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Larceny and the Art of Gift Selection



Aside from her slightly unfortunate name, Christmas Carroll made a perfectly ordinary start in the world. She was born right on schedule on Christmas Eve, down to the hour if not the minute--she was actually five and half minutes early of the time her mother had requested, which the doctor said was good for the baby's health. He would have said the same thing if she'd been five minutes late.

Her father had no responsibility for her name. Her father, in fact, didn't know he was a father until her mother called him the next day.

"Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to you, Joyce," he said, a bit surprised. He hadn't expected to hear from her again, let alone on Christmas, but life and Joyce were both funny that way.

"I tried calling you at home, but your away message said you were at the office."

"I am."

"I thought you worked nights."

He shrugged. "Everyone else wanted the day off. I need the cash."

"Working on Christmas. That's sad, Shelley."

"Doesn't bother me," he said, trying to shove the porn magazine he'd been reading out of sight of the vid pickup.

"You're a father, by the way."

"Oh? Really?"

"Yeah, at sixteen-twelve yesterday afternoon. I thought about whether I should call and tell you. Thought about it, whether you had a right to know and all that. Decided you didn't, but I figured I'd call you anyway."

"How on Rinolo did you get pregnant, Joyce?"

She hesitated, and a slight flush crept up her cheeks. "I had a temp, not a perm. Had it taken out when I was married to Donald. We were planning to have a baby. Didn't get it put back in during the breach-of-contract."

"Didn't the thought cross your mind..."

"God, Shelley! I hadn't thought about birth control since I was a kid! Who does? Of course not..."

He still wasn't quite sure if he believed her or not, but decided to go along with it. "So is it a boy or a girl?"

"Girl."

"That's nice. I already had one of the other kind, so now I've got a matched set."

"A matched set of what? What are you talking about, Shelley?"

"Kids. Isn't that what you're talking about?" He wondered if it was some sort of weird misunderstanding and she'd actually just gotten a dog or something.

"You have kids? I mean, other kids?"

"Well, I have one. Had one. I guess I have two, now."

"I never knew you had children," Joyce said, surprised.

You never knew anything about me, Joyce; that's why you're there and I'm here, he thought, and said, "Yes, well, he's not really a child any more. I don't think he ever was, frankly. I never see him unless he needs money or someone's trying to kill him. You know how kids are. Last time he came over to my place, he walked off with most of the dishes, as well as going through the cabinets for sharp objects. It's not enough to count the silverware after he's been in the house; you have to count the furniture too."

Joyce had developed that little crease between her brows that appeared when she was confused. He remembered a time when he'd found it cute...that period had lasted five minutes or so. "Are you joking, Shelley?"

"God, no. Trust me, if you ever meet him, which I rather hope you don't, you'll see what I mean. His mother is largely responsible for his upbringing."

"From that description, it sounds more like you were."

"Thanks for calling, Joyce. Merry Christmas and the usual insults to you, too. Have to be getting back to the--"

"Damn you, wait! What kind of father are you? Aren't you even remotely curious about your daughter?"

In fact he was, but didn't want to give her the satisfaction. "I suppose she's got a name."

Joyce smiled smugly. He could see what she thinking: the fish is on the hook. "I named her Christmas, since she was born during the holiday season."

"Christmas...Carroll?"

"Yes," Joyce snapped. "I suppose your other child had a much better name, thank you."

His other child was named Morphine. The mother had named that one, too. Next time I should really have more input in the process, he thought. If there was a next time, which he generally tried to make sure there wasn't.

"Aren't you going to ask me what she looks like?" Joyce said, when he didn't rise to the bait.

"She's a day old. I assume she'd look like a day-old baby."

Joyce glared at him. "That's not funny."

"Okay, I'll venture a guess--round, bald and drooling, am I close?"

Joyce's glare had tightened to the focus of a laser beam. "Shelley, I said that is not funny."

"Wasn't meant to be. I've always wondered about people who look at a newborn and go off on how he's got Uncle Dick's nose and Great-Aunt Phoebe's double chin. I'll bet they wouldn't be able to pick that baby out of a lineup if their lives depended on it."

"That's it," Joyce snapped. "I knew this was a mistake. My daughter is lucky that she doesn't have you in her life, Shelley Fleetwood." She terminated the connection and his terminal winked to darkness.

Poor kid, Shelley Fleetwood thought sympathetically. Probably be in therapy by the time she's nine.

He opened up the magazine again. He could have read at home, not in his office (well, technically his supervisor's office, but she was offworld for the holiday), but around Christmastime the office was actually a better place as far as not getting disturbed--no one thought to look for him there. Everybody who worked with him were either getting festive with whatever family they had, or getting drunk by themselves beside their lonely little Christmas tree; he thought it was about fifty-fifty of both. Nobody wanted to work on Christmas except for Shelley Fleetwood, so he did. As he had told Joyce, it didn't bother him. Christmas had never been a big deal to him and he couldn't figure out why it was for everyone else.

In fact, he'd been enjoying the day until about ten minutes ago.

From now on, he mused, he should stick to men. He'd never had a single male lover get pregnant on him. Not that it couldn't happen these days, but it was a lot less likely.



******





Elaine Jaeger was the only person on the 8:15 morning shuttle to Kismet, and the solitude suited her just fine. She preferred to stay in space, where weightlessness put her on an even footing (so to speak) with everyone else. Strapping on the bulky hoverchair was an admission of defeat, a bowing of her head to the disease that had taken her legs, her left arm, her hair, and her dignity. For a person in Elaine's position, despair was a deadlier enemy than even the Courelli's Syndrome poisoning her body.

But she had put on the chair out of desperation, and now she engaged the thruster and floated out of the shuttle's airlock. Dusty was still asleep and, considering how late they'd been up and how much he'd had to drink, would probably be asleep for several more hours. Elaine had been just as drunk, but one of the few benefits of Courelli's Syndrome was her ability to get as inebriated as she wanted without suffering aftereffects. The drunkenness wasn't real; it was produced by artificially manipulating her endocrine controls. Real alcohol would probably kill her.

A perfect high with no side effects, Elaine thought, grimacing. Some would call it evidence that even the darkest, most putrid cloud did have some silver filaments woven through it. Elaine called it a demon. As hard as she struggled against the depressing awareness of her own mortality, it was all too tempting to spend the few remaining years of her life in a warm haze, unaware that she was dying even as her body rotted around her. She could think of nothing more horrifying--or more compelling.

But this was Christmas Day: the first Christmas of her new life with Dusty. Elaine didn't intend to forget anything, of this day or any of the days to follow it. Her life was going to be short. She'd known that ever since a very terrible day some years back. Only recently, though, had she realized that any human life is less than an eyeblink in the slow dance of revolving galaxies, and squandering any of that time is a sin.

So, having resolved to forget nothing in her new life, she'd started off by forgetting to buy a Christmas present for Dusty.

Knowing Dusty, he'd probably gotten her something insanely expensive, romantic and sweet that she'd never use in a million years, and in return, she'd have to look him in the eye and...

...lie. Waking in panic in the pre-dawn hours, realizing that in her general ignorance about his homeworld's Christmas traditions she had utterly forgotten the part about exchanging gifts, Elaine had resolved to tell him that his present was back-ordered and she wouldn't tell him what it was until it arrived. That should have bought her a couple of weeks to figure something out. But the longer she thought about it, the guiltier she felt, and so guilt had driven her planetside. She only hoped that not everyone was celebrating this holiday.

The spacedock was deserted. Elaine suspected that if the shuttles hadn't been automated, they would have been shut down too. This crazy universe was a great patchwork quilt of different customs and religions, but the birthday of an alleged religious figure who had died two and a half millennia in the past could still shut it all down for a day. There were plenty of people in the galaxy who didn't celebrate Christmas--including Elaine's parents and the majority of the population on Amaranth Station, where she grew up--but if any holiday could be said to be universal, Christmas probably came the closest.

She passed from the docks into the shopping district. Although it was late enough to be fully light, the city lights were still turned down a bit, creating a diffuse gray light like a snowy winter morning. The computer's little joke, perhaps. In the dim light, everything seemed to glitter and glow. Elaine went slowly and gazed around her. Every shuttered shopfront was festooned in glittering lights, iridescent holographic Nativity scenes (some defaced by Satanist graffiti), big glowing candy canes, fake snow, green leafy stuff. Every corner comm booth was playing music.



Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles
Will be out of sight....


Elaine didn't recognize the song, but she did recognize the singer. Valantine Risse --soap opera simulactress, pop singer and possibly the most recognized personality in the galaxy--had released her first Christmas album this year, and it had been inescapable in malls, restaurants, bars, and all the Galactinet music channels. At least she did have a nice voice. In fact, being a simulation, she could even sing harmony with herself.

But festive as it all was, it didn't help Elaine find a store that wasn't closed so that she could buy something for Dusty. She was still stunned at her discovery that some things cannot be bought on Galactinet, which had, of course, been the first place she tried. You simply cannot buy something on Christmas morning and expect it to be delivered by Christmas noon. In Kismet itself, you certainly could, as long as the store and your house were both hooked into the home delivery tube network and whatever you wanted to buy wasn't particularly fragile. But not when you were docked to the hulk of a half-built floating prison, where the delivery system relied on the shuttles and on actual robots or humans doing the conveying. And while robots don't take Christmas off, their masters do--the ones who actually hang out the "closed" sign.

She wandered deeper into the city, amazed at the sight of a closed-down Kismet. There were a handful of people to be seen--mostly beggars, or black-clad individuals hurrying along with their collars turned up. Not too different from the sort of people you normally saw in Kismet, except far fewer of them. The temperature was turned down a bit too, for ambiance perhaps. She wished she'd worn a heavier jacket.

But nowhere did she find a business without its shutters down, its signs dimmed, its proprietors no doubt home with their family, exchanging the gifts they hadn't forgotten to buy. She checked her chrono nervously, although the next shuttle didn't go out until noon, and if she missed that one, she'd be stuck here all afternoon. Would Dusty sleep until noon? How hung over was he?

The sight of someone she recognized broke into her gloom. "Shelley! Hey!"

Shelley Fleetwood glanced up. He was wandering along with his hands buried in the pockets of his Customs jacket. "Well, hello there, pretty lady. You don't get down here much."

Elaine shrugged. "Merry Christmas, Shelley."

"Merry Christmas. Where's tall and ugly?"

"Dusty's back on the ship."

"Fight?"

"No. I'm looking for a Christmas present for him."

Fleetwood made a show of glancing at his chrono. "For this year, or next year?"

"You're such a dick." Suddenly a thought struck her: Shelley Fleetwood knew the city better than anyone she'd met. Maybe luck was finally going her way, after all. "Hey, Shelley, do you know of any businesses that stay open on Christmas?"

"Lots of places...."

Elaine's heart leaped.

"... if you're looking for guns, drugs, or child slaves. Any of those sound like the ticket?"

"No," Elaine snapped, and then hesitated. Guns... maybe... but no. Dusty had plenty of guns, and she didn't know enough about it to pick out something. Besides, she didn't feel up to dealing with the sort of unsavory types that Fleetwood probably had in mind.

"Why don't you get something off the 'net?"

Elaine pointed skyward. "You see any supply tubes up there?"

"Oh. Right." He grinned suddenly. Stunning was the only word for Fleetwood's smile--not because it was unusually attractive, but because of the energy in it, the engaging invitation to smile back. "Hey, look, how about I do my good deed for the day? I've got a few errands to run. Why don't you go back to my place, use my terminal and house connections, get hubby something nice."

"Oh, Shelley, really?"

"Sure. Damsels in distress, my specialty."

"I'll owe you one," Elaine said.

He grinned again, and this time Elaine wondered if it was her imagination or if there was actually something faintly seedy in that smile. "I'll remember that." He dug two cards out of the pocket of his jacket. "Here's the keys."

"Both of these?"

"Both of them. Now listen carefully while I tell you how to disarm the security system. Oh, and under no circumstances go into the bedroom..."





******





"Yes. I mean, no."

"Yes or no, son? There's only two ways about it."

"No..." Frank Bernetti gritted his teeth. "Dad. I just can't."

"Your mother will be very disappointed."

Somehow he refrained from the knee-jerk response of She's not my mother. "Look, Dad, I told you. I have to work. Just because it's Christmas doesn't mean business comes to a halt."

"People buy insurance on Christmas?"

"Yes, people buy insurance on Christmas. You'd be surprised. Very busy season for us, actually. There are more suicides at Christmas than at any other time of year, by the way."

"Really? You can buy insurance for that?"

Frank smiled brightly at the face on the screen, which looked like an older version of himself, minus the sunglasses and the lipstick, and with a lot less hair. "You'd be surprised," he said.

"Well, come by after you get off. We'll save some turkey for you."

Frank glanced at his bodyguard out of the corner of his eye. "Okay if my secretary comes along? His family is ... out of town."

"You know there's always room for one more at the Bernetti table, son."

"Thanks, Dad. Give my love to Joan."

He terminated the connection with a short jab of his finger.

"God, Guido, spare me from idiots. Even the ones I'm related to."

"Yes, boss. I often do."

Frank glanced sideways at his bodyguard.

"So, Guido, what do you people do on Christmas, anyway?"

Guido shrugged, idly picked up a 200-year-old silver letter opener off Frank's desk and started picking his teeth with it. "What's that, boss?"

"You bodyguards. How do you spend the holidays?"

"Oh, I dunno. Open presents. Make cookies. What anybody does on Christmas."

Frank blinked to dispel the image of his bodyguard in an apron and chef's hat, the rolling pin looking like a toothpick in his meaty, flour-dusted hands, adding pink sprinkles to a Santa Claus cookie... "Well, anyhow," he said, in a token burst of magnanimity, "I'm sorry to drag you away from it."

Guido shrugged again. "Don't much care."

"Don't you have family or anything?"

"Seymour. But he's on the night shift."

Frank gave up. "Have you got the outstanding list?"

Guido flourished it. Actually flourished wasn't the precise term; flourished implied a certain panáche, and Guido probably thought panáche was some kind of French dessert. Waving the handheld in the air was as close to flourishing as he could manage.

Frank took it.

"Well, well. Benny the Rat is back in arrears, it seems. And Shnibble's Rental Coffins! I've given him two notices. Or is it three?"

"Three, boss."

"I wonder why is it that people let their debts slide around the holidays? As if they expect Santa Claus to come pay their rent or something."

"Yes, boss," said Guido.

Sometimes Frank missed Seymour, Guido's brother, when he was off duty. Not often, but sometimes. Seymour occasionally had an original thought or two, maybe even an opinion. Guido, however, was one of those natural-born bodyguards. His name, Frank had learned, was actually Edwin Magillicuddy; he'd legally changed it, on his advisor's recommendation, when he graduated from the Skarpelli School of Protection Arts (with a major in Gross Bodily Damage and a minor in Breaking & Entering). If Guido ever had an opinion on anything--aside from the fundamental belief that no problem was too complicated to solve by breaking someone's fingers--it died of loneliness long ago.

Frank went back to reading the handheld. "Carroll Foundation. Eight months behind? I think we've been letting her slide much too long, Guido."

Guido shifted his feet. "Uh, boss. Ain't she on the protected list?"

"Not any more," Frank said. "She broke up with him."

Unlike Seymour, Guido had never tried to understand his boss's "I can kill you and yours, but no one else can" relationship with the security guard, Fleetwood. If the boss said kneecaps should be broken, then Guido would break kneecaps, but he never broke unnecessary ones. Well, not on duty.

"Right, boss."



******



"I'm sorry, sir. Sir, you can't go in there. Sir, this is a restricted area--"

Joyce Carroll raised her head at the muffled protesting noises outside her room.

Oh shit, she thought. They've found me.

"Well, excuse me all to hell," said a familiar voice, and Joyce relaxed. It wasn't them.

"Sir, if you don't leave right now, I'll call the --" The nurse hesitated, with the police hovering on the tip of her tongue. She'd been raised on a planet where law enforcement was publicly funded. On Kismet, where the various police forces were privately owned, calling them could be much worse than the situation necessitating the call.

"Don't worry," Fleetwood said. "I am the police."

Case in point.

Joyce plumped up her pillows and had herself artfully arranged on the bed by the time he opened the door, striving for "woman reclining provocatively yet modestly in a bedroom" rather than "woman in a hospital room who just gave birth to a nine-pound child."

"You look like shit, Joyce," Fleetwood said.

"Thank you so very much. I needed that little cut to my self-esteem at this moment."

He had the decency to look a bit abashed. "Sorry. I just think things and they come out of my mouth. It's not like I plan it that way."

"I hate it when you try to be nice, Shelley; it means you're up to something. What are you doing here?"

"What do you mean, what am I doing here? I have a kid around here somewhere, don't I?"

"Maybe," Joyce said warily. "Quit looking around. She's not in here."

"Why not? You're her mother, aren't you?"

"She's a newborn, Shelley," Joyce said with extreme patience. "I can't have her here with me. She'd catch a chill or some disease that doesn't even bother us. She's in the nursery. Safe."

"Hmm," Fleetwood said. "My first kid was born in an alley. Never even went to a hospital 'til he was a year old."

Joyce stared. "It's a miracle he's alive."

"No," Fleetwood said, "a miracle implies that something good has happened. And why did you have her the natural way, anyhow? I would have expected you to opt for an incubator."

Joyce glowered at him. "All the studies clearly prove that incubator babies have a disadvantage on standardized tests, Shelley."

Fleetwood's mouth twisted. "Oh, of course. My error."

He turned at a soft, polite tap at the door. A much older and more experienced nurse stuck her head and the muzzle of a laser pistol into the room. The pistol was pointed at Fleetwood's head.

"Excuse me, sir," she said politely, "but I believe you're in the wrong room."

Hospitals in Kismet don't have security guards. They cut costs by hiring nurses with prison records.

"Oh, darn it all," Fleetwood said, looking from the gun to the nurse's polite but unforgiving face. "I seem to be in the wrong room. Excuse me, ma'am."

"Goodbye," Joyce said.

"Goodbye, Joyce."

Fleetwood backed out into the corridor at nursepoint. The first nurse was hovering nervously behind the older one, murmuring things like, "We can't do this, can we?" and "Don't you need a permit for that?" Fleetwood wondered how long she'd been working here. Not very long, he figured.

"I believe you must not have noticed the signs, sir," the other nurse informed him, without lowering the pistol. "This is a recovery ward. Visitors are not allowed."

"I'm not a visitor. I'm her ... husband."

"Ms. Carroll is not married, sir. This way, please?"

"Well, I'm the baby's father, anyway," Fleetwood protested as she nudged him firmly toward the exit sign.

"That's nice, sir. Congratulations. This way, please."

"You're telling me you won't let a man see his own kid?"

"Not if the man is you," the nurse said.

Fleetwood craned his head around in panic, racing through his mental Robodex. Jenny--no; Amanda--no; she couldn't have been a man before, could she...? "Have we ... met?" he asked finally.

The nurse snorted. "No, but you're on the restricted list. I recognize that face. I'm paid to remember people."

"The restricted list?"

"That's right, sir." They had reached the lobby, which was done up in cheerful holly and ribbons, and virtually deserted. "The door is that way, sir."

"Wait a minute! What restricted list? I haven't done anything!"

"Nonetheless, if your name is Shelley Fleetwood, you are on it."

"My name's not Fleetwood," said Fleetwood. "You've obviously confused me with someone else. Now that that's cleared up--"

The nurse glanced at her chrono, and sighed. "Mr. Fleetwood, we are very understaffed over the holidays, as you can well imagine. I have two wards under my care today, and even with the robot staff, there are still things only a human can do. I'm running behind and I'm not in a good mood. You are not permitted to visit patients in this hospital, understand? If I see you in here again, I'll shoot first and ask questions later."

"Understood," Fleetwood said with a bright, intense cheerfulness that people who knew him dreaded.

The nurse looked at him, suspecting sarcasm, but his face was open and innocent. After a moment she stuck the gun through the waistband of her slacks and left him alone, after a final warning look over her shoulder.

There was no one at the reception desk. Fleetwood considered, briefly, shooting her in the back. Just to stun. Not to kill. But then he recalled who ran the hospital--the mob. Shooting their employees tended to cut one's career as an outlaw quite short.

He'd opened his mouth to say "Frank" to himself when Frank Bernetti walked in, with Guido behind him.

Fleetwood closed his mouth.

Frank stopped. They both stood and stared at each other. It was hard to tell what Frank was thinking behind his smoked glasses and Elvira makeup, but Fleetwood thought he looked guilty. He wore a plastic holly sprig pinned to the shoulder of his evening gown. It looked very sad and droopy.

"Well, speak of the devil, Bernadetti," Fleetwood said. "I was just about to call you."

"No, really? What a small town. Merry Christmas to you too. If you'll excuse me, Fleetw--"

"Why am I banned from this hospital, Frank?"

"Are you? How odd. Now I really am on a tight sched--"

"Look, Frank, I know the mob runs the hospital. Your mob, specifically. I still don't know how highly placed you are and I don't really give a damn, but I would imagine that if you didn't write the persona non grata list you guys use, you know why every name is on it."

Frank sighed.

"You're not on our persona non grata list," he said. "You'd know if you were, believe me. Everybody's banned from somewhere or other in this town, for any one of a hundred reasons, mostly boiling down to what the bosses think is in their own best interests. Most people never run into it. And in a lot of cases, it's temporary."

"Why don't they want me in the hospital, Frank?"

Frank shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe you pissed off somebody on the board of directors. Lord knows you've annoyed enough highly placed people in this town. It'll probably blow over. In the meantime, you can go into the clinic for your checkups if you like."

"I want to be off that list, Frank."

"I'll have a chat with the bosses after the holidays. Now if you don't m--"

"Now, Frank."

Frank sighed again. "I can't do that, Fleetwood. I could take you in as a guest of mine--"

"That would be nice, for starters--"

"--but I can't do that either because I'm here on business and you know it's unprofessional to have civilians running around when you're trying to do business."

There was a short, uncomfortable silence. Guido shifted from foot to foot.

"Business? With whom?" Fleetwood said.

Frank lifted an eyebrow, just visible under his heavy bangs. "You sound like you're expecting a particular answer."

"I know what I don't want the answer to be."

"Oh, crap," Frank said. "Don't tell me you're getting it on with the charity girl again."

"She's still losing money, I assume?"

"I don't discuss business."

"Stay away from her, Frank."

"Tell you what." Frank reached out a hand and Guido, after a moment's pause, slapped a handheld and stylus in it. Frank scribbled something and held it up. "Do you have this?"

"That's not a--monetary figure, by any chance?" Fleetwood said after a pause.

"Do you have it?"

"Is that what she owes?"

"Do you have it or not?"

"Frank, I haven't had that kind of money in my entire life."

Frank gave the handheld back to Guido. "That's all I needed to know." He swept past Fleetwood, doing his best Scarlett O'Hara impression, and the bodyguard trailed him.

"Frank! Hold on! Joyce doesn't even own the-- I mean, the debts are her father's, not hers--"

Frank turned back. "Her father's in Shady Pines, has been for years."

"I know that--"

"The Carroll Foundation has always been a money sinkhole," Frank said. "Somehow her father managed to hold it together with spit and shoestring, until he started talking to the walls and putting potatoes in his ears. Somehow he could find investors every time the debts mounted up and talk began of cement overshoes and kneecaps breaking. Ever since Joyce took over, we've been losing money steadily. We don't like losing money."

"It's a nonprofit foundation, Frank!"

"Yeah, but we're not." Frank took a few steps back, and pointed to Fleetwood. "You know what the problem is? Joyce doesn't give a damn. She's not trying. She hates it here and she wants to see the foundation go under. That's a lovely little bitch you've picked up, Fleetwood."

"She's not trying to run her father's company into the ground. That's absurd, Frank."

Frank raised both hands. "I don't know. I don't know her. You slept with her. I suppose I'm only saying that if I were a spoiled daddy's girl itching to get offworld and, instead, stuck with the directorship of a nonprofit corporation where I made less per hour than your average veterinary assistant--naw. Never happen."

"So let's say that all she wants is to get out of the Carroll Foundation and all you want is to shut it down --"

"No, no, no. She owes us money. It's not that easy. But don't worry." Frank grinned what he probably thought was a reassuring grin. It looked as reassuring as a shark cavorting around the Beginning Swimmers' beach. "I'm not going to harm one hair on her empty little head. Word of honor."

"You're just going to talk to her?" Fleetwood asked warily.

"I got some pliers, boss --" Guido made his first contribution to the conversation.

"Shut up. Never mind Guido here. He hasn't had his medication today. Contrary to what you see in the media, Fleetwood, this is the twenty-fifth century and we in the collection business have moved with the times just like any other profitable operation. We don't cut off fingers these days, nor do we use pliers for anything other than loosening stuck bolts." He glared at Guido, who flinched.

"You just ... talk."

"Right, and threaten the odd family member, but that's not something you have to worry about. Joyce should be fairly receptive to that right about now. She's got a baby to think about."

The temperature in the room appeared to plummet.

"Frank," said Fleetwood, very quietly. "Do the math."

"Guido! Calculator!"

"I think I left it in my other pants, boss..."

"Never mind," Fleetwood said between his teeth. "Frank, all I mean is, who was Joyce sleeping with nine months ago?"

"According to you, half the zero-g bowling team, a few itinerant salesman, the neighborhood ratcatcher--"

"And me," Fleetwood snapped.

"Among many, many others."

"Frank, she says I'm the father."

"And you believed her? How touching. Odds are you're not. And we do play the odds in my business. That, at least, hasn't changed."

"Frank, I want you to stay away from that kid."

"I can't stay away from the kid and the mother. How do I get my money that way?"

"You don't," Fleetwood said.

Frank stared at him, then burst into laughter. "Oh, dear," he said, subsiding. "That's better than anything I've heard on Comedy Tonite." He checked his chrono. "Must be going."

"Frank! I'm warning you! Touch the kid and I'll tear off that wig and stuff it down your throat!"

Frank spun back and snapped, "Watch your mouth! It's not a wig!" He gave his long black hair a demonstrative tug. "It is real. And that baby is not yours, Shelley, so don't worry about it. I'll have it genotyped if you want, just to prove--"

"Frank, I don't give a fuck! That's not the--"

"Fleetwood, we're talking about a shrill slut and the bastard result of her infidelity. You don't care what happens to either one of them. You can't get into this hospital anyway, so don't worry about it. Go home and enjoy a nice hearty Christmas dinner like the rest of Kismet."

And he was gone.

Fleetwood stared after them, and his eyes narrowed.

"If that's how you want it," he said aloud.



******



Joyce Carroll lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling of her room for a long time after Fleetwood left. God, she didn't need this. She was exhausted and aching, bruised and torn. She didn't want to deal with Shelley Fleetwood.

You're the one who called him, Joyce, you nitwit.

But she hadn't really thought he'd come. She just wanted to see what he'd say. She hadn't thought he would care. Maybe he was only trying to jerk her around, as usual.

The door opened again and Joyce closed her eyes in frustration. Then kept them closed. It wasn't Shelley. Whoever it was didn't walk like Shelley, and there were more than one of them. Besides, Shelley would have shot off his mouth as soon as he walked back in; he couldn't seem to help himself.

"Joyce?"

Joyce kept her eyes closed. The footsteps--one set soft and tapping in high heels, the others heavy and tramping--approached the bed.

Someone touched her. She tried to still the flinch. Lie quiet, keep breathing in and out...

"Wake up, Joyce." The hand shook her.

"I can wake her up, boss."

"No, don't. I think she's sedated."

"I can still wake her up, boss. It just takes longer."

"No. We'll let her sleep and come back later. Or maybe even wait until she's out of the hospital. That'd be easier." The unseen person leaned closer. Long hair brushed Joyce's nose, and she fought against a suicidal sneeze. "Unless she manages to come up with the money first. You think she might be able to do that, Guido?"

"I don't know, boss. Maybe."

"Maybe we should remind her that she's not alone in the world."

"What do you mean, boss?"

"She doesn't just have herself to think of anymore. There's a little bundle of joy in the world, Guido."

Joyce's breath caught. Not my baby, please --

There was a pause and then the footsteps went away and the door shut.

Joyce stayed still just a little while longer, in case they'd left someone behind. But she didn't hear breathing and after a moment she looked around the room. It was empty.



******



"She was fakin', boss."

"I know that. And not very well, either."

"I wouldn't need very long with her, boss."

"Not yet." Frank tapped the side of his head as he strolled down the hospital corridor. "Mind games, Guido. That's what it's all about. You have to be smarter than they are."

"I got a brand new set of pliers I haven't even used yet, boss. That's a shame, that is."

"Down, boy." Frank paused and backed up a step, looking down the hallway to his left. "Guido, what do I see there?"

Guido reached for the gun under his coat, but Frank hadn't said it in a tone of alarm, and Guido didn't see anything threatening in the neighborhood. So he hesitated. This was a rather different question from "Guido, what do you see there?" which was an easy one to answer.

"Dunno, boss," he said, deciding to play it safe. "What do you see?"

Frank stared at his bodyguard for a moment. Sometimes he wondered if Guido was actually just having fun at his expense. But no one could be that good an actor... "Take a look. What do you see?"

Ah, an easier question. Guido looked.

"No decent cover, boss. Could be anyone behind that door at the end of the hall. See the chick in the white ...thing? Could have a gun under that skirt. Hell, could be a gun under that thing she's carrying."

"That thing she's carrying is called a baby, Guido,." The bodyguard tended to pay very little attention to objects in his environment that weren't either armed or begging for mercy.

"Right, boss. That's what I said."

The nurse faltered, ducking her head demurely. Her ragged brown hair fell into her eyes. She was wearing a surgical mask.

"Morning, ma'am," Frank said.

The nurse nodded to him politely.

"Looks like a nice day outside."

She nodded again. The baby in her arms slept quietly, bundled in a blanket until only the top of its little knit cap and the tips of its booties showed.

"You're a damned ugly woman, Fleetwood," Frank said.

"That's a very hurtful remark," the nurse snapped. "I have a heart beating under this uniform, you know. And it takes one to know one."

"Beg pardon?" Frank said. "I am not pretending to be a woman. I am merely wearing a dress. Do you see breasts anywhere on this chest?" He pointed emphatically to his absent cleavage. "Whereas you, on the other hand--what is that thing under your dress?"

Fleetwood opened his mouth.

"Under the chest part," Frank added hastily.

"Oh, that. A towel."

"A lumpy towel."

Fleetwood shrugged and rocked the baby gently. "Look, you try strapping on a D cup with duct tape and see how lumpy it is. Now if you'll excuse me, I was just on my way out the door."

"Dressed like a woman and carrying a baby. That's a bit odd, Fleetwood, even for you. That wouldn't happen to be Joyce Carroll's baby, would it?"

"No, of course not."

"Where did you get that getup in such a hurry?"

"Laundry."

"You just waltzed into the laundry?"

"Well, I had to knock out a couple of people. I think I broke one girl's arm. I do feel a trifle bad about it."

"And then they just let you walk into the maternity ward and walk out with one of their babies? I'm going to have to talk to the board of directors about hiring some nurses with martial arts skills."

"They're understaffed. It's Christmas Day, Frank, fer cryin' out loud. The only people crazy enough to be working are unsentimental bastards such as you and myself."

"Yeah," Frank said, "I can see how unsentimental you are." He stared at the bundle in Fleetwood's arms for a minute. "All right. Fun's fun. Hand it over."

"No."

"Damn it, Fleetwood, drop the baby or I will have Guido hurt you!"

"Drop the baby?"

"Or put it down. I don't care. Now!"

Fleetwood, for his part, saw that Guido had drawn a gun that looked big enough to drop an elephant in its tracks. He wondered how far his informal agreement with Frank actually went. He thought about some of the arguments that he'd witnessed between Frank and other people.

They tended to be short.

He threw the baby at Frank, turned and ran like hell.

To the credit of both Frank and Guido, some hitherto buried paternal instinct popped to the surface and they dived wildly for the tumbling blanket. Frank got the blanket. Guido got one bootie. The other bootie hit the floor, along with the little knit cap and the towel that had been wrapped up inside the blanket. That, and nothing else.

"Goddam him!" Frank snarled, scrambling to his feet. "No way he had time to get to the laundry and the maternity ward since we left him! But that's where he's going now, Guido!"

They sprinted in the direction Fleetwood had gone. Guido had a definite advantage in any situation that involved running, since Frank was trying to run in a floor-length skirt and high heels. His bodyguard vanished ahead of him.

Fleetwood tackled Frank from a half-open supply closet door.

They tumbled end-over-end and wound up in a tangle with Frank's skirts over his head. Fleetwood held him that way, while Frank struggled and cursed at him. Fleetwood knocked a knife out of one of his hands and a poisoned needle out of the other, and banged Frank's head against the floor a few times.

"Where's Guido going?" Fleetwood demanded.

"Fuckyougoddampieceof--"

Fleetwood banged his head into the floor again.

"Maternity ward," Frank said. "Let me go."

"Will you try to kill me if I do?"

"Hell yes."

Fleetwood whacked his head against the floor a few more times.

"That hurts, you son of a bitch!"

"Been a while since you've had an actual hand-to-hand combat situation, hasn't it, Frank? Lost the touch, have you? I remember a time when you'd've had me coughing up my own kidneys by now. How the mighty have fallen."

"Any minute now," Frank hissed through the fabric of his skirt, "Guido's going to notice I'm not behind him and he's going to blow your fucking head off."

"Crap. You're right." Fleetwood dragged him, with some difficulty, into the supply closet and shut the door. "I can't believe how easy you are to hold down. Nice underwear, by the way. Black lace looks good on you. Is it new?"

Frank kicked him in the stomach. There was a brief flurry of fighting that ended with Fleetwood, bleeding from his nose and lower lip, crouched on top of Frank with a slim glass needle pressed against Frank's throat.

"Sorry," he said.

"What's in this one, you son of a bitch?" Frank managed to say, before he passed out.



******



What do you give your husband for Christmas when you've never given anyone a Christmas present before?

After disengaging the poison needles and entering the twenty-digit security code into Fleetwood's terminal as he'd told her, Elaine browsed through a virtual infinity of possibilities. Valantine Risse merchandise galore. Tools, clothing, jewelry, child slaves, books, sex toys, candy, pornographic statuary, nuclear weapons, moon rocks, vehicles, pets, extra limbs, furniture, imported alcohol...

Money wasn't an issue. While she hated to call upon her parents' bank account, she could still do it, and so the entire fortune of the Jaeger shipping dynasty was at her fingertips. She could buy Dusty a planetoid if he wanted one.

But would Dusty want one? She doubted it. What did he want, anyway? Elaine tapped her fingers impatiently and looked at her chrono. Only an hour until the shuttle. She had to make a choice and make it now. Torn, she studied the split screen, one half showing a private beach house on Iridia, the other a plasticine lamp shaped like Elvis Presley's face. Which would Dusty prefer? she wondered.

The door clicked, and Elaine swiveled in relief. Fleetwood was home, and she could ask him for help. He and Dusty were pretty good buddies. He could tell her what Dusty --

"Shelley, what the hell?"

Fleetwood staggered through the door hauling something black and massive over his shoulder. He dumped it on the floor like a sack of wet laundry (it struck with a solid enough thud, though) and bent over, hands on knees, gasping. "Door... close," he panted. "Door, armed, level three, shoot to kill. Crap. I feel like my heart's about to burst."

"Shelley, what is that?"

"The best damn workout I've had in years," Fleetwood wheezed. "The gravity's pretty light on this moon, but god, I feel like I just ran a marathon carrying a Holstein. And all that while trying not to be spotted. Good thing traffic's light out there. I took the tube. I can't imagine trying to pack that heavy bastard the whole way on foot."

Elaine drifted forward. "Shelley... who's that woman?"

"What? Where?" He spun around.

"The one at your feet, idiot. Why are you wearing a skirt?"

"Oh. That's just Frank. 'Scuze." He shouldered her to one side, to her annoyance, to switch the terminal to security view. After checking several angles on the exterior of his apartment, he relaxed slightly. "Looks like they didn't see me."

"That woman's name is Frank?"

"Okey-dokey, look here." Fleetwood gripped the front of the dark-haired woman's dress, ignoring Elaine's shocked gasp, and pulled it down, revealing her chest.

"Oh," Elaine said, after a shocked silence, while Fleetwood dragged Frank to a couch. "Uh ... enemy of yours?"

"Dunno. Tough question. At the moment, I suppose."

"What's he doing here? And why are you wearing a skirt?"

"Oh, it's a story." Fleetwood headed into another room.

Elaine followed. "I'd kinda like to hear this story, thanks."

He was rummaging through drawers. "Damn it. I had every intention of organizing these. Elaine, be a sweetheart and take a look-see if you can find a bottle labeled triphenamosi--"

"I'm doing nothing of the sort until you tell me what's going on here. What are you getting me involved in, Shelley?"

"You? Nothing. It's not always about you. Aha, here it is. Do you see a 'jector anywhere?"

Elaine gritted her teeth. There was an injector teetering atop a pile of old magazines by her hand. She gave it to him.

"Thanks."

"C'mon, Shelley, talk."

"The less you know, the safer you are." He filled the injector and tossed the bottle on top of one of the piles. It rolled off and fell behind a cabinet.

"Are you saying this guy's dangerous? Dammit, Shelley!"

"Dangerous? Dangerous as hell." He sat on the couch beside Frank and briskly tilted the man's head to get a good angle on his neck with the injector. "But not always for the reasons he thinks."

"Who is he?"

"Frank Bernetti. He's pretty high up in the Black Widow's organization. She's --"

"I know who she is! Everyone knows who she is. Shelley, you kidnapped a mobster?"

"Yes." Fleetwood pulled the injector away and rubbed at the bruised spot on Frank's pale skin. He moved away, seating himself on the couch opposite Frank.

"Any particular reason?"

"Oh, yes."

"And that reason is?"

Fleetwood looked up at her. "My daughter's life is in danger."

"You have kids?"

"Why is that so hard for everyone to believe? Two, actually. Well, one for sure and one maybe."

"Wow. I can't believe you have kids. How old is your daughter?"

"About..." Fleetwood closed his eyes, counting. "Nineteen hours."

Elaine blinked. "She was just born?"

"No, Jaeger. She hatched."

"Oh, wow. Congratulations. ...Dick."

"You know, you've developed a really foul mouth since I've known you. That Dusty fellow is a bad influence."

Elaine shook her head as she tried to reconstruct the tangled web of Fleetwood's sex life. Nine months ago, he would have been married to Meg Renata, a person she knew only vaguely. "So is this Meg's kid?"

"No. Mother's name is Joyce." Fleetwood glanced at Frank. "Listen, Sleeping Beauty's gonna wake up any minute. I don't want to leave him unattended. Can you run and get me some pants?"

"What happened to your pants? No, nevermind, I don't want to know. Okay, so tell me quick. You cheated on Meg, right?"

"Elaine, you've seen me cheat on Meg."

"Yeah. With my sister. I haven't forgiven you for that one, by the way."

"Oh, how is Sestina these days, anyway?"

"Hopefully not pregnant. If she is, I really will kill you. Why does this Fred guy--"

"--Frank--"

"--Frank then, why does Frank want to hurt your daughter?"

"Leverage against her mother." Frank groaned, and Fleetwood drew a gun. "Elaine, I'm serious. Go upstairs and get me some pants."

"Jeez, you don't have to use deadly force."

Fleetwood looked down at the gun. "Oh, sorry. This is for Frank. Elaine, could you please?"

"Yeah, that's me, Girl Friday. I thought it was dangerous to go in your bedroom, James Bond," Elaine shot over her shoulder.

"Just stay away from the bed. That's the only really dangerous part."





******



When Franklin Alfonse Bernetti was thirteen, he sneaked a girl into his father's toolshed. Kismet, an underground city, does not have cars or other private land vehicles and therefore no garages, or outbuildings, but toolshed is the catch-all name for the part of the house that combines the functions of both: i.e. a storage facility for old books, garden tools (Kismet has no gardens either, but there is always at least one rake with the tines up), newspaper hardcopy, bikes, odd bits of glass, and, of course, horny teenagers. Frank smuggled the girl into the toolshed along with a fifth of cheap whiskey intended to lubricate the somewhat hazy process of "getting lucky." He wound up fighting with the girl and getting lucky with most of the bottle.

He'd woke up the next morning feeling very much as he did at this moment. Only he was pretty sure that he'd still been able to move his arms.

Frank tried to wriggle a bit.

"Morning," said a very familiar voice. Frank entertained himself for a moment, envisioning all the things that he would love to do to the owner of that voice: strangle him with his own spleen, for starters.

He opened his eyes. The first thing that he saw was Fleetwood, still wearing the nurse's uniform and holding a gun--not a good sight on a hangover.

He said something like, "Where am I?" only with more swear words and some stumbling over his tongue.

"My living room," Fleetwood said.

Come to think of it, he did recognize the potted calla lily behind Fleetwood. Booby trapped with lethally poisoned darts, if he remembered correctly. His blurred gaze roamed from the houseplant, to counters piled with dirty dishes and walls papered in crime-scene photos and holos of pinup girls. Not a Christmas decoration in sight.

"What the hell am I doing here?"

"I'm ransoming you," Fleetwood explained.

Fleetwood was sitting on a tasteless plaid couch. Frank tested his bonds and then analyzed the orientation of his head, concluding that he was lying on another couch or something similar.

His higher brain, meanwhile, analyzed the content of Fleetwood's words and reported back for further instructions.

"You. Are ransoming. Me."

"Yup."

"For what?"

"The cost of leaving Christmas Carroll alone."

"Christm-- oh. The kid. Touching. Do you have any idea what sort of people you're dealing with? I hope you're enjoying this Christmas, because you will be spending the next one--and you will be still alive, I assure you--wishing that you'd been born a Protestant during the Inquisition."

"I've made my demands clear."

"To whom?" Frank wished he didn't have to hear the answer to that one.

"No one yet. I was hoping you'd wake up soon so we could talk. How are you feeling, by the way?"

"Fine," Frank said, and tried to roll himself upright. "Uh, and probably going to throw up any minute now," he added, his head adjusting to its new altitude.

Fleetwood grabbed a wastebasket and held it for him.

"Thanks," Frank said after a moment.

"Some of this furniture is new."

"I am really going to hurt you when you untie me."

Fleetwood set the wastebasket down, where he could get hold of it in a moment if he needed to. "I can see being a hostage is another thing you're not good at. Hint: threatening your captor is not a good idea if you want to be untied."

"I wasn't threatening. I was promising. I am getting sick--"

"Again?" Fleetwood said.

"--of you poisoning me, you bastard!"

"This one wasn't fatal."

"Joy," Frank gritted. "Yours will be."

"Y'know, it's a funny thing, Frank, you keep promising that you're going to kill me, for years now, but you never do."

"Everyone needs someone to hate," Frank said. "You're pushing right up against the edge of my tolerance, though."

Fleetwood tipped his head to one side. "Is this personal, Frank? Does it have anything to do with M--"

"Shelley!" a female voice called from the upstairs bedroom, and a woman's head, framed by a cascade of honey-brown hair, appeared in the doorway. "Shelley, I can't find your pants anywhere. It's an absolute pig-sty up here."

Frank turned a look of bitter accusation on Fleetwood.

"What?" Fleetwood said.

"You're quite the little Casa-fucking-nova, aren't you, Fleetwood? How many others do you have stashed away? Who cares what happens to this one kid--you've probably got fifteen others in whorehouses all over KismOW!"

His rant trailed off in a sharp cry as a bolt of agony stabbed his forehead. He raised eyes watering with pain to see the girl at the top of the stairs, just finishing following through on a smooth overhand. She was wearing a hoverchair, and he realized with half his mind that she had no legs, but at the moment he didn't particularly care about that, since all he wanted to do was kill her.

Fleetwood picked up the thrown object off the floor. "Dammit, Elaine, you got blood on my rock."

Frank turned his furious gaze towards Fleetwood's serene green eyes. "What the FUCK do you have rocks in the house for?"

"Pet moon rock." Fleetwood held it in the palm of his hand. "It's the only kind of pet I can't seem to kill."

Elaine descended the stairs in a series of short hops. "And don't you ever imply that I would have sex with this man. What kind of a pervert are you? If you want pants you can get them yourself, Fleetwood."

Frank dropped his aching head back onto the couch, contemplating the fact that this day really couldn't get any worse.

All three of them jumped at a sudden sharp pounding at the door, followed by a muffled explosion and a scream that was cut off.

"Oh crap, I left the door on third-level alert," Fleetwood sighed. "Door, back to first level please. Elaine, go see who I've killed this time, would you?"

" 'This time'?" Elaine demanded, heading towards the terminal. "And quit ordering me around, you cocky little bastard."

"See," Fleetwood said under his breath to Frank. "Like I'd let her put that dirty mouth on my c--" He just managed to duck another hurtled projectile.

"You'd better not have killed my bodyguards, you sick fuck," Frank said.

Elaine swung around from the door terminal, a puzzled look on her face.

"Dead or alive?" Fleetwood inquired.

"Dead, I think ..." Elaine said. "But ... she's not armed, though. Not that I can see."

"She?" Frank and Fleetwood echoed.

Fleetwood made it to the door faster than Frank would have thought was humanly possible, disarmed it and slid it open. "Elaine, a little help here."

Elaine jetted to his side.

The woman was sprawled down the front steps, her hair falling in a cloud around her head. Her pantsuit was bright red, so the darker red stain on the front wasn't immediately obvious.

"Aw, shit, shit," Fleetwood muttered, trying to get an arm under her. "Why'd you come here, you moron?"

"Remind me never to knock on your door," Elaine said, helping him carry the woman into the living room. She felt slippery wetness on her hands, and looked down to discover that her forearms and fingers were covered with blood.

Since they appeared to be thoroughly distracted, Frank got busy cutting himself loose with the knife strapped to his left garter.

"Who is she?" Elaine asked, trying to control her sudden shivering as Fleetwood gently lowered the woman to the empty couch. The woman gave a convulsive shudder and moaned, the first indication that she wasn't dead.

"Joyce Carroll," Fleetwood said. He set both hands at her collar and tore the light fabric down the middle, revealing a blood-soaked bra. "The mother of my daughter."

Elaine covered her face with her bloody hands. "Oh, Shelley. You just keep digging your hole deeper, don't you?"

"She was supposed to be in the hospital," Fleetwood said, feverishly groping her shoulder in a scene that would have resembled an adolescent sex fantasy if not for the blood covering his hands and staining the white nurse's garb. "She was in the hospital two hours ago, f'r cryin' out ... I don't know what the hell she's doing here."

One of Joyce's groping hands found his face. "Shelley ..." she gasped, and then screamed as he palpitated her shoulder.

"Hiya, Joyce. Looks like you're one lucky girl. One shot in the shoulder, one in the abdomen. We'll get you into surgery and get you fixed up in no ti--"

Joyce's hand slipped down to cover his mouth. "Shelley, listen," she gasped. "Men ... those men ... they said you kidnapped their boss. They said ..."

"What men? Guido and Seymour? Did they threaten you?"

"They took Chris. My baby ... Oh Shelley, they said they'd kill her if you didn't give him back. I had to come tell you--"

"Initiative," Frank muttered, slipping the bonds over his wrists. "Put them in for a commendation. Gotta remember."

"What's wrong with the goddamn comm, woman?"

"I didn't dare use it. Everything's monitored going out of that hospital." She gasped in pain. Fleetwood pressed a hand against her blood-soaked shoulder.

"Forget it, babe. Damsels in distress, my specialty. I'll get your little Christmas back, never fear, even if I have to torture Frank--"

He stopped, staring straight ahead, and then pitched face-first on top of Joyce Carroll, who moaned.

Elaine spun, astounded. Frank was standing beside the other couch, swaying slightly as he kicked off the last remains of the ankle bonds, with one hand gently supporting the innocuous-looking white flowers of the potted calla lily behind the couch.

"Easy to aim, too," he said. "I think I'll consider getting one of these installed in my office. Torture whom, Fleetwood?"

"I'm gonna throw out all the poisons in this house tomorrow, as God is my witness," Fleetwood groaned, his head twisted to one side. He made a grotesque attempt to move, succeeded only in dragging his unresponsive limbs across Joyce's face, and fell to the floor. Joyce moaned again.

"Venom of the Iridian skunk roach, isn't it?" Frank said cheerfully. "Oh, revenge is sweet, isn't it, Fleetwood? Is that poison lethal, by the way?"

"Deadly as hell," Fleetwood groaned into the carpet.

"How long do you have?"

Fleetwood tried to shrug. He managed to hitch up one shoulder, but then it stayed that way.

"Frank," Elaine said. "Frank, there's a woman bleeding to death on the couch."

"A woman who owes me money, which does happen to be bloody inconvenient," Frank admitted. "So to speak."

"If she owes you money, you need to get her to the hospital, right?" Elaine asked desperately. "And Fleetwood too?"

"Yes, that would be the first logical step, except ..." Frank took a step forward. "She doesn't have the money, do you, Joyce honey? That's putting a small crimp in our relationship."

"I'll give you whatever you want if you'll let my little girl go," Joyce moaned.

"Hey, what about me?" Fleetwood yelled, muffled by the carpet and his own growing paralysis. "I'm dying down here! Elaine! There's a white bottle in the cabinet! It's got a--"

Whatever else he was going to say trailed off into incoherent mumbles.

I'm surrounded by lunatics, Elaine thought, and freed the small laser that she wore on her wrist. She pointed it at Frank.

"Oh, don't do that," Frank sighed, curling his hand behind the calla's flower.

"Step away from the ..." Elaine gritted her teeth and managed to get through the absurd sentence on the second try. "Step away from the flower, slowly, and no one will get hurt."

Frank leaned his hip against the couch. "I don't think so. You don't strike me as the type who'd shoot a guy in the face. Sorry, sweet thing. Also, you hit me with a rock earlier, and I'm a trifle pissed about that."

"Look, jerk," Elaine snapped. "I have to catch a shuttle in ten minutes, my morning's shot, I'm having a shitty Christmas, and you just poisoned a friend of mine. Get away from the fucking flower, capisch?"

Frank's gaze wandered from her gun, down to Fleetwood--who still twitched occasionally--and back to her. He looked doubtful now. The moment stretched out.

Then Frank sighed, and let go of the flower. He strolled across the floor towards her, his eyes fixed on her eyes, never slowing, his expression never changing.

"Get back! Stop! I'm warning you--dammit!"

He got almost close enough to reach out and touch her, but not quite, and there he stopped and stood still--possibly to get his balance, Elaine realized later, since he still appeared none too steady on his feet. Then, without warning, fast as a striking snake, he kicked the gun out of her hand. Elaine managed to squeeze off a wild shot that seared a dark scar across the ceiling--one of many similar marks, a small and detached part of Elaine noticed as Frank's spike-heeled shoe connected with her wrist, and her hand and arm went numb.

Stupid, stupid, she berated herself, gripping the wrist with her mechanical hand. Shoulda held the gun in the other hand. Stupid. I hate this spy stuff.

Frank picked up Elaine's gun, looked it over, and poked at Fleetwood with his foot. Fleetwood's body shifted limply. "Hey, check and make sure they're both breathing, sweet thing," he said, and left the room.

Elaine stared after him, then at the terminal. She wondered if she could make it there and call for help before he came back in. But the only person she knew in Kismet was Dusty, and he was on their ship, docked at the prison. By the time he made it down here, whatever was going to happen would have happened. Maybe she could flee onto the street--she stared longingly at the door, then looked back at Fleetwood, and at Joyce, who had curled into a ball around her injured abdomen. If she left them with this guy, they'd probably die. Also, she still couldn't move her right hand.

Frank returned with a heap of bottles and the injector, carrying them in his skirt. He dumped the mess onto the floor. "They alive?"

"I--I guess so." Elaine backed away so that he could get to Fleetwood. "Why are you helping him?"

"Fleetwood and I have an understanding." Frank gripped a handful of Fleetwood's hair and dragged his head up to give him a shot. "We don't kill each other. Torment, yes; threaten, sure; annoy, constantly. Revenge is perfectly fine. Death, however, is pushing the envelope." He pressed down the injector.

"Is that the antidote?" Elaine asked hesitantly.

"Stimulant," Frank said, and shook Fleetwood by the hair. "Hey. Loverboy. You said every poison in this house can be countered. What's the antidote to this one?"

Fleetwood mumbled something Elaine couldn't hear.

"Yeah, you too, fucker," Frank said. He dragged Fleetwood forward by the hair until he was nose-to-nose with the bottles scattered across the floor. "Find the right one."

Elaine backed up slowly until she was touching the terminal. Now, while Frank was distracted ... but what could she do? Clock him over the head with something? She picked up a box of data stiks by the terminal and hefted it. Heavy. It would work--

But Frank had found something to inject into Fleetwood, and straightened up. He smiled when he saw her, a cold thin smile. "Planning something stupid?"

"I'm not just going to sit by while you kill us," Elaine retorted, gripping the box.

"I'm not planning on killing you unless you annoy me too much. Go find a rope and tie him up." He jerked his head towards Fleetwood.

"Is he all right?" Elaine asked.

"No, not really, but that's all right--he'll live with the pain, and that's quite all right with me at the moment. I just gave you an order."

Elaine tightened her grip on the box, though she had no idea how she expected to do anything with it before he could shoot her. "I--I think you'd better tell me what you're planning on doing first."

"Oh? Well, that's an easy question. Tie him up, because he'll hate it, tie you up because you threw a rock at my head, kill Joyce, and leave. Like I said, I really don't feel like killing you today. It is Christmas, after all."

Elaine had actually forgotten that it was Christmas. She didn't have to look at her chrono to know that she had missed her shuttle, and Dusty would wonder where she was, and her Christmas was ruined and it was all this bastard's fault. Her eyes narrowed.

"You have a good throwing arm, but I wouldn't try it," Frank said, approaching her slowly, one step at a time.

Elaine found that feeling in her numb hand was returning in fits of tingling. She flexed her hand, and set aside the box of data stiks.

"You need money, right? That's what this is all about? You'll let her go if you have your money?"

"Makes the world go round, sweetheart."

"I have money."

Frank hesitated. "How much money?"

"How much do you need?"

He laughed. "You don't have what I need."

"Don't you know who I am?"

"Should I?"

"Have you heard of Jaeger TransSpace?"

"So?" Frank said. "What? You a stockholder?"

"I'm the owner's daughter."

Dead silence. Then Frank grinned, and took hold of her arm. "Oho! A little bit of ransom, huh? Sounds like fun."

"Get your hands off me," Elaine said coldly. "I happen to have my own money, thanks very much. And my own access to my father's money."

With every word, as the leer of greed spread across Frank's face, she wished that she hadn't spoken. But this path, once begun, had to be followed to its end. She felt breathless--a tightrope walker without a net, watching as safety retreated behind her, while the elusive goal retreated one step in front of her for every step she took.

"What I am proposing," Elaine continued, crossing her arms, "is a business deal."

She saw the look on his face change to sharp interest. Yes. I'm finally speaking his language. Elaine tried to imagine herself in a boardroom, conducting ordinary business with ordinary businessmen. After all, how different from Frank were the men and women her father dealt with on a day-to-day basis? Here the shark's fin was above the waters, that was all. The only difference.

"Show me," Frank said.

"If we're doing business, I'd prefer not to do it with a gun pointed at my head."

She was beyond fear, into another realm entirely. She knew without a doubt that this man could and would kill her without a second thought. But he was intrigued. She could see his interest. Elaine's childhood had taught her several things, and one of those things was how to manipulate people with money.

Frank made a show of tucking the wrist laser into his bodice.

"That's mine," Elaine said.

"You'll get it back when we finish our transaction. Now show me."

Elaine went to the terminal and began to type, carefully shielding her fingers from his inquisitive eyes as she typed the passwords. The terminal swiped her retinas and asked to confirm voiceprint. Elaine watched figures scroll on the screen, wondering briefly at the technology that allowed her to communication with a computer light-years away, on Amaranth Station, at the speed of quantum entanglement ... the speed of thought.

"Okay. How much do you want?"

"Two hundred and fifty thousand."

Elaine grinned when she realized that he was watching her face for a reaction. "What do you expect me to do, shit myself? My father tosses around more money than that every day, Frank. Your business here, your entire organization, is a minor protection ring on a backwater planet at the edge of the galaxy. Small potatoes in the circles where he moves, too small to even think about--do you understand that?"

She typed, and then lifted her fingers. "Okay. I need all the routing information for your account. Nothing funny ... keep in mind you have everything to gain from keeping this straight-up, and everything to lose if you try to double-deal me."

Frank typed, and then Elaine finalized the transaction, after adding a handy little safety check. Her bedtime stories, as a child, had been tales of abduction for ransom, and the proper safety procedures. Her father had not given either Elaine or her sister access to the family's money until they had both proven themselves level-headed enough to use it responsibly, and she suspected that neither of them had access to more than a fraction of it, even so.

But in this case, a fraction was enough.

"I'm logged out. Check your account."

She moved away, and Frank moved in. "Shiiiiiit ..."

"Happy?"

"I'll be damned." He looked closer, and said, "What's this 'pending approval' crap?"

"Oh, that. The jist of it is that the transaction isn't complete until I give my approval within the next twenty-four hours. It can only be done from one terminal, and that's on my ship, in orbit above the planet. Just a little bit of insurance."

"What if you decide to revoke it? Or change the amount?"

"I can't. All I can do is approve it or fail to approve it, in which case the money would just revert back to my parents' account. Sure, I could double-cross you there, but what's the benefit in that for me? The money means nothing to me, but the safety of these people is riding on your good will."

Frank grinned slowly. "You are a suspicious, paranoid bitch. Be assured that's the highest compliment I could pay you."

He held out his hand. Elaine shook it, struggling desperately to hold herself together and not give in to the shakes just yet, for fear he would feel the trembling in her hand.

"You can trust my word," Frank said. "I'll return the baby to its mother. The debt is paid in full and our organization need have no more to do with them. I'd suggest that she find another line of work, though."

"You'll have to take that up with her, not me."

Frank laughed. "Enough said."

He fished out the wrist laser and handed it back to her. Elaine took it, surprised, and strapped it into its customary place. She was on autopilot now ... just coasting along, waiting until she could get in private and have a little emotional meltdown.

"You'd better call an ambulance for your little friend," Frank said, nodding to Joyce, and then leaned over Fleetwood. "Coming along nicely there, Officer?"

"F'k you," Fleetwood mumbled.

"I'd say 'poetic justice' is the phrase that comes to mind. Also 'hoisted' and 'petard.' Is that the same stuff you paralyzed me with that one time?"

"Similar," Fleetwood mumbled into the carpet.

"Oh, good. Faster-acting, though, it would appear. Iridian skunk roach, huh? Have to keep that in mind. Now let's see." He tugged on one of Fleetwood's fox-colored curls. "Can you move yet?"

"Fuck you."

"I suspect that means 'no.' Let me see, what should I do now? An opportunity like this doesn't come along every day."

Elaine gave the operator at the hospital Fleetwood's address, and swiveled around from the terminal. She opened her mouth to defend Fleetwood--then contemplated the fact that she'd missed her shuttle and her marriage was possibly a shambles because of his actions, and shut her mouth. A bit of suffering would probably be good for the little creep.

"The ambulance for Joyce will be here soon," she said instead. "Is she all right?"

Frank checked without much interest. "Breathing. I don't think her injuries are that bad."

"Well, in that case... I'll be off, I suppose."

"Don't forget..."

She gave him a level look. "I won't. And don't you forget--the Carrolls being alive is part of the deal."

"I don't go back on a contract, sweetheart."

"My name's Elaine."

"For what you're paying me, I'll call you Albert Einstein if you want me to." Frank combed his long black hair with his fingers, restoring it to some semblance of a decent coiffure. "That's a hell of a lot of money to blow on a charity girl and a kid who'll probably be selling her body on the street by the time she's ten. You need a tax write-off or something?"

"It's a Christmas present, I guess," Elaine said, looking at Fleetwood. "The first one I've ever given."

Frank grinned. Elaine checked Joyce's vital signs--she was unconscious, but, as Frank had said, breathing. Her bleeding had slowed to a dark welling.

"Elaine," Fleetwood said, still slurring his words slightly. Frank had tied him up before going into the bathroom to repair his damaged makeup. "Untie me, would you?"

"I've already done your favor for the day, thanks. It's especially charitable of me considering the domestic hell I'm going to pay when Dusty wakes up and finds me missing because you made me late."

"Elaine, have mercy. You're not seriously going to leave me alone with him."

"He said he wouldn't kill you."

"Elaine! Please! I know how Frank's devious little mind works. He's no rocket scientist, but he's a fuckin' genius when it comes to getting back at people. I'm doomed."

"You made your bed, now lie in it. Maybe this'll teach you not to go around playing vigilante."

Frank came out of the bathroom, shaking back his hair. He wasn't exactly a beautiful woman--too solid and square-jawed--but he was certainly a striking one. "Still here?"

"I'm leaving." Elaine came close enough to lean over and say softly, "I'll call back before I transfer the money. Fleetwood, Joyce and her child--or nothing."

"They'll be fine. Well..." His dark eyes traveled to Fleetwood, and back to her. "Mostly fine."

Elaine passed the ambulance on the way down Fleetwood's street. Prompt. Nothing like dropping the name of a mobster or two to get fast service.

Christmas Day.

She wandered down the streets, slowly making her way back to the spaceport. No telling what she expected to do there. The next shuttle wouldn't be for hours yet, and she'd pretty much established that all businesses were closed. Even if she'd been able to find one that was open, she had no idea at all what to buy for Dusty.

She should've just bit her tongue and lied to begin with. Now she'd have to explain why she was absent for most of Christmas Day. That ought to be good.

At least the day had been ... interesting. It'd make a good story to tell Dusty, once he was speaking to her again. She smiled a little.

Daddy's gonna shit when he sees the monthly receipts.

She smiled wider. Maybe it hadn't been a totally wasted day. And Joyce Carroll was still alive ... although from what she'd seen of some of Fleetwood's previous girlfriends, that might not be the best thing that ever happened to Kismet.

Hey, hold on ...

Her guilty conscience was getting to her. She thought she'd caught a glimpse of Dusty out of the corner of her eye.

She turned her head. It wasn't her imagination.

"Dusty?"

Her husband jumped about a meter and tried to hide behind a Trash-B-Gon. He was too close to her to hide successfully, however.

Shit. He came looking for me. But that didn't explain why he was acting so, well, guilty. Elaine hadn't been married very long, but her wife radar was already fully functional.

"Dusty," she said cautiously, approaching him. Dusty had the trapped look of a Gaian jumping deer caught in a hunter's searchbeam. "Dusty ... you didn't forget to buy me a Christmas present, did you?"

"No, of course not," he said quickly, staring at the ceiling.

"Dusty lover, I'm down here in this damn town because I forgot to buy you a present."

Elaine burst out laughing at his suspicious look.

"What are you really up to?" Dusty said.

"I'm serious."

They looked at each other and then cracked up laughing.

"And here I was trying to scramble and find something before you got back from whatever mysterious errand you'd disappeared on," Dusty said.

"I was hoping to make it back before you woke up."

"I'm not hibernating, woman."

"I didn't mean to be out this late. I ran into some distractions. Did you find anything?"

"Nothing's open," Dusty said.

"Yeah, I noticed that."

"We're so sad."

"Pathetic, really."

"Beyond pathetic."

"And stuck here until the evening shuttle," Elaine added.

Dusty shook his head. "I didn't take the shuttle. I took the Snark. Why didn't you?"

"Afraid the docking grapples would wake you up when they disengaged. It's parked at Kismet's port, then?"

"Yeah. Are you suggesting we turn back?"

"Well, I'm not feeling guilty any more."

Dusty frowned at her. "So am I in trouble, or not?"

"Of course you are. But so am I. That makes us even."

"Partners in misery."

"Exactly."

"So why don't we call it a draw and say that neither of us is in the doghouse over this?"

Elaine raised the hoverchair's seat high enough that she could hook her arm through his. "Because one of the great joys of the wifely existence is torturing one's husband for all infractions. Don't take away my reason for being."

"What do I get out of it?"

She caressed the underside of his arm. "You get to be tortured by me."

"Are we talking velvet whips here, or are we talking more of a hot wax level of torture?"

Elaine laughed. "Whatever you want."

"Wow. I should forget to buy you a Christmas present more often."

"Good point. I shouldn't reward this sort of behavior."

"Me and my big mouth."

They started towards the spaceport arm in arm, one walking and one floating.

"So what's this 'distraction' you ran into?" Dusty asked her.

Elaine started laughing, and couldn't seem to stop.

"I'll tell you when we're back on the ship," she managed. "I have to put a comm call through to Daddy's bank, anyhow."

"What did you do?"

"What makes you think I did anything?"

"You're too cheerful. You've never mentioned your father in that tone of voice. Also, I don't like the look in your eyes."

This set her off into another giggling fit. "Let's just say ... I gave Daddy the biggest Christmas present he'll ever get from me. They say it's not what it costs, it's the thought that counts--oh, I just wish I could see his face ..."

Her laughter echoed off the buildings around them, as the two walked off into the gray light of a late winter day.







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