"You're asking me for four months of solid output."
"At two-to-one," the voice continued, scratchy and sounding altogether bored in my earphone, "You can afford it."
"I'm not running output on these for a month," I warned. "I'm going to see who comes knocking, first." I adjusted the boom microphone at my lips and tapped a bellboy aside, taking long strides across lush, blood-red carpet, under hanging stalactites of graceful feminine chandeliers, sparkling off sequined dresses for the afternoon reception, still a few hours off, according to the peg-letter board up front. Ritchie had made it somehow to the decision that he'd be safer in the open light of the affluent and their long, flowing train of photographers, publicists, hairdressers and caterers, than in an oil-soaked back alley. The firm had still been insistent on the output from the plates; in exchange, I had asked for them to do a look-down/scan-down for the plates. I wanted concentration on the immediate urban and suburban surroundings. They had recorded a highly concentrated temperature change, in excess of one-hundred and eight, as the biofilm struck off the prints to a lower layer, skin oils eating the delicate transparent sheath away in a predictable, traceable pattern.
"That was only six hours ago. There's a residual from ten hours ago. We're pulling our shims out of the bird," the phone squawked, self-assured. They had likely hijacked time on an NRO Keyhole IR for the pretty pictures, a great behemoth of a bird, in low earth orbit, swinging orbital sweepers and self-aligning solar panels made it a dangerous, twirling beast, equipped with a solitary, silent infrared eye. It was no doubt a well-protected watchdog on the Recon's piece of high-altitude real estate, but it was vulnerable to the master's whistle - it was easy to pipe an info shim inside to send false instructions, and see the images you weren't supposed to see.
I had left an awkward silence. The voice tried to bridge the gap. "Now, regarding your commitments to output-"
"You have a fine morning," I told my connection, and rotated my boom out of the way, cutting the digital cord. I found it a thinly-veiled pleasure to pull the strings one way or another on employers. They usually ran a 36-hour floating window on their contracts; as long as I checked back in and didn't have a Jehovah Complex, they'd be sympathetic. From their end, I had hoped to score her prints, and Ritchie's, at the same time. Neither had made the connection yet, confronted with innocuous, though counterfeit, vehicle license plates. It was an ironic statement I had not refused myself, when I had Carmen stamp the plates out on her jailhouse castoff machine. I had attached my prize, and layered on the thin biofilm lacquer in the workshop. She'd get a week's worth of output, unmarked. I'd likely stuff trackers in the firm's precious month's worth - markup, it was called; and find a way to keep it on the radar until I was sure FINCEN had bought off on the quantity. Then, in short bursts, constantly moving, I could run my machine. And do my best to live a fairly obfuscated life.
The waiters were descending in whitewashed streams past me, readying for the influx of famished and phony well-wishers. I kept to myself, feeling out of place for my rain-kissed trench coat, still shrugging the sunrise downpour carelessly onto the carpet. My tie felt unbalanced and askew, as did most of my body; I strayed to the right, into the men's room. I was unimpressed by the sight in the blown glass cylinder that served as a mirror. I hung my head and peeked under the stalls. Satisfied, I reached past the jacket fold and adjusted my little compact pistol, a German nine-millimeter with a petite frame, designated P7. I shrugged it closer for the draw, and stole my tie out of the way, quickly undoing the knot and stuffing the silk blob into the slice of a jacket pocket. I thought about her, and the possibility of finding her involved again in the particulars, and self-consciously ran my shoes underneath the shiner before walking out.
"Ritchie Delgado's room," I said. "I'm David Delgado. He sent me down for a spare key."
The desk clerk looked Midwestern, and she had a further look of less politically-minded surprise.
"We're married." Silence. A moment between us. "In Hawaii."
She slid me a spare cardkey to 715, her eyes averted.
I rode the elevator up alone, undoing a collar button, and leaving my coat open and drying in the organic, calm light. Fluorescence had made its exit from the tighter concentric social circles long ago, thought to have been the latest bane to angelic skin. Hot, incandescent lights made the rounds, replaced still with cooler, bacteria-charged LED organic lights. I was ushered by a soft bell to the seventh floor, and stepped out into the hallway, lined with fake emergency exit lamps, in the dim-navigation style pinned as the favorite of the decade. Seven-fifteen was across the hall; I doubled around for the exit, convincing myself I wanted this done my way. They were my plates, and if he grabbed once, he'd grab again. The insult alone of being betrayed by someone who had faked support and trailed along on past jobs was enough to give me a pass on the normal conscience for this intrusion. I slipped my keycard in, feeling the remorse leave my hands and melt into the slot, turning from a schoolhouse pen red, to an approving financial green, as I turned my body across the doorway, into the room's little foyer, my P7 chambering a jacketed hollow point, swinging out into the invaded space, in my right hand. His fingers clicked a few remaining keys on his laptop, but his head was oriented, eyes on mine, as my feet crossed the threshold, bringing us again into contact. He croaked something I had little interest in as I closed the distance with a stride and shot him where he sat, the expansion round at work quickly inside his head, the blast contained within the acoustic insulation installed for the screamers, amongst the mirrors and restraint points made for kinks. He closed his eyes, his fingers left sitting limply atop the keys. He had been in the middle of an electronic message. I stared at the screen with Ritchie's ragdoll figure slumped down next to me, reading over the same word burned firmly into the screen.
There were other messages, and correspondences. It was clear, though, that I had interrupted his process before I had stepped into his room. The plates were not what he was looking for. In point of fact, they might have very well been his prize if he had taken the time to look as well as touch. I knew the ten-hour print set was his. Perhaps they were still within his reach. I slid the laptop away from his fingers, the dead digits drumming on the table as first one hand, then the other, fell away. I steadied my fingers and put the gun away, rewriting the message.
Recover plates. Arrange for re-delivery.
I closed the laptop after sending the message into the void, and sat down only momentarily on Ritchie's bed, when there was a knock on the door. The P7 came back, my hands tense but muscles less determined. There was no action, only reaction, to such a thing - to an intrusion. I crept up, putting an eye to the peephole, finding it cracked. Ritchie had made himself visually impaired, but kept things much the same way for an outsider with a lens reverser. I waited for a second knock, and knew them by their silence to be tenacious, the feeling of fullness around the door still weighing against the space where I waited, but not overly enthusiastic. I put my fingers around the handle and yanked up and out, hand immediately rising as soon as my toe got a foothold, and took a scruffed handful of hair, jamming the gun into an exposed, bare chin. The hair flowed around my hands.
"Hi," she croaked.
"How did you find out?"
I shoved her inside the room, gun trained on her back as she stumbled in, nearly bouncing off the dead body.
"He's sleeping," I said glumly, locking the door.
"You shot him," she accused, turning toward me.
"Stay where you are."
"I'm not going to fight. We can bargain."
A pair of vehicle plates graced the bed with a metallic scrape. "Those."
"That was fast." I kept the gun up. "Not here to play lawman?"
"You've done something wrong?" She asked.
"Nothing I regret, yet." I went for the plates. A steel-frame silver SIG caught my cheek, driving me against the table. My P7 strayed, and fell to the carpet, and though I could still send her flying with a few deft twists, if the situation presented an element of threat, I had few options in this state, and felt more than the usual pity at being caught with my pistol down. My radar picked up some pride injury, some hostility, but not enough of either. She stepped on my toes abrasively as she forced my head down against the table.
"Don't make it your first," she warned me.
"You're ruining my shoes-"
"Look like a high roller," she said, as much of a compliment as could be taken with a .380 sitting four inches from the side of my mouth. "Figure you can do some business like this?"
"Sure," I said, playing out my time, feeling cold rosewood against my other cheek as it lay flat against the table, my body twisted. "Let's bargain."
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