fiction and fantasy writer

Tolerance

“The paedophiles are protesting again,” I say, standing by the window.

Lyle’s still fiddling with the decoder attached to the safe door. “I think, Jimbo my girl, that the preferred term these days is ‘father-lover’.” He pauses for a ruminative grunt. “Mind you, got to say, my father never loved me like that.”

I can’t say the same for my prick of a stepfather. I hitch up my prosthetic boobs, trying to reach an itch. Fucker didn’t call it love, though.

I can hear the old bastard’s voice, telling me about his ‘right’. Just thinking about it makes my skin cold and my insides too hot, as if he’s standing over me right now.

I jump when Lyle claps his hand on my shoulder. He gives it a squeeze.

We’re five storeys up, looking down. The plaza below is full of men. Some have been brave enough to bring their lovers. Cops loiter about the fringes – a lot of cops. Up on the makeshift stage, a man gestures urgently, speaking to someone out of my line of sight.

A handful of drones drift over the crowd. Police eyes, on the lookout for shooters. Some might belong to freelance reporters. The kiddiefucker demonstrations have become so commonplace they barely rate a mention on the networks anymore, unless there’s a riot or a shooting.

Lyle says, “Well, makes getting out of here easier for us.”

That makes me snort. “There’s bloody cops everywhere.”

“But they’re not going to be interested in us, are they, Jimbo?” The decoder blips. It’s cracked the code. Lyle goes back to the safe, pulling a convenience store carry-bag out from under his fake belly. The extra padding makes him wheeze when he squats.

Time to clean up. I walk over to where we’ve laid out the gem dealer and his assistant. They’ll be out for at least another couple of hours, yet. We sedated them using fly-bite soft syringes as we shook their hands. I hit the dealer’s security net with an etherworm when we arrived – pretending to finish sending a text as we came through the door.

Father-lovers. I suppose there must be woman paedophiles, but you don’t hear about them.

“What the hell’s next?” I dig under my skirt for one of the cleaner bombs wedged into the fake fat around my thighs. “The Rapist Rights Movement?”

Lyle stacks boxes and bags of gems neatly into his bag. Looks like a good score. “You know, some scorpionfly species have evolved an extra limb specifically to hold down unwilling females.”

He’s trolling me, but I bite anyway. “What? You’re saying rape is okay because it’s evolved?”

“It’s in the genes, Jimbo.”

I wriggle the slim aerosol free of its latex niche. “People aren’t bugs, Lyle.”

“Well, actually,” he says, “male scorpionflies still show a preference for consensual mating.”

I throw the can at him. He ducks it. “Where do you get this stuff?”

He smirks while I dig out a second cleaner.

“Bet no-one thought to ask the damn kids.”

I stand the cleaner on the floor between the unconscious bodies and pop the trigger. The aerosol will nibble away at any dead skin or hair, sweat or body oils we’ve left behind, hopefully ruining our geneprints. It won’t cause any lasting injury to our victims, although they’ll feel like they’ve been loofa’d vigorously and their lungs are going to burn like they chain-smoked a pack of Marlboro 100s.

“Good haul today, Jimbo.”

My hands are clammy. “When we get downstairs, we’re going out the other way.”

I precede him out into the lift foyer. We keep our heads down. The recording from the solitary camera will reveal only a middle-aged couple, fat as a pair of Easter eggs, and we’ve both got fake noses, me a wig and Lyle a false mo, but looking down means it won’t have a good angle on our faces.

We keep going past the lifts, down the corridor to the toilets and fire stairs. As in many buildings, the body-corporate has skimped on security monitoring in and around the fire escapes, opting for the cheap alternative of doors that allow egress but not re-entry.

We lock ourselves inside the disabled toilet to strip off our outer layers. Lyle produces a black duffel from under his fake belly and the clothes go inside, along with our hairpieces and prosthetic obesities. I retrieve a couple of spare soft syringes and the spare cleaner bomb. Lyle hands me back the one I threw at him and I stuff them all into the pockets of my cut-offs.

Lyle peels off his fake nose, revealing the bent cartilage beneath. I scratch off mine and scrub at my makeup. Lyle helps me finish. In frayed jeans and tight black t-shirt, with his shaved scalp and broken nose, he looks like a thug. Jockey-sized and flat-chested, I looked like a kid beside him. I stuff the carrier bag of gems into the satchel I’d had hidden inside my bum enhancements.

We don’t bother bombing the toilet, since it self-disinfects twice a day. After a quick listen at the door, we step out into the empty corridor and proceed to the stairs.

Lyle picks up the thread of conversation as he climbs ahead of me. “What about sados, then?”

“Give it a rest, Lyle.” I’ve had enough, but he’s having fun. If I get pissed at him, he’ll be offended. “Sadists are okay as long as they’re with masochists.”

“It’s still harm,” he says.

“It’s consensual. Kids can’t consent.”

“So? There’s plenty of places in the world kids are married off before puberty. We just call that ‘culture’.”

“Troll. I call it ‘wrong’. The line’s got to be drawn somewhere, for fuck’s sake.”

“Why? In a few years they’ll be just like any other May-September couple. The Catholic Church says it’s okay for girls to marry at fourteen.”

“Seriously? You’re using the Catholic fucking Church to justify an argument about paedophilia?”

“Fair point. You and I can hardly throw stones, though.”

Excuse me?”

“You think those gem dealers aren’t going to be harmed by what we did, Jimbo? PTSD, you know.”

“Oh, please.”

“It’s still harm. Baby cows don’t consent to being eaten, you still eat them.”

I don’t. Or cheese.”

“You don’t have soy in your latte. Baby cows die so you can be less of a wanker, Jimbo.”

The joke takes the edge of my irritation. “Piss off.” I punch him in the arse cheek and he skips ahead a few steps, chuckling. “I was one of those kids, dickhead. Jesus, a fucking house brick would be more sensitive than you.”

We climb until we reach the shadowed alcove beneath the last few steps to the roof escape. Lyle squats beside it, holding open the top of the duffel. I flip the cap off a cleaner bomb. I’m about to pop the trigger and toss it into the bag when Lyle says, “There’s something in here.”

“What?”

I stoop to see for myself. “Shit.” It’s another black duffel, almost invisible in the shadows.

Lyle hands me ours and reaches into the alcove. Metal clanks as he hauls the other bag out. He grunts with effort.

I’ve got a cold feeling in my gut even before he unzips the bag.

“Jesus fuck.” Inside is a folded down sentry gun.

“Someone’s going to shoot up the plaza,” I say, statement of the bleeding obvious. “What are you doing?”

He’s zipping it shut again. “Putting it back. And getting the fuck out of here.”

“Christ, Lyle, there’s kids down there!”

Lyle wrenches the bag open again and taps a lumpy apparatus mounted on the gun’s barrel. His voice rasps like his throat’s dry. “Target selector. It’ll only shoot whoever’s programmed in.”

“What if it’s programmed to shoot everyone?”

“Who the fuck is going to shoot up kids, Jimbo?” His eyes are big, the way they get when he’s angry because he’s scared. “No-one, that’s who.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Really? Really, Jimbo? You, of all people, are going to argue against shooting kiddiefuckers?”

“You can’t just put a person down.”

“Happens all the time. And you know what they do.”

“Yes, I do.” I glare at him and he glares back.

“Shit.” Lyle glares at the gun. With a sudden stab of his hands, he unlatches the top of the weapon’s body. Deftly, he pulls out a couple of miniature circuit boards and seals the gun shut again. His face has lost its normal ruddiness. “This is a bad idea, Jimbo.”

“What the fuck else are we going to do, Lyle? Tell the cops?”

“Yes! We’ve both got burners!”

I hold up the cleaner bomb. “These need an hour. When we get clear, we’ll phone it in.”

Shit, Jimbo.” He holds open the top of the gun bag. “Spray it.”

Lyle leans back while I squirt aerosol into the duffel, then hold up the trigger to shut it off while he zips the bag quickly and shoves it back under the alcove. Both of us cough. My eyes water.

He takes back our bag to sling over his shoulder, stuffing the circuit boards inside.

“Plan B,” he says.

I start down the stairs ahead of him.

A door slams below. Echoes bounce up the concrete walls. Lyle bumps into my back.

There are footsteps coming up.

“Keep going, Jimbo my girl,” Lyle hisses. “This was your stupid idea.” He squeezes my shoulder. “Hold it together.”

I put my hand with the cleaner into my pocket, trying not to look awkward, and start moving again. It’s okay, Jimbo. You’ve done what you had to. Now you’re just going to walk out of here. Oh shit. Shitshitshit…

A guy in a business suit rounds the bottom of a flight as we reach the top. He’s short, not much taller than me, but he looks nearly as wide as Lyle. His complexion and salt-and-pepper flattop put his age past forty. He moves like a much younger man.

He slows, looking beyond me – at the black duffel over Lyle’s shoulder.

I meet his eyes as we pass, manage a civil nod before looking away, but my insides freeze. Christ. I’ve known enough killers to recognise that crocodile stare.

Then he’s past me and I hear a polite “G’day,” from Lyle.

Round onto the next flight. I resist the urge to glance up. I want to run the rest of the way down, but force myself to hold a moderate pace. “That was him,” I hiss.

“Oh yeah. We fucked up, Jimbo.”

Now I go faster.   

We reach the bottom and stop to listen. I can’t hear anything over our huffing and puffing. The same thought occurs to both of us. We hold our breaths.

Silence. Relief. Exhale.

Lyle manages a sheepish grin. He shrugs the duffel off his shoulder. I drop the cleaner in and he zips it shut. The aerosol hisses loudly through the thick canvas. Lyle rolls his shoulders into a stoop and thrusts his head forward, relaxes his face and lets his jaw hang slightly open. The thug morphs into a boxer who’s been hit in the head one too many times. If pull my chin in, shoulders back, tilt my head, I look like I’ve copped a few too many as well.

He pushes outside, affecting a limp. I glance both ways as Lyle chucks the duffel into the dumpster by the exit, ready to turn and walk in the opposite direction to the plaza full of perverts. My bladder clenches when I see two cops silhouetted at the plaza end of the alley. They’ve got their backs to us, so they haven’t seen us come out of the building, but the sound of the dumpster lid dropping causes them to turn.

“Oh, could this day get any fucking better?”

Yes, it can. Lyle’s already moving, shambling towards the cops – towards the plaza. He pauses to lift the other half of the dumpster’s split lid and peers inside, drops it back with a crash louder than the first.

Rule number one of cop psychology: if they half-catch you doing something suspicious, walk towards them. Cops are like dogs. Running away just makes them want to chase you.

Lyle’s done the right thing, but, “Shit, Lyle!”

I take a couple of quick, deep breaths, trying to force my guts to unclench, then shuffle after him, scuffing my feet like a sullen kid.

Lyle grunts and nods as we pass between the cops. Both nod back. I mumble and look through them.

You’d think we make a pretty distinctive pair. But if you’re among the affected or disabled, people just can’t imagine you as anything else. Most people will barely recognise you as a person. Just an object to be tolerated. Jewel thieves? P-lease.

They’ve got the PA system going. The police drones drift overhead. Sweat dribbles down my sides and I have to battle the foolhardy urge to run, enough to make me baulk at going into the crowd. I look for a way around.

Lyle grabs me. “We need to get lost.”

He’s right, but I don’t have to like it. My own fucking stupid fault. I stick close to his heels as he moves though the press of paedophiles. Lyle neither barges nor weaves, the small fry instinctively scuttle out of his path. I try to avoid brushing against any of them as they close back in behind him.

I can’t help glancing at the faces of the paedophiles we pass. They’re the usual middle-class pervert mix. I’m looking for my stepfather’s pig-eyed meanness. I don’t find it. I rarely do. They look just like any ordinary men.

Most have come alone. They stand with arms folded across their chests or clasped protectively over their genitals. Some keep their eyes down, courage stretched to its limit just by being here. Some watch those who’ve brought their lovers along, envying their audacity. Remarkably few wear privacy shields, hiding their faces behind a shimmering one-way mirror. It’s disconcerting to see my own face, bulbously distorted, looking back at me from the front of someone else’s head.

The bastards aren’t legal yet, but the fact the paedophiles are allowed to rally like this means that, somewhere, in that rarefied place where those decisions are made, it has already been decided that their kind can be tolerated, even if they aren’t already – that it’s in their genes, just like any other disposition.

Just like one of Lyle’s rapist-bugs.

There’s an itchy bullseye between my shoulder blades. The urge to pee is almost unbearable. If the assassin knows his business, he could have the gun set up by now. If he’s a pro, he’ll have checked it over first, will have found the missing boards.

No way he’ll be able to find us in this crowd.Maybe he’ll just abort, knowing we can ID him. Maybe he had spares. If one of these perverts was shot in front of me, could I try to save him? Would I?

Of course I would. I tried to save my arsehole stepfather when he keeled over, didn’t I?

Jesus.

The children are a different mix, almost all Latin, African or Asian. Most are pre-pubescent, although there are a handful in their teens. The little ones stare back at me with big, solemn eyes. How desperate could their families be to sell their kids for this? “What a choice: caught between the kiddiefucker and a hard place.”

I only realise I’ve spoken the thought aloud when Lyle looks at me sharply over his shoulder.

Someone jostles me from behind. I all-but drop into a fighting stance even as the pervert apologises. My hand strays to my satchel.

A heartbeat later the crowd erupts around us. I jump a second time as paedophiles who, a moment before, stood cowed by fear of recognition, forget themselves to applaud their messiah.

Striding to the front of the stage is the poster-boy of the child-love movement. A middle-aged, blond Adonis, his image magnified on the screen behind the stage. I wonder if his were the specs in the sentry gun’s target selector. He tows a boy of nine or ten by the hand.

Lyle is still pushing his way through the sea of excited perverts. My eyes are drawn back to the stage. He grabs my hand to tow me after.

Poster-boy lets the crowd go for a minute, then raises his free hand for quiet, the consummate public performer. The child with him stands proudly. Of course he does – what does a kid know to think and feel but what the adults who claim to love them say they should? But I wonder if there’s a seed of something else.

How’s he going to feel if the guy’s brains spray in his face?

Relieved, is the answer that pops into my head. But I know that’s only part of the truth.

“I am a man!” poster-boy bellows. His amplified voice echoes off the surrounding buildings. “And this is my lover!” The crowd roars again. I want to puke.

“…many people say father-love is wrong. The ancient Greeks – the wellspring of our civilization – didn’t think so. The ancient Greeks never differentiated between lovers by gender or by age…”

Lyle manages to find something funny in that. He pauses so he can quote, “’A woman for child-bearing, a boy for pleasure and a goat for sheer ecstasy.'”

I’m in a poor frame of mind to appreciate his borrowed wit. “Move, dickhead.”

“…say that father-love is a sickness. Those people said the same thing about same-sex love. I say, drawing lines across the axis of age-of-partner is no more valid than making moral judgements based on sex-of-partner or hair-colour-of-partner.” Shouts of agreement all around. I grit my teeth and try to keep the disgust off my face.

“…what man among you does not love their partner?”

Ah, Mr Kiddiefucker, but does your boy love you?

He probably thinks he does. That only makes it worse.

“How many of you have been spat on, insulted, assaulted? It was not so long ago that people were subjected to the same abuse we suffer because of the colour of their skin. Have they forgotten so quickly?” The crowd’s initial enthusiasm has settled down a bit, but the men we pass are hanging on the speaker’s words.

I wish I’d just let Lyle put the bloody gun back as it was. I tried to save my stepfather, that morning in my mother’s kitchen. But, God, I was glad when I couldn’t.

I’ve carried the guilt of that every damned day, since.

“…within our lifetimes, people have suffered the same abuse for taking same-sex lovers. Intersexuals used to be surgically adjusted to conform to binary gender standards…”

“Oh, fuck.” Lyle is looking back over his shoulder.

My heartbeat lurches. I’m too short to see. “What?”

Lyle’s face is wild. “It’s him. He’s seen me.”

“Christ, Lyle.” I feel like I’ve been kicked in the chest.

A nearby paedophile stares at us. I stare back until he looks away. I think I’m going to cry.

Lyle gives me a shove. “Split up.” He’s already moving, legs swinging jerkily.

Christ.

I veer ninety degrees left. Now my stature becomes an advantage.

“…say the churches, who hate us without thinking, as a matter of dogma. What hypocrisy is this? Did the churches not once use boys to help their priests resist the ‘unclean’ temptations of women? Did they not protect so many of their own…”

I pick up my pace, trying not to look like I’m in a hurry. A breeze ruffles my hair. A police drone hovers overhead. I looked quickly down, keep moving.

Ripples of unease spread through the crowd from the direction Lyle went. Oh, no. Lyle.

A little African girl is staring at me. She has the saddest expression I’ve ever seen on a child. I wonder how her parents could’ve ever given her up. The kiddiefucker with her is watching me too, and frowning. He moves the girl around to his other side and bends his head to say something. A quiet admonishment, perhaps.

My head spins. I flee.

“…today, we are denied our civil rights. We have the right to speak, we have the right to protest, but we do not have the right to be who we are. We are not safe from the violence of others, because of who we are…”

We didn’t sabotage that damn gun for you, you son-of-a-bitch.

Abruptly, I arrive at the edge of the crowd. I’ve come out beside the road that divides the plaza from the pedestrian mall through the city centre. On the opposite pavement, a line of cops face a noisy counter-demonstration. I spy a vacant autocab in the traffic queued at the lights. My satchel slaps against my backside as I hurry over.

I give the cab the first destination that pops into my head, somewhere way out in the burbs, flash a false debit card in front of its reader.

I lean back in the passengers’ couch, squeezing the satchel on my lap with my fingers, seeking reassurance in the lumpy hardness of the stones within.

Oh, Lyle.

My heart skips. The assassin stands at the curb.

He sees me a fraction of a second after I spot him. His reaction is instant, crossing the space to the cab in a dozen long strides.

I have enough presence of mind to tuck my hands underneath my satchel before he arrives, delving in my shorts for the spare soft-syringes that are my only weapon. I uncap one and tuck it between my fingers just as he opens the door.

The autocab starts to tell him that it’s already occupied. He composes himself on the seat opposite me, shows me the tiny, silenced two-shot ceramic-composite pistol aimed at my gut before folding his hand over the top. He arches an eyebrow. The only surveillance system in the autocab consists of sensors to monitor damage to the vehicle itself. The voice recognition system won’t keep a recording beyond the end of the trip.

The lights change and the cab isn’t moving. The car behind toots its horn.

“Taxi: it’s okay, he’s with me.” My voice is only slightly unsteady. Placated, the cab quiets and rolls forward.

The assassin’s gaze shifts pointedly downward. I pull my hands out from under the satchel, lay the empty one over the one with the syringe. The cab stops again, the traffic lights cycling back to red before we get through.

“My circuit boards?” His voice is higher pitched than I expected and gravelly, like he’s had a throat injury, once, that improperly healed.

I shake my head. “I don’t have them.” His lips press together in irritation. My mouth is so dry I can barely form words. “I’m no threat to you.”

His brows twitch together, asking the question.

“Robbing a gem dealer.”

A breath of laughter, mirthless. He lifts a finger towards my satchel. “In there?”

“Cut and uncut,” I tell him. “Yours, if you want them.” Not that he needs my permission.

A pause. I start to think maybe I can buy my way out of it. Then he says, “You saw my face, love. So did your partner.”

Oh no, Lyle! Part of me wants to break down right there. A stronger part refuses to crack. “You saw ours.”

Another whispered laugh.

The lights turn again, but the counter-demonstrators have spilled onto the crossing, waving placards painted with the usual slogans and insults. The cab beeps as cops try to push them back, but they aren’t going anywhere willingly and are raising one hell of a fuss about it.

The assassin turns and swears under his breath.

Now!

I start to shift my weight, but he’s facing me again too quickly. His eyes flicker over me, but he loses interest when I turn the movement into a scratch at my chest. He settles back into his seat, contriving an attitude of boredom for the benefit of outside observers, his gaze settled on a point above and behind my head.

I jump. Lyle’s standing in the middle of the road, stopped right in front of the cab to stare through the windscreen.

“Cop,” I say, before the assassin looks for himself.

I’m screwed, Lyle. My heart thumps. But not dead yet. “So, are you going to shoot me, then?”

A cop puts a hand on Lyle’s arm, gesturing for him to get off the road. He obeys reluctantly.

“I want your partner, first.”

The cop looks into the cab, wondering what caught Lyle’s attention. I smile weakly. I get a terse nod in return and she goes back to her work.

I try not to watch Lyle as he reaches the other side of the road and disappears behind the counter-demonstrators. I shift about in my seat, pretending discomfort, get my bum further back on the couch and tuck my feet under it. The killer frowns at me.

“They say they don’t have a choice,” I say. “About being what they are.”

One eyebrow twitches. For a moment, he doesn’t look like he’ll reply. Then he says, “A fly doesn’t have a choice, but you still swat it.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Lyle appear in the midst of the anti-paedophiles. He’s putting on a show, acting so angry he’s spraying spit all over himself. Cop heads swing in his direction.

“What will swatting a few perverts achieve?”

“There’s always more flies. Doesn’t stop people swatting them.” He shrugs. “Just a job for me, love.”

I turn my head further. I can see the top half of the big screen over the heads of the crowd, the demagogue shaking his fist.

“They could be treated.”

“No. It’s in them.” He sniffs. “Won’t happen, anyway. Not anymore. This lot’ll get their way.”

“Then why?”

“Job.” He enunciates the syllable carefully, in case I’m hard of hearing. His lips twitch. “Cathartic one, though.”

“Even bugs make choices,” I say. “People can’t choose how they’re made, but they can choose what to do with it.”

He’s amused. “You had a choice, not to fuck up my afternoon.”

“There’s kids out there,” I say. “They don’t have a choice.”

The assassin’s lip curls in professional disdain. “I wouldn’t have hurt any kids.”

A bunch of cops haul Lyle out of the crowd. The other demonstrators don’t like it. I force myself to look away.

“They would’ve seen.”

“Reckon they’ve seen worse, love. Maybe they’d find it cathartic, too.”

I used to think so.

Cops rush past the cab. Lyle’s gone completely berserk. The anti-paedophiles swarm to his aid.

Here we go…

The assassin starts to look. The struggling mass of bodies around Lyle lurches towards the cab.

I nod toward the other side of the road, trying not to babble in my haste to draw his attention elsewhere. “One of the counter-protesters got through the cordon.”

He stares at me for a moment, then twists that way instead. The gun stays fixed on my belly.

A cop stumbles backwards against the door. The cab blares a protest. The assassin’s head snaps around. The hand with the gun follows.

Now!

I lunge. The gun swings back. The muzzle flashes. The click of the hammer and spit of air are the only sounds it makes. I catch the barrel, slap the needle into the back of his hand.

He flings me off and tries to raise the gun for its second shot. His arm won’t respond.

He grabs with his other hand. I kick his wrist. The gun hits the floor. I hurl myself back at him. He snarls, sour breath in my face, but hasn’t the strength to throw me off a second time. His eyes glaze.

I roll off and slump onto the seat beside him, shaking with adrenaline, half expecting to see enquiring cop faces peering in the windows.

There’s a mini riot on the pavement. The cops have pushed the counter-demonstrators back off the road and are getting stuck in with batons and capsicum spray. I can’t see Lyle.

The taxi wants to know about the hole in its back seat. Any moment, it’ll start bleating for assistance. My side hurts. My hand comes away bloody.

Only a graze, thank Christ.

“Taxi: we had a small accident. Please debit my card for the damages.” Blessedly, it shuts up.

Come on, Jimbo, you’re not out of this yet. I scoop up the gun and quickly arrange the assassin in a pose that suggests he’s just resting his eyes. The cab starts rolling before I’m finished.

The ceramic gun feels like a toy in my hand. One bullet left.

Now what? I bite my lip, wondering if I’m capable of killing someone in cold blood.

Damn right I am, with Lyle’s life as well as mine on the line.

Who am I kidding?

So, what then?

I can turn the assassin over to the cops. Redirect the cab to the nearest cop shop, set off the last cleaner bomb and leave him asleep with his very illegal little gun in his hand. Whatever ID he has on him will be a cleanskin. If he’s as good at his job as me and Lyle, the cops won’t have anything on him. I could call ahead, tell them where to look for the sentry gun…

Or I could just let him go. We should be safe enough once we’re clear. But if I leave him, he’ll be back to complete his contract. I can barely live with my relief over my stepfather. Could I live with assassinations on my conscience?

Every option makes me feel sick.

Through the window, I catch a glimpse of the demagogue on the big screen, before the plaza passes from sight. Not for you, arsehole.

But, if not him, then who?

For me.

#

I sling my satchel over my shoulder to cover my injured side as I get out of the cab, trying to act natural as I hurry off the road.

I have my phone to my ear before I can think to chicken out. A cop answers with the name of the police station.

“Listen, in about five minutes time, a taxi’s going to arrive outside the station…” I pour out the whole thing, except for the gem dealers, as quick as I can and hang up while he’s in the middle of asking me not to. I walk along a little way in the flow of pedestrians and toss the phone as casually as I can into a rubbish bin.

The cops will have put Lyle in the back of a wagon. Public nuisance, resisting arrest – I’ll be able to get him out tomorrow with a bond. No way they’ll piece it all together before that. The assassin won’t roll over and by the time the gem dealers wake up, the cleaners will have done their job.

I see again the haunted expression on that little African girl’s face. My chest hurts. There’s photos of me, when I was a kid, wearing that same look. I felt so happy when the son-of-a-bitch was finally dead. And so guilty that I did. And I never should have.

I have to stop because suddenly I can’t see where I’m going.

A middle-aged woman startles me. “Are you alright, dear?”

I put up my hands to fend her off. “I’m fine.”

I made the wrong choice.

And now I can’t take it back.

<END>

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