Lisa Mason
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2019 by Lisa Mason.
Cover, colophon, and art copyright 2019 by Tom Robinson.
All rights reserved.
Bast Books Ebook Edition published July 9, 2019.
Bast Books Print Edition published August 13, 2019.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address:
Bast Books
Thank you for your readership! Visit Lisa Mason at her Official Web Site for her books, ebooks, screenplays, stories, interviews, blogs, cute pet pictures, and more. Enjoy!
Praise for CHROME
“An excellent semi-noir full-on SF work by a terrific author. . . .a science-fiction homage, in part, to the noir books and movies of the forties and fifties, only brought forth into a future time a quarter-millennium from now. . .  a fully-realized society.”
“So Walter Mosley reread Animal Farm and The Island of Dr. Moreau and says to himself, “Oh, yes indeed, I’ve got a terrific idea for my next best seller.” But! Lisa says, “Hold on, hot stuff. You’re too late. Chrome is already on the streets. Haha!
Wow! I just tore through Chrome. So much fun. Oh, I guess I should take a time-out to say that it was very well-written too, but I was enjoying the characters and the story so much that the superb writing simply did its job and I had to consciously reflect to notice the excellent and clever construction and reveals. Isn’t that the definition of good writing?”
—Reader Review
June 2020 Excerpt:
Descending at high speed from the fiftieth story of the Ucayali Building to the marble lobby, Luna Lightfoot stands two steps away from the infamous Dom Swifty Panterr.
He stares straight ahead at their reflections in the mirror of the elevator cab, his golden eyes hunter-cold. Growls softly to himself.
She smiles. This is as close to puma heaven as Lightfoot has been in a long time.
They log out at the front desk, step into the night-time throng on Seventh Avenue. She matches Panterr’s long stride, and passersby turn to gawk at them. Predator Blends with grudging admiration. Prey Blends with primal fear.
Panterr’s bodyguards trail at a distance. No one would mistake the steely-eyed lynx with their unfiled fangs and illegal pistols bulging in their jacket pockets as unaffiliated pedestrians strolling idly behind them.
“Don’t we make a glamorous power couple,” she jokes.
“In your dreams, Lightfoot,” he snaps. All trace of his ironic banter gone.
Oh, fine. She knows very well Panterr isn’t the kind of manimal who mates for life or even for very long. But it’s more than that. From his scowl she can tell he’s disturbed by her story. Maybe worried about what they’ll find at Hades. A nocturnal foray to Chrome City’s new morgue and crematory, both of them dressed in fancy evening clothes, cannot be his idea of an entertaining evening out on the town.
They turn east toward the Recycling and Reclamation District. The foulest place within Chrome City’s municipal limits. Lightfoot wrinkles her nose as they stalk past a recycling center reeking of garbage, waste products, and the chemicals used to sanitize everything. Through a wall of glass, she spies the squat figures, spindly arms, and bulbous eyes of insect Blends staffing the dimly lit center. Particularly pitiable heirs to Emirk’s experiments long ago, they are nothing if not efficient. They don’t require a lot of light as they scurry back and forth on their loathsome tasks. Like Lightfoot, they’ve got excellent vision when the sun doesn’t shine.
Two dung beetles in olive-drab dungarees squat on the curb outside, smoking illegal cigarettes. Conversing in low, scratchy whispers.
She and Panterr walk past an electric-battery-and-hydrogen-fuel-cell emporium with its own specialized recycling operation, plus a repair shop. The huge neon-lit window showcases a dozen tiny candy-colored hydrocars poised on jacks awaiting work in the morning. Beaver mechanics will get the job done with their long, strong fingers and thick, hairy hides stained by grain motor oil.
Lightfoot shrugs. She’s never owned a hydrocar. Between the trams with routes encircling the planetoid, an occasional taxi, and her own two limber legs, she has no need for such a rare and costly possession. She’s content without a hydrocar.
“This way,” Panterr growls. Strides down a dark, mean-looking alley toward a warehouse.
Lightfoot sniffs, her discerning olfactory sense identifying the smoky stink of burning flesh. As if she needs further proof, a metal sign riddled with bullet holes identifies the place:
Chrome City Morgue and Crematory
“Hades?” she whispers.
“Hades,” Panterr snaps.
“Chromians use the sign for target practice?”
“Yeah.” He turns to her with a mirthless grin, baring the full curve of his fangs. A Feralist, after all. “I used the sign for target practice myself,” he says, “after a wolf pack tore out my father’s throat and I took his corpse here for cremation. Made me feel a little better to plug some holes in a sheet of cheap steel.”
“Oh.” Startled by his revelation, she starts to murmur sympathies. Then bites back her words. Panterr wants no sympathy. She files his father’s murder in her memory for further use.
Two Chrome City Coroner’s vans crowd the alley, plus a private limousine. A busy night for death on our planetoid, Lightfoot thinks unhappily. Panterr pushes open the double doors of smeary glass and strides inside. He doesn’t hold the doors open for her, and they slap back in her face. She pushes through them herself, doesn’t hold the doors open for the bodyguards, either, and they slap shut behind her. Take that.
Morgue staffers in gray-and-white uniforms stride around the overly bright autopsy room. Checking bare feet for tattooed social numbers. Scribbling on notepads. Loading corpses onto autopsy tables or unloading them. Some staffers shove corpses into the lime-green drawers lining the walls or pluck them out.
The staffers—from their knobby bald heads, mottled red double chins, smallish clawlike hands in blue latex gloves, and shuffling gait—are a raptorial Blend.
Lightfoot shivers. She likes accipitridae families even less than chiroptera. But the shiver is more than her distaste for scavenger birds. The morgue is as cold as an ice box. After the sultry spring night, she has to wrap her arms around her ribs. She’s a hot blood. Her metabolism may run fast, but she hates the cold.
A couple of dog cops mingle in the crowd, woofing intently with a staffer. A bearded barn owl holding a faux-snakeskin physician’s bag peers at the corpse of an antelope man sprawled on a dissection table.
Lightfoot takes a sharp breath, steadies her nerves. An unexpected thrill pierces her at the sight of the antelope. A forbidden thrill.
Panterr strides among the staffers, heads off to a chamber deeper within the warehouse. Lightfoot follows. Another sign points the way: Crematory.
The crematory is swelteringly hot and arid as a desert. That’s better. Lightfoot’s shivering eases, but not completely. The place is too creepy. More vultures yank open huge steel doors, revealing the leaping flames of Hades. Slide naked corpses on numbered pallets into the ovens.
Is this the way failed experimental subjects were disposed of by Emirk Corporation centuries ago? Lightfoot wonders.
But these aren’t experimental subjects. These are Chromians who have lived out their lives and died.
A little vulture woman hunches over an antique keyboard with a piece of paper threaded around a rubber roll, a ribbon of inked cloth scrolling through a platen. When she taps the keys, steel arms tipped with letters, numbers, and symbols strike the inked cloth, leaving impressions on the paper. The staffer laboriously taps information onto a printed form.
Lightfoot peeks over the vulture’s shoulder. ID (name, social number, Blend), date of birth, date of death, cause of death, time of cremation, next of kin, and so on. The morgue must not have much of a budget, making do with such primitive equipment.
Lightfoot’s acquisitive streak kicks up its heels. An antique typewriter, ooh. She glances around. Is it nailed down?
“Who’s in charge here?” Panterr roars, startling the staff half out of their wits.
That’s a good place to start, the supervisor. But if skullduggery is going down, the supervisor may not have a clue. Or may be the first one in on the take. Lightfoot holds her tongue and allows the criminal kingpin to conduct his investigation the way he wants to.
A tall vulture shuffles forward, the high dome of his bald head wreathed with wispy black hair. Wire-rim spectacles planted on his long, narrow nose. He whips the spectacles off. Hostility gleams in his beady yellow eyes. Charming. Though he is kind of virile, Lightfoot notes, looking him over. Lean. Buff biceps. For a vulture.
“I call the shots for this shift.”
Panterr seizes the vulture’s arm, yanks him aside. “Your name?”
Lightfoot joins the party. Watching. Sniffing. Listening.
“Vinnie Gorge. And a pleasant evening to you, too, Dom Panterr.”
“You know who I am?”
“Only from what I see on the Instrumentality.”
“Stay informed, Vinnie Gorge, and listen up. It has come to my attention tonight that a scam is going down at Hades. A scam connected with the Kinski murder. I want a piece of it.”
Lightfoot stares. Is Panterr serious? Is he bluffing? She reserves judgment. A criminal like Panterr is always on the take. Always looking for an opportunity. She could learn a thing or two from this manimal.
“You don’t want no piece of this lousy business, Dom Panterr.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
The little vulture pushes back from her typewriter, trots up to them. “Hey, Gorge. Got another one of them presto jobs. Same instructions. Burn all of it as soon as possible.” She consults a notepad. “Pallet seventy-six.” Narrows her eyes at Lightfoot and company, suddenly realizing they don’t belong here. Maybe realizing she’s just said something she shouldn’t.
“Thanks, Cathae,” Gorge says, shooting a warning look. She shrugs and shuffles off.
“Want me to take a peek at pallet seventy-six, Dom Panterr?” Lightfoot mutters.
“No, stick around. That stiff’s not going anywhere until we take it.” At Gorge’s sputtered protest, Panterr points out, “The puma lady is my street muscle. Gets her thrills out of hunting birds for sport.” He nods at his lynx bodyguards. “Same for them. So lay it out, Gorge.”
Vinnie Gorge widens his eyes at Lightfoot and the bodyguards. “Ain’t nothin’ to lay out. Guy comes in with a body bag. Pays extra to skip the standard ID and autopsy and a bit extra more to move the body to the head of the line bound for the fire. That’s it. That’s all. The bit extra ain’t worth your time, Dom Panterr.”
Panterr’s predator’s eyes just about burn two holes through the vulture’s long, narrow face. “I don’t think that’s all.”
“But I’m tellin’ ya—”
“Don’t make me repeat myself. Is the coroner’s office in on it?”
“Nah, they don’t know nothin’.”
“What are they? Who are they? Murder victims? A species gang war? You see, Vinnie Gorge,” Panterr says reasonably as he shoves the vulture against the wall and seizes his scrawny neck. “I need to know what my competition is up to. Maybe I can learn something new and different.”
Lightfoot grins. She could definitely learn something new and different from Swifty Panterr.
“How should I know if they was murdered?” Gorge squawks, fear boiling in his yellow eyes. “The coroner never gets a gander. Part of the deal.”
“Who set it up? When?”
“Three, four months ago, this guy comes in—”
“What guy?”
“He don’t exactly tell me his name,” Gorge says sarcastically. Which is either terribly brave or terribly foolish with Panterr’s massive hand gripping his neck.
“What kind of Blend?” Panterr says.
“Beats me,” Gorge says. His sallow cheeks flush. “I can never tell somebody’s Blend. Especially if they’re of a different species, y’know?”
Lightfoot and Panterr trade looks. He’s lying.
“So he comes in that night with a stiff in a body bag. Brings it back to the ovens. Nobody out front gets in his way. Maybe them chemicals make ‘em soft in the head.” Gorge adds, “He’s wearin’ a cap and a suit jacket.”
“Like a chauffeur?” Lightfoot chimes in. “Like the driver of a limousine?”
“Yeah, maybe.”
Panterr bares his fangs. “And then what happened? Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“We talk. His terms sound okay, I say sure. Just doin’ my job like I always do.”
“Cathae said ‘burn all of it,’” Lightfoot says. “Hades doesn’t ever cremate less than a whole corpse. What is ‘all of it’?”
Panterr gives her a heart-stopping glance. Looks at the vulture. “Answer the puma lady.”
Gorge swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his bony throat. “Stiff always comes sealed up in a body bag. Guy’s orders are don’t open nothin’. Burn everything, bag included.” He sniffs self-righteously. “The bit extra pays for that, too. All the other stiffs go into the fire in their birthday suits. No clothing, no shoes. For sure, no body bag. That would create extra smoke and air pollution. I gotta file a monthly report with the Bureau of Atmospheric Quality and Control about our emissions, y’know.”
“We sure don’t need air pollution on Chrome with our synthy cloud cover,” Lightfoot says. “That’s why cigarettes are illegal.”
“You can say that again,” Vinnie Gorge says and coughs. That tell-tale little hack of a longtime smoker.
“Does Cathae get something extra, too?” Lightfoot says.
“She gets a small remuneration for cooperatin’,” Gorge says. “I do all the dirty work. This is my racket.”
Lightfoot goes for it. “So you got curious after thirty, forty sealed bags showed up? I know I would. You opened one of the bags and saw something odd in there. A venom job, maybe?”
Panterr slants her a glance. Annoyed with her for butting in or pleased with her brilliance? She’s hoping for brilliance, but can’t tell.
“I ain’t no doctor.”
Panterr bangs the vulture’s head against the concrete wall. “Talk, Vinnie Gorge, and I’ll think about ordering my bodyguards not to follow you home after your shift ends tonight.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t know what freakin’ killed ‘em!”
“Fair enough,” Lightfoot says, playing good puma to Panterr’s bad. “So you decided to collect more than a bit extra on account of what you saw.”
“Somethin’ like that.”
Panterr jumps in. “How did Zena Kinski get involved?”
“I mentioned it to her one morning,” Gorge says.
“While you were in bed,” Panterr finishes for him.
“Zena Kinski in bed with the likes of you?” Lightfoot says.
She shoots an admiring look at Panterr. Nearly swoons to see he’s gazing back at her. We make a good team and a glamorous power couple, she wants to say. But doesn’t. Pumas don’t travel in prides or form couples. He’s a loner. She’s a loner. They’re both Feralists. That’s the way of their ancestral beast.
But Lightfoot suddenly finds herself holding onto hope. They’re Blends, not beasts. They’re half human.
“Sure, why not,” Gorge says. “We’re both avians. I’m a huge fan.” He frowns, his face drooping with sorrow. “Was a huge fan. I showed up at the stage door for an autographed picture. We became Blend-friends, and more. I make steady money. She was always worried about ending her career on the stage. She needed a bodyguard. I was happy to help her out.” He sniffs. Looks up at them fiercely. “Help her out in every way.”
Lightfoot nods. “What’s the account issuing the credits? Whose name is on the account and how did you set it up with the payor?”
“That’s enough,” Panterr snarls at her. “I’m handling this.” He glares at Vinnie Gorge. “Where, like the puma lady asked, do the credits originate and from whom?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t know.”
Panterr pulls the vulture away from the wall. Slams him back so brutally, his head bangs against the concrete hard enough to draw blood and raise a bruise. “Think carefully, Vinnie Gorge. Think fast.”
“That was Zena’s thing! I told her about the deliveries, she did some research. Got a bead on the guy giving orders, I don’t know how. Honest,” the vulture adds, a dishonest sheen to his beady yellow eyes. “With them body bags comin’ in every night, I didn’t want to know.”
“And the credits?” Lightfoot says, butting in again. She doesn’t take orders from Panterr.
“They’re free-trade credits, what else? Streamed through a triple-blind account. Generic. Code-free. Transferable by the holder, any holder, to any recipient.”
Panterr listens, head cocked to one side. His thick, pink tongue flicks over his lips. Bet he’d like to get his paws on more of that kind of currency. So would Lightfoot.
“I didn’t ask no questions,” Gorge says with a shrug of his pointy shoulders in a feeble attempt to pull free of Panterr’s grip. “I deposit the bit extra in my account. The big pay-off, that was up to Zena.” The vulture hangs his knobby head. A greasy brown tear leaks from his eye. “I would never have let her meet him all by herself if I’d known how dangerous the guy was. Cripes, I miss her.”
Lightfoot turns to go. Their business here is finished. She can’t wait to escape the charred stench filling her nostrils.
“That’s not good enough, Gorge,” Panterr says, showing no sign of leaving.
“That’s all I got, Dom Panterr.”
The little vulture woman shuffles over. “We’re ready to go on seventy-six,” Cathae squawks. Aims her yellow glare at Lightfoot and Panterr. “I need you to sign off, Gorge.”
“That’s not all you’ve got, Vinnie Gorge,” Panterr hisses.
“I swear!”
“Actually, I do believe he’s got nothing more. Other than another suspicious body bag on pallet seventy-six. Which we need to take,” Lightfoot says. “Right, Dom Panterr?”
“Very well.” He releases Gorge.
The vulture slumps to the floor on his knobby knees, gagging and rubbing his neck.
“Luke, go collect the bag. Danny, wink a cab,” Panterr tells his bodyguards. “And wink Doc Caduceus. Tell him we’re coming over to his office. With a patient.”
“A patient, Dom Panterr?” the lynx bodyguard growls.
“A patient who requires his immediate attention,” Panterr says in his ironic way.
“We?” Lightfoot says. “Does that include me, Dom Panterr?”
“Yeah, I want you along, Lightfoot. Another pair of puma eyes.” Panterr kicks Vinnie Gorge out of his way. Stalks out of the crematory.
Lightfoot smiles slyly. Progress. This is progress.
Creepin’ cryptids, he’s been, like, waiting in this lousy alley outside of Hades all freakin’ night. Good thing Jimi Kinyonga wears his bomber jacket with the faux-mouton collar. The thick faux-leather warms Number One’s skinny butt in the chill of a faraway dawn that is taking its sweet time to crawl over the horizon.
Not that his wait has been a waste. Far from it. The things he’s seen. Who knew the Chrome City Morgue could be such a lively place to hang out at for the duration of an evening? Half a dozen coroners’ vans came and went. A fancy limousine. A couple of dog cops. An owl with a doctor’s bag. And four wild felines, two great big tall ones, two smaller ones trailing after.
The feline Blends went inside for a while. Then a cab showed up, nosing its way down the alley, and they all came back out. The two smaller felines carried a body bag. They all climbed in the cab and drove away.
Kinyonga had scratched his head. What was that about? Since when do Chromians take a body bag out of the morgue?
Unless whatever was in the bag wasn’t a corpse.
Kinyonga puzzles over that. Is it likely there wasn’t a corpse in the bag? He doesn’t think so, but what does he know? If you can think of a hundred illegal things that can be done with a body bag—smuggle drugs, smuggle weapons—so can a hundred other crispers.
So what’s in the bag? Besides, maybe, a body?
Kinyonga isn’t sure what kind of felines they were. Wild feline Blends, especially the Feralists, all look the same to him. Kick-ass strong. Fangs and claws. Enviably graceful. Meaner than mean. He never wants to go up against a wild feline unless he’s got a serious weapon on his person. Preferably a loaded gun. Though his blowgun and a poison dart would do.
The four felines and their body bag will remain his private observation. The Big Boss has paid him to report back on who Zena Kinski’s connection was at Hades. Who and what that Blend is. What that Blend knows. How Kinski and her ally connected the crazy-quilt dots to the Big Boss and his big-deal secret evil enterprise. That’s it and that’s all.
The Big Boss hasn’t paid him to report back on anything else. Other activities and other Chromians he observes tonight are Number One’s proprietary information.
Kinyonga smirks. Earlier he’d fretted over how he could nail Kinski’s inside connection. Someone who works at Hades or spends a lot of time there. A morgue staffer, a cop, maybe a medical examiner, the Big Boss had said. What kind of sorry lead is that?
As he’d loitered in the alley procrastinating, grinning at the bullet-hole-riddled sign, and generally dreading going inside, he’d hatched a scheme. He would mute his hair and his beard. Wander in, wander around. See what he could see. Ask a bunch of questions. Ask the manager for a job. Drop Kinski’s name. Such a shame. You ever see her dance at the Megametro? See if anyone did a knee-jerk.
It wasn’t the greatest plan for a genius like Number One. But it was all Kinyonga had.
Then Lady Luck smiled on him, as she so often did.
Someone slipped out a back door leading to the lane beside the morgue lined with recycling bins. Someone slipped out so quickly and quietly, Kinyonga might have missed him if he hadn’t goggled his left eye in that direction.
Where does he think he’s going?
Kinyonga stood motionless, camouflaging himself against the brick wall. He saw the flare of a match, smelled tobacco smoke. He caught a glimpse of the smoker. Well, what do you know? It was the vulture, Vinnie Gorge. The very same Vinnie who had stood beside Zena Kinski at the stage door. Boyfriend or bodyguard? Who knew? Who cared? Vinnie and Zena, they’d been close. It was Vinnie Gorge, beyond a doubt.
The vulture stepped into a narrow space between two recycling bins. A little hidey-hole where he could enjoy his illegal addiction unnoticed. He was all but invisible to anyone in the alley or in the parking area in front of the morgue. Good work, Vinnie. Kinyonga has the highest appreciation for anyone who knows how to hide and hides well.
Over the course of the dreary night, Gorge’s gambit went on and on. He must have stepped out for a ciggie break six or seven times. Make that eight. Dang, what are all his ciggie breaks costing us hardworking Chromian taxpayers? Not that Jimi Kinyonga pays any income taxes.
So, okay. Kinyonga knew Vinnie’s name and Vinnie’s Blend. That part of the job, which had seemed the most daunting, was done. Then he fretted over how he was going to approach Gorge. Finesse the information the Big Boss wants.
How did you discover the Big Boss’s identity? Who else is involved? How did you discover this thing, whatever it is the Big Boss is covering up?
His mind darted, flitting to one line of questioning, then another. It occurred to ol’ Jimi that the Big Boss hadn’t ordered him to find out what the Blend knows about this thing. Everything else but what, exactly. When he’d asked what kind of dirt, the Big Boss had put him off. You don’t need to know. Here he is running errands for the Big Boss again, and he himself has not been fully informed what the big-deal secret evil enterprise is.
That is unacceptable to a cold-blooded mercenary like Jimi Kinyonga. He needs to have a talk with the Big Boss. He needs a clarification. And soon.
Thanks to Vinnie Gorge and his tobacco habit, now Number One knows what to do. He’s got a plan.
He puts his plan into action.
Good thing Kinyonga always carries ciggies on his person, though he himself doesn’t partake of the demon weed. Good thing he always carries cram, too, which works well in the diurnal niche when you need to sort through twenty thousand stolen Winchester rifle parts. The cheroots of soot he also always carries have the opposite effect, a soporific effect, and he likes to toke those once in a while, but only after diurnal business is done. In his experience, Blends who dig tobacco also dig cram or soot. Sometimes both.
He also carries a switchblade, his beloved blowgun and poison darts, and a wire. The wire is a strip of plastic-covered metal he threads through the belt loops of his jeans and fastens at his waist.
That is how Number One comes equipped for a job.
The dawn shift begins. Two dozen Blends trudge up the alley, heading for the double doors of Hades. The night shift ends, and two dozen other Blends trudge out of the doors and down the alley. Talking quietly among themselves. Tapping their Tatts. Lighting up ciggies.
Kinyonga shakes his head. Dang, someone needs to sit them down and have a heart-to-heart. Don’t they know they’ll wind up on one of their tables in Hades too young if they don’t lay off the demon weed?
Most of both shifts are vultures, ugly as mud with their knobby bald heads. Double chins dangling off their jaws, all reddish-looking like a nasty rash. Kinyonga would hang himself if he had to work a daily gig with scavenger birds.
And here comes Vinnie Gorge, saying goodbye to a little vulture woman he calls Cathae. Lighting up another ciggie, his fingers nervous and fumbling.
Kinyonga sheds his brick-wall camouflage so he looks like a regular lizard man in a pretty cool bomber jacket. He erects the blue spikes of his hair, the yellow spikes of his beard. Gives himself that nocturnal-niche hustler vibe. He steps out of the shadows into Vinnie Gorge’s path and mutters, “Ciggies, cram, soot.”
“What?” Gorge says. Up close, the vulture’s long, narrow face looks haggard. A sizeable blue bruise swells on the side of his head beneath the thinning hair. Dark circles underscore his beady yellow eyes. If Kinyonga is not mistaken—and Number One is seldom mistaken—those eyes hold fear. Naked fear.
He’s afraid of me? No, Kinyonga doesn’t think so. Then of what? Of whom?
“Can I interest you in a taste tonight, brother?”
“Beat it, beastie boy.” Gorge walks on with the flock of other staffers, hastening his stride. “I don’t truck with no reptiles.”
Maybe it’s because he’s been standing out here all night, freezing his skinny butt off. Maybe it’s because he’s bone-tired. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t like the putdown of his reptilian class by a freakin’ raptor bird.
Whatever the reason, anger starts to sizzle in Kinyonga’s chest. He maintains the smirk, stretching his lips until they ache. Trotting to keep pace with the vulture’s long stride. “Sure I can’t interest you in a cheroot of soot, brother, now that you’re off of work?”
“I don’t got any free-trades on me.”
“This one’s gratis.” At the vulture’s blank look, Kinyonga adds, “Free. On me. So you can develop an all-consuming taste for the wares and come back to me for more.”
Gorge steps out of the flock. Sidles over to the brick wall. “Okay. Gimme a taste and be quick about it.”
“Sure.” Kinyonga reaches into his jacket for a cheroot, a pack of matches. Flips the cheroot through his two front fingers, then through the three hind fingers. It’s his favorite bar trick. The chickie-birds love it.
Gorge just stands there, a disgusted look on his sallow mug. Kinyonga hands him the cheroot with a flourish, strikes a match, lights him up. He waits until the vulture has taken his first deep draw of the dirty-smelling intoxicating smoke before he starts.
“You like, Vinnie?”
“It’s okay.”
Kinyonga waits, smirking. Smirking. Until Gorge’s yellow eyes dart up at him, widening with alarm.
“How do you know my name?”
“Your gorgeous girlfriend called you that a minute ago when you said goodbye.”
“She ain’t my girlfriend.”
“My mistake. I stand humbly corrected.” He waits for Gorge to take another draw. Finesse, the Big Boss ordered. This will take some finesse. “I can see why. A specimen like you who got to hang around with the late Zena Kinski wouldn’t be interested in a carrion-eater like her.”
Does Jimi Kinyonga have Vinnie’s full attention? Yes, he does. Gorge plants his fist on Kinyonga’s chest, shoves him against the brick wall.
Kinyonga is ready for the move. Sidesteps. Darts away.
“How do you know I knew Zena?” When Kinyonga only smirks, he shouts, “I said how?”
“Take it easy. I get around in the nocturnal niche. I hear things. You wouldn’t believe the things I hear. Like I heard that Kinski spilled a story about you and Hades to the Blend who met her at Bunny Hedgeway’s Jamboree party. That Kinski told him a scam was going down and you’re running the show. I heard that you and she were trying to squeeze a lot of credits out of the Blend and that’s why he killed her.”
With an inarticulate cry, Gorge charges at him. Drops the cheroot. Balls his fists.
Kinyonga skips away, just out of reach.
“Zena would never rat me out like that.”
“Just tellin’ you what I heard, cryptid.”
“Where? Where did you hear it?”
Kinyonga shrugs. “Here and there.”
“You heard nothin’. It don’t amount to nothin’. It’s a lie.” Gorge is weaving on his feet, the first toke of soot—it’s particularly strong soot—disorienting him. “What’re you doin’ here?” he slurs. “What do you want?”
“I just want a Blend-friendly talk. Like what we’re doing.”
“Go stuff yourself, mutant. I should kill you right now. Dump you in an oven. I got friends on the dawn shift.” He moves toward Kinyonga, scowling. Clenching and unclenching his fists.
“That’s no way to behave.” Kinyonga easily darts away. Thank goodness he stayed clean tonight. “I said let’s talk.”
“I got nothin’ to say to you, you mangy slitherer.”
“I am not mangy. I have never been mangy.”
“Beat it before I wring your lizard neck.”
“No, I don’t think you’re going to wring my neck.” Inspiration strikes Number One. Wild felines taking a body bag out of the morgue. “I think you’re going to tell me how you discovered the identity of the Blend who is on the other end of the body bag scam.”
Gorge laughs in disbelief. “Why should I do that?”
“Actually, you don’t have to. I can guess.”
Pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, and Kinyonga’s nimble mind sorts through them. The Big Boss has been keeping him in the dark for too long. That has got to change.
“So, like, this Chromian stops by the morgue in the dead of night, ha ha, and drops off body bags. Only the body bags don’t contain corpses. They’ve got something else inside. You get something under the table to act as the middleman. Everything done by delivery boys. Then one night, you step out into the lane for a ciggie, like you did eight times tonight, and you see the mastermind. With your own eyes. He’s waiting in a car in the parking area while the delivery boy goes inside. You recognize him from the Instrumentality. You tell the Lady Kinski and she sets up the scam. Only this Blend—I’ll call him the Big Boss—needs to talk with her in person. She goes to the Jamboree party intending to blackmail him and the Big Boss kills her. Have I got that about right?”
Vinnie Gorge stares. After a silence, he says in a strangled voice, “What do you want?”
“I want you to tell me what’s in it for me.” Kinyonga fingers the blowgun in his pocket.
“Why should I do that?”
“You ask a lot of dumb questions.”
Vinnie Gorge continues to stare.
“Hey, mutant, I can be useful to you. More useful than you know. I’ve got connections.”
“Like who?”
“Blends in high places. Who else at Hades is on the take?”
Gorge glowers at him, suspicion simmering in his eyes. “Nobody. Me and Zena, we were the only ones.”
But from the twitch of his mouth, Kinyonga knows he’s lying. Cathae? Kinyonga files that speculation away for future reference. Shakes his head regretfully. He has contempt for bad liars. “If you say so. What did you and Zena see that’s so incriminating you thought you could get away with blackmail?”
A crafty look steals over Gorge’s face. “Oh, now I get it. You freakin’ don’t know what you’re freakin’ talkin’ about. You’re a cheap street hustler who heard loose talk in a bar. Dreamed up this cockamamie story. Now you think you can worm your way into my action. I don’t think so. I’m tellin’ you nothin’. I can handle this myself. You’re of no use to me, splicer. As if I would ever partner up with a reptile. I said beat it. Now beat it.”
Splicer. How Jimi Kinyonga despises that insult. Splicer. Splicer implies a half-baked, stitched-together ghoul. Not the wondrous evil miracle of modern science all Blends are on Chrome. That he is. His impatience with the long wait, his contempt for the vulture conspire in his chameleon heart, sending murderous fury through his blood.
He darts at Vinnie Gorge, who wildly strikes out with his fists, punching the air. Kinyonga evades the vulture’s intoxicated moves. Darts around him. Darts behind him.
Kinyonga strips off the plastic-covered wire from his belt loops—it’s called a garrote, if you want to get technical—whips the wire around Gorge’s throat. Thrusts it under the vulture’s wobbling double chins.
Gorge flails and hacks with a choking sound. Strikes over his shoulder with his fists. But he can’t reach Kinyonga and Kinyonga, who has practiced this move before, has practiced and succeeded, tightens the garrote. Quick and hard and unrelenting.
It doesn’t take long for Vinnie Gorge to go slack. To fall to his knees. To fall on his face on the cobblestones.
Kinyonga flips out his switchblade. Reaches for Gorge’s flopping hand to slash his Tatt.
A vulture girl hurries up the alley, late for work on the dawn shift. She takes one look at him, bending over the body crumpled on the pavement, and she screams.
“Murder! Murder! Murder!” in a screechy hysterical voice.
Two dog cops lope out of Hades, tongues lolling between their filed fangs. Pulling out billy clubs.
Kinyonga pockets the blade. Steps back from the body. Camouflages himself against the brick wall of the alley. He stands very still, though he’s shaking all over. After the cops cart the late Vinnie Gorge into his former place of employment, Kinyonga creeps away.
Dang, he hates it when a girl screams.
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