“Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore—and this in the name of the one who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which he passed through the world like a flame. Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.”
― Dorothy L. Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine
I attend a local, monthly open-mike story slam patterned after NPR’s The Moth. Here’s my story from two months ago. The theme was ‘High Anxiety”
So it’s 1992 and I’m a young pioneer pastor in Nova Scotia, Canada. My wife has just given birth to my second son, Noah, in a Halifax hospital. Because of strange international legalities and the fraudulent financial dealings of certain big-name ministries and charities in the past, I’m barred from working a regular job, so I’m on a monthly stipend. Me, my wife, and now my third child.
My job description is ‘Missionary/Inner-City Ministry’, which sounds more spiritual than it is. I’ve got this little store-front church, which used to be a local credit union. There’s smelly, threadbare commercial carpet, a large room with small offices to the side, and a huge vault in the back. I spend most of my days evangelizing, visiting people, talking with them, praying for them, preparing sermons and Bible studies. I’m trying to see the grace of God touch people, transform lives, preach the Good News. I’m looking to build a congregation not with ‘transfer growth’ from other congregations but from scratch – with new believers, genuine conversions.
Despite the distance from friends and family, the challenges, the fixed income, the odd foreignness of the place, I’m excited. I’m still relatively young in the faith and definitely a newbie pastor, but I’m raring to see souls saved, see the Kingdom grow in hearts and lives. Very sincere, enthusiastic. A true believer.
Now as a Christian and spiritual person, I firmly believe in divine appointments – crucial, specific moments in time when you have the opportunity to reflect God’s grace and redemption to another person, either by what you say or do. All these decades later, I still strongly believe in them, and recognize they’re more common – and crucial – than I could have guessed.
Problem was at the time, my concept of them was very small. Whenever I prayed about them, for them, imagined them, even taught and preached about them, they resembled caricatures – these painfully scripted scenes in Christian books and movies,. They were Chick Tract dialogues where the Believer and Non-believer have this escalating conversation, this perfect Question and Response Ping-Pong of spiritual ideas. They’re short, direct, sprinkled with Scripture, have tears or choked-up moments, and usually culminate with the Non-believer falling to their knees asking, “What must I do to be saved?”
So that’s my mental picture, and here I am, earnestly contending for and on the lookout for just such a creature.
Now back to Noah and my family… After Noah arrives home, I decide I’m going to have a vasectomy. Three kids are fine by us. My wife is a wonderful woman and mother. It’s a relatively easy procedure, much less complicated for me than her, and by the grace of God and the Dominion of Canada, foreign ministers and missionaries receive free health care. So I book the appointment.
I have a brief, initial consultation where my doctor – a very professional, well-mannered Indian man (sub-continent, not native American) – answers all my questions, after which I schedule the procedure.
The day of arrives, and I show up early. A nurse leads me to a room where I strip from the waist down, then go lie on an operating table under one of those big round florescent medical lamps. I’m waiting for the doctor, alone and semi-naked on a metal table like something out of a crime drama morgue scene, or a fetish cyberpunk book.
Kinda weird, but hey – it’s free, for my wife and family. I’m good with it.
After what felt like a long time, (it was getting chilly) my doctor arrived in scrubs. We exchange the usual weather/traffic pleasantries before he donned a surgical mask, told me to relax, and got to work.
Now understand a couple things; the very first thing he did was display the instruments he’ll be using: hypo for the local anesthesia, a very sharp scalpel, a handful of wiry, pokey probes that resemble heavy-gauge dental cleaning picks, and what looks like a pair of needle-nose vise grip pliers. Second thing is he apparently had two plus cups of coffee that morning and is in a very chatty mood.
And you think it’s awkward when the dentist wants to talk.
Well let me tell you this guy was downright garrulous. He started in and didn’t stop. He wanted to know everything about me: where I lived, the neighborhood, my wife, my kids. When he learned I was from the States, he asked where I had moved from, where I grew up. He asked about my parents, did I have brothers or sisters… my life story.
The kicker came when he asked what brought me to Canada.
He’s so intrigued when I mention ministry, he gets more talkative, if that were possible. And right then and there, starts engaging me in this huge philosophical, theological debate.
I’m lying there, doing my level best to respond. He’s asking about my ‘journey to faith’, my conversion experience, the validity of the Biblical record… like everything Christianity 101.
So much so, as it continues I break into a sweat because the conversation is starting to sound like something ripped out of a TBN or Cloud Ten script. His questions are so earnest and direct, I’m looking to see if he’s joking.
But he isn’t. In fact, as he keeps talking, it dawns on me: ‘Oh my God… God is answering my prayer. I’m getting my ‘Perfect Witness.’
And I don’t like it. Not one bit.
I mean, the doctor’s talking, I’m trying to answer, but inside I’m praying:
“Really, God? Now? Here?”
“Can you make him shut up? Please God. How about changing the subject? Hockey? Politics?”
But noooooo. I’m riding this train to the end of the line.
Imagine if you will the doctor speaking in stereotypical convenience store clerk Indian-accented English, and understand he’s sprinkling our discussion with updates on the procedure.
He’s saying things like:
“I have always been interested in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but I’ve never fully read the New Testament. Hold on – I’m about to make another incision, so you might feel a bit of a tug.”
“Tell me more about the claims of Jesus. Did he really say he was the only son of God? Ah… wait a second – let me find and cut the right tube here.”
“So Jesus died for the sins of all mankind? How is that possible? *snip, snip* (holds up tiny piece of me in the needle nose vise grips.) There we go. Got it.”
Now I’m a good evangelical. I know my Scripture: John 3:16, Romans 8: 28, 2 Corinthians 5: 17, Revelation 3: 20 and loads more…. but I’ll be damned if I can recall any of them just then. My mind is empty as a broken bucket. Every time the doctor asks about Scripture, all I can think of is that song:
“Jesus loves me, this I know…”
I must have told him God loved him seventy times. Seventy times seven, in fact.
It was awful.
I mean the whole procedure couldn’t have taken more than 30 or 40 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. The Doc finished up, still talking away. I remember groping for answers (mentally, that is) but can’t recall anything definite or special on my part. Certainly not inspired or anointed.
When it was done, I got dressed, went home and ignored his recommendation to take it easy for a couple days. But that’s another story.
Now I’ve told this to a few select friends and the more evangelical ones always ask, “Did it work?” To which I reply, “It must have. We haven’t had any more kids.”
“Not that,” they say. “The witness. Did you lead him to the Lord?”
That doctor could have informed me he was a neo-Nazi, skinhead, Satanist who read Mein Kampf as a devotional, and I’d have been like “Well hey, you have to start your journey somewhere.”
So that’s my ‘High Anxiety’ story. It was twenty-two years ago and I’ve learned a couple things since then. Like what divine opportunities really look like, and to be more careful about what I pray for.
Thanks for listening.
Hot Space Station Justice is four years old today.
My heartfelt thanks to everyone who reads, visits, comments, endures. Your long-suffering and graciousness is a genuine blessing and constant astonishment to me.
You’re all invited for cake on Saturday. There will be a bouncy house, pony rides and face painting. (or is it target shooting, Thai take-out and wargaming?)
Thanks to everyone who expressed interest in the Stained Glass Panel Giveaway for The Barrow Lover and the offer of Advance Copies. According to the publisher, a late Sept/early Oct release is still an attainable goal. Here are specifics:
The Barrow Lover is a Celtic-flavored ghost story with a couple horror scenes. I say Celtic-flavored because while the setting feels vaguely medieval, it’s non-specific and contains the occasional anachronism. I chose poetic verisimilitude (yes, I actually got to deploy that term) over historical accuracy. Might be a touch shocking but there is no gratuitous gore. A novella of less than 25K words, it’s a short read. Depending on how fast you read/if you like it, you’ll be done in a night or so.
I have TEN copies to send to interested parties. Three are spoken for as of this writing. Please contact me through my gmail dot com account. The addy name is CCGlazier and I will send it right out. It is available in WORD or PDF.
I also have SEVEN trade paperback galley copies. The print formatted small, but it is the complete manuscript. If you’d like one, I’ll need your mailing addy. Send it to the above email and I’ll post you a copy ASAP.
Please understand the manuscript is slated for a final copy edit, and the advance copies contain the occasional typo.
There is none. Of course it’s copyrighted. Plagiarists will be dealt with vigorously through appropriate channels. I request any advance reader refrain from posting spoilers or excerpts before the official release. (Although opinions or encouraging words are always welcome.) I’ll be sure to announce the release date once I know more. Reviews at Amazon/Goodreads would be very much appreciated, but readers are under no obligation. This is a ‘no-strings-attached’ offer.
To promote the book’s release and encourage those all-important Amazon Reviews, I will be giving away a total of three (3) Celtic-themed stained glass panels. Two will be smaller hangers, similar to pieces in my Etsy shop. I will post pictures once they are complete. The third piece is the 20.25″ x 20.25″ panel pictured here. To see more of my glasswork, feel free to browse my Studio Website.
The pool of contestants is strictly limited to readers in the Continental US and Canada who post a review of The Barrow Lover on the US Amazon.com website. All reviews will receive equal consideration; an honest review is worth ten ‘shill and gush’. Three names will be drawn at random once the number of qualified reviews reaches fifty. Winners will be announced here at my Blog and on Facebook. The panels will be packed, insured, and shipped free of charge to the winners’ confirmed address. I will consider a second giveaway once and if the number of reviews exceeds fifty and reaches 100.
Please contact me with any questions or requests for advance copies.
Finished this today, a stained glass panel I plan to give away as part of the initial promotion for my upcoming novella, The Barrow Lover.
Slated for an October release, (cross them fingers) I’ll be sending off Galley Copies to potential reviewers, contacting independent review sites, running targeted FB ads and all that jazz. But in appreciation to those gracious enough to buy and read my book, I decided to create this piece as the grand prize in a drawing. I’ve planned two other, smaller Celtic panels for second and third place prizes.
Wait, you’re giving this away? Like, for Free? What’s the catch, you ask?
All you need to do to enter is write an Amazon review for The Barrow Lover. Once The Barrow Lover gets 50 reviews, I’ll draw three names at random. The first two will each receive a smaller panel, the final pick receives this. Winners will be announced here at the blog, and where ever else I can get it posted.
One entry per review per person. (No sock puppets, please) Due to shipping expenses and customs, this contest is only open to people in the ConUS and Canada.
Feel free to ask questions here. Drop me a line if you’d like to receive an advance copy.
A thousand thanks.
Of the hundreds of ‘How to Write’ books, I suspect there are very few you actually need. “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s Writing Fiction workbook, and How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy helped me tremendously. Add in Steven Pressfield’s ‘War of Art’, and Stephen King’s Memoir on Craft.
But STORY by Robert McKee is dope-slapping me in the best possible way. I haven’t highlighted and underlined a book in years. This however is so perceptive and articulate, not only am I marking it up like a middle-schooler, I’m reading portions aloud to my wife. Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Looking back over the last four years, if I’d only read this first…
By way of example, here are excerpts for all the ideological writers. (that includes Christians) who weigh their stories to the point of painful contrivance.
When your premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. In your zeal to persuade, you will stifle the voice of the other side. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay (story) will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of society.
Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life. For the proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your controlling idea, but its victory over the enormously powerful forces you array against it.
Story, Robert McKee. p 121,122
A novel is not a painting is not a symphony is not a film is not a sermon. Each discipline has its own requirements, opportunities, and boundaries. Be true to the one you’re called to. Pick this book up if you write fiction. Read it if you want to learn to write well.
“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”
― Flannery O’Connor
“That’s just serendipity,” he scoffed, when I mentioned an answered prayer. “The universe has a way of giving good things to good people.” (to soften the blow, I guess)
So you’ll attribute subtle, benign intent to an anonymous universe but not God? Affirm this karmic dynamic, yet insist on random, meaningless chance? Intelligent Design and Meta-narrative need not apply.
And you mock my faith?
So how come ‘serendipity’ happens more frequently and specifically the more I pray – to God?
Jien stabbed at his maki roll. “It’s for your own good, babe.”
Seeb frowned for the tenth time that minute. A bad situation was turning several shades shittier and showed no sign of stopping. Her head understood going to ground meant changes, hassles, aggravation… Orbital creeps were shooting up city streets to kill her. A cheap two-room flat in A-Town, drab blend-in clothes, and a severe cut and bleach for her dark hair were a small price to pay for a hide-away package. But no Charm? No contact with Vasyl?
“Total blackout? No log-in at all?”
“Zero Grid,” Jien nodded. “Uncle Zhou said he wants you safe.”
Seeb snorted, started dissecting a wedge of nigiri on her plate. As far as she remembered, the Sun Yee On Dragon Head hadn’t said anything at all. Ten feet and four bodyguards away from the old man, she’d watched Jien blurt out rapid fire Mandarin, point at her, and bow. A lot. Finally, Uncle Zhou had glanced over and nodded. And it was done; she was under Triad protection.
Seeb batted her eyes and leaned over the table, letting her shirt hang open. “Not even the public terminals in the Mahjong parlor?”
Jien laughed. “Nice try. No. Dainty monsters on your trail, you’re Luddite ’til the storm passes. You don’t have to worry about a thing while you’re here, but no one, and I mean no one, can know where you are.”
“Frak.” She flicked rice off a sliver of salmon with one chopstick. “Guess my ‘damsel in distress’ needs calibration.”
Jien spread his silver, six-digit hands and grinned. “Or a boob job… but hey, it got you this far.”
Seeb huffed, gave the Hong Ying Rice Shop another once-over. In the middle of Drop City’s sprawling Asian district, the tiny basement restaurant was one of a hundred tucked in the concrete and holo-ad maze that was Shenzhen Street. Like hiding a wave in the ocean, the place was invisible. As was her fourth-floor walk up right across the street.
“Big Time here I come.” She waved at the chef behind the glass counter. “At least the sushi’s good.”
“Soba’s better.” Jien pushed his plate away and pretended to remember something. “Oh yeah… And you can’t go past Russo or Second.”
Seeb spocked one eyebrow. “You’re not serious.”
“As a heart attack, babe.”
She snapped her chopstick in half. “A three block leash… What am I, some Tween grounded for blowing my boyfriend?”
“Simmer down. It’s called security, Seeb. Remember running in the alley? Me with the almost hole in my chest? The Four Horsemen have major fa shu – major. And they’re voodooing after you. You need to stay off – their – frakking – radar.” Jien grinned and made a show of peering down her shirt. “Say, you weren’t serious about the bl—“
“Wángbā dàn, Jien.” Seeb shoved away from the table and stomped off.
“C’mon, I was kidding.”
Eyes front, Seeb raised one hand, flipped Jien off, then straight-armed the door with the other.
His tone changed. “Three blocks, Seeb. No joke. The sky is falling, and this shit will get worse before it — “
She threw up another finger before the door jingled shut.
Outside, the narrow street was a riot of color, smell and sound. A dozen of the latest sultry faces pouted down at her, giant-sized on SmartGlass frontages, each panting deep, dark brand-name fantasies. Duly captivated, the flood of laowai shoppers flowed around her, in from the Green Zones for the day, chattering, laughing, laden as pack mules with designer-label bags. Directly overhead, a hologram green dragon blazoned with the Xiaomi logo flashed dagger-teeth smiles and discount wireless codes before huffing Disney flame across the rooftops. Delighted children screamed at every gout. And everywhere the saccharine thump of auto-tuned K-Pop and chili oil heat of street food.
Security my ass, Seeb fumed. More like gangland house arrest.
The apartment was small but clean. Two rooms with a scattering of sturdy faux-bamboo plasti-molded furniture. The front featured an ancient X-Box 20 console synced to a Toshiba flatscreen, and a kitchenette with a three quarter fridge, microwave unit. Cigarette burn hatch marks covered the grey corian counter, the cuneiform of twitchy confinement. No translation required. One window framed a stunning view of bricks, the other a scabby metal fire escape that went down into an alley and up to the roof- two options on the fast exit menu. Both windows had brand new roll down steel shutters.
A poly-foam futon and a shower/toilet stall filled the tiny back bedroom. A coffin of a closet held several sets of new but drab clothes, and extra linen. Celery green walls did little to fend off the minimum-security prison vibe.
There was one bright spot. The previous occupant had left gifts of a more pragmatic kind; a weighted carbon fiber tonfa and a karambit, the hooked knife favored by Indonesian street punks. In the right hands, one stroke could gut an opponent chest to balls. Seeb hefted it, the balance was odd, stroked her thumb gently along the crescent, razored edge. The image of Ferret’s head, lolling, his jacket, shoes drenched and sticky…
She bit down on the memory and dropped the karambit in her purse. The baton was too big to conceal, unless she counted shoving it up Jien’s ass, and she figured she was as likely to slice herself on the strange curved blade, but it was better than nothing. Although, if it came down to yanking it, the situation was pretty well frakked.
Seeb spotted her shadow that evening.
Jien had left a message in the restaurant, pleading urgent business and the promise to check in every day. Apparently, a xiǎodì – ‘little brother’- was to keep her company whenever she left the apartment. Subtlety an alien concept for most Triad rank and file, he threw the sneaky Asian/ninja myth off the roof faster than a police informant. He became a mute, tattooed, trench coat, mirror-shade Kua Fu forever six steps behind her. Seeb decided he made her previous bodyguard, Stepan, damn near a Mensa candidate.
The kid’s only claim to individuality was a red fauxhawk dyed the color of kimchee. She dubbed him Cabbage Head, and ignored him.
The only other person she saw with regularity was the little buck-toothed woman who sold fried bat and frosty bottles of Tsing-Tao beer from an ancient stainless steel pushcart.
The woman had several regular spots on the street, and she wheeled the heavy cart around its course single-handed, the batter-dipped, deep fried mammals swaying upside down around the rim of the sloped roof like sleeping tempura versions. Her sign had a grinning child with a bat-stick in each fist, inviting everyone to ‘Enjoy the crunch, crunch!’ Seeb figured if she had a kid – and she let him eat batsicles – she’d let him wash it down with a cold one.
Seeb made another discovery that night: she didn’t have to pay for a thing.
Jien had given her a list of stores for food, clothes, sundries, laundry, and such. If her fugitive status was secret, the shopkeepers sure as hell knew all about it. Her attempts to pay with from the stack of New Yuan Jien had left, were waved off with too-large smiles and lots of bows. Waitresses, owners, clerks were deferent to the point of obsequiousness. Maybe they were paying off debts, or billing the Triad later. Perhaps they took her for the Luckycat’s latest làmèi. Seeb couldn’t tell. Back at a corner table in the Hong Ying Rice Shop, she decided it wasn’t her problem, and ordered more crab and sake.
The fawning didn’t extend to electronics or Grid time. After tea and dessert, she sauntered into E-Ming’s Mini-Mart and tossed a prepaid Huawei charm, a garish thing with pink sparkles, on the counter with a pile of single-serve toiletries. The clerk plucked it out with a single apologetic shake of the head. She waved a wad of neon bills. Still no.
Seeb blushed up a bit of guilt, and gave him a shy ‘hey, had to try, didn’t I?’ shrug, then marched next door to a high end boutique and picked out an annual salary’s worth of knock-off Vestique outfits, including a reversible nano-pore leather jacket.
The bobbing salesgirl bundled everything in black tissue paper, then into a shiny white smart-bag with gold hanzi scrolling across the sides: ‘the beauty of freedom- the freedom of beauty.’ Fortune-cookie Confucius strikes again.
Cabbage Head held the door then fell in step behind her, Seeb humming along with the K-Pop all the way back to the apartment. A real Chinese proverb came to mind as she climbed the stairs. ‘A mountain cannot turn, but a road can.’
Seeb held that thought. In the apartment, she tipped the bag, black paper cocoons slithering onto the futon. She opened the reversible jacket first. Curry yellow under iridescent black-green.
“You bet it can,” she said to herself.
She followed Jien the next day.
They met for tea and fresh rolls, a Hong Ying lunch special, Jien alternately nattering on about cream he’d skimmed off a tech transfer to the moon colonies, and taking urgent messages on his Charm. His blue privacy haze fuzzed so many times, Seeb joked there was a cop car in the tiny restaurant.
Jien looked up and flashed his ‘I’m full of shit’ grin. “It’s nothing, babe. Forged Customs’ tags acting up… You know how it is – no matter how smooth you hack, some two-fifty fraks it up.”
Seeb made appropriate noises, half a fresh roll in her mouth. Made the effort to look interested and jealous, which she figured he expected. He had deflected all her questions about her stolen Charm and whoever was data-mining her Cloud. “It’s being taken care of,’ was all she got.
She accepted his bullshit with a smile, and played along. Jien was definitely strung tight – talking too fast, smiling too much – two tells she remembered from when they ran together. The bigger the job, the edgier he got. Way he was acting, he was neck deep in something tectonic. Fake RFID chips on desalination components had nothing to do with it.
Yesterday, he’d said the sky was falling. Seeb was damn sure the Triads weren’t waiting to get crushed.
She had flipped through the Toshiba’s NewsNets that morning. Aside a string of Clar1ty ODs on the waterfront – twenty-seven cases of Rapid Cerebral Hemorrhaging in the last two days – every channel featured a different specimen of former official, each one grimly speculating on the rising tension between the Orbitals and the Trade and Transit Authority. A number of prominent Senators were missing or presumed dead, and while conspiracies were waved off with contempt, there were nagging reports of accidents, explosions, and grainy video of gunmen. Fast, deadly, obviously trained gunmen.
The default demons were conjured yet again. Mention of Khalaf Jones and his Anachronists red-lined the threat level and brought phalanxes of Central Enforcement Armed Response units to Bradbury Space Port, Government Square, the mag-lev stations, ports and major intersections. Live-feed flashed across the screen; everything she’d seen in the KC vehicle coming in the other day, on steroids. One sequence even featured Kalkan Condotta private security guarding the massive Shumai hydro-plant, and the thought of Vasyl made something lurch in her chest.
That made up her mind.
She waved the screen off and immediately divided the entire stack of New Yuan between her purse and her pockets. Next, she double-checked on the wicked blade curled in her purse. Folded a plain black scarf beside it.
Then Vestique jacket, yellow side out.
“Color me gone,” she told her saffron reflection in the window.
Lunch ended, and after more lies and a kiss on the cheek from Jien, Seeb channeled her anger and dusted off some old skills. Been a decade since she had street-hustled, but some things really are like riding a bike…
First, she ganked a very nice, very expensive Bulgari charm from a woman’s bag in the booth behind her, then slipped a glass from the busboy’s tray. Both disappeared in the Vestique’s inside pocket. Seeb gave it thirty minutes before the woman noticed it missing. The DNA from the glass would be enough to activate it.
Following Jien was child’s play. Putting a reason to it was harder. Something to do with betrayal, proving to herself he was playing her. Maybe dig out the how and why.
Jien ‘Luckycat Wong’ Heng was too valuable to risk, which is why he stayed in A-town most of the time. What goes around comes around – unless you’re at the center. And Jien was definitely nestled in the core of the Triad universe, tight as a tick. He had bodyguards, but Seeb was confident they were watching him, not her. So she window-shopped down the crowded avenue after him, coy and careful until he ducked into an underground parking garage on the corner of Russo and Shenzhen. The very edge of A-town.
Even rusty, loosing Cabbage Head was simple: in with a department store mob, up an elevator, reverse the jacket to black, add scarf, then down and back on the street. She spied the kimchee rooster comb as she strolled out, darting around the first floor men’s wear. He’d lose a finger over it, or whatever it was Chinese gangsters did when one of their own fouled up. She gripped her purse strap tighter. Again, not her problem, she told herself as she crossed Shenzhen toward the garage.
Seeb stuck to the shadows, padded down the ramps. He likes to burrow, she reminded herself. Like his lair under the Go Hall. She kept going until she found him.
Lousy place for a tryst, a damp corner on the lowest level. Behind a concrete column, she was surprised to see Jien merited not one or two, but four bodyguards, none of them like Cabbage Head.
They stood with four other men whose high and tight haircuts and off-the-rack suits screamed ‘Central Enforcement’ louder than any siren. All of them clustered around the yawning rear doors of an unmarked white van. Inside, stacked boxes, the kind military or SWAT used for guns and gear. The dour cops appeared to be giving them to Jien.
Seeb frowned, studied the scene. A payoff? Some kind of trade? With Central Enforcement? What the –
A fifth man emerged from the van. Hackles rose on Seeb’s neck.
He didn’t so much step out as flow. Thin and pale, he moved like a water snake, insinuating himself into each location with the same lithe and poisonous motion. He was like the Grafters who killed Ferret. Only worse.
Seeb backed away, edging along the darkened wall like it was a ledge over a deep canyon. She didn’t know what she was seeing, but it was more than enough.
Another level up, she broke into a run, and didn’t stop until she hit the street.
On the sidewalk, she smoothed her scarf, jacket, forced herself to walk. Don’t draw attention, her heart pounded out. Nothing sketchy.
She hurried as fast as she dared until she found a narrow cut between two apartments. Tidy, color-coded trash bins lined the passage like giant plastic children’s blocks. The signs were English.
She was out of A-town.
Ripping the Charm out of the package, she pressed the glass on the sensor. There was a long sixty seconds when she wanted to scream before the LED lit green. She was on-line.
She waved up Vasyl’s private number.
“Who is this?” He answered on the third ring, his voice smooth and hard.
Tears welled up. “It’s me, krasavchik. Seeb.”
“Seeb? Where the frak are you? Whose number is this?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What happened? Stepan said some Chinese guys—“
“I’ve had nightmares. Come get me, Vasyl.”
She looked around. “Near A-town. A block or two up from Russo, where Shenzhen turns into Aldrin. By some apartments. Look for me in a black jacket.”
There was a pause as he passed the information on to someone. “I’ve got people nearby. Hang on, lubimka. They’re coming.”
Tears threatened to spill over again. “See you soon, then,” she choked out.
She waved the call off and crumpled against a wall. Ferret’s murder, someone framing her, sifting her Cloud, then trying to kill her. And now Luckycat lying, dealing with the CE. And that man… Thing. What the hell was he–
“Ms. Gilani? Seeb Gilani?”
Seeb looked up. Two men blocked the mouth of the alley. Not Asian – Caucasian, with what looked like comms gear bio-mods laced around their heads, slipped into their ears. Definitely not off-the-rack suits. “We need you to come with us.”
The one on the left pulled a neural stunner, ice-blue tip glowing like a pinprick of lightning. The right one kept his hand under his jacket. Seeb guessed it wasn’t gripping a stunner.
She dug into her purse, wrapped her fingers around the karambit’s handle. The cool metal curled flat against her underarm. She let the purse fall.
The one on the left shook his head. Smiled a sad little smile. “Ms. Gilani, there’s no need for that.”
The one on the right chuckled. “Ma’am, that’s inadvisable–“
There was a coughing sound, slapping like stone skipping on water. The man on the right took a step forward, stains blooming on his shirt. He looked puzzled, crumpled to the asphalt. In the sudden gap appeared a stainless steel pushcart with a little bucktooth woman holding a rather large handgun.
The other man dropped the neural stunner, clawed at his jacket. The gun spit again.
The woman spoke over the two prone bodies. “You. Come with me, now.”
Seeb held up her hands, the knife more question mark than threat.
The woman shook her head, made the pistol vanish. “Come – now. No time.”
Seeb started forward automatically. The woman impatient, stepped around the pushcart, as if to grab her, urge her on. She was at the first of the crayola-bright recycle bins when there was a loud smack on the brick wall across from Seeb, a slam at the end of the alley behind her.
Seeb flinched, eyes darting back and forth as the little woman was thrown toward her like a rag doll. Something like a smashed melon was at her feet. A grimace of buck teeth and one eye. A single thunderclap roiled down the street a millisecond later.
Ice splashed through Seeb, some arctic level of terror, and she ran.
Charm in one hand, knife in the other, down the street, with a white hot spot between her shoulder blades taut and itching. Ready to burst. She ran until her breath came in ragged gasps and her heart pounded in her ears but she didn’t stop until she saw a large black jeep tearing down the street toward her, Kalkan Condotta shield on the door. Stepan at the wheel.