The square man gripped the halfer’s arms in his thick hands and shifted his feet in the gray mud of the alley. The alley was stifling, thick with the sour stench of urine and fear, steaming in the tropical heat. Puddles in the mud reflected cracked brick walls rising steeply around them, leaning inward, shielding them from the featureless gray sky.
“I can’t tell you.” Sweat stood out on the mottled skin of the halfer’s face, skin like old cheesecloth. His breath came in short gasps and his eyes darted wildly – to the walls, the ground underfoot, the busy city street scant meters away – anywhere but at the other two who accompanied the square man.
The square man looked to one of them, a slender, almost narrow man of medium height and watery features. The narrow man pursed his lips and nodded.
The square man made a sound that was more sigh than anything, the sound of someone who has been through this many times. Then he shifted his grasp and with a sudden, sharp twist, broke the halfer’s wrist. The halfer cried out, a sound more primal than any pure human would make, but his pain was lost in the bustle and thrum of the city. The passersby who heard, didn’t care. His face was gray when he at last raised his face again, but his mouth stayed closed.
At the next nod, the square man gave the broken wrist a twist. The broken ends grated against each other. The halfer screamed, and a figure that had slowed to peer down into the alley hurriedly moved on. His knees buckled and he sagged in the square man’s arms.
“Don’t,” he moaned. His teeth were long and yellow. “No more. I’ll tell you.”
Another nod, and the square man let the halfer drop to his knees.
“I apologize for the painfulness,” the narrow man said, reaching with long-fingered hands to smooth the halfer’s stained white shirt in an oddly gentle gesture. “But we are low on time.”
The halfer cradled his broken wrist. Red hair grew in thick clumps on the backs of his hands and his face showed the wide, flat nose, flared nostrils and low forehead of the howler side of his ancestry. But when he struggled to his feet he stood with the upright posture of a man and his eyes were a startling blue.
He shot one sullen look at the square man and another at the woman who stood several meters away, half turned away where she could watch him and the mouth of the alley at the same time. She was the one who’d caught him and though his howler blood gave him a substantial amount of strength, she’d knocked him down and disabled him easily. She stood arrow-straight, carved from willow, springy and tough. Her hair was short and black, her shoulders too broad in her sleeveless jacket, her bare arms lined with muscle. She paid him no heed.
His eyes shifted back to the narrow man waiting calmly in front of him. Somehow this man was hardest to look at of the three, though the fearsomeness was not immediately obvious. He made no threatening moves. His voice was quiet, almost a whisper. His teeth did not show when he spoke. He seemed hardly to move, as if every motion was a precious gem, not to be wasted.
It was the eyes that hurt. There was in them a terrible intent awareness, something that held and probed. The halfer backed away from that flat, unmoving gaze now, until he felt the rough wall at his back. And when the narrow man took a step toward him his last reserves of courage broke.
“They treed out down Jungleside. In one of the ‘crete blocks. Third square off Tremble, after it circles the pad floaters.” He tried to face the narrow man’s gaze, saw something that frightened him more and blurted out, “It’s the truth. By the limb and the vine I swear it.”
“Good.” The narrow man gestured toward the mouth of the alley. “Go.” With shuddering sidesteps the wounded man moved towards the exit, his eyes unbelieving. When he was almost even with the woman he stopped and turned back as the narrow man spoke again.
“I would that you’d keep this to yourself.” The man seemed to unfold himself to point an unnaturally long finger at the halfer. Only then did the halfer realize how tall the narrow man really was.
“Better, smoother, for everyone that way.”
The halfer bobbed his head and spittle flew. “Sye, sye bwemoth.” He reached into the air and made a motion like grabbing two curtains or shutters and drawing them closed. It was a gesture used by the howlers to indicate secrecy. “Not even a grunt in my sleep.” Then he was gone. He walked like a man, but he ran with the odd, half-bent over gait of the howlers.
Squeeze turned to the other two, settling back down into himself as he did, resembling nothing so much as a snake recoiling, preparing itself for the next strike. “Shall we get something to eat?”
Bludgeon grinned and his blocky face lost the solemn fearsomeness the halfer had seen there only moments before. “You know I’m hungry. That linker ride was too long and too slow for me. Let’s go. I saw a place.” Bludgeon’s head was a sculptor’s mistake, chiseled too fast with blunt tools. His left eye sat lower than the right, his ears almost nonexistent as if the sculptor didn’t have time to get to them. No neck. Massive arms and legs. He was fairly tall but short-legged, with all his height in his torso. He wore a white flax shirt opened halfway down his chest and fine russet-fabric pants that changed color depending on the light. His blond hair was neatly styled and a row of earrings flashed in one ear. He led the way out into the city and the others followed.
The city of Cruzero del Sol – Cross of the Sun – was dirty in the way that only steamy tropical cities can be. It was as if the city itself were a living organism, trapped in the heat, constantly sweating. Sweating out oily water, excrement, rotting fish and foodstuffs, rank mud. Sweating out the myriad poisons and filth pumped into it by its human and other sentient denizens.
Vendors crowded the street Bludgeon led them down, stalls of slatted wood packed tight in rows against rotted brick buildings, makeshift counters piled high. Women in loose, open-necked blouses of light cotton marked with sweat stains sold oranges, bananas, coconuts and day-old fish caught in the sludge that passed for rivers and lakes around Cruzero del Sol. The fish stank as the sludge stank, and the women right along with them. Other women sold bolts of cloth, cheap jewelry made of copper and tin, knives, pans, shoes. Here and there flashed a stall filled with cheap electronics. This was Escuador Market, the market for the poorer side of Valle Orozco – which meant the human end – and what wasn’t sold in the stalls was available in the cramped, sticky alleys.
There were few men among the throngs of shoppers, either buying or selling. Markets were for women in most of the Continento Sud. It was late afternoon and those men lucky enough, or energetic enough, to find work were in the swampy fields that surrounded the city on three sides, or hauling in nets of writhing fish, or deeper in the jungle hacking at the slender stalks of pulpo, the potent plant used in making jugo, the favored escape beverage of this region. Those without the luck, or simply too lazy or too far gone to care, sat on doorsteps, on any of the thousands of tiny bridges throughout the city, street curbs and parks, passing bottles of jugo, passing this day as they passed every other, pushing on to an end that couldn’t come soon enough.
The air thrummed with subtle tension, of people who went through their days with their heads down, presenting the smallest target while keeping a sharp eye for which way trouble would fall.
Cruzero del Sol, all of the Continento Sud, was howler land. Humans were a minority here. And while the Truce made half a dozen years earlier to end the latest round of bloody Species Wars still mostly held, no side had forgotten the bloodshed and horror of those wars. So it was that although the mercado was a noisy, surging throng, it was also an uneasy one.
The three splashed through an ankle deep puddle that seemed to have no boundaries, Bludgeon looking down distastefully at the murky black water. “These boots were new, too,” he muttered, mostly to himself. Hunter paid no attention to him. Bludgeon liked clothes and shoes and jewelry too much. He was forever ruining something he had just bought and paid too much for and Hunter had quit trying to point out to him that, in their line of business, fancy and new were simply wastes.
Hunter herself favored plain denim, sturdy and loose enough to allow free movement. She wore stout leather shoes and a waist-length, sleeveless denim jacket which she rarely took off, even here where the heat was a killer.
Of the three of them, Squeeze looked most ready for this place, down in this sweltering basin where they had never done a job before. His wide-brimmed straw hat shaded him from the sun and shadowed his face. His loose jointed, narrow frame was clothed in a one-piece, cotton hordon, shirt and pants in one. On his feet he wore huaraches, simple sandals. Looking at him, Hunter was struck by how much like a native he looked. Even his skin seemed darker.
She looked at her arms, noticing the redness already showing there and wished she had put on another coat of block before she left the room. The ozone layer down here was either nonexistent or minimal, depending on which scientist one listened to. Nobody knew for sure. The money and resources for learning such things had dried up long ago, during the Species Wars, and hadn’t returned. What was trivial knowledge about the atmosphere when there were weapons to be bought, defenses to bolster? But everyone knew the dangers of melanoma. The fact that it only struck humans and was worst in the southern regions was a large part of the reason that humans had ceded those areas in the Truce talks. Why try to hold onto a place you can’t live in? If there were still millions of humans living in those areas, well, it was their bad luck.
They were near the edge of the market now, the throng easing. There was even a bit of a sidewalk along the side of the street – though badly cracked with whole chunks missing – where one could get out of the worst of the sludge.
Abruptly the throng parted. Bent-backed women tugged at donkeys, trying to get them out of the street while children chased chickens in their wake. And through the opening came a gleaming red float car.
Bludgeon gave a low whistle. “That’s one of the new Adrian makes,” he said. “Whoever had that shipped clear over here has more money than Cleeves.”
The car floated smoothly, majestically through the dirty throng, unblemished by scratch or smudge, untouched by the mud, riding on its cushion of air. The windows were heavily tinted, the engine nearly silent.
The marketers stared at it in awe, and many actually knelt as it went by. As it drew close to them, Hunter felt eyes on her and turned to look across the street. A young girl stood there, wispy brown hair floating around her dirty face. Probably nine or ten, the girl was thin, her white shirt torn and smudged. The girl’s eyes were fixed on Hunter, unwavering and expressionless in her smooth, dirty face.
In that instant the tropical city disappeared. The shouts and the noise and the heat were gone. There was only Hunter and the girl, no space between them. And in that girl’s eyes Hunter saw the past she tried every night to forget, to wash away with liquor or pulque or smoke or whatever she could lay her hands on. The red streets of Irabu and the screams of the children.
“Not my fault,” she mumbled.
Then the car slid forward and the girl was hidden. The car stopped before a fruit stand. A rear window opened slightly and a slim brown hand covered with a coat of fine, reddish fur came out. Rings flashed on the fingers. One finger pointed at the woman running the stand. The woman nearly dropped the infant suckling at her breast in her haste to respond, dropping to one knee as she drew up beside the car, her eyes carefully averted so that she did not look right at the car’s occupant.
A moment later she struggled to her feet and ran back to her stand. She slapped aside another child, this one about five or six, who had climbed up on her stool, and proceeded to paw through her display, choosing the finest fruits. These she took back to the car. A front window opened. She passed the fruit through and received some coins in exchange. She dropped her head and backed away.
The car moved on and the girl was gone. Hunter stood there frozen, fear cooling in her bowels.
“Hey Hunter, you joining?”
Hunter looked up, saw the other two staring at her. Concern creased Bludgeon’s big face and Squeeze looked thoughtful.
“What is it?” Squeeze asked in his soft voice.
She shook her head as if clearing it. “Nothing. Let’s go.” She could not tell them, never, even as close as they were. They had missed it, missed her shame, off in another part of the city when the ghants came up out of the ground. She forced a smile. “Just feeling a little sick from the heat. You know how delicate I am.”
They sat in an outdoor café, removed from the poverty of the Escuador Market, but far from the comfort and ease of the upper side of the city. A tin roof kept sun and rain off the patrons and a large metal fan labored mightily to stir the stagnant air. The floor was cracked concrete and the flies were numerous. Tables and chairs were wood, the waiter who came to their table dressed in a clean shirt that looked almost new.
“Orders?” the waiter asked politely. A weathered chalkboard hung on the wall. Scrawled on it was the menu.
“Make mine the pollo,” Bludgeon said. “Dos. And water, clean water with the seal unbroken.”
Squeeze also asked for the chicken, but Hunter ordered fish. She ordered a glass of the pulque too, ignoring the looks from her companions.
They spoke little of the job they were here to do. They didn’t need to. It was another job, similar to and different from hundreds of others they’d done in the nearly twenty years they’d been together. They were cadre. Tighter, more intimate than mere family, bonded by blood and the recurring closeness of death, both their own and others.
The pulque came and Hunter snatched at it with a hand that was not steady. As she raised it to her lips she saw Squeeze watching her and knew he would ask now. They were too tuned to each other not to notice. They lived on a razor edge and they had to be alert to everything if they hoped to stay there.
“What is wrong?”
Hunter had her answer ready, too ready. She could not open that box, could never look inside there.
“That halfer was a plant. He’ll go straight to the mice.” Mice were what they always called their prey, the ones they were hired to take out. “They’ll be ready for us.”
Squeeze stared at her, his cool gray eyes emotionless, and Hunter waited for him to call the lie what it was. Something like terror gnawed at her guts and she wanted him to probe, to dig the truth out of her in that merciless way he had. But he said only, “What do you suggest?”
“We go in just before dawn. They know we’re coming. The night will wear heavily on them and they will be vulnerable then.”
Squeeze looked at Bludgeon, who merely shrugged. “Okay with me.” His eyes flickered to the glass of pulque Hunter held. It was half empty already. But he said nothing and neither did she.