:: back to fiction ::



Henchmen



High above Kismet, there's a bar with the fancy name of Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, but everybody calls it Godiva's. It dangles from a long rail out from the Towers and it's shaped like a big wheel, and it spins, so the dancin' folks can see the stars under their feet and the city over their heads. I don't get the whole appeal myself. Some chick whose name I don't remember explained it to me once, usin' words like "sacred energy" and "flow of chi", right before I broke her husband's kneecaps not ten feet from where I was standing on the day Frankie said goodbye.

We were standing on the ceiling with the stars under our feet, with couples and threesomes dancing beside us and above us. Frank always liked Godiva's, as it's the sort of place where folks don't ask questions, but it still creeps me out. Call me old-fashioned if you like. I was born in a planetary gravity well and I got some pretty conservative ideas about which way gravity's supposed to point and which way it don't.

Guido never seems too creeped out up here, maybe because Guido ain't got the imagination to think about the plastiglass under our feet falling away, sucked up into the stars by the great vacuum of space. I also don't like lookin' up and seeing mountains above my head, just hangin' around up there. Seems unstable.

I think Frankie picked this place because he figured that we'd be off guard, so to speak, and not put up too much of a fight when the guy with the razor blade hands came out and stood beside him where me and Guido used to stand.

"It's nothing personal, old fellows," Frank said, and smiled a smile as sharp and long as a blade. "Just economics."

Frank was wearing a sheer black number tonight, all the way down to his feet, and gloves up to the shoulder. Stars glittered off his high bodice, and in his long, falling black hair. Frank's a good looking guy. He knows it. Thinks he's pretty hot stuff, Frankie does.

Both Guido and me were looking at the other guy, though.

He wasn't much to look at. I mean, he wasn't even a Level-2 android. No effort to cover up the hydraulics and guidewires, make him look smooth, make him look alive. And I guess that might have been part of the effect. You could see that his jaw had a spring-loaded hinge and that instead of teeth he had sharp jaggy edges of metal. His eyes were round balls of electrodes that rolled constantly in their sockets. Looking at his body made you feel all creepy right down the balls of your feet, like you were looking at a guy with his skin stripped off who was still up and walking around. Only not all squidgy and wet like a guy would normally look without the skin (trust me, I know), but that kind of made it worse. Like he shoulda been bleedin' and instead here he was standin' by the Boss and looking around with those creepy eyes. And Frank stood there grinnin' at us.

"What do the two of you think? Really, honest opinions."

I don't think Frankie wanted to hear our honest opinions.

"He looks real shiny, Boss," Guido said.

I swear I coulda sunk through the floor, except sinking through the floor in this case would have shot me off into space and I wasn't that upset yet. I hate it when Guido embarrasses me.

Frank hardly registered the comment; he didn't care what we thought. He held out a data card and I took it."Here, this is for the two of you," he said.

"What's this?"

"Your pension," Frank said. "Very generous."

I took it and stared at it. Didn't have no insignia on it or nothing, and I was just wonderin' whether to go put it in a reader when Guido spoke.

"With all due respect, Boss ..." he began.

"You know you don't have to call me that anymore," Frank said.

"In that case, with all due respect, dipshit," Guido said, "I think you've lost your mind."

The guy at Frank's shoulder raised his razor-blade hands.

"No, Rover," Frank said. "Down, boy."

Rover waited at attention. I stared into his electrodes and thought that maybe it was time for a career change. I was vaguely aware of Guido quivering at my shoulder like an attack dog.

"What about the union?" I said at last. "We pay our union dues. Henchmens Local 435. You can't let us go without notice."

Frank shook his head.

"If the two of you are clearly delinquent in your duties, I can let you go at any time," he said. "Even a union contract can't protect you from that. Article 47, sub-section B. Gross failure of protection."

We just stared at him as his words slowly sank in.

"Delinquent--" I said.

"--in what?" Guido had The Look. The look he gets right before somebody starts wearing their guts on the outside for a change.

Frank smiled, a trifle uncertainly, it seemed to me. He stepped back, real casual-like, so that Rover was just a step between him and us.

"Explain this gross failure of protection thing to me. To us," I said quietly.

"Look. I don't want to air out old laundry here, boys. I could bring up the thing with my dear wife and the smart-bomb--my wife could have been killed, friend, and only through her own luck survived--"

"Meg planted that bomb," I said. "To kill you. Ain't our fault she was dumb enough to get caught in it." Smart-bomb indeed. Too bad it only knocked out the homicidal little darling.

"Or what about the time Fleetwood poisoned me. I could have been killed. Or the knifing at--"

"You bloody bastard, you're lying through your teeth," Guido snarled. "Twistin' the facts to suit yourself."

Frank looked astonished.

"Did you ... just interrupt me?"

"I don't work for you no more, remember?" Guido was crouched over in a textbook-perfect Kneecap-Breaking Stance No. 42, and I was gettin' nervous. This situation didn't look good. I knew how it'd end up if either of us tried to take on Frankie, and though I don't like Guido much, I'm kinda used to having a brother around.

"Look, Boss," I said--I know he ain't the boss any more, but old habits are hard to break. "Bodyguardin' ain't a perfect science. We do our damnedest, but sometimes it ain't good enough. We're human, you know?"

I knew immediately that was the wrong thing to say in this situation. Frankie threw a smug look at Rover, and said, "Human's in the past, baby. Why settle for almost perfect when you can get perfection? This is the future, isn't that right, Rover?" Rover, of course, didn't answer.

Guido looked like he was ready to go for Frank's throat. I put my hand on Guido's arm. It was like gripping a steel I-beam in a shirt sleeve. Damn, he was mad. I don't get mad easy, but I was startin' to get pissed too.

"Naw," I said. "Not perfect. All we do is wake up every mornin' for the last ten years ready to throw ourselves in front of a laser for you, ain't that right, Frankie?"

I could see Frank swallowing back a little bit of shame. Unfortunately shame ain't an emotion that he's accustomed to, and when it shows up, it gets nervous and doesn't stick around long.

"That may be so," he said. "But Rover here can take a laser for me, then get up and chew off both arms of the guy who fired it and beat him to death with them. Can you do that? Don't think so. Call me if you boys need a letter of recommendation. Be happy to give you one. Heel, Rover, old boy."

He strolled off, shadowed by Rover. Guido was making a faint whistling noise like a teakettle boiling over.

"Damn," I said. Seemed to sum up the situation pretty good.

I kept watching Frankie. It felt too damned weird to have him walking away like that. I kept feeling like I wasn't doing my job, only it wasn't my job any more. Frankie was stopping to chat with every person he passed, like he always does. Showing off Rover this time, I guess. The guy he was talking to now was a cop, Fleetwood, from Customs. Frank knows everybody in town, and I do mean everybody.

But it doesn't matter any more.

Guido made a low growling noise. I got my hand around his wrist and led him away.




It's an ancient and honorable profession, bodyguarding. As long as there's been a man born with the God-given ability to beat the crap out of other men, he's been hired by other men--men smarter, men richer, men a hell of a lot wimpier. If sex is the galaxy's oldest profession, then beating people for a living has gotta be the second-oldest.

What most people don't know is that there's a whole lot more to bodyguarding than just kickin' a few people that try to put the chokehold on your boss. I don't just mean the fun side stuff, like breakin' thumbs and pressuring the occasional squealer. No, this game we play, it's a game of finesse. Bodyguardin' ain't something you pick up off the sidewalk, I'll tell you that. It's a skill. It's about knowing what to look at, and what to look for, and how to look dangerous without ever breaking a single public ordinance. Kids today, they're coming in with a set of brass knuckles and an ego the size of the Third Iridian Landmass, thinkin' they can change the world by stomping people. It ain't about that. I went to school for a lot of years to get where I am now.

If Frank Bernetti thinks that a bunch of cybertrodes and gears can protect him better than a well-trained human being with years of experience, then more power to him. Hope he thinks about this moment years later, as he suffocates on his own blood in an alley somewhere in Kismet with his robot bodyguard smoking not too far away.

Trouble is, Frank Bernetti's not just dumb, he's cheap. Real cheap. Not when it comes to spending money on, oh, I dunno, priceless vases from Old Earth and hand-woven rugs and all those other amenities that your well-appointed homicidal moron needs to keep himself comfortable. But as far as paying his employees? Little things like that? Well, if buying a half-off roboguard is cheaper than paying wages, then Frankie'll do it in an instant.

At least they weren't having some kind of buy one, get one free promotion, or there'd be two of them running around. One's plenty, thanks.

Used to be a thing called an assembly line. Guess you never heard of it. Bunch of guys, real human beings, stood end to end in front of this rubber moving belt. Carried things on it. Say they were makin' a gun. So one dude picks up the grip, and hands it on to the next guy, and next guy reaches onto that movin' belt and picks up a focusing crystal and gives it to the next guy who puts it on a Model T Ford or something--

Okay, so I don't understand it real well, but I do know that used to be, every single thing on the shelf, every machine and piece of consumer electronics, even things like towels and toothbrushes, was made by people. Sound nuts, huh? But they lost their jobs. Simulacra were cheaper. Long time ago.

Now people complain about it every now and then. Probably less so in a frontier world like Kismet, 'cause most people don't have money to buy sims out here. Just guys like Frank.

Back home, you hear all about it. Guys losing their jobs to the simulacra. Never think it's gonna be you. Till it is.

I don't have any idea what else to do with my life. My family's been bodyguarding for oh, I don't know how many generations. At least five or six. My dad was a bodyguard, and my granddad and his dad, and hell, even my mom was a chick bodyguard, but don't call her that to her face, at least not if you want to walk away on both legs.

Next morning was pretty much Glumsville at the Magillicuddy Brothers' pad.

I might add, if you haven't figured it out already, that my parents were Heritagists. No, I know what you're thinking, but all Heritagists aren't like that, cooking over a wood fire and sleeping with their cousins and whatnot. I guess I should also add that my mother was the real dyed-in-the-wool one of the pair. Dad kinda went along with it. Went to church every once in a while just to make her happy, or more accurately, because he was afraid of her. Anyway, neither of them was a fundamentalist, but it's because of them that I know Guido and I are of what they'd call Irish and Italian descent. Because of them I find myself wondering from time to time just exactly what I'd look like in a kilt, or telling perfect strangers that tomatoes are not part of traditional Italian cooking. Thanks a lot, Ma and Pop.

Guido's real name, by the way, is Edwin. He took on the Guido 'cause he thought it sounded more professional. I kept my name 'cause one thing I did pick up from Ma and Pop is that if you ain't got your heritage, you ain't got much in life. Gotta admit, though, Guido gets better jobs than I do. I guess it's just not the same to tell somebody, "Better give us the money or I'll have Seymour take you outside." Don't have the proper intimidation factor. I spend a lot of time guarding back doors. I don't really care.

Didn't, I mean.

Anyway, so I come downstairs and find Guido sprawled out on the living room bodyform, taking up the whole thing and reading tittie magazines on the best holo-reader we got in the house.

"Don't worry about it, kiddo," Guido said without looking up from Miss Page Four. "Give Frankie a day or three with his walking ratchet, and he'll come begging us to come back. Might even get a raise out of the deal."

That's Guido. Born four minutes sooner and he knows everything. Between the two of them, Guido and Frankie have about the brains of one encyclopedia salesman.

"I'm goin' out."

Guido shrugged and went back to his tittie book.

I stuck my hands in my pockets and wandered out into the street. Almost forgot to grab my piece. Unemployed twelve hours and I'm already losin' my work ethic.

It felt weird to be walking down the street by myself in broad daylight or as close to daylight as Kismet ever gets, being mostly underground. Oh, it's not like Guido and I are never off duty. We get our time. But even then, we usually do things together. Go drinking. Pick up chicks. Hell, we even date sisters, most of the time. Closest I ever came to gettin' hitched was to this little blond chick, and Guido was crazy about her twin sister. Helga and Helene. Eyes as blue as the shine on a Rhys-Madsen Sixty-Six, legs up to here and a waist you could put your hands around. Was workin' out great until Guido caught his Helga running around with some tube driver from backwater Gaia. Offed both of 'em, and Helene too, without a second glance.

It's things like that makin' me wonder if maybe Guido and I aren't just entirely different sorts of bodyguards from the get-go.

This whole thing is makin' me think, really. Maybe I've been doing this bodyguard thing too long. Maybe it's time for a change of scene. I love the job, but I'm starting to feel like I'm getting stuck in a career rut. Need to expand myself as a person. Maybe I should take some classes or something. I had this sudden vision of me taking a mail-order flower-arranging certification course. I could do that, right? Ma always said I could do anything I put my mind to.

I spent some time thinking about different careers. Trouble is, none of them is, well, me. Can't exactly see myself selling insurance in some office somewhere. What do people do with themselves? How do they stand their lives?

Thinkin' about this ultimately led me into a bar called The Moons of Destiny. I was on my third or fourth drink, just gettin' kinda contemplative, when this guy sidles up beside me and says:

"Seymour? Hey, Seymour! What's going down, bud?"

I squinted at the guy what said my name. Rumpled Customs uniform, curly hair. Lighting's bad in here, but I finally placed the face. Lieutenant Fleetwood, Frankie's cop buddy. I said hi.

Fleetwood glanced around. "You by yourself tonight, Seymour?"

I pretty much said yeah.

"Thought you were married."

No, I said, I ain't.

"Not to a girl, dipshit; to your boss and that weird-ass brother of yours. Are you sure they ought to be letting you out on a school night? Frank off getting laid or what?"

"I have no idea what Frankie's doin' tonight and I really don't give a damn."

Fleetwood flashed me a quick grin. "Better watch it there, Seymour. Talking about Frank that way could get you a one-way ticket to unemployment, and Frank doesn't fire people in the normal way."

"Sometimes he does."

Fleetwood sat back and looked at me. I wound up telling him the whole story. Figured that of anybody in Kismet, he might be the one who'd listen.

Frankie and Fleetwood got some weird shit going on. Fleetwood's the only person besides Meg and a few members of Frank's family, his kids and so forth, that we're expressly forbidden to kill under any circumstances unless it's desperate self-defense. Sounds like they're pretty tight chums, then, but they ain't. Fleetwood cheated with Frankie's wife right to the point of marryin' her when she was still married to Frank. I think he's also tried to kill Frank a couple of times, and vice versa.

Best guess I've got goin' down is that Fleetwood's the one person in Kismet that Frankie tried his damnedest to make an enemy out of, and then tried to make a friend out of, and never quite succeeded on either count. Sure, I guess Fleetwood would screw Frank over for the right reasons, but not for money and not exactly for love, and sure not for threat; I don't think the guy's afraid of anything. In Frank's business, friends hug you so they can reach around and stab you in the back with their free hand. Well, Fleetwood wouldn't do that. If he shoots you, and he may, then it'll be right between the eyes and you'll get a fair chance to duck.

I gotta add that of all the people I've ever met on the job, Fleetwood's the only one ever recognized me when I wasn't with Frank. The only one who's ever said hi to me as a person, not as Frank's shadow. It's all part of his whole approach to life. Fleetwood wouldn't even think of not sayin' hi. He has no idea he's done anything unusual. He thinks everybody's like him, and ordinarily that'd be a surefire recipe for gettin' eaten alive by the sharks of the world, except that Fleetwood's got just enough of the shark in him to come out on top most of the time.

Right now I could tell that he was pretty drunk, but it's tough to say how I knew. He didn't slur and his hands didn't shake at all except every once in a while when he lifted his glass. I haven't seen Fleetwood drink too much, but I have this feeling that he could drink somebody my size under the table, even though he's a pretty small guy. It's that tolerance that comes from drinking a lot. A whole lot. After a while it doesn't do much to you any more, just like any other drug.

The thought crossed my mind that I didn't work for Frank any more and so I could kill Fleetwood any time I wanted to. Trouble is, I didn't want to. He listened to me all the way through and didn't interrupt except once to get us more drinks.

When I was done, he didn't say anything immediately. Swished the dregs of his drink around in the glass and swallowed it slow.

"You going to kill him?"

"Who?"

"Frank."

The thought hadn't even crossed my mind. I rolled it around, thought about it. Eventually shook my head. "It's not my style."

"Good." Fleetwood reached out, tapped my arm, and grinned that disarmingly boyish grin he's got. "Don't have to kill you, then."

I was reminded again that as much as I like the guy on a personal level, he is dangerous. Maybe more dangerous than Frank. You never know what's going on behind those cool green eyes.

Fleetwood stared at me for a while. "You know, Frank is a little nutso, but he's not as crazy as all that. You know that song that goes, You don't know what you've got till it's gone?"

"No," I said.

"Oh. Well, anyway, I don't think the full impact of what he's done has sunk into Frank's pointy little head. I don't think he's aware that most of the social interaction he gets is with you guys--well, leaving out the screaming and sobbing and please-don't-kill-me bits, of course. After a few days, he's going to be having conversations with street signs."

"He already does that," I said.

"Oh. Forgot about that. Anyway, my point was, Frank gets on these weird little fads, but gets off 'em pretty quickly too. Remember that week he took up knitting? Sewed his gun to his sleeve so he'd have his hands free for the needles?"

"He made me and Guido a matching pair of scarves. Mine was pink, two inches wide and nine feet long."

"Scarves was all he ever learned to knit," Fleetwood said. "No bends. He wasn't very good at following patterns. Next week, the knitting needles went in the garbage and he took up the tuba."

I winced. "Don't remind me."

"And then he started collecting cookie jars. For about a week."

"Who do ya think crated 'em up and put 'em in storage? Twelve boxes. Big boxes."

Fleetwood drained his drink. "My point is, my point is, oh yeah, my point is, Frank does that kind of thing all the time. This is just another of his fads. Once the novelty of -- what did you call it?"

"Rover."

He laughed. "Yeah, Rover. Once the novelty wears off, Frank'll be putting help wanted ads all over town."




Day two of bein' civilians. I ran into Frankie and Rover at the laundromat. Never held much with spray-on clothes; just another way in which I am an old-fashioned country boy, I guess. But the problem with solidos is that they need to be washed, and most pads including ours don't have laundry facilities on account of nobody uses 'em.

Frank was there on business, I figured. He had a briefcase and Rover was carrying a gold wedding ring with the finger still in it. Frank was wearing a slick black dress with a slit up the side all the way to his hip. He's a little too old to pull off that sort of thing any more.

"Seymour," Frank said.

I went on foldin' my laundry. "How's Rover workin' out?" I said without looking up.

"Very well. Very well indeed. You haven't contacted me for a reference, I notice."

I tucked a pair of socks together and neatly rolled them up. "Well, actually, Guido and me, we were thinkin' about trying out a different line of work."

Frank's pumps were tap-tapping toward the door, but I heard him stop. "A different line of work? Like what?"

I shrugged and folded another pair of socks. "Dunno. We're, you know, lookin' through the classifieds. Maybe catering or dog grooming. Always wanted to be a hairdresser, actually."

"A hairdresser?"

"Guido wants to be a prostitute."

"Please tell me you didn't just say that."

"Says he never gets laid enough as it is."

Frank opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, apparently decided that there was nothing he could do against that kind of logic, and headed for the door. "Well ... have fun."

"A laugh a minute," I muttered, balling a pair of socks so tight it tied itself in a knot.




Day three. Guido's gettin' desperate. I figured this when over breakfast, he started layin' out his plans to off Rover.

"Guido," I said. "You do know you're talkin' about the patented number-one killin' machine in the galaxy. These critters have a Mark III photon cannon built in, fer cryin' out loud."

Guido had a desperate look in his eyes. "Seymour, I was tryin' to type up my resume this mornin'. It's got one job on it. I got a degree from the Skarpelli School of Protection Arts. I don't have any other job skills." He started shredding his napkin. "Maybe we could go apply to some of Frankie's competitors."

I leaned forward. "We can't do that. One, it's a damn good way to get ourselves killed, 'cause everyone in town knows we used to be Frankie's boys. Two, that's like ... admittin' defeat or somethin'. We can make it without Frank. We don't need him. A fresh start, that's what we need."

"I was lookin' in the classifieds yesterday," Guido moaned. "I bookmarked a want ad for a shoe salesman. A shoe salesman! I'm losin' my self esteem here. I gotta kill somebody. It's the only thing to do."

Guido has a very straightforward approach to solving the problems in his life.

"If it makes you feel better, then do it," I said, trying out my comforting bedside manner. "I don't think Rover is a real good idea, though."

He stood up sharply and pitched the napkin at the recycler. It missed.

"I'm goin' nuts here, Seymour."

"You think this is easy for me?"

"I mean, I haven't broken any fingers in four days."

"So go find some fingers to break and quite whinin' about it."

"I swear to you, Seymour. I'm gonna get that metal sucker. I'll make it suffer before it dies."

Seemed to me like Rover wouldn't be the one doing the suffering or the dying, but it didn't seem very tactful of me to point it out. "Have fun," I said, echoing Frank's words to me yesterday.

Guido snorted and left.

So my one and only brother is out tryin' to kill Frankie's robot. Great.

Well, I always figured Guido's gonna get himself killed one of these days, doing dumb stuff like this. Then I'll have to deal with filing a life insurance claim and crap. Guy's going to be more trouble dead than alive, and that's sayin' a lot, believe me.

I spent the morning running around town droppin' off my resume, which is just as short as Guido's but you don't hear me complainin' about it. One thing I hadn't figured on is that people hide in the back room whenever I walk in, which makes it tough to arrange job interviews. I did get an interview at the biodomes. Working with plants all day ... I could go for that. Something peaceful and nice. Just what my nerves need.

Guido wasn't home when I got back. I looked up the class schedule at Kismet Community College, just kind of idly to see what they have. I'd still like to expand my horizons a bit. Bein' unemployed might be driving Guido off the deep end, but it's doing wonders for me. I never realized what a rut I was stuck in until I got out of it.

Guido still hadn't come home, so I sighed, and called Frank.

"Seymour! What a pleasant surprise. How's Guido?"

"Dunno. Was hopin' you'd seen him."

"Me?" Frank said. "Why would you ask me?"

"No reason. Just checkin'. Uh, you haven't, have you?"

"No," Frank said, polishing his little pearl-handled pistol while he talked. "He's not trying to kill me, is he? I do have protection, you know," he smiled.

"No. Of course not." Not trying to kill you. "Sure you haven't seen him?"

Frank shrugged. "Quite. Unless Rover saw him first, hah."

"Ha," I echoed bleakly, and hung up.

Idiot.

Not sure if that applies to Guido, Frank or me. Probably all three.




Day four.

Guido came home late last night and wouldn't talk about where he'd been. He was startin' to worry me. I hadn't seen him like this since Ma caught him sneaking porn mags in the john and took away his entire switchblade collection as punishment. I couldn't tell if he still meant to off Rover.

This unemployment stuff was mind-expanding at first but it gets boring after a while. I tried readin' a book, but didn't make it past the first page. Guido's right, neither one of us has the slightest idea what to do with leisure time. You can only polish a gun barrel so long.

The lady from the biodome called back and said she was very sorry but the position had been filled. I asked her if there might be any others open and she said no, she was sure that there weren't. Thought about going over to talk to her in person--people are a lot more agreeable when I talk to them in person, I've found--but I didn't even have the energy. Didn't want to work in a biodome anyway. Guido's right. No fingers to break.

I thought about getting a pen pal and looked through some of the online personals. Mostly sad, screwed-up, lonely middle-aged people with no life. This got me to thinking about my own life, and I pulled the plug on that idea.

Over dinner, Guido pulled out a stack of papers and spread 'em across the table. I took a look at one. It was all lines and grids and Greek letters. "What is this stuff?"

Guido grinned, showing all his teeth. "It's the plans for Rover. Got 'em off the comm."

You know there's trouble brewing when Guido starts usin' the computer. Normally he avoids it like a landfoil fulla wiseguys.

"What are you goin' to do with those, Eddie ...?"

"Don't call me that. My name's Guido." He flattened another printout with his palm, shoving aside his untouched food.

"Look," I said. "We could appeal to the union. I mean, we're members in good standin'--"

He looked up at me with his Big Brother glare. "You just now thinkin' of that? I tried it first day. First day, bro. Frankie already filed his paperwork on us. Dereliction of duty, just like he said. We'll be lucky if we can get a job anywhere, doin' anything."

I sat in stunned silence for a while. No wonder Guido's been pitchin' a fit.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Guido waved his hand in the air, without lookin' up. "Figgered you knew. Hey, hold this for me, wouldja?"

"Whadya mean, you thought I'd--Dammit, Guido!"

He looks up at me, briefly. "You know what your problem is, Seymour? You're a follower!"

"I'm a follower!" Talk about the pot calling the kettle. We're henchmen; we're professional followers.

Guido snorted and buried his nose in the plans. "Got a stylus?"

"Get yer own damn stylus." I went over to the nearest console, called up the Kismet Community College class schedule and paid the deposit for a course on flower arranging. I like working with my hands.

Guido muttered away to himself in the corner. He can't think without his lips moving, but he also doesn't have the decency to say it out loud so a body can hear him. Just mutter, mutter, mutter. I watched him for a little while. He'd scribble furiously with the stylus, then chew on the end for a while, stare at what he'd written, then crumple the paper and throw it over his shoulder at the recycler, missing every time.

After a small snowdrift had begun to build on the kitchen floor, I said, "Come on, man. Forget Frankie. We don't need him. Let's go have some fun."

"I'm busy, Seymour."

"Fine." I got up and got my hat. "I'm gonna go find a hot piece of tail and bring her back here and you can just listen to us."

Guido heaved a sigh and pitched another crumpled wad of paper peevishly across the room. "Heck, why not. I'm gettin' nowhere. Maybe I need to let the ol' thinkbox work for a while, do something else."

Guido was going along with one of my ideas? He was definitely softening up. I found myself halfway hoping that he would figure out a way to kill the critter, if it got the old Guido back. Then I wondered what was so great about the old Guido anyhow.

To make a long story short, we spent a fruitless night bar-hopping. We didn't run into Frankie this time; instead, I got to listen to three hours of an increasingly drunken Guido trying some of the lamest attempts to hit on chicks that I've ever heard.

"Hey, babe. I'm a bodyguard ... and I'd guard your body any day."

"Go sleep it off, jerk."

Eventually we headed home ... drunker, but still alone, and not particularly more cheerful. Guido went straight to his pile of plans on the table, and this time, I didn't even care. I headed upstairs to bed.

Couldn't sleep, though. Guido's obsession with Rover was really buggin' me. I don't think he had the slightest idea what he was gettin' himself into. I mean, even assuming he managed to kill the thing, or deactivate it or whatever, Frank is not exactly helpless without a bodyguard. Some folks think they can mess with Frankie 'cause he wears lipstick, but he's a mean little mother. One time I saw him jump-kick and drive his spike heel three inches into a guy's forehead.

I couldn't shake the image of Guido with one of Frank's stiletto shoes dangling from his face. A picture like that'll keep you awake at night for sure. Eventually I gave up and went downstairs.

"Guido?"

He was gone. So were the plans. Uh-oh.

Then I said to myself, screw it. He's always going on about how he's older than me and smarter than me. Maybe it's time to stop cleanin' up Guido's messes for him. Whatever he's doin' tonight, he can just plain do it by himself.

I downloaded the coursebook for the flower arranging class to a handheld, got a glass of hot milk and swept a few of Guido's crumpled pieces of paper off the bodyform so I could lay down on it. Might as well get the jump on the rest of the class, show 'em that Seymour Magillicuddy is nobody's fool. I was in the middle of Lesson Two: Get in Touch With Your Inner Honeybee when the console chimed.

I took the call on the handheld, and wished I hadn't when I saw the face of the cop, Fleetwood.

"Evening, Seymour," he said, although it was the middle of the night.

"Evenin'. Uh, this business or personal, Lieutenant?"

"Oh, a little of both, a little of both." His eyes were roving around the small section of our apartment he could see behind me. "I see you're home. Your brother around?"

"Naw, he's out."

"You know where he is?"

"Dunno. Just out." I got an unpleasant sinking feeling, and I didn't think it was from the milk.

"When did he leave?"

"Uh, I don't remember. Do I need an attorney present for this?"

Fleetwood laughed. "No, no, no. Don't worry. We just had some, ah, some small items go missing from the loading docks at the spaceport. I've been watching the security vids just now. The pictures aren't very clear or very close, but you can get a good view on a couple of them. Even in a town the size of Kismet, there aren't that many three-hundred-pound red-haired Italians."

"What'd the idiot take?" I said wearily.

"Strictly off the record? An electromagnet crane that's used for unloading freighters, and some steel beams from the construction district."

"Oh," I said. "Oh. Crap."

Fleetwood leaned forward. "Listen. I really don't care what you two want them for, okay? Just make sure they're back by morning or I'll have to come find them. You don't want that."

"No. They'll be back. Count on it."

I signed off and sat up, ran my hand through my hair. Looked like I wasn't going to get a quiet evening at home after all.

You ever see the electromagnets they use on the docks? Huge suckers. I could only think of one thing a guy with a grudge against a robot might be planning with one of those.




I caught up with Guido near Frank's place. It wasn't hard to find him--you could see and hear him half a mile away. Luckily for Guido, but unluckily for the rest of us, Frankie lived near the surface where the tunnels are nice and wide and deep, the way the rich folks like 'em. No way Guido would've been able to drive that monstrosity down the narrow streets around our pad.

"Guido!" I hollered, standing back from the cloud of dust raised by the thing's crawlers. The city's ventilation system was struggling mightily, but I had a feeling that a lot of filters would be getting replaced tonight. "Guido!" I matched my step to the speed of the machine. The missing steel girders were loaded on a trailer behind it, slowing its pace down to a comfortable walk.

Guido waved at me cheerily. "Seymour. Good of you to show up."

"You're gonna get us both killed, you idiot."

Guido didn't respond to that. He rumbled to a stop in front of Frank's tasteful little bungalow and hopped out of the machine's cab.

"Eddie, listen to me."

"My name's Guido, dammit, Seymour." He had a roll of heavy wire over his shoulder and started looping it around one end of a steel beam.

"Ed--Guido, what the hell do you think you're doin'?"

"Making Kismet's biggest electromagnet." He tapped his forehead with one sausage-like forefinger. "See, I been to school. I know how these things work. That big sucker up there--" He pointed to the magnet swinging from its cable over our heads. "That's just to hoist the real magnet into the air. Wait'll you see this baby."

I trailed behind him while he wound what looked like miles and miles of stripped wire around the steel bars. "Guido ... Guido, this is never going to work. If Frankie don't kill us, we'll probably electrocute ourselves."

"Death is a price I'm willin' to pay," he gritted, "to watch that metal bastard's brains fry."

I stood back and watched while he wired the mass of steel to the nearest transformer.

"Don't touch it," he said to me, climbing back into the driver's seat.

Not a problem. I was as far back as I could get, standing against somebody's wrought-iron fence. I wondered if it was just my imagination or if the fence was really thrumming with electricity.

Frankie's door opened a crack, then a bit further. Rover appeared in the doorway, and behind it, Frank, in a sheer pink peignoir with his hair up in curlers. "What are you idiots doing out here in the middle of the night? And what the hell is that?"

"Your worst nightmare," Guido said, and I think I groaned out loud. He'd never been much for originality, my big brother Edwin. He started maneuvering the magnet around to the steel bars.

"Oho," Frank said. "Oh, a giant magnet. Oh, I'm so scared."

Guido laughed and hoisted the steel into the air. I flattened myself against the fence as the crane pivoted, swinging back towards Frank's house. With our luck, I thought, he'll probably zig when he shoulda zagged and take out half the block.

"Doncha know what magnets do to computers, Frankie, ol' boy?" Guido asked, swinging the steel girders in a slow arc over Frankie and Rover. I wanted to close my eyes, but then I wouldn't be able to run if something broke loose and headed my way. Rover, I noticed, hadn't moved, let alone lifted into the air and clanged into the magnet.

"Ooooohhhh ..." Frank breathed. "So that's what you call a plan." He snapped his fingers. "Rover. Forward."

Rover trundled a few steps forward, then stopped, awaiting further instructions. It certainly didn't look as if its brains were frying.

"Any minute now," Guido said, with a touch of uncertainty in his voice. "Any minute now it's gonna keel over and start smoking."

Frankie laughed.

"You complete moron," he sneered. "You think the company didn't think of that? It's made of non-magnetic alloys, and it's got a Faraday cage around its brain. Which is not, by the way, in its head."

"Oh," Guido said.

"Go home, kids," Frank said, turning his back. "Don't make me get a restraining order of the irreversible kind."

Guido sat in silence for a moment. Then he said, "It's not magnetic, boss?"

"No. Sorry to burst your bubble."

"Guess I don't need this, then," Guido said contemplatively, and hit the button that turned off the current to the top electromagnet.

The thought occurred to me, in the split second that the steel beams seemed to hang in midair before plummeting on top of Frank's robot, that maybe Guido wasn't as dumb as he looked.

It was sort of anti-climactic, just loud. There was a thud beyond all thuds, a thud that actually shook the ground and raised a cloud of dust you couldn't see through, a thud mixed with some grinding noises and clangs and other sounds beyond the reach of the ears, and a few sparks.

We all stood there while the dust settled. Someone down the street hollered something about crazy kids and noisy parties. A couple more sparks popped at the ends of one razor-wired arm, which had been neatly severed and was the only part of the robot you could see anymore, probably the only part that hadn't been compacted.

"Guido," Frank said after a moment.

"Yeah, boss?"

"Lift the ... uh, could you lift the ..."

"Sure, boss."

Guido lowered the magnet and, with surprising skill, manipulated the steel beams off the robot. It hadn't been a pretty sight even before having several tons of steel fall on it, but it was a lot less pretty now. Something fizzled faintly and then all was still.

Frank stared, wide-eyed, at the flattened remains of his bodyguard. Then he looked at us. Then he looked at his bodyguard.

You could almost feel sorry for him, if he wasn't such a slimy, self-serving little bastard.

Guido climbed down from the cab of the machine.

Frankie looked up and looked directly at us. "You realize this is coming directly out of your paychecks."

"We don't work for you any more," I reminded him, speaking for the first time.

"Oh," Frank said. "That's right." He thought a moment. "Want a job?"

I opened my mouth to say, "Screw you, you pinheaded little prick." But Guido spoke first.

"Comin', boss." He headed for Frankie's door, givin' me a beseeching backwards look.

Frankie was watchin' me expectantly, and maybe with a hand not too far from his little pistols. And I heaved a sigh, and came along.

What the hell. I mean, what else am I gonna do? It's not like I'd be happy arranging flowers, anyhow.

"You do know it was all a test, don't you?" Frankie said, sounding a bit anxious as us two big guys hovered over him. "A test, uh huh, and you've passed, yeah. Nice job."

"Oh, yeah, boss. No sweat."

"Good. Excellent. Wonderful." He pointed at the mess of girders and twisted metal in the street. "Clean that up, would you?"

I looked at Guido. Guido looked at me. We both grinned a little bit.

After all, when you live with a guy night and day, there's all kinds of tiny ways to get revenge without technically breaking any union rules.

We're gonna have fun the next few days. I don't think Frankie is.

And who knows, I did pay the class deposit on that flower arranging course. No need to let it go to waste. Never hurts to have a few extra job skills, not working for a guy like Frank.



Author's Notes: This was the story in which the bodyguards actually got different personalities. Seymour's the smart quiet one; Guido's the dumb quiet one.



:: back to fiction ::