Burton was a small, thin, dark-skinned man. He wore immaculately tailored suits, and kept the thick black curls of his hair and the small beard on his chin neatly groomed. That he worked in criminal enterprises said more about the world than about his character. With more opportunities, a more prestigious education, and a few influential dorm mates at upper university, he could have joined the ranks of transplanetary corporate executives with offices at Luna and Mars, Ceres Station and Ganymede. Instead, a few neighborhoods at the drowned edges of Baltimore answered to him. An organization of a dozen lieutenants, a couple hundred street-level thugs and knee-breakers, a scattering of drug cooks, identity hackers, dirty cops, and arms dealers followed his dictates. And a class of perhaps a thousand professional victims—junkies, whores, vandals, unregistered children, and others in possession of disposable lives—looked up to him as he might look up at Luna: an icon of power and wealth glowing across an impassable void. A fact of nature.
Burton’s misfortune was to be born where and when he was, in a city of scars and vice, in an age when the division in the popular mind was between living on government-funded basic support or having an actual profession and money of your own. To go from an unregistered birth such as his to having any power and status at all was an achievement as profound as it was invisible. To the men and women he owned, the fact that he had risen up from among the lowest of the low was not an invitation but a statement of his strength and improbability, mythical as the seagull that flew to the moon. Burton himself never thought about it, but that he had managed what he did meant only that it was possible. Anyone who had not had his determination, ruthlessness, and luck deserved pretty much whatever shit he handed to them. It didn’t make him sympathetic when someone stepped out of line.
“He…what?” Burton said
“Shot him,” Oestra said, looking at the table. Around them, the sounds of the diner made a white noise that was like privacy.
“Yeah. Austin was talking about how he was good for the money, and how he just needed a few more days. Before he could finish, Timmy took that shitty homemade shotgun of his and—” Oestra made a shooting motion with two fingers and a thumb, the movement turning seamlessly into a shrug: a single gesture of violence and apology. Burton leaned back in his chair and looked over at Erich as if to say, I think your puppy peed on my rug.
Erich had recommended Timmy, had vouched for him, and so was responsible if things went wrong. It felt like they were going very wrong. Erich leaned forward, resting on his good elbow, hiding his fear with forced casualness. His bad arm, the left, was no longer than a six-year-old’s and scarred badly at the joints. His disfigurement was the result of a beating he’d suffered as a child. It wasn’t a fact that he’d shared with Burton, nor would he mention it now, though it did figure into the calculations that were his life. As did Timmy.
“He had a reason,” Erich said.
“He did?” Burton said, raising his eyebrows with feigned patience. “And what was it?”
Erich’s stomach knotted. His bad hand closed in a tiny fist. He saw the hardness in Burton’s eyes, and it reminded him that even with his knowledge, even with his skills, there were others who could fake identity records. Others who could fake DNA profiles. Others who could do for Burton what he did. He was expendable. It was the message Burton meant him to take.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ve known Timmy since forever, yeah? He doesn’t do anything unless there’s a reason.”
“Well,” Burton replied, pulling the word out to two syllables. “If it’s since forever, I guess that makes it all right.”
“Just, you know, if he did that, he did it for something.”
Oestra scratched his arm, scowling to hide the relief he felt at Burton’s focus turning to Erich. “I got him in the storage room.”
Burton stood up, pushing back his chair with the backs of his knees. The waitress made a point not to look at the three as they moved across the room and out though the doors marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, Burton and then Oestra and Erich limping at the back. She didn’t even start cleaning the table until she was sure they were gone.
The storage room was claustrophobic to begin with and lined with boxes, making it even smaller. Cream-colored degradable storage boxes with flat green adhesive readouts on the side that listed what they contained and whether the cheap, disposable sensors in the foam had detected rot and corruption. The table in the cramped open space at the center was pressed particleboard, as much glue as wood. Timmy sat at it, the LED fixture overhead throwing the shadow of his brow down into his eyes. He was barely halfway into his second decade of life, but the red-brown hair was already receding from his forehead. He was strong, tall, and had an unnerving capacity for stillness. He looked up when the three men came in, dividing his smile equally among his childhood friend, the professional thug he’d just disappointed, and the thin, well-dressed man who controlled everything important in his life.
“Hey,” Timmy said to any of them.
Erich moved to sit at the table, saw that Oestra and Burton were standing motionless, and pulled back. If Timmy noticed, he didn’t say anything.
“I hear that you killed Austin,” Burton said.
“Yeah,” Timmy said. The empty smile changed not at all.
Burton pulled out the chair opposite Timmy and sat. Oestra and Erich carefully didn’t look at each other or at Burton. The object of all their attention, Timmy waited amiably for whatever came next.
“You care to tell me why you did that?” Burton asked.
“It’s what you said to do,” Timmy said.
“That man owed me money. I told you to get whatever you could from him. This was your tryout, little man. This was your game. Now, how do you go from what I actually said to what you did?”
“I got whatever I could get,” Timmy replied. There was no fear in his voice or his expression, and it left Burton with the sense he was talking to an idiot. “I couldn’t get money out of that guy. He didn’t have any. If he had, he’d have given it to you. Only thing you were getting from him was a way to make sure everyone else pays you on time. So I took that instead.”
“You’re positive—you’re convinced—that Austin wouldn’t have gotten my money?”