The river carves through the city like an open wound, draining the puss of the infection that is slowly killing us all. It starts up in the mountains, where fresh water squeezes out of the earth in ponds and streams before tumbling down waterfalls amid tumbling piles of mossy rocks, then meanders towards the city, pausing in three valleys to spread out into lakes behind the barriers of hydroelectric dams. It’s all very picturesque and the reclamation corps like showing it off in their promotional vids, but what with the unmaintained roads and risk of encountering a survivalist clan or ravager swarm, it’s not much of a vacation spot.

 There used to be two more dams on the river, but one was destroyed some forty years ago in an incident that might have been cause by pure neglect or by incompetent survivalists mucking with the systems, depending on who you ask. The resulting onslaught of water wrecked a whole valley then slammed into the second dam, fracturing it and causing an additional flood which wiped two small towns off the map. Not that many people lived in those festering pockets of plague anymore, but it didn’t help public confidence to learn that the mire had claimed yet another victim. 

But all of that is miles away, across roads that haven’t been maintained in a generation and terrain that has succumbed to the clinging grasp of CarbZu and scrub. For those of us who live in the city, the most immediate concern is the dam twenty miles up river, up in the hills where many of the corporate executives maintain private estates. Much of our power comes from that dam. Below the dam, the river meanders among the foothills, past the remnants of suburban communities, now mostly empty except for a few aging holdouts and the agroplexes where the major food corps grow crops and biostock, before finally passing through the center of the city and out into the morass of the mire. 

This is the last inhabited city along the river. The only safe place for some hundred miles around, though that statement might require several asterisks and footnotes if anyone bothered to regulate advertising anymore. Suffice it to say that as dangerous as life can be in the city, it’s better than being stranded in the mire. 

The autocar pulls to the curb nearly a mile from my destination and pops its door locks, the restrillect announcing that that it cannot deliver me any closer due to “exclusive road access privileges.”

I scowl and swipe my finger across the battered map display, cursing the jargon. I’m in a district near the river wall, on a street that’s half buried in layer after rusting layer of crisscrossing railroad tracks and raised streets. Down here, “Exclusive Road Access” could equally mean that some corporate lab is paying to keep indies away from an off the books research facility or that the autocab company doesn’t want to risk their vehicle being hijacked by skeletal teenagers with a directional signal jammer. 

Either way, I’ve got to hike it if I’m to reach Darby’s gallery. 

I set off along the cracked concrete, keeping one eye out for stalkers in the warren above my head. In my old life this place would have presented a tactical nightmare scenario, the sort that we would have been loath to risk actual Federal troops on. Better to send in a drone swarm, scout the place, then eliminate all threats with remotely controlled weapons. Probably not even send in people at all unless an asset needed rescuing. But those days are passed, washed away in a tide of blood that most were fortunate enough to drown in. 

A few ferrel children run past on a side street, laughing as they chase one another with sticks. Above, an ancient internal combustion vehicle growls by, spewing the scent of burning peanut oil from its biofuel engine. All about me, the concrete pillars and metal cross struts are decorated in garish, multilayered graffiti, which serves to bring some sense of life to the dying husk of the city’s infrastructure.

Before the river wall was built, this was an industrial area with warehouses lining the streets and a dozen shipping quays jutting out into the river. Now, many of the warehouses sit abandoned or have been repurposed as low rent offices and housing. There just isn’t as much need for storing goods these days. Demand tends to dry up when half the population dies in the space of two years. The remaining quays are hidden behind the river wall, a thirty foot high concrete and steel barrier which runs through the middle of the city on either side of the river to prevent flood waters from ripping out the city’s heart. At the upstream end of the wall, the south-west edge of the city, the wall curves back away from the banks up as it slowly decreases in height, opening like a funnel to swallow the rushing waters as they overflow the banks. To the south, some of the water is diverted into side channels in the wall, where half a dozen of the largest corps run their own small scale hydroelectric operation, before the river is disgorged, frothing and laden with industrial effluent, into the unending swamplands of the new coast. 

I find Darby three levels up into the tangle above the streets, in a structure that looks to have once been a tobacco cigarette factory before somebody grafted a steel supporting structure beneath the third floor and cleared out the lower two levels to make room for a bypass and playground, both of which now lay fallow. As I climb the yellow steel staircase up to the entrance level, I study the tangle of pipes, wires, and girders beneath the suspended building, wondering whether the residents of this district ever look up at the building hovering over their heads and suspect that it might come crashing down upon them, or if they simply ignore it as part of the landscape, as so many of us ignore our own looming fates. 

The door opens at my approach, slipping into the wall like the airlock of a space ship. I glance up at the black dome of the surveillance camera mounted above the door, then nod and step into the cramped antechamber, the thought creeping anatomy mind that a drop floor in this chamber would be a perfect compliment to the evil super villain persona which Darby intentionally cultivates. 

A voice crackles over the speaker. “Talbot Liu. Bloody hell, is that really you?”

I look for the pickup amid the stickers and tags on the burnished steel walls and locate it directly above my head in yet another black dome. Can’t sat that Darby doesn’t have a flair for the retro design aesthetic. “Yeah, it’s me,” I say, flashing a grin and raising my middle finger towards the camera.

“Shit, man. I never thought we’d see you again. Didn’t boss say he’d break your legs if you came back around?”

Technically he said that he would break my kneecaps with a tire iron. “Nope. Least, not that I recall.”

The voice cackles, squelching painfully over the speaker. “Maybe you ain’t recollecting ‘cause you hit your head a time too many.”

“More likely I killed my memory with too much bourbon.” I stick may hands into my coat pockets and lean against the side wall, forcing myself to ignore the daemon’s screaming complains about all of the pathogens which might be growing on the filthy wall. “Now, are you going to let me in or just talk me to death?”

In response, the wall in front of me slides aside as the interior door opens. First thing I see is the barrel of a snub nose revolver. Second thing is the tattooed punk holding the gun. 

“Nice to see you again Li. You can put the gun down now,” I drawl, my hands still resting comfortably in my pockets. 

“See, the problem with that is I’m still waiting on word from the boss. Seems he’s not sure if I should let you in or put a bullet in your skull.”

I shrug, then cock my head to one side and look past Li. On the wall behind him, three screens show grainy video feeds from the firing line. Half a dozen men and women stand in booths, firing a variety of guns downrange. With each discharge, the shoddy cameras flare with slowly dying pixelated fire that obscures their weapons and turns each of the shooters into a ghostly blur. I can just make out a faint pop, pop from beyond the heavily insulated wall behind the counter. “You haven’t done much to improve this place since I was here last. Still running those buggy lane cameras? And this door has got to give the fire marshal fits.”

Li steps sideways to put the gun back in my face, so I stand straight again, pointedly ignoring him. He scowls and adjusts his aim.

“Just put the gun down, Li. You and I both know you’re not going to use it,” I say, studying the array of weapons hanging on the wall behind the counter. They are all of the basic firearm variety, probably because neural disruptors don’t have much of an effect on paper targets and a plasma cannon would blow a hole in the rear wall of the building. Deadly, sure, but only fun to shoot if you’ve never seen a single drone drop a crowd to the street, twitching as their brains struggle to reboot.  

Li chuckles and waggles the gun at me, a cocky smile creeping across his face. “Don’t you be thinking the city’s ears are going to save you. This place is soundproofed and this gun is hacked. I can drop you and ain’t nobody going to know about it.”

Back when the corporations took control of the city, they put in some strict controls on guns. Nothing that would keep anyone from owning a weapon, those rules were actually relaxed, but anyone who wanted to cary had to get their gun fixed with a monitor that records the exact time and location of any gunshot and all new weapons had monitors embedded. Couple that with a citywide detection network that can triangulate any gunshots to within a few meters, throw in stiff labor sentences for anyone who is caught with a weapon that isn’t monitored, and you’ve got a quick method of building up the manufactory population. That, and mostly reducing the use of guns for crime. You’ve still got people like Li who are willing to use hacked or unmonitored weapons, but most would-be killers switched back to the classic trio: knives, cudgels, and piano wires. Personally, I’m a fan of the ceramic blade. 

“And what are you planning to do with my body? You think Security won’t come nosing around here if a body shows up without a correlated weapon discharge?”

“We’re nice and close to the river.”

I pull my hands from my pockets, enjoying the twitch of fear on Li’s face as I move, and clap my them slowly in front of my face, with as much sarcasm as I can put into the motion. “Bravo! It’s a brilliant plan, Li. I can’t wait to see how it works out for you.”

Then I push off wall and dart my arms forward, swatting Li’s gun to the side and grasping his gun arm at the elbow with my right hand. My left hand flicks, releasing the ceramic blade hidden in my sleeve, and an instant later I’ve got Li pinned against the door frame, a blade pressed to his chin. 

“Such a good plan I might have to try it myself,” I say, smiling at him from inches away.  

Li spits obscenities at me in at least three languages and tries to point the gun at me, but I keep his elbow pushed out, my thumb digging into a pressure point so he cannot summon enough strength to fight back. I pivot my blade so the flat of it presses against his neck and look into his eyes, summoning the intense calm that has helped me suppress my daemon so many times. “I’m not here to kill anyone. Let me talk and we all go free. Keep jerking me around and we’ll have a problem.”

Li glares at me, but with my blade at his throat he doesn’t even dare to speak. 

“Drop the gun and I’ll let you go.”

The gun clatters to the floor. 

I chuckle and ease up on my blade, then tap the flat against Li’s chin and let him go. 

The speakers above the counter awake and Darby’s heavy voice pours out like congealing blood. “Let him go, Talbot. I will see you.”

I flash Darby a victorious grin, then step back from him. 

“Drop your weapons on the counter and come through. All of them, if you please.”

I lean over the counter and pull a plastic bin from beside the sale terminal, dumping the collection of pens and binder clips out onto the floor behind the counter, then begin placing my knives into the bin. It takes some time, as I extract the blades from my sleeves, inside jacket pockets, and boots. Lee retrieves his gun and goes back around the counter, where he stands, arms crossed, glaring at me. I jab a finger in his direction, feeling my heart warm as he flinches away from it, and say, “Don’t touch my knives or I’ll come for you. Got it?”

“No guns?” he asks, skeptical.

I pick up my favorite throwing knife and hold it in front of his face for him to examine. “Ceramic composite blade. Sharp as steel with none of the metal. Won’t get through a hard-object scanner, but your average metal detector won’t even blink at it.” 

With a flick of my wrist the blade darts across the room and embeds itself in the wall behind the counter. “Pretty effective at what it’s built for, too.”

Li starts and almost raises his gun towards me again, then he sees the other knife I’m holding, balanced between two fingertips. All I have to do is flick my wrist and it will dive into his neck like a hungry sea bird digging for clams. He mutters something foul under his breath and puts his gun into a cubby beneath the counter. 

“Smart. Please make sure my knives are all here in the bin when I get back.” I drop the knife and turn my back on Li. I look up to the speaker and shout, “Let’s get to it Darby, I don’t have all night.”

A buzzer sounds and the door to the right of the counter clicks. I open it, revealing a tight corridor lined with locked file cabinets, some of them topped with cheerful red and green potted plants, their plastic foliage dulled by a pathetic layer of grey dust. The passage is illuminated by glow panels on the ceiling, their light the sickly green of failing organics. It’s too tight for Darby to pass through, so there’s got to be a private way out of this building. Maybe a ramp to one of the elevated highways or an elevator hidden among the tangle of supply conduits which climb the supporting structure.  This hall is clearly intended as a passageway for clients of the undesirable variety and low budget snoops like me. I take solace in the distinct lack of bloodstains, hoping that suggests that the hall is rarely used as a kill box. 

The door behind me clicks shut and then, after a moment, the forward door unlocks with a buzz, releasing me from the narrow prison.

And there sits Darby, resplendent in his ill-gotten glory. 

If you never have the misfortune of meeting Darby in person, count yourself among the blessed people of this earth. Few outside of the world organized crime know Darby’s name, and fewer still have met him. It’s not his appearance or grooming that is so off putting, in point of fact Darby is one of the best groomed people I have ever met, thanks in no small part to a private valet who ensures that his clothing is always stylish, impeccably laundered, and scented with the faint aroma of oranges. No, the problem is that Darby is a member of that parasitical class of humanity that always seems to breed in the sewers of large cities. He has a list of vices as long as my bar tab, and those which have to do with sex and drugs are the least revolting. There are plenty of men who will kill for money, or even kill for pleasure, but Darby’s preference is to have others tortured for him while he watches, high out of his mind on whatever designer drugs his chemists have cooked up most recently. 

I first encountered Darby six years ago when he sent an underling to Tamar’s place to arrange for some entertainment to spice up a private party. Tam isn’t wild about that sort of gig, but if it pays well enough she will put out the call for volunteers. Some of the dancers always respond and it’s not uncommon for me to go along with the manikins on those gigs, a sort of mobile buzzkill in a black coat, watching everything to make sure that my wards are being treated well. On this particular excursion, I happened on one of Tamar’s girls crying hysterically in the restroom. She had managed to escape from a particularly nasty situation, leaving on of Darby’s guests with a hairpin in his eye and the others scrambling to find their clothes. I was prompting her for descriptions of the remaining offenders so they might have an intimate experience with my blades when one of Darby’s minions came in, looking to silence the girl. 

As you might imagine, I didn’t take well to that. And neither did he, after I eloquently explained the consequences of his intended actions. Seven finger bones into our conversation, he cracked and took me to see Darby while my ward left the party to get some fresh air at a bar closer to home. Darby and I had a brief and unpleasant conversation, during which it was made clear that he would never step on Tamar’s turf again. 

“Talbot Liu. I thought we agreed to never speak again,” Darby growls from the depths of his massage chair. He sits in shadow, illuminated only by the glow emanating from his desktop. He’s got a collection of tablets and epers scattered on the expansive oak desk, real oak, none of that veneer they peddle at your neighborhood furniture fab. At a glance, I’d say that half of the screens are flickering with a melange of gonzo porn and what I hope to nothing more than commercially produced faux torture films. The rest feature a variety of documents and chat conversations, the tangled threads of which Darby tugs to manage his empire of crime.

“And I thought you were more classy than this. What drops you low enough to do your business from the back of a shooting gallery in riverside?”

A rumbling exudes from the chair, whether it is a hearty chuckle or a bout of indigestion I’m not sure. 

“At any rate, I’m not here to give you any grief.”

“That’s certainly a relief to my tender heart. For a moment I worried that you might make nasty jokes about my mother.”

“Nothing I can say that’s worse than ‘Darby is alive and well.’ Plenty of folks wake up every day hoping to learn you’ve had a stroke overnight.” I look around for a seat, but the only other furniture in the room is a pole that rises from floor to ceiling about two meters away from his desk. At first I think it’s a dancing pole, but on closer inspection I see that it’s a simple steel rod mounted to a metal socket bolted to the concrete floor. There’s a drain in the floor a half meter away from the base of the pole.

I suppress a gag and lean against the pole, stuffing my hands into my pockets so I do not touch it. The daemon claws at my guts, but my rational mind know that this is probably the cleanest room in the whole building. Whatever bodily fluids might have been left behind by the last wretch to lean bloodied and pissing himself against this pole have certainly been washed away with enzymatic cleaners to remove all trace DNA.

Darby gazes back at me languidly from his chair, which shifts and buzzes around him with disturbing organicity. One of the text screens flickers and he reaches out to tap a quick response, probably sealing the fate of some poor bastard who was unlucky enough to get on his bad side. I hope the guy will be fortunate enough to be killed quickly, rather than ending up on Darby’s entertainment list. 

“I prefer to keep some business away from my homes,” he says, eventually.

“Really? Because as I recall you’re fine with paying manikins to screw your business associates while your goons put screws through their fingers.”

Darby chuckles, a faint smile creasing his features. “Ah, our first meeting. I thought it was a rather poetic form of interrogation, but you and your whore seemed to disagree.”

“Yeah, I try to keep coercion and torture out of my sex life.” 

“That was a long time ago.”

“Still happened.”

“Shall we discuss more recent affairs?” He drops a ponderous finger to a tablet screen and the wall beside his desk flickers, then clicks from opaque to translucent. There’s a one-way mirror behind the smart glass, giving us a clean look into one of the shooting galleries. This isn’t the one I saw on the monitors outside. For one thing it’s smaller. 

And then there’s the matter of the man hanging from the rafters in chains. 

A woman sits in a metal chair some meter from him, her legs manacled to the floor, a small metal box resting on her lap, her face buried in her hands. 

“There are some scenarios I cannot allow to play out in my private home. Take this for example,” Darby says, gesturing towards the window. “A certain gentleman owes me a significant debt. You may recognize him.”

I squint at the people in the next room for a minute, but they don’t look familiar. Their clothes are certainly high end though, and I get the sense that their haircuts probably cost as much as my weekly food budget. “Not exactly my social circle.”

“Really? That surprises me, but then they do tend to frequent the exclusive private parties, rather than your establishment.”

“Your point?”

Darby pulls one of the screens off the desk, perching it atop his enormous vested belly like an otter preparing to crack open a clam, and taps at the controls. In the room, the woman jerks upright and stares down at the box on her lap. 

“When last we spoke, you threatened me, Talbot. You said that, let me see if I can recall your words precisely, you would ‘cut out my eyes and choke me with my tongue’ someday.”

“That’s still the plan.”

“Not a nice thing to say.” 

In the room, the box lid slithers aside with the distinctive ripple of a retreating nanite swarm. The woman shouts soundlessly and jumps up from her seat. The box should fall, but it is affixed to her wrist with a short chain. A small, printed handgun falls from the box, dangling on a thin silvery chain like a deathly pendulum. She stumbles as the chains around her ankles snap tight, rights herself, and begins pulling at the chains on her ankles and wrist, desperately trying to free herself.

“You didn’t think that when we first met.”

“When we first met, you were defending the rights of your ward. I fully acknowledge that I was attempting to coerce some vile deeds from that young woman. I admired your gumption in breaking eight—“


“—Seven of Corin’s fingers to learn my location. That took metal. We had a good relationship for a while.”

“Still would if you had kept to torturing animals and criminals instead of innocent people.”

“Oh, please. Those so called people who got you all worked up were nothing more than rats who had snuck into the city. A drain upon our precious resources and a threat to public health. I was doing my part in cleaning up this place.”

Beyond the mirror, the woman is back in the chair, box and gun still dangling from her wrist as she sobs into her hands.

“I’m not here to argue about the past, Darby. I’m here because I need information.”

“Information? Bloody Christ, Talbot. You are presumptuous.”

I stalk up to Darby’s desk and lean on the cold, hard wood, looking at him across the flickering sea of obscenity. “I’m looking for a little girl. You know, Darby, the sort a person like you might take an interest in.”

He blinks at me, eyes swearing innocence while his fingers twiddle with the interface of the tablet perched on his belly. After a long moment of silence I glance away and my eye is caught by the play unfolding beyond the glass.

The woman is standing now, visibly trembling as she points the gun towards the chained man.

“I knew you would not be able to resist it for long,” Darby whispers, excitedly. The chair rotates, affording him a full view of the room beyond the glass without the effort of turning his neck. “It’s a splendid show. You know, Talbot, I’ve moved beyond the blasé sexual games to which you took such offense. I find that there is more subtlety, more range and variety of flavor in the extract of pure emotional torment. Take this one, for example.”

He steeples his fingertips in front of his jowls and chuckles to himself before continuing. “The woman you see before you owes a significant amount of money to one of my casinos. Now, despite what you might be thinking, I consider that to be one of her assets. A compulsive gambler, especially one who is so well connected, is an asset to any casino operator. Give her a few extra chits, make her feel special, forgive some of her debt, and she will do almost anything for you.”

“So, why the chains? The man?”

He holds up one finger, a practiced, calmly menacing gesture which would loosen the bowels of most people who find themselves in a private audience with Darby. Me? I find it maddening. As vile as Darby is, and as much as he likes to revel in the supposed uniqueness of his brand of evil, I’ve seen his equal scattered throughout the mire or, before the plague, among despots across the broad world. For a moment he just sits there, watching as the woman behind the glass trembles, then collapses back into the metal chair. Watching Darby watch the woman, my skin begins to crawl, as if I were being forced to watch him masturbate. This is how he finds pleasure, when all other avenues have been explored and tapped to exhaustion. 

Finally, he continues. “Unfortunately, the gentleman over there declined my offer to become a more active cog in the machine which governs this city. The usual methods of recruitment having failed, I am left with no choice but to resort to more entertaining means.

“The woman is his wife. She has been given a simple decision: Transfer all of her assets into the control of a holding company which, though a string of intermediaries, belongs to me, or kill her husband and have a recording of her actions delivered to Security.”

“A bit dangerous, isn’t it? Especially you being here to watch in person.”

“Neither knows who has captured him. All of their implants and devices have been blocked from the moment of capture, so there is no way they could be traced back to me. Besides, what is life without some element of risk? I could not turn down the—”

Beyond the glass, the woman screams in silent pantomime, jams the gun into her own mouth, and pulls the trigger. 

Blood, brain, and bone paint the wall. The woman flops over the back of the chair, then drips slowly down before collapsing onto the floor.

“Looks like she took a third option.”

Darby shrugs his shoulders with all the ponderous, shifting mass of an earthquake.

“And the man? What are you going to do with him now?”

“I imagine he will agree to work with us. Perhaps even come crawling to me for protection from whoever killed his wife. That, Talbot, will be a most exquisite meeting.”

Darby’s chuckle is deep, long, and ominous, like the rumbling of boulders in some subterranean rockslide. He turns his chair and offers me a silver-toothed smile across the glowing desk. “I think that even you would be willing to work for me if you had spent two days in drug-induced paralysis, watching someone you love try to decide whether to kill you.”

One of my eyebrows creeps up, revealing my surprise.

Darby sees the movement and nods, still grinning. “Oh, yes. And I’ve been watching the whole time. It has been… delicious.”

I shrug and turn my back on the grisly scene. It’s not my part to avenge every brutality this city has to offer. I’ll kill Darby someday, you can be sure of that, but it will be for my own reasons, not out of some sort of misguided sense of vigilante justice. I’m a fixer, not an assassin.

“About the girl.”

“What about her? I presume the girl you’re looking for isn’t the one laying in the room with her brains sprayed across the wall.”

I shake my head and slowly, playing to the hidden cameras or guards which must be watching, pull my coat open and extract the folded eper. I step closer and drop the eper on Darby’s desk. “She’s been missing about a week. Figured that was enough time for her to show up on your radar.”

    Darby lifts the eper delicately between finger and thumb, studying it through hooded eyes. After a moment he drops it and waves his fingertips dismissively. “I haven’t seen her.”

“And I presume you’re too busy to pass word to your lieutenants.”

“Frankly, Talbot, I’m offended that you thought of me first when looking for a missing child.”

I nod towards the one way mirror and shrug. “Whenever something terrible happens in the city, I figure you’ve at least heard of it.”

“I’m honored.”

“What will it take to get you to pass the word through the underground?”

 “I presume that you giving me your word that you won’t kill me is off the table.”

I nod.

“And access to Tamar and her manikins?”

I shake my head. “They’re not mine to bargain with. I can pay you a little. I can offer you conditional services.”

“I’m not exactly sure what you think you have to offer. I have far more money than you. The only thing you have that I desire is the club and the delectable women who perform there.”

I hold my hands wide and smile. “We both know I could still be carrying a blade right now. That I could kill you before your guards even noticed.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Merely an observation.”

“You would never make it out of this room alive.”

“Neither would you. The point is that you know what I am capable of, and you know my… shall we call it a moral compass? Do this for me and I will owe you a favor. We both know there are some things I won’t do, but the list of things I will do is far longer, and anyone who knows about both of us knows we despise one another. This is your chance to do something right for once, and to make something happen in the circles that are normally closed to you.”

Darby ponders that for a while. It’s probably foolish of me to make him such a broad offer, but Darby can accomplish more with a single phone call than I can in a week of visitations. My advantage in this city is that I am independent, fiercely so. I will work for, or against, any of the power players, and I have a broad network of individuals who owe me favors. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m co-owner of one of the best private clubs in the city, a place with a reputation for talented performers and complete discretion. That means that I can move nearly anywhere without placing myself at risk and most people who matter prefer to deal to deal with me, rather than putting up a fight. Darby’s advantage is that he owns more people than any organization outside the big three corps. He gives the word and thousands of people will be combing the underworld, looking for the missing girl. 

Not that he’ll go that far. I’ll be lucky if I can get him to share her picture to his lieutenants.

“What kind of cooperation are you expecting from me?” he says, after a moment of contemplation. 

“Check around. Just because you didn’t pick her up off the streets to practice your filleting skills doesn’t mean that one of your colleagues didn’t. Maybe one of your casino whales needs a new kidney and she’s a blood match.”

“That doesn’t really happen much anymore. Anyone with enough clout to arrange a stolen organ can afford to have one custom grown. There’s some cities that offer citizens up to two guaranteed replacements for all major organs as part of their insurance package.”

“You know what I mean. Put the word out there.”

Darby taps the eper against one of his tablets, transferring the girl’s image and vital statistics into his own network. “Done. You owe me one.”

“Not a place I like to be,” I say, turning my back on him. The bloody scene beyond the glass snags my eye again. “What happens to him?”

“Not that it is any of your mind, but he’ll wake up in his bed some time tomorrow. This will all seem like a terrible dream, until he crawls out of her sheets, swearing that he’ll never take those particular hallucinogens again. He’ll stumble into the bathroom and, if he’s lucky, be in such a daze that he’ll make it to the toilet before he notices the dead body in his bathtub.”

“Kind of obvious that she didn’t die there, isn’t it?”

“You’ve got a lot to learn about the art of manipulating people through killing, Talbot.”

I open the door to the hallway, calling over my shoulder. “I only kill people like you.”

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