Owen’s Gift: A Mel Destin Short Story
by D.M. Pruden © 2016
I slipped into the shadows of the alley, hoping nobody spotted me. It was a big risk for me to cross the little used street. I needed to find safer territory where blending in to the nooks and crannies of a more familiar landscape came naturally.
For a long time, I debated whether or not the security camera on the corner was active. I didn’t believe the Morality Police actually searched for me, but I couldn’t be too careful when outside of my home turf.
I should have called for a ride, but I didn’t trust anybody. Still, it had been a bad idea to go into New London alone. I didn’t know the streets, or the people. More critically, I didn’t fit in and seemed to draw inquisitive glances from everyone. None of the back ways were familiar, so I stuck to the main roads, hoping things would be marginally safer.
Despite dirty looks and upturned noses, I kept my head down and minded my own business. Most adults I passed moved aside to avoid touching a street urchin. I could deal with that. The judgmental stares that followed, burning into my back bothered me, though.
Things would be worse if I used the back alleys. There, the locals would not ignore my passage. I would be challenged and attacked as an outsider. Far safer to stick to the streets. The secret was to appear like I had a clue where I was going. Except I didn’t.
Cable, one of Skids’ boy bangers dropped me off to see the new client. He was familiar with the city and had a stolen hover bike. My pimp also trusted him not to rape me. The customer was some uptown executive type with a penchant for the kind of services Skids could provide. I got picked because he wanted a clean freshie, and had the credits to pay for one. The older girls were all high when the call came. Though only fifteen, I could pass for eighteen if people didn’t check too close. Most didn’t.
A clatter down the dark alley startled me. I peered up at the tall buildings that loomed over me to get my bearings. A few visible upper floors of the Sato Corporate office tower peeked above the local urban canyons. The tallest structure in New London was visible from everywhere. I had to travel another ten klicks before I would be in familiar territory. The setting sun had already vanished behind the skyscrapers and night would fall before too long. I needed to find safety before then.
Dodging between doorways, I constantly checked that nobody followed. This part of town was empty of people, a lot of the buildings boarded up or damaged beyond repair. Large chunks of concrete and other debris littered the streets from the last attack. Most of the people had been evacuated ages ago, leaving only my kind to skulk through the detritus in an effort to survive. The scene was a sharp contrast to the busy downtown I’d fled hours before.
The guerrillas’ bombings never happened in the city core. Only the poorer fringes ever got hit. Of course, regular air raids always occurred over Oldon, where I lived. It was like the Terrans and the Lunies had made some tacit agreement only to bomb or blow up the slums. It didn’t make any sense to me. War was supposed to be equal opportunity. I guess it didn’t matter here. If the bombs didn’t kill me, the locals would.
The sound of an approaching vehicle echoed off from the walls. I searched for what direction the noise came from, then decided to hide in one of the damaged buildings, hoping nobody else was inside. Crouching beneath the sill of a shattered window I listened to the source of the noise move slowly down the cluttered street. The familiar thrum told me it was a police maglev. The vehicle stopped and a scan beam shone through the broken pane and along the interior wall. I crouched lower and shivered. My ID wouldn’t fool them, and any chance of them merely amusing themselves with me and letting me go would evaporate once they found the object in my pocket.
I held my breath and didn’t move a muscle. Their motion scanners would pick up anything larger than a rat. My leg cramped as the beam seemed to linger for far too long.
And then it was gone and the hum of the maglev faded. I waited for another minute before dropping to my side and painfully stretching out my cramp. I almost jumped out of my skin when somebody spoke.
“You’re pretty good at that. I thought for sure you’d give us away.” The voice of a girl or boy, younger than me came from the shadows within the building.
“Who’s there?” I scrambled up against the wall. My hand closed around a palm sized chunk of concrete I’d picked off the ground.
“You’re not from around here. It’s okay. I won’t rat you to the scavies.” A boy, about eight years old, stepped out of the darkness. His clothes were more tattered than mine and he was covered in dirt. He regarded me carefully from ten metres away, preferring not to risk a closer approach. His face softened a bit and he said, “I got food and water in the back if you want some.” He sounded like he was trying to coax a feral dog.
“I’m not a wild’n,” I said, clutching my rock tighter.
“I know,” he said casually. He took a few steps into the interior of the building. “You coming?”
I glanced out the broken window at the advancing night. If I took my chances outside I wouldn’t make it very far now. If he had a gang inside waiting to gut me, they wouldn’t leave me alone out here if I declined his offer. Maybe they’d let me eat something before they did me.
I stood, but held on to my weapon. The boy smiled.
“My name is Owen,” he said.
He headed into the gloom and I followed, resigned to my fate. But I kept my rock.
After a couple of turns we emerged into a large abandoned warehouse. The air was dusty and carried the faint scent of piss and rat droppings. From a dimly lit alcove along the wall shone a light from a small lantern. Inside, I saw a tattered blanket tucked over a relatively new looking mattress. A worn pillow and a teddy bear with a missing arm were set at the head of the bed. Off to the side was a wooden box, serving as a table.
I gave the larger visible warehouse a good once over as we walked towards Owen’s little campsite.
“We’re the only ones here, if you’re wondering,” he said.
“Are you here alone?”
“Most of the time,” he said as he sat cross legged beside the dining table. He invited me to sit across from him.
“How come nobody else lives here?”
“They’re afraid of the soldiers,” he said while he fumbled with an old sack. He removed two fresh apples and placed them on top of the box.
I greedily snatched one and began to devour it. Owen grinned and bit into his own in a more civilized manner.
“What soldiers?” I asked between mouthfuls.
“About once every couple of weeks, a bunch of Loonies come in and set up all their stuff in the big space,” he indicated the warehouse.
“Don’t they see you?”
He smiled slyly and grasped a rope lying on the floor that I hadn’t noticed. He pulled on it and a metal grating swung down noiselessly, covering the opening completely.
“I close the door when I hear someone. I can watch them through the grill, but they can’t see me and don’t even know I’m here.”
I crawled to the barred entry and peeked through the holes. I nodded, impressed, and returned to the table. Owen placed two empty tin cans down and poured clean looking water into them from a large plastic bottle. I sniffed the contents. It was fresh.
“Where’d you scrounge all this food?”
“The soldiers bring all kinds of supplies. While they’re away I sneak around and help myself. You want some jerky?” He held outa small bundle of wax paper. I avoid jerky when it is rarely available. I don’t particularly like rat meat. But this seemed different.
“It’s beef,” he said around a mouthful.
I tentatively tasted the end. The salty, spiced meat was intoxicating and I devoured the exotic delicacy.
“How long have you lived here?”
“Two full moons. My old place got blown. I wasn’t inside, but saw the guys who blew it up. I followed ‘em here. They were gone the next day, so I checked the place out. They left some food and water and a few other things, so I figured they would come back.”
He chewed on his jerky with no further commentary. He’d found a place to hide from the scavies, the roaming gangs of scavengers who picked through the ruins of the old city. If they caught anyone like Owen or me, they would have their way with us and then kill and eat us. They tended to stay away from areas they might encounter armed resistance, and they probably understood this warehouse was regularly occupied.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them as I sat against the wall of the small space. I absently felt the object in my pocket while I tried to work out a plan to find my way back to my turf in the morning.
“You wanna play cards?” Owen held a dog eared deck in his hand that appeared far too thin to be complete.
“Uh, no, thanks,” I said.
He shrugged and dug into his sack for another item. I hoped he didn’t have another game. He removed a tattered old book. Reclining on his bed, he reverently opened it and began to read silently to himself. He mouthed each word as he stumbled his way through the first page.
“Where’d you learn to read?”
He blushed and pulled it protectively to his chest. “I can read just fine,” he said.
“I can see that. I asked you WHERE you learned.”
“My Mama used to read this to me before bed every night.” He stared into the space between us and a tear glistened and ran down his cheek.
“How old were you?” I asked gently.
“Five; after that it was just me and my sister, ‘cept she didn’t like reading to me.”
He sighed and put the book back into the sack. “She’s dead too. The scavies got her.” He reached for the tattered teddy bear to hug while continuing to stare into empty space. He laid down on the mattress and rolled over, showing me his back.
I watched him in silence for a long time, recalling my own struggles to survive. My mother didn’t die, despite my frequent wishes. She simply drank herself into oblivion, leaving me to fend for myself when I was a little younger than Owen. I tried to remember the last time I’d read a book.
I moved across the small space and found the bag containing Owen’s treasures. I pulled out the book; a collection of fairy tales. The corners of the pages were well worn for a few of the stories and I guessed that those were his favourites. I could easily imagine him asking his mother to read them night after night.
He sniffled softly, his back still towards me. My fingers found one of the well turned pages and I opened to the beginning of a familiar story. I leaned against the wall next to his bed and began to read Cinderella to him.
By the time I got to the part where the fairy godmother appeared, Owen rolled over and faced me. He pushed himself back and invited me to sit beside him on the mattress.
I read to him until he fell asleep, his head nestled into my ribs. Nobody ever read Cinderella, or any other fairy tale to me before. I identified with the story of a hard luck girl who is given a chance at a new life and seizes it. If only life were really like that. I thought a fairy godmother could come in handy.
The closest I ever came to one was an encounter with an old guy who offered to send me to school. Wilbur? Walter? Something like that. He gave me a card with his name and number. I thought it might be in one of my pockets, but couldn’t be bothered to look. It was some kind of a scam, I was sure.
I stretched and yawned. I really needed some sleep. Getting back to Oldon in the morning was my first priority.
I read four more stories before finally dropping off.
I awoke alone in the alcove. The lantern was missing and Owen nowhere to be found. With growing panic, I felt around for the opening to the little shelter, and banged my head as I emerged into the larger area of the warehouse. Beams of sunlight filtered through a crack in the ceiling, illuminating a pillar of suspended dust. A shuffling startled me and I turned to see Owen, lantern in one hand and his sack in the other. The eery light made his smile appear grotesque.
“Care for some breakfast?” A cheerful grin flashed across his face and he disappeared into his little cave. I debated whether I should take the opportunity to quietly leave.
“Uh, I gotta pee first.” My footfalls were muffled by the dust beneath them as I crept further towards the middle of the open space, searching for a way to slip out unseen.
“Are you coming? I have a nice ripe melon and some nuts.”
My conscience pricked me; a little brother I didn’t need. My priority was to return to my own turf. Skids would be mad enough I ran out on the client, even though he was dead when I discovered him. With Owen in tow, the situation would become far worse and I wanted no part in what would happen to him.
In reality, I had a more immediate problem than my pimp. I had no idea how to find my way back. I could spend days wandering the maze of unfamiliar streets and alleys before stumbling upon anything I recognized. The scavies could pick me off or the Morality Police arrest me long before I found my way alone. I needed help.
I returned to the alcove. Owen had laid out his treasure on the box top, equally portioning the spoils between us. Shame bubbled up inside me.
Despite my growing guilt, my appetite was still healthy and I wolfed down the breakfast.
“You know this area, huh?” I asked.
He puffed out his small chest. “I know the whole quad like the back of my leg.”
“Hand. You’re supposed to say, ‘…like the back of my hand’.”
“That’s the expression, dummy.”
“You sound like Eve.”
Warmth rushed to my face and I turned my head to hide my blush.
“Where do you wanna go?”
“You asked if I can find my way around.”
“Oh, um, I need to go home; to Oldon.”
His brow furrowed as he thought for a moment. “Yeah, I suppose I can show you the way. It’ll take us a couple of days.”
“Two days? I got here in an hour by hover bike.”
He sneered. “Do you have one now?”
“What? No, of course not.”
“The trip’s gonna take two days.”
A smug smile crossed his face and he bit into an apple produced from his magic sack.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “What do you want?”
“Nobody helps. What do you want for showing me home?”
He shrugged. “I don’t want nothin’.’’
“Bullshit. You want something from me.”
“I…I like spending time with you.”
“Owen, how long is the trip to Oldon REALLY supposed to take?”
He exhaled and lowered his gaze. “One day.”
I continued to glare at him.
He slumped his shoulders. “Okay, half a day.”
I don’t know why, but I said, “I suppose a day of travel would be fine.”
His face lit and he straightened.
“I brought enough food.”
“Are there any more apples? I’m still hungry.”
He happily tossed me one and took another bite out of his.
We exited and he lowered the grate in place. I dug into my pocket and panic seized me. I patted down my other pockets and frantically scanned the floor around me.
“Did you lose something?”
I didn’t reply. I opened the grating and crawled into the alcove, feeling the ground in the gloom. I scoured the mattress and turned over the blanket and pillow. Owen stood outside and watched. “Are you looking for this thing?”
He held a small metal cylinder, about the size of a finger. Awkwardly, I climbed out and snatched the object from his hand.
“I found that lying beside the bed when I got up. I was gonna ask you, but I forgot. Where did you find it?”
I didn’t want to tell him.
After Cable dropped me off to meet the client, I went up to the room. The bozo at the front desk gave me a dirty look, but never said anything. The hotel was not an especially high class establishment. The door was ajar when I arrived at the room. In the belief the customer waited inside for me, I waltzed right in to a scene I’ll never forget.
On the floor lay a man in a pool of congealing blood. There was little doubt he was dead and I didn’t want to stick around to be accused of anything. To return without being paid, would place me in deep trouble. I worked up my nerve and searched the body. There was no money on him, so I tore the room apart. Eventually, I found his wallet and the metal tube, but nothing else of any value. I pocketed everything and ran out of there.
“None of your business,” I said.
“I wasn’t gonna take it. I can get lots of those things if I want.”
He pointed to the warehouse interior. “The soldiers keep a lot of them over there.”
I turned the cylinder over in my hand. “What are they?”
“I dunno, but I think they’re important.”
I turned my attention to my prize.
“Hey,” he said, “do you think they’re worth anything?”
“There’s a guy who can tell us. He’ll buy it from you. We could sell a bunch of them.” Owen’s voice rose with excitement.
What he said made sense to me. Nobody would realize where these things came from, and if valuable, why shouldn’t we benefit? Skids would take the damned thing from me and do the same himself. This would be a chance for me to put a little scratch away for myself. I slid the object into my right pocket.
“Seventy, thirty,” I said, pointing to me first.
“Fifty, fifty or you can find your own way home.”
I regarded the kid in a new light. He could agree to any kind of split with me and lead me into an ambush.
“I dunno, we might draw too much attention if we show up with a bunch. We should only sell a couple.” I hoped my logic played to his greed enough that he might hurry back for the rest of the stash and I could escape.
Owen thought about my proposal for a long time. “Okay, seventy, thirty sounds fair. I can always come back for more.”
He led me to where the soldiers kept their supplies. A dozen large crates rested in a dusty corner containing what I assumed to be explosives, ammunition and weapons. Stored separately in a more specialized crate we found the devices, each individually wrapped in a foam filled casing. The care given their storage gave me a healthy fear for what they might be. He handed one to me.
“See, I was telling the truth,” he said.
I didn’t doubt his word, but decided to let him think what he wanted. I removed the cylinder and examined it. One end had a plastic tab jutting from what I thought was a lid. I pulled the tab and the top popped up.
“This is different from the one I have. This one is empty.”
We opened several more of them, finding them to be the same.
“This really sucks. What do you suppose is inside yours?” asked Owen.
“I dunno. I tried to pry it open, but it’s sealed up good. Some kind of electronic lock, I think.”
He pouted, clearly disappointed. “Well, the one you have might still be worth something.”
The empty tube found its way into my left pocket. I helped him put back the others and we departed to see Owen’s contact.
An hour later we stood in front of a seedy looking guy covered in 3D holo-tattoos. I couldn’t tell where his face ended and the tattoos began. The fence operated out of a pristine office block beside a number of legitimate businesses. This particular pocket of New London remained untouched by the war. The man turned my cylinder over in his hands several times. He didn’t seem to be so much examining the object as trying to work out a problem. He handed it back to me, shaking his head.
“No deal, kid.”
“Aw, c’mon Draco, this has gotta be worth a few credits,” whined Owen, sounding very much his age.
“I can’t move this thing. Where did you say you got it?” He scrutinized me, like he was committing my face to memory.
“I didn’t.” I stuffed the metal tube back into my pocket.
With nothing more to discuss, we said our goodbyes and walked out of his shop into the busy street. I nervously regarded every passing face.
“Too bad about those things not being worth anything,” Owen said after we turned into a quiet alley.
“They aren’t worthless.” I glanced back at the way we’d come. “He didn’t want to deal with us.”
“What are you…?”
I shushed him and pulled him into a doorway. Two men in business suits entered the alleyway behind us.
“Those two started following us when we left Draco’s,” I whispered.
Owen risked a nervous peak around the corner.
“What do we do?”
“Lose them. Any ideas?”
He examined me up and down. “Yeah, we can make this work.” He directed me to sit on the doorstep, he emptied the contents of his sack and wrapped it around my head like a shawl. After crawling into my lap, he placed a tin can with a couple of coins in it on the ground in front of us and handed me two pieces of fruit. He winked at me like he expected me to understand what to do and began wailing and babbling like a lunatic.
The approaching men looked at who made all the noise. Suddenly realizing what Owen’s plan was, I assumed the most pathetic face I could and held up the melon and the apple.
“Please, sirs, help a poor widow out?” We were dead, I knew it. Nobody was going to buy this act.
Both men sneered and peered further up the alley. Owen wailed louder and drooled, making them more uncomfortable.
“Please buy a lovely melon?” I held out the fruit.
They left, retracing their footsteps. Satisfied they had gone, Owen winked at me and wiped the drool from his chin.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
He shrugged while he put his things back into his sack.
“We need to get off the main routes,” I said. “Those guys meant business. They had guns under their coats.”
He thought for a moment.
“We’ll go underground.”
After scurrying through back alleys and abandoned buildings for over an hour, we found what Owen searched for. He lead me through a door and down a metal ladder into the basement of a destroyed building. We entered another door, painted with an odd graffiti symbol. I recalled seeing the same tag on or around every one of the doors or alley ways we’d passed through that morning.
“What’s this mean?”
“It’s the tag for the Trogs.” He opened the door, but I stood my ground.
“Who are the Trogs?”
“They’re my people, I guess.”
“Where do they live, Owen? Underground?”
We stared at each other for several seconds.
“They’re not scavies, if that’s what you’re thinking. They won’t hurt you.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow, but didn’t move.
“Are you coming, or what?”
My options were limited. With no other choice, I followed him through the door.
“If anyone tries to eat me, I promise I’ll kill you first,” I said, trying to sound menacing.
“It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
How did an orphan who lived like him come to be so damned optimistic? Whatever Owen had, I wanted some.
With his lantern our only light source, he led me through a labyrinth of tunnels and ladders, descending deeper below the city.
“Is that water?” The sound in the distance, echoed off the concrete walls.
“It’s the river. We’re almost there.”
He quickened his pace and I was forced to keep up or be left in darkness. We emerged into a huge cavern, lit with ancient looking electrical lights strung from the ceiling.
The brick faced buildings sported storefronts for various businesses. I saw grocers hawking their wares from makeshift tables in front of their stores. Metal workers, cobblers, butchers and dozens of other entrepreneurs vied for the attention of the milling crowd. Several hundred people teemed along the cobblestone path running up the centre of the tunnel between the buildings, each of them leisurely shopping at the underground street market.
“What is this place?”
“We call it Undertown.”
I gawked at the spectacle. “You live here?”
“Nobody lives here, silly. This is just where everyone gathers to buy, sell or trade.”
I’d never seen anything like it. Nothing like it existed beneath Oldon, as far as I knew.
Owen lead me into the throng to a small cantina set into the brickwork wall. We sat at table inside. It gave us a view of the comings and goings of the street without risking being observed. A portly, middle aged woman walked up to us.
“What mischief have you been up to, Owen? Why are you bringing strays down here?” She eyed me critically.
“Moira, this is my friend, Mel,” he said.
“Friend, eh? Is that so?” She gave me another once over and sighed before addressing me. “Owen is always showing off new friends down here, despite what he’s been told.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“This is different. Mel is from Oldon. I’m helping her get home.”
She carefully considered what she’d heard. Her face relaxed and she wiped her large, plump hands with her apron. “Oh, very well. You two are half starved. I’ve got a nice stew on the stove and Kenny made fresh bread this morning.”
She waddled back to the kitchen. Owen covered his mouth and giggled.
“She always thinks I’m half starved. Her stew is the best.” He sat back and turned his attention to the crowd outside.
Moira returned with two bowls and some bread, which we polished off in no time. A look of concern clouded her features when she came to retrieve the dishes.
“Kenny tells me some people are asking about two people who sound a lot like you and your friend.”
Owen and I looked to each other. “Who’s looking for us?”
She shook her head. “Kenny’s never seen them before, but they weren’t suits. What kind of trouble have you found, young man?”
“No trouble,” he answered, perhaps a little too quickly.
“Hmm, that isn’t what they told Kenny. They are offering a reward. It won’t take too long for somebody to point you out.”
Moria, seeing the fear her remark brought to Owen’s face, added, “You needn’t worry about Kenny. He does what I tell him, but the folks out there…” She nodded towards the bustling crowd.
Owen stood and gathered up his sack, but I was riveted to my seat. Outside the cantina was Skids in a heated discussion with the two suits who’d followed us into the alley. The taller of the men repeatedly pushed his finger into Skid’s chest, making a point. What bothered me was that nobody ever treated him that way. The conversation continued for a few more moments and then the suits abruptly departed, leaving Skids alone in the milling crowd.
“Owen,” I said, “we need to leave. Now.”
He nodded. “Moria, can we use the river door?”
“You don’t have much time before the water rises.”
“We’ll be quick.” He looked at her in earnest.
“Off you go, then. You know where it is.”
Owen led me through the cantina and into the tiny kitchen. Kenny, a sallow looking fellow, chopped vegetables at the counter. His eyes followed us as we made our way to a far corner. I helped Owen move some boxes to reveal a trap door in the floor. He opened the hatch to a ladder leading down towards a rushing underground river.
“There’s a catwalk off to the side. Come on, hurry up.” He climbed down. Kenny’s gaze bored through me as I descended and I understood in that instant we were out of time.
The rungs did not reach all the way to the gantry and I dropped the last metre. My boots clanged onto the platform. I caught my faltering balance on the spindly metal tube that served as a handrail and the only barrier preventing me from toppling into the rushing stream of water below.
I informed Owen of Kenny’s betrayal, but he refused to believe his friend capable of such an act. Before I could argue, the door above us opened again. In a few moments somebody would spot us. I pushed him and he turned to run down the unsteady metal gantry. The turbulent river rushed noisily beneath us, masking the sound of our clanging footsteps. Algae and weeds hung like rotting cloth on walkway and the handrails, indicating how high the rising waters would soon reach. My foot slipped and I fell, grabbing the equally slippery handrail. My legs dangled over the river as I pulled myself back up.
I looked back to see Skids and Cable climbing down the ladder and I raced to catch Owen. I desperately searched for some sign of an escape, but the eerie electric lights along the top of the tunnel cast deceiving shadows. We passed several other trap doors in the ceiling, but none had access ladders. Skids shouted at us and gave chase. We enjoyed about a two hundred metre advantage over him, but he and his man closed the gap between us.
Owen’s short legs pushed him as fast as they could and panic grasped at my beating heart. The water had risen since our descent and now lapped at the metal walk way, mere centimetres beneath our feet. There was little time before the level rose above our heads. We would be caught before then.
He would beat me. It would not be the first time and I didn’t fear that as much as I feared what would happen to Owen. Skids would take a cheerful, optimistic little boy who’d endured far too much misery and destroy him. He would be violated in every manner imaginable, broken by abuse and drugs and sold to somebody who would have even less respect for his personhood. He would be dismantled, body and soul. I’d watched Skids do it before. I didn’t know those poor boys, but I knew Owen, and I couldn’t bear the idea of such evil befalling him. How I came to care so much about a stranger mystified me, but care for him I did. We needed to escape.
Abruptly, we arrived at a wall, marking the end of the catwalk. A closed trap door was overhead, but any means to reach it had been removed long ago. The rising water now licked at our heels. Owen studied the rushing waters flowing over a spillway that dropped off ahead of us.
He yelled at me and I could barely hear him over the thundering rush of water. “Can you swim? This is the only way out.”
“No, I can’t.” I stared anxiously at the torrent beneath us.
His look of disappointment at my response changed to one of determination.
“Then we’ll fight them off.” He stepped protectively between me and the fast approaching men.
I had no idea what Owen believed he was capable of doing to defend me, but I wasn’t about to allow him to try. Skids and his man stopped running about twenty metres from us. He smiled with satisfaction at our entrapment. I turned to consider the water below and Owen’s plan for escape.
I placed a hand on his shoulder and moved my mouth close to his ear.
“I’m sorry,” I said to him.
I grabbed the rail for balance and swept his short legs out from under him with my own leg. He fell awkwardly onto the metal catwalk. While he was still confused and fighting to gain a handhold to pull himself up, I bent down and, with all of my strength, I rolled him off the platform into the raging waters. He disappeared from view as he was swept down the spillway. I hoped he was strong enough to stay afloat until he reached the safety he implied awaited us.
Hands seized me and pulled me to my feet to face an angry Skids. A vicious backhand across my jaw caught me off guard and knocked me back against the handrail. Cable grabbed my arms and held them securely behind me to prevent me from following Owen.
“Now you’ve gone and done it, you little bitch,” yelled Skids. He slapped me again on the opposite cheek. Strong hands prevented me from falling.
“I sent you on a simple trick, and you disappeared and took something that doesn’t belong to you.” He struck me again. “Where is it?”
I tasted blood. Glaring defiantly at him, I replied, “Where’s what?”
Another blow, this time with his fist. My cheek was numb and stars danced before my closed eyes.
“Don’t play dumb, I know what you have. Give it to me.”
Skids killed a girl once before. She’d stolen something from him. I don’t remember what she took, but he beat her to death, even after she returned it. There was no way I was going to escape this by resisting him.
“I hid it,” I said through swollen lips.
“Tell me where it is.”
“I’ll take you to it.”
He grabbed me by my hair and pulled my head back.
“If you kill me, you’ll never find it. I don’t think your pals in the suits will be too pleased with you, then.”
He released me and took a step back. “If you’re lying to me…”
“Look, I have no idea what the fucking thing is and nobody wanted to fence it. It’s not worth anything to me, so you can have it.”
I had no guarantee that he wouldn’t murder me anyway, but, like Owen’s deck of cards, I could only play with what was available.
“Why did you disappear?”
I explained to him all the events around the dead client and how I came across the object. “I was lost and couldn’t find my way back to Oldon, so I hired the kid to show me the way home.”
Skid’s face slackened as doubt entered his mind. Then he frowned again.
“Why did you run from us?”
“I didn’t know it was you. I thought you were the two suits who followed me. I saw them in the market and tried to get away.”
He weighed my explanation.
“Why did you push your little buddy into the water?”
“He was an annoying pest who was going to get us killed. You knew he had a knife on him, didn’t you? I saved your life, Skids, in case you didn’t realize it.”
He snorted. “Yeah, right. As if that kid coulda hurt me.”
“I didn’t think he needed a chance to try, so I dunked him. I figure you owe me a little consideration for that.”
“Well…maybe. But you still need to hand over the item.”
I’d played the final card of my weak hand. I couldn’t bluff my way any further. I hoped he valued me more alive.
“No problem,” I said. I tried to reach for it, but Cable still held my arms. I looked at Skids and he nodded for his man to release me. I produced a metal tube from my left pocket. He snatched the object from me and examined it carefully.
“It isn’t damaged, or anything,” I said.
Satisfied, he put the cylinder into his jacket. All bets were closed. Now was the time to learn if I played a winning hand.
“Take her back home and clean her up. She’s got some work to do to make up for the last two days. I’ve got some business associates to meet.”
Cable escorted me back the way we’d come, and not a moment too soon. The water was over our ankles and made the trip back to the ladder difficult. I hoped Owen was all right.
After Cable returned me to the brothel house everybody else expected Skids to follow and resume beating on me. I maintained no concern for my safety, and bided my time in my room. Three days passed without a word from him. Some thought the Morality Police nabbed him and would soon descend on the house and take us all for moral re-education.
When that didn’t happen they worried the scavies got him. Cable felt particularly guilty when that came up. Still others in the house thought they heard he died in a turf war ambush.
I remained confident none of those things were even close to the truth. I believed he fell into a bad business deal and paid with his life.
Out of my right pocket I produced a metal cylinder, noticeably heavier than the one I gave to Skids. The suits he met with knew more about the device than he did. They would realize when they were duped and they didn’t strike me as the forgiving types. I guess karma can be a bitch if she wants to.
I held concerns they might come looking for me, but after the third day I started to relax and believe they did not know about how Owen and I procured a second cylinder. They’d contracted him to retrieve the stolen item from me and…too bad for him. I smiled to myself until my bruised cheeks ached.
With him gone from my life, an open vista lay before me. Cable and all of us girls in the house now enjoyed the opportunity to create our own futures. The prospect frightened everyone.
I returned the metal object to my pocket and my finger brushed against something. I pulled out the business card the old man gave me many weeks before. The name of Walter Bickell stood out on it, and I recalled his offer to pay for my education. He told me the sky was the limit and I would make a fine doctor or engineer. I liked the sound of doctor. I didn’t have a clue what an engineer did. Whatever I chose, he offered to take me away from Oldon to build a new life. Maybe he was like the fairy godmother in the story I read to Owen.
A tear ran down my cheek as I remembered his cheery face. I worried I killed him by pushing him into the river. Didn’t he say he swam? Or did he only imply it? Did he hope I might be able to swim for the both of us? I wanted to console myself with the notion I saved him from something much worse. No matter how I considered the situation, my thoughts aways came back to the fact I pushed him. If he was dead, it was by my hand.
How could I accept the miraculous offer made to me if I was responsible for the death of Owen? Fate dangled an opportunity of a lifetime before me and my conscience would not allow me to seize it. I needed to learn if he survived.
I wasted almost an hour persuading Cable to return me to the city on his hover bike. I didn’t know where to find the warehouse, so he dropped me at the hotel where everything started.
I got lost as I tried to retrace my steps. I searched for recognizable shops and signs; anything indicating I was there before. Everything appeared different and the same, but not familiar. I spent most of the morning turning in fruitless circles before I thought to look above the canyons of the streets.
The Sato office tower loomed over every other building in New London, and served as a landmark for me to base my search upon. In another hour I walked along a road convinced I had been on before. I stood on the corner as the crowds of people flowed around me, peering from one end of the street to the other in search of some familiar sign telling me I was on the right track.
My eyes locked onto some graffiti in an alley way. I ran to it and examined the art work. Buried among the complex tags of multiple artists, untouched and isolated, stood out the symbol Owen explained to me was the mark of his people, the Trogs.
I hurried down the lane to the next street, where I discovered another one. I recalled how Owen used them to guide us around the labyrinth of streets and alleys. Within half an hour they brought me to Draco’s shop. From there I easily retraced our steps until I found myself before the wrecked frontage of the warehouse building.
I entered the darkened structure and pulled out the light I remembered to bring. I nervously followed the winding hallways Owen led me down when we’d first met, eventually emerging into the familiar empty space of the building’s interior.
With anticipation, I located the grate guarding his secret alcove. Peering through the holes in search of the lantern’s light, I saw only inky darkness. I pulled up the grating and shone my torch inside. There was no sign of Owen’s return.
My beam fell onto his bed and the tattered old teddy bear upon it. Grief overwhelmed me while I crawled to the mattress and hugged the tiny figure to my chest. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I sat in that place, consumed by guilt and regret. The flashlight dropped from my limp hands to the ground, its beam of light splashing on the wall beside the wooden box. There, in the corner, a dark object caught my attention.
I picked up Owen’s cold and damp magic sack.
My tears of grief were transformed into ones of joy. I couldn’t wait for his return so I could read to him another story.